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   Chapter 5 ACCUSING FACES

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 18331

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


While we were hove-to, the 'Porcupine' passed us. In all probability it would now get to Aden ahead of us; and herein lay a development of the history of Mrs. Falchion. I was standing beside Belle Treherne as the ship came within hail of us and signalled to see what was the matter. Mrs. Falchion was not far from us. She was looking intently at the vessel through marine-glasses, and she did not put them down until it had passed. Then she turned away with an abstracted light in her eyes and a wintry smile; and the look and the smile continued when she sat down in her deck-chair and leaned her cheek meditatively on the marine-glass. But I saw now that something was added to the expression of her face-a suggestion of brooding or wonder. Belle Treherne, noticing the direction of my glances, said: "Have you known Mrs. Falchion long?"

"No, not long," I replied. "Only since she came on board."

"She is very clever, I believe."

I felt my face flushing, though, reasonably, there was no occasion for it, and I said: "Yes, she is one of the ablest women I have ever met."

"She is beautiful, too-very beautiful." This very frankly.

"Have you talked with her?" asked I.

"Yes, a little this morning, for the first time. She did not speak much, however." Here Miss Treherne paused, and then added meditatively: "Do you know, she impressed me as having singular frankness and singular reserve as well? I think I admired it. There is no feeling in her speech, and yet it has great candour. I never before met any one like her. She does not wear her heart upon her sleeve, I imagine."

A moment of irony came over me; that desire to say what one really does not believe (a feminine trait), and I replied: "Are both those articles necessary to any one? A sleeve?-well, one must be clothed. But a heart?-a cumbrous thing, as I take it."

Belle Treherne turned, and looked me steadily in the eyes for an instant, as if she had suddenly awakened from abstraction, and slowly said, while she drew back slightly: "Dr. Marmion, I am only a girl, I know, and inexperienced, but I hoped most people of education and knowledge of life were free from that kind of cynicism to be read of in books." Then something in her thoughts seemed to chill her words and manner, and her father coming up a moment after, she took his arm, and walked away with a not very cordial bow to me.

The fact is, with a woman's quick intuition, she had read in my tone something suggestive of my recent experience with Mrs. Falchion. Her fine womanliness awoke; the purity of her thoughts, rose in opposition to my flippancy and to me; and I knew that I had raised a prejudice not easy to destroy.

This was on a Friday afternoon.

On the Saturday evening following, the fancy-dress ball was to occur. The accident to the machinery and our delay were almost forgotten in the preparations therefor. I had little to do; there was only one sick man on board, and my hand could not cure his sickness. How he fared, my uncomfortable mind, now bitterly alive to a sense of duty, almost hesitated to inquire. Yet a change had come. A reaction had set in for me. Would it be permanent? I dared scarcely answer that question, with Mrs. Falchion at my right hand at table, with her voice at my ear. I was not quite myself yet; I was struggling, as it were, with the effects of a fantastic dream.

Still, I had determined upon my course. I had made resolutions. I had ended the chapter of dalliance. I had wished to go to 116 Intermediate and let its occupant demand what satisfaction he would. I wanted to say to Hungerford that I was an ass; but that was even harder still. He was so thorough and uncompromising in nature, so strong in moral fibre, that I felt his sarcasm would be too outspoken for me just at present. In this, however, I did not give him credit for a fine sense of consideration, as after events showed. Although there had been no spoken understanding between us that Mrs. Falchion was the wife of Boyd Madras, the mind of one was the other's also. I understood exactly why he told me Boyd Madras's story: it was a warning. He was not the man to harp on things. He gave the hint, and there the matter ended, so far as he was concerned, until a time might come when he should think it his duty to refer to the subject again. Some time before, he had shown me the portrait of the girl who had promised to be his wife. She, of course, could trust HIM anywhere, everywhere.

Mrs. Falchion had seen the change in me, and, I am sure, guessed the new direction of my thoughts, and knew that I wished to take refuge in a new companionship-a thing, indeed, not easily to be achieved, as I felt now; for no girl of delicate and proud temper would complacently regard a hasty transference of attention from another to herself. Besides, it would be neither courteous nor reasonable to break with Mrs. Falchion abruptly. The error was mine, not hers. She had not my knowledge of the immediate circumstances, which made my position morally untenable. She showed unembarrassed ignorance of the change. At the same time I caught a tone of voice and a manner which showed she was not actually oblivious, but was touched in that nerve called vanity; and from this much feminine hatred springs.

I made up my mind to begin a course of scientific reading, and was seated in my cabin, vainly trying to digest a treatise on the pathology of the nervous system, when Hungerford appeared at the door. With a nod, he entered, threw himself down on the cabin sofa, and asked for a match. After a pause, he said: "Marmion, Boyd Madras, alias Charles Boyd, has recognised me."

I rose to get a cigar, thus turning my face from him, and said: "Well?"

"Well, there isn't anything very startling. I suppose he wishes I had left him in the dingey on No Man's Sea. He's a fool."

"Indeed, why?"

"Marmion, are your brains softening? Why does he shadow a woman who wouldn't lift her finger to save him from battle, murder, or sudden death?"

"From the code," I said, in half soliloquy.

"From the what?"

"Oh, never mind, Hungerford. I suppose he is shadowing-Mrs. Falchion?"

He eyed me closely.

"I mean the woman that chucked his name; that turned her back on him when he was in trouble; that hopes he is dead, if she doesn't believe that he is actually; that would, no doubt, treat him as a burglar if he went to her, got down on his knees, and said: 'Mercy, my girl, I've come back to you a penitent prodigal. Henceforth I shall be as straight as the sun, so help me Heaven and your love and forgiveness!'"

Hungerford paused, as if expecting me to reply; but, leaning forward on my knees and smoking hard, I remained silent. This seemed to anger him, for he said a little roughly: "Why doesn't he come out and give you blazes on the promenade deck, and corner her down with a mighty cheek, and levy on her for a thousand pounds? Both you and she would think more of him. Women don't dislike being bullied, if it is done in the right way-haven't I seen it the world over, from lubra to dowager? I tell you, man-sinning or not-was meant to be woman's master and lover, and just as much one as the other."

At this point Hungerford's manner underwent a slight change, and he continued: "Marmion, I wouldn't have come near you, only I noticed you have altered your course, and are likely to go on a fresh tack. It isn't my habit to worry a man. I gave you a signal, and you didn't respond at first. Well, we have come within hail again; and now, don't you think that you might help to straighten this tangle, and try to arrange a reconciliation between those two?

"The scheme is worth trying. Nobody need know but you and me. It wouldn't be much of a sacrifice to her to give him a taste of the thing she swore to do-how does it run?-'to have and to hold from this day forward'?-I can't recall it; but it's whether the wind blows fair or foul, or the keel scrapes the land or gives to the rock, till the sea gulps one of 'em down for ever. That's the sense of the thing, Marmion, and the contract holds between the two, straight on into the eternal belly. Whatever happens, a husband is a husband, and a wife a wife. It seems to me that, in the sight of Heaven, it's he that's running fair in the teeth of the wind, every timber straining, and she that's riding with it, well coaled, flags flying, in an open channel, and passing the derelict without so much as, 'Ahoy there!'"

Now, at this distance of time, I look back, and see Hungerford, "the rowdy sailor," as he called himself, lying there, his dark grey eyes turned full on me; and I am convinced that no honester, more sturdy-minded man ever reefed a sail, took his turn upon the bridge, or walked the dry land in the business of life. It did not surprise me, a year after, when I saw in public prints that he was the hero of-but that must be told elsewhere. I was about to answer him then as I knew he would wish, when a steward appeared and said: "Mr. Boyd, 116 Intermediate, wishes you would come to him, sir, if you would be so kind."

Hungerford rose, and, as I made ready to go, urged quietly: "Yo

u've got the charts and soundings, Marmion, steam ahead!" and, with a swift but kindly clench of my shoulder, he left me. In that moment there came a cowardly feeling, a sense of shamefacedness, and then, hard upon it, and overwhelming it, a determination to serve Boyd Madras so far as lay in my power, and to be a man, and not a coward or an idler.

When I found him he was prostrate. In his eyes there was no anger, no indignation, nor sullenness-all of which he might reasonably have felt; and instantly I was ashamed of the thought which, as I came to him, flashed through my mind, that he might do some violent thing. Not that I had any fear of violence; but I had an active dislike of awkward circumstances. I felt his fluttering pulse, and noted the blue line on his warped lips. I gave him some medicine, and then sat down. There was a silence. What could I say? A dozen thoughts came to my mind, but I rejected them. It was difficult to open up the subject. At last he put his hand upon my arm and spoke:

"You told me one night that you would help me if you could. I ought to have accepted your offer at first; it would have been better.-No, please don't speak just yet. I think I know what you would say. I knew that you meant all you urged upon me; that you liked me. I was once worthy of men's liking, perhaps, and I had good comrades; but that is all over. You have not come near me lately, but it wasn't because you felt any neglect, or wished to take back your words; but-because of something else.... I understand it all. She has great power. She always had. She is very beautiful. I remember when-but I will not call it back before you, though, God knows, I go over it all every day and every night, until it seems that only the memory of her is real, and that she herself is a ghost. I ought not to have crossed her path again, even unknown to her. But I have done it, and now I cannot go out of that path without kneeling before her once again, as I did long ago. Having seen her, breathed the same air, I must speak or die; perhaps it will be both. That is a power she has: she can bend one to her will, although she often, involuntarily, wills things that are death to others. One MUST care for her, you understand; it is natural, even when it is torture to do so."

He put his hand on his side and moved as if in pain. I reached over and felt his pulse, then took his hand and pressed it, saying: "I will be your friend now, Madras, in so far as I can."

He looked up at me gratefully, and replied: "I know that-I know that. It is more than I deserve."

Then he began to speak of his past. He told me of Hungerford's kindness to him on the 'Dancing Kate', of his luckless days at Port Darwin, of his search for his wife, his writing to her, and her refusal to see him. He did not rail against her. He apologised for her, and reproached himself. "She is most singular," he continued, "and different from most women. She never said she loved me, and she never did, I know. Her father urged her to marry me; he thought I was a good man."

Here he laughed a little bitterly. "But it was a bad day for her. She never loved any one, I think, and she cannot understand what love is, though many have cared for her. She is silent where herself is concerned. I think there was some trouble-not love, I am sure of that-which vexed her, and made her a little severe at times; something connected with her life, or her father's life, in Samoa. One can only guess, but white men take what are called native wives there very often-and who can tell? Her father-but that is her secret!... While I was right before the world, she was a good wife to me in her way. When I went wrong, she treated me as if I were dead, and took her old name. But if I could speak to her quietly once more, perhaps she would listen. It would be no good at all to write. Perhaps she would never begin the world with me again, but I should like to hear her say, 'I forgive you. Good-bye.' There would be some comfort in a kind farewell from her. You can see that, Dr. Marmion?"

He paused, waiting for me to speak. "Yes, I can see that," I said; and then I added: "Why did you not speak to her before you both came on board at Colombo?"

"I had no chance. I only saw her in the street, an hour before the ship sailed. I had scarcely time to take my passage."

Pain here checked his utterance, and when he recovered, he turned again to me, and continued: "To-morrow night there is to be a fancy-dress ball on board. I have been thinking. I could go in a good disguise. I could speak to her, and attract no notice; and if she will not listen to me, why, then, that ends it. I shall know the worst, and to know the worst is good."

"Yes," said I; "and what do you wish me to do?"

"I wish to go in a disguise, of course; to dress in your cabin, if you will let me. I cannot dress here, it would attract attention; and I am not a first-class passenger."

"I fear," I replied, "that it is impossible for me to assist you to the privileges of a first-class passenger. You see, I am an officer of the ship. But still I can help you. You shall leave this cabin to-night. I will arrange so that you may transfer yourself to one in the first-class section.... No, not a word; it must be as I wish in this. You are ill; I can do you that kindness at least, and then, by right, you can attend the ball, and, after it, your being among the first-class passengers can make little difference; for you will have met and spoken then, either to peace or otherwise."

I had very grave doubts of any reconciliation; the substance of my notable conversation with Mrs. Falchion was so prominent in my mind. I feared she would only reproduce the case of Anson and his wife. I was also afraid of a possible scene-which showed that I was not yet able to judge of her resources. After a time, in which we sat silent, I said to Madras: "But suppose she should be frightened?-should-should make a scene?"

He raised himself to a sitting posture. "I feel better," he said. Then, answering my question: "You do not know her quite. She will not stir a muscle. She has nerve. I have seen her in positions of great peril and trial. She is not emotional, though I truly think she will wake one day and find her heart all fire but not for me. Still, I say that all will be quite comfortable, so far as any demonstration on her part is concerned. She will not be melodramatic, I do assure you."

"And the disguise-your dress?" inquired I.

He rose from the berth slowly, and, opening a portmanteau, drew from it a cloth of white and red, fringed with gold. It was of beautiful texture, and made into the form of a toga or mantle. He said: "I was a seller of such stuffs in Colombo, and these I brought with me, because I could not dispose of them without sacrifice when I left hurriedly. I have made them into a mantle. I could go as-a noble Roman, perhaps!" Then a slight, ironical smile crossed his lips, and he stretched out his thin but shapely arms, as if in derision of himself.

"You will go as Menelaus the Greek," said I.

"I as Menelaus the Greek?" The smile became a little grim.

"Yes, as Menelaus; and I will go as Paris." I doubt not that my voice showed a good deal of self-scorn at the moment; but there was a kind of luxury in self-abasement before him. "Your wife, I know, intends to go as Helen of Troy. It is all mumming. Let it stand so, as Menelaus and Helen and Paris before there was any Trojan war, and as if there never could be any-as if Paris went back discomfited, and the other two were reconciled."

His voice was low and broken. "I know you exaggerate matters, and condemn yourself beyond reason," he replied. "I will do as you say. But, Dr. Marmion, it will not be all mumming, as you shall see."

A strange look came upon his face at this. I could not construe it; and, after a few words of explanation regarding his transference to the forward part of the ship, I left him. I found the purser, made the necessary arrangements for him, and then sought my cabin, humbled in many ways. I went troubled to bed. After a long wakefulness, I dozed away into that disturbed vestibule of sleep where the world's happenings mingle with the visions of unconsciousness. I seemed to see a man's heart beating in his bosom in growing agonies, until, with one last immense palpitation, it burst, and life was gone. Then the dream changed, and I saw a man in the sea, drowning, who seemed never to drown entirely, his hands ever beating the air and the mocking water. I thought that I tried many times to throw him a lighted buoy in the half-shadow, but some one held me back, and I knew that a woman's arms were round me.

But at last the drowning man looked up and saw the woman so, and, with a last quiver of the arms, he sank from sight. When he was gone, the woman's arms dropped away from me; but when I turned to speak to her, she, too, had gone.

I awoke.

Two stewards were talking in the passage, and one was saying, "She'll get under way by daybreak, and it will be a race with the 'Porcupine' to Aden. How the engines are kicking below!"

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