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The Lightning Conductor Discovers America By A. M. Williamson Characters: 30353

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02



On Board SS. Evangeline,

March 15th.

Dearest Mercédes:

It will be days, also nights (worse luck, for my cabin chirps like a cricket, sings like a canary, and does a separate realistic imitation of each animal in the Zoo!), before we get to New York. But I have crochet cramp and worsted wrist from finishing a million scarfs since we sailed, so I feel it will ease the strain to begin a letter to you. I dare say, anyhow, I shan't close it till the last minute, with a P. S. to say we're arriving safely-if we do! One never knows nowadays. And we have on board a man who's been torpedoed twice. I hope he isn't the kind to whom everything happens in threes. By the way, he's the Ship's Mystery, and this letter can't be a complete record of the voyage unless I tell you about him. Place aux dames, however. There's a girl I want to tell you about first. Or had I better polish off our own family history and make a clean sweep of ourselves before beginning on anybody else? On second thoughts, I will!

Jack's getting better splendidly. I can't say he's getting well, for that will take a long time yet, I'm sorry to-but no, to be an Honest Injun, I'm not sorry. I'm glad-glad! He's done his "bit"-quite a large bit-for his country, and if his bones and muscles were knitting as rapidly as I knit socks for soldiers, he would insist on rushing back to do another bit. Of course he wouldn't have consented to come over here, even for the three months I've made him (figuratively speaking) "sign on for," if the doctors hadn't all said he'd be a crock for months. Even he has to admit that he may as well crock in America as anywhere else; and I've persuaded him that I can't possibly decide what to do with the place Cousin John Randolph Payton left me on Long Island without his expert advice. It may be the first time I was ever unable to decide a thing by myself, but there must be a first time, you know. And I'm simply purring with joy to have Jack at my mercy like this, after all I went through with him at the front. We shall celebrate a wedding day presently. Ten years married, and I adore Jack just ten times more than I did the day I exchanged a Lightning Conductor for a husband.

He does look too interesting since he was wounded! All the girls gaze at him as if he were a matinee idol or a moving-picture star, and naturally they don't think I'm worthy of him in the least-an opinion in which I agree. Luckily, he doesn't. I believe he admires me as much as I do him. And really, I'm not so bad to look at, I notice, now I've begun to live again and don't need to worry over Jack every instant. I had feared it might be necessary to own up to twenty-nine, only two years short of my real age, which would be so wasteful. But thank goodness, I see now I can safely retreat in good order back to twenty-five, and stay there for some time to come. I always did feel that if girl or woman found a nice, suitable age, she ought to stick to it!

That's all about us, I think. So, speaking of girls, I'll tell you about the one I mentioned. I want to tell you, because Jack and I are both passionately interested and perhaps a little curious. Consequently I expect her fate and ours, as the palmists say, will be mixed together while we live on Long Island. In that case, she's sure to be served up to you toasted, iced, sugared, and spiced, in future letters, so she may as well be introduced to you now: "The Countess of Lane-Miss Patricia Moore." Nice name, isn't it? Almost as nice as yours before you were married to Monty. She has informed me, however, that she hates the Patricia part because it sounds as if she turned up her nose in pride of birth, whereas God turned it up when He made her-or else her nurse let her lie on it when she was asleep. Anyhow, it's tilted just right, to make her look like one of those wonderful girls on American magazine covers, with darling little profiles that show the long curve of lashes on their off, as well as their near, eyelid. You know that engaging effect?

I have been invited to call her "Patty," or "Pat," both of which names were in use at the French convent school she has lately left. But I think she will have to be "Patsey" for me, as to my mind it's more endearing. And "endearing" is a particularly suitable adjective for her. Constantly, when looking at the creature, I find myself wanting to hum, "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms," etc. There are simply crowds of them-charms, I mean. Big blue eyes under those eyelashes, and above them, too, for the under lashes are a special feature; clouds of black wavy hair; and milky-white skin such as true Irish beauties have in poems, where it's not so difficult as in real life. This girl is American, not Irish, but she's certainly the Beauty of the ship.

She is the happiest thing you ever saw: and apparently she's coming home (she calls it "home," though she hasn't seen America since she was ten) as a conquering hero comes marching into a blaze of glory. All the same, I'm sorry for her. I have a sort of impression-but why be a croaking raven? I really don't see why! Every prospect pleases, and there's no reason man should be particularly vile. When I allude thus flippantly to "man," I refer to Papa Moore. I suppose when one comes to analyze that "sort of an impression" the danger-note is sounded to my heart by the girl's description of her father.

Not that she calls him "father," or even "papa," or "dad." She calls him "Larry," his name being Laurence. She worships the ground he walks on, she says, which is sweet of her, as very little of it has been walked on in her neighbourhood for the last nine years.

It seems that Mamma and Larry made a runaway match, when he was twenty and a half and Mamma seventeen and a quarter. He ran from college and she ran from boarding-school. Mamma was an heiress; Larry was poor. However, he had a lovely old house on Long Island (or rather his people had it) and he came into it later when the others had kindly died: a very historic old house, according to Miss Pat. She's intensely proud of her parents' romance, and the fact that Larry is at this present time only forty-one. "Of course forty-one is old," she explained to Jack and me, "but not for the father of a grown-up girl, is it? It couldn't be done younger! And when you meet him, you'll see-why, you'll see that I look old enough to be his mother!"

(She had her nineteenth birthday with a present of a motor car to celebrate it, just before leaving France, and she looks sixteen. So naturally Jack and I are curious to behold Larry. If her description fits, he must be rather like the father in Anstey's "Vice Versa.")

When Pat was ten, Mamma twenty-eight, and Father thirty-one, the trio went to Europe, which I think mostly meant Paris. Mamma was taken with pneumonia after an Embassy ball, at which she was the prettiest woman, and died of her triumph. Larry didn't know what to do with the child. But some sympathetic soul who wanted to save the dear boy trouble advised him to plant his little flower in the soil of France, where he could come once in a while to see how she grew. He took the advice, and Patty was planted in a convent school, where she has stayed till now, as he never seemed ready to dig her up.

Just what Larry has done with himself meanwhile is not explained in this first chapter of the romance, which is as far as we have got. All Patty knows is that he left "important business" to dash over twice and see her: once when she was thirteen, once again three years later. He was "too handsome for words," and "the girls were all wild about him." Since then, nothing doing-except letters and cheques. Apparently Larry was under the impression that once a schoolgirl, always a schoolgirl. Anyhow, he put off indefinitely the happy day when he could take his fair young daughter to reign over his home. The Mother Superior wrote when Pat was going to be eighteen, and Larry said he would come, but didn't. Patty is sure he couldn't, because "he adores her just as she adores him," and is dying for the time when they can be together. At last, owing to the war, all the older girls were leaving the school except Patricia Moore; so Larry's memory had to be jogged, and this time he opened his heart and sent for Pat. Dreadfully sorry he couldn't fetch her himself, but gave carte blanche for everything a girl could possibly want in travelling, except a father.

I told you about the high-powered French motor car. Well, there's an even higher powered French maid. She's the kind that you could describe as "and suite," without the slightest snobbishness or exaggeration, when registering your name in the visitors' book at a hotel. The car, which Larry told Pat to buy for herself as a birthday present from him, is forty horsepower, I believe; whereas I'm much mistaken if Angéle isn't about a hundred demon-power. She's geared terribly high, can "crank" herself I should imagine, and has the smartest new type of body, all glittering paint and varnish. Isn't it nice that her name should be Angéle? It wasn't the Mother Superior who engaged this guardian angel for Miss Moore, but the dear old Paris friend of Larry's who advised the convent in the first place. Angéle was her maid, taken over from a princess-an Albanian one, or something Balkanic or volcanic. The old friend is a Marquise, and my opinion is that her genius lies in finding safe harbours for incubuses (is there such a word, or should it be "incubi?"). Heaven knows what explosive thing may happen if the high-powered Angéle doesn't fancy her new garage and petrol.

Besides the car and the maid, Mademoiselle Patsey is bringing with her to America a regular trousseau for her début, which is to take place in the grand manner. She won't let me see Larry's photograph because it doesn't do him justice, and because she wants him to burst upon me as a brilliant surprise; but she has shown me as much of the trousseau as her stateroom and Angéle's can contain. The rest's in the hold, and forms quite a respectable cargo. If everything comes off as Patsey expects it to do (and after all, as I said, why shouldn't it?) I do think that she and her charm and her clothes are likely to dazzle New York. Nothing prettier can have happened there or anywhere for a long time.

By the way, did you ever hear of a Laurence Moore of Long Island, whose place is called Kidd's Pines? There may be half a directory bursting with Laurence Moores, but there can be only one with an address like Kidd's Pines. It's named after a clump of pines supposed to be a kind of landmark for treasure buried by Captain Kidd. Either the treasure is buried under the trees, somewhere between their roots and China, or the pines point to it. Can pines point? I don't see how they can, any more than a pumpkin can point; but perhaps nobody else being able to see is the reason why the treasure's never been found.

We haven't many young men on board. Most of the young men who travel are going the other way just now; and that makes our Ship's Mystery more conspicuous. One reason he's so conspicuous is because he's travelling third class. (We used to call it steerage!) Maybe you'll say that travelling third class doesn't usually make people mysterious: it makes them smell of disinfectants. Also it puts them Beyond the Pale. Not that I or any other nice woman can tell precisely what a Pale is. But anyhow, if you go third class you have to show your tongue if the least important person demands a sight of it. And if that doesn't put you beyond Pales and everything else, I don't know what does.

That's why this man deserves such extraordinary credit for being interesting and mysterious. Even if caught in the act of displaying his tongue to the doctor, I believe you'd say, should you see a snapshot: "Who is that man?"

Now, haven't I worked up to him well? Don't you want to hear the rest? Well, so do we. For we don't know anything at all, except that if we go and gaze over the rail of the first-class part of this old-fashioned tub of a ship, into the third-class part, we can generally observe a young man who looks like an Italian prince (I mean, the way an Italian prince ought to look) telling the steerage children stories or teaching them games. I'm not sure if he's exactly handsome, but there must be something remarkable about him, or all the first-class passengers wouldn't have begun asking each other or the ship's officers or even the deck stewards on the first day out, the question I suggested: "Who is that man?"

I believe, by the by, it was a deck steward I asked. I've always found that they know everything. Or what they don't know they cook up more excitingly than if bound to dull facts.

I added to the question aforesaid-"Who is that man?"-another: "And how does he come to be in the steerage?"

It was the second question which got answered first. "I suppose, my lady"-(Whiffitts will anticipate the far future by calling me "my lady")-"that all his money was torpedoed."

This explanation raised such a weird picture (can't you see the thing happening?) that Whiffitts was obliged to begin at the beginning, and not stop till he came to the end, my eager look a prophesied mine of half-crowns.

Whiffitts simply loved telling me. It is nice knowing something somebody else doesn't know and is dying to! The name of the Ship's Mystery is supposed to be Storm, Peter Storm. I say "supposed," advisedly. Because it may be anything. They don't worry with passenger lists for third-class people; they're just a seething, nameless mass, apparently. But anything remarkable bubbles up to the top, as in the case of the alleged Peter Storm. Naturally, his fellow-passengers have nicknamed him "The Stormy Petrel."

What is he really? we wonder. A jewel shines more brightly at night, and perhaps it's the contrast between the Stormy Petrel and those "fellow-passengers" of his which makes him look so very great a gentleman, despite the fact that his clothes might have been bought at a second hand-no, a fourth or fifth hand-shop. The creature wears flannel shirts (he seems, thank heaven, to have several to change with, of different colours) and they have low, turn-over collars. Apparently all his neckties were torpedoed with his money, for he never sports one. Instead, he ties himself up in red or black silk handkerchiefs, very ancient and faded; and if you will believe me, my dear girl, the effect is most distinguished!

I told you that he looks as an Italian prince ought to look and seldom does; but he claims American citizenship. He sailed from New York in the Lusitania, and was among those saved. Far from advertising this adventure, the hero of it would apparently have kept silence if he could; but it leaked out somehow in Ireland, Whiffits doesn't quite know how. In any case, at the time of taking passage on the Arabic back to America, months later, paragraphs about the man's Lusitania experience appeared in the papers. He was catechized at the consulate when trying to get a passport for the Un

ited States, and it came out then that there was no Peter Storm on board the Lusitania. Our Mystery explained, however, that in the third class there was a passenger registered as "Peter Sturm." The name, according to him, was spelled wrongly at the time. Nobody has since contradicted this statement, so it has been given the benefit of the doubt. Once more the man's luck bobbed up on board the Arabic, where he was saved again, and behaved well, rescuing a lot of people. What he did in that way on the Lusitania isn't known; but the searchlight of fame was turned full upon him after the Arabic, and has never ceased to play around his head. By the by, the said head was wounded in the Arabic affair, and bears a scar which runs down over the left temple and is rather becoming. Also he got pneumonia from exposure, and lay dangerously ill for some time. Several persons whose lives he saved wanted to give him money, but he refused to accept. He was nursed at a hospital in Ireland, and when he grew strong enough he found work, in order to pay his own way to America. What he is going to turn his hand to over there he doesn't seem to know, or won't tell.

We have a real live millionairess on the Evangeline an American millionairess from the West somewhere, a Mrs. Shuster. She's a widow, about forty-five, common but kind. For "two twos" I believe she would adopt the Stormy Petrel. She's been in Switzerland, where people used to go to eat chocolate and see mountains, and where they now go to make proposals of peace. I believe she made some, but nobody listened much, so she came away disappointed and fiercely determined to do good somewhere or know the reason why! She's a stout, wildly untidy woman whose mouse-coloured hair is always coming down, though it's freely dotted with irrelevant tortoise-shell combs; and whose elaborate clothes look somehow insecure, the way scree does on the side of a mountain. Her ideas leap out of her brain like rabbits out of holes, and then go scuttling away again, to be followed ineffectively by others: and her latest is benefiting the Ship's Mystery. She's sure he can't be American, because Americans don't have eyes like wells of ink, and short, close black beards like those of English or Italian naval officers. Her theory is that he's a subject of some belligerent country, who has conscientious scruples against fighting. The fact that he sailed from New York on the Lusitania last spring can't convince the lady that she is wrong in her "deductions," as Sherlock Holmes would say. It only complicates the mystery a little and adds ramifications.

To my mind, Mr. Storm hasn't at all the look of a man opposed to fighting. I believe he would love it. The odd thing to me is, where there's such wide opportunity on one side or the other, that he isn't doing it. And Jack thinks so, too. I do hope he isn't a spy or an anarchist, or a person who takes passage on ships to blow them up or signal to submarines or something.

Of course I haven't suggested such horrors to Mrs. Shuster; and yesterday she made up an exploring party for the steerage, so as to open communications with the desired protégé. The first officer had promised to take her, and she asked me to join them. I happened to be talking to Patsey Moore at the time, and saw by the way her eyes lighted that she was dying to go, too. So I got her included in the invitation.

It was a lovely calm day, the long level lines of the sea punctuated with porpoises, dear things like giant commas. A good many of the third-class passengers were writing letters on their knees, and the quaintest paper. Among these was the Man of Mystery; and Mrs. Shuster sailed up to him, billowing out in the breeze of her own enthusiasm.

"We've all heard of you," she said. "And the splendid things you did on the Arabic."

Actually the man blushed! He rose up politely; and as he is very tall and straight, rather thin, and extremely dark, he reminded me of a cedar towering beside one of those squat Dutch trees cut into the shape of some domestic animal.

"I really did nothing," he protested, with that guilty redness spreading over his olive face, and making him more mysterious than ever. Because he had the air of being found out in something. And the blush began before Mrs. Shuster got as far as mentioning the Arabic. It was more as if he were afraid she had met him before and recognized him.

"Well, other people are better judges of that than yourself," the dear lady contradicted him. "I, and a lot more first-class passengers, feel it's a shame you should be here. We want you to be up with us and-and telling us all about your adventures. The favour wouldn't be from us to you, but the other way round, if you accepted the price of a cabin. We're sure you're a gentleman--"

At that it was Patsey's and my turn to blush! It was such an awful thing to say to the man, though the poor woman meant so blunderingly well. P. and I were in the background-an easy place to be, because there's so much of Mrs. Shuster. We weren't even a chorus, because we hadn't made a sound or a gesture, and didn't intend to make one. But the colour effect was unrehearsed and unavoidable. I felt a regular blush of red to the head, as I used to say when I was small, and Pat grew scarlet as if she'd been suddenly slapped. I expected to see the forked lightning of scorn dart from those immense dark eyes of Storm's: but instead they crinkled up in an engaging smile. One glance the man gave Pat and me, against his own will I think: but it was a spontaneous combustion of his sense of humour. It struck a spark to ours, and I dared to smile also. Pat didn't quite dare, but looked relieved, though still evidently scared about what might come next, and intensely, painfully interested.

"Thank you very much," said Mr. Storm. "I'm afraid you flatter me, madam. I make no such pretension. It's kind of you to think of promoting me, but this is my place. I shouldn't feel at home going first class, I assure you. I haven't either the manners or the clothes to make me comfortable there."

"Why, I think your manners are beautiful," that miserable millionairess assured him, while my mouth felt dry, and I'm sure Patsey's became arid as the Libyan Desert.

"We'll all risk that, if you'll come and entertain us with stories of your adventures. As for clothes, I can take up a collection for you from among the gentlemen of the first class. A shirt here, a coat there. They'd be delighted."

"Thank you again," responded the victim, still smiling. "But I should be-a misfit. And I haven't a story worth telling. I'm no Scherezadé. I'm very grateful for your interest, madam, but my best way of showing it is to stay where I am-and where I belong."

"You're ever so much too modest," the unfortunate lady persisted. "Isn't he, Mrs. Winston?"

I prickled all over like a cactus. "I think Mr. Petrel-I mean Mr. Storm-can decide for himself better than we can," I stammered.

He looked at me, and then beyond me at Pat. "I'm really grateful," he repeated.

Even Mrs. Shuster understood that the rare plant preferred to remain in the kitchen garden with the vegetables, and that she could not uproot it.

"Well," she said reluctantly, "I'm sorry you feel that way. But do let me do something to-to show my appreciation of your gallant conduct on the Arabic. You're evidently a man of education. I see that, in spite of all you say. It isn't true, is it, that you're an American?"

"Quite true, madam," he answered coolly. "Do I speak like a foreigner?"

"Not like a foreigner, exactly. But-well, I don't know. I must take your word for it. I guess, though, you've spent a good deal of time in other countries?"

"I've been here and there," he admitted. "I had the craze for travel in my blood as a boy." As he spoke, he smiled again, as if at some odd memory.

"I dare say you know several languages?" suggested Mrs. Shuster.

"Oh, I've picked up Russian-and a little French, and Italian, and Spanish."

"You ought to get quite a good position, then."

"I intend to try."

"But they say it's almost impossible to find work anywhere now, without influence," she went on. "Have you got influence?"

"None whatever, madam."

Her face brightened. She'd have been bitterly disappointed if he had answered differently! "Well, we'll see what I can do for you on land, since you won't accept anybody's assistance on water," chirped the benefactress. "With your knowledge of languages, you might help me in my Propaganda." (The way she spoke that word spelt it with a capital.)

The Stormy Petrel flushed up again, whether with annoyance or embarrassment or a mad desire to laugh, I couldn't decide. He murmured that she was very kind, but that he wouldn't trouble her. She must have many people to look after, and he would be all right in one way or another. He wasn't afraid.

"No, indeed, I'm sure you're never afraid of anything!" protested Mrs. Shuster, breathless with enthusiasm. But at this moment the officer who was our guide felt that the limit had been reached, even for a millionairess. He hinted that there was more to see of third-class life, and moved us on when our leading lady had offered a royal handshake to the steerage hero. She would no doubt have pinned a V. C. on his breast if she had had one handy, but was obliged to content herself with screaming out reassurances as we were torn away: "I won't forget you. I shall see you again, and suggest something definite."

Of course we didn't want to see more third-class life but we had to pretend to. We saw where the poor dears (Mrs. Shuster called them poor dears) slept and bathed (if at all) and ate. After a boring ten or fifteen minutes we were returning by the way we had come, when a sheet of paper blew along the deck. It made straight for me as if asking to be saved, and I saved it; otherwise it would have fluttered into the sea.

Somebody had just begun writing on the paper with one of those blue indelible pencils such as soldiers use in the trenches. There were two or three lines along the top of the page, and they jumped right at my eyes, though of course I didn't mean to read them-"in case you don't get the wireless. You must see him and make him understand that this can't go on. Men rose from the dead in old days. What has been done before can be done again. Warn him that--"

There the sentence broke off.

I was thrilled. It was as if a door suddenly flew open in front of a dull house in a slummy street, to show for an instant a scene of splendour, and then slammed shut on your prying nose.

Of course I knew the paper was Storm's, and the handwriting his (a strong, educated hand) because there simply wasn't anybody else in that crowd capable of it. But, as I told you, several of the steerage passengers were taking advantage of the smooth weather to write letters; and, as it happened, our Mystery was no longer engaged in writing. He'd stuffed his pad and pencil into a pocket of his awful coat when the good ship Shuster first bore down on him under full sail. Now, on our return, he was standing at some distance pointing out porpoises to passengers and rather conspicuously not seeing us. I couldn't yell, "Mr. Storm, you've lost part of a letter you were writing!" But I thought it was the sort of letter he wouldn't want knocking about, so I said in a loud voice to our attendant officer, "Oh, somebody has dropped a sheet of paper with writing on it!"

I expected Storm to start dramatically, feel in his pocket, and perhaps claim his property with a keen glance at my face to see whether I had read anything. I intended of course to put on what Jack calls my "rag doll expression," one which I find most useful in social intercourse. But the man didn't start. He could not have helped hearing my siren hoot, but he never turned a hair or anything else. He went on pointing out perfectly irrelevant porpoises. I had to admire his nerve! For instantly I seemed to read the inner workings of his mind, and understood that he'd deliberately decided not to claim the paper. He guessed that I'd read the exciting words, and his mental message to me was: "Do what you like, my dear madam, and be d--."

I called out again for whom it might concern, "Somebody's lost part of a letter!" but no one took any interest in the announcement, so I added, with an eye on the back of the Mystery's neck, "Well, I suppose there's no use keeping it." I crumpled the paper into a ball, and tossed it over the rail where it couldn't be missed by the eye of Mr. Storm.

"He'll be glad to know I'm not showing it about, or brooding over it like a bit of a jigsaw puzzle," I thought. But the eye I wished to catch remained glued to the porpoises, and only they could tell whether it darkened with dread or twinkled with suppressed laughter. Even Mrs. Shuster hadn't the "cheek" to try and attract the man's attention, and we returned to our own class thanking our conductor for "all the interesting things he had shown us." I wondered if he knew that while we spoke in plural we thought in singular!

"The dreadful old lady will never let go of that poor fellow till she's ruined all the romance, and made him a respectable paid propaganda or something!" sighed Patsey Moore when we were tucked into our deck chairs once more.

I laughed, but saw that she was quite serious, almost tragic. One of her charms is her funny English. She's lived in France and talked French so long that she has to translate herself into English, so to speak; and sometimes she has the quaintest conception of how to do it. Also she rolls her "rs"; and if the Mystery had heard himself alluded to by her as a "pr-r-opoganda" he would never have forgotten it. As for Mrs. Shuster-she mightn't have minded the Maxim gun of that long-drawn "d-r-r-readful!" but her very vitals would have melted over the "old lady." Despite her largeness and oddness of appearance generally, she considers herself a young widow, with a personal fascination beyond that of her banking account. I, with the mellow leniency of-let me see?-twenty-six, find this pathetic. But Patsey on the sunny slope of nineteen can't even envisage my viewpoint. For her, a woman over thirty is middle-aged. When she's forty she is old, and there's an end of it. How much the poor baby has to learn! I hope she won't do it in being outrivalled with her best young man some day, by a dazzling siren of forty-five who knows all the tricks of the trade and looks younger than any respectable woman ought to look at half that age!

March 19th.

I was interrupted there, and I seem to have done nothing else but be interrupted ever since, either by big bumpy Mrs. Shuster, or some one, or else by big bumpy waves which make me want not to write letters. At this moment Patsey is calling "Oh, do come and look at the Statue of Liberty! I thought I remembered her twice that size and twice as handsome!"

Dearest Mercédes, I must go at once and browbeat Jack (who's never seen the lady you know) into admiring her at pain of losing my love.

Ever your affectionate


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