The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 20
BY H. W. LUCY.
THROUGH FIRE AND WATER.
Six hours before the time Fenella beheld with fevered fancy the light cast by the burning ship over the illimitable waters, the Danic, with steam shut down, was slowly drifting outside Cork Harbor. She was waiting for the tender to come alongside to take off the mails and bear away the passengers who, having had enough of the open sea, preferred to take the short cut by train across Ireland and so home by Holyhead.
There had not chanced to be any special cause for quitting snug quarters on board the steamer. The Danic had made a splendid voyage. Not once had the "fiddles" appeared on the dining-table to the accompaniment of smashing crockery in the steward's pantry. Day after day the passengers had been able to sit out on their deck chairs enjoying the sunshine, the fresh breeze and the sparkling sea, through which for hours together the tireless dolphins swam, emulous of the vessel's voyant speed. Two days out they had passed close by a whale, who cheerily spouted farewell as they speeded by.
Ronny looked on with grave eyes. He had often heard of a whale, but never before seen one.
"Will Jonah come out by and by?" he asked Jacynth, his constant companion, who held him standing on the rail.
"No, I think not," Jacynth answered gravely. "Jonah, you remember, did not find the quarters so comfortable that he was likely ever to seek them again of his own free will. Residence in a whale, however temporary, is an experience that satisfies an ordinary man for a lifetime. The whale is only spouting, getting rid of superfluous water taken in from the great depths."
"Well," said Ronny, his quick sympathies moved in another direction, "he must get very thirsty if he does that often."
Ronny had thriven wondrously on the broad Atlantic, which had in no sense proved a disappointment to him. He was a prime favorite with all on board, the pet of the sailors, more particularly of the bos'n, whose whistle he was sometimes privileged to sound. Next to Jacynth he was fonder of the bos'n than anyone else, even than of his father, whose mood was less attuned to that of the light-hearted, healthy lad whom the stewards did their best to endow with dyspepsia by surreptitiously feeding him at unlawful hours with spoil from the dessert. He would sit by the hour on a coil of ropes, his big eyes fixed intently on the brown-visaged bos'n, who told him stirring tales (probably not all true) of seafaring life.
At first he had full run of the ship, and availed himself of the privilege.
"Father," he said, running breathlessly up to Lord Francis one morning when they were in mid-Atlantic, "what do you think? I've seen Mrs. Clutterbuck."
The little fellow, who in ordinary circumstances seemed to know no fear, trembled in every limb, and as far as was possible with sun and wind tanned face was pitifully pale.
"Where?" asked Lord Francis with a sign of equal perturbation.
"Forrard," said Ronny, who had not in vain sat with the bos'n, and never now spoke of going downstairs when he should say going below. "I was standing by the rail at the end of the hurricane deck looking at the passengers playing cards on the steerage deck, when she came along. She beckoned to me to go down to her, but I turned and bolted."
"Was she by herself?"
"No, there were a lot of people around. She wasn't speaking to anyone nor anyone to her."
"Are you sure it was her?"
"Quite; she smiled just as she did when she came down in the country to take me away to join mother. I liked her smile then, but I don't now."
"Ronny," said his father, taking his hand and leading him aft, "I want you to promise me something; will you?"
"Yes, father," said the boy promptly, looking straight at him with eyes that never lied.
"Then you must never leave this deck for the lower one, whether in the steerage or amidships. It's quite big enough for a little fellow like you. You promise me?"
"Yes, father," said Ronny, and he kept his word to something more than the letter, limiting his excursions forward to the capstan some distance from the steerage end. Perhaps he would not have gone so far, but it was here his friend the bos'n', when his turn came, kept his watch, and sitting there Ronny was careful to turn his back upon the bow, so that by no chance might he again see that evil face with the smile he, though all unused to the world, recognized as false.
On this bright evening off Queenstown Ronny was in a condition of special glee. Jacynth had put in the sweepstakes on the day's run a sovereign in the name of Ronny, and Ronny had won the stake.
"Good gracious!" cried Jacynth, holding him at arm's length, "what on earth is a little mite like you going to do with ₤50?"
"I know," said Ronny, his eyes beaming with delight. "I remember when we were staying at Harrogate having a ride in a donkey chaise. It was very nice, but mother told me that the donkeys here are nothing like what grow in the streets of Cairo. When she was there she had two white donkeys as tall as a horse, with beautiful ears as long as my arm, and great brown eyes that look at you as if they wondered whether you could be so cruel as to want them to trot through dusty streets on a hot day. Mother often said she would like to have a pair of donkeys like she had in Cairo. 'Pharaoh' and 'Rameses' were their names, together with a little carriage to hold her and me. I'll buy her the whole turnout with my ₤50, and we'll go driving about all by ourselves through Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark."
"Well, that's pretty selfish of you," said Jacynth, who keenly realized the joys of the situation as pictured by the boy, only he would liked to have rearranged the company behind "Rameses and Pharaoh." They were all and always thinking of a woman waiting and watching in Guernsey. Lord Francis, with wistful eyes, thought of love, Jacynth with dumb, gnawing pain, Ronny with eager desire to see her smile, hear her voice, and feel her arms sheltering him, Lord Castleton having some doubt as to whether she was worthy of it all, and Mme. de Vigny——
Well, Mme. de Vigny did not talk of the direction her thoughts took.
It was so near the dinner hour that it had been decided to postpone dinner till the mails and passengers bound for Queenstown had left. The tender was close in sight, rolling and pitching in a manner that seemed inscrutable to the throng leaning over the taffrail. The magnificent Danic stood immovable as a stone pier on the rolling tide. The tender was speedily freighted with innumerable bags containing the mails, some thirty passengers followed amid hearty farewells from newly-made friends left behind, and many appointments were registered to meet again in London or Paris. With the last group there stepped toward the gangway a tall figure, a woman closely veiled, carrying a small bag in her hand. Just as she was stepping on the gangway the tender gave a lurch that dislodged the railed plank. Two passengers already on it narrowly escaped the disaster. They had just managed to skip on to the paddle-box of the tender, when, amid loud cries of "Stand back," addressed to the group pressing forward on to the Danic, half a dozen ready hands hauled the gangway out of its aslant position, and made things smooth again. Once more the tall veiled figure pressed forward, when one of the steerage passengers roughly gripped her by the shoulder and thrust her back. "Not this journey, madame," he said, seizing her wrist with a grip of iron. "Your passage is booked all the way to Liverpool, and we may as well make the most of the journey." The woman turned on her captor with the fury of a trapped lioness. For a moment it seemed as if she would grapple with him, and since she was nearly his height it would have been a desperate conflict, probably ending with a death grip under water.
For a moment the idea flashed over the mind of Mme. de Vigny. She felt her game was up; wearied with the squalor of her unused condition, she did not care how soon she handed in the checks.
But she remembered that she had still one card to play, over which she had brooded in the dead, unhappy night as she lay wide awake in her narrow berth.
"Perhaps you'd better have let me go," she said to the man, whose plain clothes disguised his vocation of police sergeant. Then she sauntered slowly back, conscious that among the crowd on the hurricane deck curiously watching this episode was the man she really began to love with desperate affection now that her charms no longer lured him, and he was restlessly counting every mile that separated him from the white-curtained, rose-garlanded cottage in Guernsey where his wife awaited his coming.
"Jacynth, I wish I was certain to live for ten years or even for three," said Lord Francis Onslow, in the low, nerveless voice that had recently become habitual to him. The two friends were walking up and down the deck smoking their last cigar. Four bells had sounded and they had the deck pretty much to themselves, save for the ghostly figures of the watch that moved with noiseless footsteps to and fro. When they came on deck after dinner the moon was shining, and far away on the starboard bow they could clearly discern the coast of Ireland, lying like a dark shadow on the moonlit water. Even as they walked and talked the scene changed. It had not at any time of the day been perfectly calm, as the passengers on the tender found as they made their way into Queenstown Harbor. Now it was blowing pretty fresh from the southwest, bringing up angry-looking clouds that from time to time hid the moon, promising presently finally to obscure its light. They were drawing up to Carnsore Point, and were soon in the race of the channel. By this time they had found their sea legs, and though the wind played havoc with their cigars, as they paced about, and they gave up the attempt to keep pace in walking, they held on, Jacynth's spirits rising with the boisterous breeze.
"Ten years, old man? Why, you're only thirty at most, turned middle milestone—good for another thirty at least—and why should you not see threescore years and ten?"
"Because," said Lord Francis, "I'm pretty well played out at thirty. I've warmed both hands at the fire of life, and burnt them too. You remember when we were in Paris, last year, going to see Emile Angier, in the play 'Jean de Thomeray'? Often of late one scene comes back to me. The silent Quai Malaquais which, on the eve of the beleaguering of Paris, the daylight even has deserted. Upon it Jean enters, skeptic and libertine, who jeers at his friend, who has taken the trouble to get wounded in the struggle with the Germans closing round the capital. Suddenly a military band approaches, playing a march Thomeray knew when a child in far-off Brittany. At sight of the Breton Mobiles marching along at quick step to meet the enemy of the country, Thomeray's heart swells and bursts the bonds in which his scoffing nature had permitted itself to be bound. You remember how he steps forward and claims a place in the Breton ranks. ' Qui êtes vous? ' they ask, looking distrustfully at his fine gentleman's clothes. 'I am,' he said, 'a man who has lived ill and would die well.' That am I, Jacynth, but it would not be meet that I should die just yet. I've been a fool and worse. But if I had only three years, two years, one year to pay some of my long debt to Fenella, I wouldn't care about what might follow. It's been all my fault from first to last. I want time to tell her that, and to make some slight amends."
"Nonsense, Onslow, you are hipped; perhaps seasick. Shall we turn in?"
"You might, as we shall be in the Mersey early in the morning and there's packing up to be done. But ril take another turn. Good-night."
"Well, if you send me to bed, good-night. I daresay another ten minutes in the fresh air will take the blues out of you."
For another hour Lord Francis tramped up and down, unconscious of the unHt cigar in his mouth, thinking of the time when he first met Fenella, of the years of idyllic happiness that followed their wedding day, of Ronny's appearance on the scene, of the little rift in the lute that, unwatched, broadened slowly, and made all the music of their young lives mute.
Softly he sang to himself:
A river flows between.
"Going to be a nasty night," said a tarpaulined figure, looming out of the murk that enveloped the fore-part of the deck, over which the spray drifted as the Danic plunged her head into the angry sea, and lifting it again shook it as a retriever dashes the water off its front.
"So it seems, bos'n," said Lord Francis. "But we're not far off port now. Good-night."
"Good-night, my lord. Better not leave things loose about in your stateroom to-night."
Jacynth slept the sleep of a man with a quiet conscience and a good digestion, who had passed the greater part of the day on deck of a ship over which swept strong air blown across the broad Atlantic. He rarely dreamt, but on this particular night, some two hours after he had bidden Lord Francis good-night, and turned into the stateroom he had all to himself, he began tossing about with a great weight on his mind. If he had a weakness in the matter of personal dress it was centered upon his stockings of rich red wool and ribbed as is the salt sea sand. He had a shapely leg, and missed no opportunity when out of town of displaying it with the advantage of knickerbocker dress. He was dreaming now that a great calamity had befallen his treasured store of stockings. A spark from the funnel of the steamer, which, as he went below, he had seen streaming fire into the dark night, had, in the unaccountable way peculiar to dreams, fallen upon his bundle of stockings snugly ensconced in his box in the stateroom, and they were hopelessly smoldering; in vain he struggled to rise, seize a jug of water, and souse them. Something held him down by the chest, and he could not move. His terror seemed to have communicated itself to the passengers and crew. Hurried feet trampled on deck overhead. Voices sounded in eager talk, and the bos'n's whistle shrilly rose above the row of the waves that thunderously beat aft the shattered port-light. Possibly help would come in time and some of the stockings would be saved. A rattle at the door. Jacynth, almost awake, cried "Come in," an invitation quite superfluous, for the door was burst open.
"Look alive, sir!" shouted the bos'n, entering hurriedly. "Ship's afire, and the boats are being got ready!"
"And Ronny?" said Jacynth, wide awake now the nightmare of the burning stockings uplifted.
"The young un's all right, I seed to him first, and his father's got him in tow. Better slew on as many things as you can. It'll be bad in the boats till morning breaks."
Jacynth was not long in dressing, foregoing in his haste the luxury of his worsted stockings, which he had full time to regret. When he went on deck a strange sight met his eye. The passengers, fully two hundred in number, were massed together aft of the bridge, most of the women bareheaded and all showing signs of hasty dressing. From one of the hatches near the wheel a dense volume of smoke poured forth, now and then with increasing frequency; lit up by tongues of flame on either side of the hatch, a line of blue-jackets plied hose and bucket in ineffectual struggle with the growing furnace. A singular quietness prevailed. There was a murmur of conversation among the closely-packed crowd of passengers. A sharp word of command from the first officer in charge of the fire brigade rose from time to time above the howling wind and the war of the turbulent waves that dashed against the bulwarks as if possessed with passionate desire to get at the flames. Ronny, his father holding one hand and Lord Castleton the other, stood on the outer fringe of the crowd aft, as near as he could get to the fire, which he was evidently enjoying as the best thing he had seen since the whale disappeared. The captain and second officer stood on the bridge, and through the wheel-house window could be seen four grim faces of the blue-jacketed giants whose curiously cheery voices answered the captain's signals with the cry "Starboard," "Steady it is, sir," The captain, leaning over the rail of the bridge and addressing the crowd of trembling but quiet passengers, said: "Friends below there, I hope you're all comfortably wrapped up. This is a bad job, but there's no danger. If it had come an hour later we should have made for Holyhead and put in all right. But with this wind and the start the fire has got I don't think we could carry on so far. The land is close by. If there were daylight we could see it. The ship is now making for the spit of land at the back of Pwlhelly. There is a smooth mile of beach there, which, if I can make it, will bring the ship up comfortably, and you can walk ashore in your slippers."
Jacynth led a cheer for the gallant captain, which was taken up by the passengers, and seemed to do them an immense amount of good. After this the wonderful quietness once more fell over the doomed ship that sped onward swiftly through the sea that was now as rough as the bos'n's forecast had pictured. On the crowded deck all was as orderly as if, according to their daily habit, the passengers had mustered to take a look round before going down to dinner. The wind, now blowing what even a sailor would have admitted to be half a gale, whistled shrilly through the creaking spars. The course taken by the ship brought it more abaft, and sometimes a gust blew the smoke from the burning hatch under and across the bridge, choking the passengers and hiding the captain and second mate from view. But for the most part it blew clear away over the starboard side, leaving the vessel amidships and forward clear enough.
"Land ahead," sung out the lookout man; the sing-song voice of the man throwing the lead showed how nearly they were approaching the coast, the outline of which was recognized in the deeper shadow on the horizon.
"Half-speed" the captain signaled to the engine room. But the half-speed of an Atlantic liner soon bridges space, and nearer and nearer came the dark line of the coast. Straining eyes looking out from beneath the bridge, could make out the outline of a mountain, at the foot of which nestled the smooth beach that was to give them safety and rest. Nearer and nearer it came, and higher and higher rose hope. Nothing between it and them but the sea, rough enough, but nothing to the majestic liner, even with its hatches full of fire. The water steadily shallowed, as the monotonous cry of the leadsman marked minute by minute the lessening fathoms.
Suddenly, even as the leadsman sang out his last record, a crash resounded through every fiber of the ship. The Danic came as suddenly to a halt as if she had run up against Penmaenmawr. The crowd amidships were knocked down pell-mell over each other, as if a giant hand had swept across them at the level of the chin. The captain, leaning against the rail of the bridge on the starboard side, was pitched headlong into the sea.
That proved the worst thing of all. The second officer, left in command on the bridge at this critical moment, signaled to the engine room, "Go astern full speed." That seemed an order natural enough, though the veteran Captain Irving would not have been led into so fatal a mistake. The Danic had run on to a jagged rock which rose like a spear-head out of the sea, and had literally embedded itself in the hull of the steamer. Had the ship been kept head on, it might have hung suspended, the jagged rock serving to stanch the wound it had made, at least long enough for the boats to be launched and everyone to quit the ship.
The mighty screw, reversing its action in obedience to the word of command, slowly but irresistibly drew the ship back. The terrified passengers could hear the iron plates ripped open, and barely was the vessel free from the rock than she began to go down by the head.
There was a rush for boats. They were ready and in perfect order. But with the sea rushing in in tons through the great gap in the hull, there was neither time nor opportunity for the marshaling of the now terrified passengers. It was not generally known that the captain had gone overboard, and the officers, expecting him to issue instructions, hesitated. Somehow boats filled, and four were safely launched. The two last had not far to fall from the height of the davits, the bulwarks being now almost level with the water. Just as their keels touched the sea, the great steamer went down by the head, sucking them under.
As soon as the collision came, Jacynth had darted forward to the spot where he had seen Ronny standing, fearing no evil, for his hand was in his father's. When he came up to them, Lord Castleton had disappeared—swept away, they surmised, in the rush for the boats. Jacynth, as he made his way aft, caught sight of Mme. de Vigny and her escort clambering into one of the boats.
"Come along, Onslow, I'll carry Ronny," said Jacynth.
"Yes, but let the women go first."
"So we will; but not all the men," said Jacynth, grimly eying the crowd fighting round the nearest boat.
"My lord and you, sir," said the bos'n, coming by, "take my advice. Don't be in a hurry about the boats. She's settling down. In five minutes there won't be a bulwark above water-line, but the masts and spars will be aloft safe and dry till morning. Fetch young un' along, and I'll give you a hand up the mainmast. There's nothing more I can do below. Look alive, and hold on tight. You'll feel a bump in another moment."
With a final lurch forward the ship went down, and the waves at last had their will on the seething mass in the hatchway. From secure if not comfortable quarters in the maintop Lord Francis, Jacynth, and Ronny saw the two boatloads swamped, heard the seething roar of the waters as they closed over the burning hatch, and listened with chilled hearts to the shrieks of drowning men and women that filled the air.
It seemed a long night, but it was really only three hours before, with the morning light, a steamship bound for Liverpool, after giving a fair start down channel to its charge, caught sight of the wreck and took off what at first seemed to be the only survivors.
"And," said Jacynth, as he sat in the captain's cabin, forgetful of his own stockingless state, and chafed Lord Onslow's numbed hands and feet, "if we had been four strings of priceless pearls hanging on to the yardarm, they couldn't have been more delighted to have plucked us off."