Scene—Two days out. A section of the promenade deck. MILDRED DOUGLAS and her aunt are discovered reclining in deck chairs. The former is a girl of twenty, slender, delicate, with a pale, pretty face marred by a self-conscious expression of disdainful superiority. She looks fretful, nervous and discontented, bored by her own anemia. Her aunt is a pompous and proud—and fat—old lady. She is a type even to the point of a double chin and lorgnettes. She is dressed pretentiously, as if afraid her face alone would never indicate her position in life. MILDRED is dressed all in white.
The impression to be conveyed by this scene is one of the beautiful, vivid life of the sea all about—sunshine on the deck in a great flood, the fresh sea wind blowing across it. In the midst of this, these two incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious, the elder like a gray lump of dough touched up with rouge, the younger looking as if the vitality of her stock had been sapped before she was conceived, so that she is the expression not of its life energy but merely of the artificialities that energy had won for itself in the spending.
MILDRED—[Looking up with affected dreaminess.] How the black smoke swirls back against the sky! Is it not beautiful?
AUNT—[Without looking up.] I dislike smoke of any kind.
MILDRED—My great-grandmother smoked a pipe—a clay pipe.
MILDRED—She was too distant a relative to be vulgar. Time mellows pipes.
AUNT—[Pretending boredom but irritated.] Did the sociology you took up at college teach you that—to play the ghoul on every possible occasion, excavating old bones? Why not let your great-grandmother rest in her grave?
MILDRED—[Dreamily.] With her pipe beside her—puffing in Paradise.
AUNT—[With spite.] Yes, you are a natural born ghoul. You are even getting to look like one, my dear.
MILDRED—[In a passionless tone.] I detest you, Aunt. [Looking at her critically.] Do you know what you remind me of? Of a cold pork pudding against a background of linoleum tablecloth in the kitchen of a—but the possibilities are wearisome. [She closes her eyes.]
AUNT—[With a bitter laugh.] Merci for your candor. But since I am and must be your chaperone—in appearance, at least—let us patch up some sort of armed truce. For my part you are quite free to indulge any pose of eccentricity that beguiles you—as long as you observe the amenities—
MILDRED—[Drawling.] The inanities?
AUNT—[Going on as if she hadn't heard.] After exhausting the morbid thrills of social service work on New York's East Side—how they must have hated you, by the way, the poor that you made so much poorer in their own eyes!—you are now bent on making your slumming international. Well, I hope Whitechapel will provide the needed nerve tonic. Do not ask me to chaperone you there, however. I told your father I would not. I loathe deformity. We will hire an army of detectives and you may investigate everything—they allow you to see.
MILDRED—[Protesting with a trace of genuine earnestness.] Please do not mock at my attempts to discover how the other half lives. Give me credit for some sort of groping sincerity in that at least. I would like to help them. I would like to be some use in the world. Is it my fault I don't know how? I would like to be sincere, to touch life somewhere. [With weary bitterness.] But I'm afraid I have neither the vitality nor integrity. All that was burnt out in our stock before I was born. Grandfather's blast furnaces, flaming to the sky, melting steel, making millions—then father keeping those home fires burning, making more millions—and little me at the tail-end of it all. I'm a waste product in the Bessemer process—like the millions. Or rather, I inherit the acquired trait of the by-product, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it. I am sired by gold and darned by it, as they say at the race track—damned in more ways than one, [She laughs mirthlessly].
AUNT—[Unimpressed—superciliously.] You seem to be going in for sincerity to-day. It isn't becoming to you, really—except as an obvious pose. Be as artificial as you are, I advise. There's a sort of sincerity in that, you know. And, after all, you must confess you like that better.
MILDRED—[Again affected and bored.] Yes, I suppose I do. Pardon me for my outburst. When a leopard complains of its spots, it must sound rather grotesque. [In a mocking tone.] Purr, little leopard. Purr, scratch, tear, kill, gorge yourself and be happy—only stay in the jungle where your spots are camouflage. In a cage they make you conspicuous.
AUNT—I don't know what you are talking about.
MILDRED—It would be rude to talk about anything to you. Let's just talk. [She looks at her wrist watch.] Well, thank goodness, it's about time for them to come for me. That ought to give me a new thrill, Aunt.
AUNT—[Affectedly troubled.] You don't mean to say you're really going? The dirt—the heat must be frightful—
MILDRED—Grandfather started as a puddler. I should have inherited an immunity to heat that would make a salamander shiver. It will be fun to put it to the test.
AUNT—But don't you have to have the captain's—or someone's—permission to visit the stokehole?
MILDRED—[With a triumphant smile.] I have it—both his and the chief engineer's. Oh, they didn't want to at first, in spite of my social service credentials. They didn't seem a bit anxious that I should investigate how the other half lives and works on a ship. So I had to tell them that my father, the president of Nazareth Steel, chairman of the board of directors of this line, had told me it would be all right.
MILDRED—How naive age makes one! But I said he did, Aunt. I even said he had given me a letter to them—which I had lost. And they were afraid to take the chance that I might be lying. [Excitedly.] So it's ho! for the stokehole. The second engineer is to escort me. [Looking at her watch again.] It's time. And here he comes, I think. [The SECOND ENGINEER enters, He is a husky, fine-looking man of thirty-five or so. He stops before the two and tips his cap, visibly embarrassed and ill-at-ease.]
SECOND ENGINEER—Miss Douglas?
MILDRED—Yes. [Throwing off her rugs and getting to her feet.] Are we all ready to start?
SECOND ENGINEER—In just a second, ma'am. I'm waiting for the Fourth. He's coming along.
MILDRED—[With a scornful smile.] You don't care to shoulder this responsibility alone, is that it?
SECOND ENGINEER—[Forcing a smile.] Two are better than one. [Disturbed by her eyes, glances out to sea—blurts out.] A fine day we're having.
SECOND ENGINEER—A nice warm breeze—
MILDRED—It feels cold to me.
SECOND ENGINEER—But it's hot enough in the sun—
MILDRED—Not hot enough for me. I don't like Nature. I was never athletic.
SECOND ENGINEER—[Forcing a smile.] Well, you'll find it hot enough where you're going.
MILDRED—Do you mean hell?
SECOND ENGINEER—[Flabbergasted, decides to laugh.] Ho-ho! No, I mean the stokehole.
MILDRED—My grandfather was a puddler. He played with boiling steel.
SECOND ENGINEER—[All at sea—uneasily.] Is that so? Hum, you'll excuse me, ma'am, but are you intending to wear that dress.
SECOND ENGINEER—You'll likely rub against oil and dirt. It can't be helped.
MILDRED—It doesn't matter. I have lots of white dresses.
SECOND ENGINEER—I have an old coat you might throw over—
MILDRED—I have fifty dresses like this. I will throw this one into the sea when I come back. That ought to wash it clean, don't you think?
SECOND ENGINEER—[Doggedly.] There's ladders to climb down that are none too clean—and dark alleyways—
MILDRED—I will wear this very dress and none other.
SECOND ENGINEER—No offence meant. It's none of my business. I was only warning you—
MILDRED—Warning? That sounds thrilling.
SECOND ENGINEER—[Looking down the deck—with a sigh of relief.]—There's the Fourth now. He's waiting for us. If you'll come—
MILDRED—Go on. I'll follow you. [He goes. Mildred turns a mocking smile on her aunt.] An oaf—but a handsome, virile oaf.
MILDRED—Take care. He said there were dark alleyways—
AUNT—[In the same tone.] Poser!
MILDRED—[Biting her lips angrily.] You are right. But would that my millions were not so anemically chaste!
AUNT—Yes, for a fresh pose I have no doubt you would drag the name of Douglas in the gutter!
MILDRED—From which it sprang. Good-by, Aunt. Don't pray too hard that I may fall into the fiery furnace.
MILDRED—[Viciously.] Old hag! [She slaps her aunt insultingly across the face and walks off, laughing gaily.]
AUNT—[Screams after her.] I said poser!