People usually spend the first hours of a voyage in squeezing themselves into their cabins, taking their little precautions, either so excessive or so inadequate, wondering how they can pass so many days in such a hole and asking idiotic questions of the stewards, who appear in comparison rare men of the world. My own initiations were rapid, as became an old sailor, and so, it seemed, were Miss Mavis's, for when I mounted to the deck at the end of half an hour I found her there alone, in the stern of the ship, her eyes on the dwindling continent. It dwindled very fast for so big a place. I accosted her, having had no conversation with her amid the crowd of leave- takers and the muddle of farewells before we put off; we talked a little about the boat, our fellow-passengers and our prospects, and then I said: "I think you mentioned last night a name I know--that of Mr. Porterfield."
"Oh no I didn't!" she answered very straight while she smiled at me through her closely-drawn veil.
"Then it was your mother."
"Very likely it was my mother." And she continued to smile as if I ought to have known the difference.
"I venture to allude to him because I've an idea I used to know him," I went on.
"Oh I see." And beyond this remark she appeared to take no interest; she left it to me to make any connexion.
"That is if it's the same one." It struck me as feeble to say nothing more; so I added "My Mr. Porterfield was called David."
"Well, so is ours." "Ours" affected me as clever.
"I suppose I shall see him again if he's to meet you at Liverpool," I continued.
"Well, it will be bad if he doesn't."
It was too soon for me to have the idea that it would be bad if he did: that only came later. So I remarked that, not having seen him for so many years, it was very possible I shouldn't know him.
"Well, I've not seen him for a considerable time, but I expect I shall know him all the same."
"Oh with you it's different," I returned with harmlessly bright significance. "Hasn't he been back since those days?"
"I don't know," she sturdily professed, "what days you mean."
"When I knew him in Paris--ages ago. He was a pupil of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He was studying architecture."
"Well, he's studying it still," said Grace Mavis.
"Hasn't he learned it yet?"
"I don't know what he has learned. I shall see." Then she added for the benefit of my perhaps undue levity: "Architecture's very difficult and he's tremendously thorough."
"Oh yes, I remember that. He was an admirable worker. But he must have become quite a foreigner if it's so many years since he has been at home."
She seemed to regard this proposition at first as complicated; but she did what she could for me. "Oh he's not changeable. If he were changeable--"
Then, however, she paused. I daresay she had been going to observe that if he were changeable he would long ago have given her up. After an instant she went on: "He wouldn't have stuck so to his profession. You can't make much by it."
I sought to attenuate her rather odd maidenly grimness. "It depends on what you call much."
"It doesn't make you rich."
"Oh of course you've got to practise it--and to practise it long."
"Yes--so Mr. Porterfield says."
Something in the way she uttered these words made me laugh--they were so calm an implication that the gentleman in question didn't live up to his principles. But I checked myself, asking her if she expected to remain in Europe long--to what one might call settle.
"Well, it will be a good while if it takes me as long to come back as it has taken me to go out."
"And I think your mother said last night that it was your first visit."
Miss Mavis, in her deliberate way, met my eyes. "Didn't mother talk!"
"It was all very interesting."
She continued to look at me. "You don't think that," she then simply stated.
"What have I to gain then by saying it?"
"Oh men have always something to gain."
"You make me in that case feel a terrible failure! I hope at any rate that it gives you pleasure," I went on, "the idea of seeing foreign lands."
"Mercy--I should think so!"
This was almost genial, and it cheered me proportionately. "It's a pity our ship's not one of the fast ones, if you're impatient."
She was silent a little after which she brought out: "Oh I guess it'll be fast enough!"
That evening I went in to see Mrs. Nettlepoint and sat on her sea- trunk, which was pulled out from under the berth to accommodate me. It was nine o'clock but not quite dark, as our northward course had already taken us into the latitude of the longer days. She had made her nest admirably and now rested from her labours; she lay upon her sofa in a dressing-gown and a cap that became her. It was her regular practice to spend the voyage in her cabin, which smelt positively good--such was the refinement of her art; and she had a secret peculiar to herself for keeping her port open without shipping seas. She hated what she called the mess of the ship and the idea, if she should go above, of meeting stewards with plates of supererogatory food. She professed to be content with her situation- -we promised to lend each other books and I assured her familiarly that I should be in and out of her room a dozen times a day--pitying me for having to mingle in society. She judged this a limited privilege, for on the deck before we left the wharf she had taken a view of our fellow-passengers.
"Oh I'm an inveterate, almost a professional observer," I replied, "and with that vice I'm as well occupied as an old woman in the sun with her knitting. It makes me, in any situation, just inordinately and submissively see things. I shall see them even here and shall come down very often and tell you about them. You're not interested today, but you will be tomorrow, for a ship's a great school of gossip. You won't believe the number of researches and problems you'll be engaged in by the middle of the voyage."
"I? Never in the world!--lying here with my nose in a book and not caring a straw."
"You'll participate at second hand. You'll see through my eyes, hang upon my lips, take sides, feel passions, all sorts of sympathies and indignations. I've an idea," I further developed, "that your young lady's the person on board who will interest me most."
"'Mine' indeed! She hasn't been near me since we left the dock."
"There you are--you do feel she owes you something. Well," I added, "she's very curious."
"You've such cold-blooded terms!" Mrs. Nettlepoint wailed. "Elle ne sait pas se conduire; she ought to have come to ask about me."
"Yes, since you're under her care," I laughed. "As for her not knowing how to behave--well, that's exactly what we shall see."
"You will, but not I! I wash my hands of her."
"Don't say that--don't say that."
Mrs. Nettlepoint looked at me a moment. "Why do you speak so solemnly?"
In return I considered her. "I'll tell you before we land. And have you seen much of your son?"
"Oh yes, he has come in several times. He seems very much pleased. He has got a cabin to himself."
"That's great luck," I said, "but I've an idea he's always in luck. I was sure I should have to offer him the second berth in my room."
"And you wouldn't have enjoyed that, because you don't like him," she took upon herself to say.
"What put that into your head?"
"It isn't in my head--it's in my heart, my coeur de mere. We guess those things. You think he's selfish. I could see it last night."
"Dear lady," I contrived promptly enough to reply, "I've no general ideas about him at all. He's just one of the phenomena I am going to observe. He seems to me a very fine young man. However," I added, "since you've mentioned last night I'll admit that I thought he rather tantalised you. He played with your suspense."
"Why he came at the last just to please me," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
I was silent a little. "Are you sure it was for your sake?"
"Ah, perhaps it was for yours!"
I bore up, however, against this thrust, characteristic of perfidious woman when you presume to side with her against a fond tormentor. "When he went out on the balcony with that girl," I found assurance to suggest, "perhaps she asked him to come for hers."
"Perhaps she did. But why should he do everything she asks him--such as she is?"
"I don't know yet, but perhaps I shall know later. Not that he'll tell me--for he'll never tell me anything: he's not," I consistently opined, "one of those who tell."
"If she didn't ask him, what you say is a great wrong to her," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"Yes, if she didn't. But you say that to protect Jasper--not to protect her," I smiled.
"You are cold-blooded--it's uncanny!" my friend exclaimed.
"Ah this is nothing yet! Wait a while--you'll see. At sea in general I'm awful--I exceed the limits. If I've outraged her in thought I'll jump overboard. There are ways of asking--a man doesn't need to tell a woman that--without the crude words."
"I don't know what you imagine between them," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"Well, nothing," I allowed, "but what was visible on the surface. It transpired, as the newspapers say, that they were old friends."
"He met her at some promiscuous party--I asked him about it afterwards. She's not a person"--my hostess was confident--"whom he could ever think of seriously."
"That's exactly what I believe."
"You don't observe--you know--you imagine," Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to argue. "How do you reconcile her laying a trap for Jasper with her going out to Liverpool on an errand of love?"
Oh I wasn't to be caught that way! "I don't for an instant suppose she laid a trap; I believe she acted on the impulse of the moment. She's going out to Liverpool on an errand of marriage; that's not necessarily the same thing as an errand of love, especially for one who happens to have had a personal impression of the gentleman she's engaged to."
"Well, there are certain decencies which in such a situation the most abandoned of her sex would still observe. You apparently judge her capable--on no evidence--of violating them."
"Ah you don't understand the shades of things," I returned. "Decencies and violations, dear lady--there's no need for such heavy artillery! I can perfectly imagine that without the least immodesty she should have said to Jasper on the balcony, in fact if not in words: 'I'm in dreadful spirits, but if you come I shall feel better, and that will be pleasant for you too.'"
"And why is she in dreadful spirits?"
"She isn't!" I replied, laughing.
My poor friend wondered. "What then is she doing?"
"She's walking with your son."
Mrs. Nettlepoint for a moment said nothing; then she treated me to another inconsequence. "Ah she's horrid!"
"No, she's charming!" I protested.
"You mean she's 'curious'?"
"Well, for me it's the same thing!"
This led my friend of course to declare once more that I was cold- blooded. On the afternoon of the morrow we had another talk, and she told me that in the morning Miss Mavis had paid her a long visit. She knew nothing, poor creature, about anything, but her intentions were good and she was evidently in her own eyes conscientious and decorous. And Mrs. Nettlepoint concluded these remarks with the sigh "Unfortunate person!"
"You think she's a good deal to be pitied then?"
"Well, her story sounds dreary--she told me a good deal of it. She fell to talking little by little and went from one thing to another. She's in that situation when a girl must open herself--to some woman."
"Hasn't she got Jasper?" I asked.
"He isn't a woman. You strike me as jealous of him," my companion added.
"I daresay he thinks so--or will before the end. Ah no--ah no!" And I asked Mrs. Nettlepoint if our young lady struck her as, very grossly, a flirt. She gave me no answer, but went on to remark that she found it odd and interesting to see the way a girl like Grace Mavis resembled the girls of the kind she herself knew better, the girls of "society," at the same time that she differed from them; and the way the differences and resemblances were so mixed up that on certain questions you couldn't tell where you'd find her. You'd think she'd feel as you did because you had found her feeling so, and then suddenly, in regard to some other matter--which was yet quite the same--she'd be utterly wanting. Mrs. Nettlepoint proceeded to observe--to such idle speculations does the vacancy of sea-hours give encouragement--that she wondered whether it were better to be an ordinary girl very well brought up or an extraordinary girl not brought up at all.
"Oh I go in for the extraordinary girl under all circumstances."
It's true that if you're very well brought up you're not, you can't be, ordinary," said Mrs. Nettlepoint, smelling her strong salts. "You're a lady, at any rate."
"And Miss Mavis is fifty miles out--is that what you mean?"
"Well--you've seen her mother."
"Yes, but I think your contention would be that among such people the mother doesn't count."
"Precisely, and that's bad."
"I see what you mean. But isn't it rather hard? If your mother doesn't know anything it's better you should be independent of her, and yet if you are that constitutes a bad note." I added that Mrs. Mavis had appeared to count sufficiently two nights before. She had said and done everything she wanted, while the girl sat silent and respectful. Grace's attitude, so far as her parent was concerned, had been eminently decent.
"Yes, but she 'squirmed' for her," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"Ah if you know it I may confess she has told me as much."
My friend stared. "Told you? There's one of the things they do!"
"Well, it was only a word. Won't you let me know whether you do think her a flirt?"
"Try her yourself--that's better than asking another woman; especially as you pretend to study folk."
"Oh your judgement wouldn't probably at all determine mine. It's as bearing on you I ask it." Which, however, demanded explanation, so that I was duly frank; confessing myself curious as to how far maternal immorality would go.
It made her at first but repeat my words. "Maternal immorality?"
"You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and if you can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right. He'll have no responsibility."
"Heavens, how you analyse!" she cried. "I haven't in the least your passion for making up my mind."
"Then if you chance it," I returned, "you'll be more immoral still."
"Your reasoning's strange," said Mrs. Nettlepoint; "when it was you who tried to put into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come."
"Yes, but in good faith."
"What do you mean, in such a case, by that?"
"Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters," I expounded, "is much larger than that of young persons who have been, as you say, very well brought up; and yet I'm not sure that on the whole I don't think them thereby the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she's to be married next week, but it's an old old story, and there's no more romance in it than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life proceeds, and her usual life consists--and that of ces demoiselles in general--in having plenty of gentlemen's society. Having it I mean without having any harm from it."
Mrs. Nettlepoint had given me due attention. "Well, if there's no harm from it what are you talking about and why am I immoral?"
I hesitated, laughing. "I retract--you're sane and clear. I'm sure she thinks there won't be any harm," I added. "That's the great point."
"The great point?"
"To be settled, I mean."
"Mercy, we're not trying them!" cried my friend. "How can we settle it?"
"I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting these next ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon."
"Then they'll get terribly tired of it," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"No, no--because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. It simply can't not," I insisted. She looked at me as if she thought me more than Mephistophelean, and I went back to something she had lately mentioned. "So she told you everything in her life was dreary?"
"Not everything, but most things. And she didn't tell me so much as I guessed it. She'll tell me more the next time. She'll behave properly now about coming in to see me; I told her she ought to."
"I'm glad of that," I said. "Keep her with you as much as possible."
"I don't follow you closely," Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, "but so far as I do I don't think your remarks in the best taste."
"Well, I'm too excited, I lose my head in these sports," I had to recognise--"cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn't she like Mr. Porterfield?"
"Yes, that's the worst of it."
I kept making her stare. "The worst of it?"
"He's so good--there's no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she'd have thrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engaged to him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those very young and perfectly needless blunders that parents in America might make so much less possible than they do. The thing is to insist on one's daughter waiting, on the engagement's being long; and then, after you've got that started, to take it on every occasion as little seriously as possible--to make it die out. You can easily tire it to death," Mrs. Nettlepoint competently stated. "However," she concluded, "Mr. Porterfield has taken this one seriously for some years. He has done his part to keep it alive. She says he adores her."
"His part? Surely his part would have been to marry her by this time."
"He has really no money." My friend was even more confidently able to report it than I had been.
"He ought to have got some, in seven years," I audibly reflected.
"So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of helplessness that are contemptible. However, a small difference has taken place. That's why he won't wait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something--a little--and she's able to assist him. She'll live with them and bear some of the expenses, and after her death the son will have what there is."
"How old is she?" I cynically asked.
"I haven't the least idea. But it doesn't, on his part, sound very heroic--or very inspiring for our friend here. He hasn't been to America since he first went out."
"That's an odd way of adoring her," I observed.
"I made that objection mentally, but I didn't express it to her. She met it indeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry."
"That surprises me," I remarked. "But did she say," I asked, "that she had had?"
"No, and that's one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must have had. She didn't try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has three other sisters and there's very little money at home. She has tried to make money; she has written little things and painted little things--and dreadful little things they must have been; too bad to think of. Her father has had a long illness and has lost his place--he was in receipt of a salary in connexion with some waterworks--and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, with children and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any one else, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to have just made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils. But it isn't very amusing."
"Well," I judged after all, "that only makes her doing it the more honourable. She'll go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him after he has waited so long. It's true," I continued, "that when a woman acts from a sense of honour--!"
"Well, when she does?" said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hung back perceptibly.
"It's often so extravagant and unnatural a proceeding as to entail heavy costs on some one."
"You're very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other all the while and for each other's virtues as well as vices."
"That's precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps off the ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched."
"Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She's quite at her ease now"--Mrs. Nettlepoint could answer for that.
"Well, we must try and keep her so," I said.
"You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing." I scarce know what reflexions this innocent pleasantry of mine provoked on the good lady's part; the upshot of them at all events was to make her say: "Well, I never asked her to come; I'm very glad of that. It's all their own doing."
"'Their' own--you mean Jasper's and hers?"
"No indeed. I mean her mother's and Mrs. Allen's; the girl's too of course. They put themselves on us by main force."
"Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I'm glad too. We should have missed it, I think."
"How seriously you take it!" Mrs. Nettlepoint amusedly cried.
"Ah wait a few days!"--and I got up to leave her.