The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII.

BY "TASMA."

Our nineteenth century, as we are all aware, is nothing if not analytical. Chemists spend days and nights in examining into the properties of some apparently unimportant compound, and do not abandon their task until they have, ascertained the exact proportions in which primal gases are blended in its composition. In the same way, men of science, dissectors of motives, and these curious lay-preachers, the French novelists, take some complicated sentiment of the human heart and twist it round, and turn it inside out, and expend themselves in efforts to trace it back to its origin through the influences of heredity or idiosyncrasy, or a predominance of white or red globules in the blood. Their researches are not always as fertile in results as those of the chemists, for in every human organization there enters an unknown quantity which upsets the calculations of all the physiologists and psychologists combined. Nevertheless, they carry on their labors undaunted, and it may be said of them, as of the alchemists of old, that if they do not find the philosopher's stone, they make at least occasional discoveries which help to bring about a better understanding of human needs and weaknesses. It is unnecessary to say that the sentiment of love, or the condition of a man or woman under the influence of this sentiment, is the favorite object of their investigations. And the more it is entangled with other sentiments, such, for instance, as those of duty or honor or pride or passion, the better they are pleased; for, like the chemists with their unknown compound, they can give full vent to their analytical skill in pulling it to pieces, and proving to their own satisfaction that it is made up of all manner of minor mingled sentiments, and is in fact nothing but a mere jumble of inherited instincts and impulses.

The state of Jacynth's mind, during his friend's absence upon his fruitless and bootless quest in Guernsey, was just such as a scientific French novelist would have loved to fathom and explain.

In so doing he would have performed a feat of which the object of his investigation was himself utterly incapable, for Jacynth, for reasons best known to himself, shrank from making too close an examination of his feelings and desires at this particular period. It might have been that he was afraid of facing the conclusion which lurked at the bottom of them. There was a small balcony at the Liverpool hotel, just outside the room wherein Ronny was being coaxed into convalescence by his mother, where our hero would sit smoking his cigar until late in the after-noon, following out a train of disjointed thoughts that he essayed to drive away upon the circling wreaths of smoke drifting before him into the void. Perhaps they were more impressions than thoughts, half sad, half pleasant musings that it was safer not to reduce to coherent shape. He was conscious throughout of a dominant wish that the present time could be prolonged into an indefinite future; not at the cost of sickness and suffering to his unfortunate friend, but only, perhaps, at the cost of a timely prolongation of the actual gales which prevented the Guernsey boats from putting to sea. He had not willed that his signature should appear upon the telegram to Fenella in connection with her husband's; but since fate and (to say the truth) Frank's folly in running off upon a wild-goose chase of his own had combined to leave him in charge, he could not but feel that there was a certain poetical justice in the situation, which it was allowable to enjoy to the full while it lasted. He pondered a good deal upon Fenella's character, which seemed to have revealed itself to him latterly in a new light. He remembered that her first question, her first cry, as she rushed into the hotel, had been for her child. It was only afterward that she had shown any solicitude concerning the fate of Ronny's father. Then, had she not resigned herself to the lot—nay, had she not willfully chosen it—of a self-constituted grass widow for years unnumbered? Her child, however, she had kept by her side, and, as far as could be seen, he had satisfied all the needs of her heart, for Jacynth was of those who believed that the train-attendant of Fenella's adorers had had nothing to say to her heart, thought they might have amused her vanity. Could she belong, he asked himself, to the order of women of whom Dumas, fils, speaks, when he says that in certain natures the instinct of maternity overcomes the instinct of wifehood, and that the woman ceases to be wife and mother, and becomes mother and wife, or possibly mother only? In that case any man who should prove himself a true friend and protector of her little boy might be sure of having a warm second place in her heart. It was certainly to be deplored that Ronny's natural protector was not better fitted for his responsible office. Though Lord Onslow had shown spasmodic bursts of affection for the lad and had undergone in New York a useless martyrdom in his behalf, which a man who, to speak familiarly, had kept his head upon his shoulders, would have known how to avoid, he had not been a father to him in the true sense of the word. He had not once essayed to reach the mother's heart through the child's during all the years that he had been separated from her. How differently Jacynth would have acted in his place; but then, as he reflected, he would never have parted from Fenella at all. He would have given her no reason, no excuse for desiring to leave him, and as for those flirtations of her juvenile matronhood, he would not have taken them too seriously, for he would have felt convinced that she would outgrow them—would leave them behind, very likely, with the cutting of her wisdom teeth. Well, life's experience had done for her what a husband's guidance had failed to do. She was amazingly reasonable now, and might develop into a delightful companion for a man of sense. It was a pity, Jacynth thought again, but I do not believe he avowed the thought, that Frank should have been so wanting in this quality. A fine fellow without doubt. A man to lead a forlorn hope in an emergency, only forlorn hopes are unfortunately rare as everyday occurrences. A grain of common sense would have been much more to the purpose, and this grain was unhappily just what Fenella's husband lacked. When his friend's deficiencies were not vaguely outlining themselves upon the smoke-wreaths before him, the recollection of a certain episode would take their place, which never failed to bring a curious half smile upon the smoker's face, not a smile of the lips, but an unconscious wrinkling of the skin in the neighborhood of the eyes, which conveyed the impression of some inward pleasure. The episode had occurred the first morning that Ronny had been well enough to be taken out in a bath chair to Sefton Park, his mother and Jacynth walking on either side. The little boy had espied a sailor sitting on a bench with a smoked-out pipe in his hand (lacking, perhaps, the means of replenishing it), and having the vision of his friend the bos'n before his eyes, and a full comprehension, gathered from his night upon the mast, of the dangers that lie in wait for those who go down to the sea in ships, had asked that his bath chair might be stopped, while he pulled out his new purse and extracted one of the sixpences his mother had put into it for the tobaccoless sailor. The man's gratitude had been unbounded. He had taken off his hat to all the group under the evident impression that it was a family party, and "May all your progeny, sir, and my lady's, take after this 'ere little chap," he had said at parting, "it's the best wish a grateful heart can salute ye with." Fenella had blushed a deep rose color, and Jacynth had felt an unreasoning pang of elation and regret as he walked away. He would have liked to come across the sailor again, not to correct him of his error, but to reward him for it.

Another point connected with the present aspect of affairs, which it was pleasant to be reminded of, was the way in which Fenella seemed to lean upon him. She would open the door that communicated with the balcony at all hours of the day to ask him to decide this or that question for her. Might not Ronny be "let off" his tonic, which he hated, and have some roast chicken? Did Mr. Jacynth think it would hurt him to have his sofa wheeled on to the balcony—and oh! would he mind just tasting the tiniest drop of the new cough mixture, which was quite a different color from the last, and telling her whether he thought the apothecary might not have made some mistake? And all these questions Jacynth settled with a pseudo-marital authority it was delightful to exercise. He unhesitatingly prescribed roast chicken in the place of the tonic; he wheeled Ronny's sofa himself on to the balcony; and he swallowed a whole teaspoonful of magenta cough mixture without a murmur, inwardly flattered that Fenella should assign him the rôle of a slave of the worst of the Roman Emperors (for was he not her slave in all things). Her smile took away all the bitter flavor from the drug, and the subsequent hours, during which she sat by the side of Ronny's sofa, seemed to pass like a pleasant dream. What he most enjoyed was the atmosphere of domestic retirement and freedom that pervaded them. Fenella would insist upon his continuing to smoke his cigar, and so at home did he feel in her presence that it had actually happened to him to close his eyes behind The Times he was pretending to read, and to allow himself the full measure of the traditional forty winks (though why forty more than fifty or a hundred, I for one have never been able to discover) before he opened them again. Fenella, for her part, would remain silent or speak, just as the spirit moved her. Sometimes she would read a sentence out loud from her book; an old copy of "Sartor Resartus" as it happened, taken from the hotel library, and ask him if he could make it clear for her. At other times she would take no notice of his presence, but would occupy herself entirely with Ronny. Jacynth loved to watch her at these moments from behind his paper, and seek fresh proofs of the infinite variety of her charm. He did not wonder that the little boy adored his mother. She was his playmate and companion, as well as his nurse and guardian. The stories she told him, when he was tired of playing at spilikins, with transparent little fingers that trembled from weakness, were delightful. There was always some point in them which provoked a duet of laughter from both together, that Jacynth found it good to listen to. There were times, too, when the conversation would become general, that is to say, when Ronny would be the chief speaker, and when he would tell, in his quavering little voice, of the wonderful and terrible things he had seen in the New York slums. Jacynth, moved with pity for the white terror portrayed on Fenella's face, would essay to divert his attention to other topics. He could not, however, prevent the child from narrating to his mother the manner in which he had been ultimately found and rescued. "They wouldn't let me go out of the room," he said earnestly; "we was all together in a room upstairs, oh, up such a lot of stairs; Mick, that was the man's name, and Bridget and me. It was only one room, and that was all our house; the other people only had one room for all their house, too, and they gave me a horrid old mattress in the corner to sleep on, and I had no toys, not the least little bit of a toy to play with, and I did get so tired all day long, and it smelt so horrid in the room, you can't think; and one day Bridget thumped me on the head with a plate—there was only two plates she had—and it broke all to pieces; and I cried so, you can't think; I cried, and I cried, and I asked God to send you to me, mummy; I went on asking Him and begging Him all the time. But I don't think He heard me, for there was lots more rooms and more ceilings; oh, ever so many over ours before you got to the roof. And one day there was someone knocked at the door; a great loud knock, and Bridget called out, 'There's the black man come for you; hide for your life, you spalpeen'—she often called me a spalpeen—and I was so frightened, I ran to my mattress, and Bridget threw a horrid old dress over me and nearly smothered me. Mick wasn't there, and what do you think? When the men came in, I heard a voice that wasn't a bit like a black man's voice. I'd often heard the black men talking, you know. There was a black butler where I was staying before in New York, but this voice wasn't a bit like that; and so I just peeped, like this, from under the clothes; and, oh, mummy, there was Mr. Jacynth and a lot of policemen standing inside the room, and I gave a great shriek—didn't I, Mr. Jacynth? and I kicked away the dress, and I rushed right to where Mr. Jacynth was standing, and I held to his legs—I did; and he took me right up and kissed me. I put my arms round his neck, and I cried and sobbed fit to break my heart; and what do you think, mummy? [Ronny's voice conveyed unnumbered notes of emphatic exclamation.] Mr. Jacynth was crying, too; he was; I seed him." He might have added "as you are crying now, mother," for as the climax of the narrative was reached, Fenella broke down completely, and instinctively held out her hand to the savior of her little boy. Jacynth could not refrain from pressing his lips to it, and the action conveyed a thousand times more than the courtly old custom is wont to convey under ordinary circumstances. Ronny, overcome by the recollections of the scene he had conjured up, flung his arms round his mother's neck and then held up his face to Jacynth to be kissed. "Let's kiss altogether," he said in the effusiveness of the moment, and Fenella was fain once more to turn away her head lest Jacynth should see her blushes.

In connection with all this portion of the disastrous chances that Ronny had experienced, it will be noticed that no mention of his father crossed his lips. It was only when the moving accident on board the Danic was under discussion that Frank's share in the strange eventful history came to be narrated, and even then, whether for the reason that Jacynth's presence recalled his behavior on that dreadful night more strongly to Ronny's mind than that of his absent father, or whether because his personality was in point of fact so much the stronger of the two, it is certain that the child persistently assigned the rôle of the principal hero to his friend, notwithstanding the well-intentioned efforts of the latter to transfer a portion of his laurels to Lord Onslow. Les absents ont toujours tort says the French proverb, and in a modified sense Ronny was unconsciously proving the truth of the proverb.

It must not be supposed, however, that Fenella neglected to inform herself in so far as was possible of her husband's movements. The telegram from Guernsey had apprised her of his safe arrival, and of his enforced detention through bad weather. The three days' gale had grown into a five days' gale, and every morning Jacynth notified to Lady Onslow, with an expression of becoming gravity, the deplorable reports that had reached him from the meteorological authorities; and insisted upon the inadvisability of risking a Channel crossing until the present tempestuous winds should have abated. As Ronny was growing hourly better, and had been promoted by the doctor from roast chicken to mutton chops, and, indeed, to "anything he fancied," which was a larger order perhaps than the worthy man could have imagined. Lady Onslow accepted the delay in her husband's return with commendable philosophy. I am not sure that she would have shown equal resignation if there had been no one at hand to participate in her delight at Ronny's recovery, but Jacynth's interest in the event seemed almost to equal her own, and his skillful suggestion that the longer Frank remained away the greater would be the joyful surprise that awaited him, as regarded the amount of flesh that Ronny would have put on during his absence, seemed the best of reasons for taking patience.

It is an ill wind, says the old proverb, that blows nobody any good. The wind that retarded the Guernsey boats was blowing the roses into Ronny's cheeks and joy into Jacynth's heart, when it suddenly lifted and a great calm fell upon land and sea. Looking from the balcony Fenella saw the lake in the opposite park shining in the distance like a silver shield, and reflected that at the same time next evening she would probably be watching it with her husband by her side. Ronny was now running about in the full exercise of a convalescent's privileges, and tyrannizing over his mother and his friend upon the principle that he was to live at his- ease, to do as he pleased, and "not to be worried, the doctor says." With the recuperative force of childhood he seemed hourly to grow and expand, and many were the conversations that Fenella had with Jacynth upon the subject of his future training. She noticed that a word from the latter went farther than a whole chapter of expostulations from herself, and fell unconsciously into the habit of referring the little boy to his friend upon every occasion. It may be that, as she watched the sky this evening, she was wondering what Ronny would do when the firm and gentle influence that was so beneficial to him was removed; and altogether so absorbed was she in her thoughts that she did not even heard Jacynth's step approaching until he was by her side. Then she turned her face, transfigured by the sunlight glow, and looked at him with questioning eyes. Jacynth's face was very grave; there was bad news written in every line. He held a telegram in his hand, and Fenella, with a«sudden sense of icy chilliness invading her forehead and cheeks, took it from him without a word. Jacynth, seeing her so white, thought she was about to faint, and forced her gently back into a chair. The telegram was brief, as telegrams are wont to be, even when infinite joy and sorrow are compressed into them. "Lord Onslow seriously ill," it said. "Advise Lady Onslow to come at once."

"Oh, why," was Fenella's first thought, "had she not gone sooner? Why had she allowed herself to take it for granted that the winds and the waves were the cause of the long delay? Might not her heart have told her that some stronger power than those was holding her husband back? Had she even once taken the trouble to verify for herself the list of the arrivals and departures on the Guernsey boats. What selfishness, what apathy, what indifference, alas! she had been guilty of." These were the self-upbraidings that pursued her all the time she was making her hurried and eager preparations for departure. Jacynth had essayed, in his usual calm and kindly fashion, to reassure her against her worst fears, but he could not enter into the subtler causes of her remorse. Ronny, in morbid terror of being taken to sea again, behaved, nevertheless, like a man, when Jacynth showed him that it was his duty to take care of his mother. That very night he, Fenella, and the child, who were so used by this time to passing for Monsieur, Madame, et Bébé that they almost felt like the personages they simulated, left Liverpool for London.

A privilege children share with animals is their inability to realize the meaning of sickness and sorrow, or suffering, at a distance. Though Ronny knew that he was being taken to see "Poor papa, who was ill," the knowledge did not bring home to him in any way the fact that he was in danger of losing his father. Fenella's prescience was keener; the words "seriously ill" pursued her like a maddening refrain throughout the whole long journey. In vain Jacynth represented to her that "seriously" did not signify the same thing as "dangerously." For the first time since he had known her, she showed a disposition to resent his consolatory speeches. On the steamer she hid herself away in the ladies' cabin, a proceeding which Jacynth knew to be contrary to all her instincts, and left him to smoke his cigar forlornly on the deck. She would not even give him the solace of taking charge of Ronny, but carried the little boy below into the petticoat atmosphere of the unwholesome stronghold she had selected. Jacynth therefore battled with his thoughts alone. He was better able than Ronny to realize the import of the telegram which had summoned him to Guernsey, and it must be admitted that he did his utmost to bring himself to hope that the issue would be such as his conscience and his sense of honor demanded that he should hope; for the consideration that Frank's death would transform the "might have been" into the "might be" was one that he strove manfully to put away. It must not be as a Judas, he told himself, that he approached the bedside of his friend, sick, perhaps, unto death at this very moment.

Aye! sick unto death, though even the doctor who attended poor stricken Frank would have told you there was hope still. What did the doctor know of the last terrible scene in a life's tragedy to which his patient had been a helpless witness, before he dragged himself back, quaking with fever and affright, to the cottage wherein he had taken up his temporary abode? What if the love that had linked him for a space with Lucille de Vigny had had little in common with the "holy flame that forever burneth"? What if it had been nothing but the evanescent and unholy outcome of "fantasy's hot fire"? It had yet left a recollection behind it which rendered it more terrible for him to see her tortured and slain than another and a better woman. That second during which the lunatic's knife had been pressed against her heart, the second during which she had shrieked aloud to him for help, a hideous, unmelodious shriek, more like a squall of far-gone animalish agony than a woman's shriek, had utterly unmanned him. He had realized in that short space all the horrors of a Dantesque hell whence rescue is impossible. Yielding to the mad impulse of the moment, he would have flung himself down from the rock, a useless victim, had not the mighty ocean, or possibly some stronger power still, taken the matter into its hands and rendered all intervention useless. Frank was conscious of a loud booming noise accompanied by a mighty swish and whirl of water that seemed to cover the whole tragic scene from his view. The salt spray dashed aloft and closed his smarting eyes. When he opened them again, Lucille and her husband were gone, only a monster wave curling back into the ocean was sounding their dirge. Whether the knife had entered her heart before the sea took her into its merciful embrace, whether in her death struggle she had clutched at her murderer and dragged him down with her to her doom, whether some mighty wave had risen unexpectedly and swept both combatants away at the same instant, could never be known. The ocean seemed to be lashed into a sudden fury. For a moment Frank dimly discerned some object that might have been a woman's hair floating under the liquid green. But was it Lucille's hair? For all he knew it might have been only one of those waving tangles of brown seaweed that the mighty Atlantic surges wash into the English Channel. With trembling knees and a reeling brain he staggered away from the scene of the tragedy. It was fully two hours before he succeeded in dragging himself back to the cottage, where he terrified the inmates by the aspect of his drawn white face and hollow eyes. What had become of Lucille's sobbing child, orphaned, in one short, fateful instant, he could not have told. Tended and put to bed by kindly hands, he lay like the Israelitish king with his face to the wall, in the torpor that followed upon the too great tension he had endured. Even the zest for life seemed to be leaving him. There was only one thing left, for which he would fain have endured a few hours longer, and no one could give him the assurance that this thing he yearned for was coming close and closer to him with every vibration of the screw that drove the Guernsey boat with its freight of passengers nearer and nearer to its destination.