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   Chapter 15 PERCIVAL RISES TO AN OCCASION

The Honorable Percival By Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice Characters: 9869

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


During the two nights and days that followed the typhoon had everything its own way. The sea bellowed with rage, and battalion after battalion of mountainous waves charged the ship, only to fall back and form again. For thirty consecutive hours the captain stayed on the bridge watching every variation in the glass, and keeping all of his Nelson features in active service. Whatever frivolities might fill his idle hours, there was no question of his attention to duty when the call came.

As for the Honorable Percival, he had ample opportunity during his long hours of solitary confinement to make a complete inventory of his varied emotions. Two things which should never be interrupted are a sneeze and a proposal. That second declaration, so ardently begun and so ruthlessly arrested, still hung in mid-air, and lying on his back in his darkened stateroom, he had ample time in which to survey it from every angle.

Never for a moment did he question the undying nature of his affection for Bobby. His emotion was too insistent and too consuming to be doubted. It was the proprieties that he questioned, and they all shook emphatic and disapproving heads. The proprieties in Grosvenor Square, to be sure, loomed rather dim through the distance; but that immediate propriety in Hong-Kong, toward whom he was speeding with every turn of the screw, towered ominously.

If only he could hold things in abeyance until after the Saluria sailed from Hong-Kong, all might be well. It was of the utmost importance that he should not present Bobby to Sister Cordelia until the die was irrevocably cast. Faults that in Miss Boynton of the Big Gully Ranch would be glaring iniquities would, in the wife of the Honorable Percival Hascombe, dwindle away to charming eccentricities.

A daring plan occurred to him. With proper strategy he might go down to see the steamer off, get left on board, have the return trip in uninterrupted bliss with Bobby, then boldly cable from America that he had met his fate and succumbed to it, and that remonstrances were useless. The scheme appealed to him the more he considered it. Cablegrams were necessarily unemotional, and by the time letters were exchanged, the proprieties would probably have decided to accept the will of Providence and try to make the best of dear Percy's strange choice of an unknown American girl.

In the meanwhile he would devote all his energies to fitting her for the honor about to be conferred upon her, For he had quite given up the idea of the "blossomed bower in dark purple spheres of sea," and had definitely decided to take her back to England as the future mistress of Hascombe Hall. All he asked was six months in which to cut and polish his priceless gem.

It was not until the evening before the Saluria was due in Hong-Kong that the sea got over its fit of temper and decided to make that last night the most beautiful one of the crossing. Everybody was down for the farewell dinner. Even those who had been invisible for two days emerged from their state-rooms like gorgeous butterflies from their cocoons. Speeches were made, toasts were drunk, and a general air of festivity prevailed.

Percival raged inwardly at the length of the dinner. The golden moments were racing by, and he was in a fever to get Bobby away to himself, he had decided on a course which he felt did credit to his power of self-control. He would permit himself the luxury of showing her that her affection for him was wholly returned, without in any way committing himself to a definite engagement. He would, in short, ask her to accept a sort of promissory note on his affections, to be presented at any time after the steamer left Hong-Kong.

It was ten o'clock before he contrived, to escape Mrs. Weston's vigilant eye and whisk Bobby off to a certain favored nook on the boat-deck just outside the captain's state-room. Here they had spent many happy evenings, notwithstanding the fact that their figures, silhouetted against the light, had never failed to provoke the captain to a profanity that was not always inaudible.

To-night, however, the captain was detained below, and they had the entire Yellow Sea to themselves as they sat on a projecting ledge and leaned their elbows comfortably on the rail.

It was an enticing night, with nothing left of the recent storm save a subtle thrill that still lingered in wind and wave. Overhead spread a canopy of luminous, subtropical stars; in undisturbed silence they gazed up at their brilliance. From below floated faint strains of music mingling with the sound of rippling: water.

"And to think it's our very last night!" murmured Bobby, her chin on her palm. "I'll never bear 'La Paloma' that I sha'n't think of this trip and of you."

Percival dared not answer. He had reached that stage when, according to the philosopher, the moonlight is a pleasing fever, the stars are letters, the flowers ciphers, a

nd the air is coined into song. He regarded her gaze as she bent it upon the stars as the most exquisitely pensive thing he had ever behold.

"My! but there are some dandy billiard-shots up there!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Do you see that lovely carom over there beyond the Dipper?"

"I am not thinking of caroms," he said impatiently, "I am thinking of you."

"What have I done now?" she asked indignantly.

"You've made me forget that there's anything else in the whole universe but just you!"

"And now you've got to begin to remember," said Bobby, sympathetically.

He searched her face for a clue as to what was passing in her mind, but he found none.

"You are a most awfully baffling girl," he said. "Sometimes I can't determine whether you are subtle or merely ingenuous."

"I'd give it up," advised Bobby.

"But I sha'n't give it up. I sha'n't be content until I know every little corner of your mind and heart."

She stirred uneasily. From, the way he was looking at her it was evidently a good thing that his near arm was in a sling.

"You need a cigar," she said soothingly. "Get one out; I'll light it for you."

He obediently produced his cigar-case, and together they selected a cigar. She made a great point of cutting off the end, and then, when he had got it into his mouth, she struck a match and, sheltering the blaze with her scarf, held it close. The sudden intimacy of that beautiful face in the little circle of light, with the darkness all around, was quite too much for Percival. He looked straight into her eyes for one resolution-breaking second, then he blew out the match and catching her to him, passionately kissed those smiling, upturned lips.

"Mr. Hascombe!" she protested, shrinking away; but Percival had made his leap and nothing could stop him.

"You are mine!" he cried rapturously, pressing her hand again and again to his lips. "It's all quite right, my darling. Don't be frightened. We shall be married any time, anywhere you say, to-morrow, if you like, in Hong-Kong."

"But, Mr. Hascombe-"

"Not Mr. Hascombe. Percival, Percy, if you will. Fancy! Love at first sight. One glance on those desolate plains, and you were mine!"

"But I'm not. That's what I'm trying to tell you."

He looked at her fatuously. "But you will be! My little lady of the manor! My beautiful little mistress of Hascombe Hall!"

She struggled away from him, and stood at bay.

"How can you talk to me like this?" she cried, her voice trembling with indignation, "after what I told you that day in the wind-shelter?"

"In the wind-shelter?" He looked at her in bewilderment.

"Yea, about Hal Ford and the captain and all that. Why, you promised to help me, and now-"

"Hal Ford?" repeated Percival, dazed. "What has he to do with it?"

"More than anybody else in the world. He's waiting for me in Wyoming, and I'm counting the days and the hours and the minutes until I get back to him. I thought you understood, and were helping me bring the captain around."

He stood before her too stunned to speak.

Sheer amazement for the moment crowded out the pain.

"But-but don't you love me?" he stammered at last.

"Of course I don't," said Bobby, almost indignantly; "I never have loved anybody, and I never will love anybody but Hal."

Then Percival realized that it was quite possible for lightning to strike twice in the same place. He felt a sudden pain in his throat, a burning under his lids, and he sat down limply.

"I'm so sorry!" whispered Bobby, putting her arm impulsively around his heaving shoulders

"I'm so sorry!" whispered Bobby, putting her arm impulsively around his heaving shoulders. "I thought we were playing a game. I thought you understood. Please forgive me, Mr. Hascombe! Please! Won't you?"

He shook off her arm and stood up. He was whiter than he had been on the night of the accident, but he managed to achieve a smile.

"Nothing whatever to forgive, I assure you. Just a bit of a bunker, you know. Silly ass I was, not to have seen it all along. May I offer my congratulations?" he added.

She took the hand that he hold out, and for a longer time than either of them knew they stood silent, looking out into the vast mystery of the night, while the throbbing strains of "La Paloma" floated up from below, mingling with the music of the rippling water.

"I guess this is good-by," said Bobby, tremulously.

Then it was that the Honorable Percival illustrated the fact that an English gentleman is often greatest in defeat.

"Not necessarily," he said gamely. "Quite possible you and your husband may come to England."

"Or you to Wyoming!" cried Bobby, brightening instantly, and turning upon him the full splendor of her eyes. "Hal and I'd just love to give you a summer on the ranch. Do you suppose it ever will be possible?"

"Oh, I dare say," said the Honorable Percival, nonchalantly adjusting his monocle.

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