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One of the advantages of the negative part assigned to women in life is that they are seldom forced to commit themselves. They can, if they choose, remain perfectly passive while a great many things take place in regard to them; they need not account for what they do not do. From time to time a man must show his hand, but save for one supreme exigency a woman need never show hers. She moves in mystery as long as she likes; and mere reticence in her, if she is young and fair, interprets itself as good sense and good taste.
Lydia was, by convention as well as by instinct, mistress of the situation when she came out to breakfast, and confronted the young men again with collected nerves, and a reserve which was perhaps a little too proud. The captain was there to introduce them, and presented first Mr. Dunham, the gentleman who had spoken to her grandfather on the wharf, and then Mr. Staniford, his friend and senior by some four or five years. They were both of the fair New England complexion; but Dunham's eyes were blue, and Staniford's dark gray. Their mustaches were blonde, but Dunham's curled jauntily outward at the corners, and his light hair waved over either temple from the parting in the middle. Staniford's mustache was cut short; his hair was clipped tight to his shapely head, and not parted at all; he had a slightly aquiline nose, with sensitive nostrils, showing the cartilage; his face was darkly freckled. They were both handsome fellows, and fittingly dressed in rough blue, which they wore like men with the habit of good clothes; they made Lydia such bows as she had never seen before. Then the Captain introduced Mr. Watterson, the first officer, to all, and sat down, saying to Thomas, with a sort of guilty and embarrassed growl, "Ain't he out yet? Well, we won't wait," and with but little change of tone asked a blessing; for Captain Jenness in his way was a religious man.
There was a sixth plate laid, but the captain made no further mention of the person who was not out yet till shortly after the coffee was poured, when the absentee appeared, hastily closing his state-room door behind him, and then waiting on foot, with a half-impudent, half-intimidated air, while Captain Jenness, with a sort of elaborate repressiveness, presented him as Mr. Hicks. He was a short and slight young man, with a small sandy mustache curling tightly in over his lip, floating reddish-blue eyes, and a deep dimple in his weak, slightly retreating chin. He had an air at once amiable and baddish, with an expression, curiously blended, of monkey-like humor and spaniel-like apprehensiveness. He did not look well, and till he had swallowed two cups of coffee his hand shook. The captain watched him furtively from under his bushy eyebrows, and was evidently troubled and preoccupied, addressing a word now and then to Mr. Watterson, who, by virtue of what was apparently the ship's discipline, spoke only when he was spoken to, and then answered with prompt acquiescence. Dunham and Staniford exchanged not so much a glance as a consciousness in regard to him, which seemed to recognize and class him. They talked to each other, and sometimes to the captain. Once they spoke to Lydia. Mr. Dunham, for example, said, "Miss—ah—Blood, don't you think we are uncommonly fortunate in having such lovely weather for a start-off?"
"I don't know," said Lydia.
Mr. Dunham arrested himself in the use of his fork. "I beg your pardon?" he smiled.
It seemed to be a question, and after a moment's doubt Lydia answered,
"I didn't know it was strange to have fine weather at the start."
"Oh, but I can assure you it is," said Dunham, with a certain lady-like sweetness of manner which he had. "According to precedent, we ought to be all deathly seasick."
"Not at this time of year," said Captain Jenness.
"Not at this time of year," repeated Mr. Watterson, as if the remark were an order to the crew.
Dunham referred the matter with a look to his friend, who refused to take part in it, and then he let it drop. But presently Staniford himself attempted the civility of some conversation with Lydia. He asked her gravely, and somewhat severely, if she had suffered much from the heat of the day before.
"Yes," said Lydia, "it was very hot."
"I'm told it was the hottest day of the summer, so far," continued
Staniford, with the same severity.
"I want to know!" cried Lydia.
The young man did not say anything more.
As Dunham lit his cigar at Staniford's on deck, the former said significantly, "What a very American thing!"
"What a bore!" answered the other.
Dunham had never been abroad, as one might imagine from his calling Lydia's presence a very American thing, but he had always consorted with people who had lived in Europe; he read the Revue des Deux Mondes habitually, and the London weekly newspapers, and this gave him the foreign stand-point from which he was fond of viewing his native world. "It's incredible," he added. "Who in the world can she be?"
"Oh, I don't know," returned Staniford, with a cold disgust. "I should object to the society of such a young person for a month or six weeks under the most favorable circumstances, and with frequent respites; but to be imprisoned on the same ship with her, and to have her on one's mind and in one's way the whole time, is more than I bargained for. Captain Jenness should have told us; though I suppose he thought that if she could stand it, we might. There's that point of view. But it takes all ease and comfort out of the prospect. Here comes that blackguard." Staniford turned his back towards Mr. Hicks, who was approaching, but Dunham could not quite do this, though he waited for the other to speak first.
"Will you—would you oblige me with a light?" Mr. Hicks asked, taking a cigar from his case.
"Certainly," said Dunham, with the comradery of the smoker.
Mr. Hicks seemed to gather courage from his cigar. "You didn't expect to find a lady passenger on board, did you?" His poor disagreeable little face was lit up with unpleasant enjoyment of the anomaly. Dunham hesitated for an answer.
"One never can know what one's fellow passengers are going to be," said Staniford, turning about, and looking not at Mr. Hicks's face, but his feet, with an effect of being, upon the whole, disappointed not to find them cloven. He added, to put the man down rather than from an exact belief in his own suggestion, "She's probably some relation of the captain's."
"Why, that's the joke of it," said Hicks, fluttered with his superior knowledge. "I've been pumping the cabin-boy, and he says the captain never saw her till yesterday. She's an up-country school-marm, and she came down here with her grandfather yesterday. She's going out to meet friends of hers in Venice." The little man pulled at his cigar, and coughed and chuckled, and waited confidently for the impression.
"Dunham," said Staniford, "did I hand you that sketch-block of mine to put in your bag, when we were packing last night?"
"Yes, I've got it."
"I'm glad of that. Did you see Murray yesterday?"
"No; he was at Cambridge."
"I thought he was to have met you at Parker's." The conversation no longer included Mr. Hicks or the subject he had introduced; after a moment's hesitation, he walked away to another part of the ship. As soon as he was beyond ear-shot, Staniford again spoke: "Dunham, this girl is plainly one of those cases of supernatural innocence, on the part of herself and her friends, which, as you suggested, wouldn't occur among any other people in the world but ours."
"You're a good fellow, Staniford!" cried Dunham.
"Not at all. I call myself simply a human being, with the elemental instincts of a gentleman, as far as concerns this matter. The girl has been placed in a position which could be made very painful to her. It seems to me it's our part to prevent it from being so. I doubt if she finds it at all anomalous, and if we choose she need never do so till after we've parted with her. I fancy we can preserve her unconsciousness intact."
"Staniford, this is like you," said his friend, with glistening eyes. "I had some wild notion of the kind myself, but I'm so glad you spoke of it first."
"Well, never mind," responded Staniford. "We must make her feel that there is nothing irregular or uncommon in her being here as she is. I don't know how the matter's to be managed, exactly; it must be a negative benevolence for the most part; but it can be done. The first thing is to cow that nuisance yonder. Pumping the cabin-boy! The little sot! Look here, Dunham; it's such a satisfaction to me to think of putting that fellow under foot that I'll leave you all the credit of saving the young lady's feelings. I should like to begin stamping on him at once."
"I think you have made a beginning already. I confess I wish you hadn't such heavy nails in your boots!"
"Oh, they'll do him good, confound him!" said Staniford.
"I should have liked it better if her name hadn't been Blood," remarked Dunham, presently.
"It doesn't matter what a girl's surname is. Besides, Blood is very frequent in some parts of the State."
"She's very pretty, isn't she?" Dunham suggested.
"Oh, pretty enough, yes," replied Staniford. "Nothing is so common as the pretty girl of our nation. Her beauty is part of the general tiresomeness of the whole situation."
"Don't you think," ventured his friend, further, "that she has rather a lady-like air?"
"She wanted to know," said Staniford, with a laugh.
Dunham was silent a while before he asked, "What do you suppose her first name is?"
"Well, then,—Lurella. You have no idea of the grotesqueness of these people's minds. I used to see a great deal of their intimate life when I went on my tramps, and chanced it among them, for bed and board, wherever I happened to be. We cultivated Yankees and the raw material seem hardly of the same race. Where the Puritanism has gone out of the people in spots, there's the rankest growth of all sorts of crazy heresies, and the old scriptural nomenclature has given place to something compounded of the fancifulness of story-paper romance and the gibberish of spiritualism. They make up their names, sometimes, and call a child by what sounds pretty to them. I wonder how the captain picked up that scoundrel."
The turn of Staniford's thought to Hicks was suggested by the appearance of Captain Jenness, who now issued from the cabin gangway, and came toward them with the shadow of unwonted trouble in his face. The captain, too, was smoking.
"Well, gentlemen," he began, with the obvious indirectness of a man not used to diplomacy, "how do you like your accommodations?"
Staniford silently acquiesced in Dunham's reply that they found them excellent. "But you don't mean to say," Dunham added, "that you're going to give us beefsteak and all the vegetables of the season the whole way over?"
"No," said the captain; "we shall put you on sea-fare soon enough. But you'll like it. You don't want the same things at sea that you do on shore; your appetite chops round into a different quarter altogether, and you want salt beef; but you'll get it good. Your room's pretty snug," he suggested.
"Oh, it's big enough," said Staniford, to whom he had turned as perhaps more in authority than Dunham. "While we're well we only sleep in it, and if we're seasick it doesn't matter where we are."
The captain knocked the ash from his cigar with the tip of his fat little finger, and looked down. "I was in hopes I could have let you had a room apiece, but I had another passenger jumped on me at the last minute. I suppose you see what's the matter with Mr. Hicks?" He looked up from one to another, and they replied with a glance of perfect intelligence. "I don't generally talk my passengers over with one another, but I thought I'd better speak to you about him. I found him yesterday evening at my agents', with his father. He's just been on a spree, a regular two weeks' tear, and the old gentleman didn't know what to do with him, on shore, any longer. He thought he'd send him to sea a voyage, and see what would come of it, and he plead hard with me to take him. I didn't want to take him, but he worked away at me till I couldn't say no. I argued in my own mind that he couldn't get anything to drink on my ship, and that he'd behave himself well enough as long as he was sober." The captain added ruefully, "He looks worse this morning than he did last night. He looks bad. I told the old gentleman that if he got into any trouble at Try-East, or any of the ports where we touched, he shouldn't set foot on my ship again. But I guess he'll keep pretty straight. He hasn't got any money, for one thing."
Staniford laughed. "He stops drinking for obvious reasons, if for no others, like Artemus Ward's destitute inebriate. Did you think only of us in deciding whether you should take him?"
The captain looked up quickly at the young men, as if touched in a sore place. "Well, there again I didn't seem to get my bearings just right. I suppose you mean the young lady?" Staniford motionlessly and silently assented. "Well, she's more of a young lady than I thought she was, when her grandfather first come down here and talked of sending her over with me. He was always speaking about his little girl, you know, and I got the idea that she was about thirteen, or eleven, may be. I thought the child might be some bother on the voyage, but thinks I, I'm used to children, and I guess I can manage. Bless your soul! when I first see her on the wharf yesterday, it most knocked me down! I never believed she was half so tall, nor half so good-looking." Staniford smiled at this expression of the captain's despair, but the captain did not smile. "Why, she was as pretty as a bird. Well, there I was. It was no time then to back out. The old man wouldn't understood. Besides, there was the young lady herself, and she seemed so forlorn and helpless that I kind of pitied her. I thought, What if it was one of my own girls? And I made up my mind that she shouldn't know from anything I said or did that she wasn't just as much at home and just as much in place on my ship as she would be in my house. I suppose what made me feel easier about it, and took the queerness off some, was my having my own girls along last voyage. To be sure, it ain't quite the same thing," said the captain, interrogatively.
"Not quite," assented Staniford.
"If there was two of them," said the captain, "I don't suppose I should feel so bad about it. But thinks I, A lady's a lady the world over, and a gentleman's a gentleman." The captain looked significantly at the young men. "As for that other fellow," added Captain Jenness, "if I can't take care of him, I think I'd better stop going to sea altogether, and go into the coasting trade."
He resumed his cigar with defiance, and was about turning away when Staniford spoke. "Captain Jenness, my friend and I had been talking this little matter over just before you came up. Will you let me say that I'm rather proud of having reasoned in much the same direction as yourself?"
This was spoken with that air which gave Staniford a peculiar distinction, and made him the despair and adoration of his friend: it endowed the subject with seriousness, and conveyed a sentiment of grave and noble sincerity. The captain held out a hand to each of the young men, crossing his wrists in what seemed a favorite fashion with him. "Good!" he cried, heartily. "I thought I knew you."
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