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Chapter 17

XVII.

Dunham followed Staniford to their room, and helped him off with his wet clothes. He tried to say something ideally fit in recognition of his heroic act, and he articulated some bald commonplaces of praise, and shook Staniford's clammy hand. "Yes," said the latter, submitting; "but the difficulty about a thing of this sort is that you don't know whether you haven't been an ass. It has been pawed over so much by the romancers that you don't feel like a hero in real life, but a hero of fiction. I've a notion that Hicks and I looked rather ridiculous going over the ship's side; I know we did, coming back. No man can reveal his greatness of soul in wet clothes. Did Miss Blood laugh?"

"Staniford!" said Dunham, in an accent of reproach. "You do her great injustice. She felt what you had done in the way you would wish,—if you cared."

"What did she say?" asked Staniford, quickly.

"Nothing. But—"

"That's an easy way of expressing one's admiration of heroic behavior. I hope she'll stick to that line. I hope she won't feel it at all necessary to say anything in recognition of my prowess; it would be extremely embarrassing. I've got Hicks back again, but I couldn't stand any gratitude for it. Not that I'm ashamed of the performance. Perhaps if it had been anybody but Hicks, I should have waited for them to lower a boat. But Hicks had peculiar claims. You couldn't let a man you disliked so much welter round a great while. Where is the poor old fellow? Is he clothed and in his right mind again?"

"He seemed to be sober enough," said Dunham, "when he came on board; but I don't think he's out yet."

"We must let Thomas in to gather up this bathing-suit," observed Staniford. "What a Newportish flavor it gives the place!" He was excited, and in great gayety of spirits.

He and Dunham went out into the cabin, where they found Captain Jenness pacing to and fro. "Well, sir," he said, taking Staniford's hand, and crossing his right with his left, so as to include Dunham in his congratulations, "you ought to have been a sailor!" Then he added, as if the unqualified praise might seem fulsome, "But if you'd been a sailor, you wouldn't have tried a thing like that. You'd have had more sense. The chances were ten to one against you."

Staniford laughed. "Was it so bad as that? I shall begin to respect myself."

The captain did not answer, but his iron grip closed hard upon Staniford's hand, and he frowned in keen inspection of Hicks, who at that moment came out of his state-room, looking pale and quite sobered. Captain Jenness surveyed him from head to foot, and then from foot to head, and pausing at the level of his eyes he said, still holding Staniford by the hand: "The trouble with a man aboard ship is that he can't turn a blackguard out-of-doors just when he likes. The Aroostook puts in at Messina. You'll be treated well till we get there, and then if I find you on my vessel five minutes after she comes to anchor, I'll heave you overboard, and I'll take care that nobody jumps after you. Do you hear? And you won't find me doing any such fool kindness as I did when I took you on board, soon again."

"Oh, I say, Captain Jenness," began Staniford.

"He's all right," interrupted Hicks. "I'm a blackguard; I know it; and I don't think I was worth fishing up. But you've done it, and I mustn't go back on you, I suppose." He lifted his poor, weak, bad little face, and looked Staniford in the eyes with a pathos that belied the slang of his speech. The latter released his hand from Captain Jenness and gave it to Hicks, who wrung it, as he kept looking him in the eyes, while his lips twitched pitifully, like a child's. The captain gave a quick snort either of disgust or of sympathy, and turned abruptly about and bundled himself up out of the cabin.

"I say!" exclaimed Staniford, "a cup of coffee wouldn't be bad, would it? Let's have some coffee, Thomas, about as quick as the cook can make it," he added, as the boy came out from his stateroom with a lump of wet clothes in his hands. "You wanted some coffee a little while ago," he said to Hicks, who hung his head at the joke.

For the rest of the day Staniford was the hero of the ship. The men looked at him from a distance, and talked of him together. Mr. Watterson hung about whenever Captain Jenness drew near him, as if in the hope of overhearing some acceptable expression in which he could second his superior officer. Failing this, and being driven to despair, "Find the water pretty cold, sir?" he asked at last; and after that seemed to feel that he had discharged his duty as well as might be under the extraordinary circumstances.

The second mate, during the course of the afternoon, contrived to pass near Staniford. "Why, there wa'n't no need of your doing it," he said, in a bated tone. "I could ha' had him out with the boat, soon enough."

Staniford treasured up these meagre expressions of the general approbation, and would not have had them different. From this time, within the narrow bounds that brought them all necessarily together in some sort, Hicks abolished himself as nearly as possible. He chose often to join the second mate at meals, which Mr. Mason, in accordance with the discipline of the ship, took apart both from the crew and his superior officers. Mason treated the voluntary outcast with a sort of sarcastic compassion, as a man whose fallen state was not without its points as a joke to the indifferent observer, and yet might appeal to the pity of one who knew such cases through the misery they inflicted. Staniford heard him telling Hicks about his brother-in-law, and dwelling upon the peculiar relief which the appearance of his name in the mortality list gave all concerned in him. Hicks listened in apathetic patience and acquiescence; but Staniford thought that he enjoyed, as much as he could enjoy anything, the second officer's frankness. For his own part, he found that having made bold to keep this man in the world he had assumed a curious responsibility towards him. It became his business to show him that he was not shunned by his fellow-creatures, to hearten and cheer him up. It was heavy work. Hicks with his joke was sometimes odious company, but he was also sometimes amusing; without it, he was of a terribly dull conversation. He accepted Staniford's friendliness too meekly for good comradery; he let it add, apparently, to his burden of gratitude, rather than lessen it. Staniford smoked with him, and told him stories; he walked up and down with him, and made a point of parading their good understanding, but his spirits seemed to sink the lower. "Deuce take him!" mused his benefactor; "he's in love with her!" But he now had the satisfaction, such as it was, of seeing that if he was in love he was quite without hope. Lydia had never relented in her abhorrence of Hicks since the day of his disgrace. There seemed no scorn in her condemnation, but neither was there any mercy. In her simple life she had kept unsophisticated the severe morality of a child, and it was this that judged him, that found him unpardonable and outlawed him. He had never ventured to speak to her since that day, and Staniford never saw her look at him except when Hicks was not looking, and then with a repulsion which was very curious. Staniford could have pitied him, and might have interceded so far as to set him nearer right in her eyes; but he felt that she avoided him, too; there were no more walks on the deck, no more readings in the cabin; the checker-board, which professed to be the History of England, In 2 Vols., remained a closed book. The good companionship of a former time, in which they had so often seemed like brothers and sister, was gone. "Hicks has smashed our Happy Family," Staniford said to Dunham, with little pleasure in his joke. "Upon my word, I think I had better have left him in the water." Lydia kept a great deal in her own room; sometimes when Staniford came down into the cabin he found her there, talking with Thomas of little things that amuse children; sometimes when he went on deck in the evening she would be there in her accustomed seat, and the second mate, with face and figure half averted, and staying himself by one hand on the shrouds, would be telling her something to which she listened with lifted chin and attentive eyes. The mate would go away when Staniford appeared, but that did not help matters, for then Lydia went too. At table she said very little; she had the effect of placing herself more and more under the protection of the captain. The golden age, when they had all laughed and jested so freely and fearlessly together, under her pretty sovereignty, was past, and they seemed far dispersed in a common exile. Staniford imagined she grew pale and thin; he asked Dunham if he did not see it, but Dunham had not observed. "I think matters have taken a very desirable shape, socially," he said. "Miss Blood will reach her friends as fancy-free as she left home."

"Yes," Staniford assented vaguely; "that's the great object."

After a while Dunham asked, "She's never said anything to you about your rescuing Hicks?"

"Rescuing? What rescuing? They'd have had him out in another minute, any way," said Staniford, fretfully. Then he brooded angrily upon the subject: "But I can tell you what: considering all the circumstances, she might very well have said something. It looks obtuse, or it looks hard. She must have known that it all came about through my trying to keep him away from her."

"Oh, yes; she knew that," said Dunham; "she spoke of it at the time.
But I thought—"

"Oh, she did! Then I think that it would be very little if she recognized the mere fact that something had happened."

"Why, you said you hoped she wouldn't. You said it would be embarrassing. You're hard to please, Staniford."

"I shouldn't choose to have her speak for my pleasure,"
Staniford returned. "But it argues a dullness and coldness in her—"

"I don't believe she's dull; I don't believe she's cold," said
Dunham, warmly.

"What do you believe she is?"

"Afraid."

"Pshaw!" said Staniford.

The eve of their arrival at Messina, he discharged one more duty by telling Hicks that he had better come on to Trieste with them. "Captain Jenness asked me to speak to you about it," he said. "He feels a little awkward, and thought I could open the matter better."

"The captain's all right," answered Hicks, with unruffled humility, "but I'd rather stop at Messina. I'm going to get home as soon as I can,—strike a bee-line."

"Look here!" said Staniford, laying his hand on his shoulder. "How are you going to manage for money?"

"Monte di Pietà," replied Hicks. "I've been there before. Used to have most of my things in the care of the state when I was studying medicine in Paris. I've got a lot of rings and trinkets that'll carry me through, with what's left of my watch."

"Are you sure?"

"Sure."

"Because you can draw on me, if you're going to be short."

"Thanks," said Hicks. "There's something I should like to ask you," he added, after a moment. "I see as well as you do that Miss Blood isn't the same as she was before. I want to know—I can't always be sure afterwards—whether I did or said anything out of the way in her presence."

"You were drunk," said Staniford, frankly, "but beyond that you were irreproachable, as regarded Miss Blood. You were even exemplary."

"Yes, I know," said Hicks, with a joyless laugh. "Sometimes it takes that turn. I don't think I could stand it if I had shown her any disrespect. She's a lady,—a perfect lady; she's the best girl I ever saw."

"Hicks," said Staniford, presently, "I haven't bored you in regard to that little foible of yours. Aren't you going to try to do something about it?"

"I'm going home to get them to shut me up somewhere," answered Hicks. "But I doubt if anything can be done. I've studied the thing; I am a doctor,—or I would be if I were not a drunkard,—and I've diagnosed the case pretty thoroughly. For three months or four months, now, I shall be all right. After that I shall go to the bad for a few weeks; and I'll have to scramble back the best way I can. Nobody can help me. That was the mistake this last time. I shouldn't have wanted anything at Gibraltar if I could have had my spree out at Boston. But I let them take me before it was over, and ship me off. I thought I'd try it. Well, it was like a burning fire every minute, all the way. I thought I should die. I tried to get something from the sailors; I tried to steal Gabriel's cooking-wine. When I got that brandy in Gibraltar I was wild. Talk about heroism! I tell you it was superhuman, keeping that canteen corked till night! I was in hopes I could get through it,—sleep it off,—and nobody be any the wiser. But it wouldn't work. O Lord, Lord, Lord!"

Hicks was as common a soul as could well be. His conception of life was vulgar, and his experience of it was probably vulgar. He had a good mind enough, with abundance of that humorous brightness which may hereafter be found the most national quality of the Americans; but his ideals were pitiful, and the language of his heart was a drolling slang. Yet his doom lifted him above his low conditions, and made him tragic; his despair gave him the dignity of a mysterious expiation, and set him apart with all those who suffer beyond human help. Without deceiving himself as to the quality of the man, Staniford felt awed by the darkness of his fate.

"Can't you try somehow to stand up against it, and fight it off?
You're so young yet, it can't—"

The wretched creature burst into tears. "Oh, try,—try! You don't know what you're talking about. Don't you suppose I've had reasons for trying? If you could see how my mother looks when I come out of one of my drunks,—and my father, poor old man! It's no use; I tell you it's no use. I shall go just so long, and then I shall want it, and will have it, unless they shut me up for life. My God, I wish I was dead! Well!" He rose from the place where they had been sitting together, and held out his hand to Staniford. "I'm going to be off in the morning before you're out, and I'll say good-by now. I want you to keep this chair, and give it to Miss Blood, for me, when you get to Trieste."

"I will, Hicks," said Staniford, gently.

"I want her to know that I was ashamed of myself. I think she'll like to know it."

"I will say anything to her that you wish," replied Staniford.

"There's nothing else. If ever you see a man with my complaint fall overboard again, think twice before you jump after him."

He wrung Staniford's hand, and went below, leaving him with a dull remorse that he should ever have hated Hicks, and that he could not quite like him even now.

But he did his duty by him to the last. He rose at dawn, and was on deck when Hicks went over the side into the boat which was to row him to the steamer for Naples, lying at anchor not far off. He presently returned, to Staniford's surprise, and scrambled up to the deck of the Aroostook. "The steamer sails to-night," he said, "and perhaps I couldn't raise the money by that time. I wish you'd lend me ten napoleons. I'll send 'em to you from London. There's my father's address: I'm going to telegraph to him." He handed Staniford a card, and the latter went below for the coins. "Thanks," said Hicks, when he reappeared with them. "Send 'em to you where?"

"Care Blumenthals', Venice. I'm going to be there some weeks."

In the gray morning light the lurid color of tragedy had faded out of Hicks. He was merely a baddish-looking young fellow whom Staniford had lent ten napoleons that he might not see again. Staniford watched the steamer uneasily, both from the Aroostook and from the shore, where he strolled languidly about with Dunham part of the day. When she sailed in the evening, he felt that Hicks's absence was worth twice the money.

William Dean Howells

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