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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWest Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 4
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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 4 Post by :rankwarforum Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3493

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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 4

BOOK II CHAPTER IV

The death of Betty Cruise occurred the second day after her baby was born. In a way, this lamentable occurrence solved a knotty problem and pacified two warring sexes, so to speak. For, be it known, the women of the Doraine took a most determined stand against the manner in which the men, viva voce, had arrogated unto themselves the right to name the baby. Not that any one of the women objected to the name they had given her; they were, in fact, pleased with it. But, they protested, this was a matter over which but one person had jurisdiction, and that person was Betty Cruise. If it was not a mother's privilege to name her own child,--especially in a case where the infant's father was in no position to decide the question for her, whether she consented or no, then all they could say was that things had come to a pretty pass.

At any rate, they were going to see to it that the baby was not named by a mob!

Ruth Clinton went straight to Percival.

"I hear you have named the baby, Mr. Percival," she said, prefacing her remark by a curt "good morning."

It was the first time she had spoken to him in many days. Their ways not only lay apart but she had made a point of avoiding him. She stopped him this morning as he was passing the hut in which she and her aunt were to live with two of the American nurses.

The three young women had spent several days in the making and putting up of some very unusual and attractive window curtains and portieres; painting the stones that framed the fireplace, the crude window-casings and door jamb; and in draping certain corner recesses which were to achieve dignity as clothes closets. They were scrubbing the floor when Percival passed on his way to the "office."

His "office," by the way, was a rude "lean-to" at the extreme outer end of the street. It was characteristic of him to establish headquarters at a point farthest removed from the approach to the camp from the ship. Fitts was perhaps the only person who sensed the real motive back of this selection. Every one else attributed it to an amiable conclusion on Percival's part to sacrifice himself for others by walking almost twice as far as any of them. As a matter of fact, he had nothing of the sort in mind. He deliberately arranged it so that all operations should be carried on between headquarters and "home." It was his plan to drive inward instead of outward, to push always in one direction. In other words, thought Fitts quite correctly, he "never had to look behind him for trouble."

To save his life, Percival could not subdue the eager, devouring gleam that flashed into his eyes as he looked into hers. He could have cursed himself. A swift warm flush raced from her throat to her cheeks. Her direct, steady gaze faltered under fire, and a confused, trapped expression flickered perceptibly for a moment or two. He mistook it for dismay, or, on second thought, even worse,--displeasure.

"I--I can't help it," he stammered, surprised into voicing the thought that was uppermost. "You know how I feel. I--I--"

But she had recovered her self-possession. "Do you really think you have the right to name Mrs. Cruise's baby?" she inquired coolly.

He managed a wry, deprecatory smile. "Everybody seems to like the name, Miss Clinton. The more I think of it myself, the better it sounds. I tried it out last night in all sorts of combinations. It fits nicely into almost any family tree--even Nicklestick's. Just say it to yourself. Doraine Nicklestick. Try any name you like. Doraine Smith, Doraine Humperdinck, Doraine Landover--even Doraine Shay--and, I tried it out with Clinton. Doraine Clinton. Don't you like it? I even tried Percival. It isn't quite so satisfying tacked onto a name like mine,--and it's a poor beginning for Fitts,--but with good, sensible surnames, it's fine."

"It isn't a question of how it sounds, Mr. Percival."

"Don't you like Doraine Clinton?"

"I like almost anything better than Ruth. I suppose most people loathe the names that other people have given them."

"No one knows that better than I. I sometimes wonder what they might have called me if I were a girl. Nothing as nice as Doraine, or Ruth, I'll bet my soul on that. Something like Guinevere Aphrodite, or Desdemona Venus, or--"

"We are getting away from the subject," she interrupted crisply. "Has it occurred to you that poor little Mrs. Cruise might like to name her own baby? Why should you men take it upon yourselves to choose a name for her child? Don't you think you were a trifle high-handed in the matter?"

"Of course, if Mrs. Cruise doesn't like Doraine, we will--"

"You will suggest another, I suppose," she broke in scornfully. "Well, I may as well inform you that you are about to strike a snag," she went on, a trifle inelegantly in her desire to be emphatic. "We intend to see to it that the mother of that baby gives it a name of her own choosing."

"May I inquire just who you mean by we?" he asked.

"The women,--three hundred of us, Mr. Percival, that's who. I for one happen to know that Betty Cruise chose a name long ago. Her heart is set on naming the baby after her mother,--Judith, I think it is. That's the name she wants, but do you imagine she will have the hardihood or the courage, poor little scrap, to oppose you, Mr. Percival? I mean you, personally. She thinks your word is law. She would no more think of defying you than she would think of--"

"Pardon me, Miss Clinton," he interrupted gently, "but don't you think that's a trifle far-fetched? I am not a dictator, you know. I fancy Mrs. Cruise knows that, even if you do not."

"I have heard all about your meeting last night," she went on ruthlessly, her eyes flashing. "How you suggested the name, how you settled the question to suit yourself, and how you called the men together this morning and told them that the child was to be called Doraine before you asked them to vote on it. Vote on it! What a travesty! And no one had the nerve to stand up and say a word for that poor little woman. Oh, you've got them well-tamed, Mr. Percival."

By this time the two nurses had appeared in the doorway, and several other women at work down the line, scenting the fray, were approaching.

"I guess you'd better call off the vote, Mr. Percival," said one of the nurses, eyeing him unflinchingly.

"I can't call it off. The men adopted the name unanimously. I have no right to set aside their decision, no matter how hastily it was made," said he, beginning to bridle now that he tasted concerted opposition.

"I warn you that I intend to call the women,--and what few men there are with minds of their own,--together this evening to see that Betty Cruise gets fair play," said Ruth. "When she hears that we are behind her, she'll have the backbone to tell you men to mind your own business and--"

"Have I a mind of my own or not, Miss Clinton?" he interrupted.

"You certainly have," she declared with conviction.

"Then you may expect me to be one of the men to attend your meeting. Good morning." He lifted his hat, smiled and walked briskly away.

"He'll crab the whole thing," observed one of the women, and despite her vocal rancour there was an admiring expression in her eyes as they followed him down the road.

"If he wants to call that baby Andrew Jackson or George Washington, he'll have his way," said another. "Sex won't make any difference to him."

"You just wait and see," said Ruth, quivering with indignation.

"Mercy, how you must hate him, Miss Clinton," cried one of her house-mates.

"I only wish I were a man," cried the other, clenching her fists.

"It would simplify matters tremendously," came in dry, masculine tones from the outskirts of the group. They turned and discovered Randolph Fitts. He was smiling sympathetically.

"I don't quite see what you mean, Mr. Fitts," said Ruth, after a moment.

"Because if you were a man, Miss Clinton, you wouldn't even think of hating him. You'd love him."

Miss Clinton stared at him for a second or two and then, whirling, entered the hut. Her cheeks were burning. Who shall say whether the tears that sprang to her eyes as she fell to work scrubbing in the corner were of anger or self-pity?

Briefly, the situation became quite strained as the day wore on. Women gathered in little knots to discuss the unprecedented "nerve" of the men. By nightfall they were pretty thoroughly worked up over a matter that had mildly amused them at the outset of the day. A comparatively small proportion had cared one way or the other in the beginning. Most of them did not care at all. Given time, however, to digest the thought, aided by such seasoning as could be supplied by a half dozen determined and more or less eloquent voices, they came in the course of a few hours to the conclusion that they never had heard of anything so outrageous, and, to a woman, were ready to fight for little Mrs. Cruise's rights!

Several of the stewardesses and two or three women from the second cabin were avowed and bitter suffragettes. Indeed, two of the stewardesses, being English, were of the hatchet-wielding, brick-throwing element that made things so warm for the pained but bull-headed male population of London shortly before the Great War began. These ladies harangued their companions with great effect.

To have heard or witnessed the little gatherings at noon and at the close of work for the day, one might have been led to believe that a grave, portentous ques-tion of state was involved. Trifling and simple as all this may seem to the reader of this narrative, it serves a definite purpose. It reveals to a no uncertain degree the eagerness with which these castaways reached out hungrily for the slightest morsel that would satisfy the craving of active minds dulled by the constant, never-absent thought of self; minds charged with thoughts that centred on something thousands of miles away; minds that seldom if ever worked in harmony with hands that toiled.

The men took up the gauntlet. They considered themselves challenged. Notwithstanding the secret conviction that the women were right, they stood united in defence of their action. Nothing that Percival could say or do moved them. He tramped from one group of toilers to another, always meeting with the same grins and laughter when he suggested that they wait until Mrs. Cruise was able to approve or disapprove of the name they had chosen.

"Good gosh!" cried one of the sailors. "Are you goin' to give in to the women, boss?"

"Well, I've been thinking it over, boys. I guess we were a little too officious. We meant well, God knows, but after all, Betty Cruise ought to be consulted,--now, oughtn't she?"

"Sure," cried any number of them cheerfully. "It's her kid."

"Well, there you are," he rejoined persuasively.

"But how do we know she won't be tickled to death with our name? She'd ought to be. It's purtier than any name I can think of," argued Jack Wales, a sailor. "When she's well enough, we'll tell her the kid's name is Doraine, and--"

"She won't hold back a second, boss, when she finds out that you picked it for her," broke in another. "Only a couple o' days ago she was sayin' to one of the other women in my hearin' that if it was a boy she was goin' to call him Percival,--and she didn't know what on earth she'd do if it was a girl. Said she'd probably have to call it after her mother and she didn't like her mother's name a little bit."

"I know, but after all, we did butt in a trifle too soon with our--"

"For God's sake, don't let any of these here women hear you talk like that, boss," groaned Jack Wales. "They'll think we're beginning to hedge. We got to stand together in this thing. If we don't, they'll rule this camp sure as you're a foot high. I don't give a dern what the kid's name is, far as I'm concerned, but on principle, boss, it's just got to be Doraine. Doraine she is an' Doraine she stays."

Every one of them was good-humoured about it. They were taking it as a rare and unexpected bit of politics. The thrill of opposition invested them. They scoffed at surrender.

Buck Chizler, however, was seriously affected. He was courting one of the nurses and he, for one, saw peril in preliminary defeat.

"There won't be any living with 'em," he proclaimed, scowling darkly. "I know what it is to have 'em get the bit in their teeth. You just can't manage 'em, that's all. Upset all the dope. Likely to throw you clear over the fence. Experience ain't a particle of use. The gad don't do a bit of good. They just shut their jaws, lay back their ears, and--"

"We're not talking about race-horses, Buck," interrupted Percival, smiling.

"Neither am I," said Buck forcibly.

Ruth went to Olga Obosky. She did so only after a rather prolonged inward struggle. The Russian's interest in Percival was not moderated by the reserve supposed to be inherent in women. She was an open idolatress. One had only to watch the way she followed him with her dark, heavy-lidded eyes to know what was in her mind. Ruth tried not to despise her. She tried not to care, when she saw Percival laughing and talking with this beguiling sensualist,--and it was not an infrequent occurrence.

The dancer was seated on the floor of her hut, tailor-fashion, a cigarette between her lips, her bare arms resting limply on her knees, her body bent forward in an attitude of extreme fatigue. The three "coryphees" were busy at work about the place with Olga's maid. Ruth stopped in the doorway. Olga lazily removed the cigarette from her lips and smiled.

"I once thought I was very strong and unbreakable," she said, "but now I know I am not. See, I am all in, as we would say in America. Suffering snakes,--how tired I am! That also comes from America. Won't you sit down, Miss Clinton? We have three or four deck chairs, you see, and some cushions."

"Why do you sit there on the floor, all doubled up and--heavens, it must be uncomfortable,--if you are so tired? How do you manage your legs?"

"My legs? Oh, my legs are never tired. It is my poor back." Whereupon she slowly, gracefully straightened out one of her legs, and without changing the position of her body, raised it, with toes and instep on a perfect line, until the heel was some three feet from the floor. Then she swung it slowly backward, twisting her body sinuously to one side. A moment later the foot was stretched out behind her and she lifted herself steadily, without apparent exertion, upon the other knee,--and then stood erect. Ruth watched this remarkable feat in wonder and admiration.

"How--how on earth do you do it?" she cried. "Why,--you must be as strong as--as--a--" She was about to say horse, and floundered.

"But I trust not as clumsy as one," said Madame Obosky, stretching her body in luxurious abandon. "I sit on the floor like zat, my friend, because my back is tired, not my legs. If I lie back in ze deck chair when I am tired, I would relax,--and would make so much more regret for myself when the time came to get up again. Besides, it is a good way to rest, zis way. Have you never tried it? Do, sometime. The whole body rests, it sags; the muscles have nothing to do, so they become soft and grateful. The backbone, the shoulders, the neck,--they all droop and oh, zey--they are so happy to be like zat. It is the same as when I am asleep and they are not running errands all the time for my brain. The Arab sits like zat when he rests,--and the Hindoo,--and they are strong, oh, so very strong. Try it, sometime, Miss Clinton, when you are very tired. It is the best way to let go, all over."

Ruth laughed. "I couldn't do it to save my soul."

"Oh, I do not mean for you to get up as I did, or use your leg as I did. You could not do zat. You are too old. That is one of the fruits, one of the benefits of the cruelest kind of child labour. I was a great many years in making myself able to do zat. See! Put your hand on my leg. Now my back,--my arm. What you think, eh?"

Ruth, in some embarrassment, had shyly obeyed her. The dancer's thigh was like a column of warm iron; her waist, free as ever from stays, was firm and somehow suggestive of actual resilience; her shoulders and back possessed the hard, rippling muscles of a well-developed boy; her shapely forearm was as hard as steel. Ruth marvelled.

"How strong you are!" she cried; "and yet you are slight. You are not as big as I am, but oh, how much stronger you are!"

"I have a perfect figure," said Olga calmly. "It is worth preserving. No one admires my body so much as I do myself. I must not get fat. When you are a fat old woman, I shall still be as I am now. You will diet, and pray, and rave,--because you are growing old,--and I shall do none of these things. I eat like a pig, I never pray, and I do not believe in growing old. But you do not come to see me about myself, Miss Clinton. You find me sitting idly with my legs crossed, and you are surprise. I work as I dance,--very, oh, so very hard while I am at ze task,--but with frequent periods of rest. So I do not wear out myself too soon. It is the only way. Work for an hour, rest for ten minutes,--relax and forget,--and you will see how well it goes. Why do you come? Is it to talk about the baby?"

"Yes, it is, Madame Obosky. I have come to ask you to use your influence with Mr. Percival. You--"

"But I have no influence with Mr. Percivail," interrupted the other, staring.

Ruth flushed. "You are his friend. You--"

"Ah, yes,--but nothing more than zat. You too are his friend, Miss Clinton."

"I see little or nothing of Mr. Percival," said Ruth stiffly. "We are not friends,--not really friends."

"But you admire him, eh? Quite as much as I admire him,--and as every one else does."

"There are certain things about him that I admire, of course."

"You admire him for the same reason that I admire him. Because he has a most charming and agreeable way of telling me to go to the devil. Is that not so?"

"Madame Obosky!"

"It comes to the same thing. If you would like me to put it in another form, he has a very courteous way of resisting. He is most aggravating, Miss Clinton. He is most disappointing. He should be like soft clay in our hands, and he isn't. Is that not so?"

"Is it not possible, Madame Obosky, that we,--you and I,--may have an entirely different viewpoint so far as Mr. Percival is concerned? Or any other man, for that matter?" Ruth spoke coldly, almost insultingly.

"I dare say," agreed Olga, composedly, not in the least offended by the implication. "You want to marry him. I do not."

"How dare you say that? I do not want to marry that man. I do not want to marry him, I say."

"How interesting. You surprise me, Miss Clinton. It appears, then, that our viewpoint is in nowise different, after all."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I leave it to your imagination,--and to reflection. Listen! We may as well be friends. You do not wish to admit it, even to yourself, but you are in love with him. So am I. The difference between us is that I realize I can get along without him, and still be happy. I am not jealous, my dear. If I were, I should hate you,--and I do not. He is in love with you. You know it perfectly well, because you are not a fool. He is not in love with me. No more am I a fool. He--"

"I am not in love with him!"

"So be it," said Olga shortly. "Have your own way about it. It is not my affair. You have come to me, however, because you know he loves you and you know you do not love him. Why, therefore, are you afraid of me?"

"It is useless to continue this--"

"Oh, I see! You do not wish my girls to hear our conversation." Without more ado, she ordered the three girls out of the hut. "Go out and play," she commanded. Then, as the girls imparted in haste, she turned to Ruth. "I am very thoughtless. You are not in the habit of discussing your love affairs quite so generously as I. Poof! They do not care, those girls. Love affairs mean nothing to my girls."

"I have no love affair to discuss, Madame Obosky. You need not have sent them away. Good-bye..There is nothing more to be said--"

"Do not go away,--please. You do not know whether to like me or not. You do not understand me. You have never encountered any woman as honest as I am, zat is the trouble. Sit down, please. Let us talk. We may be here together on this island all the rest of our lives, Miss Clinton. It would not be right for us to hate each other. When you are married to Mr. Percivail, you will have nothing to fear from me. I give you my solemn oath on zat, Miss Clinton. Our little world here is too small. If we were out in the great big world,--well, it might be different then. But, how, I ask you, is it possible for me to run away with your husband when there is no place to run away to?"

She spoke so quaintly that Ruth smiled in spite of herself.

"You are a most extraordinary person, Madame Obosky. I--I can't dislike you. No, thank you, I sha'n't sit down. I came to see you about the naming of the baby. I suppose you know that we women have decided to oppose the--"

"Yes, yes,--I know," interrupted the other. "But why should we oppose? It is a very small matter."

"Do you really believe those men had--or have--the right to give a name to Betty Cruise's baby? I don't believe it, Madame Obosky."

"In the first place, can you blame Mr. Percivail for taking the matter out of the mother's hands? Mothers are very, oh, so very stupid sometime, you know. For example, my dear Miss Clinton, you have but to see what Mr. Percivail's mother did to him when he was an infant. She called him Algernon Adonis,--and why? Because she thought he was the most wonderful child in all the world,--and because she was silly. I can almost hear her arguing now with the father, poor man. One day I asked Algernon Adonis what name his father called him by,--I was so sure he would not call him Algernon. He said that up to the day his father died he called him Bud. That's a toy's name, you see. I am in favour of children being named by outsiders, disinterested outsiders,--a committee or something,--men preferably. I think this child should be called Doraine. Betty Cruise she do not care what she call it now that it is not possible to call it Jimmy Percivail or Percivail Jimmy. Has it occur to you that if it had been a boy, all these men would have insisted on Jimmy, without the Percivail?"

"I like the name Doraine,--we all do. What we resent is Mr. Percival's presumption in--"

"Let me tell you one more thing. Do not permit Mr. Percivail to address your indignation meeting tonight, for if you do, and he smiles zat nice, good-humoured smile and tells the ladies zat he is sorry to have displease them, and zat he is to blame entirely for the blunder,--poof! Zat will be the end!"

"I am not so sure of that," said Ruth. "There are some very determined women among us, Madame Obosky." A faint line appeared between her eyes, however,--a line acknowledging doubt and uncertainty. "And you will not join us in the protest?"

"No," said Olga, shaking her head. "I am content to let the men have their way in small things, Miss Clinton. It makes zem--them so much easier to manage when it comes to the big things. I speak from experience. Once let a man think he is monarch of all he surveys and he becomes the most humble of subjects. As I have said before, we may all be here for a long, long time. No one can tell. So, I say, we must pat our men on the back and tell zem what great, wise, strong fellows they are,--and how good and gallant too. Then they will fight for us like the lion, and zey--they will work for us like the ass and the oxen, because man he enjoys to be applauded greatly. A man likes to have his hair rubbed gently with the finger tips. He will smile and close his eyes and if he knew how he would purr like the cat. But, my dear, he do not like to have his hair pulled. Zat is something for you to remember,--you and all your determined women, as you call them."

"Of course you understand, Madame Obosky, I--and the other women,--are thinking only of Betty Cruise in this matter."

"From what I have been told, all these men out here stayed awake half the night thinking about her, Miss Clinton. They behave like so many distracted fathers waiting for news from the bed-chamber. Bless their hearts, you might think from their actions that the whole two--three hundred of them consider themselves the consolidated father of zat single infant."

"I must be getting back to my work," said Ruth abruptly. Her eyes were shining, her voice was soft and strangely thick. "But," she went on bravely, after clearing her throat, "we intend to fight it out with them, just the same, Madame Obosky."

Olga went to the door with her.

"You mean, you intend to fight it out with Mr. Percivail,--you yourself, eh?"

"It is not a personal matter with me, let me remind you once more. He is their leader. He dominates them. He is the force that holds them together. That's all."

"And you would render that force impotent, eh? I see. How wise you women are!"

Ruth stopped short, struck by the remark. "Say that again, please."

Olga repeated the words slowly, significantly, and added: "They might have a worse leader, Miss Clinton."

At another time, Ruth Clinton would have been deeply impressed by the underlying significance of the Russian's words. But she was at the mercy of a stubborn, rebellious pride. She chose to ignore the warning that lay in Obosky's remark. She felt herself beaten, and she was defiant. It was too late to hark now to the mild, temperate voice of reason.

Something rankled deep down in her soul, something she was ashamed to acknowledge even to herself. It was the disagreeable conviction that Percival ascribed her activities to nothing more stable than feminine perversity,--in fact, she had the uncomfortable feeling that he even went so far as to attribute them to spitefulness. Something in his voice and manner, as he left her that morning, suggested the kindly chiding of a wilful child. Well, he should see!

"I don't care what it all comes to, Madame Obosky," she said, a red spot in each cheek. "He shall not name that baby."

The Russian smiled. "Forgive me for saying that you will not feel so bitterly toward him when the time comes for him to name your baby."

Ruth's lips fell apart. She stared for a moment in sheer astonishment. Then she paled with anger. Drawing herself to her full height, she asked:

"Are you deliberately trying to make me despise you?"

"By no means," replied the other, quite cheerfully. "I am merely giving you something to think about, zat is all."

"Rubbish!" was all that Ruth flung over her shoulder as she walked away.

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BOOK II CHAPTER VIIShe quickly closed the door behind her and sped off down the line of now lightless cabins. A man stepped out of the black shadow beyond the second cabin and stood in her path. She did not pause, but walked swiftly, fearlessly up to him, her heart quickening under the thrill of exultation. He was waiting for her! He had been waiting for her all the long evening. The time had come! The night was dark now; a strong wind had sprung up to drive the black and storm-laden clouds across the moonlit sky. She held out her
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BOOK II CHAPTER IIIDuring the days and weeks that followed, Percival maintained an attitude of rigid but courteous aloofness. Only on occasions when it was necessary to consult with Ruth and her aunt on matters pertaining to the "order of the day" did he relax in the slightest degree from the position he had taken in regard to them. In time, the captious Mrs. Spofford began to resent this studied indifference. She detested him more than ever for not running true to the form she had predicted; her apprehensiveness gave way to irritation. She resented his dignified, pleasant "good mornings"; she
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