- CHAPTER III AN ILL WIND
|<< chapter 2||< chapter 1||chapter 4 >||chapter 27 >>|
AN ILL WIND
WHILE the storm held, Peter Rolls went several times each dreadful day to the room of the mirrors and dosed his dryads with Balm of Gilead. The medicine—or something else—sustained them marvellously. And it occurred to Peter that they would make a magnificent advertisement, if there were any way of using them—the kind of advertisement his father loved.
It was well that Peter senior was not on board, or he would certainly propose a new feature for the balm department: scene, richly furnished salon on a yacht: five fair effects in ball dresses sipping Balm of Gilead: the whole arrangement on a rocking platform, with mechanism hidden by realistically painted waves. But the dryads were previously engaged by the prostrate Nadine; all except one.
When they were sufficiently restored to take an interest, Peter smuggled grape-fruit, chocolates, and novels into the nursery. The novels his sister had brought with her to kill time during the voyage; but as it happened she was killing it with Lord Raygan instead and never missed the books.
Nadine had been obliged to take first-class tickets for her models, otherwise the rules of the ship would not have allowed them past the barrier, even in the pursuit of business. But they sardined in one cabin, near the bow, on the deepest down deck allotted to | | 20 first-classhood, and their private lives were scarcely more enjoyable than the professional. They were, to be sure, theoretically able to enjoy exercise at certain hours, weather permitting; but weather did not permit, and four of the dryads, when free, sought distraction in lying down rather than walking. It was only the fifth who would not take the weather's "no" for an answer.
She had a mackintosh, and with her head looking very small and neat, wound in a brown veil the colour of her hair, she joined the brigade of the strong men and women who defied the winds by night. From eight to ten she staggered and slid up and down the wet length of the least-frequented deck, or flopped and gasped joyously for a few minutes in an unclaimed chair.
Being "not a bit like the rest" of her sister dryads, she refrained from mentioning this habit to Mr. Rolls, whose prowling place was on higher decks. Not that she was still what he would have called "stand-offish" with him. That would have been silly and Victorian after the grape-fruit and chocolates and novels, to say nothing of balm by the bottleful. The last dress she had worn on the first day of their acquaintance, the "Yielding Heart," had to a certain extent prophesied her attitude with the one man who knocked at the dryad door. Miss Child not only thought Mr. Rolls "might be rather nice," but was almost sure he was. She was nice to him, too, in dryad land, when he paid his visits to the sisterhood, but she did not "belong on his deck."
By and by, however, he discovered her in the mackintosh and veil. It was one night when a budding playwright who had seized on him as prey wished to find a quiet place to be eloquent about the plot.
"There's a deck two below," said the aspirant for fame, "where nobody prowls except a young female panther tied up in a veil."| | 21
Five minutes later Peter Rolls took off his cap to the female panther. The playwright noticed this, but was too much interested in himself and the hope of securing a capitalist to care. In sketching out his comedy he was blind to any other possibilities of drama, and so did not see Peter's eagerness to get rid of him. He was even pleased when, after a few compliments, Rolls junior said: "Look here, you'd better leave me to think over what you've told me. I fix things in my memory that way. And maybe when I've got it straight in my head I'll—er—mention it to a man I know."
As the playwright was shivering, he obeyed with alacrity; and in the warmth of the smoking-room revelled in the picture of his tame capitalist pacing a cold deck, lost to the sea's welter in thoughts of that marvellous last act.
But it was a first act which was engaging Peter Rolls's attention, and he, though the only male character in it (by choice) had to learn his part as he went on.
The play began by his joining the leading lady. (This has been done before, but seldom with such a lurch and on such sloping boards.)
It would have been a mockery to say "good evening" on a night so vile, and Mr. Rolls began by asking Miss Child if he might walk with her.
"Or Foxtrot," said she. "This deck is teaching me some wonderful new steps."
"I wish you'd teach them to me," said Peter.
"I can't, but the ship can."
"Did you ever dance the Foxtrot?" he wanted to know.
"Yes. In another state of existence."
This silenced him for an instant. Then he skipped at least two speeches ahead, whither his thoughts had flown. "Say, Miss Child, I wish you'd tell me something about yourself."| | 22
"There isn't anything interesting to tell, thank you, Mr. Rolls."
"If that's your only reason, I think you might let me judge. Honestly, I don't want to intrude or be curious. But you're so different from the others."
"I know I'm not pretty. That's why I have to be so painfully sweet. I got the engagement only by a few extra inches. Luckily it isn't the face matters so much," she chattered on. "I thought it was. But it's legs; their being long; Madame Nadine engages on that, and your figure being right for the dresses of the year. So many pretty girls come in short or odd lengths, you find when they have to be measured by the yard, at bargain price."
"You're not meant to laugh there," she said. "It's a solemn fact."
"But you always laugh."
"That's because I'm what you'd call 'up against' life. It gives me such a funny point of view."
"That's part of what I want to talk about. Please don't keep trying to turn the subject. Unless you think I have no business, seizing the first chance when I get you alone, to——"
"It isn't that," said Win. "I think you're very kind to take the slightest interest. But really there is nothing to tell. Just the usual sort of thing."
"It doesn't seem exactly usual to me for a girl about nineteen years old——"
"—to be leaving home alone and starting for a new country."
"Not alone. Madame Nadine might be furious if she were spoken of as my chaperon; but she is, all the same. Not that an emigrant needs a chaperon."
"You an emigrant!"| | 23
"Well, what else am I?"
"I've been thinking of you as a dryad."
"A poor, drenched dryad, thousands of miles from her native woods. Do you know, my veil is soaked?"
"I'll get you a sou'wester hat to-morrow."
"Does the barber keep them as well as Balm of Gilead?"
"No, but my sister does. She keeps one. And she doesn't want it. I shall annex it for you."
"Oh! I couldn't take it!"
"If you don't, I'll throw it overboard."
"Were the chocolates hers?"
"And the books?"
"Some were mine. But not the ones Miss Devereux says arc pretty. Look here, Miss Child, another thing she says is that you are not with Nadine as a permanence. What does that mean, if you don't much mind my asking?"
"Not what you think. I'm not going to be discharged. I was engaged only for the voyage, to take the place of a prettier girl with still longer legs who fell through at the last moment—literally. She stepped into one of those gas-hole places in the street. And I stepped into her shoes—lucky shoes! Sort of seven-league ones, bringing me across the sea, all the way to New York free, for nothing. No! I hope not for nothing. I hope it is to make my fortune."
"I hope so, too," said Peter gravely. "Got any friends there besides me?"
"Thanks for putting it so, Mr. Balm of Gilead. Why, I've heard that everybody in America is ready to be a friend to lonely strangers!"
"I guess your informant was almost too much of an optimist. Couldn't you be serious for just a minute? You know, I feel quite well acquainted with you—and | | 24 the others, of course. But they are different. And they are 'permanences' with Nadine. That's the kind of thing they're fit for. I don't worry about them, and I sha'n't worry about you, either, if you tell me you have friends or know what you are going to do when you land."
"I can't tell you that," Win answered in a changed tone, as if suddenly she were weary of trying to "frivol." "But I have hopes; and I have two letters of introduction and a respectable, recommended boarding-house and a little money left, so I really believe I shall be all right, thank you. My people thought my wanting to come showed 'my wild spirit,' so I'm anxious to prove as soon as I can—not to them any more, but to myself—that I can live my own life in a new world without coming to grief."
"Why not prove to them any more?"
"Oh—because no one is going to care much. As I said, my native woods are far behind, and most of the trees are cut down. Not a dryad of the true dryad family left: and this one is practically forgotten already. Her niche was all grown over with new bark long ago, so it was more than time she ceased to haunt the place."
"I'm afraid you've had a great sorrow," said Peter.
"It was hardly big enough for that word—this thing that's sent me seeking my fortune—though it began with a sorrow long ago."
"Some one you loved died?" Peter had a simple, direct way of asking questions that led you on.
"My mother. When I was fourteen—not old enough to be much use to my father and the baby brother. So my father had to get some one to be a kind of housekeeper and superior nurse. He's a clergyman. I don't look like a clergyman's daughter, perhaps—and he thought I didn't behave like one, especially after the housekeeper came. She's the kind who calls herself | | 25 'a lady housekeeper.' I don't know if you have them in America. She and I had rows—and that upset father. He didn't want to get rid of her because she managed things splendidly—him, and the baby and the vicarage—and influential old ladies said she 'filled a difficult position satisfactorily.' So it was simpler to get rid of me. I went to boarding-school."
"Did you like that?"
"I loved it. After the first year I didn't go home even for the holidays. Often I visited—girls were nice to me. But I didn't make the most of my time—I'm furious with myself for that now. I learned nothing—nothing, really, except the things I wanted to learn. And those are always the ones that are least useful."
"I found that, too," said Peter, "at Yale."
"It didn't matter to you. You have the Balm of Gilead."
"That's my father's."
"What's his is yours, I suppose."
"He says so. Still—we all have our own trouble. Mine's not living up to my principles, or even knowing exactly what they are—being all in a turmoil. But it's yours I want to talk about."
"I've forbidden myself the word 'trouble.' It builds a wall. And I've just broken through my wall. I could have done it sooner and better if I'd learned more difficult things, that's all. When I wanted to do something for myself—why, I couldn't do a thing that was any good in a busy world. I'd had no training except for my voice."
"There! I thought you sounded as if you had a voice!"
"I thought so, too. But that was another of my mistakes."
"I bet it wasn't."
"You'd lose your money, Mr. Rolls. I spent most | | 26 of mine before I found out. You see, my mother left a little. It wasn't to come to me till I was twenty-one, but all sorts of things happened. My father kept me at school till a year and a half ago because he didn't know what to do with me. Then my little brother died. I ought to have cared more, but I hardly knew him. His coming killed my mother; and he loved that woman. I don't see how he could!
"When he was gone, people might have gossiped about her and father perhaps. I believe she suggested it to him, and said she must go away, to make him think of marrying her; but all he did was to send for me. I stood it for six months. It was horrid for all three. I dare say I was to blame. I had a scene with father, and told him I'd made up my mind to go to London for singing lessons so I could support myself: I couldn't live at home. That forced the situation! Before anyone—except the 'lady housekeeper'—knew quite what was happening, father had asked her to be his wife—or she'd asked him. I went before the wedding. I'd worshipped my mother! And—but that's all the story."
"I call it only the preface. What about London?"
"Oh, father gave me my money ahead of time, for the lessons. He didn't approve, on principle, but he would have had no peace with me at home, and he likes peace better than anything. I had to promise I wouldn't go into musical comedy. That makes me laugh now! But I thought then I'd only to ask and to have. I took lessons of a man who'd been a celebrated tenor. He must have known that my voice was nothing, really, but he buoyed me up. I suppose they're all like that. It's business.
"When the money was two-thirds spent I dared not go on, and I asked him to find me something to do. He'd often said he would when the right time came. | | 27 Apparently it hadn't come. He made the excuse that I ought to have stayed with him longer. It would hurt his reputation to launch a pupil too soon. So I had to try to launch myself. And it didn't work. One manager of opera companies on whom I forced myself tested my voice and said it wasn't strong enough—only a twilight voice, for a drawing-room, he called it. I was broken up—just at first."
"Poor child!" Peter muttered, but the girl's quick ears caught the words over the roar of that "ill wind" which had brought them together.
"Child is my surname, and it's not polite to call me by it." She brought him to his bearings by suddenly "frivolling" again. "They call militant suffragettes, and housemaids sent to prison for stealing their kind mistresses' jewels by their surnames. I'm not a militant; and I've not been a housemaid yet, though I may be, if New York isn't kinder to me than London."
"I hope it will be—kind in just the right way!"
"My friend who gave me the two letters of introduction says it will: that Americans love English girls, if they have the courage to come over. She says there are heaps more chances as well as heaps more room for us in that country than there are at home."
"That's true, but——"
"Please don't discourage me!"
"Not on your life! Only——"
"'Only' is as bad a word as 'but.' I've got a letter of introduction to the editor of a New York paper, "To-day and To-morrow," and one to the organist of a Higher Thought church. Maud Ellis says they're both splendid men and interested in women's progress. Something good ought to come from one or the other. Getting a chance of my passage free seems a happy omen, as if I were meant to take this great adventure. I m not one bit afraid; I feel boiling with courage— | | 28 except when the ship pitches and rolls at the same time."
"That's right. You're bound to make good, of course. I wouldn't discourage you for the world. All I meant to say was that I'd like you to think of me as a friend. I don't want to lose sight of you when we land. I might be able to help in some way or other or—my family might. Before we get off the ship I'll introduce you and my sister to each other."
"Oh, thank you! You're very kind," the banished dryad said for the third or fourth time. "But I should be sorry to trouble Miss Rolls. She wouldn't——"
"Yes, she would," insisted Peter. "She'll be awfully interested when I tell her about you, Miss Child, and very pleased to know you."
Win was silenced, though not convinced. It is seldom safe for a brother to judge his sister by himself.
|<< chapter 2||< chapter 1||chapter 4 >||chapter 27 >>|