Read CHAPTER XXII. of An Unknown Lover , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

On returning to the ship Katrine found several letters waiting, one of which bore Jim Blair’s well-known writing.  She tore it open immediately on reaching her cabin, and was disappointed to find it unusually short.  Excitement, restlessness, and an unusual press of business made it impossible, he explained, to write at length, the more so as he was pledged not to speak of the subject which lay nearest his heart.  He hoped she had made some woman friend on board, who would look after her, as not even the best of men could do.  Bedford would probably have to hurry off immediately on landing to bring up a company of men, but as Dorothea would explain, the agent in Bombay had been instructed to look after tickets, baggage, etc., and make every arrangement for the four days’ journey.  Could she not find some woman who would share the carriage for even part of the way?  Her second letter, following hard on the heels of that memorable acceptance, had been perhaps a necessary corrective, but she could hardly expect it to be welcome!  So far the letter was grave, commonplace, almost business-like, but at the end an effort had evidently been made to adopt a lighter tone.  He referred to her examination paper, declared that a careful examination of ears having been made, by means of tape measure and mirror, he might be considered to have passed with honours.  As to the wife’s little ways, his mode of procedure would in each case be the same,-“Kiss the wife!”

That evoked a smile, but despite the effort at brightness Katrine was conscious of the underlying depression, which the last sentence put into words.  “Now that our meeting is so near, I am consumed with doubts.  Not of my own feelings-never think that, but of yours!  Why should you care for me, Katrine?  What is there about me to attract a girl like you?  I kick myself for my boldness and self-confidence; but at least, dear, you shall not be worried.  Be sure of that!  No thought of me must interfere with what seems best for you, and your happiness.  Keep that thought before you, dear, through all the hours which carry you across the sea, and find courage in it.  No happiness can come to me, which leaves you empty or dissatisfied!”

Katrine folded the letter, replaced it in its envelope, and sat on the side of her bunk staring vacantly into space.  For the first time the reading of a letter from Jim had left behind a feeling of disappointment and jar.  He had struck a wrong note, and one which awoke in her a feeling of resentment.  Surely now, when she was actually on her way, he should have hidden his doubts and affected an even stronger confidence and determination.  She had looked forward to the receipt of this letter, expecting to be cheered, assured; now she could have found it in her heart to wish that it had not arrived!  Jim Blair, depressed and doubtful, was an unfamiliar figure, with which she had no association.  From the beginning of their correspondence it had been his assurance, this breezy self-confidence, amounting almost to audacity, which had captured her imagination; now when she needed it most that assurance had failed!

Katrine laid herself down and made a pretence of sleep, which fatigue presently turned into reality.  She was awakened by the ringing of the first dinner bell, and lengthened out the process of dressing by a bath, and an elaborate re-arrangement of hair.  She also displayed an unusual self-abnegation in the matter of the mirror, so that when the last gong rang, her toilette was still incomplete, and Mrs Mannering sailed off alone, clasping jet bracelets round bony wrists.

Even when she had the cabin to herself Katrine showed no anxiety to hurry.  The plain truth was that she dreaded entering the saloon, and facing the meeting which lay ahead.  Until that afternoon she had looked forward with eagerness to the arrival of Captain Bedford, whose society would disperse the feeling of loneliness which is never more acute than in the midst of a crowd.  He was the Middletons’ friend, Jim’s friend; reported to be good, staid, steady-going; not too young, straight as a die, and a splendid soldier,-in short an elder-brother-sort-of-man, agreeably free from romance.  They would meet, not as strangers, but with such a bond of common interests, such a certainty of future friendship, as would carry them in a bound past the initial stages of acquaintanceship.  She had counted the hours until Port Said should be reached, and now! here she was sitting dawdling in her cabin, dreading to leave it, and face what lay ahead...

Could that be Captain Bedford-that man with the tanned face, whose personality among a crowd of strangers had asserted itself with such magnetic force; whose eyes had held her own captive, against her struggling will?  Surely it was but one chance to a hundred!  There had been other men in that group, other men hanging about the hotel; tall, bronzed, soldier-like men by the dozen, any one of whom might even now be sitting in the place next to her own in the saloon, wondering, with a tepid curiosity, when Miss Beverley would appear!

It was stupid of Mrs Mannering to have suggested the possibility; not only stupid, but officious, as were also her after insinuations.  Katrine flushed, as she recalled her own momentary impulse at confession.  Protection was not needed:  even if Captain Bedford were different from what she had expected, she could deal with the situation without help from others; could see as little or as much of him as she desired.

She rose, with sudden determination, cast a last look in the glass, and walked resolutely towards the saloon.  She was late, for the second course was already being cleared away, and a steady hum of conversation rose from the crowded tables.  Katrine steered her way to her own seat at the far end of the great room, a graceful figure, with head held high, and flushed, frowning face.  The diners followed her with their eyes, and commented among themselves.

“Fine girl-beautiful eyes!  Holds herself well.  Pretty, but too tempery for my taste...  Pity she mixes herself up with that Vernon brute.  Expect she’s used to a Bohemian set.  Beverley’s sister, I’m told...  Author fellow who married Grizel Dundas.  Ever met her?  The most fascinating little witch!  Could smile the heart out of a stone wall.  Might have married any one she liked, instead of chucking away a fortune for the sake of a scribbler...”

Katrine pursued her way unconscious of criticisms, which, if overheard, would have accentuated the “tempery” expression.  Her heart was beating with unaccustomed quickness, she kept her eyes averted from her own empty seat, and-the seat beyond!  Even at the moment of stopping she would not look, but a tall figure rose suddenly, hand shot out, a voice spoke, level and expressionless:  “Miss Beverley, I believe!”

It was he!  Once more Katrine met the gaze of grey eyes, curiously light in the brown face; once more felt the sudden, half-fearful thrill.

“Captain Bedford!  I-I think I saw you on shore this afternoon.”

“At the hydrant.  Yes!” He seated himself after her.  “I enjoyed your enjoyment.  It’s an amusing sight when one is new to the East.  Has the voyage been pleasant so far?”

The words were pronounced with an amount of hesitation which comforted Katrine, by their betrayal of the fact that the nervousness was not all on her side.  She made a determined effort to regain composure, and talk in natural, easy fashion.

“Quite, thank you.  My powers as a sailor are untried; there has been no excuse to feel ill.  And I’m luxuriating in the heat.  I may have too much of that soon...  I hope you are better!”

“Quite fit, thanks.  Have you made any friends on board?”

Katrine took note of the hasty dismissal of the health topic.  It was no doubt a painful subject, and one which he was naturally anxious to forget.  She turned her head with an involuntary scrutinising glance, and had an impression of a long, lean jaw, dun-coloured hair, and a line of eyebrow, unexpectedly dark.  The whole effect was too thin and lined to look robust after the florid men at home, but was nevertheless instinct with force.  Reassured she looked away, and attacked the food on her plate.

“I have spoken to three people.  My room-mate for one-an elderly woman, rather a character.  She is afflicted with a devouring curiosity which it amuses me to balk.  Then she lets off steam by confiding in me!  I know to a penny how much she has a year, and what her husband died of, and her son’s virtues and failings, and her plans for the rest of her life...  It’s a bore sometimes, but she’s kind!  I’m beginning to like her.  Then there are two men-” She felt, rather than saw, the deepening of interest, the slight turn of the head.  “One sits at the next table.  Don’t look now!  Fair, handsome; by the girl in blue.  He spoke to me the first day; introduced himself, and was rather-startlingly-frank!  He is evidently an experienced traveller who leaves nothing to chance.  He suggested that we should...  What do you think he suggested?”

Their eyes met, hers with a laugh; his stern, with a kindling light which boded danger.

“I have no idea.  I’d rather not guess.”

“That we should arrange what he was pleased to call `a steamship flirtation,’ which consisted of an arrangement to spend practically the whole time together, growing increasingly sentimental during the voyage, but only during the voyage!  On landing we were to part with a `Good-bye, pleased to have met you,’ and mutually disappear into space.-It was just a thoughtful arrangement for amusement en route, like providing oneself with an interesting book.  I discovered on enquiry that he had already proposed the same arrangement to one or two other girls, so that I had not even the consolation of coming first.  I refused with thanks, but judging by appearances the blue girl was more amiable.  He has not spoken to me since.”

Captain Bedford looked across the table with a set jaw.  The subject of conversation was too much occupied with his neighbour to be conscious of that glance, but Katrine saw it, and mentally noted that this man’s anger would be no light thing.

“I think,” he said grimly, “it is a good thing you are no longer alone!” Then, after a pause, he added a question.  “And the other man?”

“Ah!  I wonder.  Perhaps you will think that is worse still.  I hope you won’t!” Katrine was conscious of a moment of actual nervousness; she played with her knife and fork, waited until the conversation swelled to a louder pitch, and turning towards him spoke in a whisper.  “The other man is dying of consumption.  He is also drunk every night in the card-room.  No other woman will look at him.  They cut me because I do.  We are great friends.”

Again their eyes met, but this time it was her turn to look grave, while he smiled a smile of unexpected sweetness.

“He was with you, I think, this afternoon beside that hydrant.  I’m glad you are kind to him.”

Katrine was conscious of a great relief.  Her spirits rose; she straightened herself with an agreeable tingling of blood, caught a glance directed to her from afar, and divined, with a woman’s content, that she was looking her best.  She drew her breath in a soft, fluttering sigh.

“Ah!  I’m so glad.  I was afraid you’d be shocked.  And you will help?  He needs a man friend-a strong man-who will be kind, and not judge.  And you can be with him more, do so much more than I.”

“I’m afraid he is very ill.”

The tone, like the words, seemed lacking in fervour.  Katrine had spoken with so intimate an appeal for help that she could not resist a momentary chill.  She sat silent, wondering if she had been too quick to claim the privileges of friendship, recalling for her own comfort Jim Blair’s words:  “A curt, shy manner.”  That was the explanation!  Only manner.  The deep, smiling glance had already pledged help.  She might be satisfied of its fulfilment.

After dinner Bedford joined her on deck.  The vessel was steaming its slow course through the canal, and Katrine leaned over the rail gazing at the monotonous banks, listening to her companion’s explanatory conversation with difficult attention.  She was so much more interested in himself than in geographical facts; she wanted to talk of himself, his health, of his winter’s experiences!

“Six miles an hour...  Even if we put on full steam we could go no faster, for the bed is so narrow that if the screw revolves too rapidly, it merely draws the water backwards.  Extra depth would be even more valuable than extra width.  Years ago I was on board the Ophir, and we entered the canal to find a German vessel run aground.  For five days we were stuck there until sixty-three vessels were waiting to get through.”

“Sixty-three!” Katrine was startled out of her indifference.  “For five days!  What did you do?”

“Fifty-five of the boats flew the English flag.  Their passengers amused themselves playing cricket and polo in the desert.  The others-swore!”

“But-” Katrine looked blank, “it might have been dreadful!  Suppose there had been a war!  What would they have done then?”

Captain Bedford smiled, but with a slight curl of the lip.

“Played cricket still, and-muddled through!  When do we do anything else!  In 1882, when Arabi was upsetting things in Egypt we sent a string of gunboats and transports along the canal and one ran aground.  If she had lain in the middle of the channel instead of at the side- well!  Wolseley’s plans might not have come off.  As it was, she lay near enough to the bank to allow the others to be towed past with ropes.”

“Really?  Yes.  How interesting!” murmured Katrine vaguely.  In the pause which followed she was conscious of a sound like that of a suppressed laugh, and turning round beheld her companion’s eyes twinkling with an amusement so infectious that she laughed in sympathy.

“Well, but I’m not interested!” she confessed boldly.  “There is so much else...  Now that we have passed Port Said, I feel quite near to India, and there are so many personal things that I am longing to ask.- It is months since you have seen them all, but for me it has been years.  Five years since Dorothea sailed, and she is my nearest friend.  You know her intimately, of course.  And Jack!  Shall I find them changed?”

“In outward appearance?  Yes!  India ages; but they are the sort that keep young at heart.  Jack wears well; growing a trifle grey perhaps; she is too thin, and the boy is like her,-all spirit, too little flesh.  Amusing little rascal!”

“Yes.”  Katrine resumed her former position, arms resting on the rail, head turned aside.  The Lake of Menzaleh stretched to the western horizon, its surface dotted with fishing boats, and covered with vast flocks of pelicans, flamingoes, and duck, which, unlike the fishermen, had caught all the fish they desired, and were now settling for the night.  There was a strangeness, an unreality about the scene, which gave it the substance of a dream.

“And-Captain Blair?” Katrine queried softly.

It was an effort to introduce the name, but she was determined to do so; nay, more, a mysterious impulse seemed to urge her to intimate something of the true position, to let this man realise that she and Jim Blair were more to each other than mere hearsay acquaintances.  She stared before her, her profile pale in the waning light.  “I have never seen him, but, through Dorothea, we know each other quite well.  He has written to me,-been so kind-sent me brasses-”

“Yes.”

“So, of course, I am interested!  Is he nice?”

Captain Bedford smiled.

“Nice!  What composes a woman’s idea of `nice’?  Honestly, it is not exactly the word I should have chosen as a description!”

She turned her head, alert and startled.

“You don’t like him?”

“Oh, pardon me, I do!” He considered a moment, then added with emphasis.  “Extremely.  As a matter of fact, more than any other fellow in the regiment, but `nice’ seems to picture a different type.  He is not handsome.”

“Oh, I know!  What does that matter?” Katrine’s voice took an impatient tone.  “Every one says the same thing,-Dorothea, you, himself,-and it is so unilluminating!  I have asked so often for a description, and it has never gone further than that:  `He is not handsome!’”

Captain Bedford laughed.

“That must be because he has no distinctive features.  What would describe him, would apply equally well to a dozen others.  Isn’t that often the case?  Take these men on board!-how many of them could you describe to me so that I could pick them out of the ruck?”

“But I don’t like people who are alike!” objected Katrine pettishly.  “I wanted Captain Blair to be different.  However, I shall soon be able to judge for myself.  Handsomeness doesn’t matter, but personality does.  I can feel in a minute whether I am going to care for a person or not.  I want to care for-Dorothea’s friends!”

Captain Bedford did not answer; he stood tall and straight by her side, his face set in a mask-like composure, but Katrine was conscious that he understood the implication.  His silence was more eloquent than words.

The dusk fell; out of the glare of the vessel’s searchlight the banks glided by, melting into the great desert beyond.  Katrine bade her companion good-night, and retired early to rest.  Mrs Mannering had not yet descended, and for once Katrine regretted her company, and ceaseless flow of conversation.  Her own thoughts were out of control.  It was only by an effort that she could concentrate them on Jim Blair, as was her custom in moments of leisure, for Jim had contradicted himself, and blurred his own image, while another personality had sprung vividly into life.  She fell asleep with Jim’s name on her lips, wafting towards him mental messages of hope, but when dreams came, she dreamt of grey eyes in a sunburnt face, and waking before dawn, lay conscious, seeing them once again.