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- THE PATAGONIA - 6/14 -
"Well, it was only a word. Won't you let me know whether you do think her a flirt?"
"Try her yourself--that's better than asking another woman; especially as you pretend to study folk."
"Oh your judgement wouldn't probably at all determine mine. It's as bearing on YOU I ask it." Which, however, demanded explanation, so that I was duly frank; confessing myself curious as to how far maternal immorality would go.
It made her at first but repeat my words. "Maternal immorality?"
"You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and if you can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right. He'll have no responsibility."
"Heavens, how you analyse!" she cried. "I haven't in the least your passion for making up my mind."
"Then if you chance it," I returned, "you'll be more immoral still."
"Your reasoning's strange," said Mrs. Nettlepoint; "when it was you who tried to put into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come."
"Yes, but in good faith."
"What do you mean, in such a case, by that?"
"Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters," I expounded, "is much larger than that of young persons who have been, as you say, VERY well brought up; and yet I'm not sure that on the whole I don't think them thereby the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she's to be married next week, but it's an old old story, and there's no more romance in it than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life proceeds, and her usual life consists--and that of ces demoiselles in general--in having plenty of gentlemen's society. Having it I mean without having any harm from it."
Mrs. Nettlepoint had given me due attention. "Well, if there's no harm from it what are you talking about and why am I immoral?"
I hesitated, laughing. "I retract--you're sane and clear. I'm sure she thinks there won't be any harm," I added. "That's the great point."
"The great point?"
"To be settled, I mean."
"Mercy, we're not trying them!" cried my friend. "How can WE settle it?"
"I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting these next ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon."
"Then they'll get terribly tired of it," said Mrs. Nettlepoint.
"No, no--because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. It simply can't NOT," I insisted. She looked at me as if she thought me more than Mephistophelean, and I went back to something she had lately mentioned. "So she told you everything in her life was dreary?"
"Not everything, but most things. And she didn't tell me so much as I guessed it. She'll tell me more the next time. She'll behave properly now about coming in to see me; I told her she ought to."
"I'm glad of that," I said. "Keep her with you as much as possible."
"I don't follow you closely," Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, "but so far as I do I don't think your remarks in the best taste."
"Well, I'm too excited, I lose my head in these sports," I had to recognise--"cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn't she like Mr. Porterfield?"
"Yes, that's the worst of it."
I kept making her stare. "The worst of it?"
"He's so good--there's no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she'd have thrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engaged to him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those very young and perfectly needless blunders that parents in America might make so much less possible than they do. The thing is to insist on one's daughter waiting, on the engagement's being long; and then, after you've got that started, to take it on every occasion as little seriously as possible--to make it die out. You can easily tire it to death," Mrs. Nettlepoint competently stated. "However," she concluded, "Mr. Porterfield has taken this one seriously for some years. He has done his part to keep it alive. She says he adores her."
"His part? Surely his part would have been to marry her by this time."
"He has really no money." My friend was even more confidently able to report it than I had been.
"He ought to have got some, in seven years," I audibly reflected.
"So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of helplessness that are contemptible. However, a small difference has taken place. That's why he won't wait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something--a little--and she's able to assist him. She'll live with them and bear some of the expenses, and after her death the son will have what there is."
"How old is she?" I cynically asked.
"I haven't the least idea. But it doesn't, on his part, sound very heroic--or very inspiring for our friend here. He hasn't been to America since he first went out."
"That's an odd way of adoring her," I observed.
"I made that objection mentally, but I didn't express it to her. She met it indeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry."
"That surprises me," I remarked. "But did she say," I asked, "that SHE had had?"
"No, and that's one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must have had. She didn't try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has three other sisters and there's very little money at home. She has tried to make money; she has written little things and painted little things--and dreadful little things they must have been; too bad to think of. Her father has had a long illness and has lost his place--he was in receipt of a salary in connexion with some waterworks--and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, with children and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any one else, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to have just made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils. But it isn't very amusing."
"Well," I judged after all, "that only makes her doing it the more honourable. She'll go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him after he has waited so long. It's true," I continued, "that when a woman acts from a sense of honour--!"
"Well, when she does?" said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hung back perceptibly.
"It's often so extravagant and unnatural a proceeding as to entail heavy costs on some one."
"You're very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other all the while and for each other's virtues as well as vices."
"That's precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps off the ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched."
"Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She's quite at her ease now"--Mrs. Nettlepoint could answer for that.
"Well, we must try and keep her so," I said.
"You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing." I scarce know what reflexions this innocent pleasantry of mine provoked on the good lady's part; the upshot of them at all events was to make her say: "Well, I never asked her to come; I'm very glad of that. It's all their own doing."
"'Their' own--you mean Jasper's and hers?"
"No indeed. I mean her mother's and Mrs. Allen's; the girl's too of course. They put themselves on us by main force."
"Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I'm glad too. We should have missed it, I think."
"How seriously you take it!" Mrs. Nettlepoint amusedly cried.
"Ah wait a few days!"--and I got up to leave her.
The Patagonia was slow, but spacious and comfortable, and there was a motherly decency in her long nursing rock and her rustling old- fashioned gait, the multitudinous swish, in her wake, as of a thousand proper petticoats. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. We weren't numerous enough quite to elbow each other and yet weren't too few to support--with that familiarity and relief which figures and objects acquire on the great bare field of the ocean and under the great bright glass of the sky. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I had never liked it at all; but now I had a revelation of how in a midsummer mood it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet--save for the great
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