Story type: Literature
“Oh, I’m going to be Lady Jane Grey,” said Charlie Cleveland, balancing himself on the deck-rail in front of his friends, Mrs. Langdale and Mollie Erle, with considerable agility. “And, Mollie, I say, will you lend me a black silk skirt? I saw you were wearing one last night.”
He spoke with complete seriousness. It was this boy’s way to infuse into all his actions an enthusiasm that deprived the most trifling of the commonplace element. He was the gayest passenger on board–the very life of the boat. Yet he had few accomplishments to recommend him, his abundant spirits alone attaining for him the popularity he everywhere enjoyed.
Molly Erle, who with Mrs. Langdale was returning home after spending the winter with some friends at Calcutta, regarded him with a toleration not wholly devoid of contempt. He apparently deemed it necessary to pay her a good deal of attention, and Molly was strongly determined to keep him at a distance–a matter, by the way, that had its difficulties in face of young Cleveland’s romping lack of ceremony.
“Yes, you may have the skirt,” she said with a generosity not wholly spontaneous, as he waited expectantly for a reply to his request.
“Ah, good!” he said effusively. “That is a great weight off my mind. And may I have Number Ten on your programme?”
“Are you going to dance?” asked Mrs. Langdale, with a half-suppressed laugh.
He turned upon her, grinning openly.
“No. Fisher says I mustn’t. I’m going to sit out, dear Mrs. Langdale–a modest wall-flower for once. I hope you will all be very kind to me. Have you made a note of Number Ten, Molly–I mean, Miss Erle? No? But you will, though. Ah! Thanks, awfully! Here comes Fisher! I wish you would persuade him to do Guildford Dudley. I can’t.”
He bounced off the rail and departed, laughing.
Molly looked after him with slight disapprobation on her pretty face. He was such a thoroughly nice boy. She wished with almost unreasonable intensity that he possessed more of that sterling quality, solidity, for which his travelling companion, Fisher, was chiefly noteworthy.
Captain Fisher approached them with a casual air as if he had drifted their way by accident. He was one of those oppressively quiet men who possess the unhappy knack of appearing wholly out of touch with all social surroundings. There was a reticence about him which almost all took for surliness, but which was in reality merely a somewhat unattractive mixture of awkwardness and laziness.
He was in the Royal Engineers, and believed to be a very clever man in his profession. But there was never anything in the least bright or original in his conversation. Yet, for some vague reason, Molly credited him with the ability to do great deeds, and was particularly gracious to him.
Mrs. Langdale, who was lively herself, infinitely preferred Charlie Cleveland’s boisterous company, and on the present occasion she rose to follow him with great promptitude.
“I must find out how he has managed the rest of his costume,” she said to Molly. “It is sure to be strikingly original–like himself.”
The contempt deepened a little on Molly’s face, contempt and regret–an odd mixture.
“He is very funny, no doubt,” she said; “but I think one gets a little tired of his perpetual gaiety. I don’t think we should find him so delightful if a storm came on. I haven’t much faith in those people who can never take anything really seriously. I believe he would die laughing.”
“All the better,” declared Mrs. Langdale, who loved Charlie’s impetuous ways with maternal tolerance. “It is always better to laugh than cry, my dear; though it isn’t always easier by any means.”
She departed with the words, laughing a little to herself at Molly’s critical mood; and Captain Fisher went and sat stolidly down beside Molly, who turned to him with an instant smile of welcome. She was the only lady on board who was never bored by this man’s quiet society. She liked him thoroughly, finding the contrast between him and his volatile friend a great relief.
Fisher never talked frivolities; indeed, he seldom talked at all. Yet to Molly the hour he spent beside her on that sunny day in the Mediterranean passed as pleasantly and easily as she could have desired.
Captain Fisher might seem heavy to others, but never to her–a fact of which secretly she was rather proud.
“Come up on deck!” whispered Charlie in an eager undertone. “There’s no one there, and the night is divine.”
Molly Erie looked at the strange figure in fancy-dress beside her and laughed aloud. She had not allowed Charlie a tete-a-tete for many days, but she felt that he could scarcely attempt to be sentimental in that costume.
She went with him, therefore, thinking what a pretty girl he would have made.
Charlie led her to the deck-rail. His ridiculous figure was less obtrusively absurd in the dim light. His laughing voice, lowered half-confidently, half-reverently, sounded less inconsequent than was its wont.
Suddenly he turned to her and spoke with wholly unexpected vehemence.
“I can’t keep it in,” he said. “You’ve got to know it. Molly, I love you most awfully. You do know it, I believe, without being told. Why do you always run away and hide when I try to speak?”
He spoke quickly, jerkily. She glanced at him with a nervous movement as she drew back. He was not laughing for once, yet she fancied there was the shadow of a smile quivering about his face. Possibly it was an illusion. The dim light made everything indefinite. But the suspicion roused in her in full strength her prejudice against him. She drew back deliberately, and her anger grew from scorn to cruelty during the moments that intervened between his question and her answer.
“You have chosen a very appropriate occasion,” she remarked icily at length. “Do you imagine yourself irresistible when playing the fool, I wonder?”
He faced round on her.
“I have taken the only opportunity I could get,” he said. “I am a slave of circumstance. If I had come to you in rational costume you would not have consented to sit out with me.”
There was a ring of laughter in his explanation. He did not take her anger seriously, then. Molly quivered with indignation. She would speedily show him his mistake.
“You think, then,” she said, “that this buffoonery is too amusing to be foregone? I am afraid I do not agree with you.”
She paused. Charlie had given a great start of surprise. She could see the astonishment on his boyish face under the white mantilla he wore.
“Oh, look here!” he exclaimed impetuously. “You have got the wrong side of everything. It isn’t buffoonery. I don’t play with sacred things. I’m in earnest, Molly. Can’t you see it? What do you take me for?”
She heard the note of honesty in his voice and shifted her batteries.
“You may be–for a moment,” she said, scorn vibrating in every word she uttered. “But you will soon get over it, you know. By to-morrow, or even sooner, all danger will be over.”
“Stop!” exclaimed Charlie. For the first time in all her dealings with him he spoke sternly, as a man might speak, and Molly started at his tone. “You are making a mistake,” he said more quietly. “I am not the superficial ass you take me for.”
“I have only your word for that,” she returned, striking without pity because for a second he had startled her out of her contemptuous attitude.
He looked at her in silence, and again her indignation arose full-armed against him. How dared he–this clown in woman’s clothes–speak to her at such a moment of that which she rightly held to be the holiest thing on earth?
“How can you expect me to believe you?” she demanded. “You tell me you are in earnest. But you know as well as I do that that is a mere figure of speech. You are never in earnest. You play all day long. You will do it all your life. You never do anything worth mentioning. Other people do the work. You simply skim the surface of things. You are merely a looker-on.”
“A very intelligent looker-on, though,” said Charlie, in a tone she did not wholly understand.
“And if I don’t do anything worth doing, it is possibly lack of opportunity, isn’t it? I can do many things, from driving engines to playing skittles. Take a man for what he is, not for what he does! It is the only fair estimate. Otherwise the blatant fools get all the honey.”
Molly uttered a scornful little laugh.
“This is paltry,” she exclaimed. “A man’s actions are the actual man. He can make his own opportunities. No, Mr. Cleveland. You will never convince me of your intrinsic worth by talking.”
She paused, as it were, involuntarily. Again that startled feeling of uncertainty was at her heart. There was a momentary silence. Then Charlie made her an odd, jerky bow, and without a single word further turned and left her.
Quaint as was his attire, ungainly as were his movements, there was in his withdrawal a touch of dignity, even a hint of the sublime; and Molly could not understand it.
She paced the length of the deck and sat down to regain her composure. The interview had left her considerably ruffled, even ill at ease.
She had been sitting there for some moments when suddenly, with a great throb that seemed to vibrate through the whole length of the great vessel from end to end, the engines ceased. The music in the large saloon, where the first-class passengers were dancing, came to an abrupt stop. There was a pause, a thrilling, intense pause; and then the confusion of voices.
A man ran quickly by her to the bridge, where she could dimly discern the first-officer on watch. She sprang up, dreading she knew not what, and at the same instant Charlie–she knew it was he by the flutter of the ridiculous garb he wore–leapt off the bridge like a hurricane, and tore past her.
He was gone in a second, almost before she had had time to realise his flying presence; and the next moment passengers were streaming up on deck, asking questions, uttering surmises, on the verge of panic, yet trying to ignore the anxiety that tugged at their resolution.
Molly joined the crowd. She was frightened too, badly frightened; but it is always better to face fear in company. So at least says human instinct.
The passengers collected in a restless mass on the upper deck. The captain was seen going swiftly to the bridge. After a brief word with him the first-officer came down to them. He was a pleasant, easy-tempered man, and did not appear in the least dismayed.
“It’s all right,” he said, raising his voice. “Please don’t be alarmed! There has been a little accident in the engine-room. The captain hopes you won’t let it interfere with your dancing.”
He placed himself in the thick of the strangely dressed crowd. His clean-shaven face was perfectly unconcerned.
“I’ll come and join you, if I may,” he said. “The captain allows me to knock off. Will you admit a non-fancy-dresser?”
He led the way below, calling for the orchestra as he went. The frightened crowd turned and followed as if in this one man who spoke with the voice of authority protection could be found. But they hung back from dancing, and after a pause the first-officer seized a banjo and proceeded to entertain them with comic songs. He kept it up for a while, and then Mrs. Langdale went nobly to his assistance and sang some Irish songs. One or two other volunteers presented themselves, and the evening’s entertainment developed into a concert.
The tension relaxed considerably as the time slipped by, but it did not wholly pass. It was noticed that the doctor was absent.
A reluctance to disperse for the night was very manifestly obvious.
About two hours after the first alarm the great ship thrilled as if in answer to some monster touch. The languid roll ceased. The engines started again firmly, regularly, with gradually rising speed. In less than a minute all was as it had been.
A look of intense relief shot across the first-officer’s quiet face.
“That means ‘All’s well,’” he said, raising his voice a little. “Let us congratulate ourselves and turn in!”
“There has been danger, then, Mr. Gresley?” queried Mrs. Granville, a lady who liked to know everything in detail.
Mr. Gresley laughed with an indifference perfectly unaffected. “I believe the engineers thought so,” he said. “I must refer you to them for particulars. Anyhow, it’s all right now. I am going to tell the steward to bring coffee.”
He got up leisurely and strolled away.
There was a slight commotion on the other side of the door as he opened it, a giggle that sounded rather hysterical. A moment later Lady Jane Grey; her head-gear gone, her shorn curls looking absurdly frivolous, walked mincingly into the saloon and subsided upon the nearest seat. She was attended by Captain Fisher, who looked anxious.
“Such a misfortune!” she remarked, in a squeaky voice that sounded, somehow, a horrible strain. “I have been shut up in the Tower and have only just escaped. I trust I am not too late for my execution. I’m afraid I have kept you all waiting.”
All the heaviness of misgiving passed out of the atmosphere in a burst of merriment.
“Where on earth have you been hiding?” shouted Major Granville. “I believe you have been playing the fool with us, you rascal.”
“I!” cried Charlie. “My dear sir, what are you thinking of? If you were to breathe such a suspicion as that to the captain he would clap me in irons for the rest of the voyage.”
“You have been in the engine-room for all that,” said Mrs. Langdale, whose powers of observation were very keen. “Look at your skirt!”
Charlie glanced at the garment in question. It was certainly the worse for wear. There were some curious patches in the front that had the appearance of oil stains.
“That’ll be all right!” he said cheerfully. “I had a fright and tumbled upstairs. Skirts are beastly awkward things to run away in, aren’t they, Mrs. Langdale? Well, good-night all! I’m going to bed.”
He got up with the words, grinned at everyone collectively, picked up the injured skirt with exaggerated care, and stepped out of the saloon.
Mrs. Langdale looked after him, half-laughing, yet with a touch of concern.
“He looks queer,” she remarked to Molly, who was standing by her. “Quite white and shaky. I believe something has happened to him. He has hurt himself in some way.”
But Molly was feeling peculiarly indignant at that moment, though not on account of her ruined skirt.
“He’s a silly poltroon!” she said with emphasis, and walked stiffly away.
Charlie Cleveland had recovered from his serious fit even sooner than she had thought possible; and, though she had made it sufficiently clear to him that as a serious suitor he was utterly unwelcome, she was intensely angry with him for having so swiftly resumed his customary gay spirits.
“Come! What happened last evening? We want to know,” said Major Granville, in his slightly overbearing manner. “I saw you with the second engineer this morning, Fisher. I’m sure you have ferreted it out.”
“I am not at liberty to pass on my information,” responded Fisher stolidly. “You wouldn’t understand it if I did, Major. There was danger and there was steam. Two of the engineers had their arms scalded, and one of the stokers was badly hurt. I can’t tell you any more than that.”
“Do you go so far as to say that the ship herself was in danger?” asked Major Granville. He was talking loudly, as was his wont, across the smoking saloon.
“I should say so,” said Fisher, without lifting his eyes from the magazine he was deliberately studying.
“Where is young Cleveland this morning?” asked the Major abruptly.
Fisher shrugged his shoulders.
“He was in his bunk when I saw him last. Heaven knows what he may be up to by now.”
Charlie Cleveland strolled in at this juncture. He had his right arm in a sling.
“Hullo!” he said. “How are you all? I’m on the sick-list to-day. I sprained my wrist when I fell up the steps yesterday.”
Fisher glanced at him for a moment over the top of his magazine and resumed his reading in silence.
“Look here, my friend!” he said. “You were in the thick of this engine business. I am sure of it.”
“I was,” said Charlie readily. “But for me you would all be at the bottom of the sea by this time.”
He threw himself into a chair with a broad grin at Major Granville’s contemptuous countenance and took up a book.
Major Granville looked intensely disgusted. It was scarcely credible that a passenger could have penetrated to the engine-room and interfered with the machinery there, yet he more than half believed that this outrageous thing had actually occurred. He got up after a brief silence and stalked stiffly from the saloon.
Charlie banged down his book with a yell of laughter.
“Didn’t I tell you, Fisher?” he cried. “He’s gone to have a good, square, face-to-face talk with the captain. But he won’t get anything out of him. I’ve been there first.”
He went up on deck and found a party of quoit-players. Molly Erle was among them. Charlie stood and watched, yelling advice and encouragement.
“Looking on as usual?” the girl said to him presently, with a bitter little smile, as she found herself near him.
“I’m really afraid to speak to you to-day,” he said. “Your skirt will never again bear the light of day.”
“What happened?” she said briefly.
The game was over, and they strolled away together across the deck.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, with ill-suppressed gaiety in his voice. “We should all have been blown out of the water last night if it hadn’t been for me. Forgetful of my finery, I went and–looked on. The magic result was that I saved the situation, and–incidentally, of course–the ship.”
“You don’t believe me?” he said abruptly.
Her lip curled a little.
“Do you really expect to be believed?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said; “I thought it was the usual thing to do between friends.”
“I was not aware–” began Molly.
He broke in with a most disarming smile.
“Oh, please,” he said. “I don’t deserve that–anyhow. I’m awfully sorry about the skirt. I hope you’ll let me bear the cost of the damage. I’ve got into hot water all round. Nobody will believe I’m seriously sorry, though it’s a fact for all that. Don’t be hard on me, Molly, I say!”
There was a note of genuine pleading in the last words that induced her to relent a little.
“Oh, well, I’ll forgive you for the skirt,” she said. “I suppose boys can’t help being mischievous, though you are nearly old enough to know better.”
She looked at him as she said it. His face was comically penitent. Somehow she could not quarrel with the lurking smile in his merry eyes. He was certainly a boy. He would never be anything else. But Molly did not realise this, and she was still too young herself to have appreciated the gift of perpetual youth had she been aware of its existence.
“That’s right!” said Charlie cheerily. “And perhaps”–he spoke cautiously, with a half-deprecatory glance at her bright face–“perhaps–in time, you know–you will be able to forgive me for something else as well.”
“I think the less we say about that the better,” remarked Molly, tilting her chin a little.
“All right!” said Charlie equably. “Only, you know”–his voice was suddenly grave–“I was–and am–in earnest.”
“So far as in you lies, I suppose?” she said indifferently. “I wonder if you ever really did anything worth doing in your life, Mr. Cleveland.”
“I wish you would call me Charlie!” he said impulsively. “Yes. I proposed to you last night. Wasn’t that worth doing?”
She drew her brows together in a quick frown, but she made no reply. Fisher was drifting towards them. She turned deliberately, her head very high, and strolled to meet him.
Charlie glanced over his shoulder, stood a moment irresolute, then walked away more soberly than usual towards the bridge, where he was a constant and welcome visitor.
“There are plenty of fine chaps in the world who aren’t to be recognised as such at first sight,” drawled Bertie Richmond to his young cousin, Molly Erle, who was sitting with her feet on the fender on a very cold winter evening.
“I’m sure of that,” said Mrs. Richmond from the other side of the fire, with a tender glance at her husband’s loosely knit figure. “I never thought there was an inch of heroism in you, Bertie darling, till that day when we went punting and we got upset. How brave you were! I’ve never forgotten it. It was the beginning of everything.”
“It sounds as if it were nearer being the end,” remarked Molly, who systematically avoided all sentiment. “I don’t believe myself that any man can be actually heroic and yet not betray it somehow.”
“You’re wrong,” said Bertie.
“I don’t think so,” said Molly. She could be quite as obstinate as most women, and this was a point upon which she was very decided.
“I’ll prove it,” said Bertie, with quiet determination. “There’s a chap coming with the crowd of sportsmen to-morrow who is the bravest and, I think, the best fellow I ever met. I shan’t tell you who he is. I’ll leave you to find out–if you can. But I don’t believe you will.”
“I am quite sure I can tell the difference between a looker-on, a mere loafer, and a man who does,” said Molly, with absolute confidence.
“Bet you you don’t!” murmured Bertie Richmond, smiling at the ceiling. “I know the woman’s theory so jolly well.”
Molly smiled also.
“I’ll take your bet, whatever it is, Bertie,” she said.
Bertie shook his head.
“No, I don’t bet on a dead cert,” he said comfortably. “I’ll even tell you the fellow’s heroic deeds, and then you’ll never spot him. I met him first in South Africa. He saved my life twice. Once he carried me nearly a mile under fire, and got wounded in the process. Another time he sat all night under fire holding a fellow’s artery. Since then he has been knocking about in odd corners, doing splendid things in the dark, as it were, for he is horribly modest. The last I heard of him was from my friend Captain Raglan. He travelled on Raglan’s ship from Calcutta, One night in the Mediterranean something went wrong in the engine-room. Two of the boat’s engineers were badly scalded. They managed to get away, but a wretched stoker was too hurt to escape, and this fellow–this hero of mine–went down into a perfect inferno and got him out. Not only that, he went back afterwards with one of the engineers to direct him, and worked like a bull till the mischief was put right. There was danger of an explosion every moment, but he never lost his nerve for an instant. When it was over everyone concerned was sworn to secrecy, and not a passenger on board that boat knew what had actually taken place. As I said before, he is not the sort of chap anyone would credit with that sort of heroism. I shan’t tell you what he is like in other respects.”
“I probably know,” said Molly. “I came home on Captain Raglan’s ship in the autumn.”
“What! You were on board?” exclaimed Bertie. “What a rum go! You will meet one or two old friends, then. And the hero is probably known to you already, though I’m sure you have never taken him for such.”
“Oh, you’re quite wrong!” laughed Molly. “I have known him and detected his splendid qualities for quite a long while. He is nice, isn’t he? I am glad he is coming.”
She took up her book with slightly heightened colour, and began to turn over its pages.
Bertie Richmond stared at her in silence for some moments.
“Well!” he said at last. “You have got sharper insight than any woman I know.”
“Thanks!” said Molly, with an indifferent laugh. “But you are not so awfully great on that point yourself, are you, Bertie? I should say you are scarcely a competent judge.”
Mrs. Richmond protested on Bertie’s behalf, but without effect. Molly was slightly vexed with him for imagining that she could be so dull.
The great country house was invaded by a host of guests on the following day. Portmanteaux and gun-cases were continually in evidence. The place was filled to overflowing.
Mrs. Langdale, who was Mrs. Richmond’s greatest friend, arrived in excellent spirits, and was delighted to find Molly Erle a fellow-guest.
“And actually,” she said, “Charlie Cleveland and Captain Fisher are going to swell the throng of sportsmen. We shall imagine ourselves back in our old board-ship days. Charlie was talking about them and of all the fun we had only last Saturday. Yes, I have seen him several times lately. He has been staying in town, waiting for something to turn up, he says. Funny boy! He is just as gay as ever. And Captain Fisher, whom he dragged to my flat to tea, is every bit as heavy and uninteresting, poor dear!”
“I don’t call Captain Fisher uninteresting,” remarked Molly. “At least, I never found him so in the old days.”
“My dear, he is heavy as lead!” declared Mrs. Langdale. “I believe he only opened his mouth once to speak, and then it was to ask for five lumps of sugar instead of three. A most wearing person to entertain. I will never have him at my table without Charlie to raise the gloom. He and Charlie seemed to have decided to join forces for the present. They spent Christmas together with Captain Fisher’s people. I don’t know if they are as sober as he is. If so, poor dear Charlie must have felt distinctly out of his element. But his spirits are wonderful. I believe he would make a tombstone laugh.”
“It will be nice to see him again,” said Molly tolerantly. “It is three months now since we dispersed.”
She made the remark with another thought in her mind. Surely by this Charlie would have forgotten the folly that had caused her annoyance in the old days! Constancy was the very last quality with which she credited him. Or so at least she thought.
She went for a walk on the rocky shore that afternoon, meeting the steely north-east blast with a good deal of resolution, if scant enjoyment. Something in the immediate future she found vaguely disquieting, something connected with Charlie Cleveland.
She did not believe that her estimate of this young man was in any way wide of the mark. And yet the thought of meeting him again had in it a disturbing element for which she could not account. It worried her a good deal that wild afternoon in January. Perhaps a suspicion that she had once done young Cleveland an injustice strengthened the unwelcome sense of regret, for it felt like regret in her mind.
Yet as she turned homeward along the windy shore one comforting reflection came to her and remained with her. She was at least unfeignedly glad that Captain Fisher was going to be there. She liked those silent, strong men who did all the hard work and then stood aside to let the tide of praise and admiration flood past.
Right well did her cousin’s description fit this quiet hero, she told herself with flushed cheeks.
She remembered how he had spoken of him as “doing splendid things in the dark, as it were,” as being “horribly modest.” Fisher’s heavy personality came before her with the memory. She could detect the heroism behind the grave exterior with which this man baffled all others.
If Charlie had been a hero, too, instead of a frivolous imp of mischief!
A sigh rose in her heart. Somehow, even though she told herself she had no interest in the matter, Molly wished that he were something more valuable than the flippant looker-on she took him to be. How could any man, who was worth anything, bear to be only that, she wondered?
She found a large party gathered in the hall at tea on her return. A laugh she knew fell on her ears as she entered, and an instant later she was aware of Charlie springing to meet her, his brown face aglow with the smile of welcome.
“How awfully good to meet you here, Molly!” he said, with that audacious use of her Christian name against which no protest of hers seemed to take any effect.
She shook hands with him and she tried to do it coldly, but his warm grasp was close and lingering. She realised with something of a shock that he really was as glad as he professed to be to see her again.
She went forward to the group around the fire and shook hands with all she knew.
Captain Fisher was the last to receive this attention. He was standing in the background. He moved forward half a pace to greet her. In his own peculiar, dumb fashion he also seemed pleased to meet her there.
He had an untasted cup of tea in his hand which he hastened to pass on to her.
“I shouldn’t accept it if I were you,” laughed Mrs. Langdale. “I saw ten lumps of sugar go into it just now.”
Fisher raised his eyebrows, but made no verbal protest. He never spoke if a gesture would do as well.
Molly accepted the cup of tea with a gracious smile, and Fisher found her a chair and sat silently down beside her.
Molly had plenty to say at all times. Her companion did not embarrass her by his lack of responsiveness as he embarrassed most people. She had a feeling that his reticence did not spring from inattention.
“I am going to let you have the Silent Fish, as Charlie calls him, for partner at dinner,” her hostess said to her later. “You are a positive marvel, Molly. He becomes quite genial under your influence.”
Fisher brightened considerably when he found himself allotted to Molly. He even conversed a little, and went so far as to seek her out in the drawing-room later.
Charlie, who was making tracks in the same direction, turned sharply away when he saw it, and went off to the billiard-room where several of the rest were collected playing pool. He was in uproarious spirits, and the whole gathering was speedily infected thereby.
The evening ended in a boisterous abandonment to childish games, and the party broke up at midnight, exhausted but still merry. Charlie, after an animated sponge-fight with half-a-dozen other sportsmen, finally effaced himself by bolting into Fisher’s bedroom and locking himself in.
To Fisher, who was smoking peacefully by the fire, he made hurried apology, to which Fisher gruffly responded by requesting him to get out.
But Charlie, after listening to the babel dying away down the corridor, turned round with a smile and established himself at comfortable length on Fisher’s bed.
“I want to talk to you, dear old fellow,” he tenderly remarked. “Can you spare me a few moments of your valuable time?”
“Two minutes,” said Fisher with brevity.
“By Jove! What generosity!” ejaculated Charlie, his hands clasped behind his head, his eyes on the ceiling. “It’s rather a delicate matter. However, here goes! Do you seriously mean business, or don’t you? Are you in sober earnest, or aren’t you? Are you badly smitten, or are you only just beginning to hover round the candle? Pardon my mixture of similes! The meaning remains intact.”
Silence followed his somewhat involved speech. After a pause Captain Fisher got up slowly, and turned round to face the boy on his bed.
“Whatever your meaning may be, I don’t fathom it,” he said curtly.
Charlie rolled on to his side to look at him.
“Dense as a London fog,” he murmured.
“You’d better go,” said Fisher, dropping his cigarette into the fire and beginning to undress.
Charlie sat up and watched him with an air of interest. Fisher took no more notice of him. There was no waste of ceremony between these two.
Charlie got up at last and laid sudden hands on his friend’s square shoulders.
“I think it wouldn’t hurt you to give me a straight answer, old boy,” he said, a flicker of something that was not mischief in his eyes.
Fisher faced him instantly.
“What is it you want to know?” he inquired bluntly.
“This only,” Charlie said, with perfect steadiness. “Are you going in for Miss Erle in solid earnest or are you not? I want to know your intentions, that’s all.”
“I can’t enlighten you, then,” returned Fisher.
Charlie laughed without effort.
“Cautious old duffer!” he said. “Well, tell me this! I’ve no right to ask it. Only somehow I’ve got to know. You care for her, don’t you?”
Fisher looked at him keenly for a moment. “Why do you ask?” he said.
“Oh, it’s infernal impertinence, of course. I admit that,” said Charlie, his tanned face growing suddenly red. “I suspected it, you see, ages ago–on board ship, in fact. Is it true, then?”
Fisher turned abruptly from him, and began to wind his watch with extreme care. He spoke at length with his back turned on Charlie, who was waiting with extraordinary patience for his answer.
“Yes,” he said deliberately. “It is true.”
“Go on and prosper!” said Charlie with a gay laugh. “You have my blessing, old chap. Thanks for telling me!”
He moved up to Fisher and thrust out an immense brown paw.
“Take a friend’s advice, man!” he said. “Ask her soon!”
Then he bounced out of the room with his usual brisk energy, and shut the door noisily behind him.
Was it by happy accident or by some kind friend’s deliberate provision that Fisher found himself walking alone with Molly Erle to church on the following Sunday? Across the frosty park the voices of the other churchgoers sounded fitfully distinct.
Charlie Cleveland and another boy called Archie Croft, as hare-brained as himself, were making Mrs. Langdale slide along the slippery drive. Mrs. Langdale’s laughter could be plainly heard. Molly thought her, privately, rather childish to suffer herself to be thus carried away.
Her companion was sauntering very slowly at her side.
“I think we are late,” Molly presently remarked, in a suggestive tone.
“Are we?” said Fisher. “Does it matter?”
“Yes,” said Molly with decision. “I don’t like going in after the service has begun.”
“We won’t,” said Fisher.
She looked at him in some surprise and found him gravely watching her.
“I don’t think we ought to do that,” she remarked, smiling a little.
“I’ll go with you to-night,” said Fisher, “if you will come with me now.”
They had come to a path that branched off towards the shore. He stopped with an air of determination.
Molly stopped too, looking irresolute. Her heart was beating very fast. She wished he would turn his eyes away.
Suddenly he took his hand from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Come with me, Miss Erle!” he said, in a quiet tone.
She hesitated momentarily, then as he waited she put her hand in his.
She glanced up at him as she did so, her face a glow of colour.
“How far, Captain Fisher?” she said faintly.
“All the way,” said Fisher, with a sudden smile that illuminated his sombre countenance like a searchlight on a dark sea.
Molly laughed softly.
“How far is that?” she said.
He drew the little hand to his breast and put his free arm round her.
“Further than we can see, Molly,” he said, and his quiet voice suddenly thrilled. “Side by side through eternity.”
Thus, with no word of love, did Fisher the Silent take to himself the priceless gift of love. And the girl he wooed loved him the better for that which he left unuttered.
They returned home late for lunch, entering sheepishly, and sitting down as far apart as the length of the table would allow.
Charlie fell upon Fisher with merciless promptitude.
“You base defaulter!” he cried. “I’ll see you march in front next time. I was never more scandalised in my life than when I realised that you and Molly had done a slope.”
Fisher shrugged the shoulder nearest to him and offered no explanation of his and Molly’s defection.
Charlie kept up a running fire of chaff for some time, to which Fisher, as was his wont, showed himself to be perfectly indifferent. Lunch over, Molly disappeared. Charlie saw her go and turned instantly to Fisher.
“Come and have a single on the asphalt court!” he said. “I haven’t tried it yet. I want to.”
Fisher was reluctant, but yielded to persuasion.
They went off together, Charlie with an affectionate arm round his friend’s shoulders.
“I am to congratulate, I suppose?” he asked, as they crossed the garden to the tennis-court.
Fisher looked at him gravely, a hint of suspicion in his eyes.
“You may, if it gives you any pleasure to do so, my boy,” he said.
“Ah, that’s good!” said Charlie. “You’re a jolly good fellow, old chap. You’ll make her awfully happy.”
“I shall do my best,” Fisher said.
Charlie passed instantly to less serious matters, but the critical look did not pass entirely from Fisher’s face. He seemed to be watching for something, for some card that Charlie did not appear disposed to play.
Throughout the hard set that followed, his vigilance did not relax; but Charlie played with all his customary zest. Tennis was to him for the time being the only thing worth doing on the face of the earth. In his enthusiasm he speedily stripped off his coat and rolled his sleeves to the shoulder as if it had been the hottest summer day.
At the end of the set, which Charlie won, a couple of spectators who had come up unseen applauded their energy, and Charlie, swinging round in flushed triumph, raced up for a word with his host and Molly Erie.
“I can’t stuff over a fire all the afternoon,” he said. “But the light is getting bad, isn’t it? Fisher and I will have to knock off. Are you two going for a walk? We’ll come, too, if you are, eh, Fisher?”
He turned towards Fisher, who had come up, and held out his hand for the other’s racquet.
Molly uttered a sudden startled exclamation.
“Why, Charlie,” she ejaculated, “what have you done to your arm? What is the matter with it?”
Charlie jumped at her startled tone and tore down his shirt-sleeve hastily.
“An old wound,” he said, with a shame-faced laugh.
She put her gloved hand swiftly on his to stay his operations.
“No, tell me!” she said. “What is it–really? How was it done?”
“You will never get him to tell you that,” laughed Bertie Richmond. “You had better ask Fisher.”
“Oh, rats!” cried Charlie vehemently. “Fisher, I’ll break your head with this racquet if you give my show away. Come along! I believe the moon has contracted a romantic habit of rising over the sea when the sun sets. Let’s go and—-“
“I’ll tell you, Molly,” broke in Bertie, linking a firm arm in Charlie’s to keep him quiet. “He can’t break his host’s head, you know. It’s a scald, eh, Charlie? He got it in the engine-room of the Andover one night in the autumn. You were on board, you know. Help me to hold him, Fisher! He’s getting restive. But I thought you knew all about it, Molly. You told me so.”
“Oh, I didn’t know–this!” the girl said. “How could I? I never guessed–this!”
Her three listeners were all surprised by the tragic note in her voice. There was a momentary silence. Then Charlie made a fierce attempt to wrest himself free.
“You infernal idiots!” he exclaimed violently. “Fisher, if you interfere with me any more I–I’ll punch your head! Bertie, don’t be such a fool!”
He shook them off with an angry effort. Fisher laughed quietly.
“You can’t always hide your light, my dear fellow,” he observed. “If you will do impossible things, you will have to put up with the penalty of being occasionally found out.”
“Silly ass!” commented Bertie. “Anyone would think that to save a few hundred human lives was a thing to be ashamed of. It was the same thing in South Africa; always slinking off into the background when the work was done, till everyone took you for nothing but a looker-on–a chap who ought to wear the V.C., if ever there was one,” he ended, thrusting an arm through Charlie’s, as the latter, having put on his coat, turned once more towards them.
“Oh, you are utterly wrong,” the boy said forcibly, almost angrily. “If you judge a man by what he does on impulse you might decorate the biggest blackguard in the world with the V.C.”
“You’re made of impulse, my dear lad,” Bertie remarked, walking off with him. “You’re a mass of impulse. That’s why you do such idiotic things.”
Charlie yielded, chafing, to the friendly hand.
“I should like to kick you, Bertie,” he said.
But he went no further than that. Bertie Richmond was his very good friend, and he was Bertie’s. Neither of them was likely to forget that fact.
“Oh, Charlie, here you are! I am glad!”
Molly entered the smoking-room with an air of resolution. She had just returned from evening church with Fisher. They were late, and the latter had gone off to dress forthwith.
But Molly had glanced into the smoking-room, and, seeing Charlie alone there, as she had half hoped but scarcely expected, she entered.
Charlie sprang up instantly, his brown face exceedingly alert.
“Come to the fire!” he said hospitably.
Molly went, but did not sit down. She stood facing him on the hearth-rug. Her young face was very troubled.
“I want to tell you,” she said steadily, “how sorry–and grieved–I am for all the hard things I have said and thought of you. I would like to retract them all. I was quite wrong. I took you for an idler–a buffoon almost. I know better now. And I–I should like you to forgive me.”
Her voice suddenly faltered. Her eyes were full of tears she could neither repress nor conceal.
Charlie, however, seemed to notice nothing strained in the atmosphere. He broke into a gay laugh and held out his hand.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said briskly. “Shake hands and forget what those asses said about me! You were quite right, you know. I am a buffoon. There isn’t an inch of heroism anywhere about me. You took my measure long ago, didn’t you? To change the subject, I’m most awfully pleased to hear that you and old Fisher have come to an understanding. Congratulate you most heartily. There’s solid worth in that chap. He goes straight ahead and never plays the fool.”
He looked straight at her as he spoke. Not by the flicker of an eyelid did he seem to recall the fact that he had once asked on his own behalf that which he apparently so heartily approved of her bestowing upon another.
Yet Molly, torn with remorse over what was irrevocable, did a most outrageous thing.
“Charlie!” she cried, with a deep ringing passion that would not be suppressed. “Why have I been deceived like this? Why didn’t you tell me? How could you let me imagine anything so false?” She flung out her other hand to him and he took it; but still he laughed.
“Oh, come, Molly!” he protested. “I did tell you, you know. I told you the day after it happened. Don’t you remember? I had to account for the skirt.”
She wrenched her hands away from him. The thrill of laughter in his voice seemed to jar all her nerves. She was, moreover, wearied with the emotions of the day.
“Oh, don’t you see,” she cried passionately, “how different it might have been? If you had told me–if you had made me understand! I could have cared–I did care–only you seemed to me–unworthy. How could I know? What chance had I?”
She bowed her head suddenly, and burst into a storm of bitter weeping.
Charlie turned white to his lips. He stood perfectly motionless till the anguished sobbing goaded him beyond endurance. Then he flung round with a jerk.
“Stop, for Heaven’s sake!” he exclaimed harshly. “I can’t bear it. It’s too much–too much.”
He moved close to her, his face twitching, and took her shaking shoulders between his hands.
“Molly!” he said almost violently. “You don’t know what you said just now. You didn’t mean it. It has always been Fisher–always, from the very beginning.”
She did not contradict him. She did not even answer him. She was sobbing as in passionate despair.
And it was that moment which Fisher chose for poking his head into the smoking-room in search of Charlie, whom he expected to find dozing over the fire, ignorant of the fact that it was close upon dinner-time.
Charlie leapt round at the opening of the door, but Fisher had taken stock of the situation. He entered with that in his face which the boy had never seen there before–a look that it was impossible to ignore.
Charlie met Fisher half-way across the room.
“Come into the billiard-room!” he said hurriedly.
He seized Fisher’s arms with muscular fingers.
“Not here,” he whispered urgently. “She is tired–upset. There is nothing really the matter.”
But Fisher resisted the impulsive grip.
“I will talk to you presently,” he said. “You clear out!”
He pushed past Charlie and went straight to the girl. His jaw was set with a determination that would have astonished most of his friends.
“What is it, Molly?” he said, halting close beside her. “What is wrong, child?”
But Molly could not tell him. She turned towards him indeed, laying an imploring hand on his arm; but she kept her face hidden and uttered no word.
It was Charlie who plunged recklessly into the opening breach–plunged with a wholesale gallantry, regardless of everything but the moment’s emergency.
“It’s my doing, Fisher,” he declared, his voice shaking a little. “I’ve been making an ass of myself. It was, partly your fault, too–yours and Bertie’s. Let her go! I’ll explain.”
He was excited and he spoke quickly, but his eyes were very steady.
“Molly,” he said, “you go upstairs! You’ve got to dress, you know, and you’ll be late. I’ll make it all right. Don’t you worry yourself!”
Molly lifted a perfectly white face and looked at Fisher. She met his eyes, struggled with herself a moment, then with quivering lips turned slowly away. He did not try to stop her. He realised that Charlie must be disposed of before he attempted to extract an explanation from her.
Charlie sprang to the door, shut it hastily after her, and turned the key.
“Now!” he said, and, wheeling, marched straight back to Fisher and halted before him. “You want an explanation. You shall have one. You gave my show away this afternoon. You made her imagine that in taking me for an ordinary–or perhaps I should say a rather extraordinary–fool she had done me an injustice. She came in her sweetness and told me she was sorry. And I–forgot myself, and said things that made her cry. That is the whole matter.”
“What did you say to her?” demanded Fisher.
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“You shall tell me!” said Fisher.
He took a step forward, all the hidden force in him risen to the surface.
Charlie faced him for a second with his head flung defiantly back, then, as Fisher laid a powerful hand on his shoulder, he stuck his hands in his pockets and smiled a little.
“No, old chap,” he said. “I’ll apologise to you, if you like. But you haven’t any right to ask for more.”
“I have a right to know why what you said upset her,” Fisher said.
Charlie shook his head.
“Not the smallest,” he said. “But I should have thought your imagination might have accomplished that much. Surely you needn’t grudge the tears of pity a woman wastes over a man she has had to disappoint?”
He spoke with his eyes on Fisher’s face. He was not afraid of Fisher, yet his look of relief was unmistakable as the hand on his shoulder relaxed.
“You care for her, then?” Fisher said.
Charlie flung impetuously away from him.
“Oh, need we discuss the thing any further?” he said. “I’m on the wrong side of the hedge, and that’s enough. I hope you won’t say any more to her about it. You will only distress her.”
He walked to the end of the room and came slowly back to Fisher, whose eyes were sternly fixed upon him. He thrust out his hand impulsively.
“Forgive me, old chap!” he said. “After all, I’ve got the hardest part.”
Fisher’s face softened.
“I’m sorry, boy,” he said, and took the proffered hand.
“I’ll clear out to-morrow,” Charlie said. “You’ll forget this foolery of mine?” gripping Fisher’s hand hard for a moment.
Fisher did not answer him. He struck him instead a sounding blow on the shoulder, and Charlie turned away satisfied. He had played a difficult game with considerable skill. That it had been a losing game did not at the moment enter into his calculations. He had not played for his own stakes.
“Jove! It’s a wild night,” said Archie Croft comfortably, as he stretched out his legs to the smoking-room fire. “What’s become of Charlie? He doesn’t usually retire early.”
“I don’t believe he has retired,” said Bertie Richmond sleepily. “I saw him go out something over an hour ago.”
“Out?” said Croft. “What on earth for?”
“Up to some fool trick or other, no doubt,” said Fisher from the smoking-room sofa.
“Hullo, Fisher! I thought you were asleep,” said Bertie. “You ought to be. It’s after midnight. Time we all turned in if we mean to start early with the guns to-morrow.”
Croft stretched himself and rose leisurely.
“It’s a positively murderous night!” he remarked, strolling to the window. “There must be a tremendous sea.”
He drew aside the blind, staring at the blackness that seemed to press against the pane. A moment later, with a sharp exclamation, he ripped back the blind and flung the window wide open. An icy spout of rain and snow whirled into the room. Richmond turned round to expostulate, but was met by a face of such wild excitement that his protest remained unuttered.
“I saw a rocket!” Croft declared.
“Oh, rats!” murmured Fisher.
“It isn’t rats!” he said indignantly. “It’s a ship down among those infernal rocks. I’m off to see what’s doing.”
“Hi! Wait a minute!” exclaimed his host, starting up. “You are perfectly certain, are you, Croft? No humbug? I heard no report.”
“Who could hear anything in a gale like this?” returned Croft impatiently. “Yes, of course, I am certain. Are you coming?”
“I must send a man on horseback to the life-boat station,” said Bertie, starting towards the door. “It’s two miles round the headland. They may not know there is anything up.”
He was out of the room with the words. The rest of the men in the smoking-room followed. Fisher remained to shut the window. He stood a couple of seconds before it, facing the hurricane. The night was like pitch. The angry roar of the sea half-a-mile away surged up on the tearing gale like the voice of a devouring monster. He turned away into the cosy room and followed the others.
The whole party went out into the raging night. They groped their way after Bertie to the stables. A groom was dispatched on horseback to the life-boat station. Lanterns were then procured, and, with the blast full in their teeth, they fought their way to the shore.
Here were darkness and desolation unspeakable. The tide was high. Great waves, flashing white through the darkness, came smiting through the rocks as if they would rend the very surface of the earth apart. The clouds scurrying overhead uncovered a star or two and instantly drew together in impenetrable darkness.
Down by the sea-wall that protected the little village nestling between the cliffs and the sea they found a knot of men and women. A short distance away in the boiling tumult there shone a shifting light, but between it and the shore the storm-god held undisputed possession.
“That’s her!” explained one of the men to Bertie Richmond. “She’s sunk right down in them rocks, sir. It’s a little schooner. I see her masts a-stickin’ up just now.”
The man was one of his own gardeners. He yelled his information into Bertie’s ear with great enjoyment.
“Have you sent to the lifeboat chaps?” shouted Bertie.
“Young gentleman went an hour ago,” came the answer. “But they are off on another job to Mulworth, t’other side of the station. He wanted us to go out in a fishing-boat. But no one ‘ud go. He be gone for a bit o’ rope now. You see, sir, them rocks ‘ud dash a boat to pieces like a bit o’ eggshell. There’s only three chaps aboard as far as we could see awhile ago. And not a hundred yards off us. But it’s a hundred yards of death, as you might say. No boat could live through it. It ain’t worth the trying.”
A hundred yards of death and only three little human lives to be gained by the awful risk of braving that hundred yards!
Bertie turned away, feeling sick, yet silently agreeing. Who could hope to pass unharmed through that raging darkness, that tossing nightmare of great waters? Yet the thought of those three lives beating outward in agony and terror while he and his friends stood helplessly by took him by the throat.
Suddenly through a lull of the tempest there came a great shout.
The clouds had drifted asunder and a few stars shone vaguely down on the wild scene. The dim light showed the doomed vessel wedged among the rocks that stuck up, black and threatening, through the racing foam.
Nearer at hand, huddled on the stout sea-wall, stood the little group of watchers, their faces all turned outwards towards the two masts of the little schooner, which remained faintly discernible through the shifting gloom.
It was not more than a hundred yards away, Bertie realised. Yet the impossibility of rescue was as apparent as if it had been a hundred miles from land. He fancied he could see a couple of figures half-way up one of the masts, but the light was elusive. He could not be certain of this.
Suddenly a hand gripped his elbow, and he found Archie Croft beside him, yelling excitedly.
“Don’t let him go!” he bawled. “It’s madness–sheer madness!”
Bertie turned sharply. Close to him, his head bare, and clothed still in evening dress, stood Charlie Cleveland. A coil of rope lay at his feet. He had knotted one end firmly round his body.
“Listen, you fellows!” he cried. “I’m going to have a shot at it. Pay out the rope as I go. Count up to five hundred, and if it is limp, pull it in again. If it holds, make it fast! Got me?”
He turned at once to a flight of iron steps that led off the wall down into the awful, seething water. But someone, Fisher, sprang suddenly after him and held him back. Charlie wheeled instantly. The light of a lantern striking on his face revealed it, unafraid, even laughing.
“You silly ass!” he cried. “Hang on to the rope instead of behaving like a fellow’s grandmother!”
“You shan’t do it!” Fisher said, holding him fast. “It is certain death!”
“All right,” Charlie yelled back. “I choose death, then. I prefer it to sitting still and seeing others die. My life is my own. I choose to risk it.”
He looked at Fisher closely for a moment, then, with one immense effort, he wrenched himself away. He went leaping down the steps as a boy going for a summer-morning dip.
Fisher turned round and met Bertie Richmond hurrying to help him.
“Let him go!” Fisher said briefly.
Thereafter came a terrible interval of waiting. The sky was clearing, but the tempest did not abate. The rope ran out with jerks and pauses. Fisher stood and counted at the head of the steps, his eyes on the tumult that had swallowed up the slight active figure of the one man among them all who had elected to risk his life against those overwhelming odds.
“He must be dashed to pieces!” Bertie Richmond gasped to himself, with a shudder.
The rope ceased to run. Fisher had counted four hundred and fifty. He counted on resolutely to five hundred, then turned and raised his hand to the men who held the coil. They hauled at the rope. It was limp. Hand over hand they dragged it in through the foam. Fisher peered downwards. It came so rapidly that he thought it must have parted among the rocks. Then he saw a dark object bobbing strangely among the waves. He went down the steps, that quivered and trembled like cardboard under his feet.
Clinging to the iron rail, he reached out a hand and guided the rope to him. A great sea broke over him and nearly swept him off. He saved himself by hanging with both hands on to the rope. Thus he was dragged up the steps to safety, and behind him, buffeted, bleeding, helpless, came two limp bodies lashed fast together.
They cut the two asunder by the light of the lanterns, and one of them, Charlie, staggered to his feet.
“I’ve got to go back!” he gasped. “You pulled too soon. There are two others.”
He dashed the blood from his face, seized a pocket flask someone held out to him, and drained it at a long gulp.
“That’s better!” he said. “That you, Fisher? Good-bye, old chap!”
The first pale light of a rising moon burst suddenly through the cloud drift.
“I’ll go myself,” Fisher abruptly said.
Even in that roar of sound they heard the boyish laugh that rang out upon the words.
“No, no, no!” shouted Charlie. “Bless you, dear fellow! But this is my job–alone. You’ve got to stay behind–you’re wanted.”
He stood a few seconds poising himself on the steps, drawing deep breaths in preparation for the coming struggle. The moonlight smote upon him. He lifted his face to it, and seemed to hesitate. Then suddenly he turned to Fisher and laid impetuous hands upon his shoulders.
“Lookers-on see most of the game,” he said. “And I’ve been one from the first, though I own I thought at one time I should like to take a hand. Go on and prosper, old boy! You’ve played a winning game all along, you know. You’re a better chap than I am, and it’s you she really cares for–always has been. That’s how I came to know what I’d got to do. I find it’s easy–thank God!–it’s very easy.”
And with that he plunged down again into the breakers. The tide was on the turn. The worst fury was over. The awful darkness had lifted.
Those who mutely watched him fancied they heard him laugh as he met the crested waves.
Molly had spent a night of feverish restlessness. It was with a feeling of relief that she answered a tap that came at her door in the early dusk of the January morning; but she gave a start of surprise when she saw Mrs. Langdale enter.
She started up on her elbow.
“Oh, what is it? It has been a fearful night. Has something dreadful happened?” she cried.
Mrs. Langdale’s usually merry face was pale and quiet. She went quickly to the girl’s side and took her hands into a tight clasp.
“My dear,” she said, “Gerald Fisher asked me to come and tell you. There has been a wreck in the night. A vessel ran on to the rocks. There were three men on board. They could not reach them with an ordinary boat, and the life-boat was not available.”
“Go on!” gasped Molly, her eyes on her friend’s face.
Mrs. Langdale went on, with an effort.
“Charlie Cleveland–dear fellow–went out to them with a rope. He reached them, brought one safely back, returned for the others–and–and–” Her voice failed. Her hands tightened upon Molly’s; they were very cold. “He managed to get to them again,” she whispered, “but–the rope wasn’t long enough. He unlashed himself and bound them together. They pulled them ashore–both living. But–he–was lost!”
The composure suddenly forsook Mrs. Langdale’s face. She hid it on Molly’s pillow.
“Oh, Molly, that darling boy!” she cried, with a burst of tears. “And they say he went to his death–laughing.”
“He would,” Molly said, in a strange voice. “I always knew he would.”
She lay back again. Her face was suddenly pinched and grey, but she felt not the smallest desire to cry.
“I wonder why!” she presently said. “How I wonder why!”
Mrs. Langdale recovered herself with an effort. The frozen voice seemed to give her strength.
“Have we any right to ask that?” she whispered. “No one on this side can ever know.”
“Oh, I think you are wrong,” Molly said. “We can’t be meant to grope in outer darkness.”
Mrs. Langdale whispered something about “those the gods love.” She was too broken-down herself to be able to offer any solid comfort.
After a painful silence she got up and busied herself with reviving Molly’s fire, which had almost gone out. She felt as she had felt only once before in her life, and that had been ten years previously, when her only child had died suddenly. She wished passionately that she were back in Calcutta with her husband. She hated the bleak English winter, the cruel English seas.
Molly lay quite still for some time, her young face drawn and stricken.
At length she got up and went to the window. It was a morning of bleak winds and shifting clouds. The sea was just visible, very far and dim and grey. She stood a long while gazing stonily out.
“Can I get you anything, darling?” said Mrs. Langdale’s voice softly behind her.
“No, thank you,” the girl said, without turning. “Please leave me; that’s all!”
And Mrs. Langdale crept away through the hushed house to her own apartment, there to lay down her head and cry herself exhausted. Dear, gallant Charlie! Her heart ached for him. His irrepressible gaiety, his reckless generosity, these had become the attributes of a hero for ever in her eyes.
After a while her hostess came to her, pale and tearful, to beg her, if she possibly could, to show herself at the breakfast table. Captain Fisher had repeatedly asked for her, she said; and he seemed very uneasy.
Mrs. Langdale rose, washed her face, and made an effort to powder away the evidence of her grief. Then she went bravely down and faced the silent crowd in the breakfast room. No one was eating anything. The very air smote chill and cheerless as she entered. As if he had been lying in wait for her, Fisher pounced upon her on the threshold.
“I must speak to you for a moment,” he said. “Come into the smoking-room!”
Mrs. Langdale accompanied him without a word.
“How is she?” he demanded, almost before they entered. “How did she take it?”
There was something about Fisher just then with which Mrs. Langdale was wholly unacquainted. He was alert, impatient, almost feverish. She answered him with brevity.
“I think she is stunned by the news.”
He began to pace to and fro with heavy restlessness.
“Ask her to come to me if she is up!” he said at length. “Tell her–tell her not to be afraid! Say I am waiting for her. I must see her.”
Mrs. Langdale hesitated.
“She asked me to leave her alone,” she said irresolutely.
Fisher wheeled swiftly round.
“I don’t think she will refuse to see me,” he said. “At least try!”
There was entreaty in his voice, urgent entreaty, which Mrs. Langdale found herself unable to withstand.
She departed therefore on her thankless errand and Fisher flung himself down at the table with his face buried in his hands. In this room but a few short hours ago Charlie had faced and turned away his anger with all the courage and sweetness which, combined, had made of him the hero he was.
It seemed to Fisher, looking back upon the interview, that the boy had done a braver thing, had offered a sacrifice more splendid, there, in that room, than any he had done or offered a little later down on the howling shore.
There came a slight sound at the door and Fisher jerked himself upright. Molly had entered softly. She was standing, looking at him with a strange species of wonder on her white face. He rose instantly and went to meet her.
“I have something to give you, Molly,” he said. She raised her eyes questioningly.
“It was brought to me,” he said, controlling his voice to quietness with a strong effort, “after Mrs. Langdale went to tell you of–what had happened. I wish to give it to you myself. And–afterwards to ask you a question.”
“What is it?” Molly asked, with a sudden sharp eagerness.
“A note,” Fisher said, and gave her a folded paper. “It was found on his dressing-table, addressed to you. His servant brought it to me.”
Molly’s hand trembled as she took the missive.
Fisher turned away from her, and stood before the window in dead silence. There was a long, quiet pause. Then a sudden sound made him swing swiftly round and stride to the door to turn the key. The next moment he was stooping over Molly, who had sunk down on the hearth-rug and was sobbing terrible, anguished sobs.
He lifted her to a chair with no fuss of words, and knelt beside her, stroking her hair, comforting her, with something of a woman’s tenderness.
Molly suffered him passively, and the first wild agony of her trouble spent itself unrestrained on his shoulder. Then she grew calmer, and presently begged him in a whisper to read the message which Charlie had left behind him.
For a moment Fisher hesitated; then, as she repeated her desire, he took up the scrawl and deliberately read it through. It had evidently been written immediately after his interview with the writer.
“Dear Molly,” the note said, “It’s all right with Fisher, so don’t you worry yourself! I clear out to-morrow, so that there may be no awkwardness, but we haven’t quarrelled, he and I. Forget all about this business! It’s been a mistake from start to finish. I ought to have known that I was only fit to be a looker-on when I fell at the first fence. You put your money on Fisher and you’ll never lose a halfpenny! I’m nothing but a humble spectator, and I wish you–and him also–the best of luck. If I might be permitted, to offer a little, serious, fatherly advice, it would be this:
“Don’t let yourself get dazzled by the outside shine of any man’s actions! A man isn’t necessarily a hero because he doesn’t run away. It is the true-hearted, steady-going chaps like Fisher who keep the world wagging. They are the solid material. The others are only a sort of trimming stuck on for effect and torn off when the time comes for something new. So marry the man you love, Molly, and forget that anyone else ever made a fool of himself for your sweet sake!
“Your friend for ever,
Thus ended, with a simplicity sublime, the few words of fatherly advice which as a legacy this boy had left behind him.
Fisher laid the note reverently aside and spoke with a great gentleness.
“Tell me, dear,” he said, “will it make it any easier for you if I go away? If so–you have only to say so.”
The words cost him greater resolution than any he had ever uttered. Yet he said them without apparent effort.
Molly did not answer him for many seconds. Her head drooped a little lower.
“I have been–dazzled,” she said at last, and there was a piteous quiver in her voice. “I do not know if I shall ever make you understand.”
“You need never attempt it, Molly,” he answered very steadily. “I make no claim upon you. Simply, I am yours to keep or to throw away. Which are you going to do?”
He paused for her answer. But she made none. Only in her trouble it seemed to him that she clung to his support.
He drew her a little closer to him.
“Molly,” he said very tenderly, “do you want me, child? Shall I stay?”
And at length she answered him, realising that it was to this man, hero or no hero, she had given her heart.
“Yes, stay, Gerald!” she whispered earnestly. “I want you.”
* * *
Perhaps he understood her better than she thought. Perhaps Charlie’s last words to him had taught him a wisdom to which he had not otherwise attained. Or perhaps his love was large enough to cover and hide all that might be lacking in that which she offered to him.
But at least neither then nor later did he ever seek to know how deeply the glamour of another man’s heroism had pierced her heart. She tried to whisper an explanation, but he hushed the words unuttered.
“It is all right, child,” he said. “I am satisfied. It is only the lookers-on who are allowed to see all the cards. I think when we meet him again he will tell us that we played them right.”
There was a deep quiver in his voice as he spoke, but there was no lack of confidence in his words. Looking upwards, Molly saw that his eyes were full of tears.
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