The rest of the entertainment resembled that of most country dinner-parties. Conducted to the piano by the Colonel, who understood music very well, the talented ladies of the party, including Miss Rose, sang songs with more or less success, while Miss Layard criticised, Mary was appreciative, and the men talked. At length the local baronet's wife looked at the local baronet, who thereupon asked leave to order the carriage. This example the rest of the company followed in quick succession until all were gone except Mr. Porson and his daughter.
"Well, my dear," said Mr. Porson, "I suppose that we had better be off too, or you won't get your customary nine hours."
Mary yawned slightly and assented, asserting that she had utterly exhausted herself in defending Miss Rose from the attacks of her rival, Miss Layard.
"No, no," broke in the Colonel, "come and have a smoke first, John. I've got that old map of the property unrolled on purpose to show you, and I don't want to keep it about, for it fills up the whole place. Morris will look after Mary for half an hour, I daresay."
"Certainly," said Morris, but the heart within him sank to the level of his dress-shoes. Here was the opportunity for which he had wished, but as he could not be called a forward, or even a pushing lover, he was alarmed at its very prompt arrival. This answer to his prayers was somewhat too swift and thorough. There is a story of an enormously fat old Boer who was seated on the veld with his horse at his side, when suddenly a band of armed natives rushed to attack him. "Oh, God, help!" he cried in his native taal, as he prepared to heave his huge form into the saddle. Having thus invoked divine assistance, this Dutch Falstaff went at the task with such a will that in a trice he found himself not on the horse, but over it, lying upon his back, indeed, among the grasses. "O God!" that deluded burgher exclaimed, reproachfully, as the Kaffirs came up and speared him, "Thou hast helped a great deal too much!"
At this moment Morris felt very much like this stout but simple dweller in the wilderness. He would have preferred to coquet with the enemy for a while from the safety of his saddle. But Providence willed it otherwise.
"Won't you come out, Mary?" he said, with the courage which inspires men in desperate situations. He felt that it would be impossible to say those words with the electric lights looking at him like so many eyes. The thought of it, even, made him warm all over.
"I don't know; it depends. Is there anything comfortable to sit on?"
"The deck chair," he suggested.
"That sounds nice. I have slumbered for hours in deck chairs. Look, there's a fur rug on that sofa, and here's my white cape; now you get your coat, and I'll come."
"Thank you, no; I don't want any coat; I am hot enough already."
Mary turned and looked him up and down with her wondering blue eyes.
"Do you really think it safe," she said, "to expose yourself to all sorts of unknown dangers in this unprotected condition?"
"Of course," he answered. "I am not afraid of the night air even in October."
"Very well, very well, Morris," she went on, and there was meaning in her voice; "then whatever happens don't blame me. It's so easy to be rash and thoughtless and catch a chill, and then you may become an invalid for life, or die, you know. One can't get rid of it again—at least, not often."
Morris looked at her with a puzzled air, and stepped through the window which he had opened, on to the lawn, whither, with a quaint little shrug of her shoulders, Mary followed him, muttering to herself:
"Now if he takes cold, it won't be my fault." Then she stopped, clasped her hands, and said, "Oh! what a lovely night. I am glad that we came out here."
She was right, it was indeed lovely. High in the heavens floated a bright half-moon, across whose face the little white-edged clouds drifted in quick succession, throwing their gigantic shadows to the world beneath. All silver was the sleeping sea where the moonlight fell upon it, and when this was eclipsed, then it was all jet. To the right and left, up to the very borders of the cliff, lay the soft wreaths of roke or land-fog, covering the earth as with a cloak of down, but pierced here and there by the dim and towering shapes of trees. Yet although these curling wreaths of mist hung on the edges of the cliff like white water about to fall, they never fell, since clear to the sight, though separated from them by a gulf of translucent blackness, lay the yellow belt of sand up which, inch by inch, the tide was creeping.
And the air—no wind stirred it, though the wind was at work aloft—it was still and bright as crystal, and crisp and cold as new-iced wine, for the first autumn frost was falling.
They stood for a few moments looking at all these wonderful beauties of the mysterious night—which dwellers in the country so rarely appreciate, because to them they are common, daily things—and listening to the soft, long-drawn murmuring of the sea upon the shingle. Then they went forward to the edge of the cliff, but although Morris threw the fur rug over it Mary did not seat herself in the comfortable-looking deck chair. Her desire for repose had departed. She preferred to lean upon the low grey wall in whose crannies grew lichens, tiny ferns, and, in their season, harebells and wallflowers. Morris came and leant at her side; for a while they both stared at the sea.
"Pray, are you making up poetry?" she inquired at last.
"Why do you ask such silly questions?" he answered, not without indignation.
"Because you keep muttering to yourself, and I thought that you were trying to get the lines to scan. Also the sea, and the sky, and the night suggest poetry, don't they?"
Morris turned his head and looked at her.
"You suggest it," he said, with desperate earnestness, "in all that shining white, especially when the moon goes in. Then you look like a beautiful spirit new lit upon the edge of the world."
At first Mary was pleased, the compliment was obvious, and, coming from Morris, great. She had never heard him say so much as that before. Then she thought an instant, and the echo of the word "spirit" came back to her mind, and jarred upon it with a little sudden shock. Even when he had a lovely woman at his side must his fancy be wandering to these unearthly denizens and similes.
"Please, Morris," she said almost sharply, "do not compare me to a spirit. I am a woman, nothing more, and if it is not enough that I should be a woman, then——" she paused, to add, "I beg your pardon, I know you meant to be nice, but once I had a friend who went in for spirits—table-turning ones I mean—with very bad results, and I detest the name of them."
Morris took this rebuff better than might have been expected.
"Would you object if one ventured to call you an angel?" he asked.
"Not if the word was used in a terrestrial sense. It excites a vision of possibilities, and the fib is so big that anyone must pardon it."
"Very well, then; I call you that."
"Thank you, I should be delighted to return the compliment. Can you think of any celestial definition appropriate to a young gentleman with dark eyes?"
"Oh! Mary, please stop making fun of me," said Morris, with something like a groan.
"Why?" she asked innocently. "Besides I wasn't making fun. It's only my way of carrying on conversation; they taught it me at school, you know."
Morris made no answer; in fact, he did not know what on earth to say, or rather how to find the fitting words. After all, it was an accident and not his own intelligence that freed him from his difficulty. Mary moved a little, causing the white cloak, which was unfastened, to slip from her shoulders. Morris put out his hand to catch it, and met her hand. In another instant he had thrown his arm round her, drawn her to him, and kissed her on the lips. Then, abashed at what he had done, he let her go and picked up the cloak.
"Might I ask?" began Mary in her usual sweet, low tones. Then her voice broke, and her blue eyes filled with tears.
"I beg your pardon; I am a brute," began Morris, utterly abased by the sight of these tears, which glimmered like pearls in the moonlight, "but, of course, you know what I mean."
Mary shook her head vacantly. Apparently she could not trust herself to speak.
"Dear, will you take me?"
She made no answer; only, after pausing for some few seconds as though lost in thought, with a little action more eloquent than any speech, she leant herself ever so slightly towards him.
Afterwards, as she lay in his arms, words came to him readily enough:
"I am not worth your having," he said. "I know I am an odd fellow, not like other men; my very failings have not been the same as other men's. For instance—before heaven it is true—you are the first woman whom I ever kissed, as I swear to you that you shall be the last. Then, what else am I? A failure in the very work that I have chosen, and the heir to a bankrupt property! Oh! it is not fair; I have no right to ask you!"
"I think it quite fair, and here I am the judge, Morris." Then, sentence by sentence, she went on, not all at once, but with breaks and pauses.
"You asked me just now if I loved you, and I told you—Yes. But you did not ask me when I began to love you. I will tell you all the same. I can't remember a time when I didn't; no, not since I was a little girl. It was you who grew away from me, not me from you, when you took to studying mysticism and aerophones, and were repelled by all women, myself included."
"I know, I know," he said. "Don't remind me of my dead follies. Some things are born in the blood."
"Quite so, and they remain in the bone. I understand. Morris, unless you maltreat me wilfully—which I am sure you would never do—I shall always understand."
"What are you afraid of?" he asked in a shaken voice. "I feel that you are afraid."
"Oh, one or two things; that you might overwork yourself, for instance. Or, lest you should find that after all you are more human than you imagine, and be taken possession of by some strange Stella coming out of nowhere."
"What do you mean, and why do you use that name?" he said amazed.
"What I say, dear. As for that name, I heard it accidentally at table to-night, and it came to my lips—of itself. It seemed to typify what I meant, and to suggest a wandering star—such as men like you are fond of following."
"Upon my honour," said Morris, "I will do none of these things."
"If you can help it, you will do none of them. I know it well enough. I hope and believe that there will never be a shadow between us while we live. But, Morris, I take you, risks and all, because it has been my chance to love you and nobody else. Otherwise, I should think twice; but love doesn't stop at risks."
"What have I done to deserve this?" groaned Morris.
"I cannot see. I should very much like to know," replied Mary, with a touch of her old humour.
It was at this moment that Colonel Monk, happening to come round the corner of the house, walking on the grass, and followed by Mr. Porson, saw a sight which interested him. With one hand he pointed it out to Porson, at the same moment motioning him to silence with the other. Then, taking his brother-in-law by the arm, he dragged him back round the corner of the house.
"They make a pretty picture there in the moonlight, don't they, John, my boy?" he said. "Come, we had better go back into the study and talk over matters till they have done. Even the warmth of their emotions won't keep out the night air for ever."
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
For the next month, or, to be accurate, the next five weeks, everything went merrily at Monk's Abbey. It was as though some cloud had been lifted off the place and those who dwelt therein. No longer did the Colonel look solemn when he came down in the morning, and no longer was he cross after he had read his letters. Now his interviews with the steward in the study were neither prolonged nor anxious; indeed, that functionary emerged thence on Saturday mornings with a shining countenance, drying the necessary cheque, heretofore so difficult to extract, by waving it ostentatiously in the air. Lastly, the Colonel did not seem to be called upon to make such frequent visits to his man of business, and to tarry at the office of the bank manager in Northwold. Once there was a meeting, but, contrary to the general custom, the lawyer and the banker came to see him in company, and stopped to luncheon. At this meal, moreover, the three of them appeared to be in the best of spirits.
Morris noted all these things in his quiet, observant way, and from them drew certain conclusions of his own. But he shrank from making inquiries, nor did the Colonel offer any confidences. After all, why should he, who had never meddled with his father's business, choose this moment to explore it, especially as he knew from previous experience that such investigations would not be well received? It was one of the Colonel's peculiarities to keep his affairs to himself until they grew so bad that circumstances forced him to seek the counsel or the aid of others. Still, Morris could well guess from what mine the money was digged that caused so comfortable a change in their circumstances, and the solution of this mystery gave him little joy. Cash in consideration of an unconcluded marriage; that was how it read. To his sensitive nature the transaction seemed one of doubtful worth.
However, no one else appeared to be troubled, if, indeed, these things existed elsewhere than in his own imagination. This, Morris admitted, was possible, for their access of prosperity might, after all, be no more than a resurrection of credit, vivified by the news of his engagement with the only child of a man known to be wealthy. His uncle Porson, with a solemnity that was almost touching, had bestowed upon Mary and himself a jerky but earnest blessing before he drove home on the night of the dinner-party. He went so far, indeed, as to kiss them both; an example which the Colonel followed with a more finished but equally heartfelt grace.
Now his uncle John beamed upon him daily like the noonday sun. Also he began to take him into his confidence, and consult him as to the erection of houses, affairs of business, and investments. In the course of these interviews Morris was astonished, not to say dismayed, to discover how large were the sums of money as to the disposal of which he was expected to express opinions.
"You see, it will all be yours, my boy," said Mr. Porson one day, in explanation; "so it is best that you should know something of these affairs. Yes, it will all be yours, before very long," and he sighed.
"I trust that I shall have nothing to do with it for many years," blurted out Morris.
"Say months, say months," answered his uncle, stretching out his hands as though to push something from him. Then, to all appearances overcome by a sudden anguish, physical or mental, he turned and hurried from the room.
Taking them all together, those five weeks were the happiest that Morris had ever known. No longer was he profoundly dissatisfied with things in general, no longer ravaged by that desire of the moth for the star which in some natures is almost a disease. His outlook upon the world was healthier and more hopeful; for the first time he saw its wholesome, joyous side. Had he failed to do so, indeed, he must have been a very strange man, for he had much to make the poorest heart rejoice.
Thus Mary, always a charming woman, since her engagement had become absolutely delightful; witter, more wideawake, more beautiful. Morris could look forward to the years to be spent in her company not only without misgiving, but with a confidence that a while ago he would have thought impossible. Moreover, as good fortunes never come singly, his were destined to be multiplied. It was in those days after so many years of search and unfruitful labour that at last he discovered a clue which in the end resulted in the perfection of the instrument that was the parent of the aerophone of commerce, and gave him a name among the inventors of the century which will not easily be forgotten.
Strangely enough it was Morris's good genius, Mary, who suggested the substance, or, rather, the mixture of substances, whereof that portion of the aerophone was finally constructed which is still known as the Monk Sound Waves Receiver. Whether, as she alleged, she made this discovery by pure accident, or whether, as seems possible, she had thought the problem out in her own feminine fashion with results that proved excellent, does not matter in the least. The issue remains the same. An apparatus which before would work only on rare occasions—and then without any certitude—between people in the highest state of sympathy or nervous excitement, has now been brought to such a stage of perfection that by its means anybody can talk to anybody, even if their interests are antagonistic, or their personal enmity bitter.
After the first few experiments with this new material Morris was not slow to discover that although it would need long and careful testing and elaboration, for him it meant, in the main, the realisation of his great dream, and success after years of failure. And—that was the strange part of it—this realisation and success he owed to no effort of his own, but to some chance suggestion made by Mary. He told her this, and thanked her as a man thanks one through whom he has found salvation. In answer she merely laughed, saying that she was nothing but the wire along which a happy inspiration had reached his brain, and that more than this she neither wished, nor hoped, nor was capable of being.
Then suddenly on this happy, tranquil atmosphere which wrapped them about—like the sound of a passing bell at a child's feast—floated the first note of impending doom and death.
The autumn held fine and mild, and Mary, who had been lunching at the Abbey, was playing croquet with Morris upon the side lawn. This game was the only one for which she chanced to care, perhaps because it did not involve much exertion. Morris, who engaged in the pastime with the same earnestness that he gave to every other pursuit in which he happened to be interested, was, as might be expected, getting the best of the encounter.
"Won't you take a couple of bisques, dear?" he asked affectionately, after a while. "I don't like always beating you by such a lot."
"I'd die first," she answered; "bisques are the badge of advertised inferiority and a mark of the giver's contempt."
"Stuff!" said Morris.
"Stuff, indeed! As though it wasn't bad enough to be beaten at all; but to be beaten with bisques!"
"That's another argument," said Morris. "First you say you are too proud to accept them, and next that you won't accept them because it is worse to be defeated with points than without them."
"Anyway, if you had the commonest feelings of humanity you wouldn't beat me," replied Mary, adroitly shifting her ground for the third time.
"How can I help it if you won't have the bisques?"
"How? By pretending that you were doing your best, and letting me win all the same, of course; though if I caught you at it I should be furious. But what's the use of trying to teach a blunt creature like you tact? My dear Morris, I assure you I do not believe that your efforts at deception would take in the simplest-minded cow. Why, even Dad sees through you, and the person who can't impose upon my Dad——. Oh!" she added, suddenly, in a changed voice, "there is George coming through the gate. Something has happened to my father. Look at his face, Morris; look at his face!"
In another moment the footman stood before them.
"Please, miss, the master," he began, and hesitated.
"Not dead?" said Mary, in a slow, quiet voice. "Do not say that he is dead!"
"No, miss, but he has had a stroke of the heart or something, and the doctor thought you had better be fetched, so I have brought the carriage."
"Come with me, Morris," she said, as, dropping the croquet mallet, she flew rather than ran to the brougham.
Ten minutes later they were at Seaview. In the hall they met Mr. Charters, the doctor. Why was he leaving? Because——
"No, no," he said, answering their looks; "the danger is past. He seems almost as well as ever."
"Thank God!" stammered Mary. Then a thought struck her, and she looked up sharply and asked, "Will it come back again?"
"Yes," was his straightforward answer.
"From time to time, at irregular periods. But in its fatal shape, as I hope, not for some years."
"The verdict might have been worse, dear," said Morris.
"Yes, yes, but to think that it has passed so near to him, and he quite alone at the time. Morris," she went on, turning to him with an energy that was almost fierce, "if you won't have my father to live with us, I won't marry you. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, dear, you leave no room for misconception. By all means let him live with us—if he can get on with my father," he added meaningly.
"Ah!" she replied, "I never thought of that. Also I should not have spoken so roughly, but I have had such a shock that I feel inclined to treat you like—like—a toad under a harrow. So please be sympathetic, and don't misunderstand me, or I don't know what I shall say." Then by way of making amends, Mary put her arms round his neck and gave him a kiss "all of her own accord," saying, "Morris, I am afraid—I am afraid. I feel as if our good time was done."
After this the servant came to say that she might go up to her father's room, and that scene of our drama was at an end.
Mr. Porson owned a villa at Beaulieu, in the south of France, which he had built many years before as a winter house for his wife, whose chest was weak. Here he was in the habit of spending the spring months, more, perhaps, because of the associations which the place possessed for him than of any affection for foreign lands. Now, however, after this last attack, three doctors in consultation announced that it would be well for him to escape from the fogs and damp of England. So to Beaulieu he was ordered.
This decree caused consternation in various quarters. Mr. Porson did not wish to go; Mary and Morris were cast down for simple and elementary reasons; and Colonel Monk found this change of plan—it had been arranged that the Porsons should stop at Seaview till the New Year, which was to be the day of the marriage—inconvenient, and, indeed, disturbing. Once those young people were parted, reflected the Colonel in his wisdom, who could tell what might or might not happen?
In this difficulty he found an inspiration. Why should not the wedding take place at once? Very diplomatically he sounded his brother-in-law, to find that he had no opposition to fear in this quarter provided that Mary and her husband would join him at Beaulieu after a week or two of honeymoon. Then he spoke to Morris, who was delighted with the idea. For Morris had come to the conclusion that the marriage state would be better and more satisfactory than one of prolonged engagement.
It only remained, therefore, to obtain the consent of Mary, which would perhaps, have been given without much difficulty had her uncle been content to leave his son or Mr. Porson to ask it of her. As it chanced, this he was not willing to do. Porson, he was sure, would at once give way should his daughter raise any objection, and in Morris's tact and persuasive powers the Colonel had no faith.
In the issue, confident in his own diplomatic abilities, he determined to manage the affair himself and to speak to his niece. The mistake was grave, for whereas she was as wax to her father or her lover, something in her uncle's manner, or it may have been his very personality, always aroused in Mary a spirit of opposition. On this occasion, too, that manner was not fortunate, for he put the proposal before her as a thing already agreed upon by all concerned, and one to which her consent was asked as a mere matter of form.
Instantly Mary became antagonistic. She pretended not to understand; she asked for reasons and explanations. Finally, she announced in idle words, beneath which ran a current of determination, that neither her father nor Morris could really wish this hurried marriage, since had they done so one or other of them would have spoken to her on the subject. When pressed, she intimated very politely, but in language whereof the meaning could hardly be mistaken, that she held this fixing of the date to be peculiarly her own privilege; and when still further pressed said plainly that she considered her father too ill for her to think of being married at present.
"But they both desire it," expostulated the Colonel.
"They have not told me so," Mary answered, setting her red lips.
"If that is all, they will tell you so soon enough, my dear girl."
"Perhaps, uncle, after they have been directed to do so, but that is not quite the same thing."
The Colonel saw that he had made a mistake, and too late changed his tactics.
"You see, Mary, your father's state of health is precarious; he might grow worse."
She tapped her foot upon the ground. Of these allusions to the possible, and, indeed, the certain end of her beloved father's illness, she had a kind of horror.
"In that event, that dreadful event," she answered, "he will need me, my whole time and care to nurse him. These I might not be able to give if I were already married. I love Morris very dearly. I am his for whatever I may be worth; but I was my father's before Morris came into my life, and he has the first claim upon me."
"What, then, do you propose?" asked the Colonel curtly, for opposition and argument bred no meekness in his somewhat arbitrary breast.
"To be married on New Year's Day, wherever we are, if Morris wishes it and the state of my father's health makes it convenient. If not, Uncle Richard, to wait till a more fitting season." Then she rose—for this conversation took place at Seaview—saying that it was time she should give her father his medicine.
Thus the project of an early marriage fell through; for, having once been driven into announcing her decision in terms so open and unmistakable, Mary would not go back on her word.
Morris, who was much disappointed, pleaded with her. Her father also spoke upon the subject, but though the voice was the voice of Mr. Porson, the arguments, she perceived, were the arguments of Colonel Monk. Therefore she hardened her heart and put the matter by, refusing, indeed, to discuss it at any length. Yet—and it is not the first time that a woman has allowed her whims to prevail over her secret wishes—in truth she desired nothing more than to be married to Morris so soon as it was his will to take her.
Finally, a compromise was arranged. There was to be no wedding at present, but the whole party were to go together to Beaulieu, there to await the development of events. It was arranged, moreover, by all concerned, that unless something unforeseen occurred to prevent it, the marriage should be celebrated upon or about New Year's Day.
Beautiful as it might be and fashionable as it might be, Morris did not find Beaulieu very entertaining; indeed, in an unguarded moment he confessed to Mary that he "hated the hole." Even the steam launch in which they went for picnics did not console him, fond though he was of the sea; while as for Monte Carlo, after his third visit he was heard to declare that if they wanted to take him there again it must be in his coffin.
The Colonel did not share these views. He was out for a holiday, and he meant to enjoy himself. To begin with, there was the club at Nice, where he fell in with several old comrades and friends. Then, whom should he meet but Lady Rawlins: once, for a little while in the distant past, they had been engaged; until suddenly the young lady, a beauty in her day, jilted him in favour of a wealthy banker of Hebraic origin. Now, many years after, the banker was aged, violent, and uncomely, habitually exceeded in his cups, and abused his wife before the servants. So it came about that to the poor woman the Colonel's courteous, if somewhat sarcastic, consolations were really very welcome. It pleased him also to offer them. The jilting he had long ago forgiven indeed, he blessed her nightly for having taken that view of her obligations, seeing that Jane Millet, as she was then, however pretty her face may once have been, had neither fortune nor connections.
"Yes, my dear Jane," he said to her confidentially one afternoon, "I assure you I often admire your foresight. Now, if you had done the other thing, where should we have been to-day? In the workhouse, I imagine."
"I suppose so," answered Lady Rawlins, meekly, and suppressing a sigh, since for the courtly and distinguished Colonel she cherished a sentimental admiration which actually increased with age; "but you didn't always think like that, Richard." Then she glanced out of the window, and added: "Oh, there is Jonah coming home, and he looks so cross," and the poor lady shivered.
The Colonel put up his eyeglass and contemplated Jonah through the window. He was not a pleasing spectacle. A rather low-class Hebrew who calls himself a Christian, of unpleasant appearance and sinister temper, suffering from the effects of lunch, is not an object to be loved.
"Ah, I see," said the Colonel. "Yes, Sir Jonah ages, doesn't he? as, indeed, we do all of us," and he glanced at the lady's spreading proportions. Then he went on. "You really should persuade him to be tidier in his costume, Jane; his ancestral namesake could scarcely have looked more dishevelled after his sojourn with the whale. Well, it is a small failing; one can't have everything, and on the whole, with your wealth and the rest, you have been a very fortunate woman."
"Oh, Richard, how can you say so?" murmured the wretched Lady Rawlins, as she took the hand outstretched in farewell. For Jonah in large doses was more than the Colonel could stomach.
Indeed, as the door closed behind him she wiped away a tear, whispering to herself: "And to think that I threw over dear Richard in order to marry that—that—yes, I will say it—that horror!"
Meanwhile, as he strolled down the street, beautifully dressed, and still looking very upright and handsome—for he had never lost his figure—the Colonel was saying to himself:
"Silly old woman! Well, I hope that by now she knows the difference between a gentleman and a half-Christianised, money-hunting, wine-bibbing Jew. However, she's got the fortune, which was what she wanted, although she forgets it now, and he's got a lachrymose, stout, old party. But how beautiful she used to be! My word, how beautiful she used to be! To go to see her now is better than any sermon; it is an admirable moral exercise."
To Lady Rawlins also the Colonel's visits proved excellent moral exercises tinged with chastenings. Whenever he went away he left behind him some aphorism or reflection filled with a wholesome bitter. But still she sought his society and, in secret, adored him.
In addition to the club and Lady Rawlins there were the tables at Monte Carlo, with their motley company, which to a man of the world could not fail to be amusing. Besides, the Colonel had one weakness—sometimes he did a little gambling, and when he played he liked to play fairly high. Morris accompanied him once to the "Salles de jeu," and—that was enough. What passed there exactly, could never be got out of him, even by Mary, whose sense of humour was more than satisfied with the little comedies in progress about her, no single point of which did she ever miss.
Only, funny as she might be in her general feebleness, and badly as she might have behaved in some distant past, for Lady Rawlins she felt sorry. Her kind heart told Mary that this unhappy person also possessed a heart, although she was now stout and on the wrong side of middle age. She was aware, too, that the Colonel knew as much, and his scientific pin-pricks and searings of that guileless and unprotected organ struck her as little short of cruel. None the less so, indeed, because the victim at the stake imagined that they were inflicted in kindness by the hand of a still tender and devoted friend.
"I hope that I shan't quarrel with my father-in-law," reflected Mary to herself, after one of the best of these exhibitions; "he's got an uncommonly long memory, and likes to come even. However, I never shall, because he's afraid of me and knows that I see through him."
Mary was right. A very sincere respect for her martial powers when roused ensured perfect peace between her and the Colonel. With his son, however, it was otherwise. Even in this age of the Triumph of the Offspring parents do exist who take advantage of their sons' strict observance of the Fifth Commandment. It is easy to turn a man into a moral bolster and sit upon him if you know that an exaggerated sense of filial duty will prevent him from stuffing himself with pins. So it came about that Morris was sometimes sat upon, especially when the Colonel was suffering from a bad evening at the tables; well out of sight and hearing of Mary, be it understood, who on such occasions was apt to develop a quite formidable temper.
It is over this question of the tables that one of these domestic differences arose which in its results brought about the return of the Monks to Monksland. Upon a certain afternoon the Colonel asked his son to accompany him to Monte Carlo. Morris refused, rather curtly, perhaps.
"Very well," replied the Colonel in his grandest manner. "I am sure I do not wish for an unwilling companion, and doubtless your attention is claimed by affairs more important than the according of your company to a father."
"No," replied Morris, with his accustomed truthfulness; "I am going out sea-fishing, that is all."
"Quite so. Allow me then to wish good luck to your fishing. Does Mary accompany you?"
"No, I think not; she says the boat makes her sick, and she can't bear eels."
"So much the better, as I can ask for the pleasure of her society this afternoon."
"Yes, you can ask," said Morris, suddenly turning angry.
"Do you imply, Morris, that the request will be refused?"
"Certainly, father; if I have anything to do with it."
"And might I inquire why?"
"Because I won't have Mary taken to that place to mix with the people who frequent it."
"I see. This is exclusiveness with a vengeance. Perhaps you consider that those unholy doors should be shut to me also."
"I have no right to express an opinion as to where my father should or should not go; but if you ask me, I think that, under all the circumstances, you would do best to keep away."
"The circumstances! What circumstances?"
"Those of our poverty, which leaves us no money to risk in gambling."
Then the Colonel lost all control of his temper, as sometimes happened to him, and became exceedingly violent and unpleasant. What he said does not matter; let it suffice that the remarks were of a character which even headstrong men are accustomed to reserve for the benefit of their women-folk and other intimate relations.
Attracted by the noise, which was considerable, Mary came in to find her uncle marching up and down the room vituperating Morris, who, with quite a new expression upon his face—a quiet, dogged kind of expression—was leaning upon the mantel-piece and watching him.
"Uncle," began Mary, "would you mind being a little quieter? My father is asleep upstairs, and I am afraid that you will wake him."
"I am sorry, my dear, very sorry, but there are some insults that no man with self-respect can submit to, even from a son."
"Insults! insults!" Mary repeated, opening her blue eyes; then, looking at him with a pained air: "Morris, why do you insult your father?"
"Insult?" he replied. "Then I will tell you how. My father wanted to take you to play with him at Monte Carlo this afternoon and I said that you shouldn't go. That's the insult."
"You observe, my dear," broke in the Colonel, "that already he treats you as one having authority."
"Yes," said Mary, "and why shouldn't he? Now that my father is so weak who am I to obey if not Morris?"
"Oh, well, well," said the Colonel, diplomatically beginning to cool, for he could control his temper when he liked. "Everyone to their taste; but some matters are so delicate that I prefer not to discuss them," and he looked round for his hat.
By this time, however, the cyclonic condition of things had affected Mary also, and she determined that he should not escape so easily.
"Before you go," she went on in her slow voice, "I should like to say, uncle, that I quite agree with Morris. I don't think those tables are quite the place to take young ladies to, especially if the gentleman with them is much engaged in play."
"Indeed, indeed; then you are both of a mind, which is quite as it should be. Of course, too, upon such matters of conduct and etiquette we must all bow to the taste and the experience of the young—even those of us who have mixed with the world for forty years. Might I ask, my dear Mary, if you have any further word of advice for me before I go?"
"Yes, uncle," replied Mary quite calmly. "I advise you not to lose so much of—of your money, or to sit up so late at night, which, you know, never agrees with you. Also, I wish you wouldn't abuse Morris for nothing, because he doesn't deserve it, and I don't like it; and if we are all to live together after I am married, it will be so much more comfortable if we can come to an understanding first."
Then muttering something beneath his breath about ladies in general and this young lady in particular, the Colonel departed with speed.
Mary sat down in an armchair, and fanned herself with a pocket-handkerchief.
"Thinking of the right thing to say always makes me hot," she remarked.
"Well, if by the right thing you mean the strong thing, you certainly discovered it," replied Morris, looking at her with affectionate admiration.
"I know; but it had to be done, dear. He's losing a lot of money, which is mere waste"—here Morris groaned, but asked no questions—"besides," and her voice became earnest, "I will not have him talking to you like that. The fact that one man is the father of another man doesn't give him the right to abuse him like a pickpocket. Also, if you are so good that you put up with it, I have myself to consider—that is, if we are all to live as a happy family. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," said Morris. "I daresay you are right, but I hate rows."
"So do I, and that is why I have accepted one or two challenges to single combat quite at the beginning of things. You mark my words, he will be like a lamb at breakfast to-morrow."
"You shouldn't speak disrespectfully of my father; at any rate, to me," suggested the old-fashioned Morris, rather mildly.
"No, dear, and when I have learnt to respect him I promise you that I won't. There, don't be vexed with me; but my uncle Richard makes me cross, and then I scratch. As he said the other day, all women are like cats, you know. When they are young they play, when they get old they use their claws—I quote uncle Richard—and although I am not old yet, I can't help showing the claws. Dad is ill, that is the fact of it, Morris, and it gets upon my nerves."
"I thought he was better, love."
"Yes, he is better; he may live for years; I hope and believe that he will, but it is terribly uncertain. And now, look here, Morris, why don't you go home?"
"Do you want to get rid of me, love?" he asked, looking up.
"No, I don't. You know that, I am sure. But what is the use of your stopping here? There is nothing for you to do, and I feel that you are wasting your time and that you hate it. Tell the truth. Don't you long to be back at Monksland, working at that aerophone?"
"I should be glad to get on with my experiments, but I don't like leaving you," he answered.
"But you had better leave me for a while. It is not comfortable for you idling here, particularly when your father is in this uncertain temper. If all be well, in another couple of months or so we shall come together for good, and be able to make our own arrangements, according to circumstances. Till then, if I were you, I should go home, especially as I find that I can get on with my uncle much better when you are not here."
"Then what is to happen after we marry, and I can't be sent away."
"Who knows? But if we are not comfortable at Monk's Abbey, we can always set up for ourselves—with Dad at Seaview, for instance. He's peaceable enough; besides, he must be looked after; and, to be frank, my uncle hectors him, poor dear."
"I will think it over," said Morris. "And now come for a walk on the beach, and we will forget all these worries."
Next morning the Colonel appeared at breakfast in a perfectly angelic frame of mind, having to all appearance utterly forgotten the "contretemps" of the previous afternoon. Perhaps this was policy, or perhaps the fact of his having won several hundred pounds the night before mollified his mood. At least it had become genial, and he proved a most excellent companion.
"Look here, old fellow," he said to Morris, throwing him a letter across the table; "if you have nothing to do for a week or so, I wish you would save an aged parent a journey and settle up this job with Simpkins."
Morris read the letter. It had to do with the complete reerection of a set of buildings on the Abbey farm, and the putting up of a certain drainage mill. Over this question differences had arisen between the agent Simpkins and the rural authorities, who alleged that the said mill would interfere with an established right of way. Indeed, things had come to such a point that if a lawsuit was to be avoided the presence of a principal was necessary.
"Simpkins is a quarrelsome ass," explained the Colonel, "and somebody will have to smooth those fellows down. Will you go? because if you won't I must, and I don't want to break into the first pleasant holiday I have had for five years—thanks to your kindness, my dear John."
"Certainly I will go, if necessary," answered Morris. "But I thought you told me a few months ago that it was quite impossible to execute those alterations, on account of the expense."
"Yes, yes; but I have consulted with your uncle here, and the matter has been arranged. Hasn't it, John?"
Mr. Porson was seated at the end of the table, and Morris, looking at him, noticed with a shock how old he had suddenly become. His plump, cheerful face had fallen in; the cheeks were quite hollow now; his jaws seemed to protrude, and the skin upon his bald head to be drawn quite tight like the parchment on a drum.
"Of course, of course, Colonel," he answered, lifting his chin from his breast, upon which it was resting, "arranged, quite satisfactorily arranged." Then he looked about rather vacantly, for his mind, it was clear, was far away, and added, "Do you want: I mean, were you talking about the new drainage mill for the salt marshes?" Mary interrupted and explained.
"Yes, yes; how stupid of me! I am afraid I am getting a little deaf, and this air makes me so sleepy in the morning. Now, just tell me again, what is it?"
Mary explained further.
"Morris to go and see about it. Well, why shouldn't he? It doesn't take long to get home nowadays. Not but that we shall be sorry to lose you, my dear boy; or, at least, one of us will be sorry," and he tried to wink in his old jovial fashion, and chuckled feebly.
Mary saw and sighed; while the Colonel shook his head portentously. Nobody could play the part of Job's comforter to greater perfection.
The end of it was that, after a certain space of hesitation, Morris agreed to go. This "menage" at Beaulieu oppressed him, and he hated the place. Besides, Mary, seeing that he was worried, almost insisted on his departure.
"If I want you back I will send for you," she said. "Go to your work, dear; you will be happier."
So he kissed her fondly and went—as he was fated to go.
"Good-bye, my dear son," said Mr. Porson—sometimes he called him his son, now. "I hope that I shall see you again soon, and if I don't, you will be kind to my daughter Mary, won't you? You understand, everybody else is dead—my wife is dead, my boy is dead, and soon I shall be dead. So naturally I think a good deal about her. You will be kind to her, won't you? Good-bye, my son, and don't trouble about money; there's plenty."
THE SUNK ROCKS AND THE SINGER
Morris arrived home in safety, and speedily settled the question of the drainage mill to the satisfaction of all concerned. But he did not return to Beaulieu. To begin with, although the rural authorities ceased to trouble them, his father was most urgent that he should stay and supervise the putting up of the new farm buildings, and wrote to him nearly every day to this effect. It occurred to his son that under the circumstances he might have come to look after the buildings himself; also, that perhaps he found the villa at Beaulieu more comfortable without his presence; a conjecture in which he was perfectly correct.
Upon the first point, also, letters from Mary soon enlightened him. It appeared that shortly after his departure Sir Jonah, in a violent fit of rage, brought on by drink and a remark of his wife's that had she married Colonel Monk she "would have been a happy woman," burst a small blood-vessel in his head, with the strange result that from a raging animal of a man he had been turned into an amiable and perfectly harmless imbecile. Under so trying a domestic blow, naturally, Mary explained, Colonel Monk felt it to be his duty to support and comfort his old friend to the best of his ability. "This," added Mary, "he does for about three hours every day. I believe, indeed, that a place is always laid for him at meals, while poor Sir Jonah, for whom I feel quite sorry, although he was such a horrid man, sits in an armchair and smiles at him continually."
So Morris determined to take the advice which Mary gave him very plainly, and abandoned all idea of returning to Beaulieu, at any rate, on this side of Christmas. His plans settled, he went to work with a will, and was soon deeply absorbed in the manufacture of experimental receivers made from the new substance. So completely, indeed, did these possess his mind that, as Mary at last complained, his letters to her might with equal fitness have been addressed to an electrical journal, since from them even diagrams were not lacking.
So things went on until the event occurred which was destined profoundly and mysteriously to affect the lives of Morris and his affianced wife. That event was the shipwreck of the steam tramp, Trondhjem, upon the well-known Sunk Rocks outside the Sands which run parallel to the coast at a distance of about five knots from the Monksland cliff. In this year of our story, about the middle of November, the weather set in very mild and misty. It was the third of these "roky" nights, and the sea-fog poured along the land like vapour from an opened jar of chemicals. Morris was experimenting at the forge in his workshop very late—or, rather early, for it was near to two o'clock in the morning—when of a sudden through the open window, rising from the quiet sea beneath, he heard the rattle of oars in rowlocks. Wondering what a boat could be doing so near inshore at a season when there was no night fishing, he went to the window to listen. Presently he caught the sound of voices shouting in a tongue with which he was unacquainted, followed by another sound, that of a boat being beached upon the shingle immediately below the Abbey. Now guessing that something unusual must have happened, Morris took his hat and coat, and, unlocking the Abbot's door, lit a lantern, and descended the cement steps to the beach. Here he found himself in the midst of ten or twelve men, most of them tall and bearded, who were gathered about a ship's boat which they had dragged up high and dry. One of these men, who from his uniform he judged to be the captain, approached and addressed him in a language that he did not understand, but imagined must be Danish or Norwegian.
Morris shook his head to convey the blankness of his ignorance, whereupon other men addressed him, also in northern tongues. Then, as he still shook his head, a lad of about nineteen came forward and spoke in broken and barbarous French.
"Naufrage la bas," he said; "bateau a vapeur, naufrage sur les rochers—brouillard. Nouse echappe."
"Tous?" asked Morris.
The young man shrugged his shoulders as though he were doubtful on the point, then added, pointing to the boat:
"Homme beaucoup blesse, pasteur anglais."
Morris went to the cutter, and, holding up the lantern, looked down, to find an oldish man with sharp features, dark eyes, and grizzled beard, lying under a tarpaulin in the bottom of the boat. He was clothed only in a dressing gown and a blood-stained nightshirt, groaning and semi-unconscious.
"Jambe casse, beaucoup mal casse," explained the French scholar.
"Apportez-le vite apres moi," said Morris. This order having been translated by the youth, several stalwart sailors lifted up the injured man, and, placing the tarpaulin beneath him, took hold of it by the sides and corners. Then, following Morris, they bore him as gently as they could up the steps into the Abbey to a large bedroom upon the first floor, where they laid him upon the bed.
Meanwhile, by the industrious ringing of bells as they went, Morris had succeeded in rousing a groom, a page-boy, and the cook. The first of these he sent off post haste for Dr. Charters. Next, having directed the cook to give the foreign sailormen some food and beer, he told the page-boy to conduct them to the Sailors' Home, a place of refuge provided, as is common upon this stormy coast, for the accommodation of distressed and shipwrecked mariners. As he could extract nothing further, it seemed useless to detain them at the Abbey. Then, pending the arrival of the doctor, with the assistance of the old housekeeper, he set to work to examine the patient. This did not take long, for his injuries were obvious. The right thigh was broken and badly bruised, and he bled from a contusion upon the forehead. This wound upon his head seemed also to have affected his brain; at any rate, he was unable to speak coherently or to do more than mutter something about "shipwreck" and "steamer Trondhjem," and to ask for water.
Thinking that at least it could do no harm, Morris gave him a cup of soup, which had been hastily prepared. Just as the patient finished drinking it, which he did eagerly, the doctor arrived, and after a swift examination administered some anaesthetic, and got to work to set the broken limb.
"It's a bad smash—very bad," he explained to Morris; "something must have fallen on him, I think. If it had been an inch or two higher, he'd have lost his leg, or his life, or both, as perhaps he will now. At the best it means a couple of months or so on his back. No, I think the cut on his head isn't serious, although it has knocked him silly for a while."
At length the horrid work was done, and the doctor, who had to return to a confinement case in the village, departed. Before he went he told Morris that he hoped to be back by five o'clock. He promised also that before his return he would call in at the Sailor's Home to see that the crew were comfortable, and discover what he could of the details of the catastrophe. Meanwhile for his part, Morris undertook to watch in the sick-room.
For nearly three hours, while the drug retained his grip of him, the patient remained comatose. All this while Morris sat at his bedside wondering who he might be, and what curious circumstance could have brought him into the company of these rough Northmen sailors. To his profession he had a clue, although no sure one, for round his neck the man wore a silver cross suspended by a chain. This suggested that he might be a clergyman, and went far to confirm the broken talk of the French-speaking sailor. Clearly, also, he was a person of some breeding and position, the refinement of his face and the delicacy of his hands showed as much. While Morris was watching and wondering, suddenly the man awoke, and began to talk in a confused fashion.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"At Monksland," answered Morris.
"That's all right, that's where I should be, but the ship, the ship"—then a pause and a cry: "Stella, Stella!"
Morris pricked his ears. "Where is Stella?" he asked.
"On the rocks. She struck, then darkness, all darkness. Stella, come here, Stella!"
A memory awoke in the mind of Morris, and he leant over the patient, who again had sunk into delirium.
"Do you mean Stella Fregelius?" he asked.
The man turned his flushed face and opened his dark eyes.
"Of course, Stella Fregelius—who else? There is only one Stella," and again he became incoherent.
For a while Morris plied him with further questions; but as he could obtain no coherent answer, he gave him his medicine and left him quiet. Then for another half-hour or so he sat and watched, while a certain theory took shape in his mind. This gentleman must be the new rector. It seemed as though, probably accompanied by his daughter, he had taken passage in a Danish tramp boat bound for Northwold, which had touched at some Northumbrian port. Morris knew that the incoming clergyman had a daughter, for, now that he thought of it, he had heard Mr. Tomley mention the fact at the dinner-party on the night when he became engaged. Yes, and certainly she was named Stella. But there was no woman among those who had come to land, and he understood the injured man to suggest that his daughter had been left upon the steamer which was said to have gone ashore upon some rocks; or, perhaps, upon the Sunk Rocks themselves.
Now, the only rocks within twenty miles of them were these famous Sunk Rocks, about six knots away. Even within his own lifetime four vessels had been lost there, either because they had missed, or mistaken, the lightship signal further out to sea, as sometimes happened in a fog such as prevailed this night, or through false reckonings. The fate of all these vessels had been identical; they had struck upon the reef, rebounded or slid off, and foundered in deep water. Probably in this case the same thing had happened. At least, the facts, so far as he knew them, pointed to that conclusion. Evidently the escape of the crew had been very hurried, for they had saved nothing. He judged also that the clergyman, Mr. Fregelius, having rushed on deck, had been injured by the fall of some spar or block consequent upon the violence of the impact of the vessel upon the reef, and in this hurt condition had been thrown into the boat by the sailors.
Then where was the daughter Stella? Was she killed in the same fashion or drowned? Probably one or the other. But there was a third bare possibility, which did no credit to the crew, that she had been forgotten in the panic and hurry, and left behind on the sinking ship.
At first Morris thought of rousing the captain of the lifeboat. On reflection, however, he abandoned this idea, for really what had he to go on beyond the scanty and disjointed ravings of a delirious man? Very possibly the girl Stella was not upon the ship at all. Probably, also, hours ago that vessel had vanished from the eyes of men for ever. To send out the lifeboat upon such a wild-goose chase would be to turn himself into a laughing-stock.
Still something drew his thoughts to that hidden line of reef, and the ship which might still be hanging on it, and the woman who might still be living in the ship.
It was a painful vision from which he could not free his mind.
Then there came to him an idea. Why should he not go to the Sunk Rocks and look? There was a light breeze off land, and with the help of the page-boy, who was sitting up, as the tide was nearing its full he could manage to launch his small sailing-boat, which by good fortune was still berthed near the beach steps. It was a curious chance that this should be so, seeing that in most seasons she would have been by now removed to the shed a mile away, to be out of reach of possible damage from the furious winter gales. As it happened, however, the weather remaining so open, this had not been done. Further, the codlings having begun to run in unusual numbers, as is common upon this coast in late autumn, Morris that very morning had taken the boat out to fish for them, an amusement which he proposed to resume on the morrow in the hope of better sport. Therefore the boat had her sails on board, and was in every way ready for sea.
Why should he not go? For one reason only that he could suggest. There was a certain amount of risk in sailing about the Sunk Rocks in a fog, even for a tiny craft like his, for here the currents were very sharp; also, in many places the points of the rocks were only just beneath the surface of the water. But he knew the dangerous places well enough if he could see them, as he ought to be able to do, for the dawn should break before he arrived. And, after all, what was a risk more or less in life? He would go. He felt impelled—strangely impelled—to go, though of course it was all nonsense, and probably he would be back by nine o'clock, having seen nothing at all.
By this time the injured Mr. Fregelius had sunk into sleep or stupor, doubtless beneath the influence of the second draught which he had administered to him in obedience to the doctor's orders. On his account, therefore, Morris had no anxiety, since the cook, a steady, middle-aged woman, could watch by him for the present.
He called her and gave her instructions, bidding her tell the doctor when he came that he had gone to see if he could make out anything more about the wreck, and that he would be back soon. Then, ordering the page-boy, a stout lad, to accompany him, he descended the steps, and together, with some difficulty, they succeeded in launching the boat. Now for a moment Morris hesitated, wondering whether he should take the young man with him; but remembering that this journey was not without its dangers, finally he decided to go alone.
"I am just going to have a sail round, Thomas, to look if I can make out anything about that ship."
"Yes, sir," remarked Thomas, doubtfully. "But it is rather a queer time to hunt for her, and in this sea-haze too, especially round the Sunk Rocks. Shall I leave the lunch basket in the locker, sir, or take it up to the house?"
"Leave it; it wasn't touched to-day, and I might be glad of some breakfast," Morris answered. Then, having hoisted his sail, he sat himself in the stern, with the tiller in one hand and the sheet in the other. Instantly the water began to lap gently against the bow, and in another minute he glided away from the sight of the doubting Thomas, vanishing like some sea-ghost into the haze and that chill darkness which precedes the dawn.
It was very dark, and the mist was very damp, and the wind, what there was of it, very cold, especially as in his hurry he had forgotten to bring a thick ulster, and had nothing but a covert coat and a thin oil-skin to wear. Moreover, he could not see in the least where he was going, or do more than lay his course for the Sunk Rocks by means of the boat's compass, which he consulted from time to time by the help of a bull's-eye lantern.
This went on for nearly an hour, by the end of which Morris began to wonder why he had started upon such a fool's errand. Also, he was growing alarmed. He knew that by now he should be in the neighbourhood of the reef, and fancied, indeed, that he could hear the water lapping against its rocks. Accordingly, as this reef was ill company in the dark, Morris hauled down his sail, and in case he should have reached the shallows, threw out his little anchor, which was attached to six fathoms of chain. At first it swung loose, but four or five minutes later, the boat having been carried onward into fleeter water by the swift current that was one of the terrors of the Sunk Rocks, it touched bottom, dragged a little, and held fast.
Morris gave a sigh of relief, for that blind journey among unknown dangers was neither safe nor pleasant. Now, at least, in this quiet weather he could lie where he was till light came, praying that a wind might not come first. Already the cold November dawn was breaking in the east; he was able to see the reflection of it upon the fog, and the surface of the water, black and oily-looking, became visible as it swept past the sides of his boat. Now, too, he was sure that the rocks must be close at hand, for he could hear the running tide distinctly as it washed against them and through the dense growth of seaweed that clung to their crests and ridges.
Presently, too, he heard something else, which at first caused him to rub his eyes in the belief that he must have fallen asleep and dreamt; nothing less, indeed, than the sound of a woman's voice. He began to reason with himself. What was there strange in this? He was told, or had inferred, that a woman had been left upon a ship. Doubtless this was she, upon some rock or raft, perhaps. Only then she would have been crying for help, and this voice was singing, and in a strange tongue, more sweetly than he had heard woman sing before.
It was incredible, it was impossible. What woman would sing in a winter daybreak upon the Sunk Rocks—sing like the siren of old fable? Yet, there, quite close to him, over the quiet sea rose the song, strong, clear, and thrilling. Once it ceased, then began again in a deeper, more triumphant note, such as a Valkyrie might have sung as she led some Norn-doomed host to their last battle.
Morris sat and listened with parted lips and eyes staring at the fleecy mist. He did not move or call out, because he was certain that he must be the victim of some hallucination, bred of fog, or of fatigue, or of cold; and, as it was very strange and moving, he had no desire to break in upon its charm.
So there he sat while the triumphant, splendid song rolled and thrilled above him, and by degrees the grey light of morning grew to right and left. To right and left it grew, but, strangely enough, although he never noted it at the time, he and his boat lay steeped in shadow. Then of a sudden there was a change.
A puff of wind from the north seemed to catch the fog and roll it up like a curtain, so that instantly all the sea became visible, broken here and there by round-headed, weed-draped rocks. Out of the east also poured a flood of light from the huge ball of the rising sun, and now it was that Morris learned why the gloom had been so thick about him, for his boat lay anchored full in the shadow of the lost ship Trondhjem. There, not thirty yards away, rose her great prow; the cutwater, which stood up almost clear, showing that she had forced herself on to a ridge of rock. There, too, poised at the extreme point of the sloping forecastle, and supporting herself with one hand by a wire rope that ran thence to the foremast, was the woman to whose siren-like song he had been listening.
At that distance he could see little of her face; but the new-wakened wind blew the long dark hair about her head, while round her, falling almost to her naked feet, was wrapped a full red cloak. Had Morris wished to draw the picture of a Viking's daughter guiding her father's ship into the fray, there, down to the red cloak, bare feet, and flying tresses, stood its perfect model.
The wild scene gripped his heart. Whoever saw the like of it? This girl who sang in the teeth of death, the desolate grey face of ocean, the brown and hungry rocks, the huge, abandoned ship, and over all the angry rays of a winter sunrise.
Thus, out of the darkness of the winter night, out of the bewildering white mists of the morning, did this woman arise upon his sight, this strange new star begin to shine upon his life and direct his destiny.
At the moment that he saw her she seemed to see him. At any rate, she ceased her ringing, defiant song, and, leaning over the netting rail, stared downwards.
Morris began to haul at his anchor; but, though he was a strong man, at first he could not lift it. Just as he was thinking of slipping the cable, however, the little flukes came loose from the sand or weeds in which they were embedded, and with toil and trouble he got it shipped. Then he took a pair of sculls and rowed until he was nearly under the prow of the Trondhjem. It was he, too, who spoke first.
"You must come to me," he called.
"Yes," the woman answered, leaning over the rail; "I will come, but how? Shall I jump into the water?"
"No," he said, "it is too dangerous. You might strike against a rock or be taken by the current. The companion ladder seems to be down on the starboard side. Go aft to it, I will row round the ship and meet you there."
She nodded her head, and Morris started on his journey. It proved perilous. To begin with, there were rocks all about. Also, here the tide or the current, or both, ran with the speed of a mill-race, so that in places the sea bubbled and swirled like a boiling kettle. However skilled and strong he might be, it was hard for one man to deal with such difficulties and escape disaster. Still following the port side of the ship, since owing to the presence of certain rocks he dared not attempt the direct starboard passage, he came at last to her stern. Then he saw how imminent was the danger, for the poop of the vessel, which seemed to be of about a thousand tons burden, was awash and water-logged, but rolling and lifting beneath the pressure of the tide as it drew on to flood.
To Morris, who had lived all his life by the sea, and understood such matters, it was plain that presently she would float, or be torn off the point of the rock on which she hung, broken-backed, and sink in the hundred-fathom-deep water which lay beyond the reef. There was no time to spare, and he laboured at his oars fiercely, till at length, partly by skill and partly by good fortune, he reached the companion ladder and fastened to it with a boat-hook.
Now no woman was to be seen; she had vanished. Morris called and called, but could get no answer, while the great dead carcass of the ship rolled and laboured above, its towering mass of iron threatening to fall and crush him and his tiny craft to nothingness. He shouted and shouted again; then in despair lashed his boat to the companion, and ran up the ladder.
Where could she have gone? He hurried forward along the heaving, jerking deck to the main hatchway. Here he hesitated for a moment; then, knowing that, if anywhere, she must be below, set his teeth and descended. The saloon was a foot deep in water, which washed from side to side with a heavy, sickening splash, and there, carrying a bag in one hand, holding up her garments with the other, and wading towards him from the dry upper part of the cabin, at last he found the lady whom he sought.
"Be quick!" he shouted; "for God's sake, be quick! The ship is coming off the rock."
She splashed towards him; now he had her by the hand; now they were on the deck, and now he was dragging her after him down the companion ladder. They reached the boat, and just as the ship gave a great roll towards them, Morris seized the oars and rowed like a madman.
"Help me!" he gasped; "the current is against us." And, sitting opposite to him, she placed her hands upon his hands, pressing forward as he pulled. Her slight strength made a difference, and the boat forged ahead—thirty, forty, seventy yards—till they reached a rock to which, exhausted, he grappled with a hook, bidding her hold on to the floating seaweed. Thus they rested for thirty seconds, perhaps, when she spoke for the first time:
"Look!" she said.
As she spoke the steamer slid and lifted off the reef. For a few moments she wallowed; then suddenly her stern settled, her prow rose slowly in the air till it stood up straight, fifty or sixty feet of it. Then, with a majestic, but hideous rush, down went the Trondhjem and vanished for ever.
All round about her the sea boiled and foamed, while in the great hollow which she made on the face of the waters black lumps of wreckage appeared and disappeared.
"Tight! hold tight!" he cried, "or she will suck us after her."
Suck she did, till the water poured over the gunwale. Then, the worst passed, and the boat rose again. The foam bubbles burst or floated away in little snowy heaps; the sea resumed its level, and, save for the floating debris, became as it had been for thousands of years before the lost Trondhjem rushed downward to its depths.
Now, for the first time, knowing the immediate peril past, Morris looked at the face of his companion. It was a fine face, and beautiful in its way. Dark eyes, very large and perfect, whereof the pupils seemed to expand and contract in answer to every impulse of the thoughts within. Above the eyes long curving lashes and delicately pencilled, arched eyebrows, and above them again a forehead low and broad. The chin rounded; the lips full, rich, and sensitive; the complexion of a clear and beautiful pallor; the ears tiny; the hands delicate; the figure slim, of medium height, and alive with grace; the general effect most uncommon, and, without being lovely, breathing a curious power and personality.
Such was the woman whom he had saved from death.
"Oh, how splendid!" she said in her deep voice, and clasping her hands. "What a death! For ship or man, what a death! And after it the great calm sea, taking and ready to take for ever."
"Thank Heaven that it did not take you," answered Morris wrathfully.
"Why?" she answered.
"Because you are still alive, who by now would have been dead."
"It seems that it was not fated this time," she answered, adding: "The next it may be different."
"Yes," he said reflectively; "the next it may be different, Miss Fregelius."
She started. "How do you know my name?" she asked.
"From your father's lips. He is ashore at my house. The sailors must have seen the light in my workshop and steered for it."
"My father?" she gasped. "He is still alive? But, oh, how is that possible? He would never have left me."
"Yes, he lives, but with a broken thigh and his head cut open. He was brought ashore senseless, so you need not be ashamed of him. Those sailors are the cowards."
She sighed, as though in deep relief. "I am very glad. I had made up my mind that he must be dead, for of course I knew that he would never have left me otherwise. It did not occur to me that he might be carried away senseless. Is he—" and she paused, then added: "tell me the worst—quick."
"No; the doctor thinks in no danger at present; only a break of the thigh and a scalp wound. Of course, he could not help himself, for he can have known no more than a corpse of what was passing," he went on. "It is those sailors who are to blame—for leaving you on the ship, I mean."
She shrugged her shoulders contemptuously.
"The sailors! From such rough men one does not expect much. They had little time, and thought of themselves, not of a passenger, whom they had scarcely seen. Thank God they did not leave my father behind also."
"You do not thank God for yourself," said Morris curiously, as he prepared to hoist the sail, for his mind harked back to his old wonderment.
"Yes, I do, but it was not His will that I should die last night. I have told you that it was not fated," she answered.
"Quite so. That is evident now; but were I in your case this really remarkable escape would make me wonder what is fated."
"Yes, it does a little; but not too much, for you see I shall learn in time. You might as well wonder how it happened that you arrived to save me, and to what end."
Morris hesitated, for this was a new view of the case, before he answered.
"That your life should be saved, I suppose."
"And why should it happen that your boat should come to save me?"
"I don't know; chance, I suppose."
"Neither do I; but I don't believe in chance. Everything has its meaning and purpose."
"Only one so seldom finds it out. Life is too short, I suppose," replied Morris.
By now the sail was up, the boat was drawing ahead, and he was seated at her side holding the tiller.
"Why did you go down into the saloon, Miss Fregelius?" he asked presently.
She glanced at herself, and now, for the first time, he noticed that she wore a dress beneath her red cloak, and that there were slippers on her feet, which had been bare.
"I could not come into the boat as I was," she explained, dropping her eyes. "The costume which is good enough to be drowned in is not fitted for company. My cabin was well forward, and I guessed that by wading I could reach it. Also, I had some trinkets and one or two books I did not wish to lose," and she nodded at the hand-bag which she had thrown into the boat.
Morris smiled. "It is very nice of you to pay so much respect to appearances," he said; "but I suppose you forgot that the vessel might come off the rocks at any moment and crush me, who was waiting."
"Oh, no," she answered; "I thought of it. I have always been accustomed to the sea, and know about such things."
"And still you went for your dress and your trinkets?"
"Yes, because I was certain that it wouldn't happen and that no harm would come to either of us by waiting a few minutes."
"Indeed, and who told you that?"
"I don't know, but from the moment that I saw you in the boat I was certain that the danger was done with—at least, the immediate danger," she added.
While Miss Fregelius was speaking, Morris had been staring at the sail, which, after drawing for a time in an indifferent fashion, had begun to flap aimlessly.
"What is the matter?" asked his companion. "Has the wind veered again?"
He nodded. "Dead from the west, now, and rising fast. I hope that your spirit of prophecy still speaks smooth things, for, upon my word, I believe we are both of us in a worse mess than ever."
"Can't we row ashore? It is only a few miles, is it?"
"We can try, but I am afraid we are in for a regular tearer. We get them sometimes on this coast after a spell of calm weather."
"Please give me an oar," she said. "I am used to rowing—of a sort."
So he let down the sail, and they began to row. For ten minutes or so they struggled against the ever-rising gale. Then Morris called to her to ship oars.
"It is no use exhausting ourselves, Miss Fregelius," he said, "for now the tide is on the ebb, and dead against us, as well as the wind."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
Morris glanced back to where a mile behind them the sea was beginning to foam ominously over the Sunk Rocks, here and there throwing up isolated jets of spray, like those caused by the blowing of a whale.
"I am going to try to clear them," he said, "and then run before it. Perhaps we might make the Far Lightship five and twenty miles away. Help me to pull up the sail. So, that's enough; she can't stand too much. Now hold the sheet, and if I bid you, let go that instant. I'll steer."
A few seconds later the boat's head had come round, and she was rushing through the water at great speed, parallel with the line of the Sunk Rocks, but being momentarily driven nearer to them. The girl, Stella Fregelius, stared at the farthest point of foam which marked the end of the reef.
"You must hold her up if you want to clear it," she said quietly.
"I can't do any more in this wind," he answered. "You seem to know about boats; you will understand."
She nodded, and on they rushed, the ever-freshening gale on their beam.
"This boat sails well," said Stella, as a little water trickled over the gunwale.
Morris made no answer, his eyes were fixed upon the point of rock; only bidding his companion hold the tiller, he did something to the sail. Now they were not more than five hundred yards away.
"It will be a very near thing," she said.
"Very," he answered, "and I don't want to be officious, but I suggest that you might do well to say your prayers."
She looked at him, and bowed her head for a minute or so. Then suddenly she lifted it again and stared at the terror ahead of them with wide, unflinching eyes.
On sped the boat while more and more did tide and gale turn her prow into the reef. At the end of it a large, humpbacked rock showed now and again through the surf, like the fin of a black whale. That was the rock which they must clear if they would live. Morris took the boat-hook and laid it by his side. They were very near now. They would clear it; no, the wash sucked them in like a magnet.
"Good-bye," said Morris instinctively, but Stella answered nothing.
The wave that lifted them broke upon the rock in a cloud of spray wherein for some few instants their boat seemed to vanish. They were against it; the boat touched, and Stella felt a long ribbon of seaweed cut her like a whip across the face. Kneeling down, Morris thrust madly with the boat-hook, and thus for an instant—just one—held her off. His arms doubled beneath the strain, and then came the back-wash.
Oh, heaven! it had swept them clear. The rock was behind, the sail drew, and swiftly they fled away from the death that had seemed certain.
Stella sighed aloud, while Morris wiped the water from his face.
"Are we clear?" she asked presently.
"Of the Sunk Rocks? Yes, we are round them. But the North Sea is in front of us, and what looks like the worst gale that has blown this autumn is rising behind."
"This is a good sea-boat, and on the open water I think perhaps that we ought to weather it," she said, trying to speak cheerfully, as Morris stowed the sail, for in that wind they wanted no canvas.
"I wish we had something to eat," she added presently; "I am so hungry."
"By good luck I can help you there," he answered. "Yesterday I was out fishing and took lunch for myself and the boatman; but the fish wouldn't bite, so we came back without eating it, and it is still in the locker. Shift a little, please, I will get the basket."
She obeyed, and there was the food sure enough, plenty of it. A thick packet of sandwiches, and two boiled eggs, a loaf, and a large lump of cheese for the boatman, a flask of whiskey, a bottle of beer, another of water, and two of soda. They ate up the sandwiches and the eggs, Morris drinking the beer and Stella the soda water, for whiskey as yet she would not touch.
"Now," she said, "we are still provisioned for twenty-four hours with the bread and cheese, the water and the soda which is left."
"Yes," he answered, "if we don't sink or die of cold we shall not starve. I never thought that sandwiches were so good before;" and he looked hungrily at the loaf.
"You had better put it away; you may want it later," she suggested. And he put it away.
"Tell me, if you don't mind," he asked, for the food and the lightening of the strain upon his nerves had made him conversational, "what is that song which you sang upon the ship, and why did you sing it?"
She coloured a little, and smiled, a sweet smile that seemed to begin in her eyes.
"It is an old Norse chant which my mother taught me; she was a Dane, as my father is also by descent. It has come down in her family for many, many generations, and the legend is that the women of her race always sang it or repeated it while the men were fighting, and, if they had the strength, in the hour of their own death. I believe that is true, for she died whispering it herself; yes, it grew fainter and fainter until it ceased with her breath. So, when I thought that my hour had come, I sang it also, for the first time, for I tried to be brave, and wished to go as my forefathers went. It is a foolish old custom, but I like old customs. I am ashamed that you should have heard it. I thought myself alone. That is all."
"You are a very strange young lady," said Morris, staring at her.
"Strange?" she answered, laughing. "Not at all; only I wanted to show those scores of dead people that their traditions and spirit still lived on in me, their poor modern child. Think how glad they must have been to hear the old chant as they swept by in the wind just now, waiting to give me welcome."
Morris stared still harder. Was this beautiful girl mad? He knew something of the old Norse literature and myths. A fantastic vision rose up in his mind of her forebears, scores and hundreds of them gathered at some ghostly Walhalla feast, listening to the familiar paean as it poured from her fearless heart, and waiting to rise and greet her, the last newcomer of their blood, with "Skoll, daughter, skoll!"
She watched him as though she read his thought.
"You see, they would have been pleased; it is only natural," she said; "and I have a great respect for the opinion of my ancestors."
"Then you are sure they still exist in some shape or form, and are conscious?"
She laughed again. "Of course I am sure. The world of spirits, as I think, is the real world. The rest is a nightmare; at least, it seems like a nightmare, because we don't know the beginning or the end of the dream."
"The old Egyptians thought something like that," said Morris reflectively. "They only lived to die."
"But we," she answered, "should only die to live, and that is why I try not to be afraid. I daresay, however, I mean the same as they did, only you do not seem to have put their thought quite clearly."
"You are right; I meant that for them death was but a door."
"That is better, I think," she said. "That was their thought, and that is my thought; and," she added, searching his face, "perhaps your thought also."
"Yes," he answered, "though somehow you concentrate it; I have never seen things, or, rather, this thing, quite so sharply."
"Because you have never been in a position to see them; they have not been brought home to you. Or your mind may have wanted an interpreter. Perhaps I am that interpreter—for the moment." Then she added: "Were you afraid just now? Don't tell me if you had rather not, only I should like to compare sensations. I was—more than on the ship. I admit it."