Miss or Mrs.?, Page 2Wilkie Collins
Persons possessed of sluggish livers and tender hearts find two seriousdrawbacks to the enjoyment of a cruise at sea. It is exceedinglydifficult to get enough walking exercise; and it is next to impossible(where secrecy is an object) to make love without being found out.Reverting for the moment to the latter difficulty only, life within thenarrow and populous limits of a vessel may be defined as essentiallylife in public. From morning to night you are in your neighbor's way, oryour neighbor is in your way. As a necessary result of these conditions,the rarest of existing men may be defined as the man who is capableof stealing a kiss at sea without discovery. An inbred capacity forstratagem of the finest sort; inexhaustible inventive resources;patience which can flourish under superhuman trials; presence of mindwhich can keep its balance victoriously under every possible stress ofemergency--these are some of the qualifications which must accompanyLove on a cruise, when Love embarks in the character of a contrabandcommodity not duly entered on the papers of the ship.
Having established a Code of Signals which enabled them to communicateprivately, while the eyes and ears of others were wide open on everyside of them, Natalie and Launce were next confronted by the moreserious difficulty of finding a means of meeting together at stoleninterviews on board the yacht. Possessing none of those preciousmoral qualifications already enumerated as the qualifications of anaccomplished lover at sea, Launce had proved unequal to grapple with theobstacles in his way. Left to her own inventive resources, Nataliehad first suggested the young surgeon's medical studies as Launce'sunanswerable excuse for shutting himself up at intervals in the lowerregions, and had then hit on the happy idea of tearing her trimmings,and condemning herself to repair her own carelessness, as theall-sufficient reason for similar acts of self-seclusion on her side.In this way the lovers contrived, while the innocent ruling authoritieswere on deck, to meet privately below them, on the neutral ground of themain cabin; and there, by previous arrangement at the breakfast-table,they were about to meet privately now.
Natalie's door was, as usual on these occasions, the first that opened;for this sound reason, that Natalie's quickness was the quickness to bedepended on in case of accident.
She looked up at the sky-light. There were the legs of the two gentlemenand the skirts of her aunt visible (and stationary) on the lee side ofthe deck. She advanced a few steps and listened. There was a pause inthe murmur of the voices above. She looked up again. One pair of legs(not her father's) had disappeared. Without an instant's hesitation,Natalie darted back to her own door, just in time to escape RichardTurlington descending the cabin stairs. All he did was to go to oneof the drawers under the main-cabin book-case and to take out a map,ascending again immediately to the deck. Natalie's guilty consciencerushed instantly, nevertheless, to the conclusion that Richard suspectedher. When she showed herself for the second time, instead of venturinginto the cabin, she called across it in a whisper,
Launce appeared at his door. He was peremptorily checked before he couldcross the threshold.
"Don't stir a step! Richard has been down in the cabin! Richard suspectsus!"
"Nonsense! Come out."
"Nothing will induce me, unless you can find some other place than thecabin."
Some other place? How easy to find it on land! How apparently impossibleat sea! There was the forecastle (full of men) at one end of the vessel.There was the sail room (full of sails) at the other. There was theladies' cabin (used as the ladies' dressing-room; inaccessible, in thatcapacity, to every male human being on board). Was there any disposableinclosed space to be found amidships? On one side there were thesleeping berths of the sailing-master and his mate (impossible toborrow _them_). On the other side was the steward's store-room. Launceconsidered for a moment. The steward's store-room was just the thing!
"Where are you going?" asked Natalie, as her lover made straight for aclosed door at the lower extremity of the main cabin.
"To speak to the steward, darling. Wait one moment, and you will see meagain."
Launce opened the store-room door, and discovered, not the steward, buthis wife, who occupied the situation of stewardess on board the vessel.The accident was, in this case, a lucky one. Having stolen severalkisses at sea, and having been discovered (in every case) either by thesteward or his wife, Launce felt no difficulty in prefacing his requestto be allowed the use of the room by the plainest allusion tohis relations with Natalie. He could count on the silence of thesympathizing authorities in this region of the vessel, having wiselysecured them as accomplices by the usual persuasion of the pecuniarysort. Of the two, however, the stewardess, as a woman, was the morelikely to lend a ready ear to Launce's entreaties in his presentemergency. After a faint show of resistance, she consented, not only toleave the room, but to keep her husband out of it, on the understandingthat it was not to be occupied for more than ten minutes. Launce madethe signal to Natalie at one door, while the stewardess went out by theother. In a moment more the lovers were united in a private room. Is itnecessary to say in what language the proceedings were opened? Surelynot! There is an inarticulate language of the lips in use on theseoccasions in which we are all proficient, though we sometimes forget itin later life. Natalie seated herself on a locker. The tea, sugar, andspices were at her back, a side of bacon swung over her head, and a netfull of lemons dangled before her face. It might not be roomy, but itwas snug and comfortable.
"Suppose they call for the steward?" she suggested. ("Don't, Launce!")
"Never mind. We shall be safe enough if they do. The steward has only toshow himself on deck, and they will suspect nothing."
"Do be quiet, Launce! I have got dreadful news to tell you. And,besides, my aunt will expect to see me with my braid sewn on again."
She had brought her needle and thread with her. Whipping up the skirtof her dress on her knee, she bent forward over it, and set herselfindustriously to the repair of the torn trimming. In this position herlithe figure showed charmingly its firm yet easy line. The needle, inher dexterous brown fingers, flew through its work. The locker was abroad one; Launce was able to seat himself partially behind her. In thisposition who could have resisted the temptation to lift up her greatknot of broadly-plaited black hair, and to let the warm, dusky napeof her neck disclose itself to view? Who, looking at it, could fail torevile the senseless modern fashion of dressing the hair, which hidesthe double beauty of form and color that nestles at the back of awoman's neck? From time to time, as the interview proceeded, Launce'slips emphasized the more important words occurring in his share of theconversation on the soft, fragrant skin which the lifted hair let himsee at intervals. In Launce's place, sir, you would have done it too.
"Now, Natalie, what is the news?"
"He has spoken to papa, Launce."
Natalie started. A curse addressed to the back of your neck, instantlyfollowed by a blessing in the shape of a kiss, is a little trying whenyou are not prepared for it.
"Don't do that again, Launce! It was while you were on deck smoking,and when I was supposed to be fast asleep. I opened the ventilator inmy cabin door, dear, and I heard every word they said. He waited till myaunt was out of the way, and he had got papa all to himself, and then hebegan it in that horrible, downright voice of his--'Graybrooke! how muchlonger am I to wait?'"
"Did he say that?"
"No more swearing, Launce! Those were the words. Papa didn't understandthem. He only said (poor dear!)--'Bless my soul, Richard, what do youwant?' Richard soon explained himself. 'Who could he be waiting for--butMe?' Papa said something about my being so young. Richard stopped hismouth directly. 'Girls were like fruit; some ripened soon, and someripened late. Some were women at twenty, and some were women at sixteen.It was impossible to look at me, and not see that I was like a new beingafter my two months at sea,' and so on and so on. Papa behaved like anangel.
He still tried to put it off. 'Plenty of time, Richard, plentyof time.' 'Plenty of time for _her_' (was the wretch's answer to that);'but not for _me_. Think of all I have to offer her' (as if I cared forhis money!); 'think how long I have looked upon her as growing up tobe my wife' (growing up for _him_--monstrous!), 'and don't keep me ina state of uncertainty, which it gets harder and harder for a man in myposition to endure!' He was really quite eloquent. His voice trembled.There is no doubt, dear, that he is very, very fond of me."
"And you feel flattered by it, of course?"
"Don't talk nonsense. I feel a little frightened at it, I can tell you."
"Frightened? Did _you_ notice him this morning?"
"When your father was telling that story about the man overboard."
"No. What did he do? Tell me, Launce."
"I'll tell you directly. How did it all end last night? Did your fathermake any sort of promise?"
"You know Richard's way; Richard left him no other choice. Papa had topromise before he was allowed to go to bed."
"To let Turlington marry you?"
"Yes; the week after my next birthday."
"The week after next Christmas-day?"
"Yes. Papa is to speak to me as soon as we are at home again, and mymarried life is to begin with the New Year."
"Are you in earnest, Natalie? Do you really mean to say it has gone asfar as that?"
"They have settled everything. The splendid establishment we are to setup, the great income we are to have. I heard papa tell Richard that halfhis fortune should go to me on my wedding-day. It was sickening to hearhow much they made of Money, and how little they thought of Love. Whatam I to do, Launce?"
"That's easily answered, my darling. In the first place, you are to makeup your mind not to marry Richard Turlington--"
"Do talk reasonably. You know I have done all I could. I have told papathat I can think of Richard as a friend, but not as a husband. He onlylaughs at me, and says, 'Wait a little, and you will alter your opinion,my dear.' You see Richard is everything to him; Richard has alwaysmanaged his affairs, and has saved him from losing by bad speculations;Richard has known me from the time when I was a child; Richard has asplendid business, and quantities of money. Papa can't even imagine thatI can resist Richard. I have tried my aunt; I have told her he is tooold for me. All she says is, 'Look at your father; he was much olderthan your mother, and what a happy marriage theirs was.' Even if I saidin so many words, 'I won't marry Richard,' what good would it do to us?Papa is the best and dearest old man in the world; but oh, he is so fondof money! He believes in nothing else. He would be furious--yes, kind ashe is, he would be furious--if I even hinted that I was fond of _you_.Any man who proposed to marry me--if he couldn't match the fortune thatI should bring him by a fortune of his own--would be a lunatic in papa'seyes. He wouldn't think it necessary to answer him; he would ring thebell, and have him shown out of the house. I am exaggerating nothing,Launce; you know I am speaking the truth. There is no hope in thefuture--that I can see--for either of us.
"Have you done, Natalie? I have something to say on my side if youhave."
"What is it?"
"If things go on as they are going on now, shall I tell you how it willend? It will end in your being Turlington's wife."
"So you say now; but you don't know what may happen between this andChristmas-day. Natalie, there is only one way of making sure that youwill never marry Richard. Marry _me_."
"Without papa's consent?"
"Without saying a word to anybody till it's done."
"Oh, Launce! Launce!"
"My darling, every word you have said proves there is no other way.Think of it, Natalie, think of it."
There was a pause. Natalie dropped her needle and thread, and hid herface in her hands. "If my poor mother was only alive," she said; "if Ionly had an elder sister to advise me, and to take my part."
She was evidently hesitating. Launce took a man's advantage of herindecision. He pressed her without mercy.
"Do you love me?" he whispered, with his lips close to her ear.
"You know I do, dearly."
"Put it out of Richard's power to part us, Natalie."
"Part us? We are cousins: we have known each other since we were bothchildren. Even if he proposed parting us, papa wouldn't allow it."
"Mark my words, he _will_ propose it. As for your father, Richardhas only to lift his finger and your father obeys him. My love, thehappiness of both our lives is at stake." He wound his arm round her,and gently drew her head back on his bosom, "Other girls have done it,darling," he pleaded, "why shouldn't you?"
The effort to answer him was too much for her. She gave it up. A lowsigh fluttered through her lips. She nestled closer to him, and faintlyclosed her eyes. The next instant she started up, trembling from headto foot, and looked at the sky-light. Richard Turlington's voice wassuddenly audible on deck exactly above them.
"Graybrooke, I want to say a word to you about Launcelot Linzie."
Natalie's first impulse was to fly to the door. Hearing Launce's name onRichard's lips, she checked herself. Something in Richard's tone rousedin her the curiosity which suspends fear. She waited, with her hand inLaunce's hand.
"If you remember," the brassy voice went on, "I doubted the wisdom oftaking him with us on this cruise. You didn't agree with me, and, atyour express request, I gave way. I did wrong. Launcelot Linzie is avery presuming young man."
Sir Joseph's answer was accompanied by Sir Joseph's mellow laugh.
"My dear Richard! Surely you are a little hard on Launce?"
"You are not an observant man, Graybrooke. I am. I see signs of hispresuming with all of us, and especially with Natalie. I don't likethe manner in which he speaks to her and looks at her. He is undulyfamiliar; he is insolently confidential. There must be a stop put to it.In my position, my feelings ought to be regarded. I request you to checkthe intimacy when we get on shore."
Sir Joseph's next words were spoken more seriously. He expressed hissurprise.
"My dear Richard, they are cousins, they have been playmates fromchildhood. How _can_ you think of attaching the slightest importance toanything that is said or done by poor Launce?"
There was a good-humored contempt in Sir Joseph's reference to "poorLaunce" which jarred on his daughter. He might almost have been alludingto some harmless domestic animal. Natalie's color deepened. Her handpressed Launce's hand gently.
Turlington still persisted.
"I must once more request--seriously request--that you will check thisgrowing intimacy. I don't object to your asking him to the house whenyou ask other friends. I only wish you (and expect you) to stop his'dropping in,' as it is called, any hour of the day or evening when hemay have nothing to do. Is that understood between us?"
"If you make a point of it, Richard, of course it's understood betweenus."
Launce looked at Natalie, as weak Sir Joseph consented in those words.
"What did I tell you?" he whispered.
Natalie hung her head in silence. There was a pause in the conversationon deck. The two gentlemen walked away slowly toward the forward part ofthe vessel.
Launce pursued his advantage.
"Your father leaves us no alternative," he said. "The door will beclosed against me as soon as we get on shore. If I lose you, Natalie, Idon't care what becomes of me. My profession may go to the devil. I havenothing left worth living for."
"Hush! hush! don't talk in that way!"
Launce tried the soothing influence of persuasion once more.
"Hundreds and hundreds of people in our situation have marriedprivately--and have been forgiven afterward," he went on. "I won't askyou to do anything in a hurry. I will be guided entirely by your wishes.All I want to quiet my mind is to know that you are mine. Do, do, domake me feel sure that Richard Turlington can't take you away from me."
"Don't press me, Launce." She dropped on the locker. "See!" she said."It ma
kes me tremble only to think of it!"
"Who are you afraid of, darling? Not your father, surely?"
"Poor papa! I wonder whether he would be hard on me for the first timein his life?" She stopped; her moistening eyes looked up imploringly inLaunce's face. "Don't press me!" she repeated faintly. "You know it'swrong. We should have to confess it--and then what would happen?" Shepaused again. Her eyes wandered nervously to the deck. Her voice droppedto its lowest tones. "Think of Richard!" she said, and shuddered at theterrors which that name conjured up. Before it was possible to say aquieting word to her, she was again on her feet. Richard's name hadsuddenly recalled to her memory Launce's mysterious allusion, at theoutset of the interview, to the owner of the yacht. "What was that yousaid about Richard just now?" she asked. "You saw something (or heardsomething) strange while papa was telling his story. What was it?"
"I noticed Richard's face, Natalie, when your father told us that theman overboard was not one of the pilot-boat's crew. He turned ghastlypale. He looked guilty--"
"Guilty? Of what?"
"He was present--I am certain of it--when the sailor was thrown into thesea. For all I know, he may have been the man who did it."
Natalie started back in horror.
"Oh, Launce! Launce! that is too bad. You may not like Richard--you maytreat Richard as your enemy. But to say such a horrible thing of him asthat--It's not generous. It's not like _you_."
"If you had seen him, you would have said it too. I mean to makeinquiries--in your father's interests as well as in ours. My brotherknows one of the Commissioners of Police, and my brother can get it donefor me. Turlington has not always been in the Levant trade--I know thatalready."
"For shame, Launce! for shame!"
The footsteps on deck were audible coming back. Natalie sprang to thedoor leading into the cabin. Launce stopped her, as she laid her hand onthe lock. The footsteps went straight on toward the stern of the vessel.Launce clasped both arms round her. Natalie gave way.
"Don't drive me to despair!" he said. "This is my last opportunity. Idon't ask you to say at once that you will marry me, I only ask you tothink of it. My darling! my angel! will you think of it?"
As he put the question, they might have heard (if they had not beentoo completely engrossed in each other to listen) the footstepsreturning--one pair of footsteps only this time. Natalie's prolongedabsence had begun to surprise her aunt, and had roused a certain vaguedistrust in Richard's mind. He walked back again along the deck byhimself. He looked absently in the main cabin as he passed it. Thestore-room skylight came next. In his present frame of mind, would helook absently into the store-room too?
"Let me go!" said Natalie.
Launce only answered, "Say yes," and held her as if he would never lether go again.
At the same moment Miss Lavinia's voice rose shrill from the deckcalling for Natalie. There was but one way of getting free from him. Shesaid, "I'll think of it." Upon that, he kissed her and let her go.
The door had barely closed on her when the lowering face of RichardTurlington appeared on a level with the side of the sky-light, lookingdown into the store-room at Launce.
"Halloo!" he called out roughly. "What are you doing in the steward'sroom?"
Launce took up a box of matches on the dresser. "I'm getting a light,"he answered readily.
"I allow nobody below, forward of the main cabin, without my leave. Thesteward has permitted a breach of discipline on board my vessel. Thesteward will leave my service."
"The steward is not to blame."
"I am the judge of that. Not you."
Launce opened his lips to reply. An outbreak between the two menappeared to be inevitable, when the sailing-master of the yacht joinedhis employer on deck, and directed Turlington's attention to a questionwhich is never to be trifled with at sea, the question of wind and tide.
The yacht was then in the Bristol Channel, at the entrance to BidefordBay. The breeze, fast freshening, was also fast changing the directionfrom which it blew. The favorable tide had barely three hours more torun.
"The wind's shifting, sir," said the sailing-master. "I'm afraid weshan't get round the point this tide, unless we lay her off on the othertack."
Turlington shook his head.
"There are letters waiting for me at Bideford," he said. "We have losttwo days in the calm. I must send ashore to the post-office, whether welose the tide or not."
The vessel held on her course. Off the port of Bideford, the boat wassent ashore to the post-office, the yacht standing off and on, waitingthe appearance of the letters. In the shortest time in which it waspossible to bring them on board the letters were in Turlington's hands.
The men were hauling the boat up to the davits, the yacht was alreadyheading off from the land, when Turlington startled everybody by oneperemptory word--"Stop!"
He had thrust all his letters but one into the pocket of his sailingjacket, without reading them. The one letter which he had opened he heldin his closed hand. Rage was in his staring eyes, consternation was onhis pale lips.
"Lower the boat!" he shouted; "I must get to London to-night." Hestopped Sir Joseph, approaching him with opened mouth. "There's no timefor questions and answers. I must get back." He swung himself over theside of the yacht, and addressed the sailing-master from the boat. "Savethe tide if you can; if you can't, put them ashore to-morrow at Mineheador Watchet--wherever they like." He beckoned to Sir Joseph to lean overthe bulwark, and hear something he had to say in private. "Remember whatI told you about Launcelot Linzie!" he whispered fiercely. His partinglook was for Natalie. He spoke to her with a strong constraint onhimself, as gently as he could. "Don't be alarmed; I shall see you inLondon." He seated himself in the boat and took the tiller. The lastwords they heard him say were words urging the men at the oars tolose no time. He was invariably brutal with the men. "Pull, you lazybeggars!" he exclaimed, with an oath. "Pull for your lives!"