A Stormy Passage
A STORMY PASSAGE.
By W. PETT RIDGE.
THE Mary Beatrice lay at low tide in the harbour waiting for a Paris train, which was picking its way very carefully along the rails on the Quai Chanzy above. The electric globes sent a moonlight haze over the upper deck; the captain on the bridge by their aid looked at his watch and said something about French railways that need not be printed here. A middle-aged clean-shaven, cheerful-looking man sitting on a deck-chair near the funnel glanced up. French children trying to sell mechanical dolls from the edge of the quay, watched casually the melancholy person who walked up and down in a clumsy suit of innumerable fancy baskets, articles which did not appear to be indispensable to the happiness of the evening-boat passengers. At the back, lights of the town speckled the edge of the harbour, and the bell of a tram-car rang warningly.
"Paris train late, surely," said the clean-shaven personage.
"Everybody's late in this country, Sir," replied the first mate respectfully. "Give me England."
"I rather want England myself," said the passenger. "Haven't seen it for ten years." The Paris train stopped on the quay above. Passengers came down the wet stone stairs and advanced to the slanting gangway. "Anyone special on board?"
"Funny thing you should ask the question, Sir. As it 'appens, I see by the luggage that Mr. Lewis 'Omersham, whose name you 've seen in the papers, is crossing to-night?"
"Don't think much of him," said the passenger, rising and going to the foot of the gangway.
"Well, but, Sir——"
"I am Mr. Lewis Homersham."
"Dang my old eyes," said the chief mate with Kentish strenuousness, "if I ain't always a-putting my foot in it."
The passengers came down the sloping gangway with more or less of trepidation. A tall lady of generous figure, in a flowing grey cloak that made her look like some large bird on the wing, called to her maid in slipping near to the deck end, and the maid, in sympathy, slipped also. Mr. Homersham put out one arm, and with some difficulty saved the opulent lady from disaster.
"Thank you ever so much," she said gratefully. "This is such a very awkward arrangement, and—Martin, how tiresome you are! A clumsier maid I think I never saw." The maid, having picked herself up, ran down recklessly into the arms of two sailors, who caught her and swung her round neatly. "How 's that, umpire?" demanded the two sailors of each other.
"Margaret," said Mr. Homersham suddenly, pulling off his travelling-cap.
"Lewis!" ejaculated the lady.
"But for your voice," he said, "I should not have known you."
"Is that intended for a compliment?" she asked.
"My dear girl," he said hastily, "you cannot, of course, help being charming whatever alterations time may bring."
"They tell me," she said vaguely, as one speaking of a subject of which it was not possible to have personal knowledge, "that I have grown stouter."
"I don't think so," he said. This was not the truth, but it seemed more effective than the truth, for she beamed upon him pleasantly. A family of spare girls, ranging in height from six feet to about four feet two, marched past, clearing the deck and complaining bitterly of the other passengers; the last giant trunk of baggage was being swung on board.
"I have a private cabin," she remarked, after she had sent a contemptuous look at the thin family, "but I think as I have met you, Lewis, I 'd rather stay on deck. It only takes about an hour and a half."
"The time," said Mr. Homersham, "will seem too short in your company."
"Tell my stupid maid to go down, will you, and not to stand there like a ridiculous idiot?"
Mr. Homersham obeyed, slightly modifying the wording of the order, and Martin, giving the patient sigh of one accustomed to dealing with a mistress who possessed a temper, went down the companion. The Mary Beatrice moved gingerly out into the centre of the harbour, where there was just enough water, and seemingly not a tumblerful too much, to enable her to get out into the open. Silhouetted figures lining the edge of the quay waved farewell, the captain ordered a protecting canvas to be fitted at the end of his bridge. Now this startled observant passengers.
"It is going to be a rough crossing, Margaret," said Mr. Homersham, returning. "Are you quite sure——"
"I 'm a good sailor," she replied definitely. "I hope you are."
"I hope so too."
"We have an enormous amount to talk about," she said, nodding her large hat in a winning manner. "It seems years since we met,. Lewis."
"It is years," he said.
"I was quite a girl."
"You were," he said, "then."
"I saw," she said, "that you obtained your C.B."
"Backstair influence," he said lightly. It seemed that Mr. Lewis Homersham was not entirely at his ease: he assumed too obviously an air of unconcern. "You have no idea how these things can be managed."
"I think I have," she said, touching him on the arm. "I read all about your excellent work as Consul during the outbreak."
"Newspapers have to exaggerate."
"Not unless they see real necessity for doing so. I thought of you a good deal at that time." She paused. The Mary Beatrice had found her way out of the shallow harbour now, and was on the dark open Channel, a fine spray of salt-water came humorously over the first-class deck, and passengers who objected to practical jokes of this kind prepared to descend to the saloon. "I say, Lewis," she repeated, raising her voice, "that I thought of you a good deal at that time."
"You are very kind, Margaret."
"I wonder whether—hadn't you better put up your coat-collar—I wonder whether you have ever thought of me?"
"When I had time to do so."
"Love," quoted the stout lady pathetically, "is of a man's life a what do you call it, 'tis woman's—you must really get some tarpaulins, Lewis. Do bestir yourself, please, and pay some attention to me." A passing sailor with a Red Indian touch in his veins was hunting for palefaces, and brought a covering; the two sat nearer to each other, sharing it. "What was I saying when you interrupted?"
"I 've had rather a busy time out there," he said, without replying to her question. "I ought, I suppose, to have written to you, but the Colonial Office has received most of my letters."
"I wonder whether men ever think," said the lady bitterly, "how much of happiness they miss by concentrating their attentions on mere self-advancement. The day surely comes when they feel remorse."
"One can always find something to reproach oneself about. Are you still living with your aunt in Lancaster Gate?"
"I suppose it never occurred to you, Lewis, that you treated me very badly?"
"I?" he stammered. "I—I treated you badly?"
"You!" she said with calm.
"We had a quarrel, certainly, but——"
"I needn't remind you," she snapped, "who was to blame there. No one can say that I ever began a dispute." He bowed his head politely. "The next thing I heard was that you had left England to take up this appointment."
"May I venture to remind you, Margaret, that you particularly requested that I should do so?"
"My dear Lewis!" protested the lady. "Do you mean to tell me that you don't understand women-folk better than that?"
"I am exceedingly sorry," he began.
"What is the use of being sorry now?" she asked indignantly. "Will that make the case any better? You might go down on your knees before me——"
"The deck is very wet," he urged.
"And apologise for your hastiness, but it would do no earthly good now. The past is past."
"Yes," he said with relief; "it has that advantage."
The Mary Beatrice dipped its head into the turbulent sea. The detachment of spare girls still marching round and around the deck fell into momentary disorder, regaining discipline as the steamer resumed its normal attitude, only to be swept down into the saloon by the next wave. The two were now alone.
"Whom did you marry, Lewis?" she asked sharply.
"I beg pardon."
"I asked you as distinctly as I could, Whom-Did—You—Marry?"
"I have never married," he said, with a touch of pathos in his voice. "I have never been engaged to anyone, Margaret, but you."
"Poor Lewis!" she said. Her gloved hand traced the outline of a heart in the tarpaulin that covered her lap. "And now you are home again, and I am the first person you meet. Some," she remarked with a sigh, "would call this fate." He edged away slightly and seemed half inclined to suggest another name. "There is no doubt, to my mind," she went on in the manner of one propounding a novel idea, "that everything is ordered for us in this world. We are mere puppets; we have to obey the strings that pull us. It is quite useless, Lewis, for you to contradict me because I know that it is so."
"My dear Margaret," he protested, "I don't contradict you."
"Oh yes, you do," said the lady firmly; "you wouldn't be a man if you didn't. And please, please don't pull the tarpaulin away. You can sit closer, surely!" He apologised and edged nearer to her. "I should think, Lewis," she continued, "that when you come to the end of your life the one thing with which you will have to reproach yourself most will be the unmanly way in which you broke off our engagement."
"To tell you the truth, I had nearly forgotten all about it."
"Ah!" she said triumphantly, "I knew it! I knew it! That is how a woman's heart is treated. Lifelong devotion on her part counts as nothing."
"My dear," he said, "do be reasonable. We were only engaged about a fortnight."
"Cast aside like an old glove that has been plucked in the garden of life, and once its petals have commenced to fade——"
"Margaret," he said determinedly, "I can't allow you to talk in this way."
"A man," she remarked acutely, "a man never likes to hear the truth. I've noticed that over and over again."
"Are you sure," he said, after a politic silence, "that you would not prefer to go below?"
"If I did prefer it," she replied brusquely, "I should do so."
"The changing lights at Cape Grisnez," he said, turning his head, "show out very clearly on a dark night like this." She did not look round. "When one thinks of the number of vessels——"
"I suppose," she interrupted, "it is nothing to you, Lewis, that the best years of my life have been spoilt by your inexcusable burst of ill-temper."
"I should be sorry," he said courteously, "to think that had been the case."
"Do I understand you," said the lady icily, "to doubt my word?"
"No, no. Don't misconstrue me."
"I think," she said with deliberation, "that but for your wrong-headedness—but for your fatal hastiness and lack of serenity, we might have spent a lifetime of perfect happiness together."
"Oh?" he said.
"We were young; we could have walked hand in hand through life, sharing each other's sorrows; we should have had every taste in common—— You 're not going to smoke a cigar?"
"Do you prefer a pipe?"
"You seriously mean——"
"I was about to ask your permission. The wind will blow it away from you."
"I never tolerate smoke," said the lady, tapping the wet deck with one shoe. "A most objectionable habit, and I do all that I can to put a stop to it. It is never allowed for one single moment in my house. I simply won't tolerate it."
"There is nobody in your house, I take it, who would care to smoke much. For my part, I owe a good deal to tobacco."
"No husband of mine," she said, "shall ever smoke."
He glanced at her curiously. Could it be that she expected a renewal of the old and brief engagement? Were his prospects of a comfortable middle-aged bachelor life in the Albany endangered? Was there not some merciful Statute of Limitations which protected middle-aged men in cases like this? A wave reared its head on the starboard side and broke: the water rolled up to their feet.
"Exactly resembles my life," said the lady, shaking her head dolefully. "Dashed at the very apex of expectation, and all ambition gone!"
"My dear Margaret," said Mr. Lewis Homersham with anxiety, "I really beg you not to talk in this manner. I am distressed to think that you consider your life wasted, but I cannot feel that I am to blame."
"I feel sure you have had a fair amount of happiness in your life; that it has not been all so grey as you now imagine."
"I have tried to bear up," she said mournfully. "Nobody knows what it has cost."
"You are still well off, Margaret?"
"Happiness," she said with tears, "cannot be bought."
"Margaret," he said impulsively, "is there anything I can do? You appear to think I behaved badly; can I——"
"Too late," she said with pathos; "too late."
Mr. Lewis Homersham muttered a "Pray excuse me," and started up; before the lady could protest he had marched away aft. This was a situation that demanded insistently the smoking of a cigar; he was a man who thought best when smoking. Her last remark had touched him acutely. Perhaps without knowing it, he had not comported himself in the old days with sufficient tolerance: he might have been hasty, and a right-minded man should repair at leisure the hurried blunders that he makes.
The blustering wind consumed as much of the cigar as he himself did, but he smoked sufficiently to arrange and to make up his mind. It was a wrench to have to alter all his plans; hard on a middle-aged bachelor to have to relinquish his state of single content; but right was right. At any rate, he would renew his proposal on the way from Folkestone to London: he wished he could think there was any chance of receiving a refusal. He wished, too, she had not grown so very stout.
The lights of the Leas at Folkestone were near, and white-faced passengers came up hesitatingly from below. Lewis Homersham, about to rejoin the lady who had once excited his youthful admiration, saw that her maid was now in attendance upon her, receiving stern reproof with a placid aspect of resignation. The Mary Beatrice entered the harbour, and as he took his portmanteau and joined the queue of disembarking passengers, he managed to speak to her.
"You will allow me to travel up with you, Margaret?"
"If you wish it, Lewis."
At the long bench where the Custom officers examined the hand-baggage there was presently commotion. The maid left her open bag and ran to her mistress, who was standing near to Mr. Homersham.
"My lady! They want to charge on those bottles of eau-de-Cologne."
"How dare they attempt to swindle me!" said her mistress excitedly. "Tell them that I shall get my husband to write to the County Council about it."
"You are married?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, yes, of course I am married," she answered impatiently. "Sir Robert had to stay in Paris; it was most annoying; if I hadn't had you to argue with I might have been ill. Which is the way to the train?"
"On reflection," said Mr. Lewis Homersham cheerfully as they went upstairs, "I think I will travel up in a smoking compartment."