A South-Sea Siren
Richard Raleigh went on his way soberly reflecting over his interview with the Contented Man, in whom he thought he had beheld a shining example, that was better than a hundred sermons.
He had seen a practical illustration of Happiness; he had been shown what it might consist in, how little was needed for its support, how it might grow and expand within the narrowest limits, and yet perish in the midst of abundance, or elude a wide-world search. He realised keenly how he himself had failed to attain it; how he had sought for it in vain where it was least likely to be found.
He reviewed in sadness his early career, his misspent youth, given up to smatterings and dilettanteism, pursuing chimeras and embracing emptiness; first, in the press of a vain and corrupt civilisation, and afterwards in the savage haunts of a new settlement. He concluded that he had missed his way in life at the start.
He had not made his fortune, nor was he even on the road to make it; he had no settled purpose in life; he still felt within him the stirring of a morbid unrest, dissatisfied with the present and disquieted with anxious concern for the future.
‘I live in a state of suspense,’ he muttered to himself, as he rode slowly along the solitary track. ‘I lead a useless existence, doing no lasting good either for myself or for others. I am beset with temptations that sooner or later will lead me into trouble, I am haunted with fears and perplexed with conscientious scruples. I must seek for some worthier aim in life, some more stable foundation for happiness.’
Then he reflected that every disposition may need a different treatment, that one man's meat may prove another's poison, and that the Archibald Bland Elysium might not suit him after all.
Still, the weight of evidence seemed to favour a farmer's life; the greatest available happiness appeared to gravitate in that direction, with promised immunity from business cares, with never-failing delight in rural pursuits, and, above all, blessed independence.
‘A farmer's life is the life for me,’ Raleigh soliloquised, with newborn enthusiasm. He possessed a little money—partly saved from his earnings and supplemented by a legacy from England—sufficient to purchase a fair-sized allotment, build himself a house, and engage in agriculture in a small way. Then, he thought to himself, he might be page 187 able to make a home of his own, settle on the land, contentedly bide his time while living according to his taste, cultivate his garden, and, following his friend's advice, become a producer.
The prospect was acceptable in itself, but what made it doubly so was another pleasing association which represented a charming companion in his rustic retreat. Moreover, he perceived that the fair vision did not vary with the scene; it was always the vivacious and engaging figure of Alice Seymour that flitted before him; it was her winsome smile that brightened his imaginary home.
A moment's calm reflection quickly dispelled the fond illusion. Was it likely, he moodily asked himself, that Miss Seymour would consent to share his lot, that she ever could be his? She had, indeed, shown herself very partial to him, even affectionate at times, but there had never been a spoken word of love between them. She was a young lady, not proud, in the ordinary acceptation of the term—humble rather in self-esteem, and patiently obedient to the call of duty—yet high-spirited, with lofty ideals, and an earnest conception of the noble purposes of life.
She had often expressed in his hearing—and she was candour itself—her preference for the single state, and he had been informed that she had already refused several advantageous offers of marriage.
Although brimfull of animation, Alice Seymour was seriously inclined at heart; she was deeply religious, and with a vocation for good works.
Raleigh, on his side, was more wanting in outward sympathies, nor did his convictions lead him in the same direction. He felt that between Alice and himself there was a gulf. He could not share her earnest faith, or participate in her enthusiasm, while in other respects he had to admit that he was not worthy of her.
But apart from these moral considerations, and even assuming Alice favourable to his suit, there was another formidable obstacle of quite another description in the way of their union; and here Mr Archibald Bland's practical objections were brought strongly to mind.
What were they to marry on? Money, which is called the sinews of war, is the life-blood of matrimony. How was he to support a wife in decent circumstances on a couple of hundred a year? It could not be done. There was no getting over that practical difficulty, for his hopes of adding materially to his salary by other resources appeared altogether nebulous. As to farming, it would need several years under the most favourable circumstances to afford him the means of support, and it was an occupation with which he was almost totally unacquainted. Thus the matrimonial project, which for the first time page 188 in his life he had contemplated with unmixed complacency, was voted impracticable, and reluctantly dismissed to the regions of fancy—there it remained, however, a subject of blissful romance, to be reserved for day dreams and poetical effusions.
He concluded that he would never marry Alice, but he was equally positive that he would never marry any one else. She alone would possess his love. She never could be his, yet she should remain the queen of his heart, his good angel, to be adored in silence and sacred privacy, and to inspire him with tender thoughts and noble resolutions. For her sweet sake he would live a true and honourable life, and endeavour to carve out for himself a worthy career, even though she would never be destined to share it.
On one point he was particularly earnest and emphatic, and that referred to his flirtations at Sunnydowns. He saw clearly that this sort of amorous dalliance would have to cease, or that it would inevitably lead to mischief and disgrace. Besides, the fair image of his Alice dispelled all other tender impressions from his mind.
Absorbed in these sage reflections concerning his present state and future prospects, with an occasional reverie of a more sentimental nature, and loaded with good resolutions, the young man slowly pursued his journey.
He had started from Sunnydowns in a southerly direction, had swerved off with the surveyor's party to the westward, and now had turned completely round, and facing due north was wending his way at the back of Mount Pleasance, on the road to the White Cliff station, where he purposed visiting Mr Warren, of the surveyor's camp episode.
As he thus jogged complacently along, he crossed the track that led to Dovecot, and his horse, attracted, no doubt, by previous acquaintance with the road, turned off in that direction, without any prompting from the rider.
Raleigh was too absent-minded to notice the diversion, or perhaps he did not readily apprehend the locality, for it was only as he rode up to the well-known gate that he fully realised his whereabouts, and was startled at the unwelcome discovery.
He had, previously, quite made up his mind to give Mrs Wylde ‘a wide berth’, and of all places Dovecot was the one which he was most anxious to avoid. Not that he distrusted his own powers, for he believed himself to be quite proof against the blandishments of the Siren, but he was intent on eschewing her and dropping the acquaintance. By a sudden revulsion of feeling, he had taken his former idol en grippe. But the irony of Fate directed otherwise. A mischievous page 189 chance led him by the hand, and a fatal impulse urged on his steps to the very door! There he suddenly recollected his intentions, and thought to turn back. Had he done so at once he would have escaped the evil spell; but he hesitated too long, and while pondering how to effect a retreat unobserved, he gave the alarm to the sheep dogs that prowled about the premises, and raised a hubbub which brought him into prominence.
Then there was no help for it; his retreat was cut off, and he felt constrained to advance to pay his respects to the inmates; but he prudently resolved that the interview should be a very short one.
His familiar voice silenced the noisy pack, and riding up to the stable he inquired of one of the ‘hands’ about the place if the commodore was at home. He was informed that the ‘boss’ was out, but that the ‘missus’ was in, and that he would find her upstairs, whereupon he gave his horse in charge of the man, ran lightly up the outside flight of steps, and, without waiting to be announced, quietly entered the drawing-room. He found it empty. There were signs, however, that the lady of the house was about, for her needlework and things, and her garden hat, were thrown negligently on the sofa, and he fancied that he heard her footsteps in the adjoining apartment, which was her bedroom, and of which the door stood slightly ajar.
Forgetting, of a sudden, all his prudential resolves, and abandoning the guarded demeanour which he had steeled himself to adopt, he approached the door on tiptoe, intending to knock discreetly, and to give his fair hostess a surprise, when the sound of whispering suddenly caught his ear. He stopped short, unconsciously rooted to the spot, and with involuntary attention he listened.
A male voice was speaking in unctuous and subdued tones, to which there was a feminine response in hushed and agitated accents. Raleigh could not catch the precise words of the dialogue, but it struck him that the man made demands in a resolute and exacting manner, while his companion answered in fear and trembling. The female voice had none of the customary animated ring of Mrs Wylde's, yet he felt sure it was hers; the other voice he recognised at once as the insidious Prowler's.
The listener remained standing, paralysed with surprise and stupor, his mind alternately swayed with anxious concern for the woman and jealous indignation at her conduct. He knew that the conversation was taking place in her bedroom, and although he himself, on several occasions and various pretexts, had been admitted into that sacred precinct, yet the presence of such a man as Prowler there appeared page 190 to him a criminal outrage. Then he wondered what the two could be whispering about; he was maddened with jealousy and disgust, and the worst fears seemed to be confirmed.
There was an ominous pause, then he overheard some words of tender parting, and he distinctly caught the sound of an ardent, lingering kiss. The next moment the hurried steps of a man resounded on the stair, then the door opened and Mrs Wylde confronted him.
She gave a little shriek as she met his glance. She looked haggard. Every trace of beauty and tenderness had vanished from her face, which was hard-set, with a wild expression, stamped with fear and suppressed shame.
For an instant the two gazed at one another speechless. Then an angry flush mounted to Raleigh's cheek as he made a mock bow, and stammering forth a hope that he had not intruded unawares, or marred a pleasant interview, he turned on his heel to go.
She sprang after him, and grasped his arm convulsively, turning him forcibly towards her. He shrank from her look of abject intensity, pitiable to see, and the passionate entreaty of her gesture.
Again there was a harrowing pause.
‘Don't leave me so; oh! don't condemn me,’ she sobbed forth, hysterically. Then she threw herself wildly on the sofa and hiding her face in her hands, burst into tears.
Raleigh was so bewildered at this unexpected outburst, and the violence of her grief, that he remained spellbound. He watched her writhing form, and listened to her sobs in perturbed silence. But he soon recovered his composure when remembering that the lady was great at ‘scenes’. That sound of a kiss from the adjoining chamber still rang in his ear and effectually marred any thrill of sentiment.
With a contemptuous curl of the lip, and freezing civility, he inquired:
‘What can I do for you?’
‘Save me! save me!’ she murmured convulsively.
‘Save you from what?’
‘From ruin, from dishonour, from Him!’
She uttered the last word with a despairing cry.
At the allusion to his detested rival Raleigh cast a scornful glance at her. There was an expression on his face that implied that it was rather too late to effect any saving action in that direction, and it brought all the hot blood to her face.
‘No!’ she cried defiantly, as she rose to her feet and approached him. ‘No, I am not guilty. I have been imprudent, reckless, but I am not—what you think! But oh! the ruin, the misery, the disgrace— page 191 What shall I do?’ Once more she hid her face in her hands and had recourse to tears.
Raleigh turned from her with an impatient gesture of disbelief.
‘When you grant secret interviews in your bedroom to such a blackguard——’ he muttered.
‘I could not help it; I dared not repulse him, or make a scene,’ she pleaded piteously. ‘We are in his hands, at his mercy. Oh! you don't know, you can't understand——pity me! pity me!’
‘Throw yourself into his arms, and let him kiss you like that,’ continued the other, callously.
The blush of shame that glowed on her cheeks seemed to be intensified with a deeper dye of indignation, as she drew herself up, and hissed forth: ‘So you were playing the spy, were you? Eavesdropping and peeping through keyholes?—a worthy pastime for a gentleman. I hope you enjoyed it!’
‘Nothing of the sort!’ he replied, taken aback at this return thrust. ‘I called by mere chance in passing, and had only just entered this room as you two were parting. I could not help overhearing your voices, and the sound of—your loving farewell.’
His words seemed to sting her, and yet to afford her momentary relief; she turned pale, like one just escaping from an imminent danger. Then she burst forth afresh:
‘Loving, indeed! when you know how I hate the man! I was pleading for mercy, for a short reprieve—a little time to pay our debts, and to save us from ruin and dishonour. I was terrified into it.’ Then, with increased vehemence: ‘I abhor the man, the treacherous wretch! His presence here is a curse, the bane of our lives. But how can we prevent it? He has us under his foot, and it is only by gaining his good graces, that we can exist.’
‘Does your husband know about this?’
‘No! There would be murder else. That is what terrifies me so! I am in hourly dread of some discovery that would wreck our home. Oh! the contemptible, the wretched shifts I am put to to avoid an exposure that would ruin all. I am distracted! The man pursues me with his hateful attentions, pretending passionate love, and all that sort of thing, which it is a shame for me even to listen to. But I dare not openly resent it, quarrel with him, or tell my husband. I try to evade him, to put him off, to conciliate him with soft speeches—anything to gain time. Oh! I have been weak, and foolish, and blamable—I have compromised myself dreadfully, but you don't know under what terrible straits. Pity me, condemn me, but don't despise me utterly.’
Raleigh was adamant to the passionate appeal.page 192
‘How is it,’ he said coldly, ‘if this bad man has got such a pull over you, that you have not sought for help elsewhere? Why all this compromising secrecy? Why didn't you apply to your friends?’
‘Friends!’ she gasped forth bitterly. ‘Friends! we have no friends; not one in the hour of need. The last person I applied to—a very rich man, who pretended great regard for me, and to whom my husband had rendered important services in the past—this person, when I applied to him for a small loan to tide over a temporary difficulty, sent back word that his charity purse was empty!’
‘You had Me,’ said Raleigh, reproachfully.
‘Yes, indeed, we had you!’ she exclaimed, with sudden exultation. ‘You, the truest and noblest of men, the best of friends. Do I forget how on a late occasion you generously came to our aid and saved us from a humiliating exposure—never shall I forget it!’ She seized his hands, and, before he could prevent her, pressed them warmly to her lips.
‘But how could I come to you in a matter of this kind, involving so large an amount?’ she continued excitedly. ‘Could I rob you, who had already given so much—more, I well knew, that you could afford? Why should I distress you with our monetary troubles, which you would be powerless to relieve? Dear friend! don't blame me for not confiding this wretched pass to you, for not imposing once more on your good nature. I had too much consideration for you, too much respect, too much—love.’
Raleigh felt considerably mollified.
‘Well, don't go on like that,’ he said, in a kinder tone, and taking her hand. ‘It can't be so very desperate. Let me know the worst.’
‘The worst!’ she cried, with a sudden revulsion, and throwing up her arms with a despairing gesture. ‘The worst is my loss of self-respect; the degradation which I have suffered—you must despise me as a mean, guilty creature, as one utterly debased—henceforth you will spurn me from you.’
Raleigh made a deprecatory movement.
‘Oh! I know,’ she continued piteously, ‘that henceforth I shall be accounted vile, that I have forfeited your esteem and friendship, which I valued more than aught else in the world. I deserve it all, but if you only knew the misery I have suffered, the trials I have endured—at times I feel as if I should go mad! Oh! my poor head!’ and she clapped her hands violently to her face, and staggered as if about to fall.
He caught her in his arms and laid her tenderly down on the sofa, then knelt beside her, and with gentle force removed her hands page 193 from her tear-bedewed face, assuring her in pathetic tones of his unalterable attachment, and his deep sympathy in her trouble.
With a wild hysterical motion she threw her white arms round his neck and pressed him convulsively to her heaving bosom, then dropped her head on his shoulder and gave way to a passionate outburst of grief. ‘Save me!’ she sobbed forth. ‘Save me!’
* * * * *
For over an hour they remained sitting side by side, her hand in his hand, her eyes, sometimes dimmed with emotion, and then again sparkling with tender vivacity, as the mood took her, gazing in his eyes, while she related the long story of her troubles and anxieties, the fatal hold which Prowler had obtained over her husband, and the secret of his insidious influence over herself.
According to her version, that unscrupulous man had ingratiated himself into their confidence, had lent them money, and finally got them entirely under his evil power. He held a mortgage over the estate and a bill of sale over all their effects. At that time there was a bill coming due, which in a weak moment, with reckless imprudence, and under false representations, she had signed with her husband's name, and without his knowledge. Prowler held that fatal paper over her head. To redeem it was now her only thought and torturing desire, but for that purpose it was necessary to raise some money, which she could not do. She was in desperate straits, entrapped by the perfidious Prowler, who, by that means, and working on her fears, had hoped to effect his dishonourable purpose. A thousand pounds would be required to clear them of liabilities, and to escape from the clutches of that bad man.
That amount she had tried in vain to raise, and the commodore had only just gone to town in the forlorn hope of being able to negotiate a loan on the security of some land. That the security was ample and excellent was not denied, but in the existing financial depression and the prevailing distrust in land investments, it was highly improbable that her husband would be able to raise the money unless some friend came to the rescue. The prospect, indeed, appeared desperate. Her distress was unbearable; her suspense maddening.
Raleigh, here, with a gentle pressure of the hand, interposed. He begged of her not to distress herself any more. He would see them through the difficulty, for he possessed the money—it was, indeed, his whole capital—and was seeking investment. He would go to town at once, and see to the mortgage.
Mrs Wylde demurred at this; she expostulated strongly at first, and page 194 afterwards less emphatically. She warned him, nevertheless; she wept, she protested, then melted into a flood of gratitude.
He incautiously persisted and gave his word, for he was once more entirely under the spell. The indefinable charm of her presence, her fascinating manner, her crocodile tears, her ardent glances and insinuating flattery, the warm touch of her hand, culminating in that one passionate embrace, had quite subdued his heart and turned his head. He was like a child in her hands to be coaxed and petted.
He readily submitted to the influence, gave himself up unresistingly to the entrancing fascination.
* * * * *
When at a late hour he broke away from her it was to depart in haste for town, in the full determination to help her out of her difficulties; her piteous exclamation still ringing in his ears—‘Save me, save me!’