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A South-Sea Siren

Chaprer XXIII

page 252

Chaprer XXIII

What apparently insignificant causes go to make up the sum of our happiness in life, or to add materially to its load of misery! What trivial matters will elate some people to ecstasy, and depress others almost to despair. Under similar outward conditions we see gaiety and sadness side by side; the same scene is reflected differently in a bright smile or a melancholy frown, according to the mood of the wearer; what is warm sunshine to one is darksome shadow to another.

Richard Raleigh felt as if a sudden change had come over all his surroundings, and brightened his prospects, although, as a matter of fact, nothing was altered in the state of things which had lately so woefully depressed him.

A few cheerful words of sympathy and encouragement from an amiable friend, who was not in the secret of his tribulations, and from whom he could not have expected anything else, had so completely altered the tenor of his thoughts, and transformed his condition of mind, that he felt quite a different being, and saw everything couleur-de-rose.

All his previous load of sadness had been thrown off by the magic touch of a gentle hand, which he had nevertheless frequently clasped before without experiencing any such startling relief to his overcharged feelings.

He had been assured by a kindly voice that he had not forfeited the good opinion of his most intimate friends, and that he would be just as welcome as before at their genial home. Now, in his heart, he had never entertained any serious misgivings on that point; he had never really imagined himself abandoned or discarded, and therefore he had been told nothing that was either new or unexpected, and yet he felt inspired with fresh confidence and restored to his old equanimity.

After the interview that has just been related, he returned to his solitary abode in a pleasant mood, and could hardly control the exuberance of his good spirits. He paced the narrow confines of his little parlour, no longer with faltering step and head bowed down, but almost with a skip and a jump. He hugged himself with inward delight, and felt quite overflowing with charity and kindliness towards the world in general.

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At other moments he was more deeply moved in spirit, and, as if impressed with a thrilling sense of gratitude for some great deliverance, his heart throbbed with emotion, his eyes filled with tears, and his lips muttered heartflet thanks to Providence for the blessings vouchsafed to him.

Mentally he looked about him complacently enough, and he found to his surprise that the obstacles in his path, which before had assumed such formidable dimensions, had dwindled away to nothing. He perceived, for the first time, how trivial and commonplace were the losses he had so bitterly deplored, and how easily such temporary misfortunes might be repaired by energy and perseverance. He readily called to mind how many of his acquaintances, without even his means and advantages, were carving out for themselves a successful career in the world, and he wondered at his own craven fears for the result. Then he plucked up his courage, girded himself with a newborn faith in his own powers, and rather exulted in his strength.

The sneers and innuendoes of spiteful neighbours now appeared to him paltry and contemptible in the extreme; he laughed aloud at his miserable detractors, disdained their puny attacks, and magnanimously forgave them.

The loss sustained to his purse he put down to the credit of his heart, and struck a balance that was altogether in his favour.

In short, he felt much more satisfied with himself and hopeful for the future; he saw a new world before him, and braced himself with new energies to battle with it.

To Alice Seymour he attributed this blessed change, to her alone he gave all the credit of working this miracle in his afflicted soul, and of restoring him to self-respect. His heart warmed with affection and gratitude towards his gentle benefactress, and yet he did not admit to himself that he was at all in love with her. She was his good genius, his guide to a better life, his pattern of all the virtues, and a bright, cheerful, sweet little creature into the bargain, but he never entertained the commonplace idea of paying his addresses to her. The gossip about an engagement had been treated between them as a good joke, and the idea of his making her a proposal of marriage only provoked him to a smile. Nor could he bring himself to believe for a moment that Alice would respond to any such advances on his part, Neither of them were at all intent upon matrimony, and, moreover, he well knew that he had nothing to marry on.

As for the old love it had died a natural death, and he felt convinced that it was not to be resuscitated. The very thought of the Siren, with her devious ways and insidious endearments, caused him page 254 a disagreeable sensation, which he tried hard to overcome by a mental effort. He formally dismissed her from his mind, he withdrew her portrait from his album, he burnt her letters, and he made a solemn vow to have nothing more to do with her.

Henceforth he considered himself a free man.

But unfortunately he reckoned without the Siren, and it is well known and recorded in books that the Siren, both ancient and modern, in fairyland as in real life, when once she has held the stage or made a conquest, is not so easily to be shaken off, She clings tenaciously to the scene of her triumphs, she dogs her victim, or lies in ambush to take him unawares; and she has a dangerous habit of rising out of the still waters to view when her presence is least acceptable, if not downright shocking, to every sense of propriety.

Now the fascinating Celia Wylde, although to the ordinary view but an ordinary mortal, of a certain age, and of no extraordinary prepossessing exterior either, was a siren of this malign and inconvenient sort, that was not often to be got rid of for the mere asking. Where once she had made an attachment she held fast. Moreover, she was a real woman in her resentment at any appearance of neglect. In her jealousy she was capable of tracking her fugitive slave to the utmost extremities of the earth, and inflicting on him the direst doom.

And yet, to give the fair tempter her due, she was not by any means devoid of good nature. She had a weak spot in her heart, and showed much effusive sympathy with suffering and distress where that weak spot was touched. Many a night had she spent at the bedside of the sick, many trying sacrifices had she made at the call of friendship, and she was always very charitably disposed to the poor. Nor was she wanting in loyalty and devotion where her tender emotions were aroused. But on one point she was adamant. Where her vanity was touched she was insatiable and inexorable. Love of admiration controlled her fluctuating being.

She might be cajoled with flattery, and mollified by adulation to any extent, but not otherwise. Had Raleigh therefore taken her the right way he might easily have succeeded in obtaining his discharge from a state of ignoble bondage. Had he stooped to ‘fawn and flatter’ he might have escaped from her clutches with much less trouble, and at far less cost, than it had taken him to wheedle himself into her good graces, and there might have been quite an amicable parting.

But ‘the philosopher’ was not the man to adopt any such conciliatory method, nor was he in the humour to pander to her contemptible weakness. He had been much too sincere and too passionate in page 255 his foolish attachment to be able to disengage himself by a stroke of diplomacy; he had been cut to the quick, the wound still rankled, and was not to be healed with a few honeyed words. His heart was full of bitterness against the fickle seducer, and he was resolved to express it openly.

At their last interview he had violently upbraided her, and tried hard to provoke a final rupture, but she had only answered him with tears and reproaches. Then he had parted with her in anger and resentment, and he had carefully kept out of her way ever since. Nor had he made any secret of his altered feelings both towards herself and her blustering husband.

It had therefore become generally known in the gossiping neighbourhood that Mr Raleigh, after being cruelly victimised, like so many others before him, had broken with, the Wyldes, and was now therefore more an object for pity than for social reprobation. There was a tendency on the part of the virtuous public to condone his supposed offence and to take him again into favour.

The most strait-laced of the ladies found it in their hearts to smile once more upon him, and the ugly scandal which had been stirred up over his equivocal conduct, for the time subsided.

Mrs Wylde, on her part, had not taken the defection of her former soupirant much to heart. She resented his behaviour, but had deferred any vengeance for the present. He was, to her, only one of several who could be taken up or dropped when most convenient, but who exercised no particular hold upon her. Moreover, he had been already squeezed pretty dry.

She had also, at that time, far more interesting business in hand, and much more lively sport to follow, than anything he could have provided for her. She was just then in the heyday of her social successes. Undoubtedly the most scandalised and best-abused woman in the whole province, that was in itself a source of infinite gratification to her overweening vanity. For to attract, notice was, next to man-killing, her dearest object in life.

She flitted about in a distracting whirl of excitement, outraging all the proprieties, advertising herself high and low, and setting society by the ears. Her partiality for gold lace and bright uniforms was especially conspicuous, and at balls and parties the gallant officers of the Blunderbus had it all their own way. She had singled out Captain Masterman before all others, and to nestle her dishevelled head against his gaudy epaulette, while waltzing furiously round the room, seemed to be the highest bliss she could aspire to—a sight, moreover, page 256 that excited the spite of neglected virgins and their motherly guardians to the verge of exasperation.

A perfect explosion took place when it was reported about that Mrs Wylde had accepted the offer of a passage to Auckland on board the Blunderbus, and without the companionship of her husband. At such a climax the last vestiges of her tattered reputation might be said to have been torn to shreds, but before the full fury of the storm of obloquy could burst upon her the lady had departed and transferred her conquests to another scene. Then from the seat of Government of the colony there came accounts of her further triumphs. She commenced the campaign by making desperate love to the Governor, and it was reported that his Excellency had so far forgotten the respect due to his exalted office, and to the opinion of the world, as to open a state ball with such an adventuress. She soon followed up her first successes; she became a guest at Government House, and for some weeks took quite a leading part in all the festivities which took place on the occasion of the visit of the man-of-war, and the presence in the city of a large contingent of the regular troops. She was fěted and flattered in high places; the commodore even shared somewhat of the éclat that surrounded her, and their names appeared prominently in the social columns of the newspapers.

But alas! for human glory—it is transient, evanescent! Sailing orders came at last for the gallant crew, to whom she bade farewell with bitter tears; the Governor went off on some official journey; the red-jackets shouldered arms, and were marched off to the front to fight—or rather, not to fight—the Maories; the flutter of excitement which had enlivened the little city suddenly subsided and gave place to the ordinary dull routine of colonial life. Moreover, owing to the old scandal which followed fast upon her heels, many doors were closed against her, and she found no further scope whatever for her fascinations. The Wyldes were stranded in a strange land, without friends or money. Just at this time, too, the financial cloud which had slowly been gathering over the commodore's head, and getting blacker and blacker, while he neglected his business and squandered other people's contributions, burst with an alarming shock upon him. A steady rush of creditors, no longer to be evaded or resisted, set in; bailiffs again stormed the citadel; the insidious Prowler, hurt in his amorous heart, and roused to jealous resentment, had put the law in motion, and threatened to foreclose on his mortgages, and to lay greedy hands on every stick of property which the Wyldes possessed. It was a terrible crisis; Dovecot was in the hands of the enemy, and page 257 its forlorn owner had not even sufficient funds to carry himself off from his numerous creditors who were clamouring for him.

It is in critical times, such as these, that true genius asserts itself, and it was under these desperate straits that the Siren developed some of her most remarkable qualities, and displayed marvellous powers deserving, perhaps, of a better cause.

There happened to be at Auckland, at that particular time, while travelling for his health, a person of considerable consideration in his own opinion, and not without a certain amount of public importance—Mr Justice Fitz Flame, a retired judge and a confirmed invalid. He was an old man of rather venerable aspect, with a bald head and long white beard; he had a ceremonious bearing, and an unctuous manner, especially towards the fair sex, which he affected with senile gallantry; in other respects, pompous, dilapidated, fussy, self-indulgent, and vain. Moreover, he was a widower, and was said to be rich. Under these circumstances he became at once an object of intense solicitude for Mrs Wylde.

That versatile lady had, so she declared, an innate regard and veneration for age; she was partial to a bald head, and was tenderly affected at the sight of grey hairs; moreover she loved to sit at the feet of wisdom, to listen to tales of the past, and profit by the kindly warnings of experience She was also a born nurse, so she said; she loved the tender care of the sick and the infirm, and there was an element of devotion in her nature, an overflowing sympathy with suffering, which afforded her the greatest happiness in attending to the wants of invalids. And it must be admitted that she developed, all of a sudden, such a fund of patience and gentleness in her disposition, so much readiness of resource, and such unfailing cheerfulness, that any one might have been led to believe that she was especially marked out for a nurse's career. Her little fling of excitement with the gallant throng over, she became much more sedate and reserved in her manner; quite an altered woman to all appearances. She dressed very plainly, although becomingly, in sober hues, she adopted a very quiet tone, played sacred music, sang the sweet plaintive airs of her beloved Erin, and seemed to have taken altogether a serious turn. She was not long in obtaining an introduction to the ex-judge, and was both surprised and delighted to find how many points of sympathy they had in common. She expressed herself, from the first, quite in love with the dear old man, who was most flattering in his exquisite politeness, and whose conversation was as entertaining as instructive. She discovered that they were not only of the same nationality, but that they hailed from the same County Dublin, page 258 and were even, in some distant and rather indistinct way, actually related. Their respective families had often met, she knew his people well, and had always claimed relationship with them, and she could tell him all about the notables of the Irish capital and many of his old friends and connections. On the strength of this connection, Mrs Wylde claimed, almost as a right, the privilege of devoting herself to the care and entertainment of her elderly friend, and notwithstanding the ex-judge's polite protestations against occupying so much of her time, and keeping her from more diverting occupations, she was unremitting in her attentions, and full of tender solicitude for his most trifling whims and requirements.

She adopted towards him an attitude of complaisant deference, invariably addressing him as ‘Sir’; she was a most patient listener to his prosy stories, and she contrived admirably to suit herself to his varying moods, sometimes gay and chatty, sometimes tender and sentimental.

She played to him, she sang to him, she assisted him with her arm for evening strolls, she hung over his invalid chair and shaded him with her lace parasol, she prepared him little dainties with her own fair hands, and she was often to be seen reclining at his feet, by the sad sea waves, and reading to him out of her favourite Tennyson. In fact, there were no limits to her devotion; it partook somewhat of the affectionate care which a daughter might give to an infirm parent, yet tempered with every sign of outward respect.

Nor was this to be wondered at, when she told the pathetic story of her own life, saddened as it had been in her early youth, by the loss of her beloved and still lamented father. The tenderness and gratitude stored up in her heart needed an outlet, and she felt an irresistible impulse to unbosom her chagrin to the sympathising ear of her venerable friend, who represented in her eyes so much of the noble bearing and kindly attributes of her adored parent.

She often dwelt, with tearful emotion, on the sad memory of her loss; how she had missed in after life the strong support and kindly admonition of her devoted father, and she rejoiced in the remembrances of the loving attentions she had been able to afford him, while nursing him through his last illness. The recital of this pathetic page of her life, blotted as it was with tears, was only extracted from her by the kindly inquiries of the ex-judge, who would take her hand, pat her head, smile benignantly upon her and encourage her to fresh confidences. The old man was indeed highly flattered and gratified in listening to her sentimental confessions.

These confessions differed very materially from those she had page 259 formerly imparted to Raleigh, in moments of intimate confidence. According to that version, her girlhood had been rough, not to say stormy. The paternal rule had been anything but elevating or conciliatory, but, on the contrary, had generally been cruel and heartless. She had been dragged up anyhow, neglected, and often ill-treated. As a sample of the home discipline she had been subjected to, she related how her dear papa, in one of his fits of passion, had knocked her down, and, while on the ground, had belaboured her with his riding whip. In fact, she used to lament that she had never tasted the sweets of childhood, or known a father's love.

It can only be surmised, therefore, that her memory was defective, or that there had been so many varying phases in her life that she was apt to confound them together. But however much her reminiscences might disagree as to facts and circumstances, they were always highly interesting. They appealed strongly to the sympathies of her hearers. His Honour the ex-judge, at any rate, was much affected by them. He proclaimed loudly that Mrs Wylde was the most charming woman he had ever met, and that her conversational powers were unsurpassed. He was especially delighted with her fine tact, her exquisite sensibility, and her constant good-humour.

After a while the elderly beau became something more than charmed; he developed quite an air of gallantry, and showed unusual empressement wherever she was concerned. He also soon got to be exceedingly exacting and very jealous. The presence of more youthful cavaliers, who danced attendance on the lady, was much resented, and she had in rather summary fashion to give them their congé, Even the company of her husband, at these frequent interviews, was not acceptable to the old man, who did not ‘take’ to the commodore, and accordingly that blustering personage received a discreet hint from his wife to make himself scarce.

Things came to such a pass that the menfolk winked at one another, and laughed in their sleeves over this fatuous penchant in high life, while the womenfolk ruffled up their feathers, and refused to see anything amusing in so unbecoming an exhibition. The reserved and modest demeanour of the fair one made no impression whatever on her own sex; her almost filial attitude towards her venerable charge, on the plea of a distant relationship, was viewed with scorn and derision, while nothing but the intense respectability of the recipient of these delicate attentions, his age and dignity, and especially his wealth, prevented this spiteful society gossip from assuming the proportions of a grave scandal.

But notwithstanding snubs and black looks, sneers and innuendoes. page 260 Mrs Wylde bravely persevered in her self-imposed and charitable office of nurse and companion to His Honour; and she reaped her reward, for when the crash came, with threatened ruin and exposure, report said that the old man came gallantly to the rescue, and was the means of averting the calamity.

Thus, after some months the Wyldes were able to return to their home at Sunnydowns, rather crestfallen, perhaps, and without any flourish of trumpets, but still in possession of their household goods and chattels.

Mrs Wylde appeared fagged out by the experiences of her past triumphs, and rather anxious to restore her energies and to retire for the moment from the public gaze; while the commodore, who was inclined to continue in his old rattling and dissipated style found himself everywhere received with coolness and suspicion.

* * * * *

Meanwhile Richard Raleigh was enjoying one of the happiest periods of his life. He had shaken off dull care and quite recovered his former good spirits. Moreover he was full of new-born energy, and fully determined to make an effort to distinguish himself in the world. At the instigation of Miss Seymour he decided to compete at an exhibition for local artists that was shortly to be held, and he threw a most unusual enthusiasm into the work. Unfortunately for the result, however, instead of confining himself to sketches in water colours, in which he was remarkably successful, he engaged on a large-sized landscape in oils, which was much beyond his powers. Nevertheless he indulged in the most sanguine anticipations, and his guide and adviser, who had helped to select the view, seemed to share in them also.

He also took up his much neglected pen, and began a series of contributions to the local press on all sorts of current topics, literary and political. He slashed away in all directions, sending in leading articles, reviews of books, local skits, and fierce denunciations of public abuses. He was indefatigable in his attempt to enter the field of journalism, and persisted in spite of repeated failure, and the galling apathy of the public.

For most of his effusions, clever as many of them undoubtedly were, found their way into the editor's wastepaper basket, while the few that obtained insertion in the leading newspapers, were published anonymously and never paid for. But Raleigh was gratified to see himself in print, and to know that his literary style was approved of, and also that he had established a connection with the press. page 261 Moreover, his dear Alice smiled upon him and encouraged him to fresh efforts.

It need hardly be said that he became a frequent visitor at Glenmoor, where he soon fell into his old ways, and was always welcome without any particular notice being taken of him. Alice attended to her various household duties and went her usual rounds in a loose morning wrapper and a huge sunbonnet without the slightest regard to his presence; Mr Seymour would engage him in debate or at chess just as the humour prompted, or let himself gently off into an afterdinner snooze quite oblivious of his company. He came without invitation and departed when it suited him without formal leave. He borrowed books without asking, helped himself to the whisky bottle on the quiet, plucked nosegays of flowers without consulting the gardener, and poked the fire without an apology. He condescended at times to make himself useful, to trim the lamps, to help Alice in covering jars of jam, and he would even exert himself to the extent of chopping up some wood. At times also he would accompany his friends for a canter over the downs, and upon more than one occasion he was seen sitting demurely between the old gentleman and his daughter in their family pew in the little church.

But as a rule Mr Raleigh and Miss Seymour were rarely to be seen together in public, nor did they seek for secluded spots for their meetings elsewhere. They had no need for much privacy in their conferences, for no exchange of tender sentiments ever took place between them.

They enjoyed one another's company cordially, their intercourse was frank and hearty; they would laugh and chat together on all available occasions, but without any hidden undercurrent of tenderness, without ogling and sighing, vows or protestations. And if at any time the young man showed a tendency to become sentimental she would invariably take the subject up in fun, and complete his discomfiture with a merry fit of laughing. Once, at Christmas time, while they were both engaged in fastening up some evergreen decorations, he caught her under the mistletoe, and demanded the penalty, ‘Very well,’ she replied simply, ‘only let me first take these pins out of my mouth.’ Then she submitted to be kissed.

Raleigh, on his part, although when away from her, he might almost fancy himself in love, yet in her presence would experience a cooling process, which would subdue the tender passion into a much quieter sentiment of friendly regard. She was so frank in her manner, so outspoken in her thoughts, so sensible in her notions, and so eminently practical in all things, that she certainly did not encourage page 262 any sentimental effusion. She was too undemonstrative to respond to love, and if there was any inflammable material in her heart, it can only be surmised that the divine spark had not yet struck there, to set it ablaze.

Therefore it came about that these two tacitly acted upon the understanding that they should be friends; true and fast friends, but nothing more.

The world, however, looked upon the arrangement in quite another light.

To the gossips of Sunnydowns there was no further doubt on the subject, and with the utmost unanimity a formal engagement was recognised. Indeed, some well-disposed persons went so far as to fix the marriage day, and to give it full publicity, for they gravely considered that a long engagement under the circumstances would not be desirable, either for the parties concerned or to the public generally.

So that settled it.