A South-Sea Siren
Tout est perdu—all is lost—without even the legendary ‘fors l'honneun,’ for in poor Raleigh's case it was, in one sense, his honour that was the hardest hit. His post of secretary to the District Council was a poorly paid one, and the appointment of clerk of the court, which he also held, did not add much to his slender income, yet he felt the loss of these positions keenly.
They had afforded him a moderate competence, and he had lived long enough in the district to have become attached to it, and to have made a large circle of pleasant acquaintances. He had been very popular; he had even for a time been much spoiled and petted. He had become quite a personage in his way. And now he was suddenly bereft of all, and cast adrift on the world. He had suffered much in the early days of his colonial experience, and he dreaded the miserable shifts he might be put to again in the grievous struggle for existence.
To add to his anxieties he had dismal forebodings that the whole of his small fortune, which he had rashly lent to the Wyldes on the security of a second mortgage, would be irretrievably lost. His former friends had turned their backs on him, the world frowned, he was absolutely without private resources, and had no idea what to put his hand to.
But these monetary worries were slight compared to the misery he endured at the idea of having alienated his best friend, and disgraced himself in the eyes of his beloved Alice.
For she had become the idol of his heart, and was for ever present in his thoughts. To complete his discomfiture, he received, immediately on his return to Sunnydowns, a most amiable letter from her, written without any knowledge of the miserable occurrence, and which added the last drop to his overflowing cup of bitterness.
Miss Seymour, who had very rarely written to him previously, sent him on the present occasion a charming little epistle, couched in the most friendly terms, and conveying an intimation which, but for the late unfortunate trouble, would have filled him with delight.
After chiding him gently for having absented himself so much from Glenmoor and neglected his true friends, she alluded to the departure of the Hon. Gerald is a light vein, and with some touches of sly humour that showed very clearly there was no serious attachment in page 302 that direction. She went on to relate that after the heavy tax on her energies which the entertaining of so eminent a personage had entailed, she had gone to seek for a few days' rest and relaxation at a friend's house, situated in the mountains, where she had been effusively received, tenderly nursed, and restored to her pristine condition. But, she added, notwithstanding all the delicate attentions, and the kindly efforts made to divert her, she was already beginning to feel home-sick, and looked forward upon her return, at the end of the month, to be greeted with a friendly growl by her philosophical ‘cousin’. The letter concluded with a few pointed remarks concerning Mrs Wylde which cut Raleigh to the heart.
Alice informed him that she had lately heard some things, on unquestionable authority, about that notorious person, which placed her conduct in such a discreditable light, that she was determined never to meet her again, or to have any relations with any of her intimates.
‘I have never been one,’ she wrote, ‘to pry into the doings of my neighbours, or to listen to scandal about them. Judge not has been my motto in life, and I have generally inclined to put the best possible construction even on behaviour that was most objectionable to my notions of right and propriety; but I can no longer attempt to ignore what is evident to all the world, or to countenance what is really infamous. I greatly rejoice to think that you have escaped from the toils of that designing creature, and that you hold yourself entirely aloof from her contaminating influence, and having once found her out there would be no excuse or forgiveness for you if you did otherwise.’
These remarks sounded as a death knell to any lingering hope, which the young man might have entertained of clearing himself in her eyes, and still preserving her favour, for he knew that all the details of the scandal would be immediately conveyed to her, that the very worst interpretation had already been placed on his conduct, and that the fact of his having resigned his public appointments would be looked upon as an admission of his guilt. The case looked hopeless. Driven to bay, however, he was determined to show a bold front, and make a desperate fight for all he held dearest in life. Goaded to desperation, and labouring under feverish excitement, he seized upon pen and paper and set himself eagerly to work. His first letter was to Alice Seymour. He dashed it off without much consideration, but if it was not cautiously worded, at least it flowed from the fulness of his heart. In a spasmodic sort of way, and without any appearance of special pleading, he related the whole lamentable business, from Mrs Wylde's first page 303 message, right through to the sensational climax, when he was found asleep in her bedroom. He told as much as could decently be expected from him, and he told it with an air of veracity, and a poignancy of feeling that could not fail to be effective with a really sympathetic spirit.
He pleaded earnestly that he was the victim of circumstances, and that he had erred through weakness and good-nature, and he implored her pathetically not to judge him harshly, in spite of the public voice, or to withdraw from him her confidence and esteem which he valued more than aught else in the world. In conclusion, he made a bold declaration of his love, but admitted that he felt himself to be utterly unworthy of her, and he announced that he had made up his mind to leave Sunnydowns for ever, and that he might never see her again.
For more than an hour his pen scratched vigorously over the paper, and he found that he had covered many pages, without expressing one-tenth of what he wished to convey. Then, wearied with the sustained effort, and with sad misgivings at heart, he folded up the sheets, put them in an envelope, addressed them to the country residence where Miss Seymour was staying, and sauntered off in the darkness to post, with his own hand, the precious missive that carried his fate. For he felt that all his future might depend on the answer to that letter.
Raleigh returned to his lonely cottage somewhat relieved in mind and somewhat strengthened in his resolution. He decided to live in a very secluded manner, to see no one, but to remain for a short time in Sunnydowns until he had put his affairs in order and defended his character.
He accordingly wrote a long letter to the local paper, in which he gave his version of the whole transaction, and hit out in right good style upon his opponents and detractors.
The manifesto was a courageous and vigorous one, and the writer announced his intention of following it up, and of appealing to a tribunal of another character.
He next set himself to the thankless and disagreeable task of finding something to do. He had made, during the past few years, many acquaintances in different parts of the colony; he had interested himself in various occupations, and he had even gained a certain amount of influence in political circles, through his connection with the press. He made use of all these, and diligently applied for work in many directions. Some persons of note had assured him, from time to time, that page 304 he could easily ‘better his condition’. He wrote to all such, begging them to be kind enough to indicate how this could best be done.
With renewed ardour, and some hope, he set himself to seek ‘fresh woods and pastures new’. To a wealthy sheep-farmer, with whom he was very intimate, he wrote applying for the position of manager, and reciting his previous acquaintance with the business; to the Superintendent of the province, who was supposed to hold him in high favour, he made earnest appeal for any Government appointment that offered, expressing his willingness to accept the most humble position; he answered several advertisements for a tutor, and enumerated his many qualifications for tuition in mathematics, literature, science, foreign languages, painting, and music; lastly, he communicated with several editors of newspapers, who had repeatedly published some of his lucubrations, and solicited to be employed on the press.
In short, he left no stone unturned in his earnest effort to obtain occupation. He winced considerably under this humiliating ordeal, but the exigencies of the situation were urgent, so he had to put his pride in his pocket, and to overcome his usual reserve.
The answers to these diverse applications did not keep him long waiting. They came in with rather distressing promptitude. Before the last of his letters had been even posted he had received replies to the earlier ones. And these replies bore a remarkable resemblance to one another; they might, indeed, be said to have all been cast in the same mould. The sheep farmer, who was enormously rich, much regretted that he had nothing to offer—in fact, that all his attention had to be given to reducing expenses and retrenching hands; his political friends all happened to be ‘in opposition’, and could do absolutely nothing; the Superintendent stated that he was besieged with applications of every description without a single vacancy available; the newspaper editors, with their usual courtesy, never even condescended to reply to his letters.
A week elapsed—a week of dreary expectancy and continual disappointment. Every day seemed to render the prospect less inviting, and only to add to his perplexities. Not a single friend called at his house to see him, not a single message of confidence or encouragement did he receive, not even a single intimation that tardy justice would be shown him. His letter to the local paper appeared, but it met with no response whatever. He had shut his door against an indifferent world; he had cried defiance against a hostile public; but the world showed no intention of intruding on his privacy, and the public contemptuously refused to take up his challenge. What distressed him most was that page 305 his letter to Alice Seymour remained unanswered. He could not account for this seeming neglect, and he fretted himself miserably over it.
Another week elapsed, and the position remained unchanged.
Then he felt that he could stand the state of suspense no longer. The wretched solitude preyed on his mind, and he alternately gave way to sore lamentations, or steeled his heart with bitter resentment. He had seen no one, he knew nothing of what was going on; he felt himself to be utterly forsaken. A sullen rage ate into his heart, and disposed him almost to some desperate act. Then he suddenly decided to forsake everything, to sell what little furniture and effects he possessed, depart at once, and cut himself adrift from all former connections.
The necessary arrangements were soon made; he packed up a few things which he wished to retain, and gave instructions to an auctioneer of his acquaintance to dispose of the remainder in a neighbouring town. He had formed no plan for future conduct, he had not even decided on his destination; his only wish was to turn his back upon the place; to get away from all old and painful associations.
* * * * *
It was on the eve of his departure. He had made all his preparations, and was sitting in listless solitude, and brooding melancholy in his little hut, surveying for the last time the small array of furnishings, his books, his sketches, his knick-knacks, including many pretty presents from former friends and admirers, and all soon to be parted with. He had been happy in his snug bachelor home, and in many respects it was dear to him, but it was all passing away, and he was a disgraced and ruined man. The evening was setting in, and he anticipated no intruder on his seclusion, when, of a sudden, there was a loud rap at the door, and, without further announcement, in marched that self-sufficient, smart, and perky young man, Mr Delamer.
‘How do, Richard? So you see, old man, I have unearthed you at last. Nobody in the township seemed to be aware of your existence. People say they haven't seen you for an age, and the general opinion seems to be that you have mysteriously disappeared, like another personage in this thrilling drama. What the dickens makes you bury yourself alive in this way? A great mistake, my dear fellow. Look at me! I am always en evidence!’
And the little man twirled complacently on his heels, and then stepped in front of a looking-glass, to take a satisfactory glance at his dapper figure.
‘I am sure it is very considerate of people to take so much interest in page 306 my doings and whereabouts. I shouldn't have thought it,’ replied the other, drearily.
‘Why cheer up, man! Mais, mon cher, vous avez une figure de déterré. Don't give in like that. You certainly got yourself into a howling mess, though I really can't see what all the confounded fuss was about—a storm in a teapot! I got into a regular row the other night by taking up the cudgels on your behalf, but I held to it, although I really did not know anything about the business, for I have been away up-country, and have only just returned. As far as that goes, nobody seems to know the rights of the matter either. It's all tattle and foolery. De la blague, mon cher, de la blague. But I am glad to see that people are coming to their senses, and that a strong reaction is already setting in. The bubble has burst.’
‘Indeed; I was not aware of it.’
‘Oh, yes. That was a capital letter of yours in the local rag; forcible, and to the point. There's no denying it, old fellow, you can write a good letter. It told. Only the gravamen of the charge, you see, wasn't touched upon—the bedroom scene. That, of course, is nobody's business, and that's the reason they are all so mightily concerned in it. I like your epigrammatic style, only you are much too polite for the public you are addressing—inclined to throw pearls before swine. A mistake! A touch of Billingsgate would have done better, under the circumstances. I wish I had been with you when you wrote that letter. I could have suggested several things which you omitted.’
‘It would have made no difference.’
‘Don't say that; everything makes a difference; no good effort is wasted in this world, although you may not see it at once. Then you should have followed it up. Having staggered your opponent, you should knock him down.’
‘Rather an undertaking when your opponent is the general public.’
‘Quite a mistake. You should have continued pitching in to them all round. The more row you made the better they would have listened to you. Then your resignation was another vital mistake.’
‘I had no option in the matter. I am glad I did so. I wish to clear out of the place, and never to set foot in it again.’
‘A mistake, I tell you, for you will not fare better anywhere else. The world is much the same everywhere. Everybody gets into a row at times, and is howled at, but it soon blows over, and then all is forgotten. People are often hasty and unjust, but they are not so bad at heart, and when they find that they have been in the wrong, they generally make amends. My belief is that right asserts itself in the page 307 long run. Had you stuck to your post, in another six months you might have been the most popular man in the county.’
‘Perhaps so, but I have no wish to earn that favour. I am sick of the contemptible crowd. To-morrow I am off, and they shall see me no more.’
‘I don't in the least know.’
‘A great mistake. Don't be rash and act upon an angry impulse. Now let us sit down quietly and consider the position.’
‘I have had enough of that, thank you. For the past fortnight I have been considering it by myself, and not one of my so-called friends ever put in an appearance to offer any assistance, or even to suggest, a word of advice.’
‘Misanthropical! another mistake. You bury yourself in a hole, you slam the door in the face of all comers, and scowl on the world because a few idiots scold at you, and then you complain that you are friendless and deserted. Now, I know as a fact that some of our fellows did come round to pay you a friendly call and sympathise, and they found the door locked and the blinds down. In the township people say that you have decamped.’
‘Another of their many lies.’
‘Now, in your place, I should have shown myself everywhere. I should have met my traducers face to face. I should have called a public meeting and demanded to be heard.’
‘I would not demean myself to such a thing.’
‘Pride! another mistake. Decidedly, my dear fellow, a philosopher is about the worst sort of man to face the world and to battle with difficulties. Now, I call myself a man of the world.’
‘I cannot congratulate you.’
‘Cheer up! You have only to hold your own. The case against you has already broken down. There's that d——d reprobate Tom Muster, the cause of all the trouble and supposed to be drowned——’
‘Have they found him?’ cried Raleigh, excitedly, as he rose to his feet.
‘Found him? No, but they have heard of him. A man answering to his description has been reported to the police at the Otago diggings. I believe he is the finder of a big nugget. Had you searched the hut you would have found that the scamp cleared off with his swag and his gun. That didn't look much like drowning. He's all right, and, like a bad penny, will turn up again.’
‘Oh, I am so glad!’ exclaimed Raleigh, with extraordinary animation, and pacing up and down the room. ‘I am so glad. This has taken page 308 an awful load off my mind. I was not responsible for his disappearance—indeed, as a matter of fact, I really saved his life—but the thought that he was drowned oppressed me greatly.’
‘Then as to the Wyldes,’ continued Delamer, ‘of course, you have heard.’
‘I have heard nothing.’
‘What! didn't the lady communicate with you?’
‘I have never heard from Mrs Wylde since the event.’
‘Well, I declare! That is a shame, after all you did for her. They cleared off, bag and baggage last week, in the dead of the night, drove straight to the port, and embarked on the mail steamer for Sydney, before hardly any one knew of their departure. A splendidly executed retreat—a grand stroke, that has taken the world by surprise. And such a cry and lamentation that followed. They had let everybody in—baker, butcher, storekeepers, friends, and servants, even to the poor woman who did their washing. Prowler, they say, is hard hit, but then he is pretty well secured, and holds a bill of sale. The bailiffs came up to take possession just an hour too late, after everything that was portable had been removed. They owed, I hear, several thousand pounds in small sums, mostly to friends and the lady's admirers. The property is mortgaged far beyond its market value. There Prowler again will get the haul, for he has first claim, the rest will lose everything.’
‘I am one of them,’ said Raleigh, drily, ‘but I expected this. I realised on all my good investments and advanced everything I possessed to help them out of a pressing difficulty some twelve months ago. All the security I possess is a second mortgage on the river block.’
‘The deuce you did!’ cried Delamer, making a wry face. ‘That's a bad job. You are hard hit this time, dear boy. Worse than the moral reputation business. Can nothing be done?’
‘I fear not. My lawyer, Pike, who is a smart man, says there is a flaw in the first mortgage which would enable me to prevent Prowler foreclosing at once. We can worry him, and delay the sale of the property, but I don't see how that will help me much.’
‘Won't it though! Saved! by Jove!’ exclaimed the little man, excitedly. ‘Why, that's capital. I was told yesterday by Francis, who is making a trial survey of the railway that is to pass near here, that the line will cut off a portion of that very block. I was told this in strict confidence, for, you know, I have an eye to some land specs, in the neighbourhood. Of course, the Government has always to pay four times the market value for any land purchased for public works. page 309 If you can keep off Prowler for another year you are saved. The property will realise far more than was advanced on it.’
The two young men shook hands warmly.
‘So there is hope, after all!’ muttered Raleigh, with suppressed emotion. ‘The sky that looked so dark and forbidding is positively clearing up again.’
‘Hope, indeed!’ cried the other, as he pivotted lightly on his heel, his heel, and then adjusted his neck-tie before the glass with evident satisfaction. ‘Hope, indeed! Why mon cher ami, life is all ups and downs, cloud and sunshine, good and bad luck. Nearly all these troubles and vexations about which men rave and go frantic pass over in no time, and things right themselves of their own accord. Look back on your own short life, and you will see that all the worry and anxiety you gave yourself was often quite useless, and might have been avoided with a little patience. If you had only played a waiting game, and held to your guns, you would have had it all in your hands, with perhaps a good action for libel to boot. But there, you wanted ME by the side of you.
‘Pummel away!’ answered Raleigh, good-humouredly; ‘I can put up with all your petty thrusts, on account of the good news you have brought me. It is easy enough to preach at all times, and to be wise after the event. I may have acted rashly and imprudently, and, doubtless, I made many mistakes, but I did it all for the best. It is really my good intention that harmed me most. I was always trying to do the right thing, only that the wrong thing should come of it.’
‘You certainly,’ replied the other, sarcastically, ‘have managed to earn the evil reputation of a Don Juan, and to have suffered some of its penalties, without the satisfaction of having deserved it. That's hard on a fellow. It's best not to play with the fire, you know, and you have managed to burn your fingers. Where ladies are concerned good intentions don't go for much, and in any female scandal your virtuous principles won't save you. Oh! this reminds me that I am the bearer of a loving message for you. It was confided to me in strict confidence by a charming young woman, who is also a particular friend of mine. Indeed, the gushing way she talked about you, and the tears she shed over your undeserved misfortunes, made me quite jealous. How the deuce do you manage to get round the fair sex so; you have half the married women in the place at your feet. Can't make it out, for you are not a lady's man by any means. Well, to return to the tender message–I need hardly say that it is from our fair friend Mrs McDonald.
‘She has been greatly concerned over this business, and, of course, page 310 took your part very warmly, as soon as she heard you had got yourself into a scrape, without waiting for any further particulars. She made herself heard in the matter. Then all her relations—there are always half a dozen hanging about the house, and loafing on old Duncan—set upon her like a pack of hounds, and insinuated pretty broadly that she was much too fond of you, that you two had been a great deal too intimate, that poor Duncan had been a fool to permit it, that everybody but him could see plainly what it was coming to, that you were no good, and that, for the credit of the family, it should be put a stop to, and so on.
‘Then there was the devil of a hubbub. Mistress Janet, after a pathetic scene, lost her temper, turned upon them, and let them have it all round. From warnings and insinuations it came to open charges and abuse, and so the storm raged.
‘Poor Duncan was appealed to by both sides, and even the parson was brought in to mediate, but your brave little champion, when once her Irish blood was up, would hear of no terms. She told Duncan that unless he turned the whole boiling out of doors she would leave the house, and never set foot in it again. So they had to go. A good job too! Since then there has been a sort of armed truce, but some of these beggars are vowing vengeance on you, and as they are a hotheaded treacherous lot, they are quite capable of doing you an injury, and I should strongly advise you to be on the look-out.
‘Meanwhile, our fair friend is having a bad time of it, and is bewailing her lot. She sticks to you through thick and thin, and she asked me to tell you how much she sympathises, and all that; and how she would like to come to see you, only she doesn't dare. She is even afraid to write, for, as she says, all her movements are watched, and she doesn't want to vex her husband. In fact, my dear fellow, to hear her talk one might be excused in thinking she was quite “gone” on you, and that with the opportunities you have had … Of course, knowing you both as well as I do, I put my own construction on it, but it is not to be wondered at if a censorious world should think otherwise. You have gravely compromised her.’
Raleigh made a movement of indignant dissent.
‘My own opinion,’ continued the little man, striking an attitude, and adopting his most dictatorial tone, ‘is that this sort of thing is a mistake. It injures the woman without doing you any good. In fact, it does worse, for it interferes with a fellow's prospects in life, The Main Chance, which he should ever keep in view. It is all very well for some rich swell, who can afford to snap his fingers at the world and who rather likes to be talked about, but for such as you or me, page 311 who have to make our way, and who are dependent on the good-will of others, why it's the very devil!’
‘And is there then to be nothing else in life?’ exclaimed the other, with a burst of indignation. ‘Is there then to be nothing but one dreary round of stupid conventionalities, lying hypocrisy, self-seeking, and money-grabbing? Is there to be no expression of genial sentiment, no kindly interchange of sympathy, no mutual love or even an honest friendship to be tolerated. Are we to be ever kept down, suppressed in every generous impulse and innocent expansion of our nature, fettered at every step, always on our guard against scandal and misrepresentation. Perish such a cursed system, say I! I, for one, will submit to no such degradation. I will tolerate no heartless existence. Sooner than conform to such hard rules, and submit to such moral slavery, I would seek for liberty once more in the wilderness; I would become a savage. He is happy in comparison, for, at least, he can be natural.’
Delamer merely shrugged his shoulders.
‘It is useless,’ he said, ‘arguing with you. My purpose is to get on in the world, and I trim my sails accordingly; if you have a different end in view you will shape another course, and we have no longer anything in common.
‘I really think the best thing you could do would be to get married. It seems a desperate sort of remedy—a jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire; but for a disposition like yours it might prove the lesser evil—at any rate, it might keep you out of mischief.
‘To me matrimony would be sudden death. It would simply ruin my prospects. As it is, I have at present something like a career before me, and I am making headway. I have some influential friends; I am well received on account of my name and family connections; I am always free to act, to come and go, and able to ingratiate myself among a good set. A poor marriage—and I don't see any chance of a rich one—would knock all that on the head. To settle down on some miserable pittance as manager of a station, and be at my wit's end to keep up genteel appearances, would not suit my notions. I would sooner hang myself. But with you it might be different. Marry, mon cher, and cultivate the ideal.’
‘Marry, on what?’
‘On what? On the ideal, of course. On love, if you can get it. Then trust to Providence. People of your high sense of the beautiful and the free, of your devotion to sentiment, don't condescend to the ways and means, they don't trouble about possible consequences. I used to think you were cut out for something better; I used to believe in page 312 you, and to predict that you would achieve some sort of distinction; for you have plenty of ability of a kind, no doubt about it. Now, I give you up! Good-bye. Here's a letter which I brought from the post office for you. It had been lying there for the past few days. There's business for you! That letter might be urgent, but you never stoop to consider such trifles. And then you complain of the world. Why it is the world that may justly complain of you, and the world a toujours raison.’