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Chapter 12

XII.

Staniford sat in the moonlight, and tried to think what the steps were that had brought him to this point; but there were no steps of which he was sensible. He remembered thinking the night before that the conditions were those of flirtation; to-night this had not occurred to him. The talk had been of the dullest commonplaces; yet he had pressed her hand and kept it in his, and had been about to kiss it. He bitterly considered the disparity between his present attitude and the stand he had taken when he declared to Dunham that it rested with them to guard her peculiar isolation from anything that she could remember with pain or humiliation when she grew wiser in the world. He recalled his rage with Hicks, and the insulting condemnation of his bearing towards him ever since; and could Hicks have done worse? He had done better: he had kept away from her; he had let her alone.

That night Staniford slept badly, and woke with a restless longing to see the girl, and to read in her face whatever her thought of him had been. But Lydia did not come out to breakfast. Thomas reported that she had a headache, and that he had already carried her the tea and toast she wanted. "Well, it seems kind of lonesome without her," said the captain. "It don't seem as if we could get along."

It seemed desolate to Staniford, who let the talk flag and fail round him without an effort to rescue it. All the morning he lurked about, keeping out of Dunham's way, and fighting hard through a dozen pages of a book, to which he struggled to nail his wandering mind. A headache was a little matter, but it might be even less than a headache. He belated himself purposely at dinner, and entered the cabin just as Lydia issued from her stateroom door.

She was pale and looked heavy-eyed. As she lifted her glance to him, she blushed; and he felt the answering red stain his face. When she sat down, the captain patted her on the shoulder with his burly right hand, and said he could not navigate the ship if she got sick. He pressed her to eat of this and that; and when she would not, he said, well, there was no use trying to force an appetite, and that she would be better all the sooner for dieting. Hicks went to his state-room, and came out with a box of guava jelly, from his private stores, and won a triumph enviable in all eyes when Lydia consented to like it with the chicken. Dunham plundered his own and Staniford's common stock of dainties for her dessert; the first officer agreed and applauded right and left; Staniford alone sat taciturn and inoperative, watching her face furtively. Once her eyes wandered to the side of the table where he and Dunham sat; then she colored and dropped her glance.

He took his book again after dinner, and with his finger between the leaves, at the last-read, unintelligible page, he went out to the bow, and crouched down there to renew the conflict of the morning. It was not long before Dunham followed. He stooped over to lay a hand on either of Staniford's shoulders.

"What makes you avoid me, old man?" he demanded, looking into
Staniford's face with his frank, kind eyes.

"And I avoid you?" asked Staniford.

"Yes; why?"

"Because I feel rather shabby, I suppose. I knew I felt shabby, but
I didn't know I was avoiding you."

"Well, no matter. If you feel shabby, it's all right; but I hate to have you feel shabby." He got his left hand down into Staniford's right, and a tacit reconciliation was transacted between them. Dunham looked about for a seat, and found a stool, which he planted in front of Staniford. "Wasn't it pleasant to have our little lady back at table, again?"

"Very," said Staniford.

"I couldn't help thinking how droll it was that a person whom we all considered a sort of incumbrance and superfluity at first should really turn out an object of prime importance to us all. Isn't it amusing?"

"Very droll."

"Why, we were quite lost without her, at breakfast. I couldn't have imagined her taking such a hold upon us all, in so short a time. But she's a pretty creature, and as good as she's pretty."

"I remember agreeing with you on those points before." Staniford feigned to suppress fatigue.

Dunham observed him. "I know you don't take so much interest in her as—as the rest of us do, and I wish you did. You don't know what a lovely nature she is."

"No?"

"No; and I'm sure you'd like her."

"Is it important that I should like her? Don't let your enthusiasm for the sex carry you beyond bounds, Dunham."

"No, no. Not important, but very pleasant. And I think acquaintance with such a girl would give you some new ideas of women."

"Oh, my old ones are good enough. Look here, Dunham," said Staniford, sharply, "what are you after?"

"What makes you think I'm after anything?"

"Because you're not a humbug, and because I am. My depraved spirit instantly recognized the dawning duplicity of yours. But you'd better be honest. You can't make the other thing work. What do you want?"

"I want your advice. I want your help, Staniford."

"I thought so! Coming and forgiving me in that—apostolic manner."

"Don't!"

"Well. What do you want my help for? What have you been doing?" Staniford paused, and suddenly added: "Have you been making love to Lurella?" He said this in his ironical manner, but his smile was rather ghastly.

"For shame, Staniford!" cried Dunham. But he reddened violently.

"Then it isn't with Miss Hibbard that you want my help. I'm glad of that. It would have been awkward. I'm a little afraid of Miss Hibbard. It isn't every one has your courage, my dear fellow."

"I haven't been making love to her," said Dunham, "but—I—"

"But you what?" demanded Staniford sharply again. There had been less tension of voice in his joking about Miss Hibbard.

"Staniford," said his friend, "I don't know whether you noticed her, at dinner, when she looked across to our own side?"

"What did she do?"

"Did you notice that she—well, that she blushed a little?"

Staniford waited a while before he answered, after a gulp, "Yes,
I noticed that."

"Well, I don't know how to put it exactly, but I'm afraid that I have unwittingly wronged this young girl."

"Wronged her? What the devil do you mean, Dunham?" cried
Staniford, with bitter impatience.

"I'm afraid—I'm afraid—Why, it's simply this: that in trying to amuse her, and make the time pass agreeably, and relieve her mind, and all that, don't you know, I've given her the impression that I'm —well—interested in her, and that she may have allowed herself— insensibly, you know—to look upon me in that light, and that she may have begun to think—that she may have become—"

"Interested in you?" interrupted Staniford rudely.

"Well—ah—well, that is—ah—well—yes!" cried Dunham, bracing himself to sustain a shout of ridicule. But Staniford did not laugh, and Dunham had courage to go on. "Of course, it sounds rather conceited to say so, but the circumstances are so peculiar that I think we ought to recognize even any possibilities of that sort."

"Oh, yes," said Staniford, gravely. "Most women, I believe, are so innocent as to think a man in love when he behaves like a lover. And this one," he added ruefully, "seems more than commonly ignorant of our ways,—of our infernal shilly-shallying, purposeless no-mindedness. She couldn't imagine a man—a gentleman—devoting himself to her by the hour, and trying by every art to show his interest and pleasure in her society, without imagining that he wished her to like him,—love him; there's no half-way about it. She couldn't suppose him the shallow, dawdling, soulless, senseless ape he really was." Staniford was quite in a heat by this time, and Dunham listened in open astonishment.

"You are hard upon me," he said. "Of course, I have been to blame; I know that, I acknowledge it. But my motive, as you know well enough, was never to amuse myself with her, but to contribute in any way I could to her enjoyment and happiness. I—"

"You!" cried Staniford. "What are you talking about?"

"What are you talking about?" demanded Dunham, in his turn.

Staniford recollected himself. "I was speaking of abstract flirtation.
I was firing into the air."

"In my case, I don't choose to call it flirtation," returned Dunham.
"My purpose, I am bound to say, was thoroughly unselfish and kindly."

"My dear fellow," said Staniford, with a bitter smile, "there can be no unselfishness and no kindliness between us and young girls, unless we mean business,—love-making. You may be sure that they feel it so, if they don't understand it so."

"I don't agree with you. I don't believe it. My own experience is that the sweetest and most generous friendships may exist between us, without a thought of anything else. And as to making love, I must beg you to remember that my love has been made once for all. I never dreamt of showing Miss Blood anything but polite attention."

"Then what are you troubled about?"

"I am troubled—" Dunham stopped helplessly, and Staniford laughed in a challenging, disagreeable way, so that the former perforce resumed:

"I'm troubled about—about her possible misinterpretation."

"Oh! Then in this case of sweet and generous friendship the party of the second part may have construed the sentiment quite differently! Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to take the contract off your hands?"

"You put it grossly," said Dunham.

"And you put it offensively!" cried the other. "My regard for the young lady is as reverent as yours. You have no right to miscolor my words."

"Staniford, you are too bad," said Dunham, hurt even more than angered. "If I've come to you in the wrong moment—if you are vexed at anything, I'll go away, and beg your pardon for boring you."

Staniford was touched; he looked cordially into his friend's face. "I was vexed at something, but you never can come to me at the wrong moment, old fellow. I beg your pardon. I see your difficulty plainly enough, and I think you're quite right in proposing to hold up,—for that's what you mean, I take it?"

"Yes," said Dunham, "it is. And I don't know how she will like it. She will be puzzled and grieved by it. I hadn't thought seriously about the matter till this morning, when she didn't come to breakfast. You know I've been in the habit of asking her to walk with me every night after tea; but Saturday evening you were with her, and last night I felt sore about the affairs of the day, and rather dull, and I didn't ask her. I think she noticed it. I think she was hurt."

"You think so?" said Staniford, peculiarly.

"I might not have thought so," continued Dunham, "merely because she did not come to breakfast; but her blushing when she looked across at dinner really made me uneasy."

"Very possibly you're right." Staniford mused a while before he spoke again. "Well, what do you wish me to do?"

"I must hold up, as you say, and of course she will feel the difference. I wish—I wish at least you wouldn't avoid her, Staniford. That's all. Any little attention from you—I know it bores you—would not only break the loneliness, but it would explain that—that my—attentions didn't—ah—hadn't meant anything."

"Oh!"

"Yes; that it's common to offer them. And she's a girl of so much force of character that when she sees the affair in its true light—I suppose I'm to blame! Yes, I ought to have told her at the beginning that I was engaged. But you can't force a fact of that sort upon a new acquaintance: it looks silly." Dunham hung his head in self-reproach.

"Well?" asked Staniford.

"Well, that's all! No, it isn't all, either. There's something else troubles me. Our poor little friend is a blackguard, I suppose?"

"Hicks?"

"Yes."

"You have invited him to be the leader of your orchestra, haven't you?"

"Oh, don't, Staniford!" cried Dunham in his helplessness. "I should hate to see her dependent in any degree upon that little cad for society." Cad was the last English word which Dunham had got himself used to. "That was why I hoped that you wouldn't altogether neglect her. She's here, and she's no choice but to remain. We can't leave her to herself without the danger of leaving her to Hicks. You see?"

"Well," said Staniford gloomily, "I'm not sure that you couldn't leave her to a worse cad than Hicks." Dunham looked up in question. "To me, for example."

"Oh, hallo!" cried Dunham.

"I don't see how I'm to be of any use," continued the other. "I'm not a squire of dames; I should merely make a mess of it."

"You're mistaken, Staniford,—I'm sure you are,—in supposing that she dislikes you," urged his friend.

"Oh, very likely."

"I know that she's simply afraid of you."

"Don't flatter, Dunham. Why should I care whether she fears me or affects me? No, my dear fellow. This is irretrievably your own affair. I should be glad to help you out if I knew how. But I don't. In the mean time your duty is plain, whatever happens. You can't overdo the sweet and the generous in this wicked world without paying the penalty."

Staniford smiled at the distress in which Dunham went his way. He understood very well that it was not vanity, but the liveliness of a sensitive conscience, that had made Dunham search his conduct for the offense against the young girl's peace of heart which he believed he had committed, and it was the more amusing because he was so guiltless of harm. Staniford knew who was to blame for the headache and the blush. He knew that Dunham had never gone so far; that his chivalrous pleasure in her society might continue for years free from flirtation. But in spite of this conviction a little poignant doubt made itself felt, and suddenly became his whole consciousness. "Confound him!" he mused. "I wonder if she really could care anything for him!" He shut his book, and rose to his feet with such a burning in his heart that he could not have believed himself capable of the greater rage he felt at what he just then saw. It was Lydia and Hicks seated together in the place where he had sat with her. She leaned with one arm upon the rail, in an attitude that brought all her slim young grace into evidence. She seemed on very good terms with him, and he was talking and making her laugh as Staniford had never heard her laugh before—so freely, so heartily.

William Dean Howells

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