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   Chapter 8 A BRIDGE OF PERIL

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 27141

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


No more delightful experience may be had than to wake up in the harbour of Aden some fine morning-it is always fine there-and get the first impression of that mighty fortress, with its thousand iron eyes, in strong repose by the Arabian Sea. Overhead was the cloudless sun, and everywhere the tremulous glare of a sandy shore and the creamy wash of the sea, like fusing opals. A tiny Mohammedan mosque stood gracefully where the ocean almost washed its steps, and the Resident's house, far up the hard hillside, looked down upon the harbour from a green coolness. The place had a massive, war-like character. Here was a battery with earthworks; there, a fort; beyond, a signal-staff. Hospitals, hotels, and stores were incidents in the picture. Beyond the mountain-wall and lofty Jebel Shamsan, rising in fine pink and bronze, and at the end of a high-walled path between the great hills, lay the town of Aden proper. Above the town again were the mighty Tanks, formed out of clefts in the mountains, and built in the times when the Phoenicians made Aden a great mart, the richest spot in all Arabia.

Over to the left, on the opposite side of the harbour, were wide bungalows shining in the sun, and flanking the side of the ancient aqueduct, the gigantic tomb of an Arab sheikh. In the harbour were the men-of-war of all nations, and Arab dhows sailed slowly in, laden with pilgrims for Mecca-masses of picturesque sloth and dirt-and disease also; for more than one vessel flew the yellow flag. As we looked, a British man-of-war entered the gates of the harbour in the rosy light. It was bringing back the disabled and wounded from a battle, in which a handful of British soldiers were set to punish thirty times their number in an unknown country. But there was another man-of-war in port with which we were familiar. We passed it far out on the Indian Ocean. It again passed us, and reached Aden before we did. The 'Porcupine' lay not far from the 'Fulvia', and as I leaned over the bulwarks, idly looking at her, a boat shot away from her side, and came towards us. As it drew near, I saw that it was filled with luggage-a naval officer's, I knew it to be. As the sailors hauled it up, I noticed that the initials upon the portmanteaus were G. R. The owner was evidently an officer going home on leave, or invalided. It did not, however, concern me, as I thought, and I turned away to look for Mr. Treherne, that I might fulfil my promise to escort his daughter and Mrs. Callendar to the general cemetery at Aden; for I knew he was not fit to do the journey, and there was nothing to prevent my going.

A few hours later I stood with Miss Treherne and Mrs. Callendar in the graveyard beside the fortress-wall, placing wreaths of artificial flowers and one or two natural roses-a chance purchase from a shop at the port-on the grave of the young journalist. Miss Treherne had brought some sketching materials, and both of us (for, as has been suggested, I had a slight gift for drawing) made sketches of the burial-place. Having done this, we moved away to other parts of the cemetery, looking at the tombstones, many of which told sad tales enough of those who died far away from home and friends. As we wandered on, I noticed a woman kneeling beside a grave. It grew upon me that the figure was familiar. Presently I saw who it was, for the face lifted. I excused myself, went over to her, and said:-"Miss Caron, you are in trouble?"

She looked up, her eyes swimming with tears and pointed to the tombstone. On it I read:

Sacred to the Memory of

HECTOR CARON,

Ensign in the French Navy.

Erected by his friend, Galt Roscoe,

H.B.M.N.

Beneath this was the simple line:

"Why, what evil hath he done?"

"He was your brother?" I asked.

"Yes, monsieur, my one brother." Her tears dropped slowly.

"And Galt Roscoe, who was he?" asked I.

Through her grief her face was eloquent. "I never saw him-never knew him," she said. "He saved my poor Hector from much suffering; he nursed him, and buried him here when he died, and then-that!" pointing to the tombstone. "He made me love the English," she said. "Some day I shall find him, and I shall have money to pay him back all he spent-all." Now I guessed the meaning of the scene on board the 'Fulvia', when she had been so anxious to preserve her present relations with Mrs. Falchion. This was the secret-a beautiful one. She rose. "They disgraced Hector in New Caledonia," she said, "because he refused to punish a convict at Ile Nou who did not deserve it. He determined to go to France to represent his case. He left me behind, because we were poor. He went to Sydney. There he came to know this good man,"-her finger gently felt his name upon the stone,-"who made him a guest upon his ship; and so he came on towards England. In the Indian Ocean he was taken ill: and this was the end."

She mournfully sank again beside the grave, but she was no longer weeping.

"What was this officer's vessel?" I said presently. She drew from her dress a letter. "It is here. Please read it all. He wrote that to me when Hector died."

The superscription to the letter was-H.B.M.S. Porcupine.

I might have told her then that the 'Porcupine' was in the harbour at Aden, but I felt that things would work out to due ends without my help-which, indeed, they began to do immediately. As we stood there in silence, I reading over and over again the line upon the pedestal, I heard footsteps behind, and, turning, I saw a man approaching us, who, from his manner, though he was dressed in civilian's clothes, I guessed to be an officer of the navy. He was of more than middle height, had black hair, dark blue eyes, straight, strongly-marked brows, and was clean-shaven. He was a little ascetic-looking, and rather interesting and uncommon, and yet he was unmistakably a sea-going man. It was a face that one would turn to look at again and again-a singular personality. And yet my first glance told me that he was not one who had seen much happiness. Perhaps that was not unattractive in itself, since people who are very happy, and show it, are often most selfish too, and repel where they should attract. He was now standing near the grave, and his eyes were turned from one to the other of us, at last resting on Justine.

Presently I saw a look of recognition. He stepped quickly forward. "Mademoiselle, will you pardon me?" he said very gently, "but you remind me of one whose grave I came to see." His hand made a slight motion toward Hector Caron's resting-place. Her eyes were on him with an inquiring earnestness. "Oh, monsieur, is it possible that you are my brother's friend and rescuer?"

"I am Roscoe. He was my good friend," he said to her, and he held out his hand. She took it, and kissed it impulsively. He flushed, and drew it back quickly and shyly.

"Some day I shall be able to repay you for all your goodness," she said. "I am only grateful now-grateful altogether. And you will tell me all you knew of him-all that he said and did before he died?"

"I will gladly tell you all I know," he answered, and he looked at her compassionately, and yet with a little scrutiny, as though to know more of her and how she came to be in Aden. He turned to me inquiringly.

I interpreted his thought by saying: "I am the surgeon of the 'Fulvia'. I chanced upon Miss Caron here. She is travelling by the 'Fulvia'."

With a faint voice, Justine here said: "Travelling-with my mistress."

"As companion to a lady," I preferred to add in explanation, for I wished not to see her humble herself so. A look of understanding came into Roscoe's face. Then he said: "I am glad that I shall see more of you; I am to travel by the 'Fulvia' also to London."

"Yet I am afraid I shall see very little of you," she quietly replied.

He was about to say something to her, but she suddenly swayed and would have fallen, but that he caught her and supported her. The weakness lasted only for a moment, and then, steadying herself, she said to both of us: "I hope you will say nothing of this to madame? She is kind, most kind, but she hates illness-and such things."

Galt Roscoe looked at me to reply, his face showing clearly that he thought "madame" an extraordinary woman. I assured Justine that we would say nothing. Then Roscoe cordially parted from us, saying that he would look forward to seeing us both on the ship; but before he finally went, he put on the grave a small bouquet from his buttonhole. Then I excused myself from Justine, and, going over to Miss Treherne, explained to her the circumstances, and asked her if she would go and speak to the afflicted girl. She and Mrs. Callendar had been watching the incident, and they eagerly listened to me. I think this was the moment that I first stood really well with Belle Treherne. Her sympathy for the bereaved girl flooded many barriers between herself and me.

"Oh," she said quickly, "indeed I will go to her, poor girl! Will you come also, Mrs. Callendar?"

But Mrs. Callendar timidly said she would rather Miss Treherne went without her; and so it was. While Miss Treherne was comforting the bereaved girl, I talked to Mrs. Callendar. I fear that Mrs. Callendar was but a shallow woman; for, after a moment of excitable interest in Justine, she rather naively turned the talk upon the charms of Europe. And, I fear, not without some slight cynicism, I followed her where she led; for, as I said to myself, it did not matter what direction our idle tongues took, so long as I kept my mind upon the two beside that grave: but it gave my speech a spice of malice. I dwelt upon Mrs. Callendar's return to her native heath-that is, the pavements of Bond Street and Piccadilly, although I knew that she was a native of Tasmania. At this she smiled egregiously.

At length Miss Treherne came to us and said that Justine insisted she was well enough to go back to the vessel alone, and wished not to be accompanied. So we left her there.

A score of times I have stopped when preparing my notes for this tale from my diary and those of Mrs. Falchion and Galt Roscoe, to think how, all through the events recorded here, and many others omitted, Justine Caron was like those devoted and, often, beautiful attendants of the heroes and heroines of tragedy, who, when all is over, close the eyes, compose the bodies, and cover the faces of the dead, pronouncing with just lips the benediction, fittest in their mouths. Their loves, their deeds, their lives, however good and worthy, were clothed in modesty and kept far up the stage, to be, even when everything was over, not always given the privilege to die as did their masters, but, like Horatio, bade to live and be still the loyal servant:

"But in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story."

There was no reason why we should go to the ship immediately, and I proposed that we should first explore the port-town, and then visit the city of Aden-five miles away beyond the hills-and the Tanks. To this the ladies consented.

Somauli policemen patrolled the streets; Somauli, Arab, and Turkish guides impeded the way; Arabs in plain white, Arab sheikhs in blue and white, and gold, lounged languidly about, or drank their coffee in the shade of the bazaars. Children of the desert, nearly naked, sprinkled water before the doors of the bazaars and stores and upon the hot thoroughfare, from long leather bottles; caravans of camels, with dusty stride, swung up the hillside and beyond into the desert; the Jewish water-carrier with his donkey trudged down the pass from the cool fountains in the volcanic hills; a guard of eunuchs marched by with the harem of a Mohammedan; in the doorways of the houses goats and donkeys fed. Jews, with greasy faces, red-hemmed skirt, and hungry look, moved about, offering ostrich feathers for sale, everywhere treated worse than the Chinaman in Oregon or at Port Darwin. We saw English and Australian passengers of the 'Fulvia' pelting the miserable members of a despised race with green fruit about the streets, and afterwards from the deck of the ship. A number of these raised their hats to us as they passed; but Belle Treherne's acknowledgment was chilly.

"It is hard to be polite to cowards," she said.

After having made some ruinous bargains in fezes, Turkish cloths and perfume, I engaged a trap, and we started for Aden. The journey was not one of beauty, but it had singular interest. Every turn of the wheels carried us farther and farther away from a familiar world to one of yesterday. White-robed warriors of the desert, with lances, bent their brows upon us as they rode away towards the endless sands, and vagabonds of Egypt begged for alms. In about three-quarters of an hour we had passed the lofty barriers of Jebel Shamsan and its comrades, and were making clouds of dust in the streets of Aden. In spite of the cantonments, the British Government House, and the European Church, it was an Oriental town pure and simple, where the slow-footed hours wandered by, leaving apathy in their train; where sloth and surfeit sat in the market-places; idle women gossiped in their doorways; and naked children rolled in the sun. Yet how, in the most unfamiliar places, does one wake suddenly to hear or see some most familiar thing, and learn again that the ways of all people and nations are not, after all, so far apart! Here three naked youths, with trays upon their heads, cried aloud at each doorway what, interpreted, was: "Pies! Hot pies! Pies all hot!" or, "Crum-pet!

Crumpet! Won't you buy-uy a crum-pet!"

One sees the same thing in Kandy, in Calcutta, in Tokio, in Istamboul, in Teheran, in Queensland, in London.

To us the great Tanks overlooking the place were more interesting than the town itself, and we drove thither. At Government House and here were the only bits of green that we had seen; they were, in fact, the only spots of verdure on the peninsula of Aden. It was a very sickly green, from which wan and dusty fig trees rose. In their scant shadow, or in the shelter of an overhanging ledge of rock, Arabs offered us draughts of cool water, and oranges. There were people in the sickly gardens, and others were inspecting the Tanks. Passengers from the ship had brought luncheon-baskets to this sad oasis.

As we stood at the edge of one of the Tanks, Miss Treherne remarked with astonishment that they were empty. I explained to her that Aden did not have the benefits conferred even on the land of the seven fat and seven lean kine-that there had not been rain there for years, and that when it did come it was neither prolonged nor plentiful. Then came questions as to how long ago the Tanks were built.

"Thirteen hundred years!" she exclaimed. "How strange to feel it so! It is like looking at old graves. And how high the walls are, closing up the gorge between the hills."

At that moment Mrs. Callendar drew our attention to Mrs. Falchion and a party from the ship. Mrs. Falchion was but a few paces from us, smiling agreeably as she acknowledged our greetings. Presently two of her party came to us and asked us to share their lunch. I would have objected, and I am certain Belle Treherne would gladly have done so, but Mrs. Callendar was anxious to accept, therefore we expressed our gratitude and joined the group. On second thoughts I was glad that we did so, because, otherwise, my party must have been without refreshments until they returned to the ship-the restaurants at Aden are not to be trusted. To me Mrs. Falchion was pleasantly impersonal, to Miss Treherne delicately and actively personal. At the time I had a kind of fear of her interest in the girl, but I know now that it was quite sincere, though it began with a motive not very lofty-to make Belle Treherne her friend, and so annoy me, and also to study, as would an anatomist, the girl's life.

We all moved into the illusive shade of the fig and magnolia trees, and lunch was soon spread. As we ate, conversation turned upon the annoying persistency of Eastern guides, and reference was made to the exciting circumstances attending the engagement of Amshar, the guide of Mrs. Falchion's party. Among a score of claimants, Amshar had had one particular opponent-a personal enemy-who would not desist even when the choice had been made. He, indeed, had been the first to solicit the party, and was rejected because of his disagreeable looks. He had even followed the trap from the Port of Aden. As one of the gentlemen was remarking on the muttered anger of the disappointed Arab, Mrs. Falchion. said: "There he is now at the gate of the garden."

His look was sullenly turned upon our party. Blackburn, the Queenslander said, "Amshar, the other fellow is following up the game," and pointed to the gate.

Amshar understood the gesture at least, and though he gave a toss of the head, I noticed that his hand trembled as he handed me a cup of water, and that he kept his eyes turned on his opponent.

"One always feels unsafe with these cut-throat races," said Colonel Ryder, "as some of us know, who have had to deal with the nigger of South America. They think no more of killing a man-"

"Than an Australian squatter does of dispersing a mob of aboriginals or kangaroos," said Clovelly.

Here Mrs. Callendar spoke up briskly. "I don't know what you mean by 'dispersing.'"

"You know what a kangaroo battue is, don't you?"

"But that is killing, slaughtering kangaroos by the hundred."

"Well, and that is aboriginal dispersion," said the novelist. "That is the aristocratic method of legislating the native out of existence."

Blackburn here vigorously protested. "Yes, it's very like a novelist, on the hunt for picturesque events, to spend his forensic soul upon 'the poor native,'-upon the dirty nigger, I choose to call him: the meanest, cruellest, most cowardly, and murderous-by Jove, what a lot of adjectives!-of native races. But we fellows, who have lost some of the best friends we ever had-chums with whom we've shared blanket and tucker-by the crack of a nulla-nulla in the dark, or a spear from the scrub, can't find a place for Exeter Hall and its 'poor native' in our hard hearts. We stand in such a case for justice. It is a new country. Not once in fifty times would law reach them. Reprisal and dispersion were the only things possible to men whose friends had been massacred, and-well, they punished tribes for the acts of individuals."

Mrs. Falchion here interposed. "That is just what England does. A British trader is killed. She sweeps a native town out of existence with Hotchkiss guns-leaves it naked and dead. That is dispersion too; I have seen it, and I know how far niggers as a race can be trusted, and how much they deserve sympathy. I agree with Mr. Blackburn."

Blackburn raised his glass. "Mrs. Falchion," he said, "I need no further evidence to prove my case. Experience is the best teacher."

"As I wish to join the chorus to so notable a compliment, will somebody pass the claret?" said Colonel Ryder, shaking the crumbs of a pate from his coat-collar. When his glass was filled, he turned towards Mrs. Falchion, and continued: "I drink to the health of the best teacher." And every one laughingly responded. This impromptu toast would have been drunk with more warmth, if we could have foreseen an immediate event. Not less peculiar were Mrs. Falchion's words to Hungerford the evening before, recorded in the last sentence of the preceding chapter.

Cigars were passed, and the men rose and strolled away. We wandered outside the gardens, passing the rejected guide as we did so. "I don't like the look in his eye," said Clovelly.

Colonel Ryder laughed. "You've always got a fine vision for the dramatic."

We passed on. I suppose about twenty minutes had gone when, as we were entering the garden again, we heard loud cries. Hurrying forward towards the Tanks, we saw a strange sight.

There, on a narrow wall dividing two great tanks, were three people-Mrs. Falchion, Amshar, and the rejected Arab guide. Amshar was crouching behind Mrs. Falchion, and clinging to her skirts in abject fear. The Arab threatened with a knife. He could not get at Amshar without thrusting Mrs. Falchion aside, and, as I said, the wall was narrow. He was bent like a tiger about to spring.

Seeing Mrs. Falchion and Amshar apart from the others,-Mrs. Falchion having insisted on crossing this narrow and precipitous wall,-he had suddenly rushed after them. As he did so, Miss Treherne saw him, and cried out. Mrs. Falchion faced round swiftly, and then came this tragic situation.

Some one must die.

Seeing that Mrs. Falchion made no effort to dislodge Amshar from her skirts, the Arab presently leaped forward. Mrs. Falchion's arms went out suddenly, and she caught the wrist that held the dagger. Then there was an instant's struggle. It was Mrs. Falchion's life now, as well as Amshar's. They swayed. They hung on the edge of the rocky chasm. Then we lost the gleam of the knife, and the Arab shivered, and toppled over. Mrs. Falchion would have gone with him, but Amshar caught her about the waist, and saved her from the fall which would have killed her as certainly as it killed the Arab lying at the bottom of the tank. She had managed to turn the knife in the Arab's hand against his own breast, and then suddenly pressed her body against it; but the impulse of the act came near carrying her over also.

Amshar was kneeling at her feet, and kissing her gown gratefully. She pushed him away with her foot, and, coolly turning aside, began to arrange her hair. As I approached her, she glanced down at the Arab. "Horrible! horrible!" she said. I remembered that these were her words when her husband was lifted from the sea to the 'Fulvia'.

Not ungently, she refused my hand or any assistance, and came down among the rest of the party. I could not but feel a strange wonder at the powerful side of her character just shown-her courage, her cool daring. In her face now there was a look of annoyance, and possibly disgust, as well as of triumph-so natural in cases of physical prowess. Everybody offered congratulations, but she only showed real pleasure, and that mutely, at those of Miss Treherne. To the rest of us she said: "One had to save one's self, and Amshar was a coward."

And so this woman, whose hardness of heart and excessive cruelty Hungerford and I were keeping from the world, was now made into a heroine, around whom a halo of romance would settle whenever her name should be mentioned. Now, men, eligible and ineligible, would increase their homage. It seemed as if the stars had stopped in their courses to give her special fortune.

That morning I had thought her appearance at this luncheon-party was little less than scandalous, for she knew, if others did not, who Boyd Madras was. After the occurrence with the Arab, the other event was certainly much less prominent, and here, after many years, I can see that the act was less in her than it would have been in others. For, behind her outward hardness, there was a sort of justice working, an iron thing, but still not unnatural in her.

Belle Treherne awakened also to a new perception of her character, and a kind of awe possessed her, so masculine seemed her courage, yet so womanly and feminine her manner. Mrs. Callendar was loud in her exclamations of delight and wonder at Mrs. Falchion's coolness; and the bookmaker, with his usual impetuosity, offered to take bets at four to one that we should all be detained to give evidence in the matter.

Clovelly was silent. He occasionally adjusted his glasses, and looked at Mrs. Falchion as if he had suddenly come to a full stop in his opinions regarding her. This, I think, was noticed by her, and enjoyed too, for she doubtless remembered her conversation with me, in which she had said that Clovelly thought he understood her perfectly. Colonel Ryder, who was loyal at all times, said she had the nerve of a woman from Kentucky. Moreover, he had presence of mind, for he had immediately sent off a native to inform the authorities of what had occurred; so that before we had got half-way to the town we were met by policemen running towards us, followed by a small detachment of Indian soldiers. The officer in command of the detachment stopped us, and said that the governor would be glad if we would come to Government House for an hour, while an inquiry was being held.

To this we cheerfully consented, of course; and, in a room where punkahs waved and cool claret-cup awaited us, we were received by the governor, who was full of admiration of Mrs. Falchion. It was plain, however, that he was surprised at her present equanimity. Had she no nerves at all?

"I can only regret exceedingly," said the governor, "that your visit to Aden has had such a tragical interruption; but since it has occurred, I am glad to have the privilege of meeting a lady so brave as Mrs. Falchion."-The bookmaker had introduced us all with a naivete that, I am sure, amused the governor, as it certainly did his aide-de-camp. "We should not need to fear the natives if we had soldiers as fearless," his excellency continued.

At this point the inquiry began, and, after it was over, the governor said that there the matter ended so far as we were concerned, and then he remarked gallantly that the Government of Aden would always remain Mrs. Falchion's debtor. She replied that it was a debt she would be glad to preserve unsettled for ever. After this pretty exchange of compliments, the governor smiled, and offered her his arm to the door, where our 'char a bans' awaited us.

So impressed was the bookmaker with the hospitable reception the governor had given us, that he offered him his cigar-case with its contents, said he hoped they would meet again, and asked his excellency if he thought of coming to Australia. The governor declined the cigars graciously, ignored the hoped-for pleasure of another meeting, and trusted that it might fall to his lot to visit Australia some day. Thereupon the bookmaker insisted on the aide-de-camp accepting the cigar-case, and gave him his visiting-card. The aide-de-camp lost nothing by his good-humoured acceptance, if he smoked, because, as I knew, the cigars were very good indeed. Bookmakers, gamblers and Jews are good judges of tobacco. And the governor's party lost nothing in dignity because, as the traps wheeled away, they gave a polite little cheer for Mrs. Falchion. I, at first, was fearful how Belle Treherne would regard the gaucheries of the bookmaker, but I saw that he was rather an object of interest to her than otherwise; for he was certainly amusing.

As we drove through Aden, a Somauli lad ran from the door of a house, and handed up a letter to the driver of my trap. It bore my name, and was handed over to me. I recognised the handwriting. It was that of Boyd Madras. He had come ashore by Hungerford's aid in the night. The letter simply gave an address in England that would always find him, and stated that he intended to take another name.

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