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My Danish Sweetheart: A Novel. Volume 3 of 3, Page 2

William Clark Russell



  It was four o'clock when the steamer passed, and, half an hour later,she was out of sight, so rapid was the combined pace of the vessels. Hername was large upon her stern had we chosen to read it, but the mate wastoo busy with his board and I with my temper to note the letters, andHelga did not think of doing so, and thus it was that the steamer passedaway and none of us knew more about her than that she was a Cape Unionmail-liner bound to England with now a message, meant for my mother, onboard.

  The Captain hung about us, and was all blandness, courtesy, andadmiration when he addressed Helga or directed his eyes at her. On hisfirst joining us she said quickly, pointing to the steamer that wasstill in sight:

  'Why have you suffered us to lose that opportunity?'

  'Mr. Tregarthen's and your company,' he answered, 'makes me so happythat I cannot bear to part with you yet!'

  Her little nostrils enlarged, her blue eyes glittered, her breastquickly rose and fell.

  'You called yourself a Samaritan yesterday!' she exclaimed, with all thescorn her tender soul was capable of, and her pensive, pretty face couldexpress. 'Is this the way in which Samaritans usually behave?'

  He viewed her as though she were a picture that cannot be held in a newposition without disclosing a fresh grace.

  'You are too good and kind to be cruel,' said he, regarding her withdeepening admiration, as it seemed to me. 'The Samaritan played his partfairly well yesterday, I believe?' He blandly bowed to her with acountenance of exquisite self-complacency. 'He is still on board, mydear young lady, with a character in essentials unchanged, merelyenlarged.' Here he spread his fingers upon his breast, and expanded hiswaistcoat, looking at her in a very knowing sort of way, with his headon one side. 'Now that we have sent our message home, there is no hurry.Our little cruise,' he exclaimed, pointing over the bow, 'is almostentirely tropical, and there is no reason at all why we should not findit delightful!'

  I caught Helga's eye, and exhorted her by a glance to keep silent. Shefixed her gaze upon the deck, with a lip lightly curled by disgust, andI stepped aft under a pretence to look at the compass, with so much morecontempt and anger than I could hold between my teeth that I dared notspeak.

  The breeze slackened as the sun sank, and at supper, as the Captainpersisted in calling the last meal, the ocean fell calm and the oldbroad-bowed barque rolled sleepily, but with much creaking of herrheumatic bones, upon a long-drawn polished swell flowing out of thenorth-east. Her canvas beat the masts and fetched reports out of thetall spars that penetrated the little cuddy like discharges of musketry.

  For a long while the Captain gave Helga and me no opportunity for aquiet talk. At table he was more effusive than he had been,distressingly importunate in his attentions to the girl, to whom hewould address himself in tones of loverlike coaxing if she happened tosay No to his entreaties to her to drink a little wine, to try a sliceof ham, and the like. He begged us to make ourselves thoroughly at home;his coloured cook, he said, was not a first-rate hand, but if Miss Helgaever had a fancy, she need but name it, and it would go very hard withthe cook if he failed to humour her.

  'We are not a yacht,' said he, pulling a whisker and looking around,'but, most fortunately, gaudy mirrors and handsome carpets and theginger-bread ornamentations of the pleasure craft need never form anyportion of human happiness at sea. The sun looks as brightly down uponthe _Light of the World_ as upon the most stately ship afloat, the oceanbreeze will taste as sweetly over my bulwark-rails as on the bridge ofthe gallantest man-of-war that flies the crimson cross;' and thus hewent on vapouring as usual in fathoms of commonplace, yet with a blandunderlying insistence always upon our being his guests, upon ourremaining with him and being happy, as though, indeed, we had cheerfullyconsented to stop, and were looking forward with great enjoyment to thevoyage.

  I was as cold and distant as I could well be, answered him inmonosyllables, ate as if with aversion, and as though I constrainedmyself to devour merely to keep body and soul together. But he did notseem to heed my manner in the least; I could swear, indeed, that he didnot observe it. He was wholly engrossed in contemplation of Helga, andin the enjoyment of enlarging his waistcoat, and delivering, more orless through his nose, with a fixed smile and somewhat leering eye, thedull, trivial, insipid contents of his mind.

  He asked the girl to play draughts with him when Punmeamootty hadcleared the table. On her declining, he fetched from his cabin thevolume of Jeremy Taylor--it was that divine's 'Holy Living and Dying,' Ithink--and asked permission to read a few pages aloud. She could notrefuse, and I see that extraordinary shipmaster now, standing under thelamp, holding the portly volume up with both hands, smiling upon thepage, pausing at intervals to look over the top of the book at the girlwith a nod to serve as a point of admiration, and reading nasallywithout the faintest inflection, so that at a little distance hisdelivery must have sounded like a continuous groan. He then begged herto read to him.

  'What greater treat could we have,' said he, looking at me, 'than tohear the rich, noble, impressive words of this great Bishop pronouncedby the charming lips of Miss Helga Nielsen?'

  But she curtly refused; and, after hovering about her for anotherhalf-hour, during which I could notice a growing air in him that was adistinct intimation, in its way, of his entire satisfaction with theprogress he was making, he withdrew to his cabin.

  Helga looked at me with weariness and dismay, and moistened her lips.

  'This is worse than the raft,' said I.

  'It is so bad,' she exclaimed, 'that I feel persuaded it cannot last.'

  'Let us go on deck. If we linger here he may rejoin us. How tragical itall is one may know by the humour of it.'

  We went softly to the companion-steps, and I recollect that I lookedover my shoulder to see if he was following us--than which I can recallno better proof of my perfect recognition of our helplessness.

  The new moon had followed the sun, and the planet would not be showingby night for two or three days; but in the south, and over ourmastheads, the sky was richly spangled with stars, which burnt in one ortwo dyes of glory, and very sharply, whence, from recollection of a likesight at home, I supposed that hard weather was at hand. There was somelittle lightning, of a delicate shade of violet, in the north-east,which, indeed, would have been no noticeable thing down in this part ofthe world but for the mountainous heaping of cloud it revealed, a blacksullen mass stretching along the sea-line in that quarter, and putting ahue as of ink into the dusk which swept in glittering obscurity to theshadow of it. There was a great deal of greenish fire in the sea, and itbroadened and shrank in wide spaces in the lift of the noiseless runningswell as though the rays of a tinted lantern were cast upon the water.The dew was plentiful, and lay along the rails and upon the skylight,crisp as frost in the starshine.

  It was Abraham's watch, and I spied his figure flitting cumbrously inthe neighbourhood of the wheel, at which stood the shape of somecoloured man, motionless as though carved in ebony, faintly touched bythe sheen of the binnacle lamp. I was in no humour to converse with theboatman. His stupid talk that afternoon in response to my questions hadvexed me, and I was still angry with the fool, as I chose to think him,spite of the claims he had upon my kindness and gratitude.

  I put Helga's hand under my arm, and we quietly patrolled the deck toleeward. Our conversation wholly concerned our position--it would onlytease you to repeat it. There was nothing to suggest, no plan topropose; for think, advise, scheme as we might, it could only come tothis: that if the Captain declined to part with us, then, unless the mentook our side and insisted on putting us aboard a passing ship, we muststop. But if the crew took our side, it would be mutiny with them; andbewilderingly disagreeable as our situation was, preposterously andridiculously wretched as it was, yet assuredly it was not to be mendedby a revolt among those dusky skins forward.

  Yet the fancy of stirring up the Malays to befriend us was in my mind asI walked with the girl.

nbsp; 'God forbid,' said I, 'that I should have a hand in it; yet, for allthat, I believe it is to be done. I had a short talk with Nakier to-day,and there was that in his questions and his manner which persuades methat the train is ready, and nothing wanting but the spark.'

  'A mutiny is a terrible thing at sea,' said she; 'and what would menlike the crew of this ship stop at?'

  'Ay, nothing more terrible, Helga. But are we to be carried to theCape?'

  'The Captain has no intention of putting into Santa Cruz,' said she.

  '_That_ we may be sure of. But does the fellow intend that you shallpass week after week with no other apparel than what you stand up in?'

  I was interrupted by Abraham sending a hurricane shout into theblackness forward for some hands to clew up the fore and main royals,and for others to lay aft and haul down the gaff-topsail.

  'It's agoing to blow to-night, Mr. Tregarthen,' he called across to me.

  'Yes; and you may see where it is coming from, too,' I replied, notknowing till then that he had observed us.

  In a few moments the silence that had hung upon the vessel, with nothingto disturb it but an occasional sob of water and the beating of canvashollowing into the mast to the roll of the fabric, was broken by thestrange howling noises raised by the coloured seamen as they hauled uponthe gear.

  'Get them sails furled, my lads!' bawled Abraham; 'and the rest of yelay aft and take this 'ere mizzen off her.'

  'It is wonderful that the fellows should understand the man,' said I.

  'There's the Captain!' exclaimed Helga, instantly halting, and thenrecoiling in a way that dragged me a pace back with her.

  He rose through the companion-hatch, his outline vaguely visible in thedim radiance sifting through the cabin skylight. Abraham addressed him.

  'Quite right, Wise, very wise of you, Wise!' he exclaimed. 'There is amarked fall in the barometer, and I perceive lightning in thenorth-east, with a deal of rugged cloud down there.' His shadowy formstepped to the binnacle, into which he peered a moment. 'I think, Wise,'said he--and, to use a Paddyism, I could _see_ the man's fixed andsingular smile in the oiliness of his accents--'that you cannot dobetter than go forward and rouse up all hands. I can rely best upon mycrew when the weather is quiet.'

  Abraham trudged forward, and a minute later I heard him thumping heavilyon the fore hatch, topping the blows with a boatswain's hoarse roar of'All hands shorten sail!'

  'The Captain's politeness,' I said, 'will end in making that Dealboatman sit at his feet.'

  'He is afraid of his crew, perhaps,' answered Helga, 'and is behaving soas to make sure that the two men will stand by him should difficultiescome.'

  'It was a bad blow that sunk the fellows' lugger. We might have sightedthat steamer of to-day and be now homeward bound at the rate of fourteenknots an hour.'

  'And it is all my fault!' she cried, in tones impassioned by regret andtemper. 'But for me, Hugh----'

  I silenced her by taking her hand as it lay in my arm and pressing it.She drew closer to me, with a movement caressing but wistful too, thoughfinely and tenderly simple.

  I did not doubt that the Captain perceived us; nevertheless, he hungnear the wheel, never coming farther forward than the companion-hatch,while we kept at the other end of the little poop, where the shadow ofthe port-wing of mainsail lay heavy.

  Shortly after Abraham had summoned the men, the decks were alive withsliding and gliding shapes, and the stillness of the ocean night wasclamorous with parrot-like cries. The lightning had ceased, but thedarkness was fast deepening, and overhead the stars were beginning tolanguish in the projected dimness of the growing mass of cloud that, nowthat there was no play of violet fire upon it, was indistinguishable inits own dumb, brooding obscurity.

  'Whatever is to come will happen on a sudden,' said I.

  We neither of us cared to keep the deck now that the Captain hadarrived, and descending the ladder, we entered the cabin. Under otherconditions I should have been willing, and indeed anxious, to assistthe crew, but now I was resolved not to touch a rope, to maintain andpresent as sullen a front as I could contrive, to hold apart with Helga,to mark my resentment by my behavior, and so, perhaps--but God knows Ihad no hope of it--to intimidate the fellow into releasing us byobliging him to understand that he had already gone a very great dealtoo far. There was much noise on deck; Mr. Jones was bawling from theforecastle, and Abraham from the waist, and the songs of the Malaysmight easily have passed for the cries of people writhing in pain.Apparently the Captain was alarmed by the indications of the glass andthe look of the weather in the north-east, and was denuding his littleship as speedily as might be. His own voice began to sound now, and,though it was perfectly distinguishable, there was nothing nasal, bland,or greasy about it. On the contrary, his roars seemed to proceed from apair of honest sealungs, as though what was nautical in him had beenworked up by the appearance of the weather, and was proving too strongfor the soapy exterior of his habitual manner.

  'He can be natural when he forgets himself,' said I.

  'It is quite possible that he swears at times,' said Helga.

  'One touch of nature in the fellow would make me feel almostcomfortable,' I exclaimed.

  'He is not a true sailor: he never could be natural for any length oftime,' said Helga.

  The pattering of the naked feet of the crew was like the noise of ashower of rain. Helga seemed to be able to follow what was being done,as though she were on deck directing the crew.

  They have furled this sail--they are reefing that sail--now they arehauling down such and such a jib--now they are stowing the mainsail, shewould say, giving the canvas its proper names, and looking at me with alittle smile in her liquid blue eyes, as though the interest in thesailors' work made her forget our troubles.

  'Be as nautical as you like with me,' said I. 'I love to hear youpronounce the strange, uncouth language of the sea; but guard your lipsbefore the Captain. The more sailorly you are, the more he will admireyou.'

  'What would make him hate me?' she exclaimed, with the light of thesmile going out of her eyes, and her white brow contracting. 'How is heto be sickened?'

  'Oh, what can you do? What can a pretty girl do that will not heightenthe passion of a man who has fallen in love with her?'

  'Call me pretty if you will,' said she, with a maidenly droop of hereyelids; 'but do not speak of me as a girl with whom anybody has fallenin love.'

  'By George!' said I, starting and heaving a long sigh, with a look atthe clock, the hands of which were now at nine, 'the road to Koldinggets longer and longer. But we shall measure it--we shall measure ityet, Helga!' I quickly added, heartily grieved by the sorrow thatentered her face.

  'What a strange dream has all this time been!' she half murmured,pressing her eyes. 'My father stood by my side last night; I felt hiskiss--oh, Hugh! it was colder than the salt water outside.' She utteredan exclamation in Danish, with a little passionate shake of the head.

  'I hope you are quite comfortable below,' exclaimed a much too familiarvoice, and, looking up, I spied the long whiskers and smilingcountenance of Captain Bunting framed in the open casement of theskylight.

  Helga rallied as if to a shock, and stiffened into marble, motionless,and with a hardening of her countenance that I should have thoughtimpossible to the gentle, ingenuous prettiness of her face.

  'I fear,' he continued, talking through the skylight, 'that we are infor some nasty weather; but my barque is stripped and nearly ready forthe affray. I am grieved not to be able to join you, Miss Nielsen. It isnecessary that I should remain on deck. You are partaking of norefreshment. I will send Punmeamootty to you. Pray give him yourorders.'

  His whiskers floated out into the obscurity like two puffs of smoke, andhe called, but in genteel accents, for Helga was now listening, and heknew it, to Abraham to send Punmeamootty 'to wait upon his guests in thecabin.' A moment after his whiskers reappeared.

  'I have to beg, Miss Nielsen, that you will consider yourself mistresshere.
And before you withdraw to rest--and, whatever may happen, prayslumber securely, for _I_ shall be watching the ship--may I entreat youto occupy Mr. Jones's berth, which you will find so very much more airyand comfortable than the dark, confined steerage?'

  'I am quite satisfied with my accommodation, thank you,' she answered,without looking up.

  He youthfully wagged his head in reproach of what his manner seemed toconsider no more than an enchanting girlish capriciousness, and adding,'Well, I entreat you both to make yourselves thoroughly at home,' hedisappeared.

  Punmeamootty arrived. He entered soundlessly as a spirit, and with thegliding movements that one could imagine of a phantom. I said to Helga:

  'Abraham's philosophy shall be mine. My temper shall not prevent me fromusing our friend's larder. You asked just now what will sicken him. Letus eat and drink him up! Punmeamootty, when is the gale going to burst?'

  'It will not be long, sah,' he answered, showing his teeth.

  'Put the best supper you can upon the table. Have you nothing betterthan rum to drink?'

  'Dere is wine, sah.'

  'Yes, and very poor wine too. Have you no brandy?'

  'Yes, sah, de Capt'n hab some choice brandy for sickness.'

  'Put a bottle of it on the table, Punmeamootty, and be quick, like agood fellow as you are, to serve the food before this sweet little shipbegins to kick up her heels.'

  He showed his teeth again, with a glance at the skylight, following iton with a short-lived look of deep interest at Helga, then slipped away.

  With wonderful nimbleness he had spread the cloth and put ham, saltbeef, biscuit, and such things upon the table.

  'Now draw that cork!' said I.

  The pop of it brought the whiskers to the open skylight as if by magic.

  'Quite right, quite right!' exclaimed the Captain. 'I hope, Miss Helga,this repast is of _your_ ordering? What have you there, Punmeamootty?'he suddenly cried with excitement. 'That is brandy, I believe?'

  'I ordered it!' I called out in a sullen voice.

  'You will handle it tenderly, if you please,' said he, with a trifle ofasperity in his speech. 'It is a fine cordial brandy, and I have butthree bottles of it.'

  I returned no answer, and he vanished.

  'Upon my word, I believe Abraham is right, after all!' said I, with alaugh. 'Now, Helga, to punish him, if the road to his sensibility liethrough ham and beef!'

  She feigned to eat merely to please me, as I could see. Though I was notvery hungry, I made a great business of sharpening my knife, and fell tothe beef and ham with every appearance of avidity, not doubting that weshould be furtively surveyed from time to time by the Captain, who couldpeep at us unseen without trouble as he passed the skylight, and whocould very well overhear the clatter of dishes, the sharpening of myknife, and my calls to the steward, so silent did the night continue, asthough there rested some great hush of expectancy upon the ocean.

  I filled a bumper of brandy-and-water, and exclaimed in a loud voice:

  'Here's to our speedy release, Helga! But if that is not to happen, thenhere's to the safest and swiftest passage this crazy old bucket iscapable of making. And here's to proceedings hereafter to be taken!'

  The coloured steward stood looking on with a grin of wonder.

  'Capital brandy, this, Punmeamootty!' I sang out in accents that mighthave been heard upon the forecastle. 'Another drop, if you please! Thankyou! I will help myself.'

  A mere drop it was, for I had had enough; but I took care by my postureto persuade an eye surveying me from above that I was not sparing thebottle.

  'You may clear away, Punmeamootty; and if you can find a cigar I shallfeel obliged by your bringing it to me.'

  'Well, and how are we getting on?' exclaimed the Captain, bending hishead into the skylight.

  'We have supped, thank you,' I answered haughtily and coldly.'Punmeamootty, a cigar, if you please!'

  The Captain's head vanished.

  'Me no sabbee where the Capt'n him keep his cigar,' said Punmeamootty.

  'Ransack his cabin!' said I loudly.

  The fellow shook his head, but there was enjoyment in his grin, with anexpression of elation in his eyes that borrowed a quality of fiercenessfrom the singularly keen gleam which irradiated their dusky depths. Iwas about to speak, when Helga raised her hand.

  'Hark!' she cried.

  I bent my ear, and caught a sound resembling the low moan of surf heardat a distance.

  'More than a capful of wind goes to the making of that noise,' said I.

  A bright flash of lightning dazzled upon the skylight and eclipsed thecabin-lamp with its blinding bluish glare. A small shock of thunderfollowed. I heard the Captain cry out an order; the next minute theskylight was hastily closed and a tarpaulin thrown over it.

  'Bring me my oilskins, Punmeamootty!' shouted the Captain down thecompanionway. The man ran on deck with the things.

  'Can that be rain?' cried Helga.

  Rain it was indeed! a very avalanche of wet, charged with immensehailstones. The roar of the smoking discharge upon the planks wasabsolutely deafening. It lasted about a couple of minutes, then ceasedwith startling suddenness, and you heard nothing but the surf-likemoaning that had now gathered a deeper and a more thrilling note,mingled with the wild sobbing in the scuppers, and a melancholy hissingof wet as the water on the quarter-deck splashed from side to side tothe light rolling of the barque. Yet fully another five minutes passedin quiet, while the growling of the thunder of the still distantstorm-swept sea waxed fiercer and fiercer. It was as though one stood atthe mouth of a tunnel and listened to the growing rattling and rumblingof a long train of goods waggons approaching in tow of a pantinglocomotive.

  Then in a breath the wind smote the barque, and down she leaned to it.So amazingly violent was the angle, I do most truthfully believe thatfor the space of some twenty or thirty seconds the barque lay completelyon her beam ends, as much so as if she were bilged high and dry upon ashoal, and there was a dreadful noise of water pouring in upon her deckfrom over the submerged lee main-deck rail.

  Helga was to windward, and the table supported her, but the chair uponwhich I was seated broke away with me, and I fell sprawling upon my backamid a whole raffle of the contents of the table, which Punmeamootty hadnot yet removed. The full mess of it came headlong about me with amighty smash; the beef, the ham, the bottle of brandy, now shivered intoa thousand pieces, the jam pots, the biscuits, the knives and forks--allthese things I lay in the midst of, and such was the heel of the deckthat I could not stir a limb. Helga shrieked.

  I cried out:

  'I am not hurt; I'll rise when I can.' Someone was hoarsely bawling fromthe poop; but whatever the meaning of the yell might have been, it wasimmediately followed by a loud report resembling the blast of atwenty-four-pounder gun. 'There goes a sail!' I shouted. The vesselfound life on being relieved of the canvas, whatever it was; there was agradual recovery of her hull, and presently she was on a level keel,driving smoothly as a sleigh over a level plain of snow, but with suchan infernal bellowing and hooting and ear-piercing whistling of windaccompanying her that there is nothing I can imagine to liken it to.

  I waited awhile, and then, bidding Helga stay where she was, went on tothe quarter-deck; but all betwixt the rails was of a pitch darkness,with a sort of hoariness in the blackness on either hand outside, risingfrom the foam, of which the ocean was now one vast field. I mounted thepoop-ladder, but was blinded in a moment by the violence of the wind,that was full of wet, and was glad to regain the cabin; for I could beof no use, and there was no question to be asked nor answer to be caughtat such a time.