Miss Jennings’s Companion by Francis Hopkinson Smith
Story type: Literature
The big Liner slowed down and dropped anchor inside the Breakwater. Sweeping toward her, pushing the white foam in long lines from her bow, her flag of black smoke trailing behind, came the company’s tender–out from Cherbourg with passengers.
Under the big Liner’s upper deck, along its top rail, was strung a row of heads watching the tender’s approach–old heads–young heads–middle-aged heads–Miss Jennings’s among these last–their eyes taking in the grim Breakwater with its beacon light, the frowning casemates specked with sentinels, and the line of the distant city blurred with masts and spent steam. They saw, too, from their height (they could look down the tender’s smokestack) the sturdy figure of her Captain, his white cap in relief against the green sea, and below him the flat mass of people, their upturned faces so many pats of color on a dark canvas.
With the hauling taut and making fast of the fore and aft hawsers, a group of sailors broke away from the flat mass and began tugging at the gangplank, lifting it into position, the boatswain’s orders ringing clear. Another group stripped off the tarpaulins from the piles of luggage, and a third–the gangplank in place–swarmed about the heaps of trunks, shouldering the separate pieces as ants shoulder grains of sand, then scurrying toward the tender’s rail, where other ants reached down and relieved them of their loads.
The mass of people below now took on the shape of a funnel, its spout resting on the edge of the gangplank, from out which poured a steady stream of people up and over the Liner’s side.
Two decks below where Miss Jennings and her fellow-travellers were leaning over the steamer’s rail craning their necks, other sights came into view. Here not only the funnel-shaped mass could be seen, but the faces of the individuals composing it, as well as their nationality and class; whether first, second or steerage. There, too, was the line of stewards reaching out with open hands, relieving the passengers of their small belongings; here too stood the First Officer in white gloves and gold lace bowing to those he knew and smiling at others; and here too was a smooth-shaven, closely-knit young man in dark clothes and derby hat, who had taken up his position just behind the First Officer, and whose steady steel gray eyes followed the movements of each and every one of the passengers from the moment their feet touched the gangplank until they had disappeared in charge of the stewards.
These passengers made a motley group: first came a stout American with two pretty daughters; then a young Frenchman and his valet; then a Sister of Charity draped in black, her close-fitting, white, starched cap and broad white collar framing her face, one hand clutching the rope rail as she stepped feebly toward the steamer, the other grasping a bandbox, her only luggage; next wriggled some college boys in twos and threes, and then the rest of the hurrying mass, followed close by a herd of emigrants crowding and stumbling like sheep, the men with pillow-case bundles over their backs, the women with babies muffled in shawls.
When the last passenger was aboard, the closely-knit young man with the steel gray eyes leaned forward and said in a low voice to the First Officer:
“He’s not in this bunch.”
“Where will you look for him now, Hobson?” continued the officer.
“Paris, maybe. I told the Chief we wouldn’t get anywhere on this lead. Well, so long”–and the closely-knit young man swung himself down the gangplank and disappeared into the cabin of the tender.
The scenes on the gangplank were now repeated on the steamer. The old travellers, whose hand luggage had been properly numbered, gave themselves no concern–the stewards would look after their belongings. The new travellers–the Sister of Charity among them–wandered about asking questions that for the moment no one had time to answer. She, poor soul, had spent her life in restful places, and the in-rush of passengers and their proper bestowal seemed to have completely dazed her.
“Can I help you?” asked the First Officer–everybody is ready to help a Sister, no matter what his rank or how pressing his duties.
“Yes, please–I want to know where my room is. It is Number 49, so my ticket says.”
Here the Purser came up–he, too, would help a Sister.
“Sister Teresa, is it not–from the Convent of the Sacred Heart? Yes, we knew you would get on at Cherbourg. You are on the lower deck in the same stateroom with Miss Jennings. Steward–take the Sister to–“
“With whom?” she cried, with a look of blank amazement “But I thought I was alone! They told me so at the office. Oh, I cannot share my room with anybody. Please let–“
“Yes, but we had to double up. We would willingly give you a room alone, but there isn’t an empty berth on board.” He was telling the truth and showed it in his voice.
“But I have the money to pay for a whole room. I would have paid for it at the office in Paris, but they told me it was not necessary.”
“I know, Sister, and I’m very sorry, but it can’t be helped now. Steward, take Sister Teresa to Number 49.” This last came as an order, and ended the discussion.
When the Steward pushed open the door Miss Jennings was sitting on the sofa berth reading, a long gray cloak about her shoulders. She had a quiet, calm face and steady eyes framed in gold spectacles. She looked to be a woman of fifty who had seen life and understood it.
“The officer says I am to share your room,” began Sister Teresa in a trembling voice. “Don’t think me rude, please, but I don’t want to share your room. I want to be alone, and so do you. Can’t you help me?”
“But I don’t mind it, and you won’t after you get used to it.” The voice was poised and well modulated–evidently a woman without nerves–a direct, masterful sort of woman, who looked you straight in the eyes, was without guile, hated a lie and believed in human nature. “And we ought to get on together,” she continued simply, as if it were a matter of course. “You are a Sister, and from one of the French institutions–I recognize your dress. I’m a nurse from the London Hospital. The First Officer told me you had the other berth and I was looking for you aboard the Cherbourg tender, but I couldn’t see you for the smoke, you were so far below me. We’ll get on together, never fear. Which bed will you have–this one or the one curtained off?”
“Oh, do you take the one curtained off,” she answered in a hopeless tone, as if further resistance was useless. “The sofa is easier perhaps for me, for I always undress in the dark.”
“No, turn on the light. It won’t wake me–I’m used to sleeping anywhere–sometimes bolt upright in my chair with my hand on my patient.”
“But it is one of the rules of our order to dress and undress in the dark,” the Sister pleaded; “candles are luxuries only used for the sick, and so we do without them.”
“All right–just as you say,” rejoined Miss Jennings cheerily. “My only desire was to make you comfortable.”
That night at dinner Sister Teresa and Nurse Jennings found themselves seated next to each other, the Chief Steward, who had special orders from the First Officer to show Miss Jennings and her companion every courtesy, having conducted them to their seats.
Before the repast was half over, the two had attracted the attention of all about them. What was particularly noticed was the abstemious self-denying life of the Sister so plainly shown in the lines of her grave, almost hard, face, framed close in the tight bands of white linen concealing every vestige of her hair, the whole in strong contrast to the kind, sympathetic face of the Nurse, whose soft gray locks hung loosely about her temples. Their history, gleaned at the First Officer’s table had also become public property. Nurse Jennings had served two years in South Africa, where she had charge of a ward in one of the largest field hospitals outside of Pretoria; on her return to England, she had been placed over an important case in one of the London hospitals–that of a gallant Canadian officer who had been shipped home convalescent, and who had now sent for her to come to him in Montreal. The good Sister was one of those unfortunate women who had been expelled from France under the new law, and who was now on her way to Quebec, there to take up her life-work again. This had been the fifth refugee, the officer added, whom the Line had cared for.
When the hour for retiring came, Sister Teresa, with the remark that she would wait until Miss Jennings was in bed before she sought her own berth, followed her companion to the stateroom, bade her good-night, and then, with her hand on the knob, lingered for a moment as if there was still some further word on her lips.
“What is it?” asked the Nurse, with one of her direct, searching glances. “Speak out–I’m a woman like yourself, and can understand.”
“Well, it’s about the Hour of Silence. I must have one hour every day when I can be alone. It has been the custom of my life and I cannot omit it. It will be many days before we reach the land, and there is no other place for me to pray except in here. Would you object if I–“
“Object! Of course not! I will help you to keep it, and I will see, too, that the Stewardess does not disturb you. Now, is there anything else? Tell me–I love people who speak right out what they mean.”
“No–except that I always rise at dawn, and will be gone when you wake. Good-night.”
The morning after this first night the two lay in their steamer chairs on the upper deck. The First Officer, noticing them together, paused for a moment on his way to the bridge:
“You knew, of course, Miss Jennings, that Hobson went back to Cherbourg on the tender. He left good-by for you.”
“Hunting for somebody, as usual, I suppose?” she rejoined.
“Yes”–and he passed on.
“A wretched life, isn’t it,” said Nurse Jennings, “this hunting for criminals? This same man, Mr. Hobson, after a hunt of months, found one in my ward with a bullet through his chest.”
“You know him then?” asked Sister Teresa, with a tremor in her voice.
“Yes–he’s a Scotland Yard man.”
“And you say he was looking for some one on board and didn’t find him?”
“No, not yet, but he will find him, he always does; that’s the pity of it. Some of these poor hunted people would lead a different life if they had another chance. I tried to save the one Hobson found in my ward. He was quite frank with me, and told me everything. When people trust me my heart always goes out to them–so much so that I often do very foolish things that are apt to get me into trouble. It’s when they lie to me–and so many do–making one excuse after another for their being in the ward–that I lose all interest in them. I pleaded with Hobson to give the man another chance, but I could do nothing. Thief as he was, he had told the truth. He had that quality left, and I liked him for it. If I had known Hobson was on his track I’d have helped him in some way to get off. He stole to help his old mother, and wasn’t a criminal in any sense–only weak-hearted. The law is cruel–it never makes allowances–that’s where it is wrong.”
“Cruel!–it’s brutal. It is more brutal often than the crime,” answered Sister Teresa in a voice full of emotion. “Do you think the man your friend was looking for here on board will escape?”
“No, I’m afraid not. There is very little chance of any criminal escaping when they once get on his track, so Mr. Hobson has told me. If he is on this steamer he must run another gauntlet in New York, even if he is among the emigrants. You know we have over a thousand on board. If he is not aboard they will track him down. Dreadful, isn’t it?”
“Poor fellow,” said Sister Teresa, a sob in her voice, “how sorry I am for him. If men only knew how much wiser mercy is than justice in the redemption of the world.” Here she rose from her chair, and gathering her black cloak about her crossed to the rail and looked out to sea. In a few minutes she returned. “Let us walk out to the bow where we can talk undisturbed,” she said. “The constant movement of the passengers on deck, passing backward and forward, disturbs my head. I see so few people, you know.”
When they reached the bow, she made a place beside her for the Nurse.
“Don’t misunderstand what I said about the brutality of the law,” she began. “There must be laws, and brutal men who commit brutal crimes must be punished. But there are so many men who are not brutal, although the crimes may be. I knew of one once. We had educated his little daughter–such a sweet child! The man himself was a scene-painter and worked in the theatres in London. Sometimes he would take part in the play himself, making up for the minor characters, although most of his time was spent in painting scenery. He had married a woman who was on the stage, and she had deserted him for one of the actors, and left her child behind. Her faithlessness nearly broke his heart. Through one of our own people in London he found us and sent the child to the convent where we have a school for just such cases. When the girl got to be seventeen years old he sent for her and she went to London to see him. He remembered her mother’s career, and guarded her like a little plant. He never allowed her to come to the theatre except in the middle of the day. Then she would come where he was at work up on the top of the painting platform high above the stage. There he and she would be alone. One morning while he was at work one of the scene-shifters–a man with whom he had had some difficulty–met the girl as she was crossing the high platform. He had never seen her before and, thinking she was one of the chorus girls, threw his arm about her. The girl screamed, the scene-painter dropped his brushes, ran to her side, hit the man in the face–the scene-shifter lost his balance and fell to the stage. Before he died in the hospital he told who had struck him; he told why, too; that the scene-painter hated him; and that the two had had an altercation the day before–about some colors; which was not true, there only having been a difference of opinion. The man fled to Paris with his daughter. The girl today is at one of our institutions at Rouen. The detectives, suspecting that he would try to see her, have been watching that place for the last five months. All that time he has been employed in the garden of a convent out of Paris. Last week we heard from a Sister in London that some one had recognized him, although he had shaved off his beard–some visitor or parent of one of the children, perhaps, who had come upon him suddenly while at work in the garden beds. He is now a fugitive, hunted like an animal. He never intended to harm this man–he only tried to save his daughter–and yet he knew that because of the difficulty that he had had with the dead man and the fact that his daughter’s testimony would not help him–she being an interested person–he would be made to suffer for a crime he had not intended to commit. Now, would you hand this poor father over to the police? In a year his daughter must leave the convent. She then has no earthly protection.”
Miss Jennings gazed out over the sea, her brow knit in deep thought. Her mind went back to the wounded criminal in the hospital cot and to the look of fear and agony that came into his eyes when Hobson stood over him and called him by name. Sister Teresa sat watching her companion’s face. Her whole life had been one of mercy and she never lost an opportunity to plead its cause.
The Nurse’s answer came slowly:
“No, I would not. There is misery enough in the world without my adding to it.”
“Would you help him to escape?”
“Yes, if what you tell me is true and he trusted me.”
Sister Teresa rose to her feet, crossed herself, and said in a voice that seemed to come through pent-up tears:
“Thank God! I go now to pray. It is my Hour of Silence.”
When she returned, Nurse Jennings was still in her seat in the bow. The sun shone bright and warm, and the sea had become calm.
“You look rested, Sister,” she said, looking up into her face. “Your color is fresher and the dark rings have gone from your eyes. Did you sleep?”
“No, I wait for the night to sleep. It is hard enough then.”
“What did you do?”
“I prayed for you and for myself. Come to the stateroom–I have something to tell you.”
“Tell it here,” said Nurse Jennings in a more positive tone.
“No, it might hurt you, and others will notice. Come quick, please, or my courage will fail.”
“Can’t I hear it to-night–” She was comfortable where she was and remembered the narrow, steep steps to the lower deck.
“No! come now–and QUICK.”
At the tone of agony in the Sister’s voice Miss Jennings scrutinized her companion’s face. Her trained ear had caught an indrawn, fluttering sob which she recognized as belonging to a certain form of hysteria. Brooding over her troubles, combined with the effects of the sea air, had unstrung the dear Sister’s nerves.
“Yes, certainly,” assented Miss Jennings. “Let me take your arm–step carefully, and lean on me.”
On reaching the stateroom, Sister Teresa waited until Miss Jennings had entered, then she locked the door and pulled the curtains close.
“Listen, Miss Jennings, before you judge me. You remember yesterday how I pleaded with you to help me find a bedroom where I could be alone. You would not, and I could do nothing but let matters take their course. Fate has placed me in your hands. When you said that you were on the lookout for me and that you knew Hobson, the detective, I knew that all was lost unless your heart went out to me. I know him, too. I faced his eyes when I came aboard. I staggered with fright and caught at the ropes, but he did not suspect–I saw in his face that he did not. He may still trace me and arrest me when I land. If anybody comes for me, say you met me in the hospital where you work.”
Nurse Jennings stood staring into the woman’s eyes. Her first impulse was to ring the bell for the Steward and send for the ship’s doctor. Sudden insanity, the result of acute hysteria, was not uncommon in women leading sedentary lives who had gone through a heavy strain, and the troubles of this poor Sister had, she saw, unseated her reason.
“Don’t talk so–calm yourself. No one is seeking you. You ought to lie down. Come–“
“Yes, I know you think I am crazy–I am crazy–crazy from a horrible fear that stares me in the face–from a spectre that–“
“Sister, you MUST lie down! I’ll ring for the Doctor and he–“
Sister Teresa sprang forward and caught the hand of the Nurse before it touched the bell.
“Stop! STOP!–or all will be lost! I am not a Sister–I am the scene-painter–the father of that girl! See!” He threw back his hood, uncovering his head and exposed his short-cropped hair.
Nurse Jennings turned quickly and looked her companion searchingly in the face. The surprise had been so great that for an instant her breath left her. Then slowly the whole situation rushed over and upon her. This man had made use of her privacy–had imposed upon her–tricked her.
“And you–you have dared to come into this room, making me believe you were a woman–and lied to me about your Hour of Silence and all the–“
“It was the only way I could be safe. You and everybody else would detect me if I did not shave and fix up my face. You said a minute ago the dark rings had gone from my eyes–it is this paint-box that did it. Think of what it would mean to me to be taken–and my little girl! Don’t–don’t judge me wrongly. When I get to New York I promise never to see you again–no one will ever know. If you had been my own sister I could not have treated you with more respect since I have been in the room. I will do anything you wish–to-night I will sleep on the floor–anything, if–“
“To-night! Not another hour will you stay here. I will go to the Purser at once and–“
“You mean to turn me out?”
“Oh, merciful God! Don’t! Listen–you MUST listen. Let me stay! What difference should it make to you. You have nursed hundreds of men. You have saved many lives. Save mine–give me back my little girl! She can come to me in Quebec and then we can get away somewhere in America and be safe. I can still pass as a Sister and she as a child in my charge until I can find some place where I can throw off my disguise. See how good the real Sisters are to me; they do not condemn me. Here is a letter from the Mother Superior in Paris to the Mother Superior of a convent in Quebec. It is not forged–it is genuine. If they believe in me, why cannot you? Let me stay here, and you stay, too. You would if you could see my child.”
The sound of a heavy step was heard outside in the corridor.
Then came a quick, commanding voice: “Miss Jennings, open the door, please.”
The Nurse turned quickly and made a step toward the door. The fugitive sank upon the sofa and drew the hood over his face.
Again her name rang out–this time in a way that showed them both that further delay was out of the question.
Nurse Jennings shot back the bolt.
Outside stood the First Officer.
“There has been a bad accident in the steerage. I hate to ask you, Miss Jennings, knowing how tired you are–but one of the emigrants has fallen down the forecastle hatch. The Doctor wants you to come at once.”
During the rest of the voyage Nurse Jennings slept in the steerage; she would send to Number 49 during the day for her several belongings, but she never passed the night there, nor did she see her companion. The case was serious, she told the Stewardess, who came in search of her, and she dared not leave.
The fugitive rarely left the stateroom. Some days he pleaded illness and had his meals brought to him; often he ate nothing.
As the day approached for the vessel to arrive in New York a shivering nervousness took possession of him. He would stand behind the door by the hour listening for her lightest footfall, hoping against hope that, after all, her heart would soften toward him. One thought absorbed him: would she betray him, and if so, when and where? Would it be to the First Officer–the friend of Hobson–or would she wait until they reached New York and then hand him over to the authorities?
Only one gleam of hope shone out illumining his doubt, and that was that she never sent to the stateroom during the Hour of Silence, thus giving him a chance to continue his disguise. Even this ray was dimmed when he began to realize as they approached their destination that she had steadily avoided him, even choosing another deck for a breath of fresh air whenever she left her patient. That she had welcomed the accident to the emigrant as an excuse for remaining away from her stateroom was evident. What he could not understand was, if she really pitied and justified him, as she had done his prototype, why she should now treat him with such suspicion. At her request he had opened his heart and had trusted her; why then could she not forgive him for the deceit of that first night–one for which he was not responsible?
Then a new thought chilled him like an icy wind: her avoidance of him was only an evidence of her purpose! Thus far she had not exposed him, because then it would be known aboard that they had shared the stateroom together. He saw it all now. She was waiting until they reached the dock. Then no one would be the wiser.
When the steamer entered her New York slip and the gangplank was hoisted aboard, another thick-set, closely-knit man pushed his way through the crowd at the rail, walked straight to the Purser and whispered something in his ear. The next moment he had glided to where the Nurse and fugitive were standing.
“This is Miss Jennings, isn’t it? I’m from the Central Office,” and he opened his coat and displayed the gold shield. “We’ve just got a cable from Hobson. He said you were on board and might help. I’m looking for a man. We’ve got no clew–don’t know that he’s on board, but I thought we’d look the list over. The Purser tells me that you helped the Doctor in the steerage–says somebody had been smashed up. Got anything to suggest?–anybody that would fit this description: ‘Small man, only five-feet-six; blue eyes’”–and he read from a paper in his hand.
“No, I don’t think so. I was in the steerage, of course, four or five days, and helped on a bad case, but I didn’t notice anybody but the few people immediately about me.”
“Perhaps, then, among the first-class passengers? Anybody peculiar there? He’s a slick one, we hear, and may be working a stunt in disguise.”
“No. To tell you the truth, I was so tired when I came aboard that I hardly spoke to any one–no one, really, except my dear Sister Teresa here, who shared my stateroom. They have driven her out of France and she is on her way to a convent in Quebec. I go with her as far as Montreal.”