The Sea Lady/Chapter 8
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH
Just precisely what happened after that has been the most impossible thing to disinter. I have given all the things that Melville remembered were said, I have linked them into a conversation and checked them by my cousin's afterthoughts, and finally I have read the whole thing over to him. It is of course no verbatim rendering, but it is, he says, closely after the manner of their talk, the gist was that, and things of that sort were said. And when he left Chatteris, he fully believed that the final and conclusive thing was said. And then he says it came into his head that, apart from and outside this settlement, there still remained a tangible reality, capable of action, the Sea Lady. What was she going to do? The thought toppled him back into a web of perplexities again. It carried him back into a state of inconclusive interrogation past Lummidge's Hotel.
The two men had gone back to the Métropole and had parted with a firm handclasp outside the glare of the big doorway. Chatteris went straight in, Melville fancies, but he is not sure. I understand Melville had some private thinking to do on his own account, and I conceive him walking away in a state of profound preoccupation. Afterwards the fact that the Sea Lady was not to be abolished by renunciations, cropped up in his mind, and he passed back along the Leas, as I have said. His inconclusive interrogations elicited at the utmost that Lummidge's Private and Family Hotel is singularly like any other hotel of its class. Its windows tell no secrets. And there Melville's narrative ends.
With that my circumstantial record necessarily comes to an end also. There are sources, of course, and glimpses. Parker refuses, unhappily—as I explained. The chief of these sources are, first, Gooch, the valet employed by Chatteris; and, secondly, the hall-porter of Lummidge's Private and Family Hotel.
The valet's evidence is precise, but has an air of being irrelevant. He witnesses that at a quarter past eleven he went up to ask Chatteris if there was anything more to do that night, and found him seated in an arm-chair before the open window, with his chin upon his hands, staring at nothing—which, indeed, as Schopenhauer observes in his crowning passage, is the whole of human life.
"More to do?" said Chatteris.
"Yessir," said the valet.
"Nothing," said Chatteris, "absolutely nothing." And the valet, finding this answer quite satisfactory, wished him good-night and departed.
Probably Chatteris remained in this attitude for a considerable time—half an hour, perhaps, or more. Slowly, it would seem, his mood underwent a change. At some definite moment it must have been that his lethargic meditation gave way to a strange activity, to a sort of hysterical reaction against all his resolves and renunciations. His first action seems to me grotesque—and grotesquely pathetic. He went into his dressing-room, and in the morning "his clo'es," said the valet, "was shied about as though 'e'd lost a ticket." This poor worshipper of beauty and the dream shaved! He shaved and washed and he brushed his hair, and, his valet testifies, one of the brushes got "shied" behind the bed. Even this throwing about of brushes seems to me to have done little or nothing to palliate his poor human preoccupation with the toilette. He changed his gray flannels—which suited him very well—for his white ones, which suited him extremely. He must deliberately and conscientiously have made himself quite "lovely," as a schoolgirl would have put it.
And having capped his great "renunciation" by these proceedings, he seems to have gone straight to Lummidge's Private and Family Hotel and demanded to see the Sea Lady.
She had retired.
This came from Parker, and was delivered in a chilling manner by the hall-porter.
Chatteris swore at the hall-porter. "Tell her I'm here," he said.
"She's retired," said the hall-porter with official severity.
"Will you tell her I'm here?" said Chatteris, suddenly white.
"What name, sir?" said the hall-porter, in order, as he explains, "to avoid a frackass."
"Chatteris. Tell her I must see her now. Do you hear, now?"
The hall-porter went to Parker, and came half-way back. He wished to goodness he was not a hall-porter. The manager had gone out—it was a stagnant hour. He decided to try Parker again; he raised his voice.
The Sea Lady called to Parker from the inner room. There was an interval of tension.
I gather that the Sea Lady put on a loose wrap, and the faithful Parker either carried her or sufficiently helped her from her bedroom to the couch in the little sitting-room. In the meanwhile the hall-porter hovered on the stairs, praying for the manager—prayers that went unanswered—and Chatteris fumed below. Then we have a glimpse of the Sea Lady.
"I see her just in the crack of the door," said the porter, "as that maid of hers opened it. She was raised up on her hands, and turned so towards the door. Looking exactly like this——"
And the hall-porter, who has an Irish type of face, a short nose, long upper lip, and all the rest of it, and who has also neglected his dentist, projected his face suddenly, opened his eyes very wide, and slowly curved his mouth into a fixed smile, and so remained until he judged the effect on me was complete.
Parker, a little flushed, but resolutely flattening everything to the quality of the commonplace, emerged upon him suddenly. Miss Waters could see Mr. Chatteris for a few minutes. She was emphatic with the "Miss Waters," the more emphatic for all the insurgent stress of the goddess, protestingly emphatic. And Chatteris went up, white and resolved, to that smiling expectant presence. No one witnessed their meeting but Parker—assuredly Parker could not resist seeing that, but Parker is silent—Parker preserves a silence that rubies could not break.
All I know, is this much from the porter:
"When I said she was up there and would see him," he says, "the way he rooshed up was outrageous. This is a Private Family Hotel. Of course one sees things at times even here, but——
"I couldn't find the manager to tell 'im," said the hall-porter. "And what was I authorised to do?
"For a bit they talked with the door open, and then it was shut. That maid of hers did it—I lay."
I asked an ignoble question.
"Couldn't ketch a word," said the hall-porter. "Dropped to whispers—instanter."
It was within ten minutes of one that Parker, conferring an amount of decorum on the request beyond the power of any other living being, descended to demand—of all conceivable things—the bath chair!
"I got it," said the hall-porter with inimitable profundity.
And then, having let me realise the fulness of that, he said: "They never used it!"
"No! He carried her down in his arms."
He was difficult to follow in his description of the Sea Lady. She wore her wrap, it seems, and she was "like a statue"—whatever he may have meant by that. Certainly not that she was impassive. "Only," said the porter, "she was alive. One arm was bare, I know, and her hair was down, a tossing mass of gold.
"He looked, you know, like a man who's screwed himself up.
"She had one hand holding his hair—yes, holding his hair, with her fingers in among it. . . .
"And when she see my face she threw her head back laughing at me.
"As much as to say, 'got 'im!'
"Laughed at me, she did. Bubblin' over."
I stood for a moment conceiving this extraordinary picture. Then a question occurred to me.
"Did he laugh?" I asked.
"Gord bless you, sir, laugh? No!"
The definite story ends in the warm light outside Lummidge's Private and Family Hotel. One sees that bright solitude of the Leas stretching white and blank—deserted as only a seaside front in the small hours can be deserted—and all its electric light ablaze. And then the dark line of the edge where the cliff drops down to the undercliff and sea. And beyond, moonlit, the Channel and its incessant ships. Outside the front of the hotel, which is one of a great array of pallid white façades, stands this little black figure of a hall-porter, staring stupidly into the warm and luminous mystery of the night that has swallowed Sea Lady and Chatteris together. And he is the sole living thing in the picture.
There is a little shelter set in the brow of the Leas, wherein, during the winter season, a string band plays. Close by there are steps that go down precipitously to the lower road below. Down these it must have been they went together, hastening downward out of this life of ours to unknown and inconceivable things. So it is I seem to see them, and surely though he was not in a laughing mood, there was now no doubt nor resignation in his face. Assuredly now he had found himself, for a time at least he was sure of himself, and that at least cannot be misery, though it lead straight through a few swift strides to death.
They went down through the soft moonlight, tall and white and splendid, interlocked, with his arms about her, his brow to her white shoulder and her hair about his face. And she, I suppose, smiled above him and caressed him and whispered to him. For a moment they must have glowed under the warm light of the lamp that is half-way down the steps there, and then the shadows closed about them. He must have crossed the road with her, through the laced moonlight of the tree shadows, and through the shrubs and bushes of the undercliff, into the shadeless moon glare of the beach. There was no one to see that last descent, to tell whether for a moment he looked back before he waded into the phosphorescence, and for a little swam with her, and presently swam no longer, and so was no more to be seen by any one in this gray world of men.
Did he look back, I wonder? They swam together for a little while, the man and the sea goddess who had come for him, with the sky above them and the water about them all, warmly filled with the moonlight and set with shining stars. It was no time for him to think of truth, nor of the honest duties he had left behind him, as they swam together into the unknown. And of the end I can only guess and dream. Did there come a sudden horror upon him at the last, a sudden perception of infinite error, and was he drawn down, swiftly and terribly, a bubbling repentance, into those unknown deeps? Or was she tender and wonderful to the last, and did she wrap her arms about him and draw him down, down until the soft waters closed above him into a gentle ecstasy of death?
Into these things we cannot pry or follow, and on the margin of the softly breathing water the story of Chatteris must end. For the tailpiece to that, let us put that policeman who in the small hours before dawn came upon the wrap the Sea Lady had been wearing just as the tide overtook it. It was not the sort of garment low people sometimes throw away—it was a soft and costly wrap. I seem to see him perplexed and dubious, wrap in charge over his arm and lantern in hand, scanning first the white beach and black bushes behind him and then staring out to sea. It was the inexplicable abandonment of a thoroughly comfortable and desirable thing.
"What were people up to?" one figures him asking, this simple citizen of a plain and observed world. "What do such things mean?
"To throw away such an excellent wrap . . . !"
In all the southward heaven there were only a planet and the sinking moon, and from his feet a path of quivering light must have started and run up to the extreme dark edge before him of the sky. Ever and again the darkness east and west of that glory would be lit by a momentary gleam of phosphorescence; and far out the lights of ships were shining bright and yellow. Across its shimmer a black fishing smack was gliding out of mystery into mystery. Dungeness shone from the west a pin-point of red light, and in the east the tireless glare of that great beacon on Gris-nez wheeled athwart the sky and vanished and came again.
I picture the interrogation of his lantern going out for a little way, a stain of faint pink curiosity upon the mysterious vast serenity of night.