Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 43

‘Alas, for Sorrow is All the End of this’

Lady Kirkbank retired to her cabin directly she got on board the Cayman.

‘Good-night, child! I am more than half asleep,’ she said; ‘and I think if there were to be an earthquake an hour hence I should hardly hear it. Go to your berth directly, Lesbia; you look positively awful. I have seen girls look bad after balls before now, but I never saw such a spectre as you look this morning.’

Poor Georgie’s own complexion left something to be desired. The Blanc de Fedora had been a brilliant success for the first two hours: after that the warm room began to tell upon it, and there came a greasiness, then a streakiness, and now all that was left of an alabaster skin was a livid patch of purplish paint here and there, upon a crow’s-foot ground. The eyebrows, too, had given in, and narrow lines of Vandyke brown meandered down Lady Kirkbank’s cheeks. The frizzy hair had gone altogether wrong, and had a wild look, suggestive of the witches in Macbeth, and the scraggy neck and poor old shoulders showed every year of their age in the ghastly morning light.

Lesbia waited in the saloon till Lady Kirkbank had bolted herself into her cabin, and then she went up to the deck wrapped in her satin-lined, fur-bordered cloak, and coiled herself in a bamboo arm-chair, and nestled her bare head into a Turkish pillow, and tried to sleep, there with the cool morning breeze blowing upon her burning forehead, and the plish-plash of seawater soothing her ear.

There were only three or four sailors on deck, weird, almost diabolical-looking creatures, Lesbia thought, in striped shirts, with bare arms, of a shining bronze complexion, flashing black eyes, sleek raven hair, a sinister look. What species of men they were — Mestizoes, Coolies, Yucatekes — she knew not, but she felt that they were something wild and strange, and their presence filled her with a vague fear. He, whose influence now ruled her life, had told her that these men were born mariners, and that she was twenty times safer with them than when the yacht had been under the control of those honest, grinning red-whiskered English Jack Tars. But she liked the English sailors best, all the same; and she shrank from the faintest contact with these tawny-visaged strangers, plucking away the train of her gown as they passed her chair, lest they should brush against her drapery.

On deck this morning, with only those dark faces near, she had a sense of loneliness, of helplessness, of abandonment even. Unbidden the image of her home at Grasmere flashed into her mind — all things so calm, so perfectly ordered, such a sense of safety, of home — no peril, no temptation, no fever — only peace: and she had grown sick to death of peace. She had prayed for tempest: and the tempest had come.

There was a heavenly quiet in the air in the early summer morning, only the creaking of a spar, the scream of a seagull now and then. How pale the lamps were growing on board the yachts. Paler still, yellow, and dim, and blurred yonder in the town. The eastward facing windows were golden with the rising sun. Yes, this was morning. The yachts were moving away yonder, majestical, swan-like, white sails shining against the blue.

She closed her eyes, and tried to sleep; but sleep would not come. She was always listening — listening for the dip of oars, listening for a snatch of melody from a mellow baritone whose every accent she knew so well.

It came at last, the sound her soul longed for. She lay among her cushions with closed eyes, listening, drinking in those rich ripe notes as they came nearer and nearer, to the measure of dipping oars, ’La donna e mobile —‘

Nearer and nearer, until the little boat ground against the hull. She lifted her heavy eyelids as Montesma leapt over the gunwale, almost into her arms. He was at her side, kneeling by her low chair, kissing the little hands, chill with the freshness of morning.

‘My own, my very own,’ he murmured, passionately.

He cared no more for those copper-faced Helots yonder than if they had been made of wood. He had fate in his own hands now, as it seemed to him. He went to the skipper and gave him some orders in Spanish, and then the sails were unfurled, the Cayman spread her broad white wings, and moved off among those other yachts which were gliding, gliding, gliding out to sea, melting from Cowes Roads like a vision that fadeth with the broad light of morning.

When the sails were up and the yacht was running merrily through the water, Montesma went back to Lady Lesbia, and they two sat side by side, gilded and glorified in the vivid lights of sunrise, talking as they had never talked before, her head upon his shoulder, a smile of ineffable peace upon her lips, as of a weary child that has found rest.

They were sailing for Havre, and at Havre they were to be married by the English chaplain, and from Havre they were to sail for the Havana, and to live there ever afterwards in a fairy-tale dream of bliss, broken only by an annual visit to Paris, just to buy gowns and bonnets. Surrendered were all Lesbia’s ambitious hopes — forgotten — gone; her desire to reign princess paramount in the kingdom of fashion — her thirst to be wealthiest among the wealthy — gone — forgotten. Her dreams now were of the dolce far niente of a tropical climate, a boudoir giving on the Caribbean sea, cigarettes, coffee, nights spent in a foreign opera house, the languid, reposeful existence of a Spanish dama — with him, with him. It was for his sake that she had modified all her ideas of life. To be with him she would have been content to dwell in the tents of the Patagonians, on the wild and snow-clad Pampas. A love which was strong enough to make her sacrifice duty, the world, her fair fame as a well-bred woman, was a love that recked but little of the paths along which her lover’s hand was to lead. For him, to be with him, she renounced the world. The rest did not count.

The summer hours glided past them. The Cayman was far out at sea; all the other yachts had vanished, and they were alone amidst the blue, with only a solitary three-master yonder, on the edge of the horizon. More than once Lesbia had talked of going below to change her ball gown for the attire of everyday life; but each time her lover had detained her a little longer, had pleaded for a few more words. Lady Kirkbank would be astir presently, and there would be no more solitude for them till they were married, and could shake her off altogether. So Lesbia stayed, and those two drank the cup of bliss, hushed by the monotonous sing-song of the sea, the rhythm of the swinging sails. But now it was broad morning. The hour when society, however late it may keep its revels overnight, is apt to awaken, were it only to call for a cup of strong tea and to turn again on the pillow of lassitude, after that refreshment, like the sluggard of Holy Writ. At ten o’clock the sun sent his golden arrows across the silken coverlet of her berth and awakened Lady Kirkbank, who opened her eyes and looked about languidly. The little cabin was heaving itself up and down in a curious way; Mr. Smithson’s cigar-cases were sloping as if they were going to fall upon Lady Kirkbank’s couch, and the looking-glass, with all its dainty appliances, was making an angle of forty-five degrees. There was more swirling and washing of water against the hull than ever Georgie Kirkbank had heard in Cowes Roads.

‘Mercy on me! this horrid thing must be moving,’ she exclaimed to the empty air. ‘It must have broken loose in the night.’

She had no confidence in those savage-looking sailors, and she had a vision of the yacht drifting at the mercy of winds and waves, drifting for days, weeks, and months; drifting to the German Ocean, drifting to the North Pole. Mr. Smithson and Montesma on shore — no one on board to exercise authority over those fearful men.

Perhaps they had mutinied, and were carrying off the yacht as their booty, with Lesbia and her chaperon, and all their gowns.

‘I am almost glad that harpy Seraphine has my diamonds,’ thought poor Georgie, ‘or I should have had them with me on board this hateful boat.’

And then she rapped vehemently against the panel of the cabin, and screamed for Rilboche, whose den was adjacent.

Rilboche, who detested the sea, made her appearance after some delay, looking even greener than her mistress, who, in rising from her berth, already began to suffer the agonies of sea-sickness.

‘What does this mean?’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank; ‘and where are we going?’

‘That’s what I should like to know, my lady. But I daresay Lady Lesbia and Mr. Montesma can tell you. They are both on deck.’

‘Montesma! Why, we left him on shore!’

‘Yes, my lady, but he came on board at five o’clock this morning. I looked at my watch when I heard him land, and he and Lady Lesbia have been sitting on deck ever since.’

‘And now it is ten. Five hours on deck — impossible!’

‘Time doesn’t seem long when one is happy, my lady,’ murmured Rilboche, in her own language.

‘Help me to dress this instant,’ screamed her mistress: ‘that dreadful Spaniard is eloping with us.’

Despite the hideous depression of that malady which strikes down Kaiser and beggar with the same rough hand, Lady Kirkbank contrived to get herself dressed decently, and to stagger up the companion to that part of the deck where the Persian carpet was spread, and the bamboo chairs and tables were set out under the striped awning. Lesbia and her lover were sitting together, he giving her a first lesson in the art of smoking a cigarette. He had told her playfully that every man, woman, and child in Cuba was a smoker, and she had besought him to let her begin, and now, with infinite coquetry, was taking her first lesson.

‘You shameless minx!’ exclaimed Georgie, pale with anger.

‘Where is Smithson — my poor, good Smithson?’

‘Fast asleep in his bed at Formosa, I hope, dear Lady Kirkbank,’ the Cuban answered, with perfect sang froid. ‘Smithson is out of it, as you idiomatic English say. I hope, Lady Kirkbank, you will be as kind to me as you have been to Smithson; and depend upon it I shall make Lady Lesbia as good a husband as ever Smithson could have done.’

‘You!’ exclaimed the matron, contemptuously. ‘You! — a foreigner, an adventurer, who may be as poor as Job, for anything I know about you.’

‘Job was once rather comfortably off, Lady Kirkbank; and I can answer for it that Montesma’s wife will know none of the pangs of poverty.’

‘If you were a beggar I would not care,’ said Lesbia, drawing nearer to him.

They had both risen at Lady Kirkbank’s approach, and were standing side by side, confronting her. Lesbia had shrunk from the idea of poverty with John Hammond; yet, for this man’s sake, she was ready to face penury, ruin, disgrace, anything.

‘Do you mean to tell me that Lord Maulevrier’s sister, a young lady under my charge, answerable to me for her conduct, is capable of jilting the man to whom she has solemnly bound herself, in order to marry you?’ demanded Lady Kirkbank, turning to Montesma.

‘Yes; that is what I am going to do,’ answered Lesbia, boldly. ‘It would be a greater sin to keep my promise than to break it. I never liked that man, and you know it. You badgered me into accepting him, against my own better judgment. You drifted me so deeply into debt that I was willing to marry a man I loathed in order to get my debts paid. This is what you did for the girl placed under your charge. But, thank God, I have released myself from your clutches. I am going far away to a new world, where the memory of my old life cannot follow me. People may be angry or pleased! I do not care. I shall be the wife of the man I have chosen out of all the world for my husband — the man God made to be my master.’

‘You are ——’ gasped Lady Kirkbank. ‘I can’t say what you are. I never in my life felt so tempted to use improper language.’

‘Dear Lady Kirkbank, be reasonable,’ pleaded Montesma; ‘you can have no interest in seeing Lesbia married to a man she dislikes.’

Georgia reddened a little, remembering that she was interested to the amount of some thousands in the Smithson and Haselden alliance; but she took a higher ground than mercenary considerations.

‘I am interested in doing the very best for a young lady who has been entrusted to my care, the granddaughter of an old friend,’ she answered, with dignity. ‘I have no objection to you in the abstract, Don Gomez. You have always been vastly civil, I am sure ——’

‘Stand by us in our day of need, Lady Kirkbank, and you will find me the staunchest friend you ever had.’

‘I am bound in honour to consider Mr. Smithson, Lesbia,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘I wonder that a decently-brought up girl can behave so abominably.’

‘It would be more abominable to marry a man I detest. I have made up my mind, Lady Kirkbank. We shall be at Havre to-morrow morning, and we shall be married to-morrow — shall we not, Gomez?’

She let her head sink upon his breast, and his arm enfold her. Thus sheltered, she felt safe, thus and thus only. She had thrown her cap over the mills; snapped her fingers at society; cared not a jot what the world might think or say of her. This man would she marry and no other; this man’s fortune would she follow for good or evil. He had that kind of influence with women which is almost ‘possession.’ It smells of brimstone.

‘Come, my dear good soul,’ said Montesma, smiling at the angry matron, ‘why not take things quietly? You have had a good many girls under your wing; and you must know that youth and maturity see life from a different standpoint. In your eyes my old friend Smithson is an admirable match. You measure him by his houses, his stable, his banker’s book; but Lesbia would rather marry the man she loves, and take the risks of his fate. I am not a pauper, Lady Kirkbank, and the home to which I shall take my love is pretty enough for a princess of the blood royal, and for her sake I shall grow richer yet,’ he added, with his eyes kindling; ‘and if you care to pay us a visit next February in our Parisian apartment I will promise you as pleasant a nest as you can wish to occupy.’

‘How do I know that you will ever bring her back to Europe?’ said Lady Kirkbank, piteously. ‘How do I know that you will not bury her alive in your savage country, among blackamoors, like those horrid sailors, over there — kill her, perhaps, when you are tired of her?’

At these words of Lady Kirkbank’s, flung out at random, Montesma blanched, and his deep black eye met hers with a strangely sinister look.

‘Yes,’ she cried, hysterically —‘kill her, kill her! You look as if you could do it.’

Lesbia nestled closer to her lover’s heart.

‘How dare you say such things to him,’ she cried, angrily. ‘I trust him, don’t you see; trust him with my whole heart, with all my soul. I shall be his wife to-morrow, for good or evil.’

‘Very much for evil, I’m afraid,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘Perhaps you will be kind enough to come to your cabin and take off that ball gown, and make yourself just a little less disreputable in outward appearance, while I get a cup of tea.’

Lesbia obeyed, and went down to her cabin, where Kibble was waiting with a fresh white muslin frock and all its belongings, laid out ready for her mistress, sorely perplexed at the turn which affairs were taking. She had never liked Horace Smithson, although he had given her tips which were almost a provision for her old age; but she had thought it a good thing that her mistress, who was frightfully extravagant, should marry a millionaire; and now they were sailing over the sea with a lot of coloured sailors, and the millionaire was left on shore.

Lady Kirkbank went into the saloon, where breakfast was laid ready, and where the steward was in attendance with that air of being absolutely unconscious of any domestic disturbance, which is the mark of a well-trained servant.

Lesbia appeared in something less than an hour, newly dressed and fresh looking, in her pure white gown, her brown hair bound in a coronet round her small Greek head. She sat down by Lady Kirkbank’s side, and tried to coax her into good humour.

‘Why can’t you take things pleasantly, dear?’ she pleaded. ‘Do now, like a good soul. You heard him say he was well off, and that he will take me to Paris next winter, and you can come to us there on your way from Cannes, and stay with us till Easter. It will be so nice when the Prince and all the best people are in Paris. We shall only stay in Cuba till the fuss about my running away is all over, and people have forgotten, don’t you know. As for Mr. Smithson, why should I have any more compunction about jilting him than he had about that poor Miss Trinder? By-the-bye, I want you to send him back all his presents for me. They are almost all in Arlington Street. I brought nothing with me except my engagement ring,’ looking down at the half-hoop of diamonds, and pulling it off her fingers as she talked. ‘I had a kind of presentiment ——’

‘You mean that you had made up your mind to throw him over.’

‘No. But I felt there were breakers ahead. It might have come to throwing myself into the sea. Perhaps you would have liked that better than what has happened.’

‘I don’t know, I’m sure. The whole thing is disgraceful. London will ring with the scandal. What am I to say to Lady Maulevrier, to your brother? And pray how do you propose to get married at Havre? You cannot be married in a French town by merely holding up your finger. There are no registry offices. I am sure I have no idea how the thing is done.’

‘Don Gomez has arranged all that — everything has been thought of — everything has been planned. A steamer will take us to St. Thomas, and another steamer will take us on to Cuba.’

‘But the marriage — the licence?’

‘I tell you everything has been provided for. Please take this ring and send it to Mr. Smithson when you go back to England.’

‘Send it to him yourself. I will have nothing to do with it.’

‘How dreadfully disagreeable you are,’ said Lesbia, pouting, ‘just because I am marrying to please myself, instead of to please you. It is frightfully selfish of you.’

Montesma came in at this moment. He, too, had dressed himself freshly, and was looking his handsomest, in that buccaneer style of costume which he wore when he sailed the yacht. He and Lesbia breakfasted at their ease, while Lady Kirkbank reclined in her bamboo arm-chair, feeling very unhappy in her mind and far from well. Neptune and she could not accommodate themselves.

After a leisurely breakfast, enlivened by talk and laughter, the cabin windows open, the sun shining, the freshening breeze blowing in, Lesbia and Don Gomez went on deck, and he reclined at her feet while she read to him from the pages of her favourite Keats, read languidly, lazily, yet exquisitely, for she had been taught to read as well as to sing. The poetry seemed to have been written on purpose for them; and the sky and the atmosphere around them seemed to have been made for the poetry. And so, with intervals of strolling on the deck, and an hour or so dawdled away at luncheon, and a leisurely afternoon tea, the day wore on to sunset, and they went back to Keats, while Lady Kirkbank sulked and slept in a corner of the saloon.

‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ Lesbia murmured, in a pause of their reading, when they had dropped Endymion’s love to talk of their own.

‘But not of mine, my angel. I shall be happier still when we are far away on broader waters, beyond the reach of all who can part us.’

‘Can any one part us, Gomez, now that we have pledged ourselves to each other?’ she asked, incredulously.

‘Ah, love, such pledges are sometimes broken. All women are not lion-hearted. While the sea is smooth and the ship runs fair, all is easy enough; but when tempest and peril come — that is the test, Lesbia. Will you stand by me in the tempest, love?’

‘You know that I will,’ she answered, with her hand locked in his two hands, clasped as with a life-long clasp.

She could not imagine any severe ordeal to be gone through. If Maulevrier heard of her elopement in time for pursuit, there would be a fuss, perhaps — an angry bother raging and fuming. But what of that? She was her own mistress. Maulevrier could not prevent her marrying whomsoever she pleased.

‘Swear that you will hold to me against all the world,’ he said, passionately, turning his head to look across the stern of the vessel.

‘Against all the world,’ she answered, softly.

‘I believe your courage will be tested before long,’ he said; and then he cried to the skipper, ‘Crowd on all sail, Tomaso. That boat is chasing us.’

Lesbia sprang to her feet, looking as he looked to a spot of vivid white on the horizon. Montesma had snatched up a glass and was watching that distant spot.

‘It is a steam-yacht,’ he said. ‘They will catch us.’

He was right. Although the Cayman strained every timber so that her keel cut through the water like a boomerang, wind and steam beat wind without steam. In less than an hour the steam-yacht was beside the Cayman, and Lord Maulevrier and Lord Hartfield had boarded Mr. Smithson’s deck.

‘I have come to take you and Lady Kirkbank back to Cowes, Lesbia,’ said Maulevrier. ‘I’m not going to make any undue fuss about this little escapade of yours, provided you go back with Hartfield and me at once, and pledge yourself never to hold any further communication with Don Gomez de Montesma.’

The Spaniard was standing close by, silent, white as death, but ready to make a good fight. That pallor of the clear olive skin was not from want of pluck; but there was the deadly knowledge of the ground he stood upon, the doubt that any woman, least of all such a woman as Lady Lesbia Haselden, could be true to him if his character and antecedents were revealed to her. And how much or how little these two men could tell her about himself or his past life was the question which the next few minutes would solve.

‘I am not going back with you,’ answered Lesbia. ‘I am going to Havre with Don Gomez de Montesma. We are to be married there as soon as we arrive.’

‘To be married — at Havre,’ cried Maulevrier. ‘An appropriate place. A sailor has a wife in every port, don’t you know.’

‘We had better go down to the cabin,’ said Hartfield, laying his hand upon his friend’s shoulder. ‘If Lady Lesbia will be good enough to come with us we can tell her all that we have to tell quietly there.’

Lord Hartfield’s tone was unmistakeable. Everything was known.

‘You can talk at your ease here,’ said Montesma, facing the two men with a diabolical recklessness and insolence of manner. ‘Not one of these fellows on board knows a dozen sentences of English.’

‘I would rather talk below, if it is all the same to you, Señor; and I should be glad to speak to Lady Lesbia alone.’

‘That you shall not do unless she desires it,’ answered Montesma.

‘No, he shall hear all that you have to say. He shall hear how I answer you,’ said Lesbia.

Lord Hartfield shrugged his shoulders.

‘As you please,’ he said. ‘It will make the disclosure a little more painful than it need have been; but that cannot be helped.’

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