"I don't know what to do, and you must help me," Mrs. Nettlepoint said to me, that evening, as soon as I looked in.
"I'll do what I can--but what's the matter?"
"She has been crying here and going on--she has quite upset me."
"Crying? She doesn't look like that."
"Exactly, and that's what startled me. She came in to see me this afternoon, as she has done before, and we talked of the weather and the run of the ship and the manners of the stewardess and other such trifles, and then suddenly, in the midst of it, as she sat there, on no visible pretext, she burst into tears. I asked her what ailed her and tried to comfort her, but she didn't explain; she said it was nothing, the effect of the sea, of the monotony, of the excitement, of leaving home. I asked her if it had anything to do with her prospects, with her marriage; whether she finds as this draws near that her heart isn't in it. I told her she mustn't be nervous, that I could enter into that--in short I said what I could. All she replied was that she is nervous, very nervous, but that it was already over; and then she jumped up and kissed me and went away. Does she look as if she has been crying?" Mrs. Nettlepoint wound up.
"How can I tell, when she never quits that horrid veil? It's as if she were ashamed to show her face."
"She's keeping it for Liverpool. But I don't like such incidents," said Mrs. Nettlepoint. "I think I ought to go above."
"And is that where you want me to help you?"
"Oh with your arm and that sort of thing, yes. But I may have to look to you for something more. I feel as if something were going to happen."
"That's exactly what I said to Jasper this morning."
"And what did he say?"
"He only looked innocent--as if he thought I meant a fog or a storm."
"Heaven forbid--it isn't that! I shall never be good-natured again," Mrs. Nettlepoint went on; "never have a girl put on me that way. You always pay for it--there are always tiresome complications. What I'm afraid of is after we get there. She'll throw up her engagement; there will be dreadful scenes; I shall be mixed up with them and have to look after her and keep her with me. I shall have to stay there with her till she can be sent back, or even take her up to London. Do you see all that?"
I listened respectfully; after which I observed: "You're afraid of your son."
She also had a pause. "It depends on how you mean it."
"There are things you might say to him--and with your manner; because you have one, you know, when you choose."
"Very likely, but what's my manner to his? Besides, I have said everything to him. That is I've said the great thing--that he's making her immensely talked about."
"And of course in answer to that he has asked you how you know, and you've told him you have it from me."
"I've had to tell him; and he says it's none of your business."
"I wish he'd say that," I remarked, "to my face."
"He'll do so perfectly if you give him a chance. That's where you can help me. Quarrel with him--he's rather good at a quarrel; and that will divert him and draw him off."
"Then I'm ready," I returned, "to discuss the matter with him for the rest of the voyage."
"Very well; I count on you. But he'll ask you, as he asks me, what the deuce you want him to do."
"To go to bed!"--and I'm afraid I laughed.
"Oh it isn't a joke."
I didn't want to be irritating, but I made my point. "That's exactly what I told you at first."
"Yes, but don't exult; I hate people who exult. Jasper asks of me," she went on, "why he should mind her being talked about if she doesn't mind it herself."
"I'll tell him why," I replied; and Mrs. Nettlepoint said she should be exceedingly obliged to me and repeated that she would indeed take the field.
I looked for Jasper above that same evening, but circumstances didn't favour my quest. I found him--that is I gathered he was again ensconced behind the lifeboat with Miss Mavis; but there was a needless violence in breaking into their communion, and I put off our interview till the next day. Then I took the first opportunity, at breakfast, to make sure of it. He was in the saloon when I went in and was preparing to leave the table; but I stopped him and asked if he would give me a quarter of an hour on deck a little later--there was something particular I wanted to say to him. He said "Oh yes, if you like"--with just a visible surprise, but I thought with plenty of assurance. When I had finished my breakfast I found him smoking on the forward-deck and I immediately began: "I'm going to say something you won't at all like; to ask you a question you'll probably denounce for impertinent."
"I certainly shall if I find it so," said Jasper Nettlepoint.
"Well, of course my warning has meant that I don't care if you do. I'm a good deal older than you and I'm a friend--of many years--of your mother. There's nothing I like less than to be meddlesome, but I think these things give me a certain right--a sort of privilege. Besides which my inquiry will speak for itself."
"Why so many damned preliminaries?" my young man asked through his smoke.
We looked into each other's eyes a moment. What indeed was his mother's manner--her best manner--compared with his? "Are you prepared to be responsible?"
"Dear no--to the young lady herself. I'm speaking of course of Miss Mavis."
"Ah yes, my mother tells me you have her greatly on your mind."
"So has your mother herself--now."
"She's so good as to say so--to oblige you."
"She'd oblige me a great deal more by reassuring me. I know perfectly of your knowing I've told her that Miss Mavis is greatly talked about."
"Yes, but what on earth does it matter?"
"It matters as a sign."
"A sign of what?"
"That she's in a false position."
Jasper puffed his cigar with his eyes on the horizon, and I had, a little unexpectedly, the sense of producing a certain effect on him. "I don't know whether it's your business, what you're attempting to discuss but it really strikes me it's none of mine. What have I to do with the tattle with which a pack of old women console themselves for not being sea-sick?"
"Do you call it tattle that Miss Mavis is in love with you?"
"Then," I retorted, "you're very ungrateful. The tattle of a pack of old women has this importance, that she suspects, or she knows, it exists, and that decent girls are for the most part very sensitive to that sort of thing. To be prepared not to heed it in this case she must have a reason, and the reason must be the one I've taken the liberty to call your attention to."
"In love with me in six days, just like that?"--and he still looked away through narrowed eyelids.
"There's no accounting for tastes, and six days at sea are equivalent to sixty on land. I don't want to make you too proud. Of course if you recognise your responsibility it's all right and I've nothing to say."
"I don't see what you mean," he presently returned.
"Surely you ought to have thought of that by this time. She's engaged to be married, and the gentleman she's engaged to is to meet her at Liverpool. The whole ship knows it--though _I_ didn't tell them!--and the whole ship's watching her. It's impertinent if you like, just as I am myself, but we make a little world here together and we can't blink its conditions. What I ask you is whether you're prepared to allow her to give up the gentleman I've just mentioned for your sake."
Jasper spoke in a moment as if he didn't understand. "For my sake?"
"To marry her if she breaks with him."
He turned his eyes from the horizon to my own, and I found a strange expression in them. "Has Miss Mavis commissioned you to go into that?"
"Not in the least."
"Well then, I don't quite see--!"
"It isn't as from another I make it. Let it come from yourself--to yourself."
"Lord, you must think I lead myself a life!" he cried as in compassion for my simplicity. "That's a question the young lady may put to me any moment it pleases her."
"Let me then express the hope that she will. But what will you answer?"
"My dear sir, it seems to me that in spite of all the titles you've enumerated you've no reason to expect I'll tell you." He turned away, and I dedicated in perfect sincerity a deep sore sigh to the thought of our young woman. At this, under the impression of it, he faced me again and, looking at me from head to foot, demanded: "What is it you want me to do?"
"I put it to your mother that you ought to go to bed."
"You had better do that yourself!" he replied.
This time he walked off, and I reflected rather dolefully that the only clear result of my undertaking would probably have been to make it vivid to him that she was in love with him. Mrs. Nettlepoint came up as she had announced, but the day was half over: it was nearly three o'clock. She was accompanied by her son, who established her on deck, arranged her chair and her shawls, saw she was protected from sun and wind, and for an hour was very properly attentive. While this went on Grace Mavis was not visible, nor did she reappear during the whole afternoon. I hadn't observed that she had as yet been absent from the deck for so long a period. Jasper left his mother, but came back at intervals to see how she got on, and when she asked where Miss Mavis might be answered that he hadn't the least idea. I sat with my friend at her particular request: she told me she knew that if I didn't Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch would make their approach, so that I must act as a watch-dog. She was flurried and fatigued with her migration, and I think that Grace Mavis's choosing this occasion for retirement suggested to her a little that she had been made a fool of. She remarked that the girl's not being there showed her for the barbarian she only could be, and that she herself was really very good so to have put herself out; her charge was a mere bore: that was the end of it. I could see that my companion's advent quickened the speculative activity of the other ladies they watched her from the opposite side of the deck, keeping their eyes fixed on her very much as the man at the wheel kept his on the course of the ship. Mrs. Peck plainly had designs, and it was from this danger that Mrs. Nettlepoint averted her face.
"It's just as we said," she remarked to me as we sat there. "It's like the buckets in the well. When I come up everything else goes down."
"No, not at all everything else--since Jasper remains here."
"Remains? I don't see him."
"He comes and goes--it's the same thing."
"He goes more than he comes. But n'en parlons plus; I haven't gained anything. I don't admire the sea at all--what is it but a magnified water-tank? I shan't come up again."
"I've an idea she'll stay in her cabin now," I said. "She tells me she has one to herself." Mrs. Nettlepoint replied that she might do as she liked, and I repeated to her the little conversation I had had with Jasper.
She listened with interest, but "Marry her? Mercy!" she exclaimed. "I like the fine freedom with which you give my son away."
"You wouldn't accept that?"
"Why in the world should I?"
"Then I don't understand your position."
"Good heavens, I have none! It isn't a position to be tired of the whole thing."
"You wouldn't accept it even in the case I put to him--that of her believing she had been encouraged to throw over poor Porterfield?"
"Not even--not even. Who can know what she believes?"
It brought me back to where we had started from. "Then you do exactly what I said you would--you show me a fine example of maternal immorality."
"Maternal fiddlesticks! It was she who began it."
"Then why did you come up today?" I asked.
"To keep you quiet."
Mrs. Nettlepoint's dinner was served on deck, but I went into the saloon. Jasper was there, but not Grace Mavis, as I had half- expected. I sought to learn from him what had become of her, if she were ill--he must have thought I had an odious pertinacity--and he replied that he knew nothing whatever about her. Mrs. Peck talked to me--or tried to--of Mrs. Nettlepoint, expatiating on the great interest it had been to see her; only it was a pity she didn't seem more sociable. To this I made answer that she was to be excused on the score of health.
"You don't mean to say she's sick on this pond?"
"No, she's unwell in another way."
"I guess I know the way!" Mrs. Peck laughed. And then she added: "I suppose she came up to look after her pet."
"Her pet?" I set my face.
"Why Miss Mavis. We've talked enough about that."
"Quite enough. I don't know what that has had to do with it. Miss Mavis, so far as I've noticed, hasn't been above today."
"Oh it goes on all the same."
"It goes on?"
"Well, it's too late."
"Well, you'll see. There'll be a row."
This wasn't comforting, but I didn't repeat it on deck. Mrs. Nettlepoint returned early to her cabin, professing herself infinitely spent. I didn't know what "went on," but Grace Mavis continued not to show. I looked in late, for a good-night to my friend, and learned from her that the girl hadn't been to her. She had sent the stewardess to her room for news, to see if she were ill and needed assistance, and the stewardess had come back with mere mention of her not being there. I went above after this; the night was not quite so fair and the deck almost empty. In a moment Jasper Nettlepoint and our young lady moved past me together. "I hope you're better!" I called after her; and she tossed me over her shoulder--"Oh yes, I had a headache; but the air now does me good!"
I went down again--I was the only person there but they, and I wanted not to seem to dog their steps--and, returning to Mrs. Nettlepoint's room, found (her door was open to the little passage) that she was still sitting up.
"She's all right!" I said. "She's on the deck with Jasper."
The good lady looked up at me from her book. "I didn't know you called that all right."
"Well, it's better than something else."
"Than what else?"
"Something I was a little afraid of." Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to look at me; she asked again what that might be. "I'll tell you when we're ashore," I said.
The next day I waited on her at the usual hour of my morning visit, and found her not a little distraught. "The scenes have begun," she said; "you know I told you I shouldn't get through without them! You made me nervous last night--I haven't the least idea what you meant; but you made me horribly nervous. She came in to see me an hour ago, and I had the courage to say to her: 'I don't know why I shouldn't tell you frankly that I've been scolding my son about you.' Of course she asked what I meant by that, and I let her know. 'It seems to me he drags you about the ship too much for a girl in your position. He has the air of not remembering that you belong to some one else. There's a want of taste and even a want of respect in it.' That brought on an outbreak: she became very violent."
"Do you mean indignant?"
"Yes, indignant, and above all flustered and excited--at my presuming to suppose her relations with my son not the very simplest in the world. I might scold him as much as I liked--that was between ourselves; but she didn't see why I should mention such matters to herself. Did I think she allowed him to treat her with disrespect? That idea wasn't much of a compliment to either of them! He had treated her better and been kinder to her than most other people-- there were very few on the ship who hadn't been insulting. She should be glad enough when she got off it, to her own people, to some one whom nobody would have a right to speak of. What was there in her position that wasn't perfectly natural? what was the idea of making a fuss about her position? Did I mean that she took it too easily--that she didn't think as much as she ought about Mr. Porterfield? Didn't I believe she was attached to him--didn't I believe she was just counting the hours till she saw him? That would be the happiest moment of her life. It showed how little I knew her if I thought anything else."
"All that must have been rather fine--I should have liked to hear it," I said after quite hanging on my friend's lips. "And what did you reply?"
"Oh I grovelled; I assured her that I accused her--as regards my son- -of nothing worse than an excess of good nature. She helped him to pass his time--he ought to be immensely obliged. Also that it would be a very happy moment for me too when I should hand her over to Mr. Porterfield."
"And will you come up today?"
"No indeed--I think she'll do beautifully now."
I heaved this time a sigh of relief. "All's well that ends well!"
Jasper spent that day a great deal of time with his mother. She had told me how much she had lacked hitherto proper opportunity to talk over with him their movements after disembarking. Everything changes a little the last two or three days of a voyage; the spell is broken and new combinations take place. Grace Mavis was neither on deck nor at dinner, and I drew Mrs. Peck's attention to the extreme propriety with which she now conducted herself. She had spent the day in meditation and judged it best to continue to meditate.
"Ah she's afraid," said my implacable neighbour.
"Afraid of what?"
"Well, that we'll tell tales when we get there."
"Whom do you mean by 'we'?"
"Well, there are plenty--on a ship like this."
"Then I think," I returned, "we won't."
"Maybe we won't have the chance," said the dreadful little woman.
"Oh at that moment"--I spoke from a full experience--"universal geniality reigns."
Mrs. Peck however knew little of any such law. "I guess she's afraid all the same."
"So much the better!"
"Yes--so much the better!"
All the next day too the girl remained invisible, and Mrs. Nettlepoint told me she hadn't looked in. She herself had accordingly inquired by the stewardess if she might be received in Miss Mavis's own quarters, and the young lady had replied that they were littered up with things and unfit for visitors: she was packing a trunk over. Jasper made up for his devotion to his mother the day before by now spending a great deal of his time in the smoking-room. I wanted to say to him "This is much better," but I thought it wiser to hold my tongue. Indeed I had begun to feel the emotion of prospective arrival--the sense of the return to Europe always kept its intensity--and had thereby the less attention for other matters. It will doubtless appear to the critical reader that my expenditure of interest had been out of proportion to the vulgar appearances of which my story gives an account, but to this I can only reply that the event was to justify me. We sighted land, the dim yet rich coast of Ireland, about sunset, and I leaned on the bulwark and took it in. "It doesn't look like much, does it?" I heard a voice say, beside me; whereupon, turning, I found Grace Mavis at hand. Almost for the first time she had her veil up, and I thought her very pale.
"It will be more tomorrow," I said.
"Oh yes, a great deal more."
"The first sight of land, at sea, changes everything," I went on. "It always affects me as waking up from a dream. It's a return to reality."
For a moment she made me no response; then she said "It doesn't look very real yet."
"No, and meanwhile, this lovely evening, one can put it that the dream's still present."
She looked up at the sky, which had a brightness, though the light of the sun had left it and that of the stars hadn't begun. "It is a lovely evening."
"Oh yes, with this we shall do."
She stood some moments more, while the growing dusk effaced the line of the land more rapidly than our progress made it distinct. She said nothing more, she only looked in front of her; but her very quietness prompted me to something suggestive of sympathy and service. It was difficult indeed to strike the right note--some things seemed too wide of the mark and others too importunate. At last, unexpectedly, she appeared to give me my chance. Irrelevantly, abruptly she broke out: "Didn't you tell me you knew Mr. Porterfield?"
"Dear me, yes--I used to see him. I've often wanted to speak to you of him."
She turned her face on me and in the deepened evening I imagined her more pale. "What good would that do?"
"Why it would be a pleasure," I replied rather foolishly.
"Do you mean for you?"
"Well, yes--call it that," I smiled.
"Did you know him so well?"
My smile became a laugh and I lost a little my confidence. "You're not easy to make speeches to."
"I hate speeches!" The words came from her lips with a force that surprised me; they were loud and hard. But before I had time to wonder she went on a little differently. "Shall you know him when you see him?"
"Perfectly, I think." Her manner was so strange that I had to notice it in some way, and I judged the best way was jocularly; so I added: "Shan't you?"
"Oh perhaps you'll point him out!" And she walked quickly away. As I looked after her there came to me a perverse, rather a provoking consciousness of having during the previous days, and especially in speaking to Jasper Nettlepoint, interfered with her situation in some degree to her loss. There was an odd pang for me in seeing her move about alone; I felt somehow responsible for it and asked myself why I couldn't have kept my hands off. I had seen Jasper in the smoking- room more than once that day, as I passed it, and half an hour before this had observed, through the open door, that he was there. He had been with her so much that without him she now struck one as bereaved and forsaken. This was really better, no doubt, but superficially it moved--and I admit with the last inconsequence--one's pity. Mrs. Peck would doubtless have assured me that their separation was gammon: they didn't show together on deck and in the saloon, but they made it up elsewhere. The secret places on shipboard are not numerous; Mrs. Peck's "elsewhere" would have been vague, and I know not what licence her imagination took. It was distinct that Jasper had fallen off, but of course what had passed between them on this score wasn't so and could never be. Later on, through his mother, I had his version of that, but I may remark that I gave it no credit. Poor Mrs. Nettlepoint, on the other hand, was of course to give it all. I was almost capable, after the girl had left me, of going to my young man and saying: "After all, do return to her a little, just till we get in! It won't make any difference after we land." And I don't think it was the fear he would tell me I was an idiot that prevented me. At any rate the next time I passed the door of the smoking-room I saw he had left it. I paid my usual visit to Mrs. Nettlepoint that night, but I troubled her no further about Miss Mavis. She had made up her mind that everything was smooth and settled now, and it seemed to me I had worried her, and that she had worried herself, in sufficiency. I left her to enjoy the deepening foretaste of arrival, which had taken possession of her mind. Before turning in I went above and found more passengers on deck than I had ever seen so late. Jasper moved about among them alone, but I forbore to join him. The coast of Ireland had disappeared, but the night and the sea were perfect. On the way to my cabin, when I came down, I met the stewardess in one of the passages, and the idea entered my head to say to her: "Do you happen to know where Miss Mavis is?"
"Why she's in her room, sir, at this hour."
"Do you suppose I could speak to her?" It had come into my mind to ask her why she had wanted to know of me if I should recognise Mr. Porterfield.
"No sir," said the stewardess; "she has gone to bed."
"That's all right." And I followed the young lady's excellent example.
The next morning, while I dressed, the steward of my side of the ship came to me as usual to see what I wanted. But the first thing he said to, me was: "Rather a bad job, sir--a passenger missing." And while I took I scarce know what instant chill from it, "A lady, sir," he went on--"whom I think you knew. Poor Miss Mavis, sir."
"Missing?" I cried--staring at him and horror-stricken.
"She's not on the ship. They can't find her."
"Then where to God is she?"
I recall his queer face. "Well sir, I suppose you know that as well as I."
"Do you mean she has jumped overboard?"
"Some time in the night, sir--on the quiet. But it's beyond every one, the way she escaped notice. They usually sees 'em, sir. It must have been about half-past two. Lord, but she was sharp, sir. She didn't so much as make a splash. They say she 'ad come against her will, sir."
I had dropped upon my sofa--I felt faint. The man went on, liking to talk as persons of his class do when they have something horrible to tell. She usually rang for the stewardess early, but this morning of course there had been no ring. The stewardess had gone in all the same about eight o'clock and found the cabin empty. That was about an hour previous. Her things were there in confusion--the things she usually wore when she went above. The stewardess thought she had been a bit odd the night before, but had waited a little and then gone back. Miss Mavis hadn't turned up--and she didn't turn up. The stewardess began to look for her--she hadn't been seen on deck or in the saloon. Besides, she wasn't dressed--not to show herself; all her clothes were in her room. There was another lady, an old lady, Mrs. Nettlepoint--I would know her--that she was sometimes with, but the stewardess had been with her and knew Miss Mavis hadn't come near her that morning. She had spoken to him and they had taken a quiet look--they had hunted everywhere. A ship's a big place, but you did come to the end of it, and if a person wasn't there why there it was. In short an hour had passed and the young lady was not accounted for: from which I might judge if she ever would be. The watch couldn't account for her, but no doubt the fishes in the sea could--poor miserable pitiful lady! The stewardess and he had of course thought it their duty to speak at once to the Doctor, and the Doctor had spoken immediately to the Captain. The Captain didn't like it--they never did, but he'd try to keep it quiet--they always did.
By the time I succeeded in pulling myself together and getting on, after a fashion, the rest of my clothes I had learned that Mrs. Nettlepoint wouldn't yet have been told, unless the stewardess had broken it to her within the previous few minutes. Her son knew, the young gentleman on the other side of the ship--he had the other steward; my man had seen him come out of his cabin and rush above, just before he came in to me. He had gone above, my man was sure; he hadn't gone to the old lady's cabin. I catch again the sense of my dreadfully seeing something at that moment, catch the wild flash, under the steward's words, of Jasper Nettlepoint leaping, with a mad compunction in his young agility, over the side of the ship. I hasten to add, however, that no such incident was destined to contribute its horror to poor Grace Mavis's unwitnessed and unlighted tragic act. What followed was miserable enough, but I can only glance at it. When I got to Mrs. Nettlepoint's door she was there with a shawl about her; the stewardess had just told her and she was dashing out to come to me. I made her go back--I said I would go for Jasper. I went for him but I missed him, partly no doubt because it was really at first the Captain I was after. I found this personage and found him highly scandalised, but he gave me no hope that we were in error, and his displeasure, expressed with seamanlike strength, was a definite settlement of the question. From the deck, where I merely turned round and looked, I saw the light of another summer day, the coast of Ireland green and near and the sea of a more charming colour than it had shown at all. When I came below again Jasper had passed back; he had gone to his cabin and his mother had joined him there. He remained there till we reached Liverpool--I never saw him. His mother, after a little, at his request, left him alone. All the world went above to look at the land and chatter about our tragedy, but the poor lady spent the day, dismally enough, in her room. It seemed to me, the dreadful day, intolerably long; I was thinking so of vague, of inconceivable yet inevitable Porterfield, and of my having to face him somehow on the morrow. Now of course I knew why she had asked me if I should recognise him; she had delegated to me mentally a certain pleasant office. I gave Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch a wide berth--I couldn't talk to them. I could, or at least I did a little, to Mrs. Nettlepoint, but with too many reserves for comfort on either side, since I quite felt how little it would now make for ease to mention Jasper to her. I was obliged to assume by my silence that he had had nothing to do with what had happened; and of course I never really ascertained what he had had to do. The secret of what passed between him and the strange girl who would have sacrificed her marriage to him on so short an acquaintance remains shut up in his breast. His mother, I know, went to his door from time to time, but he refused her admission. That evening, to be human at a venture, I requested the steward to go in and ask him if he should care to see me, and the good man returned with an answer which he candidly transmitted. "Not in the least!"--Jasper apparently was almost as scandalised as the Captain.
At Liverpool, at the dock, when we had touched, twenty people came on board and I had already made out Mr. Porterfield at a distance. He was looking up at the side of the great vessel with disappointment written--for my strained eyes--in his face; disappointment at not seeing the woman he had so long awaited lean over it and wave her handkerchief to him. Every one was looking at him, every one but she--his identity flew about in a moment--and I wondered if it didn't strike him. He used to be gaunt and angular, but had grown almost fat and stooped a little. The interval between us diminished--he was on the plank and then on the deck with the jostling agents of the Customs; too soon for my equanimity. I met him instantly, however, to save him from exposure--laid my hand on him and drew him away, though I was sure he had no impression of having seen me before. It was not till afterwards that I thought this rather characteristically dull of him. I drew him far away--I was conscious of Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Gotch, looking at us as we passed--into the empty stale smoking- room: he remained speechless, and that struck me as like him. I had to speak first, he couldn't even relieve me by saying "Is anything the matter?" I broke ground by putting it, feebly, that she was ill. It was a dire moment.