Lydia went back to the cabin, and presently the boy who had taken charge of her lighter luggage came dragging her trunk and bag down the gangway stairs. Neither was very large, and even a boy of fourteen who was small for his age might easily manage them.
"You can stow away what's in 'em in the drawers," said the boy. "I suppose you didn't notice the drawers," he added, at her look of inquiry. He went into her room, and pushing aside the valance of the lower berth showed four deep drawers below the bed; the charming snugness of the arrangement brought a light of housewifely joy to the girl's face.
"Why, it's as good as a bureau. They will hold everything."
"Yes," exulted the boy; "they're for two persons' things. The captain's daughters, they both had this room. Pretty good sized too; a good deal the captain's build. You won't find a better stateroom than this on a steamer. I've been on 'em." The boy climbed up on the edge of the upper drawer, and pulled open the window at the top of the wall. "Give you a little air, I guess. If you want I should, the captain said I was to bear a hand helping you to stow away what was in your trunks."
"No," said Lydia, quickly. "I'd just as soon do it alone."
"All right," said the boy. "If I was you, I'd do it now. I don't know just when the captain means to sail; but after we get outside, it might be rough, and it's better to have everything pretty snug by that time. I'll haul away the trunks when you've got 'em empty. If I shouldn't happen to be here, you can just call me at the top of the gangway, and I'll come. My name's Thomas," he said. He regarded Lydia inquiringly a moment before he added: "If you'd just as lives, I rather you'd call me Thomas, and not steward. They said you'd call me steward," he explained, in a blushing, deprecating confidence; "and as long as I've not got my growth, it kind of makes them laugh, you know,—especially the second officer."
"I will call you Thomas," said Lydia.
"Thank you." The boy glanced up at the round clock screwed to the cabin wall. "I guess you won't have to call me anything unless you hurry. I shall be down here, laying the table for supper, before you're done. The captain said I was to lay it for you and him, and if he didn't get back in time you was to go to eating, any way. Guess you won't think Captain Jenness is going to starve anybody."
"Have you been many voyages with Captain Jenness before this?" asked Lydia, as she set open her trunk, and began to lay her dresses out on the locker. Homesickness, like all grief, attacks in paroxysms. One gust of passionate regret had swept over the girl; before another came, she could occupy herself almost cheerfully with the details of unpacking.
"Only one before," said the boy. "The last one, when his daughters went out. I guess it was their coaxing got mother to let me go. My father was killed in the war."
"Was he?" asked Lydia, sympathetically.
"Yes. I didn't know much about it at the time; so little. Both your parents living?"
"No," said Lydia. "They're both dead. They died a long while ago.
I've always lived with my aunt and grandfather."
"I thought there must be something the matter,—your coming with your grandfather," said the boy. "I don't see why you don't let me carry in some of those dresses for you. I'm used to helping about."
"Well, you may," answered Lydia, "if you want." A native tranquil kindness showed itself in her voice and manner, but something of the habitual authority of a school-mistress mingled with it. "You must be careful not to rumple them if I let you."
"I guess not. I've got older sisters at home. They hated to have me leave. But I looked at it this way: If I was ever going to sea—and I was—I couldn't get such another captain as Captain Jenness, nor such another crew; all the men from down our way; and I don't mind the second mate's jokes much. He doesn't mean anything by them; likes to plague, that's all. He's a first-rate sailor."
Lydia was kneeling before one of the trunks, and the boy was stooping over it, with a hand on either knee. She had drawn out her only black silk dress, and was finding it rather crumpled. "I shouldn't have thought it would have got so much jammed, coming fifty miles," she soliloquized. "But they seemed to take a pleasure in seeing how much they could bang the trunks." She rose to her feet and shook out the dress, and drew the skirt several times over her left arm.
The boy's eyes glistened. "Goodness!" he said. "Just new, ain't it?
Going to wear it any on board?"
"Sundays, perhaps," answered Lydia thoughtfully, still smoothing and shaping the dress, which she regarded at arm's-length, from time to time, with her head aslant.
"I suppose it's the latest style?" pursued the boy.
"Yes, it is," said Lydia. "We sent to Boston for the pattern. I hate to pack it into one of those drawers," she mused.
"You needn't," replied Thomas. "There's a whole row of hooks."
"I want to know!" cried Lydia. She followed Thomas into her state- room. "Well, well! They do seem to have thought of everything!"
"I should say so," exulted the boy. "Look here!" He showed her a little niche near the head of the berth strongly framed with glass, in which a lamp was made fast. "Light up, you know, when you want to read, or feel kind of lonesome." Lydia clasped her hands in pleasure and amaze. "Oh, I tell you Captain Jenness meant to have things about right. The other state-rooms don't begin to come up to this." He dashed out in his zeal, and opened their doors, that she might triumph in the superiority of her accommodations without delay. These rooms were cramped together on one side; Lydia's was in a comparatively ample corner by itself.
She went on unpacking her trunk, and the boy again took his place near her, in the same attitude as before. "I tell you," he said, "I shall like to see you with that silk on. Have you got any other nice ones?"
"No; only this I'm wearing," answered Lydia, half amused and half honest in her sympathy with his ardor about her finery. "They said not to bring many clothes; they would be cheaper over there." She had now reached the bottom of her trunk. She knew by the clock that her grandfather could hardly have left the city on his journey home, but the interval of time since she had parted with him seemed vast. It was as if she had started to Boston in a former life; the history of the choosing and cutting and making of these clothes was like a dream of preëxistence. She had never had so many things new at once, and it had been a great outlay, but her aunt Maria had made the money go as far as possible, and had spent it with that native taste, that genius for dress, which sometimes strikes the summer boarder in the sempstresses of the New England hills. Miss Latham's gift was quaintly unrelated to herself. In dress, as in person and manner, she was uncompromisingly plain and stiff. All the more lavishly, therefore, had it been devoted to the grace and beauty of her sister's child, who, ever since she came to find a home in her grandfather's house, had been more stylishly dressed than any other girl in the village. The summer boarders, whom the keen eye of Miss Latham studied with unerring sense of the best new effects in costume, wondered at Lydia's elegance, as she sat beside her aunt in the family pew, a triumph of that grim artist's skill. Lydia knew that she was well dressed, but she knew that after all she was only the expression of her aunt's inspirations. Her own gift was of another sort. Her father was a music-teacher, whose failing health had obliged him to give up his profession, and who had taken the traveling agency of a parlor organ manufactory for the sake of the out-door life. His business had brought him to South Bradfield, where he sold an organ to Deacon Latham's church, and fell in love with his younger daughter. He died a few years after his marriage, of an ancestral consumption, his sole heritage from the good New England stock of which he came. His skill as a pianist, which was considerable, had not descended to his daughter, but her mother had bequeathed her a peculiarly rich and flexible voice, with a joy in singing which was as yet a passion little affected by culture. It was this voice which, when Lydia rose to join in the terrible hymning of the congregation at South Bradfield, took the thoughts of people off her style and beauty; and it was this which enchanted her father's sister when, the summer before the date of which we write, that lady had come to America on a brief visit, and heard Lydia sing at her parlor organ in the old homestead.
Mrs. Erwin had lived many years abroad, chiefly in Italy, for the sake of the climate. She was of delicate health, and constantly threatened by the hereditary disease that had left her the last of her generation, and she had the fastidiousness of an invalid. She was full of generous impulses which she mistook for virtues; but the presence of some object at once charming and worthy was necessary to rouse these impulses. She had been prosperously married when very young, and as a pretty American widow she had wedded in second marriage at Naples one of those Englishmen who have money enough to live at ease in Latin countries; he was very fond of her, and petted her. Having no children she might long before have thought definitely of poor Henry's little girl, as she called Lydia, but she had lived very comfortably indefinite in regard to her ever since the father's death. Now and then she had sent the child a handsome present or a sum of money. She had it on her conscience not to let her be wholly a burden to her grandfather; but often her conscience drowsed. When she came to South Bradfield, she won the hearts of the simple family, which had been rather hardened against her, and she professed an enthusiasm for Lydia. She called her pretty names in Italian, which she did not pronounce well; she babbled a great deal about what ought to be done for her, and went away without doing anything; so that when a letter finally came, directing Lydia to be sent out to her in Venice, they were all surprised, in the disappointment to which they had resigned themselves.
Mrs. Erwin wrote an epistolary style exasperatingly vacuous and diffuse, and, like many women of that sort, she used pencil instead of ink, always apologizing for it as due now to her weak eyes, and now to her weak wrist, and again to her not being able to find the ink. Her hand was full of foolish curves and dashes, and there were no spaces between the words at times. Under these conditions it was no light labor to get at her meaning; but the sum of her letter was that she wished Lydia to come out to her at once, and she suggested that, as they could have few opportunities or none to send her with people going to Europe, they had better let her come the whole way by sea. Mrs. Erwin remembered—in the space of a page and a half—that nothing had ever done her so much good as a long sea voyage, and it would be excellent for Lydia, who, though she looked so strong, probably needed all the bracing up she could get. She had made inquiries,—or, what was the same thing, Mr. Erwin had, for her,—and she found that vessels from American ports seldom came to Venice; but they often came to Trieste, which was only a few hours away; and if Mr. Latham would get Lydia a ship for Trieste at Boston, she could come very safely and comfortably in a few weeks. She gave the name of a Boston house engaged in the Mediterranean trade to which Mr. Latham could apply for passage; if they were not sending any ship themselves, they could probably recommend one to him.
This was what happened when Deacon Latham called at their office a few days after Mrs. Erwin's letter came. They directed him to the firm dispatching the Aroostook, and Captain Jenness was at their place when the deacon appeared there. The captain took cordial possession of the old man at once, and carried him down to the wharf to look at the ship and her accommodations. The matter was quickly settled between them. At that time Captain Jenness did not know but he might have other passengers out; at any rate he would look after the little girl (as Deacon Latham always said in speaking of Lydia) the same as if she were his own child.
Lydia knelt before her trunk, thinking of the remote events, the extinct associations of a few minutes and hours and days ago; she held some cuffs and collars in her hand, and something that her aunt Maria had said recurred to her. She looked up into the intensely interested face of the boy, and then laughed, bowing her forehead on the back of the hand that held these bits of linen.
The boy blushed. "What are you laughing at?" he asked, half piteously, half indignantly, like a boy used to being badgered.
"Oh, nothing," said Lydia. "My aunt told me if any of these things should happen to want doing up, I had better get the stewardess to help me." She looked at the boy in a dreadfully teasing way, softly biting her lip.
"Oh, if you're going to begin that way!" he cried in affliction.
"I'm not," she answered, promptly. "I like boys. I've taught school two winters, and I like boys first-rate."
Thomas was impersonally interested again. "Time! You taught school?"
"You look pretty young for a school-teacher!"
"Now you're making fun of me," said Lydia, astutely.
The boy thought he must have been, and was consoled. "Well, you began it," he said.
"I oughtn't to have done so," she replied with humility; "and I won't any more. There!" she said, "I'm not going to open my bag now. You can take away the trunk when you want, Thomas."
"Yes, ma'am," said the boy. The idea of a school-mistress was perhaps beginning to awe him a little. "Put your bag in your state-room first." He did this, and when he came back from carrying away her trunk he began to set the table. It was a pretty table, when set, and made the little cabin much cosier. When the boy brought the dishes from the cook's galley, it was a barbarously abundant table. There was cold boiled ham, ham and eggs, fried fish, baked potatoes, buttered toast, tea, cake, pickles, and watermelon; nothing was wanting. "I tell you," said Thomas, noticing Lydia's admiration, "the captain lives well lay-days."
"Lay-days?" echoed Lydia.
"The days we're in port," the boy explained.
"Well, I should think as much!" She ate with the hunger that tranquillity bestows upon youth after the swift succession of strange events, and the conflict of many emotions. The captain had not returned in time, and she ate alone.
After a while she ventured to the top of the gangway stairs, and stood there, looking at the novel sights of the harbor, in the red sunset light, which rose slowly from the hulls and lower spars of the shipping, and kindled the tips of the high-shooting masts with a quickly fading splendor. A delicate flush responded in the east, and rose to meet the denser crimson of the west; a few clouds, incomparably light and diaphanous, bathed themselves in the glow. It was a summer sunset, portending for the land a morrow of great heat. But cool airs crept along the water, and the ferry-boats, thrust shuttlewise back and forth between either shore, made a refreshing sound as they crushed a broad course to foam with their paddles. People were pulling about in small boats; from some the gay cries and laughter of young girls struck sharply along the tide. The noise of the quiescent city came off in a sort of dull moan. The lamps began to twinkle in the windows and the streets on shore; the lanterns of the ships at anchor in the stream showed redder and redder as the twilight fell. The homesickness began to mount from Lydia's heart in a choking lump to her throat; for one must be very happy to endure the sights and sounds of the summer evening anywhere. She had to shield her eyes from the brilliancy of the kerosene when she went below into the cabin.