A South-Sea Siren
‘Were you ever in love?’ he asked her, as she sat beside him, with her hands folded on her lap and a sentimental air.
‘Only once,’ she murmured, in a dreamy way.
‘Hardly—and yet I think that I make him a good little wifie.’
‘No doubt about it; but tell me about the love episode. I like to hear of the tender passion, perhaps because I am so unimpressionable myself.’
‘Oh! as for you, you will never be in love with any one—but yourself.’
‘That's unkind and—untrue.’
‘There, don't be angry. I didn't mean it unkindly.’
‘I am angry.’
‘Then be pacified.’
She took his hand in hers and stroked it softly, but he drew it away.
‘If you think,’ he continued petulantly, ‘because I am not one of your gushing fools, who are always blowing about their fine sentiments, that I have no depth of feeling, then you are very much mistaken in me.’
‘My dear master, I don't think anything of the sort. If you only knew how much I appreciate and respect you—but there! I should be ashamed to tell you, and it might make you too conceited.’
‘Bother your respect.’
‘I know you to be good.’
‘I am not good, and I don't pretend to be either.’
‘That makes you all the better,’ she replied slyly.
Raleigh jumped up, and walked impatiently about the room.
‘I thought,’ he said gruffly, ‘that we were to be friends.’
‘So we are, I hope,’ she answered, with an arch look. ‘Haven't I shown my obedience and devotion? You asked me to come and see you, and I have done so, although, let me tell you, these visits are rather compromising, and might bring me a scolding.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Is that not enough?’
‘No I you should obey me in everything, and cross me in nothing.page 140
‘Oh! is that your idea of friendship? A very one-sided sort of thing. How masterful and exacting you men are—no wonder you call yourselves the lords of creation. But there! I cannot afford to quarrel with you. Won't you forgive me that unlucky remark? I did not mean it; it slipped out. You know I am half Irish—I speak first and think afterwards.’
And as he still looked resentful, she rose from her chair, dropped on her knees before him, and, holding up her clasped hands, exclaimed playfully:
‘I beg your pardon, I ask your grace.’
Raleigh was mollified; he graciously raised her up, led her to the sofa, and sat down beside her.
‘You are forgiven,’ he said, ‘only don't do it again. Now, tell me all about the love story.’
‘Oh! I cannot. There are secrets which are part of a woman's inmost self; which she cannot reveal. I am like Shakespeare's heroine, who “never told her love”.’
‘None of your nonsense. I insist upon a complete confession. I command.’
‘One would think I was your slave,’ exclaimed Mistress Janet, bridling up. ‘Command, indeed. That is more than Duncan ever dares to do.’
‘No wonder; he is only your husband,’ replied Raleigh carelessly, ‘whereas I——’
‘Well, what are you?’ she asked demurely, looking him straight in the face, but with a slight tremor in her voice.
‘Your spiritual director.’
‘You are not a priest.’
‘Your philosophical director then. No matter what. You must obey. So come, relate.’
‘I suppose I must. Well, once upon a time—oh! it was a long time ago, I was only quite a girl then—I met a young man at a country fair, and I fell in love.’
‘At the first glance of his “bonny een”?’
‘Don't interrupt me, and don't hurry me. It was not his “bonny een” either, although they were fine eyes, for I only caught sight of his back. But a presentiment told me he was to be my love—my only love.’
‘How romantic! Love at first sight, and from a back view!’
‘Yes, you may laugh, but I assure you it was so. Before we were brought face to face I was already smitten; for when, afterwards, he was introduced to me by one of my brothers, I could hardly muster page 141 up enough courage to speak. I remember that I blushed and stammered and looked quite foolish. He must have noticed my embarrassment, and he appeared to be equally affected. It was mutual.’
‘Oh! of course. In my eyes, at least. He was a fine manly young fellow, and considered good looking. But it was not his good looks that captivated me. It was something else that won my heart, but I cannot tell what. He seemed to me so strong, so brave, and yet so tender and gentle. The sound of his voice used to thrill through me, and wake up harmonious chords—very poetical, isn't it? but quite a fact. I delighted in watching him among other young men and hearing him converse with them, when he seemed to me so different from anybody else that I wondered people did not notice it. Why even his step I could recognise among a thousand. I often stopped short, and held my breath, and pressed my hands against my bosom to check the violent throbbing of my heart, at the mere sound of his footsteps. And then when we were together all thought of time and scene passed from me; I only knew that he was near me, and when I thought that he loved me—loved me truly—I felt so happy, so happy, that I could have laughed and cried outright, and clapped my hands for joy. I could hardly restrain my feelings for the thought of him. I felt as if I loved everybody and everything for his sake; the sun, the fields, the brook, the birds, the little lambs that gambolled around me. I remember once running out to a poor old crony, who came begging at the door, and embracing her. Oh! I could not help it—my heart was full to overflowing. And sometimes I would run away from the house, and hide myself in the bushes by the river, and talk to myself, and hug myself, and weep for joy; and everything looked so bright and ‘sweet in those days, and life was so entrancing.’
Poor child!’ murmured Raleigh, sympathetically, ‘you must have been hard hit.’
Mrs McDonald sighed, and then continued in a more subdued tone, ‘He was such a noble fellow, so true, so honourable, so kind to his little brothers, so devoted to his old parents. He sought me unfeignedly and offered me his heart. Oh! yes, all his heart, and he has been true and faithful to me to the last—ever faithful. Not like me, for he has never married; he has waited for me all these years, while I … I gave myself to another; and now he never can be mine, never, neverl’
‘A lasting and consuming passion!’ remarked the other, reflectively. The only effectual cure for that sort of thing is supposed to be matrimony. Why didn't you marry him?’page 142
‘It was impossible; my parents forbad it, and his own people were equally opposed to the match. It could not be. He was poor, and not in a position to marry, for he was the only support of his old parents, but that was not all. I would willingly have shared his poverty, have slaved for him, and for them also. Or we could have waited for better times. But there was another fatal objection. We lived in the north of Ireland; father was a rigid Presbyterian and a violent Orangeman, and he—my lover—he was a Catholic!
‘For myself I did not mind who or what he was. I would have followed him anywhere; his country should have been my country, his God should have been my God; but my father was unyielding, so stern, so terrible in his opposition, and yet he also loved me dearly. I was his pet child, the pride of his house—had I run away I should have broken his heart.
‘I thought at first I would be able to soften him. It seemed so hard, so cruel that all the happiness of my young life should be for ever blighted. I could not believe it, and it was too terrible to think of. So I tried hard and persistently to bring him round, I tried to be gentle and patient and hopeful to coax my poor mother, to win over my relations. And then I would give way, and fret and pine, and weep all day, and wish that I might die. But it was all of no avail. My father was stern and unrelenting, my mother fretted herself into an illness, my brother laid in wait for my lover and threatened to kill him, and so we were parted—torn asunder! After this I fell ill myself and was sent away to another part of the country. I then came out here to a married sister, with whom I was very unhappy. You know the rest.’
‘The usual sort of ending to every sentimental romance, except in novels,’ remarked Raleigh sententiously. ‘Didn't your lover write to you, and exhort you to be faithful and to wait for him?’
‘I have since ascertained that he did so, but his letters never reached me. I have reason to believe they were intercepted by my sister. I was utterly miserable at the time and felt myself abandoned, when Duncan came wooing and offered me an honest heart and a good home. He was old enough to be my father, but I was told by my sister that it would be an excellent match, and I yielded. I accepted my fate, and now I have to bear it. Duncan is very kind to me, very considerate and generous; indeed he indulges me in everything. I try to make the best return I can; to be cheery and contented. I would not wrong him for the world. It would be a sin, a crying shame to deceive one who is so trusting and good. But as for love … love that fills the heart and brightens everything, that can never be. It is gone page 143 out of my life, and I feel an aching void here.’ And she pressed her hand on her bosom and sighed deeply.
Bonny Mistress Janet had worked herself into dangerously sentimental mood. Her companion had taken her hand, out of sympathy, and was holding it gently between his own; she let him retain it, while she lent her drooping head against his shoulder.
There was a long pause. Then was heard a gentle tapping at the back door.
‘What is that?’ she cried with a start.
‘Only the girl with the milk, I suppose,’ said Raleigh, impatiently. Then, without opening the door, he called out aloud, ‘Leave the can on the kitchen table.’
The untimely interruption had jarred on the soft influences of the previous moment. Mrs McDonald roused herself from further tender reflections, and prepared to depart.
‘I must go,’ she said. ‘I have stayed too long already. We shall have the neighbours gossiping about my visits here, if I don't mind.’
‘Are you frightened of scandal, then?’
‘Not I! With a true heart and a clear conscience what have I to fear? But it might come to Duncan's ears.’
‘And make him jealous?’
‘No, not jealous. Duncan could never be jealous of me; he believes in me so absolutely. He would trust me to the end of the world.’
‘Then why need you be in such a huury to go away?’ pleaded the other. ‘Look here; you have told me a great deal about your former lover, and your present duty, but not one little word for myself. It is I who am jealous.’
‘Dear friend,’ she replied smilingly, ‘you know very well that I … care for you, otherwise I should not be here. In fact, at times, I think that I care for you a great deal too much. The other day, when I was in town having my likeness taken, the photographer said to me, “Mrs McDonald, you must not look so solemn; try to think of something which is very pleasing to you; some one whom you are particularly partial to.’ And then … I thought of you.’
There was only one answer possible to such an admission; Raleigh kissed her. She repulsed him, but only gently; her colour came and went, and he felt her hand tremble within his own.
‘Now, please don't! You must not do that; it is not right. We must be friends—nothing more. I would do anything for you, but what I know to be wrong. Just think what remorse and unhappiness would follow any transgression on our part; a few fleeting moments of sinful page 144 pleasure to be followed by a lifetime of misery and self-reproach. I can trust you, can I not?’
‘I don't know. Can you trust yourself?’
‘Yes, I can trust myself. I have the courage and the strength to fight against temptation.’
‘You will never resist it that way, my dear,’ he whispered to her.
‘In what way, then?’ A deep blush suffused her face; she took both his hands in her own, and looked earnestly—almost beseechingly—into his eyes.
He drew her gently towards him. ‘My poor child,’ he said feelingly, don't you know that the only way to resist temptation is to—run away from it.’
‘You are right!’ she exclaimed aloud, and, quickly disengaging herself from him, she rose and moved towards the door.
Flushed and irresolute Raleigh stood beside her; then there came another gentle tapping at the back door. Mrs McDonald gave a start and, hurriedly bidding him goodbye, she left. He accompanied her to the garden gate, and then with an impatient frown on his face he rushed back to the house to ascertain the cause of the interruption. There he found himself face to face with Maggie, the milkmaid; but Maggie, ruffled, irate, with quivering lip and tearful eye; very different from the smirking, rosy-cheeked, little girl that generally curtsied to him.
‘What's the meaning of this?’ he inquired sternly.
In reply Maggie gave a scornful toss of the head, put her arms akimbo, and demanded, indignantly, ‘Who is that person who has just gone out?’
‘What is that to you, you saucy little minx? Confound your impertinence! Mind your own business.’
But Maggie was not be put down so easily. ‘It is a shame!’ she burst forth; ‘it is a shame for a married woman to be gadding about, and running after single gentlemen like that. She has got her husband, and a home of her own, why can't she attend to them?’
‘Maggie! What on earth do you mean? Do you dare to insinuate, you hussy——’
‘I ain't a hussy, and I don't insinuate nothing. I say it is a disgrace and a shame for a married woman to leave her husband and her home, and come making up to you—there!’
Raleigh tried to control his anger and annoyance. ‘You are a little fool,’ he said, with affected indifference, ‘and you don't know what you are talking about. The lady merely called here in the usual way, and nobody with any sense or knowledge of the world could see anything page 145 improper in it. But I want to know,’ turning fiercely upon her, ‘what the devil you mean by spying about the premises, and remaining here, after I told you to be off.’
‘Because—because——’ stammered the girl, getting very red in the face, and trying to hide her emotion.
‘You are a very impudent girl, and I have a great mind to order you out of the house and never let you put foot in it again.’
‘Oh, sir!’ her temper suddenly giving way to fear and trembling, and breaking into sobs, ‘oh, sir! I didn't mean to be impertinent. I couldn't help it. I only wanted to speak a few words with you; I am so—so—so very miserable.’
‘So you deserve to be——go away now.’
‘Oh, sir! please don't be angry with me; I will never do it again. I couldn't help saying what I did say. I wanted to tell you something so very partic'lar, and I felt so mad that the lady remained here so long, and I thought, perhaps, you cared for her company, and—and—didn't care for me——’ Here Maggie quite broke down, and hid her face in her apron.
‘I shall certainly not care for you, if you behave so badly, and go clacking about what occurs in my house,’ said Raleigh, relenting a little.
‘Oh! I never tell nobody nothing, sir. I wouldn't for the whole world offend you, or make any mischief.’
And the girl went down on her knees on the kitchen tiles, and looked up so imploringly through her tears that Raleigh was mollified.
‘There, get up, and don't make a fool of yourself,’ he said, in a more kindly tone. ‘Say no more about it. What is it you wanted to tell me?’
‘Not till you promise to forgive me,’ she cried, with a fresh outburst of grief.
‘Well, then, I forgive you,’ and he held out his hand to her, which she kissed in all humility, without rising from her knees.
Raleigh got impatient, and lifted her up. ‘Now tell me what's the matter,’ he said coaxingly; but Maggie would only wipe her eyes, and murmur that she was so very miserable. Then the name of Jim Bows suddenly cropped up.
‘Why, what has Bows done to you?’ inquired the other, becoming more interested.
Maggie had to confess at last that Bows had been ‘making up to her’ for some time past, and last Saturday had ‘gone and proposed’, and had also told her father and mother, who wanted her to marry him.page 146
‘Oh, dear! oh, dear!’ sobbed the girl, as she hid her face in her apron, and seemed quite overcome at such a terrible prospect.
‘Well,’ said Raleigh, rather amused, ‘most girls like to be proposed to, and Jim Bows is a fine strapping fellow, and earning good wages; but I suppose you needn't marry him unless you like. Are you unhappy at home? Does your mother beat you?’
‘Sometimes,’ whined Maggie. ‘She gave me a hiding last Saturday because I returned home after dark, and it was you that kept me,’ she added, with a half-reproachful look.
‘I am so sorry,’ remarked the other, apologetically. ‘Poor little girl! I hope she did not hurt you much. What did she beat you with?’
‘The pot-stick,’ ejaculated the crest-fallen Maggie.
Raleigh sympathised, and was about to ask where the pot-stick had been applied, when it struck him that the question might be indiscreet.
‘Never mind, Maggie’—patting her cheek—‘it won't occur again. Now, tell me, don't you love Jim Bows?’
‘But he loves you?’
‘So he says.’
‘Perhaps you love some one else?’
Maggie hung her head, with a look full of guilty confusion, but she would admit nothing. At last, after much pressing, she murmured, ‘I should always like to serve you; to be—near you.’
This was unexpected and embarrassing. Raleigh tried to laugh it off, but he had to kiss away her tears. She looked very fresh and sweet, with her sparkling eyes, and ruddy cheeks, and she seemed inclined to respond to his caresses. Nor did she appear in any hurry to go away. The situation was becoming rather tantalising, when, suddenly, the sound of horse's feet was heard on the garden walk.
Raleigh had only time to give her a parting kiss, bundle her off, and then run to the front door. He opened it to find himself confronted with Alice Seymour, who had dismounted, and was holding her horse by the bridle.
Alice looked bright and charming, as she stood before him, with the folds of her riding habit gracefully gathered over one arm, and showing a pair of dainty ankles, her face redolent of health, her dark, lustrous eyes gleaming with animation, and her luscious lips parted with suppressed merriment.
‘Well, dear cos, and how are you?’ she exclaimed, gaily. ‘Why, what's the matter?’ she continued, with a comical stare, as she noticed his flushed and embarrassed look. ‘Have I startled you out of a doze, or are you terrified at the appearance of a single female?’page 147
‘I am rather startled, I admit, at such a welcome apparition, although I half expected you to tea,’ replied the other, trying hard to compose his features. ‘But where is Mr Seymour? You surely haven't come alone?’
Alice gave a merry laugh, and blushed a little. ‘Well, not exactly. Father will be here in a minute. He stopped behind to give some directions to Mills, the wheelwright, about mending our trap. I was not interested in those practical details, so I rode on to prepare the way, and just to give you a fright.’
Raleigh conducted her horse to the stable, and lingered over the business as long as possible, in the hopes that Mr Seymour would arrive, for he felt dismayed at the prospect of tête-à-tête with the young lady in his own house. Moreover, he had received some inkling of late of the scandalous gossip that was going on in the neighbourhood, and he knew that many prying eyes were upon him. So he lingered wistfully about the garden walks, in the hopeless endeavour of engaging the attention of his fair friend to some outside objects, but as the old gentleman did not appear on the scene, there was no help for it but to ask her in.
Alice made herself quite ‘at home’. She removed her hat and gloves, and then threw herself negligently on the sofa.
‘Well, Cousin Richard, what's gone wrong? You look dreadfully serious. Anything happened?’
‘Nothing whatever, I assure you.’
‘Dear me! Now, I expected to find you radiant, and all on hospitable thoughts intent. But there! oh, I forgot. Still languishing? Not got over it yet? Poor fellow! Why, you are worse than poor Arthur Irving was, who used to relieve his feelings by writing sonnets by moonlight—to her eyebrow. But I suppose it is much too serious to joke about;’ and the young lady rolled her eyes with the most sentimental expression, and gave a deep-drawn sigh. Then burst into a fit of laughing.
Raleigh got uncomfortably red in the face, and stammered forth:
‘Miss Seymour—really, Alice—you are carrying the joke rather far—you must remember——’
‘Oh! I know all about it. Continental manners! Papa says it is all right; quite innocent, no harm, unless you should go so far as to——’
‘At to what?’ inquired the other, nervously.
‘Lend her money,’ continued Alice, demurely.
Raleigh winced visibly. ‘Is that the worst?’ he exclaimed, with assumed indifference.
‘About the wont thing that could happen to a practical-minded page 148 Englishman, but I know that you have foreign notions on matters of sentiment. You would prefer something much more tragic. Poison, daggers, jumping out of fourth-storey windows, and all that. Something of the sort happened when we were in Venice; a despairing lover, un soupirant, threw himself from the top of the lady's palace.’
‘And was dashed to pieces under her eyes?’ inquired Raleigh, with a shudder.
‘Not he! Fell into the water, and escaped with a ducking; but it caused a grand sensation.’
‘Really, Alice, you try to make yourself appear very heartless.’
‘To false sentiment,’ replied the young lady, emphatically.
Raleigh looked anxiously out of the window in the hope of seeing Mr Seymour—the tête-à-tête was becoming rather irksome.
‘Oh! papa will be here directly,’ exclaimed his tormentor, with a world of malicious fun in her eyes, ‘and then we shall have to give up our confidences. There, do tell me all about it, and I promise to sympathise with you—oh! so much.’
‘I have got a cold chicken for tea,’ blurted out her victim, anxious to change the conversation at all hazards.
‘Oh, how nice. You will let me carve the chucky won't you? And cow I will help to lay the cloth for you.’
Raleigh was delighted at the diversion, and hastened to unfold his larder; but if he expected that by keeping Miss Seymour's hands fully employed he was going to stop her tongue, he found himself very much mistaken. Alice was a dreadful tease, and being fairly launched on a congenial topic, she was not to be suppressed. She rattled on with merciless volubility:
‘You know, Cousin Richard, we have no serious apprehensions about you—concerning these little affaires-de-cœur, because, you see, you have so many of them. They must surely counteract one another. Your safety, so papa says, lies in numbers. And you setting up all the while to be a sort of misogamist, a holy anchorite…. Oh, you are a fraud! By the by, we hear that many ladies visit at this hermitage generally unaccompanied, too. How very interesting, yet rather mysterious, I should say. What do they come for? To confess?’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, do hold your tongue!’ groaned the unfortunate man.
‘I should so like to witness one of these receptions. What do you say to them? I have read of this sort of thing, but it is generally some wrinkled visaged old monk, or grey-headed seer who dispenses absolution. But you are so young—I will not say good-looking—too young altogether, papa says, to act as a director of consciences. Do you page 149 really confess them? I suppose they have to kneel before you, that's the proper way, isn't it? How funny it must look.’
‘Will you be quiet? I hear your father coming!’ cried Raleigh, in despair, as he threw himself into an arm-chair.
‘Oh! there you are in state, and this, I suppose, is the stool of repentance, and thus I suppose the fair penitent approaches to confide in her dear father confessor;’ and Alice, with hands clasped in mock solemnity, suddenly dropped on her knees before him.
Just at that moment there was a sharp rap at the front door, which had been left slightly ajar, a well-known voice called out, ‘Any one in?’ and in popped the ruffled head of—Mrs Wylde!
The look of confusion and dismay on Raleigh's face; the alacrity with which Miss Seymour, blushing scarlet, regained her feet; the curious mixture of surprise and indignation on the countenance of the intruder, must have made a most ludicrous tableau but, for the moment nobody seemed inclined to laugh. A blank stare passed from one to another.
‘I am so sorry,’ stammered Mrs Wylde pursing up her lips superciliously, and holding out her hand with a deprecatory motion.
‘Oh, please don't mention it!’ cried Alice, who seemed suddenly to awaken to the absurdity of the position, and who went off into a merry peal.
But Raleigh seemed glued to his chair; he could only jerk forth some incoherent remarks, and he then made matters worse by trying to explain. The awkward pause was broken by the arrival on the scene of Mr Seymour.
Then there was a sudden loosening of tongues, and an outburst of merriment, when every one attempted to speak at the same time.
Alice related the incident in her usual light-hearted way, but she retained her heightened colour, and did not seem to relish her own little joke; Mr Seymour laughed heartily; Mrs Wylde contented herself with a supercilious titter, and Raleigh looked supremely uncomfortable.
Tea was served, but the Siren would not stay to partake of it. She had only called, as she explained, for an instant, to deliver a message from the commodore, who was waiting for her at the hotel. So she took her leave with forced gaiety, and many pretty speeches; but Raleigh could see resentment and mischief lurking in those half-closed eyes that boded no good, and his heart misgave him. The remainder of the evening pawed languidly away; Alice was unusually subdued and silent, her father talked rather prosily on indifferent subjects, and Raleigh welcomed with a sigh of relief the hour that restored him to page 150 the solitude of his empty house. Then, when alone, he gave away to a burst of vexation, pacing violently up and down the room, and occasionally relieving his pent-up feelings with a sonorous oath.
At last, as if stifled in the close atmosphere of the room, he threw wide open the front door, and rushed out into the cold night air, but only to run up against his friend Delamer, who was groping his way to the house in the dark.
‘Hullo!’ cried the little man.
‘Hullo!’ answered the other, repressing a curse.
‘I was just coming to see you; and bringing a book—the one I promised you—the “Temptation of St. Anthony”.’
‘The devil!’ ejaculated the distracted one, wringing his hands; ‘my case, My Case.’
‘What are you doing out here?’ inquired Delamer, surprised. ‘Aren't you cold?’
‘Cold? No! Hot, too hot!’