As the wind veered and grew cooler a ribbon of haze appeared above the Gulf-stream.
Young Hamil, resting on his oars, gazed absently into the creeping mist. Under it the ocean sparkled with subdued brilliancy; through it, shoreward, green palms and palmettos turned silvery; and, as the fog spread, the sea-pier, the vast white hotel, bathing-house, cottage, pavilion, faded to phantoms tinted with rose and pearl.
Leaning there on his oars, he could still make out the distant sands flecked with the colours of sunshades and bathing-skirts; the breeze dried his hair and limbs, but his swimming-shirt and trunks still dripped salt water.
Inshore a dory of the beach guard drifted along the outer line of breakers beyond which the more adventurous bathers were diving from an anchored raft. Still farther out moving dots indicated the progress of hardier swimmers; one in particular, a girl capped with a brilliant red kerchief, seemed to be already nearer to Hamil than to the shore.
It was all very new and interesting to him—the shore with its spectral palms and giant caravansary, the misty, opalescent sea where a white steam-yacht lay anchored north of him—the Ariani—from which he had come, and on board of which the others were still doubtless asleep—Portlaw, Malcourt, and Wayward. And at thought of the others he yawned and moistened his lips, still feverish from last night's unwisdom; and leaning forward on his oars, sat brooding, cradled by the flowing motion of the sea.
The wind was still drawing into the north; he felt it, never strong, but always a little cooler, in his hair and on his wet swimming-shirt. The flat cloud along the Gulf-stream spread thickly coastward, and after a little while the ghosts of things terrestrial disappeared.
All around him, now, blankness—save for the gray silhouette of the Ariani. A colourless canopy surrounded him, centred by a tiny pool of ocean. Overhead through the vanishing blue, hundreds of wild duck were stringing out to sea; under his tent of fog the tarnished silver of the water formed a floor smoothly unquiet.
Sounds from the land, hitherto unheard, now came strangely distinct; the cries of bathers, laughter, the muffled shock of the surf, doubled and redoubled along the sands; the barking of a dog at the water's edge. Clear and near sounded the ship's bell on the Ariani; a moment's rattle of block and tackle, a dull call, answered; and silence. Through which, without a sound, swept a great bird with scarce a beat of its spread wings; and behind it, another, and, at exact intervals another and another in impressive processional, sailing majestically through the fog; white pelicans winging inland to the lagoons.
A few minutes later the wind, which had become fitful, suddenly grew warm. All around him now the mist was dissolving into a thin golden rain; the land-breeze freshened, blowing through distant jasmine thickets and orange groves, and a soft fragrance stole out over the sea.
As the sun broke through in misty splendour, the young man, brooding on his oars, closed his eyes; and at the same instant his boat careened violently, almost capsizing as a slender wet shape clambered aboard and dropped into the bows. As the boat heeled under the shock Hamil had instinctively flung his whole weight against the starboard gunwale. Now he recovered his oars and his balance at the same time, and, as he swung half around, his unceremonious visitor struggled to sit upright, still fighting for breath.
"I beg your pardon," she managed to say; "may I rest here? I am—" She stopped short; a flash of sudden recognition came into her eyes—flickered, and faded. It was evident to him that, for a moment, she thought she had met him before.
"Of course you may stay here," he said, inclined to laugh.
She settled down, stretching slightly backward as though to give her lungs fuller play. In a little while her breathing grew more regular; her eyes closed for a moment, then opened thoughtfully, skyward.
Hamil's curious and half-amused gaze rested on her as he resumed the oars. But when he turned his back and headed the boat shoreward a quick protest checked him, and oars at rest, he turned again, looking inquiringly at her over his shoulder.
"I am only rowing you back to the beach," he said.
"Don't row me in; I am perfectly able to swim back."
"No doubt," he returned drily, "but haven't you played tag with Death sufficiently for one day?"
"Death?" She dismissed the grotesque suggestion with a shrug, then straightened up, breathing freely and deeply. "It is an easy swim," she remarked, occupied with her wet hair under the knotted scarlet; "the fog confused me; that was all."
"And how long could you have kept afloat if the fog had not lifted?" he inquired with gentle sarcasm. To which, adroitly adjusting hair and kerchief, she made no answer. So he added: "There is supposed to be a difference between mature courage and the fool-hardiness of the unfledged—"
The quick close-clipped question cutting his own words silenced him. And, as he made no reply, she continued to twist the red kerchief around her hair, and to knot it securely, her doubtful glance returning once or twice to his amused face.
When all had been made fast and secure she rested one arm on the gunwale and dropped the other across her knees, relaxing in every muscle a moment before departure. And, somehow, to Hamil, the unconscious grace of the attitude suggested the "Resting Hermes"—that sculptured concentration of suspended motion.
"You had better not go just yet," he said, pointing seaward.
She also had been watching the same thing that he was now looking at, a thin haze which again became apparent over the Gulf-stream.
"Do you think it will thicken?" she asked.
"I don't know; you had a close call last time—"
"There was no danger."
"I think there was danger enough; you were apparently headed straight out to sea—"
"I heard a ship's bell and swam toward it, and when the fog lifted I found you."
"Why didn't you swim toward the shore? You could hear the surf—and a dog barking."
"I"—she turned pink with annoyance—"I suppose I was a trifle tired—if you insist. I realised that I had lost my bearings; that was all. Then I heard a ship's bell… . Then the mist lifted and I saw you—but I've explained all that before. Look at that exasperating fog!"
Vexation silenced her; she sat restless for a few seconds, then:
"What do you think I had better do?"
"I think you had better try to endure me for a few minutes longer. I'm safer than the fog."
But his amusement left her unresponsive, plainly occupied with her own ideas.
Again the tent of vapour stretched its magic folds above the boat and around it; again the shoreward shapes faded to phantoms and disappeared.
He spoke again once or twice, but her brief replies did not encourage him. At first, he concluded that her inattention and indifference must be due to self-consciousness; then, slightly annoyed, he decided they were not. And, very gradually, he began to realise that the unconventional, always so attractive to the casual young man, did not interest her at all, even enough to be aware of it or of him.
This cool unconsciousness of self, of him, of a situation which to any wholesome masculine mind contained the germs of humour, romance, and all sorts of amusing possibilities, began to be a little irksome to him. And still her aloofness amused him, too.
"Do you know of any decorous reason why we should not talk to each other occasionally during this fog?" he asked.
She turned her head, considered him inattentively, then turned it away again.
"No," she said indifferently; "what did you desire to say?"
Resting on his oars, the unrequited smile still forlornly edging his lips, he looked at his visitor, who was staring into the fog, lost in her own reflections; and never a glimmer in her eyes, never a quiver of lid or lash betrayed any consciousness of his gaze or even of his presence. And he continued to inspect her with increasing annoyance.
The smooth skin, the vivid lips slightly upcurled, the straight delicate nose, the cheeks so smoothly rounded where the dark thick lashes swept their bloom as she looked downward at the water—all this was abstractly beautiful; very lovely, too, the full column of the neck, and the rounded arms guiltless of sunburn or tan.
So unusually white were both neck and arms that Hamil ventured to speak of it, politely, asking her if this was not her first swim that season.
Voice and question roused her from abstraction; she turned toward him, then glanced down at her unstained skin.
"My first swim?" she repeated; "oh, you mean my arms? No, I never burn; they change very little." Straightening up she sat looking across the boat at him without visible interest at first, then doubtfully, as though in an effort to say something polite.
"I am really very grateful to you for letting me sit here. Please don't feel obliged to amuse me during this annoying fog."
"Thank you; you are rather difficult to talk to. But I don't mind trying at judicious intervals," he said, laughing.
She considered him askance. "If you wish to row in, do so. I did not mean to keep you here at sea—"
"Oh, I belong out here; I'm from the Ariani yonder; you heard her bell in the fog. We came from Nassau last night… . Have you ever been to Nassau?"
The girl nodded listlessly and glanced at the white yacht, now becoming visible through the thinning mist. Somewhere above in the viewless void an aura grew and spread into a blinding glory; and all around, once more, the fog turned into floating golden vapour shot with rain.
The girl placed both hands on the gunwales as though preparing to rise.
"Not yet!" said Hamil sharply.
"I beg your pardon?"—looking up surprised, still poised lightly on both palms as though checked at the instant of rising into swift aërial flight—so light, so buoyant she appeared.
"Don't go overboard," he repeated.
"Because I'm going to row you in."
"I wish to swim; I prefer it."
"I am only going to take you to the float—"
"But I don't care to have you. I am perfectly able to swim in—"
"I know you are," he said, swinging clear around in his seat to face her, "but I put it in the form of a request; will you be kind enough to let me row you part way to the float? This fog is not ended."
She opened her lips to protest; indeed, for a moment it looked as if she were going overboard without further argument; then perhaps some belated idea of civility due him for the hospitality of his boat restrained her.
"You understand, of course, that I am quite able to swim in," she said.
"Yes; may I now row you part way? The fog is closing in again."
She yielded with a pretty indifference, none the less charming because there was no flattery in it for him. He now sat facing her, pushing his oars through the water; and she stole a curious glance at his features—slightly sullen for the moment—noticing his well-set, well-shaped head and good shoulders.
That fugitive glance confirmed the impression of recognition in her mind. He was what she had expected in breeding and physique—the type usually to be met with where the world can afford to take its leisure.
As he was not looking at her she ventured to continue her inspection, leaning back, and dropping her bare arm alongside, to trail her fingers through the sunlit water.
"Have we not rowed far enough?" she asked presently. "This fog is apparently going to last forever."
"Like your silence," he said gaily.
Raising her eyes in displeasure she met his own frankly amused.
"Shall I tell you," he asked, "exactly why I insisted on rowing you in? I'm afraid"—he glanced at her with the quick smile breaking again on his lips—"I'm afraid you don't care whether I tell you or not. Do you?"
"If you ask me—I really don't," she said. "And, by the way, do you know that if you turned around properly and faced the stern you could make better progress with your oars?"
"By 'better' do you mean quicker progress?" he asked, so naively that she concluded he was a trifle stupid. The best-looking ones were usually stupid.
"Yes, of course," she said, impatient. "It's all very well to push a punt across a mill-pond that way, but it's not treating the Atlantic with very much respect."
"You were not particularly respectful toward the Atlantic Ocean when you started to swim across it."
But again the echo of amusement in his voice found no response in her unsmiling silence.
He thought to himself: "Is she a prude, or merely stupid! The pity of it!—with her eyes of a thinking goddess!—and no ideas behind them! What she understands is the commonplace. Let us offer her the obvious."
And, aloud, fatuously: "This is a rarely beautiful scene—"
And feeling mildly wicked he continued:
—"Soft skies, a sea of Ionian azure; one might almost expect to see a triareme heading up yonder out of the south, festooned with the golden fleece. This is just the sort of a scene for a triareme; don't you think so?"
Her reply was the slightest possible nod.
He looked at her meanly amused:
"It's really very classical," he said, "like the voyage of Ulysses; I, Ulysses, you the water nymph Calypso, drifting in that golden ship of Romance—"
"Calypso was a land nymph," she observed, absently, "if accuracy interests you as much as your monologue."
Checked and surprised, he began to laugh at his own discomfiture; and she, elbow on the gunwale, small hand cupping her chin, watched him with an expressionless directness that very soon extinguished his amusement and left him awkward in the silence.
"I've tried my very best to be civil and agreeable," he said after a moment. "Is it really such an effort for you to talk to a man?"
"Not if I am interested," she said quietly.
He felt that his ears were growing red; she noticed it, too, and added: "I do not mean to be too rude; and I am quite sure you do not either."
"Of course not," he said; "only I couldn't help seeing the humour of romance in our ocean encounter. I think anybody would—except you—"
The crisp, quick question which, with her, usually seemed like an exclamation, always startled him into temporary silence; then he began more carefully:
"There was one chance in a million of your finding my boat in the fog. If you hadn't found it—" He shook his head. "And so I wish you might recognise in our encounter something amusing, humourous"—he looked cautiously at her—"even mildly romantic—ah—enough to—to—"
"Why—to say—to do something characteristically—ah—"
"—Human!" he ventured—quite prepared to see her rise wrathfully and go overboard.
Instead she remained motionless, those clear, disconcerting eyes fixed steadily on him. Once or twice he thought that her upper lip quivered; that some delicate demon of laughter was trying to look out at him under the lashes; but not a lid twitched; the vivid lips rested gravely upon each other. After a silence she said:
"What is it, human, that you expect me to do? Flirt with you?"
"Good Lord, no!" he said, stampeded.
She was now paying him the compliment of her full attention; he felt the dubious flattery, although it slightly scared him.
"Why is it," she asked, "that a man is eternally occupied in thinking about the effect he produces on woman—whether or not he knows her—that seems to make no difference at all? Why is it?"
He turned redder; she sat curled up, nursing both ankles, and contemplating him with impersonal and searching curiosity.
"Tell me," she said; "is there any earthly reason why you and I should be interested in each other—enough, I mean, to make any effort toward civility beyond the bounds of ordinary convention?"
He did not answer.
"Because," she added, "if there is not, any such effort on your part borders rather closely on the offensive. And I am quite sure you do not intend that."
He was indignant now, but utterly incapable of retort.
"Is there anything romantic in it because a chance swimmer rests a few moments in somebody's boat?" she asked. "Is that chance swimmer superhuman or inhuman or ultra-human because she is not consciously, and simperingly, preoccupied with the fact that there happens to be a man in her vicinity?"
"Good heavens!" he broke out, "do you think I'm that sort of noodle—"
"But I don't think about you at all," she interrupted; "there is not a thought that I have which concerns you as an individual. My homily is delivered in the abstract. Can't you—in the abstract—understand that?—even if you are a bit doubtful concerning the seven deadly conventions?"
He rested on his oars, tingling all over with wrath and surprise.
"And now," she said quietly, "I think it time to go. The sun is almost shining, you see, and the beauty of the scene is too obvious for even you to miss."
"May I express an opinion before you depart?"
"If it is not a very long or very dissenting opinion."
"Then it's this: two normal and wholesome people—man and a woman, can not meet, either conventionally or unconventionally, without expressing some atom of interest in one another as individuals. I say two—perfectly—normal—people—"
"But it has just happened!" she insisted, preparing to rise.
"No, it has not happened."
"Really. You speak for yourself of course—"
"Yes, I do. I am interested; I'd be stupid if I were not. Besides, I understand conventions as well as you do—"
"You don't observe them—"
"I don't worship them!"
She said coolly: "Women should be ritualists. It is safer."
"It is not necessary in this case. I haven't the slightest hope of making this incident a foundation for another; I haven't the least idea that I shall ever see you again. But for me to pretend an imbecile indifference to you or to the situation would be a more absurd example of self-consciousness than even you have charged me with."
Wrath and surprise in her turn widened her eyes; he held up his hand: "One moment; I have not finished. May I go on?"
And, as she said nothing, he resumed: "During the few minutes we have been accidentally thrown together, I have not seen a quiver of human humour in you. There is the self-consciousness—the absorbed preoccupation with appearances."
"What is there humourous in the situation?" she demanded, very pink.
"Good Lord! What is there humourous in any situation if you don't make it so?"
"I am not a humourist," she said.
She sat in the bows, one closed hand propping her chin; and sometimes her clear eyes, harboring lightning, wandered toward him, sometimes toward the shore.
"Suppose you continue to row," she said at last. "I'm doing you the honour of thinking about what you've said."
He resumed the oars, still sitting facing her, and pushed the boat slowly forward; and, as they continued their progress in silence, her brooding glance wavered, at intervals, between him and the coast.
"Haven't you any normal human curiosity concerning me?" he asked so boyishly that, for a second, again from her eyes, two gay little demons seemed to peer out and laugh at him.
But her lips were expressionless, and she only said: "I have no curiosity. Is that criminally abnormal?"
"Yes; if it is true. Is it?"
"I suppose it is too unflattering a truth for you to believe." She checked herself, looked up at him, hesitated. "It is not absolutely true. It was at first. I am normally interested now. If you knew more about me you would very easily understand my lack of interest in people I pass; the habit of not permitting myself to be interested—the necessity of it. The art of indifference is far more easily acquired than the art of forgetting."
"But surely," he said, "it can cost you no effort to forget me."
"No, of course not." She looked at him, unsmiling: "It was the acquired habit of indifference in me which you mistook for—I think you mistook it for stupidity. Many do. Did you?"
But the guilty amusement on his face answered her; she watched him silently for a while.
"You are quite right in one way," she said; "an unconventional encounter like this has no significance—not enough to dignify it with any effort toward indifference. But until I began to reprove man in the abstract, I really had not very much interest in you as an individual."
And, as he said nothing: "I might better have been in the beginning what you call 'human'—found the situation mildly amusing—and it is—though you don't know it! But"—she hesitated—"the acquired instinct operated automatically. I wish I had been more—human; I can be." She raised her eyes; and in them glimmered her first smile, faint, yet so charming a revelation that the surprise of it held him motionless at his oars.
"Have I paid the tribute you claim?" she asked. "If I have, may I not go overboard at my convenience?"
He did not answer. She laid both arms along the gunwales once more, balancing herself to rise.
"We are near enough now," she said, "and the fog is quite gone. May I thank you and depart without further arousing you to psychological philosophy?"
"If you must," he said; "but I'd rather row you in."
"If I must? Do you expect to paddle me around Cape Horn?" And she rose and stepped lightly onto the bow, maintaining her balance without effort while the boat pitched, fearless, confident, swaying there between sky and sea.
"Good-bye," she said, gravely nodding at him.
She joined her finger tips above her head, preliminary to a plunge. Then she looked down at him over her shoulder.
"I told you that Calypso was a land nymph."
"I can't help it; fabled Calypso you must remain to me."
"Oh; am I to remain—anything—to you—for the next five minutes?"
"Do you think I could forget you?"
"I don't think so—for five minutes. Your satisfied vanity will retain me for so long—until it becomes hungry again. And—but read the history of Ulysses—carefully. However, it was nice of you—not to name yourself and expect a response from me. I'm afraid—I'm afraid it is going to take me almost five minutes to forget you—I mean your boat of course. Good-bye!"
Before he could speak again she went overboard, rose swimming with effortless grace. After a dozen strokes or so she turned on one side, glancing back at him. Later, almost among the breakers, she raised one arm in airy signal, but whether to him or to somebody on the raft he did not know.
For five minutes—the allotted five—he lay on his oars watching the sands. At moments he fancied he could still distinguish her, but the distance was great, and there were many scarlet head-dresses among the bathers ashore and afloat.
And after a while he settled back on his oars, cast a last glance astern, and pulled for the Ariani, aboard of which Portlaw was already bellowing at him through an enormous megaphone.
Malcourt, who looked much younger than he really was, appeared on the after deck, strolling about with a telescope tucked up under one arm, both hands in his trousers pockets; and, as Hamil pulled under the stern, he leaned over the rail: "Hello, Hamil! Any trade with the natives in prospect? How far will a pint of beads go with the lady aborigines?"
"Better ask at the Beach Club," replied Hamil, laughing; "I say, Malcourt, I've had a corking swim out yonder—"
"Go in deep?" inquired Malcourt guilelessly.
"Deep? It's forty fathoms off the reef."
"I didn't mean the water," murmured Malcourt.