Mr. George Morris stood with his arms folded on the bulwarks of the steamship City of Buffalo, and gazed down into the water. All around him was the bustle and hurry of passengers embarking, with friends bidding good-bye. Among the throng, here and there, the hardworking men of the steamer were getting things in order for the coming voyage. Trunks were piled up in great heaps ready to be lowered into the hold; portmanteaux, satchels, and hand-bags, with tags tied to them, were placed in a row waiting to be claimed by the passengers, or taken down into the state-rooms. To all this bustle and confusion George Morris paid no heed. He was thinking deeply, and his thoughts did not seem to be very pleasant. There was nobody to see him off, and he had evidently very little interest in either those who were going or those who were staying behind. Other passengers who had no friends to bid them farewell appeared to take a lively interest in watching the hurry and scurry, and in picking out the voyagers from those who came merely to say good-bye.
At last the rapid ringing of a bell warned all lingerers that the time for the final parting had come. There were final hand-shakings, many embraces, and not a few tears, while men in uniform with stentorian voices cried, "All ashore." The second clanging of the bell, and the preparations for pulling up the gang-planks hurried the laggards to the pier. After the third ringing the gang-plank was hauled away, the inevitable last man sprang to the wharf, the equally inevitable last passenger, who had just dashed up in a cab, flung his valises to the steward, was helped on board the ship, and then began the low pulsating stroke, like the beating of a heart, that would not cease until the vessel had sighted land on the other side. George Morris's eyes were fixed on the water, yet apparently he was not looking at it, for when it began to spin away from the sides of the ship he took no notice, but still gazed at the mass of seething foam that the steamer threw off from her as she moved through the bay. It was evident that the sights of New York harbour were very familiar to the young man, for he paid no attention to them, and the vessel was beyond Sandy Hook before he changed his position. It is doubtful if he would have changed it then, had not a steward touched him on the elbow, and said--
"Any letters, sir?"
"Any what?" cried Morris, suddenly waking up from his reverie.
"Any letters, sir, to go ashore with the pilot?"
"Oh, letters. No, no, I haven't any. You have a regular post-office on board, have you? Mail leaves every day?"
"No, sir," replied the steward with a smile, "not every day, sir. We send letters ashore for passengers when the pilot leaves the ship. The next mail, sir, will leave at Queenstown."
The steward seemed uncertain as to whether the passenger was trying to joke with him or was really ignorant of the ways of steamships. However, his tone was very deferential and explanatory, not knowing but that this particular passenger might come to his lot at the table, and stewards take very good care to offend nobody. Future fees must not be jeopardized.
Being aroused, Mr. Morris now took a look around him. It seemed wonderful how soon order had been restored from the chaos of the starting. The trunks had disappeared down the hold; the portmanteaux were nowhere to be seen. Most of the passengers apparently were in their state-rooms exploring their new quarters, getting out their wraps, Tam-o-Shanters, fore-and-aft caps, steamer chairs, rugs, and copies of paper-covered novels. The deck was almost deserted, yet here and there a steamer chair had already been placed, and one or two were occupied. The voyage had commenced. The engine had settled down to its regular low thud, thud; the vessel's head rose gracefully with the long swell of the ocean, and, to make everything complete, several passengers already felt that inward qualm--the accompaniment of so many ocean voyages.
George Morris yawned, and seemed the very picture of ennui. He put his hands deeply into his coat pockets, and sauntered across the deck. Then he took a stroll up the one side and down the other. As he lounged along it was very evident that he was tired of the voyage, even before it began. Judging from his listless manner nothing on earth could arouse the interest of the young man. The gong sounded faintly in the inner depths of the ship somewhere announcing dinner. Then, as the steward appeared up the companion way, the sonorous whang, whang became louder, and the hatless official, with the gong in hand, beat that instrument several final strokes, after which he disappeared into the regions below.
"I may as well go down," said Morris to himself, "and see where they have placed me at table. But I haven't much interest in dinner."
As he walked to the companion-way an elderly gentleman and a young lady appeared at the opposite door, ready to descend the stairs. Neither of them saw the young man. But if they had, one of them at least would have doubted the young man's sanity. He stared at the couple for a moment with a look of grotesque horror on his face that was absolutely comical. Then he turned, and ran the length of the deck, with a speed unconscious of all obstacles.
"Say," he cried to the captain, "I want to go ashore. I must go ashore. I want to go ashore with the pilot."
The captain smiled, and said, "I shall be very happy to put you ashore, sir, but it will have to be at Queenstown. The pilot has gone."
"Why, it was only a moment ago that the steward asked me if I had any letters to post. Surely he cannot have gone yet?"
"It is longer than that, I am afraid," said the captain. "The pilot left the ship half an hour ago."
"Is there no way I can get ashore? I don't mind what I pay for it."
"Unless we break a shaft and have to turn back there is no way that I know of. I am afraid you will have to make the best of it until we reach Queenstown."
"Can't you signal a boat and let me get off on her?"
"Well, I suppose we could. It is a very unusual thing to do. But that would delay us for some time, and unless the business is of the utmost necessity, I would not feel justified in delaying the steamer, or in other words delaying several hundred passengers for the convenience of one. If you tell me what the trouble is I shall tell you at once whether I can promise to signal a boat if I get the opportunity of doing so."
Morris thought for a moment. It would sound very absurd to the captain for him to say that there was a passenger on the ship whom he desired very much not to meet, and yet, after all, that was what made the thought of the voyage so distasteful to him.
He merely said, "Thank you," and turned away, muttering to himself something in condemnation of his luck in general. As he walked slowly down the deck up which he had rushed with such headlong speed a few moments before, he noticed a lady trying to set together her steamer chair, which had seemingly given way--a habit of steamer chairs.
She looked up appealing at Mr. Morris, but that gentleman was too preoccupied with his own situation to be gallant. As he passed her, the lady said--
"Would you be kind enough to see if you can put my steamer chair together?"
Mr. Morris looked astonished at this very simple request. He had resolved to make this particular voyage without becoming acquainted with anybody, more especially a lady.
"Madam," he said, "I shall be pleased to call to your assistance the deck steward if you wish."
"If I had wished that," replied the lady, with some asperity, "I would have asked you to do so. As it is, I asked you to fix it yourself."
"I do not understand you," said Mr. Morris, with some haughtiness. "I do not see that it matters who mends the steamer chair so long as the steamer chair is mended. I am not a deck steward." Then, thinking he had spoken rather harshly, he added, "I am not a deck steward, and don't understand the construction of steamer chairs as well as they do, you see."
The lady rose. There was a certain amount of indignation in her voice as she said--
"Then pray allow me to present you with this steamer chair."
"I--I--really, madam, I do not understand you," stammered the young man, astonished at the turn the unsought conversation had taken. "I think," replied the lady, "that what I said was plain enough. I beg you to accept this steamer chair as your own. It is of no further use to me."
Saying this, the young woman, with some dignity, turned her back upon him, and disappeared down the companion-way, leaving Morris in a state of utter bewilderment as he looked down at the broken steamer chair, wondering if the lady was insane. All at once he noticed a rent in his trousers, between the knee and the instep.
"Good heavens, how have I done this? My best pair of trousers, too. Gracious!" he cried, as a bewildered look stole over his face, "it isn't possible that in racing up this deck I ran against this steamer chair and knocked it to flinders, and possibly upset the lady at the same time? By George! that's just what the trouble is."
Looking at the back of the flimsy chair he noticed a tag tied to it, and on the tag he saw the name, "Miss Katherine Earle, New York." Passing to the other side he called the deck steward.
"Steward," he said, "there is a chair somewhere among your pile with the name 'Geo. Morris' on it. Will you get it for me?"
"Certainly, sir," answered the steward, and very shortly the other steamer chair, which, by the way, was a much more elegant, expensive, and stable affair than the one that belonged to Miss Katherine Earle, was brought to him. Then he untied the tag from his own chair and tied it to the flimsy structure that had just been offered to him; next he untied the tag from the lady's chair and put it on his own.
"Now, steward," he said, "do you know the lady who sat in this chair?"
"No, sir," said the steward, "I do not. You see, we are only a few hours out, sir."
"Very well, you will have no trouble finding her. When she comes on deck again, please tell her that this chair is hers, with the apologies of the gentleman who broke her own, and see if you can mend this other chair for me."
"Oh yes," said the steward, "there will be no trouble about that. They are rather rickety things at best, sir."
"Very well, if you do this for me nicely you will not be a financial sufferer."
"Thank you, sir. The dinner gong rang some time ago, sir."
"Yes, I heard it," answered Morris.
Placing his hands behind him he walked up and down the deck, keeping an anxious eye now and then on the companion way. Finally, the young lady whom he had seen going down with the elderly gentleman appeared alone on deck. Then Morris acted very strangely. With the stealthy demeanour of an Indian avoiding his deadly enemy, he slunk behind the different structures on the deck until he reached the other door of the companion-way, and then, with a sigh of relief, ran down the steps. There were still quite a number of people in the saloon, and seated at the side of one of the smaller tables he noticed the lady whose name he imagined was Miss Katherine Earle.
"My name is Morris," said that gentleman to the head steward. "Where have you placed me?"
The steward took him down the long table, looking at the cards beside the row of plates.
"Here you are, sir," said the steward. "We are rather crowded this voyage, sir."
Morris did not answer him, for opposite he noticed the old gentleman, who had been the companion of the young lady, lingering over his wine.
"Isn't there any other place vacant? At one of the smaller tables, for instance? I don't like to sit at the long table," said Morris, placing his finger and thumb significantly in his waistcoat pocket.
"I think that can be arranged, sir," answered the steward, with a smile.
"Is there a place vacant at the table where that young lady is sitting alone?" said Morris, nodding in the direction. "Well, sir, all the places are taken there; but the gentleman who has been placed at the head of the table has not come down, sir, and if you like I will change his card for yours at the long table."
"I wish you would."
So with that he took his place at the head of the small table, and had the indignant young lady at his right hand.
"There ought to be a master of ceremonies," began Morris with some hesitation, "to introduce people to each other on board a steamship. As it is, however, people have to get acquainted as best they may. My name is Morris, and, unless I am mistaken, you are Miss Katherine Earle. Am I right?"
"You are right about my name," answered the young lady, "I presume you ought to be about your own."
"Oh, I can prove that," said Morris, with a smile. "I have letters to show, and cards and things like that."
Then he seemed to catch his breath as he remembered there was also a young woman on board who could vouch that his name was George Morris. This took him aback for a moment, and he was silent. Miss Earle made no reply to his offer of identification.
"Miss Earle," he said hesitatingly at last, "I wish you would permit me to apologise to you if I am as culpable as I imagine. Did I run against your chair and break it?"
"Do you mean to say," replied the young lady, looking at him steadily, "that you do not know whether you did or not?"
"Well, it's a pretty hard thing to ask a person to believe, and yet I assure you that is the fact. I have only the dimmest remembrance of the disaster, as of something I might have done in a dream. To tell you the truth, I did not even suspect I had done so until I noticed I had torn a portion of my clothing by the collision. After you left, it just dawned upon me that I was the one who smashed the chair. I therefore desire to apologise very humbly, and hope you will permit me to do so."
"For what do you intend to apologise, Mr. Morris? For breaking the chair, or refusing to mend it when I asked you?"
"For both. I was really in a good deal of trouble just the moment before I ran against your chair, Miss Earle, and I hope you will excuse me on the ground of temporary insanity. Why, you know, they even let off murderers on that plea, so I hope to be forgiven for being careless in the first place, and boorish in the second."
"You are freely forgiven, Mr. Morris. In fact, now that I think more calmly about the incident, it was really a very trivial affair to get angry over, and I must confess I was angry."
"You were perfectly justified."
"In getting angry, perhaps; but in showing my anger, no--as some one says in a play. Meanwhile, we'll forget all about it," and with that the young lady rose, bidding her new acquaintance good night.
George Morris found he had more appetite for dinner than he expected to have.