CHAPTER FIVE--THE GREAT DE BARRAL (Page 3)
"Let's get away."
She had the strength of mind not to spin round. On the contrary she went on to a shabby bit of a mirror on the wall. In the greenish glass her own face looked far off like the livid face of a drowned corpse at the bottom of a pool. She laughed faintly.
"I tell you that man's getting--"
"Papa," she interrupted him. "I have no illusions as to myself. It has happened to me before but--"
Her voice failing her suddenly her father struck in with quite an unwonted animation. "Let's make a rush for it, then."
Having mastered both her fright and her bitterness, she turned round, sat down and allowed her astonishment to be seen. Mr. Smith sat down too, his knees together and bent at right angles, his thin legs parallel to each other and his hands resting on the arms of the wooden arm-chair. His hair had grown long, his head was set stiffly, there was something fatuously venerable in his aspect.
"You can't care for him. Don't tell me. I understand your motive. And I have called you an unfortunate girl. You are that as much as if you had gone on the streets. Yes. Don't interrupt me, Flora. I was everlastingly being interrupted at the trial and I can't stand it any more. I won't be interrupted by my own child. And when I think that it is on the very day before they let me out that you .. "
He had wormed this fact out of her by that time because Flora had got tired of evading the question. He had been very much struck and distressed. Was that the trust she had in him? Was that a proof of confidence and love? The very day before! Never given him even half a chance. It was as at the trial. They never gave him a chance. They would not give him time. And there was his own daughter acting exactly as his bitterest enemies had done. Not giving him time!
The monotony of that subdued voice nearly lulled her dismay to sleep. She listened to the unavoidable things he was saying.
"But what induced that man to marry you? Of course he's a gentleman. One can see that. And that makes it worse. Gentlemen don't understand anything about city affairs--finance. Why!--the people who started the cry after me were a firm of gentlemen. The counsel, the judge--all gentlemen--quite out of it! No notion of .
. . And then he's a sailor too. Just a skipper--"
"My grandfather was nothing else," she interrupted. And he made an angular gesture of impatience.
"Yes. But what does a silly sailor know of business? Nothing. No conception. He can have no idea of what it means to be the daughter of Mr. de Barral--even after his enemies had smashed him. What on earth induced him--"
She made a movement because the level voice was getting on her nerves. And he paused, but only to go on again in the same tone with the remark:
"Of course you are pretty. And that's why you are lost--like many other poor girls. Unfortunate is the word for you."
She said: "It may be. Perhaps it is the right word; but listen, papa. I mean to be honest."
He began to exhale more speeches.
"Just the sort of man to get tired and then leave you and go off with his beastly ship. And anyway you can never be happy with him. Look at his face. I want to save you. You see I was not perhaps a very good husband to your poor mother. She would have done better to have left me long before she died. I have been thinking it all over. I won't have you unhappy."
He ran his eyes over her with an attention which was surprisingly noticeable. Then said, "H'm! Yes. Let's clear out before it is too late. Quietly, you and I."
She said as if inspired and with that calmness which despair often gives: "There is no money to go away with, papa."
He rose up straightening himself as though he were a hinged figure. She said decisively:
"And of course you wouldn't think of deserting me, papa?"
"Of course not," sounded his subdued tone. And he left her, gliding away with his walk which Mr. Powell described to me as being as level and wary as his voice. He walked as if he were carrying a glass full of water on his head.
Flora naturally said nothing to Anthony of that edifying conversation. His generosity might have taken alarm at it and she did not want to be left behind to manage her father alone. And moreover she was too honest. She would be honest at whatever cost. She would not be the first to speak. Never. And the thought came into her head: "I am indeed an unfortunate creature!"
It was by the merest coincidence that Anthony coming for the afternoon two days later had a talk with Mr. Smith in the orchard. Flora for some reason or other had left them for a moment; and Anthony took that opportunity to be frank with Mr. Smith. He said: "It seems to me, sir, that you think Flora has not done very well for herself. Well, as to that I can't say anything. All I want you to know is that I have tried to do the right thing." And then he explained that he had willed everything he was possessed of to her. "She didn't tell you, I suppose?"
Mr. Smith shook his head slightly. And Anthony, trying to be friendly, was just saying that he proposed to keep the ship away from home for at least two years. "I think, sir, that from every point of view it would be best," when Flora came back and the conversation, cut short in that direction, languished and died. Later in the evening, after Anthony had been gone for hours, on the point of separating for the night, Mr. Smith remarked suddenly to his daughter after a long period of brooding:
"A will is nothing. One tears it up. One makes another." Then after reflecting for a minute he added unemotionally:
"One tells lies about it."
Flora, patient, steeled against every hurt and every disgust to the point of wondering at herself, said: "You push your dislike of--of- -Roderick too far, papa. You have no regard for me. You hurt me."
He, as ever inexpressive to the point of terrifying her sometimes by the contrast of his placidity and his words, turned away from her a pair of faded eyes.
"I wonder how far your dislike goes," he began. "His very name sticks in your throat. I've noticed it. It hurts me. What do you think of that? You might remember that you are not the only person that's hurt by your folly, by your hastiness, by your recklessness." He brought back his eyes to her face. "And the very day before they were going to let me out." His feeble voice failed him altogether, the narrow compressed lips only trembling for a time before he added with that extraordinary equanimity of tone, "I call it sinful."
Flora made no answer. She judged it simpler, kinder and certainly safer to let him talk himself out. This, Mr. Smith, being naturally taciturn, never took very long to do. And we must not imagine that this sort of thing went on all the time. She had a few good days in that cottage. The absence of Anthony was a relief and his visits were pleasurable. She was quieter. He was quieter too. She was almost sorry when the time to join the ship arrived. It was a moment of anguish, of excitement; they arrived at the dock in the evening and Flora after "making her father comfortable" according to established usage lingered in the state-room long enough to notice that he was surprised. She caught his pale eyes observing her quite stonily. Then she went out after a cheery good-night.
Contrary to her hopes she found Anthony yet in the saloon. Sitting in his arm-chair at the head of the table he was picking up some business papers which he put hastily in his breast pocket and got up. He asked her if her day, travelling up to town and then doing some shopping, had tired her. She shook her head. Then he wanted to know in a half-jocular way how she felt about going away, and for a long voyage this time.
"Does it matter how I feel?" she asked in a tone that cast a gloom over his face. He answered with repressed violence which she did not expect:
"No, it does not matter, because I cannot go without you. I've told you . . . You know it. You don't think I could."
"I assure you I haven't the slightest wish to evade my obligations," she said steadily. "Even if I could. Even if I dared, even if I had to die for it!"
He looked thunderstruck. They stood facing each other at the end of the saloon. Anthony stuttered. "Oh no. You won't die. You don't mean it. You have taken kindly to the sea."
She laughed, but she felt angry.
"No, I don't mean it. I tell you I don't mean to evade my obligations. I shall live on . . . feeling a little crushed, nevertheless."
"Crushed!" he repeated. "What's crushing you?"
"Your magnanimity," she said sharply. But her voice was softened after a time. "Yet I don't know. There is a perfection in it--do you understand me, Roderick?--which makes it almost possible to bear."
He sighed, looked away, and remarked that it was time to put out the lamp in the saloon. The permission was only till ten o'clock.
"But you needn't mind that so much in your cabin. Just see that the curtains of the ports are drawn close and that's all. The steward might have forgotten to do it. He lighted your reading lamp in there before he went ashore for a last evening with his wife. I don't know if it was wise to get rid of Mrs. Brown. You will have to look after yourself, Flora."
He was quite anxious; but Flora as a matter of fact congratulated herself on the absence of Mrs. Brown. No sooner had she closed the door of her state-room than she murmured fervently, "Yes! Thank goodness, she is gone." There would be no gentle knock, followed by her appearance with her equivocal stare and the intolerable: "Can I do anything for you, ma'am?" which poor Flora had learned to fear and hate more than any voice or any words on board that ship--her only refuge from the world which had no use for her, for her imperfections and for her troubles.
Mrs. Brown had been very much vexed at her dismissal. The Browns were a childless couple and the arrangement had suited them perfectly. Their resentment was very bitter. Mrs. Brown had to remain ashore alone with her rage, but the steward was nursing his on board. Poor Flora had no greater enemy, the aggrieved mate had no greater sympathizer. And Mrs. Brown, with a woman's quick power of observation and inference (the putting of two and two together) had come to a certain conclusion which she had imparted to her husband before leaving the ship. The morose steward permitted himself once to make an allusion to it in Powell's hearing. It was in the officers' mess-room at the end of a meal while he lingered after putting a fruit pie on the table. He and the chief mate started a dialogue about the alarming change in the captain, the sallow steward looking down with a sinister frown, Franklin rolling upwards his eyes, sentimental in a red face. Young Powell had heard a lot of that sort of thing by that time. It was growing monotonous; it had always sounded to him a little absurd. He struck in impatiently with the remark that such lamentations over a man merely because he had taken a wife seemed to him like lunacy.
Franklin muttered, "Depends on what the wife is up to." The steward leaning against the bulkhead near the door glowered at Powell, that newcomer, that ignoramus, that stranger without right or privileges. He snarled:
"Wife! Call her a wife, do you?"
"What the devil do you mean by this?" exclaimed young Powell.
"I know what I know. My old woman has not been six months on board for nothing. You had better ask her when we get back."
And meeting sullenly the withering stare of Mr. Powell the steward retreated backwards.
Our young friend turned at once upon the mate. "And you let that confounded bottle-washer talk like this before you, Mr. Franklin. Well, I am astonished."
"Oh, it isn't what you think. It isn't what you think." Mr. Franklin looked more apoplectic than ever. "If it comes to that I could astonish you. But it's no use. I myself can hardly . . . You couldn't understand. I hope you won't try to make mischief. There was a time, young fellow, when I would have dared any man--any man, you hear?--to make mischief between me and Captain Anthony. But not now. Not now. There's a change! Not in me though . . . "
Young Powell rejected with indignation any suggestion of making mischief. "Who do you take me for?" he cried. "Only you had better tell that steward to be careful what he says before me or I'll spoil his good looks for him for a month and will leave him to explain the why of it to the captain the best way he can."
This speech established Powell as a champion of Mrs. Anthony. Nothing more bearing on the question was ever said before him. He did not care for the steward's black looks; Franklin, never conversational even at the best of times and avoiding now the only topic near his heart, addressed him only on matters of duty. And for that, too, Powell cared very little. The woes of the apoplectic mate had begun to bore him long before. Yet he felt lonely a bit at times. Therefore the little intercourse with Mrs. Anthony either in one dog-watch or the other was something to be looked forward to. The captain did not mind it. That was evident from his manner. One night he inquired (they were then alone on the poop) what they had been talking about that evening? Powell had to confess that it was about the ship. Mrs. Anthony had been asking him questions.
"Takes interest--eh?" jerked out the captain moving rapidly up and down the weather side of the poop.
"Yes, sir. Mrs. Anthony seems to get hold wonderfully of what one's telling her."
"Sailor's granddaughter. One of the old school. Old sea-dog of the best kind, I believe," ejaculated the captain, swinging past his motionless second officer and leaving the words behind him like a trail of sparks succeeded by a perfect conversational darkness, because, for the next two hours till he left the deck, he didn't open his lips again.
On another occasion . . . we mustn't forget that the ship had crossed the line and was adding up south latitude every day by then
. . . on another occasion, about seven in the evening, Powell on duty, heard his name uttered softly in the companion. The captain was on the stairs, thin-faced, his eyes sunk, on his arm a Shetland wool wrap.
"Give this to Mrs. Anthony. Evenings are getting chilly."
And the haggard face sank out of sight. Mrs. Anthony was surprised on seeing the shawl.
"The captain wants you to put this on," explained young Powell, and as she raised herself in her seat he dropped it on her shoulders. She wrapped herself up closely.
"Where was the captain?" she asked.
"He was in the companion. Called me on purpose," said Powell, and then retreated discreetly, because she looked as though she didn't want to talk any more that evening. Mr. Smith--the old gentleman-- was as usual sitting on the skylight near her head, brooding over the long chair but by no means inimical, as far as his unreadable face went, to those conversations of the two youngest people on board. In fact they seemed to give him some pleasure. Now and then he would raise his faded china eyes to the animated face of Mr. Powell thoughtfully. When the young sailor was by, the old man became less rigid, and when his daughter, on rare occasions, smiled at some artless tale of Mr. Powell, the inexpressive face of Mr. Smith reflected dimly that flash of evanescent mirth. For Mr. Powell had come now to entertain his captain's wife with anecdotes from the not very distant past when he was a boy, on board various ships,--funny things do happen on board ship. Flora was quite surprised at times to find herself amused. She was even heard to laugh twice in the course of a month. It was not a loud sound but it was startling enough at the after-end of the Ferndale where low tones or silence were the rule. The second time this happened the captain himself must have been startled somewhere down below; because he emerged from the depths of his unobtrusive existence and began his tramping on the opposite side of the poop.
Almost immediately he called his young second officer over to him. This was not done in displeasure. The glance he fastened on Mr. Powell conveyed a sort of approving wonder. He engaged him in desultory conversation as if for the only purpose of keeping a man who could provoke such a sound, near his person. Mr. Powell felt himself liked. He felt it. Liked by that haggard, restless man who threw at him disconnected phrases to which his answers were, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Oh, certainly," "I suppose so, sir,"--and might have been clearly anything else for all the other cared.
It was then, Mr. Powell told me, that he discovered in himself an already old-established liking for Captain Anthony. He also felt sorry for him without being able to discover the origins of that sympathy of which he had become so suddenly aware.
Meantime Mr. Smith, bending forward stiffly as though he had a hinged back, was speaking to his daughter.
She was a child no longer. He wanted to know if she believed in--in hell. In eternal punishment?
His peculiar voice, as if filtered through cotton-wool was inaudible on the other side of the deck. Poor Flora, taken very much unawares, made an inarticulate murmur, shook her head vaguely, and glanced in the direction of the pacing Anthony who was not looking her way. It was no use glancing in that direction. Of young Powell, leaning against the mizzen-mast and facing his captain she could only see the shoulder and part of a blue serge back.
And the unworried, unaccented voice of her father went on tormenting her.
"You see, you must understand. When I came out of jail it was with joy. That is, my soul was fairly torn in two--but anyway to see you happy--I had made up my mind to that. Once I could be sure that you were happy then of course I would have had no reason to care for life--strictly speaking--which is all right for an old man; though naturally . . . no reason to wish for death either. But this sort of life! What sense, what meaning, what value has it either for you or for me? It's just sitting down to look at the death, that's coming, coming. What else is it? I don't know how you can put up with that. I don't think you can stand it for long. Some day you will jump overboard."
Captain Anthony had stopped for a moment staring ahead from the break of the poop, and poor Flora sent at his back a look of despairing appeal which would have moved a heart of stone. But as though she had done nothing he did not stir in the least. She got out of the long chair and went towards the companion. Her father followed carrying a few small objects, a handbag, her handkerchief, a book. They went down together.
It was only then that Captain Anthony turned, looked at the place they had vacated and resumed his tramping, but not his desultory conversation with his second officer. His nervous exasperation had grown so much that now very often he used to lose control of his voice. If he did not watch himself it would suddenly die in his throat. He had to make sure before he ventured on the simplest saying, an order, a remark on the wind, a simple good-morning. That's why his utterance was abrupt, his answers to people startlingly brusque and often not forthcoming at all.
It happens to the most resolute of men to find himself at grips not only with unknown forces, but with a well-known force the real might of which he had not understood. Anthony had discovered that he was not the proud master but the chafing captive of his generosity. It rose in front of him like a wall which his respect for himself forbade him to scale. He said to himself: "Yes, I was a fool--but she has trusted me!" Trusted! A terrible word to any man somewhat exceptional in a world in which success has never been found in renunciation and good faith. And it must also be said, in order not to make Anthony more stupidly sublime than he was, that the behaviour of Flora kept him at a distance. The girl was afraid to add to the exasperation of her father. It was her unhappy lot to be made more wretched by the only affection which she could not suspect. She could not be angry with it, however, and out of deference for that exaggerated sentiment she hardly dared to look otherwise than by stealth at the man whose masterful compassion had carried her off. And quite unable to understand the extent of Anthony's delicacy, she said to herself that "he didn't care." He probably was beginning at bottom to detest her--like the governess, like the maiden lady, like the German woman, like Mrs. Fyne, like Mr. Fyne--only he was extraordinary, he was generous. At the same time she had moments of irritation. He was violent, headstrong-- perhaps stupid. Well, he had had his way.
A man who has had his way is seldom happy, for generally he finds that the way does not lead very far on this earth of desires which can never be fully satisfied. Anthony had entered with extreme precipitation the enchanted gardens of Armida saying to himself "At last!" As to Armida, herself, he was not going to offer her any violence. But now he had discovered that all the enchantment was in Armida herself, in Armida's smiles. This Armida did not smile. She existed, unapproachable, behind the blank wall of his renunciation. His force, fit for action, experienced the impatience, the indignation, almost the despair of his vitality arrested, bound, stilled, progressively worn down, frittered away by Time; by that force blind and insensible, which seems inert and yet uses one's life up by its imperceptible action, dropping minute after minute on one's living heart like drops of water wearing down a stone.
He upbraided himself. What else could he have expected? He had rushed in like a ruffian; he had dragged the poor defenceless thing by the hair of her head, as it were, on board that ship. It was really atrocious. Nothing assured him that his person could be attractive to this or any other woman. And his proceedings were enough in themselves to make anyone odious. He must have been bereft of his senses. She must fatally detest and fear him. Nothing could make up for such brutality. And yet somehow he resented this very attitude which seemed to him completely justifiable. Surely he was not too monstrous (morally) to be looked at frankly sometimes. But no! She wouldn't. Well, perhaps, some day . . . Only he was not going ever to attempt to beg for forgiveness. With the repulsion she felt for his person she would certainly misunderstand the most guarded words, the most careful advances. Never! Never!
It would occur to Anthony at the end of such meditations that death was not an unfriendly visitor after all. No wonder then that even young Powell, his faculties having been put on the alert, began to think that there was something unusual about the man who had given him his chance in life. Yes, decidedly, his captain was "strange." There was something wrong somewhere, he said to himself, never guessing that his young and candid eyes were in the presence of a passion profound, tyrannical and mortal, discovering its own existence, astounded at feeling itself helpless and dismayed at finding itself incurable.
Powell had never before felt this mysterious uneasiness so strongly as on that evening when it had been his good fortune to make Mrs. Anthony laugh a little by his artless prattle. Standing out of the way, he had watched his captain walk the weather-side of the poop, he took full cognizance of his liking for that inexplicably strange man and saw him swerve towards the companion and go down below with sympathetic if utterly uncomprehending eyes.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Smith came up alone and manifested a desire for a little conversation. He, too, if not so mysterious as the captain, was not very comprehensible to Mr. Powell's uninformed candour. He often favoured thus the second officer. His talk alluded somewhat enigmatically and often without visible connection to Mr. Powell's friendliness towards himself and his daughter. "For I am well aware that we have no friends on board this ship, my dear young man," he would add, "except yourself. Flora feels that too."
And Mr. Powell, flattered and embarrassed, could but emit a vague murmur of protest. For the statement was true in a sense, though the fact was in itself insignificant. The feelings of the ship's company could not possibly matter to the captain's wife and to Mr. Smith--her father. Why the latter should so often allude to it was what surprised our Mr. Powell. This was by no means the first occasion. More like the twentieth rather. And in his weak voice, with his monotonous intonation, leaning over the rail and looking at the water the other continued this conversation, or rather his remarks, remarks of such a monstrous nature that Mr. Powell had no option but to accept them for gruesome jesting.
"For instance," said Mr. Smith, "that mate, Franklin, I believe he would just as soon see us both overboard as not."
"It's not so bad as that," laughed Mr. Powell, feeling uncomfortable, because his mind did not accommodate itself easily to exaggeration of statement. "He isn't a bad chap really," he added, very conscious of Mr. Franklin's offensive manner of which instances were not far to seek. "He's such a fool as to be jealous. He has been with the captain for years. It's not for me to say, perhaps, but I think the captain has spoiled all that gang of old servants. They are like a lot of pet old dogs. Wouldn't let anybody come near him if they could help it. I've never seen anything like it. And the second mate, I believe, was like that too."
"Well, he isn't here, luckily. There would have been one more enemy," said Mr. Smith. "There's enough of them without him. And you being here instead of him makes it much more pleasant for my daughter and myself. One feels there may be a friend in need. For really, for a woman all alone on board ship amongst a lot of unfriendly men . . . "
"But Mrs Anthony is not alone," exclaimed Powell. "There's you, and there's the . . . "
Mr. Smith interrupted him.
"Nobody's immortal. And there are times when one feels ashamed to live. Such an evening as this for instance."
It was a lovely evening; the colours of a splendid sunset had died out and the breath of a warm breeze seemed to have smoothed out the sea. Away to the south the sheet lightning was like the flashing of an enormous lantern hidden under the horizon. In order to change the conversation Mr. Powell said:
"Anyway no one can charge you with being a Jonah, Mr. Smith. We have had a magnificent quick passage so far. The captain ought to be pleased. And I suppose you are not sorry either."
This diversion was not successful. Mr. Smith emitted a sort of bitter chuckle and said: "Jonah! That's the fellow that was thrown overboard by some sailors. It seems to me it's very easy at sea to get rid of a person one does not like. The sea does not give up its dead as the earth does."
"You forget the whale, sir," said young Powell.
Mr. Smith gave a start. "Eh? What whale? Oh! Jonah. I wasn't thinking of Jonah. I was thinking of this passage which seems so quick to you. But only think what it is to me? It isn't a life, going about the sea like this. And, for instance, if one were to fall ill, there isn't a doctor to find out what's the matter with one. It's worrying. It makes me anxious at times."
"Is Mrs. Anthony not feeling well?" asked Powell. But Mr. Smith's remark was not meant for Mrs. Anthony. She was well. He himself was well. It was the captain's health that did not seem quite satisfactory. Had Mr. Powell noticed his appearance?
Mr. Powell didn't know enough of the captain to judge. He couldn't tell. But he observed thoughtfully that Mr. Franklin had been saying the same thing. And Franklin had known the captain for years. The mate was quite worried about it.
This intelligence startled Mr. Smith considerably. "Does he think he is in danger of dying?" he exclaimed with an animation quite extraordinary for him, which horrified Mr. Powell.
"Heavens! Die! No! Don't you alarm yourself, sir. I've never heard a word about danger from Mr. Franklin."
"Well, well," sighed Mr. Smith and left the poop for the saloon rather abruptly.
As a matter of fact Mr. Franklin had been on deck for some considerable time. He had come to relieve young Powell; but seeing him engaged in talk with the "enemy"--with one of the "enemies" at least--had kept at a distance, which, the poop of the Ferndale being aver seventy feet long, he had no difficulty in doing. Mr. Powell saw him at the head of the ladder leaning on his elbow, melancholy and silent. "Oh! Here you are, sir."
"Here I am. Here I've been ever since six o'clock. Didn't want to interrupt the pleasant conversation. If you like to put in half of your watch below jawing with a dear friend, that's not my affair. Funny taste though."
"He isn't a bad chap," said the impartial Powell.
The mate snorted angrily, tapping the deck with his foot; then: "Isn't he? Well, give him my love when you come together again for another nice long yarn."
"I say, Mr. Franklin, I wonder the captain don't take offence at your manners."
"The captain. I wish to goodness he would start a row with me. Then I should know at least I am somebody on board. I'd welcome it, Mr. Powell. I'd rejoice. And dam' me I would talk back too till I roused him. He's a shadow of himself. He walks about his ship like a ghost. He's fading away right before our eyes. But of course you don't see. You don't care a hang. Why should you?"
Mr. Powell did not wait for more. He went down on the main deck. Without taking the mate's jeremiads seriously he put them beside the words of Mr. Smith. He had grown already attached to Captain Anthony. There was something not only attractive but compelling in the man. Only it is very difficult for youth to believe in the menace of death. Not in the fact itself, but in its proximity to a breathing, moving, talking, superior human being, showing no sign of disease. And Mr. Powell thought that this talk was all nonsense. But his curiosity was awakened. There was something, and at any time some circumstance might occur . . . No, he would never find out
. . . There was nothing to find out, most likely. Mr. Powell went to his room where he tried to read a book he had already read a good many times. Presently a bell rang for the officers' supper.Next