By Gilbert Parker
This novel was written in the days of the three-decker, and it went out to sea as such. Every novel of mine written until 1893 was published in two or three volumes, and the sale to the libraries was greater than the sale to the general public. This book was begun in 1892 at the time when the Pierre stories were being written, and it was finished in the summer of 1893. It did not appear serially; indeed, I made no attempt at serial publication. I had a feeling that as it was to be my first novel, it should be judged as a whole and taken at a gasp, as it were. I believe that the reader of Messrs. Methuen & Company was not disposed to publish the book, but Mr. Methuen himself (or Mr. Stedman as he was then called) was impressed by it and gave it his friendly confidence. He was certain that it would arrest the attention of the critics and of the public, whether it became popular or not. I have not a set of those original three volumes. I wish I had, because they won for me an almost unhoped- for pleasure. The 'Daily Chronicle' gave the volumes over a column of review, and headed the notice, "A Coming Novelist." The 'Athenaeum' said that 'Mrs. Falchion' was a splendid study of character; 'The Pall Mall Gazette' said that the writing was as good as anything that had been done in our time, while at the same time it took rather a dark view of my future as a novelist, because it said I had not probed deep enough into the wounds of character which I had inflicted. The article was written by Mr. George W. Stevens, and he was right in saying that I had not probed deep enough. Few very young men—and I was very young then—do probe very deeply. At the appearance of 'When Valmond Came to Pontiac', however, Mr. Stevens came to the conclusion that my future was assured.
I mention these things because they were burnt into my mind at the time. 'Mrs. Falchion' was my first real novel, as I have said, though it had been preceded by a short novel called 'The Chief Factor', since rescued from publication and never published in book form in England. I realised when I had written 'Mrs. Falchion' that I had not found my metier, and I was fearful of complete failure. I had come but a few years before from the South Seas; I was full of what I had seen and felt; I was eager to write of it all, and I did write of it; but the thing which was deeper still in me was the life which 'Pierre and His People', 'The Seats of the Mighty', 'The Trail of the Sword', 'The Lane That Had no Turning', and 'The Right of Way' portrayed. That life was destined to give me an assured place and public, while 'Mrs. Falchion', and the South Sea stories published in various journals before the time of its production, and indeed anterior to the writing of the Pierre series, only assured me attention.
Happily for the book, which has faults of construction, superficialities as to incident, and with some crudity of plot, it was, in the main, a study of character. There was focus, there was illumination in the book, to what degree I will not try to say; and the attempt to fasten the mind of the reader upon the central figure, and to present that central figure in many aspects, safeguarded the narrative from the charge of being a mere novel of adventure, or, as one writer called it, "an impudent melodrama, which has its own fascinations."
Reading Mrs. Falchion again after all these years, I seem to realise in it an attempt to combine the objective and subjective methods of treatment—to combine analysis of character and motive with arresting episode. It is a difficult thing to do, as I have found. It was not done on my part wholly by design, but rather by instinct, and I imagine that this tendency has run through all my works. It represents the elements of romanticism and of realism in one, and that kind of representation has its dangers, to say nothing of its difficulties. It sometimes alienates the reader, who by instinct and preference is a realist, and it troubles the reader who wants to read for a story alone, who cares for what a character does, and not for what a character is or says, except in so far as it emphasises what it does. One has to work, however, in one's own way, after one's own idiosyncrasies, and here is the book that represents one of my own idiosyncrasies in its most primitive form.
BELOW THE SUN LINE
I. THE GATES OF THE SEA
II. "MOTLEY IS YOUR ONLY WEAR"
III. A TALE OF NO MAN'S SEA
IV. THE TRAIL OF THE ISHMAELITE
V. ACCUSING FACES
VI. MUMMERS ALL
VII. THE WHEEL COMES FULL CIRCLE
VIII. A BRIDGE OF PERIL
IX. "THE PROGRESS OF THE SUNS"
X. BETWEEN DAY AND DARK
THE SLOPE OF THE PACIFIC
XI. AMONG THE HILLS OF GOD
XII. THE WHIRLIGIG OF TIME
XIII. THE SONG OF THE SAW
XIV. THE PATH OF THE EAGLE
XV. IN THE TROUGH OF THE WINDS
XVI. A DUEL IN ARCADY
XVII. RIDING THE REEFS
XVIII. THE STRINGS OF DESTINY
XIX. THE SENTENCE
XX. AFTER THE STORM
XXI. IN PORT
BELOW THE SUN LINE
THE GATES OF THE SEA
The part I played in Mrs. Falchion's career was not very noble, but I shall set it forth plainly here, else I could not have the boldness to write of her faults or those of others. Of my own history little need be said in preface. Soon after graduating with honours as a physician, I was offered a professional post in a college of medicine in Canada. It was difficult to establish a practice in medicine without some capital, else I had remained in London; and, being in need of instant means, I gladly accepted the offer. But six months were to intervene before the beginning of my duties—how to fill that time profitably was the question. I longed to travel, having scarcely been out of England during my life. Some one suggested the position of surgeon on one of the great steamers running between England and Australia. The idea of a long sea- voyage was seductive, for I had been suffering from over-study, though the position itself was not very distinguished. But in those days I cared more for pleasing myself than for what might become a newly-made professor, and I was prepared to say with a renowned Irish dean: "Dignity and I might be married, for all the relations we are."
I secured the position with humiliating ease and humiliating smallness of pay. The steamer's name was the 'Fulvia'. It was one of the largest belonging to the Occidental Company. It carried no emigrants and had a passenger list of fashionable folk. On the voyage out to Australia the weather was pleasant, save in the Bay of Biscay; there was no sickness on board, and there were many opportunities for social gaiety, the cultivation of pleasant acquaintances, and the encouragement of that brisk idleness which aids to health. This was really the first holiday in my life, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Nothing of unusual interest occurred on the outward voyage; for one thing, because there were no unusual people among the passengers; for another, because the vessel behaved admirably. The same cannot be said of the return voyage: and with it my story really begins. Misfortune followed us out of Sydney harbour. We broke a crank-shaft between there and Port Phillip, Melbourne; a fire in the hold occurred at Adelaide; and at Albany we buried a passenger who had died of consumption one day out from King George's Sound. At Colombo, also, we had a misfortune, but it was of a peculiar kind, and did not obtrude itself at once; it was found in an addition to our passenger list. I had spent a day in exploring Colombo— visiting Arabi Pasha, inspecting Hindu temples, watching the jugglers and snake-charmers, evading guides and the sellers of brummagem jewellery, and idling in the Cinnamon Gardens. I returned to the ship tired out. After I had done some official duties, I sauntered to the gangway, and, leaning against the bulwarks, idly watched the passengers come on board from the tender. Two of these made an impression on me. One was a handsome and fashionably-dressed woman, who was followed by a maid or companion (as I fancied), carrying parcels; the other, a shabbily-dressed man, who was the last to come up from the tender. The woman was going down the companion-way when he stepped on deck with a single bag in his hand, and I noticed that he watched her with a strange look in his eyes. He stood still as he gazed, and remained so for a moment after she had gone; then he seemed to recover himself, and started, as I thought, almost guiltily, when he saw that my attention was attracted. He nervously shifted his bag from one hand to the other, and looked round as though not certain of where he should go. A steward came to him officiously, and patronisingly too,—which is the bearing of servants to shabbily-dressed people,—but he shook his head, caught his bag smartly away from the steward's fingers, and moved towards the after part of the ship, reserved for intermediate passengers. As he went he hesitated, came to the side of the vessel, looked down at the tender for a moment, cast his eyes to where the anchor was being weighed, made as if he would go back to the tender, then, seeing that the ladder was now drawn up, sighed, and passed on to the second-class companion-way, through which he disappeared.
I stood commenting idly to myself upon this incident, which, slight though it was, appeared to have significance of a kind, when Hungerford, the fifth officer, caught me slyly by the arm and said, "Lucky fellow! Nothing to do but watch the world go by. I wish I had you in the North Atlantic on a whaler, or in the No Man's Sea on a pearl-smack for a matter of thirty days."
"What would come of that, Hungerford?" said I.
"An exchange of matter for mind, Marmion; muscle for meditation, physics for philosophy."
"You do me too much honour; at present I've neither mind, meditation, nor philosophy; I am simply vegetating."
"Which proves you to be demoralised. I never saw a surgeon on a ship who wasn't. They began with mind—more or less—they ate the fruits of indolence, got precious near being sinful as well as indolent, and ended with cheap cynicism, with the old 'quid refert'—the thing Hamlet plagiarised in his, 'But it is no matter.'"
"Isn't this an unusual occupation for you, Hungerford—this Swift-like criticism?"
"Swift-like, is it? You see, I've practised on many of your race, Marmion, and I have it pat now. You are all of two classes—those who sicken in soul and leave after one trip, and those who make another trip and are lost."
Hungerford pressed his fingers hard on my breastbone, looked at me enigmatically from under his well-hung brows, and replied: "Brains put out to seed, morals put out to vegetate—that's 'lost.'"
"What about fifth officers?"
"Fifth officers work like navvies, and haven't time for foolishness. They've got to walk the bridge, and practise the boats, and be responsible for luggage—and here I am talking to you like an infallible undergraduate, while the lascars are in endless confusion with a half- dozen pieces of baggage, and the first officer foams because I'm not there to set them right. I leave you to your dreams. Good-bye."
Hungerford was younger than myself, but he knew the world, and I was flattered by these uncommon remarks, because he talked to no one else on the ship in the same way. He never sought to make friends, had a thorough contempt for social trifling, and shrugged his shoulders at the "swagger" of some of the other officers. I think he longed for a different kind of sea-life, so accustomed had he been to adventurous and hardy ways. He had entered the Occidental service because he had fallen in love with a pretty girl, and thought it his duty to become a "regular," and thus have the chance of seeing her every three months in London. He had conceived a liking for me, reciprocated on my part; the more so, because I knew that behind his blunt exterior there was a warm and manly heart. When he left me I went to my cabin and prepared for dinner, laughing as I did so at his keen, uncompromising criticism, which I knew was correct enough; for of all official posts that of a ship- surgeon is least calculated to make a man take a pride in existence. At its best, it is assisting in the movement of a panorama; at its worst, worse than a vegetation. Hungerford's solicitude for myself, however, was misplaced, because this one voyage would end my career as ship- surgeon, and, besides, I had not vegetated, but had been interested in everything that had occurred, humdrum as it was. With these thoughts, I looked out of the port-hole, to see the shores of Colombo, Galle Face, and Mount Lavinia fading in the distance, and heard seven bells—the time for dinner. When I took my seat at the table of which I was the head, my steward handed to me a slip of paper, saying that the chief steward had given a new passenger, a lady, the seat at my right hand, which had been vacated at Colombo. The name on the paper was "Mrs. Falchion." The seat was still empty, and I wondered if this was the beautiful passenger who had attracted me and interested the Intermediate Passenger. I was selfish enough to wish so: and it was so.
We had finished the soup before she entered. The chief steward, with that anxious civility which beauty can inspire in even so great a personage, conducted her to her seat beside me. I confess that though I was at once absorbed in this occurrence, I noticed also that some of the ladies present smiled significantly when they saw at whose table Mrs. Falchion was placed, and looked not a little ironically at the purser, who, as it was known, always tried to get for his table the newest addition to the passenger list—when it was a pretty woman. I believe that one or two rude people chaffed the chief steward about "favouring the doctor"; but he had a habit of saying uncomfortable things in a deferential way, and they did not pursue the subject. Then they commiserated the purser, who was an unpleasant little Jew of an envious turn of mind; and he, as I was told, likened me to Sir John Falstaff. I was sensitive in those days, and this annoyed me, particularly that I had had nothing to do with placing Mrs. Falchion at my table. We are always most sensitive when guilty concerning the spirit and not the letter.
One who has lived the cosmopolitan life of London should be quick at detecting nationalities, but I found it difficult, even after I heard her speak, to guess at Mrs. Falchion's native land. There were good reasons for this, as may be duly seen. Her appearance in the saloon caused an instant buzz of admiration and interest, of which she seemed oblivious. If it was acting, it was good acting; if it was lack of self- consciousness, it was remarkable. As I soon came to know, it was the latter—which, in such a woman, increased the remarkableness. I was inclined at first to venture the opinion that she was an actress; but I discovered that she possessed the attracting power of an actress without the calculated manner of one; her very lack of self-consciousness was proof of this emancipation.
When she sat down, I immediately welcomed her by name to my table. The only surprise she showed at my knowledge of her name and my self- introduction was to lift her head slightly and look at me, as if wondering whether I was likely to be an inquisitive and troublesome host; and also, as I thought, to measure me according to her measure. It was a quick look, and the interest she showed was of a passive kind. She asked me as she might an old acquaintance—or a waiter—if the soup was good, and what the fish was like; decided on my recommendation to wait for the entrees; requested her next neighbour to pass the olives; in an impersonal way began to talk about the disadvantages of life at sea; regretted that all ship food tasted alike; wondered if the cook knew how to make a Russian salad; and added that the menu was a national compromise.
Now that she was close to me, I could see that her beauty was real and notable. Her features were regular, her eyes of a greyish violet, her chin strong, yet not too strong—the chin of a singer; her hands had that charming quiet certainty of movement possessed by so few; and her colour was of the most delightful health. In this delightful health, in her bountiful yet perfect physical eloquence, her attractiveness, as it seemed to me, chiefly lay. For no one would ever have guessed her to possess an emotional temperament. All that was outer was fascinating, all that was inner suggested coldness. After experience assured me that all who came to know her shared this estimate, even in those days when every man on the ship was willing to be her slave. She had a compelling atmosphere, a possessive presence; and yet her mind at this time was unemotional—like Octavia, the wife of Mark Antony, "of a cold conversation." She was striking and unusual in appearance, and yet well within convention and "good form." Her dress was simply and modestly worn, and had little touches of grace and taste which, I understand, many ladies on board sought to imitate, when they recovered from the first feeling of envy.
She was an example of splendid life. I cared to look at her as one would dwell on the sleek beauty of a deer—as, indeed, I have many a time since then, in India, watched a tigress asleep on her chain, claws hidden, wild life latent but slumbering. I could have staked my life that Mrs. Falchion was insensible to love or passion, and unimpeachable in the broad scheme of right and wrong; imperious in requiring homage, incapable of giving it. I noticed when she laughed, as she did once at table, that her teeth were very white and small and square; and, like a schoolgirl, she had a habit of clicking them together very lightly, but not conspicuously, as if trying their quality. This suggested, however, something a little cruel. Her appetite was very good. She was coolly anxious about the amusements; she asked me if I could get her a list of the passengers, said that she was never sea-sick, and took a languid interest in the ladies present. Her glance at the men was keen at first, then neutral.
Once again, during the meal, she slowly turned and flashed an inquiring glance at me. I caught her eyes. She did not show the least embarrassment, and asked me if the band insisted on playing every day. Before she left the saloon, one could see that many present were talking about her. Even the grim old captain followed her with his eyes as she went. When she rose, I asked her if she was going on deck. I did it casually, as though it was her usual custom to appear there after dinner. In like fashion she replied that her maid had some unpacking to do, she had some things to superintend, and, when this was done, she intended to spend a time on deck. Then, with a peculiar smile, she passed out.
[Note by Dr. Marmion appended to his MSS.:—"Many of the conversations and monologues in this history, not heard by myself when they occurred, were told to me afterwards, or got from the diaries and notes of the persons concerned. Only a few are purely imaginary."]
"MOTLEY IS YOUR ONLY WEAR"
I went to my cabin, took a book, sat down, and began to smoke. My thoughts drifted from the book, and then occurred a strange, incongruous thing. It was a remembered incident. It came like a vision as I was lighting a fresh cigar:
A boy and a girl in a village chemist's shop; he with a boy's love for her, she responding in terms, but not in fact. He passed near her carrying a measure of sulphuric acid. She put out her hand suddenly and playfully, as though to bar his way. His foot slipped on the oily floor, and the acid spilled on his hands and the skirt of her dress. He turned instantly and plunged his hands into a measure of alcohol standing near before the acid had more than slightly scalded them. She glanced at his startled face; hers was without emotion. She looked down, and said petulantly: "You have spoiled my dress; I cannot go into the street."
The boy's clothes were burnt also. He was poor, and to replace them must be a trial to him; her father owned the shop, and was well-to-do. Still, he grieved most that she should be annoyed, though he saw her injustice. But she turned away and left him.
Another scene then crossed the disc of smoke:
The boy and girl, now man and woman, standing alone in the chemist's shop. He had come out of the big working world, after travel in many countries. His fame had come with him. She was to be married the next day to a seller of purple and fine linen. He was smiling a good-bye, and there was nothing of the old past in the smile. The flame now was in her eyes, and she put out both her hands to stop him as he turned to go; but his face was passionless. "You have spoiled my heart," she said; "I cannot go into the world so."
"It is too late; the measures are empty," he replied.
"I love you to-day, I will loathe you to-morrow," was the answer.
But he turned and left her, and she blindly stretched out her hands and followed him into the darkness, weeping.
Was it the scent of the chemicals in my cabin, coupled with some subterranean association of things, which brought these scenes vividly before me at this moment? What had they to do with Mrs. Falchion?
A time came when the occurrence appeared to me in the light of prescience, but that was when I began to understand that all ideas, all reason and philosophy, are the result of outer impression. The primal language of our minds is in the concrete. Afterwards it becomes the cypher, and even at its highest it is expressed by angles, lines, and geometrical forms—substances and allusive shapes. But now, as the scene shifted by, I had involuntarily thrust forward my hands as did the girl when she passed out into the night, and, in doing so, touched the curtain of my cabin door swinging in towards me. I recovered myself, and a man timidly stepped inside, knocking as he did so. It was the Intermediate Passenger. His face was pale; he looked ill.
Poor as his dress was, I saw that he had known the influences and practised the graces of good society, though his manner was hesitating and anxious now. I knew at a glance that he was suffering from both physical pain and mental worry. Without a word, I took his wrist and felt his pulse, and he said: "I thought I might venture to come—"
I motioned him not to speak. I counted the irregular pulse-beats, then listened to the action of his heart, with my ear to his breast. There lay his physical trouble. I poured out a dose of digitalis, and, handing it to him, asked him to sit down. As he sat and drank the medicine, I rapidly studied him. The chin was firm, and the eyes had a dogged, persistent look that, when turned on you, saw not you, but something beyond you. The head was thrown slightly forward, the eyes looking up at an angle. This last action was habitual with him. It gave him a peculiar earnestness. As I noted these peculiarities, my mind was also with his case; I saw that his life was threatened. Perhaps he guessed what was going on in me, for he said in a low, cultured voice: "The wheels will stop too long some time, and there will be no rebound;" —referring to the irregular action of his heart.
"Perhaps that is true," I said; "yet it depends a good deal upon yourself when it will be. Men can die if they wish without committing suicide. Look at the Maori, the Tongan, the Malay. They can also prolong life (not indefinitely, but in a case like yours considerably), if they choose. You can lengthen your days if you do not brood on fatal things —fatal to you; if you do not worry yourself into the grave."
I knew that something of this was platitude, and that counsel to such a man must be of a more possible cast, if it is to be followed. I was aware also that, in nine cases out of ten, worry is not a voluntary or constitutional thing, but springs from some extraneous cause.
He smiled faintly, raised his head a little higher, and said: "Yes, that's just it, I suppose; but then we do not order our own constitutions; and I believe, Doctor, that you must kill a nerve before it ceases to hurt. One doesn't choose to worry, I think, any more than one chooses to lay bare a nerve." And then his eyes dropped, as if he thought he had already said too much.
Again I studied him, repeating my definitions in my mind. He was not a drunkard; he might have had no vice, so free was his face from any sign of dissipation or indulgence; but there was suffering, possibly the marks of some endured shame. The suffering and shadows showed the more because his features were refined enough for a woman. And altogether it struck me that he was possessed by some one idea, which gave his looks a kind of sorrowful eloquence, such as one sees on occasion in the face of a great actor like Salvini, on the forehead of a devout Buddhist, or in the eyes of a Jesuit missionary who martyrs himself in the wilds.
I felt at once for the man a sympathy, a brotherliness, the causes of which I should be at a loss to trace. Most people have this experience at one time or another in their lives. It is not a matter of sex; it may be between an old man and a little child, a great man and a labourer, a schoolgirl and an old native woman. There is in such companionships less self-interest than in any other. As I have said, I thought that this man had a trouble, and I wished to know it; not from curiosity,—though my mind had a selfish, inquiring strain,—but because I hoped I might be able to help him in some way. I put my hand on his shoulder, and replied: "You will never be better unless you get rid of your worry."
He drew in a sharp breath, and said: "I know that. I am afraid I shall never be better."
There was a silence in which we looked at each other steadily, and then he added, with an intense but quiet misery: "Never—never!"
At that he moved his hand across his forehead wearily, rose, and turned toward the door. He swayed as he did so, and would have fallen, but I caught him as he lost consciousness, and laid him on the cabin sofa. I chafed his hands, unloosed his collar, and opened the bosom of his shirt. As the linen dropped away from his throat, a small portrait on ivory was exposed on his breast. I did not look closely at it then, but it struck me that the woman's head in the portrait was familiar, though the artistic work was not recent, and the fashion of the hair was of years before. When his eyes opened, and he felt his neck bare, he hurriedly put up his hand and drew the collar close, and at the same time sent a startled and inquiring look at me. After a few moments I helped him to his feet, and, thanking me more with a look than with words, he turned towards the door again.
"Wait," I said, "until I give you some medicine, and then you shall take my arm to your cabin." With a motion of the hand, signifying the uselessness of remedies, he sat down again. As I handed him the phial, I continued: "I know that it is none of my business, but you are suffering. To help your body, your mind should be helped also. Can't you tell me your trouble? Perhaps I should be able to serve you. I would if I could."
It may be that I spoke with a little feeling and an apparent honesty; for his eyes searched mine in a kind of earnest bewilderment, as if this could not be true—as if, indeed, life had gone so hard with him that he had forgotten the way of kindness. Then he stretched out his hand and said brokenly: "I am grateful, believe me. I cannot tell you just now, but I will soon, perhaps." His hand was upon the curtain of the door, when my steward's voice was heard outside, calling my name. The man himself entered immediately, and said that Mrs. Falchion sent her compliments, and would I come at once to see her companion, Miss Caron, who had injured herself.
The Intermediate Passenger turned towards me a strange look; his lips opened as if about to speak, but he said nothing. At the instant there came to my mind whom the picture on his breast resembled: it was Mrs. Falchion.
I think he saw this new intelligence in my face, and a meaning smile took the place of words, as he slowly left the cabin, mutely refusing assistance.
I went to Mrs. Falchion's cabin, and met her outside the door. She looked displeased. "Justine has hurt herself," she said. "Please attend to her; I am going on deck."
The unfeeling nature of this remark held me to the spot for a moment; then I entered the cabin. Justine Caron, a delicate but warm-faced girl of little more than twenty, was sitting on the cabin sofa, her head supported against the wall, and her hand wound in a handkerchief soaked in blood. Her dress and the floor were also stained. I undid the handkerchief and found an ugly wound in the palm of the hand. I called the steward, and sent him to my dispensary for some necessaries; then I asked her how it happened. At the moment I saw the cause—a broken bottle lying on the floor. "The ship rolled," she said. "The bottle fell from the shelf upon the marble washstand, and, breaking, from there to the floor. Madame caught at my arm to save herself from falling; but I slipped, and was cut on the bottle—so."
As she ended there was a knock, but the curtain was not drawn, and Mrs. Falchion's voice was heard. "My dress is stained, Justine."
The half-fainting girl weakly replied: "I am very sorry, madame, indeed."
To this Mrs. Falchion rejoined: "When you have been attended to, you may go to bed, Justine. I shall not want you again to-night. But I shall change my dress. It is so unpleasant; I hate blood. I hope you will be well in the morning."
To this Justine replied: "Ah, madame, I am sorry. I could not help it; but I shall be quite well in the morning, I am sure." Then she added quietly to me: "The poor madame! She will not see suffering. She hates pain. Sickness troubles her. Shall I be able to use my hand very soon, monsieur?"
There was a wistful look in her eyes, and guessing why it was there, I said: "Yes, soon, I hope—in a few days, no doubt."
Her face lighted up, and she said: "Madame likes about her people who are happy and well." Then, as if she might have said too much, she hurriedly added: "But she is very kind;" and, stooping down quickly, her face whitening with the effort, she caught up the broken glass and threw it through the port-hole into the sea.
A half-hour later I went on deck, and found Mrs. Falchion comfortably seated in her deck-chair. I brought a stool over, and sat down beside her. To this hour the quickness with which I got upon friendly terms with her astonishes me.
"Justine is better?" she said, and her hand made a slight motion of disgust.
"Yes. She was not dangerously hurt, of course."
"Let us change the subject, please. They are going to have a fancy-dress ball on board, I believe, before we get to Aden. How tiresome! Isn't it a little affectation on the part of the stage-struck committee? Isn't it—inconsequent?"
"That depends," I said vaguely, inviting a question. She idled with a book in her lap.
"On those who go, what costumes are worn, and how much beauty and art appear."
"But the trouble! Does it pay? What return does one get?"
"If all admire, half are envious, some are jealous, and one is devoted— isn't that enough?" I think I was a fool that night.
"You seem to understand women," she said, with a puzzling and not quite satisfactory smile. "Yes, all that is something."
Though I was looking at the sea rather than at her, I saw again that inquiring look in her eyes—such a measuring look as a recruiting sergeant might give a victim of the Queen's shilling.
After a moment's pause she continued, I thought, abstractedly: "As what should you go?"
I answered lightly and without premeditation, "As Caius Cassius. Why should you not appear as Portia?"
She lifted her eyebrows at me.
"As Portia, the wife of Brutus," I blundered on, at the same time receiving her permission, by a nod, to light my cigar.
"The pious, love-sick wife of Brutus!" This in a disdainful tone, and the white teeth clicked softly together.
"Yes, a good disguise," I said banteringly, though I fancy somewhat tentatively also, and certainly with a touch of rudeness. I was thinking at that moment of the Intermediate Passenger, and I was curious.
"And you think of going in the disguise of a gentleman? Caius Cassius was that, wasn't he?" she retorted in an ironical tone.
"I suppose he was, though he was punished once for rudeness," I replied apologetically.
"Quite so," was the decisive reply.
I felt that she was perfectly cool, while I was a little confused, and ashamed too, that I had attempted to be playfully satirical. And so, wondering what I should say next, I remarked in desperation: "Do you like the sea?"
"I am never ill at sea," was her reply. "But I do not really like it; it is treacherous. The land would satisfy me if—" She paused.
"Yes, Mrs. Falchion—'if'?"
"If I did not wish to travel," she vaguely added, looking blandly at me.
"You have travelled much?" I ventured.
"A great deal;" and again I saw that scrutiny in her eyes. It occurred to me at the moment that she might think I possessed some previous knowledge of her.
My mind became occupied again with the Intermediate Passenger and the portrait that he wore at his neck. I almost laughed to think of the melodramatic turn which my first conversation with this woman might chance to take. I felt that I was dealing with one who was able to meet cleverly any advance of mine, but I determined to lead the talk into as deep waters as possible.
"I suppose, too, you are a good practical sailor—that is, you understand seamanship, if you have travelled much?" I do not know why I said that, for it sounded foolish to me afterwards.
"Pretty well," she replied. "I can manage a sail; I know the argot, I could tell the shrouds from the bulwarks, and I've rowed a boat in a choppy sea."
"It is not an accomplishment usual to your sex."
"It was ordinary enough where I spent the early part of my life," was the idle reply; and she settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
"Yes? May I ask where that was?" and as I said this, it occurred to me that she was, perhaps, leading me on, instead of my leading her; to betray me as to anything I knew about her.
"In the South Seas," she replied. "My father was a British consul in the Islands."
"You have not come from the Islands now, I suppose?"
"No," she said a little more softly; "it is years since I was in Samoa. . . . My father is buried there."
"You must have found it a romantic life in those half-barbaric places?"
She shifted in her chair. "Romantic!" Her tone conveyed a very slight uneasiness and vagueness. "I am afraid you must ask some one else about that sort of thing. I did not see much romance, but I saw plenty that was half-barbaric." Here she laughed slightly.
Just then I saw the lights of a vessel far off. "See—a vessel!" I said; and I watched the lights in silence, but thinking. I saw that she too was watching idly.
At length, as if continuing the conversation, I said: "Yes, I suppose life must be somewhat adventurous and dangerous among savage people like the Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians?"
"Indeed, then," she replied decisively, "you are not to suppose anything of the kind. The danger is not alone for the white people."
At this I appeared, as I really was, interested, and begged her to explain what she meant. She thought a moment, and then briefly, but clearly, sketched the life of those islands, showing how, in spite of missionary labour selfish and unselfish, the native became the victim of civilisation, the prey of the white trader and beachcomber, who were protected by men-of-war with convincing Nordenfeldt and Hotchkiss guns; how the stalwart force of barbaric existence declined, and with it the crude sense of justice, the practice of communism at its simplest and purest, the valour of nationality. These phrases are my own—the substance, not the fashion, of her speech.
"You do not, then," I said, "believe wholly in the unselfishness of missionaries, the fair dealing of traders, the perfect impartiality of justice, as shown through steel-clad cruisers?"
"I have seen too much to be quite fair in judgment, I fear, even to men- of-war's men;" and she paused, listening to a song which came from the after-part of the ship. The air was very still, and a few of the words of the droll, plaintive ditty came to us.
Quartermaster Stone, as he passed us, hummed it, and some voices of the first-class passengers near joined in the refrain:
"Sing, hey, for a rover on the sea, And the old world!"
Some days later I got all of the song from one of the intermediate passengers, and the last verse of it I give here:
"I'm a-sailing, I'm a-sailing on the sea, To a harbour where the wind is still; Oh, my dearie, do you wait for me? Oh, my dearie, do you love me still? Sing, hey, for a rover on the sea, And the old world!"
I noticed that Mrs. Falchion's brow contracted as the song proceeded, making a deep vertical line between the eyes, and that the fingers of the hand nearest me closed on the chair-arm firmly. The hand attracted me. It was long, the fingers were shapely, but not markedly tapering, and suggested firmness. I remarked afterward, when I chanced to shake hands with her, that her fingers enclosed one's hand; it was not a mere touch or pressure, but an unemotional and possessive clasp. I felt sure that she had heard the song before, else it had not produced even this so slight effect on her nerves. I said: "It is a quaint song. I suppose you are familiar with it and all of its kind?"
"I fancy I have heard it somewhere," she answered in a cold voice.
I am aware that my next question was not justified by our very short acquaintance; but this acquaintance had been singular from its beginning, and it did not seem at that moment as it looks on paper; besides, I had the Intermediate Passenger in my mind. "Perhaps your husband is a naval man?" I asked.
A faint flush passed over her face, and then, looking at me with a neutral expression and some reserve of manner, she replied: "My husband was not a naval man."
She said "was not." That implied his death.
There was no trouble in her manner; I could detect no sign of excitement. I turned to look at the lights of the approaching vessel, and there, leaning against the railing that divided the two decks, was the Intermediate Passenger. He was looking at us intently. A moment after he disappeared. Beyond doubt there was some intimate association between these two.
My thoughts were, however, distracted by our vessel signalling the other. Hungerford was passing just then, and I said: "Have you any idea what vessel it is, Hungerford?"
"Yes, man-of-war 'Porcupine', bound for Aden, I think."
Mrs. Falchion at this laughed strangely, as she leaned forward looking, and then, rising quickly, said: "I prefer to walk."
"May I accompany you?" I asked.
She inclined her head, and we joined the promenaders. The band was playing, and, for a ship-band, playing very well, the ballet music of Delibes' 'Sylvia'. The musicians had caught that unaccentuated and sensuous swing of the melody which the soft, tropical atmosphere rendered still more languorous. With Mrs. Falchion's hand upon my arm, I felt a sense of capitulation to the music and to her, uncanny in its suddenness. At this distance of time it seems to me absurd. I had once experienced something of the same feeling with the hand of a young medical student, who, skilled in thought-reading, discovered the number of a bank-note that was in my mind.
This woman had an attractiveness compelling and delightful, at least in its earlier application to me. Both professionally and socially I have been brought into contact with women of beauty and grace, but never one who, like Mrs. Falchion, being beautiful, seemed so unconscious of the fact, so indifferent to those about her, so untouched by another's emotion, so lacking in sensitiveness of heart; and who still drew people to her. I am speaking now of the earlier portion of our acquaintance; of her as she was up to this period in her life.
I was not alone in this opinion of her, for, as time went on, every presentable man and woman on the boat was introduced to her; and if some women criticised and some disliked her, all acknowledged her talent and her imperial attraction. Among the men her name was never spoken but with reserve and respect, and her afternoon teas were like a little court. She had no compromising tenderness of manner for man or woman; she ruled, yet was unapproachable through any avenues of sentiment. She had a quiet aplomb, which would be called 'sang-froid' in a man.
"Did you ever see a Spanish-Mexican woman dance?" she asked in one of the pauses of the music.
"Never: never any good dancing, save what one gets at a London theatre."
"That is graceful," she said, "but not dancing. You have heard of music stirring the blood; of savage races—and others—working themselves up to ecstatic fury? Maybe you have seen the Dervishes, or the Fijians, or the Australian aboriginals? No? Well, I have, and I have seen—which is so much more—those Spanish-Mexican women dance. Did you ever see anything so thrilling, so splendid, that you felt you must possess it?"—She asked me that with her hand upon my arm!—"Well, that is it. I have felt that way towards a horse which has won a great race, and to a woman who has carried me with her through the fantastic drama of her dance, until she stood at the climax, head thrown back, face glowing—a statue. It is grand to be eloquent like that, not in words, but in person."
In this was the key to her own nature. Body and mind she was free from ordinary morbidness, unless her dislike of all suffering was morbid. With her this was a dislike of any shock to the senses. She was selfish at all points.
These conclusions were pursued at the expense of speech on my part. At first she did not appear to regard my silence. She seemed to have thoughts of her own; but she shook them off with a little firm motion of the shoulders, and, with the assumption of a demureness of manner and an airy petulance, said: "Well, amuse me."
"Amuse you?" was my reply. "Delighted to do so if I can. How?"
"Talk to me," was the quick response.
"Would that accomplish the purpose?" This in a tone of mock protest.
"Please don't be foolish, Dr. Marmion. I dislike having to explain. Tell me things."
"Oh, about yourself—about people you have met, and all that; for I suppose you have seen a good deal and lived a good deal."
"About hospital cases?" I said a little maliciously.
"No, please, no! I abhor everything that is sick and poor and miserable."
"Well," said I, at idle venture, "if not a hospital, what about a gaol?"
I felt the hand on my arm twitch slightly, and then her reply came.
"I said I hated everything that was wretched and wicked. You are either dense, or purposely irritating."
"Well, then, a college?"
"A college? Yes, that sounds better. But I do not wish descriptions of being 'gated,' or 'sent down,' or 'ploughed,' and that kind of commonplace. I should prefer, unless your vanity leads you irresistibly in that direction, something with mature life and amusement; or, at least, life and incident, and good sport—if you do not dwell on the horrors of killing."
On the instant there came to me the remembrance of Professor Valiant's wife. I think it was not what she wanted; but I had a purpose, and I began:
"Every one at St. Luke's admired and respected Professor Valiant's wife, she was so frank and cordial and prettily downright. In our rooms we all called her a good chap, and a dashed good chap when her husband happened to be rustier than usual. He was our professor in science. It was the general belief that he chose science for his life-work because it gave unusual opportunities for torture. He was believed to be a devoted vivisectionist; he certainly had methods of cruelty, masterly in their ingenuity. He could make a whole class raw with punishment in a few words; and many a scorching bit of Latin verse was written about his hooked nose and fishy eye.
"But his highest talents in this direction were reserved for his wife. His distorted idea of his own importance made him view her as a chattel, an inferior being; the more so, I believe, because she brought him little money when he married her. She was too much the woman to pretend to kneel to him, and because she would not be his slave, she had a hard time of it. He began by insisting that she should learn science, that she might assist him in his experiments. She knew that she had no taste for it, that it was no part of her wifely duty, and she did what suited her better—followed the hounds. It was a picture to see her riding across country. She could take a fence with a sound hunter like a bird. And so it happened that, after a time, they went their own ways pretty well; he ignoring her, neglecting her, deprecating her by manner, if not by speech, and making her life more than uncomfortable.
"She was always kind to me. I was the youngest chap in the college, and was known as 'Marmy' by every one; and because I was fonder of science than most other men in the different years, Valiant was more gracious to me than the rest, though I did not like him. One day, when I called, I heard her say to him, not knowing that I was near: 'Whatever you feel, or however you act towards me in private, I will have respect when others are present.'
"It was the custom for the professors to invite each student to luncheon or dinner once during term-time. Being somewhat of a favourite of both Professor and Mrs. Valiant however, I lunched with them often. I need hardly say that I should not have exceeded the regulation once had it not been for Mrs. Valiant. The last time I went is as clear in my memory as if it were yesterday. Valiant was more satirical and cold-blooded than usual. I noticed a kind of shining hardness in his wife's eyes, which gave me a strange feeling; yet she was talkative and even gay, I thought, while I more than once clinched my fist under the table, so much did I want to pummel him; for I was a lover of hers, in a deferential, boyish way.
"At last, knowing that she liked the hunt, I asked her if she was going to the meet on the following Saturday, saying that I intended to follow, having been offered a horse. With a steely ring to her voice, and a further brightening of the eyes, she said: 'You are a stout little sportsman, Marmy. Yes, I am going on Major Karney's big horse, Carbine.'
"Valiant looked up, half sneering, half doubtful, I thought, and rejoined: 'Carbine is a valuable horse, and the fences are stiff in the Garston country.'
"She smiled gravely, then, with her eyes fixed on her husband, said: 'Carbine is a perfect gentleman. He will do what I ask him. I have ridden him.'
"'The devil you have!' he replied.
"'I am sure,' said I, as I hoped, bravely, and not a little enthusiastically, 'that Carbine would take any fence you asked him.'
"'Or not, as the case might be. Thank you, Marmy, for the compliment,' she said.
"'A Triton among minnows,' remarked Valiant, not entirely under his breath; 'horses obey, and students admire, and there is no end to her greatness.'
"'There is an end to everything, Edward,' she remarked a shade sadly and quietly.
"He turned to me and said: 'Science is a great study, Marmion, but it is sardonic too; for you shall find that when you reduce even a Triton to its original elements—'
"'Oh, please let me finish,' she interrupted softly. 'I know the lecture so well. It reads this way: "The place of generation must break to give place to the generated; but the influence spreads out beyond the fragments, and is greater thus than in the mass—neither matter nor mind can be destroyed. The earth was molten before it became cold rock and quiet world." There, you see, Marmy, that I am a fellow-student of yours.'
"Valiant's eyes were ugly to watch; for she had quoted from a lecture of his, delivered to us that week. After an instant he said, with slow maliciousness: 'Oh, ye gods, render me worthy of this Portia, and teach her to do as Brutus's Portia did, ad eternum!'
"She shuddered a little, then said very graciously, and as if he had meant nothing but kindness: 'Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks.' I will leave you now to your cigarettes; and because I must go out soon, and shall not, I fear, see you again this afternoon, good-bye, Marmy, till Saturday—till Saturday.' And she left us.
"I was white and trembling with anger. He smiled coolly, and was careful to choose me one of his best cigars, saying as he handed it: 'Conversation is a science, Marmion. Study it; there is solid satisfaction in it; it is the only art that brings instant pleasure. Like the stage, it gets its immediate applause.'
"Well, Mrs. Valiant did ride Carbine on that Saturday. Such a scene it was! I see it now—the mottled plump of hounds upon the scent, the bright sun showing up the scarlet coats of the whips gloriously, the long stride of the hunters, ears back and quarters down! She rode Carbine, and the fences WERE stiff—so stiff that I couldn't have taken half of them. Afterward I was not sorry that I couldn't; for she rode for a fall that day on Carbine, her own horse, she had bought him of Major Karney a few days before,—and I heard her last words as she lay beside him, smiling through the dreadful whiteness of her lips. 'Goodbye, Marmy,' she whispered. 'Carbine and I go together. It is better so, in the full cry and a big field. Tell the men at Luke's that I hope they will pass at the coming exams. . . . I am going up—for my final—Marmy.— I wonder—if I'll—pass.' And then the words froze on her lips.
"It was persecution that did it—diabolical persecution and selfishness. That was the worst day the college ever knew. At the funeral, when the provost read, 'For that it hath pleased Thee to deliver this our sister out of the miseries of this sinful world,' Big Wallington, the wildest chap among the grads, led off with a gulp in his throat, and we all followed. And that gold-spectacled sneak stood there, with a lying white handkerchief at his eyes.
"I laid myself out to make the college too hot for him. In a week I had every man in the place with me, and things came to such a pass that all of us must be sent down, or Valiant resign. He resigned. He found another professorship; but the thing followed him, and he was obliged to leave the country."
When I finished the story, Mrs. Falchion was silent for a time, then, with a slight air of surprise, and in a quite critical way, she said: "I should think you would act very well, if you used less emotion. Mrs. Valiant had a kind of courage, but she was foolish to die. She should have stayed and fought him—fought him every way, until she was his master. She could have done it; she was clever, I should think. Still, if she had to die, it was better to go with a good horse that way. I think I should prefer to go swiftly, suddenly, but without the horror of blood and bruises, and that sort of thing. . . . I should like to meet Professor Valiant. He was hard, but he was able too. . . . But haven't we had enough of horror? I asked you to amuse me, and you have merely interested me instead. Oh!—"
This exclamation, I thought, was caused by the voice of the quartermaster humming:
"I'm a-sailing, I'm a-sailing on the sea, To a harbour where the wind is still"—
Almost immediately she said: "I think I will go below." Then, after a slight pause: "This is a liberal acquaintance for one day, Dr. Marmion; and, you know, we were not introduced."
"No, Mrs. Falchion, we were not introduced; but I am in some regards your host, and I fear we should all be very silent if we waited for regular introductions here. The acquaintance gives me pleasure, but it is not nearly so liberal as I hope it may become."
She did not answer, but smiled at me over her shoulder as she passed down the staircase, and the next instant I could have bitten my tongue for playing the cavalier as I had done; for showing, as I think I did, that she had an influence over me—an influence peculiar to herself, and difficult to account for when not in her presence.
I sat down, lit a cigar, and went over in my mind all that had been said between us; all that had occurred in my cabin after dinner; every minute since we left Colombo was laid bare to its minutest detail. Lascars slipped by me in the half-darkness, the voices of two lovers near alternated with their expressive silences, and from the music saloon there came the pretty strains of a minuet, played very deftly. Under the influence of this music my thoughts became less exact; they drifted. My eyes shifted to the lights of the 'Porcupine' in the distance, and from them again to the figures passing and repassing me on the deck. The "All's well" of the look-out seemed to come from an endless distance; the swish of water against the dividing hull of the 'Fulvia' sounded like a call to silence from another world; the phosphorescence swimming through the jarred waters added to the sensation of unreality and dreams. These dreams grew, till they were broken by a hand placed on my shoulder, and I saw that one of the passengers, Clovelly, an English novelist, had dropped out from the promenade to talk with me. He saw my mood, however, and said quietly: "Give me a light for my cigar, will you? Then, astride this stool, I'll help you to make inventory of the rest of them. A pretty study; for, at our best, 'What fools we mortals be!'"
"'Motley is your only wear,'" was my reply; and for a full half-hour, which, even for a man, is considerable, we spoke no word, but only nodded when some one of the promenaders noticed us. There was a bookmaker fresh from the Melbourne races; an American, Colonel Ryder, whose eloquence had carried him round the world; a stalwart squatter from Queensland; a pretty widow, who had left her husband under the sods of Tasmania; a brace of girls going to join their lovers and be married in England; a few officers fleeing from India with their livers and their lives; a family of four lanky lasses travelling "home" to school; a row of affable ladies, who alternated between envy and gaiety and delight in, and criticism of, their husbands; a couple of missionaries, preparing to give us lectures on the infamous gods of the heathen,—gods which, poor harmless little creatures! might be bought at a few annas a pint at Aden or Colombo,—and on the Exodus and the Pharaohs—pleasures reserved for the Red Sea; a commercial traveller, who arranged theatricals, and cast himself for all the principal parts; a humorous and naive person who industriously hinted at the opulence of his estates in Ireland; two stately English ladies of title; a cheerful array of colonial knights and judges off to Europe for a holiday; and many others, who made little worlds unto themselves, called cliques by blunt people.
"To my mind, the most interesting persons on the ship," said Clovelly at last, "are the bookmaker, Miss Treherne, and the lady with whom you have just been talking—an exceptional type."
"An unusual woman, I fancy," was my reply. "But which is Miss Treherne? I am afraid I am not quite sure."
He described her and her father, with whom I had talked—a London Q.C., travelling for his health, a notable man with a taste for science, who spent his idle hours in reading astronomy and the plays of Euripides.
"Why not include the father in the list of the most interesting persons?" I questioned.
"Because I have met many men like him, but no one quite like his daughter, or Mrs.—what is her name?"
"Or Mrs. Falchion or the bookmaker."
"What is there so uncommon about Miss Treherne? She had not struck me as being remarkable."
"No? Well, of course, she is not striking after the fashion of Mrs. Falchion. But watch her, study her, and you will find her to be the perfection of a type—the finest expression of a decorous convention, a perfect product of social conservatism; unaffected, cheerful, sensitive, composed, very talented, altogether companionable."
"Excuse me," I said, laughing, though I was impressed; "that sounds as if you had been writing about her, and applying to her the novelist's system of analysis, which makes an imperfect individual a perfect type. Now, frankly, are you speaking of Miss Treherne, or of some one of whom she is the outline, as it were?"
Clovelly turned and looked at me steadily. "When you consider a patient," he said, "do you arrange a diagnosis of a type or of a person? —And, by the way, 'type' is a priggish word."
"I consider the type in connection with the person."
"Exactly. The person is the thing. That clears up the matter of business and art. But now, as to Miss Treherne: I want to say that, having been admitted to her acquaintance and that of her father, I have thought of them only as friends, and not as 'characters' or 'copy.'"
"I beg your pardon, Clovelly," said I. "I might have known."
"Now, to prove how magnanimous I am, I shall introduce you to Miss Treherne, if you will let me. You've met her father, I suppose?" he added, and tossed his cigar overboard.
"Yes, I have talked with him. He is a courteous and able man, I should think."
We rose. Presently he continued: "See, Miss Treherne is sitting there with the Tasmanian widow—what is HER name?"
"Mrs. Callendar," I replied. "Blackburn, the Queenslander, is joining them."
"So much the better," he said. "Come on."
As we passed the music saloon, we paused for an instant to look through the port-hole at a pale-faced girl with big eyes and a wonderful bright red dress, singing "The Angels' Serenade," while an excitable bear-leader turned her music for her. Near her stood a lanky girl who adored actors and tenors, and lived in the hope of meeting some of those gentlemen of the footlights, who plough their way so calmly through the hearts of maidens fresh from school.
We drew back to go on towards Miss Treherne, when Hungerford touched me on the arm, and said: "I want to see you for a little while, Marmion, if Mr. Clovelly will excuse you."
I saw by Hungerford's face that he had something of importance to say, and, linking my arm in his, I went with him to his cabin, which was near those of the intermediate passengers.
A TALE OF NO MAN'S SEA
Inside the cabin Hungerford closed the door, gripped me by the arm, and then handed me a cheroot, with the remark: "My pater gave them to me last voyage home. Have kept 'em in tea." And then he added, with no appearance of consecutiveness: "Hang the bally ship, anyhow!"
I shall not attempt to tone down the crudeness of Hungerford's language. It contents me to think that the solidity of his character and his worth will appear even through the crust of free-and-easy idioms, as they will certainly be seen in his acts;—he was sound at heart and true as steel.
"What is the matter, Hungerford?" I asked lighting the cheroot.
"Everything's the matter. Captain, with his nose in the air, and trusting all round to his officers. First officer, no good—never any use since they poured the coal on him. Purser, ought to be on a Chinese junk. Second, third, fourth officers, first-rate chaps, but so-so sailors. Doctor, frivolling with a lovely filly, pedigree not known. Why, confound it! nobody takes this business seriously except the captain, and he sits on a golden throne. He doesn't know that in any real danger this swagger craft would be filled with foolishness. There isn't more than one good boat's crew on board—sailors, lascars, stewards, and all. As for the officers, if the surgeon would leave the lovely ladies to themselves, he'd find cases worth treating, and duties worth doing. He should keep himself fit for shocks. And he can take my word for it—for I've been at sea since I was a kid, worse luck!—that a man with anything to do on a ship ought to travel every day nose out for shipwreck next day, and so on, port to port. Ship-surgeons, as well as all other officers, weren't ordained to follow after cambric skirts and lace handkerchiefs at sea. Believe me or not as you like, but, for a man having work to do, woman, lovely woman, is rocks. Now, I suppose you'll think I'm insolent, for I'm younger than you are, Marmion, but you know what a rough-and-tumble fellow I am, and you'll not mind."
"Well, Hungerford," I said, "to what does this lead?"
"To Number 116 Intermediate, for one thing. It's letting off steam for another. I tell you, Marmion, these big ships are too big. There are those canvas boats. They won't work; you can't get them together. You couldn't launch one in an hour. And as for the use of the others, the lascars would melt like snow in any real danger. There's about one decent boat's crew on the ship, that's all. There! I've unburdened myself; I feel better."
Presently he added, with a shake of the head: "See here: now-a-days we trust too much to machinery and chance, and not enough to skill of hand and brain stuff. I'd like to show you some of the crews I've had in the Pacific and the China Sea—but I'm at it again! I'll now come, Marmion, to the real reason why I brought you here. . . . Number 116 Intermediate is under the weather; I found him fainting in the passage. I helped him into his cabin. He said he'd been to you to get medicine, and you'd given him some. Now, the strange part of the business is, I know him. He didn't remember me, however—perhaps because he didn't get a good look at me. Coincidence is a strange thing. I can point to a dozen in my short life, every one as remarkable, if not as startling, as this. Here, I'll spin you a yarn:
"It happened four years ago. I had no moustache then, was fat like a whale, and first mate on the 'Dancing Kate', a pearler in the Indian Ocean, between Java and Australia. That was sailing, mind you—real seamanship, no bally nonsense; a fight every weather, interesting all round. If it wasn't a deadly calm, it was a typhoon; if it wasn't either, it was want of food and water. I've seen us with pearls on board worth a thousand quid, and not a drop of water nor three square meals in the caboose. But that was life for men and not Miss Nancys. If they weren't saints, they were sailors, afraid of nothing but God Almighty—and they do respect Him, even when they curse the winds and the sea. Well, one day we were lying in the open sea, about two hundred and fifty miles from Port Darwin. There wasn't a breath of air. The sea was like glass; the sun was drawing turpentine out of every inch of the 'Dancing Kate'. The world was one wild blister. There wasn't a comfortable spot in the craft, and all round us was that staring, oily sea. It was too hot to smoke, and I used to make a Sede boy do my smoking for me. I got the benefit of the smell without any work. I was lying under the droop of a dingey, making the Sede boy call on all his gods for wind, with interludes of smoke, when he chucked his deities and tobacco, and, pointing, shouted, 'Man! man!'
"I snatched a spy-glass. Sure enough, there was a boat on the water. It was moving ever so slowly. It seemed to stop, and we saw something lifted and waved, and then all was still again. I got a boat's crew together, and away we went in that deadly smother. An hour's row and we got within hail of the derelict—as one of the crew said, 'feelin' as if the immortal life was jerked out of us.' The dingey lay there on the glassy surface, not a sign of life about her. Yet I had, as I said, seen something waved. The water didn't even lap its sides. It was ghostly, I can tell you. Our oars licked the water; they didn't attack it. Now, I'm going to tell you something, Marmion, that'll make you laugh. I don't think I've got any poetry in me, but just then I thought of some verses I learned when I was a little cove at Wellington—a devilishly weird thing. It came to me at that moment like a word in my ear. It made me feel awkward for a second. All sailors are superstitious, you know. I'm superstitious about this ship. Never mind; I'll tell you the verses, to show you what a queer thing memory is. The thing was called 'No Man's Sea':
"'The days are dead in the No Man's Sea, And God has left it alone; The angels cover their heads and flee, And the wild four winds have flown.
"'There's never a ripple upon the tide, There's never a word or sound; But over the waste the white wraiths glide, To look for the souls of the drowned.
"'The No Man's Sea is a gaol of souls, And its gate is a burning sun, And deep beneath it a great bell tolls For a death that never is done.
"'Alas! for any that comes anear, That lies on its moveless breast; The grumbling water shall be his bier, And never a place of rest."'
"There are four of the verses. Well, I made a motion to stop the rowing, and was mum for a minute. The men got nervous. They looked at the boat in front of us, and then turned round, as though to see if the 'Dancing Kate' was still in sight. I spoke, and they got more courage. I stood up in the boat, but could see nothing in the dingey. I gave a sign to go on, and soon we were alongside. In the bottom of the dingey lay a man, apparently dead, wearing the clothes of a convict. One of the crew gave a grunt of disgust, the others said nothing. I don't take to men often, and to convicts precious seldom; but there was a look in this man's face which the prison clothes couldn't demoralise—a damned pathetic look, which seemed to say, 'Not guilty.'
"In a minute I was beside him, and found he wasn't dead. Brandy brought him round a little; but he was a bit gone in the head, and muttered all the way back to the ship. I had unbuttoned his shirt, and I saw on his breast a little ivory portrait of a woman. I didn't let the crew see it; for the fellow, even in his delirium, appeared to know I had exposed the thing, and drew the linen close in his fingers, and for a long time held it at his throat."
"What was the woman's face like, Hungerford?" I asked.
He parried, remarking only that she had the face of a lady, and was handsome.
I pressed him. "But did it resemble any one you had ever seen?"
With a slight droop of his eyelids, he said: "Don't ask foolish questions, Marmion. Well, the castaway had a hard pull for life. He wouldn't have lived at all, if a breeze hadn't come up and let us get away to the coast. It was the beginning of the monsoon, and we went bowling down towards Port Darwin, a crowd of Malay proas in our wake. However, the poor beggar thought he was going to die, and one night he told me his story. He was an escaped convict from Freemantle, Western Australia. He had, with others, been taken up to the northern coast to do some Government work, and had escaped in the dingey. His crime was stealing funds belonging to a Squatting and Mining Company. There was this extenuating circumstance: he could have replaced the money, which, as he said, he'd only intended to use for a few weeks. But a personal enemy threw suspicion on him, accounts were examined, and though he showed he'd only used the money while more of his own was on the way to him, the Company insisted on prosecuting him. For two reasons: because it was itself in bad odour, and hoped by this trial to divert public attention from its own dirty position; and because he had against him not only his personal enemy, but those who wanted to hit the Company through him. He'd filched to be able to meet the large expenses of his wife's establishment. Into this he didn't enter minutely, and he didn't blame her for having so big a menage; he only said he was sorry that he hadn't been able to support it without having to come, even for a day, to the stupidity of stealing. After two years he escaped. He asked me to write a letter to his wife, which he'd dictate. Marmion, you or I couldn't have dictated that letter if we'd taken a year to do it. There was no religion in it, no poppy-cock, but straightforward talk, full of sorrow for what he'd done, and for the disgrace he'd brought on her. I remember the last few sentences as if I'd seen them yesterday. 'I am dying on the open sea, disgraced, but free,' he said. 'I am not innocent in act, but I was not guilty of intentional wrong. I did what I did that you should have all you wished, all you ought to have. I ask but this—and I shall soon ask for nothing—that you will have a kind thought, now and then, for the man who always loved you, and loves you yet. I have never blamed you that you did not come near me in my trouble; but I wish you were here for a moment before I go away for ever. You must forgive me now, for you will be free. If I were a better man I would say, God bless you. In my last conscious moments I will think of you, and speak your name. And now good-bye—an everlasting good-bye. I was your loving husband, and am your lover until death.' And it was signed, 'Boyd Madras.'
"However, he didn't die. Between the captain and myself, we kept life in him, and at last landed him at Port Darwin; all of us, officers and crew, swearing to let no one know he was a convict. And I'll say this for the crew of the 'Dancing Kate' that, so far as I know, they kept their word. That letter, addressed in care of a firm of Melbourne bankers, I gave back to him before we landed. We made him up a purse of fifty pounds,— for the crew got to like him,—and left him at Port Darwin, sailing away again in a few days to another pearl-field farther east. What happened to him at Port Darwin and elsewhere, I don't know; but one day I found him on a fashionable steamer in the Indian Ocean, looking almost as near to Kingdom Come as when he starved in the dingey on No Man's Sea. As I said before, I think he didn't recognise me; and he's lying now in 116 Intermediate, with a look on him that I've seen in the face of a man condemned to death by the devils of cholera or equatorial fever. And that's the story, Marmion, which I brought you to hear—told, as you notice, in fine classical style."
"And why do you tell ME this, Hungerford—a secret you've kept all these years? Knowledge of that man's crime wasn't necessary before giving him belladonna or a hot bath."
Hungerford kept back the whole truth for reasons of his own. He said: "Chiefly because I want you to take a decent interest in the chap. He looks as if he might go off on the long voyage any tick o' the clock. You are doctor, parson, and everything else of the kind on board. I like the poor devil, but anyhow I'm not in a position to be going around with ginger-tea in a spoon, or Ecclesiastes under my arm,—very good things. Your profession has more or less to do with the mind as well as the body, and you may take my word for it that Boyd Madras's mind is as sick as his torso. By the way, he calls himself 'Charles Boyd,' so I suppose we needn't recall to him his former experiences by adding the 'Madras.'"
Hungerford squeezed my arm again violently, and added: "Look here, Marmion, we understand each other in this, don't we? To do what we can for the fellow, and be mum."
Some of this looks rough and blunt, but as it was spoken there was that in it which softened it to my ear. I knew he had told all he thought I ought to know, and that he wished me to question him no more, nor to refer to Mrs. Falchion, whose relationship to Boyd Madras—or Charles Boyd—both of us suspected.
"It was funny about those verses coming to my mind, wasn't it, Marmion?" he continued. And he began to repeat one of them, keeping time to the wave-like metre with his cheroot, winding up with a quick, circular movement, and putting it again between his lips:
"'There's never a ripple upon the tide, There's never a breath or sound; But over the waste the white wraiths glide, To look for the souls of the drowned."'
Then he jumped off the berth where he had been sitting, put on his jacket, said it was time to take his turn on the bridge, and prepared to go out, having apparently dismissed Number 116 Intermediate from his mind.
I went to Charles Boyd's cabin, and knocked gently. There was no response. I entered. He lay sleeping soundly—the sleep that comes after nervous exhaustion. I had a good chance to study him as he lay there. The face was sensitive and well fashioned, but not strong; the hands were delicate, yet firmly made. One hand was clinched upon that portion of his breast where the portrait hung.
THE TRAIL OF THE ISHMAELITE
I went on deck again, and found Clovelly in the smoking-room. The bookmaker was engaged in telling tales of the turf, alternated with comic songs by Blackburn—an occupation which lasted throughout the voyage, and was associated with electric appeals to the steward to fill the flowing bowl. Clovelly came with me, and we joined Miss Treherne and her father. Mr. Treherne introduced me to his daughter, and Clovelly amiably drew the father into a discussion of communism as found in the South Sea Islands.
I do not think my conversation with Miss Treherne was brilliant. She has since told me that I appeared self-conscious and preoccupied. This being no compliment to her, I was treated accordingly. I could have endorsed Clovelly's estimate of her so far as her reserve and sedateness were concerned. It seemed impossible to talk naturally. The events of the day were interrupting the ordinary run of thought, and I felt at a miserable disadvantage. I saw, however, that the girl was gifted and clear of mind, and possessed of great physical charm, but of that fine sort which must be seen in suitable surroundings to be properly appreciated. Here on board ship a sweet gravity and a proud decorum—not altogether unnecessary—prevented her from being seen at once to the best advantage. Even at this moment I respected her the more for it, and was not surprised, nor exactly displeased, that she adroitly drew her father and Clovelly into the conversation. With Clovelly she seemed to find immediate ground for naive and pleasant talk; on his part, deferential, original, and attentive; on hers, easy, allusive, and warmed with piquant humour. I admired her; saw how cleverly Clovelly was making the most of her; guessed at the solicitude, studious care, and affection of her bringing-up; watched the fond pleasure of the father as he listened; and was angry with myself that Mrs. Falchion's voice rang in my ears at the same moment as hers. But it did ring there, and the real value of that smart tournament of ideas was partially lost to me.
The next morning I went to Boyd Madras's cabin. He welcomed me gratefully, and said that he was much better; as he seemed; but he carried a hectic flush, such as comes to a consumptive person. I said little to him beyond what was necessary for the discussion of his case. I cautioned him about any unusual exertion, and was about to leave, when an impulse came to me, and I returned and said: "You will not let me help you in any other way?"
"Yes," he answered; "I shall be very glad of your help, but not just yet. And, Doctor, believe me, I think medicines can do very little. Though I am thankful to you for visiting me, you need not take the trouble, unless I am worse, and then I will send a steward to you, or go to you myself."
What lay behind this request, unless it was sensitiveness, I could not tell; but I determined to take my own course, and to visit him when I thought fit.
Still, I saw him but once or twice on the after-deck in the succeeding days. He evidently wished to keep out of sight as much as possible. I am ashamed to say there was a kind of satisfaction in this to me; for, when a man's wife—and I believed she was Boyd Madras's wife—hangs on your arm, and he himself is denied that privilege, and fares poorly beside her sumptuousness, and lives as a stranger to her, you can scarcely regard his presence with pleasure. And from the sheer force of circumstances, as it seemed to me then, Mrs. Falchion's hand was often on my arm; and her voice was always in my ear at meal-times and when I visited Justine Caron to attend to her wound, or joined in the chattering recreations of the music saloon. It was impossible not to feel her influence; and if I did not yield entirely to it, I was more possessed by it than I was aware. I was inquisitive to know beyond doubt that she was the wife of this man. I think it was in my mind at the time that, perhaps, by being with her much, I should be able to do him a service. But there came a time when I was sufficiently undeceived. It was all a game of misery in which some one stood to lose all round. Who was it: she, or I, or the refugee of misfortune, Number 116 Intermediate? She seemed safe enough. He or I would suffer in the crash of penalties.
It was a strange situation. I, the acquaintance of a day, was welcome within the circle of this woman's favour—though it was an unemotional favour on her side; he, the husband, as I believed, though only half the length of the ship away, was as distant from her as the north star. When I sat with her on deck at night, I seemed to feel Boyd Madras's face looking at me from the half-darkness of the after-deck; and Mrs. Falchion, whose keen eyes missed little, remarked once on my gaze in that direction. Thereafter I was more careful, but the idea haunted me. Yet, I was not the only person who sat with her. Other men paid her attentive court. The difference was, however, that with me she assumed ever so delicate, yet palpable an air of proprietorship, none the less alluring because there was no heart in it. So far as the other passengers were concerned, there was nothing jarring to propriety in our companionship. They did not know of Number 116 Intermediate. She had been announced as a widow; and she had told Mrs. Callendar that her father's brother, who, years before, had gone to California, had died within the past two years and left her his property; and, because all Californians are supposed to be millionaires, her wealth was counted fabulous. She was going now to England, and from there to California in the following year. People said that Dr. Marmion knew on which side his bread was buttered. They may have said more unpleasant things, but I did not hear them, or of them.
All the time I was conscious of a kind of dishonour, and perhaps it was that which prompted me (I had fallen away from my intention of visiting him freely) to send my steward to see how Boyd Madras came on, rather than go myself. I was, however, conscious that the position could not— should not—be maintained long. The practical outcome of this knowledge was not tardy. A new influence came into my life which was to affect it permanently: but not without a struggle.
A series of concerts and lectures had been arranged for the voyage, and the fancy-dress ball was to close the first part of the journey—that is, at Aden. One night a concert was on in the music saloon. I had just come from seeing a couple of passengers who had been suffering from the heat, and was debating whether to find Mrs. Falchion, who, I knew, was on the other side of the deck, go in to the concert, or join Colonel Ryder and Clovelly, who had asked me to come to the smoking-room when I could. I am afraid I was balancing heavily in favour of Mrs. Falchion, when I heard a voice that was new to me, singing a song I had known years before, when life was ardent, and love first came—halcyon days in country lanes, in lilac thickets, of pleasant Hertfordshire, where our footsteps met a small bombardment of bursting seed-pods of the furze, along the green common that sloped to the village. I thought of all this, and of HER everlasting quiet.
With a different voice the words of the song would have sent me out of hearing; now I stood rooted to the spot, as the notes floated out past me to the nervelessness of the Indian Ocean, every one of them a commandment from behind the curtain of a sanctuary.
The voice was a warm, full contralto of exquisite culture. It suggested depths of rich sound behind, from which the singer, if she chose, might draw, until the room and the deck and the sea ached with sweetness. I scarcely dared to look in to see who it was, lest I should find it a dream. I stood with my head turned away towards the dusky ocean. When, at last, with the closing notes of the song, I went to the port-hole and looked in, I saw that the singer was Miss Treherne. There was an abstracted look in her eyes as she raised them, and she seemed unconscious of the applause following the last chords of the accompaniment. She stood up, folding the music as she did so, and unconsciously raised her eyes toward the port-hole where I was. Her glance caught mine, and instantly a change passed over her face. The effect of the song upon her was broken; she flushed slightly, and, as I thought, with faint annoyance. I know of nothing so little complimentary to a singer as the audience that patronisingly listens outside a room or window,—not bound by any sense of duty as an audience,—between whom and the artists an unnatural barrier is raised. But I have reason to think now that Belle Treherne was not wholly moved by annoyance—that she had seen something unusual, maybe oppressive, in my look. She turned to her father. He adjusted his glasses as if, in his pride, to see her better. Then he fondly took her arm, and they left the room.
Then I saw Mrs. Falchion's face at the port-hole opposite. Her eyes were on me. An instant before, I had intended following Miss Treherne and her father; now some spirit of defiance, some unaccountable revolution, took possession of me, so that I flashed back to her a warm recognition. I could not have believed it possible, if it had been told of me, that, one minute affected by beautiful and sacred remembrances, the next I should be yielding to the unimpassioned tyranny of a woman who could never be anything but a stumbling-block and an evil influence. I had yet to learn that in times of mental and moral struggle the mixed fighting forces in us resolve themselves into two cohesive powers, and strive for mastery; that no past thought or act goes for nothing at such a time, but creeps out from the darkness where we thought it had gone for ever, and does battle with its kind against the common foe. There moved before my sight three women: one, sweet and unsubstantial, wistful and mute and very young, not of the earth earthy; one, lissom, grave, with gracious body and warm abstracted eyes, all delicacy, strength, reserve; the other and last, daring, cold, beautiful, with irresistible charm, silent and compelling. And these are the three women who have influenced my life, who fought in me then for mastery; one from out the unchangeable past, the others in the tangible and delible present. Most of us have to pass through such ordeals before character and conviction receive their final bias; before human nature has its wild trouble, and then settles into "cold rock and quiet world;" which any lesser after-shocks may modify, but cannot radically change.
I tried to think. I felt that to be wholly a man I should turn from those eyes drawing me on. I recalled the words of Clovelly, who had said to me that afternoon, half laughingly: "Dr. Marmion, I wonder how many of us wish ourselves transported permanently to that time when we didn't know champagne from 'alter feiner madeira' or dry hock from sweet sauterne; when a pretty face made us feel ready to abjure all the sinful lusts of the flesh and become inheritors of the kingdom of heaven? Egad! I should like to feel it once again. But how can we, when we have been intoxicated with many things; when we are drunk with success and experience; have hung on the fringe of unrighteousness; and know the world backward, and ourselves mercilessly?"
Was I, like the drunkard, coming surely to the time when I could no longer say yes to my wisdom, or no to my weakness? I knew that, an hour before, in filling a phial with medicine, I found I was doing it mechanically, and had to begin over again, making an effort to keep my mind to my task. I think it is an axiom that no man can properly perform the business of life who indulges in emotional preoccupation.
These thoughts, which take so long to write, passed then through my mind swiftly; but her eyes were on me with a peculiar and confident insistence—and I yielded. On my way to her I met Clovelly and Colonel Ryder. Hungerford was walking between them. Colonel Ryder said: "I've been saving that story for you, Doctor; better come and get it while it's hot."
This was a promised tale of the taking of Mobile in the American Civil War.
At any other time the invitation would have pleased me mightily; for, apart from the other two, Hungerford's brusque and original conversation was always a pleasure—so were his cheroots; but now I was under an influence selfish in its source. At the same time I felt that Hungerford was storing up some acute criticism of me, and that he might let me hear it any moment. I knew, numbering the order of his duties, that he could have but a very short time to spare for gossip at this juncture, yet I said that I could not join them for half an hour or so. Hungerford had a fashion of looking at me searchingly from under his heavy brows, and I saw that he did so now with impatience, perhaps contempt. I was certain that he longed to thrash me. That was his idea of punishment and penalty. He linked his arm in those of the other two men, and they moved on, Colonel Ryder saying that he would keep the story till I came and would wait in the smoking-room for me.
The concert was still on when I sat down beside Mrs. Falchion. "You seemed to enjoy Miss Treherne's singing?" she said cordially enough as she folded her hands in her lap.
"Yes, I thought it beautiful. Didn't you?"
"Pretty, most pretty; and admirable in technique and tone; but she has too much feeling to be really artistic. She felt the thing, instead of pretending to feel it—which makes all the difference. She belongs to a race of delightful women, who never do any harm, whom everybody calls good, and who are very severe on those who do not pretend to be good. Still, all of that pleasant race will read their husband's letters and smuggle. They have no civic virtues. Yet they would be shocked to bathe on the beach without a machine, as American women do,—and they look for a new fall of Jerusalem when one of their sex smokes a cigarette after dinner. Now, I do not smoke cigarettes after dinner, so I can speak freely. But, at the same time, I do not smuggle, and I do bathe on the beach without a machine—when I am in a land where there are no sharks and no taboo. If morally consumptive people were given a few years in the South Seas, where they could not get away from nature, there would be more strength and less scandal in society."
I laughed. "There is a frank note for Mr. Clovelly, who thinks he knows the world and my sex thoroughly. He says as much in his books.—Have you read his 'A Sweet Apocalypse'? He said more than as much to me. But he knows a mere nothing about women—their amusing inconsistencies; their infidelity in little things and fidelity in big things; their self- torturings; their inability to comprehend themselves; their periods of religious insanity; their occasional revolts against the restraints of a woman's position, known only to themselves in their dark hours; ah, really, Dr. Marmion, he is ignorant, I assure you. He has only got two or three kinds of women in his mind, and the representatives of these fooled him, as far as he went with them, to their hearts' content. Believe me, there is no one quite so foolish as the professional student of character. He sees things with a glamour; he is impressionable; he immediately begins to make a woman what he wishes her to be for his book, not what she is; and women laugh at him when they read his books, or pity him if they know him personally. I venture to say that I could make Mr. Clovelly use me in a novel—not 'A Sweet Apocalypse'—as a placid lover of fancy bazaars and Dorcas societies, instead of a very practical person, who has seen life without the romantic eye, and knows as well the working of a buccaneering craft—through consular papers and magisterial trials, of course—as of a colonial Government House. But it is not worth while trying to make him falsify my character. Besides, you are here to amuse me."