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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Golden Silence By A. M. Williamson Characters: 12920

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Stephen's prophecy came true. They had a better dinner than any one else had, and enjoyed it as an adventure. Victoria thought their waiter a particularly good-natured man, because instead of sulking over his duties he beamed. Stephen might, if he had chosen, have thrown another light upon the waiter's smiles; but he didn't choose. And he was happy. He gave Victoria good advice, and promised help from Nevill Caird. "He's sure to meet me at the ship," he said, "and if you'll let me, I'll introduce him to you. He may be able to find out everything you want to know."

Stephen would have liked to go on talking after dinner, but the girl, ashamed of having taken up so much of his time, would not be tempted. She went to her cabin, and thought of him, as well as of her sister; and he thought of her while he walked on deck, under the stars.

"For a moment white, then gone forever."

Again the words came singing into his head. She was white-white as this lacelike foam that silvered the Mediterranean blue; but she had not gone forever, as he had thought when he likened her whiteness to the spindrift on the dark Channel waves. She had come into his life once more, unexpectedly; and she might brighten it again for a short time on land, in that unknown garden his thoughts pictured, behind the gate of the East. Yet she would not be of his life. There was no place in it for a girl. Still, he thought of her, and went on thinking, involuntarily planning things which he and Nevill Caird would do to help the child, in her romantic errand. Of course she must not be allowed to travel about Algeria alone. Once settled in Algiers she must stay there quietly till the authorities found her sister.

He used that powerful-sounding word "authorities" vaguely in his mind, but he was sure that the thing would be simple enough. The police could be applied to, if Nevill and his friends should be unable to discover Ben Halim and his American wife. Almost unconsciously, Stephen saw himself earning Victoria Ray's gratitude. It was a pleasant fancy, and he followed it as one wanders down a flowery path found in a dark forest.

Victoria's thoughts of him were as many, though different.

She had never filled her mind with nonsense about men, as many girls do. As she would have said to herself, she had been too busy. When girls at school had talked of being in love, and of marrying, she had been interested, as if in a story-book, but it had not seemed to her that she would ever fall in love or be married. It seemed so less than ever, now that she was at last actually on her way to look for Saidee. She was intensely excited, and there was room only for the one absorbing thought in mind and heart; yet she was not as anxious as most others would have been in her place. Now that Heaven had helped her so far, she was sure she would be helped to the end. It would be too bad to be true that anything dreadful should have happened to Saidee-anything from which she, Victoria, could not save her; and so now, very soon perhaps, everything would come right. It seemed to the girl that somehow Stephen was part of a great scheme, that he had been sent into her life for a purpose. Otherwise, why should he have been so kind since the first, and have appeared this second time, when she had almost forgotten him in the press of other thoughts? Why should he be going where she was going, and why should he have a friend who had known Algiers and Algeria since the time when Saidee's letters had ceased?

All these arguments were childlike; but Victoria Ray had not passed far beyond childhood; and though her ideas of religion were her own-unlearned and unconventional-such as they were they meant everything to her. Many things which she had heard in churches had seemed unreal to the girl; but she believed that the Great Power moving the Universe planned her affairs as well as the affairs of the stars, and with equal interest. She thought that her soul was a spark given out by that Power, and that what was God in her had only to call to the All of God to be answered. She had called, asking to find Saidee, and now she was going to find her, just how she did not yet know; but she hardly doubted that Stephen Knight was connected with the way. Otherwise, what was the good of him to her? And Victoria was far too humble in her opinion of herself, despite that buoyant confidence in her star, to imagine that she could be of any use to him. She could be useful to Saidee; that was all. She hoped for nothing more. And little as she knew of society, she understood that Stephen belonged to a different world from hers; the world where people were rich, and gay, and clever, and amused themselves; the high world, from a social point of view. She supposed, too, that Stephen looked upon her as a little girl, while she in her turn regarded him gratefully and admiringly, as from a distance. And she believed that he must be a very good man.

It would never have occurred to Victoria Ray to call him, even in thought, her "White Knight," as Margot Lorenzi persisted in calling him, and had called him in the famous interview. But it struck her, the moment she heard his name, that it somehow fitted him like a suit of armour. She was fond of finding an appropriateness in names, and sometimes, if she were tired or a little discouraged, she repeated her own aloud, several times over: "Victoria, Victoria. I am Victoria," until she felt strong again to conquer every difficulty which might rise against her, in living up to her name. Now she was of opinion that Stephen's face would do very well in the picture of a young knight of olden days, going out to fight for the True Cross. Indeed, he looked as if he had already passed through the preparation of a long vigil, for his face was worn, and his eyes seldom smiled even when he laughed and seemed amused. His features gave her an idea that the Creator had taken a great deal of pains in chiselling them, not slighting a single line. She had seen handsomer men-indeed, the splendid Arab on the ship was handsomer-but she thought, if she were a general who wanted a man to lead a forlorn hope which meant almost certain death, she would choose one of Stephen's type. She had the impression that he would not hesitate to sacrifice himself for a cause, or even for a person, in an emergency, although he had the air of one used to good fortune, who loved to take his own way in the small

things of life.

And so she finally went to sleep thinking of Stephen.

It is seldom that even the Charles Quex, one of the fastest ships plying between Marseilles and Algiers, makes the trip in eighteen hours, as advertised. Generally she takes two half-days and a night, but this time people began to say that she would do it in twenty-two hours. Very early in the dawning she passed the Balearic Isles, mysterious purple in an opal sea, and it was not yet noon when the jagged line of the Atlas Mountains hovered in pale blue shadow along a paler horizon. Then, as the turbines whirred, the shadow materialized, taking a golden solidity and wildness of outline. At length the tower of a lighthouse started out clear white against blue, as a shaft of sunshine struck it. Next, the nearer mountains slowly turned to green, as a chameleon changes: the Admiralty Island came clearly into view; the ancient nest of those fierce pirates who for centuries scourged the Mediterranean; and last of all, the climbing town of Algiers, old Al-Djézair-el-Bahadja, took form like thick patterns of mother-o'-pearl set in bright green enamel, the patterns eventually separating themselves into individual buildings. The strange, bulbous domes of a Byzantine cathedral on a hill sprang up like a huge tropical plant of many flowers, unfolding fantastic buds of deep rose-colour, against a sky of violet flame.

"At last, Africa!" said Victoria, standing beside Stephen, and leaning on the rail. She spoke to herself, half whispering the words, hardly aware that she uttered them, but Stephen heard. The two had not been long together during the morning, for each had been shy of giving too much of himself or herself, although they had secretly wished for each other's society. As the voyage drew to a close, however, Stephen was no longer able to resist an attraction which he felt like a compelling magnetism. His excuse was that he wanted to know Miss Ray's first impressions of the place she had constantly seen in her thoughts during ten years.

"Is it like what you expected?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, "it's like, because I have photographs. And I've read every book I could get hold of, old and new, in French as well as English. I always kept up my French, you know, for the same reason that I studied Arabic. I think I could tell the names of some of the buildings, without making mistakes. Yet it looks different, as the living face of a person is different from a portrait in black and white. And I never imagined such a sky. I didn't know skies could be of such a colour. It's as if pale fire were burning behind a thin veil of blue."

It was as she said. Stephen had seen vivid skies on the Riviera, but there the blue was more opaque, like the blue of the turquoise. Here it was ethereal and quivering, like the violet fire that hovers over burning ship-logs. He was glad the sky of Africa was unlike any other sky he had known. It intensified the thrill of enchantment he had begun to feel. It seemed to him that it might be possible for a man to forget things in a country where even the sky was of another blue.

Sometimes, when Stephen had read in books of travel (at which he seldom even glanced), or in novels, about "the mystery of the East," he had smiled in a superior way. Why should the East be more mysterious than the West, or North, or South, except that women were shut up in harems and wore veils if they stirred out of doors? Such customs could scarcely make a whole country mysterious. But now, though he had not yet landed, he knew that he would be compelled to acknowledge the indefinable mystery at which he had sneered. Already he fancied an elusive influence, like the touch of a ghost. It was in the pulsing azure of the sky; in the wild forms of the Atlas and far Kabyle mountains stretching into vague, pale distances; in the ivory white of the low-domed roofs that gleamed against the vivid green hill of the Sahel, like pearls on a veiled woman's breast.

"Is it what you thought it would be?" Victoria inquired in her turn.

"I hadn't thought much about it," Stephen had to confess, fearing she would consider such indifference uninteresting. He did not add what remained of the truth, that he had thought of Algiers as a refuge from what had become disagreeable, rather than as a beautiful place which he wished to see for its own sake. "I'd made no picture in my mind. You know a lot more about it all than I do, though you've lived so far away, and I within a distance of forty-eight hours."

"That great copper-coloured church high on the hill is Notre Dame d'Afrique," said the girl. "She's like a dark sister of Notre Dame de la Garde, who watches over Marseilles, isn't she? I think I could love her, though she's ugly, really. And I've read in a book that if you walk up the hill to visit her and say a prayer, you may have a hundred days' indulgence."

Much good an "indulgence" would do him now, Stephen thought bitterly.

As the ship steamed closer inshore, the dreamlike beauty of the white town on the green hillside sharpened into a reality which might have seemed disappointingly modern and French, had it not been for the sprinkling of domes, the pointing fingers of minarets with glittering tiles of bronzy green, and the groups of old Arab houses crowded in among the crudities of a new, Western civilization. Down by the wharf for which the boat aimed like a homing bird, were huddled a few of these houses, ancient dwellings turned into commercial offices where shipping business was transacted. They looked forlorn, yet beautiful, like haggard slavewomen who remembered days of greatness in a far-off land.

The Charles Quex slackened speed as she neared the harbour, and every detail of the town leaped to the eyes, dazzling in the southern sunshine. The encircling arms of break-waters were flung out to sea in a vast embrace; the smoke of vessels threaded with dark, wavy lines the pure crystal of the air; the quays were heaped with merchandise, some of it in bales, as if it might have been brought by caravans across the desert. There was a clanking of cranes at work, a creaking of chains, a flapping of canvas, and many sounds which blend in the harsh poetry of sea-harbours. Then voices of men rose shrilly above all heavier noises, as the ship slowly turned and crept beside a floating pontoon. The journey together was over for Stephen Knight and Victoria Ray.

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