By Shore and Sedge

A Ship of ’49


Bret Harte

IF MR. RENSHAW indulged in any further curiosity regarding the interior of the Pontiac, he did not make his active researches manifest to Rosey. Nor, in spite of her father’s invitation, did he again approach the galley—a fact which gave her her first vague impression in his favor. He seemed also to avoid the various advances which Mr. Nott appeared impelled to make, whenever they met in the passage, but did so without seemingly avoiding her, and marked his half contemptuous indifference to the elder Nott by an increase of respect to the young girl. She would have liked to ask him something about ships, and was sure his conversation would have been more interesting than that of old Captain Bower, to whose cabin he had succeeded, who had once told her a ship was the “devil’s hencoop.” She would have liked also to explain to him that she was not in the habit of wearing a purple bonnet. But her thoughts were presently engrossed by an experience which interrupted the even tenor of her young life.

She had been, as she afterwards remembered, impressed with a nervous restlessness one afternoon, which made it impossible for her to perform her ordinary household duties, or even to indulge her favorite recreation of reading or castle-building. She wandered over the ship, and, impelled by the same vague feeling of unrest, descended to the lower deck and the forward bulkhead where she had discovered the open hatch. It had not been again disturbed, nor was there any trace of further exploration. A little ashamed, she knew not why, of revisiting the scene of Mr. Renshaw’s researches, she was turning back when she noticed that the door which communicated with De Ferri�res’ loft was partly open. The circumstance was so unusual that she stopped before it in surprise. There was no sound from within; it was the hour when its queer occupant was always absent; he must have forgotten to lock the door, or it had been unfastened by other hands. After a moment of hesitation she pushed it further open and stepped into the room.

By the dim light of two port-holes she could see that the floor was strewn and piled with the contents of a broken bale of curled horse-hair, of which a few untouched bales still remained against the wall. A heap of morocco skins, some already cut in the form of chair-cushion covers, and a few cushions unfinished and unstuffed, lay in the light of the ports, and gave the apartment the appearance of a cheap workshop. A rude instrument for combining the horse-hair, awls, buttons, and thread, heaped on a small bench, showed that active work had been but recently interrupted. A cheap earthenware ewer and basin on the floor, and a pallet made of an open bale of horse-hair, on which a ragged quilt and blanket were flung, indicated that the solitary worker dwelt and slept beside his work.

The truth flashed upon the young girl’s active brain, quickened by seclusion and fed by solitary books. She read with keen eyes the miserable secret of her father’s strange guest in the poverty-stricken walls, in the mute evidences of menial handicraft performed in loneliness and privation, in this piteous adaptation of an accident to save the conscious shame of premeditated toil. She knew now why he had stammeringly refused to receive her father’s offer to buy back the goods he had given him; she knew now how hardly gained was the pittance that paid his rent and supported his childish vanity and grotesque pride. From a peg in the corner hung the familiar masquerade that hid his poverty—the pearl-gray trousers, the black frock-coat, the tall shining hat—in hideous contrast to the penury of his surroundings. But if they were here, where was he, and in what new disguise had he escaped from his poverty? A vague uneasiness caused her to hesitate and return to the open door. She had nearly reached it when her eye fell on the pallet which it partly illuminated. A singular resemblance in the ragged heap made her draw closer. The faded quilt was a dressing-gown, and clutching its folds lay a white, wasted hand.

The emigrant childhood of Rose Nott had been more than once shadowed by scalping-knives, and she was acquainted with Death. She went fearlessly to the couch, and found that the dressing-gown was only an enwrapping of the emaciated and lifeless body of De Ferri�res. She did not retreat or call for help, but examined him closely. He was unconscious, but not pulseless; he had evidently been strong enough to open the door for air or succor, but had afterwards fallen into a fit on the couch. She flew to her father’s locker and the galley fire, returned, and shut the door behind her, and by the skillful use of hot water and whiskey soon had the satisfaction of seeing a faint color take the place of the faded rouge in the ghastly cheeks. She was still chafing his hands when he slowly opened his eyes. With a start, he made a quick attempt to push aside her hand and rise. But she gently restrained him.

“Eh—what!” he stammered, throwing his face back from hers with an effort and trying to turn it to the wall.

“You have been ill,” she said quietly. “Drink this.”

With his face still turned away he lifted the cup to his chattering teeth. When he had drained it he threw a trembling glance round the room and at the door.

“There’s no one been here but myself,” she said quickly. “I happened to see the door open as I passed. I didn’t think it worth while to call any one.”

The searching look he gave her turned into an expression of relief, which, to her infinite uneasiness, again feebly lightened into one of antiquated gallantry. He drew the dressing-gown around him with an air.

“Ah! it is a goddess, Mademoiselle, that has deigned to enter the cell where—where—I amuse myself. It is droll, is it not? I came here to make—what you call—the experiment of your father’s fabric. I make myself—ha! ha!—like a workman. Ah, bah! the heat, the darkness, the plebeian motion make my head to go round. I stagger, I faint, I cry out, I fall. But what of that? The great God hears my cry and sends me an angel. Voilà!”

He attempted an easy gesture of gallantry, but overbalanced himself and fell sideways on the pallet with a gasp. Yet there was so much genuine feeling mixed with his grotesque affectation, so much piteous consciousness of the ineffectiveness of his falsehood, that the young girl, who had turned away, came back and laid her hand upon his arm.

“You must lie still and try to sleep,” she said gently. “I will return again. Perhaps,” she added, “there is some one I can send for?”

He shook his head violently. Then in his old manner added, “After Mademoiselle—no one.”

“I mean”—she hesitated; “have you no friends?”

“Friends,—ah! without doubt.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But Mademoiselle will comprehend”—

“You are better now,” said Rosey quickly, “and no one need know anything if you don’t wish it. Try to sleep. You need not lock the door when I go; I will see that no one comes in.”

He flushed faintly and averted his eyes. “It is too droll, Mademoiselle, is it not?”

“Of course it is,” said Rosey, glancing round the miserable room.

“And Mademoiselle is an angel.”

He carried her hand to his lips humbly—his first purely unaffected action. She slipped through the door, and softly closed it behind her.

Reaching the upper deck she was relieved to find her father had not returned, and her absence had been unnoticed. For she had resolved to keep De Ferrières’ secret to herself from the moment that she had unwittingly discovered it, and to do this and still be able to watch over him without her father’s knowledge required some caution. She was conscious of his strange aversion to the unfortunate man without understanding the reason, but as she was in the habit of entertaining his caprices more from affectionate tolerance of his weakness than reverence of his judgment, she saw no disloyalty to him in withholding a confidence that might be disloyal to another. “It won’t do father any good to know it,” she said to herself, “and if it did it oughtn’t to,” she added with triumphant feminine logic. But the impression made upon her by the spectacle she had just witnessed was stronger than any other consideration. The revelation of De Ferrièfres’ secret poverty seemed a chapter from a romance of her own weaving; for a moment it lifted the miserable hero out of the depths of his folly and selfishness. She forgot the weakness of the man in the strength of his dramatic surroundings. It partly satisfied a craving she had felt; it was not exactly the story of the ship, as she had dreamed it, but it was an episode in her experience of it that broke its monotony. That she should soon learn, perhaps from De Ferrières’ own lips, the true reason of his strange seclusion, and that it involved more than appeared to her now, she never for a moment doubted.

At the end of an hour she again knocked softly at the door, carrying some light nourishment she had prepared for him. He was asleep, but she was astounded to find that in the interval he had managed to dress himself completely in his antiquated finery. It was a momentary shock to the allusion she had been fostering, but she forgot it in the pitiable contrast between his haggard face and his pomatumed hair and beard, the jauntiness of his attire and the collapse of his invalid figure. When she had satisfied herself that his sleep was natural, she busied herself softly in arranging the miserable apartment. With a few feminine touches she removed the slovenliness of misery, and placed the loose material and ostentatious evidences of his work on one side. Finding that he still slept, and knowing the importance of this natural medication, she placed the refreshment she had brought by his side and noiselessly quitted the apartment. Hurrying through the gathering darkness between decks, she once or twice thought she heard footsteps, and paused, but encountering no one, attributed the impression to her over-consciousness. Yet she thought it prudent to go to the galley first, where she lingered a few moments before returning to the cabin. On entering she was a little startled at observing a figure seated at her father’s desk, but was relieved at finding it was Mr. Renshaw.

He rose and put aside the book he had idly picked up. “I am afraid I am an intentional intruder this time, Miss Nott. But I found no one here, and I was tempted to look into this ship-shape little snuggery. You see the temptation got the better of me.”

His voice and smile were so frank and pleasant, so free from his previous restraint, yet still respectful, so youthful yet manly, that Rosey was affected by them even in her preoccupation. Her eyes brightened and then dropped before his admiring glance. Had she known that the excitement of the last few hours had brought a wonderful charm into her pretty face, had aroused the slumbering life of her half-wakened beauty, she would have been more confused. As it was, she was only glad that the young man should turn out to be “nice.” Perhaps he might tell her something about ships; perhaps if she had only known him longer she might, with De Ferrières’ permission, have shared her confidence with him, and enlisted his sympathy and assistance. She contented herself with showing this anticipatory gratitude in her face as she begged him, with the timidity of a maiden hostess, to resume his seat.

But Mr. Renshaw seemed to talk only to make her talk, and I am forced to admit that Rosey found this almost as pleasant. It was not long before he was in possession of her simple history from the day of her baby emigration to California to the transfer of her childish life to the old ship, and even of much of the romantic fancies she had woven into her existence there. Whatever ulterior purpose he had in view, he listened as attentively as if her artless chronicle was filled with practical information. Once, when she had paused for breath, he said gravely, “I must ask you to show me over this wonderful ship some day that I may see it with your eyes.”

“But I think you know it already better than I do,” said Rosey with a smile.

Mr. Renshaw’s brow clouded slightly. “Ah,” he said, with a touch of his former restraint; “and why?”

“Well,” said Rosey timidly, “I thought you went round and touched things in a familiar way as if you had handled them before.”

The young man raised his eyes to Rosey’s and kept them there long enough to bring back his gentler expression. “Then, because I found you trying on a very queer bonnet the first day I saw you,” he said, mischievously, “I ought to believe you were in the habit of wearing one.”

In the first flush of mutual admiration young people are apt to find a laugh quite as significant as a sigh for an expression of sympathetic communion, and this master-stroke of wit convulsed them both. In the midst of it Mr. Nott entered the cabin. But the complacency with which he viewed the evident perfect understanding of the pair was destined to suffer some abatement. Rosey, suddenly conscious that she was in some way participating in the ridicule of her father through his unhappy gift, became embarrassed. Mr. Renshaw’s restraint returned with the presence of the old man. In vain, at first, Abner Nott strove with profound levity to indicate his arch comprehension of the situation, and in vain, later, becoming alarmed, he endeavored, with cheerful gravity, to indicate his utter obliviousness of any but a business significance in their tête-à-tête.

“I oughtn’t to hev intruded, Rosey,” he said, “when you and the gentleman were talkin’ of contracts, mebbee; but don’t mind me. I’m on the fly, anyhow, Rosey dear, hevin’ to see a man round the corner.”

But even the attitude of withdrawing did not prevent the exit of Renshaw to his apartment and of Rosey to the galley. Left alone in the cabin, Abner Nott felt in the knots and tangles of his beard for a reason. Glancing down at his prodigious boots, which, covered with mud and gravel, strongly emphasized his agricultural origin, and gave him a general appearance of standing on his own broad acres, he was struck with an idea. “It’s them boots,” he whispered to himself, softly; “they somehow don’t seem ’xactly to trump or follow suit in this yer cabin; they don’t hitch into anythin’ but jist slosh round loose, and so to speak play it alone. And them young critters nat’rally feels it and gets out o’ the way.” Acting upon this instinct with his usual precipitate caution, he at once proceeded to the nearest second-hand shop, and, purchasing a pair of enormous carpet slippers, originally the property of a gouty sea-captain, reappeared with a strong suggestion of newly upholstering the cabin. The improvement, however, was fraught with a portentous circumstance. Mr. Nott’s footsteps, which usually announced his approach all over the ship, became stealthy and inaudible.

Meantime Miss Rosey had taken advantage of the absence of her father to visit her patient. To avoid attracting attention she did not take a light, but groped her way to the lower deck and rapped softly at the door. It was instantly opened by De Ferrières. He had apparently appreciated the few changes she had already made in the room, and had himself cleared away the pallet from which he had risen to make two low seats against the wall. Two bits of candle placed on the floor illuminated the beams above, the dressing-gown was artistically draped over the solitary chair, and a pile of cushions formed another seat. With elaborate courtesy he handed Miss Rosey to the chair. He looked pale and weak, though the gravity of the attack had evidently passed. Yet he persisted in remaining standing. “If I sit,” he explained with a gesture, “I shall again disgrace myself by sleeping in Mademoiselle’s presence. Yes! I shall sleep—I shall dream—and wake to find her gone!”

More embarrassed by his recovery than when he was lying helplessly before her, she said hesitatingly that she was glad he was better, and that she hoped he liked the broth.

“It was manna from heaven, Mademoiselle. See, I have taken it all—every precious drop. What else could I have done for Mademoiselle’s kindness?”

He showed her the empty bowl. A swift conviction came upon her that the man had been suffering from want of food. The thought restored her self-possession even while it brought the tears to her eyes. “I wish you would let me speak to father—or some one,” she said impulsively, and stopped.

A quick and half insane gleam of terror and suspicion lit up his deep eyes. “For what, Mademoiselle! For an accident—that is nothing—absolutely nothing, for I am strong and well now—see!” he said tremblingly. “Or for a whim—for a folly you may say, that they will misunderstand. No, Mademoiselle is good, is wise. She will say to herself, ‘I understand, my friend Monsieur de Ferrières for the moment has a secret. He would seem poor, he would take the rôle of artisan, he would shut himself up in these walls—perhaps I may guess why, but it is his secret. I think of it no more.’” He caught her hand in his with a gesture that he would have made one of gallantry, but that in its tremulous intensity became a piteous supplication.

“I have said nothing, and will say nothing, if you wish it,” said Rosey hastily; “but others may find out how you live here. This is not fit work for you. You seem to be a—a gentleman. You ought to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or in a bank,” she continued timidly, with a vague enumeration of the prevailing degrees of local gentility.

He dropped her hand. “Ah! does not Mademoiselle comprehend that it is because I am a gentleman that there is nothing between it and this? Look!” he continued almost fiercely. “What if I told you it is the lawyer, it is the doctor, it is the banker that brings me, a gentleman, to this, eh? Ah, bah! What do I say? This is honest, what I do! But the lawyer, the banker, the doctor, what are they?” He shrugged his shoulders, and pacing the apartment with a furtive glance at the half anxious, half frightened girl, suddenly stopped, dragged a small portmanteau from behind the heap of bales and opened it. “Look, Mademoiselle,” he said, tremulously lifting a handful of worn and soiled letters and papers. “Look—these are the tools of your banker, your lawyer, your doctor. With this the banker will make you poor, the lawyer will prove you a thief, the doctor will swear you are crazy, eh? What shall you call the work of a gentleman—this”—he dragged the pile of cushions forward—“or this?”

To the young girl’s observant eyes some of the papers appeared to be of a legal or official character, and others like bills of lading, with which she was familiar. Their half theatrical exhibition reminded her of some play she had seen; they might be the clue to some story, or the mere worthless hoardings of some diseased fancy. Whatever they were, De Ferrières did not apparently care to explain further; indeed, the next moment his manner changed to his old absurd extravagance. “But this is stupid for Mademoiselle to hear. What shall we speak of? Ah! what should we speak of in Mademoiselle’s presence?”

“But are not these papers valuable?” asked Rosey, partly to draw her host’s thoughts back to their former channel.

“Perhaps.” He paused and regarded the young girl fixedly. “Does Mademoiselle think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Rosey. “How should I?”

“Ah! if Mademoiselle thought so—if Mademoiselle would deign”—He stopped again and placed his hand upon his forehead. “It might be so!” he muttered.

“I must go now,” said Rosey hurriedly, rising with an awkward sense of constraint. “Father will wonder where I am.”

“I shall explain. I will accompany you, Mademoiselle.”

“No, no,” said Rosey, quickly; “he must not know I have been here!” She stopped. The honest blush flew to her cheek, and then returned again, because she had blushed.

De Ferri�res gazed at her with an exalted look. Then drawing himself to his full height, he said, with an exaggerated and indescribable gesture, “Go, my child, go. Tell your father that you have been alone and unprotected in the abode of poverty and suffering, but—that it was in the presence of Armand de Ferrières.”

He threw open the door with a bow that nearly swept the ground, but did not again offer to take her hand. At once impressed and embarrassed at this crowning incongruity, her pretty lips trembled between a smile and a cry as she said, “Good-night,” and slipped away into the darkness.

Erect and grotesque De Ferrières retained the same attitude until the sound of her footsteps was lost, when he slowly began to close the door. But a strong arm arrested it from without, and a large carpeted foot appeared at the bottom of the narrowing opening. The door yielded, and Mr. Abner Nott entered the room.

By Shore and Sedge - Contents    |     A Ship of ’49 - IV

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