A South-Sea Siren
Mrs Wylde was the talk of the town. She had caused a genuine scandal, and achieved that notoriety for which she was ever striving. But while her reputation was being decried from the house-tops, she herself lay prostrate, in a hushed and darkened room, quite overcome by her recent triumph, and in an agony of tears.
She had thrown herself, very scantily clad in a morning wrapper, on the drawing-room sofa; her hair was down, her bosom exposed, her feet bare; her head was propped up on a pile of pillows; she had a cold compress over her temples, a smelling bottle in one hand, a fan in the other. Her face was pale and lachrymose, she looked old and almost haggard, her manner was peevish and whining, her attire all dishevelled, her pose the reverse of elegant—in short, her appearance formed a marked contrast to the brilliant display of the ball night.
The doctor had called and sympathised as much as the limited time at his disposal would allow—for it was for sympathy beyond all things that she craved. He had prescribed a nerve tonic and absolute repose.
Her husband had just left her with a volley of curses, and she had gone into hysterics over his brutality. He had seen and heard enough to rouse the surly temper of his coarse nature, and to call forth some bitter reproaches.
As a rule, he was little given to watching the behaviour of his lady; he did not care to pry into her secrets, nor was he over-sensitive to the ordinary gossip about her. But on the present occasion the taunts and innuendoes thrown at him had silenced his boorish levity, and pierced his pachydermatous hide. Moreover, while his gay spouse had been distinguishing herself in the ball-room, and winning hearts, he had been losing money at the card table, and these different experiences clashed unpleasantly together.
Mrs Wylde dreaded her husband when in these savage moods; she cringed before him, and even, submitted to rough treatment. She had wonderful tact in general company; she could act a scene to perfection, she could throw herself into a theatrical attitude and declaim with telling effect before other people; but it would appear that her page 206 address and ready resource failed her completely in the privacy of the domestic circle, where, from all accounts, she often fared badly.
Yet, if these family jars were not of unfrequent occurrence, it must be admitted, to the credit of the participators, that they were kept strictly private. The behaviour of the pair towards one another was always irreproachable in public.
Bridget, the parlour-maid, bustled about the room, without much show of concern for her suffering mistress. Habit tends to blunt the keen edge of sympathy, and Bridget was accustomed to these lamentable exhibitions. She had become inured to tears and tantrums. She took it all as a matter of course, like the ordinary changes from hot to cold, from sunshine to shower; yet the girl was loyal and affectionate at heart, and also within that subtle influence which the Siren managed to throw over most of her entourage.
‘Has then no one called?’ murmured the distressed invalid, from her pillow.
‘Shure it's heaps of ‘em been in it,’ replied the abigail, with a shake of the head. ‘Thin the landlady itself for one, an’ she barging all the time for the rint. The commodore made off wid him, an’ it took me all me time to keep her back from yez. It's myself done me best to keep swate wid her.’
‘The wretch.’ muttered Mrs Wylde, with a shudder. It's little thanks one gets for patronising a place, and recommending it to one's friends. But I'll be even with her yet.’
‘Faix she do be thinking all the time more about the pay than the recommendation of the likes of yez, and the master. Be gorra, she hardly got clear of the door when up come Mrs Wheeler wid the bill for thim dresses yez had, an' she fuming and going on that yez promised her to pay up. Says she. “I'm clane daft to go work for the missus any longer, an' my children wanting what I spind on her work, an' my hard earnings, to put bread in their mouths.”’
‘For Heaven's sake stop your tongue, Bridget, or you'll drive me frantic. O! my poor head! Keep their impertinence to yourself. I'll take care not to send Mrs Wheeler any more customers, and she can wait for her paltry bill. Tell me, have none of the officers?—’
‘By the powers, there's an officer waiting for yez below.’
‘What! from the Blunderbus?’ gasped forth the prostrate one, suddenly galvanised into life, and with a bright flush on her pale countenance. ‘O! Bridget! Why didn't you tell me before?’
‘Well thin. I thought 'twas time enough. He do be in no great hurry to lave. Thim Blunderbus gintlemen is grander than this fellow, wid their fine buttons and swords along wid 'em. Bedad, it's you'll page 207 have enough of him yet, but it won't be the first time yez got round a sheriff's officer.’
‘A bailiff! you unfeeling creature. Where is he? For goodness' sake, keep him out of sight. Go at once, and shut him up in the master's study; give him the last Punches to read, and a bottle of beer. Tell him the commodore is away to settle the business, and will be back with the money soon. Anything to keep him quiet, and out of the way. O! Bridget—’
The servant girl, who had frequently been employed in such errands before, gave a knowing look at her mistress, and was leaving the room, when the sound of footsteps in the passage was heard, followed by a quick rap at the door.
‘Who's there? Don't come in!’ shrieked Mrs Wylde, as she hastily gathered the folds of her loose wrapper round her undraped limbs. ‘Bridget,’ she continued in a lower tone, ‘I am not at home to any one. I am much too ill to see any one. Don't let me be disturbed on any account, unless—’
Notwithstanding the prohibition to enter, the door was briskly thrown open, and in stalked Mr Richard Raleigh, with a clouded brow, and indifferent air.
‘It's only me,’ he remarked moodily, with scarcely a look at the reclining figure on the sofa. ‘Don't disturb yourself on my account. I have come to say Good-bye, that's all, as I leave town to-day. Why, not dressed yet? What's up?’
‘Really, Mr Raleigh, this intrusion—I'm not fit to be seen,’ exclaimed the lady, with the semblance of a blush, as she glanced at her condition of extreme déshabille. ‘Please go away.’
‘I am going; that's why I came. But you need not take any notice of me.—You never do unless it suits you.’
‘If you only came here to scold and to pick a quarrel, it is very cruel and shabby of you, when you see how ill I am,’ whined the other, as she hid her face in the pillows.
‘I am sorry to find you ill; what's the matter?’
‘O! I don't know, but I am dreadfully ill, and so wretched. If you only knew! I suffer so. I have fainted several times this morning. It was so sudden. The doctor is quite anxious, and has ordered perfect quiet. I have forbidden the door to numbers of callers; to troups of friends. My husband is in an awful way about me; he has just gone out for further advice, and would be terribly angry if he found you here. I am quite prostrate—the reaction, I suppose, from the fatigue of the ball. Then we have had so much to worry us of late—such page 208 trials to endure. They have quite broken me down. I cannot bear the least excitement—O! my poor head.’
There was a painful pause, while the lady tossed and writhed on the sofa, and gave way to a hysterical outburst. The maid continued her dusting, and Raleigh, with his hands in his pockets, looked unconcernedly out of the window.
‘Mr Raleigh,’ she continued piteously, ‘I am sorry you are leaving, but I cannot talk to you now. I am too much upset. The doctor said he would not answer for the consequences if I received any visitors. Bridget, throw something over me; I am quite uncovered. Draw down that blind. O! my poor head.’
‘All right,’ replied the gentleman, callously, ‘I'm off, then. Goodbye. I've had enough of this wretched gossiping place. You overexerted yourself the other night, you overdid it altogether, and now you suffer the consequences. Still you made a sensational hit; you have set all heads wagging and tongues clacking round the town. You have managed to upset many people, besides yourself—me among the rest.’
‘A sensational hit? Do you really think so? Well, it was rather a success, I fancy. And do they rage over it, the old cats? Am I everywhere talked about? O! do tell me, dear Mr Raleigh. I am longing to hear what effect I produced on the public. Come and sit by me here, for a moment, and tell me all about it.’
‘On no account! It would excite you; the doctor's orders—’
‘Never mind the doctor, he's an old fool. No, you shall not go like this. Richard. I want to speak to you. Do you know I feel all the better for your company already. It has cheered me; I am so lonely, so crushed, so desolate—’ Here she applied her handkerchief to her eyes, and indulged in a few silent tears.
‘Come and sit near me;’ she took his hand and drew him towards her. ‘Feel how my head is, and my heart, how it throbs. Bridget, you can leave the room for a little; I am quite safe with Mr Raleigh.’
But that gentleman did not approve of the suggestion, or else he thought that the reverse of the proposition did not hold good, for he rose to his feet, and at once interposed.
‘No, no!’ he cried, ‘Bridget must remain, for you cannot be left alone, and I must go. The excitement of talking is evidently too much for you. You will hear quite enough about your triumph at the ball from other people. All the town is talking about it. You have stirred up a hornet's nest. I can tell you.’
‘O! really? You must tell me all about it. Indeed, you shall—’ She clutched him tightly by the arm, and nearly pulled him on to the sofa, page 209 where she made room for him to sit, without rising from her reclining position.
But Raleigh was obdurate. He released himself, and stood aloof. ‘I have had enough of scandal,’ he said bitterly. ‘I must refer you to your new friends for further information, since you have discarded the old ones.’
‘What jealous?’ she inquired archly, and with a sudden revival of spirits. ‘There! don't be silly. Bridget go and do what I told you, and don't admit any one. Now, Richard, I have something to tell you—some real confidences that I can only reveal to a dear, good friend like you. I know I behaved badly the other night, but you must make allowances and forgive me. I was quite carried away with the excitement of the moment—those jolly tars! Then I felt that I was called upon to do the polite to our gallant visitors. I found them such rare good fellows. Captain Masterman is such a nice man; so kind, so sympathising. A hero, too—the Victoria Cross! He took me quite off my legs—don't blush—you know what I mean. We became such fast friends from the first moment, and he confided everything to me. He is a married man, you know, with an aristocratic wife in England. I know her people. He is very attached to his wife, so he says, and always raving about her, until I felt rather piqued, and told him so, when he paid me one of the prettiest compliments I ever received in my life.
‘Come closer, dear, let me whisper it to you. He swore he was so much in love with his wife, that during the fourteen years of his married life, and always on the move, although he may have flirted with foreign beauties, yet that he had never once been unfaithful to her—no, not once! I told him that I didn't believe it; that he was much too handsome, too gallant, and too rakish looking to be trusted. Then he swore to it most solemnly, and I told him that I felt much safer in his company after that oath, and we had such a laugh together, and … I teased him about it until he told me that I was the only woman in the world that had tempted him to break that sacred engagement. Of course, I was very angry, and made him keep his distance; but then he is such a fine fellow, such a dear man. And do you know, he has invited Jim and me to take a trip in his ship to Auckland. It is contrary to the regulations, I believe, but he told me he didn't care a fig for them where I was concerned. Wasn't it good of him? And then it was all arranged that I was to do the honours on board the Blunderbus while she is staying in port, and he promised to write daily when he could not leave his ship; and now … now, it is three days since I have heard from him—not a message even to in- page 210 quire after me. I feel quite hurt at such neglect: I cannot understand it. Something must have happened, or else they have poisoned his mind against me. Not a word! I have felt so crushed, so miserable, so upset. Oh! my poor head. What shall I do?’
Here Mrs Wylde, who for the previous moment had quite forgotten her ailments, now fell back groaning on her pillows.
Raleigh approached, and inquired what he could do for her. She muttered to him to support her in his arms, to raise her head and to bathe her temples with cold water, to open the window, apply the smelling bottle, and half a dozen other things, at the same time.
‘I am a little better now,’ she murmured to him, with a faint smile. ‘But I feel so low and giddy. Oh! my poor head. Pray do not look at me. I am such a sight, and all exposed, too. Oh! the light in my eyes. Do draw down that blind.’
‘I had better call Bridget,’ remarked the other, nervously, ‘Can nothing be done to relieve you? You must not be left alone, and I cannot stay. I had no idea you were so ill. Cover up your bosom, or you'll catch cold.’
‘Oh! don't go away. Sit down again beside me, and put that cloud round my neck. Thank you. Take no notice of me; I shall be myself in a few moments. It is this wretched despondency that crushes me so. I feel as if I were deserted of all the world. No one seems to care for me—nobody understands me.’
‘It's the nerves, that's all. As for nobody caring for you. I should have thought it was all the other way—too many admirers, I am sure you got enough attention the other night to last any ordinary woman for half a lifetime.’
‘Richard, how unkind of you! Because I tried to honour the occasion, and make myself pleasant to our visitors, such are the cruel and nasty remarks that are made about me. How can I prevent people showing me a few polite attentions?’
‘Polite attentions, indeed,’ sneered the other, with a change of countenance. ‘Is that your name for a desperate flirtation that scandalised the whole room? If you heard the remarks that were made about you—and, really, Captain Masterman's attentions have been such that people have a right to talk——.’
‘Talk and twaddle! What do they say?—what can they say? I don't care two Jack straws for all the talk of the town;’ and Mrs Wylde forgetting in her anger her state of utter prostration, jumped up into a sitting posture, and snapped her fingers in her companion's face.
Raleigh was shocked, ‘I should have thought that your reputation——.’ he began gravely.page 211
At the mention of her ‘reputation’ it was always customary with Mrs Wylde to weep, Sometimes she cried aloud, sometimes only to herself, sometimes on the neck of a friend and sympathiser. But she always gave way to a burst of tears. It was a magic word that let loose the floodgates of her emotion.
‘My reputation!’ she sobbed forth, ‘my poor reputation. Always assailed by every backbiting old harridan and spiteful minx in the place. What have I done to deserve this torment, this persecution? I never scandalise them; I never wantonly give offence, or poke my nose into other people's affairs. Why should they set upon me? I know that a lot of these hideous old scandalmongers hate me like Old Nick, because I eclipse them in society, and receive so many attentions from gentlemen, while they and their country-bred daughters are left in the cold. But what man of the world, or person of taste, would care to be bothered with such silly, wax-faced, simpering bread-and-butter misses? It is no fault of mine that they are stupid and uninteresting. What have they to say about me. I should like to know?’
‘You need not trouble yourself about silly gossip,’ answered the other, sententiously; ‘but you ought to maintain some decent regard for appearances——’
The lady interrupted him with a little shriek; then lashing herself into a fury she denounced her detractors with voluble indignation.
‘Appearances!’ she hissed forth, ‘there is no more lying, sickening, hypocritical thing in the world. Appearances! A cloak for every vice and falsehood. They do well to shelter themselves behind appearances; but I know something of what is going on behind the scenes, and know how to expose it, too! Let me tell you, sir,’ she continued vehemently, ‘that in this instance, at least, appearances have been deceiving. It is not on my account that Captain Masterman has been so frequently at our house. It is for my husband. The captain has taken a great liking to Jim, who is a man entirely after his own heart. The two are constantly together—in fact, they have been inseparable. The commodore has spent half his time on board the Blunderbus since the vessel has been at the port. And then there is my little boy Tommy. The captain has taken a real fancy for the dear little chap; he romps with him, plies him with sweets, tips him with half-sovereigns—in fact, he is quite silly about the lad. He said the other day he was the handsomest boy he had ever seen; and he promised, if we put Tom into the navy, to look after him as he would after his own son. So kind, so considerate! A noble man! And to think that his name, as well as my own, should be dragged through page 212 the mire, because of his friendship for my husband and his benevolent intentions towards my child!’
Here the lady was so overcome at the thought of the cruelty and injustice of the world that she gave way to another passionate burst of grief.
Raleigh did not seem to be much affected. ‘And what about Prowler?’ he inquired severely. ‘His visits are compromising, if you like, and your conduct towards that man at the ball——’
‘Jealous again? you silly dear,’ murmured the Siren, through her tears. ‘How exacting and foolish you men are. You know very well how I detest that man; but, as the commodore tells me, it is necessary to keep in with the fellow. He would be a dangerous enemy.’
‘I thought I had saved you from his clutches,’ remarked Raleigh, in a low voice, and very slowly; and he shuddered as he thought of the heavy sacrifices he had made for that useless purpose.
‘So you did, you best, you kindest, and dearest of friends; so you did.’ She seized his hand and pressed it warmly. ‘You saved us then, but I much fear the commodore has become once more involved in some way. I know the fellow has got another pull on us. It was at my husband's express wish—I might say, his orders—that I danced with Mr Prowler. One has to be civil to some people, you know.’
‘I know, then, that I am not one of them, for you hardly gave me a glance of recognition the whole evening; and the only time I asked you to dance you refused point blank.’
‘You know, my dear Richard, that you can't dance a step, and I never will allow myself to be dragged about the room. I would have refused the Governor himself, had he asked me to waltz with him. Now Captain Masterman dances divinely—with such a graceful movement, and yet such lightness and precision. It was heavenly to whirl round the room in his arms. I felt carried away into another world. Then I must confess that I felt rather piqued at you. I could plainly see that your heart was elsewhere. There was another——’
‘What rubbish! You never gave me even a thought,’ ejaculated Raleigh, angrily. ‘I am well enough sometimes—when I am wanted. I was not wanted then.’
‘You know very well,’ exclaimed the lady, roused in her turn, ‘that with your chère amie smiling benignantly upon you, and graciously accepting your homage, you cared for no one else. Do you think I haven't eyes in my head. I saw your little game, and made up my mind to resent it.’
‘If you allude to Miss Seymour——’
‘I do allude to Miss Seymour. Is she so exalted in her immaculate page 213 state that we may not even allude to her virtuous presence? I noticed the fair—I beg her pardon, the brunette—Alice, with the beaming eyes; I also noticed you worshipping at the shrine, and I admit to feeling hurt and neglected in consequence.’
Raleigh burst into a hoarse laugh. ‘Why,’ he exclaimed scornfully. ‘I never spoke to Miss Seymour till eleven o'clock, and then only for a few minutes. It was her married sister, Mrs Fitzroy, that you saw me talking to.’
‘Oh, I could discriminate. I am fully aware of your attentions to Mrs Fitzroy; but you waste your time in making up to her, for the Captain is horribly jealous already, and watches her as a cat does a mouse. I hear that he treats her abominably, shuts her out of all society, and yet allows himself the fullest license. He knocks about in shady company, and I heard from a friend that he had been seen in some queer quarters of the town. Yet the fool came mincing up to me, with all sorts of compliments and insinuations, and that after openly neglecting to call with his wife, the gossoon! But I gave him the run sharp. I turned my back to the fellow, with the utmost contempt.’
Raleigh listened in mournful silence. A poignant feeling of disillusion was coming over him with regard to this woman, with all her tricks and allurements. She did not look at all captivating as she lay writhing on the sofa, with her hair down, her slatternly dress, and her tongue loudly clacking. As he watched her, he wondered how he ever could have been so much imposed upon.
Without appearing to notice his moody look and distant air, Mrs Wylde continued her ill-natured rattle.
‘To return to your saintly Alice Seymour, who you worship in your heart, I couldn't help noticing that she was abominably dressed. She looked a perfect guy in that common pink frock. If she had a grain of taste she would know that, with her dark complexion, she only looks well in yellow. You may tell her so, with my compliments. And then a high-necked dress, too, on such an occasion. What silly prudery. Why the best of her is her neck and shoulders—she might as well show as much of them as possible.’
‘I wish to goodness,’ exclaimed Raleigh, impatiently, ‘you would leave Miss Seymour alone. She doesn't trouble herself about you.’
‘But she does about you, my friend. She is your saint, your little monitress, who would preserve you from evil contact. Now, if you had only been guided by her——’
‘I wish to goodness I had,’ muttered the other, devoutly.
An angry flash shot from Mrs Wylde's half-closed eyes.page 214
‘Do you know,’ she continued spitefully, ‘that, notwithstanding all her goodness and purity, your demure friend has a very bold—I might almost say unladylike—way with her. I met her the other day at the Laurys, and was quite shocked at some of her expressions.’
‘Nobody need ever be shocked at anything Miss Seymour could say or do.’
‘Perhaps not, to such a blind admirer as you; but we women have notions of our own. She talked in the presence of gentlemen of having put on her father's riding-boots to wade through a swamp, and she actually said that they reached up above her knee; just fancy!’
‘Well, what's wrong about that?’
‘So indelicate! Why, most young ladies are afraid to allude even to their ankles; but to talk about one's leg, above the knee, too, why, its dreadful. Poor Mrs Laury looked as if she would sink through the floor, and I could not help blushing scarlet.’
Raleigh gave a contemptuous chuckle, and humorously glanced at the speaker's state of déshabille, which exposed at times a good deal more than her ankles.
Mrs Wylde noticed the glance, but she continued quite unconcernedly.
‘And then we were talking the other day, among ourselves, bien entendu, about the falling off of the attentions of men towards their wives, after marriage. As you must know, a few years of matrimony does make a great change in that respect. We all declared that we did not care about it at all—that it was a good riddance; and Mrs Honey remarked that she believed in platonic love, which was much more becoming and lasting than the other; and Mrs Baggy assured us that her husband, who is yet most devoted to her, never kisses her but once a year—on her birthday. Alice Seymour, who was there, pretended to be quite horrified at this. She said she didn't understand things that way. That if she was married she would expect her husband to be always making love to her, and to kiss her twenty times a day. We were quite shocked. Fortunately there were no gentlemen present, or I feel sure some of us would have blushed. Mrs Laury afterwards said to me in confidence. “Alice Seymour may be a very innocent young person, but really her remarks in public are most improper. I shouldn't like her to be much with my girls.”’
‘Her girls!’ sneered Raleigh. ‘One of them eloped with the groom, and the second one—well, it is the talk of the town that she had to be taken home from the last Assembly Ball in a cab, decidedly the worse for liquor. I have heard enough of this scandalous trash. I wonder that you are not ashamed of yourself to talk in this disgrace- page 215 ful manner of a young lady who is one of the frankest, sweetest, and noblest natures in the world, and who is universally beloved and respected.’
‘I wonder you are not ashamed of yourself,’ hissed forth the other, quivering with passion, ‘to flaunt this pattern of yours in my face, to insult me with her nauseous praises, at every moment. How can I help hating her, when you plainly show that you prefer her to me? Oh! Richard, I did not expect this from you. If I have lost your esteem, your—affection, at least, you might have concealed it from me—you might have softened the blow.’
With a hysterical sob, she threw herself face downwards on the pillows and burst into passionate weeping.
Raleigh approached her coldly. He had seen enough of this pathetic acting.
‘After the treatment you gave me the other night——,’ he began bitterly, but she interrupted him impetuously.
‘Do not remind me of it,’ she cried, ‘I have been miserable ever since. It was all through your neglect of me. I felt so slighted, so wounded in my pride, so cut to the heart. I was frantic. I saw that queen of yours throning it complacently, and it drove me mad. You were the cause of it all, although you did not know it. It was you, Richard! I acted like a fool; I flirted as I never flirted before; I lost all sense of restraint, all self-respect: but it was because I felt myself discarded for another, because—of you.’
The heartfelt emotion with which these words were uttered, and the copious tears that accompanied them, rather softened her companion. He took her hand.
‘Alice Seymour,’ he whispered gently, ‘is a worthy friend, but you well know that where you are concerned——’
She smiled at him, lifting her tear-bedewed face to his, and drew him tenderly towards her.
‘Say no more; I am so sorry, so penitent. I know that you are the best, the dearest—— Oh! when I think of your kindness to me, your noble generosity, which I can never repay!’
She pressed his hand to her lips and wept over it.
He found himself kneeling beside her, bathing her forehead, supporting her half-clad form in his arms, and entreating her to be calm and to believe in his unalterable fidelity and attachment, when suddenly the door flew open, and Bridget rushed excitedly into the room with an urgent message brought by a man-of-war's man from the Blunderbus.
Mrs Wylde bounded from her reclining posture, hastily brushed page 216 away the remains of tears from her eyes, and impatiently tore open the letter.
‘Oh! it's from the captain, the dear, good fellow. Bridget, raise the blinds. I knew he was a man of honour, and would act up to his word. It is all explained. The Blunderbus has been out for two days at gun and torpedo practice. Why didn't Jim tell me? What a shame! Mr Raleigh, please excuse me while I just glance through the letter.’
Then she clapped her hands with lively excitement.
‘Afternoon tea on board!’ she exclaimed merrily, ‘and I am invited to be present and to do the honours. All the rank and fashion invited, and I to receive them on board. Will I? Won't I just. Hurray! And won't it be a triumph. Mr Raleigh? And all this nasty, spiteful, back-biting set, that have given out they will not meet me in future. Ha, ha! Hi, hi! What a sell for them! I never felt so jolly and elated in my life. Captain Masterman is a duck of a man; I feel as if I could hug him. Oh! dear me, what's the time? Good heavens! Two o'clock, and the appointment for half-past four. Not a moment to lose. Bridget, quick; run down to—what's-his-name—Curlytongues, the hairdresser, and bring him up here immediately. Send and order the carriage from the livery stables for three sharp, and then come and dress me. Run, Bridget, Good-bye. Mr Raleigh. Thank you so much for coming to see me, and for all your sympathy. So kind of you. I feel worlds better already; but I must look alive. Ta, ta!’
With a farewell wave of the hand, and hastily gathering the folds of her wrap around her, she made a dash for the bedroom, leaving her companion open-mouthed with astonishment and flushed with indignation.