THE GORGEOUS ISLE
Scene: Nevis, B. W. I., 1842
Illustrated by C. Coles Phillips
New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1908
Copyright, 1908, by The Ess Ess Publishing Company
Copyright, 1908, by Gertrude Atherton Published, October, 1908
All Rights Reserved, Including That of Translation into Foreign Languages, Including the Scandinavian
TO MRS. SPENCER WIGLEY, OF ST. KITTS, B. W. I.
"We are all souls of fire and children of the sun." —Helmholtz.
"'But what a joy to see you in colour. How does it happen?'" FRONTISPIECE
"At this point she became aware that Warner was standing beside her" 74
"'I never wish to see you again'" 174
"Then she left the room again" 216
BATH HOUSE. This hotel was erected in 1804 at a cost of L40,000, although built entirely by slaves. Its varied and brilliant career came to an end some time in the forties. The tide of fashion turned, and as it was too large for a private residence, it was left to the elements. Earthquakes have riven it, hurricanes unroofed it, and time devoured it, but it is still magnificent in its ruin.
ATLANTIS. Bacon, in "The New Atlantis," assumes America to be the fabled continent of Atlantis, which, according to his theory, was not submerged, but flooded to such an extent that all the inhabitants perished except the few that fled to the highest mountain tops. I have, however, preferred to adopt the Platonic theory, as at once more plausible and interesting.
QUEEN ELIZABETH'S RING. West Indian tradition gives this historic ring to the Warner family, as related in the story. It descended in the direct line to Colonel Edward Warner, who bequeathed it by will to his brother, Ashton Warner, as "a diamond ring in shape of a heart, given by Queen Elizabeth to the Earl of Essex." This will, dated 27th of December, 1732, was proved in the Probate Court of Canterbury, England, on the 21st of February following. From Ashton Warner it descended to his son Joseph, and at the date of the story was in the possession of Charles Warner, Esq., Solicitor-General of Trinidad, B. W. I.
The Gorgeous Isle
Bath House, the most ambitious structure ever erected in the West Indies, and perhaps the most beautiful hotel the world has ever seen, was the popular winter refuge of English people of fashion in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. This immense irregular pile of masonry stood on a terraced eminence rising from the flat border of Nevis, a volcano whose fires had migrated to less fortunate isles and covered with some fifty square miles of soil that yielded every luxury of the Antilles. There was game in the jungles, fish in the sea, did the men desire sport; there were groves of palm and cocoanut for picnics, a town like a bazaar, a drive of twenty-four miles round the base of the ever-beautiful ever-changing mountain; and a sloop always ready to convey the guests to St. Kitts, Montserrat, or Antigua, where they were sure of entertainment from the hospitable planters. There were sea baths and sulphur baths; above all, the air was light and stimulating on the hottest days, for the trade winds rarely deserted Nevis and St. Kitts, no matter what the fate of the rest of that blooming archipelago.
Bath House was surrounded by wide gardens of tropical trees, ferns, and flowers of gay and delicate hues. Its several terraces flamed with colour, as well as its numerous little balconies and galleries, and the flat surfaces of the roof: the whole effect being that of an Eastern palace with hanging gardens, a vast pleasure house, designed for some extravagant and voluptuous potentate. Anything less like an hotel had never been erected; and the interior, with its lofty pillared rooms, its costly mahogany furniture, its panels and hangings of rich brocades, the thick rugs on the polished floors, if more European than Oriental, equally resembled a palace; an effect in no wise diminished by the brilliant plumage of the guests. If the climate compelled them to forswear velvet and satin, their "muslins were from Bengal and their silks from Benares"; and as the daughters of the planters emulated these birds of fashion in all things, Nevis in winter would have been independent of its gorgeous birds and flowers: the bonnets were miracles of posies and plumes, and the crinoline set off the costly materials, the flounces and fringes, the streamers and rosettes, the frills of lace old and new. And as the English Creoles with their skin like porcelain, and their small dainty figures, imitated their more rosy and well-grown sisters of the North, the handsome strapping coloured wenches copied their island betters in materials which if flimsy were no less bright; so it is no matter for wonder that the young bloods came from London to admire and loiter and flirt in an enchanted clime that seemed made for naught else, that the sons of the planters sent to London for their own finery, and the young coloured bucks strutted about like peacocks on such days as they were not grinding cane or serving the reckless guests of Bath House in the shops of Charlestown.
That was the heyday of Nevis, a time of luxury and splendour and gaiety unknown on even the most fertile of the other islands, for none other was ever bold enough to venture such an hotel; and if the bold adventurer came to grief, as was inevitable, still all honour to him for his spirit, and the brief glory he gave to the loveliest island of the Caribbees.
When Anne Percy smiled her mouth looked ripe and eager for pleasure, her eyes sparkled with youth and gaiety, but when shy or thoughtful or impatient her mouth was too large and closely set, her low thick brows made her eyes look sullen and opaque, their blue too dark even for beauty. It was a day when "pencilled" eyebrows inspired the sonnet, when mouths were rosebuds, or should be for fashion's sake, when forms were slight and languid, and a freckle was a blemish on the pink and white complexions of England's high-born maidens. Anne was tanned by the winds of moor and sea, she had a superb majestic figure, and strode when she took her exercise in a thoroughly unladylike manner. She had not an attribute, not even an affectation, in common with the beauties of Bath House; and the reigning novelists of the day, Disraeli, Bulwer, Dickens, Lady Blessington, Mrs. Norton, would never have modelled a heroine of romance on her. There were plenty of fine women in England even then, but they were not in fashion, and when fate took them to court they soon learned to reduce their proportions, mince their gait, and bleach their complexions.
But Anne had not yet been to court and had arrived that day at Bath House. She drew down her heavy brows and looked as haughty as she felt shy and impatient, staring at the dark oblongs of open window, beyond which, effaced by the glare about her, was the warm perfumed tropic night. But in the early Victorian era it would not have been thought becoming for a girl to step out upon a terrace alone, nor, indeed, to leave the wing of her chaperon, save briefly for the dance. Anne did not dance, and had remained in the great saloon after dinner watching with deep interest, for a time, the groups of men and women in evening dress, playing whist or loo, the affected young ladies and their gallants, strolling in from the music room, to show themselves off in the long lane between the tables. But the sight, the most splendid she had ever seen, had palled, the glare of the innumerable candles, reflected in the mirrors, and even the crimson brocade of the walls, dazzled her eyes. She had her reasons, moreover, for wishing to be alone, a condition she had not realised since she had left England, now nearly a month since, and she fairly sprang to her feet as her aunt laid down her cards and signified that it was her pleasure to retire. Anne rearranged Mrs. Nunn's lace shawl, which had fallen to her waist in the ardour of the game, gathered up her fan, smelling-salts, and winnings, then, with a slight drop in her spirit, steeled herself to walk the great length of the saloon to the thrice blessed exit. Mrs. Nunn, who had been a beauty, and always a woman of fashion, sailed along like a light sloop on a mild afternoon, her curves of time and crinoline not unlike sails filled by a gentle breeze; affectedly unconscious but quite aware that many a card was laid down as she rustled by, and that all the winter world of Nevis already knew that the fashionable Mrs. Nunn, sister of one of the ladies of the bed-chamber, had arrived by the afternoon packet, and eagerly anticipated the intimate bits of court gossip with which she might condescend to regale them.
But Miss Percy knew naught of courts and little of drawing-rooms, and although pride held up her chin, and she tried to reflect that the moors had given her a finer, freer carriage than any of these languishing girls could boast, she followed her imposing chaperon with a furious beating of the heart; a condition which gave her, as the elegant Miss Bargarny remarked to the elegant Mr. Abergenny, the colour of a milkmaid. But although the blood of the girl bred in a remote corner of England was warm and rich in her veins, and her skin was tanned, it would take more than colour to coarsen her features, and perhaps it was the straight nose of the Percys' which enabled her to step calmly along in the wake of her aunt whilst wishing that she might fly through one of the windows. (A good nose is the backbone of moral fortitude.) Although there were arches leading into drawing-rooms, and morning-rooms, there was but one exit to the staircase, and in spite of the grandeur and the masses of palms and tropic flowers everywhere, the hotel had ceased to look like a fairy palace to the girl who had only paused long enough in her journey from her old manor to furnish her wardrobe in the darkest and dirtiest of winter cities. She had felt like the enchanted princess in the fairy tale for a few hours, but now she longed for nothing but her balcony up-stairs.
She had begun to wonder if she might beg her aunt to accelerate her lady-like gait, when, to her horror, Mrs. Nunn was signalled by an acquaintance, as yet unseen, and promptly sat down at her table; announcing that she tarried but a moment. There was no other vacant chair; all near by were occupied by dames as imposing as Mrs. Nunn or by elderly gentlemen who bent the more attentively over their cards. There was nothing for Anne to do but draw herself up to her full height, and look quite indifferent to being the only woman in the room to stand and invite the critical eye. In the early forties "young females" were expected to be retiring, modest, and although they were as often not, by the grace of that human nature which has changed little in its progress down the centuries, they maintained a decent pretence. There were a number of belles in the room, with their attendant swains, and no doubt each thought herself a great beauty; but not one of them would have stood up alone in the central promenade of Bath House. Several of the men stared in disapproval; which emboldened their fair partners to make disparaging remarks, until it was observed that Lord Hunsdon, the greatest parti in the matrimonial market, had gone in search of a chair.
Anne longed to fold the arms she knew not what to do with, but apprehending open laughter, held them rigidly to her sides, shooting anxious glances at the opposite mirror. She encountered a battery of eyes. At the same time she heard a suppressed titter. It was only by an effort of will that she refrained from running out of the room, and she felt as if she had been dipped in the hot springs of Nevis. It was at this agonising moment that the amiable Lord Hunsdon presented the chair, with the murmured hope that he was not taking a liberty and that she recalled his having had the good fortune to be presented to her by his friend Mrs. Nunn earlier in the day. Anne, muttering her gratitude, accepted the chair without looking at him, although after he had retired her conscience smote her and she would have made an effort to be agreeable had he lingered. But immediately she caught the drift of a dialogue between two women at a neighbouring table, where the play had stopped, that had beaten faintly upon her ears before she sank out of sight; and in a moment she was conscious of nothing else.
"My son insists that it is my duty to help him, and I am inclined to agree with him," a clear decided voice announced. "And after all he is a gentleman, to say nothing of the fact that time was when he had to hide himself from the importunities of Bath House. But since that unhappy affair—I fear our sex had much to answer for—but he has suffered enough——"
"No doubt!" broke in a caustic voice, "but that is hardly the point. He has taken to ways of relieving his sufferings which make him quite unfit for decent society——"
"He can be reformed."
"Fiddlesticks. No one ever reforms. He merely changes his vice. And he! Mr. Mortlake, who is fond of what he calls the picturesqueness of Charlestown by night, has seen him—well, it is enough that I should have heard. You have been too intimate with the little Queen lately. You never could stand it! Suffice it to say, that brandy, or rum, or whatever he takes by the barrel, makes a madman of him."
"I have heard these stories, but I also know that he only drinks by fits and starts——"
"Worse and worse."
"Well!" in tones of great decision, "since a woman, and a woman of our own class ruined him, Constance Mortlake, I believe it to be the duty of our sex and rank to redeem him. Do you," with high and increasing impatience, "realise that the man is a genius, the poet of the age?"
"Haven't I always doted on poetry since I was in love with Byron? But we can buy this young man's poetry for a guinea a volume—ten guineas for special editions at Christmas. I hear that Lady Blessington paid him a hundred pounds for three pages in last year's 'Book of Beauty.' I am glad he is in no danger of starving, and am quite willing to do my little share toward keeping him off the parish; but I prefer to enjoy his genius without being inflicted by the horrid tenement in which that genius has taken up its abode. Most undiscriminating faculty genius seems to be. Besides, I have no respect for a man who lets his life be ruined by a woman. Heavens, supposing we—we women——"
"You can't have everything, and a man who can write like Byam Warner——"
"Don't believe you ever read a line of him. What on earth has a leader of ton to do with poetry, unless, to be sure, to read up a bit before caging the lion for a dinner where everybody will bore the poor wretch to death by quoting his worst lines at him. As for Warner there is no question that he writes even better than before he went to the dogs, and that, to my mind, is proof that he holds his gifts in fief from the devil not from Almighty God——"
"Out upon you for a bigot. I should think you had lived in this world long enough——"
"Was there ever on this earth a more virtuous court than our young Queen's, Maria Hunsdon?"
"It is too good to last. And it is not so long ago——"
"Let us be permitted to forget the court of that iniquitous man"—Anne could see a large-veined hand wave in the direction of a long portrait of George IV.—"since we are mercifully and at last permitted so to do. Besides," changing the subject hastily, "I believe in predestination. You forget that although married these thousand years to an Englishman I am a Scot by birth——"
But Anne heard no more, although her ears were thirsty. Mrs. Nunn brought her amiable nothings to a close, and a moment later they were ascending the great staircase, where the pretty little Queen and her stately husband smiled alike on the just and the unjust.
Mrs. Nunn entered Anne's room before passing on to her own. As hostess to her young relative whose income would not have permitted her to visit this most fashionable of winter cities uninvited, it behooved her to see that the guest lacked no comfort. She was a selfish old woman, but she rarely forgot her manners.
"These coloured servants are so inefficient," she remarked as she peered into the water jars and shook the mosquito netting. "This is my third visit here, so they are as disposed to respect my orders as their limited intelligence and careless habits will permit. I should always advise you to look in and under the bed—not for bad characters, but for caterpillars as long as your two hands, to say nothing of ants. There are no snakes on the island, but I believe land crabs have been seen on the stairs, and I am sure I never should recover if I got into bed with one. The maid will bring your coffee about six. I shall not appear till the half-after-nine breakfast."
"Then you will not mind if I go out for a walk?"
"Dear me, no. This is not London. But of course you will not permit a gentleman to attend you."
"As I do not know any——"
"But you will," said Mrs. Nunn amiably. "You are handsome, my dear, if not quite a la mode. I am glad you must wear white in this climate. It becomes you far better than black. Good night."
She was gone at last. Anne locked the door that she might know to the full the joy of being alone. She shook down her hair impatiently. In spite of her twenty-two years, she had worn it in pendant braids, save at the dinner hour, until her capture by Mrs. Nunn. It was rich, heavy, dark hair, bright with much gold, worn in a bunch of curls on either side of the face and coiled low on the neck. Anne made a little face at herself in the glass. She knew that she possessed a noble, straight, full figure, but she saw no beauty in the sunburnt skin, the square jaw, the eyebrows as wide as her finger. Her mouth was also too large, her eyelashes too short. She had her ideals of beauty, and, having read many romances, they were the conventional ideals of the day. She smiled at her aunt's hint that she might find favour in the eyes of the beaux of Bath House. She knew nothing of the jargon of "the world," nothing of men. Nor did she desire knowledge of either. Even had her father shown any disposition to part with his only companion, she would have refused Mrs. Nunn's invitations to pass a season in London, for she lived an inner life which gave her an increasing distaste for realities. It was before the day when women, unimpelled by poverty or genius, flew to the ink-pot with their over-burdened imaginations. To write a book had never occurred to Anne, although she had led a lonely life in a forgotten corner of England where even her duties were few; the old servants knew their tasks before she was born, and her father preferred his pen and his laboratory to the society of his daughter. She must preside at his table, but between whiles she could spend her time on the sea or the moors, in the library or with her needlework—the era of governesses passing—as she listed.
And the wild North Sea, the moors and her books, above all, her dreams, had sufficed. Her vivid and intense imagination had translated her surroundings into the past, into far-off countries of which she knew as much as any traveller, oftener and still oftener to the tropics, to this very island of Nevis. Then, suddenly, her father had died, leaving her, until she reached the age of five-and-twenty, in the guardianship of his sister, Mrs. Nunn, who purposed making her favourite pilgrimage the following winter, insisted that Anne accompany her, and finally rented the manor over her head that she be forced to comply. The truth was she intended to marry the girl as soon as possible and had no mind that she should squander any more of her youth unseen by man. The shrewd old woman knew the value of that very ignorance of convention, that lack of feminine arts and wiles, so assiduously cultivated by young ladies in the matrimonial market, that suggestion of untrammelled nature, so humbly deprecated by Anne. Moreover, concluded Mrs. Nunn, ruffling herself, she was a Percy and could not but look well-bred, no matter how ill she managed her hoop or curled her hair.
But although Mrs. Nunn could appraise the market value of a comely exterior and the more primitive charms of nature, of Anne Percy she knew nothing. She had puzzled for a moment at the vehement refusal of the young recluse to visit the West Indies, and even more at her ill-suppressed exultation when she realised that the migration was settled. But, she concluded, there was no accounting for the vagaries of the girl-brain, and dismissed the subject. Of the deep and passionate maturity of Anne Percy's brain, of the reasons for the alternate terror and delight at the prospect of visiting Nevis, she had not a suspicion. If she had she would have hastened to leave her to the roar of the North Sea and the wild voices of the moor.
Anne, free of the tight gown in which she had encased her rebellious form for the benefit of the fine folk of Bath House, wrapped herself in a long black mantle, drew down the curving glass globes that protected the candles from draught and insects, and stepped out upon her balcony. She even closed the window behind her; and then at last she felt that she was indeed on Nevis—and alone. Before her rose the dark cone of the old volcano, its graceful sweep dim against the background of stars; and the white cloud that ever floated about its summit like the ghost of dead fires was crawling down the slopes to the little town at its base. From this small but teeming capital came fitful sounds of music and of less decorous revelry, and its lights seemed to flit through the groves of palm and cocoanut trees, gently moving in the night breeze.
Below the hotel, no man stirred. Anne stood with suspended breath and half closed eyes. At this end of the island it was as still as death and almost as dark. There was no moon, and the great crystal stars barely defined the mountain and the tall slender shafts and high verdure of the royal palm. Far away she saw a double row of lights on St. Kitts, the open windows doubtless of Government House in the capital, Basseterre, where a ball that had taken half the guests of Bath House was in progress.
In a few moments she became aware of other impressions besides the silence and the dark. The air was so warm, so caressing, so soft, that she swayed slightly as if to meet it. The deep delicious perfumes of tropical blooms, even of tree and shrub, would have been overpowering had it not been for the lightness of the air and the constant though gentle wind. Bred upon harsh salt winds, living a life of Spartan simplicity, where the sprigs of lavender in the linen closet wafted all she knew of scent to her eager nostrils, this first moment of tropical pleasure confused itself with the dreams of years, and she hardly dared open her eyes lest Nevis vanish and she find herself striding over the moor, her head down, her hands clutching her cape, while the North Sea thundered in her ears.
She lifted her head suddenly, straining her own throat. A bird poured forth a flood of melody that seemed to give voice to the perfumes and the rich beauty of the night, without troubling the silence. She had read of this "nightingale of a tropic noon" but had not imagined that a small brown bird, bred below the equator, could rival in power and dulcet tones the great songster of the North. But it sang as if its throat had the compass of a Mario's, and in a moment another philomel pealed forth his desire, then another, and another, until the whole island seemed to swirl in a musical tide. Anne, with a sudden unconscious gesture, opened her arms and flung them out, as if to embrace and hold all the enchantment of a Southern night before it fled; and for the first time in her life she found that realities could give the spirit a deep intoxicating draught.
The nightingales trilled into silence. The last sweet note seemed to drift out over the water, and then Anne heard another sound, the deep low murmur of the Caribbean Sea. Her mind swung to Byam Warner, to the extraordinary poem which ten years ago had made his fame and interpreted this unceasing melancholy of the sea's chant into a dirge over the buried continent and its fate. With the passionate energy of youthful genius abandoning itself to the ecstasies of imagination, he had sung the lament of Atlantis, compelled the blue sepulchre to recede, and led a prosaic but dazzled world through cities of such beauty and splendour, such pleasant gardens and opulent wilds as the rest of Earth had never dreamed of. He peopled it still with an arrogant and wanton race, masters of the lore and the arts that had gone with them, awaiting the great day when the enchantment should lift and the most princely continent Earth has borne should rise once more to the surface of the sea, lifting these jewelled islands, her mountain peaks, high among the clouds.
It had been Byam Warner's first epic poem, and although he had won the critical public with his songs of the Caribbean Sea and of Nevis, the island of his birth, it was this remarkable achievement, white-hot from first to last with poetic fire, replete with fascinating pictures and living tragedy, that gave him as wide a popularity as any novelist of the day. He had visited London immediately after, and, in spite of some good folk who thought his poem shockingly immoral, was the lion of the season, and a favourite at court. But he had soon wearied of London, and although he had returned several times with increasing fame, he had always left as abruptly, declaring that he could write nowhere above the equator; and, notwithstanding revels where he shone far more brilliantly than when in society, where indeed he was shy and silent, that he cared for nothing else.
Little gossip had come to Warkworth Manor but Anne had read "The Blue Sepulchre" when she was seventeen, and after that her allowance went for his books. When a new volume appeared it was an event in her life comparable only to marriage or birth in the lives of other women. She abandoned her soul to this young magician of Nevis; her imagination, almost as powerful as his own, gave her his living presence more bountifully than had the real man, cursed with mortal disenchantments, companioned her. So strong was her power of realisation that there were hours when she believed that her thoughts girdled the globe and drew his own into her mental heaven. In more practical hours, when tramping the moor, or sailing her boat, she dismissed this hope of intelligent response, inferring, somewhat grimly, that the young, handsome, and popular poet had excited ardour in many a female breast besides her own. Nevertheless, she permitted herself to return again and again to the belief that he loved her and dreamed of her; and certainly one of his most poignant sonnets had been addressed to the unknown mate whom he had sought in vain.
Nor had he married. She had heard and read references to his increasing dissipation, caused by an unhappy love affair, but his work, instead of degenerating with his morals, showed increasing power and beauty. The fire burned at times with so intense a radiance that it would seem to have consumed his early voluptuousness while decimating neither his human nor his spiritual passion. Each new volume sold many editions. The critics declared that his lyrics were the finest of his generation, and vowed the time could not be far off when he would unite the imaginative energy of his first long poems with the nightingale quality of his later, and produce one of the greatest poetical dramas in the language. But the man had been cast into outer darkness. Society had dropped him, and the young Queen would not permit his name to be mentioned in her presence. That gentle spirit, the Countess of Blessington, indifferent to the world that shut its door in her own face, alone received him in what was still the most brilliant salon in England. But even Anne knew that during a recent visit to London, when a few faithful and distinguished men, including Count d'Orsay, Disraeli, Barry Cornwall, Monckton Milnes, and Crabb Robinson, had given him a banquet at the Travellers' Club, he had become so disgracefully drunk that when he left England two days later, announcing his intention never to return, not one of those long suffering gentlemen had appeared at the dock to bid him farewell.
But Anne heard few of these horrid stories in detail, and her imagination made no effort to supply the lack. Her attitude was curiously indifferent. She had never seen his picture. He dwelt with her in the realm of fancy, a creation of her own; and in spite of the teeming incidents of that mental life, her common sense had assured her long since that they would never meet, that with the real Byam Warner she had naught to do. Her father had been forty-five when he was taken off by a mis-made gas in his laboratory; she had expected to be still his silent companion when herself was long past that age—an age for caps and knitting needles, and memories laid away in jars of old rose leaves.
It is possible that had Mrs. Nunn not succeeded in letting Warkworth Manor she would never have uprooted her niece, who, face to face with the prospect of Nevis, realised that she wished for nothing so little as to meet Byam Warner, realised that the end of dreams would be the finish of the best in life. But circumstances were too strong for Anne, and she found herself in London fitting on excessively smart and uncomfortable gowns, submitting to have her side locks cut short and curled according to the latest mode, and even to wear a fillet, which scraped her hitherto untrammelled brow.
She had little time to think about Byam Warner, but when the memory of him shortened her breath she hastily assured herself that she was unlikely to meet an outcast even on an island, that she should not know him if she did, and that Bath House, whose doors were closed upon him, was a world in itself. And she should see Nevis, which had been as much her home as Warkworth Manor, see those other glowing bits of a vanished paradise. There are certain people born for the tropics, even though bred within the empire of the midnight sun, even when accident has given their imagination no such impulse as Anne Percy's had received from the works of Byam Warner. Mind and body respond the moment they enter that mysterious belt which divides the moderate zones, upon whose threshold the spirit of worldliness sinks inert, and within whose charmed circle the principle of life is king. Those of the North with the call of the tropics in their blood have never a moment of strangeness; they are content, at home.
The pauses at the still more southern islands on the way up from Barbadoes had been brief, but Anne had had glimpses of great fields of cane, set with the stately homes of planters, the grace of palm-fringed shores and silver sands; the awful majesty of volcanic islands, torn and racked by earthquake, eaten by fire, sometimes rising so abruptly from the sea as to imply a second half split to its base and hurled to the depths. But although there had been much to delight and awe, the wine in her cup had not risen to the brim until she came in sight of Nevis, whose perfection of form and colour, added to the interest her gifted and unhappy son had inspired, made her seem to eager romantic eyes the incarnation of all the loveliness of all the tropics. To-night Anne could forget even Byam Warner, who indeed had never seemed so far away, and she only went within when the cloud rolled down Nevis and enveloped her, as if in rebuke of those that would gaze upon her beauty too long.
Anne started from the sound unhaunted sleep of youth conscious that some one had entered her room and stood by her bed. It proved to be a grinning barefoot coloured maid with coffee, rolls, and a plate of luscious fruit. Anne's untuned ear could make little of the girl's voluble replies to her questions, for the West Indian negroes used one gender only, and made a limited vocabulary cover all demands. But she gathered that it was about half-past-five o'clock, and that the loud bell ringing in the distance informed the world of Nevis that it was market day in Charlestown.
She had been shown the baths the day before and ran down-stairs to the great stone tanks, enjoyed her swim in the sea water quite alone, and returned to her room happy and normal, not a dream lingering in her brain. As she dressed herself she longed for one of those old frocks in which she had taken comfort at Warkworth, but even had not all her ancient wardrobe been diplomatically presented by Mrs. Nunn to the servants of their London lodging, she knew that it was due to her aunt that she present herself at breakfast attired as a young lady of the first fashion. She therefore accommodated herself to a white Indian muslin ruffled to the waist and sweeping the ground all round. The bodice was long and tight, exposing the neck, which Anne covered with a white silk scarf. She put on her second best bonnet, trimmed with lilac flowers instead of feathers, the scoop filled with blonde and mull, and tied under the chin with lilac ribbons. Her waist, encircled by a lilac sash of soft India silk looked no more than eighteen inches round, and she surveyed herself with some complacency, feeling even reconciled to the curls, as they modified the severity of her brow and profile, bringing both into closer harmony with her full mouth and throat.
"But what's the use?" she thought, with a whimsical sigh. "I mean never to marry, so men cannot interest me, and it would be the very irony of fate to make a favourable impression on a poet we wot of. So, it all comes to this: I look my best to gratify the vanity of my aunt. Well, let it pass."
She drew on her gloves and ran down-stairs, meeting no one. As she left the hotel and stood for a few moments on the upper terrace she forgot the discomforts of fashion The packet had arrived late in the afternoon, there had been too much bustle to admit of observing the island in detail, even had the hour been favourable, but this morning it burst upon her in all its beauty.
The mountain, bordered with a strip of silver sands and trimmed with lofty palms, rose in melting curves to the height of three thousand feet and more, and although the most majestic of the Caribbees, there was nothing on any part of it to inspire either terror or misgiving. The exceeding grace of the long sweeping curves was enhanced by silvery groves of lime trees and fields of yellow cane. Green as spring earlier in the winter, at this season of harvest Nevis looked like a gold mine turned wrong side out. The "Great Houses," set in groves of palm and cocoanut, and approached by avenues of tropical trees mixed with red and white cedars, the spires of churches rising from romantic nooks, their heavy tombs lost in a tangle of low feathery palms, gave the human note without which the most resplendent verdure must pall in time; and yet seemed indestructibly a part of that jewelled scene. High above, where cultivation ceased, a deep collar of evergreen trees encircled the cone, its harsh stiff outlines in no wise softened by the white cloud hovering above the summit. Charlestown spread along the shore of a curving bay, its many fine buildings and infinite number of huckster shops, its stately houses and negro village alike shaded by immense banana trees, the loftier cocoanut, and every variety of palm.
Anne, as she gazed, concluded that if choice were demanded, it must be given to the royal palm and the cane fields. The former rose, a splendid silvery shaft, to a great height, where it spread out into a mass of long green blades shining like metal in the sun. But the cane fields! They glittered a solid mass of gold on all visible curves of the mountain. When the dazzled eye, grown accustomed to the sight which no cloud in the deep blue tempered, separated it into parts, it was but to admire the more. The cane, nearly eight feet in height, waxed from gold to copper, where the long blade-like leaves rose waving from the stalk. From the centre of the tip shot out a silver wand supporting a plume of white feathers, shading into lilac. The whole island, rising abruptly out of the rich blue waters of the sea, looked like a colossal jewel that might once have graced the diadem of the buried continent.
The idea pleased Anne Percy at all events, and she lingered a few moments half dazed by the beauty about her and wholly happy. And on the terraces and in the gardens were the flowers and shrubs of the tropics, whose perfumes were as sweet as their colours were unsurpassed; the flaming hydrangea, the rose-shaped Arabian jasmine, the pink pluminia, the bright yellow acacia, the scarlet trumpet flower, the purple and white convolvulus, the silvery white blossoms of the lime tree, framed with dark green leaves.
Anne shook herself out of her dream, descended the terraces, and walked down a narrow avenue of royal palms to the town. She could hear the "Oyez! Oyez!" of the criers announcing the wares brought in from the country, and, eager for the new picture, walked as rapidly as her fine frock would permit. She was obliged to hold up her long and voluminous skirts, and her sleeves were so tight that the effort cramped her arms. To stride after her usual fashion was impossible, and she ambled along anathematising fashion and resolved to buy some cotton in the town and privately make several short skirts in which she could enjoy the less frequented parts of Nevis while her aunt slept. Without realising it, for nothing in her monotonous life had touched her latent characteristics, she was essentially a creature of action. Even her day-dreams had been energetic, and if they had filled her life it was because they had the field to themselves. In earlier centuries she would have defended one of the castles of her ancestors with as much efficiency and spirit as any man among them, and had she been born thirty years later she would certainly have entered one of the careers open to women, and filled her life with active accomplishment. But she knew little of female careers, save, to be sure, of those dedicated to fashion, which did not interest her; and less of self-analysis. But she felt and lived in the present moment intensely. For twenty-two years she had dwelt in the damp and windy North, and now the dream of those years was fulfilled and she was amidst the warmth and glow of the tropics. It was the greatest happiness that life had offered her and she abandoned herself to it headlong.
As she entered the capital she suddenly became aware that she was holding her skirts high over her hoop in a most unladylike manner. She blushed, shook them down, and assumed a carriage and gait which would have been approved by even the fastidious Mrs. Nunn. But she was no less interested in the animated scene about her. The long street winding from the Court House to the churchyard on the farther edge of the town was a mass of moving colour and a babel of sound. The women, ranging from ebony through all the various shades of copper and olive to that repulsive white where the dark blood seems to flow just beneath the skin, and bedecked in all the violence of blues and greens, reds and yellows, some in country costume, their heads covered with kerchiefs, others in a travesty on the prevailing fashion, stood in their shops or behind the long double row of temporary stalls, vociferating at the passers by as they called attention to fowl, meats, hot soup, fruit, vegetables, wild birds, fish, cigars, sugar cakes, castor oil, cloth, handkerchiefs, and wood. Many of the early buyers were negroes of the better class, others servants of the white planters and of Bath House, come early to secure the best bargains. Anne was solicited incessantly, even her skirts being pulled, for since emancipation, four years before, the negro had lost his awe of a white skin. It was some time before she could separate the gibberish into words, but finally she made out: "Bargain! Bargain! Here's yo' fine cowfee! Here's yo' pickled peppers! Come see! Come see! Only come see! Make you buy. Want any jelly cocoanut? Any yams? Nice grenadilla. Make yo' mouth water. Lady! Lady! Buy here! Very cheap! Very nice! Real!"
Anne paused before a stall spread with cotton cloth and bought enough for several skirts, the result of her complaisance being a siege of itinerant vendors that nearly deafened her. The big women were literally covered with their young ("pic'nees"), who clung to their skirts, waist, hips, bosoms; and these mites, with the parrot proclivities of their years and race added their shrill: "By'm, lady, by'm!"
The proprietor of the cloth volubly promised to deliver the purchase at Bath House and Anne fled down the street until she was stopped by a drove of sheep whose owner was crying: "Oyez! Oyez! Come to the shambles of Mr. Columbus Brown. Nice fat lambs and big fat sheep. Very cheap! Very cheap!"
Anne retreated into a shop of some depth to avoid the dust. When the drove had passed she was rescued by Lord Hunsdon, who lifted his broad panama without smiling. He was a very serious looking young man, with round staring anxious blue eyes under pent white brows, an ascetic mouth and a benevolent dome. He was immaculate in white linen, and less pinched about the waist than his fashionable contemporaries.
"I believe it is not considered quite de rigueur for young ladies and young gentlemen to walk unchaperoned," he said diffidently; "but in the circumstances I think I may come to your relief and escort you back to the hotel."
"Not yet, please," Anne emerged and walked rapidly toward the edge of the town. "I cannot go back and sit in the hotel till half past nine. I am accustomed to a long walk before breakfast."
"But Mrs. Nunn——"
"She must get used to my tramps. I should fall ill if I gave them up. Indeed, she is sadly aware that I am no fine lady, and no doubt will shortly give me up. But if you are afraid of her, pray go back. I recall, she said I was not to be escorted——"
"If you are determined to go on I shall accompany you, particularly as I wish to talk to you on a subject of great importance. Have I your permission?"
Quite lacking in vanity or worldliness, it was impossible that he should be unaware of his importance as a young, wealthy, and unmarried peer, and he shrewdly suspected that Mrs. Nunn would make an exception in his favour on market day in Charlestown.
Anne, wondering what he could have to say to her, led the way past the church to the open road that encircled the island. Then she moderated her pace and looked up at him from the deeps of her bonnet. Her gaze was cooler and more impersonal than he was wont to encounter, but it crossed his burdened mind that a blooming face even if unfashionably sunburnt, and a supple vigorous body were somewhat attractive after a surfeit of dolls with their languid fine-lady airs and affectation of physical delicacy; which he, being no fool, suspected of covering fine appetites and stubborn selfishness. But while he was young enough to admire the fresh beauty of his companion, it was the strength and decision, the subtle suggestion of high-mindedness, in this young lady's aspect, which had led him to a resolution that he now proceeded to arrange in words as politic as might be.
"It may seem presumptuous to speak after so short an acquaintance——"
"Not after your rescue last night. I had like to have died of embarrassment. I am not accustomed to have half a room gazing at me."
"You will," he said gallantly. "But it is kind of you to make it easier. This is it. I have been—am—very unhappy about a friend of mine here. Of course you know the work of one, who, many believe, is our greatest poet—Byam Warner?"
Anne drew her breath in and her eyelashes together. "I have read his poems," she said shortly.
"I see! Like many others you cannot dissociate the genius from the man. Because a fatal weakness——"
"What have I said, pray, that you should jump to such a conclusion?" She had recovered her breath but not her poise. "No one could admire him more than I. About his private life I know little and care less. He lives on this island, does he not?"
"We shall pass his house presently, but God knows if he is in it."
"He is a West Indian, is he not?"
"A scion of two of its foremost families, whose distinction by no means began with their emigration to the Antilles. One of his ancestors, Sir Thomas Warner, colonised most of these islands for the crown—in the seventeenth century. A descendant living on Trinidad, has in his possession the ring which Queen Elizabeth gave to Essex—you recall my friend's poem and the magnificent invective put into the frantic Queen's mouth at the bedside of Lady Nottingham? The ring was presented to Sir Thomas by Charles I., on the eve of his first expedition to these islands. The Byams are almost equally notable, descended as they are from the father of Anne Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond." The spirit of British democracy still slept in the womb of the century, with board schools, the telegraph, and the penny press, and the aristocrat frankly admitted his pride of birth and demanded a corresponding distinction in his friends. "I hope I have not bored you," continued the young nobleman anxiously; "But I have given you some idea of Warner's pedigree that you may see for yourself that the theory of generations of gentle blood and breeding, combined with exceptional advantages, sometimes culminating in genius, finds its illustration in him. Also, alas! that such men are too often the prey of a highly wrought nervous system that coarser natures and duller brains are spared. When he was younger—I knew him at Cambridge—nor, indeed a few years since, he had not drained that system; his youthful vigour immediately rushing in to resupply exhausted conduits. But even earlier he was always disposed to drink more than was good for him, and when a wretched woman made ducks and drakes of his life some four or five years since, he became—well—I shall not go into details. This is his house. It has quite a history. Alexander Hamilton, an American statesman, was born in it. Have you ever heard of him?"
"No—yes, of course I have read Warner's beautiful poem to his mother—and—I recall now—when one of the Hamiltons of Cambuskeith, a relative of my mother, visited us some years ago, he talked of this Alexander Hamilton, a cousin of his father, who had distinguished himself in the United States of America."
Hunsdon nodded. "Great pity he did not carry his talents to England where they belonged. But this is the house where his parents lived when he was born. It used to be surrounded by a high wall, but I believe an earthquake flung that down before my friend's father bought the place. Warner was also born here."
The old house, a fine piece of masonry, was built about three sides of a court, in the centre of which was an immense banana tree whose lower branches, as close as a thatched roof, curved but a few feet above the ground. The front wall contained a wide gateway, which was flanked by two royal palms quite a hundred feet in height. The large unkempt garden at the side looked like a jungle in the hills, but was rich in colour and perfume. The gates were open and they could see the slatternly negro servants moving languidly about the rooms on the ground floor, while two slept under the banana tree. A gallery traversed the second story, its pillars covered with dusty vines. All of the rooms of this story evidently opened upon the gallery, but every door was closed. The general air of neglect and decay was more pathetic to Anne, accustomed to exemplary housekeeping, than anything she had yet heard of the poet. He was uncomfortable and ill-cared for, no doubt of that. The humming-birds were darting about like living bits of enamel set with jewels. The stately palms glittered like burnished metal. Before the house, on the deep blue waters of the bay, was a flotilla of white-sailed fishing-boats, and opposite was the green and gold mass of St. Kitts, an isolated mountain chain rising as mysteriously from the deep as the solitary cone of Nevis. She could conceive of no more inspiring spot for a poet, but she sighed again as she thought of the slatterns that miscared for him.
Lord Hunsdon echoed her sigh as they walked on. "Even here he disappears for days at a time," he resumed. "Of course he does not drink steadily. No man could do that in the tropics and live. But spirits make a madman of him, and even when sober he now shuns the vicinity of respectable people, knowing that they regard him as a pariah. Of course his associates—well, I cannot go into particulars. For a time I did not believe these stories, for each year brought a volume from his pen, which showed a steady increase of power, and a divine sense of beauty. Besides I have been much absorbed these last few years. There seemed no loosening the hold of the Whigs upon the destinies of England and it was every patriot's duty to work with all his strength. You followed, of course, the tremendous battle that ended in last year's victory. I was almost worn out with the struggle, and when I found that these stories about Warner were persistent I came out to investigate for myself. Alas! I had not heard the half. I spent three months with him in that house. I used every argument, every more subtle method I could command, to bring him to see the folly and the wickedness of his course. I might as well have addressed the hurricane. He did not even hate life. He was merely sick of it. He was happy only when at work upon a new poem—intoxicated, of course. When it was over he went upon a horrible bout and then sank into an apathy from which no art of mine could rouse him; although I am bound to add, in justice to one of the gentlest and most courteous souls I have ever known, his civility as a host never deserted him. I was, alas! obliged to return to England with nothing accomplished, but I have come this year with quite another plan. Will you listen to it, Miss Percy?"
"I am vastly interested." But she had little hope, and could well conceive that three months of this good young man might have confirmed the poet in his desire for oblivion.
"I persuaded my mother to come with me, although without avowing my object. I merely expatiated upon the beauty and salubrity of Nevis, and the elegant comforts of Bath House. Women often demand much subtlety in the handling. We arrived by the packet that preceded yours—two weeks ago, but I only yesterday broached my plan to her; she stood the trip so ill, and then seemed to find so much delight in long gossips with her old friends—a luxury denied her at home, where politics and society absorb her. But yesterday I had a talk with her, and this is my plan—that she should persuade herself and a number of the other ladies that it is their duty to restore to Warner his lost self-respect. For that I believe to be the root of the trouble, not any real inclination to dissipation and low society. This restoration can be accomplished only by making him believe that people of the highest respectability and fashion desire, nay demand, his company. As my mother knew him well in England it will be quite natural she should write him a note asking him to take a dish of tea with her and complimenting his latest volume—I brought it with me. If he hesitates, as he well may do, she can call upon him with me, and, while ignoring the cause, vow he has been a recluse long enough, and that the ladies of Bath House are determined to have much of him. Such a course must succeed, for, naturally the most refined of men, he must long bitterly, when himself, for the society of his own kind. Then, when the ice is broken, we will ask others to meet him——"
"And has your mother consented?"
"Practically. I have no doubt that she will. She is a woman who needs a cause for her energies, and she never had a better one, not even the restoration of the Tories and Sir Robert."
"And you wish me to meet him?"
"Particularly, dear Miss Percy. I feel sure he would not care for any of these other young ladies. I happen to know what he thinks of young ladies. But you—you are so different! I do not wish to be a flatterer, like so many of my shallow kind, but I am sure that he would appreciate the privilege of knowing you, would feel at his ease with you. But of course it all depends upon Mrs. Nunn. She may disapprove of your meeting one with so bad a name."
"Oh, she will follow Lady Hunsdon's cue, I fancy," said Anne, repressing a smile. "They all do, do they not, even here? I hope the poet does not wear Hyperion locks and a velvet smoking jacket."
"He used to wear his hair, and dress, like any ordinary gentleman. But when I was here last year his wardrobe was in a shocking condition." The immaculate Englishman sighed deeply. "He is totally demoralised. Fortunately we are about the same figure. If all his clothes are gone to seed I can supply him till he can get a box out from England. For the matter of that there is a tailor here who makes admirable linen suits, and evening clothes not badly——"
"Is he very fascinating?" asked Anne ingenuously. She had long since recovered her poise. "My aunt has set her mind upon a high and mighty marriage for me, and might apprehend——"
"Fascinating! Apprehend! Great heavens! He was handsome once, a beau garcon,—no doubt fascinating enough. But now! He is a ruin. No woman would look at him save in pity. But you must not think of that. It is his soul I would save—that I would have you help me to save"—with a glance into the glowing eyes which he thought remarkably like the blue of the Caribbean sea, and eloquent of fearless youth. "His soul, Miss Percy. I cannot, will not, let that perish for want of enterprise."
"Nor his fountain of song dry up," replied Anne, whose practical side was uppermost. "He should write, and better and better for twenty years to come."
"I should not care if he never wrote another line. I see a friend with the most beautiful nature I have ever known—he has the essence of the old saints and martyrs in him—going to ruin, wrecking all hopes of happiness, mortal and immortal. I must save him! I must save him!"
Anne glanced at the flushed face of her companion. His expression was almost fanatical, but as he turned suddenly and she met the intense little blue eyes, something flashed in them in no wise resembling fanaticism. She stiffened and replied coldly:
"You can count on me, of course. How could I refuse? But I have sensations that assure me it is close upon the breakfast hour. Shall we return?"
After breakfast, Mrs. Nunn, pretending to saunter through the saloon and morning rooms with Anne, introduced her naturally to a number of young people, and finally left her with a group, returning to the more congenial society of Lady Hunsdon and Lady Constance Mortlake.
Anne, although shy and nervous, listened with much interest to the conversation of these young ladies so near her own age, while taking little part in it. The long windows opened upon an orchard of cocoanuts and bananas, grenadillas and shaddocks, oranges and pineapples, but in spite of the cool refreshing air, many of the girls were frankly lounging, as became the tropics, others were turning the leaves of the Journal des Modes, dabbling in water colours, pensively frowning at an embroidery frame. Of the three young men present one was absorbed in the Racing Calendar, another was making himself generally agreeable, offering to read aloud or hold wool, and a third was flirting in a corner with the sparkling Miss Bargarny.
All acknowledged Mrs. Nunn's introductions with much propriety and little cordiality, for Anne was far too alert and robust, and uncompromising of eye, to suit their modish taste. Nevertheless they asked her politely what she thought of Nevis, and seemed satisfied with her purposely conventional replies. Then the conversation drifted naturally to the light and dainty accomplishments for which all save herself professed a fondness; from thence to literature, where much languid admiration was expressed of Disraeli's "Venetia," a "performance of real elegance," and the latest achievement of the exciting Mr. G. P. R. James. Dickens wrote about people one really never had heard of, but Bulwer, of course, was one of themselves and the equal of Scott. In poetry the palm was tossed between Mrs. Hemans and L. E. L. on the one hand and that delightful impossible American, Mr. Willis, and Barry Cornwall on the other. Young Tennyson received a few words of praise. When the talk naturally swung to Byam Warner Anne eagerly attended. Had he made a deep personal impression upon any of these essentially feminine hearts? But the criticism of his poems was as languid, affected, and undiscriminating as that of other work they had pretended to discuss. They admired him, oh vastly! He was amazing, a genius of the first water, the legitimate successor of Byron and Shelley, to say nothing of Keats; he might easily surpass them all in a few years. In short they rehearsed all the stock phrases which the critics had set in motion years ago and which had been drifting about ever since for the use of those unequal to the exertion of making their own opinions, or afraid of not thinking with the elect. Had Warner been falsely appraised by the higher powers their phrases would have been nourished as faithfully; and Anne, with a movement of irrepressible impatience, rose, murmured an excuse, and joined her aunt.
Lady Hunsdon was a short, thin, trimly made woman, with small, hard, aquiline features, piercing eyes, and a mien of so much graciousness that had she been a shade less well-bred she would have been patronising. She looked younger than her years in spite of her little cap and the sedateness of attire then common to women past their youth. Lady Constance Mortlake had the high bust and stomach of advanced years; her flabby cheeks were streaked with good living. Her expression was shrewd and humorous, however, and her eyes were kinder than her tongue. Mrs. Nunn rose with vast ceremony and presented her niece to these two august dames, and as Anne courtesied, Lady Hunsdon said, smiling, but with a penetrating glance at the newcomer:
"My son tells me that he has acquainted you with our little plan to reform the poet——"
"Our?" interrupted Lady Constance. "None of mine. I sit and look on—as at any other doubtful experiment. I have no faith in the powers of a parcel of old women to rival the seductions of brandy and Canary, Madeira and rum."
"Parcel of old women! I shall ask the prettiest of the girls to hear him read his poems in my sitting-room."
"Even if their mammas dare not refuse you, I doubt if the girls brave the wrath of their gallants, who would never countenance their meeting such a reprobate as Byam Warner——"
"You forget the despotism of curiosity."
"Well, they might gratify that by meeting him once, but they will sound the beaux first. What do you suppose they come here for? Much they care for the beauty of the tropics and sulphur baths. The tropics are wondrous fine for making idle young gentlemen come to the point, and there isn't a girl in Bath House who isn't on the catch. Those that have fortunes want more, and most of them have too many brothers to think of marrying for love. Their genius for matrimony has made half the fame of Nevis, for they make Bath House so agreeable a place to run to from the fogs of London that more eligibles flock here every year. There isn't a disinterested girl in Bath House unless it be Mary Denbigh, who has two thousand a year, has been disappointed in love, and is twenty-nine and six months." She turned sharply to Anne, and demanded:
"Have you come here after a husband?"
"If you will ask my aunt I fancy she will reply in the affirmative," said Anne, mischievously.
Mrs. Nunn coloured, and the others looked somewhat taken aback.
"That was not a very lady-like speech," said Mrs. Nunn severely. "Moreover," with great dignity, "I have found your society so agreeable, my dear, that I hope to enjoy it for several years to come."
Anne, quick in response, felt repentant and touched, but Lady Constance remarked drily:
"Prepare yourself for the worst, my dear Emily. I'll wager you this purse I'm netting that Miss Percy will have the first proposal of the season. She may differ from the prevailing mode in young ladies, but she was fashioned to be the mother of fine healthy children; and young men, who are human and normal au fond, whatever their ridiculous affectations, will not be long in responding, whether they know what is the matter with them or not."
Anne blushed at this plain speaking, and Mrs. Nunn bridled. "I wish you would remember that young girls——"
"You told me yourself that she was two-and-twenty. She ought to have three babies by this time. It is a shocking age for an unmarried female. You have not made up your mind to be an old maid, I suppose?" she queried, pushing up her spectacles and dropping her netting. "If so, I'll turn matchmaker myself. I should succeed far better than Emily Nunn, for I have married off five nieces of my own. Now don't say that you have. You look as if it were on the tip of your tongue. All girls say it when there is no man in sight. I shall hate you if you are not as little commonplace as you look."
Anne shrugged her shoulders and said nothing, while Lady Hunsdon remarked with her peremptory smile (this was one of a well known set): "We have wandered far from the subject of Mr. Warner. Not so far either, for my son tells me, Miss Percy, that you have kindly consented to meet him—to help us, in fact. I hope you have no objections to bring forward, Emily. I am very much set upon this matter of reclaiming the poet. And as I can see that Miss Percy has independence of character, and as I feel sure that she has not come to Nevis on the catch, she can be of the greatest possible assistance to me. What Constance says of the other young ladies is only too true. They will pretend to comply, but gracefully evade any responsibility. I can count upon none of them except Mary Denbigh, and she is rather passee, poor thing."
"Passee?" cried Lady Constance. "At thirty? What do you expect? She looks like an elegiac figure weeping on a tombstone. I can't stand the sight of her. And it's all kept up to make herself interesting. Edwin Hay has been dead eleven years——"
"Never mind poor Mary. We all know she is your pet abomination——"
"She gives me a cramp in my spleen."
"Well, to return to Mr. Warner. Will you all meet him when I ask him to my sitting-room up-stairs? Will you spread the news of his coming among the other guests? Hint that he has reformed? Excite in them a desire to meet the great man?"
She did not speak in a tone of appeal, and there was a mounting fire in her eye.
Lady Constance shrugged her shoulders. "You mean that you will cut us if we don't. I never quarrel in the tropics. Besides, I have buried too many of my old friends! I don't approve, but I shall be interested, and my morals are as pure and solid as my new teeth. If you can marry him to Mary Denbigh and leave her on the island——"
"And you, Emily?"
None had had more experience in yielding gracefully to social tyrants than Mrs. Nunn. She thought Maria Hunsdon mad to take up with a drunken poet, and could only be thankful that her charge was a sensible, commonplace girl with no romantic notions in her head. "I never think in the tropics, my dear Maria, and now that you are here to think for me, and provide a little variety, so much the better. What is your programme?"
"To ask him first for tea in my sitting-room, then for dinner; then to organise picnics, and take him with us on excursions. I shall frequently pick him up when I drive—in short before a fortnight has passed he will be a respectable member of society, and accepted as a matter of course."
"And what if he gets drunk?"
"That is what I purpose he shall not do. As soon as I know him well enough I shall talk to him like a mother."
"Better let Miss Percy talk to him like a sister. Well, regulate the universe to suit yourself. I hope you will not forget to order Nevis to have no earthquakes this winter, particularly while we are cooking our gouty old limbs in the hot springs. By the way, whom have you decreed James shall marry?"
"I should not think of interfering in such a matter." Lady Hunsdon spoke with her usual bland emphasis, but darted a keen glance at Anne. It was not disapproving, for Miss Percy's descent was long, she liked the splendid vitality of the girl, and Hunsdon had riches of his own. But, far cleverer than Mrs. Nunn, she suspected depths which might have little in common with her son, and a will which might make a mother-in-law hate her. Lady Hunsdon loved peace, and wondered that anyone should question her rigid rules for enforcing it. But of Anne as a valuable coadjutor in the present instance there could be no doubt, and, to do her justice, she anticipated no danger in the meeting of a fine girl, full of eager interest in life, and the demoralised being her son so pathetically described. She was quite sincere in her desire to lift the gifted young man from his moral quagmire, but this new opportunity to exercise her power, almost moribund since her party was no longer in Opposition, was a stronger motive still.
When Anne was alone in her room she sat down and stared through the half-closed jalousies until the luncheon bell rang at two o'clock, forgetting to change her frock. But she could make little of the ferment in her mind, except that her mental companion, that arbitrary creation she had called Byam Warner, was gone forever. Even did she return to her northern home and dwell alone, his image would never return. She could not even now recall the lineaments of that immortal lover. The life of the imagination was past. Realities multiplied; no doubt she was converging swiftly upon one so hideous as to make her wish she had never been born. Any day she might be formally introduced over a dish of tea to a degraded, broken creature whom all the world despised as a man, and who she would be forced to remind herself was the author of the poems of Byam Warner. Byron, at least, had never been a common drunkard. Picturesque in even his dissipations, he had been a superb romantic figure to the last. But this man! She could hear the struggle and rattle of romance as it died within her. Oh, that she had never seen Nevis, that her father had lived, that she could have gone on——! Then a peremptory thought asserted itself. The time was come for her to live. To dream for twenty-two years was enough. She must take up her part in life, grasp its realities, help others if she could. She could not love this poor outcast, but were she offered a share in his redemption she should embrace the circumstance as a sacred duty.
In time, perhaps, she might even marry. That dreadful old woman was right, no doubt, it was her manifest destiny. Certainly she should like to have children and a fine establishment of her own. Lord Hunsdon was unacceptable, but doubtless a prepossessing suitor would arrive before long, and when he did she would marry him gladly and live rationally and dream no more. And when she reached this decision she wept, and could not go down to luncheon; but she did not retire from the mental step she had taken.
Her mind had time to recover its balance.
It was a fortnight and more before she met Byam Warner. Lady Hunsdon, to her secret wrath and amazement, met defeat with the poet himself. He replied politely to her ladyship's flattering notes, but only to remind her that he was very busy, that he had been a recluse for some years, that he was too much out of health to be fit for the society of ladies. The estimable Hunsdon, after one fruitless interview, invariably found the poet from home when he called. "The massa" was up in the hills. He was on St. Kitts. He was visiting relatives on Antigua. Had he been in London he could not more successfully have protected himself. Lord Hunsdon was a man of stubborn purpose, but he could not search the closed rooms along the gallery.
But the poet's indifference to social patronage at least accomplished one of the objects upon which Lady Hunsdon had set her heart. The guests of Bath House, vaguely curious, or properly scandalised, at the first, soon became quite feverish to meet the distinguished friend of Lord Hunsdon. So rapidly does a fashion, a fad, leap from bulb to blossom in idle minds, that before a fortnight was out even the young men were anxious to extend the hand of good fellowship, while as for the young ladies, they dreamed of placing his reformation to their own private account, learned his less subtle poems by heart, and began to write him anonymous notes.
Meanwhile, Anne, hoping that his purpose would prove of a consistency with his habits, and determined to dismiss him from her thoughts, found sufficient pleasure and distraction in her daily life. She made her short skirts—several hemmed strips gathered into a belt!—and walked about the island in the early morning. The negroes singing in the golden cane fields, the women walking along the white road with their swinging hips, immense baskets poised on their heads, pic'nees trotting behind, or clinging to their flanks, the lonely odorous, silent jungles in the high recesses, the cold fringe of forest close to the lost crater, the house in which Nelson courted and married his bride and the church in which the marriage certificate is still kept; she visited them all and alone. In the afternoon she drove with her aunt, their phaeton one of a gay procession, stopping sometimes at one of the Great Houses, where she was taken by the young people out to the mill to see the grinding and partake of "sling;" home in the cool of the evening to dress for the long dinner and brilliant evening. She would not dance, but she made several friends among the young men, notably that accomplished lady-killer and arbiter elegantiarum, Mr. Abergenny, so prosilient in the London of his day; and found herself in a fair way to be disliked thoroughly by all the other young women save Lady Mary Denbigh; who, somewhat to her embarrassment, showed a distinct preference for her society, particularly when Lord Hunsdon was in attendance. The men she liked better than she had believed possible, estimating them by their suspiciously small waists, their pinched feet, and hair so carefully curled and puffed out at the side; but although Lord Hunsdon's attentions were now unmistakable, she liked him none the better that she esteemed him the more, and was glad of the refuge the admiration of the other men afforded her.
And then, without any preliminary sign of capitulation, Byam Warner wrote to Lady Hunsdon announcing that he now felt sufficiently recovered to pay his devoirs to one who had been so kind, apologised for any apparent discourtesy, and asked permission to drink a dish of tea with her on the following evening.
Lady Hunsdon was quite carried out of herself by this victory, for there was a Lady Toppington at Bath House, whose husband was in the present cabinet and a close friend of Peel. She had given the finest ball of the season to signalise the return of the Tories to power, and would have taken quick possession of the social reins had Lady Hunsdon laid them down for a moment. Politics enjoyed a rest on Nevis, but other interests loomed large in proportion, and the apparent defeat of the hitherto invulnerable leader of ton excited both joy and hope in the breast of Lady Toppington and her little court. Now did Lady Hunsdon sweep rivals aside with her flexible eyebrows, and on the evening when she was able to announce her triumph, she was besieged in her stately chair, not unlike a throne.
But she was deaf to hints and bolder hopes. She would not thrust a shy young man, long a hermit, into a miscellaneous company when he had come merely to drink tea with herself and son and a few intimate friends. Later, of course, they should all meet him, but they must possess their souls in patience. To this dictum they submitted as gracefully as possible, but they were not so much in awe of Lady Hunsdon as to forbear to peep from windows and sequestered nooks on the following evening at nine o'clock, when Byam Warner emerged from the palm avenue, ran hurriedly up the long flights of steps between the terraces, and, escorted by Lord Hunsdon, who met him at the door, up to the suite of his hostess.
Anne was standing in the deep embrasure of the window when he entered the sitting-room, where she, in common with Lady Constance Mortlake, Lady Mary Denbigh, Mrs. Nunn, and Miss Bargarny, who was a favourite of Lady Hunsdon and would take no denial, had been bidden to do honour to the poet. She heard Lady Hunsdon's dulcet icy tones greet him and present him to her guests, the ceremonious responses of the ladies—but not a syllable from Warner—before she steeled herself to turn and walk forward. But the ordeal she had anticipated was still to face. Warner did not raise his eyes as her name was pronounced. He merely bowed mechanically and had the appearance of not having removed his gaze from the floor since he entered the room. He was deathly pale, and his lips were closely pressed as if to preserve their firmness. Anne, emboldened by a shyness greater than her own, and relieved of the immediate prospect of meeting his eyes, examined him curiously after he had taken a chair and the others were amiably covering his silence with their chatter. He had dressed himself in an old but immaculate white linen suit with a high collar and small necktie. It was evident that he had always been very thin, for his clothes, unassisted by stays, fitted without a wrinkle, although his shoulders were perhaps more bowed than when his tailor had measured him. His hair was properly cut and parted, but although he was still young, its black was bright with silver. His head and brow were nobly formed, his set features fine and sensitive, but his thin face was lined and gray. It was unmistakably the face of a dissipated man, but oddly enough the chin was not noticeably weak, and the ideality of the brow, and the delicacy of the nostril and upper lip were unaltered. Nevertheless, and in spite of the suggestion of ease which still lingered about his tall figure, there was something so abject about his whole appearance, his painful self-consciousness at finding himself once more among people that had justly cast him out was so apparent, that Anne longed for an excuse to bid him go forth and hide himself once more. But to dismiss him was the part of Lady Hunsdon, who had no intention of doing anything of the sort. It is doubtful if either she or any of the others saw aught in his bearing but the natural embarrassment of a shy man at finding himself once more within the enchanted circle. Lady Hunsdon expatiated upon the beauty of Nevis, long familiar to her through his works, vowed that she had come to the island only to see for herself how much he had exaggerated, but was quite vanquished and speechless. Not to have met her son's most valued friend would have blurred and flawed the wonderful experience. Warner bowed gravely once or twice, but did not raise his eyes, to Anne's continued relief: she dreaded what she must meet in them. If the rest of his face was a ruin, what sinks of iniquity, what wells of horror, must be those recording features? There were lines about them and not from laughter! He looked as if he had never smiled. She pitied him so deeply that she could have wept, for she had never seen an unhappier mortal; but she had no desire to approach him further.
Miss Bargarny poured the tea, and when she passed his cup, roguishly quoted a couplet from one of his poems; lines that had no reference to tea—God knows, he had never written about tea—but which tripped from her tongue so gracefully that they had the effect of sounding apropos. He blushed slightly and bowed again; and shortly after, when all the cups had been handed about and he had drained his own, seemed to recover his poise, for he addressed a few remarks to Lady Hunsdon, at whose right he sat. Anne, who was seated some distance from the table could not even hear his voice, but Lady Hunsdon received such as he ventured upon with so much empressement, that he manifestly rose in courage; in a few moments he was extending his attention to Lady Mary Denbigh, who leaned forward with an exalted expression shaded by ringlets, raising her imperceptible bosom with an eloquent sigh. By this time Lord Hunsdon was talking into Anne's ear and she could hear nothing of the conversation opposite, although now and again she caught a syllable from a low toneless voice. But his first agony was passed as well as her own, and she endeavoured to forget him in her swain's comments upon the political news arrived with the packet that afternoon. When tea was over and Miss Bargarny, who cultivated liveliness of manner, had engaged the poet in a discussion upon the relative merits of Shelley and Nathaniel P. Willis—astonishingly original on her part, mild to the outposts of indifference on his—Anne followed Hunsdon to the other side of the room to look over an album of his mother's, just unpacked. It contained calotypes of the most distinguished men and women of the day, and Anne, who had barely seen a daguerreotype before, and never a presentment of the famous people of her time, became so absorbed that she forgot the poet to whose spirit hers had been wedded these five years, and whose visible part had sickened the very depths of her being. Lord Hunsdon had the pleasure of watching her kindling eyes as he told her personal details of each of his friends, and when Anne cried out that she was living in a bit of contemporary history, he too flushed, and felt that his suit prospered. But Anne was thinking as little of him as of Warner, and so intent was she upon the ugly striking physiognomy of the author of "Venetia," with his Byronic curls and flowing collar, that she was hardly aware that Lord Hunsdon's attentions had been claimed by his mother; who skilfully transferred him to the side of Lady Mary.
A moment later she turned abruptly and met the eyes of Warner. He was sitting apart, and he was staring at her. It was not meeting his eyes so suddenly that turned her hands to ice and made them shake as she returned to the album, but the eyes themselves that looked out from the ruin of his face. She had expected them to be sneering, lascivious, bold, anything but what they were: the most spiritual and at the same time the most tormented eyes that had ever been set in the face of a mortal. She caught her breath. What could it mean? No man could live the life he had lived—Lady Mary, who had a fine turn for gossip, had told her all that Lord Hunsdon had left unsaid—and keep his soul unspotted. It was marvellous, incredible. She recalled confusedly something Hunsdon had said about his having a beautiful character—well, that was originally, not after years of degradation. Besides, Hunsdon was a fanatical enthusiast.
At this point she became aware that Warner was standing beside her, but as she glanced up in a surprise that restored her self-possession, he had averted his eyes, and embarrassment had claimed him again. She was too much of a woman not to rush to the rescue.
"I have never seen anything so interesting!" she exclaimed with great animation, "I am sure you will agree with me, although of course you have met all these great people. Is not this process a vast improvement upon the daguerreotype? And I am told they expect to do better still. Have you read 'Venetia'? Do you remember that Disraeli makes Lord Cadurcis—Byron—assert that Shakespeare did not write his own plays? Fancy!"
"I never for a moment supposed that he did," replied Warner, evidently grasping at a subject upon which he felt at home. "Nor did Byron. Nor, I fancy, will a good many others, when they begin to think for themselves—or study the Elizabethan era. I have never read any of Disraeli's novels. Do you think them worth reading?"
He was looking at her now, still with that expression of a saint at the stake, but obviously inattentive to her literary opinions. Before she could answer he said abruptly:
"What a fine walker you are! I have never seen a woman walk as you do. It is not the custom here, and even in England the ladies seemed far too elegant to do more than stroll through a park."
"I am not at all elegant," replied Anne, smiling; "as my aunt will tell you. I had to make myself some short skirts, and I get up at unearthly hours to have my tramp and return in time to dress for breakfast. But I have never met you."
"I have passed you several times, but of course you did not notice me. I have a hut up in one of the jungles and I am always prowling about at that hour in the morning." He hesitated, drew in his breath audibly, and as he looked down again, the colour rose under his pallid loose skin. "I came here to-day to meet you," he added.
For a moment Anne felt that she was going to faint. Good God! Had this dreary outcast found his way to her castles in Spain? Could he know? She was unable to articulate, and he went on.
"You must pardon me if that was too bold a thing to say—you are the last person to whom I would give offence! But you have seemed to me the very spirit of the fresh robust North. I have fancied I could see the salt wind blowing about you. All the English creoles of this island are like porcelain. The fine ladies that come to Bath House take too much care of their complexions, doubtless of their pretty feet—they all want to be beauties rather than women. That is the reason you seem something of a goddess by contrast, and vastly refreshing to a West Indian."
Anne drew a long breath as he blundered through his explanation. She was relieved, but at the same time femininely conscious of disappointment. Nor was there sentiment in his low monotonous voice. He paid but the homage of weary man to vital youth.
"I am unfashionably healthy," she said, hoping that her eyes danced with laughter at the idea of being likened to a goddess. She continued with great vivacity, "How relieved I am that you have never noticed the hang of my morning skirts. Ah, that is because you are a poet. But I wish I could give you one-tenth of the pleasure, by my suggestion of the North, that I derive from your wonderful tropics. Don't fancy that I get up at five merely for the pleasure of exercise. My chief object is to enjoy your island for a bit while all the rest of the world is asleep. These last sixteen days have been the happiest of my life." She brought out the last words somewhat defiantly, but she met his gaze, still smiling.
"I am not surprised to learn that you are a poet. What else could be expected—once I learned to pay compliments gracefully, but if I have forgotten the art, I have not lost my power to admire and appreciate beauty in any form. It has given me the greatest pleasure I have known for years to watch you, and I thank you for coming to Nevis."
Anne by this time was accustomed to the high-flown compliments of polite society, but she could not doubt the sincerity of this man, who had no place in a world where idle flattery was the small coin of talk. She blushed slightly and changed the subject, and as he talked, less and less haltingly, of the traditions of Nevis, she watched his eyes, fascinated. They were not the eyes of mere youth, any more than of a man who had seen far too much of life. Neither, upon closer inspection, were they the eyes of a saint or a martyr, although she could better understand Hunsdon's estimate by picturing him born three centuries earlier. But they were the eyes of the undying idealist, of the inner vision, of a mental and spiritual life apart from the frailties of the body. They seemed to look at her, intent as was his gaze, as from a vast distance, from heights which neither she nor all that respectable world that despised his poor shell could ever attain. With it all there was no hint of superciliousness: the eyes were too sad, too terribly wise in their own way for that; and his whole manner went far beyond modesty; it had all the pitiable self-consciousness of one that has fallen from the higher social plane. No common man, no matter what his fame and offences, could lose his self-respect as this poor gentleman had done. Anne, filled with a pity she had never known was in her, exerted herself to divert his mind from the gulf which had so long separated him from his class. She talked as she fancied other women must have talked to him when he visited London in the first flush of his youth and fame. She even began with "The Blue Sepulchre," which now no longer ranked with the best of his work, so far had he progressed beyond the unlicensed imagination of youth. She told him that she looked down from her balcony every morning expecting to see the domes and towers of ancient cities rise from the sea. And, alas! in the enthusiasm of her cause, before she could call a halt, she had told him all that his poetry had meant to her in her lonely life by the North Sea; in a few moments he was aware that she possessed every volume he had written, knew every line by heart; and although she caught herself up in time jealously to conceal the more portentous meanings it had held for her, he heard enough to make his eyes kindle at this delicious echo of his youth, coming from an innocent lovely creature who had evidently heard little of his evil life.
"I knew that you came from the sea!" he exclaimed. "And the purple rolling moors! How well I remember them, and longed to write of them. But only these latitudes drive my pen. Indeed, I once tried to write about the heather—the purple twilight—no figment of the poetical fancy, that. The atmosphere at that hour literally is purple."
"When it is purple! But you should see the moors in all their moods as I have done. I rarely missed a day in winter, no matter how wild—I have tramped half a day many a time. And I can assure you that the sea itself cannot look more wild, more terrifying—with the wrack driving overhead, and the rain falling in torrents, and the wind whistling and roaring, and rushing past you as if called by the sea to some frightful tryst, some horrible orgy of the elements, and striving to tear you up and carry you with it. Still—still—perhaps it is as beautiful—then—in its way, as in its season of colour and peace."
"Ah! I knew you would say that." He added in a moment, "You are the only person that has quoted my lines to me that has not embarrassed me painfully. For the moment I felt that you had written them, not I!"
"I often used to feel that I had; all, that is——" The magnet of danger to the curiosity in her feminine soul was irresistible. "All but your ode to the mate whom you never could find."
And then she turned cold, for she remembered the story of the woman who had been his ruin. But he did not pale nor shrink; he merely smiled and his eyes seemed to withdraw still farther away. "Ah! that woman of whom all poets dream. Perhaps we really find her as we invoke her for a bit with the pen." Then he broke off abruptly and looked hard at her, his eyes no longer absent. "You—you——" he began. "Ten years ago——" And then his face flushed so darkly that Anne laughed gaily to cover the cold and horror that gripped her once more.
"Ten years ago? I was only twelve! And now—I am made to feel every day that two-and-twenty is quite old. In three more years I shall be an orthodox old maid. All the women in Bath House intimate that I am already beyond the marriageable age."
"The men do not, I fancy!" The poet spoke with the energy of a man himself. "Besides, I looked—happened to look—through the window of the saloon one night and saw you talking to no less than four gallants."
Here she turned away in insufferable confusion, and he, too, seemed to realise that he had betrayed a deeper interest than he had intended. With a muttered au revoir he left her, and when she finally turned her head he was gone. Miss Bargarny was exclaiming:
"Well, dear Lady Hunsdon, he was quite delightful, genteel, altogether the gentleman. Thank heaven I never heard all those naughty stories, so I can admire without stint. Did you notice, Mary, how pleased he was when I recited that couplet?"
"I saw that he was very much embarrassed," replied Lady Mary, who for an elegiac figure had a surprising reserve of human nature. "It was too soon to be personal with a poor man who has been out of the world so long. But I think he enjoyed himself after the first embarrassment wore off. I feel surer still," with an exalted expression turned suddenly upon Lord Hunsdon, "that we shall rescue him. We must have him here often, not lose a day of this precious time. Then we can leave Nevis without anxiety, or perhaps induce him to go with us." She reflected that were she mistress of Hunsdon Towers she should be quite willing to give the famous poet a turret and pass as his mundane redeemer.
Hunsdon moved toward her as if her enthusiasm were a magnet. "It has all exceeded my fondest hopes," he exclaimed. "He was quite like his old self before he left——"
"Thanks to Miss Percy," broke in a stridulous voice. "He was devoured with ennui, to say nothing of shyness, until he summoned up courage to talk to her, and then he seemed to me quite like any ordinary young spark. I don't know that he quite forgot to be a poet," she concluded with some gallantry, for she had taken a great fancy to Anne and was determined to marry her brilliantly, "but he certainly ceased for a few moments to look like a God-forsaken one. What were you talking about, my dear?"
"Dear Lady Constance—Oh, Nevis, and his poetry, for the most part."
"I should think he would be sick of both subjects. Come now, be frank. Did not you get on the subject of your pretty self? I'll be bound he has an eye for a fine girl as well as the best of them. You make Mary and Lillian look like paper dolls."
"I do protest!" cried Miss Bargarny indignantly. "If he does it is practically because he is a—lives in the country himself. If he lived in London among people of the first fashion——"
"He'd admire her all the more. Look at the other beaux. Wait until Miss Percy is in the high tide of a London season. You forget that if girls are always on the catch, men are always ready for a change."
Miss Bargarny's black eyes were in flames, but she dared not provoke that dreaded tongue further. She forced herself to smile as she turned to Anne, standing abashed during this discussion of herself, and longing to be alone with her chaotic thoughts. "Confess, dear Miss Percy, that you did not talk about yourself, but about that most fascinating of all subjects to man, himself. I believe you have the true instinct of the coquette, in spite of your great lack of experience, and that is a coquette's chiefest sugar-plum."
"I believe I did talk about himself—naturally, as I have always been a great admirer of his work, and the very inexperience you mention makes me seize upon such subjects as I know anything about."