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Chapter 15

XV.

The foreboded storm did not come so soon as had been feared, but the beautiful weather which had lasted so long was lost in a thickened sky and a sullen sea. The weather had changed with Staniford, too. The morning after the events last celebrated, he did not respond to the glance which Lydia gave him when they met, and he hardened his heart to her surprise, and shunned being alone with her. He would not admit to himself any reason for his attitude, and he could not have explained to her the mystery that at first visibly grieved her, and then seemed merely to benumb her. But the moment came when he ceased to take a certain cruel pleasure in it, and he approached her one morning on deck, where she stood holding fast to the railing where she usually sat, and said, as if there had been no interval of estrangement between them, but still coldly, "We have had our last walk for the present, Miss Blood. I hope you will grieve a little for my loss."

She turned on him a look that cut him to the heart, with what he fancied its reproach and its wonder. She did not reply at once, and then she did not reply to his hinted question.

"Mr. Staniford," she began. It was the second time he had heard her pronounce his name; he distinctly remembered the first.

"Well?" he said.

"I want to speak to you about lending that book to Mr. Hicks. I ought to have asked you first."

"Oh, no," said Staniford. "It was yours."

"You gave it to me," she returned.

"Well, then, it was yours,—to keep, to lend, to throw away."

"And you didn't mind my lending it to him?" she pursued. "I—"

She stopped, and Staniford hesitated, too. Then he said, "I didn't dislike your lending it; I disliked his having it. I will acknowledge that."

She looked up at him as if she were going to speak, but checked herself, and glanced away. The ship was plunging heavily, and the livid waves were racing before the wind. The horizon was lit with a yellow brightness in the quarter to which she turned, and a pallid gleam defined her profile. Captain Jenness was walking fretfully to and fro; he glanced now at the yellow glare, and now cast his eye aloft at the shortened sail. While Staniford stood questioning whether she meant to say anything more, or whether, having discharged her conscience of an imagined offense, she had now reached one of her final, precipitous silences, Captain Jenness suddenly approached them, and said to him, "I guess you'd better go below with Miss Blood."

The storm that followed had its hazards, but Staniford's consciousness was confined to its discomforts. The day came, and then the dark came, and both in due course went, and came again. Where he lay in his berth, and whirled and swung, and rose and sank, as lonely as a planetary fragment tossing in space, he heard the noises of the life without. Amidst the straining of the ship, which was like the sharp sweep of a thunder-shower on the deck overhead, there plunged at irregular intervals the wild trample of heavily-booted feet, and now and then the voices of the crew answering the shouted orders made themselves hollowly audible. In the cabin there was talking, and sometimes even laughing. Sometimes he heard the click of knives and forks, the sardonic rattle of crockery. After the first insane feeling that somehow he must get ashore and escape from his torment, he hardened himself to it through an immense contempt, equally insane, for the stupidity of the sea, its insensate uproar, its blind and ridiculous and cruel mischievousness. Except for this delirious scorn he was a surface of perfect passivity.

Dunham, after a day of prostration, had risen, and had perhaps shortened his anguish by his resolution. He had since taken up his quarters on a locker in the cabin; he looked in now and then upon Staniford, with a cup of tea, or a suggestion of something light to eat; once he even dared to boast of the sublimity of the ocean. Staniford stared at him with eyes of lack-lustre indifference, and waited for him to be gone. But he lingered to say, "You would laugh to see what a sea-bird our lady is! She hasn't been sick a minute. And Hicks, you'll be glad to know, is behaving himself very well. Really, I don't think we've done the fellow justice. I think you've overshadowed him, and that he's needed your absence to show himself to advantage."

Staniford disdained any comment on this except a fierce "Humph!" and dismissed Dunham by turning his face to the wall. He refused to think of what he had said. He lay still and suffered indefinitely, and no longer waited for the end of the storm. There had been times when he thought with acquiescence of going to the bottom, as a probable conclusion; now he did not expect anything. At last, one night, he felt by inexpressibly minute degrees something that seemed surcease of his misery. It might have been the end of all things, for all he cared; but as the lull deepened, he slept without knowing what it was, and when he woke in the morning he found the Aroostook at anchor in smooth water.

She was lying in the roads at Gibraltar, and before her towered the embattled rock. He crawled on deck after a while. The captain was going ashore, and had asked such of his passengers as liked, to go with him and see the place. When Staniford appeared, Dunham was loyally refusing to leave his friend till he was fairly on foot. At sight of him they suspended their question long enough to welcome him back to animation, with the patronage with which well people hail a convalescent. Lydia looked across the estrangement of the past days with a sort of inquiry, and Hicks chose to come forward and accept a cold touch of the hand from him. Staniford saw, with languid observance, that Lydia was very fresh and bright; she was already equipped for the expedition, and could never have had any doubt in her mind as to going. She had on a pretty walking dress which he had not seen before, and a hat with the rim struck sharply upward behind, and her masses of dense, dull black hair pulled up and fastened somewhere on the top of her head. Her eyes shyly sparkled under the abrupt descent of the hat-brim over her forehead.

His contemptuous rejection of the character of invalid prevailed with Dunham; and Staniford walked to another part of the ship, to cut short the talk about himself, and saw them row away.

"Well, you've had a pretty tough time, they say," said the second mate, lounging near him. "I don't see any fun in seasickness myself."

"It's a ridiculous sort of misery," said Staniford.

"I hope we shan't have anything worse on board when that chap gets back. The old man thinks he can keep an eye on him." The mate was looking after the boat.

"The captain says he hasn't any money," Staniford remarked carelessly. The mate went away without saying anything more, and Staniford returned to the cabin, where he beheld without abhorrence the preparations for his breakfast. But he had not a great appetite, in spite of his long fast. He found himself rather light-headed, and came on deck again after a while, and stretched himself in Hicks's steamer chair, where Lydia usually sat in it. He fell into a dull, despairing reverie, in which he blamed himself for not having been more explicit with her. He had merely expressed his dislike of Hicks; but expressed without reasons it was a groundless dislike, which she had evidently not understood, or had not cared to heed; and since that night, now so far away, when he had spoken to her, he had done everything he could to harden her against himself. He had treated her with a stupid cruelty, which a girl like her would resent to the last; he had forced her to take refuge in the politeness of a man from whom he was trying to keep her.

His heart paused when he saw the boat returning in the afternoon without Hicks. The others reported that they had separated before dinner, and that they had not seen him since, though Captain Jenness had spent an hour trying to look him up before starting back to the ship. The captain wore a look of guilty responsibility, mingled with intense exasperation, the two combining in as much haggardness as his cheerful visage could express. "If he's here by six o'clock," he said, grimly, "all well and good. If not, the Aroostook sails, any way."

Lydia crept timidly below. Staniford complexly raged to see that the anxiety about Hicks had blighted the joy of the day for her.

"How the deuce could he get about without any money?" he demanded of Dunham, as soon as they were alone.

Dunham vainly struggled to look him in the eye. "Staniford," he faltered, with much more culpability than some criminals would confess a murder, "I lent him five dollars!"

"You lent him five dollars!" gasped Staniford.

"Yes," replied Dunham, miserably; "he got me aside, and asked me for it. What could I do? What would you have done yourself?"

Staniford made no answer. He walked some paces away, and then returned to where Dunham stood helpless. "He's lying about there dead-drunk, somewhere, I suppose. By Heaven, I could almost wish he was. He couldn't come back, then, at any rate."

The time lagged along toward the moment appointed by the captain, and the preparations for the ship's departure were well advanced, when a boat was seen putting out from shore with two rowers, and rapidly approaching the Aroostook. In the stern, as it drew nearer, the familiar figure of Hicks discovered itself in the act of waving a handkerchief He scrambled up the side of the ship in excellent spirits, and gave Dunham a detailed account of his adventures since they had parted. As always happens with such scapegraces, he seemed to have had a good time, however he had spoiled the pleasure of the others. At tea, when Lydia had gone away, he clapped down a sovereign near Dunham's plate.

"Your five dollars," he said.

"Why, how—" Dunham began.

"How did I get on without it? My dear boy, I sold my watch! A ship's time is worth no more than a setting hen's,—eh, captain?—and why take note of it? Besides, I always like to pay my debts promptly: there's nothing mean about me. I'm not going ashore again without my pocket-book, I can tell you." He winked shamelessly at Captain Jenness. "If you hadn't been along, Dunham, I couldn't have made a raise, I suppose. You wouldn't have lent me five dollars, Captain Jenness."

"No, I wouldn't," said the captain, bluntly.

"And I believe you'd have sailed without me, if I hadn't got back on time."

"I would," said the captain, as before.

Hicks threw back his head, and laughed. Probably no human being had ever before made so free with Captain Jenness at his own table; but the captain must have felt that this contumacy was part of the general risk which he had taken in taking Hicks, and he contented himself with maintaining a silence that would have appalled a less audacious spirit. Hicks's gayety, however, was not to be quelled in that way.

"Gibraltar wouldn't be a bad place to put up at for a while," he said. "Lots of good fellows among the officers, they say, and fun going all the while. First-class gunning in the Cork Woods at St. Roque. If it hadn't been for the res angusta domi,—you know what I mean, captain,—I should have let you get along with your old dug-out, as the gentleman in the water said to Noah." His hilarity had something alarmingly knowing in it; there was a wildness in the pleasure with which he bearded the captain, like that of a man in his first cups; yet he had not been drinking. He played round the captain's knowledge of the sanative destitution in which he was making the voyage with mocking recurrence; but he took himself off to bed early, and the captain came through his trials with unimpaired temper. Dunham disappeared not long afterwards; and Staniford's vague hope that Lydia might be going on deck to watch the lights of the town die out behind the ship as they sailed away was disappointed. The second mate made a point of lounging near him where he sat alone in their wonted place.

"Well," he said, "he did come back sober."

"Yes," said Staniford.

"Next to not comin' back at all," the mate continued, "I suppose it was the best thing he could do." He lounged away. Neither his voice nor his manner had that quality of disappointment which characterizes those who have mistakenly prophesied evil. Staniford had a mind to call him back, and ask him what he meant; but he refrained, and he went to bed at last resolved to unburden himself of the whole Hicks business once for all. He felt that he had had quite enough of it, both in the abstract and in its relation to Lydia.

William Dean Howells

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