In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

MRS. MACDOUGAL came to Done’s rescue a moment later. She sauntered languidly up to the young couple in her character of the interesting invalid, careful to make a charming picture in the moonlight.

‘It is a delightful night, Mr. Done, is it not?’ she said.

Jim admitted as much, without any display of interest, and the lady continued:

‘You know our dear girl is not strong. You must not keep her in the night air. Why, Lucy, how foolish you are! not a single wrap, and the wind so chilly! You’ll certainly have a sickness.’

‘I shall not be ill, Mrs. Macdougal,’ said Lucy. ‘But you are very good.’

Mrs. Macdougal’s plump figure was covered with furs, and a handsome shawl trailed from her arm; but it was characteristic of Mrs. Macdougal to profess the sweetest solicitude for other people, whilst appropriating for her own use and pleasure all the comfortable, pleasant, and pretty things. She was not more than thirty-three, and looked like a gipsy spoiled by refinements. Her social schooling had been confined to a long course of that delectable literature devoted to the amours of a strictly honourable aristocracy with superior milkmaids, nursery governesses, and other respectable young persons in lowly walks. Indeed, Mrs. Macdougal, having had no early training worth speaking of, had successfully modelled her manners upon those of a few favourite heroines. She fancied the expression, ‘It is, is it not?’ lent an air of exquisite refinement to ordinary conversation. She was naturally artificial. Artifice would have been her certain resort in whatever path it had pleased Fate to plant her small feet. Her temper was excellent so far as it went, and her manner tender and clinging. She would have preferred to have been tragic with such eyes and such hair, but with her plump figure it was not possible. She loved attention, particularly the attentions of men, and employed many artifices to secure them, usually with success. She had engaged Captain Evan on the deck during every afternoon for a whole week, fanning away a purely hypothetical headache. Altogether Mrs. Macdougal was a delightful fool; almost everybody liked her.

‘Really, for your own sake, my dear! It will not do for two of us to be invalids.’ Mrs. Macdougal pressed a firm white hand upon her ample bosom, and coughed a melancholy little cough, hinting at a deep-seated complaint, the seriousness of which she could not long hope to disguise from her friends.

Lucy retired dutifully, and her mistress composed herself in an effective attitude for a long chat with the young man.

‘Darling girl!’ she said, gazing affectionately after the retreating figure. It suddenly occurred to her that she was very fond of Lucy Woodrow, although up to the time of the accident she had not given her a second thought.

The young man did not feel called upon to make a demonstration; he merely inclined his head and watched Lucy along the deck as a manifestation of some little interest in the subject.

‘If anything had happened to her that awful time!’ Mrs. Macdougal’s eyes waxed to their greatest dimensions to express terror, distress, all the excitement of the accident, and were veiled under their white lids and heavy lashes to convey some idea of the grief that would have lacerated that gentle breast had Lucy Woodrow perished in the cruel sea. ‘Ah, Mr. Done, I, too, owe you a debt of gratitude!’ she continued. ‘The poor girl is in my care. I should never have forgiven myself.’

‘I can’t accept your gratitude, ma’am,’ said Jim brusquely.

‘So gallant, so noble!’ murmured the lady. She was not succeeding, and she felt it. The boy was too ridiculous. She assumed a new pose, gazing dreamily over the side into the scudding sea.

‘If I were to fall in, Mr. Done,’ she said, after a telling pause, ‘you would save me too?’ She smiled coquettishly.

‘I should not, Mrs. Macdougal; the responsibility is too great.’

She did not fully understand him, and was quite shocked, but answered brightly:

‘Oh yes, it is, is it not?’

Jim now resented the woman’s intrusion upon him with a cublike sullenness. He even longed to be avenged upon her for his uneasiness, and would have liked to have said quite coolly, ‘In the devil’s name, madam, leave me to myself!’ It piqued him that, after all, he had not the moral courage to do this, so he turned a forbidding shoulder, pretending interest in the scud of sea.

‘Really, Mr. Done, you are foolish to hide yourself here,’ continued Mrs. Macdougal. ‘It is so much pleasanter in our part, and you have the freedom of the ship, you know. Dear, kind Captain Evan could not deny me. Do come! Our little entertainments will delight you, and everybody will be so pleased.’

‘I’m very well where I am, thanks.’ The lad’s tone was not at all gracious.

‘But you are so much above these men, and there are several nice cabin passengers—quite superior people, who are anxious to know you.’

‘You’re mistaken, ma’am. I’m a farm labourer going out there to earn my living. I’m at home here with common men, and I hate superior people!’

‘They are trying, are they not?’ This with a gush of confidence and a little air of being weary of the great ones of the earth.

Mrs. Macdougal made several further efforts to induce Done to allow himself to be lionized by the first-class passengers, who, to escape for a time the boredom of a long, dull voyage, were eager to make a pet of the interesting and mysterious hero; but Jim’s moroseness deepened under the attacks, and at length he escaped with only a glance of almost maidenly coyness whenever circumstances threw him in the lady’s way.

But Lucy Woodrow was not to be denied; she had been forced into the current of his life, and he would make no effective fight against her. After a few days her pale face, animated with an expression of pathetic appeal, obtruded itself upon his meditations. He surprised himself mapping out a pleasant and beautiful future for her, or dwelling upon her misfortunes with a tender regret, and at such times took refuge from his thoughts in sudden action, shaking this folly off with fierce impatience, heaping abusive epithets upon his own head, arraigning himself as a drivelling sentimentalist; and what shame could equal that of a puling sentimentality?

After all, this girl stood for everything he had learned to despise and hate. To her the conventions behind which society shields itself, its shams and its bunkum, were sacred. He was convinced that had she known the whole truth as Chisley knew it, she must have ranged herself with his enemies. He admitted that he had been guilty of an impertinent interference in her private affairs when he plucked her from the sea, but did it follow that he need worry himself further about the young woman? Certainly not! That point being settled, he could return to his dreams of the Promised Land, the land of liberty, only to find the fair face obscuring his fine visions, or to be interrupted by the girl herself, who sometimes took refuge near him from the importunities of the male blonde, but more often sought him out to satisfy the new interest his morbid and peculiar character and, it must be admitted, his cold, good looks had created in her breast.

At her approach Done felt the stir of a novel exultation in his traitorous flesh. To be sure, he had woven romances for himself, but his heroines were always of a type totally different to Lucy Woodrow. They were strong, dark-eyed, imperious creatures, who espoused all his beliefs and echoed his defiance of the world. What sense of humour had as yet found place in his nature was exercised to the full at the expense of the lackadaisical lover in life and in fiction, and now he felt there was something absurdly pensive in this phenomenon of his own. He satisfied himself that he was not in love with Lucy, but here were the marked characteristics of the fond and fatuous hero—the obtruding face of the beloved, idealized and transfused with a sickly pathos; the premonitory tremblings; the recurrence of thoughts of the fair. It was all in defiance of his philosophy—an insult to his manhood. Like many very young men, Done was extremely jealous of the honour of his manhood. It is the pride of a new possession.

Certainly Lucy Woodrow was quite honest to her nature in her attitude towards the young stranger. She did not dissect her emotions: she did not even question them. In becoming her hero Done had levelled all the conventional barriers, and her friendship and concern were sincere. She had never recurred to the incident of the rescue, feeling that the subject was painful to him, and glad to dwell no further upon an act of her own that of late had become quite inexplicable to her. Lucy no longer turned her eyes to the wake of the Francis Cadman: she no longer yearned backward to the land where she had left only a grave. Her mind was employed with a most serious duty: she had adopted a mission, and that mission was the regeneration of James Done. The regeneration was not to be so much religious as moral. The poor boy’s life was disordered; he had suffered some great wrong; his naturally beautiful, brave, generous disposition was soured; he had lost faith in God and in woman, and it remained for her to restore his belief, to teach him that his fellow-creatures were in the main animated with the most excellent motives, and to drive away all those strange, wild opinions of his, and generally brighten and sweeten his life and turn him out a new man. She could not have explained how she was going to accomplish all this, but every maiden is at heart a missionary of some sort, and Lucy had a vague idea that the influence of a good woman was always effective in such cases. She never imagined that the youth would test her pretty, heartfelt opinions and her glowing faith in the rightness of things in the cold, sceptical light of his logic.

‘Women don’t bother themselves much to know if things are true,’ he said. ‘They’re content with thinking they ought to be true.’

‘Well,’ she answered, ‘why not try to be true to the things that ought to be true?’

‘If I wanted to, the world wouldn’t let me.’

‘You cannot believe that. The really good man is always obeyed and reverenced.’

‘And has always a fat billet. Yes; that kind of goodness is an excellent thing as a speculation.’

She thought him wilfully paradoxical, and it came about, when their acquaintanceship was about three weeks old, that while Jim Done, the small and early philosopher, held Lucy in fine disdain as a born fool, his vital humanity discovered strange allurements in her, and her proximity fired a craving in his blood that sometimes tempted him to crush her in his arms and bruise her lips with kisses. He grew less brusque with her, and showed on occasions a sort of diffident gentleness, and then Lucy was satisfied that her work was progressing.

‘You never talk of your life there in England,’ she said one night as they stood by the mizzen-chains overlooking the sea. Since the use of the forepart of the ship had been offered him as a privilege, Done religiously abstained from encroaching a foot beyond the steerage limit, although he had previously invaded the sacred reserve on occasion in defiance of authority.

‘No,’ he said; ‘I am running away from that.’

He gave little thought to the conversation, but he was thinking much of the girl. She looked strangely beautiful and unreal in the dim light—curiously visionary—and yet he felt that she radiated warmth and life. Something stirred hotly within him: he was drawn to her as with many hands.

‘It would interest me,’ she said—‘it would interest me deeply.’ She turned her face up to him, and her eyes caught the light, and burned with curious lustre in the shadowy face.

He did not misjudge her; he knew her concern for him to be the outcome of gratitude and the kindliness of a simple nature, but it conveyed a sweet flattery. Her hand rested upon his arm, and from its soft pressure flowed currents of emotion. At his heart was a savage hunger. The faint scent her hair exhaled seemed to cloud his brain and his vision.

‘I feel that it is some sorrow, some wrong done you in your early life, that makes you so bitter against the world,’ she said. ‘You think ill of all because one or two have been unkind and unjust, perhaps. Because someone has been false or unfair to you at home there, you are cold and contemptuous and distrustful of the people around you here, who are eager to be your friends.’ Her tone was almost caressing.

For answer he caught her up in his arms, using his strength roughly, cruelly, clasping her to his breast, and kissing her mouth twice, thrice, with a fierce rapture. A moment he held her thus, gazing into her face, and the girl’s hands seemed to flutter up to his neck. Suddenly she experienced an awakening. On the heels of the new joy came a new terror. Setting her palms against his breast, she pushed herself from his relaxed arms. A few feet of deck, a space of cold moonlight, divided them, and they stood thus, facing each other in silence. Lucy had an intuitive expectancy; the situation called for an avowal. It became awkward. A boyish shamefacedness had followed Done’s outburst of passion, and he spoke never a word. The two were victims of a painful anti-climax. A girl has but one resource in such an emergency. The tears came, and Lucy Woodrow turned and stole away, leaving Jim stunned, abashed, with unseeing eyes bent upon the sea. Done’s right hand was striking at the woodwork mechanically; his mind was in a turmoil. The blows increased in force till blood ran from his knuckles, and then through his clenched teeth came the bitter words. His rage against himself had a biting vindictiveness. He cursed in whispers.

What a fool he had been! What a fatuous, blundering ass! What had he done? Why had he done it? Was he in love, with Lucy Woodrow? This latter question recurred again and again through the night, and the answer came vehemently—no, no, and no again! He had nothing in common with the girl. He recited a score of her simple, silly opinions in self-defence, and, having strenuously reasserted his freedom, turned over to sleep, and slept never a wink all night. What disturbed him most was the fear of meeting Lucy Woodrow again. Perhaps she would avoid him now. There was no comfort in the thought. He knew that what had happened must alter their relations towards each other, but could neither admit that Lucy was necessary to him nor summon up a comfortable indifference.

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