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Chapter 9

IX.

The weather held fine. The sun shone, and the friendly winds blew out of a cloudless heaven; by night the moon ruled a firmament powdered with stars of multitudinous splendor. The conditions inspired Dunham with a restless fertility of invention in Lydia's behalf. He had heard of the game of shuffle-board, that blind and dumb croquet, with which the jaded passengers on the steamers appease their terrible leisure, and with the help of the ship's carpenter he organized this pastime, and played it with her hour after hour, while Staniford looked on and smoked in grave observance, and Hicks lurked at a distance, till Dunham felt it on his kind heart and tender conscience to invite him to a share in the diversion. As his nerves recovered their tone, Hicks showed himself a man of some qualities that Staniford would have liked in another man: he was amiable, and he was droll, though apt to turn sulky if Staniford addressed him, which did not often happen. He knew more than Dunham of shuffle-board, as well as of tossing rings of rope over a peg set up a certain space off in the deck,—a game which they eagerly took up in the afternoon, after pushing about the flat wooden disks all the morning. Most of the talk at the table was of the varying fortunes of the players; and the yarn of the story-teller in the forecastle remained half-spun, while the sailors off watch gathered to look on, and to bet upon Lydia's skill. It puzzled Staniford to make out whether she felt any strangeness in the situation, which she accepted with so much apparent serenity. Sometimes, in his frequently recurring talks with Dunham, he questioned whether their delicate precautions for saving her feelings were not perhaps thrown away upon a young person who played shuffle- board and ring-toss on the deck of the Aroostook with as much self- possession as she would have played croquet on her native turf at South Bradfield.

"Their ideal of propriety up country is very different from ours," he said, beginning one of his long comments. "I don't say that it concerns the conscience more than ours does; but they think evil of different things. We're getting Europeanized,—I don't mean you, Dunham; in spite of your endeavors you will always remain one of the most hopelessly American of our species,—and we have our little borrowed anxieties about the free association of young people. They have none whatever; though they are apt to look suspiciously upon married people's friendships with other people's wives and husbands. It's quite likely that Lurella, with the traditions of her queer world, has not imagined anything anomalous in her position. She may realize certain inconveniences. But she must see great advantages in it. Poor girl! How she must be rioting on the united devotion of cabin and forecastle, after the scanty gallantries of a hill town peopled by elderly unmarried women! I'm glad of it, for her sake. I wonder which she really prizes most: your ornate attentions, or the uncouth homage of those sailors, who are always running to fetch her rings and blocks when she makes a wild shot. I believe I don't care and shouldn't disapprove of her preference, whichever it was." Staniford frowned before he added: "But I object to Hicks and his drolleries. It's impossible for that little wretch to think reverently of a young girl; it's shocking to see her treating him as if he were a gentleman." Hicks's behavior really gave no grounds for reproach; and it was only his moral mechanism, as Staniford called the character he constructed for him, which he could blame; nevertheless, the thought of him gave an oblique cast to Staniford's reflections, which he cut short by saying, "This sort of worship is every woman's due in girlhood; but I suppose a fortnight of it will make her a pert and silly coquette. What does she say to your literature, Dunham?"

Dunham had already begun to lend Lydia books,—his own and Staniford's,—in which he read aloud to her, and chose passages for her admiration; but he was obliged to report that she had rather a passive taste in literature. She seemed to like what he said was good, but not to like it very much, or to care greatly for reading; or else she had never had the habit of talking books. He suggested this to Staniford, who at once philosophized it.

"Why, I rather like that, you know. We all read in such a literary way, now; we don't read simply for the joy or profit of it; we expect to talk about it, and say how it is this and that; and I've no doubt that we're sub-consciously harassed, all the time, with an automatic process of criticism. Now Lurella, I fancy, reads with the sense of the days when people read in private, and not in public, as we do. She believes that your serious books are all true; and she knows that my novels are all lies—that's what some excellent Christians would call the fiction even of George Eliot or of Hawthorne; she would be ashamed to discuss the lives and loves of heroes and heroines who never existed. I think that's first-rate. She must wonder at your distempered interest in them. If one could get at it, I suppose the fresh wholesomeness of Lurella's mind would be something delicious, —a quality like spring water."

He was one of those men who cannot rest in regard to people they meet till they have made some effort to formulate them. He liked to ticket them off; but when he could not classify them, he remained content with his mere study of them. His habit was one that does not promote sympathy with one's fellow creatures. He confessed even that it disposed him to wish for their less acquaintance when once he had got them generalized; they became then collected specimens. Yet, for the time being, his curiosity in them gave him a specious air of sociability. He lamented the insincerity which this involved, but he could not help it. The next novelty in character was as irresistible as the last; he sat down before it till it yielded its meaning, or suggested to him some analogy by which he could interpret it.

With this passion for the arrangement and distribution of his neighbors, it was not long before he had placed most of the people on board in what he called the psychology of the ship. He did not care that they should fit exactly in their order. He rather preferred that they should have idiosyncrasies which differentiated them from their species, and he enjoyed Lydia's being a little indifferent about books for this and for other reasons. "If she were literary, she would be like those vulgar little persons of genius in the magazine stories. She would have read all sorts of impossible things up in her village. She would have been discovered by some aesthetic summer boarder, who had happened to identify her with the gifted Daisy Dawn, and she would be going out on the aesthetic's money for the further expansion of her spirit in Europe. Somebody would be obliged to fall in love with her, and she would sacrifice her career for a man who was her inferior, as we should be subtly given to understand at the close. I think it's going to be as distinguished by and by not to like books as it is not to write them. Lurella is a prophetic soul; and if there's anything comforting about her, it's her being so merely and stupidly pretty."

"She is not merely and stupidly pretty!" retorted Dunham. "She never does herself justice when you are by. She can talk very well, and on some subjects she thinks strongly."

"Oh, I'm sorry for that!" said Staniford. "But call me some time when she's doing herself justice."

"I don't mean that she's like the women we know. She doesn't say witty things, and she hasn't their responsive quickness; but her ideas are her own, no matter how old they are; and what she says she seems to be saying for the first time, and as if it had never been thought out before."

"That is what I have been contending for," said Staniford; "that is what I meant by spring water. It is that thrilling freshness which charms me in Lurella." He laughed. "Have you converted her to your spectacular faith, yet?" Dunham blushed. "You have tried," continued Staniford. "Tell me about it!"

"I will not talk with you on such matters," said Dunham, "till you know how to treat serious things seriously."

"I shall know how when I realize that they are serious with you. Well, I don't object to a woman's thinking strongly on religious subjects: it's the only safe ground for her strong thinking, and even there she had better feel strongly. Did you succeed in convincing her that Archbishop Laud was a saint incompris, and the good King Charles a blessed martyr."

Dunham did not answer till he had choked down some natural resentment. He had, several years earlier, forsaken the pale Unitarian worship of his family, because, Staniford always said, he had such a feeling for color, and had adopted an extreme tint of ritualism. It was rumored at one time, before his engagement to Miss Hibbard, that he was going to unite with a celibate brotherhood; he went regularly into retreat at certain seasons, to the vast entertainment of his friend; and, within the bounds of good taste, he was a zealous propagandist of his faith, of which he had the practical virtues in high degree. "I hope," he said presently, "that I know how to respect convictions, even of those adhering to the Church in Error."

Staniford laughed again. "I see you have not converted Lurella. Well, I like that in her, too. I wish I could have the arguments, pro and con. It would have been amusing. I suppose," he pondered aloud, "that she is a Calvinist of the deepest dye, and would regard me as a lost spirit for being outside of her church. She would look down upon me from one height, as I look down upon her from another. And really, as far as personal satisfaction in superiority goes, she might have the advantage of me. That's very curious, very interesting."

As the first week wore away, the wonted incidents of a sea voyage lent their variety to the life on board. One day the ship ran into a school of whales, which remained heavily thumping and lolling about in her course, and blowing jets of water into the air, like so many breaks in garden hose, Staniford suggested. At another time some flying-fish came on board. The sailors caught a dolphin, and they promised a shark, by and by. All these things were turned to account for the young girl's amusement, as if they had happened for her. The dolphin died that she might wonder and pity his beautiful death; the cook fried her some of the flying-fish; some one was on the lookout to detect even porpoises for her. A sail in the offing won the discoverer envy when he pointed it out to her; a steamer, celebrity. The captain ran a point out of his course to speak to a vessel, that she might be able to tell what speaking a ship at sea was like.

At table the stores which the young men had laid in for private use became common luxuries, and she fared sumptuously every day upon dainties which she supposed were supplied by the ship,—delicate jellies and canned meats and syruped fruits; and, if she wondered at anything, she must have wondered at the scrupulous abstinence with which Captain Jenness, seconded by Mr. Watterson, refused the luxuries which his bounty provided them, and at the constancy with which Staniford declined some of these dishes, and Hicks declined others. Shortly after the latter began more distinctly to be tolerated, he appeared one day on deck with a steamer-chair in his hand, and offered it to Lydia's use, where she sat on a stool by the bulwark. After that, as she reclined in this chair, wrapped in her red shawl, and provided with a book or some sort of becoming handiwork, she was even more picturesquely than before the centre about which the ship's pride and chivalrous sentiment revolved. They were Americans, and they knew how to worship a woman.

Staniford did not seek occasions to please and amuse her, as the others did. When they met, as they must, three times a day, at table, he took his part in the talk, and now and then addressed her a perfunctory civility. He imagined that she disliked him, and he interested himself in imagining the ignorant grounds of her dislike. "A woman," he said, "must always dislike some one in company; it's usually another woman; as there's none on board, I accept her enmity with meekness." Dunham wished to persuade him that he was mistaken. "Don't try to comfort me, Dunham," he replied. "I find a pleasure in being detested which is inconceivable to your amiable bosom."

Dunham turned to go below, from where they stood at the head of the cabin stairs. Staniford looked round, and saw Lydia, whom they had kept from coming up; she must have heard him. He took his cigar from his mouth, and caught up a stool, which he placed near the ship's side, where Lydia usually sat, and without waiting for her concurrence got a stool for himself, and sat down with her.

"Well, Miss Blood," he said, "it's Saturday afternoon at last, and we're at the end of our first week. Has it seemed very long to you?"

Lydia's color was bright with consciousness, but the glance she gave Staniford showed him looking tranquilly and honestly at her. "Yes," she said, "it has seemed long."

"That's merely the strangeness of everything. There's nothing like local familiarity to make the time pass,—except monotony; and one gets both at sea. Next week will go faster than this, and we shall all be at Trieste before we know it. Of course we shall have a storm or two, and that will retard us in fact as well as fancy. But you wouldn't feel that you'd been at sea if you hadn't had a storm."

He knew that his tone was patronizing, but he had theorized the girl so much with a certain slight in his mind that he was not able at once to get the tone which he usually took towards women. This might not, indeed, have pleased some women any better than patronage: it mocked while it caressed all their little pretenses and artificialities; he addressed them as if they must be in the joke of themselves, and did not expect to be taken seriously. At the same time he liked them greatly, and would not on any account have had the silliest of them different from what she was. He did not seek them as Dunham did; their society was not a matter of life or death with him; but he had an elder-brotherly kindness for the whole sex.

Lydia waited awhile for him to say something more, but he added nothing, and she observed, with a furtive look: "I presume you've seen some very severe storms at sea."

"No," Staniford answered, "I haven't. I've been over several times, but I've never seen anything alarming. I've experienced the ordinary seasickening tempestuousness."

"Have you—have you ever been in Italy?" asked Lydia, after another pause.

"Yes," he said, "twice; I'm very fond of Italy." He spoke of it in a familiar tone that might well have been discouraging to one of her total unacquaintance with it. Presently he added of his own motion, looking at her with his interest in her as a curious study, "You're going to Venice, I think Mr. Dunham told me."

"Yes," said Lydia.

"Well, I think it's rather a pity that you shouldn't arrive there directly, without the interposition of Trieste." He scanned her yet more closely, but with a sort of absence in his look, as if he addressed some ideal of her.

"Why?" asked Lydia, apparently pushed to some self-assertion by this way of being looked and talked at.

"It's the strangest place in the world," said Staniford; and then he mused again. "But I suppose—" He did not go on, and the word fell again to Lydia.

"I'm going to visit my aunt, who is staying there. She was where I live, last summer, and she told us about it. But I couldn't seem to understand it."

"No one can understand it, without seeing it."

"I've read some descriptions of it," Lydia ventured.

"They're of no use,—the books."

"Is Trieste a strange place, too?"

"It's strange, as a hundred other places are,—and it's picturesque; but there's only one Venice."

"I'm afraid sometimes," she faltered, as if his manner in regard to this peculiar place had been hopelessly exclusive, "that it will be almost too strange."

"Oh, that's another matter," said Staniford. "I confess I should be rather curious to know whether you liked Venice. I like it, but I can imagine myself sympathizing with people who detested it,—if they said so. Let me see what will give you some idea of it. Do you know Boston well?"

"No; I've only been there twice," Lydia acknowledged.

"Then you've never seen the Back Bay by night, from the Long Bridge.
Well, let me see—"

"I'm afraid," interposed Lydia, "that I've not been about enough for you to give me an idea from other places. We always go to Greenfield to do our trading; and I've been to Keene and Springfield a good many times."

"I'm sorry to say I haven't," said Staniford. "But I'll tell you: Venice looks like an inundated town. If you could imagine those sunset clouds yonder turned marble, you would have Venice as she is at sunset. You must first think of the sea when you try to realize the place. If you don't find the sea too strange, you won't find Venice so."

"I wish it would ever seem half as home-like!" cried the girl.

"Then you find the ship—I'm glad you find the ship—home-like," said Staniford, tentatively.

"Oh, yes; everything is so convenient and pleasant. It seems sometimes as if I had always lived here."

"Well, that's very nice," assented Staniford, rather blankly. "Some people feel a little queer at sea—in the beginning. And you haven't —at all?" He could not help this leading question, yet he knew its meanness, and felt remorse for it.

"Oh, I did, at first," responded the girl, but went no farther; and Staniford was glad of it. After all, why should he care to know what was in her mind?

"Captain Jenness," he merely said, "understands making people at home."

"Oh, yes, indeed," assented Lydia. "And Mr. Watterson is very agreeable, and Mr. Mason. I didn't suppose sailors were so. What soft, mild voices they have!"

"That's the speech of most of the Down East coast people."

"Is it? I like it better than our voices. Our voices are so sharp and high, at home."

"It's hard to believe that," said Staniford, with a smile.

Lydia looked at him. "Oh, I wasn't born in South Bradfield. I was ten years old when I went there to live."

"Where were you born, Miss Blood?" he asked.

"In California. My father had gone out for his health, but he died there."

"Oh!" said Staniford. He had a book in his hand, and he began to scribble a little sketch of Lydia's pose, on a fly-leaf. She looked round and saw it. "You've detected me," he said; "I haven't any right to keep your likeness, now. I must make you a present of this work of art, Miss Blood." He finished the sketch with some ironical flourishes, and made as if to tear out the leaf.

"Oh!" cried Lydia, simply, "you will spoil the book!"

"Then the book shall go with the picture, if you'll let it," said
Staniford.

"Do you mean to give it to me?" she asked, with surprise.

"That was my munificent intention. I want to write your name in it.
What's the initial of your first name, Miss Blood?"

"L, thank you," said Lydia.

Staniford gave a start. "No!" he exclaimed. It seemed a fatality.

"My name is Lydia," persisted the girl. "What letter should it begin with?"

"Oh—oh, I knew Lydia began with an L," stammered Staniford, "but
I—I—I thought your first name was—"

"What?" asked Lydia sharply.

"I don't know. Lily," he answered guiltily.

"Lily Blood!" cried the girl. "Lydia is bad enough; but Lily Blood! They couldn't have been such fools!"

"I beg your pardon. Of course not. I don't know how I could have got the idea. It was one of those impressions—hallucinations—" Staniford found himself in an attitude of lying excuse towards the simple girl, over whom he had been lording it in satirical fancy ever since he had seen her, and meekly anxious that she should not be vexed with him. He began to laugh at his predicament, and she smiled at his mistake. "What is the date?" he asked.

"The 15th," she said; and he wrote under the sketch, Lydia Blood. Ship Aroostook, August 15, 1874, and handed it to her, with a bow surcharged with gravity.

She took it, and regarded the picture without comment.

"Ah!" said Staniford, "I see that you know how bad my sketch is.
You sketch."

"No, I don't know how to draw," replied Lydia.

"You criticise."

"No."

"So glad," said Staniford. He began to like this. A young man must find pleasure in sitting alone near a pretty young girl, and talking with her about herself and himself, no matter how plain and dull her speech is; and Staniford, though he found Lydia as blankly unresponsive as might be to the flattering irony of his habit, amused himself in realizing that here suddenly he was almost upon the terms of window-seat flirtation with a girl whom lately he had treated with perfect indifference, and just now with fatherly patronage. The situation had something more even than the usual window-seat advantages; it had qualities as of a common shipwreck, of their being cast away on a desolate island together. He felt more than ever that he must protect this helpless loveliness, since it had begun to please his imagination. "You don't criticise," he said. "Is that because you are so amiable? I'm sure you could, if you would."

"No," returned Lydia; "I don't really know. But I've often wished
I did know."

"Then you didn't teach drawing, in your school?"

"How did you know I had a school?" asked Lydia quickly.

He disliked to confess his authority, because he disliked the authority, but he said, "Mr. Hicks told us."

"Mr. Hicks!" Lydia gave a little frown as of instinctive displeasure, which gratified Staniford.

"Yes; the cabin-boy told him. You see, we are dreadful gossips on the Aroostook,—though there are so few ladies—" It had slipped from him, but it seemed to have no personal slant for Lydia.

"Oh, yes; I told Thomas," she said. "No; it's only a country school.
Once I thought I should go down to the State Normal School, and
study drawing there; but I never did. Are you—are you a painter,
Mr. Staniford?"

He could not recollect that she had pronounced his name before; he thought it came very winningly from her lips. "No, I'm not a painter. I'm not anything." He hesitated; then he added recklessly, "I'm a farmer."

"A farmer?" Lydia looked incredulous, but grave.

"Yes; I'm a horny-handed son of the soil. I'm a cattle-farmer; I'm a sheep-farmer; I don't know which. One day I'm the one, and the next day I'm the other." Lydia looked mystified, and Staniford continued: "I mean that I have no profession, and that sometimes I think of going into farming, out West."

"Yes?" said Lydia.

"How should I like it? Give me an opinion, Miss Blood."

"Oh, I don't know," answered the girl.

"You would never have dreamt that I was a farmer, would you?"

"No, I shouldn't," said Lydia, honestly. "It's very hard work."

"And I don't look fond of hard work?"

"I didn't say that."

"And I've no right to press you for your meaning."

"What I meant was—I mean—Perhaps if you had never tried it you didn't know what very hard work it was. Some of the summer boarders used to think our farmers had easy times."

"I never was a summer boarder of that description. I know that farming is hard work, and I'm going into it because I dislike it. What do you think of that as a form of self-sacrifice?"

"I don't see why any one should sacrifice himself uselessly."

"You don't? You have very little conception of martyrdom. Do you like teaching school?"

"No," said Lydia promptly.

"Why do you teach, then?" Staniford had blundered. He knew why she taught, and he felt instantly that he had hurt her pride, more sensitive than that of a more sophisticated person, who would have had no scruple in saying that she did it because she was poor. He tried to retrieve himself. "Of course, I understand that school-teaching is useful self-sacrifice." He trembled lest she should invent some pretext for leaving him; he could not afford to be left at a disadvantage. "But do you know, I would no more have taken you for a teacher than you me for a farmer."

"Yes?" said Lydia.

He could not tell whether she was appeased or not, and he rather feared not. "You don't ask why. And I asked you why at once."

Lydia laughed. "Well, why?"

"Oh, that's a secret. I'll tell you one of these days." He had really no reason; he said this to gain time. He was always honest in his talk with men, but not always with women.

"I suppose I look very young," said Lydia. "I used to be afraid of the big boys."

"If the boys were big enough," interposed Staniford, "they must have been afraid of you."

Lydia said, as if she had not understood, "I had hard work to get my certificate. But I was older than I looked."

"That is much better," remarked Staniford, "than being younger than you look. I am twenty-eight, and people take me for thirty-four. I'm a prematurely middle-aged man. I wish you would tell me, Miss Blood, a little about South Bradfield. I've been trying to make out whether I was ever there. I tramped nearly everywhere when I was a student. What sort of people are they there?"

"Oh, they are very nice people," said Lydia.

"Do you like them?"

"I never thought whether I did. They are nearly all old. Their children have gone away; they don't seem to live; they are just staying. When I first came there I was a little girl. One day I went into the grave-yard and counted the stones; there were three times as many as there were living persons in the village."

"I think I know the kind of place," said Staniford. "I suppose you're not very homesick?"

"Not for the place," answered Lydia, evasively.

"Of course," Staniford hastened to add, "you miss your own family circle." To this she made no reply. It is the habit of people bred like her to remain silent for want of some sort of formulated comment upon remarks to which they assent.

Staniford fell into a musing mood, which was without visible embarrassment to the young girl, who must have been inured to much severer silences in the society of South Bradfield. He remained staring at her throughout his reverie, which in fact related to her. He was thinking what sort of an old maid she would have become if she had remained in that village. He fancied elements of hardness and sharpness in her which would have asserted themselves as the joyless years went on, like the bony structure of her face as the softness of youth left it. She was saved from that, whatever was to be her destiny in Italy. From South Bradfield to Venice,—what a prodigious transition! It seemed as if it must transfigure her. "Miss Blood," he exclaimed, "I wish I could be with you when you first see Venice!"

"Yes?" said Lydia.

Even the interrogative comment, with the rising inflection, could not chill his enthusiasm. "It is really the greatest sight in the world."

Lydia had apparently no comment to make on this fact. She waited tranquilly a while before she said, "My father used to talk about Italy to me when I was little. He wanted to go. My mother said afterwards—after she had come home with me to South Bradfield—that she always believed he would have lived if he had gone there. He had consumption."

"Oh!" said Staniford softly. Then he added, with the tact of his sex, "Miss Blood, you mustn't take cold, sitting here with me. This wind is chilly. Shall I go below and get you some more wraps?"

"No, thank you," said Lydia; "I believe I will go down, now."

She went below to her room, and then came out into the cabin with some sewing at which she sat and stitched by the lamp. The captain was writing in his log-book; Dunham and Hicks were playing checkers together. Staniford, from a corner of a locker, looked musingly upon this curious family circle. It was not the first time that its occupations had struck him oddly. Sometimes when they were all there together, Dunham read aloud. Hicks knew tricks of legerdemain which he played cleverly. The captain told some very good stories, and led off in the laugh. Lydia always sewed and listened. She did not seem to find herself strangely placed, and her presence characterized all that was said and done with a charming innocence. As a bit of life, it was as pretty as it was quaint.

"Really," Staniford said to Dunham, as they turned in, that night, "she has domesticated us."

"Yes," assented Dunham with enthusiasm; "isn't she a nice girl?"

"She's intolerably passive. Or not passive, either. She says what she thinks, but she doesn't seem to have thought of many things. Did she ever tell you about her father?"

"No," said Dunham.

"I mean about his dying of consumption?"

"No, she never spoke of him to me. Was he—"

"Um. It appears that we have been upon terms of confidence, then." Staniford paused, with one boot in his hand. "I should never have thought it."

"What was her father?" asked Dunham.

"Upon my word, I don't know. I didn't seem to get beyond elemental statements of intimate fact with her. He died in California, where she was born; and he always had a longing to go to Italy. That was rather pretty."

"It's very touching, I think."

"Yes, of course. We might fancy this about Lurella: that she has a sort of piety in visiting the scenes that her father wished to visit, and that—Well, anything is predicable of a girl who says so little and looks so much. She's certainly very handsome; and I'm bound to say that her room could not have been better than her company, so far."

William Dean Howells

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