The Summer Serial 2011.
By George Bassett.
LYING BACK ON MY long cane-chair, as the steamer swept broadly round the corner of the absurd city of San Francisco and awoke to the slow swing of the sea, I was very glad to have left America behind me. I knew that I was in the wrong; I knew I ought to have stayed in the United States long enough to live down that first aversion which almost every Englishman who visits the country finds awaiting his arrival. Like a letter from home, and of which he possesses himself with a sturdy British satisfaction. But I was on my way to Japan, where I had been before, and was glad to go again, and the journey from New York to California had been a prolonged discomfort. The dust and the heat had repeated themselves in the faces of my fellow-passengers, and now I had left all the nastiness behind me, and promised myself three weeks of summer air and summer calm. I had not been well when I left England, and the fatigue and annoyance of the long railway journey must have put a line or two more in my face. For as the ship slipped past the headlands (which are beautiful, and be hanged to them!) I saw some one standing over me, and a pleasant, childish voice said:
“Won’t you let me give you one of these cushions? You look so ill.”
I looked up, and saw a fair-skinned, yellow-haired little woman regarding me with as much of friendly interest as if she had known me for years. She spoke with a very strong American accent, and I was very tired of that manner of speech. Her speaking to a stranger was in itself audacious, and of the quick audacities of American usage I was more than weary. But she was pretty, and there was a clear kindliness in her eyes. I took the cushion, telling her that she was very good, but that I was in fact more tired than ill; and as I put it behind my head I observed that it was strongly perfumed with eau de Chypre, an odor I particularly dislike. Still, I was glad to have something between my head and the chair-back, and I fell asleep with the conviction that women were, after all, good-hearted creatures. When I opened my eyes, an hour later, the deck-steward was running about, laden with particolored rugs, and I told him to send the head-steward to me. When that functionary appeared I made the little speech which I always made to steamer stewards, and which I can confidently commend to travelers who like to be comfortable at sea.
“Here,” said I, “are two sovereigns for you. If I find that I am better cared for than the other passengers, you shall have two more at Yokohama. And here is my card, which you will give to the purser, telling him that I should be glad to have a seat at his table.”
“Yes, sir—thank you, sir,” said the steward; “and is there anyone on board you would like to sit by at table?”
“No,” said I; “I don’t know anybody here—but you might give me a seat next to that lady with the blue rug,” and I indicated the owner of the cushion.
“Mrs. Potwin, sir,” said the steward. “I will speak to the purser, sir.” Whereupon I went to sleep again, wondering where anyone had unearthed so hideous a name as Potwin.
WHEN MY SERVANT CAME to tell me that it was time to dress for dinner, I asked myself, as I changed my blue jacket for a black one, whether I had done well to demand a seat near the lady of the yellow hair. In all probability she had a husband with her, and while one may forgive a pretty woman the name of Potwin, as one excuses the monstrous appellation of an orchid, a man with such a name must necessarily be atrocious. But when I took my place at the table she sat at the purser’s right hand and I at hers, and I saw that Potwin must be among the missing or the dead. The purser, although in some ways not a bad sort of fellow, had the affability of his calling quaintly combined with the uneasy pride of a station which seems to distinguish all Americans who are not day-laborers. His name, he told me, was Chamberlain, and he gave me to understand that the family of Chamberlain occupied about the same position in the United States as the house of Howard in England. There is, no doubt, a certain inconvenience latent in the absence of titular distinctions in America. A man has to be always telling you that he is a duke. This particular cadet of the family of Chamberlain had, he proceeded to tell me (with one of those bursts of confidence in which American aristocrats delight), dissipated his patrimony before he left college, and, too proud to toil for a livelihood under the shadow of his ancestral palace in Fifth Avenue, put his broken fortunes to the hazard of the sea. When he had thus conclusively demonstrated that he was no every-day sort of ship’s purser, he presented me to Mrs. Potwin, and I thanked her for her kindness in the matter of the cushion.
“Oh, you needn’t be so grateful,” she said; and when she smiled she was certainly very pretty. “It made me feel lonesome to see that we were actually off, and I was glad to have an excuse to speak to somebody.”
I sent for some champagne, in compliance with the inscrutable rule that a passenger who is distinguished by the purser’s consideration shall always keep that gentleman’s glass filled, and, after dinner, Mr. Chamberlain asked me to come into his cabin and smoke my cigar. When I saw how liberally the steamship company had provided for his comfort, I perceived that the purser of an American boat and the China trade was a personage of no little importance. The room in which he slept was twice as large as that for which I had been made to pay a huge sum of money, and the office in which he received me and in which he never seemed to have any work to do, was as big as the ship’s smoking-room.
I was very sleepy, but I can vaguely remember learning that he had more white shirts and more suits of white linen clothing than the captain himself, that the owners winked at his doing a little quiet trading on his own account, that he was an honored guest in the English clubs of Yokohama and Hong-Kong, and that I had shown great knowledge of the fitness of things in sending my card to him, and asking to be placed at his table. The captain was, I further learned, a most ignorant and unmannerly individual, only to be commended for his good sense in recognizing that he had not nearly so great a “pull” with the steamship company as had the purser. I am not sure whether it was on that occasion or later in the voyage that Mr. Chamberlain explained to me that the owners had become his slaves and things because he knew all about their evasions of law restricting Chinese immigration; but I know, at any rate, that he talked to me for a long time, and always of himself, and that I was exceedingly glad when it was time for me to go to my own less magnificent cabin and sleep the sleep of the bored.
When I went on deck the next morning I found the deck-steward had placed my chair beside that of Mrs. Potwin, and if I was somewhat inclined to resent the train of reasoning from which he had inferred that this disposition would meet my views, I was not sorry to be amused by her chatter. I knew, as soon as I had seated myself in my chair, that I should hear her whole history, and I knew, too, that the opening chapter would be a dissertation on the profound rootage of her family tree. I knew also, since she was young and pretty and traveling alone, that the second chapter would concern itself with an unhappy marriage. There are, no doubt, young and pretty married women who travel alone on their way to rejoin husbands they adore, but in the course of much going to and fro over the surface of the earth it has never been my fortune to meet one of them. All those I have known have been abused angels, and most of them victims of the world’s unjust censure as well as of marital brutality.
I HAD THE PLEASURE of patting my foresight on the back. It was ten o’clock when I came on deck, and by noon, when the purser came to invite Mrs. Potwin and myself to partake of a very rare and precious sort of cocktail which he was about to compound, I had the story. As for the genealogy, it proved, as is often the case with American genealogies, to be rather a record of the political and financial achievements of the uncles and cousins of the narrator than a tale of past ages. They were all rich and great, it appeared, the men, and the women, all unhappy and frequently consoled. Mrs. Potwin’s father had, like many other rich and great men, sought less simple joys than those afforded by his hearth and home, and the mother of Mrs. Potwin had run away with a gentleman who wore gold lace on the sleeve of his coat. The brilliant creature whose effulgence had cast this dark shadow over Mrs. Potwin’s childhood was not clearly described. At one stage of the narrative I conceived him to have been a military attaché at one of the embassies in Washington, and at another his portrait seemed rather to be that of an écuyer in a traveling circus. At any rate, the mother had run away with him, and my young friend had found herself “standing with reluctant feet” bereft of maternal support. It is a general law that young and pretty women who are traveling alone have never known a mother’s love, and perhaps it is because they have all lost their mothers early in life that their husbands have been permitted so truculently to ill-use them. Potwin had appeared, and she had promptly disliked him, and as promptly married him. It was a long story, but, accent or no accent, she had a soft little voice. At this hour I cannot be sure whether she married Potwin because she had a step-mother, and was unhappy with her, or because she thought she might some time have a step-mother and be unhappy with her. That Potwin was a monster I need not say. We have all been taught in school that if we want to get a clear idea of any character in history we ought to try to imagine him present to our gaze, and to my sight Potwin appeared with a keg of rum in one hand, a cudgel for his shrinking bride in the other, and tender words, addressed to an obese lady, upon his sinful lips. Whether Mrs. Potwin had divorced him because he beat her, or he had divorced her because he was tired of beating her, I was not quite clear; but they two were twain. I ventured to ask her if it was because she liked the sound of Potwin that she abstained from resuming her maiden name, and she told me it was out of regard for the feelings of her family. Upon this we went to purser’s gilded office, where he poured five different fluids together and stirred them up with a broom.
In the course of a week we had become very friendly, little Mrs. Potwin and I. Whatever her shortcomings, or long-goings, may have been, she was a young woman of uncommonly quick perception, and it did not take her long to discover that I was by no means inclined to make a fool of myself for the sake of her pretty yellow hair and her soft blue eyes. She told me that she believed Englishmen to be singularly lacking in the imaginative faculty, and I was rather pleased than otherwise that she should excuse my want of enterprise as a racial defect. I liked to hear her talk about herself, but I had no desire to have her set other people talking about me. I was charmed to fill her wine-glass, as well as the purser’s, but I did not want to have her discover when we reached Yokohama that there had been a mistake about her letter of credit, and to have her ask me to lend her a hundred pounds. The young ladies who have never known a mother’s love, and whose husbands have behaved like brutes, have little habits of being unbusinesslike about their letters of credit. In a word, Mrs. Potwin was a delightful acquaintance, but did not impress me as a person with whom I cared to cultivate an enduring friendship; as for losing my heart to her, I should as soon have lost it to a fairy in a Christmas pantomime. My generalizations were, as I afterwards discovered, more or less unjust. She was not an adventuress. She had a very comfortable income of her own. She wanted somebody to talk to, and accident threw me her way. She could not help dropping her eye-lashes at me: that was second nature to her, and she was frankly disappointed because I would not fall in love with her. She believed that she was a woman made to disturb the souls of men, and she resented my placidity. Three or four young fellows among our fellow-passengers were quite mad about her, and even the purser himself (who gave me to understand that though he not infrequently found favor in ladies’ eyes, he remained untouched at heart) followed her about like a large and proud sort of dog before we reached Honolulu. The steamer was to lie there all one day, and Mrs. Potwin told me it was her pleasure that I should take her for a drive; so we went together to the Pali. I was flattered by her preference, for I knew that young fellows had one after another invited her to go, but before the drive was over she explained the compliment away.
“You see,” she said, “they are all in love with me, or anyhow most of them, and the rest will be before we get to Yokohama. They all look at me as if I were a plate of ice-cream, and I like that—I like it better than anything else in the world; and they quarrel about me all the time, and that is perfectly lovely. But if I went off and drove with one of them you wouldn’t be miserable at all—you wouldn’t care a bit. I don’t blame you for it: it is because you are an Englishman, and you can’t help it; but they are not as stupid as you are, and they appreciate me. There’ll be awful rows before we get to Yokohama; you’ll see. One of them walked to the stern with me last night, and while we stood looking over at the phosphorous he was holding my hand so I wouldn’t fall overboard, and you know it was as calm as calm. I suppose you are horrified at that.”
“No,” said I, “I don’t know that I am horrified, but I don’t think it is a very pretty thing to do. It is quite possible that when you have let the young man hold your hand he goes back to the smoking-room and tells the other youngsters about it. It would certainly be wrong if he did, but young ladies who flirt with casual young men do expose themselves to that sort of thing.”
Then I saw Mrs. Potwin in a new phase: Mrs. Potwin has a temper. She jumped out of the carriage (fortunately we were toiling up a hill), and she vowed she would go back to Honolulu on foot; that she would never speak to me again; that no one had ever spoken so rudely to her before; that I was not a gentleman; that no Englishman ever was a gentleman, and much more to the same effect. And of course I had to beg her pardon seven times before I was forgiven. If I had lost my heart to the whimsical little woman I might have thought all this very charming, but as I had not, it seemed very absurd and indecorous for me to be coaxing her back to the carriage within eyesight and earshot of the English-speaking Kanaka driver, while she was stamping her little shoe-heels into the mud and calling the whole island to witness that I was no gentleman.
I WAS SORRY, TOO, when the time came, that we had arranged to dine together at the hotel that evening, for after a brief visit to the ship she came ashore again, dressed as if to go to a ball, and was delighted to find that every man in the dining-room stared at her all through dinner. And then and there I determined that when we reached Yokohama, where there were civilized English people who knew me and whom I did not want to have talk about me, I would not gild my person with the splendor of Mrs. Potwin’s rays. This was, no doubt, a wise resolution to make, but when I made it I did not know that Mrs. Potwin’s given name was Ysonde, nor did I know that, instead of being only a flippant, flirting little person, Mrs. Potwin was a lady whose purpose in life was to occupy a throne.
| Chapter index |