Miss or Mrs.?, Page 1Wilkie Collins
Produced by James Rusk and David Widger
MISS OR MRS.?
by Wilkie Collins
PERSONS OF THE STORY.
Sir Joseph Graybrooke. . . . . . . . . .(Knight) Richard Turlington . . . . (Of the Levant Trade) Launcelot Linzie . .(Of the College of Surgeons) James Dicas. . . . . .(Of the Roll of Attorneys) Thomas Wildfang. . . . . .(Superannuated Seaman) Miss Graybrooke. . . . . . (Sir Joseph's Sister) Natalie. . . . . . . . . (Sir Joseph's Daughter) Lady Winwood . . . . . . . .(Sir Joseph's Niece) Amelia} Sophia}. (Lady Winwood's Stepdaughter's) and Dorothea}
Period: THE PRESENT TIME. Place: ENGLAND.
The night had come to an end. The new-born day waited for its quickeninglight in the silence that is never known on land--the silence beforesunrise, in a calm at sea.
Not a breath came from the dead air. Not a ripple stirred on themotionless water. Nothing changed but the softly-growing light; nothingmoved but the lazy mist, curling up to meet the sun, its master, on theeastward sea. By fine gradations, the airy veil of morning thinned insubstance as it rose--thinned, till there dawned through it in the firstrays of sunlight the tall white sails of a Schooner Yacht.
From stem to stern silence possessed the vessel--as silence possessedthe sea.
But one living creature was on deck--the man at the helm, dozingpeaceably with his arm over the useless tiller. Minute by minute thelight grew, and the heat grew with it; and still the helmsman slumbered,the heavy sails hung noiseless, the quiet water lay sleeping againstthe vessel's sides. The whole orb of the sun was visible above thewater-line, when the first sound pierced its way through the morningsilence. From far off over the shining white ocean, the cry of asea-bird reached the yacht on a sudden out of the last airy circles ofthe waning mist.
The sleeper at the helm woke; looked up at the idle sails, and yawnedin sympathy with them; looked out at the sea on either side of him, andshook his head obstinately at the superior obstinacy of the calm.
"Blow, my little breeze!" said the man, whistling the sailor'sinvocation to the wind softly between his teeth. "Blow, my littlebreeze!"
"How's her head?" cried a bold and brassy voice, hailing the deck fromthe cabin staircase.
"Anywhere you like, master; all round the compass."
The voice was followed by the man. The owner of the yacht appeared ondeck.
Behold Richard Turlington, Esq., of the great Levant firm of Pizzituti,Turlington & Branca! Aged eight-and-thirty; standing stiffly andsturdily at a height of not more than five feet six--Mr. Turlingtonpresented to the view of his fellow-creatures a face of theperpendicular order of human architecture. His forehead was a straightline, his upper lip was another, his chin was the straightest and thelongest line of all. As he turned his swarthy countenance eastward,and shaded his light gray eyes from the sun, his knotty hand plainlyrevealed that it had got him his living by its own labor at one time oranother in his life. Taken on the whole, this was a man whom it mightbe easy to respect, but whom it would be hard to love. Better company atthe official desk than at the social table. Morally and physically--ifthe expression may be permitted--a man without a bend in him.
"A calm yesterday," grumbled Richard Turlington, looking with stubborndeliberation all round him. "And a calm to-day. Ha! next season I'llhave the vessel fitted with engines. I hate this!"
"Think of the filthy coals, and the infernal vibration, and leave yourbeautiful schooner as she is. We are out for a holiday. Let the wind andthe sea take a holiday too."
Pronouncing those words of remonstrance, a slim, nimble, curly-headedyoung gentleman joined Richard Turlington on deck, with his clothesunder his arm, his towels in his hand, and nothing on him but thenight-gown in which he had stepped out of his bed.
"Launcelot Linzie, you have been received on board my vessel in thecapacity of medical attendant on Miss Natalie Graybrooke, at herfather's request. Keep your place, if you please. When I want youradvice, I'll ask you for it." Answering in those terms, the elder manfixed his colorless gray eyes on the younger with an expression whichadded plainly, "There won't be room enough in this schooner much longerfor me and for you."
Launcelot Linzie had his reasons (apparently) for declining to let hishost offend him on any terms whatever.
"Thank you!" he rejoined, in a tone of satirical good humor. "It isn'teasy to keep my place on board your vessel. I can't help presumingto enjoy myself as if I was the owner. The life is such a new one--to_me!_ It's so delightfully easy, for instance, to wash yourself here.On shore it's a complicated question of jugs and basins and tubs; one isalways in danger of breaking something, or spoiling something. Here youhave only to jump out of bed, to run up on deck, and to do this!"
He turned, and scampered to the bows of the vessel. In one instant hewas out of his night-gown, in another he was on the bulwark, in a thirdhe was gamboling luxuriously in sixty fathoms of salt-water.
Turlington's eyes followed him with a reluctant, uneasy attention ashe swam round the vessel, the only moving object in view. Turlington'smind, steady and slow in all its operations, set him a problem to besolved, on given conditions, as follows:
"Launcelot Linzie is fifteen years younger than I am. Add to that,Launcelot Linzie is Natalie Graybrooke's cousin. Given those twoadvantages--Query: Has he taken Natalie's fancy?"
Turning that question slowly over and over in his mind, RichardTurlington seated himself in a corner at the stern of the vessel. Hewas still at work on the problem, when the young surgeon returned to hiscabin to put the finishing touches to his toilet. He had not reached thesolution when the steward appeared an hour later and said, "Breakfast isready, sir!"
They were a party of five round the cabin table.
First, Sir Joseph Graybrooke. Inheritor of a handsome fortune made byhis father and his grandfather in trade. Mayor, twice elected, of athriving provincial town. Officially privileged, while holding thatdignity, to hand a silver trowel to a royal personage condescending tolay a first stone of a charitable edifice. Knighted, accordingly, inhonor of the occasion. Worthy of the honor and worthy of the occasion.A type of his eminently respectable class. Possessed of an amiable, rosyface, and soft, silky white hair. Sound in his principles; tidy in hisdress; blessed with moderate politics and a good digestion--a harmless,healthy, spruce, speckless, weak-minded old man.
Secondly, Miss Lavinia Graybrooke, Sir Joseph's maiden sister.Personally, Sir Joseph in petticoats. If you knew one you knew theother.
Thirdly, Miss Natalie Graybrooke--Sir Joseph's only child.
She had inherited the personal appearance and the temperament of hermother--dead many years since. There had been a mixture of Negroblood and French blood in the late Lady Graybrooke's family, settledoriginally in Martinique. Natalie had her mother's warm dusky color, hermother's superb black hair, and her mother's melting, lazy, lovelybrown eyes. At fifteen years of age (dating from her last birthday) shepossessed the development of the bosom and limbs which in England israrely attained before twenty. Everything about the girl--except herlittle rosy ears--was on a grand Amazonian scale. Her shapely hand waslong and large; her supple waist was the waist of a woman. The indolentgrace of all her movements had its motive power in an almost masculinefirmness of action and profusion of physical resource. This remarkablebodily development was far from being accompanied by any correspondingdevelopment of character. Natalie's manner was the gentle, innocentmanner of a young girl. She had her father's sweet temper ingrafted onher mother's variable Southern nature. She moved like a goddess, and shelaughed like a child. Signs of maturing too rapidly--of outgrowing herstrength, as the phrase went--had made their appearance in SirJoseph's daughter during the spring. The family d
octor had suggesteda sea-voyage, as a wise manner of employing the fine summer months.Richard Turlington's yacht was placed at her disposal, with RichardTurlington himself included as one of the fixtures of the vessel.With her father and her aunt to keep up round her the atmosphere ofhome--with Cousin Launcelot (more commonly known as "Launce") tocarry out, if necessary, the medical treatment prescribed by superiorauthority on shore--the lovely invalid embarked on her summer cruise,and sprang up into a new existence in the life-giving breezes ofthe sea. After two happy months of lazy coasting round the shores ofEngland, all that remained of Natalie's illness was represented by adelicious languor in her eyes, and an utter inability to devote herselfto anything which took the shape of a serious occupation. As she satat the cabin breakfast-table that morning, in her quaintly-made sailingdress of old-fashioned nankeen--her inbred childishness of mannercontrasting delightfully with the blooming maturity of her form--the manmust have been trebly armed indeed in the modern philosophy who couldhave denied that the first of a woman's rights is the right of beingbeautiful; and the foremost of a woman's merits, the merit of beingyoung!
The other two persons present at the table were the two gentlemen whohave already appeared on the deck of the yacht.
"Not a breath of wind stirring!" said Richard Turlington. "The weatherhas got a grudge against us. We have drifted about four or five miles inthe last eight-and-forty hours. You will never take another cruise withme--you must be longing to get on shore."
He addressed himself to Natalie; plainly eager to make himself agreeableto the young lady--and plainly unsuccessful in producing any impressionon her. She made a civil answer; and looked at her tea-cup, instead oflooking at Richard Turlington.
"You might fancy yourself on shore at this moment," said Launce. "Thevessel is as steady as a house, and the swing-table we are eating ourbreakfast on is as even as your dining-room table at home."
He too addressed himself to Natalie, but without betraying the anxietyto please her which had been shown by the other. For all that, _he_diverted the girl's attention from her tea-cup; and _his_ idea instantlyawakened a responsive idea in Natalie's mind.
"It will be so strange on shore," she said, "to find myself in a roomthat never turns on one side, and to sit at a table that never tiltsdown to my knees at one time, or rises up to my chin at another. How Ishall miss the wash of the water at my ear, and the ring of the bellon deck when I am awake at night on land! No interest there in how thewind blows, or how the sails are set. No asking your way of the sun,when you are lost, with a little brass instrument and a morsel of penciland paper. No delightful wandering wherever the wind takes you, withoutthe worry of planning beforehand where you are to go. Oh how I shallmiss the dear, changeable, inconstant sea! And how sorry I am I'm not aman and a sailor!"
This to the guest admitted on board on sufferance, and not one word ofit addressed, even by chance, to the owner of the yacht!
Richard Turlington's heavy eyebrows contracted with an unmistakableexpression of pain.
"If this calm weather holds," he went on, addressing himself to SirJoseph, "I am afraid, Graybrooke, I shall not be able to bring you backto the port we sailed from by the end of the week."
"Whenever you like, Richard," answered the old gentleman, resignedly."Any time will do for me."
"Any time within reasonable limits, Joseph," said Miss Lavinia,evidently feeling that her brother was conceding too much. She spokewith Sir Joseph's amiable smile and Sir Joseph's softly-pitched voice.Two twin babies could hardly have been more like one another.
While these few words were being exchanged among the elders, a privatecommunication was in course of progress between the two young peopleunder the cabin table. Natalie's smartly-slippered foot felt its waycautiously inch by inch over the carpet till it touched Launce's boot.Launce, devouring his breakfast, instantly looked up from his plate,and then, at a second touch from Natalie, looked down again in a violenthurry. After pausing to make sure that she was not noticed, Natalietook up her knife. Under a perfectly-acted pretense of toying with itabsently, in the character of a young lady absorbed in thought, shebegan dividing a morsel of ham left on the edge of her plate, into sixtiny pieces. Launce's eye looked in sidelong expectation at the dividedand subdivided ham. He was evidently waiting to see the collection ofmorsels put to some telegraphic use, previously determined on betweenhis neighbor and himself.
In the meanwhile the talk proceeded among the other persons at thebreakfast-table. Miss Lavinia addressed herself to Launce.
"Do you know, you careless boy, you gave me a fright this morning? I wassleeping with my cabin window open, and I was awoke by an awful splashin the water. I called for the stewardess. I declare I thought somebodyhad fallen overboard!"
Sir Joseph looked up briskly; his sister had accidentally touched on anold association.
"Talk of falling overboard," he began, "reminds me of an extraordinaryadventure--"
There Launce broke in, making his apologies.
"It shan't occur again, Miss Lavinia," he said. "To-morrow morning I'lloil myself all over, and slip into the water as silently as a seal."
"Of an extraordinary adventure," persisted Sir Joseph, "which happenedto me many years ago, when I was a young man. Lavinia?"
He stopped, and looked interrogatively at his sister. Miss Graybrookenodded her head responsively, and settled herself in her chair, as ifsummoning her attention in anticipation of a coming demand on it. Topersons well acquainted with the brother and sister these proceedingswere ominous of an impending narrative, protracted to a formidablelength. The two always told a story in couples, and always differedwith each other about the facts, the sister politely contradictingthe brother when it was Sir Joseph's story, and the brother politelycontradicting the sister when it was Miss Lavinia's story. Separated onefrom the other, and thus relieved of their own habitual interchangeof contradiction, neither of them had ever been known to attempt therelation of the simplest series of events without breaking down.
"It was five years before I knew you, Richard," proceeded Sir Joseph.
"Six years," said Miss Graybrooke.
"Excuse me, Lavinia."
"No, Joseph, I have it down in my diary."
"Let us waive the point." (Sir Joseph invariably used this formula as ameans of at once conciliating his sister, and getting a fresh start forhis story.) "I was cruising off the Mersey in a Liverpool pilot-boat. Ihad hired the boat in company with a friend of mine, formerly notoriousin London society, under the nickname (derived from the peculiar browncolor of his whiskers) of 'Mahogany Dobbs.'"
"The color of his liveries, Joseph, not the color of his whiskers."
"My dear Lavinia, you are thinking of 'Sea-green Shaw,' so called fromthe extraordinary liveries he adopted for his servants in the year whenhe was sheriff."
"I think not, Joseph."
"I beg your pardon, Lavinia."
Richard Turlington's knotty fingers drummed impatiently on the table. Helooked toward Natalie. She was idly arranging her little morsels ofham in a pattern on her plate. Launcelot Linzie, still more idly, waslooking at the pattern. Seeing what he saw now, Richard solved theproblem which had puzzled him on deck. It was simply impossible thatNatalie's fancy could be really taken by such an empty-headed fool asthat!
Sir Joseph went on with his story:
"We were some ten or a dozen miles off the mouth of the Mersey--"
"Nautical miles, Joseph."
"It doesn't matter, Lavinia."
"Excuse me, brother, the late great and good Doctor Johnson saidaccuracy ought always to be studied even in the most trifling things."
"They were common miles, Lavinia."
"They were nautical miles, Joseph."
"Let us waive the point. Mahogany Dobbs and I happened to be below inthe cabin, occupied--"
Here Sir Joseph paused (with his amiable smile) to consult hismemory. Miss Lavinia waited (with _her_ amiable smile) for the comingopportunity of setting her brother ri
ght. At the same moment Natalielaid down her knife and softly touched Launce under the table. Whenshe thus claimed his attention the six pieces of ham were arranged asfollows in her plate: Two pieces were placed opposite each other, andfour pieces were ranged perpendicularly under them. Launce looked, andtwice touched Natalie under the table. Interpreted by the Code agreedon between the two, the signal in the plate meant, "I must see you inprivate." And Launce's double touch answered, "After breakfast."
Sir Joseph proceeded with his story. Natalie took up her knife again.Another signal coming!
"We were both down in the cabin, occupied in finishing our dinner--"
"Just sitting down to lunch, Joseph."
"My dear! I ought to know."
"I only repeat what I heard, brother. The last time you told the story,you and your friend were sitting down to lunch."
"We won't particularize, Lavinia. Suppose we say occupied over a meal?"
"If it is of no more importance than that, Joseph, it would be surelybetter to leave it out altogether."
"Let us waive the point. Well, we were suddenly alarmed by a shout ondeck, 'Man over-board!' We both rushed up the cabin stairs, naturallyunder the impression that one of our crew had fallen into the sea: animpression shared, I ought to add, by the man at the helm, who had giventhe alarm."
Sir Joseph paused again. He was approaching one of the great dramaticpoints in his story, and was naturally anxious to present it asimpressively as possible. He considered with himself, with his head alittle on one side. Miss Lavinia considered with _herself_, with _her_head a little on one side. Natalie laid down her knife again, and againtouched Launce under the table. This time there were five pieces of hamranged longitudinally on the plate, with one piece immediately underthem at the center of the line. Interpreted by the Code, this signalindicated two ominous words, "Bad news." Launce looked significantlyat the owner of the yacht (meaning of the look, "Is he at the bottom ofit?"). Natalie frowned in reply (meaning of the frown, "Yes, he is").Launce looked down again into the plate. Natalie instantly pushed allthe pieces of ham together in a little heap (meaning of the heap, "Nomore to say").
"Well?" said Richard Turlington, turning sharply on Sir Joseph. "Get onwith your story. What next?"
Thus far he had not troubled himself to show even a decent pretense ofinterest in his old friend's perpetually-interrupted narrative. It wasonly when Sir Joseph had reached his last sentence--intimating that theman overboard might turn out in course of time not to be a man of thepilot-boat's crew--it was only then that Turlington sat up in his chair,and showed signs of suddenly feeling a strong interest in the progressof the story.
Sir Joseph went on:
"As soon as we got on deck, we saw the man in the water, astern. Ourvessel was hove up in the wind, and the boat was lowered. The master andone of the men took the oars. All told, our crew were seven in number.Two away in the boat, a third at the helm, and, to my amazement, whenI looked round, the other four behind me making our number complete.At the same moment Mahogany Dobbs, who was looking through a telescope,called out, 'Who the devil can he be? The man is floating on a hen-coop,and we have got nothing of the sort on board this pilot-boat.'"
The one person present who happened to notice Richard Turlington'sface when those words were pronounced was Launcelot Linzie. He--and healone--saw the Levant trader's swarthy complexion fade slowly to alivid ashen gray; his eyes the while fixing themselves on Sir JosephGraybrooke with a furtive glare in them like the glare in the eyes of awild beast. Apparently conscious that Launce was looking at him--thoughhe never turned his head Launce's way--he laid his elbow on the table,lifted his arm, and so rested his face on his hand, while the story wenton, as to screen it effectually from the young surgeon's view.
"The man was brought on board," proceeded Sir Joseph, "sure enough, witha hen-coop--on which he had been found floating. The poor wretch wasblue with terror and exposure in the water; he fainted when we liftedhim on deck. When he came to himself he told us a horrible story. He wasa sick and destitute foreign seaman, and he had hidden himself in thehold of an English vessel (bound to a port in his native country) whichhad sailed from Liverpool that morning. He had been discovered, andbrought before the captain. The captain, a monster in human form, ifever there was one yet--"
Before the next word of the sentence could pass Sir Joseph's lips,Turlington startled the little party in the cabin by springing suddenlyto his feet.
"The breeze!" he cried; "the breeze at last!"
As he spoke, he wheeled round to the cabin door so as to turn his backon his guests, and hailed the deck.
"Which way is the wind?"
"There is not a breath of wind, sir."
Not the slightest movement in the vessel had been perceptible in thecabin; not a sound had been audible indicating the rising of the breeze.The owner of the yacht--accustomed to the sea, capable, if necessary,of sailing his own vessel--had surely committed a strange mistake! Heturned again to his friends, and made his apologies with an excess ofpolite regret far from characteristic of him at other times and underother circumstances.
"Go on," he said to Sir Joseph, when he had got to the end of hisexcuses; "I never heard such an interesting story in my life. Pray goon!"
The request was not an easy one to comply with. Sir Joseph's ideashad been thrown into confusion. Miss Lavinia's contradictions (held inreserve) had been scattered beyond recall. Both brother and sister were,moreover, additionally hindered in recovering the control of their ownresources by the look and manner of their host. He alarmed, insteadof encouraging the two harmless old people, by fronting them almostfiercely, with his elbows squared on the table, and his face expressiveof a dogged resolution to sit there and listen, if need be, for the restof his life. Launce was the person who set Sir Joseph going again. Afterfirst looking attentively at Richard, he took his uncle straight back tothe story by means of a question, thus:
"You don't mean to say that the captain of the ship threw the manoverboard?"
"That is just what he did, Launce. The poor wretch was too ill to workhis passage. The captain declared he would have no idle foreign vagabondin his ship to eat up the provisions of Englishmen who worked. With hisown hands he cast the hen-coop into the water, and (assisted by one ofhis sailors) he threw the man after it, and told him to float back toLiverpool with the evening tide."
"A lie!" cried Turlington, addressing himself, not to Sir Joseph, but toLaunce.
"Are you acquainted with the circumstances?" asked Launce, quietly.
"I know nothing about the circumstances. I say, from my own experience,that foreign sailors are even greater blackguards than English sailors.The man had met with an accident, no doubt. The rest of his story was alie, and the object of it was to open Sir Joseph's purse."
Sir Joseph mildly shook his head.
"No lie, Richard. Witnesses proved that the man had spoken the truth."
"Witnesses? Pooh! More liars, you mean."
"I went to the owners of the vessel," pursued Sir Joseph. "I got fromthem the names of the officers and the crew, and I waited, leaving thecase in the hands of the Liverpool police. The ship was wrecked at themouth of the Amazon, but the crew and the cargo were saved. The menbelonging to Liverpool came back. They were a bad set, I grant you. Butthey were examined separately about the treatment of the foreign sailor,and they all told the same story. They could give no account of theircaptain, nor of the sailor who had been his accomplice in the crime,except that they had not embarked in the ship which brought the rest ofthe crew to England. Whatever may have become of the captain since, hecertainly never returned to Liverpool."
"Did you find out his name?"
The question was asked by Turlington. Even Sir Joseph, the leastobservant of men, noticed that it was put with a perfectly unaccountableirritability of manner.
"Don't be angry, Richard." said the old gentleman. "What is there to beangry about?"
"I don't know what you mean. I'm not angry--I'm only
curious. _Did_ youfind out who he was?"
"I did. His name was Goward. He was well known at Liverpool as a veryclever and a very dangerous man. Quite young at the time I am speakingof, and a first-rate sailor; famous for taking command of unseaworthyships and vagabond crews. Report described him to me as having madeconsiderable sums of money in that way, for a man in his position;serving firms, you know, with a bad name, and running all sorts ofdesperate risks. A sad ruffian, Richard! More than once in trouble, onboth sides of the Atlantic, for acts of violence and cruelty. Dead, Idare say, long since."
"Or possibly," said Launce, "alive, under another name, and thriving ina new way of life, with more desperate risks in it, of some other sort."
"Are _you_ acquainted with the circumstances?" asked Turlington,retorting Launce's question on him, with a harsh ring of defiance in hisbrassy voice.
"What became of the poor foreign sailor, papa?" said Natalie, purposelyinterrupting Launce before he could meet the question angrily asked ofhim, by an angry reply.
"We made a subscription, and spoke to his consul, my dear. He went backto his country, poor fellow, comfortably enough."
"And there is an end of Sir Joseph's story," said Turlington, risingnoisily from his chair. "It's a pity we haven't got a literary man onboard--he would make a novel of it." He looked up at the skylight as hegot on his feet. "Here is the breeze, this time," he exclaimed, "and nomistake!"
It was true. At last the breeze had come. The sails flapped, the mainboom swung over with a thump, and the stagnant water, stirred at last,bubbled merrily past the vessel's sides.
"Come on deck, Natalie, and get some fresh air," said Miss Lavinia,leading the way to the cabin door.
Natalie held up the skirt of her nankeen dress, and exhibited the purpletrimming torn away over an extent of some yards.
"Give me half an hour first, aunt, in my cabin," she said, "to mendthis."
Miss Lavinia elevated her venerable eyebrows in amazement.
"You have done nothing but tear your dresses, my dear, since you havebeen in Mr. Turlington's yacht. Most extraordinary! I have torn none ofmine during the whole cruise."
Natalie's dark color deepened a shade. She laughed, a little uneasily."I am so awkward on board ship," she replied, and turned away and shutherself up in her cabin.
Richard Turlington produced his case of cigars.
"Now is the time," he said to Sir Joseph, "for the best cigar of theday--the cigar after breakfast. Come on deck."
"You will join us, Launce?" said Sir Joseph.
"Give me half an hour first over my books," Launce replied. "I mustn'tlet my medical knowledge get musty at sea, and I might not feel inclinedto study later in the day."
"Quite right, my dear boy, quite right."
Sir Joseph patted his nephew approvingly on the shoulder. Launce turnedaway on _his_ side, and shut himself up in his cabin.
The other three ascended together to the deck.