Mr. George Morris began to find his "early coffees," as he called them, very delightful. It was charming to meet a pretty and entertaining young lady every morning early when they had the deck practically to themselves. The fourth day was bright and clear, and the sea was reasonably calm. For the first time he was up earlier than Miss Earle, and he paced the deck with great impatience, waiting for her appearance. He wondered who and what she was. He had a dim, hazy idea that some time before in his life, he had met her, and probably had been acquainted with her. What an embarrassing thing it would be, he thought, if he had really known her years before, and had forgotten her, while she knew who he was, and had remembered him. He thought of how accurately she had guessed his position in life--if it was a guess. He remembered that often, when he looked at her, he felt certain he had known her and spoken to her before. He placed the two steamer chairs in position, so that Miss Earle's chair would be ready for her when she did appear, and then, as he walked up and down the deck waiting for her, he began to wonder at himself. If any one had told him when he left New York that, within three or four days he could feel such an interest in a person who previous to that time had been an utter stranger to him, he would have laughed scornfully and bitterly at the idea. As it was, when he thought of all the peculiar circumstances of the case, he laughed aloud, but neither scornfully nor bitterly.
"You must be having very pleasant thoughts, Mr. Morris," said Miss Earle, as she appeared with a bright shawl thrown over her shoulders, instead of the long cloak that had encased her before, and with a Tam o' Shanter set jauntily on her black, curly hair.
"You are right," said Morris, taking off his cap, "I was thinking of you."
"Oh, indeed," replied the young lady, "that's why you laughed, was it? I may say that I do not relish being laughed at in my absence, or in my presence either, for that matter."
"Oh, I assure you I wasn't laughing at you. I laughed with pleasure to see you come on deck. I have been waiting for you."
"Now, Mr. Morris, that from a man who boasts of his truthfulness is a little too much. You did not see me at all until I spoke; and if, as you say, you were thinking of me, you will have to explain that laugh."
"I will explain it before the voyage is over, Miss Earle. I can't explain it just now."
"Ah, then you admit you were untruthful when you said you laughed because you saw me?"
"I may as well admit it. You seem to know things intuitively. I am not nearly as truthful a person as I thought I was until I met you. You seem the very embodiment of truth. If I had not met you, I imagine I should have gone through life thinking myself one of the most truthful men in New York."
"Perhaps that would not be saying very much for yourself," replied the young lady, as she took her place in the steamer chair.
"I am sorry you have such a poor opinion of us New Yorkers," said the young man. "Why are you so late this morning?"
"I am not late; it is you who are early. This is my usual time. I have been a very punctual person all my life."
"There you go again, speaking as if you were ever so old."
"Well, I don't believe it. I wish, however, that you had confidence enough in me to tell me something about yourself. Do you know, I was thinking this morning that I had met you before somewhere? I feel almost certain I have."
"Well, that is quite possible, you know. You are a New Yorker, and I have lived in New York for a great number of years, much as you seem to dislike that phrase."
"New York! Oh, that is like saying you have lived in America and I have lived in America. We might live for hundreds of years in New York and never meet one another!"
"That is very true, except that the time is a little long."
"Then won't you tell me something about yourself?"
"No, I will not."
"Why? Well, if you will tell me why you have the right to ask such a question, I shall answer why."
"Oh, if you talk of rights, I suppose I haven't the right. But I am willing to tell you anything about myself. Now, a fair exchange, you know----"
"But I don't wish to know anything about you."
"Oh, thank you."
George Morris's face clouded, and he sat silent for a few moments.
"I presume," he said again, "that you think me very impertinent?"
"Well, frankly, I do."
Morris gazed out at the sea, and Miss Earle opened the book which she had brought with her, and began to read. After a while her companion said----
"I think that you are a little too harsh with me, Miss Earle."
The young lady placed her finger between the leaves of the book and closed it, looking up at him with a frank, calm expression in her dark eyes, but said nothing.
"You see, it's like this. I said to you a little while since that I seem to have known you before. Now, I'll tell you what I was thinking of when you met me this morning. I was thinking what a curious thing it would be if I had been acquainted with you some time during my past life, and had forgotten you, while you had remembered me."
"That was very flattering to me," said the young lady; "I don't wonder you laughed."
"That is why I did not wish to tell you what I had been thinking of--just for fear that you would put a wrong construction on it--as you have done. But now you can't say anything much harsher to me than you have said, and so I tell you frankly just what I thought, and why I asked you those questions which you seem to think are so impertinent. Besides this, you know, a sea acquaintance is different from any other acquaintance. As I said, the first time I spoke to you--or the second--there is no one here to introduce us. On land, when a person is introduced to another person, he does not say, 'Miss Earle, this is Mr. Morris, who is a younger partner in the house of So-and-so.' He merely says, 'Miss Earle, Mr. Morris,' and there it is. If you want to find anything out about him you can ask your introducer or ask your friends, and you can find out. Now, on shipboard it is entirely different. Suppose, for instance, that I did not tell you who I am, and--if you will pardon me for suggesting such an absurd supposition---imagine that you wanted to find out, how could you do it?"
Miss Earle looked at him for a moment, and then she answered--
"I would ask that blonde young lady."
This reply was so utterly unexpected by Morris that he looked at her with wide eyes, the picture of a man dumbfounded. At that moment the smoking-room steward came up to them and said--
"Will you have your coffee now, sir?"
"Coffee!" cried Morris, as if he had never heard the word before. "Coffee!"
"Yes," answered Miss Earle, sweetly, "we will have the coffee now, if you please. You will have a cup with me, will you not, Mr. Morris?"
"Yes, I will, if it is not too much trouble."
"Oh, it is no trouble to me," said, the young lady; "some trouble to the steward, but I believe even for him that it is not a trouble that cannot be recompensed."
Morris sipped his coffee in silence. Every now and then Miss Earle stole a quiet look at him, and apparently was waiting for him to again resume the conversation. This he did not seem in a hurry to do. At last she said--
"Mr. Morris, suppose we were on shipboard and that we had become acquainted without the friendly intervention of an introducer, and suppose, if such a supposition is at all within the bounds of probability, that you wanted to find out something about me, how would you go about it?"
"How would I go about it?"
"I would go about it in what would be the worst possible way. I would frankly ask you, and you would as frankly snub me."
"Suppose, then, while declining to tell you anything about myself I were to refer you to somebody who would give you the information you desire, would you take the opportunity of learning?"
"I would prefer to hear from yourself anything I desired to learn."
"Now, that is very nicely said, Mr. Morris, and you make me feel almost sorry, for having spoken to you as I did. Still, if you really want to find out something about me, I shall tell you some one whom you can ask, and who will doubtless answer you."
"Who is that? The captain?"
"No. It is the same person to whom I should go if I wished to have information of you--the blonde young lady."
"Do you mean to say you know her?" asked the astonished young man.
"I said nothing of the sort."
"Well, do you know her?"
"No, I do not."
"Do you know her name?"
"No, I do not even know her name."
"Have you ever met her before you came on board this ship?"
"Yes, I have."
"Well, if that isn't the most astonishing thing I ever heard!"
"I don't see why it is. You say you thought you had met me before. As you are a man no doubt you have forgotten it. I say I think I have met that young lady before. As she is a woman I don't think she will have forgotten. If you have any interest in the matter at all you might inquire."
"I shall do nothing of the sort."
"Well, of course, I said I thought you hadn't very much interest. I only supposed the case."
"It is not that I have not the interest, but it is that I prefer to go to the person who can best answer my question if she chooses to do so. If she doesn't choose to answer me, then I don't choose to learn."
"Now, I like that ever so much," said the young lady; "if you will get me another cup of coffee I shall be exceedingly obliged to you. My excuse is that these cups are very small, and the coffee is very good."
"I am sure you don't need any excuse," replied Morris, springing to his feet, "and I am only too happy to be your steward without the hope of the fee at the end of the voyage."
When he returned she said, "I think we had better stop the personal conversation into which we have drifted. It isn't at all pleasant to me, and I don't think it is very agreeable to you. Now, I intended this morning to give you a lesson on American literature. I feel that you need enlightening on the subject, and that you have neglected your opportunities, as most New York men do, and so I thought you would be glad of a lesson or two."
"I shall be very glad of it indeed. I don't know what our opportunities are, but if most New York men are like me I imagine a great many of them are in the same fix. We have very little time for the study of the literature of any country."
"And perhaps very little inclination."
"Well, you know, Miss Earle, there is some excuse for a busy man. Don't you think there is?"
"I don't think there is very much. Who in America is a busier man than Mr. Gladstone? Yet he reads nearly everything, and is familiar with almost any subject you can mention."
"Oh, Gladstone! Well, he is a man of a million. But you take the average New York man. He is worried in business, and kept on the keen jump all the year round. Then he has a vacation, say for a couple of weeks or a month, in summer, and he goes off into the woods with his fishing kit, or canoeing outfit, or his amateur photographic set, or whatever the tools of his particular fad may be. He goes to a book-store and buys up a lot of paper-covered novels. There is no use of buying an expensive book, because he would spoil it before he gets back, and he would be sure to leave it in some shanty. So he takes those paper-covered abominations, and you will find torn copies of them scattered all through the Adirondacks, and down the St. Lawrence, and everywhere else that tourists congregate. I always tell the book-store man to give me the worst lot of trash he has got, and he does. Now, what is that book you have with you?"
"This is one of Mr. Howells' novels. You will admit, at least, that you have heard of Howells, I suppose?"
"Heard of him? Oh yes; I have read some of Howells' books. I am not as ignorant as you seem to think."
"What have you read of Mr. Howells'?"
"Well, I read 'The American,' I don't remember the others."
"'The American!' That is by Henry James."
"Is it? Well, I knew that it was by either Howells or James, I forgot which. They didn't write a book together, did they?"
"Well, not that I know of. Why, the depth of your ignorance about American literature is something appalling. You talk of it so jauntily that you evidently have no idea of it yourself."
"I wish you would take me in hand, Miss Earle. Isn't there any sort of condensed version that a person could get hold of? Couldn't you give me a synopsis of what is written, so that I might post myself up in literature without going to the trouble of reading the books?"
"The trouble! Oh, if that is the way you speak, then your case is hopeless! I suspected it for some time, but now I am certain. The trouble! The delight of reading a new novel by Howells is something that you evidently have not the remotest idea of. Why, I don't know what I would give to have with me a novel of Howells' that I had not read."
"Goodness gracious! You don't mean to say that you have read everything he has written?"
"Certainly I have, and I am reading one now that is coming out in the magazine; and I don't know what I shall do if I am not able to get the magazine when I go to Europe."
"Oh, you can get them over there right enough, and cheaper than you can in America. They publish them over there."
"Do they? Well, I am glad to hear it."
"You see, there is something about American literature that you are not acquainted with, the publication of our magazines in England, for instance. Ah, there is the breakfast gong. Well, we will have to postpone our lesson in literature until afterwards. Will you be up here after breakfast?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Well, we will leave our chairs and rugs just where they are. I will take your book down for you. Books have the habit of disappearing if they are left around on shipboard."
After breakfast Mr. Morris went to the smoking-room to enjoy his cigar, and there was challenged to a game of cards. He played one game; but his mind was evidently not on his amusement, so he excused himself from any further dissipation in that line, and walked out on deck. The promise of the morning had been more than fulfilled in the day, and the warm sunlight and mild air had brought on deck many who had not been visible up to that time. There was a long row of muffled up figures on steamer chairs, and the deck steward was kept busy hurrying here and there attending to the wants of the passengers. Nearly every one had a book, but many of the books were turned face downwards on the steamer rugs, while the owners either talked to those next them, or gazed idly out at the blue ocean. In the long and narrow open space between the chairs and the bulwarks of the ship, the energetic pedestrians were walking up and down.
At this stage of the voyage most of the passengers had found congenial companions, and nearly everybody was acquainted with everybody else. Morris walked along in front of the reclining passengers, scanning each one eagerly to find the person he wanted, but she was not there. Remembering then that the chairs had been on the other side of the ship, he continued his walk around the wheel-house, and there he saw Miss Earle, and sitting beside her was the blonde young lady talking vivaciously, while Miss Earle listened.
Morris hesitated for a moment, but before he could turn back the young lady sprang to her feet, and said--"Oh, Mr. Morris, am I sitting in your chair?"
"What makes you think it is my chair?" asked that gentleman, not in the most genial tone of voice.
"I thought so," replied the young lady, with a laugh, "because it was near Miss Earle."
Miss Earle did not look at all pleased at this remark. She coloured slightly, and, taking the open book from her lap, began to read.
"You are quite welcome to the chair," replied Morris, and the moment the words were spoken he felt that somehow it was one of those things he would rather have left unsaid, as far as Miss Earle was concerned. "I beg that you will not disturb yourself," he continued; and, raising his hat to the lady, he continued his walk.
A chance acquaintance joined him, changing his step to suit that of Morris, and talked with him on the prospects of the next year being a good business season in the United States. Morris answered rather absent-mindedly, and it was nearly lunch-time before he had an opportunity of going back to see whether or not Miss Earle's companion had left. When he reached the spot where they had been sitting he found things the very reverse of what he had hoped. Miss Earle's chair was vacant, but her companion sat there, idly turning over the leaves of the book that Miss Earle had been reading. "Won't you sit down, Mr. Morris?" said the young woman, looking up at him with a winning smile. "Miss Earle has gone to dress for lunch. I should do the same thing, but, alas! I am too indolent."
Morris hesitated for a moment, and then sat down beside her.
"Why do you act so perfectly horrid to me?" asked the young lady, closing the book sharply.
"I was not aware that I acted horridly to anybody," answered Morris.
"You know well enough that you have been trying your very best to avoid me."
"I think you are mistaken. I seldom try to avoid any one, and I see no reason why I should try to avoid you. Do you know of any reason?"
The young lady blushed and looked down at her book, whose leaves she again began to turn.
"I thought," she said at last, "that you might have some feeling against me, and I have no doubt you judge me very harshly. You never did make any allowances."
Morris gave a little laugh that was half a sneer.
"Allowances?" he said.
"Yes, allowances. You know you always were harsh with me, George, always." And as she looked up at him her blue eyes were filled with tears, and there was a quiver at the corner of her mouth. "What a splendid actress you would make, Blanche," said the young man, calling her by her name for the first time.
She gave him a quick look as he did so. "Actress!" she cried. "No one was ever less an actress than I am, and you know that."
"Oh, well, what's the use of us talking? It's all right. We made a little mistake, that's all, and people often make mistakes in this life, don't they, Blanche?"
"Yes," sobbed that young lady, putting her dainty silk handkerchief to her eyes.
"Now, for goodness sake," said the young man, "don't do that. People will think I am scolding you, and certainly there is no one in this world who has less right to scold you than I have."
"I thought," murmured the young lady, from behind her handkerchief, "that we might at least be friends. I didn't think you could ever act so harshly towards me as you have done for the past few days."
"Act?" cried the young man. "Bless me, I haven't acted one way or the other. I simply haven't had the pleasure of meeting you till the other evening, or morning, which ever it was. I have said nothing, and done nothing. I don't see how I could be accused of acting, or of anything else."
"I think," sobbed the young lady, "that you might at least have spoken kindly to me."
"Good gracious!" cried Morris, starting up, "here comes Miss Earle. For heaven's sake put up that handkerchief."
But Blanche merely sank her face lower in it, while silent sobs shook her somewhat slender form.
Miss Earle stood for a moment amazed as she looked at Morris's flushed face, and at the bowed head of the young lady beside him; then, without a word, she turned and walked away.
"I wish to goodness," said Morris, harshly, "that if you are going to have a fit of crying you would not have it on deck, and where people can see you."
The young woman at once straightened up and flashed a look at him in which there were no traces of her former emotion.
"People!" she said, scornfully. "Much you care about people. It is because Miss Katherine Earle saw me that you are annoyed. You are afraid that it will interfere with your flirtation with her."
"Yes, flirtation. Surely it can't be anything more serious?"
"Why should it not be something more serious?" asked Morris, very coldly. The blue eyes opened wide in apparent astonishment.
"Would you marry her?" she said, with telling emphasis upon the word.
"Why not?" he answered. "Any man might be proud to marry a lady like Miss Earle."
"A lady! Much of a lady she is! Why, she is one of your own shop-girls. You know it."
"Shop-girls?" cried Morris, in astonishment.
"Yes, shop-girls. You don't mean to say that she has concealed that fact from you, or that you didn't know it by seeing her in the store?"
"A shop-girl in my store?" he murmured, bewildered. "I knew I had seen her somewhere."
Blanche laughed a little irritating laugh.
"What a splendid item it would make for the society papers," she said. "The junior partner marries one of his own shop-girls, or, worse still, the junior partner and one of his shop-girls leave New York on the City of Buffalo, and are married in England. I hope that the reporters will not get the particulars of the affair." Then, rising, she left the amazed young man to his thoughts.
George Morris saw nothing more of Miss Katherine Earle that day.
"I wonder what that vixen has said to her," he thought, as he turned in for the night.