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Chapter 16

XVI.

As soon as Mrs. Lander could make her way to her state-room, she got into her berth, and began to take the different remedies for sea-sickness which she had brought with her. Mrs. Milray said that was nice, and that now she and Clementina could have a good time. But before it came to that she had taken pity on a number of lonely young men whom she found on board. She cheered them up by walking round the ship with them; but if any of them continued dull in spite of this, she dropped him, and took another; and before she had been two days out she had gone through with nearly all the lonely young men on the list of cabin passengers. She introduced some of them to Clementina, but at such times as she had them in charge; and for the most part she left her to Milray. Once, as the girl sat beside him in her steamer-chair, Mrs. Milray shed a wrap on his knees in whirring by on the arm of one of her young men, with some laughed and shouted charge about it.

"What did she say?" he asked Clementina, slanting the down-pulled brim of his soft hat purblindly toward her.

She said she had not understood, and then Milray asked, "What sort of person is that Boston youth of Mrs. Milray's? Is he a donkey or a lamb?"

Clementina said ingenuously, "Oh, she's walking with that English gentleman now—that lo'd."

"Ah, yes," said Milray. "He's not very much to look at, I hear."

"Well, not very much," Clementina admitted; she did not like to talk against people.

"Lords are sometimes disappointing, Clementina," Milray said, "but then, so are other great men. I've seen politicians on our side who were disappointing, and there are clergymen and gamblers who don't look it." He laughed sadly. "That's the way people talk who are a little disappointing themselves. I hope you don't expect too much of yourself, Clementina?"

"I don't know what you mean," she said, stiffening with a suspicion that he might be going to make fun of her.

He laughed more gayly. "Well, I mean we must hold the other fellows up to their duty, or we can't do our own. We need their example. Charity may begin at home, but duty certainly begins abroad." He went on, as if it were a branch of the same inquiry, "Did you ever meet my sisters? They came to the hotel in New York to see Mrs. Milray."

"Yes, I was in the room once when they came in."

"Did you like them?"

"Yes—I sca'cely spoke to them—I only stayed a moment."

"Would you like to see any more of the family?"

"Why, of cou'se!" Clementina was amused at his asking, but he seemed in earnest.

"One of my sisters lives in Florence, and Mrs. Milray says you think of going there, too."

"Mrs. Landa thought it would be a good place to spend the winter. Is it a pleasant place?"

"Oh, delightful! Do you know much about Italy?"

"Not very much, I don't believe."

"Well, my sister has lived a good while in Florence. I should like to give you a letter to her."

"Oh, thank you!" said Clementina.

Milray smiled at her spare acknowledgment, but inquired gravely: "What do you expect to do in Florence?"

"Why, I presume, whateva Mrs. Landa wants to do."

"Do you think Mrs. Lander will want to go into society?"

This question had not occurred to Clementina. "I don't believe she will," she said, thoughtfully.

"Shall you?"

Clementina laughed, "Why, do you think," she ventured, "that society would want me to?"

"Yes, I think it would, if you're as charming as you've tried to make me believe. Oh, I don't mean, to your own knowledge; but some people have ways of being charming without knowing it. If Mrs. Lander isn't going into society, and there should be a way found for you to go, don't refuse, will you?"

"I shall wait and see if I'm asked, fust."

"Yes, that will be best," said Milray. "But I shall give you a letter to my sister. She and I used to be famous cronies, and we went to a great many parties together when we were young people. We thought the world was a fine thing, then. But it changes."

He fell into a muse, and they were both sitting quite silent when Mrs. Milray came round the corner of the music room in the course of her twentieth or thirtieth compass of the deck, and introduced her lord to her husband and to Clementina. He promptly ignored Milray, and devoted himself to the girl, leaning over her with his hand against the bulkhead behind her and talking down upon her.

Lord Lioncourt must have been about thirty, but he had the heated and broken complexion of a man who has taken more than is good for him in twice that number of years. This was one of the wrongs nature had done him in apparent resentment of the social advantages he was born to, for he was rather abstemious, as Englishmen go. He looked a very shy person till he spoke, and then you found that he was not in the least shy. He looked so English that you would have expected a strong English accent of him, but his speech was more that of an American, without the nasality. This was not apparently because he had been much in America; he was returning from his first visit to the States, which had been spent chiefly in the Territories; after a brief interval of Newport he had preferred the West; he liked rather to hunt than to be hunted, though even in the West his main business had been to kill time, which he found more plentiful there than other game. The natives, everywhere, were much the same thing to him; if he distinguished it was in favor of those who did not suppose themselves cultivated. If again he had a choice it was for the females; they seemed to him more amusing than the males, who struck him as having an exaggerated reputation for humor. He did not care much for Clementina's past, as he knew it from Mrs. Milray, and if it did not touch his fancy, it certainly did not offend his taste. A real artistocracy is above social prejudice, when it will; he had known some of his order choose the mothers of their heirs from the music halls, and when it came to a question of distinctions among Americans, he could not feel them. They might be richer or poorer; but they could not be more patrician or more plebeian.

The passengers, he told Clementina, were getting up, at this point of the ship's run, an entertainment for the benefit of the seaman's hospital in Liverpool, that well-known convention of ocean-travel, which is sure at some time or other, to enlist all the talent on board every English steamer in some sort of public appeal. He was not very clear how he came to be on the committee for drumming up talent for the occasion; his distinction seemed to have been conferred by a popular vote in the smoking room, as nearly as he could make out; but here he was, and he was counting upon Miss Claxon to help him out. He said Mrs. Milray had told him about that charming affair they had got up in the mountains, and he was sure they could have something of the kind again. "Perhaps not a coaching party; that mightn't be so easy to manage at sea. But isn't there something else—some tableaux or something? If we couldn't have the months of the year we might have the points of the compass, and you could take your choice."

He tried to get something out of the notion, but nothing came of it that Mrs. Milray thought possible. She said, across her husband, on whose further side she had sunk into a chair, that they must have something very informal; everybody must do what they could, separately. "I know you can do anything you like, Clementina. Can't you play something, or sing?" At Clementina's look of utter denial, she added, desperately, "Or dance something?" A light came into the girl's face at which she caught. "I know you can dance something! Why, of course! Now, what is it?"

Clementina smiled at her vehemence. "Why, it's nothing. And I don't know whether I should like to."

"Oh, yes," urged Lord Lioncourt. "Such a good cause, you know."

"What is it?" Mrs. Milray insisted. "Is it something you could do alone?"

"It's just a dance that I learned at Woodlake. The teacha said that all the young ladies we'e leaning it. It's a skut-dance—"

"The very thing!" Mrs. Milray shouted. "It'll be the hit of the evening."

"But I've never done it before any one," Clementina faltered.

"They'll all be doing their turns," the Englishman said. "Speaking, and singing, and playing."

Clementina felt herself giving way, and she pleaded in final reluctance, "But I haven't got a pleated skut in my steama trunk."

"No matter! We can manage that." Mrs. Milray jumped to her feet and took Lord Lioncourt's arm. "Now we must go and drum up somebody else." He did not seem eager to go, but he started. "Then that's all settled," she shouted over her shoulder to Clementina.

"No, no, Mrs. Milray!" Clementina called after her. "The ship tilts so—"

"Nonsense! It's the smoothest run she ever made in December. And I'll engage to have the sea as steady as a rock for you. Remember, now, you've promised."

Mrs. Milray whirled her Englishman away, and left Clementina sitting beside her husband.

"Did you want to dance for them, Clementina?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said, with the vague smile of one to whom a pleasant hope has occurred.

"I thought perhaps you were letting Mrs. Milray bully you into it. She's a frightful tyrant."

"Oh, I guess I should like to do it, if you think it would be—nice."

"I dare say it will be the nicest thing at their ridiculous show." Milray laughed as if her willingness to do the dance had defeated a sentimental sympathy in him.

"I don't believe it will be that," said Clementina, beaming joyously. "But I guess I shall try it, if I can find the right kind of a dress."

"Is a pleated skirt absolutely necessary," asked Milray, gravely.

"I don't see how I could get on without it," said Clementina.

She was so serious still when she went down to her state-room that Mrs. Lander was distracted from her potential ailments to ask: "What is it, Clementina?"

"Oh, nothing. Mrs. Milray has got me to say that I would do something at a concert they ah' going to have on the ship." She explained, "It's that skut dance I learnt at Woodlake of Miss Wilson."

"Well, I guess if you're worryin' about that you needn't to."

"Oh, I'm not worrying about the dance. I was just thinking what I should wear. If I could only get at the trunks!"

"It won't make any matte what you wear," said Mrs. Lander. "It'll be the greatest thing; and if 't wa'n't for this sea-sickness that I have to keep fightin' off he'a, night and day, I should come up and see you myself. You ah' just lovely in that dance, Clementina."

"Do you think so, Mrs. Landa?" asked the girl, gratefully. "Well, Mr. Milray didn't seem to think that I need to have a pleated skut. Any rate, I'm going to look over my things, and see if I can't make something else do."

William Dean Howells