The Crooked Stick

Chapter VII

Rolf Boldrewood

THOUGH there was nothing overt in the manner of Harold Atherstone upon which she could fasten as showing resentment or offence, yet did Miss Devereux acknowledge in her secret heart a coolness in the demeanour of her old friend which troubled her. He was always so kind, so honest, so considerate. ‘Tender and true’ expressed her thoughts. She could not think of his disapproval without regret, even pain. He had a way of always being in the right, too. On many occasions had they differed in opinion. She recalled how invariably it had been forced upon her cooler, juster self that his opinion had been correct from the beginning. Suppose, she thought to herself, as she leaned out of the window and watched the stars with strange undefined yearnings, that Harold should be right this time! He had said nothing, only showed by his manner, by his countenance, every inflexion of which she knew so well, that he disliked this increasing intimacy with her cousin. Was it increasing? A mere half-friendship, founded on curiosity, admiration of the unknown, upon her own ideal, enveloping him like a costume at a masquerade.

It is possible that this highly important retrospective process might have proceeded to much greater length and depth of research, that curiously constructed organ the female heart being full of all manner of strange corridors, galleries, and shafts, of utterly unknown measure and limit. But circumstances arose—circumstances which altered the aspect of affairs—which turned temporarily the maiden’s thoughts into far other channels.

The season being so exceptionally good, the stock and station being nearly ‘able to manage themselves,’ as Mr.Gateward expressed it, the highly original idea of a summer trip, for the benefit of her own and her daughter’s health, suggested itself to the mind of Mrs. Devereux.

‘Poor dear! she has been shut up here quite long enough,’ said the loving mother. ‘I can’t say that she doesn’t look well, but a voyage must benefit her. It will give a change of ideas. It may take away that restless, discontented feeling which comes to her now so often.’

Thereupon it was decided that they were to go to Sydney, and spend a fortnight among their friends. Then by steamer to Melbourne. From that city they would take one of the New Zealand boats, so as to pass a portion of the summer at the fairy lakes of Rotomahana and the hot springs of Waiwera—that modern imitation of Paradise.

For this unprecedented step Mrs. Devereux had more than one reason. She certainly thought it would tend to her darling’s mental and bodily improvement. But that was not all. With womanly quickness sharpened by a mother’s instinct, she had divined that the intimacy between Pollie and her cousin was slowly but surely coming closer, nearer, perhaps dearer.

Of the probable dénouement she had an instinctive dread. ‘I don’t know what it is,’ she said to herself, ‘but I can’t altogether put faith in Bertram. It isn’t that I can say anything against him. He is clever, manly, good-looking in his way. I didn’t think so at first. But somehow I don’t seem to be able to know him. He is as great a stranger as the first day I set eyes upon him. Oh! why can’t she take Harold Atherstone, who is worth half a dozen of him—of any other man I ever saw, except poor Brian?’

If there was any regret at parting with any one at Corindah, Pollie availed herself of one of the sex’s weapons, and reticently made no sign. She appeared to be wild with delight at the

Into something rich and strange,

which her daily life was presently to undergo. It may be that she herself was conscious of the slowly increasing power of a fascination which she was powerless to resist. In its present stage—such is the curious, contradictory nature of the maiden’s heart—she regarded it with fear and unwillingness.

Thus she caught eagerly at the chance afforded her of a totally new experience, of the strange environments of a delicious foreign existence, such as in the future she might never have the chance of realising under similar conditions. Joyous anticipation seemed to have taken possession of her mind with a sudden rush, forcibly expelling all previous sensations.

Bertram Devereux was chagrined at the change of programme. Coldly self-possessed as usual, however, he betrayed not, by word or manner, his real feeling on the subject.

‘Why don’t you go home to England while you are about it, Mrs. Devereux?’ he asked. ‘The time would not be so much longer. You have friends and relations there, and I should be delighted to give you introductions to some of mine.’

‘You are indeed most kind,’ said the unsuspecting matron, cordially grateful; ‘but a voyage to England is too serious a matter to be undertaken lightly. We are doing great things in going to New Zealand and Melbourne. Nothing would induce me to go a step farther, or to stay away more than three or four months at the outside.’

‘I feel certain that your daughter would enjoy the European travel. It would be new life to her, and would even benefit you, after your many anxieties,’ continued the tempter suavely. ‘There’ll be nothing to do here or to see to for a couple of years, so Gateward says. You could spare the time well.’

‘You seem very anxious to get rid of us,’ said the younger lady, with a pout. ‘Some people will think six months a long time to miss us from Corindah.’

‘Can you think I shall not miss you?’ returned he, with a sudden change of tone and expression which thrilled her in a manner for which she could not account, as he bent his searching, steadfast gaze upon her. ‘But you ought to see the “kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” now that you have the opportunity. I should follow you, mentally, all the way.’

Here one of his rare smiles lit up his face, as he gazed at her with the tenderness one bestows on a child; and again her eyes sank under his, while a faint flush tinged her snowfair cheek.

‘Mother and I cannot make up our minds to such an expedition as going to England all at once,’ she replied slowly. ‘We require to be educated up to it. Wait until we return from New Zealand, then we will fold our wings, and perhaps make ready for a longer flight.’

‘“Would I were, sweet bird, like thee!”’ hummed Mr. Devereux, as he gracefully declined further controversy. ‘Some of these days you will awake to your privileges, I suppose. We all develop by unmarked changes, none the less surely, however, as fate decrees.’

Mrs. Devereux grew, indeed, half afraid of the momentous enterprise on which she was about to enter. Supported, however, by her daughter, she kept up to the task of packing and providing for departure. This eventually took the form of being driven to the nearest railway terminus, a short day’s journey, and being deposited in a first-class carnage, with all their effects in the brake-van, carefully labelled. The next morning saw them in Sydney, the Sea-Queen of the South, somewhat nervously excited at being so far from Corindah, so immeasurably removed from their ordinary life.

‘After all,’ cried Pollie, as they sat in the balcony of their hotel after breakfast, and gazed over the matchless sea-lake, gay with boats of every size and shape, and the argosies of all lands, while beyond lay the grand eternal mystery of ocean, guarded only by the grim sandstone portals, against which so many ages of tidal force have foamed and raged—‘after all we make too much of leaving home for a few months’ travel. What wonders and miracles stay-at-home people miss! What human limpets they are; and how narrow are their paths to enjoyment! “I feel as if I were in Paradise, in Paradise,” she warbled. ‘Oh, what a change from our dear old monotonous Corindah!’

‘Home is very sweet after all,’ said the elder woman, ‘though I enjoy this lovely seaview. But, my darling, you frighten me by these expressions of wild delight. It cannot be good for any one to revel in pleasure, the mere luxurious sensation of change of scene, so intensely, so passionately as you do. Such feelings are unsafe for women. You should moderate them, or evil may come to you from these very unchecked emotions.’

‘My darling old mother, I am positively shivering with delight; but why should this or any other natural impulse be wrong? Surely we are given these feelings, like the rest of our nature, for wise reasons? Like speech, laughter, thought, they are unutterable mercies, to be reasonably used and economised. But I see your meaning, and I will guard my emotions a little. I must do so when I get to the hot springs Eden, or I shall be plunging into hot water in mistake for tepid. Fancy a heroine of romance boiled alive!’

‘Don’t talk of it, my darling,’ said Mrs. Devereux, with a shudder. ‘Really, don’t you think Melbourne will be quite far enough, and very pleasant at this time of year? We might leave New Zealand till another time.’

‘Not for worlds,’ said the steadfast damsel. ‘I want to get a little nearer to the pole. I shall feel like an Arctic explorer.’

The pleasures of the metropolis, doubly sweet after a lengthened absence, had been sipped for a fortnight, when a breezy morn saw the ladies of Corindah steaming out of the harbour on board the Cathay, a magnificent sea-monster of the P. and O. persuasion, containing all kinds of delicious foreign novelties, social and material.

‘Mother, I don’t think I can have been really alive before,’ exclaimed Pollie, as they walked down the splendid flush deck. ‘I suppose I was living, but I must have been in a state of torpor, with a few mechanical senses feebly revolving, as it were. Isn’t this unutterably lovely—quite an eastern fairy-tale in action? Look at those splendidly ugly Seedees in the engineroom, ghouls and afreets every one; besides, even the lascars—what classic profiles and lithe, graceful shapes they have! I feel in love with everybody and everything, down to the Chinese waiters in spotless white.’

When the heads were cleared, and the strong north-easter sent the Cathay flying south at the rate of fifteen knots per hour, the motion was increased and perhaps complicated, whereupon an entirely new class of sensations succeeded those of rapturous delight in Pollie’s case, in consequence of which a hasty descent into the cabin was rendered necessary.

The morning, however, brought smoother seas and a less urgent breath from Æolus. The naturally strong constitution of the girl triumphed over temporary malaise, and soon she was enabled to sit upon deck and enjoy the brilliant and wondrous succession of sea and shore and sky pageants unrolled before her.

A full complement of passengers, bound to and from all parts of the world, had been received on board, so that Pollie’s observant eye and sympathetic mind had full employment as the long rows of chairs became gradually filled. People for India, viâ Ceylon; home-returning officers and civilians having exhausted their furlough; globe-trotters who had traversed the Australian world from Dan to Beersheba and found all barren, or ‘not half a bad place,’ according to the state of their living or their reception in clubs and coteries; home-returning Australians, visiting Europe for the first time in their lives, or after many years; mere intercolonial voyagers like themselves; a successful gold-digger or two, treating themselves to first-class passages, plain of aspect, but reserved and correct of manner, as such men generally are, whatever may be said to the contrary by superficial scribes. After Pollie had got over her astonished delight at the Arabian Nights portion of the ship, she found a new world of interest and romance opening before her eyes in the Anglo-Saxon section comprising the first-class passengers. This was not lessened in any way when, lunch being announced, she found her mother and herself placed in seats of honour on the right hand of His Majesty the Captain—such being his royal command—while the wife of an eminent Indian civilian looked indignantly and incredulously at them from the opposite side of the table.

It had leaked out through a Sydney friend of Captain Belmont’s that this was the Mrs. Devereux of Corindah and her daughter, who had taken their passages in the Cathay en route to New Zealand, persons of fabulous wealth, girl sole heiress, could not be worth less than a hundred thousand, besides freehold property, and so on. Now Pollie was unquestionably the belle of the ship, and persons of prepossessing appearance were not scarce either; but the slight paleness and languor produced by her unwonted sensations had given her haughty beauty a tinge of softness which, when she issued from her cabin, made her positively irresistible. So the captain, an experienced but susceptible bachelor, had avowed with many nautical asseverations, and thereupon directed the purser, a most distinguished individual in uniform, whom Pollie took to be an admiral at least, to induct them into the place of honour.

When a glass of claret and Selters-water, insisted upon by the captain as a medical necessity, and some slight refection from the luxuriously appointed table had revived the spirits of both ladies, Pollie was enabled to realise her position. Here was she, seated almost upon the dais in point of social elevation, above the wives and daughters of the military, civil, and mercantile swells, palpably receiving the most assiduous attention from the acknowledged autocrat of their monde—of that loftiest, most resistless of despots, that uncrowned king, the captain of a crack ocean steamer on board his own ship.

Besides his dazzling and unquestioned superiority, Captain Belmont was a handsome, striking-looking man. Courteous, polished even in manner, he had the eagle eye, the air of resolute command, with which years of unquestioned authority invest the seaking. Prompt, watchful, fearless, scorning sleep or fatigue when danger menaced, the arbiter of freedom or imprisonment within his own realm, the guardian of every life so confidently entrusted to his care—where is the man who to the maiden’s heart, during the long reveries of a sea voyage, so amply fills the character of a hero of romance as the captain? Who has not marked his influence in danger’s darkest hour, when the moaning wind, rising fast to the shriek of the tempest, the lurid sky, the labouring bark, and ‘the remorseless dash of billows,’ all speak to the fear-stricken crowd of dread endings, of wreck in mid-ocean? In such an hour how does every eye turn to the calm, resolute seaman, who directs every act, who foresees the need of every rope that is drawn, of every turn of the helm! How does every listener hang upon his words and dwell upon his lightest syllable of hope!

Has no one seen the grateful company of passengers when land was reached, and, as they deemed, through his skill and vigilance those lives were saved which, in the hour of deadly peril, he held in the hollow of his hand—gather around the captain to express such words of grateful confidence as are seldom yielded to man, the women tearful, the men pressing to shake his hand with honest friendliness? Such a meeting took place, after a dangerous voyage, in honour of one who for twenty years had worthily borne the name of being one of Britain’s best and boldest seamen. And the impression on the mind of one eye-witness was never effaced.

It was, therefore, a new and intoxicating position in which Miss Pollie Devereux found herself. The acknowledged object of respectful admiration to this resplendently heroic character, and on equal terms with all the other potentates, from the first officer—a magnificent personage, and second only to the captain in importance—while the rank and file of passengers stood aloof in timid or cynical survey of the damsel whom the Ahasuerus of the hour delighted to honour.

Though partially awed by the eminence of their position, Mrs. Devereux, who had been accustomed in her time to much of respect and consideration, saw nothing very unusual in their promotion. Pollie herself was charmed to find herself on equal conversational terms with such an autocrat. With girlish eagerness she pressed him to tell her of the dangers he had braved and the wonders he had seen. He, nothing loath, produced from time to time, in temptingly small quantities, precious reminiscences of cyclones in the China seas, pirate schooners in. the Spanish Main, slavers in Sierra Leone—for he had been in the navy—opium clippers, Chinese mail-boats taken by mutineers and never heard of after, wreck and fire, even all kinds of peril by sea and land in which he had borne a part; so that Pollie or any other damsel might be pardoned for feeling a temporary conviction that such a man had gone through adventures transcending in interest those of the lives of a hundred mere landsmen—that, were the hero of her choice a sailor, she would gladly wear out her life in accompanying him in his voyages.

The next day was Sunday. According to custom, the lascar crew turned out gorgeous in crimson-and-gold scarfs, spotless white robes, and embroidered turbans, very different from their dingy working garb. After breakfast, when the captain in full uniform passed close between the double rank, with the air of Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid, the men lowly salaaming as if thankful not to be doomed to death on that occasion, it was a reproduction in the romantic girl’s brain of yet another chapter in the rich traditional glory of the past. Even the Seedees gambolled uncouthly in strange gaudy raiment, looking like slaves who had found an opulent and indulgent master. The while Pollie sat in great state on a cane lounge of honour, with a cushion under her feet and a parasol like the Queen of Sheba’s.

Unfortunately for the permanent enjoyment of these dreamy delights, the Cathay drove through ‘The Rip,’ at the entrance to the vast haven at the farther end of which Melbourne commences, on the morning of the third day. A short railway transit saw them deposited at the Esplanade Hotel, where an extended, though not, critically speaking, picturesque sea-view was afforded to them.

Captain Belmont had, with the dash and rapidity which characterise the nautical admirer, obtained Mrs. Devereux’ consent to join ‘a theatre party’ which he had organised. As it happened, an actor of world-wide reputation was performing a favourite melodrama of his own composition. This was a chance, he speciously urged, which Miss Devereux should not be suffered to miss. The promise was made. The captain arrived in due time and escorted them to the Theatre Royal, where one more process of art-magic was added to Pollie’s collection.

As their open carriage rolled through the wide, straight streets, in which long rows of lamps glittered on either side, or faded star-like in the far distance, they were impressed with the utterly different expression of Melbourne from that of their own fair city by the sea.

‘What a wonderful place!’ said Pollie, gazing up the great street which contains all the pleasures and palaces, and is nightly crowded with their votaries. ‘How the lamps glow and shimmer! What a vast size and almost sombre uniformity in the buildings which line the streets! There is something weird, too, in the electric lights which create a pale daylight around those endless colonnades. I feel as if I had been transported to some city raised by the wand of an enchanter.’

‘Not unlike a little sorcery,’ said one of the party, ‘when you come to think. There were gum-trees and blacks here “in full blast” half a century ago. Here we are at the Royal.’

It was a command night. The representative of Her Majesty had signified his intention of being present. One of the best boxes in the dress-circle—but two distant from the vice-regal compartment—had been secured by the forecasting captain. The house was crammed. As the popular governor and his party entered, the great assemblage rose like one man to the air of the National Anthem, which aroused Pollie to a burst of loyal enthusiasm.

‘It always brings the tears into my eyes,’ she said; ‘it looks foolish, but I cannot help it. Something in the old tune and the reverence with which our people always greet it stirs my very heart’s core. I suppose these feelings are hereditary.’

‘The colonies are wonderfully loyal,’ said the captain. ‘I never saw anything like it. You are more English than the English themselves.’

‘I hope we shall always remain so,’ said Mrs. Devereux, ‘though I believe at home they think we must be essentially different. But the curtain rises. Now, Pollie!’

It follows, as a thing of course, that the whole party, and more particularly Pollie, with her sensitive nature, appreciative as well of the lightest touches of humour as the deeper tones of pathos, were charmed with the play, which had enthralled London nightly for a whole year.

When, after the finale, the party adjourned to the carefully appointed supper which the gallant captain had insisted upon providing—when, amid the popping of champagne corks, a flow of pleasant criticism and enjoyable badinage went round—Pollie realised that she was tasting one of those highly flavoured, almost forbidden pleasures of life which she had read of, but hardly dared to think of sharing.

‘This sort of thing is too good to be true,’ she replied to Captain Belmont, who was expressing his general and particular satisfaction with ‘the way things had gone off.’ ‘There is so much enjoyment that it must be a little sinful. Don’t you think so? I shall wake to-morrow to find it all a dream; or mother will decide that I am never to go to a theatre party again.’

The captain murmured that all manner of delights—the joys that embellish existence—were in her power. She had but to speak the word, doubtless, and slaves in scores would be at her command, himself among the number, only too happy to administer to her slightest wish now and for his whole life after. Here the captain’s deep voice faltered, and his expressive eyes, which had done only too much execution in their day, were fixed on hers with an ardent, well-nigh magnetic gaze. The girl trembled involuntarily for a moment, and then laughed lightly, as she replied, ‘Is that out of a play, Captain Belmont? I think I have heard it somewhere before. But I feel as if we all belonged to the opera, and that even compliments of that sort chime in with our condition in life.’

The captain’s expression changed to one almost gravely paternal as he bowed and trusted she might never meet in after life with friends less sincere than those who would so deeply regret her departure from the Cathay. Then, as Mrs. Devereux made the slightlyperceptible movement which defined the limit of the symposium, they joined the retreat, and the captain surrendered whatever illusion he may have cherished concerning his too charming passenger.

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter VIII

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