A Ladies Man by Robert Barr
"Jest w'en we guess we've covered the trail So's no one can't foller, w'y then we fail W'en we feel safe hid. Nemesis, the cuss, Waltzes up with nary a warnin' nor fuss. Grins quiet like, and says, 'How d'y do, So glad we've met, I'm a-lookin' fer you'"
I do not wish to particularise any of the steamers on which the incidents given in this book occurred, so the boat of which I now write I shall call The Tub. This does not sound very flattering to the steamer, but I must say The Tub was a comfortable old boat, as everybody will testify who has ever taken a voyage in her. I know a very rich man who can well afford to take the best room in the best steamer if he wants to, but his preference always is for a slow boat like The Tub. He says that if you are not in a hurry, a slow boat is preferable to one of the new fast liners, because you have more individuality there, you get more attention, the officers are flattered by your preference for their ship, and you are not merely one of a great mob of passengers as in a crowded fast liner. The officers on a popular big and swift boat are prone to be a trifle snobbish. This is especially the case on the particular liner which for the moment stands at the top--a steamer that has broken the record, and is considered the best boat in the Atlantic service for the time being. If you get a word from the captain of such a boat you may consider yourself a peculiarly honoured individual, and even the purser is apt to answer you very shortly, and make you feel you are but a worm of the dust, even though you have paid a very large price for your state-room. On The Tub there was nothing of this. The officers were genial good fellows who admitted their boat was not the fastest on the Atlantic, although at one time she had been; but if The Tub never broke the record, on the other hand, she never broke a shaft, and so things were evened up. She wallowed her way across the Atlantic in a leisurely manner, and there was no feverish anxiety among the passengers when they reached Queenstown, to find whether the rival boat had got in ahead of us or not.
Everybody on board The Tub knew that any vessel which started from New York the same day would reach Queenstown before us. In fact, a good smart sailing vessel, with a fair wind, might have made it lively for us in an ocean race. The Tub was a broad slow boat, whose great speciality was freight, and her very broadness, which kept her from being a racer, even if her engines had had the power, made her particularly comfortable in a storm. She rolled but little; and as the state-rooms were large and airy, every passenger on board The Tub was sure of a reasonably pleasant voyage.
It was always amusing to hear the reasons each of the passengers gave for being on board The Tub. A fast and splendid liner of an opposition company left New York the next day, and many of our passengers explained to me they had come to New York with the intention of going by that boat, but they found all the rooms taken, that is, all the desirable rooms. Of coarse they might have had a room down on the third deck; but they were accustomed in travelling to have the best rooms, and if they couldn't be had, why it didn't much matter what was given them, so that was the reason they took passage on The Tub. Others were on the boat because they remembered the time when she was one of the fastest on the ocean, and they didn't like changing ships. Others again were particular friends of the captain, and he would have been annoyed if they had taken any other steamer. Everybody had some particularly valid reason for choosing The Tub, that is, every reason except economy, for it was well known that The Tub was one of the cheapest boats crossing the ocean. For my own part I crossed on her, because the purser was a particular friend of mine, and knew how to amalgamate fluids and different solid substances in a manner that produced a very palatable refreshment. He has himself deserted The Tub long ago, and is now purser on one of the new boats of the same line.
When the gong rang for the first meal on hoard The Tub after leaving New York, we filed down from the smoking-room to the great saloon to take our places at the table. There were never enough passengers on board The Tub to cause a great rush for places at the table; but on this particular occasion, when we reached the foot of the stairway, two or three of us stood for a moment both appalled and entranced. Sitting at the captain's right hand was a somewhat sour and unattractive elderly woman, who was talking to that smiling and urbane official. Down the long table from where she sat, in the next fifteen seats were fifteen young and pretty girls, most of them looking smilingly and expectantly toward the stairway down which we were descending. The elderly woman paused for a moment in her conversation with the captain, glanced along the line of beauty, said sharply, 'Girls!' and instantly every face was turned demurely toward the plate that was in front of it, and then we, who had hesitated for a moment on the stairway, at once made a break, not for our seats at the table, but for the purser.
"It's all right, gentlemen," said that charming man, before we could speak; "it's all right. I've arranged your places down the table on the opposite side. You don't need to say a word, and those of you who want to change from the small tables to the large one, will find your names on the long table as well as at the small tables, where you have already chosen your places. So, you see, I knew just how you wished things arranged; but," he continued, lowering his voice, "boys, there's a dragon in charge. I know her. She has crossed with us two or three times. She wanted me to arrange it so that fifteen ladies should sit opposite her fifteen girls; but, of course, we couldn't do that, because there aren't fifteen other ladies on board, and there had to be one or two ladies placed next the girls at the foot of the table, so that no girl should have a young man sitting beside her. I have done the best I could, gentlemen, and, if you want the seats rearranged, I think we can manage it for you. Individual preferences may crop up, you know." And the purser smiled gently, for he had crossed the ocean very, very often.
We all took our places, sternly scrutinised by the lady, whom the purser had flatteringly termed the "dragon." She evidently didn't think very much of us as a crowd, and I am sure in my own heart I cannot blame her. We were principally students going over to German colleges on the cheap, some commercial travellers, and a crowd generally who could not afford to take a better boat, although we had all just missed the fast liner that had left a few days before, or had for some reason not succeeded in securing a berth on the fast boat, which was to leave the day after.
If any of the fifteen young ladies were aware of our presence, they did not show it by glancing toward us. They seemed to confine their conversation to whispers among themselves, and now and then a little suppressed giggle arose from one part of the line or the other, upon which the "dragon" looked along the row, and said severely, "Girls!" whereupon everything was quiet again, although some independent young lady generally broke the silence by another giggle just at the time the stillness was becoming most impressive.
After dinner, in the smoking-room, there was a great deal of discussion about the fifteen pretty girls and about the "dragon." As the officers on board The Tub were gentlemen whom an ordinary person might speak to, a delegation of one was deputed to go to the purser's room and find out all that could be learned in relation to the young and lovely passengers.
The purser said that the dragon's name was Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling, with a hyphen. The hyphen was a very important part of the name, and Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling always insisted upon it. Any one who ignored that hyphen speedily fell from the good graces of Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling. I regret to say, however, in spite of the hyphen, the lady was very generally known as the "dragon" during that voyage. The purser told us further, that Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling was in the habit of coming over once a year with a party of girls whom she trotted around Europe. The idea was that they learnt a great deal of geography, a good deal of French and German, and received in a general way a polish which Europe is supposed to give.
The circular which Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling issued was shown to me once by one of the girls, and it represented that all travelling was first-class, that nothing but the very best accommodations on steamers and in hotels were provided, and on account of Mrs. S. Y.'s intimate knowledge of Europe, and the different languages spoken there, she managed the excursion in a way which any one else would find impossible to emulate, and the advantages accruing from such a trip could not be obtained in any other manner without a very much larger expenditure of money. The girls had the advantage of motherly care during all the time they were abroad, and as the party was strictly limited in number, and the greatest care taken to select members only from the very best families in America, Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling was certain that all her patrons would realise that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, etc., etc.
Even if The Tub were not the finest boat on the Atlantic, she certainly belonged to one of the best lines, and as the circular mentioned the line and not the particular vessel on which the excursion was to go, the whole thing had a very high-class appearance.
The first morning out, shortly after, breakfast, the "dragon" and her girls appeared on deck. The girls walked two and two together, and kept their eyes pretty much on the planks beneath them. The fifteenth girl walked with the "dragon," and thus the eight pairs paced slowly up and down the deck under the "dragon's" eye. When this morning promenade was over the young ladies were marshalled into the ladies' saloon, where no masculine foot was allowed to tread. Shortly before lunch an indignation meeting was held in the smoking-room. Stewart Montague, a commercial traveller from Milwaukee, said that he had crossed the ocean many times, but had never seen such a state of things before. This young ladies' seminary business (he alluded to the two and two walk along the deck) ought not to be permitted on any well regulated ship. Here were a number of young ladies, ranging in age from eighteen upwards, and there lay ahead of us a long and possibly dreary voyage, yet the "dragon" evidently expected that not one of the young ladies was to be allowed to speak to one of the young gentlemen on board, much less walk the deck with him. Now, for his part, said Stewart Montague, he was going to take off his hat the next morning to the young lady who sat opposite him at the dinner-table and boldly ask her to walk the deck with him. If the "dragon" interfered, he proposed that we all mutiny, seize the vessel, put the captain in irons, imprison the "dragon" in the hold, and then take to pirating on the high seas. One of the others pointed out to him an objection to this plan, claiming that The Tub could not overtake anything but a sailing-vessel, while even that was doubtful. Montague explained that the mutiny was only to be resorted to as a last desperate chance. He believed the officers of the boat would give us every assistance possible, and so it was only in case of everything else failing that we should seize the ship.
In a moment of temporary aberration I suggested that the "dragon" might not be, after all, such an objectionable person as she appeared, and that perhaps she could be won over by kindness. Instantly a motion was put, and carried unanimously, appointing me a committee to try the effect of kindness on the "dragon." It was further resolved that the meeting should be adjourned, and I should report progress at the next conclave.
I respectfully declined this mission. I said it was none of my affair. I didn't wish to talk to any of the fifteen girls, or even walk the deck with them. I was perfectly satisfied as I was. I saw no reason why I should sacrifice myself for the good of others. I suggested that the name of Stewart Montague be substituted for mine, and that he should face the "dragon" and report progress.
Mr. Montague said it had been my suggestion, not his, that the "dragon" might be overcome by kindness. He did not believe she could, but he was quite willing to suspend hostilities until my plan had been tried and the result reported to the meeting. It was only when they brought in a motion to expel me from the smoking-room that I succumbed to the pressure. The voyage was just beginning, and what is a voyage to a smoker who dare not set foot in the smoking-room?
I do not care to dwell on the painful interview I had with the "dragon." I put my foot in it at the very first by pretending that I thought she came from New York, whereas she had really come from Boston. To take a New York person for a Bostonian is flattery, but to reverse the order of things, especially with a woman of the uncertain temper of Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling, was really a deadly insult, and I fear this helped to shipwreck my mission, although I presume it would have been shipwrecked in any case. Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling gave me to understand that if there was one thing more than another she excelled in it was the reading of character. She knew at a glance whether a man could be trusted or not; most men were not, I gathered from her conversation. It seems she had taken a great many voyages across the Atlantic, and never in the whole course of her experience had she seen such an objectionable body of young men as on this present occasion. She accused me of being a married man, and I surmised that there were other iniquities of which she strongly suspected me.
The mission was not a success, and I reported at the adjourned meeting accordingly.
Mr. Stewart Montague gave it as his opinion that the mission was hopeless from the first, and in this I quite agreed with him. He said he would try his plan at dinner, but what it was he refused to state. We asked if he would report on the success or failure, and he answered that we would all see whether it was a success or failure for ourselves. So there was a good deal of interest centring around the meal, an interest not altogether called forth by the pangs of hunger.
Dinner had hardly commenced when Mr. Stewart Montague leaned over the table and said, in quite an audible voice, to the young lady opposite him, "I understand you have never been over the ocean before?"
The young lady looked just a trifle frightened, blushed very prettily, and answered in a low voice that she bad not.
Then he said, "I envy you the first impressions you will have of Europe. It is a charming country. Where do you go after leaving England?"
"We are going across to Paris first," she replied, still in a low voice.
Most of us, however, were looking at the "dragon." That lady sat bolt upright in her chair as if she could not believe her ears. Then she said, in an acid voice, "Miss Fleming."
"Yes, Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling," answered that young lady.
"Will you oblige me by coming here for a moment?"
Miss Fleming slowly revolved in her circular chair, then rose and walked up to the head of the table.
"Miss Strong," said the "dragon" calmly, to the young lady who sat beside her, "will you oblige me by taking Miss Fleming's place at the centre of the table?"
Miss Strong rose and took Miss Fleming's place.
"Sit down beside me, please?" said the "dragon" to Miss Fleming; and that unfortunate young woman, now as red as a rose, sat down beside the "dragon."
Stewart Montague bit his lip. The rest of us said nothing, and appeared not to notice what had occurred. Conversation went on among ourselves. The incident seemed ended; but, when the fish was brought, and placed before Miss Fleming, she did not touch it. Her eyes were still upon the table. Then, apparently unable to struggle any longer with her emotions, she rose gracefully, and, bowing to the captain, said, "Excuse me, please." She walked down the long saloon with a firm step, and disappeared. The "dragon" tried to resume conversation with the captain as if nothing had happened; but that official answered only in monosyllables, and a gloom seemed to have settled down upon the dinner party.
Very soon the captain rose and excused himself. There was something to attend to on deck, he said, and he left us.
As soon as we had reassembled in the smoking-room, and the steward had brought in our cups of black coffee, Stewart Montague arose and said, "Gentlemen, I know just what you are going to say to me. It was brutal. Of course I didn't think the 'dragon' would do such a thing. My plan was a complete failure. I expected that conversation would take place across the table all along the line, if I broke the ice."
Whatever opinions were held, none found expression, and that evening in the smoking-room was as gloomy as the hour at the dinner-table.
Towards the shank of the evening a gentleman, who had never been in the smoking-room before, entered very quietly. We recognised him as the man who sat to the left of the captain opposite the "dragon." He was a man of middle age and of somewhat severe aspect. He spoke with deliberation when he did speak, and evidently, weighed his words. All we knew of him was that the chair beside his at meal-times had been empty since the voyage began, and it was said that his wife took her meals in her state-room. She had appeared once on deck with him, very closely veiled, and hung upon his arm in a way that showed she was not standing the voyage very well, pleasant as it had been.
"Gentlemen," began the man suavely, "I would like to say a few words to you if I were certain that my remarks would be taken in the spirit in which they are given, and that you would not think me intrusive or impertinent."
"Go ahead," said Montague, gloomily, who evidently felt a premonition of coming trouble.
The serious individual waited until the steward had left the room, then he closed the door. "Gentlemen," he continued, "I will not recur to the painful incident which happened at the dinner-table to-night further than by asking you, as honourable men, to think of Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling's position of great responsibility. She stands in the place of a mother to a number of young ladies who, for the first time in their lives, have left their homes."
"Lord pity them," said somebody, who was sitting in the corner.
The gentleman paid no attention to the remark.
"Now what I wish to ask of you is that you will not make Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling's position any harder by futile endeavours to form the acquaintance of the young ladies."
At this point Stewart Montague broke out. "Who the devil are you, sir, and who gave you the right to interfere?"
"As to who I am," said the gentleman, quietly, "my name is Kensington, and----"
"West or South?" asked the man in the corner.
At this there was a titter of laughter.
"My name is Kensington," repeated the gentleman, "and I have been asked by Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling to interfere, which I do very reluctantly. As I said at the beginning, I hope you will not think my interference is impertinent. I only do so at the earnest request of the lady I have mentioned, because I am a family man myself, and I understand and sympathise with the lady in the responsibility which she has assumed."
"It seems to me," said the man in the corner, "that if the 'dragon' has assumed responsibilities and they have not been thrust upon her, which I understand they have not, then she must take the responsibility of the responsibilities which she has assumed. Do I make myself clear?"
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Kensington, "it is very painful for me to speak with you upon this subject. I feel that what I have so clumsily expressed may not be correctly understood; but I appeal to your honour as gentlemen, and I am sure I will not appeal in vain when I ask you not to make further effort towards the acquaintance of the young ladies, because all that you can succeed in doing will be to render their voyage unpleasant to themselves, and interrupt, if not seriously endanger, the good feeling which I understand has always existed between Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling and her protegees."
"All right," said the man in the corner. "Have a drink, Mr. Kensington?"
"Thank you, I never drink," answered Mr. Kensington.
"Have a smoke, then?"
"I do not smoke either, thank you all the same for your offer. I hope, gentlemen, you will forgive my intrusion on you this evening. Good night."
"Impudent puppy," said Stewart Montague, as he closed the door behind him.
But in this we did not agree with him, not even the man in the corner.
"He is perfectly right," said that individual, "and I believe that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. It will only make trouble, and I for one am going to give up the hunt."
So, from that time forward, the smoking-room collectively made no effort towards the acquaintance of the young ladies. The ladies' seminary walk, as it was called, took place every morning punctually, and sometimes Mr. Kensington accompanied the walkers. Nevertheless, individual friendships, in spite of everything that either Mr. Kensington or the "dragon" could do, sprang up between some of the young men and some of the girls, but the "dragon" had an invaluable ally in Mr. Kensington. The moment any of the young ladies began walking with any of the young gentlemen on deck, or the moment they seated themselves in steamer chairs together, the urbane, always polite Mr. Kensington appeared on the scene and said, "Miss So-and-So, Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling would like to speak with you."
Then the young lady would go with Mr. Kensington, while the young gentleman was apt to use strong language and gnash his teeth.
Mr. Kensington seemed lynx-eyed. There was no escaping him. Many in the smoking-room no doubt would have liked to have picked a flaw in his character if they could. One even spoke of the old chestnut about a man who had no small vices being certain to have some very large ones; but even the speakers themselves did not believe this, and any one could see at a glance that Mr. Kensington was a man of sterling character. Some hinted that his wife was the victim of his cruelty, and kept her state-room only because she knew that he was so fond of the "dragon's" company, and possibly that of some of the young ladies as well. But this grotesque sentiment did not pass current even in the smoking-room. Nevertheless, although he was evidently so good a man, he was certainly the most unpopular individual on board The Tub. The hatred that Stewart Montague felt for him ever since that episode in the smoking-room was almost grotesque.
Montague had somehow managed to get a contrite note of apology and distress to Miss Fleming, and several times the alert Mr. Kensington had caught them together, and asked Miss Fleming with the utmost respect to come down and see Mrs. Scrivener-Yapling.
All in all the "dragon" did not have a very easy time of it. She fussed around like any other old hen who had in charge a brood of ducks.
Once I thought there was going to be a row between Montague and Kensington. He met that gentleman in a secluded part of the deck, and, going up to him, said--
"You old wife deserter, why can't you attend to your own affairs?"
Kensington turned deadly pale at this insult, and his fists clinched--
"What do you mean?" he said huskily.
"I mean what I say. Why don't you take your own wife walking on the deck, and leave the young ladies alone. It's none of your business with whom they walk."
Kensington seemed about to reply; but he thought better of it, turned on his heel, and left Montague standing there.
The old Tub worried her way across the ocean, and reached the bar at Liverpool just in time to be too late to cross it that night. Word was passed along that a tender would come out from Liverpool for us, which was not a very cheering prospect, as we would have two hours' sail at least in what was practically an open boat.
Finally the tender came alongside, and the baggage was dumped down upon it. All of us gathered together ready to leave The Tub. Mr. Kensington, with his closely-veiled wife hanging on his arm, was receiving the thanks and congratulations of the "dragon." The fifteen girls were all around her. Before any one started down the sloping gangway plank, however, two policemen, accompanied by a woman, hurried up on board The Tub.
"Now, madam," said the policeman, "is he here?"
We saw that trouble was coming, and everybody looked at everybody else.
"Is he here?" cried the woman excitedly; "there he stands, the villain. Oh, you villain, you scoundrel, you mean rascal, to leave me, as you thought, penniless in New York, and desert your own wife and family for that--that creature!" We all looked at Kensington, and his face was greenish-pale. The heavily veiled woman shrunk behind him and the policeman tried to make the true wife keep quiet.
"Is your name Braughton?"
Kensington did not answer. His eyes were riveted on his wife. "In the name of God," he cried aghast, "how did you come here?"
"How did I come here," she shrieked. "Oh, you thought you slipped away nicely, didn't you? But you forgot that the Clipper left the next day, and I've been here two days waiting for you. You little thought when you deserted me and my children in New York that we would be here to confront you at Liverpool."
"Come, come." said the policeman, "there's no use of this. I am afraid you will have to come with us, sir."
They took him in charge, and the irate wife then turned like a tigress on the heavily veiled woman who was with him.
"No wonder you are ashamed to show your face," she cried.
"Come, come," said the policeman, "come, come." And they managed to induce her to say no more.
"Madam," said young Montague to the speechless 'dragon,' "I want to ask your permission to allow me to carry Miss Fleming's hand- baggage ashore."
"How dare you speak to me, sir," she answered.
"Because," he said, in a low voice, "I thought perhaps you wouldn't like an account of this affair to go to the Boston newspapers. I'm a newspaper man, you see," he added, with unblushing mendacity. Then, turning to Miss Fleming, he said, "Won't you allow me to carry this for you?"
Miss Fleming surrendered the natty little handbag she had with her, and smiled. The "dragon" made no objection.