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- Mrs. Falchion, Volume 1. - 4/25 -
"Yes. She was not dangerously hurt, of course."
"Let us change the subject, please. They are going to have a fancy-dress ball on board, I believe, before we get to Aden. How tiresome! Isn't it a little affectation on the part of the stage-struck committee? Isn't it--inconsequent?"
"That depends," I said vaguely, inviting a question. She idled with a book in her lap.
"On those who go, what costumes are worn, and how much beauty and art appear."
"But the trouble! Does it pay? What return does one get?"
"If all admire, half are envious, some are jealous, and one is devoted-- isn't that enough?" I think I was a fool that night.
"You seem to understand women," she said, with a puzzling and not quite satisfactory smile. "Yes, all that is something."
Though I was looking at the sea rather than at her, I saw again that inquiring look in her eyes--such a measuring look as a recruiting sergeant might give a victim of the Queen's shilling.
After a moment's pause she continued, I thought, abstractedly: "As what should you go?"
I answered lightly and without premeditation, "As Caius Cassius. Why should you not appear as Portia?"
She lifted her eyebrows at me.
"As Portia, the wife of Brutus," I blundered on, at the same time receiving her permission, by a nod, to light my cigar.
"The pious, love-sick wife of Brutus!" This in a disdainful tone, and the white teeth clicked softly together.
"Yes, a good disguise," I said banteringly, though I fancy somewhat tentatively also, and certainly with a touch of rudeness. I was thinking at that moment of the Intermediate Passenger, and I was curious.
"And you think of going in the disguise of a gentleman? Caius Cassius was that, wasn't he?" she retorted in an ironical tone.
"I suppose he was, though he was punished once for rudeness," I replied apologetically.
"Quite so," was the decisive reply.
I felt that she was perfectly cool, while I was a little confused, and ashamed too, that I had attempted to be playfully satirical. And so, wondering what I should say next, I remarked in desperation: "Do you like the sea?"
"I am never ill at sea," was her reply. "But I do not really like it; it is treacherous. The land would satisfy me if--" She paused.
"Yes, Mrs. Falchion--'if'?"
"If I did not wish to travel," she vaguely added, looking blandly at me.
"You have travelled much?" I ventured.
"A great deal;" and again I saw that scrutiny in her eyes. It occurred to me at the moment that she might think I possessed some previous knowledge of her.
My mind became occupied again with the Intermediate Passenger and the portrait that he wore at his neck. I almost laughed to think of the melodramatic turn which my first conversation with this woman might chance to take. I felt that I was dealing with one who was able to meet cleverly any advance of mine, but I determined to lead the talk into as deep waters as possible.
"I suppose, too, you are a good practical sailor--that is, you understand seamanship, if you have travelled much?" I do not know why I said that, for it sounded foolish to me afterwards.
"Pretty well," she replied. "I can manage a sail; I know the argot, I could tell the shrouds from the bulwarks, and I've rowed a boat in a choppy sea."
"It is not an accomplishment usual to your sex."
"It was ordinary enough where I spent the early part of my life," was the idle reply; and she settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
"Yes? May I ask where that was?" and as I said this, it occurred to me that she was, perhaps, leading me on, instead of my leading her; to betray me as to anything I knew about her.
"In the South Seas," she replied. "My father was a British consul in the Islands."
"You have not come from the Islands now, I suppose?"
"No," she said a little more softly; "it is years since I was in Samoa. . . . My father is buried there."
"You must have found it a romantic life in those half-barbaric places?"
She shifted in her chair. "Romantic!" Her tone conveyed a very slight uneasiness and vagueness. "I am afraid you must ask some one else about that sort of thing. I did not see much romance, but I saw plenty that was half-barbaric." Here she laughed slightly.
Just then I saw the lights of a vessel far off. "See--a vessel!" I said; and I watched the lights in silence, but thinking. I saw that she too was watching idly.
At length, as if continuing the conversation, I said: "Yes, I suppose life must be somewhat adventurous and dangerous among savage people like the Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians?"
"Indeed, then," she replied decisively, "you are not to suppose anything of the kind. The danger is not alone for the white people."
At this I appeared, as I really was, interested, and begged her to explain what she meant. She thought a moment, and then briefly, but clearly, sketched the life of those islands, showing how, in spite of missionary labour selfish and unselfish, the native became the victim of civilisation, the prey of the white trader and beachcomber, who were protected by men-of-war with convincing Nordenfeldt and Hotchkiss guns; how the stalwart force of barbaric existence declined, and with it the crude sense of justice, the practice of communism at its simplest and purest, the valour of nationality. These phrases are my own--the substance, not the fashion, of her speech.
"You do not, then," I said, "believe wholly in the unselfishness of missionaries, the fair dealing of traders, the perfect impartiality of justice, as shown through steel-clad cruisers?"
"I have seen too much to be quite fair in judgment, I fear, even to men- of-war's men;" and she paused, listening to a song which came from the after-part of the ship. The air was very still, and a few of the words of the droll, plaintive ditty came to us.
Quartermaster Stone, as he passed us, hummed it, and some voices of the first-class passengers near joined in the refrain:
"Sing, hey, for a rover on the sea, And the old world!"
Some days later I got all of the song from one of the intermediate passengers, and the last verse of it I give here:
"I'm a-sailing, I'm a-sailing on the sea, To a harbour where the wind is still; Oh, my dearie, do you wait for me? Oh, my dearie, do you love me still? Sing, hey, for a rover on the sea, And the old world!"
I noticed that Mrs. Falchion's brow contracted as the song proceeded, making a deep vertical line between the eyes, and that the fingers of the hand nearest me closed on the chair-arm firmly. The hand attracted me. It was long, the fingers were shapely, but not markedly tapering, and suggested firmness. I remarked afterward, when I chanced to shake hands with her, that her fingers enclosed one's hand; it was not a mere touch or pressure, but an unemotional and possessive clasp. I felt sure that she had heard the song before, else it had not produced even this so slight effect on her nerves. I said: "It is a quaint song. I suppose you are familiar with it and all of its kind?"
"I fancy I have heard it somewhere," she answered in a cold voice.
I am aware that my next question was not justified by our very short acquaintance; but this acquaintance had been singular from its beginning, and it did not seem at that moment as it looks on paper; besides, I had the Intermediate Passenger in my mind. "Perhaps your husband is a naval man?" I asked.
A faint flush passed over her face, and then, looking at me with a neutral expression and some reserve of manner, she replied: "My husband was not a naval man."
She said "was not." That implied his death.
There was no trouble in her manner; I could detect no sign of excitement. I turned to look at the lights of the approaching vessel, and there, leaning against the railing that divided the two decks, was the Intermediate Passenger. He was looking at us intently. A moment after he disappeared. Beyond doubt there was some intimate association between these two.
My thoughts were, however, distracted by our vessel signalling the other. Hungerford was passing just then, and I said: "Have you any idea what vessel it is, Hungerford?"
"Yes, man-of-war 'Porcupine', bound for Aden, I think."
Mrs. Falchion at this laughed strangely, as she leaned forward looking, and then, rising quickly, said: "I prefer to walk."
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