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CHAPTER SIX--. . . A MOONLESS NIGHT, THICK WITH STARS ABOVE, VERY DARK ON THE WATER (Page 2)


What woke him up and, at the same time, fixed his feet immovably to the spot, was a voice asking him what he was doing there in tones of thunder. Or so it sounded to his ears. Anthony, opening the door of his stern-cabin had naturally exclaimed. What else could you expect? And the exclamation must have been fairly loud if you consider the nature of the sight which met his eye. There, before him, stood his second officer, a seemingly decent, well-bred young man, who, being on duty, had left the deck and had sneaked into the saloon, apparently for the inexpressibly mean purpose of drinking up what was left of his captain's brandy-and-water. There he was, caught absolutely with the glass in his hand.

But the very monstrosity of appearances silenced Anthony after the first exclamation; and young Powell felt himself pierced through and through by the overshadowed glance of his captain. Anthony advanced quietly. The first impulse of Mr. Powell, when discovered, had been to dash the glass on the deck. He was in a sort of panic. But deep down within him his wits were working, and the idea that if he did that he could prove nothing and that the story he had to tell was completely incredible, restrained him. The captain came forward slowly. With his eyes now close to his, Powell, spell-bound, numb all over, managed to lift one finger to the deck above mumbling the explanatory words, "Boatswain on the poop."

The captain moved his head slightly as much as to say, "That's all right"--and this was all. Powell had no voice, no strength. The air was unbreathable, thick, sticky, odious, like hot jelly in which all movements became difficult. He raised the glass a little with immense difficulty and moved his trammelled lips sufficiently to form the words:

"Doctored."

Anthony glanced at it for an instant, only for an instant, and again fastened his eyes on the face of his second mate. Powell added a fervent "I believe" and put the glass down on the tray. The captain's glance followed the movement and returned sternly to his face. The young man pointed a finger once more upwards and squeezed out of his iron-bound throat six consecutive words of further explanation. "Through the skylight. The white pane."

The captain raised his eyebrows very much at this, while young Powell, ashamed but desperate, nodded insistently several times. He meant to say that: Yes. Yes. He had done that thing. He had been spying . . . The captain's gaze became thoughtful. And, now the confession was over, the iron-bound feeling of Powell's throat passed away giving place to a general anxiety which from his breast seemed to extend to all the limbs and organs of his body. His legs trembled a little, his vision was confused, his mind became blankly expectant. But he was alert enough. At a movement of Anthony he screamed in a strangled whisper.

"Don't, sir! Don't touch it."

The captain pushed aside Powell's extended arm, took up the glass and raised it slowly against the lamplight. The liquid, of very pale amber colour, was clear, and by a glance the captain seemed to call Powell's attention to the fact. Powell tried to pronounce the word, "dissolved" but he only thought of it with great energy which however failed to move his lips. Only when Anthony had put down the glass and turned to him he recovered such a complete command of his voice that he could keep it down to a hurried, forcible whisper--a whisper that shook him.

"Doctored! I swear it! I have seen. Doctored! I have seen."

Not a feature of the captain's face moved. His was a calm to take one's breath away. It did so to young Powell. Then for the first time Anthony made himself heard to the point.

"You did! . . . Who was it?"

And Powell gasped freely at last. "A hand," he whispered fearfully, "a hand and the arm--only the arm--like that."

He advanced his own, slow, stealthy, tremulous in faithful reproduction, the tips of two fingers and the thumb pressed together and hovering above the glass for an instant--then the swift jerk back, after the deed.

"Like that," he repeated growing excited. "From behind this." He grasped the curtain and glaring at the silent Anthony flung it back disclosing the forepart of the saloon. There was on one to be seen.

Powell had not expected to see anybody. "But," he said to me, "I knew very well there was an ear listening and an eye glued to the crack of a cabin door. Awful thought. And that door was in that part of the saloon remaining in the shadow of the other half of the curtain. I pointed at it and I suppose that old man inside saw me pointing. The captain had a wonderful self-command. You couldn't have guessed anything from his face. Well, it was perhaps more thoughtful than usual. And indeed this was something to think about. But I couldn't think steadily. My brain would give a sort of jerk and then go dead again. I had lost all notion of time, and I might have been looking at the captain for days and months for all I knew before I heard him whisper to me fiercely: "Not a word!" This jerked me out of that trance I was in and I said "No! No! I didn't mean even you."

"I wanted to explain my conduct, my intentions, but I read in his eyes that he understood me and I was only too glad to leave off. And there we were looking at each other, dumb, brought up short by the question "What next?"

"I thought Captain Anthony was a man of iron till I saw him suddenly fling his head to the right and to the left fiercely, like a wild animal at bay not knowing which way to break out . . . "

"Truly," commented Marlow, "brought to bay was not a bad comparison; a better one than Mr. Powell was aware of. At that moment the appearance of Flora could not but bring the tension to the breaking point. She came out in all innocence but not without vague dread. Anthony's exclamation on first seeing Powell had reached her in her cabin, where, it seems, she was brushing her hair. She had heard the very words. "What are you doing here?" And the unwonted loudness of the voice--his voice--breaking the habitual stillness of that hour would have startled a person having much less reason to be constantly apprehensive, than the captive of Anthony's masterful generosity. She had no means to guess to whom the question was addressed and it echoed in her heart, as Anthony's voice always did. Followed complete silence. She waited, anxious, expectant, till she could stand the strain no longer, and with the weary mental appeal of the overburdened. "My God! What is it now?" she opened the door of her room and looked into the saloon. Her first glance fell on Powell. For a moment, seeing only the second officer with Anthony, she felt relieved and made as if to draw back; but her sharpened perception detected something suspicious in their attitudes, and she came forward slowly.

"I was the first to see Mrs. Anthony," related Powell, "because I was facing aft. The captain, noticing my eyes, looked quickly over his shoulder and at once put his finger to his lips to caution me. As if I were likely to let out anything before her! Mrs. Anthony had on a dressing-gown of some grey stuff with red facings and a thick red cord round her waist. Her hair was down. She looked a child; a pale-faced child with big blue eyes and a red mouth a little open showing a glimmer of white teeth. The light fell strongly on her as she came up to the end of the table. A strange child though; she hardly affected one like a child, I remember. Do you know," exclaimed Mr. Powell, who clearly must have been, like many seamen, an industrious reader, "do you know what she looked like to me with those big eyes and something appealing in her whole expression. She looked like a forsaken elf. Captain Anthony had moved towards her to keep her away from my end of the table, where the tray was. I had never seen them so near to each other before, and it made a great contrast. It was wonderful, for, with his beard cut to a point, his swarthy, sunburnt complexion, thin nose and his lean head there was something African, something Moorish in Captain Anthony. His neck was bare; he had taken off his coat and collar and had drawn on his sleeping jacket in the time that he had been absent from the saloon. I seem to see him now. Mrs. Anthony too. She looked from him to me--I suppose I looked guilty or frightened-- and from me to him, trying to guess what there was between us two. Then she burst out with a "What has happened?" which seemed addressed to me. I mumbled "Nothing! Nothing, ma'am," which she very likely did not hear.

"You must not think that all this had lasted a long time. She had taken fright at our behaviour and turned to the captain pitifully. "What is it you are concealing from me?" A straight question--eh? I don't know what answer the captain would have made. Before he could even raise his eyes to her she cried out "Ah! Here's papa" in a sharp tone of relief, but directly afterwards she looked to me as if she were holding her breath with apprehension. I was so interested in her that, how shall I say it, her exclamation made no connection in my brain at first. I also noticed that she had sidled up a little nearer to Captain Anthony, before it occurred to me to turn my head. I can tell you my neck stiffened in the twisted position from the shock of actually seeing that old man! He had dared! I suppose you think I ought to have looked upon him as mad. But I couldn't. It would have been certainly easier. But I could NOT. You should have seen him. First of all he was completely dressed with his very cap still on his head just as when he left me on deck two hours before, saying in his soft voice: "The moment has come to go to bed"--while he meant to go and do that thing and hide in his dark cabin, and watch the stuff do its work. A cold shudder ran down my back. He had his hands in the pockets of his jacket, his arms were pressed close to his thin, upright body, and he shuffled across the cabin with his short steps. There was a red patch on each of his old soft cheeks as if somebody had been pinching them. He drooped his head a little, and looked with a sort of underhand expectation at the captain and Mrs. Anthony standing close together at the other end of the saloon. The calculating horrible impudence of it! His daughter was there; and I am certain he had seen the captain putting his finger on his lips to warn me. And then he had coolly come out! He passed my imagination, I assure you. After that one shiver his presence killed every faculty in me- -wonder, horror, indignation. I felt nothing in particular just as if he were still the old gentleman who used to talk to me familiarly every day on deck. Would you believe it?"

"Mr. Powell challenged my powers of wonder at this internal phenomenon," went on Marlow after a slight pause. "But even if they had not been fully engaged, together with all my powers of attention in following the facts of the case, I would not have been astonished by his statements about himself. Taking into consideration his youth they were by no means incredible; or, at any rate, they were the least incredible part of the whole. They were also the least interesting part. The interest was elsewhere, and there of course all he could do was to look at the surface. The inwardness of what was passing before his eyes was hidden from him, who had looked on, more impenetrably than from me who at a distance of years was listening to his words. What presently happened at this crisis in Flora de Barral's fate was beyond his power of comment, seemed in a sense natural. And his own presence on the scene was so strangely motived that it was left for me to marvel alone at this young man, a completely chance-comer, having brought it about on that night.

Each situation created either by folly or wisdom has its psychological moment. The behaviour of young Powell with its mixture of boyish impulses combined with instinctive prudence, had not created it--I can't say that--but had discovered it to the very people involved. What would have happened if he had made a noise about his discovery? But he didn't. His head was full of Mrs. Anthony and he behaved with a discretion beyond his years. Some nice children often do; and surely it is not from reflection. They have their own inspirations. Young Powell's inspiration consisted in being "enthusiastic" about Mrs. Anthony. 'Enthusiastic' is really good. And he was amongst them like a child, sensitive, impressionable, plastic--but unable to find for himself any sort of comment.

I don't know how much mine may be worth; but I believe that just then the tension of the false situation was at its highest. Of all the forms offered to us by life it is the one demanding a couple to realize it fully, which is the most imperative. Pairing off is the fate of mankind. And if two beings thrown together, mutually attracted, resist the necessity, fail in understanding and voluntarily stop short of the--the embrace, in the noblest meaning of the word, then they are committing a sin against life, the call of which is simple. Perhaps sacred. And the punishment of it is an invasion of complexity, a tormenting, forcibly tortuous involution of feelings, the deepest form of suffering from which indeed something significant may come at last, which may be criminal or heroic, may be madness or wisdom--or even a straight if despairing decision.

Powell on taking his eyes off the old gentleman noticed Captain Anthony, swarthy as an African, by the side of Flora whiter than the lilies, take his handkerchief out and wipe off his forehead the sweat of anguish--like a man who is overcome. "And no wonder," commented Mr. Powell here. Then the captain said, "Hadn't you better go back to your room." This was to Mrs. Anthony. He tried to smile at her. "Why do you look startled? This night is like any other night."

"Which," Powell again commented to me earnestly, "was a lie . . . No wonder he sweated." You see from this the value of Powell's comments. Mrs. Anthony then said: "Why are you sending me away?"

"Why! That you should go to sleep. That you should rest." And Captain Anthony frowned. Then sharply, "You stay here, Mr. Powell. I shall want you presently."

As a matter of fact Powell had not moved. Flora did not mind his presence. He himself had the feeling of being of no account to those three people. He was looking at Mrs. Anthony as unabashed as the proverbial cat looking at a king. Mrs. Anthony glanced at him. She did not move, gripped by an inexplicable premonition. She had arrived at the very limit of her endurance as the object of Anthony's magnanimity; she was the prey of an intuitive dread of she did not know what mysterious influence; she felt herself being pushed back into that solitude, that moral loneliness, which had made all her life intolerable. And then, in that close communion established again with Anthony, she felt--as on that night in the garden--the force of his personal fascination. The passive quietness with which she looked at him gave her the appearance of a person bewitched--or, say, mesmerically put to sleep--beyond any notion of her surroundings.

After telling Mr. Powell not to go away the captain remained silent. Suddenly Mrs. Anthony pushed back her loose hair with a decisive gesture of her arms and moved still nearer to him. "Here's papa up yet," she said, but she did not look towards Mr. Smith. "Why is it? And you? I can't go on like this, Roderick--between you two. Don't."

Anthony interrupted her as if something had untied his tongue.

"Oh yes. Here's your father. And . . . Why not. Perhaps it is just as well you came out. Between us two? Is that it? I won't pretend I don't understand. I am not blind. But I can't fight any longer for what I haven't got. I don't know what you imagine has happened. Something has though. Only you needn't be afraid. No shadow can touch you--because I give up. I can't say we had much talk about it, your father and I, but, the long and the short of it is, that I must learn to live without you--which I have told you was impossible. I was speaking the truth. But I have done fighting, or waiting, or hoping. Yes. You shall go."

At this point Mr. Powell who (he confessed to me) was listening with uncomprehending awe, heard behind his back a triumphant chuckling sound. It gave him the shudders, he said, to mention it now; but at the time, except for another chill down the spine, it had not the power to destroy his absorption in the scene before his eyes, and before his ears too, because just then Captain Anthony raised his voice grimly. Perhaps he too had heard the chuckle of the old man.

"Your father has found an argument which makes me pause, if it does not convince me. No! I can't answer it. I--I don't want to answer it. I simply surrender. He shall have his way with you--and with me. Only," he added in a gloomy lowered tone which struck Mr. Powell as if a pedal had been put down, "only it shall take a little time. I have never lied to you. Never. I renounce not only my chance but my life. In a few days, directly we get into port, the very moment we do, I, who have said I could never let you go, I shall let you go."

To the innocent beholder Anthony seemed at this point to become physically exhausted. My view is that the utter falseness of his, I may say, aspirations, the vanity of grasping the empty air, had come to him with an overwhelming force, leaving him disarmed before the other's mad and sinister sincerity. As he had said himself he could not fight for what he did not possess; he could not face such a thing as this for the sake of his mere magnanimity. The normal alone can overcome the abnormal. He could not even reproach that man over there. "I own myself beaten," he said in a firmer tone. "You are free. I let you off since I must."

Powell, the onlooker, affirms that at these incomprehensible words Mrs. Anthony stiffened into the very image of astonishment, with a frightened stare and frozen lips. But next minute a cry came out from her heart, not very loud but of a quality which made not only Captain Anthony (he was not looking at her), not only him but also the more distant (and equally unprepared) young man, catch their breath: "But I don't want to be let off," she cried.

She was so still that one asked oneself whether the cry had come from her. The restless shuffle behind Powell's back stopped short, the intermittent shadowy chuckling ceased too. Young Powell, glancing round, saw Mr. Smith raise his head with his faded eyes very still, puckered at the corners, like a man perceiving something coming at him from a great distance. And Mrs. Anthony's voice reached Powell's ears, entreating and indignant.

"You can't cast me off like this, Roderick. I won't go away from you. I won't--"

Powell turned about and discovered then that what Mr. Smith was puckering his eyes at, was the sight of his daughter clinging round Captain Anthony's neck--a sight not in itself improper, but which had the power to move young Powell with a bashfully profound emotion. It was different from his emotion while spying at the revelations of the skylight, but in this case too he felt the discomfort, if not the guilt, of an unseen beholder. Experience was being piled up on his young shoulders. Mrs. Anthony's hair hung back in a dark mass like the hair of a drowned woman. She looked as if she would let go and sink to the floor if the captain were to withhold his sustaining arm. But the captain obviously had no such intention. Standing firm and still he gazed with sombre eyes at Mr. Smith. For a time the low convulsive sobbing of Mr. Smith's daughter was the only sound to trouble the silence. The strength of Anthony's clasp pressing Flora to his breast could not be doubted even at that distance, and suddenly, awakening to his opportunity, he began to partly support her, partly carry her in the direction of her cabin. His head was bent over her solicitously, then recollecting himself, with a glance full of unwonted fire, his voice ringing in a note unknown to Mr. Powell, he cried to him, "Don't you go on deck yet. I want you to stay down here till I come back. There are some instructions I want to give you."

And before the young man could answer, Anthony had disappeared in the stern-cabin, burdened and exulting.

"Instructions," commented Mr. Powell. "That was all right. Very likely; but they would be such instructions as, I thought to myself, no ship's officer perhaps had ever been given before. It made me feel a little sick to think what they would be dealing with, probably. But there! Everything that happens on board ship on the high seas has got to be dealt with somehow. There are no special people to fly to for assistance. And there I was with that old man left in my charge. When he noticed me looking at him he started to shuffle again athwart the saloon. He kept his hands rammed in his pockets, he was as stiff-backed as ever, only his head hung down. After a bit he says in his gentle soft tone: "Did you see it?"

There were in Powell's head no special words to fit the horror of his feelings. So he said--he had to say something, "Good God! What were you thinking of, Mr. Smith, to try to . . . " And then he left off. He dared not utter the awful word poison. Mr. Smith stopped his prowl.

"Think! What do you know of thinking. I don't think. There is something in my head that thinks. The thoughts in men, it's like being drunk with liquor or--You can't stop them. A man who thinks will think anything. No! But have you seen it. Have you?"

"I tell you I have! I am certain!" said Powell forcibly. "I was looking at you all the time. You've done something to the drink in that glass."

Then Powell lost his breath somehow. Mr. Smith looked at him curiously, with mistrust.

"My good young man, I don't know what you are talking about. I ask you--have you seen? Who would have believed it? with her arms round his neck. When! Oh! Ha! Ha! You did see! Didn't you? It wasn't a delusion--was it? Her arms round . . . But I have never wholly trusted her."

"Then I flew out at him, said Mr. Powell. I told him he was jolly lucky to have fallen upon Captain Anthony. A man in a million. He started again shuffling to and fro. "You too," he said mournfully, keeping his eyes down. "Eh? Wonderful man? But have you a notion who I am? Listen! I have been the Great Mr. de Barral. So they printed it in the papers while they were getting up a conspiracy. And I have been doing time. And now I am brought low." His voice died down to a mere breath. "Brought low."

He took his hands out of his pocket, dragged the cap down on his head and stuck them back into his pockets, exactly as if preparing himself to go out into a great wind. "But not so low as to put up with this disgrace, to see her, fast in this fellow's clutches, without doing something. She wouldn't listen to me. Frightened? Silly? I had to think of some way to get her out of this. Did you think she cared for him? No! Would anybody have thought so? No! She pretended it was for my sake. She couldn't understand that if I hadn't been an old man I would have flown at his throat months ago. As it was I was tempted every time he looked at her. My girl. Ough! Any man but this. And all the time the wicked little fool was lying to me. It was their plot, their conspiracy! These conspiracies are the devil. She has been leading me on, till she has fairly put my head under the heel of that jailer, of that scoundrel, of her husband . . . Treachery! Bringing me low. Lower than herself. In the dirt. That's what it means. Doesn't it? Under his heel!"

He paused in his restless shuffle and again, seizing his cap with both hands, dragged it furiously right down on his ears. Powell had lost himself in listening to these broken ravings, in looking at that old feverish face when, suddenly, quick as lightning, Mr. Smith spun round, snatched up the captain's glass and with a stifled, hurried exclamation, "Here's luck," tossed the liquor down his throat.

"I know now the meaning of the word 'Consternation,'" went on Mr. Powell. "That was exactly my state of mind. I thought to myself directly: There's nothing in that drink. I have been dreaming, I have made the awfulest mistake! . . ."

Mr. Smith put the glass down. He stood before Powell unharmed, quieted down, in a listening attitude, his head inclined on one side, chewing his thin lips. Suddenly he blinked queerly, grabbed Powell's shoulder and collapsed, subsiding all at once as though he had gone soft all over, as a piece of silk stuff collapses. Powell seized his arm instinctively and checked his fall; but as soon as Mr. Smith was fairly on the floor he jerked himself free and backed away. Almost as quick he rushed forward again and tried to lift up the body. But directly he raised his shoulders he knew that the man was dead! Dead!

He lowered him down gently. He stood over him without fear or any other feeling, almost indifferent, far away, as it were. And then he made another start and, if he had not kept Mrs. Anthony always in his mind, he would have let out a yell for help. He staggered to her cabin-door, and, as it was, his call for "Captain Anthony" burst out of him much too loud; but he made a great effort of self- control. "I am waiting for my orders, sir," he said outside that door distinctly, in a steady tone.

It was very still in there; still as death. Then he heard a shuffle of feet and the captain's voice "All right. Coming." He leaned his back against the bulkhead as you see a drunken man sometimes propped up against a wall, half doubled up. In that attitude the captain found him, when he came out, pulling the door to after him quickly. At once Anthony let his eyes run all over the cabin. Powell, without a word, clutched his forearm, led him round the end of the table and began to justify himself. "I couldn't stop him," he whispered shakily. "He was too quick for me. He drank it up and fell down." But the captain was not listening. He was looking down at Mr. Smith, thinking perhaps that it was a mere chance his own body was not lying there. They did not want to speak. They made signs to each other with their eyes. The captain grasped Powell's shoulder as if in a vice and glanced at Mrs. Anthony's cabin door, and it was enough. He knew that the young man understood him. Rather! Silence! Silence for ever about this. Their very glances became stealthy. Powell looked from the body to the door of the dead man's state-room. The captain nodded and let him go; and then Powell crept over, hooked the door open and crept back with fearful glances towards Mrs. Anthony's cabin. They stooped over the corpse. Captain Anthony lifted up the shoulders.

Mr. Powell shuddered. "I'll never forget that interminable journey across the saloon, step by step, holding our breath. For part of the way the drawn half of the curtain concealed us from view had Mrs. Anthony opened her door; but I didn't draw a free breath till after we laid the body down on the swinging cot. The reflection of the saloon light left most of the cabin in the shadow. Mr. Smith's rigid, extended body looked shadowy too, shadowy and alive. You know he always carried himself as stiff as a poker. We stood by the cot as though waiting for him to make us a sign that he wanted to be left alone. The captain threw his arm over my shoulder and said in my very ear: "The steward'll find him in the morning."

"I made no answer. It was for him to say. It was perhaps the best way. It's no use talking about my thoughts. They were not concerned with myself, nor yet with that old man who terrified me more now than when he was alive. Him whom I pitied was the captain. He whispered. "I am certain of you, Mr. Powell. You had better go on deck now. As to me . . . " and I saw him raise his hands to his head as if distracted. But his last words before we stole out that cabin stick to my mind with the very tone of his mutter--to himself, not to me:

"No! No! I am not going to stumble now over that corpse."

"This is what our Mr. Powell had to tell me," said Marlow, changing his tone. I was glad to learn that Flora de Barral had been saved from THAT sinister shadow at least falling upon her path.

We sat silent then, my mind running on the end of de Barral, on the irresistible pressure of imaginary griefs, crushing conscience, scruples, prudence, under their ever-expanding volume; on the sombre and venomous irony in the obsession which had mastered that old man.

"Well," I said.

"The steward found him," Mr. Powell roused himself. "He went in there with a cup of tea at five and of course dropped it. I was on watch again. He reeled up to me on deck pale as death. I had been expecting it; and yet I could hardly speak. "Go and tell the captain quietly," I managed to say. He ran off muttering "My God! My God!" and I'm hanged if he didn't get hysterical while trying to tell the captain, and start screaming in the saloon, "Fully dressed! Dead! Fully dressed!" Mrs. Anthony ran out of course but she didn't get hysterical. Franklin, who was there too, told me that she hid her face on the captain's breast and then he went out and left them there. It was days before Mrs. Anthony was seen on deck. The first time I spoke to her she gave me her hand and said, "My poor father was quite fond of you, Mr. Powell." She started wiping her eyes and I fled to the other side of the deck. One would like to forget all this had ever come near her."

But clearly he could not, because after lighting his pipe he began musing aloud: "Very strong stuff it must have been. I wonder where he got it. It could hardly be at a common chemist. Well, he had it from somewhere--a mere pinch it must have been, no more."

"I have my theory," observed Marlow, "which to a certain extent does away with the added horror of a coldly premeditated crime. Chance had stepped in there too. It was not Mr. Smith who obtained the poison. It was the Great de Barral. And it was not meant for the obscure, magnanimous conqueror of Flora de Barral; it was meant for the notorious financier whose enterprises had nothing to do with magnanimity. He had his physician in his days of greatness. I even seem to remember that the man was called at the trial on some small point or other. I can imagine that de Barral went to him when he saw, as he could hardly help seeing, the possibility of a "triumph of envious rivals"--a heavy sentence.

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