LOVE, THE FIDDLER
BY LLOYD OSBOURNE
TO LEWIS VANUXEM
THE CHIEF ENGINEER, FFRENCHES FIRST, THE GOLDEN CASTAWAYS, THE AWAKENING OF GEORGE RAYMOND, THE MASCOT OF BATTERY B,
THE CHIEF ENGINEER
Frank Rignold had never been the favoured suitor, not at least so far as anything definite was concerned; but he had always been welcome at the little house on Commonwealth Street, and amongst the neighbours his name and that of Florence Fenacre were coupled as a matter of course and every old lady within a radius of three miles regarded the match as good as settled. It was not Frank's fault that it was not, for he was deeply in love with the widow's daughter and looked forward to such an end to their acquaintance as the very dearest thing fate could give him. But in these affairs it is necessary to carry the lady with you—and the lady, though she had never said "no," had not yet been prevailed upon to say "yes." In fact she preferred to leave the matter as it was, and boldly forestalling a set proposal, had managed to convey to Frank Rignold that it was her wish he should not make one.
"Let us be good friends," she would say, "and as for anything else, Frank, there's plenty of time to consider that by and by. Isn't it enough already that we like each other?"
Frank did not think it was enough, but he was not without intuition and willing to accept the little offered him and be grateful—rather than risk all, and almost certainly lose all, by too exigent a suit. For Florence Fenacre was the acknowledged beauty of the town, with a dozen eligible men at her feet, and was more courted and sought after than any girl in the place. The place, to give it its name, was Bridgeport, one of those dead- alive little ports on the Atlantic seaboard, with a dozen factories and some decaying wharves and that tranquil air of having had a past.
The widow and her pretty daughter lived in a low-roofed, red-brick house that faced the street and sheltered a long deep shady garden in the rear. Land and house had been bought with whale oil. Their little income, derived from the rent of three barren and stony farms and amounting to not more than sixty dollars a month, represented a capitalisation of whale oil. Even the old grey church whither they went twice of a Sunday, was whale oil too, and had been built in bygone days by the sturdy captains who now lay all around it under slabs of stone. There amongst them was Florence's father and her grandfather and her great-grandfather, together with the Macys and the Coffins and the Cabotts with whom they had sailed and quarrelled and loved and intermarried in the years now gone. The wide world had not been too wide for them to sail it round and reap the harvests of far-off seas; but in death they lay side by side, their voyages done, their bones mingling in the New England earth.
Frank Rignold too was a son of Bridgeport, and the sea which ran in that blood for generations bade him in manhood to rise and follow it. He had gone into the engine-room, and at thirty was the chief engineer of a cargo boat running to South American ports. He was a fine-looking man with earnest grey eyes; a reader, a student, an observer; self-taught in Spanish, Latin, and French; a grave, quiet gentlemanly man, whose rare smile seemed to light his whole face, and who in his voyages South had caught something of Spanish grace and courtliness. He returned as regularly to Bridgeport as his ship did to New York; and when he stepped off the train his eager steps took him first to the Fenacres' house, his hands never empty of some little present for his sweetheart.
On the occasion of our story his step was more buoyant than ever and his heart beat high with hope, for she had cried the last time he went away, and though no word of love had yet been spoken between them, he was conscious of her increasing inclination for him and her increasing dependence. Having already won so much it seemed as though his passionate devotion could not fail to turn the scale and bring her to that admission he felt it was on her lips to make. So he strode through the narrow streets, telling himself a fairy story of how it all might be, with a little house of their own and she waiting for him on the wharf when his ship made fast; a story that never grew stale in the repetition, but which, please God, would come true in the end, with Florence his wife, and all his doubtings and heart-aches over.
Florence opened the door for him herself and gave a little cry of surprise and welcome as they shook hands, for in all their acquaintance there had never been a kiss between them. It was all he could do not to catch her in his arms, for as she smiled up at him, so radiant and beautiful and happy, it seemed as if it were his right and that he had been a fool to have ever questioned her love for him. He followed her into the sitting-room, laughing like a child with pleasure and thrilled through and through with the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand and the vague, subtle perfume of her whole being. His laughter died away, however, as he saw what the room contained. Over the chairs, over the sofa, over the table, in the stacked and open pasteboard boxes on the floor, were dresses and evening gowns outspread with the profusion of a splendid shop, and even to his unpractised eyes, costly and magnificent beyond anything he had ever seen before. Florence swept an opera cloak from a chair and made him sit down, watching him the while with a charming gaiety and excitement. At such a moment it seemed to him positively heartless.
"Florence," he said, almost with a gasp, "does this mean that you are going to be—" He stopped short. He could not say that word.
"I'm never going to marry anybody," she returned.
"But—" he began again.
"Then you haven't heard!" she cried, clasping her hands. "Oh, Frank, you haven't heard!"
"I have only just got back," he said.
"I've been left heaps of money," she exclaimed, "from my uncle, you know, the one that treated father so badly and tricked him out of the old manor farm. I hardly knew he existed till he died. And it's not only a lot, Frank, but it's millions!"
He repeated the word with a kind of groan.
"They are probating the will for six," she went on, not noticing his agitation, "but I'm sure the lawyers are making it as low as they can for the taxes. And it's the most splendid kind of property—rows of houses in the heart of New York and big Broadway shops and skyscrapers! Frank, do you realise I own two office buildings twenty stories high?"
Frank tried to congratulate her on her wonderful good fortune, but it was like a voice from the grave and he could not affect to be glad at the death-knell of all his hopes.
"That lets me out," he said.
"My poor Frank, you never were in," she said, regarding him with great kindness and compassion. "I know you are disappointed, but you are too much a man to be unjust to me."
"Oh, I haven't the right to say a word!" he exclaimed quickly. "On your side it was friends and nothing more. I always understood that, Florence."
He was shocked at her almost imperceptible sigh of relief.
"Of course, this changes everything," she said.
"Yet it would have come if it hadn't been for this," he said. "You were getting to like me better and better. You cried when I last went away. Yes, it would have come, Florence," he repeated, looking at her wistfully.
"I suppose it would, Frank," she said.
"Oh, Florence!" he exclaimed, and could not go on lest his voice should betray him.
"And we should have lived in a poky little house," she said, "and you would have been to sea three-quarters of the time, leaving me to eat my heart out as mother did for father—and it would have been a horrible, dreadful, irrevocable mistake."
"I didn't have to go to sea," he said, snatching at this crumb of hope. "There are other jobs than ships. Why, only last trip I was offered a refrigerating plant in Chicago!"
He did not tell her it bore a salary of four hundred dollars a month and that he had meant to lay it at her feet that morning. In the light of her millions that sum, so considerable an hour before, had suddenly shrunk to nothing. How puny and pitiful it seemed in the contrast. He had a sense that everything had shrunk to nothing—his life, his hopes, his future.
"I know you think I am cruel," she said, in the same calm, considerate tone she had used throughout. "But I never gave you any encouragement, Frank—not in the way you wanted or expected. You were the only person I knew who was the least bit cultivated and nice and travelled and out of the commonplace. I can't tell you how much you brightened my life here, or how glad I was when you came or how sorry I was when you went away—but it wasn't love, Frank—not the love you wished for or the love I feel I have the power to give."
"Why did you let me go on then?" he broke out, "I getting deeper and deeper into it and you knowing all the time it never could come to anything? Just because no words were said, did that make you blind? If you were such a friend of mine as you said you were, wouldn't it have been kinder to have shown me the door and tell me straight out it was hopeless and impossible? Oh, Florence, you took my love when you wanted it, like a person getting warm at a fire, and now when you don't need it any longer you tell me quite unconcernedly that it is all over between us!"
"It would sound so heartless to tell you the real truth, Frank," she said.
"Oh, let me hear it!" he said. "I'm desperate enough for anything —even for that, I suppose."
"I knew it would end the way you wanted it, Frank," she said. "You were getting to mean more and more to me. I did not love you exactly and I did not worry a particle when you were away, but I sort of acquiesced in what seemed to be the inevitable. I know I am horribly to blame, but I took it for granted we'd drift on and on—and this time, if you had asked me, I had made up my mind to say 'yes.'"
She said this last word in almost a whisper, frightened at the sight of Frank's pale face. She ran over to him, and throwing her arms around his neck kissed him again and again.
"We'll always be friends, Frank," she said. "Always, always!"
He made no movement to return her caresses. Her kisses humiliated him to the quick. He pushed her away from him, and when he spoke it was with dignity and gentleness.
"I was wrong to reproach you," he said. "I can appreciate what a difference all this money makes to you. It has lifted you into another world—a world where I cannot hope to follow you, but I can be man enough to say that I understand—that I acquiesce— without bitterness."
"I never liked you so well as I do now, Frank," she said.
"We will say nothing more about it," he said. "I couldn't blame you because you don't love me, could I? I ought rather instead to thank you—thank you for so much you have given me these two years past, your friendship, your intimacy, your trust. That it all came to nothing was neither your fault nor mine. It was your uncle's for dying and leaving you sky-scrapers!"
They both laughed at this, and Frank, now apparently quite himself again, brought forth his presents: a large box of candy, a beautifully bound little volume of Pierre Loti, and a lace collar he had picked up at Buenos Ayres. This last seemed a trifling piece of finery in the midst of all those dresses, though he had paid sixteen dollars for it and had counted it cheap at the price. Florence received it with exaggerated gratitude, genuine enough in one way, for she was touched; but, in spite of herself, her altered fortunes and the memory of those great New York shops, where she had ordered right and left, made the bit of lace seem common and scarce worth possessing. Even as she thanked him she was mentally presenting it to one of the poor Miss Browns who sang in the church choir.
They spent an hour in talking together, eluding on either side any further reference to the subject most in their thoughts and finding safety in books and the little gossip of the place and the news of the day. It might have been an ordinary call, though Frank, as a special favour, was allowed to smoke a cigar, and there was a strained look in Florence's face that gave the lie to her previous professions of indifference. She knew she was violating her own heart, but her character was already corrupting under the breath of wealth, and her head was turned with dreams of social conquests and of a great and splendid match in the roseate future. She kept telling herself how lucky it was that the money had not come too late, and wondering at the same time whether she would ever again meet a man who had such a compelling charm for her as Frank Rignold, and whose mellow voice could move her to the depths. At last, after a decent interval, Frank said he would have to leave, and she accompanied him to the door, where he begged her to remember him to her mother and added something congratulatory about the great good fortune that had befallen her.
"And now good-bye," he said.
"But you will come back, Frank?" she exclaimed anxiously.
"Oh, no!" he said. "I couldn't, Florence, I couldn't."
"I cannot let you go like this," she protested. "Really I can't, Frank. I won't!"
"I don't see very well how you can help it," he said.
"Surely my wish has still some weight with you," she said.
"Florence," he returned, holding her hand very tight, "you must not think it pique on my part or anything so petty and unworthy; but I'd rather stop right here than endure the pain of seeing you get more and more indifferent to me. It is bound to come, of course, and it would be less cruel this way than the other."
"You never can have loved me!" she exclaimed. "Didn't I say I wanted to be friends? Didn't I kiss you?"
"Yes," he said slowly, "as you might a child, to comfort him for a broken toy. Florence," he went on, "I have wanted you for the last two years and now I have lost you. I must face up to that. I must meet it with what fortitude I can. But I cannot bear to feel that every time I come you will like me less; that others will crowd me out and take my place; that the gulf will widen and widen until at last it is impassable. I am going while you still love me a little and will miss me. Good-bye!"
She leaned her head on his shoulder and sobbed. She had but to say one word to keep him, and yet she would not say it. Her heart seemed broken in her breast, and yet she let him go, sustained in her resolve by the thought of her great fortune and of the wonderful days to come.
"Good-bye," she said, and stood looking after him as he walked slowly away.
"Oh, that money, I hate it!" she exclaimed to herself as she went in. "I wish he had never left it to me. I didn't want it or expect it or anything, and I should have been happy, oh, so happy!" Then, with a pang, she recalled the refrigerating plant, and the life so quiet and poor and simple and sweet that she and Frank would have led had not her millions come between them.
It was inspiriting to repeat those two words to herself. It strengthened her resolve and made her feel how wise she had been to break with Frank. Perhaps, after all, it were better for him not to come back. He was right about the gulf between them, and even since his departure it was widening appreciably.
Then she realised what all rich people realise sooner or later.
"I don't own all that money," she said to herself. "IT OWNS ME!" And with that she went indoors and cried part of the forenoon and spent the rest of it in trying on her new clothes.
Wealth, if it did not bring happiness, at least brought some pleasant distractions.
It was fully a year before Frank saw her again; a long year to him, soberly passed in his shipboard duties, with recurring weeks ashore at New York and Buenos Ayres. He had grown more reserved and silent than before; fonder of his books; keener in his taste for abstract science. He avoided his old friends and made no new ones. The world seemed to be passing him while he stood still. He wondered how others could laugh when his own heart was so heavy, and he preferred to go his own way, solitary and unnoticed, taking an increasing pleasure in his isolation. He continued to write to Bridgeport, for there were a few old friends whom he could not disregard altogether, though he made his letters as infrequent as he could and as short. In return he was kept informed of Florence's movements; of the sensation she made everywhere; of the great people who had taken her under their wing; of her rumoured engagements; of her triumphs in Paris and London; of her yachts and horses and splendour and beauty. His correspondents showed an artless pride in the recital. It was becoming their only claim to consideration that they knew Florence Fenacre. Her dazzling life reflected a sort of glory upon themselves, and their letters ran endlessly on the same theme. It was all a modern fairy tale, and they fairly bubbled with satisfaction to think that they knew the fairy princess!
Frank read it all with exasperation. It tormented him to even hear her name; to be reminded of her in any way; to realise that she was as much alive as he himself, and not the phantom he would have preferred to keep her in his memory. Yet he was inconsistent enough to rage when a letter came that brought no news of her. He would tear it into pieces and throw it out of his cabin window. The fools, why couldn't they tell him what he wanted to know! He would carry his ill-humour into the engine-room and revenge himself on fate and the loss of the woman he loved by a harsh criticism of his subordinates. A defective pump or a troublesome valve would set his temper flaming; and then, overcome at his own injustice, he would go to the other extreme; and, roundly blaming himself, would slap some sullen artificer on the back and tell him that it was all a joke. His men, amongst themselves, called him a wild cracked devil, and it was the tattle of the ship that he drank hard in secret. They knew something was wrong with him, and fastened on the likeliest cause. Others said out boldly that the chief engineer was going crazy.
One morning as they were running up the Sound, homeward-bound, they passed a large steam yacht at anchor. Frank happened to be on deck at the time, and he joined with the rest in the little chorus of admiration that went up at the sight of her.
"That's the Minnehaha," said the second mate. "She belongs to the beautiful heiress, Miss Fenacre!"
"Ready for a Mediterranean cruise," said the purser, who had been reading one of the newspapers the pilot had brought aboard.
Frank heard these two remarks in silence. The sun, to him, seemed to stop shining. The morning that had been so bright and pleasant all at once overcame him with disgust. The might-have-been took him by the throat. He descended into the engine-room to hide his dejected face in the heated oily atmosphere below; and seating himself on a tool-chest he watched, with hardly seeing eyes, the ponderous movement of his machinery.
It was the anodyne for his troubles, to feel the vibration of the engines and hear the rumble and hiss of the jacketed cylinders. It always comforted him; he found companionship in the mighty thing he controlled; he looked at the trembling needle in the gauge, and instinctively noted the pressure as he thought of the trim smart vessel at anchor and of his dear one on the eve of parting. He wondered whether they would ever pass again, he and she, in all the years to come.
The thought of the yacht haunted him all that day. He took a sudden revulsion against the grinding routine of his own life. It came over him like a new discovery, that he was tired of South America, tired of his ship, tired of everything. He contrasted his own voyages in and out, from the same place to the same place, up and down, up and down, as regular as the swing of a pendulum with that gay wanderer of the raking masts who was free to roam the world. It came over him with an insistence that he, too, would like to roam the world, and see strange places and old marble palaces with steps descending into the blue sea water, and islands with precipices and beaches and palm trees.
Almost awed at his own presumption he sat down and wrote to Miss Fenacre.
It was a short note, formally addressed, begging her for a position in the engine-room staff. He knew, he said, that the quota was probably made up, and that he could not hope for an important place. But if she would take him as a first-class artificer he would be more than grateful, and ventured on the little pleasantry that even if he had to be squeezed in as a supernumerary he was confident he could save her his pay and keep a good many times over.
He got an answer a couple of days later, addressed from a fashionable New York hotel and granting him an interview. She called him "dear Frank," and signed herself "ever yours," and said that of course she would give him anything he wanted, only that she would prefer to talk it over first.
He put on his best clothes and went to see her, being shown into a large suite on the second floor, where he had to wait an hour in a lofty anteroom with no other company but a statue of Pocahontas. He was oppressed by the gorgeousness of the surroundings—by the frowning pictures, the gilt furniture, the onyx-topped tables, the vases, the mirrors, the ornate clocks. He was in a fever of expectation, and could not fight down his growing timidity. He had not seen Florence for a year, and his heart would have been as much in his mouth had the meeting been set in the old brick house at Bridgeport. At least he said so to himself, not caring to confess that he was daunted by the magnificence of the apartment.
At length the door opened and she came in. She stood for a moment with her hand on the knob and looked at him; then she came over to him with a little rush and took his outstretched hand. He had forgotten how beautiful she was, or probably he had never really known, as he had never beheld her before in one of those wonderful French creations that cost each one a fortune. He stumbled over his words of greeting, and his hand trembled as he held hers.
"Oh, Frank," she said, noticing his agitation. "Are you still silly enough to care?"
"I am afraid I do, Florence," he said, blushing like a boy at her unexpected question. "What's the good of asking me that?"
"You are looking handsome, Frank," she ran on. "I am proud of you. You have the nicest hair of any man I know!"
"I daren't say how stunning you look, Florence," he returned.
"Frank," she said, slowly, fixing her lustrous eyes on his face, "you usen't to be so grave. ... I don't think you have smiled much lately ... you are changed."
He bore her scrutiny with silence.
"Poor boy!" she exclaimed, impulsively taking his hand. "I'm the most heartless creature in the whole world. Do you know, Frank, though I look so nice and girlish, I am really a brute; and when I die I am sure to go to hell."
"I hope not," he said, smiling.
"Oh, but I know!" she cried. "All I ever do is to make people miserable."
"Perhaps it's the people's fault, for—for loving you, Florence," he said.
"It's awfully exciting to see you again," she went on. "You came within an ace of being my husband. I might have belonged to you and counted your washing. It's queer, isn't it? Thrilling!"
"Why do you bring all that up, Florence?" he said. "It's done. It's over. I—I would rather not speak of it."
"But it was such an awfully near thing, Frank," she persisted. "I had made up my mind to take you, you know. I had even looked over my poor little clothes and had drawn a hundred dollars out of the savings bank!"
"You don't take much account of a hundred dollars now," he returned, trying to smile.
"I know you don't want to talk about it," she said, "but I do. I love to play with emotions. I suppose it's a habit, like any other," she continued, "and it grows on one like opium or morphine. That's why I'll go to hell, Frank. It wasn't that way at all when you used to know me. I think I must have been nice then, and really worth loving!"
"Oh, yes!" he returned miserably. "Oh, yes!"
"I have a whole series of the most complicated emotions about you," she said, "only a lot of them are unexploded, like fire crackers before they are touched off. If I lost all my money I'd be in a panic till you came and took me; but as long as I have it I don't think of you more than once a week. Yet, do you know, Frank, if you got a sweetheart, I believe I'd scratch her eyes out. It's rather fine of me to tell you all that," she went on, with a smile, "for I'm giving you the key of the combination, and you might take advantage of it!"
"Florence," he said, "I thought at first you were just laughing at me, but I see that you are right. You are heartless. You oughtn't to talk like that."
She looked a shade put out.
"Well, Frank, it's the truth, anyway," she said, "and in the old days we were always such sticklers for the truth—for sincerity, you know—weren't we?"
"I have no business to correct you," he said humbly. "I resigned all my pretensions that morning in the old house."
"Well, so long as you love me still!" she exclaimed, with a little mocking laugh. "That's the great thing, isn't it? I mean for me, of course. I am greedy for love. It makes me feel so safe and comfortable to think there are whole rows of men that love me. When you have a great fortune you begin to appreciate the things that money cannot buy."
"Oh, your money!" he said. That word in her mouth always stung him.
"Well, you ought to hate my money," she remarked cheerfully. "It queered you, didn't it? And then all rich people are detestable, anyway—selfish to the core, and horrid. Do you know that sometimes when I have flirted awfully with a man at a dinner or somewhere, and the next day he telephones—and the telephone is in the next room—I've just said: 'Oh, bother! tell him I'm out,' rather than take the trouble to get up from my chair. And a nice man, too!"
"I thought I might be treated the same way," he said.
"Then you thought wrong, Frank," she returned, with a sudden change from her tone of flippancy and lightness. "I haven't sunk quite as low as that, you know. I meant other people—I didn't mean you, Frank, dear."
This was said with such a little ring of kindness that Frank was moved.
"Then the old days still count for something?" he said.
"Oh, yes!" she said.
"But not enough to hurt?" he ventured.
"Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," she returned. "It depends on how good a time I'm having. But I hate to think I'm weak and selfish and vain, and that the only person I really care for is myself. I value my self-esteem, and it often gets an awful jar. Sometimes I feel like a girl that has run away from home— diamonds and dyed hair, you know—and then wakes up at night and cries to think of what a price she has paid for all her fine things!" Florence waved her hand towards the alabaster statue of Pocahontas, with a little ripple of self-disdain. She was in a strange humour, and beneath the surface of her apparent gaiety there ran an undercurrent of bitterness and contempt for herself. Her eyes were unusually brilliant, and her cheeks were pink enough to have been rouged. The sight of her old lover had stirred many memories in her bosom.
"And what about my job, Florence?" he said, changing the conversation. "I've caught the yachting idea, too. Can it be managed?"
"Oh, I want to talk to you about that," she said.
"Well, go on," he said, as she hesitated.
"I am so afraid of hurting your feelings, Frank," she said with a singular timidity.
"My feelings are probably tougher than you think," he returned.
"You will think so badly of me," she said. "You will be affronted."
"It sounds as though you wanted to engage me for your butler," he said. Then, as she still withheld the words on her lips, he went on: "Don't be uneasy about saying it, Florence. If it's impossible—why, that's the end of it, of course, and no harm done."
"I want you to come," she said simply.
"Then, what's the trouble?" he demanded, getting more and more mystified. "I don't mind being an artificer the least bit. I like to work with my hands. I'm a good mechanic, and I like it."
"I want you for my chief engineer," she said.
This was news, indeed. Frank's face betrayed his keen pleasure. He had never soared to the heights of asking or expecting THAT.
"I had to dismiss the last one," she went on. "That's the reason why I'm still here, and not two days out, as I had expected. He locked himself in his cabin and shot at people through the door, and told awful lies to the newspapers."
"If it's anything about my qualifications," he said, thinking he had found the reason of her backwardness, "I don't fancy I'll have any trouble to satisfy you. I don't want to toot my own horn, Florence, but really, you know, I am rated a first-class man. I'll prove that by my certificates and all that, or give me two weeks' trial, and see for yourself."
"Oh, it isn't that," she said.
"Then, what is it?" he broke out. "Only the other day they offered me a Western Ocean liner, and, if you like, I'll send you the letter. If I am good enough for a big passenger ship, I guess I can run the Minnehaha to please you!"
"Frank," she returned, "it is not a question of your competency at all. You know very well I'd trust my life to you, blindfold. It's —it's the social side, the old affair between us, the first names and all that kind of thing."
"Oh, I see!" he said blankly.
"As an officer on my ship," she said, "you could easily put yourself and me in a difficult position. In a way, we'll really be further apart than if you were in South America and I in Monte Carlo, for, though we'd always be good friends, and all that, the formalities would have to be observed. Now, I have offended you?" she added, putting out her hand appealingly.
"I think you might have known me better, Florence," he returned. "I am not offended—what right have I to be offended—only a little hurt, perhaps, to think that you could doubt me for a single moment in such a matter. I understand very well, and appreciate the need for it. Did you expect me to call you Florence on the quarterdeck of your own vessel, and presume on our old friendship to embarrass you and set people talking? Good Heavens, what do you take me for?"
"Don't be angry with me, Frank," she pleaded. "It had to be said, you know. I wanted you so much to come; I wanted to share my beautiful vessel with you; and yet I dreaded any kind of a false position."
"I shall treat you precisely as I would any owner of any ship I sailed on," he said. "That is, with respect and always preserving my distance. I will never address you first except to say good- morning and good-evening, and will show no concern if you do not speak to me for days on end."
"Oh, Frank, you are an angel!" she cried.
"No," he returned, "only—as far as I can—a gentleman, Miss Fenacre."
"We needn't begin now, Frank," she exclaimed, almost with annoyance.
"Am I in your service?" he asked.
"From to-day," she answered, "and I will give you a note to Captain Landry."
"Then you will be Miss Fenacre to me from now on," he said.
"You must say good-bye to Florence first," she said, smiling. "You may kiss my hand," she said, as she gave it to him. "You used to do it so gallantly in the old days—such a Spaniard that you are, Frank—and I liked it so much!"
He did so, and for the first time in his life with a kind of shame.
"I hope we are not both of us making a terrible mistake, Florence," he said.
"Oh, I couldn't want a better chief!" she said, "and, as for you, it's the wisest thing you ever did. It's me, after all, who is making the sacrifice, for, in a month or two, all the gilt will wear off, and you will see me as I really am. You will find it very disillusioning to go to sea with your divinity," she added. "You will discover she is a very flesh-and-blood affair, after all, Frank, and not worth the tip of your little finger."
"I had a good many opportunities of judging before," he replied, "and the more I knew her the more I loved her."
"Well, I am changed now," she said. "I suppose all the bad has come to the surface since—like the slag when they melt iron and skim it off with dippers—only with me there's nobody to dip. If I am astounded at the difference, what do you suppose you'll be?"
"There never could be any difference to me," he said.
"That's the only kind of love worth talking about," she said, going to the window and looking out.
For a while neither of them spoke. Frank rose and stood with his hat in his hand, waiting to take his departure. Florence turned, and going to an escritoire sat down and wrote a few lines on a card.
"Present this to Captain Landry," she said, "and, now, my dear chief engineer, I will give you your conge."
He thanked her, and put the card carefully in his pocketbook.
"What a farce it all is, Frank!" she broke out. "There's something wrong in a system that gives a girl millions of dollars to do just as she likes with. I don't care what they say to the contrary; I believe women were meant to belong to men, to live in semi-slavery and do what they are told, to bring up children and travel with the pots and pans, and find their only reward in pleasing their husbands."
"I wouldn't care to pass an opinion," said Frank. "Some of them are happy that way, no doubt."
"What does anybody want except to be happy?" she continued, in the same strain of resentment. "Isn't that what all are trying for as hard as they can? I'd like to go out in the street and stop people as they came along and ask them, the one after the other: 'Would you tell me if you are happy?' And the one that said 'yes' I'd give a hundred dollars to!"
"As like as not it would be some shabby fellow with no overcoat," said Frank.
"Now you can go away!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I don't know what's the matter with me, Frank. I think I'm going to cry! Go, go!" she cried imperiously, as he still stood there.
Frank bowed and obeyed, and his last glimpse, as he closed the door, was of her at the window, looking down disconsolately into the street below.
Spring was well begun when the Minnehaha sailed for Europe to take her place in the mimic fleets that were already assembling. As like seeks like, so the long, swift white steamer headed like a bird for her faraway companions, and arrived amongst them with colours flying, and her guns roaring out salutes. By herself she was greedy for every pound of steam and raced her engines as though speed were a matter of life and death; but, once in company, she was content to lag with the slowest, and suit her own pace to the stately progress of the schooners and cutters that moved by the wind alone. She found friends amongst all nations, and, in that cosmopolitan society of ships, dipped her flag to those of England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
It was a wonderful life of freedom and gaiety. A great yacht carries her own letter of introduction, and is accorded everywhere the courtesies of a man-of-war, to whom, in a sense, she is a sister. Official visits are paid and returned; naval punctilio reigns; invitations are lavished from every side. There is, besides, a freemasonry amongst those splendid wanderers of the sea, a transcendent Bohemianism, that puts them nearly all upon a common footing. A holiday spirit is in the air, and kings and princes who at home are hidden within walls of triple brass, here unbend like children out of school, and make friends and gossip about their neighbours and show off their engine-rooms and their ice plant and some new idea in patent boat davits after the manner of very ordinary mortals. Not of course that kings and princes predominate, but the same spirit prevailed with those who on shore held their heads very high and practised a jealous exclusiveness. Amongst them all Florence Fenacre was a favourite of favourites. Young, beautiful, and the mistress of a noble fortune, there was everything to cast a glamour about this charming American who had come out of the unknown to take all hearts by storm.
Her haziness about distinctions of rank filled these Europeans with an amused amazement. There was to them something quite royal in her naivety and lack of awe; in her high spirit, her vivacity, and her absolute disregard of those who failed to please her. She convulsed one personage by describing another as "that tiresome old man who's really too disreputable to have tagging around me any longer"; and had a quarrel and a making up with a reigning duke about a lighter of coal that their respective crews had come to blows over. Everybody adored her, and she seldom put to sea without a love-sick yacht in her wake.
Of course, here as elsewhere, every phase of human character was displayed, and most conspicuous of all amongst the evil was the determination of many to win Florence's millions for themselves. Amid that noble concourse of vessels, every one of which stood for a princely income, there were adventurers as needy and as hungry as any sharper in the streets of New York. There is an aristocratic poverty, none the less real because three noughts must be added to all the figures, that first surprised and then disgusted the pretty American. Her first awakening to the fact was when, as a special favour, she sold her best steam launch to a French marquise at the price it had cost her. Though that lady was very profuse with little pink notes and could purr over Florence by the hour, her signature on a cheque was never forthcoming, and our heroine had a fit of fury to think of having been so deceived.
"It was a downright confidence trick," she burst out to the comte de Souvary, firing up afresh with the memory of her wrongs. "I loved my launch. It was a beauty. It never went dotty at the time you needed it most and it was a vertical inverted triple-expansion direct-acting propeller!' (Florence could always rattle off technical details and showed her Americanism in her catalogue-like fluency in this respect.) "And I miss it and I want it back, and the horrid old woman never means to pay me a penny!"
"Oh, my child!" said the count, "she never pays anybody ze penny. She is a stone from which one looks in vain for blood. Your launch is—what do you call it in ze Far Vest—a goner!"
"But she's descended from Charlemagne," cried Florence. "She has the entree to all the courts. She ought to be exposed for stealing my boat!"
"What does anybody do when he is robbed?" said the count philosophically. He could afford to be philosophical: it wasn't HIS vertical inverted triple-expansion direct-acting propeller. "Smile and be more careful ze next time," he went on. "The marquise's reputation is international for what is charitably called her eccentricity."
"In America they put people in jail for that kind of eccentricity!" exclaimed Florence.
"Oh, the best way in Europe is money-with-order," said the count, "what I remember once a friend seeing in that great country of which you are ze ornament—in God we trust: all others cash!"
"Well, it's a shame," said Florence, "and if I ever get the chance of a dark night I'll ram her with the Minnehaha!"
Florence's mother, a dear little old lady who did tatting and read the Christian Herald, was always the particular target of the fortune-hunters who pursued her daughter. It seemed such a brilliant idea to capture the mother first as the preparatory step of getting into the good graces of the heiress; and the old lady, who was one of the most guileless of her sex, never failed to fall into the trap and take the attentions all in earnest. Comte de Souvary used to say that if you wished to find the wickedest men in Europe you had only to cast your eyes in the direction of Florence's mother; and she would be trotted off to church and driven in automobiles and lunched in casinos by the most notorious and unprincipled scapegraces of the Old World.
Florence, who, like all heiresses, had developed a positive instinct for the men who meant her mischief, was always delighted at the repeated captures of the old lady; and it was an endless entertainment to her when her mother was induced to champion the cause of some aristocratic ne'er-do-well.
"But, Mamma," she would say, "I hate to call your friends names, but really he's a perfect scamp, and underneath all his fine manners he is no better than a wolf ravening for rich young lambs!"
"Oh, Florence, how can you be so uncharitable!" her mother would retort. "If you could only hear the way he speaks of his mother and his ruined life, and how he is trying to be a better man for your sake—"
"Always the same old story," said Florence. "It's wonderful the good I do just sailing around and radiating moral influence. The count says I ought to get a medal from the government with my profile on one side and a composite picture of my admirers on the other! And if I do, Mamsey, I'll give it to you to keep!"
Frank Rignold was sometimes tempted to curse the day that had ever brought him aboard the Minnehaha. To be a silent spectator of gaieties and festivities he could not share; to be condemned to stand aloof while he saw the woman he loved petted and sought after by men of exalted position—what could be imagined more detestable to a lover without hope, without the shadow of a claim, with nothing to look forward to except the inevitable day when a luckier fellow would carry her off before his eyes. He moped in secret and often spent hours locked in his cabin, sitting with his face in his hands, a prey to the bitterest melancholy and dejection. In public, however, he always bore himself unflinchingly, and was too proud a man and too innately a gentleman to allow his face to be read even by her. It was incumbent on him, so long as he drew her pay and wore her uniform, to act in all respects the part he was cast to play; and no one could have guessed, except perhaps the girl herself, that he had any other thought save to do his duty cheerfully and well.
Captain Landry sat in the saloon at the bottom of the table, Florence herself taking the head; but the other officers of the ship had a cosey messroom of their own, presided over by Frank Rignold as the officer second in rank on board. Thus whole days might pass with no further exchange between himself and Florence than the customary good-morning when they happened to meet on deck. Except on the business of the ship it was tacitly understood that no officer should speak to her without being first addressed. The discipline of a man-of-war prevailed; everything went forward with stereotyped precision and formality; the officers were supposed to comport themselves with impassivity and self- effacement. Florence had no more need of being conscious of their presence than if they had been so many automatons.
Her life and theirs offered a strange contrast. She in her little court of idlers and merry-makers; they, the grave men who were answerable for her safety, the exponents of a rigid routine, to whom the clang of the bells brought recurring duties and the exercise of their professional knowledge. To her, yachting was a play: to them, a business.
"I often remark your chief engineer," said the comte de Souvary to Florence. "A handsome man, with an air at once sad and noble—one of zoze extraordinary Americans who keep for their machines the ardour we Europeans lavish on the women we love—and whose spirits when zey die turn without doubt into petrole or electricity."
"I have known Mr. Rignold ever since I was a child," said Florence, pleased to hear Frank praised. "I regard him as one of my best and dearest friends."
"The more to his credit," said the count, astonished. "Many in such a galere would prove themselves presumptuous and troublesome."
"He is almost too much the other way," said Florence, with a sigh.
"Ah, that appeals to me!" said the count. "I should be such anozzer in his place. Proud, silent, unobtrusive, who gives dignity to what otherwise would be a false position."
"I came very near being his wife once," said Florence, impelled, she hardly knew why, to make the confession.
The count was thunderstruck.
"His wife!" he exclaimed.
"Before I was rich, you know," explained Florence. "A million years ago it seems now, when I lived in a little town and was a nobody."
"Anozzer romance of the Far Vest!" cried the count, to whom this term embraced the entire continent from Maine to San Francisco.
Florence was curiously capricious in her treatment of Frank Rignold. Often she would neglect him for weeks together, and then, in a sort of revulsion, would go almost to the other extreme. Sometimes at night, when he would be pacing the deck, she would come and take his arm and call him Frank under her breath and ask him if he still loved her; and in a manner half tender, half mocking, would play on his feelings with a deliberate enjoyment of the pain she inflicted. Her greatest power of torment was her frankness. She would talk over her proposals; weigh one against the other; revel in her self-analysis and solemnly ask Frank his opinion on this or that part of her character. She talked with equal freedom of her regard for himself, and was almost brutal in confessing how hard it was to hold herself back.
"I think I must be awfully wicked, Frank," she said to him once. "I love you so dearly, and yet I wouldn't marry you for anything!" And then she ran on as to whether she ought to take Souvary and live in Paris or Lord Comyngs and choose London. "It's so hard to decide," she said, "and it's so important, because one couldn't change one's mind afterwards."
"Not very well," said Frank.
"You mustn't grind your teeth so loud," she said. "It's compromising."
"I wish you would talk about something else or go away," he said, goaded out of his usual politeness.
"Oh, I love my little stolen tete-a-tetes with you!" she exclaimed. "All those other men are used up, emotionally speaking. The count would turn a neat phrase even if he were to blow his brains out the next minute. They think they are splendidly cool, but it only means that they have exhausted all their powers of sensation. You are delightfully primitive and unspoiled, and then I suppose it is natural to like a fellow-countryman best, isn't it? Now, honest—have you found any girls over here you like as well as me?"
"I haven't tried to find any," said Frank.
"You aren't a bit disillusioned, are you?" she said. "You simply shut your eyes and go it blind. A woman likes that in a man. It's what love ought to be. It's silly of me to throw it away."
"Perhaps it is, Florence," he said. "Who knows but what some day you may regret it?"
"I often think of that," she returned. "I am afraid all the good part of me loves you, and all the bad loves the counts and dukes and earls, you know. And the good is almost drowned in all the rest, like vegetables in vegetable soup."
She excelled in giving such little dampers to sentiment, and laughed heartily at Frank's discomfiture.
"You can be awfully cruel," he said. "I wonder you can be so beautiful when you can think such things and say them. You treat hearts like toys and laugh when you break them."
"Well, there's one thing, Frank," she said seriously. "I have never pretended to you or tried to appear better than I am; and you are the only man I can say that to and not lie!"
The comte de Souvary, towards whom Florence betrayed an inclination that seemed at times to deserve a warmer word, was a French gentleman nearing forty. He was a man of distinguished appearance, with all the gaiety, grace, and charm that, in spite our popular impression to the contrary, are not seldom found amongst the nobles of his country. His undoubted wealth and position redeemed his suit from any appearance of being inspired by a mercenary motive. Indeed, he was accustomed himself to be pursued, and Florence and he recognised in each other a fellowship of persecution.
"We are ze Pale Faces," he would say, "and ze ozzers zey are Indians closing in from every corner of ze Far Vest for our scalps!"
He was, in many ways, the most accomplished man that Florence had ever known. He was a violinist, a singer, a poet, and yet these were but a part of his various gifts; for in everything out of doors he was no less a master and took the first place as though by right. He was the embodiment of everything daring and manly; it seemed natural for him to excel; he simply did not know what fear was. He was always ready to smile and turn a little joke, whether speeding in his automobile at a breakneck pace or ballooning above the clouds in search of what was to him the breath of life: "ze sensation." He could never see a new form of "ze sensation" without running for it like a child for a new toy. His whole attitude towards the world was that of a furious curiosity. He could not bear to leave it, he said, until all he had learned how all the wheels went round. He had stood on the Matterhorn. He had driven the Sud express. He had exhausted lions and tigers. In moods of depression he would threaten to follow Andree to the pole and figure out his plans on the back of an envelope.
"Magnificent!" he would cry, growing instantly cheerful at the prospect. "Think of ze sensation!"
He spoke English fluently, though shaky on the TH and the W, and it was first hand and not mentally translated. His pronunciation of Far West, two words that were constantly on his lips, was an endless entertainment to Florence, and out of a sense of humour she forebore to correct him. It was typical, indeed, of his ignorance of everything American. Europe was at his fingers' ends; there was not a country in it he was not familiar with; intimately familiar, knowing much of what went on behind the scenes, and the lives and characters of the men, and not less the women, who shaped national policies and held the steering-wheels of state.
"Muravief would never do that," he would say. "He is constitutionally inert, and his imagination has carried him through too many unfought wars for him to throw down the gage now. He smokes cigarettes and dreams of endless peace. I had many talks with him last year and found him impatient of any subject but the redemption of the paper rouble!"
But his mind had never crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He still thought that the Civil War had been between North and South America. To him the United States was a vague region peopled with miners, pork-packers, and Indians; a jumble of factories, forests, and red-shirted men digging for gold, all of it fantastically seen through the medium of Buffalo Bill's show. It was a constant wonder to him that such conditions had been able to produce a woman like Florence Fenacre.
"You are the flower of ze prairie," he would say, "an atavism of type, harking back a dozen generations to aristocratic progenitors, having nothing in common with the Pathfinder your Papa!"
"He wasn't a pathfinder," said Florence, "he was a whaler captain."
But this to the count seemed only the more remarkable. He raised the fabric of a fresh romance on the instant, especially (on Florence telling him more about her forebears) when he began to mix up the Pilgrim Fathers, the Revolutionary War, and the Alabama in one brisk panorama of his ever dear "Far Vest"!
Florence's acquaintance with the comte de Souvary went back to Majorca, where, in the course of one of those sudden blows, so common on the Mediterranean, their respective yachts had fled for shelter. His own was a large auxiliary schooner called the Paquita, a lofty, showy vessel which he sailed himself with his usual courage and audacity. He had the reputation of scaring his unhappy guests—when any were bold enough to accept his invitations—to within the proverbial inch of their lives; and they usually changed "ze sensation" for the nearest mail-boat home. Florence and he had struck up a warm friendship from the start, and for the whole summer their vessels were inseparable, sailing everywhere in company and anchoring side by side.
The count had a way of courtship peculiarly his own. He made it apparent from the first how deeply he had been stirred by Florence's beauty and how ready he was to offer her his hand; but as a matter of fact he never did so in set terms, and treated her more as a comrade than a divinity. He talked of his own devotion to her as something detached and impersonal, willing as much as she to laugh over it and treat it lightly. He was never jealous, never exacting, and seemed to be as happy to share her with others as when he had her all alone in one of their tete-a-tetes. What he coveted most of all was her intimacy, her confidence, the frank expression of her own true self; and in this exchange he was willing to give as much as he received and often more. Sometimes she was piqued at his apparent indifference—at his lack of any stronger feeling for her—seeming to detect in him something of her own insouciance and coldness.
"You really don't care for me a bit," she said once. "I am only another form of 'ze sensation'—like going up in a balloon or riding on the cow-catcher."
"I keep myself well in hand," he returned. "I am not approaching the terrible age of forty without knowing a little at least about women and their ways."
"A little!" she exclaimed ironically. "You know enough to write a book!"
"Zat book has taught me to go very slow," he said. "Were I in my young manhood I'd come zoop, like that, and carry you off in ze Far Vest style. But I can never hope to be that again with any woman; my decreasing hair forbids, if nozing else—but my way is to make myself indispensable—ze old dog, ze old standby, as you Americans say—the good old harbour to which you will come at last when tired of ze storms outside!"
"Your humility is a new trait," said Florence.
"It's none ze less real because it is often hid," said the count. "I watch you very closely, more closely than perhaps you even think. You have all the heartlessness of youth and health and beauty. I would be wrong to put my one little piece of money on the table and lose all; and so I save and save, and play ze only game that offers me the least chance—ze waiting game!"
"I believe that's true," said Florence.
"Were I to act ze distracted lover, you would laugh in my face," he went on earnestly. "Were I to propose and be refused, my pride would not let me—my instinct as gentleman would not let me—go trailing after you with my long face. The idyll would be over. I would go!"
"There are times when I think a heap of you," said Florence encouragingly.
"Oh, I know so well how it would be," he continued. "A week of doubt—of fever; a rain of little notes; and then with your good clear honest Far Vest sense you would say: No, mon cher, it is eempossible!"
"Yes, I suppose I would," said Florence.
"I would rather be your friend all my life," said the count, "than to be merely one of the rejected. I have no ambition to place my name on that already great list. I have never yet asked a woman to marry me, and when I do I care not for the expectation of being refused!"
"You are like all Europeans," said Florence, "you believe in a sure thing."
"My heart is not on my sleeve," he returned, "and I value it too highly to lose it without compensation."
"It is interesting to hear all your views," said Florence. "I am sure I appreciate the compliment highly. It's a new idea, this of the wolf making a confidant of the lamb."
"Oh, my dear!" he broke out, "I am only a poor devil holding back from committing a great stupidity."
"Is that how you describe marrying me?" she said lightly.
"Ze day will come," he said, disregarding her question, "I think it will—I hope it will—when you will say to me: My dear fellow, I am tired of all this fictitious gaiety; of all this rush and bustle and flirtation; of this life of fever and emptiness. I long for peace and do not know where to find it. I am like a piece of music to whom one waits in vain for the return to the keynote. Tell me where to find it or else I die!"
"Rather forward of me to say all that, Count," observed the girl. "But suppose I did—what then?"
The count opened wide his arms.
"I would answer: here!" he said.
Thus the bright days passed, amid animating scenes, with memories of sky and cloud and noble headlands and stately, beautiful ships. Like two ocean sweethearts the Minnehaha and the Paquita took their restless way together, side by side in port, inseparable at sea. At night the one lit the other's road with a string of ruby lanterns and kept the pair in company across the dark and silent water. Their respective crews, not behindhand in this splendid camaraderie of ships, fraternised in wine-shops and strolled through the crooked foreign streets arm in arm. Breton and American, red cap and blue, sixty of the one and eighty of the other—they were brothers all and cemented their friendship in blood and gunpowder, in tattooed names, flags and mottoes, after the time-honoured and artless manner of the sea.
In the drama of life it is often the least important actors who are happiest, and the stars themselves are not always to be the most envied. Florence, torn between her ambition and her love, knew what it was to toss all night on her sleepless bed and wet the pillow with her tears. De Souvary, who found himself every day deeper in the toils of his ravishing American, chafed and struggled with unavailing pangs; and as for Frank Rignold, he endured long periods of black depression as he watched from afar the steady progress of his rival's suit; and his moody face grew moodier and exasperation rose within him to the rebellion point.
By September the two yachts were lying in Cowes, and already there was some talk of winter plans and a possible voyage to India. The count was enthusiastic about the project, as he was about anything that could keep him and Florence together, and he had ordered a stack of books and spent hours at a time with the mistress of the Minnehaha reading over Indian Ocean directories and plotting imaginary courses on the chart.
With the prospect of so extended a trip before him, Frank found much to be done in the engine-room, for their suggested cruise would be likely to carry them far out of the beaten track, and he had to be prepared for all contingencies. A marine engine requires to be perpetually tinkered, and an engineer's duty is not only to run it, but to make good the little defects and breakdowns that are constantly occurring. Frank was a daily visitor at the local machine-shop, and his business engagements with Mr. Derwent, the proprietor, led insensibly to others of the social kind.
Derwent's house was close by his works, and Frank's trips ashore soon began to take in both. Derwent had a daughter, a black- haired, black-eyed, pink-cheeked girl, named Cassie, one of those vigorous young English beauties that men would call stunning and women bold. She did not wait for any preliminaries, but straightway fell in love with the handsome American engineer that her father brought home. She made her regard so plain that Frank was embarrassed, and was not a bit put off at his reluctance to play the part she assigned to him.
"That's always my luck," she remarked with disarming candour, "a poor silly fool who always likes them that don't like me and spurns them that do!" And then she added, with a laugh, that he ought to be tied up, "for you are a cruel handsome man, Frank, and my heart goes pitapat at the very sight of you!"
She called him Frank at the second visit; and at the third seated herself on the arm of his chair and took his hand and held it.
"Can't you ever forget that girl in Yankee-land?" she said. "She ain't here, is she, and why shouldn't you steal a little harmless fun? There's men who'd give their little finger to win a kiss from me—and you sit there so glum and solemn, who could have a bushel for the asking!"
For all Frank's devotion to Florence he could not but be flattered at being wooed in this headlong fashion. He was only a man after all, and she was the prettiest girl in port. He did not resist when she suddenly put her arms around him and pressed his head against her bosom, calling him her boy and her darling; but remained passive in her embrace, pleased and yet ashamed, and touched to the quick with self-contempt.
"You mustn't," he said, freeing himself. "Cassie, it's wrong—it's dreadful. You mustn't think I love you, because I don't."
"Yes, but I am going to make you," she said with splendid effrontery, looking at herself in the glass and patting her rumpled hair. "See what you have done to me, you bad boy!"
Had she been older or more sophisticated, Frank would have been shocked at this reversal of the sexes. But in her self-avowed and unashamed love for him she was more like a child than a woman; and her good-humour and laughter besides seemed somehow to belittle her words and redeem the affair from any seriousness. Frank tried to stay away, for his conscience pricked him and he did not care to drift into such an unusual and ambiguous relation with Derwent's handsome daughter. But Cassie was always on the watch for him and he could not escape from the machine-works without falling into one of her ambushes. She would carry him off to tea, and he never left without finding himself pledged to return in the evening. In his loneliness, hopelessness, and desolation he found it dangerously sweet to be thus petted and sought after. Cassie made no demands of him and acquiesced with apparent cheerfulness in the implication that he loved another woman. She humbly accepted the little that was left over, and, though she wept many hot tears in secret, outwardly at least she never rebelled or reproached him. She knew that to do either would be to lose him. In fact she made it very easy for him to come, and gave up her girlish treasure of affection without any hope of reward. Frank, by degrees, discovered a wonderful comfort in being with her. It was balm to his wounds and bruises; and, like someone who had long been out in the cold, he warmed himself, so to speak, before that bright fire, and found himself growing drowsy and contented.
It must not be supposed that all this went on unremarked, or that in the gossip of the yacht Frank and Cassie Derwent did not come in for a considerable share of attention. It passed from the officers' mess to the saloon, and Florence bit her lip with anger and jealousy when the joke went round of the chief engineer's "infatuation." In revenge she treated Frank more coldly than ever, and went out of her way to be agreeable to de Souvary, especially when the former was at hand and could be made a spectator of her lover-like glances and a warmth that seemed to transcend the limits of ordinary friendship. She made herself utterly unhappy and Frank as well. The only one of the trio to be pleased was the count.
She made no objection when Frank asked her permission to show the ship to Derwent and his daughter.
"You must be sure and introduce me," she said, with a sparkle of her eyes that Frank was too unpresumptuous to understand. "They say that she is a raving little beauty and that you are the happy man!"
Frank hurriedly disclaimed the honour.
"Oh, no!" he said. "But she is really very sweet and nice, and I think we owe a little attention to her father."
"Oh, her FATHER!" said Florence, sarcastically emphasising the word.
"I hope you don't think there is anything in it," he exclaimed very anxiously. "I suppose there has been some tittle-tattle—I can read it in your face—but there's not a word of truth in it, not a word, I assure you."
"I don't care the one way or other, Frank," she said. "You needn't explain so hard. What does it matter to me, anyway?" and with that she turned away to cordially greet the count as he came aboard.
The two women met in the saloon. Florence at once assumed the great lady, the heiress, the condescending patrician; Cassie flushed and trembled; and in a buzz of commonplaces the stewards served tea while the two women covertly took each other's measure. Florence grew ashamed of her own behavior, and, unbending a little, tried to put her guests at ease and led Cassie on to talk. Then it came out about the dance that Derwent and his daughter were to give the following night.
"Frank and me have been arranging the cotillon," said Cassie, and then she turned pink to her ears at having called him by his first name before all those people. "I mean Mr. Rignold," she added, amid everyone's laughter and her own desperate confusion. Florence's laughter rang out as gaily as anyone's, and apparently as unaffectedly, and she rallied Cassie with much good humour on her slip.
"So it's Frank already!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Miss Derwent! don't you trust this wicked chief of mine. He is a regular heart- breaker!"
Cassie cried when Frank and she returned home and sat together on the porch.
"She's a proud, haughty minx," she burst out, "and you love her— and as for me I might as well drown myself."
Frank attempted to comfort her.
"Oh, you needn't try to blind me," she said bitterly. "I—I thought it was a girl in America, Frank, a girl like me—just common and poor and perhaps not as nice as I am. And you know she wouldn't wipe her feet on you," she went on viciously—"she so grand with her yachts and her counts and 'Oh, I think I'll run over to Injya for the winter, or maybe it's Cairo or the Nile,' says she! What kind of a chance have you got there, Frank, you in your greasy over-alls and working for her wages? Won't you break your heart just like I am breaking mine, I that would sell the clothes off my back for you and follow you all over the world!"
Frank protested that she was mistaken; that it wasn't Miss Fenacre at all; that it was absurd to even think of such a thing.
"Oh, Frank, it's bad enough as it is without your lying to me," she said, quite unconvinced. "You've set your eyes too high, and unhappiness is all that you'll ever get from the likes of her. You're a fool in your way and I'm a fool in mine, and maybe when she's married to the count and done for, you'll mind the little girl that's waiting for you in Cowes!" She took his hand and kissed it, telling him with a sob that she would ever remain single for his sake.
"But I don't want you to, Cassie," he said. "You're talking like a baby. What's the good of waiting when I am never coming back?"
"You say that now," she exclaimed, "but my words will come back to you in Injya when you grow tired of her ladyship's coldness and disdain; and I'm silly enough to think you'll find them a comfort to you out there, with nothing to do but to think and think, and be miserable."
The next day he found Cassie in a more cheerful humour and excited about the dance. The house was all upset and she was busy with a dozen of her girl friends in decorating the hall and drawing-room, taking up the carpets, arranging for the supper and the cloakrooms, and immersed generally in the thousand and one tasks that fall on a hostess-to-be. Frank put himself at her orders and spent the better part of the afternoon in running errands and tacking up flags and branches; and after an hilarious tea, in the midst of all the litter and confusion, he went back to the ship somewhat after five o'clock. As he was pulled out in a shore boat he was surprised to pass a couple of coal lighters coming from the Minnehaha, and to see her winches busily hoisting in stores from a large launch alongside. He ran up the ladder, and seeing the captain asked him what was up.
"Sailing orders, Chief," said Captain Landry, enjoying his amazement. "We'll be off the ground in half an hour, eastward bound!" "But I wasn't told anything," cried Frank. "I never got any orders."
"The little lady said you wasn't to be disturbed," said the captain, "and she took it on herself to order your staff to go ahead. I guess you'll find a pretty good head of steam already!"
Frank ran to the side and called back his boat, giving the man five shillings to take a note at once to Cassie. He had no time for more than a few lines, but he could not go to sea without at least one word of farewell. They were cutting the anchor and were already under steerage way when Cassie came off herself in a launch and passed up a letter directed to the chief engineer. It reached him in the engine-room, where he, not knowing that she was but a few feet distant, was spared the sight of her pale and despairing face.
The letter itself was almost incoherent. She knew, she said, whom she had to thank for his departure. That vixen, that hussy, that stuck-up minx, who treated him like a dog and yet grudged him to another, who, God help her, loved him too well for her own good— it was her ladyship she had to thank for spoiling everything and carrying him away. Was he not man enough to assert himself and leave a ship where he was put upon so awful? Let him ask her mightiness in two words, yes or no; and then when he had come down from the clouds and had learned the truth, poor silly fool—then let him come back to his Cassie, who loved him so dear, and who (if she did say it herself) had a heart worth fifty of his mistress and didn't need no powder to set off her complexion. It ended with a piteous appeal to his compassion and besought him to write to her from the nearest port.
Frank sighed as he read it. Everything in the world seemed wrong and at cross-purposes. Those who had one thing invariably longed for something else, and there was no content or happiness or satisfaction anywhere. The better off were the acquiescent, who took the good and the bad with the same composure and found their only pleasure in their work. Best off of all were the dead whose sufferings were over. But after all it was sweet to be loved, even if one did not love back, and Frank was very tender with the little letter and put it carefully in his pocket-book. Yes, it was sweet to be loved. He said this over and over to himself, and wondered whether Florence felt the same to him as he did to Cassie. It seemed to explain so much. It seemed the key to her strange regard for him. He asked himself whether it could be true that she had wilfully ordered the ship to sea in order to prevent him going to the dance. The thought stirred him inexpressibly. What other explanation was there if this was not the one? And she had deserted the count, who was away in London on a day's business; deserted the Paquita at anchor in the roads! He was frightened at his own exultation. Suppose he were wrong in this surmise! Suppose it were just another of her unaccountable caprices!
They ran down Channel at full speed and at night were abreast of the Scilly lights, driving towards the Bay of Biscay in the teeth of an Equinoctial gale. At the behest of one girl eighty men had to endure the discomfort of a storm at sea, and a great steel ship, straining and quivering, was flung into the perilous night. It seemed a misuse of power that, at a woman's whim, so many lives and so noble and costly a fabric could be risked—and risked for nothing. From the captain on the bridge, dripping in his oil- skins, to the coal-passers and firemen below who fed the mighty furnaces, to the cooks in the galley, the engineers, the electrician on duty, the lookout man in the bow clinging to the life-line when the Minnehaha buried her nose out of sight—all these perforce had to endure and suffer at Florence's bidding without question or revolt.
Frank's elation passed and left him in a bitter humour towards her. It was not right, he said to himself, not right at all. She ought to show a little consideration for the men who had served her so well and faithfully. Besides, it was unworthy of her to betray such pettiness and spoil Cassie's dance. He felt for the girl's humiliation, and, though not in love with her, he was conscious of a sentiment that hated to see her hurt. He would not accept Florence's invitation to dine in the saloon, sending word that he had a headache and begged to be excused; and after dinner, when she sought him out on deck and tried to make herself very sweet to him, he was purposely reserved and distant, and look the first opportunity to move away. He was angry, disheartened, and resentful, all in one.
Towards eleven o'clock at night as Frank was in the engine-room, moodily turning over these reflections in his mind and listening to the race of the screws as again and again they were lifted out of the water and strained the shafts and engines to the utmost, he was surprised to see Florence herself descending the steel ladder into that close atmosphere of oil and steam. He ran to help her down, and taking her arm led her to one side, where they might be out of the way. Here, in the glare of the lanterns, he looked down into her face and thought again how beautiful she was. Her cheek was wet with spray, and her hair was tangled and glistening beneath her little yachting cap. She seemed to exhale a breath of the storm above and bring down with her something of the gale itself. She held fast to Frank as the ship laboured and plunged, smiling as their eyes met.
"You are the last person I expected down here," said Frank.
"I was beginning to get afraid," she returned. "It's blowing terribly, Frank—and I thought, if anything happened, I'd like to be with you!"
"Oh, we are all right!" said Frank, his professional spirit aroused. "With twin screws, twin engines, and plenty of sea-room— why, let it blow."
His confidence reassured her. He never appeared to her so strong, so self-reliant and calm as at that moment of her incipient fear. Amongst his engines Frank always wore a masterful air, for he had that instinct for machinery peculiarly American, and was competent almost to the point of genius.
"Besides, I wanted to ask you a question," said Florence. "I had to ask it. I couldn't sleep without asking it, Frank."
"I would have come, if you had sent for me," he said.
"I couldn't wait for that," she returned. "I knew it might be hard for you to leave—or impossible."
"What is it, Florence?" he asked. The name slipped out in spite of him.
She looked at him strangely, her lustrous eyes wide open and bright with her unsaid thoughts.
"Are you very fond of her, Frank?" she asked.
"Her? Who?" he exclaimed. "You don't mean Cassie Derwent?"
"Yes," she said.
"Of course I'm fond of her," he said.
"More than you are of me, Frank?" she persisted.
"Oh, it isn't the same sort of thing, Florence," he said. "I never even thought of comparing you and her together. Surely you know that? Surely you understand that?"
"You used to—to love me once, Frank," she said, with a stifled sob. "Has she made it any less? Has she robbed me, Frank? Have I lost you without knowing it?"
"No," he said, "no, a thousand times, no!"
"Tell me that you love me, Frank," she burst out. "Tell me, tell me!" Then, as he did not answer, she went on passionately: "That's why I went to sea, Frank. I was mad with jealousy. I couldn't give you up to her. I couldn't let her have you!"
She pressed closer against him, and tiptoeing so as to raise her mouth to his ear, she whispered: "I always liked you better than anybody else in the world, Frank. I love you! I love you!"
For the moment he could not realise his own good fortune. He could do nothing but look into her eyes. It was her reproach for years afterwards that she had to kiss him first.
"I suppose it had to come, Frank," she said. "I fought all I could, but it didn't seem any use!"
"It was inevitable," he returned solemnly. "God made you for me, and me for you!"
"Amen," she said, and in an ecstasy of abandonment whispered again: "I love you, Frank. I love you!"
I suppose if I had been a hero of romance, instead of an ordinary kind of chap, I would have steamed in with the Tallahassee, fired a gun, and landed in state, instead of putting on my old clothes and sneaking into the county on an automobile. However, I did my little best, so far as making a date with Babcock was concerned, and as it turned out in the end I dare say the hero of romance wouldn't have managed it much better himself. It was late when I got into Forty Fyles (as the village was called), and put up at one of those quaint, low-raftered, bulging old inns which still remain, thank Heaven, here and there, in the less travelled parts of England. If I were dusty and dirty when I arrived, you ought to have seen me the next day after a two-hours' job with the differential gears. By the time I had got the trouble to rights, and had puffed up and down the main street to make assurance sure and astonish the natives (who came out two hundred strong and cheered), I was as frowsy, unkempt, and dilapidated an American as ever drove a twelve H.P. Panhard through the rural lanes of Britain. Indeed, I was so shocked at my own appearance when I looked at myself in the glass (such a wiggly old glass that showed one in streaks like bacon) that I went down to the draper's and tried to buy a new set out. But as they had nothing except cheap tripper suits for pigmies (I stood six feet in my stockings and had played full back at college) and fishermen's clothes of an ancient Dutch design, I forebore to waste my good dollars in making a guy of myself, and decided to remain as I was.
Then, as I was sitting in the bar and asking the potman the best way to get to Castle Fyles, it suddenly came over me that it was the Fourth of July, and that, recreant as I was, I had come near forgetting the event altogether. I started off again down the main street to discover some means of raising a noise, and after a good deal of searching I managed to procure several handfuls of strange whitey fire-crackers the size of cigars and a peculiar red package that the shopkeeper called a "Haetna Volcano." He said that for four and eightpence one couldn't find its match in Lunnon itself, and obligingly took off twopence when I pointed out Vesuvius hadn't a fuse. With the crackers in my pocket and the volcano under my arm I set forth in the pleasant summer morning to walk to Castle Fyles, having an idea to rest by the way and celebrate the Fourth in the very heart of the hereditary enemy.
The road, as is so often the case in England, ran between high stone walls and restrained the wayfarer from straying into the gentlemen's parks on either hand. The sun shone overhead with the fierce heat of a British July; and to make matters worse in my case, I seemed to be the loadstone of what traffic was in progress on the highway. A load of hay stuck to me with obstinate determination; if I walked slowly, the hay lagged beside me; if I quickened my pace, the hay whipped up his horses; when I rested and mopped my brow, the hay rested and mopped ITS brow. Then there were tramps of various kinds: a Punch and Judy show on the march; swift silent bicyclists who sped past in a flurry of dust; local gentry riding cock-horses (no doubt to Banbury Crosses); local gentry in dogcarts; local gentry in closed carriages going to a funeral, and apparently (as seen through the windows) very hot and mournful and perspiring; an antique clergyman in an antique gig who gave me a tract and warned me against drink; a char-a-bancs filled to bursting with the True Blue Constitutional Club of East Pigley—such at least was the inscription on a streaming banner— who swung past waving their hats and singing "Our Boarder's such a Nice Young Man"; then some pale aristocratic children in a sort of perambulating clothes-basket drawn by a hairy mite of a pony, who looked at me disapprovingly, as though I hadn't honestly come by the volcano; then—but why go on with the never-ending procession of British pilgrims who straggled out at just sufficient intervals to keep between them a perpetual eye on my movements and prevent me from celebrating the birth of freedom in any kind of privacy. At last, getting desperate at this espionage and thinking besides I could make a shorter cut towards Castle Fyles, I clambered over an easy place in the left-hand wall and dropped into the shade of a magnificent park. Here, at least, whatever the risk of an outraged law (which I had been patronisingly told was even stricter than that of the Medes and Persians), I seemed free to wander unseen and undetected, and accordingly struck a course under the oaks that promised in time to bring me out somewhere near the sea.
Dipping into a little dell, where in the perfection of its English woodland one might have thought to meet Robin Hood himself, or startle Little John beside a fallen deer, I looked carefully about, got out my pale crackers, and wondered whether I dared begin. It is always an eerie sensation to be alone in the forest, what with the whispering leaves overhead, the stir and hum of insects, the rustle of ghostly foot-falls, and (in my case) the uneasy sense of green-liveried keepers sneaking up at one through the clumps of gorse. However, I was not the man to belie the blood of Revolutionary heroes and meanly carry my unexploded crackers beyond the scene of danger, so I remembered the brave days of old and touched a whitey off. It burst with the roar of a cannon and reverberated through the glades like the broadside of a man-of- war. It took me a good five minutes before I had the courage to detonate another, which, for better security, I did this time under my hat. I am not saying it did the hat any good, but it seemed safer and less deafening, and I accordingly went on in this manner until there were only about three whiteys left between me and Vesuvius, which I kept back, in accordance with tradition, for one big triumphant bang at the end.
I was in the act of touching my cigar to whitey number three,—on my knees, I remember; and trying to arrange my hat so as to get the most muffling for the least outlay of burned felt, when the branches in front of me parted and I looked up to see—well, simply the most beautiful woman in the world, regarding me with astonishment and anger. She was about twenty, somewhat above the medium height, and her eyes were of a lovely flashing blue that seemed in the intensity of her indignation to positively emit sparks—altogether the most exquisitely radiant and glorious creature that man was ever privileged to gaze upon.
"How dare you let off fireworks in this park?" she said, in a voice like clotted cream.
I rose in some confusion.
"Go directly," she said, "or I'll report you and have you summonsed!"
"I have only two more crackers and this volcano," I said protestingly. "Surely you would not mind——"
"Don't be insolent," she said, "or I shall have no compunction in setting my dog on you."
I looked down, and there, sure enough, rolling a yellow eye and showing his fangs at me, was a sort of Uncle Tom's Cabin bloodhound only waiting to begin.
"The fact is," I said, speaking slowly, so as to emphasise the fact that I was a gentleman, "I am an American; to-day is our national holiday; and we make it everywhere our practice to celebrate it with fireworks. I would have done so in the road, but the island seemed so crowded this morning I couldn't find an undisturbed place outside the park."
Beauty was obviously mollified by my tone and respectful address.
"Please leave the park directly," she said.
I put the crackers in my pocket, took up my hat, placed the Haetna Volcano under my arm, and stood there, ready to go.
"Accept my apologies," I said. "Whatever my fault, at least no discourtesy was intended."
We looked at each other, and Beauty's face relaxed into something like a smile.
"Just give me one more minute for my volcano," I pleaded.
"You seem very polite," she returned. "Yes, you can set it off, if that will be any satisfaction to you."
"It'll be a whole lot," I said, "and since you're so kind perhaps you'll let me include the crackers as well?"
Then she began to laugh, and the sweetest thing about it was that she didn't want to laugh a bit and blushed the most lovely pink, as she broke out again and again until the woods fairly rang. And as I laughed too—for really it was most absurd—it was as good as a scene in a play. And so, while she held Legree's dog, whom the sound inflamed to frenzy, I popped off the crackers and dropped my cigar into Vesuvius. I tell you he was worth four and eightpence, and the man was right when he said there wasn't his match in London. I doubt if there was his match anywhere for being plumb- full of red balls and green balls and blue balls and crimson stars and fizzlegigs and whole torrents of tiny crackers and chase-me- quicks, and when you about thought he was never going to stop he shot up a silver spray and a gold spray and wound up with a very considerable decent-sized bust.
"I must thank you for your good nature," I said to the young lady.
"Are you a typical American?" she asked. "Oh, so-so," I returned. "There are heaps like me in New York."
"And do they all do this on the Fourth of July?" she asked.
"Every last one!" I said.
"Fancy!" she said.
"In America," I said, "when a man has received one favour he is certain to make it the stepping-stone for another. Won't you permit me to walk across the park to Castle Fyles?"
"Castle Fyles?" she repeated, with a little note of curiosity in her girlish voice. "Then don't you know that this is Fyles Park?"
"Can't say I did," I returned. "But I am delighted to hear it."
"Why are you delighted to hear it?" she asked, making me feel more than ever like an escaped lunatic.
"This is the home of my ancestors," I said, "and it makes me glad to think they amount to something—own real estate—and keep their venerable heads above water."
"So this is the home of your ancestors," she said.
"It's holy ground to me," I said.
"Fancy!" she exclaimed.
"At least I think it is," I went on, "though we haven't any proofs beyond the fact that Fyles has always been a family name with us back to the Colonial days. I'm named Fyles myself—Fyles ffrench— and we, like the Castle people—have managed to retain our little f throughout the ages."
She looked at me so incredulously that I handed her my card.
Mr. Fyles ffrench,
She turned it over in her fingers, regarding me at the same time with flattering curiosity.
"How do you do, kinsman?" she said, holding out her hand. "Welcome to old England!"
I took her little hand and pressed it.
"I am the daughter of the house," she explained, "and I'm named Fyles too, though they usually call me Verna."
"And the little f, of course," I said.
"Just like yours," she returned. "There may be some capital F's in the family, but we wouldn't acknowledge them!"
"What a fellow-feeling that gives one!" I said. "At school, at college, in business, in the war with Spain when I served on the Dixie, my life has been one long struggle to preserve that little f against a capital F world. I remember saying that to a chum the day we sank Cervera, 'If I am killed, Bill,' I said, 'see that they don't capital F me on the scroll of fame!'"
"A true ffrench!" exclaimed Beauty with approval.
"As true as yourself," I said.
"Do you know that I'm the last of them?" she said.
"You!" I exclaimed. "The last!"
"Yes," she said, "when my father dies the estates will pass to my second cousin, Lord George Willoughby, and our branch of the family will become extinct."
"You fill me with despair," I said.
"My father never can forgive me for being a girl," she said.
"I can," I remarked, "even at the risk of appearing disloyal to the race."
"Fyles," she said, addressing me straight out by my first name, and with a little air that told me plainly I had made good my footing in the fold, "Fyles, what a pity you aren't the rightful heir, come from overseas with parchments and parish registers, to make good your claim before the House of Lords."
"Wouldn't that be rather hard on you?" I asked.
"I'd rather give up everything than see the old place pass to strangers," she said.
"But I'm a stranger," I said.
"You're Fyles ffrench," she exclaimed, "and a man, and you'd hand the old name down and keep the estate together."
"And guard the little f with the last drop of my blood," I said.
"Ah, well!" she said, with a little sigh, "the world's a disappointing place at best, and I suppose it serves us right for centuries of conceit about ourselves."
"That at least will never die," I observed. "The American branch will see to that part of it."
"It's a pity, though, isn't it?" she said.
"Well," I said, "when a family has been carrying so much dog for a thousand years, I suppose in common fairness it's time to give way for another."
"What is carrying dog?" she said.
"It's American," I returned, "for thinking yourself better than anybody else!"
"Fancy!" she said, and then with a beautiful smile she took my hand and rubbed it against the hound's muzzle.
"You mustn't growl at him, Olaf," she said. "He's a ffrench; he's one of us; and he has come from over the sea to make friends."
"You can't turn me out of the park after that," I said, in spite of a very dubious lick from the noble animal, who, possibly because he couldn't read and hadn't seen my card, was still a prey to suspicion.
"I am going to take you back to the castle myself," she said, "and we'll spend the day going all over it, and I shall introduce you to my father—Sir Fyles—when he returns at five from Ascot."
"I could ask for nothing better," I said, "though I don't want to make myself a burden to you. And then," I went on, a little uncertain how best to express myself, "you are so queer in England about—about——"
"Proprieties," she said, giving the word which I hesitated to use. "Oh, yes! I suppose I oughtn't to; indeed, it's awful, and there'll be lunch too, Fyles, which makes it twice as bad. But to- day I'm going to be American and do just what I like."
"I thought I ought to mention it," I said.
"Objection overruled," she returned. "That's what they used to say in court when my father had his famous right-of-way case with Lord Piffle of Doom; and from what I remember there didn't seem any repartee to it."
"There certainly isn't one from me," I said.
"Let's go," she said.
There didn't seem any end to that park, and we walked and walked and rested once or twice under the deep shade, and took in a mouldy pavilion in white marble with broken windows, and a Temple of Love that dated back to the sixteenth century, and rowed on an ornamental water in a real gondola that leaked like sixty, and landed on a rushy island where there was a sun-dial and a stone seat that the Druids or somebody had considerately placed there in the year one, and talked of course, and grew confidential, until finally I was calling her Verna (which was her pet name) and telling her how the other fellow had married my best girl, while she spoke most beautifully and sensibly about love, and the way the old families were dying out because they had set greater store on their lands than on their hearts, and altogether with what she said and what I said, and what was understood, we passed from acquaintance to friendship, and from friendship to the verge of something even nearer. Even the Uncle Tom hound fell under the spell of our new-found intimacy and condescended to lick my hand of his own volition, which Verna said he had never done before except to the butcher, and winked a bloodshot eye when I remarked he was too big for the island and ought to go back with me to a country nearer his size.
By the time we had reached the cliffs and began to perceive the high grey walls of the castle in the distance, Verna and I were faster friends than ever, and anyone seeing us together would have thought we had known each other all our lives. I felt more and more happy to think I had met her first in this unconventional way, for as the castle loomed up closer and we passed gardeners and keepers and jockeys with a string of race-horses out for exercise, I felt that my pretty companion was constrained by the sight of these obsequious faces and changing by gradations into what she really was, the daughter of the castle and by right of blood one of the great ladies of the countryside.
The castle itself was a tremendous old pile, built on a rocky peninsula and surrounded on three sides by the waters of Appledore Harbour, It lay so as to face the entrance, which Verna told me was commanded—or rather had been in years past—by the guns of a half-moon battery that stood planted on a sort of third-story terrace. It was all towers and donjons and ramparts, and might, in its mediaeval perfection, have been taken bodily out of one of Sir Walter Scott's novels. Verna and I had lunch together in a perfectly gorgeous old hall, with beams and carved panelling and antlers, and a fireplace you could have roasted an ox in, and rows of glistening suits of armour which the original ffrenches had worn when they had first started the family in life—and all this, if you please, tete-a-tete with a woman who seemed to get more beautiful every minute I gazed at her, and who smiled back at me and called me Fyles, to the stupefaction of three noiseless six- footers in silk stockings. Disapproving six-footers, too, whose gimlet eyes seemed to pierce my back as they sized up my clothes, which, as I said before, had suffered not a little by my trip, and my collar, which I'll admit straight out wasn't up to a castle standard, and the undeniable stain of machine-oil on my cuffs which I had got that morning in putting the machine to rights. You ought to have seen the man that took my hat, which he did with the air of a person receiving pearls and diamonds on a golden platter, and smudged his lordly fingers with the grime of my Fourth of July. And that darling of a girl, who never noticed my discomfiture, but whose eyes sparkled at times with a hidden merriment—shall I ever forget her as she sat there and helped me to mutton-chops from simply priceless old Charles the First plate!
We had black coffee together in a window-seat overlooking the harbour and the ships, and she asked me a lot of questions about the war with Spain and my service in the Dixie. She never moved a muscle when it came out I had been a quartermaster, though I could feel she was astounded at my being but a shade above a common seaman, and not, as she had taken it for granted, a commissioned officer. I was too proud to explain over-much, or to tell her I had gone in, as so many of my friends had done, from a strong sense of duty and patriotism at the time of my country's need, and consequently allowed her to get a very wrong idea, I suppose, about my state in life and position in the world. Indeed, I was just childish enough to get a trifle wounded, and let her add misconception to misconception out of a silly obstinacy.
"But what do you do," she asked, "now that the war is over and you've taken away everything from the poor Spaniards and left the Navy?"
"Work," I said.
"What kind of work?" she asked.
"Oh, in an office!" I said. (I didn't tell her I was the Third Vice President of the Amalgamated Copper Company, with a twenty- story building on lower Broadway. Wild horses couldn't have wrung it out of me then.)
"You're too nice for an office," she said, looking at me so sweetly and sadly. "You ought to be a gentleman!"
"Oh, dear!" I exclaimed, "I hope I am that, even if I do grub along in an office." I wish my partners could have heard me say that. Why, I have a private elevator of my own and a squash-court on the roof!
"Of course, I don't mean that," she went on quickly, "but like us, I mean, with a castle and a place in society——"
"I have a sort of little picayune place in New York," I interrupted. "I don't SLEEP in the office, you know. At night I go out and see my friends and sometimes they invite me to dinner."
She looked at me more sadly than ever. I don't believe humour was Verna's strong suit anyway,—not American humour, at least,—for she not only believed what I said, but more too.
"I must speak to Papa about you," she said.
"What will he do?" I asked.
"Oh, help you along, you know," she said; "ffrenches always stand together; it's a family trait, though it's dying out now for lack of ffrenches. You know our family motto?" she went on.
"I'm afraid I don't," I said.
"'Ffrenches first!'" she returned.
I had to laugh.
"We've lived up to it in America," I said.
"Papa is quite a power in the City," she said.
"I thought he was a gentleman," I replied.
"Everybody dabbles in business nowadays," she returned, not perceiving the innuendo. "I am sure Papa ought to know all about it from the amount of money he has lost."
"Perhaps his was a case of ffrenches last!" I said.
"Still, he knows all the influential people," she continued, "and it would be so easy for him to get you a position over here."
"That would be charming," I said.
"And then I might see you occasionally," she said, with such a little ring of kindness in her voice that for a minute I felt a perfect brute for deceiving her. "You could run down here from Saturday to Monday, you know, and on Bank Holidays, and in the season you would have the entree to our London house and the chance of meeting nice people!"
"How jolly!" I said.
"I can't bear you to go back to America," she said. "Now that I've found you, I'm going to keep you."