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   Chapter 8 IN THE CROW'S-NEST

The Honorable Percival By Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice Characters: 16421

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The sea-voyage of thirty days, which in the beginning had threatened to stretch into eternity, now seemed to be racing into the past with a swiftness that was incredible. To Percival the one desirable thing in life had come to be the sailing of the high seas under favoring winds, in a big ship, with Bobby Boynton on board, and a conscience that had agreed to remain quiescent until port was reached.

Not that Percival's conscience succumbed without a struggle; he had to assure it repeatedly that he would refrain from rousing in Bobby any hopes that might be realized. The moment she showed the slightest sign of taking his attentions seriously he would kindly, but firmly, make her understand. It would not be the first time he had had to do this. He recalled several instances with sad complacency. But a man cannot always be sacrificing himself. A mild flirtation, with a girl whom he never expected to see again was surely a harmless way of consoling himself for the harsh treatment he had recently received from another of her sex.

The one fly in his amber these days was Andy Black; only Andy was not a fixed object. His activities were endless, and, strangely enough, they exerted a powerful influence on Percival, causing him to change his entire mode of life from his hour of getting up to his hour of retiring. In order to get half an hour's conversation with Bobby Boynton it was necessary to outwit Andy, and he was devoting himself assiduously to the task.

What complicated the matter was that Andy had embraced him in his general affection for humanity, and despite persistent snubbing continued to treat him as the friend of his bosom. Percival could hate him contemptuously when he was out of sight, but he found it difficult to keep up the dislike when the fat, boyish fellow sat on the sofa opposite his berth and poured out his innermost confidences.

"You see," he would say plaintively as he reached for Percival's silver shoe-horn, "I never slide into love, like most fellows. I always splash right in, head first. That's what I did the first night I came on board, and I haven't come up yet. When I do, she'll hit me in the head. She won't have me; you see if she does."

Of course Percival agreed with him, but in the meanwhile he wondered what Bobby could find in him to afford her such constant amusement.

One sparkling morning when the white caps were dancing on the blue water, and every bit of loose canvas was spanking the wind for joy, Bobby announced that she was going again to the crow's-nest. She had circled the deck some ten times between her two cavaliers, and the difficulty of keeping mental step with either in the presence of the other may have influenced her sudden decision.

"What do you want to do that for?" said Andy, whose weight made him cautious. "It's a mean climb, and there's nothing to see when you get up there."

"There's everything to see," said Bobby and she looked at Percival.

Ten days ago nothing could have induced him to do such an unconventional and conspicuous thing. He remembered the exact phrase he had applied to it when told by the Scotchman of Bobby's previous adventure. "Characteristically American," he had remarked, with a disparaging shrug.

Now, with assumed languor, he said, "I don't mind going with you."

Two sailors were found to tie the ropes around their waists and stand guard below while they slowly and cautiously climbed from one swaying rung to another.

"All right?" asked Bobby, looking down over her shoulder.

"Right as rain," called Percival, with suggestion of eagerness in his voice.

He followed her cautiously as she scrambled like a squirrel from the top of the ladder to the crow's-nest. Swinging through the clear sky one hundred feet above the water below, they found themselves in the sudden intimacy of a vast and magnificent solitude. The sapphire sky met the sapphire sea in a sharply defined, unbroken line around them, while shimmers of palpitating light rose from the sparkling waters until they lost themselves in the zenith above.

"Oh, look! look!" cried Bobby, with an eager hand on Percival's arm. Turning, he saw the water suddenly disturbed by hundreds of curved bodies that glistened in the sunlight as they leaped together in a perfect riot of joy.

"Silly old fish, the porpoise," he said, "always making circles in the water like that"

But the ennui expressed in his words was not reflected in his face. Even silly old porpoises acquire an interest when one's attention is called to them by a small and shapely hand that forgets in the enthusiasm of the moment to remove itself from one's arm. It was only by sharply calling to mind the haughty faces of his mother and sisters that he refrained from indiscretion.

"You don't mind?" he asked, drawing his cigar-case from his pocket. "Deuced clever of you, I call it, to think of coming up here. How did you know that Black fellow wouldn't come?"

"He's too fat to climb," said Bobby. "He doesn't even like to walk."

"Thought he was quite keen about it from the way he walked with us every evening. A decent chap would not intrude."

"That's funny!" said Bobby, with twinkling eyes. "That's almost exactly what he said about you, only he didn't say intrude."

"What did he say?"

"Butt in," said Bobby.

The Honorable Percival suffered one of those acute revulsions that had become less frequent of late. At such times he marveled at himself for permitting such vulgarity in his presence.

"You Americans have the most extraordinary expressions, Miss Boynton!" he said.

"How queer that sounds!"

"What?"

"Miss Boynton. I thought you'd got to the Bobby stage. Perhaps you'd rather make it Roberta."

"Yes, I think I should, if I may."

For a few seconds they dropped into silence, he puffing away at his cigar, and she gazing off to the horizon as if she had quite forgotten his presence.

"Were you ever in love?" she asked, turning on him suddenly.

"Why do you ask?" he said, scrutinizing the ash of his cigar.

"Because it's so queer you never got married. I thought young Englishmen with names and estates to keep up always married right away."

"Well, I suppose they do, as a rule. The Hascombes are rather different. Of course there have been a lot of girls who were foolish enough to-er-to think-"

"To think they were in love with you? Go ahead! I'll shut my eyes."

Instead, she opened them very wide, and he had to unbutton his coat just for the sake of buttoning it up again.

"But I don't care about them," she went on; "I want to know if you've ever been in love."

"Imagined I was once."

"Oh, what fun! Tell me about it from beginning to end!"

"How do you know it had an end!"

"I'd gamble on it," said Bobby, confidently. "But tell me!"

Just why Percival at this moment felt a sudden desire to discuss a subject that hitherto he had shrunk from the slightest reference to can be explained only by the fact that the confiding of an unhappy love affair to a sympathetic member of the opposite sex seems a necessary stage of convalescence. It was the first chance he had had to present his version of the story to an unbiased listener, and if he omitted certain details, and laid undue stress upon others, it must not be held against him.

"Of course," he said in conclusion, "through a sense of honor I'd have gone through with it. Fortunately, it was not necessary. Poor girl broke it off herself."

He spoke as of one who had committed suicide, but in regard to whom a kindly jury would have brought in a verdict of temporary insanity.

"Well, I think you were perfectly splendid, all through," cried Bobby. "What sort of a girl could she have been to act like that?"

He took several long, satisfying pulls at his cigar; it was astonishing how much he was enjoying it, and the conversation as well.

"Oh, she's quite one of the best, you know. Dare say she thought it was all my fault."

"The idea! Was she pretty?"

"Opinions differ."

"Smart?"

"Rather!"

"Jolly?"

"Well, no, not exactly jolly; that's not quite the word."

"Very proper, I suppose,"

"Oh, yes, absolutely; most decidedly so. Perf

ect stickler for form."

Bobby sighed.

"Just the opposite from me all the way through. Well, I'm glad you wouldn't make up. Serves her right."

"Probably best for everybody," said Percival. "Now it's your turn. How about yourself!"

"Well," she said with what struck him as the strangest irrelevance, "our scheme seems to be working with the captain. We've got him guessing. He told me last night I was not to go to the prow with you again."

"Why not?"

"He thinks you like me too much."

"What do you think?"

Percival bit his lip the moment he had asked it, but leaning there on the railing, with her dancing eyes on a level with his own, and nothing else on the entire horizon, it was difficult to keep the situation in hand.

"I think you are getting a bully tan," she said, scrutinizing him closely; "most men get a red nose or else they get all speckled around the edges. Yours looks like a nice crust on an apple pie."

"I do tan rather decently," he said; "but you haven't told me what you think."

"What about?"

"About my liking you too much."

"I think the captain exaggerated."

"He couldn't exaggerate that."

"But how can you like me when I'm all wrong?"

"I like you because of your possibilities. You've probably never met any one before who understood you as I do. Quite extraordinary the way you've improved since you came on board."

"And you've got fourteen days more to work on me! Do you think anybody will recognize me when I get back to Wyoming?"

"Now you are chaffing!" complained Percival. "You never take me seriously."

"Then you want me to be serious, and believe everything you say?"

He paused in awed contemplation of the direful consequences if she should, but for the life of him he couldn't stop.

"I want you to believe me," he said tenderly, "when I say that you've been most awfully sweet, and that I wouldn't give half a sovereign for any other girl's chances if you were within ten miles. I want you to know that I consider you the prettiest girl I've ever seen, and the most-"

Bobby tightened the rope about her waist.

"It's time for me to be going," she exclaimed in mock alarm, "If you keep on saying things like that, I may furnish another scalp to that collection you were telling me about. I don't dare stay another minute."

Neither did Percival. He followed her down the ladder as if he had been escaping from quicksands.

That night the crow's-nest was added to the prow on the list of places about a ship which the captain felt young ladies should stay away from.

"You will have to join the crowd," suggested Bobby when Percival complained of not seeing her as often as he wished

"You will have to join the crowd," suggested Bobby when Percival complained of not seeing her as often as he wished. "We sing up on the boat-deck every night, and now the moon is up, it's perfectly gorgeous."

But Percival's abhorrence of crowds made him hold out resolutely until the day before they were to land in Japan. Everybody was making plans for the few days to be spent in port, and small parties were being formed to leave the steamer at Yokohama and join it three days later at Kobe. Percival was annoyed because the steamer had to stop at all. Any interruption in the present routine was a nuisance. He vacillated between the inconvenience of going ashore and the stupidity of remaining on board. An invitation from Mrs. Weston to join her party, and an insistent demand from Bobby Boynton, decided him. He made his preparations accordingly.

But an unforeseen incident occurred the night before the Saluria landed which caused him suddenly to change his plans. He was just ready to go below for the night when an overmastering desire for one more word with Bobby seized him. By a bit of Machiavellian strategy he had outwitted Andy that afternoon, and had her entirely to himself for three blissful hours.

It was in their old haunt behind the wind-shelter, and he had taken the opportunity, if not to "shatter her to bits," at least "to remold her nearer to the heart's desire." He had done it with consummate tact, and she had responded with adorable docility. He never admired himself more than in the r?le of cicerone to a young and trusting maid. By the subtlest methods he knew how to convey approval or disapproval of anything from a beaded slipper to a moral sentiment. He could stir dormant ambition, rouse lagging courage, inspire patience, and all he demanded in return was unfaltering homage from the fair one.

In the present instance, however, the entire time was not devoted to correcting faults of manner and speech or to acquiring the higher Christian virtues. It was incredible how many things they found to talk about, considering the fact that art, literature, music, the drama, foreign travel, and London gossip were not among them. Bobby's way of diving unexpectedly from the general into the personal made a tête-à-tête with her peculiarly exhilarating.

The trouble was that the more one had, the more one wanted, and going to bed now without a parting word seemed to Percival really more than he had a right to ask of himself. He circled the deck several times in indecision, then he ascended the companionway and made his way aft.

A full moon hung high in the heavens, and a flood of silver poured in a dazzling stream across the level surface of the sea. The quarter-deck, the white boats amidships, and all the brass work abaft the funnels reflected the radiance.

"See who is here!" cried the irrepressible Andy from an indistinguishable group that huddled together under steamer-rugs against the big blue-and-white smoke-stack.

"May I speak to Miss Boynton for a moment?" asked Percival, icily.

"I'm afraid I can't get out," said Bobby. "Elise is sitting on my feet, and Andy and I've got on the same sweater. There's a place for you here, if you will come."

It is really too undignified an act in the life of the Honorable Percival to chronicle, but before he had time to contradict his impulse, he had actually doubled up his long legs and crawled into the small space Bobby made for him beside her. If she persisted in preferring this noisy bunch of inanity to a quiet stroll on the promenade-deck with him, then he supposed for the time being he must humor her.

Youth and love and moonlight at sea are a magic combination, however, and Percival soon decided that even though it was deuced uncomfortable to be huddled up like that, with both feet asleep, yet there were compensations.

"Sing!" commanded Bobby, and he joined obediently in the chorus. As the night wore on a caressing coolness crept into the air, and the crowd gathered into a closer group. Percival could feel Bobby breathing near him, and could look down undisturbed into her upturned face as she sang with passionate abandon to the moon. She seemed to have entirely lost sight of her surroundings and was off on some high adventure of her own, leaving him free to watch her to his heart's content.

It was a situation fraught with danger; yet he lingered. He did more: he slipped his hand beneath the rug and sought cautiously for hers. As their palms met, and her small fingers closed responsively over his, such a thrill of satisfaction passed over him as he had never felt before. His old wounds were suddenly healed, life became a passionate love-song on a languorous, moonlit sea. But his ecstasy ceased with the music. Bobby's voice broke the spell with frightful distinctness:

"If you want to hold my hand, Mr. Hascombe, you are welcome to it"

"If you want to hold my hand, Mr. Hascombe, you are welcome to it. Andy's got the other one; but if you don't mind, we'll put them all together, like that, on top of the steamer-rug."

During the laugh that followed he managed to got to his feet and make his escape. He had never been so angry in his life; he even included himself in his devastating wrath. Why shouldn't he have been insulted, laughed at, jeered at! When one allows oneself to associate with such people, he ought to expect such behavior.

"Plebeians!" he snarled as he jerked together the curtains of his berth and turned his face to the wall.

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