On the Firing Line

Contents:
Author: Anna Chapin Ray

Chapter One

Six feet one in his stockings, broad-shouldered and without an ounce of extra flesh, Harvard Weldon suddenly halted before one of a line of deck chairs.

"I usually get what I want, Miss Dent," he observed suggestively.

"You are more fortunate than most people." Her answering tone was dry.

Most men would have been baffled by her apparent indifference. Not so was Weldon. Secure in the possession of a good tailor and an equally good digestion, he was willing to await the leisurely course of events.

"My doctor always advises mild exercise after lunch," he continued.

"You are in the care of a physician?" she queried, with a whimsical glance up at his brown face and athletic figure.

"Not just now. I was once, however." She raised her brows in polite interrogation. Her involuntary thawing of a moment before had given place to absolute conventionality. Weldon smiled to himself, as he noted the change. He had been at sea for three days now, and those three days had been chiefly spent in trying to penetrate the social shell of his next neighbor at table. It was not so much that Ethel Dent was undeniably pretty as that he had been piqued by her frosty reception of his efforts to supplement the services of a careless waiter.

Now, uninvited, he dropped into the empty chair next her own.

"If I may?" he said questioningly, as he raised his cap. "Yes, I have had a doctor twice. Once was measles, once a collar bone broken in football. Both times, I was urged to take a walk after luncheon. Is Miss Arthur—?"

He hesitated for the right word. Still ignoring his obvious hint, Ethel Dent supplied the word, without charity for her luckless chaperon. "Horridly seasick." She pointed out to the level steelygray sea. "And on this duck-pond," she added.

Her accent was expressive. Weldon laughed.

"Perhaps she isn’t as used to the duck-pond as you are."

The girl brushed a lock of vivid gold hair from her eyes; then she sat up, to add emphasis to her words. "Miss Arthur has been to America and back seven times and to Australia once," she said conclusively.

"As globe-trotter, or as commercial traveller?"

"Neither. As professional chaperon. When she applied for me, she stated—" The girl caught her breath and stopped short.

"Well?" he asked encouragingly. She shook her head. Again, for an instant, Weldon could see the humanity beneath the veneering. Moreover, he liked what he saw. The blue eyes were honest and steady. One mocking dimple belied the gravity of the firm lips.

"What did she state?" he asked again.

"It’s not manners to tell tales about one’s companion," she demurred.

"Not if you spell it with a little c. With a capital, it becomes professional, and you can say what you choose. Miss Arthur is a righteous lady; nevertheless, she is a bit professional. And you were saying that the lady stated—"

"That she never had been seasick in her life."

"Oh. And did she also produce certificates as to her moral character? Or is fibbing merely bad form nowadays?"

With swift inconsequence, the girl shifted to the other side of the discussion.

"Of course, this may be a first attack."

"Of course," Weldon assented gravely. But again she shifted her ground. "Only," she continued, with her eyes thoughtfully fixed on the distant, impersonal point where sea and sky met; "only it is a little strange that, yesterday, I heard her tell the stewardess she never took beeftea when she was seasick."

"Oh." Weldon’s eyes joined hers on the sky-line. "I have heard of similar cases before."

"She offered to come on deck," Ethel went on quietly. "It was generous of her, for she knew I was left entirely alone. Nevertheless, I persuaded her that she was better off in her berth."

Leaning back in the chair of the absent invalid, Weldon watched his companion out of the corners of his eyes and rejoiced at the change in her. Even while he rejoiced, he marvelled. A Canadian by birth and education, he had rarely come in contact with English girls. At first, he had been totally at a loss to account for the haughty chill in the manner of this one. Grown accustomed to that, he was still more at a loss to account for this sudden awakening into humanity. He had as yet to learn that two days of having her only companion seasick, coupled with a sparkling sun and a crisp breeze, can rouse even a duenna-led English girl to the point of expressing her opinions pithily and with vigor.

As the Dunottar Castle had slid away from Southampton, three days before, Weldon had tramped briskly up and down the crowded deck, taking mental note of his companions for the next two weeks. Among the caped and capped throng leaning over the rail and staring after the receding shore with homesick eyes, he saw little to interest him. Neither did the shore interest him in the least. His own partings had come, two weeks before, when the steam yacht had put back from Sandy Hook. Now, accordingly, he went in search of the dining-room steward to whom he gave much gold and instruction. Then he betook himself to his stateroom where his mates were already busy settling their belongings.

The luncheon hour disclosed the fact that the dining-room steward had earned his money and had digested his instruction. A short pause on the threshold informed Weldon that the Dunottar Castle held exactly one pretty girl; the steward informed Weldon that the vacant chair beside her was his own. Weldon picked up his napkin with a brief prayer of thanksgiving. What if he was going out to Africa in search of Boers and glory? There was no especial reason he should not enjoy himself on the way.

Weldon had gained a wide experience of American girls. well-bred, well-chaperoned, nevertheless they offered possible points of contact to the strangers with whom they were thrown. To all seeming, Ethel Dent was as accessible as the outer wall of an ice palace. Beside her decorous ignoring of his existence, Miss Arthur, lean and spectacled and sniffy, appeared to be of maternal kindliness, albeit her only advances had been a muffled request for the salt. The next morning, Miss Arthur’s chair had been empty, and her charge, left to herself, had been more glacially circumspect than ever. Whatever skittish traits the pair might develop, Weldon felt assured that they would be solely upon the side of Miss Ophelia Arthur.

Now, however, he was giving himself praise for his own astute generalship. It was no slight matter, at the end of the third day, to find himself sitting next to Miss Dent in the line of steamer chairs and even bending over to pick up the novel she had dropped. In his elation, Weldon neglected to give credit to Miss Arthur whose digestive woes were the cause of the whole situation. Only the riper Christianity which comes with declining years can make one wholly loyal to a seasick comrade.

He gave himself yet more praise, next morning at sunrise, when he found himself pacing the deck at Ethel Dent’s side. As a rule, he and his mates rose betimes and, clad in slippers and pajamas, raced up and down the decks to keep their muscles in hard order, before descending for the tubbing which is the matin duty of every selfrespecting British subject. This morning, instead of the deserted decks and the pajama-clad athletes, the passengers were out early to catch the first glimpse of Madeira, and Weldon, starchy and glowing with much cold water, was on deck to catch the first glimpse of Ethel.

Miss Arthur was still invisible, and the girl was discreetly late about appearing. The deck was full, when at last she came in sight; and it seemed, to her first glance, that she was the only unattended person abroad, that morning. Her chin rose a little aggressively as she moved forward. Then her eyes lighted. Cap in hand, Weldon stood in her direct path.

"Good morning," he said. "We’ve just passed the lighthouse and are nearly opposite Canical. If you come over here, you can see it."

His tone was matter-of-course, yet masterful. At the very beginning of her fourth solitary day, Ethel admitted to herself that it was good to have some one take possession of her in this summary fashion.

"Is Miss Arthur still unhappy?" he asked, as he swung into step at her side.

"Yes. She has taken to her hymnal, this morning, in search of consolation. I tried to coax her to get up and go ashore; but she said there was no use in experiencing the same woe twice."

"I am afraid I do not quite catch the lady’s line of argument," Weldon remarked doubtfully.

The girl laughed. Then she decorously checked her laugh and endeavored to turn sympathetic once more.

"She means to make one prolonged illness. Else she will only recover in order to fall ill again." "Oh." Weldon’s tone was still blank. "And shall you go ashore?"

She shook her head.

"I am sorry. You would find any amount to see."

"I am sorry, too," she said frankly. "Still, I don’t see how I can, without Miss Arthur."

His hands in his pockets, Weldon took a dozen steps in doubtful silence.

"I’ll tell you what we can do, Miss Dent: Harry Carew, one of the fellows going out with me, had a note of introduction to Colonel Scott and his wife. He is the pompous old Englishman across the table. I’ll get Carew to introduce us, and perhaps they will let us go ashore with them."

"But are they going?" she asked irresolutely.

"Surely. We have three hours here. I know Carew’s mother well; she and Mrs. Scott were schoolmates at Madame Prather’s in London."

She looked up with sudden interest.

"Madame Prather’s? That is where I have been, for the past five years."

"Then we are all right," Weldon said coolly. "The arrangement is made. Carew is the only missing link. Excuse me, and I will go in search of him."

It was high noon when the Dunottar Castle finally weighed anchor at Funchal and started on her long, unbroken voyage to the southward. Side by side in the stern, Weldon and Ethel looked back at the blue harbor dotted with the myriad little boats, at the quaint town backed with its amphitheatre of sunlit hills and, poised on the summit, the church where Nossa Senhora do Monte keeps watch and ward over the town beneath. Ethel’s experience was the broader for her hilarious ride in a bullock-drawn palanquin. Weldon’s experience was more instructive. It taught him that, her hat awry and her yellow hair loosened about her laughing face, Ethel Dent was tenfold more attractive than when she made her usual decorous entrance to the dining-room.

Mrs. Scott had been a willing chaperon and an efficient one. Nevertheless, as they stood together in the stern, looking out across the gold-flecked sea, Weldon felt that he had made a long stride, that morning, towards acquaintance with his companion. And, even now, the voyage was nearly all before them.

As if in answer to his thoughts, she lifted her eyes to his face.

"Twelve more days!" she said slowly.

"Are you sorry?"

She shook her head.

"Glad and sorry both. I love the sea; but home is at the end of it."

"You live out there?" he asked.

She smiled at the question. "Yes, if out there means Cape Town. At least, my parents live there."

"How long have you been in England?" he queried, while, abandoning all pretence of interest in the fast-vanishing town, he turned his back to the rail in order to face his companion more directly.

"Always, except for one year, six years ago, and a summer—summer in England, I mean—two years later."

Rather inconsequently, Weldon attacked the side issue suggested by her words.

"How does it seem to have one’s seasons standing on their heads?"

She answered question with question. "Haven’t you been out before?"

"No."

"I supposed you had taken the voyage any number of times. But about the seasons, it doesn’t count for much until you come to Christmas. No England-born mortal can hang up his stocking in mid-summer without a pang of regretful homesickness."

Weldon laughed.

"Do you substitute a refrigerator for a chimney corner?" he asked. "But are you England-born?"

"Yes. My father went out only seven years ago. The ’home’ tradition is so strong that I was sent back to school and for a year of social life. My little brother goes to Harrow in two years. Even in Cape Town, a few people still hold true to the tradition of the public school."

Weldon nodded assent.

"We meet it in Canada, now and then; not too often, though. So in reality you are almost as much a stranger to Cape Town as I am."

"Quite. My father says it is all changed now. It used to be a lazy little place; now it is pandemonium, soldiers and supplies going out, time-expired men and invalids coming in. Mr. Weldon—"

His questioning smile answered the pause in her sentence.

"Well?" he asked, after a prolonged interval.

Her teeth shut on her lower lip, she stared at the wide blue sea with wide blue eyes. Something in its restless tossing, in the changing lights that darted back to her from the crests of the waves, seemed to be holding her in an hypnotic trance. Out of the midst of the trance she spoke again, and it was plain to Weldon, as he listened to her low, intent voice, that her thoughts were not upon the sea nor yet upon him.

"It ought to terrify me," she said. "I mean the war, of course. I ought to dread the going out into the atmosphere of it. I don’t. Sometimes I think I must have fighting blood in my veins. Instead of being frightened at what my father writes me, I feel stirred by it all, as if I were ready for anything. I went out to Aldershot, one day last year; but that was only so many dainty frills, so much playing soldier. That’s not what I mean at all." Turning suddenly, she looked up directly into Weldon’s dark gray eyes. "One of my cousins wants to be a nurse. She lives at Piquetberg Road, but she has been visiting friends who live in Natal on the edge of the fighting, where she has seen things as they happen. In her last letter, she told me that she was only waiting for my uncle’s permission to go out as a nurse."

"Is that what you would do?"

Her head lifted itself proudly.

"No. She can take care of the wounded men, if she chooses. For my part, I’d rather cheer on the men who are starting for the front. If I could know that one man, one single man, fought the better for having known me, I should feel as if I had done my share."

She spoke with fiery vigor; then her eyes dropped again to the dancing waves. When at length she spoke again, she was once more the level-voiced English girl who sat next him at the table.

"You are going out to Cape Town to stay, Mr. Weldon?" she asked, with an accent so utterly conventional that Weldon almost doubted his own ears.

"To stay until the war ends," he replied, in an accent as conventional as her own.

"In Cape Town?" Then she felt her eyes drawn to meet his eyes, as he answered quietly,—

"I shall do my best to make myself a place in the firing line."

Again her conventionality vanished, and she gave him her hand, as if to seal a compact.

"I hope you will win it and hold it," she responded slowly. "I can wish you nothing better."

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Chicago: Anna Chapin Ray, "Chapter One," On the Firing Line, ed. White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922 and trans. Boswell, Robert Bruce in On the Firing Line (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917), Original Sources, accessed May 11, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G75CPKGJEZ8KQ31.

MLA: Ray, Anna Chapin. "Chapter One." On the Firing Line, edited by White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922, and translated by Boswell, Robert Bruce, in On the Firing Line, Vol. 22, New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917, Original Sources. 11 May. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G75CPKGJEZ8KQ31.

Harvard: Ray, AC, 'Chapter One' in On the Firing Line, ed. and trans. . cited in 1908, 1917, On the Firing Line, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 May 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G75CPKGJEZ8KQ31.