Chapter 3

 

After a couple of minutes of silence which could be felt, Mrs. Van Stuyler turned round and said angrily:

Zaidie, you will excuse me, perhaps, if I say that your conduct is not—I mean has not been what I should have expected—what I did, indeed, expect from your uncle’s niece when I undertook to take you to Europe. I must say——”

If I were you, Mrs. Van, I don’t think I’d say much more about that, because, you see, it’s fixed and done. Of course, Lord Redgrave’s only an earl, and the other is a marquis, but, you see, he’s a man, and I don’t quite think the other one is—and that’s about all there is to it.”

Their host had just left the deck-saloon, taking the early coffee apparatus with him, and Miss Zaidie, in the first flush of her pride and re-found happiness, was taking a promenade of about twelve strides each way, while Mrs. Van Stuyler, after partially relieving her feelings as above, had seated herself stiffly in her wicker-chair, and was following her with eyes which were critical and, if they had been twenty years younger, might also have been envious.

Well, at least I suppose I must congratulate you on your ability to accommodate yourself to most extraordinary circumstances. I must say that as far as that goes I quite envy you. I feel as though I ought to choke or take poison, or something of that sort.”

Sakes, Mrs. Van, please don’t talk like that!” said Zaidie, stopping in her walk just in front of her chaperon’s chair. “Can’t you see that there’s nothing extraordinary about the circumstances except this wonderful ship? I have told you how Pop and I met Lord Redgrave in our tour through the Canadian Rockies two or three years ago. No, it’s two years and nine months next June; and how he took an interest in Pop’s theories and ideas about this same ship that we are on now——”

Oh yes,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler rather acidly, “and not only in the abstract ideas, but apparently in a certain concrete reality.”

Mrs. Van,” laughed Zaidie, with a cunning twist on her heel, “I know you don’t mean to be rude, but—well, now did any one ever call you a concrete reality? Of course it’s correct just as a scientific definition, perhaps—still, anyhow, I guess it’s not much good going on about that. The facts are just this way. I consented to marry that Byfleet marquis just out of sheer spite and blank ignorance. Lord Redgrave never actually asked me to marry him when we were in the Rockies, but he did say when he went back to England that as soon as he had realised my father’s ideal he would come over and try and realise one of his own. He was looking at me when he said it, and he looked a good deal more than he said. Then he went away, and poor Pop died. Of course I couldn’t write and tell him, and I suppose he was too proud to write before he’d done what he undertook to do, and I, like most girl-fools in the same place would have done, thought that he’d given the whole thing up and just looked upon the trip as a sort of interlude in globe-trotting, and thought no more about Pop’s ideas and inventions than he did about his daughter.”

Very natural, of course,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, somewhat mollified by the subdued passion which Zaidie had managed to put into her commonplace words; “and so as you thought he had forgotten you and was finding a wife in his own country, and a possible husband came over from that same country with a coronet——”

That’ll do, Mrs. Van, thank you,” interrupted Miss Zaidie, bringing her daintily-shod foot down on the deck this time with an unmistakable stamp. “We’ll consider that incident closed if you please. It was a miserable, mean, sordid business altogether; I am utterly, hopelessly ashamed of it and myself too. Just to think that I could ever——”

Mrs. Van Stuyler cut short her indignant flow of words by a sudden uplifting of her eyelids and a swift turn of her head towards the companion way. Zaidie stamped again, this time more softly, and walked away to have another look at the clouds.

Why, what on earth is the matter?” she exclaimed, shrinking back from the glass wall. “There’s nothing—we’re not anywhere!”

Pardon me, Miss Rennick, you are on board the Astronef,” said Lord Redgrave, as he reached the top of the companion way, “and the Astronef is at present travelling at about a hundred and fifty miles an hour above the clouds towards Washington. That is why you don’t see the clouds and sea as you did after we left the St. Louis. At a speed like this they simply make a sort of grey-green blur. We shall be in Washington this evening, I hope.”

To-night, sir—I beg your pardon, my Lord!” gasped Mrs. Van Stuyler. “A hundred and fifty miles an hour! Surely that’s impossible.”

My dear Mrs. Van Stuyler,” said Redgrave, with a side-look at Zaidie, “nowadays ‘impossible’ is hardly an English or even an American word. In fact, since I have had the honour of realising some of Professor Rennick’s ideas it has been relegated to the domain of mathematics. Not even he could make two and two more or less than four, but—well, would you like to come into the conning-tower and see for yourselves? I can show you a few experiments that will, at any rate, help to pass the time between here and Washington.”

Lord Redgrave,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, dropping gracefully back into her wicker armchair, “if I may say so, I have seen quite enough impossibilities, and—er, well—other things since we left the deck of the St. Louis to keep me quite satisfied until, with your lordship’s permission, I set foot on solid ground again, and I should also like to remind you that we have left everything behind us on the St. Louis, everything except what we stand up in, and—and——”

And therefore it will be a point of honour with me to see that you want for nothing while you are on board the Astronef, and that you shall be released from your durance——”

Now don’t say vile, Lenox—I mean——”

It is perfectly plain what you mean, Zaidie,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, in a tone which seemed to send a chill through the deck-chamber. “Really, the American girl——”

Just wants to tell the truth,” laughed Zaidie, going towards Redgrave. “Lord Redgrave, if you like it better, says he wants to marry me, and, peer or peasant, I want to marry him, and that’s all there is to it. You don’t suppose I’d have——”

My dear girl, there’s no need to go into details,” interrupted Mrs. Van Stuyler, inspired by fond memories of her own youth; “we will take that for granted, and as we are beyond the social region in which chaperons are supposed to be necessary, I think I will have a nap.”

And we’ll go to the conning-tower, eh?”

Breakfast will be ready in about half an hour,” said Redgrave, as he took Zaidie by the arm and led her towards the forward end of the deck-chamber. “Meanwhile, au revoir! If you want anything, touch the button at your right hand, just as you would on board the St. Louis.”

I thank your lordship,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, half melting and half icy still. “I shall be quite content to wait until you come back. Really I feel quite sleepy.”

That’s the effect of the elevation on the dear old lady’s nerves,” Redgrave whispered to Zaidie as he helped her up the narrow stairway which led to the glass-domed conning-tower, in which in days to come she was destined to pass some of the most delightful and the most terrible moments of her life.

Then why doesn’t it affect me that way?” said Zaidie, as she took her place in the little chamber, steel-walled and glass-roofed, and half filled with instruments of which she, Vassar girl and all as she was, could only guess the use.

Well, to begin with, you are younger, which is an absolutely unnecessary observation; and in the second place, perhaps you were thinking about something else.”

By which I suppose you mean your lordship’s noble self.”

This was said in such a tone and with such an indescribable smile that there immediately ensued a gap in the conversation, and a silence which was a great deal more eloquent than any words could have made it.

When Miss Zaidie had got free again she put her hands up to her hair, and while she was patting it into something like shape again she said:

But I thought you brought me here to show me some experiments, and not to——”

Not to take advantage of the first real opportunity of tasting some of the dearest delights that mortal man ever stole from earth or sea? Do you remember that day when we were coming down from the big glacier—when your foot slipped and I just caught you and saved a sprained ankle?”

Yes, you wretch, and went away next day and left something like a broken heart behind you! Why didn’t you—Oh what idiots you men can be when you put your minds to it!”

It wasn’t quite that, Zaidie. You see, I’d promised your father the day before—of course I was only a younger son then—that I wouldn’t say anything about realising my ideal until I had realised his, and so——”

And so I might have gone to Europe with Uncle Russell’s millions to buy that man Byfleet’s coronet, and pay the price——”

Don’t, Zaidie, don’t! That is quite too horrible to think of, and as for the coronet, well, I think I can give you one about as good as his, and one that doesn’t want re-gilding. Good Lord, fancy you married to a thing like that! What could have made you think of it?”

I didn’t think,” she said angrily; “I didn’t think and I didn’t feel. Of course I thought that I’d dropped right out of your life, and after that I didn’t care. I was mad right through, and I’d made up my mind to do what others did—take a title and a big position, and have the outside as bright as I could get it, whatever the inside might be like. I’d made up my mind to be a society queen abroad, and a miserable woman at home—and, Lenox, thank God and you, that I wasn’t!”

Then there was another interlude, and at the end of it Redgrave said:

Wait till we’ve finished our honeymoon in space, and come back to earth. You won’t want any coronets then, although you’ll have one, for all the lands of earth won’t hold another woman like yourself—your own sweet self! Of course it doesn’t now, but—there, you know what I mean. You’ll have been to other worlds, you’ll have made the round trip of the Solar System, so to say, and——”

And I think, dear, that is about promise of wonders enough, and of other things too—no, you are really quite too exacting. I thought you brought me here to show me some of the wonders that this marvellous ship of yours can work.”

Then just one more and I’ll show you. Now you stand up there on that step so that you can see all round, and watch with all your eyes, because you are going to see something that no woman ever saw before.”