The young men did not come back to the ship at night, but went to a hotel, for the greater convenience of seeing the city. They had talked of offering to show Lydia about, but their talk had not ended in anything. Vexed with himself to be vexed at such a thing, Staniford at the bottom of his heart still had a soreness which the constant sight of her irritated. It was in vain that he said there was no occasion, perhaps no opportunity, for her to speak, yet he was hurt that she seemed to have seen nothing uncommon in his risking his own life for that of a man like Hicks. He had set the action low enough in his own speech; but he knew that it was not ignoble, and it puzzled him that it should be so passed over. She had not even said a word of congratulation upon his own escape. It might be that she did not know how, or did not think it was her place to speak. She was curiously estranged. He felt as if he had been away, and she had grown from a young girl into womanhood during his absence. This fantastic conceit was strongest when he met her with Captain Jenness one day. He had found friends at the hotel, as one always does in Italy, if one's world is at all wide,—some young ladies, and a lady, now married, with whom he had once violently flirted. She was willing that he should envy her husband; that amused him in his embittered mood; he let her drive him about; and they met Lydia and the captain, walking together. Staniford started up from his lounging ease, as if her limpid gaze had searched his conscience, and bowed with an air which did not escape his companion.
"Ah! Who's that?" she asked, with the boldness which she made pass for eccentricity.
"A lady of my acquaintance," said Staniford, at his laziest again.
"A lady?" said the other, with an inflection that she saw hurt. "Why the marine animal, then? She bowed very prettily; she blushed prettily, too."
"She's a very pretty girl," replied Staniford.
"Charming! But why blush?"
"I've heard that there are ladies who blush for nothing."
"Is she Italian?"
"Oh, an American prima donna!" Staniford did not answer.
"Who is she? Where is she from?"
"South Bradfield, Mass." Staniford's eyes twinkled at her pursuit, which he did not trouble himself to turn aside, but baffled by mere impenetrability.
The party at the hotel suggested that the young men should leave their ship and go on with them to Naples; Dunham was tempted, for he could have reached Dresden sooner by land; but Staniford overruled him, and at the end of four days they went back to the Aroostook. They said it was like getting home, but in fact they felt the change from the airy heights and breadths of the hotel to the small cabin and the closets in which they slept; it was not so great alleviation as Captain Jenness seemed to think that one of them could now have Hicks's stateroom. But Dunham took everything sweetly, as his habit was; and, after all, they were meeting their hardships voluntarily. Some of the ladies came with them in the boat which rowed them to the Aroostook; the name made them laugh; that lady who wished Staniford to regret her waved him her hand kerchief as the boat rowed away again. She had with difficulty been kept from coming on board by the refusal of the others to come with her. She had contrived to associate herself with him again in the minds of the others, and this, perhaps, was all that she desired. But the sense of her frivolity—her not so much vacant- mindedness as vacant-heartedness—was like a stain, and he painted in Lydia's face when they first met the reproach which was in his own breast.
Her greeting, however, was frank and cordial; it was a real welcome. Staniford wondered if it were not more frank and cordial than he quite liked, and whether she was merely relieved by Hicks's absence, or had freed herself from that certain subjection in which she had hitherto been to himself.
Yet it was charming to see her again as she had been in the happiest moments of the past, and to feel that, Hicks being out of her world, her trust of everybody in it was perfect once more. She treated that interval of coldness and diffidence as all women know how to treat a thing which they wish not to have been; and Staniford, a man on whom no pleasing art of her sex was ever lost, admired and gratefully accepted the effect of this. He fell luxuriously into the old habits again. They had still almost the time of a steamer's voyage to Europe before them; it was as if they were newly setting sail from America. The first night after they left Messina Staniford found her in her place in the waist of the ship, and sat down beside her there, and talked; the next night she did not come; the third she came, and he asked her to walk with him. The elastic touch of her hand on his arm, the rhythmic movement of her steps beside him, were things that seemed always to have been. She told him of what she had seen and done in Messina. This glimpse of Italy had vividly animated her; she had apparently found a world within herself as well as without.
With a suddenly depressing sense of loss, Staniford had a prevision of splendor in her, when she should have wholly blossomed out in that fervid air of art and beauty; he would fain have kept her still a wilding rosebud of the New England wayside. He hated the officers who should wonder at her when she first came into the Square of St. Mark with her aunt and uncle.
Her talk about Messina went on; he was thinking of her, and not of her
talk; but he saw that she was not going to refer to their encounter.
"You make me jealous of the objects of interest in Messina," he said.
"You seem to remember seeing everything but me, there."
She stopped abruptly. "Yes," she said, after a deep breath, "I saw you there;" and she did not offer to go on again.
"Where were you going, that morning?"
"Oh, to the cathedral. Captain Jenness left me there, and I looked all through it till he came back from the consulate."
"Left you there alone!" cried Staniford.
"Yes; I told him I should not feel lonely, and I should not stir out of it till he came back. I took one of those little pine chairs and sat down, when I got tired, and looked at the people coming to worship, and the strangers with their guide-books."
"Did any of them look at you?"
"They stared a good deal. It seems to be the custom in Europe; but I told Captain Jenness I should probably have to go about by myself in Venice, as my aunt's an invalid, and I had better get used to it."
She paused, and seemed to be referring the point to Staniford.
"Yes,—oh, yes," he said.
"Captain Jenness said it was their way, over here," she resumed; "but he guessed I had as much right in a church as anybody."
"The captain's common sense is infallible," answered Staniford. He was ashamed to know that the beautiful young girl was as improperly alone in church as she would have been in a café, and he began to hate the European world for the fact. It seemed better to him that the Aroostook should put about and sail back to Boston with her, as she was,—better that she should be going to her aunt in South Bradfield than to her aunt in Venice. "We shall soon be at our journey's end, now," he said, after a while.
"Yes; the captain thinks in about eight days, if we have good weather."
"Shall you be sorry?"
"Oh, I like the sea very well."
"But the new life you are coming to,—doesn't that alarm you sometimes?"
"Yes, it does," she admitted, with a kind of reluctance.
"So much that you would like to turn back from it?"
"Oh, no!" she answered quickly. Of course not, Staniford thought; nothing could be worse than going back to South Bradfield. "I keep thinking about it," she added. "You say Venice is such a very strange place. Is it any use my having seen Messina?"
"Oh, all Italian cities have something in common."
"I presume," she went on, "that after I get there everything will become natural. But I don't like to look forward. It—scares me. I can't form any idea of it."
"You needn't be afraid," said Staniford. "It's only more beautiful than anything you can imagine."
"Yes—yes; I know," Lydia answered.
"And do you really dread getting there?"
"Yes, I dread it," she said.
"Why," returned Staniford lightly, "so do I; but it's for a different reason, I'm afraid. I should like such a voyage as this to go on forever. Now and then I think it will; it seems always to have gone on. Can you remember when it began?"
"A great while ago," she answered, humoring his fantasy, "but I can remember." She paused a long while. "I don't know," she said at last, "whether I can make you understand just how I feel. But it seems to me as if I had died, and this long voyage was a kind of dream that I was going to wake up from in another world. I often used to think, when I was a little girl, that when I got to heaven it would be lonesome—I don't know whether I can express it. You say that Italy—that Venice —is so beautiful; but if I don't know any one there—" She stopped, as if she had gone too far.
"But you do know somebody there," said Staniford. "Your aunt—"
"Yes," said the girl, and looked away.
"But the people in this long dream,—you're going to let some of them appear to you there," he suggested.
"Oh, yes," she said, reflecting his lighter humor, "I shall want to see them, or I shall not know I am the same person, and I must be sure of myself, at least."
"And you wouldn't like to go back to earth—to South Bradfield again?" he asked presently.
"No," she answered. "All that seems over forever. I couldn't go back there and be what I was. I could have stayed there, but I couldn't go back."
Staniford laughed. "I see that it isn't the other world that's got hold of you! It's this world! I don't believe you'll be unhappy in Italy. But it's pleasant to think you've been so contented on the Aroostook that you hate to leave it. I don't believe there's a man on the ship that wouldn't feel personally flattered to know that you liked being here. Even that poor fellow who parted from us at Messina was anxious that you should think as kindly of him as you could. He knew that he had behaved in a way to shock you, and he was very sorry. He left a message with me for you. He thought you would like to know that he was ashamed of himself."
"I pitied him," said Lydia succinctly. It was the first time that she had referred to Hicks, and Staniford found it in character for her to limit herself to this sparse comment. Evidently, her compassion was a religious duty. Staniford's generosity came easy to him.
"I feel bound to say that Hicks was not a bad fellow. I disliked him immensely, and I ought to do him justice, now he's gone. He deserved all your pity. He's a doomed man; his vice is irreparable; he can't resist it." Lydia did not say anything: women do not generalize in these matters; perhaps they cannot pity the faults of those they do not love. Staniford only forgave Hicks the more. "I can't say that up to the last moment I thought him anything but a poor, common little creature; and yet I certainly did feel a greater kindness for him after—what I—after what had happened. He left something more than a message for you, Miss Blood; he left his steamer chair yonder, for you."
"For me?" demanded Lydia. Staniford felt her thrill and grow rigid upon his arm, with refusal. "I will not have it. He had no right to do so. He—he—was dreadful! I will give it to you!" she said, suddenly. "He ought to have given it to you. You did everything for him; you saved his life."
It was clear that she did not sentimentalize Hicks's case; and Staniford had some doubt as to the value she set upon what he had done, even now she had recognized it.
He said, "I think you overestimate my service to him, possibly.
I dare say the boat could have picked him up in good time."
"Yes, that's what the captain and Mr. Watterson and Mr. Mason all said," assented Lydia.
Staniford was nettled. He would have preferred a devoted belief that but for him Hicks must have perished. Besides, what she said still gave no clew to her feeling in regard to himself. He was obliged to go on, but he went on as indifferently as he could. "However, it was hardly a question for me at the time whether he could have been got out without my help. If I had thought about it at all—which I didn't—I suppose I should have thought that it wouldn't do to take any chances."
"Oh, no," said Lydia, simply, "you couldn't have done anything less than you did."
In his heart Staniford had often thought that he could have done very much less than jump overboard after Hicks, and could very properly have left him to the ordinary life-saving apparatus of the ship. But if he had been putting the matter to some lady in society who was aggressively praising him for his action, he would have said just what Lydia had said for him,—that he could not have done anything less. He might have said it, however, in such a way that the lady would have pursued his retreat from her praises with still fonder applause; whereas this girl seemed to think there was nothing else to be said. He began to stand in awe of her heroic simplicity. If she drew every-day breath in that lofty air, what could she really think of him, who preferred on principle the atmosphere of the valley? "Do you know, Miss Blood," he said gravely, "that you pay me a very high compliment?"
"How?" she asked.
"You rate my maximum as my mean temperature." He felt that she listened inquiringly. "I don't think I'm habitually up to a thing of that kind," he explained.
"Oh, no," she assented, quietly; "but when he struck at you so, you had to do everything."
"Ah, you have the pitiless Puritan conscience that takes the life out of us all!" cried Staniford, with sudden bitterness. Lydia seemed startled, shocked, and her hand trembled on his arm, as if she had a mind to take it away. "I was a long time laboring up to that point. I suppose you are always there!"
"I don't understand," she said, turning her head round with the slow motion of her beauty, and looking him full in the face.
"I can't explain now. I will, by and by,—when we get to Venice," he added, with quick lightness.
"You put off everything till we get to Venice," she said, doubtfully.
"I beg your pardon. It was you who did it the last time."
"Was it?" She laughed. "So it was! I was thinking it was you."
It consoled him a little that she should have confused them in her thought, in this way. "What was it you were to tell me in Venice?" he asked.
"I can't think, now."
"Very likely something of yourself—or myself. A third person might say our conversational range was limited."
"Do you think it is very egotistical?" she asked, in the gay tone which gave him relief from the sense of oppressive elevation of mind in her.
"It is in me,—not in you."
"But I don't see the difference."
"I will explain sometime,"
"When we get to Venice?"
They both laughed. It was very nonsensical; but nonsense is sometimes enough.
When they were serious again, "Tell me," he said, "what you thought of that lady in Messina, the other day."
She did not affect not to know whom he meant. She merely said,
"I only saw her a moment."
"But you thought something. If we only see people a second we form some opinion of them."
"She is very fine-appearing," said Lydia.
Staniford smiled at the countrified phrase; he had observed that when she spoke her mind she used an instinctive good language; when she would not speak it, she fell into the phraseology of the people with whom she had lived. "I see you don't wish to say, because you think she is a friend of mine. But you can speak out freely. We were not friends; we were enemies, if anything."
Staniford's meaning was clear enough to himself; but Lydia paused, as if in doubt whether he was jesting or not, before she asked, "Why were you riding with her then?"
"I was driving with her," he replied, "I suppose, because she asked me."
"Asked you!" cried the girl; and he perceived her moral recoil both from himself and from a woman who could be so unseemly. That lady would have found it delicious if she could have known that a girl placed like Lydia was shocked at her behavior. But he was not amused. He was touched by the simple self-respect that would not let her suffer from what was not wrong in itself, but that made her shrink from a voluntary semblance of unwomanliness. It endeared her not only to his pity, but to that sense which in every man consecrates womanhood, and waits for some woman to be better than all her sex. Again he felt the pang he had remotely known before. What would she do with these ideals of hers in that depraved Old World,—so long past trouble for its sins as to have got a sort of sweetness and innocence in them,—where her facts would be utterly irreconcilable with her ideals, and equally incomprehensible?
They walked up and down a few turns without speaking again of that lady. He knew that she grew momently more constrained toward him; that the pleasure of the time was spoiled for her; that she had lost her trust in him, and this half amused, half afflicted him. It did not surprise him when, at their third approach to the cabin gangway, she withdrew her hand from his arm and said, stiffly, "I think I will go down." But she did not go at once. She lingered, and after a certain hesitation she said, without looking at him, "I didn't express what I wanted to, about Mr. Hicks, and—what you did. It is what I thought you would do."
"Thanks," said Staniford, with sincere humility. He understood how she had had this in her mind, and how she would not withhold justice from him because he had fallen in her esteem; how rather she would be the more resolute to do him justice for that reason.