The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 12
BY FRANK DANBY.
"Row faster, man, row faster. Move—no, sit where you are, but give me the other oars. Pull, pull," he said, "as if you were getting away from hell." And feverishly, with white set lips, with gleaming eyes. Lord Francis accentuated his words by his actions, and propelled the boat with all the strength of which he was capable, across the blue waters that kept him from Fenella. His feet pressed against the wood, the muscles of his arms standing out like iron, the youth in him dying under the strain, his very brain ceasing to act, and his heart almost standing still; he tried by physical exertion to deaden that burning mental pain that seized him as he felt, saw, heard, and writhed under the sense that he had wronged her, wronged Fenella, wronged the woman who always was and always would be the one woman on earth for him; wronged the girl love that had lain on his breast, believed and loved him; the child who had grown to womanhood in his arms—Fenella, his wife.
And at last the keel of the boat grated on the shore.
He had sat still while Lord Castleton had spoken of the trial. Once the stunning news had overwhelmed him, he had become an automaton and not a man. Sea and sky melted mistily into each other, and mechanically from his mouth issued the empty sentences. But then the hours passed on, Castleton slept, the yacht lay at its moorings, and then—then a glimmer of reason and sense penetrated the dull concussion of that first shock.
"Fenella," he said, "Fenella;" it was a moan, a cry; not a human being asking for his wife, but a soul in anguish crying to its God.
"Did you call, sir?" asked the mate, coming forward, touching his gold-braided cap; "did you call?" With blood-shot eyes Frank looked at him, saw beyond him: "Fenella."
"Any part of Guernsey, sir?"
"I must get back, I must get back."
All that he was capable of was a wish to get back, to see her face again, to fling himself down on his knees before her, see that fair sweet face, that child's face. Murderess they had called her, unfaithful he had called her, O Heaven! and she was his wife, and he—
And then he was in Guernsey again.
She sat at her window, still, white, silent. The hours had crushed heavily over her, and spared her nothing. Not until now did she know, not until now did she realize all that her husband had been to her, all that she had looked for from him, all the hope that had illumined the dark days of her imprisonment, lit up her bare cell, flushed its soft light over the court-house that dreadful day, the day that until now had been the most dreadful day of all her life.
A hundred eyes had been upon her, had burnt greedily into her soul—curious eyes, searching eyes, eyes all around. All the air was alive with voices-voices that rose and fell monotonous, persistent, dreadful. What were they saying? Now a sentence disentangled itself, now another. "The prisoner pleads guilty, my lord." "The prisoner!" How curious it sounded. "The prisoner!" How should she know anything of prisoners, dreadful creatures, shameful, lowering, hideous? She had dreamed of them in her happy childhood, and awaking, shuddering, had hidden her face in nurse's breast, or been soothed to rest again in father's arms.
"The prisoner is separated from her husband," went on that monotonous voice. How strange, she was separated from her husband; strange she should be like the prisoner, a shameful, disgraced prisoner. And dreaming she smiled, smiled in the dock, with a hundred opera glasses scanning her fair pale face, and a hundred naked eyes burning into her secrets.
But the smile woke her, she had always smiled; but now, now it was a long time since she had smiled. What was she smiling at? Then she woke to the knowledge of her surroundings, and she shuddered in the dock; the sweet face grew white and convulsed; suddenly she burst out crying. Crying aloud, poor child, poor wayward child, who had meant to play through life, and woke from her playing—here.
All alive and awake she was for the rest of that horrible day, quivering and trembling and sobbing, half child, half woman, as the trial wore on. Ever and again the crimson flushed into her cheek, her eyes suffused, her head bent, in a very agony of shame; she heard horrible questions, horrible answers. She felt herself undraped before these inquisitorial eyes, and shrinking, drawing her cloak round her with shaking hands, she would try and hide her poor hot face.
But as the day wore on, something of hope crept in warm about her heart. If Frank were here, he would not let them talk so—Frank, her lover. She heard again the passionate protestations of their short betrothal. She felt again his lips against hers. She was back again in the golden days when the sun flush of love was over all her life, and sun queen in those hours she had played with her happiness. And pitifully the tremulous lips murmured, "If Frank were here, he would not let them hurt me; if Frank were here!"
What a strange, complicated Fenella! Arraigned for murder, she pleaded "Guilty."
"Guilty," though her hands were clean! With the unthinking generosity of a child she did a woman's deed with a man's heart. She took her husband's guiltless guilt upon herself, and cried, "It was I," while yet the horror of his act was vibrating through her frame. She had not counted the cost, could not. But if all the sum of those dreadful hours and days had been spread out before her, with shining eyes she would have scanned it, and still have called out generously, "It was I."
But her heart was larger than her brain. Her brain failed her a little at the last. She was dim, confused, frightened. She forgot so much. These men who were there to judge her, noting the crouching, weeping girl, with golden hair disheveled, bloodshot eyes, weak and shrinking, thinking her guilty, pronounced her innocent, and sent her forth free.
Free! but what a freedom! Where was Frank? Where was anybody? Who was there to take her in his strong arms, let her hide her face upon his breast, weep there until her shame had died away, and the memory of her degradation was washed clean. Who, indeed?
The man who had defended her, who had been her lover, who had been her friend, came to her and he—he would not take her hand. He had spoken to her of her boy, and the cold emptiness of her heart ached with the sudden rush of her emotion as she cried out, with outstretched arms: "My boy! bring me my boy!" To press the child in her arms, to feel the soft down of his cheek against hers, to hear the lisping, "Muzzer, muzzer, dear," from his lips, to have his arms about her—this, this would save her reason. She felt her reason going, felt her mind darkened, the path before her no longer clear. She was in a gloomy world, groping helplessly for a warm, human clasp of fellowship. Jacynth, her friend, answered her mother-cry. Answered, and left her childless.
Then he brought her here, here to this beautiful, lonely, wind-girt, sea-girt island, and left her to strain her eyes out into the sea, that said nothing to her. The sky was empty for her, the flowers, it seemed to her, faded as she looked. Poor beauty! poor coquettish, light-hearted Fenella!
Then she met Frank in the street, and light flashed back to her, and memory and understanding. In a rush of emotion she saw him as a lover, as husband, as Murderer. She knew what he had done. She knew, too, what she had done to save him. "Frank!" the words rushed to her lips, words of love, of forgiveness, of——and he repelled her. Ice-cold on her heart he lay, his dead love, his living contempt, and she who would have died for him, seemed as if she died by him. He killed her. Not physically; she still lived, moved, breathed, but her faith was dead, and her hope, and her youth. She staggered home to her old seat by the window. She felt sick, and giddy, and dazed as from an earthquake; all her world was in ruins. It was only now she realized the hope on which she had lived all this time. Only now she knew that Frank had been the bulwark on which she rested, the light toward which she had looked. That though she was past reason, and had not asked why he had delayed, she had felt he would come, and that in his eyes she would read his love for her that had never swerved, his faith in her that would answer for all things, his gratitude to her, gratitude that she would put away, and not let him linger over, but would banish and forget, and it should be forgotten. Nothing should be between them any more, but love. He would bring her back Ronny, he and she and Ronny would be together always.
And then they had met and he had repulsed her, rejected her, looked upon her coldly! She was hopeless. She looked out over the blue sea, the rocks, the sails, the harbor, but there was a film before her eyes, all things were darkened. Even the face of nature would never smile upon her again. Hope was dead.
Then he came back. He knelt at her feet, he called her by a thousand endearing names, he kissed her hands, the hem of her dress. She sat there dumb, stricken as a statue, the film darkening before her eyes, and her brain throb, throbbing, like the screw of a steam engine.
"Fenella, my wife, my darling! For Heaven's sake, listen to me. Don't look at me like that, my darling, hear me. I never knew. I swear, I never knew. I was ill, I heard nothing, knew nothing until an hour ago. My sweet, what you must have suffered! Fenella, speak—a word, a little word. Sweetheart, think of our childhood."
And then a little moan came from her, a little sighing moan, and she fell half forward. He caught her in his arms. "Darling," he said again passionately, "only hear me. Ah!"
It was too late! Was it too late? She lay in his arms white and cold and silent. Frank, kissing those pale, cold lips, chafing those dead hands, murmuring over her a thousand caressing names, distracted with despair, desperately put away the fear, and called for help in anguished tones.
Then the women came in and were busy about her, and there were moaning and lamentation, but still she heard not.
Fenella was not dead, but she was ill—terribly ill. The silver cord was not broken, but it was strained to its last fiber. Weeks went by, weeks when she lay in the little cottage at Guernsey, and Frank crept about with anguished eyes, and lived on the bulletins from the sick room. Weeks during which, with the gold locks short cropped, and the sweet face fever-flushed and unrecognizable, Fenella lay in bed, and shrieked in her delirium that Frank did not do it, that she did; that Frank hated her because she had done it, but she had not done it. There was blood on her hands, horrible blood, human blood. There was blood on his hands, but she would kiss them. She was swimming in blood, drowning in blood, but Frank would save her. Ronny was on the shore, waiting for her, bright-faced Ronny, waiting to kiss away the stains from them both. And then she would call out again that she was drowning, and call for Frank, always for Frank, in agonized, delirious shrieks.
"Doctor! doctor!" He held him with hands grown thin and wasted, spoke to him in a voice all broken with tears, looked at him with eyes dim with wild, convulsive crying: "Will she live? will she live?"
The doctor was a man who had studied humanity as well as physic.
"I think so," he answered; "there is room for hope. Every day gained brings us nearer to it. If once she sleeps, sleeps naturally, I think—she is saved." He hesitated, and Frank, hanging on his words, pressed him further.
"She will wake to reason—to mental restfulness?"
He was a man; he had heard his patient in her delirium. She had a history, this beautiful young woman who called herself Mrs. Orme, and over whom Lord Francis Onslow watched with such care. She had a history, but he did not know it—did not seek to know it. No idle curiosity prompted his question. But if she woke, and woke to trouble, then—then he could not answer for the consequences.
"Will you let me tell you?" Before Dr. Fairfax could say "Yes," or "No," Frank had dragged him back into the room, and was pouring out incoherently, quickly, the whole miserable story; their courtship, their married life, their bickerings, and the interference of relatives, their separation, his jealousy, the murder that even now he could not account for or remember—everything, everything.
The doctor listened, grave, sympathetic. Frank paused breathlessly.
"She has a child, you say—a little child? Did she care for that, did she love it?"
"She worships him as (fool that I have been not to have seen it) only a good woman could love her child." Frank's jealousy was dead forever.
"Then bring her child here. Let her wake amid her natural surroundings—her husband by her side, her child's voice ringing in her ears, the life of the 'home' about her. Let the past be forgotten by her. Let peace be her healing, and love her medicine. You will be her doctor, not I, when there is recognition in her eyes, and she is struggling back to a world that has been so cruel to her."
He took up his hat. He had spoken. They must wait the hour.