Mr. Leavenworth turned away, with a convicted sort of expression, as she spoke, and, making a spyglass of his hand, seemed to be watching something out at sea with absorbing interest. He had been guilty of a strong desire to discover whether Debby was an heiress, but had not expected to be so entirely satisfied on that important subject, and was dimly conscious that a keen eye had seen his anxiety, and a quick wit devised a means of setting it at rest forever. Somewhat disconcerted, he suddenly changed the conversation, and, like many another distressed creature, took to the water, saying briskly,--
"By-the-by, Miss Wilder, as I've engaged to do the honors, shall I have the pleasure of bathing with you when the fun begins? As you are fond of hay-making, I suppose you intend to pay your respects to the old gentleman with the three-pronged pitchfork?"
"Yes, Aunt Pen means to put me through a course of salt water, and any instructions in the art of navigation will be gratefully received; for I never saw the ocean before, and labor under a firm conviction, that, once in, I never shall come out again till I am brought, like Mr. Mantilini, a 'damp, moist, unpleasant body.'"
As Debby spoke, Mrs. Carroll hove in sight, coming down before the wind with all sails set, and signals of distress visible long before she dropped anchor and came along-side. The devoted woman had been strolling slowly for the girl's sake, though oppressed with a mournful certainty that her most prominent feature was fast becoming a fine copper-color; yet she had sustained herself like a Spartan matron, till it suddenly occurred to her that her charge might be suffering a like
Into something rich and strange."
Her fears, however, were groundless, for Debby met her without a freckle, looking all the better for her walk; and though her feet were wet with chasing the waves, and her pretty gown the worse for salt water, Aunt Pen never chid her for the destruction of her raiment, nor uttered a warning word against an unladylike exuberance of spirits, but replied to her inquiry most graciously,--
"Certainly, my love, we shall bathe at eleven, and there will be just time to get Victorine and our dresses; so run on to the house, and I will join you as soon as I have finished what I am saying to Mrs. Earle,"--then added, in a stage-aside, as she put a fallen lock off the girl's forehead, "You are doing beautifully! He is evidently struck; make yourself interesting, and don't burn your nose, I beg of you."
Debby's bright face clouded over, and she walked on with so much stateliness that her escort wondered "what the deuse the old lady had done to her," and exerted himself to the utmost to recall her merry mood, but with indifferent success.
"Now I begin to feel more like myself, for this is getting back to first principles, though I fancy I look like the little old woman who fell asleep on the king's highway and woke up with abbreviated drapery; and you look funnier still, Aunt Pen," said Debby, as she tied on her pagoda-hat, and followed Mrs. Carroll, who walked out of her dressing-room an animated bale of blue cloth surmounted by a gigantic sun-bonnet.
Mr. Leavenworth was in waiting, and so like a blond-headed lobster in his scarlet suit that Debby could hardly keep her countenance as they joined the groups of bathers gathering along the breezy shore.
For an hour each day the actors and actresses who played their different roles at the -------- Hotel with such precision and success put off their masks and dared to be themselves. The ocean wrought the change, for it took old and young into its arms, and for a little while they played like children in their mother's lap. No falsehood could withstand its rough sincerity; for the waves washed paint and powder from worn faces, and left a fresh bloom there. No ailment could entirely resist its vigorous cure; for every wind brought healing on its wings, endowing many a meagre life with another year of health. No gloomy spirit could refuse to listen to its lullaby, and the spray baptized it with the subtile benediction of a cheerier mood. No rank held place there; for the democratic sea toppled down the greatest statesman in the land, and dashed over the bald pate of a millionnaire with the same white-crested wave that stranded a poor parson on the beach and filled a fierce reformer's mouth with brine. No fashion ruled, but that which is as old as Eden,--the beautiful fashion of simplicity. Belles dropped their affectations with their hoops, and ran about the shore blithe-hearted girls again. Young men forgot their vices and their follies, and were not ashamed of the real courage, strength, and skill they had tried to leave behind them with their boyish plays. Old men gathered shells with the little Cupids dancing on the sand, and were better for that innocent companionship; and young mothers never looked so beautiful as when they rocked their babies on the bosom of the sea.
Debby vaguely felt this charm, and, yielding to it, splashed and sang like any beach-bird, while Aunt Pen bobbed placidly up and down in a retired corner, and Mr. Leavenworth swam to and fro, expressing his firm belief in mermaids, sirens, and the rest of the aquatic sisterhood, whose warbling no manly ear can resist.
"Miss Wilder, you must learn to swim. I've taught quantities of young ladies, and shall be delighted to launch the 'Dora,' if you'll accept me as a pilot. Stop a bit; I'll get a life-preserver"; and leaving Debby to flirt with the waves, the scarlet youth departed like a flame of fire.
A dismal shriek interrupted his pupil's play, and looking up, she saw her aunt beckoning wildly with one hand, while she was groping in the water with the other. Debby ran to her, alarmed at her tragic expression, and Mrs. Carroll, drawing the girl's face into the privacy of her big bonnet, whispered one awful word, adding, distractedly,--
"Dive for them! oh, dive for them! I shall be perfectly helpless, if they are lost!"
"I can't dive, Aunt Pen; but there is a man, let us ask him," said Debby, as a black head appeared to windward.
But Mrs. Carroll's "nerves" had received a shock, and gathering up her dripping garments, she fled precipitately along the shore and vanished into her dressing-room.
Debby's keen sense of the ludicrous got the better of her respect, and peal after peal of laughter broke from her lips, till a splash behind her put an end to her merriment, and, turning, she found that this friend in need was her acquaintance of the day before. The gentleman seemed pausing for permission to approach, with much the appearance of a sagacious Newfoundland, wistful and wet.
"Oh, I'm very glad it's you, Sir!" was Debby's cordial greeting, as she shook a drop off the end of her nose, and nodded, smiling.
The new comer immediately beamed upon her like an amiable Triton, saying as they turned shoreward,--
"Our first interview opened with a laugh on my side, and our second with one on yours. I accept the fact as a good omen. Your friend seemed in trouble; allow me to atone for my past misdemeanors by offering my services now. But first let me introduce myself; and as I believe in the fitness of things, let me present you with an appropriate card"; and, stooping, the young man wrote "Frank Evan" on the hard sand at Debby's feet.