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   Chapter 7 THE WHEEL COMES FULL CIRCLE

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 25455

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The next morning I was up early, and went on deck. The sun had risen, and in the moist atmosphere the tints of sky and sea were beautiful. Everywhere was the warm ocean undulating lazily to the vague horizon. A few lascars were still cleansing the decks; others were seated on their haunches between decks, eating curry from a calabash; a couple of passengers were indolently munching oranges; and Stone the quartermaster was inspecting the work lately done by the lascars. Stone gave me a pleasant good-morning, and we walked together the length of the deck forward. I had got about three-fourths of the length back again, when I heard a cry from aft-a sharp call of "Man overboard!" In a moment I had travelled the intermediate deck, and was at the stern, looking below, where, in the swirling waters, was the head of a man. With cries of "Man overboard!" I threw two or three buoys after the disappearing head, above which a bare arm thrust itself. I heard the rush of feet behind me, and in a moment Hungerford and Stone were beside me. The signal was given for the engines to stop; stewards and lascars came running on deck in response to Hungerford's call, and the first officer now appeared. Very soon a crew was gathered on the after-deck, about a boat on the port side.

Passengers by this time showed in various stages of dressing-women wringing their hands, men gesticulating. If there is anything calculated to send a thrill of awe through a crowd, it is the cry of "Man overboard!" And when one looked below, and saw above the drowning head two white arms thrust from the sea, a horrible thing was brought home to each of us. Besides, the scene before us on the deck was not reassuring. There was trouble in getting the boat lowered. The first officer was excited, the lascars were dazed, the stewards were hurried without being confident; only Hungerford, Stone, and the gunner were collected. The boat should have been launched in a minute, but still it hung between its davits; its course downward was interrupted; something was wrong with the ropes, "A false start, by--!" said the bookmaker, looking through his eye-glass. Colonel Ryder's face was stern, Clovelly was pale and anxious, as moment after moment went, and the boat was not yet free. Ages seemed to pass before the boat was let down even with the bulwarks, and a crew of ten, with Hungerford in command, were in it, ready to be lowered. Whether the word was given to lower, or whether it was any one's fault, may never perhaps be known; but, as the boat hung there, suddenly it shot down at the stern, some one having let go the ropes at that end; and the bow being still fast, it had fallen like a trap-door. It seemed, on the instant, as if the whole crew were tossed into the water; but some had successfully clutched the boat's side, and Hungerford hung by a rope with one hand. In the eddying water, however, about the reversing screw, were two heads, and farther off was a man struggling. The face of one of the men near the screw was upturned for a moment; it was that of Stone the quartermaster.

A cry went up from the passengers, and they swayed forward to the suspended boat; but Colonel Ryder turned almost savagely upon them. "Keep quiet!" he said. "Stand back! What can you do? Give the officers a chance." He knew that there had been a false start, and bad work indeed; but he also saw that the task of the officers must not be made harder. His sternness had effect. The excited passengers drew back, and I took his place in front of them. When the first effort had been made to lower the boat, I asked the first officer if I could accompany the crew, but he said no. I could, therefore, do nothing but wait. A change came on the crowd. It became painfully silent, none speaking save in whispers, and all watching with anxious faces either the receding heads in the water or the unfortunate boat's crew. Hungerford showed himself a thorough sailor. Hanging to the davit, he quietly, reassuringly, gave the order for righting the boat, virtually taking the command out of the hands of the first officer, who was trembling with nervousness. Hungerford was right; this man's days as a sailor were over. The accident from which he had suffered had broken his nerve, stalwart as he was. But Hungerford was as cool as if this were ordinary boat-practice. Soon the boat was drawn up again, and others took the place of those who had disappeared. Then it was lowered safely, and, with Hungerford erect in the bows, it was pulled swiftly along the path we had come.

At length, too, the great ship turned round, but not in her tracks. It is a pleasant fiction that these great steamers are easily managed. They can go straight ahead, but their huge proportions are not adapted for rapid movement. However, the work of rescue was begun. Sailors were aloft on watch, Captain Ascott was on the bridge, sweeping the sea with his glass; order was restored. But the ship had the feeling of a home from which some familiar inmate had been taken, to return no more. Children clasped their mothers' hands and said, "Mother, was it the poor quartermaster?" and men who the day before had got help from the petty officers in the preparation of costumes, said mournfully: "Fife the gunner was one of them."

But who was the man first to go overboard-and who was it first gave the alarm? There were rumours, but no one was sure. All at once I remembered something peculiar in that cry of "Man overboard!" and it shocked me. I hurried below, and went to the cabin of Boyd Madras. It was empty; but on a shelf lay a large envelope, addressed to Hungerford and myself. I tore it open. There was a small packet, which I knew contained the portrait he had worn on his bosom, addressed to Mrs. Falchion; and the other was a single sheet directed to me, fully written upon, and marked in the corner: "To be made public."

So, he had disappeared from the play? He had made his exit? He had satisfied the code at last? Before opening the letter addressed to me, I looked round. His clothes were folded upon one of the berths; but the garments of masquerade were not in the cabin. Had he then gone out of the world in the garb of a mummer? Not altogether, for the false beard he had worn the night before lay beside the clothes. But this terrible earnestness of his would look strange in last night's disguise.

I opened the packet addressed to Hungerford and myself, and saw that it contained a full and detailed account of his last meeting with his wife. The personal letter was short. He said that his gratitude was unspeakable, and now must be so for ever. He begged us not to let the world know who he was, nor his relationship to Mrs. Falchion, unless she wished it; he asked me to hand privately to her the packet bearing her name. Lastly, he requested that the paper for the public be given to the captain of the 'Fulvia'.

Going out into the passage, I found a steward, who hurriedly told me that just before the alarm was given he had seen Boyd Madras going aft in that strange costume, which he mistook for a dressing-gown, and he had come to see if, by any chance, it was he who had gone overboard. I told him that it was. He disappeared, and soon the whole ship knew it. I went to the captain, gave him the letter, and told him only what was necessary to tell. He was on the bridge, and was occupied with giving directions, so he asked me the substance of the letter, and handed it back to me, requesting me to make a copy of it soon and leave it in his cabin. I then took all the papers to my cabin, and locked them up. I give here the substance of the letter which was to be made public:

Because you know how much I have suffered physically while on board

this ship, and because you have been kind to me, I wish, through

you, to say my last word to the world: though, indeed, this may seem

a strange form for gratitude to take. Dying men, however, make few

apologies, and I shall make none. My existence, as you know, is an

uncertain quantity, and may be cut short at any moment in the

ordinary course of things. But I have no future in the active

concerns of life; no past on which to dwell with satisfaction; no

friends to mourn for my misfortunes in life, nor for my death,

whether it be peaceful or violent; therefore, I have fewer

compunctions in ending a mistaken career and a worthless life.

Some one will profit by my death: who it is matters not, for it is

no friend of mine. My death adjusts a balance, perhaps not nicely,

yet it does it. And this is all I have to say.... I am

going. Farewell....

After a brief farewell to me added, there came the subscription "Charles Boyd;" and that was all. Why he cried out "Man overboard" (for now I recognised that it was his voice which gave the alarm), I do not know, except that he wished his body to be recovered, and to receive burial.

Just here, some one came fumbling at the curtain of my cabin. I heard a gasp-"Doctor-my head! quick!"

I looked out. As I drew the curtain a worthless lascar sailor fell fainting into my cabin. He had been drinking a good deal, and the horror and excitement of the accident had brought on an apoplectic fit. This in a very hot climate is suddenly fatal. In three minutes, in spite of me, he was dead. Postponing report of the matter, I went on deck again among the passengers.

I expected that Mrs. Falchion would be among them, for the news must have gone to every part of the ship; but she was not there. On the outskirts of one of the groups, however, I saw Justine Caron. I went to her, and asked her if Mrs. Falchion had risen. She said that she had not: that she had been told of the disaster, and had appeared shocked; but had complained of a headache, and had not risen. I then asked Justine if Mrs. Falchion had been told who the suicide was, and was answered in the negative. At that moment a lady came to me and said in an awed whisper: "Dr. Marmion, is it true that the man who committed suicide was a second-class passenger, and that he appeared at the ball last night, and danced with Mrs. Falchion?"

I knew that my reply would soon become common property, so I said:

"He was a first-class passenger, though until yesterday he travelled second-class. I knew him. His name was Charles Boyd. I introduced him to Mrs. Falchion last night, but he did not stay long on deck, because he felt ill. He had heart trouble. You may guess that he was tired of life." Then I told her of the paper which was for the public, and she left me.

The search for the unfortunate men went on. No one could be seen near the floating buoys which were here and there picked up by Hungerford's boat. The long undulations of the water had been broken up in a large area about the ship, but the sea was still comparatively smooth. We were steaming back along the track we had come. There was less excitement on board than might be expected. The tropical stillness of the air, the quiet suddenness of the tragedy itself, the grim decisiveness of Hungerford, the watchful silence of a few men like Colonel Ryder and Clovelly, had effect upon even the emotion of those women, everywhere found, who get a morbid enjoyment out of misery.

Nearly all were watching the rescue boat, though a few looked over the sides of the ship as if they expected to find bodies floating about. They saw sharks, instead, and a trail of blood, and this sent them away sickened from the bulwarks. Then they turned their attention again upon the rescue party. It was impossible not to note what a fine figure Hungerford made, as he stood erect in the bow, his hand over his eyes, searching the water. Presently we saw him stop the boat, and something was drawn in. He signalled the ship. He had found one man-but dead or alive? The boat was rapidly rowed back to the ship, Hungerford making efforts for resuscitation. Arrived at the vessel, the body was passed up to me.

It was that of Stone the quartermaster. I worked to bring back life, but it was of no avail. A minute after, a man in the yards signalled that he saw another. It was not a hundred yards away, and was floating near the surface. It was a strange sight, for the water was a vivid green, and the man wore garments of white and scarlet, and looked a part of some strange mosaic: as one has seen astonishing figures set in balls of solid glass. This figure framed in the sea was Boyd Madras. The boat was signalled, it drew near, and two men dragged the body in, as a shark darted forward, just too late, to seize it. The boat drew alongside the 'Fulvia'. I stood at the gangway to receive this castaway. I felt his wrist and heart. As I did so I c

hanced to glance up at the passengers, who were looking at this painful scene from the upper deck. There, leaning over the railing, stood Mrs. Falchion, her eyes fixed with a shocking wonder at the drooping, weird figure. Her lips parted, but at first they made no sound. Then, she suddenly drew herself up with a shudder. "Horrible! horrible!" she said, and turned away.

I had Boyd Madras taken to an empty cabin next to mine, which I used for operations, and there Hungerford and myself worked to resuscitate him. We allowed no one to come near. I had not much hope of bringing life back, but still we worked with a kind of desperation, for it seemed to Hungerford and myself that somehow we were responsible to humanity for him. His heart had been weak, but there had been no organic trouble: only some functional disorder, which open-air life and freedom from anxiety might have overcome. Hungerford worked with an almost fierce persistence. Once he said: "By God, I will bring him back, Marmion, to face that woman down when she thinks she has got the world on the hip!"

I cannot tell what delight we felt when, after a little time, I saw a quiver of the eyelids and a slight motion of the chest. Presently a longer breath came, and the eyes opened; at first without recognition. Then, in a few moments, I knew that he was safe-desperately against his will, but safe.

His first sentient words startled me. He gasped, "Does she think I am drowned?"

"Yes."

"Then she must continue to do so!"

"Why?"

"Because"-here he spoke faintly, as if sudden fear had produced additional weakness-"because I had rather die a thousand deaths than meet her now; because she hates me. I must begin the world again. You have saved my life against my will: I demand that you give that life its only chance of happiness."

As his words came to me, I remembered with a start the dead lascar, and, leading Hungerford to my cabin, I pointed to the body, and whispered that the sailor's death was only known to me. "Then this is the corpse of Boyd Madras, and we'll bury it for him," he said with quick bluntness. "Do not report this death to Captain Ascott-he would only raise objections to the idea. This lascar was in my watch. It will be supposed he fell overboard during the accident to the boat. Perhaps some day the funeral of this nigger will be a sensation and surprise to her blessed ladyship on deck."

I suggested that it seemed underhand and unprofessional, but the entreating words of the resuscitated man in the next room conquered my objections.

It was arranged that Madras should remain in the present cabin, of which I had a key, until we reached Aden; then he should, by Hungerford's aid, disappear.

We were conspirators, but we meant harm to nobody. I covered up the face of the dead lascar and wrapped round him the scarlet and gold cloth that Madras had worn. Then I got a sailor, who supposed Boyd Madras was before him, and the body was soon sewed in its shotted shroud and carried to where Stone the quartermaster lay.

At this day I cannot suppose I would do these things, but then it seemed right to do as Madras wished: he was, under a new name, to begin life afresh.

After giving directions for the disposition of the bodies, I went on deck. Mrs. Falchion was still there. Some one said to her: "Did you know the man who committed suicide?"

"He was introduced to me last night by Dr. Marmion," she replied, and she shuddered again, though her face showed no remarkable emotion. She had had a shock to the senses, not to the heart.

When I came to her on the deck, Justine was saying to her: "Madame, you should not have come. You should not see such painful things when you are not well."

She did not reply to this. She looked up at me and said: "A strange whim, to die in those fanciful rags. It is dreadful to see; but he had the courage."

I replied: "They have as much courage who make men do such things and then live on."

Then I told her briefly that I held the packet for her, that I guessed what was in it, and that I would hand it to her later. I also said that he had written to me the record of last night's meeting with her, and that he had left a letter which was to be made public. As I said these things we were walking the decks, and, because eyes were on both of us, I tried to show nothing more unusual in manner than the bare tragedy might account for.

"Well," she said, with a curious coldness, "what use shall you make of your special knowledge?"

"I intend," I said, "to respect his wish, that your relationship to him be kept unknown, unless you declare otherwise."

"That is reasonable. If he had always been as reasonable! And," she continued, "I do not wish the relationship to be known: practically there is none.... Oh! oh!" she added, with a sudden change in her voice, "why did he do as he did, and make everything else impossible-impossible!... Send me, or give me the packet, when you wish: and now please leave me, Dr. Marmion."

The last few words were spoken with some apparent feeling, but I knew she was thinking of herself most, and I went from her angry.

I did not see her again before the hour that afternoon when we should give the bodies of the two men to the ocean. No shroud could be prepared for gunner Fife and able-seaman Winter, whose bodies had no Christian burial, but were swallowed by the eager sea, not to be yielded up even for a few hours. We were now steaming far beyond the place where they were lost.

The burial was an impressive sight, as burials at sea mostly are. The lonely waters stretching to the horizon helped to make it so. There was a melancholy majesty in the ceremony.

The clanging bell had stopped. Captain Ascott was in his place at the head of the rude draped bier. In the silence one only heard the swish of water against the 'Fulvia's' side, as we sped on towards Aden. People do not know how beautiful, how powerful, is the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer, who have only heard it recited by a clergyman. To hear it read by a hardy man, whose life is among stern duties, is to receive a new impression. He knows nothing of lethargic monotone; he interprets as he reads. And when the man is the home-spun captain of a ship, who sees before him the poor shell of one that served him for ten years, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord," has a strange significance. It is only men who have borne the shock of toil and danger, and have beaten up against the world's buffetings, that are fit to say last words over those gone down in the storm or translated in the fiery chariot of duty.

The engines suddenly stopped. The effect was weird. Captain Ascott's fingers trembled, and he paused for an instant and looked down upon the dead, then out sorrowfully to the waiting sea, before he spoke the words, "We therefore commit their bodies to the deep." But, the moment they were uttered, the bier was lifted, there was a swift plunge, and only the flag and the empty boards were left. The sobbing of women now seemed almost unnatural; for around us was the bright sunlight, the gay dresses of the lascars, the sound of the bell striking the hours, and children playing on the deck. The ship moved on.

And Mrs. Falchion? As the burial service was read, she had stood, and looked, not at the bier, but straight out to sea, calm and apparently unsympathetic, though, as she thought, her husband was being buried. When, however, the weighted body divided the water with a swingeing sound, her face suddenly suffused, as though shame had touched her or some humiliating idea had come. But she turned to Justine almost immediately, and soon after said calmly: "Bring a play of Moliere, and read to me, Justine."

I had the packet her supposed dead husband had left for her in my pocket. I joined her, and we paced the deck, at first scarcely speaking, while the passengers dispersed, some below, some to the smoking-rooms, some upon deck-chairs to doze through the rest of the lazy afternoon. The world had taken up its orderly course again. At last, in an unfrequented corner of the deck, I took the packet from my pocket and handed it to her. "You understand?" I asked.

"Yes, I understand. And now, may I beg that for the rest of your natural life"-here she paused, and bit her lip in vexation that the unlucky phrase had escaped her-"you will speak of this no more?"

"Mrs. Boyd Madras," I said (here she coloured indignantly),-"pardon me for using the name, but it is only this once,-I shall never speak of the matter to you again, nor to any one else, unless there is grave reason."

We walked again in silence. Passing the captain's cabin, we saw a number of gentlemen gathered about the door, while others were inside. We paused, to find what the incident was. Captain Ascott was reading the letter which Boyd Madras had wished to be made public. (I had given it to him just before the burial, and he was acting as though Boyd Madras was really dead-he was quite ignorant of our conspiracy.) I was about to move on, but Mrs. Falchion touched my arm. "Wait," she said. She stood and heard the letter through. Then we walked on, she musing. Presently she said: "It is a pity-a pity."

I looked at her inquiringly, but she offered no explanation of the enigmatical words. But, at this moment, seeing Justine waiting, she excused herself, and soon I saw her listening to Moliere. Later in the day I saw her talking with Miss Treherne, and it struck me that she had never looked so beautiful as then, and that Miss Treherne had never seemed so perfect a product of a fine convention. But, watching them together, one who had had any standard of good life could never have hesitated between the two. It was plain to me that Mrs. Falchion was bent upon making a conquest of this girl who so delicately withstood her; and Belle Treherne has told me since, that, when in her presence, and listening to her, she was irresistibly drawn to her; though at the same time she saw there was some significant lack in her nature; some hardness impossible to any one who had ever known love. She also told me that on this occasion Mrs. Falchion did not mention my name, nor did she ever in their acquaintance, save in the most casual fashion. Her conversation with Miss Treherne was always far from petty gossip or that smart comedy in which some women tell much personal history, with the guise of badinage and bright cynicism. I confess, though, it struck me unpleasantly at the time, that this fresh, high-hearted creature should be in familiar conversation with a woman who, it seemed to me, was the incarnation of cruelty.

Mrs. Falchion subscribed most liberally to the fund raised for the children of the quartermaster and munificently to that for the crew which had, under Hungerford, performed the rescue work. The only effect of this was to deepen the belief that she was very wealthy, and could spend her money without affectation; for it was noticeable that she, of all on board, showed the least outward excitement at the time of the disaster. It occurred to me that once or twice I had seen her eyes fixed on Hungerford inquisitively, and not free from antipathy. It was something behind her usual equanimity. Her intuitive observation had led her to trace his hand in recent events. Yet I know she admired him too for his brave conduct. The day following the tragedy we were seated at dinner. The captain and most of the officers had risen, but Mrs. Falchion, having come in late, was still eating, and I remained seated also. Hungerford approached me, apologising for the interruption. He remarked that he was going on the bridge, and wished to say something to me before he went. It was an official matter, to which Mrs. Falchion apparently did not listen. When he was about to turn away, he bowed to her rather distantly; but she looked up at him and said, with an equivocal smile:

"Mr. Hungerford, we often respect brave men whom we do not like."

Then he, understanding her, but refusing to recognise the compliment, not altogether churlishly replied: "And I might say the same of women, Mrs. Falchion; but there are many women we dislike who are not brave."

"I think I could recognise a brave man without seeing his bravery," she urged.

"But I am a blundering sailor," he rejoined, "who only believes his eyes."

"You are young yet," she replied.

"I shall be older to-morrow," was his retort.

"Well, perhaps you will see better to-morrow," she rejoined, with indolent irony.

"If I do, I'll acknowledge it," he added. Then Hungerford smiled at me inscrutably. We two held a strange secret.

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