Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 39

In Storm and Darkness.

Lesbia found Lady Kirkbank prostrate on a low divan in the saloon, sleepless, and very cross. The atmosphere reeked with red lavender, sal-volatile, eau de Cologne, and brandy, which latter remedy poor Georgie had taken freely in her agonies. Kibble, the faithful Grasmere girl, sat by the divan, fanning the sufferer with a large Japanese fan. Rilboche had naturally, as a Frenchwoman, succumbed utterly to her own feelings, and was moaning in her berth, wailing out every now and then that she would never have taken service with Miladi had she suspected her to be capable of such cruelty as to take her to live for weeks upon the sea.

If this was the state of affairs now while the ocean was only gently stirred, what would it be by-and-by if the tempest should really come?

‘What can you be thinking of, staying on deck all night with those men?’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, peevishly. ‘It is hardly respectable.’

She would have been still more inclined to object had she known that Lesbia’s companion had been ‘that man’ rather than ‘those men.’

‘What do you mean by all night?’ Lesbia retorted, contemptuously; ‘it is only just twelve.’

‘Only twelve. I thought we were close upon daylight. I have suffered an eternity of agony.’

‘I am very sorry you should be ill; but really the sea has been so deliciously calm.’

‘I believe I should have suffered less if it had been diabolically rough. Oh, that monotonous flip-flap of the water, that slow heaving of the boat! Nothing could be worse.’

‘I am glad to hear you say that, for Don Gomez says we are likely to have a tempest.’

‘A tempest!’ shrieked Georgie. ‘Then let him stop the boat this instant and put me on shore. Tell him to land me anywhere — on the Needles even. I could stop at the lighthouse till morning. A storm at sea will be simply my death.’

‘Dear Lady Kirkbank, I was only joking,’ said Lesbia, who did not want to be worried by her chaperon’s nervous apprehensions: ‘so far the night is lovely.’

‘Give me a spoonful more brandy, my good creature,’— to Kibble. ‘Lesbia, you ought never to have brought me into this miserable state. I consented to staying on board the yacht; but I never consented to sailing on her.’

‘You will soon be well, dear Lady Kirkbank; and you will have such an appetite for breakfast to-morrow morning.’

‘Where shall we be at breakfast time?’

‘Off St. Catherine’s Point, I believe — just half way round the island.’

‘If we are not at the bottom of the sea,’ groaned Georgie.

They were now in the open Channel, and the boat dipped and rose to larger billows than had encountered her course before. Lady Kirkbank lay in a state of collapse, in which life seemed only sustainable by occasional teaspoonfuls of cognac gently tilted down her throat by the patient Kibble.

Lesbia went to her cabin, but with no intention of remaining there. She was firmly convinced that the storm would come, and she meant to be on deck while it was raging. What harm could thunder or lightning, hail or rain, do to her while he was by to protect her? He would be busy sailing the boat, perhaps, but still he would have a moment now and then in which to think of her and care for her.

Yes, the storm was coming. There was a livid look upon the waters, and the atmosphere was heavy with heat; the sky to windward black as a funeral pall. Lesbia was almost fearless, yet she felt a thrill of awe as she looked into that dense blackness. To leeward the stars were still visible; but that gigantic mass of cloud came creeping slowly, solemnly over the sky, while the shadow flitted fast across the water, swallowing up that ghastly electric glare.

Lesbia wrapped herself in a white cashmere sortie de bal and stole up the companion. Montesma was working at the ropes with his own hands, calling directions to the sailors to shorten and take in the canvas, urging them to increased efforts by working at the ropes with his own hands, springing up the rigging and on deck, flashing backwards and forwards amidst the rigging like a being of supernatural power. He had taken off his jacket, and was clad from top to toe in white, save for that streak of scarlet which tightly girdled his waist. His tall flexible form, perfect in line as a Greek statue of Hermes, stood out against the background of black night. His voice, with its tones of brief imperious command, the proud carriage of his head, the easy grace of his rapid movements, all proclaimed the man born to rule over his fellow-men. And it is these master spirits, these born rulers, whom women instinctively recognise as their sovereign lords, and for whom women count no sacrifice too costly.

In the midst of his activity Montesma suddenly saw that white-robed figure standing at the top of the companion, and flew to her side. The boat was pitching heavily, dipping into the trough of the sea at an angle of forty-five degrees, as it seemed to Lesbia.

‘You ought not to be here,’ said Montesma; ‘it is much rougher than I expected.’

‘I am not afraid,’ she answered; ‘but I will go back to my cabin if I am in your way.’

‘In my way’ (with deepest tenderness): ‘yes, you are in my way, for I shall think of nothing else now you are here. But I believe we have done all that need be done to the yacht, and I can take care of you till the storm is over.’

He put his arm round her as the stem dipped, and led her towards the stern, guiding her footsteps, supporting her as her light figure swayed against him with the motion of the boat. A vivid flash of lightning showed him her face as they stood for an instant leaning against each other, his arm encircling her. Ah, what deep feeling in that countenance, once so passionless; what a new light in those eyes. It was like the awakening of a long dormant soul.

He took the helm from the captain and stood steering the vessel, and calling out his orders, with Lesbia close beside him, holding her with his disengaged arm, drawing her near him as the vessel pitched violently, drawing her nearer still when they shipped a sea, and a great fountain of spray enfolded them both in a dense cloud of salt water.

The thunder roared and rattled, as if it began and ended close beside them. Forked lightnings zigzagged amidst the rigging. Sheet lightning enwrapped those two in a luminous atmosphere, revealing faces that were pale with passion, lips that trembled with emotion. There were but scant opportunity for speech, and neither of these two felt the need of words. To be together, bound nearer to each other than they had ever been yet, than they might ever be again, in the midst of thunder and lightning and dense clouds of spray. This was enough. Once when the Cayman pitched with exceptional fury, when the thunder crashed and roared loudest, Lesbia found her head lying on Montesma’s breast and his arms round her, his lips upon her face. She did not wrench herself from that forbidden embrace. She let those lips kiss hers as never mortal man had kissed her before. But an instant later, when Montesma’s attention was distracted by his duties as steersman, and he let her go, she slipped away in the darkness, and melted from his sight and touch like a modern Undine. He dared not leave the helm and follow her then. He sent one of the sailors below a little later, to make sure that she was safe in her cabin; but he saw her no more that night.

The storm abated soon after daybreak, and the morning was lovely; but Don Gomez and Lady Lesbia did not meet again till the church bells on the island were ringing for morning service, and then the lady was safe under the wing of her chaperon, with her affianced husband in attendance upon her at the breakfast table in the saloon.

She received Montesma with the faintest inclination of the head, and she carefully avoided all occasion of speech with him during the leisurely, long spun-out meal. She was as white as her muslin gown, and her eyes told of a sleepless night. She talked a little, very little to Lady Kirkbank and Mr. Smithson; to the Spaniard not at all. And yet Montesma was in no manner dashed by this appearance of deep offence. So might Francesca have looked the morning after that little scene over the book; yet she sacrificed her salvation for her lover all the same. It was a familiar stage upon the journey which Montesma knew by heart. Here the inclination of the road was so many degrees more or less; for this hill you are commanded to put on an extra horse; at this stage it is forbidden to go more than eight miles an hour, and so on, and so on. Montesma knew every inch of the ground. He put on a melancholy look, and talked very little. He had been on deck all night, and so there was an excuse for his being quiet.

Lady Kirkbank related her impressions of the storm, and talked enough for four. She had suffered the pangs of purgatory, but her natural cheeriness asserted itself, and she made no moaning about past agonies which had exercised a really delightful influence on her appetite. Mr. Smithson also was cheerful. He had paid his annual tribute to Neptune, and might hope to go scot-free for the rest of the season.

‘If I had stayed on deck I must have had my finger in the pie; so I thought it better to go below and get a good night’s rest in the steward’s cabin,’ he said, not caring to confess his sufferings as frankly as Lady Kirkbank admitted hers.

After breakfast, which was prolonged till noon, Montesma asked Smithson to smoke a cigarette on deck with him.

‘I want to talk to you on a rather serious matter,’ he said.

Lesbia heard the words, and looked up with a frightened glance. Could he mean to attempt anything desperate? Was he going to confess the fatal truth to Horace Smithson, to tell her affianced lover that she was untrue to her bond, that she loved him, Montesma, as fondly as he loved her, that their two souls had mingled like two flames fanned by the same current, and thence had risen to a conflagration which must end in ruin, if she were not set free to follow where her heart had gone, free to belong to that man whom her spirit chose for lord and master. Her heart leapt at the hope that Montesma was going to do this, that he was strong enough to break her bonds for her, powerful and rich enough to secure her a brilliant future. Yet this last consideration, which hitherto had been paramount, seemed now of but little moment. To be with him, to belong to him, would be enough for bliss. Albeit that in such a choice she forfeited all that she had ever possessed or hoped for of earthly prosperity. Adventurer, beggar, whatever he might be, she chose him, and loved him with all the strength of a weak soul newly awakened to passionate feeling.

Unhappily for Lesbia Haselden, Montesma was not at all the kind of man to take so direct and open a course as that which she imagined possible.

His business with Mr. Smithson was of quite a different kind.

‘Smithson, do you know that you have an utterly incompetent crew?’ he said, gravely, when they two were standing aft, lighting their cigarettes.

‘Indeed I do not. The men are all experienced sailors, and the captain ranks high among yachtsmen.’

‘English yachtsmen are not particularly good judges of sailors. I tell you your skipper is no sailor, and his men are fools. If it had not been for me the Cayman would have gone to pieces on the rocks last night, and if you are to cross to St. Malo, as you talked of doing, for the regatta there, you had better sack these men and let me get you a South American crew. I know of a fellow who is in London just now — the captain of a Rio steamer, who’ll send you a crew of picked men, if you give me authority to telegraph to him.’

‘I don’t like foreign sailors,’ said Smithson, looking perplexed and worried; ‘and I have perfect confidence in Wilkinson.’

‘Which is as much as to say that you consider me a liar! Go to the bottom your own way, mon ami: ce n’est pas mon affaire,’ said Montesma, turning on his heel, and leaving his friend to his own devices.

Had he pressed the point, Smithson would have suspected him of some evil motive, and would have been resolute in his resistance; but as he said no more about it, Smithson began to feel uncomfortable.

He was no sailor himself, knew absolutely nothing about the navigation of his yacht, though he sometimes pretended to sail her; and he had no power to judge of his skipper’s capacity or his men’s seamanship. He had engaged the captain wholly on the strength of the man’s reputation, guaranteed by certain certificates which seemed to mean a great deal. But after all such certificates might mean very little — such a reputation might be no real guarantee. The sailors had been engaged by the captain, and their ruddy faces and thoroughly British appearence, the exquisite cleanliness which they maintained in every detail of the yacht, had seemed to Mr. Smithson the perfection of seamanship.

But it was not the less true that the cleanest of yachts, with deck of spotless whiteness, sails of unsullied purity, brasses shining and sparkling like gold fresh from the goldsmith’s, might be spiked upon a rock, or might founder on a sand-bank, or heel over under too much canvas. Mr. Smithson was inclined to suspect any proposition of Montesma’s; yet he was not the less disturbed in mind by the assertion.

The day wore on, and the yacht sailed merrily over a summer sea. Mr. Smithson fidgeted about the deck uneasily, watching every movement of the sailors. No boat could be sailing better, as it seemed to him; but in such weather and over such waters any boat must needs go easily. It was in the blackness of night, amidst the fury of the storm, that Montesma’s opinion had been formed. Smithson began to think that his friend was right. The sailors had honest countenances, but they looked horribly stupid. Could men with such vacuous grins, such an air of imbecile good-nature, be capable of acting wisely in any terrible crisis? — could they have nerve and readiness, quickness, decision, all those grand qualites which are needed by the seaman who has to contend with the fury of the elements?

Mr. Smithson and his guests had breakfasted too late for the possibility of luncheon. They were in Cowes Roads by one o’clock. A fleet of yachts had arrived during their absence, and the scene was full of life and gaiety. Lady Lesbia held a levée at the afternoon tea, and had a crowd of her old admirers around her — adorers whose presence in no wise disturbed Horace Smithson’s peace. He would have been content that his wife should go through life with a herd of such worshippers following in her footsteps. He knew the aimless innocence, the almost infantine simplicity of the typical Johnnie, Chappie, Muscadin, Petit Creve, Gommeux— call him by what name you will. From these he feared no evil. But in that one follower who gave no outward token of his worship he dreaded peril. It was Montesma he watched, while dragoons with close-cropped hair, and imbecile youths with heads rigid in four-inch collars, were hanging about Lady Lesbia’s low bamboo chair, and administering obsequiously to the small necessities of the tea-table.

It was while this tea-table business was going on that Mr. Smithson took the opportunity of setting his mind at rest, were it possible, as to the merits of Captain Wilkinson. Among his visitors this afternoon there was the owner of three or four racing yachts — a man renowned for his victories, at home and abroad.

‘I think you knew something of my captain, Wilkinson, before I engaged him,’ said Smithson, with assumed carelessness.

‘I know every skipper on board every boat in the squadron,’ answered his friend. ‘A good fellow, Wilkinson — thoroughly honest fellow.’

‘Honest; oh yes, I know all about that. But how about his seamanship? His certificates were wonderfully good, but they are not everything.

‘Everything, my dear fellow,’ cried the other; ‘they are next to nothing. But I believe Wilkinson is a tolerable sailor.’

This was not encouraging.

‘He has never been unlucky, I believe.’

‘My dear Smithson, you are a great authority in the City, but you are not very well up in the records of the yachting world, or you would know that your Captain Wilkinson was skipper on the Orinoco when she ran aground on the Chesil Bank, coming home from Cherbourg Regatta, fifteen lives lost, and the yacht, in less than half an hour, ground to powder. That was rather a bad case, I remember; for though it was a tempestuous night, the accident would never have happened if Wilkinson had not mistaken the lights. So you see his Trinity House papers didn’t prevent his going wrong.’

Good heavens! This was the strongest confirmation of Montesma’s charge. The man was a stupid man, an incapable man, a man to whose intelligence and care human life should never be trusted. A fig for his honesty! What would honesty be worth in a hurricane off the Chesil Beach? What would honesty serve a ship spitted on the Jailors off Jersey? Montesma was right. If the Cayman was to make a trip to St. Malo she must be navigated by competent men. Horace Smithson hated foreign sailors, copper-faced ruffians, with flashing black eyes which seemed to threaten murder, did you but say a rough word to them; sleek, raven-haired scoundrels, with bowie-knives in their girdles, ready for mutiny. But, after all, life is worth too much to be risked for a prejudice, a sentiment.

Perhaps that St. Malo business might be avoided; and then there need be no change in captain or crew. The yacht must be safe enough lying at anchor in the roadstead. By-and-by, when the visitors had departed, and Mr. Smithson was reposefully enjoying his tea by Lady Lesbia’s side, he approached the subject.

‘Do you really care about crossing to St. Malo after this — really prefer the idea to Ryde?’

‘Infinitely,’ exclaimed Lesbia, quickly. ‘Ryde would only be Cowes ever again — a lesser Cowes; and I thought when you first proposed it that the plan was rather stupid, though I did not want to be uncivil and say so. But I was delighted with Don Gomez de Montesma’s amendment, substituting St. Malo for Ryde. In the first place the trip across will be delicious’— Lady Kirkbank gave a faint groan —‘and in the second place I am dying to see Brittany.’

‘I doubt if you will highly appreciate St. Malo. It is a town of many and various smells.’

‘But I want to smell those foreign smells of which one hears much. At least it is an experience. We need not be on shore any longer than we like. And I want to see that fine rocky coast, and Chateaubriand’s tomb on the what’s-its-name. So nice to be buried in that way.’

‘Then you have set your heart on going to St. Malo, and would not like any change in our plan?’

‘Any change will be simply detestable,’ answered Lesbia, all the more decidedly since she suspected a desire for change on the part of Mr. Smithson.

She was in no amiable humour this afternoon. All her nerves seemed strained to their utmost tension. She was irritated, tremulous with nervous excitement, inclined to hate everybody, Horace Smithson most of all. In her cabin a little later on, when she was changing her gown for dinner, and Kibble was somewhat slow and clumsy in the lacing of the bodice, she wrenched herself from the girl’s hands, flung herself into a chair, and burst into a flood of passionate tears.

‘O God! that I were on one of those islands in the Caribbean Sea — an island where Europeans never come — where I might lie down among the poisonous tropical flowers, and sleep the rest of my days away. I am sick to death of my life here; of the yacht, the people — everything.’

‘This air is too relaxing, Lady Lesbia,’ the girl murmured, soothingly; ‘and you didn’t have your natural rest last night. Shall I get you a nice strong cup of tea?’

‘Tea! no. I have been living upon tea for the last twenty-four hours. I have eaten nothing. My mouth is parched and burning. Oh, Kibble!’ flinging her head upon the girl’s buxom arm, and letting it rest there, ‘what a happy creature you are — not a care — not a care.’

‘I’m sure you can’t have any cares, Lady Lesbia,’ said Kibble, with an incredulous smile, trying to smooth the disordered hair, anxious to make haste with the unfinished toilet, for it was within a few minutes of eight.

‘I am full of care. I am in debt — horribly in debt — getting deeper and deeper every day — and I am going to sell myself to the only man who can pay my debts and give me fine houses, and finery like this,’ plucking at the crépe de chine gown, with its flossy fringe, its delicate lace, a marvel of artistic expenditure; a garment which looked simplicity itself, and yet was so cleverly contrived as to cost five-and-thirty guineas. The greatest effects in it required to be studied with a microscope.

‘But surely, dear Lady Lesbia, you won’t marry Mr. Smithson, if you don’t love him?’

‘Do you suppose love has anything to do with marriages in society?’

‘Oh, Lady Lesbia, it would be so unkind to him, so cruel to yourself.’

‘Cruel to myself. Yes, I am cruel to myself. I had the chance of happiness a year ago, and I lost it. I have the chance of happiness now — yes, of consummate bliss — and haven’t the courage to snatch at it. Take off this horrid gown, Kibble; my head is splitting: I shan’t go to dinner.’

‘Oh, Lady Lesbia, you are treading on the pearl embroidery,’ remonstrated poor Kibble, as Lesbia kicked the new gown from under her feet.

‘What does it matter!’ she exclaimed with a bitter little laugh. ‘It has not been paid for — perhaps it never will be.’

The dinner was silent and gloomy. It was as if a star had been suddenly blotted out of the sky. Smithson, ordinarily so hospitable, had been too much disturbed in mind to ask any of his friends to stay to dinner; so there were only Lady Kirkbank, who was too tired to be lively, and Montesma, who was inclined to be thoughtful. Lesbia’s absence, and the idea that she was ill, gave the feast almost a funereal air.

After dinner Smithson and Montesma sat on deck, smoking their cigars, and lazily watching the lights on sea, and the lights on shore; these brilliant in the foreground, those dim in the distance.

‘You can telegraph to your Rio Janeiro friend to-morrow morning, if you like,’ said Smithson, presently, ‘and tell him to send a first-rate skipper and crew. Lady Lesbia has made up her mind to see St. Malo Regatta, and with such a sacred charge I can’t be too careful.’

‘I’ll wire before eight o’clock to-morrow,’ answered Montesma, ‘You have decided wisely. Your respectable English Wilkinson is an excellent man — but nothing would surprise me less than his reducing your Cayman to matchwood in the next gale.’

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