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Chapter 8

VIII.

After dinner, nature avenged herself in the young men for their vigils of the night before, when they had stayed up so late, parting with friends, that they had found themselves early risers without having been abed. They both slept so long that Dunham, leaving Staniford to a still unfinished nap, came on deck between five and six o'clock.

Lydia was there, wrapped against the freshening breeze in a red knit shawl, and seated on a stool in the waist of the ship, in the Evangeline attitude, and with the wistful, Evangeline look in her face, as she gazed out over the far-weltering sea-line, from which all trace of the shore had vanished. She seemed to the young man very interesting, and he approached her with that kindness for all other women in his heart which the lover feels in absence from his beloved, and with a formless sense that some retribution was due her from him for the roughness with which Staniford had surmised her natural history. Women had always been dear and sacred to him; he liked, beyond most young men, to be with them; he was forever calling upon them, getting introduced to them, waiting upon them, inventing little services for them, corresponding with them, and wearing himself out in their interest. It is said that women do not value men of this sort so much as men of some other sorts. It was long, at any rate, before Dunham—whom people always called Charley Dunham—found the woman who thought him more lovely than every other woman pronounced him; and naturally Miss Hibbard was the most exacting of her sex. She required all those offices which Dunham delighted to render, and many besides: being an invalid, she needed devotion. She had refused Dunham before going out to Europe with her mother, and she had written to take him back after she got there. He was now on his way to join her in Dresden, where he hoped that he might marry her, and be perfectly sacrificed to her ailments. She only lacked poverty in order to be thoroughly displeasing to most men; but Dunham had no misgiving save in regard to her money; he wished she had no money.

"A good deal more motion, isn't there?" he said to Lydia, smiling sunnily as he spoke, and holding his hat with one hand. "Do you find it unpleasant?"

"No," she answered, "not at all. I like it."

"Oh, there isn't enough swell to make it uncomfortable, yet," asserted Dunham, looking about to see if there were not something he could do for her. "And you may turn out a good sailor. Were you ever at sea before?"

"No; this is the first time I was ever on a ship."

"Is it possible!" cried Dunham; he was now fairly at sea for the first time himself, though by virtue of his European associations he seemed to have made many voyages. It appeared to him that if there was nothing else he could do for Lydia, it was his duty to talk to her. He found another stool, and drew it up within easier conversational distance. "Then you've never been out of sight of land before?"

"No," said Lydia.

"That's very curious—I beg your pardon; I mean you must find it a great novelty."

"Yes, it's very strange," said the girl, seriously. "It looks like the Flood. It seems as if all the rest of the world was drowned."

Dunham glanced round the vast horizon. "It is like the Flood. And it has that quality, which I've often noticed in sublime things, of seeming to be for this occasion only."

"Yes?" said Lydia.

"Why, don't you know? It seems as if it must be like a fine sunset, and would pass in a few minutes. Perhaps we feel that we can't endure sublimity long, and want it to pass."

"I could look at it forever," replied Lydia.

Dunham turned to see if this were young-ladyish rapture, but perceived that she was affecting nothing. He liked seriousness, for he was, with a great deal of affectation for social purposes, a very sincere person. His heart warmed more and more to the lonely girl; to be talking to her seemed, after all, to be doing very little for her, and he longed to be of service. "Have you explored our little wooden world, yet?" he asked, after a pause.

Lydia paused too. "The ship?" she asked presently. "No; I've only been in the cabin, and here; and this morning," she added, conscientiously, "Thomas showed me the cook's galley,—the kitchen."

"You've seen more than I have," said Dunham. "Wouldn't you like to go forward, to the bow, and see how it looks there?"

"Yes, thank you," answered Lydia, "I would."

She tottered a little in gaining her feet, and the wind drifted her slightness a step or two aside. "Won't you take my arm, perhaps?" suggested Dunham.

"Thank you," said Lydia, "I think I can get along." But after a few paces, a lurch of the ship flung her against Dunham's side; he caught her hand, and passed it through his arm without protest from her.

"Isn't it grand?" he asked triumphantly, as they stood at the prow, and rose and sank with the vessel's careering plunges. It was no gale, but only a fair wind; the water foamed along the ship's sides, and, as her bows descended, shot forward in hissing jets of spray; away on every hand flocked the white caps. "You had better keep my arm, here." Lydia did so, resting her disengaged hand on the bulwarks, as she bent over a little on that side to watch the rush of the sea. "It really seems as if there were more of a view here."

"It does, somehow," admitted Lydia."

"Look back at the ship's sails," said Dunham. The swell and press of the white canvas seemed like the clouds of heaven swooping down upon them from all the airy heights. The sweet wind beat in their faces, and they laughed in sympathy, as they fronted it. "Perhaps the motion is a little too strong for you here?" he asked.

"Oh, not at all!" cried the girl.

He had done something for her by bringing her here, and he hoped to do something more by taking her away. He was discomfited, for he was at a loss what other attention to offer. Just at that moment a sound made itself heard above the whistling of the cordage and the wash of the sea, which caused Lydia to start and look round.

"Didn't you think," she asked, "that you heard hens?"

"Why, yes," said Dunham. "What could it have been? Let us investigate."

He led the way back past the forecastle and the cook's galley, and there, in dangerous proximity to the pots and frying pans, they found a coop with some dozen querulous and meditative fowl in it.

"I heard them this morning," said Lydia. "They seemed to wake me with their crowing, and I thought—I was at home!"

"I'm very sorry," said Dunham, sympathetically. He wished Staniford were there to take shame to himself for denying sensibility to this girl.

The cook, smoking a pipe at the door of his galley, said, "Dey won't trouble you much, miss. Dey don't gen'ly last us long, and I'll kill de roosters first."

"Oh, come, now!" protested Dunham. "I wouldn't say that!" The cook and Lydia stared at him in equal surprise.

"Well," answered the cook, "I'll kill the hens first, den. It don't make any difference to me which I kill. I dunno but de hens is tenderer." He smoked in a bland indifference.

"Oh, hold on!" exclaimed Dunham, in repetition of his helpless protest.

Lydia stooped down to make closer acquaintance with the devoted birds. They huddled themselves away from her in one corner of their prison, and talked together in low tones of grave mistrust. "Poor things!" she said. As a country girl, used to the practical ends of poultry, she knew as well as the cook that it was the fit and simple destiny of chickens to be eaten, sooner or later; and it must have been less in commiseration of their fate than in self-pity and regret for the scenes they recalled that she sighed. The hens that burrowed yesterday under the lilacs in the door-yard; the cock that her aunt so often drove, insulted and exclamatory, at the head of his harem, out of forbidden garden bounds; the social groups that scratched and descanted lazily about the wide, sunny barn doors; the anxious companies seeking their favorite perches, with alarming outcries, in the dusk of summer evenings; the sentinels answering each other from farm to farm before winter dawns, when all the hills were drowned in snow, were of kindred with these hapless prisoners.

Dunham was touched at Lydia's compassion. "Would you like—would you like to feed them?" he asked by a happy inspiration. He turned to the cook, with his gentle politeness: "There's no objection to our feeding them, I suppose?"

"Laws, no!" said the cook. "Fats 'em up." He went inside, and reappeared with a pan full of scraps of meat and crusts of bread.

"Oh, I say!" cried Dunham. "Haven't you got some grain, you know, of some sort; some seeds, don't you know?"

"They will like this," said Lydia, while the cook stared in perplexity. She took the pan, and opening the little door of the coop flung the provision inside. But the fowls were either too depressed in spirit to eat anything, or they were not hungry; they remained in their corner, and merely fell silent, as if a new suspicion had been roused in their unhappy breasts.

"Dey'll come, to it," observed the cook.

Dunham felt far from content, and regarded the poultry with silent disappointment. "Are you fond of pets?" he asked, after a while.

"Yes, I used to have pet chickens when I was a little thing."

"You ought to adopt one of these," suggested Dunham. "That white one is a pretty creature."

"Yes," said Lydia. "He looks as if he were Leghorn. Leghorn breed," she added, in reply to Dunham's look of inquiry. "He's a beauty."

"Let me get him out for you a moment!" cried the young man, in his amiable zeal. Before Lydia could protest, or the cook interfere, he had opened the coop-door and plunged his arm into the tumult which his manoeuvre created within. He secured the cockerel, and drawing it forth was about to offer it to Lydia, when in its struggles to escape it drove one of its spurs into his hand. Dunham suddenly released it; and then ensued a wild chase for its recapture, up and down the ship, in which it had every advantage of the young man. At last it sprang upon the rail; he put out his hand to seize it, when it rose with a desperate screech, and flew far out over the sea. They watched the suicide till it sank exhausted into a distant white-cap.

"Dat's gone," said the cook, philosophically. Dunham looked round. Half the ship's company, alarmed by his steeple-chase over the deck, were there, silently agrin.

Lydia did not laugh. When he asked, still with his habitual sweetness, but entirely at random, "Shall we—ah—go below?" she did not answer definitely, and did not go. At the same time she ceased to be so timidly intangible and aloof in manner. She began to talk to Dunham, instead of letting him talk to her; she asked him questions, and listened with deference to what he said on such matters as the probable length of the voyage and the sort of weather they were likely to have. She did not take note of his keeping his handkerchief wound round his hand, nor of his attempts to recur to the subject of his mortifying adventure. When they were again quite alone, the cook's respect having been won back through his ethnic susceptibility to silver, she remembered that she must go to her room.

"In other words," said Staniford, after Dunham had reported the whole case to him, "she treated your hurt vanity as if you had been her pet schoolboy. She lured you away from yourself, and got you to talking and thinking of other things. Lurella is deep, I tell you. What consummate tacticians the least of women are! It's a pity that they have to work so often in such dull material as men; they ought always to have women to operate on. The youngest of them has more wisdom in human nature than the sages of our sex. I must say, Lurella is magnanimous, too. She might have taken her revenge on you for pitying her yesterday when she sat in that warehouse door on the wharf. It was rather fine in Lurella not to do it. What did she say, Dunham? What did she talk about? Did she want to know?"

"No!" shouted Dunham. "She talked very well, like any young lady."

"Oh, all young ladies talk well, of course. But what did this one say? What did she do, except suffer a visible pang of homesickness at the sight of unattainable poultry? Come, you have represented the interview with Miss Blood as one of great brilliancy."

"I haven't," said Dunham. "I have done nothing of the kind. Her talk was like any pleasant talk; it was refined and simple, and— unobtrusive."

"That is, it was in no way remarkable," observed Staniford, with a laugh. "I expected something better of Lurella; I expected something salient. Well, never mind. She's behaved well by you, seeing what a goose you had made of yourself. She behaved like a lady, and I've noticed that she eats with her fork. It often happens in the country that you find the women practicing some of the arts of civilization, while their men folk are still sunk in barbaric uses. Lurella, I see, is a social creature; she was born for society, as you were, and I suppose you will be thrown a good deal together. We're all likely to be associated rather familiarly, under the circumstances. But I wish you would note down in your mind some points of her conversation. I'm really curious to know what a girl of her traditions thinks about the world when she first sees it. Her mind must be in most respects an unbroken wilderness. She's had schooling, of course, and she knows her grammar and algebra; but she can't have had any cultivation. If she were of an earlier generation, one would expect to find something biblical in her; but you can't count upon a Puritanic culture now among our country folks."

"If you are so curious," said Dunham, "why don't you study her mind, yourself?"

"No, no, that wouldn't do," Staniford answered. "The light of your innocence upon hers is invaluable. I can understand her better through you. You must go on. I will undertake to make your peace with Miss Hibbard."

The young men talked as they walked the deck and smoked in the starlight. They were wakeful after their long nap in the afternoon, and they walked and talked late, with the silences that old friends can permit themselves. Staniford recurred to his loss of money and his Western projects, which took more definite form now that he had placed so much distance between himself and their fulfillment. With half a year in Italy before him, he decided upon a cattle-range in Colorado. Then, "I should like to know," he said, after one of the pauses, "how two young men of our form strike that girl's fancy. I haven't any personal curiosity about her impressions, but I should like to know, as an observer of the human race. If my conjectures are right, she's never met people of our sort before."

"What sort of men has she been associated with?" asked Dunham.

"Well, I'm not quite prepared to say. I take it that it isn't exactly the hobbledehoy sort. She has probably looked high,—as far up as the clerk in the store. He has taken her to drive in a buggy Saturday afternoons, when he put on his ready-made suit,—and looked very well in it, too; and they've been at picnics together. Or may be, as she's in the school-teaching line, she's taken some high-browed, hollow- cheeked high-school principal for her ideal. Or it is possible that she has never had attention from any one. That is apt to happen to self-respectful girls in rural communities, and their beauty doesn't save them. Fellows, as they call themselves, like girls that have what they call go, that make up to them. Lurella doesn't seem of that kind; and I should not be surprised if you were the first gentleman who had ever offered her his arm. I wonder what she thought of you. She's acquainted by sight with the ordinary summer boarder of North America; they penetrate everywhere, now; but I doubt if she's talked with them much, if at all. She must be ignorant of our world beyond anything we can imagine."

"But how do you account for her being so well dressed?"

"Oh, that's instinct. You find it everywhere. In every little village there is some girl who knows how to out-preen all the others. I wonder," added Staniford, in a more deeply musing tone, "if she kept from laughing at you out of good feeling, or if she was merely overawed by your splendor."

"She didn't laugh," Dunham answered, "because she saw that it would have added to my annoyance. My splendor had nothing to do with it."

"Oh, don't underrate your splendor, my dear fellow!" cried Staniford, with a caressing ridicule that he often used with Dunham. "Of course, I know what a simple and humble fellow you are, but you've no idea how that exterior of yours might impose upon the agricultural imagination; it has its effect upon me, in my pastoral moods." Dunham made a gesture of protest, and Staniford went on: "Country people have queer ideas of us, sometimes. Possibly Lurella was afraid of you. Think of that, Dunham,—having a woman afraid of you, for once in your life! Well, hurry up your acquaintance with her, Dunham, or I shall wear myself out in mere speculative analysis. I haven't the aplomb for studying the sensibilities of a young lady, and catching chickens for her, so as to produce a novel play of emotions. I thought this voyage was going to be a season of mental quiet, but having a young lady on board seems to forbid that kind of repose. I shouldn't mind a half dozen, but one is altogether too many. Poor little thing! I say, Dunham! There's something rather pretty about having her with us, after all, isn't there? It gives a certain distinction to our voyage. We shall not degenerate. We shall shave every day, wind and weather permitting, and wear our best things." They talked of other matters, and again Staniford recurred to Lydia: "If she has any regrets for her mountain home,—though I don't see why she should have,—I hope they haven't kept her awake. My far-away cot on the plains is not going to interfere with my slumbers."

Staniford stepped to the ship's side, and flung the end of his cigarette overboard; it struck, a red spark amidst the lurid phosphorescence of the bubbles that swept backward from the vessel's prow.

William Dean Howells

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