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The Rubaiyat and the Liner by Elia W. Peattie

 

“Chug-chug, chug-chug!”

That was the liner, and it had been saying the same thing for two nights and two days. Therefore nobody paid any attention to it—except Chalmers Payne, the moodiest of the passengers, who noticed it and said to himself that, for his part, it did as well as any other sound, and was much better than most persons' conversation.

It will be guessed that Mr. Chalmers Payne was in an irritable frame of mind. He was even retaliative, and to the liner's continued iteration of its innocent remark he retorted in the words of old Omar:

  “Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
  To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
    The cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

  “And if the wine you drink, the Lip you press,
  End in what All begins and ends in—Yes;
    Think then you are To-day what Yesterday
  You were—To-morrow you shall not be less.

  “So when the Angel of the Darker Drink
  At last shall find you by the River-brink,
    And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
  Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.”

To these melancholy mutterings, the liner, insouciant, and not caring a peg for any philosophy—save that of the open road—shouldered along through jewel-green waves, and remarked, “Chug-chug, chug-chug!”

Mr. Payne was inclined to quarrel with the Tent-Maker on one score only. He did not think that he was to-day what he was yesterday. Yesterday—figuratively speaking—he had hope. He was conscious of his youth. A fine, buoyant egotism sustained him, and he believed that he was about to be crowned with a beautiful joy.

He had sauntered up to his joy, so to speak, cocksure, hands in pockets, and as he smiled with easy assurance, behold the joy turned into a sorrow. The face of the dryad smiling through the young grape leaves was that of a withered hag, and the leaves of the vine were dead and flapped on sapless stems!

Well, well, there was always a sorry fatalism to comfort one in joy's despite.

  “Then to the rolling Heav'n itself, I cried,
  Asking, 'What Lamp had Destiny to guide
    Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?'“

The answer was old as patience—as old as courage. But to theorize about it was really superfluous! Why think at all? Why not say chug-chug like the liner?

  “We are no other than a moving row
  Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go—”

Dinner! Was it possible? The day had been a blur! Well, probably all the rest of life would be a blur. Anyway, one could still dine, and he recollected that the puree of tomatoes at last night's dinner had been rather to his liking. He seated himself deliberately at the board, congratulating himself that he would be allowed to go through the duty of eating without interruption. The place at his right had been vacant ever since they left Southampton. At his left was a gentleman of uncertain hearing and a bullet-proof frown.

As the seat at his right had been vacant so long, he took the liberty of laying it his gloves, his sea-glass, a book with uncut leaves, and a crimson silk neck-scarf.

“I beg your pardon,” said the waiter, “but the lady who is to sit here is coming, sir.”

“The devil she is!” thought Payne. “Will the creature expect me to talk? Will she require me to look after her in the matter of pepper and salt? Why couldn't I have been left in peace?”

He gathered up his possessions, and arose gravely with an automatic courtesy, and lifted eyes with a wooden expression to stare at the intruder.

He faced the one person in the world whom it was most of pain and happiness to meet—the woman between whom and himself he meant to put a good half of the round world; and he read in her troubled gray eyes the confession that if there was anything or anybody from which she would willingly have been protected it was he—Chalmers Payne.

Conscious of their neighbors, they bowed. Payne saw her comfortably seated. He sat down and slowly emptied his glass of ice-water. He preserved his wooden expression of countenance and turned towards her.

“The old man on my right is deaf,” he said.

“So am I,” she retorted.

“Not so deaf, I hope, that you won't hear me explain that I had no more notion of your being on this ship than of Sappho being here!”

“You refer to—the Greek Sappho, Mr. Payne?”

“Assuredly. You told me—'fore Heaven, why are women so inconsistent?—you told me you were going anywhere rather than to America—that you were at the beginning of your journeyings—that you had an engagement with some Mahatmas on the top of the Himal—”

“And you—you were going to South Africa.”

“I said nothing of the sort. I—”

“Well, I couldn't go about another day. No matter whether I was consistent or inconsistent! I was worn out and ill. I've been seeing too much—”

“You told me you could never see enough!”

“Well, never mind all that. I acted impulsively, I confess. My aunt was shocked. She thought I was ungrateful—particularly when I openly rejoiced that she was not able to find a chaperon for me.”

“It's none of my business, anyway. I was stupid to show my surprise. I ought never to be surprised at anything you do, I know that. As for me, I'm tired of imitating the Wandering Jew. Besides, my father's old partner—mine he is now, I suppose, though I can't get used to that idea—wants me to come home. He says I'm needed. So I'm rolling up my sleeves, figuratively speaking. But I should certainly have delayed my journey if I had guessed you were to be on this boat.”

“It's very annoying altogether,” she said, with open vexation. “It looks so silly! What will my aunt say?”

“I don't think she'll say anything. You are on an Atlantic liner, with nine hundred and ninety-nine souls who are nothing to you, and one who is less than nothing. I believe that was the expression you used the other day—less than nothing?”

The girl's delicate face flushed hotly.

“I'm not so strong,” she murmured. “It's true that I am worn out, and my voyage has done nothing so far towards restoring me. On the contrary, I have been suffering. I fainted again and again yesterday, and it took a great deal of courage for me to venture out to-day. So you must be merciful for a little while. Your enemy is down, you see.”

“My enemy!” He gave the words an accent at once bitter and humorous. “I'll not say another personal word,” he murmured, contritely. “Tell me if you feel faint at any moment, and let me help you. Please treat me as if I were your—your uncle!”

She smiled faintly.

“You are asking a great deal,” she couldn't help saying, somewhat coquettishly, and then he remembered how he had seen her hanging about her uncle's neck, and he flushed too.

There was quite a long silence. She picked at her food delicately, and Payne suggested some claret. Her face showed that she would have preferred not to accept any favor from him, no matter how trifling, but she evidently considered it puerile to refuse.

“It is mighty awkward for you!” he burst out, suddenly, “my being here. I suppose you actually find it hard to believe that it was an accident—”

“I haven't the least occasion to doubt your word, Mr. Payne. Have I ever done anything to make you suppose that I didn't respect you?”

“Oh, I didn't mean that! Heavens! what a cad you must think me! I have a faculty for being stupid when you are around, you know. It's my misfortune. But—behold my generosity!—I shall have a talk with the purser, Miss Curtis, and get him to change my place for me. Some good-natured person will consent to make the alteration”

“You mean you will put some one else here in your place beside me?”

“It's the least I can do, isn't it? Now, whom would you suggest? Pick out somebody. There's that motherly-looking German woman over there. She's a baroness—”

“She? She'll tell me twice every meal that American girls are not brought up with a knowledge of cooking. She will tell me how she has met them at Kaffeeklatsches, and how they confessed that they didn't cook! No, no; you must try another one!”

“Well, if you object to her, there's that quiet gentleman who is eating his ice with the aid of two pairs of spectacles. That gentleman is a specialist in bacilli. He has little steel-bound bottles in his room which, if you were to break them among this ship-load of passengers, would depopulate the ship. I think he is taking home the bacilli of the bubonic plague as a present to our country. Remember, if you got on the right side of him, that you would have a vengeance beyond the dreams of the Borgias at your command!”

“Oh, the terrible creature! Mr. Payne, how could you mention him? What if he were to take me for a guinea-pig or a rabbit? No, I prefer the English-looking mummy over there.”

“Who? Miss Hull? She's not half bad. She's a great traveller. She has been almost everywhere, and is now hastening to make it everywhere. She carries her own tea with her, and steeps it at five exactly every afternoon. She tells me that once, being shipwrecked, she grasped her tea-caddy, her alcohol-stove, and a large bottle of alcohol, and prepared for the worst. They drifted four days on a raft, and she made five-o'clock tea every day, to the great encouragement of the unfortunates. Miss Hull is an English spinster, who has a fortune and no household, and who is going about to see how other folks keep house—Feejee-Islanders, and Tagals, and Kafirs. She likes them all, I believe. Indeed, she says she likes everything—except the snug English village where she was brought up. She says that when she lived there she did exactly the same thing between sunup and sundown for eight years. For example, she had the curate to tea every Wednesday evening during that entire time, and when possible she had periwinkles.”

“And nothing came of it?”

“Oh yes, an enormous consumption of tea-biscuits-nothing more. Then it occurred to her to travel. So she went to the next shire, and liked it so well that she plunged off to London, then to the Hebrides. After that there was no stopping her. She likes the islands better than the continents, and is collecting hats made of sea-grass. She already has five hundred and forty-two varieties. Really, you would not find her half so bad.”

Helen Curtis finished her coffee, and laid her napkin beside her plate.

“Oh, if it comes to the negative virtues, you haven't been so disagreeable yourself to-day as you might have been. I'm under obligations to you. It was rather nice to meet an old acquaintance.”

The tone was formal, and put Payne ten thousand leagues away from her. “Thank you,” he said, with mock gratitude. “I'm under obligations for your courtesy, madam.” She dropped her handkerchief as she arose, and he picked up the trifle and gave it to her. Their fingers met, and he withdrew his hand with a quick gesture.

“You must allow me to see you safely to your room,” he urged. “Or else to your deck chair.”

“Thank you. I'll go on deck, I think, and you may call the boy to go for my rug.”

He put her on the lee side, and wrapped her in a McCallum plaid, and brought her some magazines from his own stateroom. Then he stood erect and saluted.

“Madam, have I the honor to be dismissed?”

She looked up and gave a friendly smile in spite of herself.

“You are very good,” she said. “I am always remembering that you are good, and the thought annoys me.”

“Oh, it needn't,” he responded, in a philosophic tone, looking off towards the jagged line of the horizon, where the purple waves showed their changing outline. “If you are wondering why it is that you dislike me when you find nothing of which to disapprove in my conduct, don't let that puzzle you any longer. Regard does not depend upon character. The mystery of attraction has never been solved. Now, I've seen women more beautiful than you; I know many who are more learned; as for a sense of justice and fairness, why, I don't think you understand the first principles. Yet you are the one woman, in the world for me. Now that you've taken love out of my life, this world is nothing more to me than a workshop. I shall get up every morning and put myself at my bench, so to speak, and work till nightfall. Then I shall sleep. It is dull, but it doesn't matter. I have been at some trouble to convince myself of the fact that it doesn't matter, and I value the conviction. Life isn't as disheartening as it would be if it lasted longer.

  “'Tis but a Tent where takes his one day's rest
  A Sultan to the realms of Death addrest;
    The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash
  Strikes, and prepares it for another guest.”

Miss Curtis sat up in her chair, and her eyes were flashing indignation.

“I won't listen in silence to the profanity of that old heathen,” she cried.

“You refer to my friend Omar?” inquired Paine, quizzically, dropping his earnestness as soon as she assumed it.

“I consider him one of the most dangerous of men! Once you would have been above advancing such philosophy! The idea of your talking that inert fatalism! It's incredible that you should admire what is supine and cowardly—”

Payne's eyes were twinkling. He lit his pipe with a “By your permission,” and between the puffs chanted:

  “Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
  To grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire
    Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
  Remould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!”

“Even that is blasphemous impertinence!” the lady protested, knowing that she was angry, and rejoicing in the sensation.

“You think so?” cried Payne, not waiting for her to finish. “Why did you complain, then, of taking up the burden of common things? Do you want to be reminded of what you told me? You said that the roving life you had been leading in Europe for the past two years had unsettled you. You said you wanted to live among the old things and the dreams of old things. You liked the sense of irresponsible delight, and weren't prepared to say that you could ever assume the dull domestic round in a commonplace town. You considered the love of one human creature altogether too small and banal a thing to make you forego your intellectual incursions into the lands of delight. You were of the opinion that you loved many thousand creatures, most of them dead, and to enjoy their society to the full it was necessary for you to look at the cathedrals they had builded, to read the books they had written, or gaze upon the canvases they had painted. You were in a poppy sleep on the mystic flowers of ancient dreams. Wasn't that it? So I, a mere practical, every-day fellow, who had shown an unaccountable weakness in staying away from home a full year longer than I had any business to, was to go back alone to my work and my empty house, and console myself with the day's work. You were to go walking along the twilight path where the half-gods had walked before you, and I was to trudge up a dusty road fringed with pusley, and ending in a summer kitchen. Isn't that about it?”

She spread out the folds of her gown and looked down at them in a somewhat embarrassed manner, seemingly submerged by this flood of protesting eloquence.

“You were afraid to look anything in the face,” he went on, not giving her time to recover her breath. “You thought you could live in a world of beauty and never have any hard work. I suppose if you had seen the gardener wiping the sweat off his brow you would not have picked any of the roses in that garden at Lucerne. I suppose not! Well, let me assure you of one thing-there's commonplaceness everywhere. Probably some one had to wash those white dresses Sappho used to wear when she sat beside the sea. Maybe Sappho did them up herself, eh?”

He stopped and gave way to his bathos, throwing back his head and laughing heartily.

“Well, well, I'm through with railing at you. But I left you eating lotus, hollow-eyed and steeped in dreams. You were listening to the surf on Calypso's Isle. I was hearing nothing but the sound of your voice. Now I've stumbled on a soporific philosophy, and am getting all I can out of the anaesthesia, and you are reproaching me. It's like your inconsistency, isn't it?”

She put up one hand to stop him, but he went on, recurring once more to the poet:

  “The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
  Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
    Like snow upon the Desert's dusty Face
  Lighting a little Hour or two, is gone.”

She tried to speak, but he lifted his hat and left her, and going to the other side of the deck, paced up and down there swiftly, and thought of a number of things. For one thing, he reflected how ludicrous was life! Here was Helen Curtis, fleeing from the recollection of him; here was himself, fleeing from the too-sweet actuality of her calm face and lambent eyes; and they were set down face to face in midocean! Such a preposterous trick on the part of the Three!

“I suppose happiness is never anything more than a mirage,” he said to himself as he paced. “It is bright at times and then dim, and at present, for me, it is inverted. The business of the traveller, however, is to tramp on in the sun and the sand, with an eye to the compass and giving no heed to evanishing gleams of fairy lakes and plumelike palms. Tramping on in the sand isn't as bad as it might be, either, when one gets used to it. The simoon is on me now, but I'll weather it. I've got to. I won't be downed!”

He put his head up and tried to think he was courageous. The gloom of the night was about him now, and the strange voices of the sea called one to the other. He tried to turn his thought to practical things. He would go home to the vacant old house where he had been born; he would make it livable, let the sunshine into it, modernize it to an extent, and then get some one under its roof. While there were so many homeless folk in the world it wasn't right to have an untenanted house. Then he'd get down to business, good and hard, and bring the thing up. It was a good business, and it had an honorable reputation. He had been too unappreciative of this fine legacy. Well, there were excuses. At school he had thought of other things—and the life of the fraternity house had been a gallant one! Then came his wander year—which stretched into two. And now, having eaten of the apples of Paradise and felt them turn to bitterness in his mouth, he would go back to duty.

He wished he had never seen her again—after that night when she belied her long-continued kindness to him with her indifferent rejection of his devotion. He devoutly wished he had not been forced to feel again the subtle fascination of those deep eyes, and hear the thrilling contralto of that rich voice! She was unscrupulous in her cold selfishness—

A sudden, inexplicable trembling of the whole great ship! A frightened quivering, a lurch, a crash!

The chug-chug ceased. No—it couldn't! Nothing like that ever happened to a ship of the line on a comparatively quiet night! Of course not!

Of course not—but for all of that, they were as inert as a raft, and the passengers were beginning to skurry about and to ask the third officer and the fourth officer what t' dickens it meant. The third officer and the fourth officer did not know, but felt convinced—professionally convinced—that it was nothing. The first engineer? He had gone below. Oh, it was nothing. The captain? Really, they could not say where he was.

Chalmers Payne strode around the after-cabin, and then ran to the spot where he had left Helen Curtis. She was still there. She sat up and put both her hands in his.

“I knew you'd be here as soon as you could, so I didn't move! I didn't want to put you to the trouble to look for me!”

He held her hands hard.

“I don't think it is much of anything,” he said. “It can't be. There's no smell of fire. The sea is not heavy. At the very worst—”

“Be sure, won't you, that we're not separated? One of us might be put in one boat and one in another, you know, if it should really be—be fire or something. Then, if a storm came up and—”

People were running with vague rumors. They called out this and that alarm. It was possible to feel the panic gathering.

“Remember,” Helen Curtis whispered, “whatever comes, that we belong together.”

“We do!” he acquiesced, saying the words between his teeth. “I have known it a long time. But you—”

“Oh, so have I! But what made you so sure? What was there about your home and your work and yourself to make you so perfectly sure I would be interested in them all my life? You didn't lay out any scheme for me at all, or act as if you thought I had any dreams or aspirations. I was to come and observe you become distinguished—I was to watch what you could do! Oh, Chalmers, I was willing, but what made you so sure?”

“Then you loved me? You loved me?” She looked white and scared, and he could feel her hands chill and tremble.

“How ready you are to use that word! I'm afraid of it. I always said I wouldn't speak it till I had to. It frightens me—it means so much. If I said it to you I could never say it to any one else, no matter how—”

“Not on any account! Say it, Helen!”

“I wish to explain. I—I couldn't stand the aimlessness of life after you left. I began to suspect that it was you who made everything so interesting. I wasn't so enamoured with the ancients as I thought I was; but I was enamoured with your contemplation of my pose. Oh, I've been dissecting myself! Should I really have cared so much for Lucerne and Nuremberg if you hadn't been with me? I concluded that I should not. Well, said I to myself, if he can make the Old World so fascinating, can he not do something for the New World, too?”

An alarmist rushed by.

“They are going to lower the boats!” he cried. “Better get your valuables together.”

“There's a panic in the steerage,” another cried.

“Oh, Helen! Go on. Don't let anything interrupt you.”

“I won't. I realize that you ought to be told that I love you. I do. I love you. I'm twenty-three, and I never said the words to any one else, even though I'm an American girl. And I'll never speak them to any one but you. I'm sure of it now. But I wouldn't say it till I was quite, quite sure.”

The captain came pacing down the deck leisurely. He lifted his hat as he passed Payne and Miss Curtis.

“We shall be on our way in a few minutes,” he said, agreeably. “I hope this young lady has not suffered any alarm.”

Helen showed him a face on which anything was written rather than fear.

“The port shaft broke off somewhere near the truss-block at the mouth of the sleeve of the shaft, and the outer end of the shaft and the propeller dropped to the bottom of the sea. It's quite inexplicable, but I find in my experience that inexplicable things frequently happen. We shall finish our run with the starboard shaft only, and shall be obliged to reduce our speed to an average of three hundred and sixty knots daily.”

He repeated this in a voice of impersonal courtesy, and went on to the next group. Helen Curtis settled back in her chair and smiled up at her lover.

“We shall be at sea at least two days longer,” he said, exultantly.

“Ah, what shall we do to pass the time?” she interrupted, with mocking coquetry.

“Chug-chug, chug-chug!”

It was the liner.

  “Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
  To-day of past Regret and future Fears—”

This was Omar, but Miss Curtis would not listen.

“I've an aversion to your eloquent old heathen,” she pleaded. “You must not quote him, really.”

“If you insist, I'll refrain. Can't I even quote 'A book of verses underneath the bough—'“

“Oh, not on any account! That least of all.”

“You don't want me to be hackneyed? Well, I'll be perfectly original. I know one thing I can say which will always sound mysterious and marvellous!”

“Say it, say it!” she commanded, imperiously, knowing quite well what it was.

So he said it, and the two sat and looked off across the darkened water and at the pale, reluctant stars, beholding, for that night at least, the passionate inner sense of the universe. They said nothing more.

But as for the liner, it continued with its emphatic reiteration.