The Patagonia was slow, but spacious and comfortable, and there was a motherly decency in her long nursing rock and her rustling old- fashioned gait, the multitudinous swish, in her wake, as of a thousand proper petticoats. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. We weren't numerous enough quite to elbow each other and yet weren't too few to support--with that familiarity and relief which figures and objects acquire on the great bare field of the ocean and under the great bright glass of the sky. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I had never liked it at all; but now I had a revelation of how in a midsummer mood it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet--save for the great regular swell of its heartbeats, the pulse of its life; and there grew to be something so agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive godsend the Patagonia was no racer. One had never thought of the sea as the great place of safety, but now it came over one that there's no place so safe from the land. When it doesn't confer trouble it takes trouble away--takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and visits and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life. The simple absence of the post, when the particular conditions enable you to enjoy the great fact by which it's produced, becomes in itself a positive bliss, and the clean boards of the deck turn to the stage of a play that amuses, the personal drama of the voyage, the movement and interaction, in the strong sea-light, of figures that end by representing something--something moreover of which the interest is never, even in its keenness, too great to suffer you to slumber. I at any rate dozed to excess, stretched on my rug with a French novel, and when I opened my eyes I generally saw Jasper Nettlepoint pass with the young woman confided to his mother's care on his arm. Somehow at these moments, between sleeping and waking, I inconsequently felt that my French novel had set them in motion. Perhaps this was because I had fallen into the trick, at the start, of regarding Grace Mavis almost as a married woman, which, as every one knows, is the necessary status of the heroine of such a work. Every revolution of our engine at any rate would contribute to the effect of making her one.
In the saloon, at meals, my neighbour on the right was a certain little Mrs. Peck, a very short and very round person whose head was enveloped in a "cloud" (a cloud of dirty white wool) and who promptly let me know that she was going to Europe for the education of her children. I had already perceived--an hour after we left the dock-- that some energetic measure was required in their interest, but as we were not in Europe yet the redemption of the four little Pecks was stayed. Enjoying untrammelled leisure they swarmed about the ship as if they had been pirates boarding her, and their mother was as powerless to check their licence as if she had been gagged and stowed away in the hold. They were especially to be trusted to dive between the legs of the stewards when these attendants arrived with bowls of soup for the languid ladies. Their mother was too busy counting over to her fellow-passengers all the years Miss Mavis had been engaged. In the blank of our common detachment things that were nobody's business very soon became everybody's, and this was just one of those facts that are propagated with mysterious and ridiculous speed. The whisper that carries them is very small, in the great scale of things, of air and space and progress, but it's also very safe, for there's no compression, no sounding-board, to make speakers responsible. And then repetition at sea is somehow not repetition; monotony is in the air, the mind is flat and everything recurs--the bells, the meals, the stewards' faces, the romp of children, the walk, the clothes, the very shoes and buttons of passengers taking their exercise. These things finally grow at once so circumstantial and so arid that, in comparison, lights on the personal history of one's companions become a substitute for the friendly flicker of the lost fireside.
Jasper Nettlepoint sat on my left hand when he was not upstairs seeing that Miss Mavis had her repast comfortably on deck. His mother's place would have been next mine had she shown herself, and then that of the young lady under her care. These companions, in other words, would have been between us, Jasper marking the limit of the party in that quarter. Miss Mavis was present at luncheon the first day, but dinner passed without her coming in, and when it was half over Jasper remarked that he would go up and look after her.
"Isn't that young lady coming--the one who was here to lunch?" Mrs. Peck asked of me as he left the saloon.
"Apparently not. My friend tells me she doesn't like the saloon."
"You don't mean to say she's sick, do you?"
"Oh no, not in this weather. But she likes to be above."
"And is that gentleman gone up to her?"
"Yes, she's under his mother's care."
"And is his mother up there, too?" asked Mrs. Peck, whose processes were homely and direct.
"No, she remains in her cabin. People have different tastes. Perhaps that's one reason why Miss Mavis doesn't come to table," I added--"her chaperon not being able to accompany her."
"Her chaperon?" my fellow passenger echoed.
"Mrs. Nettlepoint--the lady under whose protection she happens to be."
"Protection?" Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed familiarly "Pshaw!" I was struck with this and was on the point of asking her what she meant by it when she continued: "Ain't we going to see Mrs. Nettlepoint?"
"I'm afraid not. She vows she won't stir from her sofa."
"Pshaw!" said Mrs. Peck again. "That's quite a disappointment."
"Do you know her then?"
"No, but I know all about her." Then my companion added: "You don't mean to say she's any real relation?"
"Do you mean to me?"
"No, to Grace Mavis."
"None at all. They're very new friends, as I happen to know. Then you're acquainted with our young lady?" I hadn't noticed the passage of any recognition between them at luncheon.
"Is she your young lady too?" asked Mrs. Peck with high significance.
"Ah when people are in the same boat--literally--they belong a little to each other."
"That's so," said Mrs. Peck. "I don't know Miss Mavis, but I know all about her--I live opposite to her on Merrimac Avenue. I don't know whether you know that part."
"Oh yes--it's very beautiful."
The consequence of this remark was another "Pshaw!" But Mrs. Peck went on: "When you've lived opposite to people like that for a long time you feel as if you had some rights in them--tit for tat! But she didn't take it up today; she didn't speak to me. She knows who I am as well as she knows her own mother."
"You had better speak to her first--she's constitutionally shy," I remarked.
"Shy? She's constitutionally tough! Why she's thirty years old," cried my neighbour. "I suppose you know where she's going."
"Oh yes--we all take an interest in that."
"That young man, I suppose, particularly." And then as I feigned a vagueness: "The handsome one who sits there. Didn't you tell me he's Mrs. Nettlepoint's son?"
"Oh yes--he acts as her deputy. No doubt he does all he can to carry out her function."
Mrs. Peck briefly brooded. I had spoken jocosely, but she took it with a serious face. "Well, she might let him eat his dinner in peace!" she presently put forth.
"Oh he'll come back!" I said, glancing at his place. The repast continued and when it was finished I screwed my chair round to leave the table. Mrs. Peck performed the same movement and we quitted the saloon together. Outside of it was the usual vestibule, with several seats, from which you could descend to the lower cabins or mount to the promenade-deck. Mrs. Peck appeared to hesitate as to her course and then solved the problem by going neither way. She dropped on one of the benches and looked up at me.
"I thought you said he'd come back."
"Young Nettlepoint? Yes, I see he didn't. Miss Mavis then has given him half her dinner."
"It's very kind of her! She has been engaged half her life."
"Yes, but that will soon be over."
"So I suppose--as quick as ever we land. Every one knows it on Merrimac Avenue," Mrs. Peck pursued. "Every one there takes a great interest in it."
"Ah of course--a girl like that has many friends."
But my informant discriminated. "I mean even people who don't know her."
"I see," I went on: "she's so handsome that she attracts attention-- people enter into her affairs."
Mrs. Peck spoke as from the commanding centre of these. "She used to be pretty, but I can't say I think she's anything remarkable today. Anyhow, if she attracts attention she ought to be all the more careful what she does. You had better tell her that."
"Oh it's none of my business!" I easily made out, leaving the terrible little woman and going above. This profession, I grant, was not perfectly attuned to my real idea, or rather my real idea was not quite in harmony with my profession. The very first thing I did on reaching the deck was to notice that Miss Mavis was pacing it on Jasper Nettlepoint's arm and that whatever beauty she might have lost, according to Mrs. Peck's insinuation, she still kept enough to make one's eyes follow her. She had put on a crimson hood, which was very becoming to her and which she wore for the rest of the voyage. She walked very well, with long steps, and I remember that at this moment the sea had a gentle evening swell which made the great ship dip slowly, rhythmically, giving a movement that was graceful to graceful pedestrians and a more awkward one to the awkward. It was the loveliest hour of a fine day, the clear early evening, with the glow of the sunset in the air and a purple colour on the deep. It was always present to me that so the waters ploughed by the Homeric heroes must have looked. I became conscious on this particular occasion moreover that Grace Mavis would for the rest of the voyage be the most visible thing in one's range, the figure that would count most in the composition of groups. She couldn't help it, poor girl; nature had made her conspicuous--important, as the painters say. She paid for it by the corresponding exposure, the danger that people would, as I had said to Mrs. Peck, enter into her affairs.
Jasper Nettlepoint went down at certain times to see his mother, and I watched for one of these occasions--on the third day out--and took advantage of it to go and sit by Miss Mavis. She wore a light blue veil drawn tightly over her face, so that if the smile with which she greeted me rather lacked intensity I could account for it partly by that.
"Well, we're getting on--we're getting on," I said cheerfully, looking at the friendly twinkling sea.
"Are we going very fast?"
"Not fast, but steadily. Ohne Hast, ohne Rast--do you know German?"
"Well, I've studied it--some."
"It will be useful to you over there when you travel."
"Well yes, if we do. But I don't suppose we shall much. Mr. Nettlepoint says we ought," my young woman added in a moment.
"Ah of course he thinks so. He has been all over the world."
"Yes, he has described some of the places. They must be wonderful. I didn't know I should like it so much."
"But it isn't 'Europe' yet!" I laughed.
Well, she didn't care if it wasn't. "I mean going on this way. I could go on for ever--for ever and ever."
"Ah you know it's not always like this," I hastened to mention.
"Well, it's better than Boston."
"It isn't so good as Paris," I still more portentously noted.
"Oh I know all about Paris. There's no freshness in that. I feel as if I had been there all the time."
"You mean you've heard so much of it?"
"Oh yes, nothing else for ten years."
I had come to talk with Miss Mavis because she was attractive, but I had been rather conscious of the absence of a good topic, not feeling at liberty to revert to Mr. Porterfield. She hadn't encouraged me, when I spoke to her as we were leaving Boston, to go on with the history of my acquaintance with this gentleman; and yet now, unexpectedly, she appeared to imply--it was doubtless one of the disparities mentioned by Mrs. Nettlepoint--that he might be glanced at without indelicacy.
"I see--you mean by letters," I remarked.
"We won't live in a good part. I know enough to know that," she went on.
"Well, it isn't as if there were any very bad ones," I answered reassuringly.
"Why Mr. Nettlepoint says it's regular mean."
"And to what does he apply that expression?"
She eyed me a moment as if I were elegant at her expense, but she answered my question. "Up there in the Batignolles. I seem to make out it's worse than Merrimac Avenue."
"Worse--in what way?"
"Why, even less where the nice people live."
"He oughtn't to say that," I returned. And I ventured to back it up. "Don't you call Mr. Porterfield a nice person?"
"Oh it doesn't make any difference." She watched me again a moment through her veil, the texture of which gave her look a suffused prettiness. "Do you know him very little?" she asked.
"No, Mr. Nettlepoint."
"Ah very little. He's very considerably my junior, you see."
She had a fresh pause, as if almost again for my elegance; but she went on: "He's younger than me too." I don't know what effect of the comic there could have been in it, but the turn was unexpected and it made me laugh. Neither do I know whether Miss Mavis took offence at my sensibility on this head, though I remember thinking at the moment with compunction that it had brought a flush to her cheek. At all events she got up, gathering her shawl and her books into her arm. "I'm going down--I'm tired."
"Tired of me, I'm afraid."
"No, not yet."
"I'm like you," I confessed. "I should like it to go on and on."
She had begun to walk along the deck to the companionway and I went with her. "Well, I guess _I_ wouldn't, after all!"
I had taken her shawl from her to carry it, but at the top of the steps that led down to the cabins I had to give it back. "Your mother would be glad if she could know," I observed as we parted.
But she was proof against my graces. "If she could know what?"
"How well you're getting on." I refused to be discouraged. "And that good Mrs. Allen."
"Oh mother, mother! She made me come, she pushed me off." And almost as if not to say more she went quickly below.
I paid Mrs. Nettlepoint a morning visit after luncheon and another in the evening, before she "turned in." That same day, in the evening, she said to me suddenly: "Do you know what I've done? I've asked Jasper."
"Asked him what?"
"Why, if she asked him, you understand."
I wondered. "Do I understand?"
"If you don't it's because you 'regular' won't, as she says. If that girl really asked him--on the balcony--to sail with us."
"My dear lady, do you suppose that if she did he'd tell you?"
She had to recognise my acuteness. "That's just what he says. But he says she didn't."
"And do you consider the statement valuable?" I asked, laughing out. "You had better ask your young friend herself."
Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. "I couldn't do that."
On which I was the more amused that I had to explain I was only amused. "What does it signify now?"
"I thought you thought everything signified. You were so full," she cried, "of signification!"
"Yes, but we're further out now, and somehow in mid-ocean everything becomes absolute."
"What else can he do with decency?" Mrs. Nettlepoint went on. "If, as my son, he were never to speak to her it would be very rude and you'd think that stranger still. Then you would do what he does, and where would be the difference?"
"How do you know what he does? I haven't mentioned him for twenty- four hours."
"Why, she told me herself. She came in this afternoon."
"What an odd thing to tell you!" I commented.
"Not as she says it. She says he's full of attention, perfectly devoted--looks after her all the time. She seems to want me to know it, so that I may approve him for it."
"That's charming; it shows her good conscience."
"Yes, or her great cleverness."
Something in the tone in which Mrs. Nettlepoint said this caused me to return in real surprise: "Why what do you suppose she has in her mind?"
"To get hold of him, to make him go so far he can't retreat. To marry him perhaps."
"To marry him? And what will she do with Mr. Porterfield?"
"She'll ask me just to make it all right to him--or perhaps you."
"Yes, as an old friend"--and for a moment I felt it awkwardly possible. But I put to her seriously: "Do you see Jasper caught like that?"
"Well, he's only a boy--he's younger at least than she."
"Precisely; she regards him as a child. She remarked to me herself today, that is, that he's so much younger."
Mrs. Nettlepoint took this in. "Does she talk of it with you? That shows she has a plan, that she has thought it over!"
I've sufficiently expressed--for the interest of my anecdote--that I found an oddity in one of our young companions, but I was far from judging her capable of laying a trap for the other. Moreover my reading of Jasper wasn't in the least that he was catchable--could be made to do a thing if he didn't want to do it. Of course it wasn't impossible that he might be inclined, that he might take it--or already have taken it--into his head to go further with his mother's charge; but to believe this I should require still more proof than his always being with her. He wanted at most to "take up with her" for the voyage. "If you've questioned him perhaps you've tried to make him feel responsible," I said to my fellow critic.
"A little, but it's very difficult. Interference makes him perverse. One has to go gently. Besides, it's too absurd--think of her age. If she can't take care of herself!" cried Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"Yes, let us keep thinking of her age, though it's not so prodigious. And if things get very bad you've one resource left," I added.
She wondered. "To lock her up in her cabin?"
"No--to come out of yours."
"Ah never, never! If it takes that to save her she must be lost. Besides, what good would it do? If I were to go above she could come below."
"Yes, but you could keep Jasper with you."
"Could I?" Mrs. Nettlepoint demanded in the manner of a woman who knew her son.
In the saloon the next day, after dinner, over the red cloth of the tables, beneath the swinging lamps and the racks of tumblers, decanters and wine-glasses, we sat down to whist, Mrs. Peck, to oblige, taking a hand in the game. She played very badly and talked too much, and when the rubber was over assuaged her discomfiture (though not mine--we had been partners) with a Welsh rabbit and a tumbler of something hot. We had done with the cards, but while she waited for this refreshment she sat with her elbows on the table shuffling a pack.
"She hasn't spoken to me yet--she won't do it," she remarked in a moment.
"Is it possible there's any one on the ship who hasn't spoken to you?"
"Not that girl--she knows too well!" Mrs. Peck looked round our little circle with a smile of intelligence--she had familiar communicative eyes. Several of our company had assembled, according to the wont, the last thing in the evening, of those who are cheerful at sea, for the consumption of grilled sardines and devilled bones.
"What then does she know?"
"Oh she knows _I_ know."
"Well, we know what Mrs. Peck knows," one of the ladies of the group observed to me with an air of privilege.
"Well, you wouldn't know if I hadn't told you--from the way she acts," said our friend with a laugh of small charm.
"She's going out to a gentleman who lives over there--he's waiting there to marry her," the other lady went on, in the tone of authentic information. I remember that her name was Mrs. Gotch and that her mouth looked always as if she were whistling.
"Oh he knows--I've told him," said Mrs. Peck.
"Well, I presume every one knows," Mrs. Gotch contributed.
"Dear madam, is it every one's business?" I asked.
"Why, don't you think it's a peculiar way to act?"--and Mrs. Gotch was evidently surprised at my little protest.
"Why it's right there--straight in front of you, like a play at the theatre--as if you had paid to see it," said Mrs. Peck. "If you don't call it public!"
"Aren't you mixing things up? What do you call public?"
"Why the way they go on. They're up there now."
"They cuddle up there half the night," said Mrs. Gotch. "I don't know when they come down. Any hour they like. When all the lights are out they're up there still."
"Oh you can't tire them out. They don't want relief--like the ship's watch!" laughed one of the gentlemen.
"Well, if they enjoy each other's society what's the harm?" another asked. "They'd do just the same on land."
"They wouldn't do it on the public streets, I presume," said Mrs. Peck. "And they wouldn't do it if Mr. Porterfield was round!"
"Isn't that just where your confusion comes in?" I made answer. "It's public enough that Miss Mavis and Mr. Nettlepoint are always together, but it isn't in the least public that she's going to be married."
"Why how can you say--when the very sailors know it! The Captain knows it and all the officers know it. They see them there, especially at night, when they're sailing the ship."
"I thought there was some rule--!" submitted Mrs. Gotch.
"Well, there is--that you've got to behave yourself," Mrs. Peck explained. "So the Captain told me--he said they have some rule. He said they have to have, when people are too undignified."
"Is that the term he used?" I inquired.
"Well, he may have said when they attract too much attention."
I ventured to discriminate. "It's we who attract the attention--by talking about what doesn't concern us and about what we really don't know."
"She said the Captain said he'd tell on her as soon as ever we arrive," Mrs. Gotch none the less serenely pursued.
"She said--?" I repeated, bewildered.
"Well, he did say so, that he'd think it his duty to inform Mr. Porterfield when he comes on to meet her--if they keep it up in the same way," said Mrs. Peck.
"Oh they'll keep it up, don't you fear!" one of the gentlemen exclaimed.
"Dear madam, the Captain's having his joke on you," was, however, my own congruous reply.
"No, he ain't--he's right down scandalised. He says he regards us all as a real family and wants the family not to be downright coarse." I felt Mrs. Peck irritated by my controversial tone: she challenged me with considerable spirit. "How can you say I don't know it when all the street knows it and has known it for years--for years and years?" She spoke as if the girl had been engaged at least for twenty. "What's she going out for if not to marry him?"
"Perhaps she's going to see how he looks," suggested one of the gentlemen.
"He'd look queer--if he knew."
"Well, I guess he'll know," said Mrs. Gotch.
"She'd tell him herself--she wouldn't be afraid," the gentleman went on.
"Well she might as well kill him. He'll jump overboard," Mrs. Peck could foretell.
"Jump overboard?" cried Mrs. Gotch as if she hoped then that Mr. Porterfield would be told.
"He has just been waiting for this--for long, long years," said Mrs. Peck.
"Do you happen to know him?" I asked.
She replied at her convenience. "No, but I know a lady who does. Are you going up?"
I had risen from my place--I had not ordered supper. "I'm going to take a turn before going to bed."
"Well then you'll see!"
Outside the saloon I hesitated, for Mrs. Peck's admonition made me feel for a moment that if I went up I should have entered in a manner into her little conspiracy. But the night was so warm and splendid that I had been intending to smoke a cigar in the air before going below, and I didn't see why I should deprive myself of this pleasure in order to seem not to mind Mrs. Peck. I mounted accordingly and saw a few figures sitting or moving about in the darkness. The ocean looked black and small, as it is apt to do at night, and the long mass of the ship, with its vague dim wings, seemed to take up a great part of it. There were more stars than one saw on land and the heavens struck one more than ever as larger than the earth. Grace Mavis and her companion were not, so far as I perceived at first, among the few passengers who lingered late, and I was glad, because I hated to hear her talked about in the manner of the gossips I had left at supper. I wished there had been some way to prevent it, but I could think of none but to recommend her privately to reconsider her rule of discretion. That would be a very delicate business, and perhaps it would be better to begin with Jasper, though that would be delicate too. At any rate one might let him know, in a friendly spirit, to how much remark he exposed the young lady--leaving this revelation to work its way upon him. Unfortunately I couldn't altogether believe that the pair were unconscious of the observation and the opinion of the passengers. They weren't boy and girl; they had a certain social perspective in their eye. I was meanwhile at any rate in no possession of the details of that behaviour which had made them--according to the version of my good friends in the saloon- -a scandal to the ship; for though I had taken due note of them, as will already have been gathered, I had taken really no such ferocious, or at least such competent, note as Mrs. Peck. Nevertheless the probability was that they knew what was thought of them--what naturally would be--and simply didn't care. That made our heroine out rather perverse and even rather shameless; and yet somehow if these were her leanings I didn't dislike her for them. I don't know what strange secret excuses I found for her. I presently indeed encountered, on the spot, a need for any I might have at call, since, just as I was on the point of going below again, after several restless turns and--within the limit where smoking was allowed--as many puffs at a cigar as I cared for, I became aware of a couple of figures settled together behind one of the lifeboats that rested on the deck. They were so placed as to be visible only to a person going close to the rail and peering a little sidewise. I don't think I peered, but as I stood a moment beside the rail my eye was attracted by a dusky object that protruded beyond the boat and that I saw at a second glance to be the tail of a lady's dress. I bent forward an instant, but even then I saw very little more; that scarcely mattered however, as I easily concluded that the persons tucked away in so snug a corner were Jasper Nettlepoint and Mr. Porterfield's intended. Tucked away was the odious right expression, and I deplored the fact so betrayed for the pitiful bad taste in it. I immediately turned away, and the next moment found myself face to face with our vessel's skipper. I had already had some conversation with him--he had been so good as to invite me, as he had invited Mrs. Nettlepoint and her son and the young lady travelling with them, and also Mrs. Peck, to sit at his table--and had observed with pleasure that his seamanship had the grace, not universal on the Atlantic liners, of a fine-weather manner.
"They don't waste much time--your friends in there," he said, nodding in the direction in which he had seen me looking.
"Ah well, they haven't much to lose."
"That's what I mean. I'm told she hasn't."
I wanted to say something exculpatory, but scarcely knew what note to strike. I could only look vaguely about me at the starry darkness and the sea that seemed to sleep. "Well, with these splendid nights and this perfect air people are beguiled into late hours."
"Yes, we want a bit of a blow," the Captain said.
I demurred. "How much of one?"
"Enough to clear the decks!"
He was after all rather dry and he went about his business. He had made me uneasy, and instead of going below I took a few turns more. The other walkers dropped off pair by pair--they were all men--till at last I was alone. Then after a little I quitted the field. Jasper and his companion were still behind their lifeboat. Personally I greatly preferred our actual conditions, but as I went down I found myself vaguely wishing, in the interest of I scarcely knew what, unless it had been a mere superstitious delicacy, that we might have half a gale.
Miss Mavis turned out, in sea-phrase, early; for the next morning I saw her come up only a short time after I had finished my breakfast, a ceremony over which I contrived not to dawdle. She was alone and Jasper Nettlepoint, by a rare accident, was not on deck to help her. I went to meet her--she was encumbered as usual with her shawl, her sun-umbrella and a book--and laid my hands on her chair, placing it near the stern of the ship, where she liked best to be. But I proposed to her to walk a little before she sat down, and she took my arm after I had put her accessories into the chair. The deck was clear at that hour and the morning light gay; one had an extravagant sense of good omens and propitious airs. I forget what we spoke of first, but it was because I felt these things pleasantly; and not to torment my companion nor to test her, that I couldn't help exclaiming cheerfully after a moment, as I have mentioned having done the first day: "Well, we're getting on, we're getting on!"
"Oh yes, I count every hour."
"The last days always go quicker," I said, "and the last hours--!"
"Well, the last hours?" she asked; for I had instinctively checked myself.
"Oh one's so glad then that it's almost the same as if one had arrived. Yet we ought to be grateful when the elements have been so kind to us," I added. "I hope you'll have enjoyed the voyage."
She hesitated ever so little. "Yes, much more than I expected."
"Did you think it would be very bad?"
The tone of these words was strange, but I hadn't much time to reflect upon it, for turning round at that moment I saw Jasper Nettlepoint come toward us. He was still distant by the expanse of the white deck, and I couldn't help taking him in from head to foot as he drew nearer. I don't know what rendered me on this occasion particularly sensitive to the impression, but it struck me that I saw him as I had never seen him before, saw him, thanks to the intense sea-light, inside and out, in his personal, his moral totality. It was a quick, a vivid revelation; if it only lasted a moment it had a simplifying certifying effect. He was intrinsically a pleasing apparition, with his handsome young face and that marked absence of any drop in his personal arrangements which, more than any one I've ever seen, he managed to exhibit on shipboard. He had none of the appearance of wearing out old clothes that usually prevails there, but dressed quite straight, as I heard some one say. This gave him an assured, almost a triumphant air, as of a young man who would come best out of any awkwardness. I expected to feel my companion's hand loosen itself on my arm, as an indication that now she must go to him, and I was almost surprised she didn't drop me. We stopped as we met and Jasper bade us a friendly good-morning. Of course the remark that we had another lovely day was already indicated, and it led him to exclaim, in the manner of one to whom criticism came easily, "Yes, but with this sort of thing consider what one of the others would do!"
"One of the other ships?"
"We should be there now, or at any rate tomorrow."
"Well then I'm glad it isn't one of the others"--and I smiled at the young lady on my arm. My words offered her a chance to say something appreciative, and gave him one even more; but neither Jasper nor Grace Mavis took advantage of the occasion. What they did do, I noticed, was to look at each other rather fixedly an instant; after which she turned her eyes silently to the sea. She made no movement and uttered no sound, contriving to give me the sense that she had all at once become perfectly passive, that she somehow declined responsibility. We remained standing there with Jasper in front of us, and if the contact of her arm didn't suggest I should give her up, neither did it intimate that we had better pass on. I had no idea of giving her up, albeit one of the things I seemed to read just then into Jasper's countenance was a fine implication that she was his property. His eyes met mine for a moment, and it was exactly as if he had said to me "I know what you think, but I don't care a rap." What I really thought was that he was selfish beyond the limits: that was the substance of my little revelation. Youth is almost always selfish, just as it is almost always conceited, and, after all, when it's combined with health and good parts, good looks and good spirits, it has a right to be, and I easily forgive it if it be really youth. Still it's a question of degree, and what stuck out of Jasper Nettlepoint--if, of course, one had the intelligence for it-- was that his egotism had a hardness, his love of his own way an avidity. These elements were jaunty and prosperous, they were accustomed to prevail. He was fond, very fond, of women; they were necessary to him--that was in his type; but he wasn't in the least in love with Grace Mavis. Among the reflexions I quickly made this was the one that was most to the point. There was a degree of awkwardness, after a minute, in the way we were planted there, though the apprehension of it was doubtless not in the least with himself. To dissimulate my own share in it, at any rate, I asked him how his mother might be.
His answer was unexpected. "You had better go down and see."
"Not till Miss Mavis is tired of me."
She said nothing to this and I made her walk again. For some minutes she failed to speak; then, rather abruptly, she began: "I've seen you talking to that lady who sits at our table--the one who has so many children."
"Mrs. Peck? Oh yes, one has inevitably talked with Mrs. Peck."
"Do you know her very well?"
"Only as one knows people at sea. An acquaintance makes itself. It doesn't mean very much."
"She doesn't speak to me--she might if she wanted."
"That's just what she says of you--that you might speak to her."
"Oh if she's waiting for that!" said my companion with a laugh. Then she added: "She lives in our street, nearly opposite."
"Precisely. That's the reason why she thinks you coy or haughty. She has seen you so often and seems to know so much about you."
"What does she know about me?"
"Ah you must ask her--I can't tell you!"
"I don't care what she knows," said my young lady. After a moment she went on: "She must have seen I ain't very sociable." And then, "What are you laughing at?" she asked.
"Well"--my amusement was difficult to explain--"you're not very sociable, and yet somehow you are. Mrs. Peck is, at any rate, and thought that ought to make it easy for you to enter into conversation with her."
"Oh I don't care for her conversation--I know what it amounts to." I made no reply--I scarcely knew what reply to make--and the girl went on: "I know what she thinks and I know what she says." Still I was silent, but the next moment I saw my discretion had been wasted, for Miss Mavis put to me straight: "Does she make out that she knows Mr. Porterfield?"
"No, she only claims she knows a lady who knows him."
"Yes, that's it--Mrs. Jeremie. Mrs. Jeremie's an idiot!" I wasn't in a position to controvert this, and presently my young lady said she would sit down. I left her in her chair--I saw that she preferred it--and wandered to a distance. A few minutes later I met Jasper again, and he stopped of his own accord to say: "We shall be in about six in the evening of our eleventh day--they promise it."
"If nothing happens, of course."
"Well, what's going to happen?"
"That's just what I'm wondering!" And I turned away and went below with the foolish but innocent satisfaction of thinking I had mystified him.