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Chapter 21

XXI.

They arrived Friday afternoon in Trieste, and Captain Jenness telegraphed his arrival to Lydia's uncle as he went up to the consulate with his ship's papers. The next morning the young men sent their baggage to a hotel, but they came back for a last dinner on the Aroostook. They all pretended to be very gay, but everybody was perturbed and distraught. Staniford and Dunham had paid their way handsomely with the sailors, and they had returned with remembrances in florid scarfs and jewelry for Thomas and the captain and the officers. Dunham had thought they ought to get something to give Lydia as a souvenir of their voyage; it was part of his devotion to young ladies to offer them little presents; but Staniford overruled him, and said there should be nothing of the kind. They agreed to be out of the way when her uncle came, and they said good-by after dinner. She came on deck to watch them ashore. Staniford would be the last to take leave. As he looked into her eyes, he saw brave trust of him, but he thought a sort of troubled wonder, too, as if she could not understand his reticence, and suffered from it. There was the same latent appeal and reproach in the pose in which she watched their boat row away. She stood with one hand resting on the rail, and her slim grace outlined against the sky. He waved his hand; she answered with a little languid wave of hers; then she turned away. He felt as if he had forsaken her.

The afternoon was very long. Toward night-fall he eluded Dunham, and wandered back to the ship in the hope that she might still be there. But she was gone. Already everything was changed. There was bustle and discomfort; it seemed years since he had been there. Captain Jenness was ashore somewhere; it was the second mate who told Staniford of her uncle's coming.

"What sort of person was he?" he asked vaguely.

"Oh, well! Dum an Englishman, any way," said Mason, in a tone of easy, sociable explanation.

The scruple to which Staniford had been holding himself for the past four or five days seemed the most incredible of follies,—the most fantastic, the most cruel. He hurried back to the hotel; when he found Dunham coming out from the table d'hôte he was wild.

"I have been the greatest fool in the world, Dunham," he said. "I have let a quixotic quibble keep me from speaking when I ought to have spoken."

Dunham looked at him in stupefaction. "Where have you been?" he inquired.

"Down to the ship. I was in hopes that she might be still there.
But she's gone."

"The Aroostook gone?"

"Look here, Dunham," cried Staniford, angrily, "this is the second time you've done that! If you are merely thick-witted, much can be forgiven to your infirmity; but if you've a mind to joke, let me tell you you choose your time badly."

"I'm not joking. I don't know what you're talking about. I may be thick-witted, as you say; or you may be scatter-witted," said Dunham, indignantly. "What are you after, any way?"

"What was my reason for not being explicit with her; for going away from her without one honest, manly, downright word; for sneaking off without telling her that she was more than life to me, and that if she cared for me as I cared for her I would go on with her to Venice, and meet her people with her?"

"Why, I don't know," replied Dunham, vaguely. "We agreed that there would be a sort of—that she ought to be in their care before—"

"Then I can tell you," interrupted Staniford, "that we agreed upon the greatest piece of nonsense that ever was. A man can do no more than offer himself, and if he does less, after he's tried everything to show that he's in love with a woman, and to make her in love with him, he's a scamp to refrain from a bad motive, and an ass to refrain from a good one. Why in the name of Heaven shouldn't I have spoken, instead of leaving her to eat her heart out in wonder at my delay, and to doubt and suspect and dread—Oh!" he shouted, in supreme self-contempt.

Dunham had nothing to urge in reply. He had fallen in with what he thought Staniford's own mind in regard to the course he ought to take; since he had now changed his mind, there seemed never to have been any reason for that course.

"My dear fellow," he said, "it isn't too late yet to see her, I dare say. Let us go and find what time the trains leave for Venice."

"Do you suppose I can offer myself in the salle d'attente?" sneered Staniford. But he went with Dunham to the coffee-room, where they found the Osservatore Triestino and the time-table of the railroad. The last train left for Venice at ten, and it was now seven; the Austrian Lloyd steamer for Venice sailed at nine.

"Pshaw!" said Staniford, and pushed the paper away. He sat brooding over the matter before the table on which the journals were scattered, while Dunham waited for him to speak. At last he said, "I can't stand it; I must see her. I don't know whether I told her I should come on to-morrow night or not. If she should be expecting me on Monday morning, and I should be delayed—Dunham, will you drive round with me to the Austrian Lloyd's wharf? They may be going by the boat, and if they are they'll have left their hotel. We'll try the train later. I should like to find out if they are on board. I don't know that I'll try to speak with them; very likely not."

"I'll go, certainly," answered Dunham, cordially.

"I'll have some dinner first," said Staniford. "I'm hungry."

It was quite dark when they drove on to the wharf at which the boat for Venice lay. When they arrived, a plan had occurred to Staniford, through the timidity which had already succeeded the boldness of his desperation. "Dunham," he said, "I want you to go on board, and see if she's there. I don't think I could stand not finding her. Besides, if she's cheerful and happy, perhaps I'd better not see her. You can come back and report. Confound it, you know, I should be so conscious before that infernal uncle of hers. You understand!"

"Yes, yes," returned Dunham, eager to serve Staniford in a case like this. "I'll manage it."

"Well," said Staniford, beginning to doubt the wisdom of either going aboard, "do it if you think best. I don't know—"

"Don't know what?" asked Dunham, pausing in the door of the fiacre.

"Oh, nothing, nothing! I hope we're not making fools of ourselves."

"You're morbid, old fellow!" said Dunham, gayly. He disappeared in the darkness, and Staniford waited, with set teeth, till he came back. He seemed a long time gone. When he returned, he stood holding fast to the open fiacre-door, without speaking.

"Well!" cried Staniford, with bitter impatience.

"Well what?" Dunham asked, in a stupid voice.

"Were they there?"

"I don't know. I can't tell."

"Can't tell, man? Did you go to see?"

"I think so. I'm not sure."

A heavy sense of calamity descended upon Staniford's heart, but patience came with it. "What's the matter, Dunham?" he asked, getting out tremulously.

"I don't know. I think I've had a fall, somewhere. Help me in."

Staniford got out and helped him gently to the seat, and then mounted beside him, giving the order for their return. "Where is your hat?" he asked, finding that Dunham was bareheaded.

"I don't know. It doesn't matter. Am I bleeding?"

"It's so dark, I can't see."

"Put your hand here." He carried Staniford's hand to the back of his head.

"There's no blood; but you've had an ugly knock there."

"Yes, that's it," said Dunham. "I remember now; I slipped and struck my head." He lapsed away in a torpor; Staniford could learn nothing more from him.

The hurt was not what Staniford in his first anxiety had feared, but the doctor whom they called at the hotel was vague and guarded as to everything but the time and care which must be given in any event. Staniford despaired; but there was only one thing to do. He sat down beside his friend to take care of him.

His mind was a turmoil of regrets, of anxieties, of apprehensions; but he had a superficial calmness that enabled him to meet the emergencies of the case. He wrote a letter to Lydia which he somehow knew to be rightly worded, telling her of the accident. In terms which conveyed to her all that he felt, he said that he should not see her at the time he had hoped, but promised to come to Venice as soon as he could quit his friend. Then, with a deep breath, he put that affair away for the time, and seemed to turn a key upon it.

He called a waiter, and charged him to have his letter posted at once. The man said he would give it to the portier, who was sending out some other letters. He returned, ten minutes later, with a number of letters which he said the portier had found for him at the post-office. Staniford glanced at them. It was no time to read them then, and he put them into the breast pocket of his coat.

William Dean Howells

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