Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 38

On Board the ‘Cayman.’

Goodwood had come and gone, a brief bright season of loss and gain, fine gowns, flirtation, lobster en mayonaise, champagne, sunshine, dust, glare, babble of many voices, successes, failures, triumphs, humiliations. A very pretty picture to contemplate from the outside, this little world in holiday clothes, framed in greenery! but just on the Brocken, where the nicest girl among the dancers had the unpleasant peculiarity of dropping a little red mouse out of her mouth — so too here under different forms there were red mice dropping about among the company. Here a hint of coming insolvency; there a whisper of a threatened divorce suit, staved off for awhile, compromises, family secrets, little difficulties everywhere; betrothed couples smilingly accepting congratulations, who should never have been affianced were truth and honour the rule of life; forsaken wives pretending to think their husbands models of fidelity; jovial creatures with ruin staring in their faces; households divided and shamming union; almost everybody living above his or her means; and the knowledge that nobody is any better or any happier than his neighbour society’s only fountain of consolation.

Lady Lesbia’s gowns and parasols had been admired, her engagement had furnished an infinity of gossip, and the fact of Montesma’s constant attendance upon her had given zest to the situation, just that flavour of peril and fatality which the soul of society loveth.

‘Is she going to marry them both?’ asked an ancient dowager of the ever-young type.

‘No, dear Lady Sevenoaks, she can only marry one, don’t you know; but the other is nice to go about with; and I believe it is the other she really likes.’

‘It is always the other that a woman likes,’ answered the dowager; ‘I am madly in love with this Peruvian — no, I think you said Cuban — myself. I wish some good-natured creature would present him to me. If you know anybody who knows him, tell them to bring him to my next afternoon — Saturday. But why does —chosemachin— Smithson allow such a handsome hanger-on? After marriage I could understand that he might not be able to help himself; but before marriage a man generally has some kind of authority.’

The world wondered a little, just as Lady Sevenoaks wondered, at Smithson’s complacency in allowing a man so attractive as Montesma to be so much in the society of his future wife, yet even the censorious could but admit that the Cuban’s manner offered no ground for offence. He came to Goodwood ‘on his own hook,’ as society put it: and every man who wears a decent coat and is not a welsher has a right to enjoy the prettiest race-course in England. He spent a considerable part of the day in Lesbia’s company; but since she was the centre of a little crowd all the time, there could be no offence in this. He was a stranger, knowing very few people, and having nothing to do but to amuse himself. Smithson was an old and familiar friend, and was in a measure bound to give him hospitality.

Mr. Smithson had recognised that obligation, but in a somewhat sparing manner. There were a dozen unoccupied bedchambers in the Park Lane Renaissance villa; but Smithson did not invite his Cuban acquaintance to shift his quarters from the Bristol to Park Lane. He was civil to Don Gomez: but anyone who had taken the trouble to watch and study the conduct and social relations of these two men would have seen that his civility was a forced civility, and that he endured the Spaniard’s society under constraint of some kind.

And now all the world was flocking to Cowes for the regatta, and Lesbia and her chaperon were established on board Mr. Smithson’s yacht, the Cayman; and the captain of the Cayman and all her crew were delivered over to Lesbia to be her slaves and to obey her lightest breath. The Cayman was to lie at anchor off Cowes for the regatta week; and then she was to sail for Hyde, and lie at anchor there for another regatta week; and she was to be a floating-hotel for Lady Lesbia so long as the young lady would condescend to occupy her.

The captain was an altogether exceptional captain, and the crew were a picked crew, ruddy faced, sandy whiskered for the most part, Englishmen all, honest, hardy fellows from between the Nore and the Wash, talking in an honest provincial patois, dashed with sea slang. They were the very pink and pattern of cleanliness, and the Cayman herself from stem to stern was dazzling and spotless to an almost painful degree.

Not content with the existing arrangements of the yacht, which were at once elegant and luxurious, Mr. Smithson had sent down a Bond Street upholsterer to refit the saloon and Lady Lesbia’s cabin. The dark velvet and morocco which suited a masculine occupant would not have harmonised with girlhood and beauty; and Mr. Smithson’s saloon, as originally designed, had something of the air of a tabagie. The Bond Street man stripped away all the velvet and morocco, plucked up the Turkey carpet, draped the scuttle-ports with pale yellow cretonne garnished with orange pompons, subdued the glare of the skylight by a blind of oriental silk, covered the divans with Persian saddlebags, the floor with a delicate Indian matting, and furnished the saloon with all that was most feminine in the way of bamboo chairs and tea-tables, Japanese screens and fans of gorgeous colouring. Here and there against the fluted yellow drapery he fastened a large Rhodes plate; and the thing was done. Lady Lesbia’s cabin was all bamboo and embroidered India muslin. An oval glass, framed in Dresden biscuit, adorned the side, a large white bearskin covered the floor. The berth was pretty enough for the cradle of a duchess’s first baby. Even Lesbia, spoiled by much indulgence and unlimited credit, gave a little cry of pleasure at sight of the nest that had been made ready for her.

‘Really, Mr. Smithson is immensely kind!’ she exclaimed.

‘Smithson is always kind,’ answered Lady Kirkbank, ‘and you don’t half enough appreciate him. He has given me his very own cabin — such a dear little den! There are his cigar boxes and everything lovely on the shelves, and his own particular dressing-case put open for me to use — all the backs of all the brushes repoussé silver, and all the scent-bottles filled expressly for me. If the yacht would only stand quite still, I should think it more delicious than the best house I ever stayed in: only I don’t altogether enjoy that little way it has of gurgling up and down perpetually.’

Mr. Smithson’s chief butler, a German Swiss, and a treasure of intelligence, had come down to take the domestic arrangements of the yacht into his control. The Park Lane chef was also on board, Mr. Smithson’s steward acting as his subordinate. This great man grumbled sorely at the smallness of his surroundings; for the most luxurious yacht was a poor substitute for the spacious kitchens and storerooms and stillrooms of the London mansion. There was a cabin for Lady Kirkbank’s Rilboche and Lady Lesbia’s Kibble, where the two might squabble at their leisure; in a word, everything had been done that forethought could do to make the yacht as perfect a place of sojourn as any floating habitation, from Noah’s Ark to the Orient steamers, had ever been made.

It was between four and five upon a delicious July afternoon that Lady Kirkbank and her charge came on board. The maids and the luggage had been sent a day in advance, so that everything might be in its place, and the empty boxes all stowed away, before the ladies arrived. They had nothing to do but walk on board and fling themselves into the low luxurious chairs ready for them on the deck, a little wearied by the heat and dust of a railway journey, and with that delicious sense of languid indifference to all the cares of life which seems to be in the very atmosphere of a perfect summer afternoon.

A striped awning covered the deck, and great baskets of roses — pink, and red, and yellow — were placed about here and there. Tea was ready on a low table, a swinging brass kettle hissing merrily, with an air of supreme homeliness.

Mr. Smithson had accompanied his fiancée from town, and now sat reading the Globe, and meekly waiting for his tea, while Lesbia took a languid survey of the shore and the flotilla of boats, little and big, and while Lady Kirkbank rhapsodised about the yacht, praising everything, and calling everything by a wrong name. He was to be their guest all day, and every day. They were to have enough of him, as Lesbia had observed to her chaperon, with a spice of discontent, not quite so delighted with the arrangement as her faithful swain. To him the idea was rapture.

‘You have contrived somehow to keep me very much at a distance hitherto,’ he told Lesbia, ‘and I feel sometimes as if we were almost strangers; but a yacht is the best place in the world to bring two people together, and a week at Cowes will make us nearer to each other and more to each other than three months in London;’ and Lesbia had said nothing, inwardly revolting at the idea of becoming any nearer and dearer to this man whom she had pledged herself to marry. She was to be his wife — yes, some day — and it was his desire the some day should be soon: but in the interval her dearest privilege was the power to keep him at a distance.

And yet she could not make up her mind to break with him, to say honestly, ‘I never liked you much, and now we are engaged I find myself liking you less and less every day. Save me from the irrevocable wickedness of a loveless marriage. Forgive me, and let me go.’ No, this she could not bring herself to say. She did not like Mr. Smithson, but she valued the position he was able to give her. She wanted to be mistress of that infinite wealth — she could not renounce that right to which she fancied she had been born, her right to be one of the Queens of Society: and the only man who had offered to crown her as queen, to find her a palace and a court, was Horace Smithson. Without Mr. Smithson her first season would have resulted in dire failure. She might perhaps have endured that failure, and been content to abide the chances of a second season, had it not been for Mary’s triumph. But for Mary to be a Countess, and for Lesbia to remain Lesbia Haselden, a nobody, dependent upon the caprices of a grandmother whose means might after all be but limited — no, such a concatenation as that was not to be endured. Lesbia told herself that she could not go back to Fellside to remain there indefinitely, a spinster and a dependent. She had learnt the true value of money; she had found out what the world was like; and it seemed to her that some such person as Mr. Smithson was essential to her existence, just as a butler is a necessity in a house. One may not like the man, but the post must be filled.

Again, if she were to throw over Mr. Smithson, and speculate upon her chances of next year, what hope had she of doing better in her second season than in her first? The horizon was blank. There was no great parti likely to offer himself for competition. She had seen all that the market could produce. Wealthy bachelors, high-born lovers, could not drop from the moon. Lesbia, schooled by Lady Kirkbank, knew her peerage by heart; and she knew that, having missed Lord Hartfield, there was really no one in the Blue Book worth waiting for. Thus, caring only for those things which wealth can buy, she had made up her mind that she could not do without Horace Smithson’s money; and she must therefore needs resign herself to the disagreeable necessity of taking Smithson and his money together. The great auctioneer Fate would not divide the lot.

She told herself that for her a loveless marriage was, after all, no prodigious sacrifice. She had found out that heart made but a small figure in the sum of her life. She could do without love. A year ago she had fancied herself in love with John Hammond. In her seclusion at St. Bees, in the long, dull August days, sauntering up and down by the edge of the sea, in the melancholy sunset hour, she thought that her heart was broken, that life was worthless without the man she loved. She had thought and felt all this, but not strongly enough to urge her to any great effort, not keenly enough to make her burst her chains. She had preferred to suffer this loss than to sacrifice her chances of future aggrandisement. And now she looked back and remembered those sunset walks by the sea, and all her thoughts and feelings in those silent summer hours; and she smiled at herself, half in scorn, half in pity, for her own weakness. How easily she had learned to do without him who at that hour seemed the better part of her existence. A good deal of gaiety and praise, a little mild flirtation at Kirkbank Castle, and lo! the image of her first lover began to grow dim and blurred, like a faded photograph. A season at Cannes, and she was cured. A week in London, and that first love was a thing of the past, a dream from which the dreamer awaketh, forgetting the things that he has dreamt.

Remembering all this she told herself that she had no heart, that love or no love was a question of very little moment, and that the personal qualities of the man whom she chose for a husband mattered nothing to her, provided that his lands and houses and social status came up to her standard of merit. She had seen Mr. Smithson’s houses and lands; and she was distinctly assured that he would in due course be raised to the peerage. She had, therefore, every reason to be satisfied.

Having thus reasoned out the circumstances of her new life, she accepted her fate with a languid grace, which harmonised with her delicate and patrician beauty. Nobody could have for a moment supposed from her manner that she loved Horace Smithson; but nobody had the right to think that she detested him. She accepted all his attentions as a thing of course. The flowers which he strewed beneath her footsteps, the pearls which he melted in her wine — metaphorically speaking — were just ‘good enough’ and no more. This afternoon, when Mr. Smithson asked her how she liked the arrangements of the saloon and cabin, she said she thought they would do very nicely. ‘They would do.’ Nothing more.

‘It is dreadfully small, of course,’ she said, ‘when one is accustomed to rooms: but it is rather amusing to be in a sort of doll’s house, and on deck it is really very nice.’

This was the most Mr. Smithson had for his pains, and he seemed to be content therewith. If a man will marry the prettiest girl of the year he must be satisfied with such scant civility as conscious perfection may give him. We know that Aphrodite was not altogether the most comfortable wife, and that Helen was a cause of trouble.

Mr. Smithson sat in a bamboo chair beside his mistress, and looked ineffably happy when she handed him a cup of tea. Sky and sea were one exquisite azure — the colours of the boats glancing in the sunshine as if they had been jewels; here an emerald rudder, there a gunwale painted with liquid rubies. White sails, white frocks, white ducks made vivid patches of light against the blue. The landscape yonder shone and sparkled as if it had been incandescent. All the world of land and sky and sea was steeped in sunshine. A day on which to do nothing, read nothing, think nothing, only to exist.

While they sat basking in the balmy atmosphere, looking lazily at that bright, almost insupportable picture of blue sea under blue sky, there came the dip of oars, making music, and a sound of coolness with every plash of water.

‘How good it is of somebody to row about, just to give us that nice soothing sound,’ murmured Lesbia.

Lady Kirkbank, with her dear old head thrown back upon the cushion of her luxurious chair, and her dear little cornflower hat just a thought on one side, was sleeping the sleep of the just, and unconsciously revealing the little golden arrangements which gave variety to her front teeth.

The soothing sound came nearer and nearer, close under the Cayman’s quarter, and then a brown hand clasped the man-ropes, and a light slim figure swung itself upon deck, while the boat bobbed and splashed below.

It was Montesma, who had not been expected till the racing, which was not to begin for two days. A faint, faint rose bloom flushed Lady Lesbia’s cheek at sight of him; and Mr. Smithson gave a little look of vexation, just one rapid contraction of the eyebrows, which resumed their conventional placidity the next instant.

‘So good of you,’ he murmured. ‘I really did not expect you till the beginning of the week.’

‘London is simply insupportable in this weather — most of all for a man born in the Havanas. My soul thirsted for blue water. So I said to myself, This good Smithson is at Cowes; he will give me the run of his yacht and a room at his villa. Why not go to Cowes at once?’

‘The room is at your service. I have only two or three of my people at Formosa, but just enough to look after a bachelor friend.’

‘I want very little service, my dear fellow,’ answered Montesma, pleasantly. ‘A man who has crossed the Cordilleras and camped in the primeval forest on the shores of the Amazon, learns to help himself. So this is the Cayman? Muy deleitoso, mi amigo. A floating Paradise in little. If the ark had been like this, I don’t think any of the passengers would have wanted the flood to dry up.’

He shook hands with Lady Lesbia as he spoke, and with Lady Kirkbank, who looked at him as if he were part of her dream, and then he sank into the chair on Lesbia’s left hand, with the air of being established for the rest of the day.

‘I have left my portmanteaux at the end of the pier,’ he said lazily. ‘I dare say one of your fellows will be good enough to take them to Formosa for me?’

Mr. Smithson gave the necessary order. All the beauty had gone out of the sea and the sky for him, all the contentment from his mind; and yet he was in no position to rebel against Fate — in no position to say directly or indirectly, ‘Don Gomez de Montesma, I don’t want you here, and I must request you to transfer yourself elsewhither.’

Lesbia’s feelings were curiously different. The very sight of that nervous brown hand upon the rope just now had sent a strange thrill through her veins. She who believed herself heartless could scarce trust herself to speak for the vehement throbbing of her heart. A sense of joy too deep for words possessed her as she reclined in her low chair, with drooping eyelids, yet feeling the fire of those dark southern eyes upon her face, scorching her like an actual flame.

‘Lady Lesbia, may I have a cup of tea?’ he asked; not because he wanted the tea, but only for the cruel delight of seeing if she were able to give it to him calmly.

Her hands shook, fluttered, wandered helplessly, as she poured out that cup of tea and handed it to Montesma, a feminine office which she had performed placidly enough for Mr. Smithson. The Spaniard took the cup from her with a quiet smile, a subtle look which seemed to explore the inmost depth of her consciousness.

Yes, this man was verily her master. She knew it, and he know it, as that look of his told her. Vain to play her part of languid indifference — vain to struggle against her bondage. In heart and spirit she was at his feet, an odalisque, recognising and bowing down to her sultan.

Happily for the general peace, Mr. Smithson had been looking away seaward, with a somewhat troubled brow, while that little cap and saucer episode was being enacted. And in the next minute Lesbia had recovered her self-command, and resumed that graceful languor which was one of her charms. She was weak, but she was not altogether foolish; and she had no idea of succumbing to this new influence — of yielding herself up to this conqueror, who seemed to take her life into his hand as if it were a bit of thistledown. Her agitation of those first few minutes was due to the suddenness of his appearance — the reaction from dulness to delight. She had been told that he was not to be at Cowes till Monday, and lo! he was here at her side, just as she was thinking how empty and dreary life was without him.

He dropped into his place so naturally and easily, made himself so thoroughly at home and so agreeable to every one, that it was almost impossible for Horace Smithson to resent his audacity! Mr. Smithson’s vitals might be devoured by the gnawing of the green-eyed monster, but however fierce that gnawing were, he did not want to seem jealous. Montesma was there as the very incarnation of some experiences in Mr. Smithson’s past career, and he dared not object to the man’s presence.

And so the summer day wore on. They had the yacht all to themselves that evening, for the racing yachts were fulfilling engagements in other waters, and the gay company of pleasure-seekers had not yet fully assembled. They were dropping in one by one, all the evening, and Cowes roads grew fuller of life with every hour of the summer night.

Mr. Smithson and his guests dined in the saloon, a snug little party of four, and sat long over dessert, deep into the dusk; and they talked of all things under heaven, things frivolous, things grave, but most of all about that fair, strange world in far-off southern waters, the sunny islands of the Caribbean Sea, and the dreamy, luxurious life of that tropical clime, half Spanish, half Oriental, wholly independent of European conventionalities. Lesbia listened, enchanted by the picture. What were Park Lane palaces, and Berkshire manors, the petty splendours of the architect and the upholsterer, weighed against a world in which all nature is on a grander scale? Mr. Smithson might give her fine houses and costly upholstery; but only the Tropic of Cancer could give her larger and brighter stars, a world of richer colouring, a land of perpetual summer, nights luminous with fire-flies, gardens in which the fern and the cactus were as forest trees, and where humming-birds flashed among the foliage like living flowers; nay, where the flowers themselves took the forms of the animal world and seemed instinct with life and motion.

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Smithson, with his gentlemanlike drawl, ‘Spanish America and the West Indies are delightful places to talk about. There are so many things one leaves out of the picture — thieves, niggers, jiggers, snakes, mosquitoes, yellow Jack, creeping, crawling creatures of all kinds. I always feel very glad I have been to South America.’

‘Why?’

‘In order that I may never go there again,’ replied Mr. Smithson.

‘I was beginning to hope you would take me there some day,’ said Lesbia.

‘Never again, no, not even for your sake. No man should ever leave Europe after he is five-and-thirty; indeed, I doubt if after that age he should venture beyond the Mediterranean. That is the sea of civilisation. Anything outside it means barbarism.’

‘I hope we are going to travel by-and-by,’ said Lesbia; ‘I have been mewed up in Grasmere half my life, and if you are going to confine me to the shores of the Mediterranean, which is, after all, only a larger lake, for the other half of my life, my existence will be a dull piece of work after all. I agree with what Don Gomez said the other night: “Not to travel is not to live.”’

They went on deck presently and sat in the summer darkness, lighted only by the stars, and by the lights of the yachts, and the faintly gleaming windows of the lighted town, sat long and late, in a state of ineffable repose. Lady Kirkbank. fortified by the produce of Mr. Smithson’s particular clos, and by a couple of glasses of green Chartreuse, slept profoundly. She had not enjoyed herself so much for the last three months. She had been stretched on Society’s rack, and she had been ground in Society’s mill; and neither mind nor body had been her own to do what she liked withal. She had toiled early and late, and had spared herself in no wise. And now the trouble was over for a space. Here were rest and respite. She had done her duty as a chaperon, had provided her charge with the very best thing the matrimonial market offered. She had paid her creditors something on account all round, and had left them appeased and trustful, if not content. Sir George had gone oft alone to drink the waters at Spa, and to fortify himself for Scotland and the grouse season. She was her own mistress, and she could fold her hands and take her rest, eat and drink and sleep and be merry, all at Mr. Smithson’s expense.

The yachts came flocking in next day, like a flight of white-winged sea birds, and Mr. Smithson had enough to do receiving visitors upon the Cayman. He was fully occupied; but Montesma had nothing to do, except to amuse Lady Lesbia and her chaperon, and in this onerous task he succeeded admirably. Lesbia found that it was too warm to be on the deck when there were perspiring people, whose breath must be ninety by the thermometer, perpetually coming on board; so she and Lady Kirkbank sat in the saloon, and had the more distinguished guests brought down to them as to a Court; and the shrewder of the guests were quick to divine that no company beyond that of Don Gomez de Montesma was really wanted in that rose-scented saloon.

The Spaniard taught Lady Kirkbank monte, which delighted her, and which she vowed she would introduce at her supper parties in the half season of November, when she should be in London for a week or two, as a bird of passage, flitting southwards. He began to teach Lesbia Spanish, a language for which she had taken a sudden fancy; and it is curious what tender accents, what hidden meanings even a grammar can take from such a teacher. Spanish came easily enough to a learner who had been thoroughly drilled in French and Italian, and who had been taught the rudiments of Latin; so by the end of a lesson, which went on at intervals all day, the pupil was able to lisp a passage of Don Quixote in the sweetest Castilian, very sweet to the ear of Don Gomez — a kind of baby language, precious as the first half-formed syllables of infancy to mothers.

Montesma had nothing to do but to amuse himself and his companions all day in the saloon, amidst odours of roses and peaches, in a shadowy coolness made by striped silken blinds; but Mr. Smithson was not so much his own master. That innumerable company of friends which are the portion of the rich man given to hospitality would not let the owner of the Cayman go scot-free.

At a place like Cowes, on the eve of the regatta week, the freelances of society expect to find entertainment; and Mr. Smithson had to maintain his character for princely hospitalities at the sacrifice of his feelings as a lover. Every ripple of Lesbia’s silvery laughter, every deep tone of Montesma’s voice, from the cabin below, sent a pang to his jealous soul; and yet he had to smile, and to order more champagne cup, and to be lavish of his best cigars, albeit insisting that his friends should smoke their cigars in the bows well to leeward, so that no foul breathings of tobacco should pollute his Cleopatra galley.

Cleopatra was very happy meanwhile, sublimely indifferent even to the odours of tobacco. She had her Antony at her feet, looking up at her, as she recited her lesson, with darkly luminous eyes, obviously worshipping her, obviously intent on winning her without counting the cost. When had a Montesma ever counted the cost to himself or others — the cost in gold, in honour, in human life? The records of Cuba in the palmy days of the slave trade would tell how lightly they held the last; and for honour, well, the private hells of island and main could tell their tale of specially printed playing cards, in which the swords or stars on the back of each card had a secret language of their own, and were as finger-posts for the initiated player.

Mr. Smithson had business on shore, and was fain to leave the yacht for an hour or two before dinner. He invited Don Gomez to go with him, but the offer was graciously declined.

‘Amigo, I don’t care even to look at land in such weather. It is so detestably dry,’ he pleaded. ‘It is only the sound of the sea gurgling against the hull that reconciles one to existence. Go, and be happy at your club, and send off those occult telegrams of yours, dearest. I shall not leave the Cayman till bed-time.’

He looked as fresh and cool as if utterly unaffected by the heat, which to a Cuban must have been a merely lukewarm condition of the atmosphere. But he affected to be prostrate, and Smithson could not insist. He had his cards to play in a game which required extremest caution, and there were no friendly indicators on the backs of his kings and aces. He was feeling his way in the dark, and did not know how much mischief Montesma was prepared to do.

When the owner of the yacht was gone Don Gomez proposed an adjournment to the deck for afternoon tea, and the trio sat under the awning, tea-drinking and gossiping for the next hour. Lady Kirkbank told the steward to say not at home to everybody, just as if she had a street door.

‘There is a good deal of the dolce far niente about this,’ said Montesma, presently; ‘but don’t you think we have been anchored in sight of that shabby little town quite long enough, and that it would be rather nice to spread our wings and sail round the island before the racing begins?’

‘It would be exquisite,’ said Lesbia. ‘I am very tired of inaction, though I dearly love learning Spanish,’ she added, with a lovely smile, and a look that was half submissive, half mutinous. ‘But I have really been beginning to wonder whether this boat can move.’

‘You will see that she can, and at a smart pace, too, if I sail her. Shall we circumnavigate the island? We can set sail after dinner.’

‘Will Mr. Smithson consent, do you think?’

‘Why does Smithson exist, except to obey you?’

‘I don’t know if Lady Kirkbank would quite like it,’ said Lesbia, looking at her chaperon, who was waving a big Japanese fan, slowly, unsteadily, and with a somewhat drunken air, the while she slid into dreamland.

‘Quite like what?’ she murmured, drowsily.

‘A little sail.’

‘I should dearly love it, if it didn’t make me sea-sick.’

‘Sea-sick on a glassy lake like this! Impossible,’ said Montesma. ‘I consider the thing settled. We set sail after dinner.’

Mr. Smithson came back to the yacht just in time to dress for dinner. Don Gomez excused himself from putting on his dress suit. He was going to sail the yacht himself, and he was dressed for his work, picturesquely, in white duck trousers, white silk shirt, and black velvet shooting jacket. He dined with the permission of the ladies, in this costume, in which he looked so much handsomer than in the livery of polite life. He had a red scarf tied round his waist, and when at his work by-and-by, he wore a little red silk cap, just stuck lightly on his dark hair. The dinner to-day was all animation and even excitement, very different from the languorous calm of yesterday. Lesbia seemed a new creature. She talked and laughed and flashed and sparkled as she had never yet done within Mr. Smithson’s experience. He contemplated the transformation with wonder not unmixed with suspicion. Never for him had she been so brilliant — never in response to his glances had her violet eyes thus kindled, had her smile been so entrancingly sweet. He watched Montesma, but in him he could find no fault. Even jealousy could hardly take objection to the Spaniard’s manner to Lady Lesbia. There was not a look, not a word that hinted at a private understanding between them, or which seemed to convey deeper meanings than the common language of society. No, there was no ground for fault-finding; and yet Smithson was miserable. He knew this man of old, and knew his influence over women.

Mr. Smithson handed over the management of the yacht without a murmer, albeit he pretended to be able to sail her himself, and was in the habit of taking the command for a couple of hours on a sunny afternoon, much to the amusement of skipper and crew. But Montesma was a sailor born and bred — the salt keen breath of the sea had been the first breath in his nostrils — he had managed his light felucca before he was twelve years old, had sailed every inch of the Caribbean Sea, and northward to the furthermost of the Bahamas before he was fifteen. He had lived more on the water than on the land in that wild boyhood of his; a boyhood in which books and professors had played but small part. Montesma’s school had been the world, and beautiful women his only professors. He had learnt arithmetic from the transactions of bubble companies; modern languages from the lips of the women who loved him. He was a crack shot, a perfect swordsman, a reckless horseman, and a dancer in whom dancing almost rose to genius. Beyond these limits he was as ignorant as dirt; but he had a cleverness which served as a substitute for book learning, and he seldom failed in impressing the people he met with the idea that he, Gomez de Montesma, was no ordinary man.

Directly after dinner the preparations for an immediate start began; very much to the disgust of skipper and crew, who were not in the habit of working after dinner; but Montesma cared nothing for the short answers of the captain, or the black look of the men.

Lesbia wanted to learn all about everything — the name of every sail, of every rope. She stood near the helmsman, a slim graceful figure in a white gown of some soft material, with never a jewel or a flower to relieve that statuesque simplicity. She wore no hat, and the rich chesnut hair was rolled in a loose knot at the back of the small Greek-looking head. Montesma came to her every now and then to explain what was being done; and by-and-by, when the canvas was all up, and the yacht was skimming over the water, like a giant swan borne by the current of some vast strong river, he came and stayed by her side, and they two sat making little baby sentences in Spanish, he as teacher and she as pupil, with no one near them but the sailors.

The owner of the Cayman had disappeared mysteriously a quarter of an hour after the sails were unfurled, and Lady Kirkbank had tottered down to the saloon.

‘I am not going — cabin,’ she faltered, when Lesbia remonstrated with her, ‘only — going — saloon — sofa — lie down — little — Smithson take care — you,’ not perceiving that Smithson had vanished, ‘shall be — quite close.’

So Lesbia and Don Gomez were alone under the summer stars, murmuring little bits of Spanish.

‘It is the only true way of learning a language,’ he said; ‘grammars are a delusion.’

It was a very delightful and easy way of learning, at any rate. Lesbia reclined in her bamboo chair, and fanned herself indolently, and watched the shadowy shores of the island, cliff and hill, down and wooded crest, flitting past her like dream-pictures, and her lips slowly shaped the words of that soft lisping language — so simple, so musical — a language made for lovers and for song, one would think. It was wonderful what rapid progress Lesbia made.

She heard a church clock on the island striking, and asked Don Gomez the hour.

‘Ten,’ he said.

‘Ten! Surely it must be later. It was past eight before we began dinner, and we have been sailing for ever so long. Captain, kindly tell me the time,’ she called to the skipper, who was lolling over the gunwale near the foremast smoking a meditative pipe.

‘Twelve o’clock, my lady.’

‘Heavens, can I possibly have been sitting here so long. I should like to stay on deck all night and watch the sailing; but I must really go and take care of poor Lady Kirkbank. I am afraid she is not very well.’

‘She had a somewhat distracted air when she went below, but I daresay she will sleep off her troubles. If I were you I should leave her to herself.’

‘Impossible! What can have become of Mr. Smithson?’

‘I have a shrewd suspicion that it is with Smithson as with poor Lady Kirkbank.’

‘Do you mean that he is ill?’

‘Precisely.’

‘What, on a calm summer night, sailing over a sea of glass. The owner of a yacht!’

‘Rather ignominious for poor Smithson, isn’t it? But men who own yachts are only mortal, and are sometimes wretched sailors. Smithson is feeble on that point, as I know of old.’

‘Then wasn’t it rather cruel of us to sail his yacht?’

‘Yachts are meant for sailing, and again, sea-sickness is supposed to be a wholesome exercise.’

‘Good-night.’

‘Good-night,’ both good nights in Spanish, and with a touch of tenderness which the words could hardly have expressed in English.

‘Must you really go?’ pleaded Montesma, holding her hand just a thought longer than he had ever held it before.

‘Ah, the little more, and how much it is,’ says the poet.

‘Really and truly.’

‘I am so sorry. I wish you could have stayed on deck all night.’

‘So do I, with all my heart. This calm sea under the starlit sky is like a dream of heaven.’

‘It is very nice, but if you stayed I think I could promise you considerable variety. We shall have a tempest before morning.’

‘Of all things in the world I should love to see a thunderstorm at sea.’

‘Be on the alert then, and Captain Parkes and I will try to oblige you.’

‘At any rate you have made it impossible for me to sleep. I shall stay with Lady Kirkbank in the saloon. Good-night, again.’

‘Good-night.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/phantom_fortune/chapter38.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31