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   Chapter 3 CONVALESCENCE

The Honorable Percival By Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice Characters: 9018

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


During the monotonous days that followed, the Honorable Percival Hascombe discovered that the satisfaction of being exclusive is usually tempered by the discomfort of being bored. So lofty and forbidding had been his manner that no one had ventured to intrude even a casual good morning. A bachelor under thirty, with a competence of such dimensions that it had entailed incompetency, and a doting family that danced attendance upon his every whim, he was figuratively as well as literally at sea in this new environment. At times he faltered in his stern determination not to allow any one to become acquainted with him. It was only the fear that any leniency might result in undue liberty on the part of some aggressive American that caused him to preserve his deep seclusion.

Bored, blasé, blighted, he had one more affliction to endure. The young person had gotten hopelessly on his nerves; in fact, she was the most disturbing object on the horizon. She played shuffle-board in front of his chair when he wanted to read; she practised new dance-steps with the first officer when he wanted to sleep; she caused him to lift his unwilling eyes a dozen times an hour by her endless circuits of the deck. She was on terms of friendship with everybody on board except himself, including the second class and steerage. There seemed no end to her activities, no limit to her enthusiasm. The more she attracted his unwilling attention, the more persistently he ignored her.

As the time passed and danger of intrusion lessened, his ennui increased. One dull, humid day, when the whole world resembled a dripping sponge, Percival reached the limit of his endurance. The canvas was down, and nothing could be seen but long vistas of slippery decks, with barefooted Chinese sailors everlastingly mopping and slopping about in the wet. He had counted the five hundred and fiftieth raindrop that clung to the red life-belt at the rail when he saw the young Scotchman next him look at his watch.

"What time do you make it?" asked Percival, and his voice sounded almost strange to him.

"Eleven," said the man, getting to his feet; "aboot time for the fun to begin in the bathing-tank."

Ordinarily Percival would have allowed the conversation to end there, but he felt now that he would be risking his sanity if he sat there any longer counting raindrops.

"What's taking place?" he asked listlessly.

"The usual morning diversion: the captain's daughter is teaching a couple of bairns to swim."

"Surely they won't go in on a beastly day like this!"

"I'll be bound they do. Shall we go find out?"

Forward a number of people were already hanging over the rail, highly diverted at what was taking place in the big canvas tank on the deck below. Percival, looking down, beheld the young person standing on the lower rung of a ladder, coaxing a small boy to jump from the platform above. Now, on several occasions in the past Percival had met Disillusion face to face in a bathing-suit. A certain attenuated memory of the faithless Hortense made him wince even yet. But the round and graceful figure poised in dancing impatience on the ladder-rung defied criticism. Much as he disapproved of the public exhibition, he could not check a breath of admiration.

The small boy shivering on the platform vibrated between courage and fear; then, urged by the shouts from above, and lured by that sparkling face and those outstretched arms below, he leaped. Shrieks of laughter followed as his fat little body spanked the water, and was quickly righted and deposited, gasping, but victorious, on a life-buoy. Then the small girl must dive, and after that all three must splash and jump and float and swim like a trio of mad young porpoises.

The Honorable Percival was a good swimmer himself, and his interest kindled as he watched the perfect ease with which the young person handled herself in the narrow confines of the tank. While he deplored the wretched taste of the proceeding, he had to admit that she carried it off with admirable lack of self-consciousness. She swam as she did everything else, with impetuous joy, and seemed as unaware of the admiring glances of the spectators as the children themselves.

"Did ye see her the other day when she climbed to the crow's-nest?" asked the Scotchman, with enthusiasm.

"No," said Percival, curtly.

"The wind was blowing at a bittie, but she went up the rigging like a sailor. I doubt if the lass would be afraid of the de'il himself."

"Probably jolly well used to all this sort of thing," said Percival, wearily.

"Indeed, no; this is her first sea-voyage. She never saw a ship before."

"I thought you said she was the captain's daughter."

"So she is; but he's had her out on a Western ranch since she was a bit of a lass. Quite a romance!"

"Really?"

"Yes. Her mother was a play-actress. Ran off with an English nobleman. Left the captain and the lassie in the lurch, and died before she reached England. I had the story from the purser."

"Where's the girl going now?"

"The captain is fetching her the round trip to Hong-Kong, to break off some love-affair at home, I believe. But if she's as canny as she's bonny, I'll wager she'll outwit him before they have done."

Percival, who at first had remained in the back row of the spectators, during this recital moved to the front, and now as he looked down he suddenly encountered the laughing glance of the person under discussion. She was lazily watching him from where she floated in the water, with her loosened hair circling in a dark cloud about her head. The expression on her face gave him instant cause for alarm.

Since that first day when she had spoken to him, he had studiously avoided meeting her eye, and had even come to congratulate himself on having removed from her mind the suspicion of a former encounter. But there was that in the glance that now met and held his that dispelled any such hope. It indicated all too clearly that she had not been deceived, and that she was treating the matter with unbecoming levity.

Percival returned haughtily to his steamer-chair, but not to count raindrops. He had food for new and most irritating reflections. The girl's refusal to take his cue and ignore the very mild flirtation that had occurred on the car-platform placed him in a situation at once awkward and embarrassing. He rather prided himself on never taking advantage of any tribute of admiration that might be tendered him by the less experienced of her sex. On more than one occasion in the past he had heroically extinguished the tender flames that his own charms had kindled in susceptible bosoms. He had come to share the belief of his mother that he possessed a rare degree of chivalry in protecting women against himself.

But this impossible child of Nature either did not know the rules of the game, or chose to ignore them. He would be forced to continue this distasteful partnership memory, or else dissolve it with a casual reference to the episode, which would dispose of it for good and all. He had about decided upon the latter course when Fate forestalled him.

On his way down to luncheon he encountered Miss Boynton coming up the companionway. Her hair, still damp, was hanging about her shoulders, and she carried a bundle of bath-towels under her arm. Both stood politely aside, then both started forward, meeting midway.

Her hair, still damp, was hanging about her shoulders, and she carried a bundle of bath-towels under her arm

"I-I-beg your pardon," said Percival.

"What for?" she asked.

"For-for not recognizing you the other day." It was not in the least what he had meant to say, but it was said, and he must go on as best he could. "Not expecting to see you, you know, and all that."

She stood shaking her hair in the breeze and smiling. While she evidently bore no resentment, she was not helping him out in his apology.

"One sees so many faces in traveling," he went on lamely, "and all so much alike."

"I'd have known your face anywhere," she said.

He took a step downward, but she did not move. Instead she leaned nonchalantly against the wall and began braiding her hair.

"I know your name, too," she said, with a look half daring and half quizzical. "I looked you up on the passenger-list."

"But how did you know-"

"Oh, it was easy to spot you. You were the only man on board who would fit 'The Honorable Percival Hascombe and Valet.'"

Percival found her scoffing tone intolerable. He descended two more steps, but she stopped him with a request.

"If you don't mind," she said, flinging the finished braid over her shoulder, "I wish you'd write your grand name on my Panama hat sometime; it's going to be a souvenir of the trip."

With an unintelligible answer, he made his escape. His worst fears were realized: he had given an inch; she had taken an ell. The crack in the shell of his privacy was widening alarmingly and peeping through, he shuddered at what he saw.

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