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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter X

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Chapter X

Ever since the departure of his friend and former companion Dr Valentine, whose failing health had needed removal to the warmer climate of Australia, Richard Raleigh had lived alone at Sunnydowns.

His appointments as Secretary to the District Council and Clerk of the Court sufficed for his moderate wants, and he was able to supplement his small official salaries with pen and pencil, by contributions to the press and occasional landscape sketches. He was recognised as ‘our correspondent’, and also as ‘our local artist’.

But it cannot be said to his credit that he la boured very hard in these, or, indeed, in any other directions. The young man was incurably indolent, and what tended to make matters still worse, he was indolent on principle. Many people who admire energy in the abstract do not reduce it to practice. They talk a great deal about what they do, although they do but little; or, at any rate, they boast loudly of what they could do if they only would. Raleigh was just the reverse. He did more than he confessed to, and pretended to be idler than he really was. He certainly cared very little for work per se, nor did he set much value on the rewards of labour, but above all things he disliked the outward show of activity; he could tolerate the busy man, but he detested a bustling individual.

‘If you have work to do,’ he would say, ‘you should do it as you say your prayers—in privacy, without pretence or blow;’ and it must be admitted that he acted up to his maxim, for although, as a matter fact, he got through a good deal of work, nobody ever saw him doing anything.

He read rather extensively, and kept himself well acquainted with the advance of the times; he transacted the business of his office with precision, and was, moreover, a voluminous correspondent, while in addition to all this he had many household duties to attend to, and also his horse to groom, for he kept no servant.

Yet he used to get up late, and was generally discovered during the day time in a reclining attitude, smoking the pipe of peace, and profoundly indifferent to time and occupation.

He would talk readily on any subject except business, and he loved ‘to-morrow’ much better than ‘to-day’. He was, therefore, rather an object of wonder and perplexity to his practical-minded acquaintances, page 113 who were always ‘on the go’, worrying themselves, and everybody they came into contact with, about their own petty concerns; ever striving, fidgeting, hurrying and haggling, from morning till night.

For the prevailing notion was then, very much as it is now, that the salvation of mankind lay in energy. The trumpet call was to be ‘up and doing’. The universal motto was Progress. It was blazoned forth in the press, placarded in high places, expounded in the lecture-room, and even promulgated from the pulpit. The destiny of man was to advance. The precise nature of this forward movement—its purpose and direction—might be moot questions, but no difference of opinion existed as to the paramount necessity for ‘getting on’.

* * * * *

‘My dear fellow,’ observed Delamer one day, as he stood in his usual Napoleonic attitude, with his hands behind his back, and a look of complacent superiority on his classic features, ‘my dear fellow, you will never get on.’

‘What do you mean by that common phrase?’ replied the other, contemplatively, as with one leg suspended out of his hammock he gave himself a gentle swing, and blew forth curling wreaths of smoke, of which he watched the wavering ascent in calm beatitude. ‘What do you mean? Get on, where to? Get on, what for?’

‘Why, to make your fortune, of course.’

‘I have it already made, mon cher. For what says the poet—my beloved Spenser——’

For not that which men covet most is best,
Nor that thing worst, which men do most refuse;
But fittest is that all contented rest
With what they hold; each hath his fortune in his breast.

It is the mind that maketh good or ill,
That maketh wretch or happy, rich or poor;
For some, that hath abundance at his will
Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store;
And other, that hath little, asks no more,
But in that little is both rich and wise;
For wisdom is most riches; fools therefore
They are which fortunes do by vows devise,
Sith each unto himself his life may fortunise.

‘O! confound your poetry! Surely, you must have some idea like other people of bettering your condition?’

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Qui bono? I am happy as I am, and I should be still more so were it not for the disturbing contact of you perspiring people, who are always bothering about prospects and bargains. Why can't you learn to rest and be thankful? Sit down, man, and compose yourself? What's the hurry?’

‘Everything is the hurry. We live in a whirl, and you must go with the stream, or else you get left behind.’

‘Well, then, I will elect to be left behind. What does it matter? We shall reach the final goal soon enough, in any case; why not take it easy, and enjoy ourselves by the way?’

‘Don't you wish for independence?’

‘There is no such thing.’

‘Don't you wish to be your own master?’

‘Philosophy alone can make me that.’

‘Don't you wish to be somebody—a person of consequence?’

‘I wish to be myself—everything else is of small consequence.’

‘Don't you wish to go home?

‘A wise man makes every abode his home.’

‘Don't you look forward to any promotion—to making your way in the world?’

‘All in good time, no doubt, but as I said before, what's the hurry?’

‘The hurry to make money,’ exclaimed the little man impatiently.

‘That's all in all.’

‘Do you really think so?’ replied Raleigh, in his dreamy way. ‘No doubt, judging by their actions, most people seem to think so, although they don't all confess to it. But it won't stand argument. What could money bring me, for instance? I have a roof over my head—it is not extensive, but quite big enough to cover me. I have three good meals a day—wholesome palatable food—with an occasional late supper thrown in on festive nights; I could not take more without serious detriment to my digestion. I drink whisky and water, which suits me much better than claret or champagne. I smoke a pipe, which I prefer to the choicest cigar; I do not overwork myself——’

‘No! you certainly don't do that,’ interjected the other.

‘Still, I fulfil my official duties, and do enough to keep myself pleasantly employed. I have friends, books, health, and good spirits—a horse to ride—what the deuce do I want with money? Is it worth bothering about? Bear this also in mind, that after sacrificing present ease and dearly-loved leisure to gain this idol Wealth, it is at least ten chances to one that you don't get it. The much coveted prize only falls to a few, and to them more by good luck than good management.

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‘Then, again, I look at the question in this way. If wealth brings happiness it must follow, as a rule, that rich men should be happy. Now, I happen to have known several rich people intimately, and I have been brought into contact with many more, and I can honestly say that a more niggardly, grasping, soured, discontented, and miserable set I have never met anywhere. They can't enjoy their money when they have got it.’

‘Then they can give it away, and afford relief and employment to others.’

‘But that is just what they don't do.’

‘Well, I know what I should do with it. I could find many ways of enjoying it.’

‘No doubt.

And so say all of us;

but then, my dear fellow, we shall never get the chance!

‘Good-bye,’ exclaimed Delamer, turning deftly on his heel; ‘I must be off; not a moment to spare; an important business engagement. Raleigh, my boy, you are incorrigible; you will never be anybody, and you will never get on. A man should at least strive for independence and a competence to make himself a home of his own, for some day a fellow might wish to get married, you know.’

And with this parting shot, the little man took a final look at the glass, buttoned up his coat, cocked his hat, and strutted forth, evidently convinced of his own invincibility, and intent upon conquering the world.

Left alone to his reflections, Raleigh turned restlessly in his hammock, and went off into a brown study. The last remark had made him wince, and set him thinking. Then, suddenly arousing himself with a start, he ejaculated—‘Bother the women! I have let my pipe go out.’

* * * * *

The fact was that lovely woman, taken in the plural, was exercising a much more important influence on this would-be anchorite than he was willing to admit.

The ladies had latterly played a leading part at ‘the Growlery’. How they had found their way there in the first instance was rather a mystery, but having once ‘broken the ice’ and invaded the premises, the difficulty had then been to keep them out.

To do him simple justice, this was not of Raleigh's own seeking. He had never laid himself out to captivate the fair, and he had advanced page 116 no claim whatever to be considered ‘a lady's man’. But the sex is proverbially capricious, not to say ‘contrary’. Ladies in those days were so very much run after that they could afford to make a set on the man who would not court them. They were in a decided minority of the population, and that made them, of course, all the more prized and sought for; they were, indeed, in imminent danger of being thoroughly spoiled by the excessive attentions they received from their masculine admirers.

The girl ‘of the period’ had a very good time of it; her progress, wherever she went, was a sort of triumphant march, and, always surrounded with a troop of followers, she could have her pick of eligible suitors.

It is no wonder if under such circumstances the plainest of spinsters should have become extremely fastidious in her choice, and that devoted gallantry should have been held rather cheap.

But Raleigh was somewhat different from the ordinary run of men, and he affected a still greater divergence; he was by no means insensible to female attractions, but he showed no enthusiasm in that respect, nor did he join in the public worship at the shrine. He was reserved in manner, even morose; he spoke slightingly of women's mental capabilities, and even derided their sentiments. He did not dance; consequently he was voted a bear, and became an object of considerable female interest.

The ladies did not repay indifference with scorn, but went quite to the other extreme. Some pitied his loneliness, some admired his originality, some thought him interesting; others, perhaps, were moved by curiosity to unmask so strange an individual, while one and all declared emphatically that he must, at some time of his life, have been dreadfully disappointed in love. Thus the bear was transformed into a lion, and the misogamist had to act the gallant malgré lui.

Once Raleigh became fashionable, there were no limits to the polite attentions he received from the fair, while the most delicate contributions towards his creature comforts were not wanting.

Those gorgeous slippers that adorned his feet were the work of fair hands, and he possessed many more of them, almost equally brilliant, in his wardrobe.

The cushion upon which his head gracefully reclined had occupied the pretty Miss Bella for several months, and was considered quite a work of high art. He had received smoking caps in various colours, for every day in the week, mufflers for his neck, stockings for his feet, and elaborately worked braces for another article of attire.

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The practical Alice Seymour had made him a tea-cosy, while her more æsthetical sister had contributed a handsome fire-screen.

Even little girls had shown themselves anxious to join in these presentations, and the youngest of the Seaguls had just completed for him her first great effort in Berlin wool—a kettle holder, with the words, mark it boils embroidered on it.

Nor were his more material requirements neglected. Presents of fruit, cakes, and jellies quite filled his larder, while bouquets of flowers were showered upon him—some of them being rendered still more acceptable through being presented by the charming givers in person.

That very morning, those lovely flowers on his mantelpiece had been arranged in the vases by the fair hands of one of his favourite votaries—the bonny Mistress Janet McDonald.

A lively little body was Mistress Janet, not fair, but freckled, yet pretty withal, and a general favourite with the travelling public; for her husband was the landlord of the Royal Mail Hotel, at Sunnydowns.

Richard Raleigh spent much of his time there, generally taking his meals at the public table, and then retiring for a social chat with his friends to Mrs McDonald's cosy little back parlour. Honest Duncan, however, was not often to be seen there, for he was mostly engaged in the bar business, nor was he particularly cut out to shine at a small tea-party. So it came to pass that the bachelor and his amiable hostess were thrown a good deal together, and a friendly intimacy arose between them, which some people made out had ripened into a much warmer feeling; but on that point one can only remark, in the words of the royal motto, Honi soit qui mal-y-pense.

Certain it is that Raleigh exhibited a remarkable penchant for Mrs Mac, and a great partiality for the house where she presided, for he was often glad to escape from the monotony of his lonely hut, and to enjoy a pleasant confab with the inmates over the way, where he knew he was always welcome, and where even special efforts were made to contribute to his comfort. He sincerely liked the ‘guid-man’, with whom he would frequently entertain himself, and his intentions towards the ‘guid-wife’ had been strictly correct—at any rate, until one particular evening, about the period of this story, when they were seriously compromised over a game of backgammon.

Raleigh's manner towards the cheerful little woman was not at all of an insinuating kind. He was blunt, testy, and yet exacting; he used to tease her unmercifully, contradict her pet notions, and often laugh at her outright. Such treatment would have been warmly page 118 resented from any one else, but ‘the philosopher’ was looked upon as a privileged person, his jokes and jibes were all taken in good part, his gruffness was forgiven him, and his scoldings were usually received in a proper spirit of humility, as from one in authority. Sometimes, however, she would revolt.

‘I never take heed of anything you say to me,’ she told him one evening, with a toss of the head.

‘I thank God, then, that you are not my wife.’

‘You can't be more thankful than I am,’ was the pert answer.

‘If you were, I should beat you. What would you do then?’

‘Hit you back again!’ she replied, with a defiant look.

After these two had exhausted their quivers of smart sayings, over a mild cup of tea, they would settle themselves before the fire and become more pacific—possibly more amiable. Mrs Mac would then recount her many trials and daily vexations, and the other might condescend to sympathise a little, or else they would resort to backgammon, and continue their contest over the chequered board. Indeed, backgammon soon became a recognised institution during the long winter evenings at the Royal Mail Hotel. Raleigh showed no compunction in ‘taking up’ his fair opponent, either in her words or draughtsmen, whenever she gave him a chance; but Mrs Mac soon learnt to retaliate, and was generally able to hold her own, both with her tongue and with the dice.

On one eventful evening, however—the particular evening already alluded to—Mistress Janet was less lively and venturesome than usual. She appeared subdued and absent-minded. She allowed her opponent to make havoc with her game and to snub her with impunity. She only sighed—

Sighed and looked,
And sighed again.

Raleigh tried in vain to rouse her to some more active participation in the contest. He teased her and scolded her by turns, but all to no avail. At last, quite inadvertently, one of his feet pressed against one of hers, under the table. Mrs Mac was quick of touch; under ordinary circumstances she would immediately have withdrawn her foot, but on this occasion she was apparently so absorbed in her own reflections that she heeded not the gentle contact. Her companion then, presumably to attract her attention, brought his other foot to bear, and soon a lady's little slipper was held tightly between a pair of gentleman's shoes. Whereupon Mrs Mac first smiled very strangely, page 119 and then blushed very red; then swept all the men off the board, and declared that she gave up the game. Raleigh put his arm round her waist to ask for some explanation of this unaccountable conduct, but at that moment old Duncan's footsteps were heard in the passage. He entered the room, and the conversation became more general.

Raleigh did not sleep well after this toe episode; he was restless on his couch, and if he dreamt about a stocking, it was not the kind of one that little children dream about of a Christmas Eve. Next morning he swore a big oath to wear Wellington boots in future, and to keep his feet from under the table.

Dear little Mrs Mac, who had hitherto enjoyed a perfectly clear conscience, was equally disturbed in her mind. She kept awake all though the small hours, tossing about in her bed by the side of her elderly and snoring spouse; and in the morning, after mature reflection, she firmly resolved to discard slippers of an evening, and never to play backgammon any more.

On the following day, she gathered a basketful of the choicest flowers from her garden and went to arrange them artistically on the mantelpiece of the lonely bachelor's residence. She took one of her maids with her, ‘to do propriety’, although she well knew that the gentleman would not be ‘at home’ on that morning. Having thus found her way to his house when the inmate was out, it may be surmised that the natural shyness which, under our conventional system, a lady might be expected to feel at paying such visits, gradually wore off, for after a time it seemed quite natural to her to trip across the road without an attendant, and pay an afternoon call when the inmate was in, which was a circumstance very much to be regretted.

But Mrs McDonald was not the only lady who condescended to visit Raleigh at his bachelor quarters; he received numerous calls from other female friends and admirers.

The charming Miss Seymours used to think nothing of making a descent upon him, alighting at the door, tying up their horses to the garden fence, and carrying the citadel by storm. They were always welcome, and although their little tongues never ceased chattering all the while, and they had a way of rummaging about the place, looking into corners, turning over books and pictures, or, what caused the occupier still greater peturbation, tidying up the litter, yet their visits were relished beyond all others, and were considered a sovereign remedy against melancholy. It is true they always came together, but even under such circumstances, these proceedings, for ‘young ladies’, were not looked upon with a favourable eye by gossiping page 120 neighbours. They were deemed ‘unbecoming’, and were made the occasion for many ill-natured remarks by ill-natured people.

After her sister's marriage Miss Alice Seymour was more constrained in her movements; she would no longer make calls on single gentlemen, unless on the rare occasions, when accompanied by her father, the two would pay a visit to ‘Cousin Richard’. Yet even such a trifling event did not escape observation and immediately the rumour was spread about that these two must be engaged.

The Seaguls were frequent intruders on Raleigh's solitude—he used to wish them further; but as they came in a troop, chaperoned by their dragon of a mother—whose rigid propriety in the management of others was above suspicion—these demonstrations, at least, did not give rise to any scandal.

Raleigh dreaded the Seaguls as only a solitary and bashful man can dread a bevy of young ladies, when all retreat is cut off, and he is left entirely to his own resources to entertain them. On more than one occasion he had basely fled at their approach, locked the front door, sneaked out of the house unperceived by the back way, and taken refuge in the stable.

The Beaumonts were much more acceptable visitors—they were only three; besides, as the wife and daughters of the respected magistrate whose favoured clerk he was, Raleigh felt bound to receive them with becoming deference. But he would sooner have been excused that duty. Mrs Beaumont was certainly a very amiable lady—rather too much for her age. She had a sweet smile, a dulcet voice, honeyed words—in fact, so much sweetness as disagreed with the philosopher's acrid taste. She was a marvellously well-preserved woman, with a graceful matronly figure, a clear and bright complexion, and the utmost suavity of manner. It was impossible not to be charmed, and it seemed churlish not to give expression to one's admiration, and yet there was no getting over the fact—she was a grandmother!

Of her two unmarried daughters the elder was a young lady of about nineteen summers, plain and mute. She had cleverness, but she was afraid to show it, and by all accounts would have been quite captivating, if she could only have been prevailed upon to open her mouth.

The youngest girl was of that uncertain age, when one does not rightly know whether to romp with the young person or to ply her with ‘grown-up’ conversation. Mabel would certainly have preferred the former mode of entertainment, but on these formal visits she was on her good behaviour, kept in check by her elders, and too timid to give vent to her natural good spirits.

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What oppressed Raleigh most on these occasions was the necessity he found himself in of doing all the conversation without any subject to converse upon. Mrs Beaumont had nothing to say, Miss Beaumont would say nothing, and the little one was afraid to join in. His difficulties were increased by the fact that he had no society gossip, and hated small talk, that he despised local politics, and affected profound indifference as to the state of the weather; so that the only resource left to him was to put on the kettle for a cup of tea, and to make an exhibition of himself—for the hundredth time—in his sketches.

There remained yet another visitor—more frequent and possibly more dangerous than all the others, for she knocked at the back door. This was Maggie Grant, the daughter of a neighbouring settler, who lived on the downs about a mile away. She brought milk every morning from the farm, and a supply of butter on Saturdays. Maggie was a rather buxom lass of eighteen, not beautiful, but fresh and comely, with salient rosy cheeks, very much sun-burnt, a saucy turned-up nose, a dimpled chin, and a profusion of ruffled brown hair. She belonged to decent people, and had been rather strictly brought up by a thrifty, hard-working and seriously-minded mother, who, if report could be credited, had never been sparing in needful discipline, however much she may have been so in other respects.

Maggie had thus been taught from earliest youth to respect the strong arm of authority, and she had grown up a very well-behaved girl with none of the pertness and self-assertion which so often distinguish colonial children. She was neat and clean in her personal appearance, respectful in her manner, and punctual in the performance of her small duties.

Raleigh had been agreeably surprised, on their first introduction, at receiving from her a real old-fashioned curtsy, such as he had not seen since he left the shores of the Old Country; so he had taken quite a a liking to the rosy-cheeked milkmaid, and used to relax a little of his usual reserve to exchange a few words of kindly greeting with her, but without any approach to familiarity.

Maggie, on her part, had at first looked upon the recluse with feelings akin to awe, not unmixed, however, with feminine curiosity. She thought him a strange, solitary, and mysterious being; something of an ogre, and she kept her distance accordingly. He scared her somewhat, but attracted her still more. On closer acquaintance much of this diffidence wore off, and when she noticed the facility of access into the dreaded presence enjoyed by other members of her sex, she felt emboldened to approach a little nearer. At the start she used to deposit her small can of milk on the outer window sill, and then page 122 timidly to retire; she next ventured, not without some trepidation, to enter the premises, and to place it on the kitchen table; and then, within a month's time, she had had the hardihood to knock discreetly at the parlour door, thus announcing her presence, to make her curtsy to the master, and ask for orders.

Raleigh, except when in one of his most absent-minded or splenetic moods, would return the greeting with a smile, and sometimes chat for a few moments with her. On those occasions when he refused her this slight attention, she would retire with a look so grieved and disappointed, that he would repent him of his incivility, and even call her back to remove, with a few trivial words, the unkindly impression.

And thus it came to pass that the blushing Maggie enrolled herself, entirely of her own accord, and without further demonstration, among the small circle of ardent admirers who worshipped at the shrine of the hermit. She readily persuaded herself that he was a highly distinguished and profoundly learned personage, quite unlike the common run of men—one to whom homage and service were rightly due.

She would willingly have made him her father confessor, and knelt humbly at his feet to recount the tale of her venal sins, and implore the advice and direction concerning the trivial incidents of her daily life, but she was restrained from any such effusion by his distant and chilling demeanour.

It happened one day, however, that being in a more exuberant humour than usual, Raleigh so far unbent from his cold reserve as to pat her on the cheek, and the next time she came he kissed her. The caress was in no way resented by the maiden, but accepted with deference and bashful compliance. It was a mild and rather condescending caress—innocent enough in all conscience—but the worst of such exhibitions of endearment is that they show a marked tendency to be repeated, and not always in the same platonic spirit.

Having once broken the ice her former fears vanished, and Maggie soon began to consider that a morning kiss was only fair payment due for her run across the downs, and it was taken with as little compunction as the shilling which he paid for his pat of butter. And then one thing leads on to another, until——

• • • • •

‘Bother the women!’ exclaimed the philosopher. ‘I have let my pipe go out.’