The atoms that had been tending in Staniford's being toward a certain form suddenly arrested and shaped themselves anew at the vibration imparted by this laughter. He no longer felt himself Hicks's possible inferior, but vastly better in every way, and out of the turmoil of his feelings in regard to Lydia was evolved the distinct sense of having been trifled with. Somehow, an advantage had been taken of his sympathies and purposes, and his forbearance had been treated with contempt.
The conviction was neither increased nor diminished by the events of the evening, when Lydia brought out some music from her state-room, and Hicks appeared, flute in hand, from his, and they began practicing one of the pieces together. It was a pretty enough sight. Hicks had been gradually growing a better-looking fellow; he had an undeniable picturesqueness, as he bowed his head over the music towards hers; and she, as she held the sheet with one hand for him to see, while she noiselessly accompanied herself on the table with the fingers of the other, and tentatively sang now this passage and now that, was divine. The picture seemed pleasing to neither Staniford nor Dunham; they went on deck together, and sat down to their cigarettes in their wonted place. They did not talk of Lydia, or of any of the things that had formed the basis of their conversation hitherto, but Staniford returned to his Colorado scheme, and explained at length the nature of his purposes and expectations. He had discussed these matters before, but he had never gone into them so fully, nor with such cheerful earnestness. He said he should never marry,—he had made up his mind to that; but he hoped to make money enough to take care of his sister's boy Jim handsomely, as the little chap had been named for him. He had been thinking the matter over, and he believed that he should get back by rail and steamer as soon as he could after they reached Trieste. He was not sorry he had come; but he could not afford to throw away too much time on Italy, just then.
Dunham, on his part, talked a great deal of Miss Hibbard, and of some curious psychological characteristics of her dyspepsia. He asked Staniford whether he had ever shown him the photograph of Miss Hibbard taken by Sarony when she was on to New York the last time: it was a three-quarters view, and Dunham thought it the best she had had done. He spoke of her generous qualities, and of the interest she had always had in the Diet Kitchen, to which, as an invalid, her attention had been particularly directed: and he said that in her last letter she had mentioned a project for establishing diet kitchens in Europe, on the Boston plan. When their talk grew more impersonal and took a wider range, they gathered suggestion from the situation, and remarked upon the immense solitude of the sea. They agreed that there was something weird in the long continuance of fine weather, and that the moon had a strange look. They spoke of the uncertainty of life. Dunham regretted, as he had often regretted before, that his friend had no fixed religious belief; and Staniford gently accepted his solicitude, and said that he had at least a conviction if not a creed. He then begged Dunham's pardon in set terms for trying to wound his feelings the day before; and in the silent hand-clasp that followed they renewed all the cordiality of their friendship. From time to time, as they talked, the music from below came up fitfully, and once they had to pause as Lydia sang through the song that she and Hicks were practicing.
As the days passed their common interest in the art brought Hicks and the young girl almost constantly together, and the sound of their concerting often filled the ship. The musicales, less formal than Dunham had intended, and perhaps for that reason a source of rapidly diminishing interest with him, superseded both ring-toss and shuffle- board, and seemed even more acceptable to the ship's company as an entertainment. One evening, when the performers had been giving a piece of rather more than usual excellence and difficulty, one of the sailors, deputed by his mates, came aft, with many clumsy shows of deference, and asked them to give Marching through Georgia. Hicks found this out of his repertory, but Lydia sang it. Then the group at the forecastle shouted with one voice for Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching, and so beguiled her through the whole list of war-songs. She ended with one unknown to her listeners, but better than all the rest in its pathetic words and music, and when she had sung The Flag's come back to Tennessee, the spokesman of the sailors came aft again, to thank her for his mates, and to say they would not spoil that last song by asking for anything else. It was a charming little triumph for her, as she sat surrounded by her usual court: the captain was there to countenance the freedom the sailors had taken, and Dunham and Staniford stood near, but Hicks, at her right hand, held the place of honor.
The next night Staniford found her alone in the waist of the ship, and drew up a stool beside the rail where she sat.
"We all enjoyed your singing so much, last night, Miss Blood. I think Mr. Hicks plays charmingly, but I believe I prefer to hear your voice alone."
"Thank you," said Lydia, looking down, demurely.
"It must be a great satisfaction to feel that you can give so much pleasure."
"I don't know," she said, passing the palm of one hand over the back of the other.
"When you are a prima donna you mustn't forget your old friends of the Aroostook. We shall all take vast pride in you."
It was not a question, and Lydia answered nothing. Staniford, who had rather obliged himself to this advance, with some dim purpose of showing that nothing had occurred to alienate them since the evening, of their promenade, without having proved to himself that it was necessary to do this, felt that he was growing angry. It irritated him to have her sit as unmoved after his words as if he had not spoken.
"Miss Blood," he said, "I envy you your gift of snubbing people."
Lydia looked at him. "Snubbing people?" she echoed.
"Yes; your power of remaining silent when you wish to put down some one who has been wittingly or unwittingly impertinent."
"I don't know what you mean," she said, in a sort of breathless way.
"And you didn't intend to mark your displeasure at my planning your future?"
"No! We had talked of that. I—"
"And you were not vexed with me for anything? I have been afraid that I—that you—" Staniford found that he was himself getting short of breath. He had begun with the intention of mystifying her, but matters had suddenly taken another course, and he was really anxious to know whether any disagreeable associations with that night lingered in her mind. With this longing came a natural inability to find the right word. "I was afraid—" he repeated, and then he stopped again. Clearly, he could not tell her that he was afraid he had gone too far; but this was what he meant. "You don't walk with me, any more, Miss Blood," he concluded, with an air of burlesque reproach.
"You haven't asked me—since," she said.
He felt a singular value and significance in this word, since. It showed that her thoughts had been running parallel with his own; it permitted, if it did not signify, that he should resume the mood of that time, where their parting had interrupted it. He enjoyed the fact to the utmost, but he was not sure that he wished to do what he was permitted. "Then I didn't tire you?" he merely asked. He was not sure, now he came to think of it, that he liked her willingness to recur to that time. He liked it, but not quite in the way he would have liked to like it.
"No," she said.
"The fact is," he went on aimlessly, "that I thought I had rather abused your kindness. Besides," he added, veering off, "I was afraid I should be an interruption to the musical exercises."
"Oh, no," said Lydia. "Mr. Dunham hasn't arranged anything yet." Staniford thought this uncandid. It was fighting shy of Hicks, who was the person in his own mind; and it reawakened a suspicion which was lurking there. "Mr. Dunham seems to have lost his interest."
This struck Staniford as an expression of pique; it reawakened quite another suspicion. It was evident that she was hurt at the cessation of Dunham's attentions. He was greatly minded to say that Dunham was a fool, but he ended by saying, with sarcasm, "I suppose he saw that he was superseded."
"Mr. Hicks plays well," said Lydia, judicially, "but he doesn't really know so much of music as Mr. Dunham."
"No?" responded Staniford, with irony. "I will tell Dunham. No doubt he's been suffering the pangs of professional jealousy. That must be the reason why he keeps away."
"Keeps away?" asked Lydia.
"Now I've made an ass of myself!" thought Staniford. "You said that he seemed to have lost his interest," he answered her.
"Oh! Yes!" assented Lydia. And then she remained rather distraught, pulling at the ruffling of her dress.
"Dunham is a very accomplished man," said Staniford, finding the usual satisfaction in pressing his breast against the thorn. "He's a great favorite in society. He's up to no end of things." Staniford uttered these praises in a curiously bitter tone. "He's a capital talker. Don't you think he talks well?"
"I don't know; I suppose I haven't seen enough people to be a good judge."
"Well, you've seen enough people to know that he's very good looking?"
"You don't mean to say you don't think him good looking?"
"No,—oh, no, I mean—that is—I don't know anything about his looks. But he resembles a lady who used to come from Boston, summers. I thought he must be her brother."
"Oh, then you think he looks effeminate!" cried Staniford, with inner joy. "I assure you," he added with solemnity, "Dunham is one of the manliest fellows in the world!"
"Yes?" said Lydia.
Staniford rose. He was smiling gayly as he looked over the broad stretch of empty deck, and down into Lydia's eyes. "Wouldn't you like to take a turn, now?"
"Yes," she said promptly, rising and arranging her wrap across her shoulders, so as to leave her hands free. She laid one hand in his arm and gathered her skirt with the other, and they swept round together for the start and confronted Hicks.
"Oh!" cried Lydia, with what seemed dismay, "I promised Mr. Hicks to practice a song with him." She did not try to release her hand from Staniford's arm, but was letting it linger there irresolutely.
Staniford dropped his arm, and let her hand fall. He bowed with icy stiffness, and said, with a courtesy so fierce that Mr. Hicks, on whom he glared as he spoke, quailed before it, "I yield to your prior engagement."