He could see that she avoided being alone with him the next day, but he took it for a sign of relenting, perhaps helpless relenting, that she was in her usual place on deck in the evening. He went to her, and, "I see that you haven't forgiven me," he said.
"Forgiven you?" she echoed.
"Yes," he said, "for letting that lady ask me to drive with her."
"I never said—" she began.
"Oh, no! But I knew it, all the same. It was not such a very wicked thing, as those things go. But I liked your not liking it. Will you let me say something to you?"
"Yes," she answered, rather breathlessly.
"You must think it's rather an odd thing to say, as I ask leave. It is; and I hardly know how to say it. I want to tell you that I've made bold to depend a great deal upon your good opinion for my peace of mind, of late, and that I can't well do without it now."
She stole the quickest of her bird-like glances at him, but did not speak; and though she seemed, to his anxious fancy, poising for flight, she remained, and merely looked away, like the bird that will not or cannot fly.
"You don't resent my making you my outer conscience, do you, and my knowing that you're not quite pleased with me?"
She looked down and away with one of those turns of the head, so precious when one who beholds them is young, and caught at the fringe of her shawl. "I have no right," she began.
"Oh, I give you the right!" he cried, with passionate urgence. "You have the right. Judge me!" She only looked more grave, and he hurried on. "It was no great harm of her to ask me; that's common enough; but it was harm of me to go if I didn't quite respect her,—if I thought her silly, and was willing to be amused with her. One hasn't any right to do that. I saw this when I saw you." She still hung her head, and looked away. "I want you to tell me something," he pursued. "Do you remember once—the second time we talked together—that you said Dunham was in earnest, and you wouldn't answer when I asked you about myself? Do you remember?"
"Yes," said the girl.
"I didn't care, then. I care very much now. You don't think me—you think I can be in earnest when I will, don't you? And that I can regret—that I really wish—" He took the hand that played with the shawl-fringe, but she softly drew it away.
"Ah, I see!" he said. "You can't believe in me. You don't believe that I can be a good man—like Dunham!"
She answered in the same breathless murmur, "I think you are good."
Her averted face drooped lower.
"I will tell you all about it, some day!" he cried, with joyful vehemence. "Will you let me?"
"Yes," she answered, with the swift expulsion of breath that sometimes comes with tears. She rose quickly and turned away. He did not try to keep her from leaving him. His heart beat tumultuously; his brain seemed in a whirl. It all meant nothing, or it meant everything.
"What is the matter with Miss Blood?" asked Dunham, who joined him at this moment. "I just spoke to her at the foot of the gangway stairs, and she wouldn't answer me."
"Oh, I don't know about Miss Blood—I don't know what's the matter," said Staniford. "Look here, Dunham; I want to talk with you—I want to tell you something—I want you to advise me—I—There's only one thing that can explain it, that can excuse it. There's only one thing that can justify all that I've done and said, and that can not only justify it, but can make it sacredly and eternally right,—right for her and right for me. Yes, it's reason for all, and for a thousand times more. It makes it fair for me to have let her see that I thought her beautiful and charming, that I delighted to be with her, that I—Dunham," cried Staniford, "I'm in love!"
Dunham started at the burst in which these ravings ended. "Staniford," he faltered, with grave regret, "I hope not!"
"You hope not? You—you—What do you mean? How else can I free myself from the self-reproach of having trifled with her, of—"
Dunham shook his head compassionately. "You can't do it that way.
Your only safety is to fight it to the death,—to run from it."
"But if I don't choose to fight it?" shouted Staniford,—"if
I don't choose to run from it? If I—"
"For Heaven's sake, hush! The whole ship will hear you, and you oughtn't to breathe it in the desert. I saw how it was going! I dreaded it; I knew it; and I longed to speak. I'm to blame for not speaking!"
"I should like to know what would have authorized you to speak?" demanded Staniford, haughtily.
"Only my regard for you; only what urges me to speak now! You must fight it, Staniford, whether you choose or not. Think of yourself,—think of her! Think—you have always been my ideal of honor and truth and loyalty—think of her husband—"
"Her husband!" gasped Staniford. "Whose husband? What the deuce— who the deuce—are you talking about, Dunham?"
"Mrs. Rivers? That flimsy, feather-headed, empty-hearted—eyes-maker! That frivolous, ridiculous—Pah! And did you think that I was talking of her? Did you think I was in love with her?"
"Why," stammered Dunham, "I supposed—I thought—At Messina, you know—"
"Oh!" Staniford walked the deck's length away. "Well, Dunham," he said, as he came back, "you've spoilt a pretty scene with your rot about Mrs. Rivers. I was going to be romantic! But perhaps I'd better say in ordinary newspaper English that I've just found out that I'm in love with Miss Blood."
"With her!" cried Dunham, springing at his hand.
"Oh, come now! Don't you be romantic, after knocking my chance."
"Why, but Staniford!" said Dunham, wringing his hand with a lover's joy in another's love and his relief that it was not Mrs. Rivers. "I never should have dreamt of such a thing!"
"Why?" asked Staniford, shortly.
"Oh, the way you talked at first, you know, and—"
"I suppose even people who get married have something to take back about each other," said Staniford, rather sheepishly. "However," he added, with an impulse of frankness, "I don't know that I should have dreamt of it myself, and I don't blame you. But it's a fact, nevertheless."
"Why, of course. It's splendid! Certainly. It's magnificent!" There was undoubtedly a qualification, a reservation, in Dunham's tone. He might have thought it right to bring the inequalities of the affair to Staniford's mind. With all his effusive kindliness of heart and manner, he had a keen sense of social fitness, a nice feeling for convention. But a man does not easily suggest to another that the girl with whom he has just declared himself in love is his inferior. What Dunham finally did say was: "It jumps with all your ideas—all your old talk about not caring to marry a society girl—"
"Society might be very glad of such a girl!" said Staniford, stiffly.
"Yes, yes, certainly; but I mean—"
"Oh, I know what you mean. It's all right," said Staniford. "But it isn't a question of marrying yet. I can't be sure she understood me, —I've been so long understanding myself. And yet, she must, she must! She must believe it by this time, or else that I'm the most infamous scoundrel alive. When I think how I have sought her out, and followed her up, and asked her judgment, and hung upon her words, I feel that I oughtn't to lose a moment in being explicit. I don't care for myself; she can take me or leave me, as she likes; but if she doesn't understand, she mustn't be left in suspense as to my meaning." He seemed to be speaking to Dunham, but he was really thinking aloud, and Dunham waited for some sort of question before he spoke. "But it's a great satisfaction to have had it out with myself. I haven't got to pretend any more that I hang about her, and look at her, and go mooning round after her, for this no-reason and that; I've got the best reason in the world for playing the fool,—I'm in love!" He drew a long, deep breath. "It simplifies matters immensely to have reached the point of acknowledging that. Why, Dunham, those four days at Messina almost killed me! They settled it. When that woman was in full fascination it made me gasp. I choked for a breath of fresh air; for a taste of spring-water; for—Lurella!" It was a long time since Staniford had used this name, and the sound of it made him laugh. "It's droll—but I always think of her as Lurella; I wish it was her name! Why, it was like heaven to see her face when I got back to the ship. After we met her that day at Messina, Mrs. Rivers tried her best to get out of me who it was, and where I met her. But I flatter myself that I was equal to that emergency."
Dunham said nothing, at once. Then, "Staniford," he faltered, "she got it out of me."
"Did you tell her who Lu—who Miss Blood was?"
"And how I happened to be acquainted with her?"
"And that we were going on to Trieste with her?"
"She had it out of me before I knew," said Dunham. "I didn't realize what she was after; and I didn't realize how peculiar the situation might seem—"
"I see nothing peculiar in the situation," interrupted Staniford, haughtily. Then he laughed consciously. "Or, yes, I do; of course I do! You must know her to appreciate it, though." He mused a while before he added: "No wonder Mrs. Rivers was determined to come aboard! I wish we had let her,—confound her! She'll think I was ashamed of it. There's nothing to be ashamed of! By Heaven, I should like to hear any one—" Staniford broke off, and laughed, and then bit his lip, smiling. Suddenly he burst out again, frowning: "I won't view it in that light. I refuse to consider it from that point of view. As far as I'm concerned, it's as regular as anything else in life. It's the same to me as if she were in her own house, and I had come there to tell her that she has my future in her hand. She's such a lady by instinct that she's made it all a triumph, and I thank God that I haven't done or said anything to mar it. Even that beast of a Hicks didn't; it's no merit. I've made love to her,—I own it; of course I have, because I was in love with her; and my fault has been that I haven't made love to her openly, but have gone on fancying that I was studying her character, or some rubbish of that sort. But the fault is easily repaired." He turned about, as if he were going to look for Lydia at once, and ask her to be his wife. But he halted abruptly, and sat down. "No; that won't do," he said. "That won't do at all." He remained thinking, and Dunham, unwilling to interrupt his reverie, moved a few paces off. "Dunham, don't go. I want your advice. Perhaps I don't see it in the right light."
"How is it you see it, my dear fellow?" asked Dunham.
"I don't know whether I've a right to be explicit with her, here. It seems like taking an advantage. In a few days she will be with her friends—"
"You must wait," said Dunham, decisively. "You can't speak to her before she is in their care; it wouldn't be the thing. You're quite right about that."
"No, it wouldn't be the thing," groaned Staniford. "But how is it all to go on till then?" he demanded desperately.
"Why, just as it has before," answered Dunham, with easy confidence.
"But is that fair to her?"
"Why not? You mean to say to her at the right time all that a man can.
Till that time comes I haven't the least doubt she understands you."
"Do you think so?" asked Staniford, simply. He had suddenly grown very subject and meek to Dunham.
"Yes," said the other, with the superiority of a betrothed lover; "women are very quick about those things."
"I suppose you're right," sighed Staniford, with nothing of his wonted arrogant pretension in regard to women's moods and minds, "I suppose you're right. And you would go on just as before?"
"I would, indeed. How could you change without making her unhappy—if she's interested in you?"
"That's true. I could imagine worse things than going on just as before. I suppose," he added, "that something more explicit has its charms; but a mutual understanding is very pleasant,—if it is a mutual understanding." He looked inquiringly at Dunham.
"Why, as to that, of course I don't know. You ought to be the best judge of that. But I don't believe your impressions would deceive you."
"Yours did, once," suggested Staniford, in suspense.
"Yes; but I was not in love with her," explained Dunham.
"Of course," said Staniford, with a breath of relief. "And you think —Well, I must wait!" he concluded, grimly. "But don't—don't mention this matter, Dunham, unless I do. Don't keep an eye on me, old fellow. Or, yes, you must! You can't help it. I want to tell you, Dunham, what makes me think she may be a not wholly uninterested spectator of my —sentiments." He made full statement of words and looks and tones. Dunham listened with the patience which one lover has with another.