Roy Glashan's Library
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A STORM had burst upon us in the bleak Antarctic regions, and H.M.S. 'Hereward' was flying helplessly before the wind. Already the gale had lasted forty-eight hours, and now seemed as fierce and its end as distant as ever. To the north-west the sky was veiled in utter darkness, which shrouded the sea even to our very quarter-deck. Our storm sails only were set, and yet the speed at which we were flying seemed prodigious. From the yards hung the tattered fragments of the main topsail, torn to pieces as by a giant's fingers.
In some alarm I paced the quarter-deck, for the situation was not very palatable, and a general feeling of uneasiness pervaded the ship. Mingled, however, with my anxiety was a certain strong curiosity, which now and then came uppermost; for I had never before experienced so terrific a storm, and the situation was not without its charm. Provided our ultimate safety had been assured I could have given myself up to the fascination of the scene; but, as it was, the outlook was not bright.
It was almost eighteen months since we had set sail from England. When the Admiralty fitted out H.M.S. 'Hereward' for a scientific expedition they cast their eyes about for an experienced savant to whom they might entrust the conduct of the research. No one was better qualified for the post than the man they eventually selected, Mr. Erling, a veteran biologist and a capable geographer to boot. At this time I had been a few years at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. It was not as a profession, but out of pure love of the study that I had taken up biology, having acquired my first affection for it at Cambridge. So when Mr. Erling, whom I knew and valued for his high attainments, offered to take me as his assistant, I was delighted beyond measure. I easily obtained leave from my work at South Kensington, and was duly installed as assistant biologist on board H.M.S. 'Hereward,' hound for Southern waters. Hitherto our expedition had been a decided success. We had been for some months in the South Pacific, and had afterwards spent a considerable time in Australian waters. Here, however, Mr. Erling became seriously indisposed, and was eventually obliged to abandon thought of accompanying the expedition further. He was landed at Adelaide amid general regrets, and left me practically in sole charge of the scientific department. From Adelaide we intended to run down into polar regions as far as we could, for although we were not, strictly speaking, upon a voyage of exploration, yet one of the most important aims in science is the attainment of adequate knowledge concerning life in the polar world, and it was with this purpose that we were in such southerly latitudes.
My departure from England was not unalloyed by a little melancholy arising from the peculiarity of my position; for I had just become engaged to Ethel Wharncliffe, the daughter of my father's old friend, the vicar of Malthorpe, and parting from her to a large extent neutralised the pleasure of my new position. At this moment, as I paced the deck, my thoughts recurred to her in a little haze of melancholy not wholly displeasing. From a small Hampshire village, nestling securely under gentle downs, at that very hour, perhaps, her heart went out across the waters to me. And here was I within an ace of shipwreck on a tempest-tossed, wave-beaten vessel, the mere sport of the powers of air and sea.
Certainly now the danger appeared very great. It is action which is best for everyone in the moment of danger; suspense and inactivity are apt to destroy a man's nerve. But I was not a sailor, and knew none of the thousand and one things which a sailor can find to do. I was, as Hardy frequently told me, 'as helpless as a baby' on board.
We were unable to turn our prow northwards, as seemed to me the best plan, for the seas were so heavy that to lay her broadside to them exposed us to a merciless flood which would soon send us to destruction; so we kept on like cowards before the wind, trusting to time to wear out the strength of the storm. Everything was against us. Long rolling waves broke over us and washed our decks clear of everything movable, and when they could not attack us on one side they crept underneath and flooded our lee scuppers with salt foam.
But this was not all; the Antarctic 'pack,' as the loose floating fragments of ice are called, hemmed us in an ever-stiffening mould and came crashing against our vessel, adding to the universal din. We drifted past bergs frequently, and we feared the inevitable tightening of the pack further on.
'Hardy,' said I to the first officer as we were endeavouring to get some exercise by staggering along the deck, 'is this wind never to change? How much longer are we to remain in suspense?'
'Heaven knows!' he answered grimly. 'A reasonable gale would have blown itself out long ago. It almost looks like a conspiracy of the elements to get rid of us.'
'It's not my notion of nautical propriety,' I said, half jestingly. 'We are not pirates, only innocent investigators of natural law. I suppose this blessed pack is the danger?'
'Yes. You see, if the pack gets tighter, as I imagine it will, we shall be jammed up at the very least. But the pack is not all. Bergs are not easily avoided in such a terrific gale as this. We may go smash somewhere soon.'
'You're very consoling.'
'One can't afford to gloze the truth, my boy. See here'—he stopped in his walk, and, steadying himself against the binnacle, pencilled some lines on a piece of paper, 'That's where we are, within a few miles, and that's where we shall be directly. In short, we're going bang in the direction of close packs, ice-barriers, and what not. But perhaps the gale will blow off before the morning.'
At this juncture a heavy sea broke over the bulwarks and drenched us with spray and foam. The good ship shivered at the shock, and plunged her nose deeper into the seething torrent ahead. On each side of us the floating pieces of ice grew more numerous, and as evening wore on the crash of tumbling ice became almost incessant.
'Look there,' said Enfield, the second lieutenant, pointing to some larger masses in the distance; 'those are the avant-couriers of destruction.'
As he spoke a dim white bulk passed silently by us on our starboard side. I gazed after it until it had vanished into the darkness, and then a couple more loomed up, and I descried others in front. Plainly now, too, could be heard, during a lull in the storm, the cracking of floe ice in the distance.
'If you want to get to sleep to-night you had better turn in now,' suggested Hardy. 'Later, things may become too lively. Carpe diem, or rather noctem. I'm going to have an hour's snooze myself.'
Bidding good night to Enfield, we descended the ladder at breakneck speed, and went below.
'Now, don't go burying yourself in 'Darwin on Earthworms,' or Hochelschlitzner on fungi, or anything of the sort, but, like a sensible fellow, turn in.'
I was not at all disposed either for Darwin or for the other gentleman, whom Hardy had facetiously invented; but I did not feel sleepy. Picking up Ross's 'Voyage of Discovery in Southern Seas,' I began reading. I could think of nothing but icebergs and packs. Sir James Ross entered the main pack late in the season in a terrible storm, and yet he managed to come out of it safely. If he, in what he calls his little old-fashioned 'dull-sailing' ship, weathered the storm, the chances were that we, in our iron-sheeted modern man-o'-war, with steam-power to boot, would also succeed. So far, so good.
Now, however, sleep made way upon me. My head dropped forward, and icebergs, packs, floes, storms and auroras were beginning to drift before my eyes in a jumbled fashion, when a sudden shock sent me flying against the wall of the cabin, and thoroughly awoke me. Another and another shock succeeded. We had evidently got into the thick of the pack.
Staggering to my feet, I guided myself through the passage, and crawled up the ladder to the deck. The scene which met my view was ghostly enough. The wind was as high as ever, and whistled and roared overhead through the bare rigging so loudly and so fiercely that I could hear nothing save only the booming noise of the waves thundering upon the deck. The night was a little clearer, and on all sides I could discern white spectral figures which seemed to be moving towards us, ready to close us in. Now and then there was a grating noise as the keel crashed over a fragment of ice, or a sudden shock and a quivering as she smote upon some larger and heavier floe.
I heard Captain Crashawe's voice on the bridge above, and the cry of the man at the wheel repeating his injunctions monotonously. The air was so bitingly cold that I was driven back to my cabin, and with a half-breathed prayer for safety turned in to a troubled sleep.
In the morning the storm showed signs of abating; the clouds looked less black and ominous, and the wind fell. It became a somewhat easier matter to pilot the vessel through the masses of ice which encumbered her path. The sea, too, was less boisterous, and the vessel steadier than she had ever been. A more hopeful outlook was before us.
Yet our spirits, which had risen at these symptoms, were again cast down by a change at noon. Apparently, the wind had only been collecting strength for a fresh assault. Once more the clouds gathered behind us, and the horizon grew black as midnight. The wind whistled more furiously among the yards, and a blinding shower of sleet and snow came on. The cold grew intense. The sheets and rigging were crusted with icicles, and the spray from the sea was frozen ere it touched the decks. The sleet was frozen on the faces of the sailors, and their beards and clothes, drenched with salt water, grew stiff and heavy. The sea became rougher. Huge mountainous waves curled over the bulwarks and flung large lumps of ice upon the deck, battering in the planking.
The captain and two of his lieutenants were on the bridge, for the danger was now imminent. Issuing forth from the shelter of the charthouse, I groped my way along the deck. The blast was so strong, and the cold so intense, that I had to stoop below the level of the bulwarks to escape the wind and snow, which cut at my neck like a knife. Scrambling up to the bridge, I could make out dim floating masses of white looming large to port and starboard. Above the roar of the hurricane came now and then a mighty crash, telling of bergs colliding somewhere in the darkness. Some of them were of vast size, towering for a couple of hundred feet into the mists; and, to render the scene more weird, flocks of Skua gull and gigantic stormy petrels flew round our stern with wild hoarse shrieks, like demons of the gale.
Gradually a dense black fog crept out from the sea, and shut off the outlook. We saw but dimly now, and any moment might find us dashing into an iceberg. All of a sudden, on our starboard quarter, seemingly bearing down upon us, we saw a huge berg, whose dim outline loomed a hundred feet above our masts.
'Port! port!' roared Captain Crashawe.
'Port it is, sir,' came from the motionless helmsman.
But at that moment another looming mass was visible beyond our prows. We were hemmed in by bergs.
'Hard a-port!' roared the captain again.
But our impetus seemed to me too great to allow us time to clear the second obstacle. Yet at least we should make a good fight with death. Captain Crashawe had wisely kept the fires alight, and the engines in readiness against any emergency. Now he screamed down the engineer's tube:
We were actually under the shadow of the berg, if shadow there had been, and the 'Hereward' steamed out slowly from her dangerous position, and made an effort to pass in front of the drifting monster. The solid wall of ice rose sheer from the very bulwarks. A collision seemed inevitable.
'Full speed!' roared the captain.
Full speed she flew through the tossing water, actually grazing the berg in her course. Magnificently it towered to heaven, and through the blinding snow and fog I caught sight of some overhanging ledge of ice, which to my dazzled and bewildered eyes seemed to totter and tremble. Forging ahead, the noble vessel swerved clear of the berg, and passed under the very jaws of death. A grinding of ice, a dull shock, a vibration through and through, and a terrible crash as from the ruin of a universe—a toppling crag of the berg had fallen, and our mainmast had gone by the board, and over the floating wreck hovered with shrill screams flocks of gulls and petrels.
But we had escaped. Our ship was a drifting ruin, but we had escaped at least for a time, and felt thankful for that mercy. Destruction was in all likelihood merely postponed, for, among other calamities, our rudder had been rendered useless; yet, even with that knowledge, even with imminent death on all sides, safety came upon us with a certain sense of relief. Hope is the last sentiment to vanish. Mere intellectual conviction will not evict her. How we passed the succeeding night I scarcely remember, for a cloud of terror encircles my memory of that time. I can see vaguely now our drifting, rudderless, shattered vessel, the heaving sea, and the black sky. I can see the huge bergs bearing down upon us from all quarters, and threatening to crush us into nothingness. I can hear, too, the hideous noises of sea and sky, as if the lower world had let loose its fiends upon us—the crash of falling bergs, the grinding of the floes, the shrieking of the wind, the thunder of the waters, and the shrill cries of the seabirds hovering in our wake and awaiting—God knows what.
At early dawn the fog lifted, and the morning light enabled us to get a more extended view of the realm of death. We had long resigned ourselves to what seemed a certainty, and it was with a certain angry defiance that I contemplated the approaching end. At no time is the prospect of death pleasant, and, when one has to face it, after getting a renewed grip upon life, there is a bitterness in the position which makes one resentful. It seemed now as if it had been with covert irony that, scarcely eighteen months before, I had promised myself a lifelong happiness as I wandered through the sweet country meadows with Ethel. At thirty, one can dare most things. But death in this form—Pah! the idea was sufficiently nauseous. Philosophy alone is scarcely sufficient fortification; it is want of thought, and not thought, which is the best preparation for the slow approach of death.
At breakfast next morning we were still drifting slowly and surely before the wind. Some distance in front of us was discernible now a long line of white, which marked the eternal barrier of ice girdling here the south pole. As far as we could conjecture, the 'Hereward' must be dashed against this ice continent, and meet her doom, very much as she might have done upon some rocky headland on the English coast. As the morning wore on we drew nearer and nearer. The sea grew more open, the pack looser, as if our road to destruction were being cleared before us. Ahead uprose that white wall of ice, grim and ruthless, extending far away into obscurity on either side.
All were assembled on the deck, and every eye was intent upon the death which lay now but a half-mile from us. The men were drawn up on the quarter-deck in review order. Cold and haggard they looked, worn out by the perils and hardships they had undergone.
'Steady, lads,' said Captain Crashawe. 'We have done our duty; let us die like Englishmen.'
Nearer we drifted to the great ice wall, which rose to the height of three hundred feet above us. Another quarter of an hour, and we should be in eternity. The sea foamed around us, and broke over the bulwarks with a mighty roar, drenching us to the skin. The ship reeled from side to side, and the blue waters yawned, ready to engulf us fathoms deep. At this moment the dark cloud wrack lifted, and, as if to mock us, for the first time for some three days the sun broke through and shone brightly on the desolate scene.
'Surely,' said Hardy, who was standing by my side—'surely she is much steadier than she has been. And the sea is so open. I wonder what it can be.'
I made no reply, for I was scarcely in a mood for observation. But next moment I saw him jump upon the bridge, and level his glasses in the direction of the barrier.
'A channel, thank God!' he cried at the top of his voice.
'Hurrah!' shouted the doctor excitedly. 'I knew we were not destined to be drowned. A channel through the ice.'
I rushed to the side, and looked towards the huge wall now overshadowing us. In truth there seemed to be a current bearing us along; and gazing steadily in the direction of the ship's nose, I saw a dark broken line in the ice wall, which must evidently mark a rift or fissure of some sort.
The current grew swifter as we approached the fissure, and we sped along over the blue water, now grown smoother beneath the shelter of the bergs.
'Hurrah!' shouted the sailors in a frenzy of delight.
The swirl of the water grew fiercer and fiercer. The foam curled over the broken bowsprit and washed the decks. Then the ship's nose swung round the point, and with a dull swish we were swept violently into the passage. The next instant our stern collided with a cliff of ice, and a heavy shock hurled me with force against the deckhouse. Thence I was dashed upon the bulwarks, but, luckily for myself, I fell upon one of the sailors, who was lying in the scuppers, so that the violence of my collision was lessened. Finding myself flying off again, dazed and confused, I instinctively put out my hand and grasped something, which proved to be a coil of rope attached to a belaying pin. Clutching this with the desperation of drifting consciousness, I was able to retain my position and recover myself. As my wits collected I took in the situation. The channel into which we had passed was very narrow, being barely more than two ships' length across; and the force of the current was so strong that the 'Hereward' was being tossed from side to side like a nautilus-shell in a storm. Perpendicular cliffs of ice towered hundreds of feet into the air to right and left. It was as if we were in some mysterious canon. The sea was in a terrible state of agitation. From my position I could see the waves breaking over the lower deck incessantly. Sometimes the ship heeled over and became half submerged under the blue foam, which dashed up to within a few feet of me.
I discerned these particulars in snatches, for I was kept busy preserving my head from bumping against the bulwarks, and it was extremely difficult to make any continuous observation. The head of the ship was never for two minutes in the same direction. Now she was tearing prow foremost down the channel; next moment a gigantic wave struck her and, turning her broadside on, swept her against a projecting column of ice. Again the current swung her round upon a buttress, and twisted her like a teetotum in an eddy of the turbulent stream. The din of waters was terrific.
Upon the bridge I could see Captain Crashawe lashed to the railing; but he was alone, and I could only see two or three prostrate forms upon the upper deck. Whether the others had been swept overboard, or what had become of them, I could not tell.
I dared not leave go my hold of the belaying-pin at the risk of being flung across into the flood, so I clung to it like grim death, and waited for whatever end should come. The water roared in my ears deafeningly, and my head grew dizzy. A feeling of numbness overpowered me; my eyes closed involuntarily, and I felt myself succumbing to unconsciousness. But in my dull stupor I was aware of a great crash, though I could not arouse myself sufficiently to discover the cause. Presently, however, the motion seemed to grow less violent, and the sea calmer. The noise lulled and the roar of the waters became faint. I opened my eyes and looked about me. The white cliffs had vanished: we were in still waters.
WITH difficulty I dragged myself out of my uncomfortable position, and limped along the deck. As I did so I saw two or three of the sailors sit up and stare about them vacantly. With their assistance I managed to arouse a few more, whom we found stowed away in sheltered recesses, where they had either taken refuge or had been hurled during the passage through the channel. Several had received severe injuries, and one or two, I feared, were beyond recovery.
While I was engaged in this way, I heard my name called, and, looking round, saw Hardy groping his way up the ladder.
'Thank God, you are alive!' I cried. 'Are you hurt?'
'Not much, only stiff and bruised. There are no bones broken.'
'What happened to you?'I asked.
'When we entered the channel I was standing on the deck just near you.'
'Yes, I saw you come down from the bridge.'
'The shock threw me violently against the railing overlooking the lower deck. I clung like a leech to the pillars of the bridge, but the next shock tore them from my grasp as if I had been a child. I remember being hurled over the railing, and I fell upon the lower deck and became unconscious.'
'Then how on earth you were not swept overboard by the sea I can't imagine.'
'Well, when I came to myself I crawled into shelter and out of the reach of the waves. Otherwise I should have met the fate of poor Enfield.'
'Is Enfield gone?'
'Washed overboard,' said he sadly; 'I saw him go.'
'The captain is still on the bridge. Let us make our way up to him, though I fear—' I did not finish my sentence.
On the bridge we found Captain Crashawe alone. The helmsman had disappeared, and had doubtless found a grave in the fierce waters. And in his stead was the captain lashed to the useless wheel. Life was gone from the gallant old sailor, and a fragment of the mizzenmast upon his head showed the manner of his death. He had evidently endeavoured to take the place of the helmsman when the latter had been washed overboard, and do what little good he could with a fractured rudder.
Sadly we crept down again to the lower deck, and, with those of the sailors who were able to exert themselves, resumed our mournful inspection. It was a melancholy tale we had to tell after our duties were over. Many hands were missing, and the only conclusion was that they had been washed off by the waves. Among these were Enfield, the second, and Dunlop, the fourth, lieutenant. Robinson, the third officer, had got off with a sprained arm; Fitzroy, the doctor, with a few bruises; the master seemed to have escaped all damage.
We had for so long been trembling on the verge of death that I doubt whether the catastrophe appalled us as much as would be expected. Yet that day was a day of great melancholy to us all. The 'Hereward' lay a shattered hulk among the icebergs, to one of which we had managed to anchor her. First we must bury our dead. Beside the captain, three or four of the crew had succumbed to the injuries they had received, and we that day committed their bodies to the great deep. The sun shone brightly in the western sky, and the sea was of that deep blue colour which tells of countless fathoms. All was suggestive of peace and solemnity; for it was a solemn occasion for all. Apart from the hush imparted by the mournful ceremony we were going through, the shadow of death had been actually lifted from our lives, and we had not recovered from the awe of its presence.
One by one the shrouded forms shot out into the great blue waters. The white bergs towered aloft to heaven—silent witnesses of the dropping of man's earthly curtain; for the drama of life had been played out for many a good man that day. A few gulls screamed noisily overhead, and a lazy seal basked in the sunshine on the neighbouring floe.
We had now to face the position. We did not even know where we were, and we could not possibly decide upon our future course until we did. Accordingly at midday Hardy—who was now in charge of the corvette—took an observation.
Presently he reappeared on deck with a paper in his hand, and his face wore a perplexed and even a startled look.
'Where are we?' cried Fitzroy eagerly.
'It is a most remarkable thing,' said Hardy calmly. 'I do not think you could even guess at the truth. I never imagined that the channel could be a channel through the great ice-barrier. I thought it must be merely an outlying island of ice. Well, it turns out to have been the ice-barrier after all.'
'Good gracious!' ejaculated Robinson.
'I knew it—I knew it!' cried Fitzroy ecstatically.
'Then where are we?' I asked in amazement.
'Longitude 143° W., latitude 81° 50′ S.,' he replied; 'we are within the Antarctic circle.'
'Hooray, boys!' shouted the vivacious Fitzroy. 'We have passed the 80th parallel and are now within the region of the pole. Three cheers for the pole! Then hey and away for the pole!'
'Wait a moment, Fitzroy,' said Hardy with a grim smile; 'just one moment before you allow your native enthusiasm to master you. It is quite true that we have reached the goal for which the ambition of navigators has for centuries been striving; we have passed the great ice-barrier which blocks the way to the pole; yet it might be advisable to consider, before we make any rash plans, how we are to get back.'
'Ay, that's the question,' muttered the grey-haired sailing-master. 'How are we to get back?'
Some thought, perchance, of his motherless children waiting his return in far-off old England moved the old man.
'Well, let us call a council of war,' went on Hardy; 'for in these peculiar circumstances we must all consult for the public good. The damages to the "Hereward" are undoubtedly severe, but a few days will suffice to patch her up for the present. At the end of that time we must make a move. Where is it to be? We cannot return through the channel; the idea is preposterous. I wait for your suggestions.'
'You're right, sir,' said the master after a pause. 'We can't return the way we came. None of us, God knows, would care to go through that experience again. Not that I care for myself personally, for I am somewhat of an old hulk, and have stood many storms and gone through many dangers, and for my own part I should be content to endure more yet. But a man doesn't live for himself only, and it is necessary for him first to think of his duty, and then of those who love him and depend upon him; and we all of us, I think, are in that strait. Therefore, I say it is wisest to get out of this place as fast as we can, wherever we can find an outlet into the open sea.'
'What do you say, Robinson?' asked Hardy.
'I'm somewhat inclined to think with Mr. Barnet. The sooner we get out of this the better; but how we are to manage it is another question altogether.'
'Well, I'm just ashamed at the lot of you,' broke in Fitzroy impatiently. 'Here is a glorious chance which has never occurred to anyone before, and possibly never will again, of reaching the pole, and making ourselves famous for ever, and you all of you would turn your backs on it. I'm only a landlubber, I grant you, but I'm willing to go through with this to the end. The sea is open ahead of us, and the weather brilliant. In a few days we should reach the pole itself, or at least discover, once and for all, if it can be reached. And at best we can but die, if it is necessary, as many another brave band has died before us.'
'Well, Grayhurst, and you?'
'I think I rather feel like Fitzroy. It seems a pity to let such a chance slip. We can't be much worse off than we are now, and, moreover, it appears to me that, since we know of no exit from this polar ring except by way of the channel, we are quite as likely to come across one on the other side of the pole as on this side. I vote for pushing on.'
'Hear, hear!' shouted Fitzroy, slapping me on the back, and causing me to swallow a piece of straw I was biting. 'Now for yourself, Hardy.'
'I think with Mr. Barnet and Robinson, that we should run no risk, and that as soon as we come across a means of escape we should take it. But I think also with you and Grayhurst that, since we have absolutely nothing to guide us in our search for such an outlet, as long as the weather is fine we may push on towards the pole in the hope of making some discovery, and thereby carry out the purpose of our expedition.'
As Robinson and the old master admitted, there was reason in this view; it was finally decided that we should take a few days to recover from the effects of our hardships, and to repair the vessel, and then proceed on our way to the South Pole.
Our expedition had been originally planned to last for two years, and as I leant over the bulwarks, the morning after our decision, and watched the carpenters busy below, I could not help wondering how long it would be before we got back, if we ever did get back. Would our expedition terminate, as many another such had terminated, in failure and death? Perhaps nothing would be left to tell the tale of human suffering and human aspiration save a few floating spars, or the débris of a lonely cairn; and even those poor relics might never meet the eyes of man. Then, again, the current of my thoughts changed as I thought of the possibilities of success, and I turned my gaze towards the south, where the white giants were gleaming in the bright sunshine, and the eyes lost themselves in the distant dazzle of ice and sky. There lay the pole—the lode-star of mariners of all time. Should we reach it, what a victory to boast over Nature, and Nature's allies, the elements! Was there indeed a continent beyond, as dreamers had dreamed, or was there nothing but this desolate ice, which we saw on all sides of us? We should know shortly.
Within a week the 'Hereward' was once more ready to proceed. Our spare masts were rigged after a very temporary fashion, but it was all that could be done. Moreover, we were now relying more upon our steam power, and the only essential repairs—the damage to the rudder—had been effected sufficiently well. It was a Tuesday when we bade good-bye to our friend, the iceberg, which had given us safe anchorage so faithfully, and turned our prow southwards through the glittering phalanxes of armed giants.
A noble sight it was to see, and one to be remembered. Steam had never before been seen in those latitudes, I fancy, and the gulls and petrels must have been sorely puzzled to account for the strange phenomenon. They hovered about us in flocks; and myriads of penguins, too, we could descry, perched upon the bergs which we passed. Many of them were very large birds, being nearly two feet in height, with white breasts and black backs, and a tuft of yellow on one side of the head. They invariably set up a screaming when we approached them, and often followed in the wake of the vessel for some distance, flapping their awkward bodies through the still water, and shrieking in answer to the sailors' shouts.
As we proceeded life seemed to grow more and more abundant, and occasionally an albatross swooped down upon the waves to clutch his prey, the rustle of his heavy wings being heard at a great distance. The bergs were of all fantastic shapes and colours. The sea and sun had eaten into the once smooth sides, which now presented an irregular and broken appearance—arches and façades, gables and columns, minarets and spires, all the eye of fancy could detect, hewn out of blue-white masonry. Domes and mosques reared their stately heads to the clouds; grottoes and pearly halls opened out from the heart of the bergs in virgin purity. Blue, mauve, pink—a hundred indescribable colours were reflected from the sun's rays, and danced across their faces as we passed along. Huge caverns penetrated deep into their recesses in a mist of blue, and in and out whirled flocks of sea-birds awaking the echoes by their noisy cries. Others sloped down to the surface of the sea, and anon the waves washed into them with a crash like distant thunder, dying away into faint murmurings, till all again was silent, and the awakened spirits of the place returned to sleep. I thought, as Wilkes the explorer had done, of ruined abbeys, silent and desolate, out of which the warmth of life has long departed, tenanted only by the birds of the air and the homeless wind.
Do not, however, imagine that I gave myself up to this idle dreaming. I was too keen a student of Nature to be content thus easily to lose golden opportunities. Moreover, the fact that responsibility had devolved solely on me spurred me on. We made several successful hauls with the trawl, and with highly satisfactory results. The soundings gave a depth averaging from 1,200 to 1,800 fathoms, and the organisms, both vegetable and animal, which we discovered, were more varied and more numerous than those observed by Sir Wyville Thomson in somewhat more northern regions.
I was pleased to be so successful, as in scientific matters I always was audacious, and these discoveries went to confirm my audacity. The romantic side of evolution has always appealed to me, and I was far from tying myself down to expected results. What right have we to set limits to the being and properties of living organisms? Life evoked under special and peculiar conditions is ipso facto subject to those conditions. A fish, for example, lives in the sea, a quadruped upon the land, each pertaining to the element in which and by which it has been evolved. A short time ago even our most advanced thinkers imagined that life ceased beyond a depth of 200 fathoms. This assumption was based upon observations and calculations made in regard to known organisms on earth and in water: that is, it was an a priori assumption. Subsequently, Dr. Wallich and others, notably Sir Wyville Thomson, discovered that, so far from life ceasing at 200 fathoms, animalculae exist at a depth of 1,300, 1,500, and even 1,800 fathoms. The conclusions from this discovery were obvious. The pressure per square inch which must be sustained by these creatures at such a depth was actually to be estimated in tons. Such a pressure would be an impossibility for terrestrial animals to support; and so the conditions of life obtaining with the minute organisms must be very different from those to which we are accustomed.
It was long before this view was received. The facts were doubted. In the words of Sir Wyville Thomson, 'it was almost as difficult to believe that creatures, comparable with those of which we have experience in the upper world, could live at the bottom of the deep sea, as that they should live in a vacuum or in the fire.' But it was soon placed beyond question by repeated investigation, and has now become part and parcel of the scientific creed.
We made very slow progress indeed, which, considering the state of our vessel, was not to be wondered at, and by nightfall we had only run some forty miles. The sea was still comparatively open; bergs were numerous and the pack by no means dense. Before the sun set we caught sight of a 'land-blink' on the port bow, that inevitable token of the neighbourhood of land. And the same fact was testified by the olive-green appearance of the sea, which had gradually begun to lose its turquoise colour.
About one in the morning I was awakened from a sound sleep by Fitzroy's excited voice at my door.
'Hi, there, Grayhurst, get up, you lazy dog. The Antarctic Continent is in sight. Hurry up. We are made men.'
I hurried on my clothes and scrambled up the ladder, joining a group of officers on the quarter-deck. Land, sure enough. Towards the east lay a white line of presumably ice-walled rock, and beyond towered a dim mountainous mass from whose top were issuing faint red flames and smoke.
'A volcano!' I cried in startled admiration.
'Yes, a volcano,' echoed Fitzroy, 'and the Antarctic Continent, my boy.'
'That's a very glib phrase of yours,' said Hardy drily. 'Why you should imagine this to be the Antarctic Continent I don't know; it may be a polar St. Helena.'
'Now, my good sir,' said Fitzroy reproachfully, 'don't take the romance out of everything. Why can't you allow us to enjoy our spasm of pride without the chill of cool reflection? That's the Antarctic Continent for me, and I'm not going to allow anyone to cheat me of my conviction till to-morrow.'
'Continent or no continent, it's a glorious sight,' I said, peering through my glasses at the flaming peak. The sky was cloudless, and the stars were as bright as they can be only in the southern hemisphere. The moon shone lustrously upon a placid sea and lofty bergs.
'Look,' said Fitzroy, 'what light is that?'
'The aurora, by Jove!' said Hardy.
Low down upon the horizon was a faint gleam of light which grew gradually in radiate fashion till it formed a silver crescent in the distant south.
For some time we gazed in silence.
'Who knows,' said Fitzroy, breaking the pause, 'but beneath that remote halo lies the mighty axis of the world, on which no eye has ever gazed, nor foot trod, since the making of the world?'
'Fitzroy speaks as if it was a venerable edifice of some kind,' replied Hardy with a smile.
When we were tired of looking at the volcano and the aurora, I turned into my bunk again, and resumed my interrupted slumber. It was not nearly so cold as it had been, and I felt energetic, and, in Fitzroy's language, 'fit as a fiddle.'
Next morning the promise of the night was fulfilled, and yet another calm clear day was before us. The volcano was still in sight, looming faintly astern, and a steep wall of ice some four miles off, along which we were pursuing our way, announced the presence of land. The air was much warmer than it had hitherto been; so much so indeed as to render many of our wraps useless. It is not uncommon to experience very warm sunshine in high latitudes, so this did not surprise us. But what did appear strange was the scarcity of bergs around us. The pack, too, had almost disappeared, and the sea wore the aspect of the South Pacific in January.
'This open sea is surely very odd, Hardy,' I ventured to say later in the day. 'Is it possible that, after all, the old fables were right when they told of an open polar sea?'
'It does look like it, doesn't it? I confess that I am very puzzled. It looks as if we were on the verge of a discovery. I have just tested the temperature of the sea, and have found it to be very much above yesterday's average. It is wholly perplexing.'
No one could make head or tail of the unusual warmth, which kept increasing as the day wore on. Bergs grew exceedingly scarce, and the few we passed wore a dilapidated appearance, were honeycombed and top-heavy, and showed signs of speedy dissolution. There was, moreover, a queer odour in the air, not so much an odour perhaps as a sensation, which was rather agreeable, but produced a peculiar lethargic condition in the mind. The bodily powers were not affected by it, but it seemed to seize upon and paralyse the will. This was the analysis of its influence, which I afterwards effected.
'This is most mysterious,' said Hardy again when we met at dinner. 'I have not the remotest idea of what it can mean. It certainly foreshadows some interesting discovery.'
Fitzroy, who was all excitement, broke out: 'Why, this is the land of the Lotos-eaters, captain. Do you not feel it in the air? Courage!' He rose from the table and brandished his knife through the open window.
'"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemèd always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a pleasant dream.
'See how it all fits.
'The charmèd sunset linger'd low adown
In the red West.
'We have been borne from the land of reality into the land of fancy and faery. Gentlemen, a toast for you all. Let us drink to the unknown land—to Fairydom or Lotos-land, or whatever lies before us. Gentlemen, charge your glasses.'
Whether under the influence of this strange atmosphere, or catching some enthusiasm from Fitzroy, we charged our glasses, and, standing up in good old English fashion, we pledged the unknown world into which we were silently steaming.
As night came on, the strange phenomena grew more and more manifest; the air grew warmer, grew hot, as hot as in midsummer. All signs of ice vanished. The huge barrier which had screened the rocky cliffs on our port side disappeared, and the uneven outline of the shore could be seen through our glasses. The strange sensation grew more pronounced. The sky-line was broken by a low range of mountains stretching northward and culminating in the volcano we had seen the day before, and dying away into the promontory which we were now approaching in the south.
About nine o'clock we descried what we at first imagined was an aurora over those mountains to the left. But a closer investigation proved it to be no aurora, for it was too continuous and too bright, and much too far to the west. What could it be? An eager group collected round Hardy on the bridge, and a no less eager crowd was gathered on the forecastle.
We ran in as close to the shore as was deemed safe, and swept the coast and horizon with our glasses. Trees and shrubs were plainly discernible, but they appeared strange, and not identical with any known species, though the larger seemed to be a kind of pine. We found nothing to solve the mystery of the crimson light above the hills. Once round the promontory, however, we should probably be able to find the explanation. Was it from a vast volcano, or was it a large forest fire inland? The heat became oppressive, but, as we were now close under the shelter of the land, we did not feel it so much as we might have done. The heat had some obvious connection with the crimson glare over the mountains.
Swiftly now the good ship steamed along the coastline, for the engineer, like all of us, was full of excitement, and was doing his best to bring us a solution of the mystery. Another half-hour's steaming, and we should round the point. The cliffs rose perpendicularly a hundred feet from the sea, and we were so close that we could hear the 'wavelets lapping on the crags.'
Past crag and cliff we flew, past sandy bay and rocky spit, past bluff and headland, and now we are nearing the promontory. Each man's heart beat loud in anticipation of some unknown and wondrous thing.
'Starboard the helm!'
Starboard it is. We pass up to the wind a point or two to get our nose clear for a turn. When is it coming?
'Port your helm!'
Port it is.
Hard a-port. Round we swing in the soft night air, which comes to us now laden with a fiery heat, full of that mysterious odour. We are clearing the headland. Now it is the last point. We are round.
What is it they see from the forecastle that they cry out so wildly and fly in confusion?
The water is on fire.
'It is the infernal regions,' gasps Robinson, falling back upon me in his horror.
And so the sailors in the forecastle seem to think, for with wild cries of fear they have fled and are hiding themselves in terror down in the hatchways.
ACROSS the horizon, stretching from the far east to the distant south, lies a mighty waving mass of crimson flames. It rises sheer from out of the ocean, which with the glare is incarnadine; and it pierces the midnight sky with forked tongues, which overlap and curl about in tempestuous fury. And as we gaze in startled horror, it seems to steal across the waters towards us.
AS soon as we recovered from the shock of astonishment, we scrutinised the strange phenomenon more carefully. It seemed as if the water was on fire, for the flames sprang apparently from the very waves; nor could we determine accurately between the conflagration itself and the blood-red reflection in the sea. A thick vaporous mist clung round the base of the flames, doubtless arising from the boiling water in the vicinity; but the flames were so brilliant in colour that they showed through the mist, which merely appeared as a thin scum upon the surface. I can describe in no words the wonderful and weird, nay, the horrible aspect of this gigantic hedge of crimson fire against the midnight sky. Both air and water seemed as if they were being devoured by the more terrible and deadly element. The appearance was awe-inspiring and majestic in the extreme. Just so must have looked the lake of fire into which the fallen angels were hurled before the beginning of the world.
'Good gracious, old boy, what on earth is it?' said Fitzroy in my ear. 'What a grand sight!'
'The like I never imagined to exist on the earth. It is like a sample of hell.'
'So thought the sailors. By-the-by, where are they? We must cure them of this superstitious panic, if we wish to have a man aboard in his right senses. Hi! Jackson.' he called, seeing the boatswain peeping over the bulwarks, 'where are the men?'
'Gone into hiding, sir, to escape hell-fire!'
'Nonsense! don't be a fool. It's a most simple phenomenon,' said Fitzroy gaily. 'Anyone who knows anything of science can tell you what it is. Eh, Grayhurst? There are dozens of them in these latitudes.'
'What is it, sir?' asked a trembling voice from behind a boat.
'If it isn't the devil's kitchen I'm a Dutchman,' muttered a third.
'Devil's kitchen! Stuff and nonsense! This is a—why—well, a simple case of Pyrogenesis.' he said, summoning up all his Greek.
'What's that, Bill? Book o' Genesis?'
'Ah, it's in the book o' Genesis right enough. We're lost men.'
'It's all up with us.'
But by degrees they were reassured, and, as nothing very dreadful happened, ventured one by one to steal up and cluster timidly round the portholes, ready on the slightest alarm to fly below again.
Hardy deemed it better to wait for the morning before proceeding any closer to this strange barrier, and so we dropped anchor a little after midnight in a small cove on the southern side of the promontory.
We got but little sleep that night, for our time was mostly absorbed in talking and looking up authorities, as well as in speculating upon the nature and origin of the fire. Some imagined it to be a burning island such as might be conceived from an acquaintance with islands like the White Island of New Zealand. Others even more wildly fancied it the sunken crater of a volcano, on which the sea had encroached. Yet a third idea was that it was actually the ocean which was on fire owing to a deposit of some compound of sodium. That one and all we were totally at a loss to give any reasonable explanation will be gathered from the extravagance of these ideas.
On the following morning we weighed anchor very early, and steamed slowly towards the line of flame. Hardy wished to get as near as possible to it, and endeavour to make out the source of the igneous supply. We were some fifteen miles off, as we judged, and, although the heat was very great, it was not intolerable. With care we might approach within eight or nine miles without incurring any danger, especially as the wind was blowing from us towards the conflagration.
An hour's steaming brought us as close as we dared go. The wind was luckily very strong, and kept away so much heat that it was not much hotter than I have felt it in the tropics. But a nearer view did not throw any light upon the subject of inquiry: we could not fathom the mystery of the flame.
'What is to be done now?' I asked at lunch.
'I don't see how we can do better than run along to the south, as we originally proposed doing,' was Hardy's answer. 'You see, we hope by that means to reach the pole, and we may also follow the line of flame, and see where it ends.'
'Do you think the pole lies within the flame?'
'That notion has naturally occurred to me, but I hardly fancy so; we are too far to the east. Still, one cannot say yet. It is possible that the conflagration is insular in character, or it may be simply a dead wall across the sea. In any case, it will be wisest to push on as we have been doing.'
Slowly we steamed along the line of fire all that day, without getting any closer, and without making any further discovery. The flames still presented that peculiar crimson colour; the forked tongues and flamelets could be easily seen leaping upwards against the blue sky some thousand feet from the low veil of vapour on the water.
By next morning matters took an unexpected turn, for land was sighted on the starboard bow, and soon was visible to the naked eye, running down from the west and seeming to join the fire-wall ahead of us in the distance. Subsequently we arrived at the land which fronted us, as is usually the case in these parts, with high perpendicular cliffs. We followed the coastline towards the flames, but found to our chagrin that, although the land did not actually run into the fire, it reached to within three miles of it. Through this narrow channel there was no hope of passing, except for a salamander. At first, however, it appeared that we might land on the coast, and pursue our journey of exploration by way of terra firma. But our idea was doomed to disappointment, for the precipitous nature of the cliffs frustrated any attempt to scale them.
With great reluctance, therefore, we were forced to return northwards. It was a bitter disappointment. Not only were we obliged to give up our investigation of the mysterious fire-island, if island it was, but our anticipations of being able to reach the pole were proved baseless. It is true there still remained the possibility of following the coastline of the fire in the other direction, and if it were an island we might get round to the pole thus. This hope cheered us, and we resolved to proceed at once with the second essay.
I will not trouble the reader with a prolonged account of our second attempt. It is sufficient to say that this, too, was a failure. A very similar obstacle was met with after a day's steaming, and in precisely the same way we turned back more disconsolate than ever to our old position off the promontory. There was nothing now to be done save to beat a retreat by the way we had come, and look for a means of escape from this antarctic ring, leaving for ever the strange place which was likely to remain eternally an unsolved mystery.
Before, however, taking the irrevocable step, we arranged to stay a day or two in the neighbourhood to complete some repairs, and make some scientific observations. There was a fascination, too, about the spot, which rendered us unwilling to tear ourselves away. The strange sensation of which I have spoken worked itself into our blood, and disposed us to linger. Several times we approached as close as possible to the barrier of fire, but each time were forced to retire without making any fresh discovery.
On February 27, a day for ever graven upon my memory, Hardy resolved to make one more effort to get closer, and then to turn away for ever from the scene. A gentle breeze was blowing abaft, as with black smoke whirling from the funnel we crept up towards the mighty hedge of crimson flame. The wind blew more strongly as we advanced, and the heat was not so great as we had anticipated, so we felt hopeful of getting near enough to use the spectrum to some purpose.
Slowly we passed over the smooth waters, the fierce light flaming in our faces, and throwing crimson shadows on the deck. Most of us had clothed ourselves in very tropical costumes; I had on a broad sombrero, which I had found stowed away in my boxes, and had never dreamt to use.
'Are we close enough?' said Hardy presently. 'What do you say? The heat is scarcely tolerable now.'
'Let us make a Spartan effort,' I answered. 'It's our last chance. I'm willing for one to undergo a little frizzling in the interests of science.'
'Oh, certainly, let us go closer,' shouted Fitzroy. 'Why, this is nothing as yet. Let us enter the second chamber of the Turkish bath.'
'Very well,' said Hardy, 'so be it;' and he signalled to the engineer to go slowly ahead.
The thermometer registered 180°.
We steamed another mile, and it stood at 200°. Some of the men showed fatigue, and Robinson looked very faint. Indeed, I felt far from comfortable myself. We had evidently gone near enough.
'There! are you satisfied?' asked Hardy, who seemed the least concerned of all.
'Yes,' I gasped, 'that will do for me. I have had quite enough to satisfy my curiosity.'
Even Fitzroy offered no objection to our stopping.
'Take a last fond look, Fitzroy,' went on Hardy. 'To-night you will sleep a hundred miles away beneath the icy cliffs of Bergland.'
Inadvertently I leant over the railing round the quarter-deck, but was soon made aware of my mistake. The iron was perfectly fiery and seared my arms. Even the woodwork of the deck became hot to the tread, and if we stood still long a tickling sensation in the balls of our feet set us in motion again.
I was gazing intently through my glass at the flames, when all of a sudden I gave a cry.
'By Jove! surely there's something—'
Hardy had already given orders to the engineer, and we were slowly steaming away.
'Stop a moment, Hardy,' I shouted. 'There is something in the mists near the flames.'
'What?' shrieked Fitzroy eagerly, and his glass was levelled in a moment.
'There, there! don't you see it, to the right of the ensign?'
'Good heavens! there is something,' said he, 'and moving, too, in the very heart of the flaming vapour.'
Everyone was now looking in the direction indicated, and shouts from the forecastle announced that the discovery had been made there also. A dim speck was clearly seen moving near the crimson fire. What could it be? Hardy stopped the engines, and all was excitement. Heat and exhaustion were forgotten.
A few minutes sufficed to show that the object was moving away from the barrier, and consequently towards us. A short consultation decided us upon our course. The heat, though considerable, was not too great to be borne a little longer, and we would wait and see what this moving object was. If necessary we might retreat a little, and observe from a more comfortable distance.
In half an hour's time the object had approached sufficiently near for us to make out the outline. The base was broad and low, and the upper portion tapered; it looked like a boat with a mast in it, and was travelling swiftly towards us. Gradually it drew nearer and nearer.
As we were watching, the wind had dropped unnoticed, and we were in a dead calm; but in our excitement we did not feel the increased heat. But presently there was again a gentle whistling through the rigging, and with it a faint crackling noise as of distant fire. The murmurous breeze gathered strength, till it swelled into a slight roar. Then I became aware of a change in the atmosphere. The heat grew intense, and I became sensible of exhaustion.
A wind had set in from the island of fire. We must beat a retreat, and at once.
'Go ahead!' cried Hardy through the tube; 'we can wait no longer.'
'Good heavens!' I shouted. 'It is a boat surely, and what else? Can it be some creature in it?'
'Full steam!' roared Hardy, as the air began to swim with vapour.
'Stop!' I shrieked—'stop, for God's sake. It is a woman!'
With an oath Hardy dashed his glass to his eyes, and a commotion stirred round me on the deck, but I was gazing, fascinated and horror-stricken, at that approaching object. A woman in a skiff!
But the wind grew swiftly, and swept from the furious flames over the lurid waters upon us, fiery as the breath of an oven. The wood upon the decks shrivelled and wrinkled with the excessive heat; the iron seemed to grow red hot. Blisters swelled out upon the bulwarks, and broke into fire upon the masts. The flapping sails were scorched and smoking, the sheets smouldering.
Faster and fiercer blew the wind. A line of fire ran across the rigging, and the whole ship seemed wrapped in a conflagration.
'We can wait no longer,' shouted Hardy in hoarse accents of horror.
'One moment!' I shrieked from my parched lips.
'Aye, one moment!' echoed Fitzroy faintly, who was standing by me.
Several of the sailors fainted, and behind me I heard a groan, and was dimly conscious that Fitzroy had fallen upon the broiling deck. I glanced at Hardy; a trance seemed to have come over him, for he stood as one of the dead, motionless and silent.
'One moment!' I cried, almost to myself, for my voice could not have been heard two yards from me.
On, on, came that skiff, driven lightly and swiftly beneath the hands of—great God!—a woman.
Now but a short space separated her from us, but the heat grew intenser each second, as the fierce wind gathered into a gale. I could hear it rattling among the now flaming sheets, and I could catch the roar of the flames borne over the turbulent waters of blood. But I could see nothing save a strange, unearthly figure in the oncoming skiff. At this moment I found strength to bound down upon the lower deck by an almost super-human effort. Not a soul moved else or spoke upon the death-like ship. With a crash the gangway ladder, loosened by my nerveless fingers, fell down to the water's edge, and with faltering feet I staggered down the blistered steps till the hot waves laved my feet and ankles.
But a hundred yards between us, and—oh, God!—I should faint; for the blood seemed to boil in my forehead, and my head grew heavy as lead, and the horizon swam before my eyes. Still could I discern, as through the mists of death, the weird figure in the skiff. Golden hair flying in the wind, a blaze of crimson flame girding her slender body, and the gleam of gold upon her feet, and in her eyes a rapt smile of exultation!
Nearer, yet nearer! She is almost within grasp. With a crash the skiff shoots hard against the iron sheeting of the vessel, and breaks asunder like a china bowl. The water gurgles up and closes over all. She sinks beneath the waves. No, for I reach out my arms and clutch her by the golden hair; and, clasping in my arms my crimson burden, I stagger up the tottering ladder, my heart quivering, my eyes blinded, my brain beating in monotonous fury. But with my remaining strength I find voice to shriek out:
'Full speed! Full speed!' and I hear my hoarse cry echoing down the wind. And I am dimly conscious that Hardy has awakened from his trance; through the mists around me I see him dash his arm across his eyes; and I hear the roar of the gale, and the thud of the engines, and I fancy I see the black smoke of the funnel.
The hot waves still curl about my feet like molten lava. But a soft, low sound as of cool waters breaks in upon my bursting brain—'Marahuna!' and with the music of this sound within my ears I fall upon the smoking deck and sink into unconsciousness.
WHEN I came to myself I was in my cabin and alone. It was some time before I could concentrate my thoughts sufficiently to remember what had happened. But gradually the recollection of that strange scene, in which I had played so prominent a part, came back to me. The monotonous ticking of the chronometer which I kept in my cabin, and the uneasy oscillation of the screw, were the only sounds which struck upon my now attentive ear. There was nothing strange anywhere; no indication whatever that anything unusual had happened. Was it all a dream? Were the long voyage, the storm, the perils, the mysterious island, the unearthly visitant—were they all the baseless fabric of a vision due to fever or other mind-wandering ailment from which I had been suffering? I tried to move in my bunk, but a painful feeling in my loins and shoulders obliged me to desist. I was conscious, too, of a stinging sensation all over my body. I felt that I was scarred and bruised. No. It must be a reality—some of it, at least. At this moment the door opened and Fitzroy entered.
'Well, my boy, so you have come round at last. Upon my word, I was beginning to lose all hope of you.'
'What does it all mean, Fitzroy?' I asked. 'Why am I here? Is it real?'
'Gently, gently, sir, or else I must leave the room again. One question at a time, please. Be satisfied that you are yourself still in existence, for I can tell you you have had a bad time of it. This is what comes of looking after young ladies. You scientific fellows are as much human as the rest of the world, after all, in spite of all your protested misogynism.'
'Then it is true,' I said eagerly. 'Is she on board?'
'She is on board; but don't trouble your head about her for the present. You have quite enough to do to think of yourself. Excitement is the worst possible thing for you.'
'I will be quite calm, Fitzroy, if you will sit down, and, like a good fellow, tell me all about it.'
'Very well, then; but you must take it, like all my prescriptions, in small doses,' said he, pulling in a camp-stool to my side. 'Humph!' (feeling my pulse) 'getting on all right; better even than I had hoped. Well, now, you want to know exactly what has happened since your wild escapade, when you nearly succeeded in baking us all alive.'
'What, you don't mean—I'm very sorry.'
'Hush! no need to talk, Grayhurst. Your sorrow is one of those things which must go without saying. You can't afford to be sorry yet. Besides, it was as much my fault as yours. Well, to begin. I'm told—for, as you may remember, I was not in a fit state myself to make independent observations—that when you succeeded in dragging your fire-goddess aboard, both of you fell on the deck in a state of unconsciousness. Possibly you may have some faint recollections of that yourself.'
I nodded. The whole scene was dimly before me.
'Hardy, who had up till that time been like a man possessed of a dumb, not to say paralytic, spirit—how or why he cannot to this day explain—suddenly awoke to his senses and to a sense of the proprieties. The former induced him to despatch the "Hereward" full speed away from the enchanted spot. The latter enforced upon him the necessity of having the young lady extricated from your arms, and both of you conveyed to your respective and diverse cabins. Here you were accordingly brought, and here you have remained ever since.'
'How long? Well, to the best of my recollection, two weeks and four days; and here you will remain, while I am in authority, another fortnight at least. You may consider yourself lucky to have got off so easily as you did. Considering the almost superhuman exertions you must have made, and the parboiled condition you were in, I wonder you are not stowed away in Davy Jones's locker long ago. However, we have pulled you through so far, and, provided you follow my injunctions strictly—strictly, mind—I think I may venture to predict that we shall pull you through altogether.'
'But the girl—the—' A strange sound came buzzing into my brain, which I faintly recognised as familiar, 'Marahuna.'*/p>
(* In writing this word I have adopted the Italian vowel sounds.)
'Marahuna! My good fellow, you have been at nothing but Marahuna for the last fortnight. Marahuna, if by that you mean your nymph of the fire, is alive, and—well, I won't say kicking, because she seems too divine and charming a personage to condescend to so terrestrial and commonplace an action. At any rate, she is thriving. Her upset does not appear to have disagreed with her as yours did with you. She soon got over her little swoon, and has been presumably enjoying herself ever since; though, as she has never spoken a single word, we have no means of judging save by appearances, which are, as you know, not always safe guides.'
'And we—where are we?'
'Well, Hardy says—but here is the individual in question; let him answer for himself.'
The door closed behind someone, and Hardy came forward and took my hand.
'Hullo! old fellow, I'm right glad to see you pulling through like this. I always declared you would get better, if it were only to spite Fitzroy and his salves. You may thank your constitution for that.'
'Constitution, indeed!' rejoined the doctor. 'If he had relied only on his constitution, he wouldn't be lying there criticising you and me with his infernally thoughtful grey eyes.'
I smiled a feeble smile, for I was feeling rather over-taxed, and repeated my question to Hardy.
'Ah, thereby hangs a tale, which you shall hear when you are better. We are at this moment within sight of the Horn, and in eight or nine days we shall be in Rio.'
'So we have got out of that awful region?'
'Aye, we managed it,' he said with more gravity even than usual. 'We got out, thanks more to that Providence which watches over poor Jack than to science and seamanship.'
'Come, captain, come; we must leave him to digest these sensational items at his leisure. It is now four o'clock. I shall not allow you to talk another word till to-morrow.'
So saying, he took Hardy by the arm, and, marching him to the door, they left me. I would fain have thought over the news I had learnt, but I was too drowsy to collect my wits, and sweet sleep soon claimed me for his own.
I awoke far on in the morning of the next day, very much refreshed, and feeling quite fit for anything. Fitzroy was very rigid, and would not let me think of getting up, as I proposed; nor indeed would he suffer me to do much in the way of conversation. I was allowed to listen, however. He came and sat by me a good deal, and it was very pleasant listening to his amusing ramblings, for there was no talker so genial and so cheerful as Fitzroy. He was not a very great humourist, but he had that abundant flow of words and ideas which, without being very original, renders conversation pleasant; and there were always little unexpected turns and oddities in his notions which gave zest and variety, so that it was utterly impossible to be talked to sleep by him.
Among other things in those days I learnt the particulars of our escape from the Antarctic circle. It was a long and tedious voyage, and, as it concerns the present story but little, I will not enter upon an account of it. After cruising about aimlessly and hopelessly in the open seas, Hardy had at last hit upon another channel which led through a gap in the ice-barrier, and had thus passed into the northerly waters without any further misadventure.
And so the days wore on, until at last I received permission to go up on deck. We were now within two days' steam of Rio Janeiro, and the weather was sufficiently warm to preclude any risks of catching cold.
It was with very strange feelings indeed that I ascended the ladder for the first time, and drank in the pure air of heaven again. This prospect had been present to my mind for long, and I had sorely chafed at being kept so strictly to my cabin. I was eager to see this mysterious maiden, who had apparently issued straight out of fire, and whom I had rescued from a watery grave. Several times I had trembled on the verge of asking Fitzroy if I might see her, but on each occasion the inherent absurdity, not to say outrageousness, of the notion shamed me from it. It would, moreover, surely be breaking the code of propriety to have an unknown young lady introduced into your cabin, even although you had saved her life, and she was not likely to feel the scruples of an orthodox maiden of modern civilisation. But I had often questioned Fitzroy about her, and he, seeing my perhaps excusable curiosity, was thoughtful enough to keep me supplied with a diary of her doings. In fact, he rather overdid it. He would announce, for example, at 8.30 in the morning that she was 'having a constitutional;' or an express messenger would be sent at two o'clock to inform me that she was lunching, and so forth. This was his bit of waggery, to which he was addicted on the very slightest provocation, his genial Irish blood carrying him to absurd lengths. But all his information only whetted my curiosity still more. He said they could make nothing of her; whether she was mortal or immortal, human or divine, they could not tell. She had served me, too, with much food for reflection while I lay in my bunk. What could she be? I found all my theories, which, as they are wont to be with those who have had a scientific training, were somewhat cut and dried, wholly deranged by this new phenomenon. The novel experience had cut clean through my old ideas, and I was left with a severed philosophy to hold by. At first I attempted to account for it all by natural means. She must be the survivor of some wreck lost years ago in distant polar regions, and had been thus restored by a strange chance to the world again. But this would not explain her evident connection with the fire. Of what unearthly composition was she wrought to stand such terrible heat? How came she there, and alone? And—I was driven to abandon all hope of solving the mystery by the known laws of Nature, and fell back helplessly upon the supernatural. Could she be an un-human evolution? Impossible. Could we, after all, have been mistaken in thinking she came out of the fire? Possibly some optical illusion had tricked us, and the explanation was in reality tolerably easy. This hypothesis I finally decided to hold tentatively, for I was more willing to believe that my senses had been cheated, than that the phenomenon was beyond and above the scope of natural law.
Under the influence of some such preconceived theories, I picked my way carefully up the ladder and mounted to the quarter-deck. The rush of the cool pure air was delicious, and the heavenly blue of the sky aroused in me an unwonted exhilaration. It is thus that we pass out from the shadow of sickness into the fresh light of life.
I cast one hurried glance round, and soon my eyes lighted upon a woman's figure in the stern, looking seaward across the great ocean. It was thus, Fitzroy had told me, she was fond of standing often during the day, gazing towards the trackless south, whence we had come. Hearing my footsteps, she turned and presented her full face towards me, and so marvellous and so sudden was the effect that I stopped, dazzled for the moment. There was nothing but a blur of golden light before my eyes. Then I looked again. How shall I attempt a description of what would need a poet's pen to describe? Her hair was the purest gold, and drooped, unconfined by any band or fillet, in waving masses round about her neck and shoulders. Yet it was not the gold of our world, but brighter and subtler, as if sunlight were inherent in it; and, strange to say, it glowed in the shadow as in the light, carrying its own radiance with it. Her dress was bright crimson, identical in colour with the mysterious flame whence she had seemed to issue, and it was wound round her in a peculiar fashion. She wore no drapery upon her arms or shoulders, which were thus quite bare and free. But underneath her arms the swathing of the body began. The crimson folds of some soft clinging material were passed round and crossed upon her breasts, and fastened there with a golden clasp. Thence they were wound and interwound each way upon her form to the waist, clinging closely enough to bring the contour of her body into relief. At the hips the folds suddenly shook out, and, falling loosely from two golden stars in front and at the back of the waist, formed the skirt before and behind, which reached below the knees, and descended thence in tongues of crimson flame towards her ankles. A clasp of gold on either side secured together the two portions of the skirt; and on her feet were sandals of bright gold.
Her eyes were as blue as the waves of the polar seas, and wore a smile which seemed to me a smile of triumph, though its exact nature baffles description or analysis. For the rest she was tall and exquisitely proportioned, and her face was of marvellous beauty, in which there was some mysterious element that lent it irresistible attraction and fascination.
But on this occasion I had barely time to take in her general aspect at a glance, for my eyes were riveted upon her face as I stepped forward towards her with eager step. Her smile grew more pronounced as I approached, and, ere I reached her, broke into a laugh as the laughter of wavelets. For all my eagerness I was extremely embarrassed, and scarcely knew what to do; and so—it will seem ridiculous and absurdly conventional—but all I found wits for was to take off my hat and make a low obeisance. Her beauty utterly bewildered me, as did the situation in all its confused strangeness.
I must have stared into her blue eyes for some time, for I saw the smile grow again into a little silvery laugh, and thereat I started again, and in my embarrassment only found voice to murmur—
At that word her face changed; the smile passed away, and left her statuesque and silent. It was as if some flood of memory had suddenly poured across her soul, and saddened her; and yet there was no trace of sorrow in her face or expression, only a silent thoughtfulness as if she were lost in reverie, and her large blue eyes stared through me vacantly. It was then that I had opportunity to note further the unearthly beauty of this mysterious maiden. From the waving tangle of gold about her face, and her starlike eyes, my gaze wandered along the perfect contour of her form to the fringe of flame which fell about her ankles, and the gleam of gold upon her feet. Surely no fairer sight was it ever the lot of mortal man to gaze on! But presently the colour stole back into her cheeks, and into the deep cold blue of her cloudless eyes crept a gleam of sunlight, and the old smile played round her lips once more.
Was ever a man in so tantalising a position? Here was I face to face with a beautiful girl, with whom it was impossible to exchange two words. The only word I had known, presumably belonging to her language, had seemed to bereave her of consciousness for a time. Fitzroy had even doubted whether she had powers of speech. There is, however, a language of signs, which is the same all the world over, and of this I took advantage. We sat together by the unused wheel, and, as best I could, I entered into conversation with this unknown creation of an unknown world.
My impressions after this my second meeting with the strange waif of fire were a disconcerting jumble of ideas. From beginning to end she was an entire enigma. Her very existence and presence were sufficient in themselves utterly to unstring nerves not hardened to the odd casts of circumstance. But there was even more to puzzle in her nature than in her history. She seemed sometimes to act like a gay creature of impulse, almost like a child in her insouciance and frank curiosity. But at other moments she was entirely different, swayed by some absorbing idea, which flecked her glorious face with intense thought. Then again she changed into a wild, rapturous being, in whose very pose was queenliness and majesty. Even in her lighter moments I was aware of something surging below that surface of easy laughter, some grander pulse I could not estimate. In quiescence her face presented an appearance of what I am constrained to call triumph; but yet it was not triumph, only that is the nearest equivalent I can find for the perplexing expression. It was ever lurking there, blending indefinably with the other more transient moods through which she passed. Once or twice she rose from her seat, and, walking to the taffrail just over the screw, leaned her head upon her hand and looked steadfastly across the waters; and whenever this occurred I noticed that half-unconscious condition of reverie steal gradually over her, the embodiment of unutterable thought, as if she were lost in the memories of her island home.
That evening I sat down in my laboratory with my curiosity thoroughly awakened. If I had felt great interest in this stranger hitherto, my interest had now mounted to its supreme height. When face to face with a new species, a discovery in the lower orders of Nature, a philosopher is eager and ardent enough. And if excitement reached white heat before such an appalling problem as this which confronted me, surely there was reason. I determined to make a strenuous effort, in the light of my latest experiences, to overcome the perplexities and pass to a solution of the mystery.
The optical illusion theory I put aside now, convinced of its insufficiency. There was some deeper explanation than this. The whole question touched the problem of life—what it is, and whence it comes. Man has been evolved from the monad in virtue of the 'promise and potency' therein latent, favoured by a certain definite environment. Under special and different circumstances man would have been evolved in a different form. That was the germ of the new science, the very alphabet of philosophy. If, then, we imagine a monad possessed of an entirely different 'promise and potency,' or thrown into a totally different environment, we can quite conceive that the result of the evolution would be very different. If the variation in the monad, or in the monad's environment, were only sufficiently great, the variation in evolution would be as great as we please; we might even obtain organised life capable of resisting and enduring flame. That sounded scientific; it was in fact scientific as far as theory went, and yet, now that it was thrust upon me in a practical form, I was rather staggered and hesitated to accept it. To bring the theory down to the individual case. Suppose that within the ring of flame was an island of fire—at any rate, an island enjoying certain eccentric and abnormal conditions; this would certainly fulfil the second alternative requisite for an eccentric evolution, namely, abnormal environment. Why should not the girl be an evolution of these conditions? It was within the limits of possibility in theory certainly, yet it seemed too preposterous. The truth is that the theoretical and the practical are remote poles, and the admission of theoretical truth is perfectly consistent with its repudiation when clothed in a practical form. It is an unfortunate bias of the mind that occasions such a conflict, which is hard to neutralise. The practical inconvenience or seeming absurdity of a theory has often resulted in its rejection. People have always held out against theories which ran counter to what may be called the vested interests of their old conceptions. From Galileo to Darwin it has been so. Why, even scientific men were so dogmatic as to declare the impossibility of life existing beyond a certain depth in the deep sea. Now I came to think about it, the words of Sir Wyville Thomson bearing on this point recurred to my mind, and I turned up the passage.
'It was almost as difficult to believe that creatures comparable with those of which we have experience in the upper world could live at the bottom of the deep sea, as that they should live in a vacuum or in the fire.'
Here was the very idea. It was once inconceivable, and therefore considered impossible, that life could exist at a depth of 2,000 fathoms. But the inconceivable is not the impossible, as some have thought. It was proved that life does exist at 2,000 fathoms, and the a priori argument was useless. So must it not be that, as Thomson almost anticipated, life of some kind is possible in fire? At all events, I was on safe ground in taking this view of the subject, and, despite my feelings, I would accept this hypothesis until a better either was suggested or occurred to me.
We reached Rio in due time, and spent a couple of days at that fascinating port, while the vessel coaled and received some much-needed repairs. It was beautiful weather, if anything a trifle too warm, and I was sufficiently strong to go ashore and explore the rambling town, and wander through the gardens, and even climb the craggy top of Corcovados. We did not sleep on shore, as we had an excusable dread of the fever which walks by darkness over the land. Besides, it was much pleasanter in the ship, which lay far out in the bay, where mosquitoes dared not penetrate, and where a gentle breeze from the offing eased the sultriness of the night.
These charms, however, had their attendant disadvantages, for our slumber was rudely broken by the hoarse shouts of the lightermen, and the noise of the coal shooting down the bunkers, which were sufficient to disturb even the heaviest sleeper. The noises proved indeed too much for me, and, after trying in vain to get to sleep, I slipped on my clothes and went on deck to watch the process.
The scene was wild in the extreme. Around us were scattered shoals of coal barges, each lighted by a blazing brazier of tar and coal. Some were being towed away empty; others were being towed up, and yet others were waiting their turn in the distance. On either side of us were lying a couple of these same tenders gripping the 'Hereward' as mussels grip a boat; and on these by the flaring lights could be seen hundreds of dark forms carrying coal-baskets on their heads, whose contents they shot through the open port-holes down into the bunkers. Shouts and oaths in the Portuguese language added further discord to the scene.
The light gleamed only fitfully upon the decks, for the barges were low upon the water, but as I glanced round in one of the flashes I caught sight of a woman's figure leaning over the bulwarks. Evidently it was Marahuna, for that was now the name she went by. I walked across to her, surprised to see her at this late hour. She did not hear my steps, or at least she did not heed them, for I stood by her for some moments unnoticed. I called her by name, but still received no sign that she was aware of my presence; nor even when I ventured to touch her did she respond. Somewhat alarmed, for I had never before seen her like this, I too leant over the bulwarks and peered round into her face. At this instant a sudden flash from the braziers lighted up the whole side of the ship, and flared full upon her; and I saw her eyes were wide open and staring, as they had stared when first I introduced myself to her. Her lips, too, moved, but amid the noises that arose from below I caught no sound. At once a thought flashed across me, agitating me not a little. Marahuna had fallen into this state on seeing the flaming lights; it was a trick of the memory.
As she still took no notice of me, and showed no signs of returning consciousness, I felt it was necessary to get her away, and, taking her hand, I put my arm around her and led her gently from the side. She moved with me mechanically and unresistingly. It was the first time I had touched her since the day I had carried her on board, and a strange sensation of exultation shot through me, so that my arm trembled under its burden. I managed to get her downstairs and safely into her cabin, and before I came away was relieved to see the fixed expression passing off her face, and its wonted smile returning. I left her, pondering much over this matter. It seemed as if the recollection, or anything to suggest the recollection, of her home brought on this statuesque condition. If so, it was well to have discovered this in order that we might be prepared for emergencies, and know what precautions to take. As yet she had not spoken in her own language, if she had any. That she was not dumb was soon evident, however, for she began very quickly to pick up words and phrases with a deftness and intelligence which surprised me. Moreover, she seemed anxious to learn more, and displayed a great deal of curiosity about the ship and all its contents. That she did not use her own language puzzled me a good deal. The only word she had employed was the single word with which she had come on board, and it really seemed as if she had no language to make use of. Instances, however, are on record of people forgetting how to talk after some severe illness, and it occurred to me that hers might be a somewhat similar case.
But though she could not converse with us, she needed not that accomplishment to win her way throughout the ship. The fascinations of her manner were more and more manifest day by day. We all yielded to them, from captain to cabin-boy. The sailors looked upon her awedly as a kind of angel who had dropped from the sky. Even the reserved and adamantine Hardy had melted before her sweetness, and, as for Fitzroy, he was rapturous in his praises of her beauty and her queenliness.
'Our journey from Rio to Plymouth was not characterised by any remarkable incidents. Ship life rarely is. I was a good deal occupied with elaborating the results of my scientific work, and in my spare time I found plenty of interest in studying the character of Marahuna. We had need now to think of her, for as we neared England the question obtruded itself upon us, 'What is to be done with her?' Various proposals found vague shape in the mess-room, but none of them met with general approval.
'It seems to me,' said Fitzroy at last, when we were discussing the matter, 'that you've got yourself into a pretty hobble, Grayhurst. When we come to look facts in the face, and study the ethics of the matter, the not unnatural question arises, what business had you to bring this young lady on board? The fact is, you have been guilty of kidnapping, abduction, and that too in a very aggravated form; for you have not only stolen the lady away from her parents, but you have even taken her into exile from her native land. Depend upon it, my boy, the law will have something to say to you when we land.'
I laughed at the sally, and Hardy said:
'Upon my word, Grayhurst, there is something in Fitzroy's view of the matter. After all, what right had you to run away with the young lady?'
'Oh, you're almost as bad, captain,' rejoined the lively Irishman, 'for you are accessory after the fact. The rest of us, indignant and shocked as we were at the outrage, were forced by the rigid rules of discipline to maintain a decorous and silent neutrality.'
'Fitzroy decorous and silent!' laughed I. 'It would be a modern miracle, as well as a consummation devoutly to be wished.'
'Well, well, sir, you may laugh now. It will be quite another affair at the Old Bailey.'
'Now, do be serious for one moment, Fitzroy, and offer some sensible suggestion on the all-important point. What is to be done with her? It is no laughing matter.'
'It sounds like the title of a novel by Lytton or Trollope. "What must we do with her?" Well, I will be serious; and in all seriousness I do not consider there can be a shadow of a doubt as to the proper course to be pursued.'
'What is it?'
'Why, I imagine it is altogether Grayhurst's affair. He abducted the lady, let him take charge of her. Such an old dry-as-dust is not likely to fall in love with her, as I should be sure to do. The only fear is that he may be tempted to try experiments with her, as we know these scientists are always experimentalising. If you think, therefore, it is wiser, we can get an interdict taken out against him, or, better still, give warning to the Anti-Vivisection Society.'
'What do you say, Grayhurst?' asked Hardy.
'To tell the truth I am somewhat staggered by the proposal—if it is meant in seriousness.'
'Of course it is, my dear boy,' interrupted Fitzroy; 'down to the ground.'
'Then I don't really think I should be justified in undertaking such an extraordinary charge. Is there no other way out of the difficulty?'
'No other,' said Fitzroy mournfully, 'except to make her a ward in Chancery, and Heaven forbid we should inflict that penalty upon the poor girl. Now, Grayhurst, I know you are dying to consent. Who is so suitable as you? Speak out. Do not be bashful.'
'I really think, Grayhurst, there is something in the idea,' remarked Hardy. 'You are certainly more suitable than any of us to take charge of the girl. I suppose there would be no difficulty about getting her into some decent family, so that your responsibility would not be very great after all. And you know more about her; you rescued her, so she is, as it were, your property. I don't think we need stipulate that you will abstain from experimentation, for you know that it is only a corpus vile which admits of that,' and Hardy smiled grimly at his own conceit.
'Perhaps I may promise to take charge of her until better arrangements can be made. The prospect of continued guardianship would be alarming, but I think I can manage to put up with it for a time. I see my way to settling her, I am almost sure.'
'That's arranged, then. Percy Grayhurst, Esq., to be guardian of Marahuna, vice ship's company, deposed.'
So saying, Fitzroy skipped off, humming an air, to look after some patient in the forecastle.
IN reality my mind was by no means at ease on the subject of my guardianship of Marahuna. It was altogether too novel and responsible a position. I comforted myself by the thought that my term of office would be short, as also by contemplating the impracticability of other alternatives. For a young bachelor to undertake the charge of a strange girl was somewhat outré from a conventional standpoint. Yet what other course was possible? Hardy was a bachelor also, and, apart from the fact that his profession prevented him from undertaking cares of the sort, he was most unsuitable. Fitzroy was a widower, but the last man in the world to be entrusted with anyone. Robinson was lately married, and anyone else was out of the question. It was therefore Hobson's choice, unless I cared to make the matter a public one, which I shrank from doing. To tell the truth, I was so interested in this projection from another world that I was loth to part with her. Moreover, there was a certain heartlessness in the idea of handing her over like flotsam and jetsam to public keeping. So my tremors were soon calmed, and I grew reconciled to the outlook.
Financial arrangements were easily disposed of. I was absolutely alone in the world, and was comparatively wealthy, having inherited an ample fortune from both my father and my mother. Therefore, despite the opposition I experienced, I resolutely set my face against any interference on the part of the others. They had said it was my affair, and my affair it must remain.
At length we reached Plymouth, where I had determined to leave the 'Hereward.' So after a general farewell I landed with Marahuna, who was seemingly quite content to go, and shortly proceeded to London.
If it has ever befallen you to have lived for years away from your native land, to have touched the skirts of death far from home, to have given up all hope of ever returning to the old place, girt about with so many pleasant memories, you will perhaps understand some little of my feelings on this occasion. The hedgerows were in full bloom, for it was early summer, and the landscape had grown gay with the presence of the sun. The thrushes carolled in the copses, the linnets in the hawthorn, and everywhere was manifest that glad aspect of Nature which she wears so seldom and so briefly, yet so sweetly, in the month of June. The mind ranging, at these first moments of renewed enjoyment, across the sweep of past might-have-beens, drew home at last and realised that life was sufficient pleasure in itself; that this return to life was as passing from hell to paradise. I cannot expect sympathy except from those who have shaken hands with death, as we had done; but they will understand my feelings.
Marahuna was radiant with delight. The air must have been full of marvels to her. The train in which we were whirling through the south-western counties was a source of perplexity to her, as I could perceive from the down-dropping of the curtain of thought across her face. But this mood soon passed away, whether from a swift perception of the phenomenon, or from pure apathy of intellect, I could not at the time determine, though, judging from past experience, I selected the former explanation. She was leaning half out of the carriage window, gazing with those open blue eyes of hers across the fields and meadows through which we rushed. Her bright golden hair, which I had not ventured to ask her to confine, hung over her crimson bodice. At Plymouth I had managed to get her fitted out in the conventional style, which she seemed to understand at once it was desirable that she should adopt. The only feature which differentiated her now in costume from an ordinary English girl was the peculiar crimson colour which it had been my fancy to preserve in the new dress.
The picturesqueness and strangeness of her appearance, as well as her marvellous beauty, could not miss the observation of anyone who saw her. Her attitude of graceful abandon now added to the charm of the picture, and the attention of our companions in the carriage was irresistibly drawn to her. The mild-eyed and very proper lady opposite me was especially shocked at the loose-flowing locks, which tumbled recklessly here and there as she shifted her position at the window.
'How extremely outré!' I heard her whisper to a younger lady, evidently her daughter. 'Theatrical probably, and absolutely indifferent to all decency.'
'What lovely hair, mamma!' rejoined the other in return, 'and what exquisite eyes!'
'Yes. I believe that is the favourite colour for hair just now,' replied the dame sagely, and pursing her lips with satisfaction at the innuendo.
At this moment Marahuna turned her glowing face inwards, and her glad smiling eyes met those of the young lady, who could not restrain an answering smile.
'Ida,' said her mother, 'for goodness' sake, don't encourage her. How ill-advised of you!'
This little insight into the methods of social judgment rather amused me. Outside the pale of conventional rule everything was on the same level, and Marahuna, who stood without it, ranked with her fellow-aliens in the mind of this worthy woman and her compeers.
The childlike delight of Marahuna in the sights and sounds around her might have convinced her critic that she was innocent of witting offence against social law. I say childlike gaze, not that the phrase describes her appearance, but because I can find no other way of conveying the impression it gave me. As I have stated already, one of her phases was almost that of a curious wayward and restless child, and that phase was manifest now. But behind the outer veil, conspicuous to the casual observer, lay an indefinable background of larger thought and larger feeling, which now and then obtruded itself through the more evident and temporary expression. And with all her gaiety and abandon went a stateliness and dignity blending in a curious and strangely attractive manner.
In the far-away corner of the carriage were two young men, one of whom had never taken his eyes off her since he entered. His friend was nearly as interested, and of whatsoever conversation they had she was the topic. As I did not speak to Marahuna throughout the journey, they were unaware that I had any connection with her, which fact enabled me to amuse myself by means of their remarks. But when we reached Waterloo the few words I said to her revealed our relations, and as I passed out of the carriage I noticed that I was become a much more interesting person in the eyes of the occupants.
I had definitely decided upon a plan of operations in regard to my charge. I was confident that Mrs. Wharncliffe would be ready enough to receive her for a time. I was a favourite of hers; why, I scarcely could say, because I was very much of a Bohemian in my notions, and Bohemianism was her bête noire. Yet she seemed somehow or other to overlook my delinquencies, and did not personalise her antipathies as most women do. If I could get Marahuna safely deposited in her keeping, and initiated in that way into the rudiments of English life, a great point would be gained. Whether I should relate all the incidents in connection with her discovery, was a matter of doubt for some time, but I finally decided that it would not be advisable. Difficulties might arise out of a full knowledge of the case. Silence beyond a certain point was discreet. While I was casting over these matters in my mind I was pulled up by a sudden reflection. She had no name. Marahuna we called her simply because there was no other title to hand, and Marahuna would do very well for a first name. But a young lady cannot go through life with one name. She must have a second, if only for the privilege of dropping it. This was rather puzzling. At first I thought of the common names current in everyday life—Brown, Smith, Richardson, but the absurdity of such a nomenclature effectually disposed of the idea. Why not call her Hereward, after the ship? I thought. But this, too, seemed a rather unworthy namesake for a creature who was so girt about with refinement and brilliancy. At least her title should be beyond commonplace.
Moreover, if she was not to sail into life with her true colours nailed to the mast, she must have some plausible substitute for them. In other words, she must have antecedents, and antecedents sufficiently reasonable to pass scrutiny. I think now that perhaps my reserve was a mistake, but it appeared to me then that a full revelation of her history would be premature and prejudicial to her interests. I did not want the poor girl to be a public or even a private sensation. She would attract enough attention, posing on her own merits and characteristics. If a time offered itself suitable to a disclosure, the disclosure might be made. Till then secrecy. In this precaution Hardy had concurred. So I set myself to invent a past for her, consoling myself for my deliberateness in fiction by its absolute necessity. I endeavoured, however, to keep as near the lines of truth as possible. The main facts of her story were the main facts of my version. She had been found at sea in an open boat; she was a foreigner who could not speak the language. The Antarctic Circle I altered to the South Pacific. For the fire-island I substituted the South American coast. So that the translation ran thus: H.M.S. 'Hereward,' when voyaging somewhere off the coast of Peru, had picked up an open boat in which was found a girl.' That was all. The inferences, which are not an abiding portion of the story, merely casual extractions from it for which I was not responsible, were these: she had come from Peru, had probably been driven out to sea by stress of weather, but, as we could obtain no information from her, it was impossible to restore her to her native land. The great drawback to this theory was in the inference that she was a Peruvian. Peruvians are not fair with golden hair. Yet on second thoughts I was not called upon to account for the ramblings of deduction which might prove inadequate. Was there not as good a reason for the existence of a mystery to me as to anyone else? After a careful survey of the concoction on all sides and in all lights, I shut my eyes and boldly swallowed it. And if any doubt had remained in my mind as to the propriety of my action, I shouldered it off by deliberately sitting down with Prescott in my hands to discover a resonant Peruvian name wherewith to cap my folly. I found it at last, and with the discovery my deceit passed away into the great limbo of irretrievables. Huayna was sufficiently foreign and sufficiently musical; Marahuna Huayna it should be.
My qualms of conscience were no sooner laid than I was confronted by a new perplexity. So thorny grows the path downwards towards evil. Marahuna's own evidence might be evolved against me in the progress of time. Inquiries from curious Ethel were inevitable, and a full unearthing of the mystery at least possible. Yet I was not frightened back into honesty; for in the first place it had occurred to me as a possibility that Marahuna would not recollect. She had apparently forgotten her language; at least she made no use of speech except such words of English as she had picked up, which she spoke with a pretty accent. A rough theory to explain this peculiarity in her had made unconscious progress in my mind. It did not at all seem unlikely that the passage from the one life into the other had marked an epoch, had been the turning over of a page, and that the effect had been to obliterate experiences on the other side. How otherwise must be explained the extreme passivity of her attitude, which was so readily adaptable to the things of this life? In the second place I resolved to guard against any such mishap as a premature revelation by vetoing certain topics of conversation for the present. When once Marahuna could speak English, and if she recovered her capacity for memory, and was willing to give an account of herself, then by all means she might tell her tale. Expediency should plead for me in that case.
At the present juncture the sooner she was installed in Malthorpe Vicarage the better. So immediately upon my arrival in London I wrote off a long letter to Mrs. Wharncliffe, as well as one to Ethel. I had previously telegraphed from Plymouth, for I did not know what rumours had reached England concerning the expedition. I gave Ethel a brief outline of our voyage, and said I hoped to see her almost immediately. My letter to her mother entered more fully into the great business of the moment.
Meanwhile, till I should get a reply, I occupied myself in doing the honours of London to my strange guest. She was extremely eager to see and hear all that was to be seen and heard. The interest she had shown in Plymouth was repeated, nor did she seem to grow weary of taking me out into the streets and parks. Certainly she was highly curious.
By return of post I heard from Mrs. Wharncliffe. She would be very pleased indeed to receive 'my savage' until better arrangements could be made; and perhaps they might do a little towards 'civilising her.' Evidently my letter had been misread. I had not wasted many words in speaking of Marahuna, yet I certainly had not spoken of her as a savage. Most women have very vague notions of geography, and Peru probably stood for unchristianised savagedom.
'Let her come,' she wrote, 'when and how she wishes, or you wish, for you will, of course, accompany her. We are very anxious to see you, and hear from you in person all about your travels.'
A letter from Ethel was enclosed:
'My Dearest Percy,—You cannot imagine how very relieved we were to get your telegram, and subsequently your letter. We had had no news for so long, that we were getting nervous. I comforted myself by thinking that in those far-away Australian waters you were not likely to find many opportunities to send letters. Still we did get anxious, only Mr. Glossop of the Admiralty wrote to papa to say that the 'Hereward' had probably been detained in Western Australia. It was very kind and thoughtful of him. But we never dreamt that you really were undergoing such awful adventures as you speak of. What a long time it is since you went! Why did you not come straight to Malthorpe? You cruel fellow, I don't believe you are anxious to see me, or why did you go up to London? I feel I am writing like a schoolgirl, Percy; but please excuse me. You don't know how glad I feel to learn you are once more in England. I don't think I shall ever let you go away again. Come down at once . . . . . And so you have brought back a savage beauty with you from the Southern Seas! What was she doing in the open boat? perhaps flying from some dusky wooer of her tribe. I hope she won't be a very difficult charge. How long are we to keep her? What sort of a girl is she? Peruvians are somewhat civilised, are they not? But don't answer any of these questions. Come straight down, and then I'll put them in person. You know the trains; there is one to-morrow at 2.30; and bring your charge with you, though what we are to do with her I cannot for the life of me imagine.
'Ever your loving Ethel.'
We went down to Malthorpe next day. As the train drew up at the station I put my head out of the window and glanced along the platform. Mr. Wharncliffe and Ethel were standing in the background peering into the carriage windows for some signs of me. No sooner had I got out than Ethel espied me, and broke along the platform into a little run. She had not changed since I had seen her last, except perhaps that she looked fairer and sweeter than ever. I hurried to meet her, and in another second she was in my arms.
'My darling,' I whispered, oblivious of the indecorousness of my action, and callous to the shock that the prim ladies who had been my fellow-passengers would possibly experience. Drawing herself rather rosily from my arms, she burst forth impetuously into a dozen questions, evidently stored up against a personal interview.
'Why did you not come sooner, you wicked fellow? And have you really been to the South Pole? And what sort of weather did you have coming back? Where is Mr. Hardy? And wherever did you find—Oh, by-the-by, Percy, where is your foreign ward? I have not seen her.'
Marahuna had followed me out of the carriage, and was standing behind at a little distance looking at Ethel with great interest.
'Papa, when you have quite finished with Percy's hand, perhaps you will make some inquiries after your new charge. Where is she, Percy? Good gracious!' (as the train steamed off) 'I hope she is not in the train stil.''
'Here,' said I, unable to restrain a smile of anticipation. I turned to Marahuna. 'Let me present my ward to you, Mr. Wharncliffe—Miss Huayna, and to you, Ethel. Why, what's the matter?'
Ethel's look of astonishment was a sight to see. Her face had been turned away from Marahuna hitherto, and when I directed her attention to where the girl stood, she turned round and saw her for the first time. Marahuna, recognising the situation in her swift intelligent way, stepped forward with outstretched hand. Ethel took the hand mechanically, but stared with open eyes and mouth full in the face of the other, and was apparently too dazzled to make any remark. Mr. Wharncliffe was also very much taken aback, though the shock did not subdue him.
'Upon my word, Percy; why—bless my soul—you never said anything about—why, I had no notion it was a young lady. I thought it was—well, well! How do you do, my dear? I am extremely glad to see you. Welcome to Malthorpe. Dear, dear!'
I quietly enjoyed their surprise and confusion, which I had quite anticipated. As we drove from the station to the Vicarage, Ethel had time to recover from her surprise and whisper to me reproachfully:
'You have regularly taken me in, Percy. What was all this hotch-potch about a Peruvian savage?'
'Peruvians are not savages,' I explained in the same tones.
'No,' I answered decidedly. 'The descendants of the Incas and the chivalrous Spaniards of Pizarro savages! Nonsense.'
'Oh!' was her little crestfallen remark.
Mrs. Wharncliffe welcomed us very warmly, though sedately. She was a gentle, soft-hearted woman, divided between her husband and her daughter, whose activity took a very practical form concerning itself exclusively in parish and in domestic matters. Yet there were in her flashes of a spirit meant for loftier offices, if after all there be any loftier than these. Timidity, however, beset her at such moments, and the success of her own stray efforts startled her. Conventionality was her refuge then, and the memory of her past relapse served as a beacon to warn her from a similar offence. She also was much astonished when I introduced Marahuna to her, though she did not allow her surprise to manifest itself very appreciably.
Later in the evening Ethel questioned me more closely about Marahuna. I had managed that we should be alone, and was, of course, prepared to be cross-questioned.
'I can't help thinking, Percy, that you are not telling us everything about this wonderful girl. Who is she exactly? Now, don't make any mystery, for you know I have a feminine horror of mysteries.'
'I really know no more than you, beyond the fact that we picked her up in an open boat, as I told you.'
'But has she not told you anything about herself?'
'You forget that she cannot speak English. Indeed, I do not think she can speak any language. She may be a castaway who has forgotten how to speak,' I replied vaguely.
'Oh, that's nonsense. Castaways are not beautiful girls with noble airs and cultivated appearances.'
I shrugged my shoulders, as who should say: 'See there; you demand a theory from me, and then trample on it when I oblige you.'
'Come now; tell me about yourself,' she went on, seeing she could extract no more information on this subject. 'Give me a nice account of your adventures. I am so glad, Percy, to feel you are here with us again. You cannot think how anxious I have been during these last six months.'
I replied—suitably, and then began to tell her of our strange experiences. The awfulness of the fire-island somehow vanished to my mind without Marahuna in the foreground, but I sacrificed effect and veracity to expediency, and suppressed her. She came in, however, vaguely in the South Pacific, and discrepancies were not noticed, for, like all women, Ethel had hazy notions of geography.
'But how came you to take possession of her?' asked she with a little maidenly pique.
So I explained the dilemma which was thrust upon us, and how we picked our way out of the difficulty at Fitzroy's suggestion.
'So, you see,' I wound up, 'I could not well get out of it, could I?'
'Mr. Fitzroy must be an odd creature,' was the only answer she vouchsafed.
'Could I?' I repeated.
'Well, no, sir; I dare say you acted as well as you could. Poor old boy, did you feel it such a dreadful thing to have the charge of another girl saddled upon you, when one has proved quite enough, with her teasing, malicious ways? But what do you mean to do with her?'
'Well—I suppose she must be educated, that is, educated in English fashion, for she really seems to me to be quite a woman of culture in her own way, and would doubtless scorn any suggestion to the contrary. So if you and Mrs. Wharncliffe will undertake the elements of her education, why, that will be a start at any rate.'
'Yes, it will be awfully interesting teaching her, and I really have always wanted a companion.'
'You shan't want one so very long,' I replied, meaningly. 'But meanwhile I hope she will prove a stopgap for you. You really thought she was a savage? How awfully good of your mother to consent to take her holding that idea!'
'But after this education, what do you mean to do with her?' with just a little emphasis on the 'you.'
'Then, why—well—I really don't know: I never thought of that. I suppose there will be a "then," won't there?'
'Of course there will, a most important "then." Do you not know that a young lady's life begins after she has received "finishing"? So when Marahuna—is it?—has been finished, the serious question arises—What then?'
It had scarcely occurred to me before to look so far ahead as this, and even now I evinced that masculine tendency to shuffle out of a difficulty by procrastination.
'At any rate,' I answered, 'we can make a start, and—besides I shall probably have handed her over to some legitimate authority by that time.'
'That's all very well in theory, but young ladies are not like carpet bags, to be passed on at will. And pray who is your legitimate authority?'
'The Court of Chancery,' I replied vaguely.
A reference to law is always a successful clincher to a woman. Law is an unknown quantity to her, and an appeal to it inspires respect and acquires authority; so all that Ethel could reply was a colourless 'Oh,' and, concluding that the subject had been dropped, I reverted to a more profitable occupation.
I could not stay very long at Malthorpe, for there was a great press of work awaiting me, which would effectually prohibit my taking an autumn holiday. So I snatched as many days as I dared at this pleasant time of reunion, enjoying the rest and quietude of the country, as well as the society of Ethel. Marahuna fell quietly into the life of the Vicarage. Her wonderful intellectual powers adapted her to her new position more readily than I could have conceived. The work of teaching her, too, was begun with vigour, and was responded to with eagerness by her. She had gathered a good many words and phrases from me, but under Ethel's tuition she now made much quicker progress. Her memory was exceedingly retentive, and, above all, the zest with which she acquired her knowledge was keen. Other traits of her character were now more noticeable. She appeared fond of colour, and had a habit of passing her hand along the contour of material objects, which looked as if she took a queer interest in form. In the careful management of her dress and hair, which she now under Ethel's tuition wore in orthodox English fashion, I thought I detected traces of feminine vanity; but this might have been simply due to the same feeling for form and order which I had already noticed.
In much, as I have already stated, she resembled a child; or rather in her was the child plus something else. She displayed all the innocence, insouciance, and unconsciousness of child life, all its gaiety and abandon, yet even to the most careless observer she was not a child. When regarding her in this aspect the observer became conscious that these features were the features of child life, and at the same time found himself wondering why she did not conform to the standard they indicated. Would it sound ridiculous to say she appeared queen, philosopher, and child in one? That was, at any rate, how I put my feelings into words on more than one occasion. I tried once to see if she remembered her former life. It was when I could make her understand fairly easily, owing to the progress she had made. But her only response was a blank look of idle curiosity, which suddenly twisted into a silent reverie, and ended in a smile. This was the only occasion on which I had noticed a recurrence of that strange phase she had manifested at Rio. I took warning by it, and informed Ethel that it was wise not to question her about herself.
'There seem to be circumstances,' I said, 'which make the past painful to her. Moreover, I am persuaded that she cannot remember much, at any rate, of her own story. You know, people who have experienced some sudden blow, or some terrible disaster, sometimes do lose their memory, and it is best not to attempt to revive it. So please avoid the subject, Ethel, just now.'
I sometimes wondered what were her thoughts as I watched her sitting quietly by herself at the window. In repose, her normal mood, her face wore an expression of serenity and thought which was almost awe-inspiring; and with it was mingled the subtle expression of triumph, of which I have already spoken more than once. In her more purely thoughtful moods this triumphant smile, as it might almost be called, drew into the background, overshadowed by the intenser concentration, but never wholly vanished. The result was that from her face, even in its moments of greatest reflection, was absent that serious and negatively sad look which is wont to possess human faces during the mastery of the mind. Gravity was not engendered by thought; the triumphant meaning quite modified the expression. When she was amused, thought fled from her eyes like a chased shadow, and they glowed with the liquid fire of laughter. Yet even so one was conscious that deep in the flashes of her eyes lay lurking some mighty force, thought, or will, or whatever it was, ready to break from behind its barriers and overwhelm the on-looker at any moment. To this trait I was at first disposed to attribute the fascination I had found in her face. But then another and yet another quality came into view, on each of which her beauty seemed to hinge, so that at last I gave up looking for an explanation, and contented myself with enjoying the charm unanalysed.
But soon my short holiday drew to a close, and I found the long-delayed day of departure come at last.
'Will you not come down in the autumn, Percy?' inquired Ethel anxiously.
'No, dearest, I am afraid I cannot. We must say "good-bye" till November. My term will begin in October, and my leave at South Kensington expires in September. So that my reports must occupy all the vacation.'
I was a little curious to see how Marahuna would part from me. We had been associated together so long, and in such a unique way, that my departure might be expected to elicit from her some appreciation of our peculiar relations. When I went to say 'good-bye' she was standing at the dining-room window looking out upon the lawn.
'Good-bye, Marahuna,' I said.
'Good-bye,' she repeated with a smile, putting out her hand, but hardly turning her head.
Thinking that possibly she had not quite understood that I was going, I signified my intention as best I could. However, it was trouble lost, for her quick wit had evidently divined the situation. She glanced at my portmanteau, and, waving her hand in the direction of the door, she smiled, then turned her face again towards the window and resumed her attitude of thoughtful observation. Was it really triumph that was written on her face? Was she rejoicing, or was she sorrowing? What were her thoughts? Who could tell?
With a grim sense of disappointment, and a rising curiosity at what was evidently my unceremonious dismissal, I stood waiting for a moment or two. Then, as she showed no signs of turning round or of being aware of my presence, I took up my bag and left the room.
ON my arrival in London I set to work with renewed vigour upon my papers. They were really in a very chaotic condition and needed prompt attention, as I should soon have to present my report to the Admiralty; so I found plenty to occupy my time for some months. Our adventures, a mutilated version of which leaked into the papers, drew attention to us and gave us a notoriety which I for one had not coveted. I have not much liking for publicity. Fame is quite another thing, and I take it that few men are indifferent to fame. But in these days there is a tendency to confuse the one with the other, and certainly there is some excuse for the error. For often now the road to fame lies through notoriety, and it is only necessary to become a 'public character,' marked by whatsoever marks you will provided they are large enough, to be recognised by your contemporaries as a great man. I suppose it has been very much the same at all epochs of the world's history, only in these days of newspapers and public prints the process is rendered easier. The air is filled with a din of noises, and the loudest, whatever its quality, claims first attention. So I shrank into my shell, and refused to be 'drawn' by the numerous requests from magazines and newspapers for a narrative of our adventures. If there was anything excellent or praiseworthy in our expedition, by all means let it receive its reward, but not from the unjudging, unthinking, shallow public opinion. I was content to wait and receive the verdict of sober-minded and dispassionate men of science and philosophy, whose is the only praise I value. Ignorant eulogy aroused by sensational processes, and at the beck and call of skilful 'managers,' is absolutely worthless, though most of us are greedy enough to be pleased by it.
In making up my report, and in elucidating and illustrating the various points of importance and interest in the zoological portion, I received much assistance from Professor Fenton. Such a veteran biologist was the very man to aid me in delicate and abstruse questions of microscopy, and I made use of him, according to his invitation, without scruple. He took great interest in the story of our voyage, which I related to him in detail. I at first thought of withholding mention of Marahuna, but on second thoughts determined to tell him everything, though I knew I should expose myself to ridicule. He listened with an incredulous smile, and then looked grave, and said rather coldly:
'Pooh, pooh, Mr. Grayhurst, you are trying to play off a silly hoax upon me.'
I solemnly assured him that I meant nothing of the kind, but was telling him a story which was absolutely true.
'I give you,' I said, 'the facts as we saw them; you must form your own conclusions. I cannot explain.'
He looked at me suspiciously, and then with a concerned manner, as if he was afraid I was out of my senses.
'It is neither a silly joke, nor am I demented,' I continued. 'Hardy and the others will confirm my story.'
'It is impossible,' said he, smiling.
'How do you explain it, for I assure you of the truth?'
Seeing that I was extremely serious, he made me go over it again, and then he replied as before:
'You must have dreamt all this. I cannot believe it. It is incredible, and therefore impossible.'
'Pardon me, Professor Fenton,' said I, for this was moving on to my own ground now. 'It does not follow. I grant you that it is incredible, but you are not justified surely in saying that it is impossible. Post hoc, but not therefore propter hoc. Surely the a priori argument ought to be abandoned in a case like this. I am aware that it is the unconscious attitude of the mind taken up at the first surprise.'
'Yes, yes. You are right,' he answered, 'and I was wrong. You see one cannot quite get rid of the old Adam in one's blood. You are right. I shall not say that it is impossible.'
He smiled again, and I saw that he had merely abandoned his position to entrench himself still more strongly behind some unassailable canon of Nature. He stood waiting for me to reply, so, nothing loth, I unlimbered my guns, and began to shell his outworks.
'It is not impossible. Well, it is only one step forward, acknowledging its possibility. The first requisite necessary to prove a fact is sufficient unbiassed evidence. Well, you will find that the whole ship's crew will confirm my story. I suppose you will not accuse us of collusion?'
'No. I am willing to accept your testimony as truthful—in intention.'
'Then there are only two hypotheses—either our story is true, or else we were deceived by our optical illusion.'
'Very well. I should say the latter decidedly.'
'And I the former. Believe me, Professor Fenton, I have thought out this subject, and reasoned about it in a hundred different aspects. You know I am the last man in the world to be carried away by my imagination, and that my confidence in the immutability of natural law is extremely strong. Yet here is a phenomenon which I have tried for months to classify under the known conditions of organic life on the globe. Each attempt has been an utter failure. What is the conclusion to which I am forced, forced at least tentatively and provisionally? Why, simply that our knowledge of natural law has not been as wide as it might have been; that it has not included a group of phenomena lying out of the track of human feet, and the sphere of human minds. There is no miracle here. It is simply a legitimate extension of the law of Nature, as you know.'
'Granted,' said he thoughtfully. 'Granted that there is nothing of the miracle about your story. Still you must make your evidence extraordinarily strong to make me believe that phenomena so unusual should fall to be included within the range of natural law.'
'Then there is the girl herself, standing as a living protestation on behalf of my case. How would you explain this?'
'To be sure, if you have the girl, and she proves, as you assert, of a different constitution to the ordinary human being, that will strengthen your point. But I am inclined to think that you will find her merely a female Peter the Wildboy. It is an extraordinary case, however.'
I saw that he was puzzled, and I brought up my heavy artillery. I quoted Mill and Thomson. I went over the story again, and in the end I left him dubious, yet still sceptical. A second and a third assault opened breaches in his fortifications, and at the fourth attack he capitulated. At least he went so far as, assuming my hypothesis correct, to trace out its results and conditions. He grew very interested at last, and entered with me into speculations as to the nature and origin of the fire-island, and the possible conditions of life within the circle of flame. As for myself, the absurdity of my theory had long since vanished, and the hypothesis, which had run molten into a merely provisional groove, now solidified into actual conviction.
'As far as I can judge,' said he, 'the conditions obtaining within this island must be largely dependent upon the composition of the flame itself. It is very unfortunate that you did not manage to analyse it, for that might have shed some light upon the question. One cannot say, of course, whether the conditions are solely dependent upon the components of the flame, or whether there are other and more potent factors at work behind the barrier. It is, in fact, a terra incognita, and such, I am afraid, it must remain, at all events for us. But you have valuable evidence in the girl, a study of whose character would perhaps adduce some startling facts. Marahuna, you call her? I should watch her carefully, and be on the look-out for divergencies from the human type, for, if your theory is correct, her nature ought to show considerable variations, I fancy. Indeed, I can hardly see how she can fail to be peculiar, if she is the evolution of such an extraordinary environment. The general conditions of life must, of course, be similar to those obtaining with us. Her existence as a human being proves that. But who can say how far those general conditions go, or on what the physical evolution of a human being depends? That is just the disadvantage of all sciences in which you cannot experiment. You can experiment with chemicals and with plants, but you cannot with planets and stars; and anti-vivisection societies would abolish our experimentation with animals. If I had my way I would allow experimentation with human beings. Indeed I would. How else do you think the perfect human being is to be evolved?'
I only laughed, knowing his way of rising spasmodically against social restraints.
'Yes,' he continued after a short pause, during which my mind was busy with the ethical problems suggested by his words. 'You might experiment on the girl, so far as experiment is permissible. I am afraid you must keep to present limitations. You know what I mean. Artificial conditions contrived occasionally would do something towards elucidation, perhaps.'
I smiled, and said I should not find an easy subject.
'A young man runs certain risks in experimenting, which an older man does not. However, I will do my best, by proxy, for I shall see very little of her. And I will bring you a meteorological chart of her character.'
'Goethe had some excuse, you know,' he replied, 'for the method of his psychological studies.' And I left him wondering what he meant.
Meanwhile I was in constant communication with Ethel, who kept me well supplied with news from Malthorpe. She was a good correspondent, and I was disappointed if I did not get at least two letters every week. It is a vulgar error that science hardens and deadens the susceptibilities, and coats the heart with a stony crust which in time causes total petrification. It had not done so with me. Perhaps for many reasons it would have been better if it had. Dullards feel happiness less than others, it is true, but they also feel sorrow less, and that is a great balancing advantage.
Ethel's letters told me a good deal about Marahuna. She had, it seemed, fallen very readily into the life of the Vicarage, and conformed in every way to the manners and usages of orthodoxy.
'She occasionally shocks mamma,' wrote Ethel, 'by displaying some strange feature in her character which does not fit in with strict notions of clerical propriety, but on the whole they work together wonderfully well. I fancy your protégée is exceedingly quickwitted, for she adapts herself to circumstances, and seems to recognise at once what is expected of her. I should call it an instance of woman's intuition, which you probably know is so much stronger than man's, and is another evidence of the superiority of the so-called weaker sex. For my own part, I find her an agreeable companion, for she is rapidly picking up the language, and we manage to communicate our ideas to one another remarkably easily. She certainly attracts me, as she does everyone who falls within her range. Yet I must confess there is a want of something about her which I cannot define, and which leaves an unpleasant sensation in one's mind after being long in her company. It is probably, however, only the insular prejudice of an Englishwoman against foreigners, and when we get to understand her better we shall admire her more wholly.'
The news of her progress relieved me not a little, for, to tell the truth, I had felt somewhat doubtful as to the result of the experiment. But her settlement now was likely to be a success, and so far responsibility slipped away from me. It was rather ridiculous, I told myself, that I, at my time of life, and in my circumstances, should be encumbered with the charge of an unknown and lovely girl. I counted myself very lucky to have shifted my burden so easily to the shoulders of others more qualified for the office. So far my mind was at rest. The question, however, which remained unsolved was, what was to become of her eventually, and the more I thought of it, the less able was I to answer the question. Hardy came to see me several times while he was in London. He had been paid off, and was taking a short holiday before looking out for a fresh ship. I discussed the problem with him on two or three occasions, but found him as vague upon the subject as myself. The only course he could suggest was that she should get married, and thus cut the Gordian knot at one fell swoop.
'But, my dear fellow, that is easier said than accomplished. In the first place, the young lady must get married of her own free will, and no amount of pushing and contriving on our part will be likely to achieve any result. Secondly, you must get someone to have her, which I grant you should be easy enough. But whether that would end the trouble or no, is another matter. It would, at least, take it off our hands, only that is a selfish way of looking at things.'
'But things would come all right, wouldn't they, if she fell in love with an eligible young gentleman, somehow and somewhere?'
'It won't help us,' said I, shrugging my shoulders, 'Somewhere and somehow are terribly vague. And the real difficulty to my mind is this, that the girl is not human, not, at any rate, in the ordinarily accepted meaning of the word. We have to face that fact. She is an absolute enigma, and must simply work out her own destiny. It is hopeless for us to interfere. Besides, after all,' as a new thought struck me, 'we have yet to prove that she is capable of love or affection at all. I should really not be surprised to find she is not. At all events, I have seen no signs of it.'
'She is probably as capable as, say, two out of any five ordinary women, since she is a woman.'
'It doesn't follow because she is a woman,' I replied. 'You have first to define the word woman. There is woman terrestrial and woman celestial; and, apparently, woman pyrogenetical. Well, at any rate, it's no use talking. Let things shape their own course, say I, though such an unphilosophical method goes sadly against the grain.'
'I think you're wise. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Well, it's your affair, Grayhurst, and not mine,' answered Hardy, grimly.
'And I have always been under the delusion, which I share in common with others, that the prominent characteristic of a sailor is generosity; that he will stand by his friends and make their troubles his. Another of the disillusionments of life!'
'What an arrant hypocrite you are, Grayhurst! I verily believe that you are inwardly congratulating yourself that you have been so fortunate as to secure a specimen of the Homo sapiens—no, igneus—female, wherewith to astound your scientific brethren, and whereby to solve innumerable vexed problems of ethics, biology, psychology, sociology, and what not.'
'Hear the man! Why, he jumbles together sciences which have absolutely nothing in common except their extraneousness to himself.'
'I thought all sciences hung together. But, look here, Grayhurst, I want to know when you are coming down to see me in Yorkshire?'
'I don't see how I can get away from London for some time. I'm so fearfully engaged with these blessed results. It would be more to the point to ask you when you are coming to see me. By Jove, Hardy, I have a sudden notion.'
'That's rather your way.'
'It's this. Why should you not come down with me to Malthorpe? I will introduce you to the Wharncliffes.'
'Come down and stay with you in the place, do you mean?'
'Not a bit of it. Stay at the vicarage. They have asked me again and again to bring you down, when I got an opportunity. Ethel is absolutely dying to see "my captain," and will probably give you romantic thanks for saving my life or some other feminine delusion. No, you must come. That's a capital idea.'
'Bah. Oh, I'll get you a formal invitation, if you want it, as you are such a dreadful stickler for forms. When could we go? Not till December, I suppose.'
'I return from Yorkshire in December.'
'That will just suit. We will go down for Christmas, and have a merry party, and you will have an opportunity of seeing the maiden of fire again; and who knows, Hardy, but you may solve the problem we have been discussing?'
He laughed grimly, and a slight flush crossed his face.
ACCORDING to my news from Ethel, Marahuna was making great strides in her acquisition of the English language, and her adoption of English culture.
'She reads beautifully,' wrote Ethel; 'and in matters of education seems likely to fast outstrip me, her teacher. She is, without exception, the most wonderfully intelligent girl I have ever met.'
This rapid progress did not surprise me, for I had often noticed in her indications of a great intellectual force, which I should not have wondered to find overwhelming. In obedience to my express wish that no questions should be asked about her past, Ethel had refrained from gratifying her curiosity, and, as Marahuna had volunteered no information, no fresh light had been shed upon the mystery of her being. Once or twice in the early part of her stay at Malthorpe she seemed to have had a recurrence of the old trance-like mood, for Ethel mentioned some symptoms which had alarmed them, and for which they were unable to find a cause, and, as far as I could gather, there had been in each case some prominent appearance of fire at the time of the syncope, if syncope it was. After the first few weeks, however, Ethel's letters contained no record of any return, and my mind was relieved. The fact that she had volunteered no information herself, upon her entry into full powers of speech, confirmed my suspicions that somehow or other the past had been blotted out for her. She had settled into the quiet English life, as if she were to the manner born, unconscious, perhaps, of the mysterious background to her history.
Three days before Christmas, Hardy and I took the train from Waterloo, and went down to Malthorpe. We were met by Mr. Wharncliffe and Ethel, and as we drove swiftly along the lanes the snow was falling gently, and the landscape gradually assuming a genuine Christmas aspect.
I found Marahuna as I had left her, bright, and gay, and beautiful. She gave me just such a welcome as I should have expected from any ordinary English girl, with, perhaps, more frankness and unreserve than is usual. A gleam of the old smile, which I well remembered, danced in her blue eyes, and the same subtle expression of triumph stole over her face, as she advanced to greet me with outstretched hand.
'How do you do, Mr. Grayhurst?' she said, speaking rather slowly, and with a strange foreign accent. 'I am glad to see you down here again so soon.'
It sounded rather like a set speech, and I felt a trifle disappointed that she should use so conventional an address. She might, was my first small-minded thought, have called me Percy. But I reflected that my whim was unreasonable. Her conduct was evidently measured by Mrs. Wharncliffe's rules of propriety.
'You recognise Mr. Hardy,' I said, turning to that individual, who stood in the background. 'He is an old friend of yours, Marahuna.'
Her swift eyes followed the direction of my hand, and her glance alighted on the lieutenant of the 'Hereward,' who bowed a somewhat ceremonious bow. Over her face passed, like a flash of lightning, a weird expression, which I could not fathom, and her eyes went searching out the distance with a vacant gaze. But she recovered herself, and in a moment extended her hand with the smile of a princess. Yet there was a queerness lurking in her eyes, which claimed my curious attention.
'How do you like Malthorpe on further acquaintance?' I asked next, to break the silence.
'I like it very much,' she answered still slowly, and speaking as one who is repeating a lesson. 'It is full of beauty and picturesqueness. In the trees and hills there is form and colour to please the eyes; and in the songs of the birds music to please the ear. Is it not what you would call harmony?' she asked, turning with a smile to Ethel.
'Mr. Whistler would call it so, at any rate,' replied Ethel; 'but come, let us go indoors. It is somewhat chilly here.'
I entered, marvelling again at the wonderful progress Marahuna had made. To all appearances she spoke and acted as if she were merely a foreigner, and nothing more. No one could imagine that there was so mysterious a record behind, a record which was a puzzle and an enigma to the most advanced and comprehensive scientific theories. None would imagine that six months only had elapsed since she had first contact with the fringes of our civilisation.
'Don't you think she has improved, Percy?' said Ethel to me that night. 'What do you think of my training now? I think I am almost qualified for the post of principal of Girton. And it's all Kindergarten too! But, Percy, you really must not call her Marahuna. It is hardly proper. Mamma has been endeavouring for the last six months to inculcate in her a reverence for all the laws and scruples of society, and now you come down with your horrid new-fangled Bohemianism, and begin to upset everything. Do you not know that, according to the rules of polite society, a young lady is Miss to all except her own family and relations?'
'But I am an old friend, Ethel. You see, I stand in a sort of godfatherly position. You would not have me be so conventional?'
'Well, perhaps on the godfather plea you may get off, though I believe it secretly to be an arrant piece of humbug. Sometimes, Percy, I fancy she is almost uncanny, and certain queer phases in her suggest to a vicar's daughter thoughts which savour of other-worldism altogether. However, let her be. What a nice fellow your friend seems to be—quiet and reserved, but thoroughly good! He is just the sort of captain you ought to serve under, you self-willed fellow. It would take the conceit out of you, and that's what you sadly want.'
I muttered something about not needing to go to. Hardy to get that done for me, and received a little pinch for my pains. But a man knows how to meet that sort of attack, and I quickly replied, for I had already acquired some skill in the art, having had considerable practice.
On the following day I awoke—I am afraid somewhat late—with a delicious feeling of laziness and repose. The snow was drifting noiselessly against the window, and the landscape was rapidly assuming an Arctic appearance. Lying in bed is a bad habit, I am quite aware, but on occasion it is a most delicious recreation. I know of nothing more elysian than the feeling that there is no necessity to arise and bestir oneself. The world will go on well without one, nor will one be missed; one has done one's duty for a space, and can afford to step aside from the bustle and stir of life, and bask for awhile in the lap of unconsciousness or dolce far niente.
My laziness resulted in my appearing very late at the breakfast-table and receiving a severe lecture from Ethel.
'So these are London fashions, are they? When you come to the country, Percy, you must put away London things. You are too great a favourite with Mamma for me to expect her to give you anything like your deserts, so the unpleasant task of fault-finding lies with me.'
'Do you hear what she says, Mrs. Wharncliffe?' I replied. 'An unpleasant task she calls it, as if we did not all know that she absolutely delights in what the Americans call "bossing the show."'
'That shows how little you really understand me. It is not at all a grateful task to find fault, but it is a very necessary one. If you were not kept in order by some such method, I wonder what you would develop into. Don't you agree with me, Mr. Hardy?'
'Most entirely, Miss Wharncliffe,' said the person addressed. 'And Grayhurst needs all the trouble you take in that respect, as I can vouch from my own experience.'
'Trust your friends to give you a character,' I said. 'A candid friend is almost the most objectionable person I know.'
'And the worst of it is,' went on Ethel, 'that I have been giving Marie such a rose-coloured account of you, that she quite expects to find you perfection.'
'Only another lost ideal!' I murmured from my teacup. 'Vide Mr. Du Maurier in Punch. I hope you are not so exacting, Marahuna. Have I indeed lost credit in your eyes?'
'Credit? Ah, I see what it is. No: you may get up when you wish, for me. I care not. It does not affect me.'
'Marie takes no interest in you, you see,' said Ethel maliciously.
'But Ethel does,' added the vicar, 'and consequently you would sooner have to deal with an uninterested friend who lets you alone, than an interested friend who speaks plain truths.'
'Precisely,' I replied. 'I see you are of my mind, Mr. Wharncliffe, and Mrs. Wharncliffe also, I am sure. Therefore you are alone, Ethel.'
'It does not alter the truth of my cause. I rather like being in a minority. It brings out one's strong points. Possibly it is in view of the poor display you would make that you dislike it.'
'Some people are all points,' I murmured.
'And some people's remarks absolutely without point,' she retaliated, with a saucy smile.
'Does not this remind you of the Antarctic regions, Hardy?' I asked, drawing to the window. 'Can you not imagine that you are once more sailing over the blue waters, closed in by looming icebergs? Yonder yew-tree, for example, would pass uncommonly well for a dilapidated berg; and the church in the distance, too—I fancy we have seen many such in the open seas, those ruined abbeys of which we used to speak, you remember.'
'You have too vivid an imagination, Grayhurst. I fail to see anything but a homely English landscape covered with a soft, if somewhat chilly carpet, which will soon disappear under the genial influence of the warm sun.'
'Well, if it comes to that, and you will be matter-of-fact, I doubt if you are correct in your version. For you will get little or no warm sun here at this time of the year, and the carpet is likely to remain a carpet for many a week to come.'
'There is a strange gleam in it,' said Marahuna, walking to the window, 'which I seem to—I cannot think. Where have I seen it? What is it that rushes through my brain? It is bright and pleasant to the eyes, but it brings a gleam across them which makes me—what, what is it?'
'It is the dazzle of the snow,' said the vicar. But there was a silence in the room, for we all felt there was something eerie in her movement. I fidgeted uneasily, and then, as she kept moving restlessly to and fro by the window, I stood by her, and, putting my hand on her arm, said:
'Don't you feel cold? Come and sit by the fire.'
She moved slowly towards the fire, and her eyes wandered restlessly over my face, as if they would read the mystery therein. But she quickly recovered, and, turning to Ethel, made some commonplace remark, and the ordinary conversation was resumed.
In the evening, entering the vicar's study, which he was very good in allowing us the run of, I found Marahuna crouching by the fire alone. As yet I had had no opportunity of speaking at large or continuously with her. Conversation was of course impossible until she knew the language, but, now that she was able to understand and answer, I had a burning curiosity to have a talk with her and see if anything would come of it. The problem of her existence lay like an unmeasured weight upon my mind, and I was anxious to learn something of her origin and her fiery home, or at least to gather such information as I could from a closer scrutiny of her capacities and qualities.
'You alone, Marie? where are the others?'
'Ethel is busy, Mr. Grayhurst; and so I came in to do some reading. For Mr. Wharncliffe allows me to idle among his books.'
Her accent was very sweet, and she spoke as if uncertain of some words.
'What is it you were reading?' I took the book from her hands. It was a volume of Ruskin.
'Do you like Ruskin's writings?' I asked in dry-eyed wonder as to her choice.
'I like it when I understand it, but that is not often. Yet I read a good deal of his writings.'
'And why, if you do not understand him?'
'I read him to get myself let in to the knowledge of many things; to know what to think, and believe, and say on many subjects. For he seems to me, as far as I can make out, to embody all that I cannot understand; and yet I must understand it if I am to learn.'
'You mean that you are anxious to study art, then?'
'No. At least, I do not think so. I should like to know about art, but I do not mean that. I mean something larger. I can understand the reason of art—why it exists. A thing is before you, and you put it down in colours on your paper. That is all right. But when I come to read about art, there is something which I do not know. There seems to be something which writers see in art, which I do not, and especially is it in the books by this man. I cannot understand, and I want to do so.'
'But what is it you do not understand?' I asked, feeling puzzled at this vague explanation.
'That is what I cannot tell,' answered she, looking through me with her calm and marvellous eyes, in which was written so much I could not read. 'It is there, unfathomable, and unintelligible. That is all I know.'
'You said you liked what you understood of Ruskin,' I replied, trying another tack. 'What is it, then, you like in him?'
'I like the descriptions. When he speaks of some picture, I can recall it piecemeal, and it pleases me. When he does that I like it, and sometimes, too, he reasons, and I like that, but he does not do that often. He more frequently swims out somewhere, where I lose sight of him, and cannot follow. But I know the names of the colours now, and I like to read them; they please me. I feel—but I am so unskilled in words that I cannot explain to you my feelings. Perhaps you know.'
'Yes, I think I do. But you speak English wonderfully well in so very short a time.'
'Ah, I am quick? Yes, that is true. Yet I do not trust myself to speak too much, for I wish to learn, and she who listens learns. I keep silent, therefore. But I am learning quickly. Yes, yes—quickly,' and she waved her hand out before her to give body to her meaning, while beneath the glow of the firelight I caught a glimpse of a proud smile. 'I shall know all, soon.'
'Then to return to Ruskin,' I continued. 'What you do not understand is perhaps his moralising.'
'Perhaps. Moralising? Yes, it may be. In all my reading there is much strange. But in him, I think, most of all. That is why I am reading this.'
Evidently she failed to appreciate Ruskin's transcendental nature-cult—his deification of naked sentiment. Perhaps it was scarcely to be expected, as she did not seem to be of a highly imaginative nature.
The shades of night had fallen rapidly, and darkness gathered in the sky. The white mists and snow outside were hidden in the growing gloom. But the cheerful firelight threw rich red gleams along the books in the shelves, and lighted up our faces, as we leaned over the hearth to gather up the warmth into our bodies. I drew my chair a little nearer, and settled down more comfortably in the quiet shadows.
'You will understand all this by-and-by. You see, you cannot expect to jump into a new life all at once.'
'A new life! A new life! Why do you say a new life? Yes, of course, I know I have come from somewhere, have I not? But where? It is no use thinking. No, I will not think. Better not. Here is something you will tell me, will you not?' she went on eagerly. 'Ethel said yesterday that this place was "crowded for her with associations." What did that mean? I asked her, but could not understand.'
'Associations are only memories,' I answered. 'What we remember in connection with a place are its associations. So that when a place is crowded with associations, it merely means that whenever we recall the place, we recall the pleasant experiences undergone in it.'
'Whenever, you mean, I recall this house, I should recall our sitting here by the fire.'
'I should be pleased to think you would,' I replied, with that silent satisfaction which comes from an innocent compliment.
'But why should it be pleasant to do so?' she inquired next moment, and my satisfaction faded away into the stern rigour of explanation.
'I did not say it would be, Marie; you have assumed it.'
'No, no,' she cried, with a sudden abruptness of understanding which took me aback. 'You have got upon a sidepath. Tell me. I ask because Ethel said that some of her associations were not pleasant—"sad," she called them. Now what is that? Why are associations sad? Would this be sad? What is "sad"?'
'That's such a root and branch question,' said I; 'it requires a deal of reflection. If experiences are pleasant, the recollection of them is pleasant, and if they are sad, the recollection is sad.'
'But what is "sad"?' she asked curiously.
'Sad!' I repeated hesitatingly, and completely stranded in commonplace for the nonce. 'It is the reverse of pleasant.'
'The reverse of pleasant. I see; where it is not pleasant it is sad.'
'No, no,' I interrupted, smiling. 'It was my fault in giving a feeble explanation. Hardly that. The amount of active pleasure in the world is so small that it would be a sorry condition of things if all else were classified as sadness. No; sad denotes an active condition, implying not merely an absence but a presence. I should have thought you would have understood it by this time. That which pains us is sadness.'
It was extremely difficult to explain thus at a moment's notice such a simple emotion. I felt my attempt was poor. She said with a smile:
'It still perplexes me; but that is because I do not know the language well, perhaps. You will teach me better, will you not? In this new life, as you call it, all is so strange. I never saw anything like this.' She paused, and then, looking placidly into the fire: 'There is some dream,' she went on slowly, 'some dream—something floating in my mind which I should like to catch hold of. I can remember nothing; I will not think. Yet—'
Again she paused, and I, all eagerness, leaned closer to her, and, grasping the emergency, said almost tremulously:
'Think it out, Marie. What is it you are dreaming? Is it of your home? of the island of fire, and the ship which took you away? Tell me.'
Unconsciously my utterance grew quicker, and I felt thrilled as I waited anxiously for her answer.
'Can you not remember? Marie, do tell me. Speak out and say what it was you used to see.'
But no sound came from her lips save a low murmur I could barely catch, and her eyes grew fixed upon my face in a strange vacant stare, which even under the dim firelight bewildered and dazzled me. Her hand grew cold beneath my clutch. And then the murmur rose into a soft music, and strange sounds ran through my ears. From the fascination of her eyes I could not withhold my glance, but gazed in breathless wonder. About her face, too, I could perceive beneath the fitful light a changing movement which was indescribable. The outline seemed to grow full and unearthly, and the impression which gathered in my dazed mind (I know not how or when) was that of a hundred thoughts beating about that untroubled brow over which the golden hair hung loosely. But gradually her eyes lost their full-orbed splendour, her hand grew warmer in mine, and her face drooped forwards towards the fire. Then she lifted her head again and smiled at me.
'It is grown dark while we talked. Shall we not have some light?'
I rose in silence, and lit the lamp which stood upon the table hard by. At that moment Ethel entered, and we passed into general conversation.
The strange manifestation haunted me for some time. Whatever was the precise cause, it was evident that memory was at the bottom of this state of syncope, as it seemed. For some mysterious reason, which it appeared improbable that we should ever know, her lips were sealed on all the past. Her life under earthly conditions had begun from the time she came on board the 'Hereward.' The past was a blank we could never hope to penetrate.
On Christmas Day we attended service in the little parish church, one of those old Hampshire churches near which antiquarians and painters love to linger. The morning was beautifully bright, and, in defiance of my predictions, even the sun showed clear in a frosty sky, and shone upon the snow-clad landscape. During the service my thoughts, as, alas! they often will, wandered from the matter in hand to speculations of all sorts. The organ was an instrument of which the organist was proud, and the village was proud of both, and not without reason. I thought, as I listened in the gaps of my reflections. The music rolled round the pillars and down the aisles sonorously, and lost itself in the darkened recesses beneath the gallery. Ethel—between whom and Marahuna I was sitting—behaved in every respect as a vicar's daughter should do. With the exception of an occasional smile at me sub rosa, and a casual glance round the church, she kept her eyes upon her book or upon her father's face, only departing from the ordinary routine to find the places for an aged parishioner in the seat in front. Hardy, too, was conducting himself with decorum and propriety. Like all sailors, he had a large bump of reverence, perhaps because the quality is so little called into requisition in a sailor's life.
Marahuna was quiet and attentive, though not at all restrained in her actions. Her stately figure and beautiful face were outlined for me against a stained window through which the sunlight came, flooding the dim interior. The music brought a pleased expression into the calm eyes, which was a wonder to behold. It was only, however, when the notes grew more resonant, and the echoes louder in the vaulted roof, as the jubilant hymn of thanksgiving swelled grandly upon the lips of the sober congregation, that a change was manifested upon her countenance. At such times the music appeared to gather echoes in her face, and that awful smile of triumph dawned through the growing light from the windows. It was the face of an angel militant and triumphant. There was no trace of pettiness or smallness in it; it was too grand and steadfast for that. There was no element of anger or contempt; yet it was merciless, or it seemed so to me, standing there beside her in the shadows. The softer music did not appear to touch her. The pathetic strains which now and then wove their subtle cadence through the grand litanies of song, and which, as I could see, brought a tender light into Ethel's brown eyes, passed by her unnoticed, for the calm quiescence of her expression remained unchanged.
At a little distance from us in the nave I noticed an elderly lady and a young man, the sole occupants of a large pew. It was, I knew, the squire's pew, but I did not know the occupants. The young man showed considerable interest in us, and especially in Marahuna. I saw his eyes stealing round from time to time with what was evidently an admiring glance. And during the sermon he half turned round and ingeniously rested his arm upon the back of his seat in such a way as to give him ample opportunity for further investigation of us.
At dinner Ethel belied her appearance of unwavering attention to the service by the amount of information she had culled regarding the congregation. The presence or absence of this and that person was discussed with select and appropriate comments.
'Sir Reginald has come back at last, I see,' said Mrs. Wharncliffe. 'How proud Lady Edenhale seemed of him!'
'Oh yes; that was the squire, was it not?' I remarked. 'I thought it must be he.'
'Have you never met him?' asked Ethel.
'No, nor Lady Edenhale either.'
'Well, I don't wonder; for, though they live at the Hall, there is little opportunity of seeing them. Lady Edenhale rarely goes out, and Sir Reginald is scarcely ever down here. Don't you think he is very good-looking, Percy? He is considered the beau of the county. I do think he behaved rather badly though. It was really not proper—the way he stared at us. I shall certainly have to remonstrate with him.'
'Poor fellow,' I ejaculated sotto voce.
'It was Marie, no doubt, who was the attraction. Marie, we shall have to veil you like the Circassian ladies. You are too much of a cynosure altogether.'
'Ethel!' said Mrs. Wharncliffe reprovingly.
'Well, mamma, truth must out. If we did not live so quietly here, I do not know what would be the result. We do our best to bury the jewel, but, even so, it runs a risk of being stolen. The hunt ball last November opened my eyes to the dangers that beset the luckless owner of such a gem.'
'Ethel,' whispered her mother, 'you are so indiscreet.'
'Well, mamma, I will stifle truth once more at your special request. I am becoming quite accustomed to the process now, thanks to you.'
'Miss Sidmore is not staying at the Hall, is she?' asked the vicar. 'She was not at church.'
'No, she is not there, though her absence from church would prove nothing. She is so very delicate, and would scarcely venture out on a day like this.'
'Is he not engaged to her?' pursued her father.
'No, papa, Sir Reginald is a free man. Mamma, would it be very vulgar to speak of engaged people as reserved seats?'
'Certainly,' said Mrs. Wharncliffe, a little primly.
'Oh, well, I will not say what I intended. But it was a really valuable thought.'
'I can guess,' I said boldly.
'That the booking offices were now open for Sir Reginald at the usual prices.'
'Now you will have to make your peace with mamma,' she laughed, as she rose and passed out of the room.
THERE is much greater friendliness and less formality in county than in London society. By county society I do not mean the society of provincial towns, much less that of cathedral towns, which I conceive to be the Ultima Thule of frigidity and narrowness. But I refer to the pure county society, such as you get around the numerous villages and hamlets of England. There is, of course, an inner and an outer circle, as there always is, and always must be in every society; and very possibly the line of demarcation between the two is more distinct and impassable than elsewhere. Yet within the privileged ring there is less formality. I am aware that it is customary to look upon county society as exclusive and conventional, whereas London enjoys the reputation of being the most generously minded in the matter of social recognitions. Yet, with all my radical notions, I must confess to a great liking for country life. There is, of course, more inspection of other people's affairs in the country; you live more under social surveillance. Yet there is also more bonhomie, and less ceremony, the absence of which is a great recommendation to a quasi-Bohemian.
So when Ethel said at breakfast next morning, 'I should not be surprised if Sir Reginald called to-day,' no one seemed inclined to throw doubt upon the probability.
Sir Reginald was the squire of Malthorpe. The Edenhales were an old but gradually diminishing family, the young baronet being, indeed, the last male representative of the race. He lived with his mother at the Hall. At least, his mother lived there; Sir Reginald himself was not often at home, for he was a great wanderer, and had been already all over the world. According to the particulars I learnt from Ethel, this state of affairs was much to be deprecated, as well on his own account as for the sake of Lady Edenhale. She was extremely anxious for him to contract a marriage with his cousin, her sister's child, Miss Sidmore, a wealthy heiress in Yorkshire. He was, as a matter of fact, not particularly wild or extravagant, only a trifle restless and selfish. But a young man is never satisfactory, so the folks said, until he has 'wooed and married and a'.' It is remarkable to find how strong a hold upon people's minds this wild-oats' theory of life has. A reformed rake makes the best husband, just as the 'garrison hack' makes the best wife. Paradoxes commend themselves to most minds more from their semblance of subtlety and depth than for any other reason. As a rule, however, they are fallacious, and, where they are true, their truth gets footing through some verbal quibble. The young man who has run through a small catalogue of vices can be none the better for it, morally or intellectually. The theory is defensible, perhaps, on the principle of things which 'have their day and cease to be;' but, after all, the defence collapses in the face of the ascertained fact that tastes formed by years of indulgence are not easily abandoned. However, it is true that the channels at some part of many a man's life are more or less sludgy and muddy, and that the stream does not subsequently show on the surface many traces of this sludginess. Such is the result of the natural disposition of youth and the conditions of society in which we move. But it is idle folly to say that the stream would not have been clearer and purer for the absence of those muddy channels. A deeper investigation would amply refute this fancy.
Ethel's anticipations were realised, for, shortly after lunch, Sir Reginald drove up in his dog-cart. Like most young Englishmen of the upper class, of which he was a representative specimen, he was a healthy, vigorous fellow, who scorned precautions and revelled in fresh air and exercise. He was entertained by Mrs. Wharncliffe and Ethel, assisted by myself. It was not hard to take his measure. He had doubtless gone through Oxford or Cambridge, where he had done more boating and riding than reading and thinking. Then the larger currents of society took hold of him, and swept him out into life. He had travelled a great deal, seen society in varied aspects; had taken life easily and enjoyed himself; had grown tired of his various pursuits simply because he was able to grow tired of them, and at the age of eight-and-twenty imagined himself a cynic, and laboured under the delusion that this condition of things had been brought about by a vast experience of men and manners. But he was evidently, for all this, a very agreeable and thoroughly good-hearted fellow—features which are veritable gems in the character of any one. We must not expect too much in a world whose nidus has been self, and whose motive-power, thanks to the evolution of some thousands of years, is now only a more refined and clarified form of self.
But Sir Reginald was restless and expectant. Despite all his breeding, and his efforts to appear unconcerned, I noticed an inquisitive eye wandering to the door from time to time whenever some distant sound caught his ear. Ethel had furnished a conjectural explanation of his visit. He had come to see the new beauty, I thought, and a satisfied smile rose to my face when he said:
'I noticed some stranger with you on Sunday, Miss Wharncliffe. It's so unusual to see strangers down in sleepy Malthorpe that—'
'How were you so clever as to guess that, Sir Reginald?' broke in Ethel. 'Now, I consider that very smart of you to have found out that, considering that you cannot have possibly discovered it from personal experience. How do you do it?'
'I generalise easily,' laughed the young man. 'At any rate, I'm sure that the lady with you was a stranger—'
'And you want to know who she is,' interrupted Ethel.
'It's very inquisitive of me, isn't it?'
'I think we can forgive you that, on the score of your sex. Well, if you will have patience, your curiosity will be gratified. Here she comes.'
At this moment Marahuna entered the room and advanced with stately grace towards us. Sir Reginald was introduced to her, and she took her seat in the group.
'We were discussing a very important point of psychology, Marie,' said Ethel, with a roguish twinkle in her eye. 'You can help us too, perhaps, Percy. Sir Reginald was maintaining that curiosity is a purely feminine accomplishment.'
'No, pardon me, Miss Wharncliffe, I must protest—'
'Yes, yes; don't interrupt, please; it amounted to that. You rebutted the charge from yourself. While I argue that if curiosity is a feminine accomplishment, it is certainly a masculine folly.'
'In other words' I said, 'wherein a woman errs she errs artistically, but a man's error is always a blunder.'
'Precisely. You have really a very neat way of putting things occasionally, Percy.'
'Thank you, madam. I was merely stating your case for you. I do not hold by it at all. Like most general statements, it is fallacious,' I answered, rather pedantically.
'What a beautifully vague and comprehensive summing up that is! It is perfectly oracular.'
'Quite à la Mr. Gladstone,' suggested Sir Reginald, who was a sound Tory.
'No, indeed, quite as much à la Lord Beaconsfield,' retorted Ethel, who was as staunch a Whig.
'Still a Radical, Miss Wharncliffe?'
'It is unfair of you to call me a Radical, when you know I don't like the name, and am not one. I am a Liberal.'
'Same thing, nowadays.'
'I am not going to argue politics with you. I see you want to draw me into a discussion.'
'You would probably beat me,' he answered lightly.
'That's insincere. You don't really think so?'
'Yes I do. I don't hold my opinions earnestly enough.'
'And consequently would not defend them, you mean? Well, there is one advantage; you would not lose your temper. Still, I like an opponent who has faith in his cause.'
'And gets out of temper?'
'I don't mind.'
'Ah! Women are more tolerant of people who get out of temper than men are. And the reason is obvious.'
'A fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind.'
'And you really think,' said Ethel, 'that women lose their temper more easily than men?'
'Only when they are defeated in argument. They are apt to be annoyed then.'
'Do you really think so?' asked she, with a more earnest expression than the occasion required.
'Truth compels me to sacrifice my chivalrous instincts, and keep to my assertion,' he replied, and then turned deprecatingly to Marahuna, who had been silently listening all this time.
'Don't you think there is some truth in my charge, Miss Huayna?' he asked.
'You mean that a woman loses her temper when defeated,' echoed Marie, with a puzzled air. 'I hardly know. Perhaps she does. Ethel has sometimes confessed to me that she has lost her temper; and at other times I have noticed, when she has not confessed it, that the symptoms had come again. Perhaps she does, but I cannot say.'
This remark was greeted with general laughter, in which Ethel herself joined. Then she said:
'If I did not believe that was a chance shot of yours, Sir Reginald, I should begin to have some faith in your skill. That was a very happy thought to appeal to Marie. A cunning advocate knows well what course to take in dealing with woman's evidence. Appeal from a woman to a woman, and you are sure to score a point or two. Therein lies the one weakness of our sex.'
Sir Reginald was merciful with that mercifulness which is the basis of true chivalry, and did not press his point further. He entered into conversation with Marie, and, as Mrs. Wharncliffe had long since left the room, Ethel and I had a chat likewise. What the young baronet was making of Marie I could not discover, but I saw that he was extremely puzzled. Moreover, he was evidently interested, for he unconsciously edged his chair nearer to her more than once.
'If you like riding, Miss Huayna,' I heard him say, 'I shall be awfully pleased if you will let me take you and Miss Wharncliffe out some day.'
'I have never been on a horse,' said she, 'but I have seen people riding, and I should like very much to learn.'
'Then you must certainly come out. My horses are positively dying for want of something to do—eating their heads off, as the ostlers say. This is glorious weather too. We could get a delightful spin along the lanes and on the downs. I'll coach you for the hunting-field, if you like. That would be capital.'
Before he rose to go he said to Ethel:
'I have been asking Miss Huayna if she would care to ride. If you and she would name a day, I should be delighted to meet you and take you out.'
'Riding? Why, riding is one of my pet fancies; I should like it immensely. It's very good of you to offer. Only Marie would want a mount; I have my bay mare.'
'Would to-morrow do?' he asked.
'Hardly to-morrow, I think, but we will let you know.'
'Very well, make it as soon as possible. Mr. Grayhurst, I will trust you to keep Miss Wharncliffe in mind of her promise. We might have a jolly riding party,' he ended, with a gush of boyish enthusiasm.
'Remember, I shall expect to hear from you. It is a promise,' were his last words as he disappeared through the door.
Mr. Wharncliffe was an easy-going man who left his family to go their own way, and even suffered himself to be taken along with them. In all external matters he was very much apt to depend upon Ethel for help and guidance. She it was who arranged his books for him, prepared his papers, and set everything in order in his very disorderly and comfortable room. If she were away from home, or if, for any other reason, she omitted the requisite attentions, he glided along in his own unmethodical manner, unconscious of the gathering confusion around him. With this knowledge thrust upon him by constant experience, he resigned himself to her authority, and rarely ventured upon more than a mild remonstrance against her severest dictates.
It was therefore somewhat my fault that the vicar's study did not receive due attention that night. For Ethel and I had fallen into an animated conversation, of which the future occupied a large share. Before our eyes the illimitable prospects and hopes which all lovers have were taking body and form. Many of the hopes, alas! prove mere will-o'-the-wisps, which give light for a time and then go out, and leave the poor fools who followed them tantalised and embittered by their misadventure. But while these flickering joys last they are pleasant—too pleasant; and though it is not a philosophical course to pursue, yet it is very tempting to throw off the burden of thought, and the calculation of undesirable contingencies more or less remote, and revel for a brief space in unalloyed gladness. The epoch in one's existence at which this is possible soon passes; yet it is a very precious capacity, and in some minds endures even after the failure of great ideals. After years of trouble and anxiety, after effort and struggle and loss and bitterness, it may yet be within the power of the elastic mind to abstract itself from its dark environment and gross realities, and turn inwards to the contemplation of pleasant if idle dreams and fancies, whereby to beguile life, and wherein perchance to lose memory. As we talked, it may be that to a disinterested deity who overheard our plots and plans, and listened to our hopes and fears, there was something of tragic irony in the situation. We were not deities, however, nor even philosophers, so we thought and talked like human beings—that is, like fools.
When we rose to go upstairs, everyone had already retired. There was a silence in the hall, as we made our way up through the darkness of the staircase by aid of a dim candle. We parted at the head of the stairs—well, in the usual way, and ere fifteen minutes had elapsed I was in the distant land of sleep.
I was in my lecture-room in London expatiating to a large class on Infusoria, and in the class was one obstinate fellow (I knew him well), Carruthers by name, who often irritated me with silly objections and stupid questions. He was thick-headed, so perhaps he was not to blame. On this occasion he would not be convinced that infusoria had originated within the polar zone, which, for some reason or other, I was maintaining. He insisted that it was too cold for the production of life there, and that infusoria needed warmth and nourishment. This was a new view to me, and to meet the objection I suggested somewhat indignantly that it would be quite possible to have a patent heating stove in the polar regions to produce the necessary temperature. And then there came a further difficulty about thermometers, and I got angry, and was proceeding to discuss the matter warmly when Marahuna got up and suggested that we ought to try a practical experiment. This was agreed to, and by an easy transition the lecture-room passed into a Turkish bath; and the attendant brought me the infusoria in a wine-glass. I drank it and asked for more. And then it got very hot, and I got very hot, and Carruthers poked his head in, and asked me if I would give in. I gasped and said 'No,' whereupon he disappeared with a fiendish chuckle, and it became hotter and hotter. I squirmed uneasily in my chair. I turned round and round again until I became giddy and lost my balance, and fell off with a crash—and I awoke.
Good heavens! the air was hot, and the floor beneath me was hot also. There was a low sound of rustling, crackling fire. Gradually it dawned upon my sleepy brain that there was something wrong. There was fire somewhere. I wondered that no one had been aroused. Even as I collected my wits sufficiently to think this (for I was very drowsy), a volume of smoke came whirling up from underneath my door, and filled the room with a thin cloud. Not a moment must be lost. I hastily thrust on a few things and opened the door.
A blinding gust of smoke dashed in and half suffocated me. Shutting the door behind me, I ran along the corridor and brushed up against the vicar, who had just been aroused. He had a candle in his hand, but I could barely see him, for the masses of smoke which lined the passages.
'Good God!' I said, 'we must not lose a moment, Mr. Wharncliffe. Everyone must be aroused or we shall be suffocated.'
A few minutes sufficed to accomplish this, for our shouts and the smoke, and the roaring of the flames, which was growing louder each moment, had already succeeded in waking most of the inmates of the house. Leaving a frightened group upon the landing, I hurried down to the ground floor, but was met at every turn by volumes of smoke which blinded me and drove me back. In the direction in which it seemed to me the study lay I saw the gleam of dancing flame which was leaping through the doorway with fierce energy, and bade fair soon to sweep along the hall. There was ho possibility of escape this way. I rushed upstairs again with the information. We must utilise the windows.
The servants were absolutely incapable of making any exertions. They simply lay in a huddled mass at the top of the stairs, helpless, and too frightened even to scream. Only an occasional wail from one of them gave evidence that there was yet life in the white bundles. Ethel tried hard to induce them to arouse themselves, and at least to go and throw on some more clothing, for they were arrayed as they had been in bed. But, as all her efforts were ineffectual, she was actually obliged to go herself and bring some blankets and gowns wherewith partially to wrap the shivering creatures.
Luckily the drop from the first floor was not very great. The smoke was lying in thick curtains along the corridors, and settling in heavy gloom over the ceiling, but we managed to get all the household, including Ethel, over whom I kept especial watch, into the vicar's dressing-room, at the extreme southern end of the house, and farthest away from what was evidently the heart of the fire. Hardy threw himself out of the window, and, though he came down pretty heavily, he managed to scramble off at once, and soon returned with a ladder, which he and the coachman placed against the wall. Thus one by one we all descended. It was bitterly cold. The snow lay six inches deep upon the ground, and a hard frost was in progress beneath a cloudless sky. No one was too warmly clad, and, as the keen, frost-laden wind struck home, nothing was heard but sighs and shiverings. We had escaped in no way too soon, for, as the last person descended the ladder, a tongue of flame flashed out through the window, as if the fire were loth to be cheated of its victims. From the roof, too, the flames were now leaping, and a crash announced that one of the chimneys had fallen in. It was a sad sight, as a fire always is—man's good handiwork, over which so many hours of toil and so much skill have been expended, all gone for ever.
As we stood contemplating in a helpless way the progress of the flames, and wondering if by any possible means we might save anything from the wreck, I felt someone touch me on the arm, and heard Ethel's frightened voice in my ears:
'Where is Marie, Percy?'
'What, is she not with you?' I asked with a swift glance round the shivering figures, some of whom Mr. Wharncliffe was at that moment persuading to seek refuge in a neighbour's house. She was not visible.
'Good heavens!' I cried, 'she was on the top of the stairs with you. What became of her? She must have gone off to the next house.'
'No,' said Ethel with a scared face. 'I do not remember her coming down the ladder. I was too frightened to think collectedly at the time.'
I shuddered. If this were so, the girl must have been left behind, and it was too late to save her. I dashed up the ladder, which still lay against the house, and remounted to the level of the window, out of which black smoke mingled with flame was now pouring. But I could, of course, see nothing. I called her name loudly, but it would have been impossible for her to hear, even if she were conscious. A terrible fear seized me now, that she had fallen into that awful syncope or trance-like condition. Yes, that was too evidently the secret of her absence. Flame had produced the same effect as I had seen produced at Rio; and, if so, she would perish with never an effort after life and safety. I could not stay to think, but, resolved at all hazards to make some desperate endeavour to rescue her, I threw myself through the thick smoke.
'Back! Back!' shouted Hardy from below. 'Great mercy, Grayhurst, you will be lost. It is too late.'
I caught a glimpse of Ethel's terror-stricken face and imploring hands lifted towards me, but I merely waved a farewell and plunged through the choking darkness. The floor was still sound in the room, but I advanced cautiously with a handkerchief tied tightly across my mouth and nostrils. The flame, I saw, was creeping round the walls, and lapping the roof overhead. The door was also in flames, but I passed through the doorway successfully, and issued out into the corridors. Here the heat was intense, and the fire darting across the narrow passage seared my face and arms till I was forced to quicken my pace. My eyes, too, grew very painful from the smoke. A sudden crash, as my foot sank through the flooring, told me that the fire had done its work below, and warned me to be careful of my steps. Through the hole I had made the flames shot up anew and curled round my legs in an unpleasant manner. Beyond what had been Ethel's bedroom, which lay at the end of the narrow passage and where it opened out upon the spacious landing, the flooring was a mass of flames, between the gaps of which I could look down upon the ground floor and view the charred remains of the staircase.
Marahuna was not visible here. Could she have gone back to her room? That seemed feasible, unless she had fallen through the gaps in the flooring. Her bedroom lay beyond the patch of fire, which I must cross, therefore, to seek her. Clenching my teeth, and steadying myself for a second, I walked boldly into the blaze, stepping carefully upon the burning rafters. My ankles were scorched and blistered, and the fire was so intense that I could not bear it; so, nerving myself, I took a jump and trusted to Providence that I might alight on firm ground. One of my feet struck against a half-burnt rafter, and the other fell into the gap, so that I was thrown forward upon my face, and luckily fell across a couple of steps, whereby the passage mounted here to a greater elevation. Gripping the steps with both hands, for fortunately they were still intact, I raised myself, and struggled through the smoke beyond. Groping my way along the passage, I at last reached a door, and felt for the handle. This, as I judged, must be Marahuna's room. I opened it swiftly, and closed it behind me in time to escape a rush of flame from the other side.
Never shall I forget the sight that met my horrified gaze. In the centre of the large room stood Marahuna. Three of the four walls were in flames, which the night wind was driving in towards the spot she occupied. The floor was a rolling lambent tide of flame, which formed a circle round about her, and girded her in an impassable ring. As I gazed in stupefied terror, the flames shot up towards the ceiling, and seemed to unite with the flaring roof, from which burning fragments were falling in showers upon the head and shoulders of the doomed girl.
She stood motionless, with that look I knew so well upon her half-averted face. Her golden hair fell loose about her face, and the swaying of her crimson robe, as the flames rushed round her, gave her the appearance of being part of the fire itself. But presently she reached her hand towards the fiery tongues, which leapt at her in breathless fury, and a change passed over her countenance. Beneath the gleam of the fire I could see a smile—a terrible smile of exultation—sweep over her features, and pass, as it seemed, into her very soul. At the same time she lifted her voice above the crackling frenzy of the blazing walls—at first a soft low sound, slowly breaking into the rapturous music of delight. It was not melody, it was not sound, it was thought which seemed to come beating through the flames towards me. A sensuous languor overpowered me, which grew as I gazed more intently upon her face, now turned full upon me. I can give the reader no idea, not the dimmest picture, of what the music of her voice was like. As I say, it was not music: it was thought, and the effect it had upon me was comparable with nothing else I have ever experienced. It was not emotion I felt; it was something above and beyond emotion, and yet something immeasurably below it, for it was unnatural, and without any human joy in it. There was a want of soul within it.* Meanwhile the sensuous languor increased upon me, and I felt faint and giddy. The heat and smoke were overpowering, and an odour of burning garments added to the sickening sensations I was experiencing. My eyes, I felt, were slowly closing, and a stupor was stealing over me. But with an effort I shook it off, and screamed aloud:
(* On thinking it over subsequently, I came to the conclusion that it was perhaps some such feeling as the purely aesthetic senses might originate under extraordinary conditions. But it was beyond analysis.)
A curious look of doubt mingled in her face at the sound of my voice, and her own grew softer, and presently died away. I repeated my cry, and, propping myself against a part of the wall behind me, I was able to stand against the giddiness I experienced. Then, stretching my arms towards her, I shrieked out her name once more.
Again the look of doubt and wonder stole over her face, and she raised her arms across her eyes. I saw a shiver run along her frame, and when she lifted her face again her aspect had totally altered. The appearance of wonder was still in her look, but she had not that terrible unhuman aspect. She was now but the Marahuna I knew—calm, stately, beautiful as ever.
But I was getting too faint to notice all these details, and the thought buzzed through me that I should not be able to accomplish my object and save her, but that we should die together like bees in a smoking hive. Strangely, even at this moment, the possibility of her escaping unharmed did not occur to me. That she should possess some mysterious properties which would secure her from the devouring fire would have been a very natural conclusion after what I had seen. But in moments of emergency the brain only takes in one thought at a time, and the idea which was indelibly stamped upon mine was that I had come to rescue her and that I should fail. Swiftly she bounded through the living ring, which was now fast encroaching upon her domain, and in a second she was by my side. Her cool clear eyes danced with a curious light, and her face seemed to glow with the fire of delight; but she was merely calm and steadfast in her actions.
'Come,' she said, 'why are you here? You must go back.'
'Marie!' I gasped, 'I came to look for you. You must come, or you will be lost. See, the house is falling.'
Even as I spoke there was a sullen crash, and the wall on our left tottered over, and fell through the flooring upon the basement, carrying with it a large fragment of the blazing roof.
'Come,' I said, 'there is not a moment to lose; we shall be lost.'
But I could not raise myself, for my legs were stiff and sore, and it was as if someone were tying a bandage tightly round my throat. In a moment she grasped the situation, and bending over me, she raised me to my feet.
'It is you must come,' she said with a smile, so strangely incongruous. 'Come, and I will help you away. This is not for you. You may not dally with fire—not yet, not yet. Come back to your world; come back.'
There was something fearfully sweet about that smile in spite of its terrible inappropriateness. I stepped through the doorway and down the now well-nigh ruined passage.
'It is hopeless to try that way,' I said hoarsely, pointing to the way I had come. 'In another moment it will be hopeless any way. But—I have it. The stables!'
At the north-eastern corner of the house lay the stables, separated from it only by a narrow passage, sufficient to admit three people abreast. This had always been rather an eyesore to Mrs. Wharncliffe, who frequently spoke of having them removed to a greater distance. But now I was thankful that they had been left as they were. We might manage to jump across to the roof of the stables, if we could only reach the corner of the house. In that direction we therefore made our way, but falling rafters and blazing floors informed us that the end had almost come. As we clambered along by the aid of an already gutted wall, and leapt over the gaps in the charred floor, a beam came lumbering down and struck me across the shoulder. I gave a cry of pain, and should have fallen had not Marahuna clutched me in a grip of iron. I was dizzy with the smoke and pain, and I feared I could go no further, but I braced myself up and drove on again. At this moment there was only a distance of a dozen yards between us and the edge of the house which abutted on the stables, but I was almost fainting from fatigue and pain. Then I felt Marahuna put an arm round my shoulder, and push me on. I was too overcome to collect my thoughts, but only dully recognised a wish to lie down and rest. In another second she had thrown both her arms around me for a final effort, and, leaning over me, whispered smilingly:
'It will be well. Keep quiet, and you shall escape back into your world. I will save you.'
Her steadfast, untroubled eyes gazed down with ineffable might and beauty into mine. Her golden hair came tumbling about my face, and swept me, pain-ridden as I was, into Elysium. I seemed to myself to gather some of the mysterious intoxication from her tresses, which floated over eyes and lips like the cool breath of morning. Never had she seemed so fair, so sweet, so gracious, so lovable as then. Supporting me with her arm, for I lay almost like a dead weight upon her, she passed rapidly across the intervening space, and paused at the window which overlooked the stables.
'We must jump,' she said quietly.
It was not a great jump, nor hampered by surrounding difficulties, for the fire had wrought its work here, and departed in search of fresh food for its ravages. I pulled myself well together, and jumped, and just managed to scramble across the gable of the coachhouse. In another moment Marahuna was with me, and we were safe. Her crimson dress was burnt and singed from top to bottom. One sleeve was entirely burnt away; but, marvel of marvels! there was never a scar or scratch upon her arm or face. She was as unmoved, and calm, as smiling, and as glorious as ever.
THE great question for days, as it undoubtedly would remain for weeks, was as to the origin of the fire which had wrought such mischief. Mrs. Wharncliffe attributed it to the omission of the maids to see that the kitchen fire was safe. As it had been cold, they had no doubt been burning a big fire, and had not taken the proper precautions when retiring for the night. Jane was not very careful, and it was very easy for loose paper lying about to take fire; and then there was an end of everything. The vicar was inclined, on the other hand, to think that James had spilt some kerosene in the storeroom. He remembered having sent him to replenish the carriage lamps that very morning, and it was quite likely that some of the liquid had been upset upon the floor; then a box of matches or spark from a pipe, which he knew James was in the habit of smoking, and the mischief was done. Spontaneous combustion even was within the limits of credibility in the case of such volatile oils as kerosene and petroleum.
I had my doubts, however, about both these explanations, for I had noticed the body of flame was greatest towards the vicar's study, and it seemed a natural inference to make, that the fire had originated somewhere there. But the vicar was quite sure that he had put out his fire and turned down his lamp, so that my hypothesis was utterly impossible. However, as Jane was equally certain that she had attended to the stove, and James was positive that he had not spilt the kerosene, I adhered to my own conviction, giving one denial as much weight as another. As I have said, Ethel did not go into her father's room that evening for reasons I have perhaps sufficiently indicated, and Mr. Wharncliffe's waste-paper basket might have been in dangerous proximity to the fire for aught he would be likely to know or care. Therefore, in a way, it might be said that I was responsible for the conflagration. I cannot say, however, that the thought gave me much uneasiness. Perhaps I am too much of a necessitarian, who is always first cousin to a fatalist, to take up the burden of a responsibility which conduces to no good. Perhaps, too, the obvious remoteness of my causality influenced me. If I am talking to a man in the street, and a carriage dashes over him, I am not therefore responsible for his accident. I am one of the innumerable conditions of his accident, I may even be a large and important condition, but I am not the cause. I form portion of the causal atmosphere which encircles the affair.
Whatever was the cause of the fire, the effect was to render us all houseless and homeless. We were dispersed into various localities. Hardy and I were put up at a farmhouse, and the Wharncliffe family were received into the Hall. It was rather a dreary ending to our Christmas, but we had to make the best of it. Poor Mrs. Wharncliffe felt the loss most. Her husband, whatever he felt, did not appear much troubled. He was a very easy-going man, and trusted a good deal to the general tendency of things to come right; moreover, he was a man of ample means, and the loss was not to him very great.
As soon as we had done all we could, Hardy and I returned to London. He was very anxious to find a ship, and was accordingly savage with the new regulations, under which he might have to wait a couple of years before he received an appointment.
'I shall wait a couple of months longer,' said he, 'and then, if I seem no nearer getting a post, I suppose I shall have to go through a course at the arsenals to fill up the time.'
Fitzroy was in town now. He had retired from service in the navy, and had bought a practice in one of the southern suburbs. As we had not seen him for some time, we were very glad to meet again. As a matter of fact, neither Hardy, he, nor I had much in common. Hardy was severe and uncompromisingly rigid; Fitzroy was vivacious and heedless; I was reflective and easy-going. Yet circumstances make friends of the most diverse types, and the fact that we had gone through so much together would, even if there were no other grounds, for our friendship, be sufficient to make us feel kindly towards each other.
I heard constantly from Ethel during this time. The great piece of news was an offer which Sir Reginald had made.
'Do you remember the manor house?' wrote Ethel. Sir Reginald wants to make it the vicarage. He says it has not been occupied for ever so long, and is a regular white elephant to him; that he will be thankful if papa will take it off his hands, and prevent it from being eaten by worms and moths. Papa wouldn't hear of it, but Sir Reginald was determined, and it has ended in a compromise. It is to remain the vicarage until a new one is built and, as Sir Reginald said to me, "He hoped I would not make my father too enterprising." It is extremely kind of him. The only thing about it is that it will take some time to put in order.'
I thought it was only fair that in the present plight Mrs. Wharncliffe should not be hampered with Marie, and I wrote, saying I was making arrangements for her transplantation; but Ethel would not hear of it, nor would her mother. They had got too much attached to Marie to part, and there was no difficulty whatever about keeping her. I was relieved, therefore, of the trouble of further arrangements.
In the bustle and confusion which followed the fire, I had scarcely had time to think much about Marahuna and her strange and yet accountable behaviour. But on looking back calmly and thoughtfully upon the incidents of the night, I found much room for speculation and reflection. I was not now surprised at her behaviour under the flames, for I had grown to consider it a natural outcome of her being, and in accordance with the evident conditions of her life. But what did strike me was the sudden way in which she had been startled back into consciousness, or at least to world-consciousness. Can it be, I asked myself, an evidence of the weakening of those conditions? I noted that her statuesque state had lasted much longer, and was far harder to disturb when I first had experience of it in Rio, than on this latest occasion. It was possible that she was breaking away from a tendency in her nature. She recovered herself more readily. But again, I considered that the trance, or whatever it was, was hardly similar on the two occasions. It was more an ecstasy than a syncope in the vicarage. Perhaps they were two separate phenomena, arising each from a separate cause; or perhaps this was a higher and more fully developed condition, originated in special circumstances, and subject to different laws. I remembered her eyes as she had swung across to me through the flames, and the memory sent an electric shiver through me, whether of pain or delight I could hardly say. What had struck me hitherto in Marahuna's character, had been an absence of emotional elements, which are usually so largely developed in a young girl. She did not seem to be highly endowed with imagination or with a capacity for realising the delicate sentiments of human nature. Yet I now felt my theory somewhat staggered, because it appeared as if this latest phase of hers was in the fullest degree the expression of a very complicated and awful emotion. If she possessed feeling to such an immense extent, she could surely not lack the minor and subtler feelings.
I had, of course, said nothing about the scene I had witnessed. It was sufficient to state (what was perfectly true) that I had found Marie in her room, and that we had managed to extricate ourselves from the flames, during which process I had received an injury; and that had it not been for her attention and presence of mind, I should not have escaped to tell the tale. I think Ethel's opinion of Marie rose enormously after this. Like all women, she felt an admiration and an attraction for one who had accomplished so brave a deed, which she could not have done herself. There is a vast amount of generosity in women, though it is expended frequently in the wrong quarters, and Ethel had even more than her share. It is true that she was prompted to a remark by the slightest touch of jealousy that anyone should have saved my life except herself.
'You must remember, Percy, that, after all, you went to save her. It was not your fault that the tables were turned.'
Hardy, to whom I imparted the secret, looked rather grave, but shrugged his shoulders as though he were saying 'I would believe anything of such a creature.'
Hardy throughout treated Marahuna as he might have done the merest acquaintance. His behaviour, if not his words, gave me the impression that he was anxious to pose as an entire stranger to her history; that he wished to wash his hands of any responsibility connected with her. This attitude arose from his innate dread of being implicated in feminine affairs at all. His objection to being anything more than an outside acquaintance with women was very marked, and somewhat ludicrous. No man had a greater respect, even reverence for them, in the abstract, but at the same time no man had a more evident distrust of them. It was not that this distrust arose from any definite conviction of their instability or cunning. On the contrary, he was absurdly blind to what are known as feminine wiles. A filmy veil of mystery and unintelligibility invested all women in his eyes, and with his lack of comprehension sprang up the vague fear which attaches itself to the unknown. This natural disposition was not conquered by any scientific or philosophic interest in woman as a problem. If he had thought of analysing her it would have been impracticable; but he never did think of it. If ever the veil lifted it would never be through his efforts, but owing to the dissolving effect of time. He was interested in his work, however humdrum it might be, and gave himself little room for outside reflection. The outcome was a practical disposition and the tenacity of a bulldog in purpose. He had no enterprise, and, indeed, little capacity for soaring beyond the sphere of his own duties.
Fitzroy was much more satisfactory. He was always willing to talk, and had an opinion on the most recondite and abstruse points which could occur in conversation. These opinions, given with the air of one who has waded laboriously to them, were in reality the veriest 'casuals' of his hospitable mind. Five minutes before, they had no being, and five minutes afterwards their author had forgotten their existence. Yet they stimulated conversation and offered that necessary front to argument which is essential to the theorist who has his own ideas to expound. It is better to invent an opinion in such a case than to have none at all.
Soon I heard news of a surprising character from Ethel. They were coming to London. The manor house would take so long to put into thorough repair, that Mrs. Wharncliffe had decided to send the two girls up to town for a change, until the alterations were over. Mr. Wharncliffe had a sister living at Kensington, and they were to stay with her.
Ethel wrote in high spirits at the prospect.
'It will be much nicer for the two of us, as the last time I was at Aunt Agatha's there was no one companionable. If it were not disrespectful, I should say that "old fogies" predominated there. Moreover, there is a great deal to be done in showing Marie the sights of London. That is an essential part of her education.'
Mrs. Leicester, the vicar's sister, received them in due course. My term was in full swing, and although I was therefore very busy, I met them at Waterloo, and found time to make several calls during the first week.
At first they began to see the sights on their own account, and, to judge from their high spirits, were very successful in their outings. But presently my work became slacker, and I was able sometimes to act as cicerone. The slightest tendency to regret Marahuna's presence on these excursions soon died away, as my interest in her revived. Yet it was necessary to have someone to help me now and then, and with this view I solicited the aid of Hardy. I took him to call on Mrs. Leicester, with whom he became rather a favourite.
In those days we did a great deal. On more than one occasion we visited the British Museum, and contemplated the art treasures of past ages, there secured in possession for the British public forever. We visited the Tower, the Bank of England, and, in a word, all the sights of the great city.
In regard to the two cathedrals I noticed a curious thing: St. Paul's appeared to strike Marie's fancy much more than Westminster Abbey. The dome and the vast pillars pleased her, and excited her curiosity to know how they could possibly have been built so many years ago, when engineering ought to have been in its infancy. The Abbey did not especially interest her. She enjoyed studying the tombs and monuments, and endeavouring to recognise the names from her knowledge of history and literature, but it was mere idle curiosity. This struck me as being curious though not surprising, and I made a note of it.
Ethel was very anxious to see over some large hotel, and so, one day, I took them to the Wellington, and showed them all the luxuries and conveniences of that modern palace. Both girls took a childish delight in going up in the lift to the highest storey. At the top we found some alterations were in progress; another storey was being added, and there was a general appearance of confusion and disorder.
In our wanderings round the top corridor we presently came upon a little dark staircase, which led up to an opening in the roof. Marahuna inquired what was beyond.
'The open sky, I suppose,' said Hardy, who was with us on this occasion.
I crept up the ladder, and pushed up the trap-door.
'I should like to go out and see what there is to be seen, if I may,' suggested Marie, with a look of curiosity in her eyes.
'Come on, then,' said I. 'Will you come too, Ethel?'
'No, thank you. I have no ambition to be more elevated than I am. I do not trust my nerves. Do be careful of Marie, and also of yourself.'
We passed through the trap-door, which shut with a bang, leaving Hardy and Ethel below. Around us was a great deal of scaffolding; and the leads were strewn with, mortar, bricks, and planks. The workmen had retired for the day, and there was no one about.
'What a fine view this is!' I remarked; 'it is worth coming to see, is it not?'
'Yes, it's a grand view,' she answered, 'though I am afraid I do not feel anything about it.'
'Nor do I especially. What made you say it was grand?'
'I thought that was how Ethel would have described it.'
'That's very candid of you. You are at least frank in your insincerities.'
'Why insincerities? Do you never say what you do not think, or rather what you do not understand?'
'Well, I am afraid there are few of us but must plead guilty to that charge. No, I was only joking. But you have a wonderfully quick perception, if you do not feel this to be grand, to have realised that Ethel would.'
'Oh, that is easy enough. It is not difficult to identify similar groups of phenomena, as you would say.'
'Not easy by any means for most people.'
A pause ensued, and I went on:
'Don't you really admire the view from here? It is one of the best in London, but not on that account very excellent, it is true.'
'There is not enough colour in it, nor are the forms and outlines quite symmetrical enough. I should like to run my hands over them and touch the contour. I cannot say I care much for it.'
'You don't like extended views then?' I concluded.
'No, not unless they have the features I have mentioned.'
'Unless they have sufficiently pronounced aesthetic characteristics, you mean. You have the true artistic faculty for colour and form; it is very fine, but very unhuman. It is too rarefied and abstract a capacity. I should like you to dilute it with a little sentiment.'
'Sentiment, sentiment, always sentiment. I am always brought face to face with this spectral idea which eludes my grasp, nevertheless, like a veritable ghost. You must help me to catch it some of these days.'
She walked closer to the edge of the leads and looked over.
'Be careful, Marie,' I cried, 'do be careful.'
'I wonder how they intend to build on this storey? What very ingenious methods mankind has!'
She sprang upon the scaffolding, and by the aid of a ladder mounted upon a shaky platform above my head.
'For goodness' sake, Marie, be very careful,' I cried. Then, as she did not seem to hear me, I followed up the ladder and stood beside her. But she moved quickly away, as if seized by a sudden fancy, and advanced towards the edge of the platform.
Two or three boards lay between the platform and a bare scaffolding pole, and jutted out some twelve feet beyond the latter. Marahuna sprang towards these.
'Where are you going?' I cried. 'For mercy's sake do not venture there. It is quite shaky enough here, and those boards are not fastened.'
She only laughed and waved her hand.
'Marie, you shall not go,' I said with determination, catching at her hand. 'It would be madness.'
I pulled her towards me, and she stopped.
'Why?' she asked with her laughing eyes. 'I shall come to no harm. Why should not I go?'
'Because I am afraid you will risk your life.'
'Afraid? Ah, there—that is Ethel's word. I do not understand you. I must go. I want to look down into the street and see what the people look like. I am not—afraid, whatever that may be.'
'But I am afraid—I am afraid for you. I couldn't dream of allowing you to run such a risk. You shall not. I wish I had never allowed you to come up here.'
'You are afraid for me?' she repeated slowly; 'afraid for me? How? You afraid for me?'
She murmured the words with a puzzled air, and then her old smile of exultation flashed out again.
'It is one of your phrases I cannot understand. You shall explain it afterwards.'
She snatched her hand from my grasp, and passed swiftly forward ere I could recover myself sufficiently to prevent her. In another second she was out beyond the platform, and walking towards the end of the planks.
I almost gasped for breath. It was horrible.
'For God's sake, Marahuna—' I shrieked; but I could not finish my sentence: a sickly sensation came over me, and a perspiration started out on my forehead.
She had walked along to the very edge of the outermost planks, and was standing above vacancy. The street was a hundred and fifty feet below her. If she stumbled, she would fall into the void and be dashed to pieces on the ground. I ground my teeth and gasped for breath. The loose board began to rock and sway. Merciful God! In another second it would be over.
She stood quite motionless, superbly serene, with one hand shading her eyes, looking away into the glare of the setting sun. A cold wind blew across from the east, and cut out her outline sharply through her skirt. I saw her turn round suddenly and sway; the plank creaked and groaned. I shut my eyes, and put my hands over my ears.
The next moment I was touched upon the shoulder, and looking up I saw her calm and radiant.
'What is the matter?' she asked curiously.
I could not speak, but, as I rose to my feet, I shuddered throughout my body. On our road down I recovered somewhat.
'Marie,' I said angrily, 'you almost frightened me to death. How dared you? Heaven keep me from a charge such as you again!'
'What? You did not wish me to go out on the planks? Why? I told you I must go. Why do you speak like this? What is it?'
'Simply that you might have been dashed to pieces, and you gave me a terrible fright, and I am very angry,' I said tersely.
'Yes, I have seen Ethel so. I remember—that is anger; but why I do not know. And your fright too—I know what that is, for you have spoken of it before. But I—well, perhaps I shall learn.'
'You might have been dashed to pieces,' I repeated, for I did not know what to say to this.
'Why? The balance of the plank was stable. I knew it would bear me. It could not have upset.'
'You might have fallen over.'
'No. How could I if the plank was stable? There was no danger.'
'You might have turned giddy or lost your nerve. How you did not I cannot imagine.'
'I do not understand,' she answered smoothly.
We had reached the trap-door, and I half turned as if to speak, but changed my mind. I lifted the door, and we descended and rejoined Ethel and Hardy.
MRS. LEICESTER was the widow of a wealthy barrister, who, in addition to the considerable income of his profession, had, by the demise of an uncle, unexpectedly inherited a large property in stocks and land. She had no children, and so was somewhat at a loss to get rid of her superfluous riches. Eventually, however, she fell into the track leading to that refuge of moneyed old maids and widows—philanthropy. While her husband lived, she was merely the mild, good-natured mistress of her own household, giving appropriate dinners, and generally shaping herself—an easy matter for one of her disposition—according to her husband's end and view of life. Her capacities were not original, but she had a certain amount of latent energy which had not been absorbed, as with her brother, in studious concentration. In a planet which revolves only upon its own axis the energy is not so obvious: the field of its influence lies inwards, and is therefore hidden. The same amount of vital power, if distributed, would induce an objective action in space apparent to the casual onlooker. Thus it was with Mrs. Leicester. When Richard Leicester died her objective action came to an abrupt termination. But she could not retreat into herself, even had she wished; so there was nothing left but to search for another sphere. Circumstances, as well as the natural softness of her heart, found this for her. She became a philanthropist.
There was in her new mode of life, moreover, something which appealed to a larger area of her nature than her former condition had done. Strangely enough at this late season, when most people begin to lose sight of their ambitions, she first caught a glimpse of hers. It was not very great, though very good. It pleased her to stand at the head of a philanthropic movement, which she might organise from her own drawing-room or boudoir. She was not a great schemer, nor had she very large or comprehensive ideas; for she was not in any sense a thinker, nor yet was she much of a performer; but she stood halfway between the two, and formed the connecting links. She organised from the formulae of others, and herein she found her destiny. What others wrote and said she read and heard, and her wealth gave her the means of making practical experiments. Practical did not mean personal. Provided she might direct and supervise, others might work; and after all direction and organisation are among the most important essentials of any movement. There are plenty of theorists, there are plenty of 'hands;' but what is so often missing is the necessary links between them.
Part of her work was concerned with the promotion of culture among the lowest classes, and the region of her activity in this department lay largely in the east end of London. The slums and alleys of Shoreditch and Whitechapel were the sphere of her operations. Here concerts were given, clubs were formed, evening and recreation classes instituted, anything and everything were done whereby to influence the wretched denizens for good; and some amount of success was registered in the mental and moral improvement of rough girls and rougher lads. But the most important point achieved by these, as by all such movements, is one, to my mind, far above mere numerical success. The true solution of the East End difficulty, the true solution of the problem of poverty and crime, must be esoteric and radical. You cannot hope to abolish any prevailing condition by simply trimming the branches; you must strike at the roots and prevent growth and regrowth. So the advantage accruing from voluntary efforts is only temporary and partial. The greatest result is that people's attention is thus drawn to, and their sympathies interested in, the social problem. That is the first step to legislation, and after all legislation must be our real weapon in the fight. It is very frequently said that you cannot make people good by Act of Parliament. Possibly not; but the phrase pretends to a wider significance than it deserves. Like most commonplaces, it has accumulated meaning by lapse of time; has become the nucleus of the large deposits of prejudice, conservatism, and indolence. Legislation shapes the surrounding conditions, which in their turn shape our lives and destinies. In that way legislation can effect alterations in the social fabric. It cannot prevent incidental and casual crime, because it cannot at a stroke alter human nature; but it can prevent the crime which is the outcome of hereditary ignorance and poverty.
It was shortly after the incident narrated in the last chapter that Mrs. Leicester was to give a concert in the East End. It was one of a series of entertainments which were being given under her auspices. In this, however, she was more intimately interested, as she had it under her immediate supervision. Ethel, who had a strong sweet soprano voice, was to take part in the performance, and I had induced Fitzroy, who was a very passable reciter, to assist, and so we were going to make quite a family excursion to Lindon Hall, the scene of operations. Hardy, like myself, was neither singer nor reciter.
Ethel and I drove down together in a cab; the others went in Mrs. Leicester's brougham. As our vehicle passed towards Lindon Street we came upon a crowd of rough-looking men and bedraggled women listening to the declamations of a fiery and coatless orator, who was mounted upon a barrel at a street corner. The cabman had some difficulty in picking his way through the mob. Once or twice we were quite blocked, and he began to lose his temper and, as cabmen will, to use his tongue. This directed the rabble's attention towards us. We were now nearly abreast of the orator, who paused and gesticulated in our direction.
'There,' I heard him say, 'there, fellow citizens, you see aristocrats such as him in their gay feathers. It's such as them that's the ruin of us, that's trampling us down and jumping upon us. But a day will come when the red flag—'
Here, however, our cabman managed to goad his horse into a quicker pace, and I caught no more. But a sound of groans and yells swept after the cab as it rattled down the street.
A few minutes more brought us to Lindon Hall. The place, large as it was, was crammed with an audience which was evidently of the lowest orders. Many of the faces were distinctly Jewish, and not a few were foreign; but they all behaved very well, and were quite uproarious in their applause, which they bestowed with generous hand—and foot.
Shortly after we began the entertainment a fresh stream of men began to pour in through the doors. But as it was there was scarcely standing room, so the doorkeepers were obliged to refuse admittance, and the doors were closed in the face of a numerous and expectant crowd. For the socialist or anarchist meeting had apparently broken up, and most of the audience, drifting off in pursuit of some excitement, had been drawn to the Hall. Already excited by the eloquence of the demagogue, and ready for any mischief that came to hand, their exclusion served to work them up to the requisite pitch. They yelled and groaned, and even went so far as to bump against the door. Prevented from further audacity by a few policeman and the doorkeeper, they gradually dispersed, and the noises died away.
When the programme was over there was a complete lull. The performers drove away one by one in the various carriages provided for them; but for some reason or other Mrs. Leicester's brougham had not appeared.
'Are you sure you told Whitaker 10.30, Ethel?' she inquired anxiously.
'Quite sure, Auntie, though it is possible he may have misunderstood me, for Whitaker is really so careless. He is for ever blundering in this way.'
'It is annoying,' said her aunt smoothly, 'but it's no use worrying about it. He must be here directly. I am sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Evelyn,' she continued, turning to the lady whom she had asked to go back with her.
'Here is our cab, Percy,' said Ethel. 'Aunt Agatha, you and Miss Evelyn had better go back in the cab. We will wait for the brougham.'
Mrs. Leicester made some demur, but finally it was so arranged, and the cab drove off with the two ladies, leaving the five of us to wait for the brougham.
A quarter of an hour passed, and no Whitaker was in sight. Presently, therefore, as it was a beautiful moonlight night, we decided to walk on and pick up a couple of cabs, leaving word for the coachman that we had gone on. The sight of the cabs seemed to have aroused the slumbering passions of the socialists, for there was a fresh hubbub in the streets, and knots of rough men clustered round the lamp-posts and obstructed the narrow paths.
'I am afraid it was ill-advised to venture out,' said Hardy. 'We shall have to run the gauntlet of evil remarks, I expect.'
It was so. At first the groups confined themselves to coarse language and jeering speeches, but as we took no notice they were incited to a bolder demonstration of their antipathy. In turning a corner we stumbled into the middle of an extemporised meeting, which was being addressed by two or three noisy fellows. When we were perceived there ensued a series of howls and groans, and one or two came up and roughly jostled against Fitzroy. At this moment a big half-tipsy man with a white hat lurched across our path, and, scowling at me, leered into Ethel's face. My blood boiled, and my arm went out instinctively, and the fellow shot down like a log.
In an instant there was a tremendous uproar. Shouts and oaths were mingled with the shrill screams of women.
'Down with the aristocrats! Curse them! Knock them over!'
There seemed, however, to be a dissentient element in the mob, for I heard voices saying—
'Let 'em alone! They were at the concert!'
Then shouts from the other party drowned the opposition.
'Why the didn't they let us in?'
'Look out for squalls!' sung out Fitzroy. As he spoke someone knocked against me. There was a sudden rush, Ethel was torn from my grasp, and I was forced back by the press, and found myself struggling alone. Using my arms pretty freely, I strove to make my way through to the others, round whom a noisy mob was surging. I managed to dig my way through the crush at the cost of some smart knocks in the ribs; once a stick battered in my hat.
'Percy, where are you?' I heard Ethel cry. Then there was a slight scream, and I saw her lifted in Hardy's strong arms, and heard his stern voice ringing out—
'Back, you cowards! Would you touch a woman? Let anyone that is a man among you deal with me.'
His words seemed to appeal to the better instincts of the crowd.
'Let the woman alone,' said someone; 'don't hurt them. Let the toff have it.'
Fitzroy and Hardy were both with Ethel, but I could not see Marahuna. Presently, however, to my left I caught sight of a woman's hat in the moonlight, and, imagining that she had been separated from the others, I made towards her, pushing through the jostling rabble, who, however, did not strive to prevent my progress.
In a few moments I was with her. She was not at all discomposed.
'Have they hurt you?' I asked breathlessly, as I put her arm in mine.
'Hurt me? Oh dear, no. One fellow pulled my arm, and I had to push him off. But do tell me—what a funny scene! What do they want? This is capital. I have often wanted to see something of this sort. Tell me why they are acting like this?'
'The demagogue's eloquence has been too much for them. Their natural passions don't require much excitement to break out in these days. Possibly drink, too, has something to do with it. They conceive they have a right to be angry with us.'
'Angry? Yes, I see. They are angry, are they, like you were on the roof? But you did not—well, I suppose there are different kinds of anger. This is one.' She looked coolly round upon the noisy crowed whose excitement was now taking a more general form. 'I shall learn gradually, I suppose. How very strange! This is a delightful experience!'
'We must make haste, Marie,' I said, 'and overtake the others while there is a calm prevailing.'
'Don't let us hurry,' she answered gaily.
At this juncture two or three lumbering lads came up roisterously, and one lurched against her. I drew her closer towards me, and, putting out my hand, pushed him off. One of his companions, undismayed, attempted to repeat the offence, but with a quick movement she loosened herself from my hold, and, throwing out her arm, swept him back as one brushes away a fly.
'They fall so easily,' she said in an amused tone. The street was now thinning rapidly; the mobs were dispersing before the efforts of a posse of policemen, and we passed easily down the long alleys and soon found ourselves in one of the main thoroughfares. We could see no signs of the others, but as there was now no danger of a disturbance I felt no concern. Ethel was perfectly safe in Hardy's charge, for he was staunch and steadfast as man could be. I hailed a hansom, and we drove at quick speed to Kensington, and some half-hour afterwards the rest of the party arrived.
Ethel, as I think I have hinted, had artistic tastes, and was anxious, like all people with tastes, to educate others into harmony with herself. Many of our wanderings had, therefore, been concerned with pictures and picture-galleries. We had 'done' the National Gallery several times, several picture museums, and many of the Bond Street galleries, not to speak of the South Kensington Museum.
Of all the varieties of sightseeing, to my mind, picture-galleries are the most trying, especially if you have no particular knowledge of art. Now I do not pretend to any acquaintance whatsoever with painting; I can hardly tell one colour from another, and I can certainly not give them their right names. So that for me to have to go over a gallery is a not unmixed pleasure. The mass of colours, the variety of figures and subjects, the countless diversity of themes, the distinctions of costume and style—all suffice to fill my brain with a hopeless jumble of ideas, and wholly obliterate definite thought. My condition, therefore, after having 'done' a gallery, provided I do my duty faithfully, is one of utter blankness. My ideas are confused, my head is in a whirl, and my mind has assumed the state of a dissolving view slide on which a hundred pictures are struggling at once for recognition and identity; and they struggle in vain. The rule I therefore have found it wise to adopt is not to look at the pictures—at most to fix my attention upon one at a time, and that only in a very dilettante and careless fashion. For if I once become interested, as I, as a matter of fact, tend to become, it is hopeless to resist the fascination. I am drawn into the vortex; the pictures become all in all to me, and I am reduced to my usual condition. However, by staring about me at the people, by talking a great deal, and by discussing the accessories of art, the artists, and other congenial subjects, I manage to keep my mind more or less at ease, and get through with no more serious result than a small headache.
I had been adopting this plan pretty successfully during our numerous visits to galleries, but now came the last and fatal straw; the Academy had opened and—we must go. Whether the Academy was better, as some maintained, or worse, as others, that year I do not pretend to say. When authorities differ it ill becomes a rank outsider to offer an opinion; but of this much I am assured, that the pictures were more numerous, and the rooms hotter and closer, that there was a greater crush and—well, and that it was more tiring than on any other year I can remember.
Jointless talk with an occasional staccato movement is never very profitable, and it is all you get room for in a picture-gallery. Where everyone overhears your remarks, your remarks, as a rule, are not worth over-hearing. Propriety and conventionality are paramount, for few people are independent enough to have tastes of their own, fewer still have courage to proclaim them. Within the privileged ring of R.A.'s, A.R.A.'s, and the select untitled aristocracy of the brush your admiration may range at will, fettered merely by the individual divergencies you allow yourself. Outside and beyond tread more carefully, lest you prove yourself what you are—a humbug. If you are in company with an 'authority,' you are safe enough. You may bask chameleon-like upon him, and create thus a wider circle for your wings.
'What do you think of that, Percy?' said Ethel, stopping, notebook in hand, before a large historical picture.
'Too crowded. I like this better,' I replied, pointing to a small unobtrusive landscape. 'It reminds me pleasantly of the country. I can sniff the fragrance of the flowers and hear the wind sighing among the reeds.'
'How poetical you have become all at once! But, like most things you do or say, it is out of place. If I showed you that picture in the country you would pooh-pooh it, and sigh for the busy town and Rotten Row.'
'Well, life is made up of contrasts. It is contrast that accentuates the delight of existence. Think how much sweeter to lie in the warm sunshine in some grassy field and listen to the birds singing in the woods. What a contrast to the present scene—crowded rooms, stifling air, civilisation in strait waistcoats!'
'All very pretty, no doubt, but indicative of a discontented mind. Why can you not be content with what you have? Feed your artistic nature now, and to-morrow you may have the chance of gratifying your own special fancy. It will loose nothing for being held over.'
'Yes, it will. The transition will, in all likelihood, be gradual, and the change will lose its flavour and piquancy. Contrasts to be pleasant must be abrupt. There must not be opportunity for educating the mind to expect them, otherwise you destroy the reaction. The pleasure of a Turkish bath lies in the change from hot to cold.'
'That's too deep for me,' responded she. 'Just look at that exquisite face. Whatever is it?'
It was an exquisite face and strangely attractive, and yet
'Percy,' said Ethel, turning half round, 'I do not quite like it, do you? There is something in the eyes that makes me feel uncomfortable, a kind of creepy something.' Her voice sank, and she whispered in my ear, 'Something about it gives me a sort of feeling I have had once or twice with Marie, something unearthly.'
'What is the picture, Grayhurst?' asked Hardy. 'You have not looked it up yet.'
I turned up the number.
'No. 709. Elsie Venner, by J. Holder, R.A.' After a pause I said, 'The artist has done his work marvellously well. I almost wonder that we did not identify it. There can be no mistake about it now; that is Elsie Venner to the life. How on earth he has managed to catch and fix that expression is beyond my power of fancy. It is a masterpiece of imagination, whatever it is technically.
'Who was Elsie Venner?' inquired Hardy. 'I am afraid I am fearfully ignorant, Miss Wharncliffe.'
'Have you never read Oliver Wendell Holmes' "medicated novel"? Then buy it and read it, my dear fellow, at once. Shortly, it is the story of a girl who is bitten by a snake in her childhood, and whose character is thereby modified and her life warped.'
'Look at her eyes, Mr. Hardy,' said Ethel, who had been intently gazing at the picture. 'Don't you see the trail of the snake in them, so exquisitely sad as they are? That is their human aspect, however, and subtly blended with it is the fierce unhumanness of the serpent. Do you know, Percy, I think the skill of the artist is shown most remarkably in the sequence of your impressions? Your first idea, as you gaze from a distance, is, "What a beautiful face!" Then, as you look a little closer, you catch the snake-like look and the cold hard scaliness, I might almost say, of the mind; and you are repelled. Then, again, if you examine still more closely, and strive to analyse the expression, you realise that deeper down, and below that snaky splendour, lies the soul of a woman, sad, inexpressibly sad, which looks out from these its windows with immutable despair, for it is numbed and hopeless, and that is worse than death.'
'Yes; what does strike me is its unearthliness,' said Hardy. 'Miss Wharncliffe, I think I can see your idea. What do you say, Miss Huayna?'
Marahuna had been steadily regarding the picture in calm silence. As we spoke she turned from one to the other with a searching look, as if she were anxious to catch our meaning. When Hardy addressed her, she again fixed her eyes upon the face.
'It is a queer idea, the one you spoke of, that the snake nature and human nature should be united in one, and grow together. I suppose it is impossible. I do not know anything of the snake nature, but, as you say, I can see there is something in the face beyond what I see in human faces. But I thought that it might perhaps be a new phase I had not yet seen. Is it not? You know there is so much in the world that perplexes me that maybe this is only some expression I am not familiar with.'
'No; you are right, Marie. This is beyond what you have seen, and is unhuman,' I hastened to answer.
'I should not have expected it. Where do you place a limit to the possibilities of human expression? Why is this excluded? I have seen quite as strange looks upon you all.'
'I think there are possibly some people of a serpentine character in the world,' I answered carelessly. 'Experience will teach you what is unhuman and what is human; experience, you know, is lord of all nowadays. Human nature does come face to face with a terminus ad quem; it has a limited horizon, and Elsie Venner is supposed to lie outside that horizon.'
There was a short silence as we stood looking still at the picture. Then I turned to her again and saw that she was suffering from some strong excitement. A deep line of thought quivered over her brow, and her eyes grew bright and restless. Words murmured on her lips softly and almost convulsively.
'What is it that rises into my mind? What I said before—it is a dream, some thought, some memory surely of—other life? other life!' She looked through me with moving eyes, 'Beyond the horizon of human life. What were the words you said? I have come from somewhere—somewhere, I know. What can this dream be I almost grasp? Elsie Venner lies beyond it. And I? Yes, that is it; I too—beyond the horizon of life.'
Her voice had grown louder.
'Hush, Marie!' I whispered, for there was a crowd of people about us, some of whom were staring curiously at her. Ethel and Hardy had moved on to the next picture.
'Hush!' I repeated, in vague discomfort. 'Look at this, Marie; it is one of the President's classical pictures.'
She moved away with me, and I breathed more freely.
It was a hot, stuffy afternoon, and I felt strangely uneasy and restless; a condition which I attributed to the thunder in the air. Marahuna's odd behaviour stimulated further my uneasiness, and I chafed under the necessity of proceeding with the inspection. But Ethel was so thoroughly enjoying the visit that I had not the heart to suggest that we should retire; so we sauntered leisurely from room to room, catalogues in hand, Hardy obediently admiring what was pointed out for his admiration, and disapproving of what was demonstrated to be bad.
As we were passing through the long room someone tapped me on the arm.
'How do you do, Grayhurst?' said a strong voice, and looking round I saw Sir Reginald Edenhale. He had come to 'do' the Academy; had 'done' the Grosvenor and 'another place' in Piccadilly, and was winding up with the Academy. Might he go round with us, as he was awfully in want of some connoisseur to put him up to the good points of the pictures?
'Will you help me in my dilemma, Miss Huayna?' he asked pleadingly. 'The problem is this: Given a brain, naturally unreceptive, thrown into a state of absolute confusion by the experiences of the past few hours; given also an unknown quantity of pictures—to stamp upon the former some orderly and definite impression of the latter. Do you think the case is hopeless—must I give up?'
Marahuna laughed. 'I don't see your point; your memory is quite good enough, you are not stupid. The unknown quantity may become known in time, if you are prepared to give time and trouble. Now it would be more reasonable if I asked you to help me.'
'I would if I could, but you ask impossibilities. I know nothing of art.'
Can you not tell me, then, what that means?' asked she, pointing to a picture low on the line.
'No. Stop one moment.' He turned up his catalogue. 'Oh, yes. Now, this is the one thing I do know, and I remember it because in my foolish days I read Tennyson. Don't you know his "Idylls of the King"?'
'That is Guinevere in the nunnery, evidently by a young and ambitious artist, who has doubtless called down the wrath of the critics. Probably the execution is crude; that I can't say. But to content a critic you must stick to portraits and landscapes all your life.'
'I don't know the story,' said Marie. 'What is it? I am not yet well read in poetry.'
'I am glad to hear you say so, Miss Huayna. Neither am I. But this I happen to remember. Guinevere was not exactly the wife she ought to have been to Arthur; she deceived him in several respects. Perhaps she wasn't to blame; at least most young ladies think so, for a husband who is a saint is beyond toleration. However, Arthur discovered her misdeeds, and she was forced to take refuge in a nunnery. Here he found her, and after having lectured her departed to be killed by his numerous enemies. She dies in the nunnery, I believe. It is a melancholy story, and the moral of it is, as far as I can make out, that it is a mistake to be too good.'
'What is Guinevere doing then?'
'Oh, I forgot. Arthur goes off, as I say, to be killed, and Guinevere looks out after him and repents of her misdeeds. That is what she is doing now, I imagine. Don't you see repentance and sorrow and so forth stealing across her face? I'll wager Miss Wharncliffe does. Most imaginative people do.'
'I'm sorry I don't see anything of the kind. I see something, but I don't know whether it is what you say.'
'Oh, it's sure to be. I haven't seen it myself, but it's sure to be there. What you see is it; not a doubt of it.'
Sir Reginald was evidently in a somewhat flippant mood, and I felt a little annoyed. When at last Ethel grew tired and we turned to go, he said—
'Thank goodness! my duty is over for the year. I've crowded it all into one day, too.'
'You don't mean to say this is all you're going to see of the Academy?' cried Ethel in horrified tones.
'Every bit! I know all about it now. Miss Huayna has coached me so well. You see I am an arrant Philistine.'
'No, you're only a barbarian,' said Ethel.
AS Sir Reginald had requested permission to call, I was not surprised to hear a few days later that he had already paid a lengthy visit to Mrs. Leicester. Nor was this the only visit he made, for he was invited to dinner on another occasion, and in a very short time, thanks to Mrs. Leicester's good nature, was in a fair way towards an intimacy with the household. At this time I was unfortunately very hard pressed, for I was obliged now and then to undertake a good deal of examination work, and this was one of my busy seasons. Therefore I was kept away from Clinton Gardens more than I could have wished for the next fortnight. Several times during this period I learnt from Ethel of Sir Reginald's visits. The reason to me was obvious, in the light of his evident admiration of Marahuna. As time went on his interest in her became to me more and more prominent, and as my suspicions grew into certainty I found myself much less satisfied than I had expected. Indeed, the position caused me a certain amount of uneasiness. Six months before I should have welcomed the dénouement, which seemed to me now almost inevitable, as likely to settle once and for all the difficulty of Marahuna's future. But now I could not shut my eyes to very formidable considerations, which had grown round the issue. In the first place, I was by no means sure that Marie cared or would care for him. In the second place, it was even more important to forecast the eventual result of a marriage like the one under contemplation. Was a girl of this character a suitable wife for any English gentleman? Was, again, any English gentleman a suitable husband for a girl of such a character? for the question must be regarded from either point of view. It did not appear to me that such a marriage could be fraught with anything but doubt and difficulty for both parties, even if the man were in the secret of her life and prepared to meet emergencies; while for an unreflective, easy-going nature like Edenhale's the danger appeared even greater. Would it not be better and more philosophical to suspend judgment, and allow the full character of the girl to be developed into the light of day, before maturing plans for a determination of her career?
Sir Reginald's growing attraction I therefore viewed with secret uneasiness, an uneasiness all the greater because it was impossible to interfere. The only comforting circumstance was the fact that I could discover no corresponding attachment on the part of Marie. She certainly liked to hear him talk and to question him, but so she did anyone and everyone, especially those who could give her information on the more mundane and every-day topics with which she was unfamiliar; for curiosity was one of her strongest traits. But in her deep sea-blue eyes not a tremor stole to indicate a surge of feeling in her heart. She was motionless in his presence as in mine. To be sure, such a strange creature might have unknown and unearthly methods of evidencing incipient affection, but I took leave to doubt it until I had seen some outward and visible signs of its inward presence.
A few weeks after our meeting with Sir Reginald I was astonished to receive an invitation to a ball from Lady Evelyn Calder. I did not know Lady Evelyn except by reputation, but as she was a distant cousin of Edenhale's I guessed that the invitation came through him. My first impulse was to decline, for I am not much given to balls; but on further reflection I decided to go. I found too—what I expected—that Mrs. Leicester, with Ethel and Marie, was to be there.
Everyone knows what a London ball-room is. What with the blazing lights, the din of music, the chatter, and a frothy sea of muslin, I was at first unable to distinguish anyone. Presently, however, I descried Ethel whirling round in the arms of a stalwart and somewhat rubicund youth, who, not content with the physical exercise essential to waltzing, was using up his surplus energy in laughing and talking with aplomb.
I do waltz, but I must confess to regarding that favourite dance with somewhat the same feelings as did Lord Byron. Nevertheless, not many minutes after my entrance I found myself threading the mazes on a mirror-like floor, with some bright chatterer pouring into my ears an endless flood of vivacious small-talk. Serious thought is out of place at such moments; we must be content to be frivolous and gay. For in a ball-room may, perhaps, be found the distinctly highest and most elaborate phase of animal life—of life, that is, apart from its intellectual and moral side. The swift motion drives the blood faster through the body, and the animal functions are stirred into greater activity. This reacts upon the mind, that projection or precipitation of the body; and the mind again reacts through the will upon the physical forces like a self-exciting dynamo, until the saturation point of animal spirits and animal enjoyment is reached. There is little or no intellectual effort, little or no conscious expenditure of nerve power in the brain. All the vital energy leaps through the body, and that fraction of it which feeds the mind is merely a collateral and incidental waste, without which we should probably be quite as happy if not rather happier. It is possible for the veriest misanthrope and hypochondriac to forget himself in the ball-room if he would but believe it. The serenity of life is disturbed by the exercise of mental functions; if we suppress these for a time, for a time we are happy.
Later I found Ethel resting in a quiet corner near Mrs. Leicester.
'Percy,' said she springing up, 'I have been looking for you. I want to introduce you to Miss Sidmore.'
'I don't want to be introduced to Miss Sidmore,' I replied, 'I've come to dance with you.'
'Oh, but you must. Miss Sidmore is Sir Reginald's cousin, and here she is unappropriated at present. Come along.'
'No, I flatly refuse. I must have a dance or a talk with you first, and then I don't mind being introduced.'
'Noble self-sacrifice! You want a moment of purgatory before an hour of paradise? Well, you shall have your will, for I warn you I shall prove a purgatory to-night, and Miss Sidmore is ethereal enough to stand for paradise.'
'I choose the purgatory,' I answered meekly, 'for one has heard that the old gentleman is not so black as he's painted, and perhaps—'
'Percy, be quiet. I won't have you making profane jokes. Besides, it has not even wit to recommend it. It's very poor.'
'A poor thing, but my own,' I quoted.
'Not at all your own. It's as stale as ditchwater and as dull. You have used it so often that you have got to imagine it is your own by prescription.'
'It's no use fighting with you,' I retorted; 'you're like all women.'
'Taking refuge under a generality as usual, Sir Philosopher. In what way, pray?'
'I'm not going to argue. On this occasion, at least, I have the advantage. I am like the Old Testament giant rejoicing in my strength.'
'It was the war-horse, stupid, not the giant.'
'Well, the war-horse, then—and I'm going to employ my strength in ending this discussion you would fain prolong. It is a mercy we men have still physical superiority left to us.'
'Then you acknowledge—'
'I won't listen. Come,' and we swept off into the gay whirling throng.
But after it was over Ethel made me face the inevitable introduction, and ere long I was surprising myself by my eighth dance, this time with Miss Sidmore.
My partner was a fair, delicate girl, with large grey eyes and auburn hair, and a decidedly interesting expression. She was clearly a great reader, for she talked of art and poetry in familiar terms—unwonted topics in a ballroom—but with a shyness and diffidence that were somehow quite attractive. She was soon tired of dancing, and so we wandered through the cooler rooms, and presently came upon a door opening into a conservatory. It closed behind us softly as we entered the twilight of that cool atmosphere.
Through the dim light I could see some people at the further end, but it was not until we had advanced quite close that I recognised in them Sir Reginald and Marahuna. Our soft footsteps had evidently not been heard by them. Marie was seated in a couch thrown back in a negligent attitude, her figure almost concealed by the ferns which grew here luxuriantly. Sir Reginald was seated by her, and bending over her in a way which rendered his meaning unmistakable. Had it came at last? Vexed and indignant, somewhat unreasonably, perhaps it may seem to the reader, I was moving away when I felt a quick shiver run through my companion's arm. Instinctively I turned to her, and under the pale moonlight, which streamed in through the glass above, I saw her face white and drawn as with a sudden pain.
'Are you unwell, Miss Sidmore?' I whispered.
'No—yes, that is—we will not go any further,' she said quickly. 'We had better not disturb the—my cousin. Please take me away.'
We hurried off silently down the conservatory unheard and unseen by the two, I musing upon the cause of my partner's agitation, and irritated at what I had seen. Miss Sidmore looked very fragile, and her face retained its pallor during the evening. Her large eyes acquired, too, an additional pathos which haunted me.
Stress of work again kept me away from Mrs. Leicester's for a week or more after the ball, but at last I took advantage of a lull in the tempest of papers and classes to run down to Clinton Gardens. It was Saturday, and I had determined, if possible, to get away from the hot and dusty town and enjoy a breath of fresh country air. With that purpose in my head I made my visit an early one.
When I arrived between 11 and 12 in the morning I found a coach waiting in the road, while inside all was bustle and confusion. Sir Reginald had come to take them for a drive, and good-natured Mrs. Leicester had consented to go in order that the two should enjoy a novel experience. Of course I also was pressed into the service. Sir Reginald no doubt welcomed me as a useful 'emergency man,' whose presence would enable him to pay more undivided attentions to Marie. The notion of a drive hit my mood, so I was glad enough to go.
In less than half-an-hour we were bowling along through the fresh, bright air towards Richmond. Sir Reginald was a good driver, and the four bays pranced along at a good spanking rate, as if determined to do their best. It is the sense of power which is at the bottom of our enjoyment of many things. To dash along the roads perched aloft in the air at the rate of ten or twelve miles an hour is pleasing because ordinary mortals must be content with a much lower altitude and a much slower pace. If any rider or driver will confess honestly to himself, he will find that half his pleasure comes from giving the go-by to his fellows. To me, for that very reason, there is something almost sublime in the motion of a train. The majestic sweep of an express through a crowded station is one of the most thrilling sensations I can experience. The reader may laugh, but I see no pettiness in the confession. Poetry has not fled before the advance of science; the soul has not gone out of life with the introduction of steam engines and boilers. On the contrary, to those who care to throw off their conservative bias, there is a much more emphatic element of romance in the newer phases and achievements of civilisation. Power is the most potent of all romantic ingredients. A mighty steamer ploughing its way against the force of wind and wave, the whirling of a train through space, the thunderous beating of gigantic wheels, vast, merciless, and seemingly eternal in their action, such as you may see in almost any large piece of machinery—surely in all these there is the very soul of poetry.
Through Barnes, through Mortlake we flew, swift as the wind. Marahuna was flushed with the gladness that comes of high spirits and physical health; and as we whirled along her glorious face and superb form were so conspicuous that people turned to stare in bewilderment at the flashing by of such a thing of beauty. Round the slow gradients of Richmond Hill we drove, on which folks say the lass never lived, till at last we drew up with a grand flourish before the time-honoured Star and Garter. Here we were to rest and lunch.
At Richmond the Thames is still itself, and not the dreary, muddy, vast canal it becomes a little further down. From Isleworth the transformation begins, and you pass slowly into the uninteresting, utilitarian, unsightly, chimneyed present. But at Richmond you are yet in the past, or at least upon its borders; and you have only to stray a mile or so to Teddington and Kingston, and you indisputably reach back into the picturesque old-world, slow-going past. Not that the river itself always wears this aspect. For here on occasion you may see the Cockney at every twist and bend—the Cockney in his holiday mood, when he is most objectionable, though least harmful. But, taken at its best, you may go a long way ere you fall across so sweet and health-giving a scene as the valley of the Thames beyond Teddington. And does not a worn-out, smoke-dried Londoner feel this on a sultry June afternoon? He looks down from Richmond Hill across the silent, softly flowing river, girt in with the trees that are the glory of our English landscape, and fringed with grass as green as ever grew in Eden. Perchance a few lazy cattle are munching their mouthfuls in restful attitudes; the cool wind is fanning his face and rippling through his hair. Are there not elements here to form a picture calculated to harmonise the mind to the serenity of Nature?
We strolled through the park—so little known and appreciated by the Londoner—fed the fallow deer, and wandered under the oaks and elms; then, throwing ourselves down upon the slopes above Petersham, drank in the varied significance of things.
Ethel and Marie had been to the House of Commons on the previous evening, and, though skied to the unmerciful extent to which ladies are subject, had nevertheless managed to see, hear, and become interested in what was going on.
'Of course you've often been to the House, Sir Reginald?' said Ethel, after describing her experiences.
'Indeed I have not,' he answered; 'I believe I went once. An uncle of mine took me in, but I've never been since. It's dreadfully dull, isn't it?'
'Not at all; I was very much interested. But then, you know, I'm a woman, and we women do not get blasées.'
'I'm not blasé, Miss Wharncliffe, I assure you.'
'No, I know you're not,' laughed Ethel; 'but you think you are.'
'You mustn't mind Ethel,' interrupted Mrs. Leicester, as the young man laughed somewhat uneasily. 'She is a dreadful tease, and never can keep her mischievous tongue quiet. But she doesn't mean it.'
'Oh, I'm quite accustomed to Miss Wharncliffe's sarcasm, Mrs. Leicester. She always makes me her butt.'
'It is always on your invitation then,' retorted Ethel.
'How do you mean?'
'Well, if you leave your door open so often the burglars are sure to get into your house.'
'And you stand for the burglar?'
'By special request, and for this occasion only.'
'If I leave my doors open so often, you must play the burglar pretty frequently?'
Sir Reginald,' replied she scornfully, 'you have no generosity; that was too obvious. I gave you credit for a soul above such pettiness. Have you no shame?'
'No, I don't fancy I have any shame,' said the young man contentedly, rolling upon his back and clasping his hands behind his head.
'That you have found effrontery to say so is evidence of the truth of your statement. You have no shame, nor have you ambition.'
'Oh, yes, I have ambition.'
'Of what kind?'
'I don't know, but I'm sure I have ambition,' he answered lazily. 'Don't you think so, Miss Huayna?'
'Must I speak truthfully?' asked Marie with a smile.
'Yes, truthfully, of course. Truth above all things,' murmured he, with a side glance at her.
'I don't think you have any ambition.'
'Now that's too bad, Miss Huayna. I called you in to assist me, and you go over to my enemies at once.'
'Truth above all things, Sir Reginald. You have given us no evidence of your ambition. You live a life of ease and pleasure. Is that ambition? You aim at no large ends in life; you have nothing upon the horizon save pleasure, pleasure, whatever and wherever it is. This strange small and perpetual titillation—is not that right?—can never lie within the field of ambition. You own, however, a milder type of the disease, not the larger and grander ambition.'
'What do you mean, Miss Huayna?' said he, turning round and looking wonderingly into her face.
'Have I not used my phrases rightly? It is only that, then, that stops your understanding, for I know what I wish to say, but perhaps have not the means to say it. Much of your ways and thoughts bewilders me; but this I see with clear eyes, and down beneath your fluctuating sensations of pleasure I find no larger impetus than what I fancy you call the impulse of vanity.'
'You certainly speak plainly,' said he, with an annoyed laugh, throwing a pebble at his boot. 'If I had known how terribly severe you were going to be I should have thought twice before appealing to you.'
'Just like you men,' whispered Ethel to me. 'You make a great show of wishing the truth, but only because you fancy it is in your favour. When it proves otherwise you are as sulky as bears.'
'Who is talking generalities now?' I whispered back.
Mrs. Leicester, who was looking rather grave, broke in at this moment, 'Vanity of vanities! Who of us is without it, I should like to know? Marie, my dear, when you can acquit yourself of the foible it will be time to accuse others.'
'Acquit myself!' echoed Marie. 'I have no quarrel with Sir Reginald's vanity. All I complain of is that it does not go far enough. It should merge in ambition.'
'My vanity is a ne plus ultra, then,' said he, half amused and half irritated.
Marie, who probably did not understand this quotation, went on calmly, as if to herself, 'Your boundary lines are similar to mine in this respect. First vanity, the petty self-centring outcome of the senses; then pride, the larger and more intellectual, from which, ambition. And yet—and yet—is there not something more in this last, as I understand it? Ethel, for example, is proud as Lucifer—she has told me so—yet she lacks something in outward expression, at any rate, which occurs to me in my moments of pride, if pride it is. How much we are at the mercy of words! What do you think?' she added, abruptly turning to me, who had hitherto been a listener.
'I do not quite understand you,' I answered. 'Do you mean that you feel something which you do not notice in others who are proud?'
'Yes, that is it. Is it fancy, or is it really so?'
'Perhaps fancy,' I answered quietly. 'We often fancy that we are different from the rest of mortals.'
'And so you are different from the rest of mortals, Miss Huayna,' broke in Sir Reginald a little impetuously.
She turned upon him quickly with a gleaming smile, that one might have mistaken for one of gratified vanity, only that seemed too trivial a feeling to suspect her of. I judged it rather to betoken aroused curiosity. For little stirred a smile into her face, in which ever lurked a subtle gleam of something—a gleam readily deepening into the broad bright sunshine of triumphant laughter.
'What makes you say so?' she asked.
I saw his eyes quiver beneath her gaze, and almost unwittingly he moved towards her. Then he put up his hand across his eyes and stammered—
'I beg your pardon, Miss Huayna. What was it you said?'
'I wished to know why you should say I am different from ordinary mortals,' and into her face mingling with the sweet proud smile came another expression—what, I cannot say; but she turned her face and looked across the river with luminous eyes and waited.
Sir Reginald was audacious, with the audacity of confidence and worldly wisdom. He drew a little nearer and spoke with his eyes fastened upon her profile.
'Because,' said he deliberately, 'your actions are unlike those of ordinary people. You are altogether different.'
I moved uneasily, though restrained by a sort of fascination. Ethel beat my stick upon the ground with methodical emphasis, and Mrs. Leicester smiled in benign amusement at the open compliment.
There was silence for a brief space.
'You are quite different,' went on Edenhale. 'Not that I would care to see you like others. I would infinitely prefer you as you are rather than suit your actions and your ideas to the humdrum level of ordinary life.'
'You are complimentary to Marie at the expense of us ordinary people, Sir Reginald,' said Ethel, poking the stick through my hair. But the look in her eyes I could not quite fathom.
'At the expense of ordinary people, yes; but not at your expense, Miss Wharncliffe,' said he gallantly.
'It's too late now to patch up your rent. If you were honest you would confess that you never thought of us at all.'
'Truth above all,' he replied, 'I may have spoken inadvisedly, but I never thought untruly.'
'Very enigmatical,' remarked Ethel, giving the stick, which had become entangled in my hair, a twitch, and glancing slyly at Marie. The latter had hitherto seemed to take no notice of the conversation, and had not even heeded Sir Reginald's answer to her question.
'What have you to say, Marie?' I asked, for I was burning to know her thoughts.
She turned on me her face, and it wore that strange look of intensest thought blent with the proud defiance I have so often described. Only now there was something else present.
'It must be. He is right,' answered she in quiet tones, which seemed however to me to have a ring of triumph in them. 'So I have sometimes thought, and so—you know—'
In the cool shadows in which we were lying I felt myself grow hot, and a tell-tale blush mantled my forehead. Those large deep-seeing eyes were still fixed upon me, I was aware; but I dared not meet them. I was only conscious of an ecstatic thrill which ran through me, and seemed to bring me nearer into harmony with them and her. No doubt this will appear idle and overstrained writing to the reader, but I can only put into words, as best I may, the sensations I felt at the time, so strange, so inexplicable.
'Do you not think it is time we were moving,' I heard Mrs. Leicester break in. 'I do not wish to hurry anyone, much less your horses, Sir Reginald; but it really seems to me that if we are to reach Hampton Court, as you propose, it is time we were starting.'
'Quite right, Mrs. Leicester. You are consideration itself. How much longer I should have dawdled time away under these pleasant shadows I cannot say. Ladies, we are recalled to the stern necessities of life once more.'
'And high time, too,' suggested Ethel, 'since the conversation has degenerated into such personalities. I began to feel quite uncomfortable, lest I should be the next subject for philosophical analysis.'
'I wish you had given us the opportunity, Miss Wharncliffe.'
'Do you think I should prove an easy subject?' she asked. 'I warrant you not. No woman is analysable.'
'Come, I must protest,' said I, 'against such an upsetting—'
'Don't listen to Mr. Grayhurst. Intuition is superior to logic. No woman, I say again, is analysable, as certain, also, of your own poets have said—'
'Ethel!' said Mrs. Leicester reproachfully.
'I beg your pardon, Aunt Agatha. It is the result of evil companionship.'
'Thanks, Miss Wharncliffe.'
'No; I didn't in this case mean you, though the cap seems to have fitted. I referred to Mr. Grayhurst, whose pernicious example I have had more experience of.'
In the coach again, we rattled through Twickenham and Teddington towards Bushey Park. Marie appeared to have awakened out of a dream, and talked with a vivacity I had rarely seen. She had in reality infinitely more abandon than Ethel; but, strangely enough, she never seemed to lose her grandeur with it all, as human natures are apt to do. Diver-like she took a magnificent free plunge into happiness, over the surface of which her light laughter rippled through sunshine and shadow with a certain determination which contained an element of awefulness. But Sir Reginald did not see it thus. To him she was merely a laughing lighthearted girl, whose grander phases sometimes puzzled and astounded him, but about which he reasoned as little as a healthy young man of his type usually reasons about anything.
Ethel and Mrs. Leicester joined in the mirth. I alone was preoccupied and thoughtful, for Marahuna's words had opened a vein of thought I could not close again. It looked as if there had been some dawn of memory in her mind, some sudden effort of the imagination penetrating backwards into the past, and giving her a clear glimpse of her unhuman origin. How far she had become conscious remained to be seen. On one or two occasions I had noticed in her a gleam of suspicion, even of conviction, that she had come from beyond the borders of human life. It would not be too much to say that, at times, she had realised this. But now the development of this consciousness must have been completed. She had, perhaps, attained to the full conception of her origin. Like other developments, it was the growth of time and circumstance. Was it possible, I asked myself, that a new evolution in character and nature was being inaugurated under these new earthly conditions? The transference of an organism from one part of the world to another would make little difference to the growth and life-history of that organism; but if the conditions of life underwent a radical change, the change might effect a great difference, and a difference which would be swiftly cognisable. A new epoch had certainly dawned in the evolution of Marahuna's earthly history, but how far it would affect her character did not as yet appear. Time alone would show.
Through Bushey Park we drove till we reached Hampton Court. Here we spent some time in an inspection of the palace and the galleries; after which we once more mounted the coach, and set out in the cool of the evening for our homeward drive.
A FEW days later I got a note from Ethel, saying that they were expected back in Malthorpe at the end of the week. I had not been able to call since the excursion in the coach, so that I was unaware that their return was to be so soon. In the evening I got away, and took a cab to South Kensington.
'Going so soon?' were the first words I said to Ethel as I met her in the hall.
'Yes; don't you think it's time we were? Think how long we have been billeted upon Aunt Agatha, and tiring her to death.'
'My dear Ethel, what nonsense you talk!' laughed Mrs. Leicester. 'You have been infusing fresh life into me. You have prevented me from falling into a narcotic state of existence.'
'Well, I will say, Aunt Agatha, that we have driven away all the old fogies you are so fond of, or, perhaps I should say, who are so fond of you.'
'What impertinence, Ethel!' I replied, giving her a nip in secret.
''Tis catching, you see,' she retorted, returning the nip with interest.
'And what do you suppose I am to do when you go?' I asked, altering the locality of my hands.
'What you did before, I presume, sir,' she replied saucily. 'You have not died of a broken heart on other occasions, and therefore there is no reason why you should on this.'
'Yes, there is, you illogical creature.'
'What reason, pray?'
'I have grown accustomed to your presence, which I had not the opportunity of doing before, and—and—I think—yes, I think I have grown just a little fonder of you in spite of your sauciness.'
I had altered the locality of my face too by this time. There was an enforced silence for a moment or so, and when speech became possible she replied:
'In spite of my sauciness, indeed. How strangely inappropriate your words are for a man of exactness such as you boast yourself to be. For sauciness read necessary severity, and be thankful you have someone sufficiently interested in you to read you a lesson now and then.'
'Ethel, Ethel, if you do this in the green tree, what will you do in the dry?' The latter part of this wise exclamation was spoilt by having to be recited through Ethel's dainty fingers, which were placed over my mouth, and she ended by pulling my moustache.
'I have told you, Percy, that you must never quote Scripture, as you are so fond of doing, irrelevantly and irreverently.'
'And yet,' said I, 'this is the same person who was the other day—'
'Never mind, sir; when I make a mistake I own to it, which is more than can be said for you and all your sex.'
'Ethel,' I asked earnestly, 'has your sex any fault? For, if so, please let me know. I am an anxious enquirer, and it is my business to collect facts.'
'Yes, we have one fault,' she murmured dreamily.
'What is it?'
'The fault of loving over-much—not wisely, but too well. It is a fault, but, heigho! it cannot be cured.'
Whereat there was another space for reflection and philosophic meditation.
During the whole of my visit that afternoon I was conscious of a strangeness in Marahuna. I caught her eyes playing over my face in a curiously restless fashion, and at times a queer expression intensified upon her. In my own mind I connected this change with the words she had spoken to me at Richmond, and was not a little excited.
I left, promising to be at Paddington on Saturday to see them off, which promise I fulfilled in due course. The aggravating circumstance was that my work was now getting lighter, and I was really able to take more time for myself. That this should happen on the eve of their departure was extremely annoying. Had I been less philosophic I should have railed at Fate or Lady Fortune, which had kept me busy hitherto, and left me free after their visit had terminated. Fate is a convenient label for the realities which gird us in, and if these realities are not to our liking, it is Fate that receives the blame; for we are the children of circumstance, and in our peevish moments are wont to grumble at our mother.
'I wish I could come with you,' I said, poking in my head at the carriage window.
'I wish you could, Percy. We shall expect to see you in a fortnight, however—as soon as the term ends. You're not going anywhere else, are you?' There was a slight tone of entreaty in this.
'Well, I'm not sure. There's an invitation I have to go down to Yorkshire.'
'Indeed,' with a toss of the head. 'Yorkshire doubtless offers greater attractions than Hampshire. May I ask whose is the invitation?'
'Hardy wants me to pay him a visit. I must go some time this autumn.'
'Why not bring him down to Malthorpe? That would suit you equally well, would it not?'
'Better, if I really might.'
'Then I will give you permission,' she answered graciously.
The guard's whistle sounded at this moment.
'Good-bye, dearest,' I cried in regretful tones, for even a fortnight's parting was like tearing out a piece of my heart.
She said nothing, but her brown eyes looked out upon me with a dewy smile as the train gathering speed rolled out of the station. Yet the last thing I saw was, not her face, but the sea-blue eyes of Marie with her head turned towards me and that ineffable look of thought upon her lovely face.
Hardy, though at first he made some objections to my proposed change of plan, soon acquiesced and appeared perfectly satisfied.
'It seems as if I am always trespassing on Mrs. Wharncliffe's hospitality,' he remarked. But as he had only been down once before for a few days, I pointed out the absurdity of this view, and the matter ended.
The ensuing fortnight passed slowly enough. London had become hot and dusty. 'Everyone' was leaving or preparing to leave; the park was growing thin, and the thoughts of holiday-makers turned northwards and continentwards.
The change from such a bustling scene of movement and life to the quiet green country fields was pleasing enough, without the additional pleasure to be derived from the prospect of seeing Ethel again. She was waiting at the station with her father to welcome us. The Vicar and his family were quite settled now in their new vicarage, a larger and more convenient house than the old one.
Marahuna greeted me with a strange look, and I noticed that the peculiar expression had not yet worn off her face.
Next morning nothing better offered than a stroll across the fields towards Oakhurst. Ethel was going to visit a sick woman at the farther end of the parish, and we accompanied her.
'Have you done much visiting of this sort?' I asked Marahuna, for Hardy was ahead with Ethel.
'I go sometimes with Ethel.'
'She is a regular ministering angel, is Ethel. Do you care for that sort of thing?'
'No; it gives me no pleasure; does it you?'
'I'm sorry to say I have had no experience; but I should doubt whether it would give me any keen personal pleasure. Of course one would feel one was doing a beneficent action and so forth. But you, now—I should have thought it was different perhaps with you?'
'Well, women, you know, we fancy enjoy doing deeds of mercy and kindness. Is it only fancy?'
'Perhaps not. But then you see you must not judge me as you judge women.'
We had paused on a rise commanding a view of a little valley below. As she said this her glance swept across the landscape and finally settled on my face in calm triumph.
'What do you mean, Marahuna?' I asked earnestly. 'I'll tell you what, Percy. You three had better stay here. It is rather a pretty spot and overlooks a pleasant view. I will run down to the valley and do my errand and rejoin you in less than half an hour.'
This was Ethel.
'If you like,' I answered, 'that is, if we really cannot help you.'
'No, you would only be in the way. You had better wait.'
'I shall certainly not wait, Miss Wharncliffe,' said Hardy, 'unless you command me to. I'm not going to see you tramp down there alone.' Hardy was unusually bold.
'Do you really think you could alleviate the tramp? No, no, forgive me, Mr. Hardy, I did not mean that. I had that ready for Percy.'
'That is right. You see now, my dear fellow, what I have to bear.'
'At any rate you shall not come, sir. Mr. Hardy, I have changed my mind; I shall require an escort. Will you come?' And the flush wore off in Hardy's cheeks as he walked off with my lady, gay and vivacious.
'Shall we sit down?' I said, turning to Marahuna, who was watching them clamber over a stile. 'Let us get under the elm.' The sun was hot and the shadows were inviting.
'Now,' I continued, throwing myself beside her in the grass. 'Now you must tell me what you mean, Marahuna. There was something, too, you said at Richmond which I want you to explain. You remember?'
There was a brief pause while she looked at me.
'It is all the same thing,' she answered, the light dancing in her eyes. 'You merely want to know what I have discovered?' Her expression changed. 'I cannot tell you all, for much is hidden from me myself. But it has flashed upon me now that I am not what you have said. No, no! It is not I,' she went on, her clear voice ringing out, and a look of intense thought rising into her face. 'It is not I that should give an explanation; it is you that should give me one. For you know more than I of this—this—mystery. What, and whence am I? I know nothing. I am ignorant of all. I can see only dimly that I am without this mighty world of yours. I remember, I remember—what do I remember?'
She passed her hand across her eyes. 'Ah!' A glad smile rushed round her lips. She turned to me again, and the fire in her eyes was terrible. 'In those wild tempestuous regions I can see your ship, a mighty bulk on the face of the waters. I can see a heaving mass of flames bright as the sun. I can hear the strange noises as they smote then upon my ears—new sounds, strange sounds. And I can see, too—yes, yes I can see—your face against the dark-hulled ship; and I dash towards it swiftly—swiftly—swiftly.'
Her eyes were now ablaze with passionate delight. Thought vanished from her face, and in its stead grew a subtle softness which troubled me, and seemed to blend into the ecstatic triumph in an indescribable and wondrous manner. All I know is that I was thrilled to my innermost soul. I closed my eyes half-dazed, but I could not shut out the sound of her low musical voice, and when some irresistible force tore them open again the fascination of her gaze made me tremble as a child beneath some sudden fear. But the ecstasy died away by degrees, and left only the subtle tenderness clinging about her face, a tenderness which I had never seen in her before, and which was strange and awful.
'And now,' she continued in soft, dulcet tones, 'you will tell me all you know, for I have reached the limit of my knowledge. I can go no further. What and whence am I?'
As soon as I could recover from my dazzled condition I spoke in stumbling fashion:
'It is strange, your history. I can tell you little more than you yourself already know. What you remember is true. You did see the ship, and the flames, and the strange sights you spoke of.' With that I told her shortly of all the incidents in connection with her rescue. She listened intently, and when I finished by saying I had managed to pull her out of the water at the last moment, I noticed again a subtle softness grow across her features.
'Yes, it has come back to me slowly after these many months. I see the picture clearly enough now, and in the centre your face looms out in large relief against the black ship. But I know no more. Beyond I can see nothing, recollect nothing. No—it is a blank.'
The elm under which we were seated stood on a little grassy sward bordering a cornfield. But a few yards away the grass ran into a sea of yellow corn undulating in the morning breezes. Looking across this corn and over a low-lying ridge we could discern far off the dim blue outline of the distant sea, from which one might almost fancy that the soft morning air was blowing out of the mighty cradle of the wind.
Marahuna had risen from her recumbent attitude, and now moved, as with some sudden impulse, across the strip of grass towards the corn. Brushing through the outstanding fringe she plunged deep into the heart of the field, now in all the glory of late summer. She stopped in the centre of a patch of poppies which clung around her white dress in a ring of bright red. Then stooping low she reached out both hands, and gathering a cluster of flowers she decked her hair with them, for her hat had fallen and lay beside me on the grass. Again she gathered and heaped them round her bosom, and wound them in and out the fringes of her bodice. Then she tossed her head, and the waving golden hair came tumbling about her neck and shoulders, and through it the red poppies gleamed like blood; and lifting her arms towards me she laughed as the laughter of wavelets. The soft wind blew her hair across her face and obscured her vision, but she tossed it back again; and then her body swaying among the poppies and the swaying corn, she broke into soft low tremulous music.
I listened with my heart on fire, for the sounds wrought havoc in my soul, and I could not think. Now it swelled louder and clearer, till it seemed a paean of gladness and ecstasy, and my brain grew dizzy. I raised myself from my sitting posture, and stood staring, dazed and fascinated. Then, springing across the intervening space, I dashed into the corn and in a moment stood beside her. Still the soft sweet notes rang out, and the echoes of her voice reverberated in my very heart. She moved not her eyes from mine, but gazing ever with intent glad-hearted soul she lifted her arms towards me. And I—God knows what I should have done, but at that moment Hardy's voice broke in upon the spell.
'Hullo, Grayhurst! Don't you think you're rather destroying that corn?'
I turned swiftly round, and saw the speaker and Ethel standing in the pathway some twenty yards off.
'Is this a scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor"?' asked Ethel, 'or are you Bacchus and a Bacchante?'
Marahuna had started round on hearing the voices, and the light fading from her face left her calm and stately. She untwisted the poppies from her hair, and, scattering the dishevelled flowers upon her bosom, moved with a queenly grace towards the new comers.
It was an awkward situation, for I did not know how much had been seen by them, and in any case it must appear that we had been playing the mountebank.
'We were rehearsing a scene,' I explained confusedly. 'The fresh country air got into our heads, and hence our eccentric appearance.'
Marahuna shot a swift glance at me. 'It was my fault,' she said quietly. 'I would persist in plucking the flowers.'
'Do not take more than your share of the blame, Marie,' said Ethel, 'with a view to sparing Percy. He is probably responsible for the most of it. Not that there's any blame about it really. It amused us, only you certainly looked very foolish.'
I detected a slight ring of displeasure in her voice, which made me somewhat uncomfortable. Soon, however, I contrived that we should fall behind, and then went direct to my purpose.
'Why are you vexed, Ethel?'
'I'm not vexed,' she answered.
'Now, that's not true,' I replied. 'I can see you are vexed with me. Why is it?'
'Well really, Percy, I was vexed.'
'Was? That's right, not am.'
'It may be stupid of me, but I thought it was rather foolish of you to behave as you did. You must have encouraged Marie's wild fancies, and you know that you yourself say she must be disciplined and controlled.'
'My dear child, I was trying to control her.'
'It did not look like it. You looked more like a pair of devotees than anything else.'
'I acknowledge appearances were against us. But really I was doing my best to regulate her somewhat wayward action. However, I will be more careful in future, if you so desire, madame.'
'You silly fellow, I don't desire anything, except that she shall not play the madcap, or be encouraged to do so. No; what made me think more seriously of your offence, if you like to call it so, was the fact that Marie has not been quite herself lately.'
'How do you mean?'
'Well, she has appeared very strange at times. She breaks out into a paroxysm of happiness sometimes, during which she acts like a veritable madcap, tossing her hair about, and throwing herself into attitudes like one possessed. I have only noticed it quite lately, and I don't understand or like it. There is something uncanny in it.'
'It's only that she is full of animal spirits (you can see that at any time) and she is working them off now she has returned to the country. Marahuna is fond of the country, you know. Depend upon it, it is merely her superabundant vitality.'
'I suppose it is,' she replied musingly; 'but I don't think it ought to be encouraged.'
'Nor I, and so we must do our best to suppress it when it appears.' This I said feelingly, for I was much more affected than I allowed even to myself by the strange behaviour of Marahuna. She had evidently some weird power of fascination, some hypnotic influence, during these ecstasies of hers. I remembered my sensations when I had seen her in the burning vicarage, and the feelings inspired in me had been threefold stronger on the present occasion. It was dangerous to see too much of her in this aspect, for she might employ her hypnotic power, and goodness knows what would happen. I had seen sufficient to be afraid, and yet the fascination was so strong that, like a bird under the influence of a snake, I almost craved to experience it again. There was plainly a necessity for care, and I resolved to nip the manifestation in the bud if it should recur.
As we passed through the village street on our road to the old manor house, now the vicarage, a horseman came cantering up easily. A glance sufficed for recognition; it was Sir Reginald Edenhale.
'I had no idea you were coming down to the Hall,' said Ethel, when he had reined up.
'I've only just come down,' answered he, his eyes following Marahuna. 'I got tired of London; it became so awfully hot, and I thought I would take a fortnight's rest in the country before going north for the shooting.'
'This is a change,' replied Ethel. 'You're quite turning over a new leaf. Why, it's positively twice you have been at the Hall during the last six months. If you had only given us warning, we might have procured you a triumphal entry, with the village band playing "See, the conquering hero."'
'Perhaps "The girl I left behind me" would be more appropriate,' I suggested. Ethel shot a glance of disapproval at me, and I subsided.
'Oh, I hope you would have spared me the village band,' he said laughingly, 'otherwise I might have taken flight again.'
'As decent a band as you will get the whole countryside,' said she indignantly, 'though their idea of time is not quite as accurate as it might be; and the flute has no sharps certainly, and the cornet has a great notion of introducing variations, and the big drum does go to sleep occasionally; but that's an advantage.'
'Your defence, Miss Wharncliffe, is like what someone or other says of an old medieval knight: "Homme incomparable s'il avait été moins ambitieux, moins cruel, moins perfide, moins colère et moins vindicatif." You have cut away all the ground from your own position.'
'I do seem to have somewhat damaged my cause, but, nevertheless, I still maintain it is an excellent band. That, you see, is the advantage of being a woman; one is allowed to be inconsistent.'
'And illogical,' I added.
'That comes of my being generous, you see. No, by no means illogical, only so where logic is overridden by intuition.'
'That is impossible!' I protested.
'Indeed? I have yet to learn it. I find it possible, and occasionally extremely useful.'
'But then, Miss Wharncliffe, you are exceptional in those matters. Your intuition is always right.'
'No, I am afraid not,' she said with half a sigh. 'I am like all my sex. We make up in strength of statement and tenacity what we lack in breadth and accuracy.'
'Come, I think you're too hard on yourself. I am sure many women are more accurate than most men.'
'Yes, when nothing depends upon it. But there, I'm not going to take up the cudgels against my sex, so before I get too much in earnest we had better change the conversation. How is Lady Edenhale?'
'She is very well, thank you. My cousin, Miss Sidmore, has come to stay with her for a week or so, so she has someone to cheer her up.'
'She needs that oftener than she gets it,' remarked my sweet-hearted Ethel, looking straight into his eyes.
'Oh, my mother is accustomed to be alone,' said he, lowering his glance and rubbing his whip along his horse's mane.
'Yes, I suppose she is by this time,' responded the other with a little touch of scorn. He said nothing, but his face flushed, and he went on stroking his horse.
'I think I shall go over and call on Lady Edenhale to-morrow,' continued Ethel, perhaps pitying his embarrassment.
'I wish you would,' said he quickly. 'She is always complaining that you do not come oftener. She would like visitors, you know, being so much alone.'
If this was intended as a return shot, it missed its mark, for Ethel replied calmly—
'I should like to go much oftener than I do, but, you see, there is always a great deal to do in a parish, and especially now that work has accumulated on my hands during my long visit to London. But I will come over to-morrow afternoon. And now we must be going.'
The young man lightly touched his horse, and, lifting his hat, sped off through the village, while the rest of us pursued our way to the vicarage.
ACCORDING to promise Ethel and Marie went over to the Hall on the following afternoon, while Hardy and I rambled in the neighbourhood. He was never a talkative man, and on this occasion he was more than usually silent. To my numerous remarks he vouchsafed only short or monosyllabic replies, and I was just beginning give him up when he turned to me suddenly and said:
'Grayhurst, what are you going to do with that girl?'
'Marahuna, do you mean?' I asked, slightly taken aback at his question.
'Yes, Marahuna. What is to become of her?'
'My dear fellow, that's more than I can say, I assure you. I wish I knew. Something will turn up, I dare say, someday,' I added lightly, 'and she does very well as she is.'
'Don't you think you ought to do something? I mean, ought you not to put her in some definite position?'
'What do you mean? She is in a sufficiently definite position; she is my ward, you know. You fellows insisted on my taking the responsibility.'
'Yes, that was the mischief of it. It was a mistake, Grayhurst; you ought not to be saddled with a charge like this.'
'It isn't much of a charge,' I replied with a yawn.
'Does she know what you are doing for her?'
'Not so far as I am aware. She knows she is provided for, but she is too ignorant of her past history to have discovered the means.'
'It's not fair to you.'
'Bless you! I don't mind. I have enough and to spare, and she's an interesting problem.'
He looked at me, I thought, a little fixedly.
'I wish you would make some other arrangements for her.'
'Why? There's no necessity. You are so fidgety. Besides, no other arrangements are possible, so far as I can see.'
He was silent. Presently he looked up.
'Is she going to marry Edenhale?'
'I don't know,' I answered shortly.
'Because if she did that would solve the problem. That he is in love with her is as plain as the polar star. How do you think she feels?'
'My good sir,' I replied rather irritably, 'I am not in her confidence.'
I snapped a twig off the oak under which we were standing. He did not speak for a few minutes, and when he did it was in a changed tone.
'She strikes me as dangerous.'
'You speak as if she were a wild beast, Hardy,' I returned with a short laugh. 'Why should she be dangerous?'
'Because she's not human.'
I said nothing, for I was annoyed at this confirmation of my own half-formulated ideas. The scene of yesterday flashed across my mind. I was more than half afraid of her indulgence in those wild ecstasies whose power I had already tested. Mesmeric or hypnotic power, or whatever you choose to call it, is a terrible one, and convertible in the hands of an unknown will to unknown and dread uses. It was remarkable that this condition had taken rise in her from the moment she had become aware of her unnatural origin. It might possibly be a new phase permanently established in her character, but more probably it was a passing condition due to the upheaval of old associations and latent impulses; and so it was only necessary to be cautious in not giving her occasion for these outbursts.
In the cool of the evening we played tennis on the lawn till late. On a hot day man seems to reverse his natural condition. It is in the daytime that he is inactive and inclined to rest, and as the evening draws on he becomes lively. After all it is not light or darkness which decides vitality, not at any rate with us creatures who have given birth to our own conditions.
Ethel and I strolled round the grounds of the manor house, which were very extensive and richly wooded. Overhead the moon pursued her silvery path through the white straying fleece.
'Why, Percy,' said she, 'should a moon like that make one feel so peaceful? You, who are so learned in the reasons of things, ought to know why. In virtue of what quality does the full moon tranquillise our feelings?'
'I don't know that I have ever thought about it,' I replied, stopping also to gaze; 'but I suppose the whole secret lies in the force of association. In the night there is rest and respite from labour, from heat, from the trouble and bustle of day. The weary wayfarer betakes himself to his home and rests. The stars come out one by one, and he sits in the cool night air at his ease, and counts them. And the moon steals through the misty clouds, and he watches it and feels there is no more work, no more anxiety, no more bother and worry for him—till to-morrow. In such a way the evening sky becomes associated with all our notions of restfulness and quietude and serenity.'
'And is there nothing in the moon itself that inspires those feelings? Alas, Percy! would you divest everything of its inherent glamour, and convince us that all those properties we seem to see are really and merely due to a defective vision, or to a heterogeneous medium which colours and falsifies that vision? If modern philosophy brings us to that, what wonder that we weaker spirits cling fast to what is old, and perhaps untrue, simply because it is old, and satisfies a craving in our minds of which you take no account?'
'Bravo, my darling!' I said. 'You have stated your case with the lucidity and skill of an orator making his last appeal. But you take too melancholy a view. Why should the sensations be any the less real because they are proved not to be objective, if you know what that is?'
'I ought—you talk about it enough.'
'We must recognise that all experiences are subjective, and that there are no properties in matter beyond physical properties. But the sensations and experiences are none the less real because we have made a mistake in referring them to their origin.'
'Now, Percy,' said she imperiously and somewhat inconsistently, considering she had begun the discussion, 'no more philosophy. If you once start on that topic, there will be no holding you in. Dream if you like, but don't philosophise—and, by the bye, my metaphor reminds me of what I had almost forgotten. When we were at the Hall this afternoon Sir Reginald proposed a riding excursion. Do you remember his promise to take us out last Christmas, when the fire put an end to everything? He wants us to go out to-morrow.'
'Are you going?' I was conscious of a little annoyance in my tone, though myself I hardly knew the reason.
'Yes, we agreed to go. It would have been unkind to have refused, for he had quite set his heart upon it, and had gone to no end of trouble. Besides, a ride is so delightful, and I haven't been out for ages. You will come, won't you?'
'I don't know.'
'You silly fellow, you are vexed at something. Don't think I don't know the intonation well enough. You must come, or otherwise we can't go, for Marie requires me to chaperone her, and I require you.'
'It will be a lopsided party with five,' I answered.
'No, it won't, sir; there are six. Miss Sidmore is coming.'
'Oh, well, I suppose I must join it then.'
'You suppose you must join it indeed! Isn't that nice and complimentary to all of us, me included?'
'You don't need compliments, Ethel. You know my meaning.'
'Well, that may be so,' she said softly, 'but,' she added presently, 'I believe you are something of a hypocrite after all. All men are; you all take more than you give.' The soft hand was laid a little tremulously upon my arm, and the brown eyes glistened even in the moonlight. 'It is the way of all men, but perhaps it is not your fault.'
'Some of us get more than we deserve,' I whispered tenderly.
'Tell me what you did at the Hall,' I asked next.
'Lady Edenhale was in, of course,' she responded, 'and greeted us with stately sweetness. I don't think her son resembles her in the least, for he is neither stately nor sweet.'
'They are both womanly qualities, and therefore it is not surprising.'
'Are there no masculine equivalents, sir? Well, Miss Sidmore was present also, looking very pretty and timid in a dress of nun's veiling, gris de perle embroidered—Oh, I forgot to whom I was talking! How can you expect me to keep up a conversation with you, Percy, when so many interesting topics are debarred?'
'Yes, it must be difficult for you,' I murmured.
'Don't be rude. Where was I? Sir Reginald came in later to "fiveocloquet," and engaged Marie in engrossing conversation. Really that must be pretty well advanced by this time. I wonder if Marie really cares for him?'
'Then you think he means business?'
'What an awful way of putting it! Yes, I do most certainly. I think he is merely summoning courage. I fancy he rather plumes himself on his discretion, and his belief in his own cynicism holds him back. But it was all nonsense about his being tired of London. Why, he has the frame of a young Hercules. No, Marie is the fascination that lured him here; nor do I wonder, for wherever she goes she is the cynosure of all eyes. She certainly is the most weirdly beautiful girl I ever saw. People are always asking who she is, and won't believe she is a Peruvian because she is so fair.'
'And you don't know whether she cares for him?'
'No, she is unfathomable. Sometimes I think she does, but oftener she seems to care for nobody and nothing as they should be cared for. I wish she did.'
Why on earth do you wish that, Ethel?' I asked impatiently.
'Because I think it would be a very suitable match; don't you?'
'Not at all.'
'Why, Percy? Sir Reginald is well-to-do and pleasant enough, and Marie must marry someone. I think it would be a capital thing for everyone if they fell in love with each other. He wants someone to care for, and make him steadier and more useful.'
'Do you think Marahuna would effect that?'
She hesitated. 'Well, I hope so. I think she would be as likely to do that as most girls, if she really cared for him.'
'Ethel, you don't know Marahuna. No match which you and other match-makers would make could be fraught with more danger than such a one. In nine cases out of ten match-making is mischief-making.'
'You speak strongly. I really can't see why you should say that. Marie is a little eccentric, but I don't see why her eccentricity should interfere to prevent her making a good wife.'
'Perhaps not, but it would. Nothing but mischief could come of such a match, for she is not fit to be married.'
She looked puzzled. 'Why don't you explain? I am quite in the dark. You don't mean that she is—Percy, not tainted with insanity, surely not? How dreadful.'
'No,' I answered hesitatingly; 'I should not say that; but she is not—well—it amounts to this, that she ought not to be married yet. You know yourself that you complain of her strangeness.'
'That's true, but, as I say, I don't see why mere waywardness and madcapery should be a serious obstacle in the way of marriage. In fact, I was rather looking to the latter to cure her of her little foreign ways, to which we benighted islanders take exception.'
'Nonsense, Ethel, it is worse than that. It is—' I stopped abruptly, for I could not explain everything now. 'At any rate, I hope you will do nothing to encourage any fancy she may have for him or anyone else.'
'Oh very well. Of course if you really have some reason for your opinion I shall not interfere—only it would have been nice.'
Next day we made a start from the Hall on our riding excursion. Whatever enthusiasts may say to the contrary, a woman never looks her best on horseback; it is the form of exercise which is least graceful to her. Yet many women continue to look almost as charming on horseback as on other occasions. Ethel was a fine horsewoman, and both looked well and rode well, and Marahuna, though this was actually her first experience of riding, was not at all awkward. She sat her horse with a stately ease, and, though a close observer might see that she held her reins like a novice, she showed none of the discomfort and doubt which usually attend the first seat in a saddle.
I was thrown into company with Miss Sidmore, Sir Reginald leading with Marahuna. Our course lay across Craven Heath and towards a low-lying range of downs. Miss Sidmore was not a great rider, so that I was somewhat hampered in my movements, and presently, to my chagrin, perceived the others disappear round the twistings in the lane.
My companion looked as delicate as ever. A too thoughtful expression had its seat upon her pretty face, and she was not very talkative. In a short time she was obliged to rein in, and we walked slowly along the road for some time in silence. Presently she broke it—
'I'm so dreadfully sorry to be such a burden to you, Mr. Grayhurst. I should not have come out at all, for I am always in the way.' There was a genuine look of distress on her face.
'What an idea, Miss Sidmore! Don't imagine I want to go any faster. I consider the great enjoyment of riding lies in taking things quietly. A hurry-scurry is all very well now and then, but the proper gait for a horse is a medium between fast and slow. You get time for reflection and conversation then. A blind rush through air does not so much appeal to me.'
'Doesn't it really?' she asked, looking a little relieved. 'Nor does it to me; it takes away my breath, and my wits too, and makes me quite dizzy. I'm glad you feel like that too—but you are only saying that to please me?' she interrupted with grave entreaty.
'Now, Miss Sidmore, that's too bad. After I have endeavoured ever since my first meeting with you to give you the impression that I am a plain-spoken, veracious person, you suspect me of an artificiality and insincerity which would do credit to Beau Brummel.'
She smiled and went on more vivaciously:
'I am glad you are not insincere. I hate insincerity even in conventionalities. Men of the world somehow seem to drop into a way of saying things which have not the slightest resemblance to truth, and the strange part about it is that everyone is conscious of this. It is a universal attempt of people to hoodwink each other, by which no one is hoodwinked, and everyone knows that no one is hoodwinked.'
'Then the question is, Is it insincerity if all know it to be insincerity?'
'Isn't that rather casuistical? I shall begin to suspect you again if you plead its cause so well.'
'Oh, I can't plead it. You must go to some man of the world for that, Sir Reginald say,' I answered lightly.
'My cousin is not insincere,' she returned a little proudly.
'I didn't mean that, I meant he was a man of the world.' She made no reply, so I hastened to develop my explanation. 'You know he has seen so much of the world and society, he ought to be able to give an account of its ways and means. What a change it must be for him to come down here! I don't wonder that he likes a little rest occasionally.'
I wondered why her face flushed. There was another silence while I followed out my own train of thoughts; then I said—
'Do you admire Miss Huayna?'
'Yes, I do; I think she is very beautiful,' was the answer; but I barely caught it, for the wind was blowing away from me.
'Does she strike you as being very cold?' I inquired.
She looked up quickly: 'No, I can't say she does.'
I pursued my own thoughts, then coming back to myself I said presently, 'Have we reflected enough for the nonce? Shall we try a little quicker pace?'
She nodded assent, and shaking the bridle of my cob I broke into a canter, and we sped along beneath the leafy shade of an avenue of elms, till turning sharply across the heath we increased our pace. The colour flew into Miss Sidmore's face, and I thought I had never seen her looking prettier. Ere long we had mounted the ridge and were cantering along the downs towards the old mill, which was the trysting-place.
Sir Reginald had fastened Marahuna's horse to the stump of a tree, and was lying upon the sward with his bridle over one arm, leaning on the other towards her. Ethel and Hardy were slowly walking their steeds some way off.
When we were all again in the saddle I displaced Hardy by Ethel's side, and he fell back and joined Miss Sidmore. We reached thus the entrance to a large meadow known as the upper Ham, and here Edenhale threw himself from his horse to open the gate which was roped securely. We were all six jumbled together. At this moment his horse's tail whisked in the face of my chestnut, who, being rather mettlesome, plunged forward through the gate, and jostled against Marie's bay. He, catching the enthusiasm or the irritation, leapt forward also. Marie pulled her rein. A wild impulse seized me, born of the occasion.
'Come on, Marie, let us have a spin!' I cried, striking the chestnut's flank with my whip.
She straightened herself in her saddle, and with a gleeful laugh loosened her reins. The bay shot out like an arrow. I heard Edenhale's voice shouting something behind me, but I was quite reckless, for a demon of excitement had caught hold of me, and I merely waved my hand aloft and shouted—
Marahuna's horse obeyed my summons. He stretched his legs, and craning out his neck thundered down the long reach of meadow. She sat her horse superbly; her eyes were afire with delight, and her face glowed with a glorious excitement. Rising in her stirrups she shook the reins again, and the dark bay sped swifter than ever. In their reckless rush the horses dashed close together, so close that her cheeks grazed my shoulder. My blood flew faster. Suddenly before us yawned a wide ditch which drained the upper field and led into a little stream below; and before I had time to warn my companion our horses had risen to the jump, and we both landed with a jerk on the further side. Still on we galloped, till at length, slacking speed, we plunged through the little brook, and crossing into another field dropped into a slow canter.
Our companions were nowhere in sight, for the meadow was very wide and lined with trees. They had not followed us.
'We have given them the go-by,' I exclaimed in jubilant tones, for my blood had not yet settled down into its wonted steadiness.
Marahuna laughed a silvery laugh, and lifting her whip brought it down sharply upon the bay's shoulder. He plunged forward again in a quiver of indignation, and again we dashed along the lane at full speed.
'Had we not better walk them a little now?' I suggested at length, with a gleam of common sense.
Her laughter rippled away into the distance, and left a smile curling on her lips as she turned towards me with an expression of mingled thought and gladness.
'Yes, yes, let them walk. I had forgotten.'
With that there was a brief silence, while I gathered breath. But before I could speak again she had thrown her reins loosely upon the pommel of her saddle, and holding her hat in one hand by her side leant right over the horse. Her glance danced like sunlight across my face. I felt as if the sun had actually got into my eyes, and was so blinded that for a moment I could not see her. Then there came a rippling murmur of music, and I grew quite dizzy. Faintly conscious that I was falling from my saddle I clutched convulsively at the reins. Just sense enough was left me to be conscious that I was wildly digging my spurs into the chestnut's flanks, when he came to a dead stop, and the shock threw me forward upon his neck.
We were brought up by a barred gate. Marie's attention had also been arrested by this obstruction, and again the cool look of thought mingled with her triumphant smile. She raised herself in the saddle, while I recovered sufficiently to throw myself off and open the gate.
She passed through, and gathering my faint wits about me I remounted in a fever of tremulousness. I would fain have lingered behind, and seen this awful being with her powers of fascination disappear into the distance, but a mysterious attraction dragged me on against my will, and I found myself lured back to her side. But apparently her mood had changed, for she laughed no longer, and instead of the wild, weird creature who had ridden by me was the calmly statuesque Marahuna of old.
'We have come the longer round,' was all she said when I rejoined her. 'The others will be at home before us.'
'Are you sorry, Marahuna?' I asked, for, like a scorched moth, infatuation kept me hovering near danger.
'No,' she returned gently, with a sudden glance at me. 'I have enjoyed it.'
'Sir Reginald will be gnashing his teeth,' I continued, impelled by I know not what folly.
Another swift glance. 'What do you mean?'
'That Sir Reginald will be disappointed. I have cheated him of his ride with you.'
Her face showed no sign of intelligence. 'He will be disappointed! It is beyond me, like so many things in this strange life. Why should he be disappointed?' Her curiosity was asserting itself, and her old spirit of questioning had returned; but its return had placed me in an awkward situation.
'He will be disappointed because—well, I should have thought you would have seen the reason.'
It was not coquetry, nor desire for a compliment. She had evidently no idea of his attachment.
'No, I do not. But you will not wonder that I do not understand these things,' she went on proudly, 'for you know I am not made of humanity's stuff. I am above and beyond human life. But what? I cannot say, nor you who boast so much knowledge. Some strange creation, or evolution, you would say, clothing your ignorance in a garb of words. You know not what I am you tell me, but this only, that I am unhuman, and must work out my destiny in the ways of unhumanness. But I,' she said turning on me a look of supreme thought—'do you think I never ponder over these things? Do you think my life passes by like a stream, unbroken by eddies and currents of thought and feeling? No. It is diverse from yours; diverse in a thousand ways; diverse in thought, diverse in action, diverse in this—this—feeling. Yet I compare, I contrast, I observe, and I try to image for myself the inner mechanism that rules your minds and bodies. Does it never come across you that I—that I who am so strange—weird is your word—must conform to the conditions of this life, if I would remain here? The necessity is strong, very strong. And I do not so conform. What is sorrow? What is fear? What is anger? What is terror? What is pity? What are they all to me? Is there, then, a barrier built up between us? Is there a wall of partition we can never break down?' And her voice seemed to me to catch as I had never heard it before. The clear, thrilling tones died off in low music, and the eyes grew cold and vacant.
'Marahuna,' I cried, 'do not look so strangely. What are you saying? Why should you sorrow like this?'
'Sorrow!' she murmured, the fixed expression wearing off her face. 'Sorrow! is this sorrow?' A quick smile shot over her face. 'So this is sorrow. Why, sorrow, then, is but disappointment?'
I smiled. 'Disappointment,' I said, 'is a form of sorrow, but sorrow is not disappointment. However, let that alone for the present. It is enough that you are in the to-day, and that the to-day is a happy one. There is an old motto of ours which says, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Do not forecast the years to find imaginary difficulties. Your naturalisation, shall I say? has been so far successful; there is no reason why it should not be wholly so.'
She said nothing, but whipping up her horse laughed across at me, and we dashed into the village abreast.
The others had arrived before us, as we had anticipated, for we had taken a circuitous route, and had ridden leisurely after the first wild gallop. Sir Reginald was a trifle annoyed, I could see, and I felt somewhat abashed to contemplate my own impetuousness as we joined them and Lady Edenhale on the lawn.
'You completely slipped us,' said he with a laugh of chagrin, 'but I hope you enjoyed your ride. The reason I did not want you to go that way was because there are sundry ditches and morasses in the lower Ham towards the river, and I was afraid Miss Huayna's horse would get her into difficulties.'
'Oh no, we managed very well,' returned she, 'thanks to your bay. I was sorry we deserted you. I thought you were behind.'
Was this the result of my talk about his disappointment? Had she, by swift intuition, discerned how to meet and soothe it? At any rate, her words had the effect of mollifying the baronet's irritation, for he broke into a pleasant smile and said—
'I'm awfully glad you liked him, Miss Huayna, because I mean to reserve him for your use. To tell the truth, it's not everyone who could sit him, and I was a little anxious, but I never in my life saw anyone so much at home in the saddle as you.'
Ethel was silent, but whether it was from preoccupation or some other cause I could not discover. She did not appear to be annoyed, for her voice had all its wonted sweetness; but she was very quiet all the evening, and being probably fatigued went early to bed.
Χρόνος μαλάξει σ'· ούδέν έσθ' ό κατθανών. —Alcestis.
ONE day Sir Reginald drove over to make a proposition. The weather was so very lovely, and circumstances were generally so favourable, that it had struck him it would be a capital idea to get up a picnic. What did Mrs. Wharncliffe think?
Mrs. Wharncliffe thought it would be very pleasant indeed for the young people.
'And yourself among the number, Mrs. Wharncliffe?'
'I, Sir Reginald?' she answered, with a shake of the head. 'My youth has gone by these twenty summers. Here is the evidence,' laying her hand on Ethel's shoulder.
'We won't admit the evidence into court,' I broke in; 'it is not trustworthy.'
'Thank you, Percy,' ejaculated Ethel.
'You're not going to escape us, Mrs. Wharncliffe; we have also witnesses on our side. We will subpoena your looking-glass to give evidence for us.'
She laughed. 'I really don't think I could go.'
'Why, you must go to chaperone us all, mamma. Where are your notions of propriety?'
'Lost after a vain and life-long struggle with my wilful daughter,' replied her mother, patting her cheek. 'But if you would really like me to come—'
'Like you, Mrs. Wharncliffe? We can't get on without you, and if Mr. Wharncliffe can come, so much the better.'
'I don't think he would come. Where have you thought of going?'
'Stavely Woods, I was thinking of, but that is for you to decide.'
'They are very pretty,' she answered musingly. 'Well, perhaps I may promise, if you give me leave to withdraw upon necessity.'
By the rest of us, however, the picnic was welcomed as a delightful diversion. We threw ourselves into the preparations with the energy and enjoyment of childhood (for sometimes men and women can be children), and Sir Reginald and Ethel made out a list of people to be invited.
Stavely Woods lay some six miles from Malthorpe, down the valley of the Mavel. The Mavel is a river which takes its rise in Berkshire, and, after wandering through the northern quarter of Hampshire, comes round the village of Malthorpe, to which it gives the name Mavelthorpe, contracted into Malthorpe. There is a tradition that the river bed was much nearer Malthorpe in past ages, but at present it is three-quarters of a mile before you strike the little bridge leading westward. Below the bridge the Mavel skirts the western fringes of the Ham, and flows on in a winding course to the downs, through which it passes by means of a little gorge, and thence broadens out upon the flat, sedgy country southwards. Stavely is a little village lying just beyond the small gorge, and under the summer shadow of the downs. The woods are extensive, and reach from the village down to the Mavel. From here the landscape slopes in a gentle trend towards the sea, whose blue expanse can be seen merging into the broader lights of the distant sky.
About eleven in the morning of the appointed day the Hall presented a very bustling scene. Wagonettes, dog-carts, victorias, vehicles of all kinds were called into requisition, and the noise and clatter was as great as if a flock of swallows were on the point of emigration. Some were riding, but most were packed into the various carriages, awaiting our convenience. The arrangement was purely a matter of circumstance and accident. All of us got jumbled up, and no one seemed to know who was going with whom. In fact it was a delightful muddle, whose absolute hopelessness rendered the enjoyment keener. Ethel became mixed up with one wagonette-load of people, Marie was drawn into another, and before I knew what had happened, Edenhale had pushed me into a dog-cart beside a bright chatterbox, and throwing me the reins bade me drive on. And thus we rattled along with chatter and clatter to Stavely.
After selecting our rendezvous, we settled other preliminaries, sent off the horses with grooms, deposited our packages, and then dispersed through the woods till lunch time.
Edenhale and I and two or three ladies were soon the only people in possession of the ground, for we had remained behind to see that all the details were in order. When I had finished my supervision I was standing for a moment undecidedly, when I caught sight of a blue dress vanishing round an oak in the distance, and thought I recognised Marahuna. Sir Reginald had broken a champagne bottle over himself, and was the centre of a laughing group. Leaving them I slipped across the open space and into the wood. As I crashed towards her through the bracken the sound of my progress caught her ears, and she turned round.
'It is you!' she cried, with a flash of recognition. 'What kept you so long at the carriages?'
'Sir Reginald and I, being joint managers, have been attending to the ways and means. But what brings you here? I thought you went away with young Stanmore and Miss Morley?'
'I left them.'
She did not answer, but a fitful gleam flew across her glad face. We had passed out of the brushwood, and crossing a little knoll of meadow grass entered a dark and gloomy pine wood.
'Let us sit down in the cool of the pines,' I said presently, as she did not break the silence.
She stopped at my words, and looked up with a light laugh into my face.
'Yes, let us sit down,' she said, 'and you shall tell me something, something new. Where shall it be?' She paused. 'No, no, not there,' she cried, with girlish glee. 'Not in the dark shadow of the pines, but here, where the sunlight plays in a golden lattice upon the ground.'
She flung herself down against the red bole of a fir, and throwing her hat carelessly from her thrust her face beneath the flickering sunbeams, which danced along the tree trunk as the branches stirred overhead. Catching some of her lightheartedness, I threw myself beside her, and, leaning my head upon my arms, watched the sunlight move across her features.
Suddenly, as her eyelids drooped idly downwards, her glance met mine, and her face grew suffused with a subtle delicacy, while her soul seemed to mount into her eyes. Then, quicker than I can tell, an expression of deep thought followed. Never were eyes that could change so swiftly and so gloriously; never were eyes in which lay such a well of unkenned mystery. In quiescence they were like an azure sea, calm and serenely grand; but when she was possessed by any vivid feeling, waves of thought seemed to surge up in the blue depths and catch the sunlight of her soul until her glance was as the glance of a flashing flame, and the gaze of the spectator fell abashed before it.
'Tell me something,' she said imperiously, 'for I cannot think out what I have been trying.'
'What can I tell you? Won't you tell me what you were thinking, and see if I can help you?'
Again the intense thoughtfulness, which one thought would almost leave an eternal impress on that lovely face.
'I cannot tell you what it is. I don't know myself.'
'That's odd. Like most girls, you don't know your own mind. Is that it, Marie?'
'No, it isn't that. I am not like girls, but I cannot catch hold of the thought I am struggling for.'
'What sort of thought is it?' I asked curiously.
'It concerns a sensation I have sometimes; and—it is very strange—I cannot fix my mind on it, nor analyse it in the least.'
'What's the sensation like?'
'I can't say. It is that which eludes me. I am conscious that there is something, which I feel, but my memory or my thought is at fault. I know nothing more.'
'Not even when it occurs, nor under what circumstances?'
She shook her head. 'At times I feel it coming in upon me, and I struggle with it, but when it comes the quality of my mental power changes, and I cannot battle with it. I lose hold of it, and the thought that hurries me along is an alien thought, arising perhaps from my strange sensation.'
This was too enigmatical; I could give her no assistance. So I relapsed into silence, content to gaze upon her fascinating countenance, and wonder whether I could not be dreaming after all, and should awake one day to find this wayward creature of mystery before me a more intellectual figment. Was she indeed capable of affection? I had almost concluded not, but latterly I thought I had seen softer phases in her character. She might, after all, have an emotional side to her nature unrevealed hitherto, and therefore even stronger and deeper for its very latency. Edenhale had certainly not appeared to touch the imagination, and yet—. A sudden determination flowed in upon me. I would solve all my doubts at once, and discover if she really did care for him. In this way I should get my mind free from anxiety about her future.
'Marahuna,' I said presently, for she had not spoken for some minutes. 'I want to ask you something, though I really hardly know how to do it. It is—' I paused. She had let her glance droop again upon my face in almost listless interest. 'I want to know whether—' I stopped again, and felt unable now to proceed.
'What is it?' she asked with a little curiosity. 'Why don't you continue?'
'Oh, whether—well, are you very tired?' I ended, in confusion.
'Is that all? Not at all,' and she resumed her upward gaze.
After another short silence: 'It was a capital idea of Sir Reginald's to have this picnic, wasn't it?'
'Yes, capital. It is my first experience of a picnic. He is skilful in the littlenesses of life; he knows how the small cogwheels run; but—'
'But?' I asked.
'He has not much notion of the main scheme of the machinery. To mark the details, to note the different parts of a whole, is the power of one mind; to see a principle in the parts, to gather them up in one idea, is the power of another and a greater. He has the one and lacks the other; with you it is the reverse.'
'That is meant as a compliment, I suppose, Marie; but it would be a dubious one in the eyes of practical people.'
'It was not a compliment.'
'But to come back to Sir Reginald—I really think you are right about him. He doesn't strike me as being capable of any great power of thought or—' I hesitated, 'any great passion.'
'Passion?' she repeated vacantly. 'Oh yes, you mean the things from which I am shut out.'
'By passion I meant certain emotions, not all; from which I hardly know whether you are shut out or not.'
'What are they?' she asked, turning a look of keen curiosity upon me. Could I summon courage to sound her now? Here was the chance fallen into my hands. It was surely necessary for all that the riddle should be read.
'Yes, that is what I want to know, Marie. I want to find out whether you are capable of feeling these passions.'
'You have not told me what they are,' she answered quickly.
'Well,' I replied slowly, looking up into her eyes, which were now vivid with restless light, 'they are hate, and jealousy, and—'
'Hate, and jealousy, and—'
She sank back against the tree bole, and her hands went straying through the patches of withered spines which strewed the ground. The fragrance of the firs was wafted more strongly to us by the growing breeze which had found its way into the forest. A linnet chattered overhead, and the murmur of the river beyond the borders of the wood blended with the rustling of the pines.
I was conscious of all this, for expectancy choked thought, and left observation alert. All the time I did not lift my eyes from her down-turned face, which seemed intent upon the movements of her hands. Suddenly she raised her head, and her glance met mine. Who could tell the secrets of her eyes? Her expression was the nearest approach to pain I had ever seen in her; it was one of baffled thought.
'Hate, and jealousy, and love,' she repeated slowly. 'You have brought home to me only another of the puzzles I have to work out. I cannot tell.'
'But you know the terms, the words—you know what they mean, Marahuna,' I said earnestly.
'I know the words, and I know the meaning; yes. But I do not understand them. And yet—what is this I am striving to think? I seem almost to have my hands upon it, but it eludes me ever. Ah, I have it now, now—no, it has gone.'
'Then you do not love?' I asked vehemently. 'You do not love?'
'What I do not know I cannot do,' she replied with a smile at my eagerness. Then, leaping to her feet, 'Let us go further on! I am tired of this wood. Do you not want to see what is beyond?' and in a second she was moving with elastic step down the avenues of pines.
I followed in a fury of perplexity and excitement, and in a few minutes we emerged upon the shelving meadow which led down to the river. The banks were fringed continuously with drooping willows and green bushes, but here and there were open gaps through which the Mavel could be seen. It was not very wide, but swift and deep, and looked formidable enough as it whirled its dark waters along towards the weir, some half-mile further down. Towards this weir we wended our way along the bank.
Suddenly my companion broke from my side, and stepping swiftly down the slopes gained the water's edge.
'What is the matter?' I asked in astonishment.
'Do you not see,' she cried gaily. 'Look, look! what is that in the water?'
She pointed out into midstream, where a cluster of large round leaves gathered about a few white blossoms.
'They are only water-lilies,' I returned, amused at her interest.
'Water-lilies? I have never seen them before. I thought all flowers grew upon the land?'
'How about the weeds in the rivers?' I asked.
'Ah, but these are floating, are they not? Look.' Her voice and manner betrayed an aroused curiosity.
'Why does such a small thing interest you so much?' I asked, a little nettled at her unreasonableness. 'It is only a flower.'
'It is my curiosity,' she answered laughing. 'I must have them.'
She pushed nearer, parted a bush which lay between her and the river, and leaned so hard against it that I was afraid she would overbalance herself.
'Take care, do take care!'
'I should so like to get them,' she observed, standing with parted lips.
'I hope you don't expect me to jump in for them, Marie. It's the orthodox thing for romantic people, I'm aware; but then I'm not romantic.'
'Can I find no means of getting them?'
'Why, what a very curious girl you are, to be so interested in a flower! I should never have suspected you of a sentimental attachment to a water-lily.'
'I want them to examine,' she returned, adding, with a touch of the woman, 'and to wear.'
'We might get some on the other side, for they grow almost up to the bank. But we certainly can't get them from this side, and we should in all probability want a boat. We might try this afternoon.'
So saying I lured her away from the river, for she was as pleased as a child with her discovery, and lingered reluctantly about the bank.
When we reached the luncheon ground operations had already begun. Sir Reginald, who was busy attending to Mrs. Wharncliffe, jumped up at our approach.
'Here you are, Miss Huayna—I have reserved a seat for you by Mrs. Wharncliffe.' As she went forward at his invitation I heard him say in a reproachful tone, 'You quite deserted me this morning; I was left alone among my bottles and cases.'
'I'm very sorry; what did you do?'
'What could I but wander up and down the banks, like Ariadne on the island, mourning disconsolately? However I am going to look after myself better this afternoon. There is something I particularly want to show you at Stavely.'
I sat down beside someone, and managed to sustain a fairly interesting conversation on the Academy and English landscape painting, on which, as the reader knows, I was as much qualified to speak as on Sanscrit. Conversation is built on petty hypocrisies, and the skilful conversationalist must be an adroit fencer. He must be as agile as a bee, sucking honey here and there as occasion requires, never resting long in one place, for fear all the nectar may be extracted, or, what is worse, for fear he may be entrapped and confined and proved a humbug. He must be wide awake and vigilant, and if he is really skilful no one need know that he is ignorant of the very alphabet of the subject on which he is conversing; he may even gain the reputation of an authority. Such a boast does shallowness make of itself, and to so much power does it attain.
Ethel I saw in the distance looking rather subdued, though her laughter occasionally joined the general uproar. As soon as lunch was over I seized the opportunity to go over to her.
'Will you come across the river with me now?' I asked; 'we can get a boat above the bridge.'
She turned round with a soft expression in her face: 'Oh, Percy, that would be nice. Shall—'
'Miss Wharncliffe, we are all ready. You promised to come with us to Stavely, you know, to see the church.' This was a small man with an eyeglass, who had come down from London for the special purpose of attending the picnic.
She gave a look of half-entreaty at me; then an amused smile came over her face.
'Certainly, Mr. Rosewarne; I'm quite ready. I'm very sorry, Percy,' she whispered. 'Perhaps we can go later.'
'I say, Grayhurst,' broke in Hardy, 'you are interested in archaeology, I believe. Did you know of that Roman encampment upon the downs across the river?'
'My dear Hardy, almost before you were born.'
'Oh, then, of course you've explored it?'
'Well, no,' I replied; 'I confess my sin. I have often thought of paying it a visit, but have never managed it. Some stronger purpose has always come between me and the fulfilment.'
'In other words, you have been too indolent. Well, now is your chance to redeem your character, so come along.'
We walked through the wood towards the bridge; several boats were on the Mavel. Half-an-hour's walk brought us to the encampment, which we endeavoured to reconcile to our disjointed archaeological notions; and after another half-hour's scrutiny, we had shaken some order into the tangled webs of our minds, and turned to depart. Across the lower edges of the downs we pursued a path through loose brushwood to a point where the slope, hitherto gentle, became sudden and precipitous. Whether the course of the Mavel had at one time lain at the foot of this cliff, I cannot say; but it looked as if the abrupt descent had been due to the wearing influence of running water at some remote period.
Standing in the position we had reached, we commanded a fine and extensive view. The cliffs were only a few hundred feet in height, but in the south of England even the elevation of a few feet makes a great difference in the prospect; for though there is much undulation there are very few heights deserving consideration; and to stand on the top of rolling downs is to find your eyes monarch of the landscape for many miles. Below us, almost at our feet, lay the Mavel, curving abruptly towards the weir, which could be detected through the trees by the foam of the frothing water. Immediately across the river, and fronting us in sombre picturesqueness, stretched the narrow strip of pinewood, into which Marahuna and I had wandered. Beyond again, and on a gentle declivity, lay the reaches of the Stavely Woods in all the superbness of summer brilliancy; and in the middle distance the spire of Stavely church reflected the noonday's sun into our eyes. The ridge of the horizon in the same direction was broken into fluctuations of hill and dale, which receded into the blue haze of the distant north.
We flung ourselves down half a dozen paces from the verge of the cliff, and gazed in silence for some time at the scene.
'What is that?' asked Hardy soon, pointing towards the river.
I followed the direction of his eyes, and through the fringe of willows caught the flashing of the sunlight on a moving object.
'It must be a boat,' he added; 'I didn't know they could come so far down as this.'
The thickness of the foliage along the banks screened off our view of the boat, but presently we saw the nose jutting round a bend of the stream.
'Why,' I exclaimed, as in another moment the full length swung into vision, 'it is Marahuna!'
'And Sir Reginald,' added Hardy. 'What on earth can they be doing down so far?'
The light skiff, propelled by the vigorous arms of Edenhale, darted swiftly towards the abrupt bend I have before mentioned. The river here curves round so as almost to form a complete right angle, and the current, which is very strong, strikes with its full force against the western bank, where, by lapse of ages, it has eaten into the black soil, thus creating a steep cliff, under which the dark waters swirl and foam in angry confusion, until finding a track they sweep off along the line of reflection towards the weir.
'What the deuce is the fellow up to?' cried Hardy again. 'If he doesn't take care he will collide with the bank.'
But his object was evidently to avoid the current, for which purpose he kept well under the eastern bank, and thus worked down to the little spit of land at the bend.
All of a sudden the object of this seemingly foolish freak flashed across me. At this point, immediately off the spit, where the water between the troubled swirl of the two currents was passive and calm, lay the patch of water-lilies by which Marahuna had been so attracted. I imparted my conjecture to Hardy, who smiled grimly.
We saw Sir Reginald under the willows of the bank.
'What is he doing now?' I asked.
'Taking precautions like a sensible man. He is tying the nose of the boat to the willows, and no doubt intends to let the stern swing out into the stream. But he ought not to have ventured down here.'
Surely enough that was what he was doing, as we soon perceived. Marahuna was standing upright in the stern of the boat with a stick in her hand.
'That girl is a strange mystery, Hardy,' I said, turning to him. 'Who would have imagined she would take such a fancy to a small flower? Upon my word, interesting though she is, I sometimes regret she ever came aboard the "Hereward."'
'We could hardly help that,' said he drily. 'I agree with you, however, in regretting it.'
'If I could only see a way out of the difficulties she has created, all would be well; but I am as much at a loss as the Thebans were for a solution of the Sphinx's riddle.'
'Wasn't there a solution found for—By Jove!' he broke off suddenly, 'there's Edenhale in.'
We were on our feet in a second, our eyes fixed upon the river.
'It's in the calm water,' I ejaculated; 'he's all right.'
The boat was in the slow drift of the outer eddies of the current. Sir Reginald, in his endeavours to reach the water-lilies, had obviously overbalanced himself and fallen in. But soon our interest grew into excitement, for though he struck out energetically he seemed to make no progress in the water. The river was quiet and placid enough around him, yet he got no nearer the boat. The reason dawned on us both at the same moment: his feet had become entangled in the weeds. But why did not Marahuna assist him? To our horror, she knelt in the stern of the boat, half over the gunwale, grasping at something in the water.
All this flashed through my brain with the speed of an instantaneous photograph. He ceased struggling. A hoarse shout from Hardy echoed in my ear.
'Good God! he's in the current.'
And with a bound we cleared the bushes behind us, and began to run at a breakneck rate along the face of the cliffs, searching for a place where descent was possible.
At that second I heard a cry—a despairing cry—ring out faintly upon the soft air; a cry which I shall never forget.
And then—a bubbling frothing of the dull waters and the fretting murmurs of the troubled stream about the broken banks.
Down the precipitous chalky cliffs we hurled ourselves. In front of me I saw Hardy leap from a jagged projection, and, losing his footing on the ledge below, fall like a shot partridge to the road. Nor did I fare better, for though I managed to avoid a fall I bruised my shoulder severely on a rolling boulder. As I reached the road Hardy picked himself up and limped after me towards the weir.
Scarcely five minutes had elapsed from the moment we had started, yet I had an intense foreboding that all was over. Above the weir there was no sign of Sir Reginald, nor at first could we see anything below it. A foaming pool sent whirling eddies across the stream, which was here a good deal broader. Presently a cry from Hardy brought me to his side; he was bending down in the osiers. There in the reeds, which fringed a backwash of the current, lay the object of our search.
After the lapse of ten minutes we ceased from our work; life had gone beyond recall. For a moment Hardy and I faced each other across the body on the sloping sward. The unexpectedness of the terrible event appalled us. He was the first to break silence.
'I will go for assistance,' he said.
I watched him disappear swiftly round a bend in the willows, and then with a certain dulness of understanding turned to the form beside me. A grand silence possessed the air, save for the water pouring down the weir with a monotony that only threw into greater relief the serenity of nature. I half expected to see some motion stirring in the quiet face, and at last the terrible permanence of the silence, grew too much for me. I turned away and began to move up the banks.
Suddenly I remembered Marahuna; she had entirely slipped my memory in the stupor of the discovery. I quickened my steps, and approached the narrow tongue of land above the weir.
The boat lay idly drifting in midstream, still secured to the willow. In the stern sat the girl: her face was towards me, her body leant back in easy negligence; one arm dabbled elbow deep in the cool water, and the other hand, clasping a dripping cluster of white lilies, played aimlessly in the air above her head. Was she mad? Had she not seen?
'Marahuna,' my low, hoarse accents broke the stillness, 'Marahuna! for God's sake wake up. Sir Reginald is drowned!' At my voice she raised herself, and standing upright looked towards me with a puzzled air; then moving quickly to the prow she began to draw in the rope. In a few moments more she emerged through the willows, and with my assistance reached the land.
She looked at me inquiringly.
'Marahuna,' I said, 'don't you know? Good God! Sir Reginald—'
'Ah!' Like lightning the gleam of memory shot across her face. She cast a glance down-stream, then at her flowers.
'Yes, Sir Reginald—I had forgotten.'
'He is dead—drowned—drowned!' I cried hoarsely, laying my hand upon her arm to shake her into humanness.
'He is dead? Ah, I am sorry.' Her downcast eyes fell on her lilies again. 'But my flowers!' she exclaimed with a smile that flitted through my heart like horror. 'I have got them after all, you see. My curiosity is satisfied, I suppose,' she continued gaily. Then, after a pause: 'It is strange that things should lose their value so soon without actually changing themselves. Curiosity satisfied grows cold and passes into indifference. It is a necessity.'
Speechless before the terrible fact of her heartlessness, I had listened vaguely to the flow of words, but as she paused again and looked up to me for comment my face arrested her.
'Why, what is it?' she cried. 'Oh, yes; I see. It is Sir Reginald. You spoke of him. I had forgotten in my excitement. He was swept down the river. I ought to have helped him out, should I not? But you know at the clash of two ideas the stronger gets the mastery. What has become of him?'
'Dead!' I said wearily, for I was sick at heart.
'Oh, yes; you said so. I am very sorry. It was stupid of me to have forgotten. These lilies have no fragrance. Why do you call them lilies? They are not at all like lilies. There is a want of order and accuracy in human affairs which seems to me to hinder progress; or, at the best, it will be blundering—what you call "rule of thumb," is it not? Why do you not—But it is useless asking until I have learnt the scheme of human nature—so different, so strange.'
Suddenly she flashed a glance at me again. 'Yes, I am very sorry. What are you thinking?' she asked, laying a hand upon my arm as I turned half away. 'Your face! I have not seen this before. Is this sorrow, or fear, or love?'
But, with a terrible sense of oppression, I shook off her hand and strode away down the stream. As I stopped beside the body I heard sounds in the distance, and, looking back, saw Hardy and three or four others coming quickly along. At the same time Marahuna, who had followed me in silence, slipped down upon her knees by the side of the body.
'Marahuna,' I said hoarsely, 'come away.' It seemed desecration that she should touch him.
But she heeded me not, and, closing one arm around the prostrate form, she smoothed out the water from his hair, and wiped from the pallid cheeks the glittering drops.
Hardy, who had now come up, went forward and took her gently but firmly away.
'Dead? He is dead?' I heard her repeat. 'I am sorry. Dead? dead?' as if she were trying the sound in various tones. 'Dead? Fear, or sorrow, or what? Dead?'
The news spread like wildfire, and a terrible gloom fell upon us all; the scene which ensued was dreadfully painful. We bore our burden slowly and reverently into the open space where the carriages were standing, and laid it gently down while the horses were being harnessed.
Suddenly a shriek went up from the fringe of the wood, and a woman's form rushed across the opening and fell upon the rude litter we had improvised. Bending her face over the dead man, Edith Sidmore kissed again and again the cold brows. Then she strove to raise herself, but the strain had been too great. A mistiness enveloped her, and with an agonised cry she staggered back into unconsciousness across the bier.
From behind me another form clad in blue stole silently and swiftly towards the fallen girl. I made half a step forward as if to stay her, but my action ended irresolute. She, too, threw herself beside the bier, and, lifting the unconscious girl into her arms, she caressed her with the soft soothing motion of her hands. Had she a heart after all? I wondered.
A few minutes elapsed, and, the girl opened her eyes, which fell in dazed wonder upon the other.
'Come,' laughed Marahuna in low sweet tones, 'you will forget. The ride home will be pleasant, and the air is fresh. To-morrow you will laugh.'
With a look of terror the girl shrank back upon the body of her cousin, and held up her arm as though to ward off some evil blow. A cold shiver ran through my bones. Hardy strode across towards the bier with closed mouth.
'That woman is a fiend!' he muttered through his teeth.
THE week which followed the dreadful catastrophe was terribly oppressive. Sudden death is, in reality, not more dreadful than any other death; in fact, it is often more merciful, less painful, and more welcome. Yet to the human mind there is, and always must be, a horror attaching to the swift despatch of a soul into eternity which is absent from a sick-bed death. The contrast between the two eternal verities is obtruded into sudden and terrible prominence. Fronting each other, they stand with but a hand's breadth between them. On this side life; on that death; and the transition is so rapid that we fail to follow it, and it is only slowly that our eyes wander from the steadfast gaze on life habitual to them to realise with a terrible intensity the presence of the great antagonist.
Ethel was very much shocked by Sir Reginald's death, but after the first burst of horror she kept very quiet. Her self-restraint was never visible more than now. Where many a girl would have recoiled instinctively from the idea of throwing herself into the atmosphere of grief now pervading the Hall, she never hesitated. Lady Edenhale had need of some assistance and comfort at this time of trial, for Miss Sidmore had sunk prostrate under the blow, and Ethel proved herself useful in a hundred ways to the bereaved mother.
Marahuna remained herself, and I shrank from probing any further into her consciousness in the hopes of arriving at a heart, which I had quite lost expectation of finding. She faced me with that awful serenity of which I was beginning to have a horror—inexplicable, passionless, terrible. At times I found myself shuddering at the inhumanness of her aspect; at other times a sense of infinite pity animated me. I avoided conversation with her, for I wanted time to think.
The disaster, as a beam flashed into the darkness which clings about our footsteps, seemed to have drawn Ethel nearer to me. At such times, when we become aware of the closeness of Death, we fancy we can feel his breath upon our faces, and shrink together for warmth and comfort, resolved that what remains of life shall be as full of love and brightness as may be; so Ethel and I clung closer to each other. Yet the uneasy burden of Marahuna hung heavily upon me, plying me with restless thoughts and vague imaginings; and at last I was driven to attempt once more to lay the ghost that troubled me.
The opportunity came soon. As the day slid softly into night in the still August air we were seated in the garden chairs upon the lawn. Ethel had just gone into the house.
'Does it not seem terrible?' I said suddenly. 'Little more than a week ago Sir Reginald was among us, and now he has been in his grave three days—the last of his race!'
'It is a little absurd, don't you think, to limit the race to the man?' she asked after a pause. 'I was reading but the other day of the motto on which this stupid fashion rests, "The woman closes the tree." Mulier—I forget the Latin. You have promised I shall learn that some day.'
'Why do you fix upon the trivial point in my sentence?' I replied. 'I was not thinking of that at all; you are absolutely without heart, Marie,' I added bitterly.
'Yes, yes, I know; but is not what I spoke of absurd? He has a sister, has he not?'
'Yes, a married sister.'
'Then she is of his race. Ah, you unreasoning world,' she went on, 'I don't know why I say unreasoning; it is want of instinct which causes such a folly, but then instinct and reason are the same.'
'Indeed they are not,' I said, seeing she was bent on thrashing out the grain, and curious as to the issue. 'If instinct were reason there would be less misery in the world? Is the instinct of anger or hatred reason?'
'Oh, I forgot. You do not understand,' as a sense of her deficiencies recurred to me. 'That is probably why you say they are the same. Perhaps—' A sudden inspiration illumined me; could this be the key to her character? On the whole it seemed probable. The identity of instinct and reason was at any rate a good hypothesis to work from.
I was recalled to my senses by her voice.
'I have really forgotten what I was going to say. Marahuna,' I continued, changing my tone, 'will you answer what I ask you, as well as you can? I want you to help me to understand you.'
'Yes, yes; I will do so. You shall understand me.' She laughed in her glee, leaning forward, her chin in both hands and her elbows on her knees as she looked into my face. 'It is what I too want. Go on.'
'Anger, sorrow, pity, jealousy, love—you have none of these. Am I right?' I asked, speaking slowly.
'Yes, I don't know what they are, any of them.' She paused as if searching her soul for evidence, 'No, none of them.'
'Then when we feel one of these sentiments what do you feel? For example, Sir Reginald is drowned. We are all devoured with horror and grief. You—you do not seem to feel it at all. Why is this?'
She hesitated, looked thoughtful yet serene, and then turning swiftly to me again, said—
'Tell me why it is you feel thus.'
I reflected: 'Very well, that will perhaps be the best way, Marie. You must follow, and see if my reasons consort or conflict in your mind.'
'Yes,' she cried eagerly.
Even at that moment, intent as I was upon unravelling the skein of her nature, the weirdness of our position struck me in full dramatic force. Two beings of two separate worlds, face to face, struggling to come within touch of each other; but a step between them, and yet whole worlds apart. An infinite sea of difference separated us, over which we strove in vain to travel. Betwixt us so close together, as we were, there rolled an unfathomable ocean, the beating of whose waves was but an eternal silence, for the sound was as babble, incomprehensible and unintelligible. On the single point of intellect we were akin; in all else alien, strange, mysterious, the one to the other. Yet surely now, if effort could accomplish it, we should pierce this cloud of mystery, secure some little peephole whence we might overlook each the other's world. I was determined to do my best.
'To die is, as far as we are aware, to pass into nothingness, to become non-existent. It is true that hopes are held out to us that this is not the case; some of us think indeed that we have certain promise of existence beyond the gates of what we term death. But for all practical purposes, whether from absolute disbelief in such hopes, or inability to make them working truths, death remains non-existence. To die is to cease to be.'
'Yes, I follow you,' replied the girl gravely.
'Death, therefore, means the dissolution of all the happiness we experience in life. Everything which constitutes enjoyment in our state of existence is abandoned on entering the state of non-existence, or at best of dubious existence. To die is therefore a misery, an evil, a calamity. Do you hold to that?'
'It is an evil,' she murmured.
'An evil to be shrunk from, and avoided; very well then. When therefore you see someone, a fellow creature, going down to death, entering upon this unenviable state, it is a matter for regret, for sorrow.'
'How?' she cried quickly; 'I do not see. This is where we differ. How? tell me how. We shall find out everything.' The glad smile died away into the great thoughtfulness of her former mood.
'This is how,' I answered after a short consideration. 'The sight of a misfortune (you admit it to be that) happening to a fellow creature evokes in us by the law of association the action of those feelings which we ourselves would experience if we were undergoing the misfortune. In other words, we place ourselves unconsciously and involuntarily, in obedience to a natural impulse, in the position of the sufferer, and the pangs of fear and sorrow—no, I will only say the pangs—and the pangs he would feel we feel by the power of sympathy.' I stopped again. 'I have gone too far.'
'No, no, you are all right. I see how it is; it is this. You say you transfer to yourself the feelings he would experience. What are those feelings, and why would he experience them?'
'Well, in the simplest case they are fear and sorrow; fear, because of the unknown before him; sorrow, because of the pleasant past behind him, from which he is parting.'
'Fear of the unknown?' she repeated. 'I know it not. Sorrow for the parting? I know it not.'
'What,' I said, 'did you not say that death was an evil to be struggled with and avoided?'
'Then is it not to be struggled with for fear of the unknown?'
'Not to me.'
'For sorrow at leaving life, then?'
'Why, then, do you struggle with death?'
'To keep a hold upon life and its realities.'
'And if you lose your hold, you would sorrow surely?'
'Sorrow? You mean disappointment, what we have spoken of before?'
'Disappointment!' I echoed. 'Yes—no—well, that is too weak a word. Baffled desire lies at the basis of disappointment as it does at that of sorrow; but the former is to the latter what a whim is to a passionate desire, what a passing intellectual possibility is to a settled conviction. Sorrow is such as I have attempted to explain, and sympathetic sorrow is a reflected condition.'
'I know disappointment; I do not know sorrow.'
'Cannot the disappointment of others, then, be reflected into your mind? Can you not sympathise with them?'
'There is no reflection.'
'Nor reflection of fear?'
'Nor of fear. I do not know it by reality or by reflection.'
'Nor of anger?'
'Nor of anger.'
'Nor of pity, nor hate, nor love?'
'Nor of pity, nor hate, nor love,' murmured she, in tones from which all expression had vanished.
So the colloquy ended.
The notion suggested to me concerning the identity of instinct with reason supplied me with a new starting-point, from which I set out with renewed vigour. But after working steadily at the theory involved in this hypothesis, and elaborating modes of conduct and character consistent with it, I was forced to abandon the plan. In part it seemed applicable; in part it was not. I soon saw that I should have to relinquish the a priori form of inquiry and work along the old lines.
That Marahuna was devoid of the great human emotions was clear, as it was no less clear that she was possessed of some minor feelings. Indeed, for a creature lacking large passions she was singularly impulsive and wayward; and yet with it all she owned the keenest intellectual insight I had ever seen in woman, or man either for the matter of that. She was a strange complication of inconsistencies, though no doubt, to one possessing the right key, harmonisable and intelligible enough.
Fear springs from the necessity of the struggle for existence. The sentient organism, encountering some alien experience, some objective influence not cognised or utilised by it, has impressed on it a certain πάθος—feeling it can scarcely yet be called—and that πάθος is the germ of fear, as it also is the germ of elementary anger and hate. The growth of subjectivity is slow and gradual. Originally we can conceive a vast objective universe existing at one uniform power, invariable. Then, under the operation of some agency—a creative power if you like—subjectivity dawns by slow degrees upon part of the objective universe, and the growth of life can henceforth be measured by means of the relation between the subjective and the objective. The πάθος, nameless and rudimentary, which is, mathematically speaking, represented by that relation or ratio is specialised by this growth into different directions; it becomes a compound and a complex, ratio, and other πάθη arise which represent fear, anger, and hate in the germ. Now if Marahuna were wanting in these simple and primary feelings, as she certainly was, the lack must be due to the non-development, or rather abnormal development, of the original πάθος. Doubtless. Pity too, inasmuch as it is dependent upon reflected fear, its prime constituent, is debarred her. You cannot pity if you cannot fear. If you do pity in such a case, it is through an intellectual conception, and is not a feeling.
When I had got thus far I stopped. The difficulty seemed to be solved, so far as mere analysis can solve. All the simple emotions springing from the action of the first of Nature's two grand fundamental laws, namely, the law of conservation, of self-defence, were excluded from her character, and with them all the complex emotions, sentiments, and feelings so far as they are compounded of these simple feelings. It may have been the potency of the original germ, or else the eccentricity of environment, which had given rise to this diversity.
The more I reflected over this hypothesis, the more pertinent did it appear. She had curiosity; her curiosity was independent of emotion, an outcome of the aesthetic feelings merely. The aesthetic feelings she had, but not the aesthetic emotions, which would have involved the introduction of the basal emotions. Again, the possession of pride and of vanity was not in conflict with the absence of emotions; for pride is a child of the intellect, and comes into being as an after-issue of the great struggle for first existence, then supremacy; and vanity is begotten by the instinct of sex upon the aesthetic feelings. Ambition, too, flows readily from these.
But there yet remained the emotions of love and jealousy. Should I find that as in the case of the first great natural law, so in regard to the second, also on which depends the permanence of the race, organic life within the fire-circle had encountered a various development? I could hardly imagine so, for the conditions of all life seemed to insist upon the catholicity of that law. Yet I was free to confess that I had discerned no signs of capacity for love in Marahuna, and if not of love, still less of jealousy, its intermittent concomitant.
The two great peculiarities in her nature were the state of trance or syncope into which she fell rarely, and the ecstatic condition she had developed lately. The syncope appeared to take the place of our disappointment, and so in a way might stand as the substitute of sorrow also. The ecstatic condition, on the other hand, was quite as probably an extreme case of gratification, the running riot in her of the triumphant feeling to which she was so prone.
Thus, then, must the matter rest. The point which appeared most nearly to concern us at present was one of ethical interest, and was, in effect, this, that Marahuna was not responsible for the conditions of her life. She must work out her own destiny in accordance with the laws of her own being. Such laws might be repugnant to us, but we were not to impute their objectionableness to herself. This was only justice.
The immediate incidents encircling Marahuna's connection with the tragedy at the picnic were known only to Hardy and myself; that is to say, we did not reveal the terrible disregard and heedlessness she had shown, to which the young baronet practically owed his death. But her indifference and want of feeling could not fail to be evident to everyone who came in contact with her after the accident; so that, though her secret was kept, her own behaviour to a great extent neutralised the secrecy. In Ethel, for example, who was thrown so intimately into communion with her, there sprang up an aversion, at which I was much concerned. Women have a way of feeling strongly, if they feel at all. There can be no compromise for them between like and dislike; if they do not love they hate, and vice versa. The calm and steadfast neutrality which is attainable by men, as a rule, defies a woman. Ethel had never quite taken to Marahuna. Her attitude, as I had now and then perceived, was more one of endurance than of satisfaction. Sense of duty was very strong in her, and made her kind and attentive towards the stranger, but it could not make her affectionate or sympathetic; there could indeed be no sympathy between natures so diverse. This germ of repugnance had grown gradually, and the events of the last fortnight brought matters to a climax.
'It is not,' said she, 'that I dislike her; I do not feel any dislike. It is a feeling of repulsion I experience, and so strong is it that I sometimes wish I had never seen her. I suppose her coming among us could not be helped; it is one of those things we must believe to be ordered for us; but,' she added, with a sigh, 'she is an extraneous element in our lives, which will flow none the smoother for her presence.'
Ethel had grown quieter since the catastrophe. Her tone was subdued, her voice had lost some of its old buoyancy, her character some of its gay vitality; she spoke less and thought more. Not only so, but a veil of reserve had fallen across her nature, and I missed many of the frank sincerities in which she was accustomed to indulge. Her affection was abiding and firm, I knew, but it contained now a suspicion of reserve and withdrawal I had never encountered before. That we were drawn closer together by the apparentness of death, I have already mentioned; but Ethel's appreciation of this greater proximity expressed itself not so much in outward manifestations as in internal concentration. Occasionally I caught her looking at me with an expression that possessed a novelty and a strangeness. It was a look of affection in which sadness had place; a glance in which yearning was blent with something that was almost entreaty.
'My darling,' I said, 'you must not think anything of the sort. I too am inclined to wish she had not come to England; but that is for another reason. Yours is only a sentimental one, without any real basis. However, I hope Marie will soon be settled in life. I have been thinking,' I added, 'that it would not be a bad plan to send her to the Continent for a time. She would like to see something of foreign life.'
'Really, Percy? I think she would like it.'
'I'm sure she would, for she has often said she would like to see more of the world. Some nice friend might be found with whom she could journey about for a twelvemonth or so. Then your mind would be relieved of a bogey, you silly girl.'
'There is no bogey while I have you, Percy,' was her smiling reply.
Indeed, in those days she now and then threw off the constraint which clung to her I knew not why—and when she did so exhibited a tenderness even greater than she had been wont to show. In moments of outlet such as these, her whole soul flooded out into her face, and gave her caresses a passionateness unknown to the proud Ethel of old.
I spoke to Marie about the project, and the idea pleased her very much; she became quite anxious to go. It was a little disappointment to think that she felt so willing to leave us, but then it was only natural for her, who did not know what affection was.
'You would be glad to leave us?' I asked.
'Leave you? I should be sorry to leave you, of course,' she answered, checking her smile.
She had wonderful powers of adaptability. Who could tell that she did not know the meaning of her words? As I stood looking at her I could not prevent a thought passing through my mind. Could she be loved? Could anyone with the full knowledge that she has no affection to bestow in return lavish the subtlest emotion of his nature upon her? She was but as a living marble statue, majestic, queenly, joyous, heartless. A cruel woman would be far more hopeful material to work upon, for in her is a capacity for change. But Marahuna could be nothing but what she was; must remain untouched by the merest wave of emotion, undisturbed by the slightest breath of passion. With all this to face him could a man yield up his heart to her? When I turned my face away I cried 'No.' But when my eyes returning wandered round the majesty of her form, and over her lovely face, catching the reflected fire of her gaze, I shuddered inwardly and breathed the answer, 'Yes, for fascination is above reason.'
'Have you arranged anything with Marie about the Continent?' inquired Ethel some few days afterwards.
'No, I have just mentioned it to her,' was my answer.
'Don't you think it would be a good plan to see about it soon?' she continued. 'This is the right season, you know, and everyone is going abroad.'
'Oh, there's no hurry,' I remarked; 'later will do.'
'Wouldn't she like to go now?'
'I dare say. There's really no necessity to make any arrangements. I'll see about it directly.'
I was in fact a little inclined to think Ethel at fault in giving way to this antipathy. The secret of Sir Reginald's death was known only to Hardy and myself, so that she could not be biassed by that. Her repugnance resulted in Marahuna being left a good deal to herself, for Mrs. Wharncliffe was little of a companion. But she was happy enough, for she had taken up the study of botany, in which she was making rapid progress. I used to give her lessons pretty regularly, and was astonished, though by this time I should not have been, at the quickness with which she gained acquaintance with the subject.
One morning I walked over to Ildermay, a village two or three miles off, to call upon a college friend, who was staying there. Hardy offered to accompany me for the walk. The day was fine and still, and we soon covered half the distance. Hardy had never been so bright and talkative. He had some prospect of a ship, he informed me, which accounted for his gaiety. Presently we came to speak of Marahuna.
'When is she going to the Continent?' he asked, for I had told him of the project.
'Nothing is settled yet,' I answered.
'Oh!' he exclaimed, adding, 'I think it would be a very good plan for her—for you all.'
It flashed through my mind that Ethel must have been talking to him about it, but the next second I dismissed the idea as absurd. Ethel was too reserved to express her real feelings even to an old friend.
'It would be a good thing for you all,' he repeated, as I said nothing.
'Why for all?' I asked.
'Well, she would see more of the world, and it might have an alterative effect upon her character.' He hesitated, and his face assumed that sombre expression which I knew to indicate resolution. 'And it would be a good thing for you.'
'For me?' I cried, a little nettled at his tone.
'Yes, for you,' he repeated quietly, 'and for Miss Wharncliffe.'
'What do you mean?'
He did not answer directly, but looked me in the face. 'Don't you remember, Grayhurst, what we agreed some time ago—that she was dangerous. Well, I say it again, and this time with greater force. She is dangerous. She has proved so, more than dangerous to poor Edenhale; she is likely to prove so to you.'
'Why, what on earth is all this about?' I asked in genuine irritation. 'Do you think I'm likely to meet my death through the girl?'
'No, but to speak plainly, I think you are likely to fall in love with the girl.'
'In love with Marahuna? Upon my soul, Hardy,' I answered angrily, 'that is a nice charge to make against me. What do you mean? Is there the faintest reason for your supposing I am likely to make a fool and a knave of myself?'
'Yes,' he replied with calm bluntness; 'very good reason. Not only I, but others have noticed you. Now just look at it coolly, Grayhurst. It must be plain to a man of observation like yourself, if you will only reflect, that you have devoted more of your time and attention to Marahuna than is quite necessary. You go with her more, you study her wants, and—and—well, and you are sensibly neglecting the person whom it is your duty to consider first.'
'And I am to learn my duty from you? When other people have grown as sensitive as you, I will come to you for advice, and not till then.'
He bit his lip. 'Other people are as sensitive. You must have seen that Miss Wharncliffe has noticed this. She feels your neglect.'
'My neglect?' I broke out indignantly. 'I wonder she feels that with so very good a substitute as she has procured.'
'What do you mean, Grayhurst?'
'My dear Hardy,' I returned with a short laugh, for I was intensely angry, 'only this—that advice to abstain from falling in love comes badly from yourself. You cannot find fault with me for growing in the same soil as yourself.'
His face flushed crimson in the sunlight, and then grew pallid. 'If you have thought so, your indifference proves my point,' he answered hoarsely, and turning on his heel he left me.
I continued my walk in no pleasant mood. A pang of remorse crossed me for having spoken as I had done, but I told myself that he had deserved it for interfering in so annoying a manner, and for making such outrageously unworthy suggestions. I had, however, no time to think about it, as I passed the day with my friend, and did not get back till dinner-time.
At dinner Hardy, who was very quiet, announced that he must go up to town in the morning. I was not surprised, though rather staggered to realise that this was the outcome of our quarrel. Mrs. Wharncliffe, who had grown fond of him, was much concerned that his visit should end so soon.
That evening I was in my room preparing for bed, when I heard a knock at the door.
'Come in,' I shouted, and Hardy's voice replied—
'It's I, Grayhurst.'
He entered, and advancing towards me with an embarrassed expression said—
'I wanted to settle that matter we were speaking of to-day.' His tone was low and earnest. 'I am leaving to-morrow morning, but it was necessary that you should understand before I go. What you spoke of to-day was entirely without foundation. You must have made a wrong inference. I want you to understand that there is no truth in your—your charge. Grayhurst, do you understand me? It is not the case. Another thing, if you wish to have happiness in your future household, get rid of this girl. You may not be in love with her,—don't flare up—but at least misconstruction is possible, and the wiser course is to prevent this possibility.'
'Thanks for your advice,' I replied lightly, 'I don't take the same view of the matter.'
'I am sorry. Good-night.'
He went out. I opened the door after him.
'Yes.' He came back.
'What I said this morning was on the impulse of the moment; don't pay any attention to it.'
He grasped my hand. 'You don't think it?'
'Good night, old fellow.'
He turned away and I closed the door.
HARDY took his departure next morning, and I alone knew the reason. I was very fond of Hardy, and felt extremely sorry that he had been constrained to break off his holiday. It caused me some twinges of conscience that a display of hasty temper on my part had had the effect of hurrying him into a retreat.
The 'charge' I had made had been on the spur of the moment, and I had repented almost immediately of my ungenerous impulsiveness. At the same time I could not fail to see that there was foundation for it, and Hardy's protest in my room had not deceived me as it had evidently deceived himself. His withdrawal too was almost a confession of the truth of my statement, which, however, I would now have given something to have left unsaid. Impulses are at best uncertain monitors, especially as they have the knack of asserting their own infallibility. The sparks that fly from the red heat of inconsiderate emotion possess at least the possibility of being dangerous.
I had felt extremely angry at what I considered Hardy's gratuitous suggestions in reference to my interest in Marahuna, nor did my annoyance cool down quickly. During the whole of the day succeeding his departure his words recurred to me with an ever-increasing sense of irritation. He had no right to suggest such a possibility, I told myself over and over again. There was not the shadow of a justification for it, and in anyone else I should have suspected wantonness as dictating the charge. Though I withdrew and apologised for my own ungenerous speech, his still rankled in my mind, intact, obtrusive, obnoxious. But Hardy was so thoroughly good-hearted and earnest that I was forced to acknowledge him sincere in his warning. Nay, more, it must have been a strong necessity which drove him to break through the reserve which usually encrusted his nature.
'What earthly reason has he for such a preposterous statement?' I cried again and again. 'The interest I have in Marahuna is perfectly natural and perfectly intelligible. A man like Hardy is so bound to the grindstone of common-place duty that he cannot find room in his conceptions for a reasonable interest and sympathy in a case like this.'
He had said that Ethel felt my neglect—could this be? I repudiated the idea in an instant, but next moment it loomed through my thoughts again like an unlaid ghost. Was it possible that Ethel had taken some such foolish fancy as this, and that hence Hardy's suspicions had been turned into the channel they took? It was certainly possible, and when I reflected over the matter again it seemed to me that some such fancy might be the solution of Ethel's constraint. I fancied sometimes that she had a capacity for being exigeante, and yet—In a burst of frankness, I told myself that I had been to blame. My interest in the girl was undoubtedly great, and had led me to devote a large proportion of my time to her. It was only an interest such as one who was acquainted with the mysteries of her history would be justified in feeling; but perhaps it seemed excessive to those who were ignorant of those mysteries.
There was no truth whatever in his charge. Yet with a certain doubt I caught myself repeating the words 'fascination,' 'infatuation,' which had from time to time been present in my mind in regard to her. Good heavens! surely there was no truth in it. With a tremor in my soul I recalled the awful ecstatic power she possessed, and the fear laid passing hold on me that my great interest in her might be the unconscious outcome of this psychic force. But soberer thought induced me to throw off such idle fears. She had powers of fascination certainly, but their exercise was but temporary, their effect transient. My interest was peculiar and absorbing, but it was not due to fascination; it sprang from the unique conditions of our acquaintance. Perhaps lately I had not given as much of my time to Ethel as heretofore; yet I could honestly say that my affection for her was not the least bit on the wane. On the contrary, I felt at times even more tenderly towards her than I had ever done. It was only the arresting character of this strange pursuit which had led me away from the normal path of true love—an aberration due to a paramount mental occupation, and not to a growing cross-affection.
Nevertheless, an uneasy feeling lurked in my heart as the result of all this introspection. Intellectually I thought I had demonstrated the truth of my denial, but feeling is a flitting ghost not to be banished by common sense or logic. It is too unsubstantial and intangible for bodily ejection, and eludes the grasp of resolution like an empty shadow. The issue of my deliberations was a studied neglect of Marie and a fastidious attention to Ethel. Now and then the doubt occurred to me that this was acknowledged cowardice on my part, an open confession of the possibility of falling in love with the girl. But, steadying myself on my regret for the consequences of my misconstrued action, I adhered faithfully to the plan which I had adopted.
Meanwhile lapse of time did something to restore happiness to the temporarily troubled household. Ethel's face assumed by degrees its bright aspect, and her wit made occasional sallies in somewhat her old style. She was not yet wholly recovered from her mood—just a trace of an indefinable something lingered in her smile, giving to it often an enigmatic meaning not wholly satisfactory. Still we bade fair to resume our old relations as they existed before the serenity of life had been marred by sudden death. My neglect did not seem to affect Marahuna. She went on with her botanical studies with energy, and was often discovered lost in the pages of Darwin or Sachs. I had quietly begun to make arrangements for her trip to the Continent. I had spoken to her once again about it, and as she still showed herself anxious, to go, I took her willingness as authority for opening negotiations. At this time I was clearing the ground.
'Percy, would you care to have a walk this afternoon?' asked Ethel after lunch; 'for, if so, papa and I have to go over to Coombe Braydon to visit old Mrs. Thomas, and you might come with us.'
'Of course I'll come. But why need "papa" go? Can't you and I accomplish the mission?'
'No, sir, we can't unfort—I mean, we can't,' she said with a slight flush. Whence had she learnt to colour so much lately? 'Mrs. Thomas is very ill, and it is necessary for papa to go. I am taking him there, in fact.'
'Oh, very well. When do we start?' I asked.
'As soon as papa is ready.'
'Why should we not walk ahead, Ethel?' I inquired slily. 'Is there any strenuous reason against such a piece of impropriety?'
Her face flushed again, and her eyes brightened with a radiance I saw too seldom in them now.
'I think there is,' she said demurely.
'And what, pray?'
'That papa does not know the way through the fields.'
'Bother the thing!'
'Pray, you wicked fellow, no bad language. You are incorrigible.'
'It's so relieving to the feelings,' I pleaded.
She moved off, but as she did so I caught her hand. She looked at me with a little wondering smile, as she paused arrested, unresolved whether to pull it from me or not. As she stood with those dewy eyes of hers fixed hesitatingly on me a sudden impulse seized me. I lifted the hand to my lips, and held it there for a second, with what inward reverence none can know. She was pure as the purest flower, tender as the starlight, sweet as the June rose, gracious and patient and steadfast as saint and queen. What a gulf between us! What was I but a petty creature wrapped in his own selfish ideals? and she the very embodiment of womanly perfections! Was there a king or angel fit to do her honour? Yet (with a revulsion of feeling) she belonged to me. Quick as a flash I opened all the inlets of my being to admit this grand overpowering thought with its flood of consequences. Impetuously, even roughly, I drew her to me (for she still stood at arm's length), and beneath my passionate caress her face flushed like the sky at dawn. Yes, she was mine!
As she turned to go, released and confused from my arms, a rustling in the curtains of the window attracted our attention. We had fancied we were alone. Marahuna's glance swept curiously out from beneath her lowered eyelids.
Glowing with embarrassed shamefacedness, Ethel slipped from the room, and looking up a second afterwards I found the eyes still intent upon me. For want of something to break the awkwardness of the silence I approached her.
'What are you reading, Marie? I didn't know you were here.'
'I thought you knew?' There was no amusement in her face, quietude only wrestling with thought. 'It is "Elsie Venner."'
'Where did you get it?' I asked, with a sudden doubt.
'I bought it in London,' answered she, looking beyond me through the open window.
I felt queerly disposed to seize upon it and hide it from her, for an unreasonable fear was upon me. But then her gaze wandered to me again, and burnt with a suppressed eagerness.
'She followed out her destiny,' she murmured.
Disquieted beneath her glance I turned and hastily left the room, wondering at my own nervelessness.
Ethel and I waited at the gate for the Vicar, and as he did not come, we walked slowly on. Presently he joined us, but not alone.
'I have persuaded Marie to come also,' he said. 'It is better than stuffing yourself up in a room all day, my dear. "Elsie Venner" will keep, I dare say.'
I shot a glance at her, quiet, almost subdued. Why had she come? I felt like a man who has discovered an error in an elaborate calculation.
'It is rather a long walk. Are you sure you feel equal to it, Marie?'
She smiled quietly. 'I don't tire easily.'
Ethel looked puzzled. 'Marie is a much better walker than I, Percy.'
'It looks very heavy over the downs,' said Mr. Wharncliffe. 'I do hope it won't rain.'
'There is thunder in the air, I think; but it will not, I fancy, develop before the night.'
Presently we emerged from the fields upon an open stretch of moor, leading up to a wooded valley. Gradually we crept up the hillside along the tortuous road through the wood, and in half-an-hour we were at the top of the hill overlooking Malthorpe on the one side, and Graveldene on the other.
Coombe Braydon was not so much a village as the remains of a village. Situated on the summit of the downs, about three miles from Graveldene, and four from Malthorpe, it was in a measure isolated, and, though evidently once populous, consisted now merely of half-a-dozen cottages. Five of these were together; one stood apart on the verge of a slope. It was to this last that we now directed our steps.
'I'm really afraid it looks like rain,' said the Vicar again, with an anxious glance at the gathering clouds. The air was very still, the clouds motionless and ominous; it did look threatening.
'You will wait for us, you two,' said he, opening the little garden gate. 'We shall probably be some little time, so you will have time to look about you. You might walk along the Coombe,' he added, pointing down towards Graveldene.
'Don't go too far, so as to be caught in a shower, said Ethel. She smiled at me, and nodding brightly, tripped after her father down the path.
I made a half movement to stop her, but it was almost involuntary, and quite abortive. Marahuna was waiting quietly when I turned round.
'Do you want to follow?' she asked placidly.
'No,' I replied in some irrational confusion.
'What shall we do?'
'I don't care. Mr. Wharncliffe said something about the Coombe. Perhaps we had better try that, as they are sure to be some time.'
We passed down a steep descent by means of a narrow track fit only for a bridle-path. Sometimes the bushes grew so close over the path (so little was the track used) that I experienced some difficulty in pushing through them. The way was abrupt and uneven in parts; all about us lay rough boulders and shingle, on which it was not easy to avoid slipping. Surging through a gap between two briar bushes which blocked the path, I stopped half-way to part them for my companion, who followed close at my heels. One of the long elastic branches, twitching from my clutch, flew back as she approached, and struck her. The thorns pierced her cheek, and a red bead marked the wound.
'I'm awfully sorry,' I cried, instinctively jumping forward to her. She had not even winced, but swept the branch aside and moved through.
'It is nothing,' she said abstractedly.
She did not appear to waken from her thoughtful mood. Throughout the afternoon she had spoken little, and an absorbed look possessed her face.
'Did it not hurt you?' I asked in surprise.
'No—yes, I suppose so,' she answered vacantly; then, seeming to remember, she put up her hand to her cheek, and brought away a little red stain. She glanced at it, then smiled in my face like an evanescent sun-flash, and next second was once more wandering through the tangled webs of reverie.
The sky grew darker overhead. To the north, like a black shadow a cumbrous storm-mass clouded the horizon. The stillness grew oppressive; not a leaf stirred in the twigs; the noise of our motion through the brushwood was the only sound.
A heavy drop fell on my face; I heard the leaves crackling on each side of the path. Then a low rumble broke from the furthest masses, and gathering strength swept along the phalanx of clouds with a furious rush. Just over our heads the heavens seemed to burst asunder. A flash opened up the black firmament, and then another peal echoed along the line. Like a troubled sea the storm-wrack heaved up from its lower margin, and rolling over towards us boomed forth a terrific cannonade. A dense shower of rain succeeded; the storm was upon us.
'We cannot remain out here,' I said hurriedly. 'We were foolish to have come in face of the prospect. We must find shelter somewhere; it is too far to go back.'
We had descended some distance down the steep slope. On one side of what practically was a small ravine the hill slanted gently; on the other, abruptly. The abrupt descent was broken here and there by a precipitous wall of rock. A quantity of loose stones, as from a natural quarry, lay scattered about the ravine, and gave it an appearance of wildness.
Hurrying along the more open swards in search of some shelter, my eye caught sight of a recess under one of these perpendicular rock-facings. It would do till the shower was over, at any rate. On reaching it I was surprised and delighted to find the recess opened out beyond into a cave of fair dimensions. We crept into the dim light of the interior, and, sitting on a projecting ledge, waited for the storm to abate.
The cave in which we found ourselves seemed to be about thirty or forty feet in length, but darkness shrouded the furthest recesses, and it might have been longer. The floor was of rough shingle, which rattled beneath our feet whenever we moved. Marahuna sat on the ledge of rock some twenty feet from the entrance, which was narrow and, owing to an oak tree which blocked up the view, let in little light. I leaned back on the loose stones a few paces from her and tried to make out the contour of the cavern. Outside the rain fell heavily through the oak leaves, which brushed against the mouth of our retreat.
A sombre silence pervaded the atmosphere; the falling raindrops were the only sounds audible between the rumblings of the distant thunder. A feeling of heaviness and constraint was upon me—I could not say why. Tired of listening to the rain I turned my eyes inward once more and let them wander through the space, where I dimly discerned her sitting; for the light was so faint, and the sky outside had grown so black, that all was enveloped in obscurity. Presently I perceived that she was looking across at me; I flushed in the darkness self-consciously, and stammered—
'I'm afraid we're regularly caught in a hole!'
She laughed with a joyousness which arrested my attention, but said nothing.
'I ought not to have been so foolish as to lead you into this strait. I am always leading you astray, Marie; some demon seems to possess me when—'
I bit my lip and stopped. A wild unexplained terror leapt through my heart.
A sudden cry broke from my companion.
'What is that? Look!'
She had risen from her seat, and I dimly saw her finger pointing down the cave towards the mouth. A flash of white fire gleamed along the horizon in the valley below. Three times it was repeated, and a mocking burst of thunder cleft the heavens around.
'Lightning, only lightning!' I answered.
But she remained standing for a moment, and then advanced swiftly towards the entrance. I followed with uneasy heart.
'Come in, Marie; it is dangerous for you.'
'For me? ha!' she laughed me almost to scorn, and slowly turning her head looked back into my face. At that instant another flash of light lit up the sky and illumined every line of her face. A new fit was upon her. The eyes were full of fire; her features glowed as I fancied with some emanation; her lips harboured an exultant smile. As the thunder crashed out again the reverberations echoed round my brain till I grew dizzy, and a blankness fell over the eyes, save for a face that danced across them in misty splendour. I crept slowly to my seat far in the dim recesses.
For a second she paused as if uncertain; then, casting one glance into the open, turned and came quietly up the cave.
'It is very picturesque,' she said, with a relapse into her former self.
'It certainly impresses one with a sense of power,' I replied, leaping back into my old mental attitude. 'Are you cold?'
I drew near and felt her hand; an expression of deep thought was on her face. She scarcely seemed to notice me; I lingered; then the smile grew quickly through the cloud of thought.
'Ah, it was you,' she cried, 'that lightning flash recalled. I could not think. It was fire against the sky, fire glowing in the heavens—and you.'
Another burst of thunder. I threw myself down upon the shingles again. The cave which had been lighter for a time grew dark and misty; I could just see her outline in relief against the light from the mouth; she seemed to be standing; she had turned her face towards me; her arms were extended. I could not see; I strove to speak in the terrible silence, but the thunder again awoke the echoes. As it died away in a prolonged succession of murmurs, another sound filled the cavern. It was like the rushing of waves; it beat upon my brain like molten thought. Faster and faster the undulations crowded into my ears and overwhelmed me; I gasped for breath. I felt suffocated by sound, and yet there was no feeling of distress—only one of supreme happiness. I felt my heart panting and my face glowing. Involuntarily I rose to my feet; my eyes were blinded with mist and darkness, but through it all the form of that terrible girl was silhouetted upon my vision. Her face was full with some unearthly lustre, which illumined the darkness. Her arms were poised above her head, above her laughing eyes, her radiant face. With an agonised sense of powerlessness I felt myself stealing slowly towards her.
At this moment a thought of Ethel flashed through my mind and gave me strength. Bracing myself for a supreme effort I threw my arms across my eyes, and burst away down the cave, staggering upon the shingle till I gained the mouth.
Outside I paused. The rain still fell heavily, and bathed my burning face in cold dews. Far away to the north the sky was as black as night, and the thunder was making havoc of the clouds. As thought returned and I became calmer I reflected. Outside here under the cool raindrops I could scarcely realise what had taken place, and ridiculed my own nervelessness.
'What a fool I have been,' I thought. 'It is all nerves. I have had a vague dread of something all the afternoon, and the thunder has upset me. I have surely given way to fancy. There's nothing wrong.'
I passed my hand across my forehead and tried to picture it as a cloudy fancy, but my brain was too excited to think. The rain was soaking me through and through. I returned and stood at the cave's mouth in hesitation. Was it all fancy? Should I go in and battle down my feelings? I could just see her in the gloom seated in her old position, her head leaning upon her hand; nothing had changed. It must have been fancy. My brain still refused to grip ideas, and I stood bewildered. An experience of terrible moment neutralises its own effect.
Vaguely I remained half-sheltered from the heavy rain, watching the drops fall from the oak leaves. I thought of Ethel again, and wondered whether they would be anxious. Why had we not gone back to the village? The strain passed slowly away.
Suddenly the rain ceased, the clouds lifted, and a gleam of sunshine peeped out. A subtle feeling of relief overpowered me; it was all over. I turned into the cave and walked towards her with mingled dread and delight.
Still seated on the ledge of rock she was apparently sunk in reverie. She did not notice my presence.
'Marahuna, we may almost be going now.'
Her lowered face, was raised to mine, and the glory of her smile lighted up the dark recesses; she sprang to her feet.
'Going?' she repeated; 'would you go? You would not go?'
Then before my eyes the smile passed into her very being. Tenderness was in every lineament of her face. A flood of soft light streamed into her blue eyes, and round the corners of her voice went echoing laughter.
A fierce gladness seized hold of me; a furious intoxication possessed me. I was in the arms of some mighty power, which was whirling me I knew not—cared not whither. In the frenzy of my delight I laughed, and the echoes mingled with the soft music of her voice. A rush of wild yearning overpowered me and tossed me upon the flood of circumstance like a straw. I saw only that divine face, unhuman, unearthly, terrible, lovely beyond all thought. It was imaged in my very soul. When I closed my eyes it was there; it was engraven on my heart; it was before me. With a cry and a swift step forward the passion of my soul flowed out upon her; she was in my grasp. Trembling like an aspen leaf before the hot sirocco, I held her but one second thus, looking down upon her radiant face out of which the smile was dying. Then fiery as the breath of an oven, my kisses burned themselves into her lips and cheeks.
In my wild storm of passion I became conscious of a change. Her voice had ceased to murmur in my ears; from her eyes faded the fierce light of triumph. I looked down upon her; her face had grown quiet and wistful. But the passion was still strong in me.
'Marahuna!' I cried. 'Marahuna!' and pressed her closer to me.
'Ah, it is you!' she said softly. 'What then is this? What—what—Is this fear, or sorrow, or love?'
'Love,' I cried deliriously. 'It is love, my darling.'
'It is love,' she echoed smilingly; and throwing her arms about my neck she clung close upon me with the laughter of delight.
Her head rested upon my shoulder, and my eyes, bent close upon her, looked through hers. Even then I could not help noticing the wonderful change which had come over her. Beneath the lowing currents of fire which swirled across those deep blue orbs there beamed some wild tumultuous movement struggling for freedom. It was some yearning passion, like nothing in nature; it was not tenderness—rather had it an element of ideality, as I realised at one and only one grand moment of conception. Was it a soul wrestling into being? Was it a spark of that divine fire which differentiates the human race from all kindred evolutions? Was it the first peep into life of that essence, springing through the gap of circumstances like a startled fawn? All I know is that her face was so marvellously ethereal and so distinctively unhuman that I shrank back and held aloof in terror at the awful sight.
But she stood clinging to me murmuring softly—'Ah! I see it all now—the thought I have been striving to reach so long. It is love—love. I have awakened to new life; some strange vigour has come over me: this is the condition of my being. Ah, my love, my love! how is it that you love me? Is it with the red fire of passion? Is it with the heat of proud delight, with the fierce exuberance of a thousand complexities in power and exultation? Is it all this, or what is it? For it is so that I love you. My love devours me like the biting of flame. I will not think or reason of it, for it baffles thought to fathom its mysteries. It is enough to love. And I, who have flown down upon you out of the unseen, I have passed into your life, into your soul? Is it so? My love, do not draw from me for a space, till I have poured out upon you all the thoughts that are stirring in me.'
She paused, and then throwing her arms again about me she pressed her face hard upon my lips.
'Thus—thus shall I beat out my thoughts into yours. You shall see and unriddle me the dark riddle. No power can tear me from you, for, look, I have you close. But teach me, teach me, you who are wise; teach me the riddle of this world. Help me, help me, you who are powerful in thought; help me to grow fast into humanness. I am astray in the dark, and cannot find the light. You shall guide me to it. You shall lead me through the unknown ways of human thought and human feeling; I am above them all; I will come down to them. Take me through them; show me the secrets of all life. Search out the paths before me; let me not go down the ways of my life alone without you. Let our thoughts and hopes harmonise as our love; else you know not in what I may err, how I may go wandering from the track of your life and your laws. Bring me help, or I shall fall by the road; succour me ere it be too late, and the barrier grow mightier between us.'
I stood motionless, for the passion had worn itself out, and I felt now numb only and confounded. My heart still seethed with unutterable love, and my clutch grew tighter round the lovely form; but thought battled down feeling, and nature exhausted in one direction grew active in another. My thoughts were vague. I dimly thought of Ethel, and saw her face ever present to me; yet I only grasped my burden closer, powerless to resist even the dying effort of the passion. I was conscious that I was kissing her again, and murmuring words of love. But the stupor was carrying away my powers. I could make no movement which seemed to correspond with my thoughts and will.
Then she raised herself, and, releasing herself from my grasp, moved towards the entrance.
'We may go back now,' she cried. 'The storm is over; my love, my love!'
I followed her mechanically, and stepped out into the open air. Still I could not rouse myself. I knew what I was doing; that I was once more seizing her in my arms, was once more murmuring love, once more pouring kisses upon her upturned face. But my thought and will stood aside, like things bewildered, and watched my action spend itself as it might.
Swiftly we mounted the slope, and swiftly we gained the brow of the hill. By the time we reached the village I had somewhat recovered; the co-ordination of my will and my movements reappeared. When Mr. Wharncliffe and Ethel, who were waiting anxiously at the gate, joined us I was distrait and quiet—and that was all.
IT had come then after all; Hardy had proved right and I miserably wrong. I cannot describe the feelings of utter mental prostration with which I looked back upon the scene in which I had taken part. It is in the pauses of the fight that we become aware of the hideous dangers which surround us. While the struggle is itself in progress they escape our eyes, or at least their significance does; but at the moment of safety, or of respite, the terrible import of the environment out of which we have struggled, or in which we are resting, is borne in upon us with relentless distinctness as the blood grows cold.
From my vantage ground clear of the past ordeal, I could look back and realise its terrors and its consequences. An awful sense of spiritual desolation overcame me and numbed my energies. I shrank from the necessity of confronting the situation, now inevitably thrust upon me. Now and then I experienced an odd fancy, as if I had been merely a witness of the scene in the cave, and my disinclination to face the crisis found a weird satisfaction in this sensation. So peculiarly was I affected that, for what now appears to me an incredible space of time, my intellect remained in abeyance, nor made any effort to realise the unity of my being. That evening I was conscious I was abandoning myself with a recklessness—whether born of despair or springing from a failure to understand, I could not say. I indulged the mere impulses of my nature like a man who has not yet realised that the burden of responsibility belongs to him.
But the awakening came soon enough. As thought gained upon me a full intelligence of the position dawned on my wondering mind. In black letters the crisis confronted me; I had declared my love for Marahuna. For a time this idea was the only one which my perplexed senses would admit. Sometimes it was so paramount in my mind that its significance wore off, and it became merely a meaningless phrase of abstract interest, inapplicable in time or place. At other times, as I strove to concentrate my thoughts, its reality grew upon me in one aspect only, and residual passion reaped an aftermath of ecstasy. But bit by bit I forced myself to contemplate all the issues of the incident, and at last succeeded in realising everything.
I awoke next morning with a feeling of rest after struggle, and a consciousness that the rest was but a respite. Passion had died out in the long night-watches, and left upon me the chill of every-day duty.
I had fallen upon the doom which Hardy had prophesied, and which I, blind fool, had laughed at. Throughout the last few months I could have vowed, and with intense sincerity, that I took only a philosophical interest in Marahuna. Even now a conviction of this sort hovered unthought about me, for I was too entirely broken with shame to venture any exculpation to myself. It was clear beyond doubt that I had yielded to fascination, to a mad infatuation; that was clear. It was not real love; I did not think it could be. It could not—but what on earth availed such miserable analysis and explanation before the facts themselves? I had declared my love; whether it was fascination or a more ordinary form of love detracted nothing from the helplessness of the situation. Perhaps I had been drifting towards her and away from Ethel for months. It mattered nothing, for the end was all one. Yet this latter thought gave me more poignant grief than anything else. It was a trifle comforting to think that temporary fascination had wrought the mischief, and not a permanent change of affection.
Yet it might be a permanent change; it might be that I had unwittingly floated out from my safe harbourage upon the wild sea of unlawful reckless passion. The idea frightened me, for it gave a darker complexion to the whole affair; and at the same time I breathed more freely thus to rationalise my actions. But rationalisation was a farce in the memory of that awful scene. No. With the desperation of one who is clutching at his only means of safety I seized hold of the theory of fascination. It was fascination which had caused a temporary aberration. Thus in the stormy waters of distress I beat up to what seemed some holding-ground wherein to anchor.
But the question of greatest moment was not the settlement of this baffling problem; it concerned the means of remedy. There was but one course open to me, and I did not hesitate to bring it into view, though with a shrinking which came of shame and horror. I was engaged to Ethel. It was with great relief that I remembered she was ignorant of what had occurred. She should remain in ignorance; for not a word or deed of mine should suggest the possibility of my having given way to a momentary passion. If she had felt my neglect in the past and suspected in me a growing attachment for Marahuna, that was all over and gone; not a trace should remain to vex or distress her. She should know neither the terrible ordeal through which I had passed nor my failure under it. I must begin with a blotted out record.
On the one side I found satisfaction, but on the other lay the trouble. I had committed myself with Marahuna; I had told her that I loved her, and manifested all the most passionate symptoms of love. Nay, more; she loved me. However it could be, however weird and mysterious the fashion, however unearthly and peculiar the character of her love, she loved me; and as yet it was impossible to tell where her love would carry her. It was a terrible thing to have to face this fact, with the consciousness that it must not be. I should have to undo the mischief as far as it could be undone. That meant I must tell her—tell her! What was I to tell her? I had told her that I loved her: could I now tell her that I did not—that I had deceived myself and her? The idea seemed folly—was folly, and yet it was the only solution of the difficulty available. Matters must be rectified between us, and at once.
I spent a couple of hours in troubled deliberation, and when I came out of my room, it was with a settled plan in my head, and an intent resolve to carry it out.
During the morning I studiously avoided Marahuna. The post had brought me a letter from Hardy. He was still in hopes of a ship at no distant date. In his postscript he mentioned that a family he knew were on the point of going abroad, and that he thought they would be glad to have someone join their party as a companion to the daughter.
'Still pressing the matter,' I thought bitterly. 'You know me better than I know myself, Hardy.'
At lunch the conversation was very lively. Ethel was in good spirits, as indeed was everyone except myself; in view of the coming trial a sombre brevity characterised me. I tried to fall in with the general mood, but each time my glance caught Marie's unconscious smile my efforts faded away before the shameful irony of the position. I was rallied on my melancholy by Mr. Wharncliffe, so it must have been very patent, though Ethel forbore to draw attention to it.
'Why are you so silent, Percy?' she asked when we were by ourselves.
'Was I silent?' I replied, with affected carelessness; 'a mere passing mood, I suppose.'
'Nothing more? There is something, Percy, I'm sure,' she persisted, with a blending of womanly curiosity with womanly solicitude.
I drew her to me in an accession of tenderness. 'My darling, nothing, nothing! I cannot tell you now—no, it is nothing.' I kissed her quietly, and with a forced whistle passed away.
I walked slowly along the gravel drive, and turned off down the winding path that wandered into the furthest recesses of the grounds. Here, in a retired corner, within a clump of young elms, and under the immediate shadow of a weeping ash, was a quiet summer-house, which Marahuna haunted. It was her favourite resort in the afternoon, where she read and reflected during the warmer hours. Hither it was I went with the purpose of finding her.
I had guessed rightly; she was here. As I brushed aside the long streamers of the ash she lifted her face at the noise, and as she rose to her feet a volume fell from her knees upon the floor.
I stood in the open doorway, leaning with one arm against the post. Neither spoke for a time. Her figure was drawn up to its full height, and her face flushed magnificently. She held out her hand.
'I think I had better stay here,' I replied, as deliberately as I could.
'Must I then greet you in this way, too? I have kept silence, waiting till I should know what it is right to do. Is it thus I must greet you, then?'
My gaze drooped before her unconscious glory, and fell upon the crimson scarf girdling her waist, thence travelled to the ground. With a sense of confused deliberateness, I read the title of her book, 'Mill's Utilitarianism'; then I returned by way of the walls to her face.
'I have something to say to you.'
A pause, unbroken by any word on her part; but she let her outstretched arm drop loosely to her side, and relapsing into her seat, kept her eyes full ablaze upon me.
'Something which must be said—it is about yesterday.'
'Yes.' A deepening smile chased away the thought from her brow. Once more I became conscious of the flapping ash branches, and saw the light gleaming through the pale green leaves before the door.
'Yesterday,' I continued, with a distinctness which sounded harsh to my ears, 'I told you I loved you; I was betrayed into the expression of affection for you.'
'Ah, my dearest! Yes, yes, it was love. We have never spoken of it since; but now—you have slipped off the veil again, and are come again to say you love me. We have broken down the barriers between us; we have reached each a hand into the other's world; and I was wondering when I might let my love flow forth again. I have laid it to sleep softly. In the great fire of my heart there have been only smouldering ashes; for I could not gauge the humanness of my feeling, and have let it sleep gently. But now may it break loose once more? You loved me, you kissed me, and I clung close about you on that day. With the fierce quiver of a sudden birth-throe I leaped into new-born consciousness. You, not even you, can tell the exultation of my soul in its love, for you are human. Ah, come to me, my love; come!'
Even as she spoke she had risen from her seat, and, twining her arms about my neck, was clinging to me with great passionate eyes. Her outburst was more than I had anticipated, and I felt myself slowly losing the grip of resolution. Into my head at this moment came odd jumbled recollections of wise saws for disengaging the excited attention. I laughed bitterly at the terrible contrast between these inanities and the reality to be combated.
The gleam of earthly fancy occurring at this juncture probably saved me, for the echoes of my laugh seemed to awaken me to new vigour. I raised my arms quickly and disengaged her from about my neck. Holding her hands I looked her full in the face.
'What is this?' she cried a little curiously. 'Is this another phase? I do not recognise it.'
'No,' I replied bitterly; 'it is not another phase. But listen. How shall I tell you? Good heavens! how shall I tell you?'
'What?' responded she slowly. 'I do not understand. Is there something I do not yet know?'
'There is. Marahuna, I have betrayed you and deceived you. I said I loved you, and called you my darling. I do not love—no, God forgive me—I must not love you; you cannot be my darling. I—'
'What is all this? I do not understand.' Still with curiosity she stood her hands in mine, but my eyes would not meet hers. 'You do not love me? What does it mean?'
'I must not love you,' I answered sullenly. 'You cannot belong to me.'
'This is a strange thing. You said you loved me; you clasped me in your arms; and now—you cannot. You mean that your feelings have changed?'
'Yes,' I gulped out. 'It cannot be.'
'Ah, but you love me! This is some queer mood upon you I do not understand. You love me; yes, you love me!' she laughed in silvery tones. 'You love me. You cannot baffle me; you cannot cheat me in this. If you loved me not, why did you break in upon me with your passion?'
'Because you fascinated me. I was intoxicated by your beauty.'
'And what is fascination but love? I do not know the difference; it is surely a subtle one. Call it what you will, what you feel is still what you feel, and you cannot escape it—you cannot escape it.'
As she uttered these words again her light musical laugh rang out, carrying in it such a note of exultation that I trembled as if suddenly aware of a hidden danger.
'Why do you say that you do not love me?' she asked suddenly with what seemed a mild curiosity, as one would question a child.
'I must not love you,' I cried, burying my face in my hands.
'Must not?' she repeated wonderingly. 'You must not love me? It is some trick of yours. Look up, love, and see me,' she went on in careless rapture. 'I am yours, I whom you must not love, yours throughout time.'
Her soft hands were laid caressingly upon me, and her sweet breath warmed my cheek. With a sob I broke away, and sank into the corner of the seat.
'I must not love you.'
'Must not?' she cried again with untroubled eyes. 'It is a riddle hard to read. "You must not," is "You will not." Yet you do love. How is all this? I cannot see it.'
'Marahuna,' I said, for I felt I could stand the strain no longer, 'I must not love you because I am engaged to Ethel. I love Ethel. Think I was a knave, a fool, a scoundrel, a poor weak creature of impulse; think anything you will of me, only for God's sake give me back my love—give it me back. I did not mean it. I was besotted with passion; I was bewildered and dazed. It was your accursed beauty, your unearthliness to which I succumbed. Ah! be pitiful, and give me back my love. But, great God! you have no pity, no fear, love, love only,' My voice broke off in a convulsive tremor.
'No pity, no fear, love, love only. Ah, love, love only, and is not that enough? Does not that suffice? I have love; but how shall I give you back your love?' She stopped, and I was conscious even in my humiliation and despair that she was looking down upon me with an expression of deep thought.
'You love me, and you do not wish to love me; that, then, is it. You would take it back; that is your meaning. How can you do this? Feelings are not beneath the hoof of will as reason is. How should I give it back to you? You speak in metaphor, and your words are meaningless. You love Ethel?'
At this moment I could not forbear to cast a glance at her, for she had stopped again, and I knew not what was coming. She was looking at me with that serene thoughtfulness I knew so well, and in the background lurked a smile which dazzled me, so strangely out of place was it.
'It may be so,' she went on presently. 'I cannot say; perhaps human love is such as to admit it. It may be so. It is not so with me. Once, and once only, is the fire kindled; and when it dies out the fabric is shattered and falls in ruins. The fire that burns out destroys the soul in which it burns; that is the end. With you it is different, then?'
'Yes, yes,' I cried in an agony at her blindness to my trouble. 'It is not that. Perhaps we love once only, too. I cannot recollect; I am too troubled to think; I am not like myself. But it is not right for me to love you when I am bound in honour to Ethel. Do you not see, Marie—do you not see? Where is your keen intelligence that you do not?'
'It is not right for you to love me for Ethel's sake? Ah! You are bound to her, and I see it now. You love me, and you do not wish to love me because you wish to love her. So! I know that you are engaged to Ethel; that is because you loved her. But you do not now, and yet you would if you had the power, because you must. Then what will you do?'
She spoke calmly without a tremour in her voice, as if the matter were entirely apart from herself, and she an uninterested spectator. This encouraged me, and I struggled back to a manlier mood.
'You say well, Marie. I must love her, and so our love must cease.'
'Cease? But have I not said that it cannot cease? It ceases not with me, nor with you. How then can you quibble with your words?'
'Whether it cease or not,' I muttered sadly, 'we must speak of it no more. You have cast a fascination upon me; I must throw it off. We must separate and forget each other. It can be done.'
'If I cease not to love, I cannot forget. But why must this be? You say we must separate, go out from each other. Why? I cannot comprehend this.'
She seated herself quietly on the seat, and leaning back against the wall, looked out through the open door.
'What is the use of my explaining? I said wearily, you cannot understand. You have no pity; you know not what is pain or sorrow. Stay. Perhaps you do know now, for you have altered. Ethel loves me, and to break that love would be a pain and a sorrow to her; therefore I must not: I am in honour bound.'
'In honour bound? What a strange phrase is that! She loves you; does she love you as I? Perhaps.'
Her face underwent a gradual change, but in my eagerness to reach an end which now seemed in sight I scarcely noted this.
'We must part, then. Do you not see now? It was all my fault; I have been the victim of your beauty. We must separate. Forgive me. We must never speak of this again; you must go—'
'Part—separate—go—where? From you? Away? What does this mean? Will you go out of my life, and must the fire burn low in my soul?' Her voice died off in strange articulations, and a vacancy seized upon her face. Her eyes grew cold, as I had never seen them, and she sat, like a marble statue, motionless. Presently the lines round her mouth softened, and a smile taking birth grew upwards to her eyes. 'We love, we must pass each into the other's life. Go? Ha! ha!' and a mocking laugh swept out the lines from her face. 'She loves you as I do? Perhaps. Will she feel as I do if you and she are parted, if she goes out of your life? Perhaps. But no, she cannot; not as I shall feel. Disappointment or sorrow, or whatever you call it, pain or grief—I do not separate them—they are not so strong for her as for me. For me sorrow is the negation of life, it is paralysis.'
'You cannot sorrow,' I exclaimed defiantly; 'you are not human.'
'If it be not sorrow I care not. It is something greater than sorrow; it is death in life. We must not part; it is you and she must separate.'
I shook my head doggedly.
'It is you and I.'
'Tell me why it is you and I,' she continued with a sudden change of mood, her brow clouding over with placid care.
'It is honour. She and I loved until you came; you stepped between us.'
'No; it is she who stands between us. She loves you; that is one. I love you; that is one. You love not her but me; that is two. It is one against two; let the mind decide;' and she threw up her hands as if appealing to some divinity.
'You cannot be expected to understand this, Marie. She came first, and I must cleave to her, and God forgive me for my sin.'
'Cleave to her though you love her not? Leave me? You sacrifice yourself, you leave me to my own form of sorrow; you appease only her. It is folly.'
'You goddess of illusion,' I groaned wildly, 'you are full of casuistry. How can I battle with you? Have you no self-sacrifice? Do you not know the meaning of unselfishness, of heroism?'
Her eyes betrayed a lively curiosity.
'Yes, I know them. Would they come in here then? Yes, I have often wondered over them. So they would come in here.' Then suddenly, as if recalled to the position: 'But they are folly; I have always thought so. They conflict with reason. Why do you give me this to read?' she asked, pointing to the fallen volume of Mill on the floor. 'If you do not follow out, why do you approve it? Self-sacrifice? It is folly when pitted against utility.'
I groaned. It was worse than useless to argue with her. She could never understand the motives of my actions. I resolved to end the painful scene at once, and rising to my feet I moved towards the doorway.
'Are you going? You will come back soon; you must not leave me to suffocate the fire in my heart. Nay, my love, come back.'
'Marie, I am going. I would to God I had never seen you, and I would that I might never see you again!'
'It is folly,' she laughed.
'We must part; you must go abroad at once. You must and shall not come between us. You cannot understand, but you may some day, perhaps. No, I am going. I will not come back to you; I do not love you.'
I turned to go with a fearful feeling of desolation.
'I must not come between you? You speak riddles. It is she who stands between us. It is one against two. You do not love me? You are trifling with words. It is all folly.'
I parted the branches, and as I hurried under the tree some fascination lured my eyes back to her. She was standing in the open doorway of the summer-house, her face glowing with the fire of thought. Her voice sounded soft and low, as if to herself.
'She stands between us. It is a balance of sorrows. You will not come back to me?'
The branches closed behind me, and I walked back to the vicarage, full of troubled emotion.
I HAD thus accomplished the worst part of my programme; I had broken with Marahuna. In spite of the mean, pitiful part I had played, in spite of my utter shame and wretchedness at my humiliation, I could not help feeling a little relieved satisfaction that it was over. I had not managed to convince Marie of the reasonableness of my resolution, yet I had scarcely expected to do so. She had not at any rate seemed to feel the pain of the scene as I had, and that was so much to be thankful for. It was bad enough to cause wretchedness to one person.
Marahuna's inability to realise the loss of my love was certainly a relief to my conscience. She had not appeared troubled at the prospect of our separation—just that one little suspicion of syncope, or whatever it was, and that was all. If I could once get her away, all might go well; she would lose her intense passion, and I—well, God knows, I might lose mine. Twelve months make a great many alterations. A year's breath across our lives, and, lo! their aspect is totally changed. The wind of circumstance is a strong, resistless wind, and blows where and when it listeth, shaping feelings and passions and thoughts to its own end. No one's life runs smoothly; there is at least one rough passage, which, however, does not last for ever; and when you have passed out of it your way lies easily to the great sea. This was my stormy channel; in a twelvemonth I should be beyond it. Who knew?
Thus did I comfort myself on my road to another resolution. Hardy's letter had suggested an appropriate means of rescue out of the trouble. I determined to push forward the scheme of Marie's visit to the Continent, and with that object made up my mind to go up to London that very night. I would strike while I could, while the mood was on me. Arrangements might be made for Marahuna's departure, for she was an intensely reasonable creature outside her passions, and would go, when once she saw all the necessary preparations had been made. Besides, her curiosity, one of the strong points in her nature, would urge her in the same direction.
When I told Ethel of my intention she expressed surprise. 'Why must you go up to-night—why won't to-morrow do? What is the business, Percy?'
'Well,' I hesitated, 'I must really go to-night. I got a letter to-day on business—well, yes, it was on business matters, and I must go up.'
'Oh, was it that from Mr. Hardy?' she asked.
'How did you know?' I replied quickly. 'Yes, it was. He sends me news which requires me at once.'
'Nothing very particular, I hope?'
Again I hesitated, and was conscious of a flush across my face, for again I was troubled by the unworthy suspicion that Ethel knew of Hardy's remonstrances.
'No, not very particular.'
Having extricated myself from the difficulty, I had a sudden impulse towards communicativeness.
'Since you are so inquisitive, Ethel, I will, for this once, indulge your feminine instinct.' I shrank from giving my motives the prominence they ought to have; they must appear as side issues only. 'I'll tell you one of the reasons which is taking me away. You remember the trip we spoke of for Marie? I am going to make some arrangements.'
'Will she go soon? Poor Marie, I shall be sorry to lose her.'
'Why, Ethel,' I could not help saying, 'I thought you wanted to be rid of Marie?'
She coloured and looked down.
'I was rather foolish and fanciful about that, as you used to tell me. Folly is wont to be unjust. Poor Marie is merely what she is made, and though I don't think I could ever get drawn to her now, yet I have stamped out my prejudices as unreasonable things. Wasn't that right?'
'I don't know. Yes, I mean it was. But Marie must go soon; the sooner the better. She mustn't stay; you see it is already so late in the season. But please, Ethel, don't say anything to her about the object of my visit to London, for I want to surprise her.'
She looked at me a little inquisitively, parted her lips, but said nothing.
'Well, if you must go, you must,' said Mr. Wharncliffe at dinner, summing up thus the full logic of the position in an utterly irrefragable proposition.
Marahuna, who had spoken little, looked across at me with a silent, enduring gaze I would not meet.
'Dear me!' ejaculated Mrs. Wharncliffe, 'how the days do draw in now! Summer is over without a doubt.'
Everyone turned spontaneously towards the western windows, through which could be seen the round sun sinking in the mists beyond the river.
'Gone beyond recall,' sighed Mr. Wharncliffe poetically.
Somehow the solemnity of his silent departure seemed to fall across us all. It was one of those occasions on which all minds harmonise to one theme of feeling. Where or how the harmonisation is effected it is impossible to say; but as the same strain played euphoniously on divers instruments is different yet identical, so an even flow of sentiment fills the hearts of all. The few casual words now stirred in us a mood of reverie, and to me, at least, that setting sun was encircled with a melancholy not altogether accountable. Changes in kind are always more striking than changes in degree. In the latter, the departure from recognised positions is gradual and accommodates itself to the mind; in the former, however gradual the alteration is effected, there is a time and a place when and where something ceases to be, and if we are conscious of the approach of that contingency some degree of sadness or delight necessarily attends it. The melancholy induced by a setting sun arises from the reflection that in a moment it will be no more.
Down, down, slowly behind those western hills sank the great lightbringer, and the subtle after-glow of twilight settled in the sky. The soft winds blew a trifle chilly through the great larches round the lawn, and when half an hour later I paused at the gate en route for the station, the shadow of night was already upon the landscape.
Ethel had accompanied me to the gate.
'And you will be sure to come back as soon as you can to-morrow? Remember, Percy, it must not be the next day, but to-morrow—we cannot let you go for so long.'
'"We cannot let you go,"' I murmured mischievously, though I was far from feeling playful. 'Is that a royal "we" or is it a genuine plural?'
'I suppose it is a royal "we,"' she answered softly.
'Made in virtue of your queenship over me, I imagine, you little vixen. You know you can do what you like with me.'
'Can I, Percy?' she asked somewhat dreamily.
'To be sure you can, you foolish girl; it is only mock modesty on your part to feign ignorance of your power. A woman always knows where she is strongest, though rarely where she is weakest, by the bye.'
'If that is so,' she rejoined with a touch of her old vivacity, 'she is never in danger of mistaking her weakness for her strength, which a man invariably does.'
'Only,' I added, 'when a woman misleads him.'
'She never does that. Woman is only the subject matter on which his folly plays; she is the cogwheel which reciprocates an original movement on his part. She meets his folly half-way; she never initiates.'
'Don't you believe it,' I laughed. 'She is not by any means so passive an agent; she is far too clever and too restless. She distorts and transmutes the motion in her own way and to her own fancy.'
'Wrong again. She reflects clearly, without a hitch; she is unbiassed and flawless as a mirror.'
'Is she a truthful mirror?' I inquired.
'Absolutely,' she said defiantly.
'Then what a lovely creature I must be,' I went on, looking playfully into her eyes, 'for I see here nothing but sweetness and beauty.'
'Nonsense!' yet she did not resist as I drew her to me. The night wind grew a little, and rattled among the leaves of the sycamores and beeches in the drive. The gloaming passed into a tenderer twilight. A large dead leaf came fluttering down from the chestnut overhead and brushed against my face; it seemed almost a type of faded happiness. I gave a little shudder, and the melancholy of my mood deepened in the shadows. 'Tis hard pushing at the doors of fate. Those who forbear to struggle against destiny are at least saved the despair of defeat, and the battle is long before the end comes, whether it be defeat or victory. A swift short contest, and the end—is easier than prolonged weary efforts, in which the spirit has time to grow sick, and faintheartedness suggests surrender or retreat, and the soul still yearns for fleshpots whose earthiness and grossness once stimulated the fight.
'What was that, Percy?' asked Ethel.
A sound of footsteps on the gravel drive died away, and a flash of something white through the trees crossed the sight for a moment.
'It looked like someone,' I said presently, 'perhaps it was one of the maids.'
'It must have been Lucy. I believe she is engaged in a flirtation with Armstrong—so I have gathered. Silly girl! if she only knew, she would let it alone.'
It struck me that there was a ring of sadness in her words, and I felt troubled.
'Ethel,' I cried in pained tones, 'you do not really mean that, do you? You were joking. I cannot bear to hear you say that; it seems as if—'
'No, dearest,' she said gaily; 'I was only joking. You know my silly way of saying things simply to tease you. I did not mean it at all. Whatever made you think I did?'
'You do not mean it, I know, my darling. You are an angel; and I—'
'I am a foolish tease.'
'You are not; it is I who am a brute. It is my fault, Ethel,' I cried passionately. 'It is all my fault. I have been a brute.'
'Yes, yes; but I never meant it. It was heedless folly on my part,' I went on in the bitter memory of what had passed since yesterday. 'It was worse. I—No, it was not that; it was my blind infatuation by a scientific problem; nothing else, nothing else. I became selfish and absorbed in my own studies. It was only a study, Ethel darling; you know it was. But you will not be deceived, will you, love? You know I love you, and that nothing, not even death, shall come between us; we may die, but we may not cease to love. I have wronged you; I have been neglectful, though I have loved you all the time. It was only that, only that.'
I clasped her to me in a passion of self-accusation and tenderness, and I rested my face on her cool cheek. She said nothing, but nestled into my side with that security which is born of deep-rooted love.
'I love you, and you alone. Whatever comes to us, this is true, dear heart; remember that I love you. You are my sole anchor to life. I have neither father nor mother, nor brother—none save you only.'
I kissed her pure lips with the calm fervour of love steadied for very passionateness. She said not a word, but clung to me with heaving bosom and dewy eyes, while her love, like a fettered bird, looked out through its prison bars with the pathos of silent yearning.
The old church clock chimed the three-quarters.
'I must go,' I cried, kissing her once again, 'my train is at eight. Good-bye, my darling, good-bye; I shall return to-morrow afternoon, no later, and we will spend the rest of our holiday together. There will be fully three weeks, and we must live on the threshold of Elysium, by a foretaste of that larger Eden of our wedded life. It is but a little while till to-morrow,' I cried, scarce knowing what I was saying, but only conscious that my eager love was losing a day wherein to vindicate itself. 'We shall laugh at all sorrow and care. It is possible for human beings to be happy; why should not we be happy? Nothing shall part us. We love, we shall be happy. Ethel, my darling, good-bye; God keep you till to-morrow. Ah, how I love you! Good-bye, sweetheart, my love; good-bye!'
I turned swiftly from the open gate and hurried up the lane, as now I should barely catch the train. As I reached a bend in the road I turned and waved a farewell to the dim form standing in the open gateway; in another moment she was hidden from my gaze, and I passed into the growing gloom of the night.
As I hastened swiftly along the road, and approached the extreme confines of the vicarage grounds, I thought I made out a figure standing at the little wicket gate, through which the shrubbery might be entered. When I drew near I recognised Marahuna, and with an instinctive movement passed over to the other side. She need not suspect I had seen her, for the darkness was now shrouding all, and she was not very conspicuous against a background of laurel. Yet I could see her plainly, and by some wondrous means the expression of her face stood out in relief against the night. Stately, calmly thoughtful, without a ray of feeling upon her features, she watched me pass, and I was conscious her eyes were following me till I had vanished far away into the night.
On arriving in London I drove straight to the Langham, where I intended to sleep that night, and set off almost immediately in search of Hardy's room. I luckily found him at home. Though evidently surprised to see me, he said nothing, and welcomed me with cordiality. To me there was something helpful in the very grip of his hand, for Hardy was an adamantine rock, whom no seas could ever wash away, and proximity to him seemed to lend stability to the wavering purpose. At least I thought so then, for I was in the mood to need some kindly assistance. There are times in the ebb and flow of our lives, when we lose all sense of security and despair of there being any order or stability in nature. Circumstances have conspired to break down that unconscious confidence naturally possessed by everyone in ultimate happiness. Hope, worsted in a thousand struggles, has forsaken us, and we are left idly stranded on the shores of chance, without knowledge, without courage, without trust, alone, with an exaggerated notion of our own extremity wrapping us round as the impenetrable cloak of night. At such moments the clasp of a friendly hand brings a relief which is almost salvation.
Yet I checked my first impulse to tell all my story, and merely referred to my design in coming up. He had written about these friends of his, who were going to the Continent.
'I sounded them on the subject,' said he, 'and found them quite willing to take another girl with them; so I mentioned the fact of your being on the look-out for someone. They are very nice people; in fact Mrs. Lawford is a distant cousin of mine. I am sure Marahuna would get on very well with them.'
'Will you give me the address? I will see them to-morrow morning. There is nothing like doing these things quickly. When do you think they will be starting?'
'Under a week from this, at any rate; but Mrs. Lawford will be able to give you full information. I have not seen her since I wrote to you, and she had not quite decided then.'
'Thanks very much, Hardy. It was very good of you to take the trouble. I—I am very grateful to you,' I went on, my colour deepening as I fidgeted with my shoelaces; 'you have been very considerate all through, and—perhaps you were right after all, old fellow!'
His colour had deepened also. 'I fancy she ought to enjoy the visit to Switzerland,' said he awkwardly. 'It will remind her perhaps of the antarctic world.'
'Yes, yes. What a long time ago that seems, doesn't it? Do you ever realise that we were once within that magic ring of ice girdled by gigantic bergs? I can see the old "Hereward" now steaming through the sea of floes, and you on the bridge, and Fitzroy jaunting up and down the deck. What a dream it all seems, lost in the interminable past!'
'Poor Enfield!' sighed he, thinking of his old messmate. 'It was a short life and gallantly fought.'
'Soon over,' I returned. 'Balanced against time there is little of it, and it is a pity not to take what gladness is possible while it lasts.'
I fancied my companion sighed, but when I looked up he was blowing an imaginary whistle through his lips with a sailor-like freedom.
'You have not told me of yourself,' I said, as I turned to depart, 'and I have been so selfish that I have not found time to ask you.'
'I have got a ship at last,' he replied with a smile. 'I have been appointed Commander of the "Phaëthon," cruising in the Mediterranean. She sails in a fortnight.'
'I will try and see you again before you go; I shall be up to bring Marahuna. Good-bye for the present. I must go down to-morrow.'
'Au revoir then,' he rejoined.
Next morning I saw Mrs. Lawford, and settled everything. She was a vivacious woman of two or three and forty, with a kindly smile, and a general air of taking life pleasantly, and expecting others to do the same. She would be charmed to take care of Miss Huayna—had heard glowing accounts of her from Mr. Hardy, and had already been fascinated in anticipation by the beautiful Peruvian. I made provisional arrangements, which were to become final within the next few days on receipt of a letter from me.
So far, so good. I had accomplished my mission, and now I might return. I felt much easier in my mind, and the burden of care was so far lifted that I found heart to call at the college and chat for an hour with Professor Fenton, who never took a holiday. It was later, therefore, than I had anticipated when I found myself at Waterloo. As the train rushed swiftly through Surrey and Hampshire I turned quietly to review affairs—a constant occupation with me lately, for so much change and so many new figures were introduced into my life that it had become necessary to reckon up the balance almost every few hours.
I had no doubt that Marahuna would consent to go, for I knew the strength of her curiosity and her insatiable desire for new ideas. Even if she objected to go, the fact that arrangements had been made would almost compel her to go. When once she was off the scene all would go well. She was the sole impediment on the track to happiness. I did not feel inclined to look too far ahead and ask, What next? It was sufficient to get her away for the present. The air was relieved from its tense condition, and freer breath was possible. I brushed aside care like a cobweb and kept my eyes only on contingencies of happiness, which were now within handgrasp.
The train drew up at Malthorpe station at last, and taking my bag I strode off at a swinging pace towards the village. It was only three-quarters-of-mile to the vicarage, and my rapid strides soon told upon the distance. In the distance I heard the old clock clanging the hour—eight; it was just twenty-four hours since I had left. The gloom of the evening was thicker than on the previous night, for the clouds had gathered densely overhead, and the wind was stronger and colder. Rain was somewhere in the air; beyond the downs the black shadow of coming showers hung heavily. The leaves, already sere and discoloured (for autumn was upon us) fell in scattered handfuls from the elms and poplars.
But my heart was light, and I scarcely heeded these tokens of Nature's melancholy. I hummed an old English melody—'The Banks of Allan Water'—putting into it that incongruous verve which a cheerful voice always imports into the saddest song. It might just as well have been 'Come, Lasses and Lads,' for all the attention I paid to the meaning of the words. The woes of the miller's daughter never troubled me, and the falseness of the soldier passed me by as the idle wind. If Nature conspired to mock my mood, she was not successful, for the fiercer the wind blew, the more cheerful grew my voice and the brisker my step. She had come out to meet me with tears; I returned her greeting with laughter. She could not fight me down; I was stronger than she, for I had laid my troubles, and my path was clear before me.
I entered the vicarage gates, and walked up the drive half expecting to find Ethel waiting for me. But a servant answered the bell, and knocking at the door of a room which was sacred to the ladies I entered. Mrs. Wharncliffe was seated by the window at some fancy-work.
'Oh, you're back at last, Percy! I was afraid you had found yourself obliged to stay overnight. Ethel declared you would be back, but Mr. Wharncliffe thought you would change your mind.'
'Where is Ethel?' I asked.
'She was out on the lawn just after dinner, but I think I heard her go up to her room a short time ago.'
'It's much too dark for you to work there, Mrs. Wharncliffe; let me light the lamp for you.'
I lit the lamp, placed it upon the table, and went upstairs. I knocked at Ethel's door, but as I received no answer, and it was ajar, I pushed it open and looked in. There was no one there; she might be in the boudoir. Marahuna and she shared a little sitting-room, opening into the bedrooms of each on either side.
The door of this room was closed. As I approached it a sensation stole over me which seemed at once strange and familiar. I knocked, and there was no reply; whereupon I knocked louder, for I did not want to break in upon them suddenly. Still no answer; but the strange sensation became closer and more evident. Some subtle change had come over the air.
Puzzled at the silence, and half inclined to think Mrs. Wharncliffe had been mistaken, I stood hesitating whether to descend again, and perplexed by this queer sensation. All of a sudden I recollected; it was exactly the same feeling that had been in the air round the island of flame. It was just the same subtle 'odour,' giving rise to a semi-lethargic condition of the mind. Oddly moved and curious, I knocked once more; but there was only deathly silence in answer. In some agitation I turned the handle slowly, and opening the door a little stood in the doorway.
In the dark I could at first make out nothing except someone standing upright against the open window.
'Ethel,' I said, 'is that you?'
There was no reply, and closing the door I moved forward. As my eyes peered through the gloom a bank of mist was blown from across the moon, and the full clear light streamed through the window; darkness was lifted like a curtain. Then the sight that met my troubled gaze was one the memory of which, like eternal night, for ever clouds my life.
The silver rays gleamed through the window upon the tumbled masses of golden hair which streamed round Marahuna's shoulders. This was what I first saw. But the soft light illumined also a prostrate form upon the floor, to which my eyes wandered.
God of heaven! It was Ethel.
Why was she there? What did it mean? My breath caught in my throat, and I gasped, struck motionless by a terrible and nameless foreboding. For full thirty seconds I stood leaning against the little table dazed with dread. I could not move, but only look, and my eyes took in the full horror of the scene.
Over her face the soft moonlight played gently and soothingly, imparting a white lustrous look to her features. The stream of light flickered unsteadily round her mouth and half-closed eyes, whose calm serenity passed almost into a smile. Her brown hair curled disorderly about her neck, and one arm was raised touching the locket in her bosom—a locket which held my miniature.
These details were borne in upon me with gradual distinctness and slowly accumulating horror. I wrenched my grasp from the table, and rushing forward threw myself beside her.
'What does it mean?' I said hoarsely, 'what is it? Where—why is—God of love! what is this hideous dream of hell?'
Her hand dropped heavily from my nerveless clutch; her marble brow with its dishevelled crown of hair was dead and cold to my kisses; her heart was pulseless, and her lips petrified into the frostiness of death. The room swam around me, and in a giddy frenzy I laid my head upon her bosom and pressed my lips upon the hand that clutched the locket.
Then raising both hands to my head I got upon my feet, and cast a dazzled glance towards the moonlight streaming on the motionless form of Marahuna. I realised nothing now, but seeing her there recalled to me our last interview.
'Is it you, Marie?' I said wearily; 'you see I have come back!'
My brain was beating fiercely, so fiercely that thought was impossible. I looked beyond the silent figure through the window, and drew my hand across my eyes; the light crept through my fingers. Then with return of consciousness I flung myself again beside the quiet dead. I lifted her from the floor, and drew her towards me till her head rested upon my shoulder. Her half-closed eyes seemed to look into mine with ineffable love, and a little pitiful smile seemed to creep round her mouth.
With the cry of a wounded panther I let her slip from my grasp, and leapt again to my feet.
'Oh God! It is you, you fiend, who have done this! She is dead; you have slain her! No, no; come, tell me what it is,' I went on piteously, and I seized her arm. 'Tell me what it is, what has happened? Marahuna, speak out. Are you dead also? Yes, yes, she is dead, cold and quiet as Ethel. Is it a plague, or a pest? What is it? Marahuna, for God's sake, speak!'
My frenzied cry died off gradually, and I uttered the last words in an imploring whisper. I stood listening intently in the stillness for an answer. Then I became aware of a sound in the room. I saw her lips moving, her large eyes staring into vacancy. She stood with the pose of Artemis frozen into silence with never a tremor throughout her body; and the murmuring sound of her voice grew clearer, as of old I knew it, indistinguishable low music, soft and sweet.
'Marahuna,' I cried wildly, 'what means this? Is it hell? Where is she?'
Glaring in her face with the agony of despair I saw the blood move in it silently. Her lips parted tremulously, and, as of old, the vacant blue stare melted into a warm iridescent smile. She raised one arm slowly across her face, in which the light grew into broader vision. For a moment she looked at me in bewilderment, while all my life went out in my piteous gaze; then she reached her arms towards me.
'Come,' she cried, 'come; you have come back!'
Still with my eyes fixed fiercely upon her azure orbs, I shrank back, panting hard.
'Come,' she repeated, the smile growing stronger round her lips; 'come.'
She moved towards me, and I stood transfixed, my gaze still concentrated upon her. Her fingers touched me; then with a cry I sank back upon the body of my dead love, and holding my arm above my head, as if to shield myself, I twined the loose locks about my face with the fierce instinct of one who seeks to bury himself. My lips pressed again the cold marble cheeks.
For a moment thus I rested, and then lifting my head I looked into the dead face with chill, unthinking eyes. I noted every feature in a giddy blankness. A sudden darkness shrouded the room; the moonlight vanished. Yet a subtle light still clung about Ethel's face, for there in the very centre of the alabaster forehead was a small crimson mark like the shadow of lurid flame. In the darkness it gleamed like a star, and shed a tender radiance over the brow and soft eyelashes, lighting up the depths of the brown eyes.
'Ah,' I shrieked aloud, 'dead, dead!'
Once more I started up, but the darkness of the room was impenetrable, and I could not see Marahuna. 'Dead! dead!' I murmured, 'Ah, God!'
A hand stole softly out of the darkness, and touched my cheek.
'It is you? Away, away! Keep her away!'
I struggled free from the grasp of her hand, and staggered to the window. The strange atmospheric sensation clouded my will.
A sound of knocking at the door arrested my attention and threw me back into life, and then the full flood of thought rushed over me and carried me along to a realisation of everything. In a second I saw the whole terrible position. We were in a room in the vicarage; Ethel was dead, and she and I alone together somewhere in the darkness. By an appalling distortion of thought I seemed myself to have done this deed; it was I, I only, who was responsible for Ethel's death. She lay beside me in the gloom, with the lurid iridescent star-flame on her brow, illumining her quiet features, and I had slain her. Marahuna seemed but to be the passive agent of my crime. The perspiration broke out all over my body, a sickly shuddering laid hold on me.
Again the knocking was repeated. I heard a quick footstep, and plunged forward in a frenzy of nameless horror.
'Ethel, Ethel!' cried Mrs. Wharncliffe's voice; 'are you here?'
Swift as a lightning flash I turned the key in the lock. As I did so the moonbeams once more flooded the room, and I perceived Marahuna standing apart in a corner of the room gazing out at me silently and strangely.
'Ethel, Ethel!' cried the voice again.
'Away, away!' I whispered hoarsely; 'you must go. We have slain her. I must away. Come, away!'
Scarcely conscious of my actions, but overborne only by a wild craving for flight, I clutched at her and drew her roughly to the window. The drop was about twenty feet, and down upon the lower lawn fronting the southern shrubbery. Hastily glancing round I perceived a scarf upon the chair, which I seized, and bidding her hold tightly I lowered her safely to the ground. In another moment I had flung myself from the window after her.
I had slain her, I had slain her! We had slain her! Away, away! out of the world—out of this hell!
Across the lawn we sped, and breaking through the shrubbery issued forth by the wicket gate up the lane. The wind was now roaring desolately through the trees, and the air was chill, but I felt it not. Down the lane I hurried my silent companion, breathless and consumed by the hot fire of mad despair. No thoughts had room to burn in my mind save this, that I had slain my love. No feelings, no passion, nothing but a furious terror bursting forth into a headlong flight into—God knew where.
When we had been hurrying through the night for what seems to me now must have been more than half an hour we came across the railway line. By this time a settled resolution had hardened in my mad brain. We were between Malthorpe and Selway Junction; the express was due at Selway soon, and we might catch it.
A quarter of an hour more along the rough lines—for I shrank from the road—brought us to Selway. The express was waiting. In five minutes more we were steaming out of the station, and in a quarter of an hour had dashed through Malthorpe at the rate of forty miles an hour.
In one corner of the carriage sat my companion, silently puzzling out my face; in the opposite corner I reclined, staring bolt out into the night and thinking, thinking, thinking—terrors deeper than hell.
HOW can I tell of our flight on that horrible night? Even at this distance it awakens in me memories on which my very soul seems to founder. Borne along on the swift wings of the express I peered out into the darkness which whizzed past us, and my thoughts found affinity therewith. My imagination was at white-heat, and brooded upon the black chaos which had been wrought in life. In the wind moaning about the carriage windows I recognised the last fatal breath of the destroying angel across a waste of death. Through trackless time my mind wandered beneath a blood-red sky, seeing nothing save howling desolation, and hearing nothing save the solitary moaning of a shrill wind over the great wilderness of eternity; and the vague imaginings gathered shape before me till I thought I beheld the tumultuous waters rolling over and engulfing the trackless desert, burying it and all its records deep in unfathomable depths. And a fierce gladness seized upon me that it should be so—for the end of all time had come, in very truth, for me. Wild fancies of this kind chased each other through my disordered brain.
At London again the restless fury seized me; again the mad desire for flight, for some haven whereto one might flee and drink oblivion for ever; again all the energies in my nature were concentrated upon this one idea. Away, away! from the place and time wherein such things had happened.
It was late, nearly twelve o'clock; if possible we must leave London that night. With trembling fingers I seized a time-table, and looked out the trains. I could catch one at Euston for Liverpool; that was en route for America, and to me now America was the haven of hope. Of hope? It was but the refuge of fear. I was conscious of not being myself, of being choked with a passion that refused outlet to thought or feeling.
A curious idea now got hold of me, full of the distorted reason which came of horror and fascination. Hitherto Marahuna had surely appeared to me as the instrument of my murderous passion; she had been a thing of nought, whom I scarcely noticed or spoke to as a child or an inanimate object. But now she began to assume other proportions; she towered before me as at once the tyrant and the avenger of the dead. The furies of my sin pursued me, and not her, and she was the scourge with which they lashed me. So, though I feared her, I clung to her as to an instrument of torture, from which there was no escape. She was the inert agent of the Erinnyes driving me to my doom. I dared not desert or leave her, and like a whipped hound I crouched in abject terror beneath her. To me now it appears that there must have been an unearthly and supernatural influence compassing all my actions. I was so little capable of real reason and real feeling that I can only attribute my condition to the contact of a mysterious and overpowering force with my already overwrought nature.
At last we reached Liverpool, and even then I had not obtained control over myself; I was still at the mercy of mad impulse. A ship was sailing that afternoon for an American port. I took passage in it, and within twelve hours we were at sea.
As I saw the shore fade away into the distance a wall grew out of the sea between me and the past. I had passed beyond the barriers of my old life, and was going down into the ways of eternal sorrow.
During the voyage I had time to grow calm and think. Gradually the awful feeling of terror wore off, and left me merely overcome with a sense of sorrow and self-recrimination. It is idle for me to speak of the terrible sufferings I underwent, going over the awful scenes again and again with ever-increasing pain. I found it at last absolutely necessary to keep my mind off them, for fear I should lose my reason entirely, which indeed, seemed sadly warped already.
Slowly, too, a change came over my attitude in regard to Marahuna. That she had killed Ethel in some mysterious manner I never for one moment doubted from the time that I could think clearly. But, as I have said, my intense agony of grief took home the charge and responsibility to itself. Now, however, the notion of her as the real murderess slowly entered into my mind, and I shrank from her in fear. I felt no anger, no passion, towards her as yet; there was horror, and horror only, in my mind. She stalked before me even as a terrible self-created Nemesis which I could not escape. Under her shadow my mental powers were numbed. I feared to address her, to approach her; shrank from her with the utmost loathing.
She on her part was silent and quiet; she never spoke to me. Perhaps she recognised the policy of silence; perhaps she had no desire to speak. At any rate she uttered no word; her face was as calm as ever.
So we journeyed on over the great Atlantic, and at last reached the American port, where must be the point of a new departure. From here I crossed, still with my evil shadow, in a restless feverish mood to the Western States. I tried to obtain relief in a hundred ways, but nothing would allay my remorse and sorrow; and I contemplated with satisfaction what seemed must be the approaching end.
Still the terrible creature clung to me as a burden I could not shake off, and there upon my shoulders sat Care, heavy-eyed, satanic. The spell of her presence was upon me, and kept me by her, though I loathed myself and her. At times I shrank away from her very shadow, lest it should fall on me and blight me. Yet again the horrible fascination, such as a bird experiences in the presence of a snake, dragged me towards her irresistibly. Shrinking, fearing, loathing, yet I was drawn nearer, wondering at myself, and helpless as one who is drugged with opium. Then I would curse myself and fly back, and my normal mood returned, one of bitter agony and remorse, mingled sometimes with a great pity for the awful being.
She first broke silence to me here in a Western city, where we remained a brief space. I was sitting in my room with haggard eyes and furrowed face, for my mind had again been traversing the old sorrow which seemed to have happened ages ago, so weary and faint was the look backward exhausted nature cast.
Suddenly I was aware of a soft touch on the hands that clasped my bowed head, and looking up I saw her standing by me with eyes of infinite love, her face glowing with the sunrise of life, a troubled smile upon her lips striving with thought.
'Have you not finished?' she said softly. 'It is your sorrow; I never knew it was like this. You are wasting away, and it is I who have done this—I, because I sent her away from between us. I thought it was better, that you would be happier in my love, but perchance I was mistaken. I am sorry. Yet she has gone, and you may not call her back. Alas! I knew not sorrow was like this. I have not made you happy, my love. Yet it is useless living thus, for your sorrow weighs down my joy, and the balance of fate has gone against me. I am sorry.'
She spoke very gently and very quietly, and her soft touch soothed my burning forehead. I had not strength of will to repulse her.
'Yes, I am sorry, for it should be a balance of sorrows, a balance of joys, and the balance has gone other than I anticipated. My passions cloud my reason sometimes, as yours do; but it is reason that should control all, and I would battle down passion. It was no passion which overmastered my reason. No. They marched together, so I thought; else I would not have done it. They marched together, and I obeyed. Will you not forget? Can you not cast your thoughts elsewhere? You must think of what is to come; let the past be past and buried; the waters of the Atlantic wash over it. I do not know, but can you not forget?'
'Forget? Never!' I moaned.
'Perchance you may; I will wait,' she murmured, and left me.
I shuddered at her words. The thought that I might some day forget, and that she was counting upon that, came into my mind with a sense of nausea; I was susceptible now to the slightest fear, and the fear grew upon me that it would happen as she said. Day by day I chafed more uneasily under the idea till it brooded over me as the mocking Nemesis of my sin. To forget? To be reconciled and turn again to the weird thing of evil? There was a terrible irony in the very thought; I could not bear it. I resolved to fly and leave her. Gradually the purpose gained form and vigour until one night, slipping from my room, I stole from the hotel and fled.
I caught a train eastward, and by midnight was a hundred miles away. The train went no farther, so I alighted and sought shelter somewhere.
I tried to sleep, but my excited brain refused to be lulled into rest. I kept seeing the stately form of Marahuna entering through the closed door. Every creak on the stairs, every gust of wind around the eaves, made me start in terror. I sank at last into a fitful doze, but in my sleep her face gathered shape through the shadows, and, growing in distinctness, stared down at me with a mocking laugh.
'You will come back,' she said; 'you love me.'
I awoke affrighted, and, listening intently, thought I heard the words echoing round the room. Then every sound of wind and rain, the noises in the street, beat themselves into the shape of these words; it rang all round the house, round and round again.
'You will come back; you love me; you will come back,' and a burst of mocking laughter.
The light gleamed from the lamp outside along the wall. In the flickering shadows I saw her face.
'Come back, come back; it is your doom. Come back; you dare not leave; your furies pursue you still. Come back.'
I rose mechanically from the couch on which I had tossed myself, and passed out of the house with haggard face. The doorkeeper stared curiously at me, but I heeded him not.
I was at the station, and the mail train was waiting. It was so easy to go.
'Come back to your doom; come back! It is fate!' and again the soft laughter, ringing in my ears.
Drawn by an irresistible fascination I entered a car. The last bell rang; I did not move. The train began to move slowly. I started up and dashed my hand across my eyes. Had I been dreaming? Where was I? The train gathered speed; we were whirling westward again. I sank into my seat.
In the gray dawn I found myself outside the hotel doors in the drenching rain.
'You're very wet, sir,' said the porter as he let me in.
'Yes, it is nothing,' I muttered, passing up to my room.
After this attempt to struggle away from what came to stand for destiny in my eyes I abandoned myself to the currents of circumstance. I could not keep away from her, for the terrible influence of her nature lay across me like an iron chain I could not break. Where I went she must go, and where she went I must go. I recognised this henceforth and for ever, and the recognition gave me no pain; for I was beyond that now. It was merely with a dull resignation that I accepted my doom as the criminal receives the lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails. I had measured my strength against her magnetic power and had succumbed. All hope, therefore, was gone, and like a battered feather I drifted down the wind at her will.
But she still kept silence; her words were few and occasional—fewer and more occasional even than mine. She was clearly waiting, as she had said she would wait—waiting till I should forget. This thought likewise gave me now no concern, as it had once done, for if it must be—it must be. I had ceased to be a responsible human being, and was dominated from without. The domination had not declared itself as yet; it was latent: but directly she chose to exert herself it would become active and paramount. From the moment she stretched out her arms to enclose me her reign would date. At present, however, as I say, she made no sign; she was waiting doubtless for reasons of her own: perhaps unaware yet of the disposition of surrender in my mind; perhaps content as yet in the first stage of her power.
Thus time passed, but with scarce an abatement of my mental torpor. Soon the feverish restlessness broke out once more; again the past drew closer, and I cowered down before the detailed horror of the scene which was obtruded night and day upon my thoughts. Under the ceaseless glare of this terrible picture I grew restless, and the craving for movement became strong in me. I must move on again—anywhere, somewhere. America did not appear far enough away, not barbarous and desolate enough, to gratify my terrible Erinnyes.
Moving down to San Francisco I spent some time in troubled indecision. A steamer was too civilised, too replete with the comforts and luxuries that reminded me of what had once been possible, and were now mere memories, belonging to a world from which I was excluded. I could not endure the thought of a steamer. Once I dreamt of flying into Texas, but there too the very paucity of population would give us a prominence which I loathed. I prayed to be an indistinguishable atom in a silent universe, where individuality would be blotted out even for itself.
Marahuna was anxious to know where I intended to go, and so eager did she become that she broke through her studied silence and questioned me with gaiety.
At last I made up my mind. I found a sailing vessel starting for Peru, and somehow the name commended itself to me. We had all along spoken of Marahuna as a Peruvian, and perhaps that was the reason of my fancy, if reason there were any. We went on board and sailed.
We were not, however, going directly to Peru, but were to call at Honolulu first. Thither our course was directed. I breathed more freely on the voyage, for it was once more a relief to place seas between us and civilisation. My thoughts grew calmer, and turning instinctively towards the future found the horizon less ominous than heretofore. Perhaps it would be as Marahuna had predicted—I should get calmer and forget. There could be no happiness in store for me, yet there might be the dull resignation which comes after years of torture; and this might be my punishment.
But if I were conscious of a change in myself a change in Marahuna was still more perceptible. Whether she noticed the alteration in my attitude, or whether it was the reaction of a nature long pent up, I cannot say; but she gradually lost her quiescent mood; her silence came to an end. She grew more vivacious, and indeed recurred to the conditions of her old life. She laughed gaily as a child; she grew radiant at the surprises of sea and land, and called up the memories of her voyage long ago in the 'Hereward.' Her beautiful pitiless face, looking seaward rapturously, was to me but an awful image of desolation. It had come as the pestilence upon our quiet English lives, and death and misery swooped down as its attendant harpies. Wherever the shadow of her loveliness fell, joy turned to blood, and hope shrivelled into ashes, as at the touch of Atê. Ah, God! that all this should be in one short year! She passed through our midst as the angel of death, and in her track were weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
After some ten days we sighted land on the starboard bow, which the captain said was the island of Hawaii. In the afternoon the wind, which had grown into a hurricane, began to give us a great deal of trouble; the seas grew extremely rough, and it was almost impossible to beat against the wind. The captain therefore decided to put into one of the numerous Hawaiian harbours and proceed next day to Oahu.
About seven o'clock we anchored in the little bay of Otahili, on the eastern coast of Hawaii. As we entered I noticed a blood-red reflection in the sky above the distant hills, and its peculiar colour struck me so much that I was curious enough to ask the captain about it.
'That,' said he, 'is the cloud above the crater of Kilauea.' I remembered then, what in my dulness I had forgotten, that Hawaii is noted for its volcanoes.
As the shadows of the night closed in upon us I stood on deck watching that cloud of fire, and realising it as the type of a cloud upon my life. The noisy Hawaiians were clambering about the decks and shouting and splashing in their boats around us.
'What is that?' I heard a voice near me, and turning about found Marahuna by my side.
'The crater of Kilauea,' I said slowly.
She leant against the bulwarks, her eyes fixed on the cloud. There was silence for some minutes, and at last I said—
'You had better not stay up here.'
She made no answer, and I was aware that she had fallen into one of her moods. I touched her and found her cold as marble. With an impassive curiosity I felt her cheek, which was hard and chill. But at my touch the trance wore off in the old way, and she put her arms about me.
'Ah, my love, you love me—you have forgotten!'
I shrank away and sullenly descended into the saloon. There I waited for a couple of hours trying to read, but the noises of the sailors and the boatmen distracted my attention. Marahuna did not come down. Influenced again by the old fascination, I went upon deck and found her still leaning over the bulwarks.
'Marahuna, you had better come down.'
'Is it you? Ah, come to me,' she cried, beckoning with a smile.
'You had better go down,' I repeated. 'It is ten o'clock.' She raised her arms from the woodwork and moved towards me in obedience to my gesture. I watched her pass below, saw her safely into her cabin, and then passed out into mine, and throwing myself upon the bunk I gradually dozed off to sleep.
I awoke in blank darkness and with that old spell upon me, dragging me into her presence. A perfect silence reigned on board. I struck a match and looked at my watch; it was four o'clock. Passing through the saloon I paused involuntarily before Marahuna's door; it was open. I hesitated and then entered.
I could hear no breathing in the silence, though I listened intently. With shamefaced fear I lit a match and looked—she was not there. Her couch was in disorder, as if she had arisen hastily in the night, but there was no sign of her.
Hastily quitting the cabin I hurried on deck, excited and expectant. In my rush I brushed against the first mate who was on duty, and in answer to my inquiries he said he had seen nothing of Marahuna. We searched the saloon and the deck, but without success.
At this juncture one of the sailors offered a suggestion. About an hour before he had heard a splash in the water, and going to the side of the vessel had seen someone in a boat pushing off into the darkness. He had hailed, but received no answer, and concluding it was one of the natives who had been secretly lingering aboard he had shouted some threat after it. For the moment he had fancied he saw a woman's skirt, but had put it down as merely fancy.
'See if the dingy is all right,' said the mate. We hurried to the stern where a small boat had been lowered for use in the smooth water; it was not there—Marahuna had gone ashore.
'Let me have a boat,' I said quickly; 'I must follow.'
I was pulled ashore by one of the sailors. In my heart I knew where she had gone; I must follow and see—and see—I did not know what. I was thrilled by the old terrible spell.
Enquiring among such of the natives as were about I elicited the information that the crater was about eighteen miles away, and as the road was rough it would take a long time to reach it.
'Is there a track?'
Yes, there was a track, and only one, nor could it be missed. Leaving word, therefore, of my design, I took a native with me as guide and hastened away towards the mountain, now growing visible in the early morning.
The road was rough and tedious, and led us over barren hills of shale, through wooded ravines and forests of luxuriant beauty. I took note of all this calmly enough, for I was being forced on, as it were, in defiance of my will, and my mind, though excited, was capable of cool reflection. I could not control my actions, which were influenced by the magnetic force I have spoken of; but my mind was stable, and more under government indeed than it had been for many, many weeks.
The midday sun beat fiercely upon our heads, and we paused for a short rest and to refresh ourselves. Then again we made another start, and toiled up the slow ascent until late in the afternoon. We saw no signs of her, and I was beginning to wonder whether I might have been mistaken in jumping to this conclusion, especially as my guide assured me that this was the only track she could have followed.
Towards five o'clock we reached patches of decomposed lava, which had overflowed in times of eruption. Thence onward our path lay over huge black lava plains which resembled lakes petrified, as they had curled and tossed about. The plains were mirror-like and glassy, and the glare of the setting sun upon them blinded us. Thin needle-like schists of lava were scattered everywhere, which the guide called 'Pele's hair.'
Again we rested for a short spell, and sitting among some patches of fern munched ohelo berries to relieve our thirst. Another hour passed, and we had arrived at the summit of the mountain.
In the growing shades I could at first only discern one enormous dark shadow stretched out upon the flat plateau which formed the hill top. Over this shadow, which I afterwards perceived to be a gigantic hole nine miles in circumference, brooded a dark red cloud illuminated by the fires within the crater. We bore along the outer rim of this pit, overlooking a precipice of some 400 feet down to another ledge of black rock and lava. We hurried along this, but as far as the eye could see there was no trace of living creature.
'This way, said the Hawaiian, pointing to the left, for a deep rift in the ledge on which we stood barred further progress to the right. Swiftly we passed round the outer circle of the crater, and nightfall found us still pursuing our search.
By this time we had got into the region of volcanic activity. The lava was hot and scorching to the feet. As we walked fissures opened in the earth and fiery vapours arose, choking us with their gaseous fumes. Sometimes my foot crashed through the steaming crust of lava, and a sheet of fire danced up and curled round my legs. Crystals, scattered about, hissed and cracked like a thousand snakes, and the red glare on our faces gave us the appearance of having being dipped in blood.
Still onward, for the light of the reflections was sufficient to guide us in our progress. Suddenly we were arrested by a huge fissure, which had evidently been opened very recently, for the sulphurous flames were bursting out like demons who had broken their bonds. We had now to descend upon the lower ledge, which feat we accomplished at the expense of severe burns and partial suffocation amid the fumes. On the lower level the phenomena grew more marvellous and more terrible. So active seemed the crater that I half-expected an eruption at each point in our progress. Fire burst out in a dozen places around us; every step was the signal for a fresh ascent of flame from the reeking ground. Out of their cavernous dwellings the caged fiends leapt at us like furies as we passed, and singed our ankles and arms. Yet we pushed on, and approached the edge of the precipice which overhung the actual crater.
The appalling sight which met my eyes was beyond description. It was now quite dark. Below me a crescent-like pit was stretched out for some two miles filled full of liquid fire. From one end to the other, from close under me, 400 feet below, or more, to the distant verge which I could scarcely see, seethed a vast unfathomable caldron of molten lava. But this gives no idea of the terrors of the scene. A frightful roaring filled the air as the mutinous billows of flaring surge hurled themselves upon the black sides of this bottomless pit and leapt in frenzy to scale the battlements. But, shut in by the grim dark walls of their gloomy prison, the fire-fiends were hurled back into their home in ruthless confusion with the crash and fury of hell itself. Then in their mad wrath they tossed themselves at one another; the waves leapt aloft into space in goaded passion, and the sea of fire grew tumultuous and glowed with the intensity of a myriad lights. A grey scum shot along the surface and was spat out from the jaws of the flood, as in scorn of a gag; and then once more the flames surged upwards and broke in a foam of crimson fire along the cliffs. It was a terrible sight. Cascades gleamed in the air. Here and there throughout the lake were small volcanic cones erect like islands in the troubled sea, and from each of these were belched forth smoke and molten lava and crimson flames. A hundred colours ran across the waters—pink, blue, violet, mauve, yellow, scarlet—each changing a thousand times. Here in truth was Halemaumau, the house of eternal fire.
But few seconds were sufficient to take in all this, for I was growing more and more excited as I drew nearer my conceived goal. Still on we hastened pell-mell.'
'See!' said the Hawaiian.
There in the dim distance, lighted up by the flaring fire of the abyss below, I saw a moving figure on the cliff ahead.
'It is she!' I cried in wild ecstasy, and bracing myself up I rushed on towards the headland on which she was moving.
As I drew nearer she had stopped, and was standing on the very verge of the precipice, looking down into the depths.
'Marahuna! Marahuna!' I cried.
But she heard me not amid the roar of the troubled lake. I staggered on blindly now.
She was still standing on the verge, looking out across the boiling mass of waves. Her hands were raised in the air, and the flare lit up her silent figure.
'Marahuna!' I shrieked, panting close upon her; but the blinding flame leapt up between us into my eyes and I lost count of things for the moment. Then I heard her voice sweeping out. She had stepped back at my cry, and was looking at me with a passionate smile of delight.
'Ah, my love, you have come, you have come back!'
'Ah, my love!' and her arms were reached towards me. Blind and maddened with whirling excitement, I made a motion forwards, but stumbling upon the hissing lava fell and clutched at her skirt as I fell.
'Ah, my love, my love!' she cried, lifting her arms again towards me.
'My love, my love!' Great God! I leapt forward again towards her arms, burning with the mad frenzy to once more clasp her in mine and die with her. But as I reached forward a tongue of fire flew out of the lava before me, and, flashing into a broad blaze, cut open a huge fissure across the spit of headland on which she was standing. Through the flames my arms groped blindly, but grasped flame only; for when next second the fire died down, I saw, great God! the spit on which she had stood was cut away by the fissure, and was slowly rumbling down the steep descent towards the blazing lake.
Already, as I bent over the very limits of the precipice, her head with its golden hair had sunk below the level of my feet.
Down, down she sank, slowly now, and now gathering speed as the descent became more abrupt towards a little jutting ledge below. Her face was upturned silently towards me with a gaze of living, passionate rapture, blent with wild, proud exultation. Over the golden hair the crimson waves cast lurid shadows. She smiled, and her smile rippled out into soft, murmurous laughter.
'Ah, my love, my love!'
Then swiftly she turned her head with a downward glance, and, leaning forward as the slipping lava reached the ledge, she raised her arms in the air and leapt—
Out upon space! a gleam of gold and a flash of crimson fire! Down! down! The hungry waves yawned; the grey scum fled from before their bloody jaws; a splash of fire leapt upwards; no sound save the fierce, ceaseless roaring; but against the sheer walls of the hell below the writhing fire-demons hurled themselves in unchanging and eternal fury.
AND I, seated here watching the long rollers of the great Pacific, sometimes wonder if it is all a dream; but at such times the conditions of my life out here recur to my mind to bring back a full realisation of the terror, the horror, and the agony which lie buried in my past!
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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