A South-Sea Siren
Disappointed at his last interview with the object of his unexplained yet irresistible attraction, Raleigh returned to the charge a few days later, in the fond hope of meeting with a better opportunity for an intimate and tender conference. In this expectation he was once more sorely disappointed, for on arrival at Dovecot he found the position held by the selfsame company, with the single exception of Major Dearie, which he had met there on the previous occasion.
Raleigh was much disgusted, for instead of being received with that conscious and enchanting smile and soft pressure of the hand, which he had looked forward to, the object of his mysterious attachment only greeted him with an indifferent bow—she was otherwise occupied at the moment, being engaged in a lively chatter with her distinguished ‘new chum’.
The burly commodore gave a hearty welcome, but he too was entirely engrossed with the new chum; the inevitable Prowler was in attendance and vouchsafed a condescending nod, he also was much interested in the new chum. Tom Muster gave a knowing wink; he was standing in the yard, holding the new chum's horse.
The new chum had evidently become the centre of universal attraction; he had been elevated to the post of honour. Mrs Wylde beamed upon him in her most fascinating style, her husband related the choicest ‘crammers’, Prowler lectured on squatting interests, the obsequious brother-in-law imparted in strictest confidence the scandalous gossip of the neighbourhood, and all for the new chum's edification.
It is not to be wondered at if, under such favourable circumstances, the Honourable Mr Platter should have expanded all the airs and graces that were natural to him, and befitting a personage of his ‘rank and smell’.
He had been entreated to make himself ‘quite at home’, and he had done so; he had been warmly pressed to prolong his visit, and he had graciously consented; he had been offered homage on all sides, and he had taken it as his due. Nor was the young man solely on pleasure intent. He talked very grandly about his aims and his prospects, and he requested hints as to the investment of his consider- page 78 able capital. His new friends, eager to assist him in every way, were nothing loth to proffer their valuable services in this respect.
He secured plenty of advice, and elicited no end of information. He wanted to know ‘a thing or two’, and he found himself being instructed in the whole art of sheep-farming.
So he strutted about in lordly style, dressed of a morning in knickerbockers and a loose velvet jacket, with an embroidered smoking cap on his head, and a silver-mounted meerschaum in his mouth. He would complacently twirl his moustaches, stretch out his long legs on the easy-chairs, smoke in the drawing-room, converse in a drawl, flirt with the lady of the house, and generally monopolise attention. And thereupon he graciously intimated to his obliging host that he was enjoying the situation ‘awfully, by Jove’.
‘The fool!’ muttered Raleigh between his teeth; ‘the simpering idiot, the besotted dupe. He will have to pay for this. We shall see him next hooked by the lady, blackmailed by her husband, and “got at” by those other designing confederates. Anyone can see through their little game. I feel no compunction for such a conceited ass: he lays himself out to be imposed upon, and deserves his fate; but I am pained and shocked beyond measure to see Mrs Wylde engaged in such a disreputable performance—playing the contemptible part of a decoy-duck. I thought better of her.’ Raleigh could not turn bodily on his heel and leave the house on the spur of the moment, but he did so in spirit. Mentally he turned his back on the company, repudiated the connection, and renounced them all.
‘The Queen of his Heart’ was thereupon deposed—from henceforth and for ever afterwards he would forswear his allegiance to her. He cursed the blind infatuation which had brought him to the place, and made a solemn vow to himself never again to be led into such an entanglement.
Then, with rage in his heart, he set himself to watch the little drama that was being enacted before his eyes, and to listen to its inane babble. What transparent impostors, he thought to himself, these people were, and what a thundering fool he was to have been so easily deceived by them. There was the commodore—a blustering, blathering, blaspheming braggadocio, in whom nobody believed!—neither in his title, his antedecents, his exploits, his connections, his property, or anything that was his. Then that dark-browed watchfulfaced sneaking Prowler—a beast of prey, seeking whom he may devour, a snake in the grass; and the reprobate Muster, a taproom loafer. As for Mrs Wylde, the captivating Celia, whom he had worshipped in a way—oh! how changed, how fallen! She seemed in his page 79 eyes to have undergone a complete metamorphosis, as in a fairy transformation scene, from a radiant queen to an ill-favoured sorceress. Her charm had vanished. She had aged fully ten years in one short hour; her nose had become decidedly hooked, and that little wart on the end of it, which he had admired as a beauty spot, was now only an excrescence. Her mouth, no longer arched and voluptuous, only scornful—evidently the outward expression of a malign and heartless character. Her neck had grown longer and crane-like—it used to be swan-like. Her complexion had become sallow—Raleigh perceived many wrinkles upon it, and clearly detected traces of paint. Her teeth were certainly false—they could not otherwise be so regular and so pearly white. Even that gracefully rounded and suggestively prominent bust was probably padded. For Raleigh, in the virulence of his resentment had flown from one extreme to the other —previously he had believed with his eyes shut, now he could not be convinced with his eyes open.
Even her charming manners appeared to him forward and unladylike, while the way she had seated herself on the edge of the table and was swinging her legs about quite scandalised his sense of propriety. He could see nothing fascinating about her eyes, but he was gravely shocked at her mode of using them. Now he could understand, as he never could before, the sorry opinion which other ladies had expressed about this person, and he wondered how he could ever have been so deceived in any one.
He followed all her by-play with the new chum, and thought it in the worst possible taste; while the smitten look, the sighs and ogling of that spoony individual excited his pity and contempt. He was surprised that any man could make such a fool of himself.
Raleigh next turned his attention to Mr Prowler, but that inscrutable personage baffled him. Raleigh entertained an intense dislike of the man, but he could hardly tell why. Prowler was a singular being, without displaying any marked singularities. He was essentially commonplace, but he was unlike anybody else; he was not remarkable, and yet he was everywhere remarked.
The most extraordinary peculiarity about Prowler was the proverbial fact that he always turned up where least expected, and that nobody ever knew where to find him. In other respects he was one of the most even balanced of men. He was of average height, of moderate build, of common appearance, of middle age. He was neither thin nor stout, handsome or ugly, merry or doleful, taciturn or demonstrative. He always dressed well but plainly, and he looked decent in a suit of ‘reach-me-downs’. He was reputed to be rich, page 80 but he never displayed wealth; he was believed to be a miser, but he never appeared mean. He was denounced as a sharper, but was never detected in cheating: he was always busy, but he had no ostensible business; and although he was considered a bad man, he was admitted to be highly respectable.
He had only one visible weakness, and that was for jewellery. If Prowler loved anything from the bottom of his heart in this world it must have been a brilliant, but, indeed, all precious stones were precious to him. He bought them, sold them, collected them, exchanged them—he even wore them. He was never happy without a diamond. Although no expert in palmistry, yet he was always examining peoples' hands, and even the fat fingers of some repellent old dowager, if they only carried enough rings, would have won his heart.
In countenance Prowler was not ill-favoured. His features were regular, yet his was a face to fear and distrust. It had certain feline characteristics about it. There was nothing of the lion; it could hardly be called ‘tigerish’, nor was it solemn and placid enough to be described as ‘cat-like’. Yet there was an element of ferocity underlying the calm exterior—perhaps the panther would afford the most apt similitude. It was, moreover, a very hairy face, with large greenish eyes, a muddy complexion, and a smile expressive of cunning and dissimulation.
Prowler was not of a communicative or amiable disposition, but he was exceedingly polite, and as a rule, his acquaintances—friends and intimates he had none—had no cause of complaint against him, yet they did not trust him.
Raleigh watched him with keen suspicion. That this arch schemer had some design upon the new chum was evident, and that he also exercised an extraordinary influence on the Wyldes had not escaped notice. He held the commodore ‘under his thumb’, and he was the only man before whom Mrs Wylde was known to quail. But in what this evil power consisted, Raleigh did not know. He could not fathom the man—nobody could.
It did not occur to the moralising philosopher, who was so intent on unmasking and denouncing the conduct of others, to turn an introspective glance on his own doings; it did not occur to him to look into his own heart. Had he done so he would doubtless have absolved himself from all sin, and have declared that his intentions had been strictly honourable throughout.
It is a well-known peculiarity with many of the most keen-sighted of men that they are as blind as a bat where their own intentions and page 81 sentiments are concerned; they are not hypocrites, they do not knowingly deceive themselves—they simply cannot see. And what tends to aggravate the mischief is that not unfreqnently they cannot see that they cannot see.
Raleigh deserved at times to come under this category of the unconscious blind. He might not be ‘a good young man’, in the ordinary acceptation of that term—indeed, he would have indignantly resented such an appelation—but he was good at heart, without guile or treachery, moved by a steadfast desire to do what is right, and he certainly was no fool. Moreover, his favourite study was human nature. He prided himself on his knowledge of character, although he admitted to have often been deceived; but he took no credit for the knowledge of his own character, because in that respect he considered deception impossible. Thus he discarded the time-honoured maxim ‘Know thyself!’ as he maintained that every man of ordinary intelligence and sincerity must in the very nature of things understand his own feelings and disposition. Raleigh would admit of no doubt on this point. ‘We may not be able,’ he used to say,
‘To see ourselves as others see us;
for no one can look through another's eyes, but we are bound to see ourselves as we really are. We may hide our nakedness from outside view, we cannot conceal it from the inner eye of our own consciousness.’
Fortified with these fixed principles Raleigh did not think it at all necessary to subject his motives and conduct to any searching inquiry. If he was conscious of anything it was of his own innocence.
Truly, he admitted to entertaining a great partiality for Mrs Wylde. The woman interested him and amused him, but there could be no harm in being interested and amused. She was a most attractive subject for psychological study, and as a philosopher he felt a keen delight in unravelling the intricate complications of that mysterious soul. He confessed to sympathy, but who would deny to us our sympathies? Do they not represent the noblest and purest impulses of our nature? He had also been charitably disposed towards her; he had felt commiseration for her frailties; he had pitied her misfortunes and shed a tear over her sorrows; but all these tender sentiments did credit to bis heart, and he rather felt inclined to give himself credit for them.
Then there was the abstruse element of ‘affinities’, which he could not; explain. He could only realise that he felt himself strongly page 82 attracted towards a congenial spirit. It was a matter of intellectual companionship. He was charmed by her conversation and enlivened by her wit—even her ‘devilment’ pleased him.
When he had kissed her in the dark passage—that was only in play; when he pressed her hand under the table—that was only innocent fooling; when he made her soft speeches—that was mere badinage.
As to the probable outcome of these gallant attentions, that did not trouble him in the slightest degree. He was satisfied to stand upon the consciousness of his own honour, and the knowledge that the object of his romantic devotion was quite old enough, and wise enough, to look after herself.
But when this style of flirtation—allowable where he himself was concerned—was to be seen enacted by any other dramatis personæ, it assumed a very different aspect. The little endearments which were quite innocent in his case became extremely reprehensible in anybody else's. What might be permitted to an old friend was not to be tolerated in a stranger. To see a prig, an interloper, like the new chum, aux petits soins with the mistress of the house was an outrage to Raleigh's finer feelings; he wondered at the audacity of the man; he was shocked at the impropriety of the lady—he even felt a pang of genuine sympathy for the commodore, who appeared to him in the light of an injured husband. What a return, he thought, to make for the confidence and hospitality extended to an honoured guest!
Raleigh was justly indignant. He decided in his own mind that the new chum deserved to be kicked, and that Mrs Wylde had for ever forfeited all claim to respect.
Then a revulsion came over his feelings as he opened his eyes to the nature of the whole transaction.
The new chum was reputed to be rich, and from all appearances he might be credited with more money than brains. All the fulsome attentions lavished upon him were evidently intended for a purpose. Mrs Wylde was trying to ‘draw him out’, in order that the commodore might be better able to ‘take him in’, while the other two were in the conspiracy.
Under these circumstances Raleigh felt that while the lady figured in a still more odious light, the unwary stranger was in a different predicament. He might still deserve kicking, but he ought to be warned in time of the trap that was being laid for him.
In a fit of virtuous indignation, Raleigh decided that he was in duty bound to enlighten this benighted young man.
The facts were clear, for the financial difficulties of the Wyldes were page 83 the talk of the district, the ‘sharp practice’ of the ubiquitous Prowler was also in repute, and no uncertainty could exist concerning Tom Muster's intentions. Moreover, he had overheard a few words which placed the matter beyond doubt in his mind.
He therefore resolved ‘to split’ on his quondam friends, and he immediately sought an opportunity for a little private conversation with the new chum.
Unfortunately such an opportunity was not readily obtainable, for the distinguished visitor was closely ‘shepherded’ by his entertainers. Mr Prowler, also, had taken a great fancy to the young man, and was intent on instructing him fully in all the secrets of the squatter's art. For this purpose, combining pleasure with instruction, riding excursions over the run had been arranged, and shortly after Raleigh's arrival, the party went off on one of these visits of inspection, both the commodore and Muster accompanying.
Mrs Wylde saw her guest off; she presented him with a stirrup cup, kissed her hand to him from the balcony, and continued waving her handkerchief, in token of affectionate farewell, until he was out of sight.
Then, with a radiant face and a mocking smile on her lips, she returned to the dressing-room, where Raleigh was half reclining on a sofa, with a very solemn visage.
She went and sat down close beside him.
‘Richard! what is the matter with you?
‘Nothing, I assure you. I never felt better in my life.’
‘You don't look at all yourself. Tell me, are you cross, are you angry with me?’
‘Angry with you? What for? Why, you haven't said anything to me.’
‘I have not had the opportunity as yet. There! I do believe you are jealous—yes jealous’; and Mrs Wylde gave one of her most provoking little laughs.
‘I am not jealous,’ replied the other, very seriously. ‘I admit that I felt that way inclined after the reception you gave me, and when I saw the gushing attentions you lavished on that conceited prig. But my eyes have been opened since. I can see it all now, and my feelings have altered accordingly.’
‘That prig, as you call him, is a young gentleman of excellent family connections, well known to my people at home. He is a new arrival in the colony, and came to us with the highest recommen page 84 dation. My husband is naturally desirous of showing him every civility, and if, in doing my best to make his stay with us as pleasant as possible, I have been a little more demonstrative than usual, it is not from you that I should have expected such a rebuke; you of all people. You might have seen that much.’
‘I have seen that much, and a good deal more. I have made an important discovery during the past hour.’
‘Indeed! and what may this wonderful discovery be?’ asked the lady, in an altered tone.
‘I have always known,’ said Raleigh, standing up, and speaking slowly, in a cold sarcastic way, ‘that you were a desperate flirt; I have always known that you had a craving for admiration, beyond all reasonable bounds, that you were vain, giddy, reckless, but I always believed you to be honest at heart. I did not think you capable of exerting your marvellous powers of fascination to play on the susceptibilities of a weak-minded dupe, whom you despise in your heart and laugh at in your sleeve, and who has only been lured here in order to be victimised. You have received your cue, you have been acting your part, and you have acted it very well, but you cannot impose upon Me’
She sprang to her feet, and confronted him, with flashing eye and quivering lip, her whole body trembling with suppressed emotion.
‘You coward!’ she hissed forth. ‘You coward! why don't you strike me?’
Raleigh made a step backwards; he could not sustain the fire of that indignant glance.
‘I have no wish to hurt you,’ he muttered, in a subdued tone; ‘it is no concern of mine.’
‘How dare you insult me like this! How dare you insinuate such an infamous thing? How dare you——’
She could not find utterance for words, her rage choked her, she stood upright, with her head thrown back, her eyes dilated, her hands convulsively clutched, and all her features twitching with excitement.
‘I insinuate nothing,’ replied the other, moodily. ‘I overheard the commodore ask Platter to back a bill—we know what that means. I know that Prowler is trying to let him in over those worthless back-blocks, and that your brother has sold him a spavined horse. The simpleton is evidently to do service all round, and——’
‘And what right have you to assume that I am a party to any such doings? Am I to be branded as a mean, sordid, designing intrigante, because my husband asks a friend to lend him a helping hand in an hour of need?—some trifling assistance, perhaps, to enable him to page 85 tide over a passing difficulty; it is more than he ever asked of you, although you have represented yourself to be a friend, and have been always received by us as such, and welcomed to whatever our poor means could afford. I have been much kinder with you, much more considerate—indeed, much more foolish (she added with a blush) than with a dozen Platters. Then, as for Tom, am I responsible for his sins also? I have done everything for him that a devoted sister could do. I have made every sacrifice to redeem him from his evil ways; I have even pawned my jewellery to relieve his wants, and now we have to pinch and scratch to support him and his wife—and you fling him at me; you charge me with his misdoings. Is that just? Is it generous? Oh, you are a coward to treat me so!’
Raleigh felt somewhat abashed at this unexpected outburst, but he was too angry to attempt to pacify her.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘to have given you offence. I am sorry if I have done you any injustice, but——I couldn't help it. Then there is that sneak Prowler; why is he for ever dodging about here? It is for no good purpose, I warrant.’
‘Mr Prowler,’ she answered haughtily, ‘has greatly befriended us on several occasions, and we are much beholden to him. He is welcome to visit us whenever he likes—there is no dodging about it. Whatever his dealings with Mr Platter may be, I know nothing about them, and care less. It is no business of mine, nor of yours either.’
‘I know what sort of man he is, and that he has got some designs on that greenhorn, and I can see plainly that you are all of you aiding and abetting, although in your case you may be doing so unwittingly. I ask again, What brings that man constantly here?’
‘And what brings You here?’
‘What brings me here?’ stammered Raleigh, taken aback. ‘Why, you bring me here. I come as a friend.’
‘A Friend!’ scornfully exclaimed Mrs Wylde, with an air of lofty disdain. ‘A friend, indeed! Oh! you are a friend of the right sort, you are. To demean yourself to eaves-dropping, to pry into our affairs in order to insult us with the vilest insinuations, to taunt me with our poverty, knowing the wretched straits we are driven to, and even to throw the sins of a relative into my face, as if I was a participator in his misdoings. Is that your boasted friendship, your heartfelt sympathy, your faithful devotion, and all that sort of thing you have been bragging about? A pretty friend truly. So much for your friendship;’ and in the violence of her passion she snapped her fingers in his face.
‘I thought you a friend once,’ she continued, in a more pathetic page 86 tone; ‘I was proud to call you one, and happy in the thought of your friendship, but, as you say, I can see it all now, and my feelings have altered accordingly. I, too, have made an important discovery during the past hour. You can go, sir, and take your friendship with you!’
She had worked herself up to a white heat, and stood in a tragic attitude, with one arm extended and finger pointing to the door.
Raleigh was dumbfounded. He was overawed by her display of passion, and at the same time filled with shame and contrition. He tried to stammer forth some sort of apology to excuse his bitter taunts and unworthy suspicions, but she turned away from him; he advanced a few steps and held out his hands imploringly, but she waved him impatiently from her.
There was a long and painful pause.
Mrs Wylde remained standing by the window, with her face averted; she trembled with excitement; her face pale, her teeth set, but her lips quivering, and the big tears forming in her eyes.
Raleigh had retired to the other end of the room; he hung his head, perplexed, humiliated, uncertain what to do. He could have bitten his tongue through with vexation at the words he had uttered, and the scathing rejoinder he had received had cut him to the quick.
‘Mrs Wylde——Celia’, he muttered at last, in a very penitent tone, ‘we cannot part like this. What I said was rude, false, shameful——I never deserve to be forgiven for it, but I did not mean the half I said. I was beside myself, I did not rightly know what I said. I was so much put out at the cool reception you gave me on my arrival, when I had looked forward to such a happy meeting, and a little sentimental tête-à-tête all to ourselves. I was so horribly jealous at all the attentions you gave that other fellow, and all the fuss you made of him——I only thought of vexing you in return, but I never meant the things I said—I never believed them in my heart. I am awfully sorry to have wounded your feelings so—you that have always been so kind to me. Be generous——forgive me.’
Celia showed signs of being mollified, for she could hardly suppress a sob.
Raleigh felt a choking sensation in his throat—he was unable to proceed. Then after a few minutes he mastered his feelings a little and approached her again.
‘I assure you on my honour,’ he exclaimed, with deep earnestness, ‘that if I had only known you were in monetary difficulties——’
‘It's worse than that,’ she cried out.
‘What, then?’page 87
‘We are ruined!’ And as she said it she fairly broke down, threw herself full length on the sofa, buried her head in the cushions, and burst into a flood of grief.
‘Oh! do tell me,’ he urged, as he came and sat down close beside her; ‘do tell me; perhaps, even in my small way, I might be of some assistance. You well know that I am devoted to you, and that all I have is at your disposal. Do confide in me. Let me know the worst at once. You are brave, and clever, and full of resources; your husband has many friends; surely it cannot be as bad as all that.’
Mrs Wylde sprang to her feet again; her face was bathed in tears, but with a hard determined look upon it.
‘You shall hear the truth,’ she said, speaking very deliberately, ‘the whole truth. You complained just now of having been deceived and imposed upon. You shall be deceived no longer. Know then, good sir, that your surmises were not unfounded; you have not shot far from the mark. Yes, we have been playing a part. Mr Platter is believed to have money and we have none. My husband, to use his favourite expression, is on his beam-ends. We may get righted with time and a little help, but just now we are in a fix—pushed for the very necessaries of life. We dare not apply to Mr Prowler—we are too much in his hands already—we have no friends to rely upon in an hour of need, and my husband has been trying to obtain some temporary assistance from Mr Platter; getting him to back a bill, or something of that sort. And I—mean spirited, despicable being that I am—I have been aiding and abetting. I have been fooling the young gossoon, to the top of his bent. I have belied my looks, for I have appeared gay and sprightly with rage and despair in my heart. I have been false to him, false to you, false to everybody, and I despise myself for it’; and she gave a hysterical little laugh. ‘There!’ she exclaimed excitedly, suddenly seizing him by the wrist, and drawing him towards the window; ‘do you see that man yonder, smoking his pipe in our garden? He is not a very prepossessing man, is he? Well, I have become very intimate with that fellow, I can tell you. I have dodged him about all over the house; I planted him in my own room to get him out of the way; I have introduced him under several disguises, and told a great many lies about him already. He is a bailiff, and has been in possession for several days. He holds a writ against us, which, unless met within this week, will involve our being sold up. We may be turned out of house and home, our furniture and effects pout op to public auction. You wanted to know the truth—well, there you have it. How do you like it?’
For how much is this writ?’ inquired Raleigh.page 88
‘Two hundred pounds.
‘We will see to that. Your unwelcome friend shall not prolong his visit.’
‘Mr Raleigh, you shall do no such thing. I have told you all this that you should be thoroughly enlightened as to the state of things. You had guessed it partly, now you know all. You were about to take your departure——why don't you go?’
‘Because I have changed my mind. Surely a man may change his mind as well as a woman. I am going to stay a little longer with you. I am going to prove to you that I am what I have claimed to be—a friend.’
She had resumed her seat on the sofa, and he was sitting beside her. She looked him fair in the face, and he thought he had never seen her look so charming—smiling through her tears.
‘Is it possible,’ she said very softly, ‘that after what I have told you, you do not——despise me?’
‘I could never do that,’ he exclaimed, ‘whatever you were to do. I could hate you sooner. When I think of all the trials and worries you must have undergone, the humiliation you have suffered, my heart bleeds for you. Oh! that I were only rich that I might render some real assistance, but what can be expected from such as me? Still, you know the fable of the mouse that was able to release the captured lion. Let me do what I can, and I shall feel indebted to you.’
‘No!’ she cried impetuously; ‘it must not be. I will not allow it. Let me tell you plainly, dear friend, that we are heavily involved, and should we escape from this present difficulty, there are others a waiting us. Leave us to our miserable fate. I appreciate your generous offer; I thank you with all my heart, but I cannot accept it.’
He made her a sign to be silent.
‘I see,’ he said, ‘that you have not forgiven me—you bear me a grudge still.’
She protested; and then, as they sat together by the open window in the gathering gloom of evening, she unburdened herself of many of her troubles and anxieties, nor did she appeal to his sympathies in vain.
It was nearly dusk when Raleigh rose to depart, and as he stood by her side and held her hand, he intimated with a slight pressure of the arm, and a leaning of the head, that he would have liked to seal page 89 their reconciliation with a more tender mark of good will. But Mrs Wylde held slightly back, and gently disengaged herself. Then, as if repenting of her coldness and yielding to a sudden impulse, she seized his hand and pressed it warmly to her lips.
The next moment she was gone.
As the young man rode home that night he had for company along the deserted track a surly individual who, wherever he went, was generally an uninvited guest.
They neither of them spoke much, for Raleigh avoided conversation—his thoughts were otherwise engaged.