No one said anything more of the musicales, and the afternoon and evening wore away without general talk. Each seemed willing to keep apart from the rest. Dunham suffered Lydia to come on deck alone after tea, and Staniford found her there, in her usual place, when he went up some time later. He approached her at once, and said, smiling down into her face, to which the moonlight gave a pale mystery, "Miss Blood, did you think I was very wicked to-day at dinner?"
Lydia looked away, and waited a moment before she spoke. "I don't know," she said. Then, impulsively, "Did you?" she asked.
"No, honestly, I don't think I was," answered Staniford. "But I seemed to leave that impression on the company. I felt a little nasty, that was all; and I tried to hurt Mr. Dunham's feelings. But I shall make it right with him before I sleep; he knows that. He's used to having me repent at leisure. Do you ever walk Sunday night?"
"Yes, sometimes," said Lydia interrogatively.
"I'm glad of that. Then I shall not offend against your scruples if I ask you to join me in a little ramble, and you will refuse from purely personal considerations. Will you walk with me?"
"Yes." Lydia rose.
"And will you take my arm?" asked Staniford, a little surprised at her readiness.
She put her hand upon his arm, confidently enough, and they began to walk up and down the stretch of open deck together.
"Well," said Staniford, "did Mr. Dunham convince you all?"
"I think he talks beautifully about it," replied Lydia, with quaint stiffness.
"I am glad you see what a very good fellow he is. I have a real affection for Dunham."
"Oh, yes, he's good. At first it surprised me. I mean—"
"No, no," Staniford quickly interrupted, "why did it surprise you to find Dunham good?"
"I don't know. You don't expect a person to be serious who is so—so—"
"No,—so—I don't know just how to say it: fashionable."
Staniford laughed. "Why, Miss Blood, you're fashionably dressed yourself, not to go any farther, and you're serious."
"It's different with a man," the girl explained.
"Well, then, how about me?" asked Staniford. "Am I too well dressed to be expected to be serious?"
"Mr. Dunham always seems in earnest," Lydia answered, evasively.
"And you think one can't be in earnest without being serious?" Lydia suffered one of those silences to ensue in which Staniford had already found himself helpless. He knew that he should be forced to break it: and he said, with a little spiteful mocking, "I suppose the young men of South Bradfield are both serious and earnest."
"How?" asked Lydia.
"The young men of South Bradfield."
"I told you that there were none. They all go away."
"Well, then, the young men of Springfield, of Keene, of Greenfield."
"I can't tell. I am not acquainted there."
Staniford had begun to have a disagreeable suspicion that her ready consent to walk up and down with a young man in the moonlight might have come from a habit of the kind. But it appeared that her fearlessness was like that of wild birds in those desert islands where man has never come. The discovery gave him pleasure out of proportion to its importance, and he paced back and forth in a silence that no longer chafed. Lydia walked very well, and kept his step with rhythmic unison, as if they were walking to music together. "That's the time in her pulses," he thought, and then he said, "Then you don't have a great deal of social excitement, I suppose,—dancing, and that kind of thing? Though perhaps you don't approve of dancing?"
"Oh, yes, I like it. Sometimes the summer boarders get up little dances at the hotel."
"Oh, the summer boarders!" Staniford had overlooked them. "The young men get them up, and invite the ladies?" he pursued.
"There are no young men, generally, among the summer boarders. The ladies dance together. Most of the gentlemen are old, or else invalids."
"Oh!" said Staniford.
"At the Mill Village, where I've taught two winters, they have dances sometimes,—the mill hands do."
"And do you go?"
"No. They are nearly all French Canadians and Irish people."
"Then you like dancing because there are no gentlemen to dance with?"
"There are gentlemen at the picnics."
"The teachers' picnics. They have them every summer, in a grove by the pond."
There was, then, a high-browed, dyspeptic high-school principal, and the desert-island theory was probably all wrong. It vexed Staniford, when he had so nearly got the compass of her social life, to find this unexplored corner in it.
"And I suppose you are leaving very agreeable friends among the teachers?"
"Some of them are pleasant. But I don't know them very well. I've only been to one of the picnics."
Staniford drew a long, silent breath. After all, he knew everything. He mechanically dropped a little the arm on which her hand rested, that it might slip farther within. Her timid remoteness had its charm, and he fell to thinking, with amusement, how she who was so subordinate to him was, in the dimly known sphere in which he had been groping to find her, probably a person of authority and consequence. It satisfied a certain domineering quality in him to have reduced her to this humble attitude, while it increased the protecting tenderness he was beginning to have for her. His mind went off further upon this matter of one's different attitudes toward different persons; he thought of men, and women too, before whom he should instantly feel like a boy, if he could be confronted with them, even in his present lordliness of mood. In a fashion of his when he convicted himself of anything, he laughed aloud. Lydia shrank a little from him, in question. "I beg your pardon," he said. "I was laughing at something I happened to think of. Do you ever find yourself struggling very hard to be what you think people think you are?"
"Oh, yes," replied Lydia. "But I thought no one else did."
"Everybody does the thing that we think no one else does," said
"I don't know whether I quite like it," said Lydia. "It seems like hypocrisy. It used to worry me. Sometimes I wondered if I had any real self. I seemed to be just what people made me, and a different person to each."
"I'm glad to hear it, Miss Blood. We are companions in hypocrisy.
As we are such nonentities we shall not affect each other at all."
Lydia laughed. "Don't you think so? What are you laughing at? I told
you what I was laughing at!"
"But I didn't ask you."
"You wished to know."
"Yes, I did."
"Then you ought to tell me what I wish to know."
"It's nothing," said Lydia. "I thought you were mistaken in what you said."
"Oh! Then you believe that there's enough of you to affect me?"
"The other way, then?"
She did not answer.
"I'm delighted!" exclaimed Staniford. "I hope I don't exert an uncomfortable influence. I should be very unhappy to think so." Lydia stooped side-wise, away from him, to get a fresh hold of her skirt, which she was carrying in her right hand, and she hung a little more heavily upon his arm. "I hope I make you think better of yourself, —very self-satisfied, very conceited even."
"No," said Lydia.
"You pique my curiosity beyond endurance. Tell me how I make you feel."
She looked quickly round at him, as if to see whether he was in earnest. "Why, it's nothing," she said. "You made me feel as if you were laughing at everybody."
It flatters a man to be accused of sarcasm by the other sex, and
Staniford was not superior to the soft pleasure of the reproach.
"Do you think I make other people feel so, too?"
"Mr. Dunham said—"
"Oh! Mr. Dunham has been talking me over with you, has he? What did he tell you of me? There is nobody like a true friend for dealing an underhand blow at one's reputation. Wait till you hear my account of Dunham! What did he say?"
"He said that was only your way of laughing at yourself."
"The traitor! What did you say?"
"I don't know that I said anything."
"You were reserving your opinion for my own hearing?"
"Why don't you tell me what you thought? It might be of great use to me. I'm in earnest, now; I'm serious. Will you tell me?"
"Yes, some time," said Lydia, who was both amused and mystified at this persistence.
"Oh, that's too soon. When I get to Venice!"
"Ah! That's a subterfuge. You know we shall part in Trieste."
"I thought," said Lydia, "you were coming to Venice, too."
"Oh, yes, but I shouldn't be able to see you there."
"Why not? Why, because—" He was near telling the young girl who hung upon his arm, and walked up and down with him in the moonlight, that in the wicked Old World towards which they were sailing young people could not meet save in the sight and hearing of their elders, and that a confidential analysis of character would be impossible between them there. The wonder of her being where she was, as she was, returned upon him with a freshness that it had been losing in the custom of the week past. "Because you will be so much taken up with your friends," he said, lamely. He added quickly, "There's one thing I should like to know, Miss Blood: did you hear what Mr. Dunham and I were saying, last night, when we stood in the gangway and kept you from coming up?"
Lydia waited a moment. Then she said, "Yes. I couldn't help hearing it."
"That's all right. I don't care for your hearing what I said. But—
I hope it wasn't true?"
"I couldn't understand what you meant by it," she answered, evasively, but rather faintly.
"Thanks," said Staniford. "I didn't mean anything. It was merely the guilty consciousness of a generally disagreeable person." They walked up and down many turns without saying anything. She could not have made any direct protest, and it pleased him that she could not frame any flourishing generalities. "Yes," Staniford resumed, "I will try to see you as I pass through Venice. And I will come to hear you sing when you come out at Milan."
"Come out? At Milan?"
"Why, yes! You are going to study at the conservatory in Milan?"
"How did you know that?" demanded Lydia.
"From hearing you to-day. May I tell you how much I liked your singing?"
"My aunt thought I ought to cultivate my voice. But I would never go upon the stage. I would rather sing in a church. I should like that better than teaching."
"I think you're quite right," said Staniford, gravely. "It's certainly much better to sing in a church than to sing in a theatre. Though I believe the theatre pays best."
"Oh, I don't care for that. All I should want would be to make a living."
The reference to her poverty touched him. It was a confidence, coming from one so reticent, that was of value. He waited a moment and said, "It's surprising how well we keep our footing here, isn't it? There's hardly any swell, but the ship pitches. I think we walk better together than alone."
"Yes," answered Lydia, "I think we do."
"You mustn't let me tire you. I'm indefatigable."
"Oh, I'm not tired. I like it,—walking."
"Do you walk much at home?"
"Not much. It's a pretty good walk to the school-house."
"Oh! Then you like walking at sea better than you do on shore?"
"It isn't the custom, much. If there were any one else, I should have liked it there. But it's rather dull, going by yourself."
"Yes, I understand how that is," said Staniford, dropping his teasing tone. "It's stupid. And I suppose it's pretty lonesome at South Bradfield every way."
"It is,—winters," admitted Lydia. "In the summer you see people, at any rate, but in winter there are days and days when hardly any one passes. The snow is banked up everywhere."
He felt her give an involuntary shiver; and he began to talk to her about the climate to which she was going. It was all stranger to her than he could have realized, and less intelligible. She remembered California very dimly, and she had no experience by which she could compare and adjust his facts. He made her walk up and down more and more swiftly, as he lost himself in the comfort of his own talking and of her listening, and he failed to note the little falterings with which she expressed her weariness.
All at once he halted, and said, "Why, you're out of breath! I beg your pardon. You should have stopped me. Let us sit down." He wished to walk across the deck to where the seats were, but she just perceptibly withstood his motion, and he forbore.
"I think I won't sit down," she said. "I will go down-stairs." She began withdrawing her hand from his arm. He put his right hand upon hers, and when it came out of his arm it remained in his hand.
"I'm afraid you won't walk with me again," said Staniford. "I've tired you shamefully."
"Oh, not at all!"
"And you will?"
"Thanks. You're very amiable." He still held her hand. He pressed it. The pressure was not returned, but her hand seemed to quiver and throb in his like a bird held there. For the time neither of them spoke, and it seemed a long time. Staniford found himself carrying her hand towards his lips; and she was helplessly, trustingly, letting him.
He dropped her hand, and said, abruptly, "Good-night."
"Good-night," she answered, and ceased from his side like a ghost.