CHAPTER SIX--. . . A MOONLESS NIGHT, THICK WITH STARS ABOVE, VERY DARK ON THE WATER (Page 3)
I doubt if for love or even for money, but I think possibly, from pity that man provided him with what Mr. Powell called "strong stuff." From what Powell saw of the very act I am fairly certain it must have been contained in a capsule and that he had it about him on the last day of his trial, perhaps secured by a stitch in his waistcoat pocket. He didn't use it. Why? Did he think of his child at the last moment? Was it want of courage? We can't tell. But he found it in his clothes when he came out of jail. It had escaped investigation if there was any. Chance had armed him. And chance alone, the chance of Mr. Powell's life, forced him to turn the abominable weapon against himself.
I imparted my theory to Mr. Powell who accepted it at once as, in a sense, favourable to the father of Mrs. Anthony. Then he waved his hand. "Don't let us think of it."
I acquiesced and very soon he observed dreamily:
"I was with Captain and Mrs. Anthony sailing all over the world for near on six years. Almost as long as Franklin."
"Oh yes! What about Franklin?" I asked.
Powell smiled. "He left the Ferndale a year or so afterwards, and I took his place. Captain Anthony recommended him for a command. You don't think Captain Anthony would chuck a man aside like an old glove. But of course Mrs. Anthony did not like him very much. I don't think she ever let out a whisper against him but Captain Anthony could read her thoughts.
And again Powell seemed to lose himself in the past. I asked, for suddenly the vision of the Fynes passed through my mind.
Powell gave a start. "No! No! Never had any children," and again subsided, puffing at his short briar pipe.
"Where are they now?" I inquired next as if anxious to ascertain that all Fyne's fears had been misplaced and vain as our fears often are; that there were no undesirable cousins for his dear girls, no danger of intrusion on their spotless home. Powell looked round at me slowly, his pipe smouldering in his hand.
"Don't you know?" he uttered in a deep voice.
"That the Ferndale was lost this four years or more. Sunk. Collision. And Captain Anthony went down with her."
"You don't say so!" I cried quite affected as if I had known Captain Anthony personally. "Was--was Mrs. Anthony lost too?"
"You might as well ask if I was lost," Mr. Powell rejoined so testily as to surprise me. "You see me here,--don't you."
He was quite huffy, but noticing my wondering stare he smoothed his ruffled plumes. And in a musing tone.
"Yes. Good men go out as if there was no use for them in the world. It seems as if there were things that, as the Turks say, are written. Or else fate has a try and sometimes misses its mark. You remember that close shave we had of being run down at night, I told you of, my first voyage with them. This go it was just at dawn. A flat calm and a fog thick enough to slice with a knife. Only there were no explosives on board. I was on deck and I remember the cursed, murderous thing looming up alongside and Captain Anthony (we were both on deck) calling out, "Good God! What's this! Shout for all hands, Powell, to save themselves. There's no dynamite on board now. I am going to get the wife! . . " I yelled, all the watch on deck yelled. Crash!"
Mr. Powell gasped at the recollection. "It was a Belgian Green Star liner, the Westland," he went on, "commanded by one of those stop- for-nothing skippers. Flaherty was his name and I hope he will die without absolution. She cut half through the old Ferndale and after the blow there was a silence like death. Next I heard the captain back on deck shouting, "Set your engines slow ahead," and a howl of "Yes, yes," answering him from her forecastle; and then a whole crowd of people up there began making a row in the fog. They were throwing ropes down to us in dozens, I must say. I and the captain fastened one of them under Mrs. Anthony's arms: I remember she had a sort of dim smile on her face."
"Haul up carefully," I shouted to the people on the steamer's deck. "You've got a woman on that line."
The captain saw her landed up there safe. And then we made a rush round our decks to see no one was left behind. As we got back the captain says: "Here she's gone at last, Powell; the dear old thing! Run down at sea."
"Indeed she is gone," I said. "But it might have been worse. Shin up this rope, sir, for God's sake. I will steady it for you."
"What are you thinking about," he says angrily. "It isn't my turn. Up with you."
These were the last words he ever spoke on earth I suppose. I knew he meant to be the last to leave his ship, so I swarmed up as quick as I could, and those damned lunatics up there grab at me from above, lug me in, drag me along aft through the row and the riot of the silliest excitement I ever did see. Somebody hails from the bridge, "Have you got them all on board?" and a dozen silly asses start yelling all together, "All saved! All saved," and then that accursed Irishman on the bridge, with me roaring No! No! till I thought my head would burst, rings his engines astern. He rings the engines astern--I fighting like mad to make myself heard! And of course . . . "
I saw tears, a shower of them fall down Mr. Powell's face. His voice broke.
"The Ferndale went down like a stone and Captain Anthony went down with her, the finest man's soul that ever left a sailor's body. I raved like a maniac, like a devil, with a lot of fools crowding round me and asking, "Aren't you the captain?"
"I wasn't fit to tie the shoe-strings of the man you have drowned," I screamed at them . . . Well! Well! I could see for myself that it was no good lowering a boat. You couldn't have seen her alongside. No use. And only think, Marlow, it was I who had to go and tell Mrs. Anthony. They had taken her down below somewhere, first-class saloon. I had to go and tell her! That Flaherty, God forgive him, comes to me as white as a sheet, "I think you are the proper person." God forgive him. I wished to die a hundred times. A lot of kind ladies, passengers, were chattering excitedly around Mrs. Anthony--a real parrot house. The ship's doctor went before me. He whispers right and left and then there falls a sudden hush. Yes, I wished myself dead. But Mrs. Anthony was a brick.
Here Mr. Powell fairly burst into tears. "No one could help loving Captain Anthony. I leave you to imagine what he was to her. Yet before the week was out it was she who was helping me to pull myself together."
"Is Mrs. Anthony in England now?" I asked after a while.
He wiped his eyes without any false shame. "Oh yes." He began to look for matches, and while diving for the box under the table added: "And not very far from here either. That little village up there--you know."
"No! Really! Oh I see!"
Mr. Powell smoked austerely, very detached. But I could not let him off like this. The sly beggar. So this was the secret of his passion for sailing about the river, the reason of his fondness for that creek.
"And I suppose," I said, "that you are still as 'enthusiastic' as ever. Eh? If I were you I would just mention my enthusiasm to Mrs. Anthony. Why not?"
He caught his falling pipe neatly. But if what the French call effarement was ever expressed on a human countenance it was on this occasion, testifying to his modesty, his sensibility and his innocence. He looked afraid of somebody overhearing my audacious-- almost sacrilegious hint--as if there had not been a mile and a half of lonely marshland and dykes between us and the nearest human habitation. And then perhaps he remembered the soothing fact for he allowed a gleam to light up his eyes, like the reflection of some inward fire tended in the sanctuary of his heart by a devotion as pure as that of any vestal.
It flashed and went out. He smiled a bashful smile, sighed:
"Pah! Foolishness. You ought to know better," he said, more sad than annoyed. "But I forgot that you never knew Captain Anthony," he added indulgently.
I reminded him that I knew Mrs. Anthony; even before he--an old friend now--had ever set eyes on her. And as he told me that Mrs. Anthony had heard of our meetings I wondered whether she would care to see me. Mr. Powell volunteered no opinion then; but next time we lay in the creek he said, "She will be very pleased. You had better go to-day."
The afternoon was well advanced before I approached the cottage. The amenity of a fine day in its decline surrounded me with a beneficent, a calming influence; I felt it in the silence of the shady lane, in the pure air, in the blue sky. It is difficult to retain the memory of the conflicts, miseries, temptations and crimes of men's self-seeking existence when one is alone with the charming serenity of the unconscious nature. Breathing the dreamless peace around the picturesque cottage I was approaching, it seemed to me that it must reign everywhere, over all the globe of water and land and in the hearts of all the dwellers on this earth.
Flora came down to the garden gate to meet me, no longer the perversely tempting, sorrowful, wisp of white mist drifting in the complicated bad dream of existence. Neither did she look like a forsaken elf. I stammered out stupidly, "Again in the country, Miss
. . . Mrs . . . " She was very good, returned the pressure of my hand, but we were slightly embarrassed. Then we laughed a little. Then we became grave.
I am no lover of day-breaks. You know how thin, equivocal, is the light of the dawn. But she was now her true self, she was like a fine tranquil afternoon--and not so very far advanced either. A woman not much over thirty, with a dazzling complexion and a little colour, a lot of hair, a smooth brow, a fine chin, and only the eyes of the Flora of the old days, absolutely unchanged.
In the room into which she led me we found a Miss Somebody--I didn't catch the name,--an unobtrusive, even an indistinct, middle-aged person in black. A companion. All very proper. She came and went and even sat down at times in the room, but a little apart, with some sewing. By the time she had brought in a lighted lamp I had heard all the details which really matter in this story. Between me and her who was once Flora de Barral the conversation was not likely to keep strictly to the weather.
The lamp had a rosy shade; and its glow wreathed her in perpetual blushes, made her appear wonderfully young as she sat before me in a deep, high-backed arm-chair. I asked:
"Tell me what is it you said in that famous letter which so upset Mrs. Fyne, and caused little Fyne to interfere in this offensive manner?"
"It was simply crude," she said earnestly. "I was feeling reckless and I wrote recklessly. I knew she would disapprove and I wrote foolishly. It was the echo of her own stupid talk. I said that I did not love her brother but that I had no scruples whatever in marrying him."
She paused, hesitating, then with a shy half-laugh:
"I really believed I was selling myself, Mr. Marlow. And I was proud of it. What I suffered afterwards I couldn't tell you; because I only discovered my love for my poor Roderick through agonies of rage and humiliation. I came to suspect him of despising me; but I could not put it to the test because of my father. Oh! I would not have been too proud. But I had to spare poor papa's feelings. Roderick was perfect, but I felt as though I were on the rack and not allowed even to cry out. Papa's prejudice against Roderick was my greatest grief. It was distracting. It frightened me. Oh! I have been miserable! That night when my poor father died suddenly I am certain they had some sort of discussion, about me. But I did not want to hold out any longer against my own heart! I could not."
She stopped short, then impulsively:
"Truth will out, Mr. Marlow."
"Yes," I said.
She went on musingly.
"Sorrow and happiness were mingled at first like darkness and light. For months I lived in a dusk of feelings. But it was quiet. It was warm . . . "
Again she paused, then going back in her thoughts. "No! There was no harm in that letter. It was simply foolish. What did I know of life then? Nothing. But Mrs. Fyne ought to have known better. She wrote a letter to her brother, a little later. Years afterwards Roderick allowed me to glance at it. I found in it this sentence:
'For years I tried to make a friend of that girl; but I warn you once more that she has the nature of a heartless adventuress . . . ' Adventuress!" repeated Flora slowly. "So be it. I have had a fine adventure."
"It was fine, then," I said interested.
"The finest in the world! Only think! I loved and I was loved, untroubled, at peace, without remorse, without fear. All the world, all life were transformed for me. And how much I have seen! How good people were to me! Roderick was so much liked everywhere. Yes, I have known kindness and safety. The most familiar things appeared lighted up with a new light, clothed with a loveliness I had never suspected. The sea itself! . . . You are a sailor. You have lived your life on it. But do you know how beautiful it is, how strong, how charming, how friendly, how mighty . . . "
I listened amazed and touched. She was silent only a little while.
"It was too good to last. But nothing can rob me of it now . . . Don't think that I repine. I am not even sad now. Yes, I have been happy. But I remember also the time when I was unhappy beyond endurance, beyond desperation. Yes. You remember that. And later on, too. There was a time on board the Ferndale when the only moments of relief I knew were when I made Mr. Powell talk to me a little on the poop. You like him?--Don't you?"
"Excellent fellow," I said warmly. "You see him often?"
"Of course. I hardly know another soul in the world. I am alone. And he has plenty of time on his hands. His aunt died a few years ago. He's doing nothing, I believe."
"He is fond of the sea," I remarked. "He loves it."
"He seems to have given it up," she murmured.
"I wonder why?"
She remained silent. "Perhaps it is because he loves something else better," I went on. "Come, Mrs. Anthony, don't let me carry away from here the idea that you are a selfish person, hugging the memory of your past happiness, like a rich man his treasure, forgetting the poor at the gate."
I rose to go, for it was getting late. She got up in some agitation and went out with me into the fragrant darkness of the garden. She detained my hand for a moment and then in the very voice of the Flora of old days, with the exact intonation, showing the old mistrust, the old doubt of herself, the old scar of the blow received in childhood, pathetic and funny, she murmured, "Do you think it possible that he should care for me?"
"Just ask him yourself. You are brave."
"Oh, I am brave enough," she said with a sigh.
"Then do. For if you don't you will be wronging that patient man cruelly."
I departed leaving her dumb. Next day, seeing Powell making preparations to go ashore, I asked him to give my regards to Mrs. Anthony. He promised he would.
"Listen, Powell," I said. "We got to know each other by chance?"
"Oh, quite!" he admitted, adjusting his hat.
"And the science of life consists in seizing every chance that presents itself," I pursued. "Do you believe that?"
"Gospel truth," he declared innocently.
"Well, don't forget it."
"Oh, I! I don't expect now anything to present itself," he said, jumping ashore.
He didn't turn up at high water. I set my sail and just as I had cast off from the bank, round the black barn, in the dusk, two figures appeared and stood silent, indistinct.
"Is that you, Powell?" I hailed.
"And Mrs. Anthony," his voice came impressively through the silence of the great marsh. "I am not sailing to-night. I have to see Mrs. Anthony home."
"Then I must even go alone," I cried.
Flora's voice wished me "bon voyage" in a most friendly but tremulous tone.
"You shall hear from me before long," shouted Powell, suddenly, just as my boat had cleared the mouth of the creek.
"This was yesterday," added Marlow, lolling in the arm-chair lazily. "I haven't heard yet; but I expect to hear any moment . . . What on earth are you grinning at in this sarcastic manner? I am not afraid of going to church with a friend. Hang it all, for all my belief in Chance I am not exactly a pagan . . . "