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- The Grey Lady - 40/45 -
not spoken yet, but she seemed to understand his silence, just as she had understood it once before. She had told him then. She did not do so now.
Eve was not thinking of the dead woman upstairs. This death came to her only as a faint reflection of the one great grief which had cut her life in two--as great griefs do. She was perhaps wondering how it was that Fitz seemed always to come to her at those moments when she could not do without him. She was more probably not thinking at all, but resting as it were in the sense of complete safety and protection which this man's presence gave her.
There was a little silence, broken only by the sound of street traffic faintly heard through the plate-glass windows. Fitz was looking at her, his blue eyes grave and searching. This was not a man to miss his opportunity, this youngest commander on the list.
"Eve," he said, "I used to think at D'Erraha that you cared for me."
"I have always cared for you," she answered, with a queer little smile, half bold, half shy.
So Love came in at the windows as Death crept up the stairs.
Before long they heard the doctors go away, but they heeded not. They only forgot each other when Cipriani de Lloseta came into the room. The Spaniard's quick eyes read something in Eve's face. He looked sharply at Fitz, but he said nothing of what he saw.
"So our dear lady has been taken from us," he said quietly, with an upward jerk of the head.
Fitz nodded. Cipriani de Lloseta walked to the window and quietly drew down the blind.
"So falls the curtain," he said, "on the little drama of my humble life."
He turned and looked from one to the other with that sudden warmth of love which either of them seemed able to draw from him.
"Some day," he said, "I will tell you--you two--the story, but not now."
He stepped forward and raised Eve's fingers to his lips. A quaint, half-Spanish grace marked the picture of Southern chivalry.
"My child," said Lloseta, "may Heaven always bless you!" And he left them.
CHAPTER XI. "MILKSOP".
What have we made each other?
The cathedral bells were calling good Papists to their morning devotion as the Croonah moved into Valetta harbour. No sooner did her black prow appear between the pier heads than a score of boats left the steps, their rowers gesticulating, quarrelling, laughing among themselves with Maltese vivacity.
One boat, flying the Croonah's houseflag, made its way more leisurely through the still, clear water. This boat was bringing mails to the Croonah, and in the letter-bag Mrs. Harrington's last missive to Luke had found its place. This letter had been posted by the well-trained footman while Eve and Fitz stood at Mrs. Harrington's bedside. Before it was stamped at the district office the hand that wrote it was still. And it contained mischief. Even after her death Mrs. Harrington brought trouble to the man whose life she had spoilt by her caprice. The letter ran -
"DEAR LUKE,--Just a line to tell you that you may bring your portmanteau straight up to Grosvenor Gardens when your ship arrives in London. I read of your fortunate escape from the cyclone, and congratulate you. I dare say I shall be having a few friends to stay when you are with me, so you need not fear dulness. Yours affectionately, "MARIAN HARRINGTON.
"P.S.--I always suspect you of having, consciously or unconsciously, possessed yourself of the affections of a young lady who shall be nameless. A word to the wise: make good use of your opportunities, for there are other aspirants in the field--a certain brilliant young naval officer not unknown to you. Moreover his chance appears to be a good one. You must waste no more time."
It happened that Luke FitzHenry was in a dangerous mood when he read this letter. He had been up half the night. The captain had been cross-grained and unreasonable. Even the mildest of us has his moments of clear-sightedness when he sees the world and the hollowness thereof. Luke saw this and more when he had read Mrs. Harrington's evil communication. He seemed to have reached the end of things, when his present life became no longer tolerable. It must be remembered that this man was passionate and very resolute. Moreover he had been handicapped from the beginning of his life by a tendency to go wrong. He was not a good subject for ill-fortune.
It was his duty to go ashore with papers to be delivered at the agent's office. He delivered his papers and then he went to the cable office. He telegraphed the single word "Milksop" to Willie Carr in London. When he got back to the Croonah, worn out, dirty, and morose, the passengers were not yet astir. He had an unsatisfactory breakfast, and went to his cabin for a few hours' necessary sleep. He had given way to a great temptation, not as the weak give way, on the spur of the moment, with hesitation, but as a strong man--strong, even in his weaknesses.
He did it after mature deliberation--did it thoroughly and carefully, without the least intention of regretting it afterwards. He was desperate and driven. He could not think of life without Agatha, and he did not see why he should be called upon to do so. Ill fortune had dogged him from his childhood. He had borne it all, morosely but without a murmur. He was going to turn at last. The Croonah must go. She was well insured, he knew that. That the cargo was fully covered against loss he could safely suppose. As to the passengers and the crew, none of them should suffer; he thought he was a clever enough sailor for that.
So he laid him down in his little cabin to sleep, while the sun rose over the blue Mediterranean, while some passengers went ashore and others came on board, while the single word "Milksop" was spelt over a continent; and he was still sleeping when the anchor was jerked up from its muddy bed, and the watchers on pier and harbour looked their last on the grand old Croonah.
A breeze was blowing out in the open, one of those bright westerly breezes that bring a breath of the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, and often make the short passage from Malta to Gibraltar the worst part of the voyage from India to the Channel.
None of the passengers took any interest in the morose second officer, and few of them remarked his absence from table during the two days' passage. The Croonah arrived at Gibraltar after dark, took her mails and passengers on board, and proceeded down the Straits about eight o'clock in the evening. It was late autumn, and the breeze from the cool Atlantic still hurried in over the parched lands of Africa and Southern Europe.
Tarifa light was sighted and left twinkling behind. Trafalgar stared out of the darkness ahead, and in its turn was left behind. A few of the passengers had recovered their Mediterranean ill-usage sufficiently to dine in the Straits, but the Atlantic swell soon sent them below. The decks were deserted, for many of these people were returning to England after long years in India, and the first chill northern breeze they met made them shiver while it delighted them.
Luke FitzHenry was on the bridge from eight o'clock till midnight, motionless at his post--a mere navigating machine, respected and feared by all who worked with him, understood of none.
When midnight came he exchanged a few words with the first officer, and together they superintended the shaking out of the foresails before the watch went below. The wind was on the quarter, strong and steady. Almost immediately the good steamer felt the canvas, leaning gently over to leeward, adding another mile to her great speed. The sea was black, and the air seemed to be full of the sounds of waves breaking and hissing. Ahead the mast-head and the side-lights shone down on the face of the waters and lighted up an occasional white-capped wave. In the air, brisk and masterful, there was a sense of purpose and tension which sailors understand, while mere printed words cannot convey it to landsmen. It was a very dark night.
"St. Vincent," said Luke tersely, as he turned to leave the bridge. The first officer, a man grown old at his post, followed the direction of his junior's gaze, but some seconds elapsed before he distinguished the light twinkling feebly low down on the horizon.
Luke went to his cabin and lay down on his berth all dressed. He was due on the bridge again at four o'clock. The Croonah sailed by time-table, subjecting the winds and seas, as the great steamships do nowadays. Luke FitzHenry had calculated this to a minute before he telegraphed the single word "Milksop" to Willie Carr in London.
He was on the bridge a few minutes before eight bells rang, and found the captain. He knew his chief's customs. He knew that this wise old sailor was in the habit of accumulating as much sleep in his brain as possible before passing Ushant light, because he lived on the bridge when the Croonah had once turned eastward up the Channel. Whenever the captain took a night's rest, he broke it at four o'clock, at the change of the watch. He stood muffled in a big coat over his pyjamas, and exchanged a few words with his subordinates. After the first officer had gone below, Luke went to his post at the starboard end of the bridge, while the captain walked slowly backwards and forwards. They remained thus for half an hour. The ship was all quiet. The breeze had fallen a little. There was as yet no sign of daybreak towards the east. A steamer passed, showing a red light and a white mast-head light.
Presently the captain paused in his walk near to Luke.
"Call me," he said, "when you raise the Burling light."
Luke answered with a monosyllable, and the elder sailor went towards the ladder.
No one had heard the order given. Luke followed him to the ladder, and watched him go down into the darkness. They had sailed together
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