BY CLO. GRAVES.
The great liner swiftly pushed her homeward way through the rolling surges of the Atlantic. Other yearning, tender hearts there doubtless were whose sole freight of hope the steamer carried; but the heart that beat so anxiously in the little Guernsey cottage had the most at stake. The ordeal of the past months had not lessened Fenella's beauty. The outlines of her features were sharper, their tints less vivid than of old. The tawny eyes looked wistfully out upon the world from orbits that were hollowed with grief and watching, the chestnut hair showed a thread of silver here and there. Would Ronny know his mother again? Fenella often asked herself that question. Meanwhile, for the child's sake, she husbanded her newly-recovered strength with jealous care. She ate and drank, rose and slept, walked and rested, for Ronny. He must not find a peevish invalid in place of the old playfellow. None but her own hands should henceforth minister to the needs of this small idol of her heart. With these and other fond foolish fancies, she wore away the tedious hours of waiting.
One of her usual walks led in the direction of the village of St. Sampson's. The brown-faced quarrymen and fisher-folk grew accustomed to the sight of the pale, plainly-dressed lady with the wistful eyes, who so often paused to rest, or to smile at and speak kindly to the sturdy, sunburnt urchins that rolled in the dust by cottage thresholds, and pulled off their blue knitted caps as they passed her, in rude homage of her beauty, and respect for her loneliness.
One bright October afternoon she sat upon one of the rough wooden benches facing the wall of the little harbor, watching the progress of a child's game. There were five players, four of them hard-fisted, mop-headed urchins, with the brown skins and blue eyes that seem indigenous to the island. The fourth was a girl of nine or ten, a pale-faced, black-haired little creature, with a shrewd, selfish manner and a voice of unchildish shrillness. The game had to do with a wedding, of course—all the Guernsey children's games deal with marriages or christenings—and the song that accompanied it was vocalized with immense vigor and zest by all the performers:
Jean, gros Jean, marryit sa fille,
Grosse et grasse et bie habille.
A un marchand d'sabots;
Radinguette, Radin got!
The verse was repeated with even more shrillness. Then the marriage procession tailed away round the corner with a clattering of little wooden shoes, the sallow-faced girl gallantly supported on the tattered jacket-sleeve of the most bullet-headed of the boys. Fenella laughed, not with the ringing, careless music of the old days, but still sweetly and clearly. She lifted her eyes and met the melancholy glance of a shabby man, a stranger whose attention, like her own, had been attracted by the children.
The man was poorly dressed. He wore an old greatcoat of gray frieze, and a peaked cap shadowed a lean, unshaven, sallow face. The fringes of his ragged trousers fell over broken boots. No scarecrow was ever more dingily attired than this strange man, who now lifted his cap and bowed with something of foreign ceremoniousness, and looked at Fenella out of melancholy, hollow eyes.
"When the heart is heavy, madame, it is good to look at the little people." He spoke in English fluently, and with a strong French accent. "They are so gay always. They know so little of care. To sing and shout, and jump Gros Jean, that is the business of life. Well! As good a business as any other when all is said and done."
He shrugged his shoulders and folded his arms upon his hollow chest, shivering as the keen sea breeze crept, in at the loopholes of his raggedness, and nipped his gaunt body. He did not beg, or seem about to. The impulse was self-prompted that stretched Fenella's hand to him with a silver coin in it.
"Take this. You look ill or hungry."
"Hungry, madame," said the man softly. "A thousand thanks." He hid the coin about him furtively, and saluted Lady Onslow again. The lifted cap revealed a narrow head shaved almost to the skin. Upon the temples was a livid scar, new-healed and ugly.
"You are a stranger to Guernsey?" Fenella hazarded.
"A stranger, madame. I came from Cherbourg yesterday. A fisherman brought me in his boat. I am not particular as to my accommodation, as madame will guess, nor was the boatman extortionate. Yet he took all my money, and left me without enough to buy a meal."
"You have friends in the island?"
"No and yes," the man returned. "The little daughter of one who was an old comrade of mine lives here in charge of a woman who was her foster-mother, and has married a foreman of the stone works. Madame has seen her playing with the children of the good carrier. She did not know who looked at her and questioned of her name just now. When last I saw her (five years ago), she was but four years old. At four years old the little Lucille could not be expected to understand—madame is cold?"
Fenella shrunk and shivered at the sound of that hated name. She recovered herself in another instant. She looked at the forlorn creature, who tried to interest her in his little story, with compassionate gentleness.
"Can the father not come himself to see his child?" she asked. "Is he an invalid or——?"
The man answered her shortly and harshly.
"The father is in prison."
He laughed a grating laugh, and ground the heel of his broken boot upon the pavement.
"Has madame patience to hear his story? Common enough, common enough. The father of the little black-haired one was once a clerk in a bank at Lille. He had assured prospects, enough for present wants; a charming—oh! yes, a charming wife—and a child. Charming women are apt to be vain; vain ones are apt to be extravagant, madame. She wanted money—always money. Her husband was like wax in her hands. Hein! She molded her wax well—so well. She made of an honest man a rogue, madame, a forger, and a thief."
He broke off to wipe away the leaden drops that had gathered on his face, with a miserable rag of a tattered handkerchief. His gaunt figure quivered, and the sinews started out like cords on the backs of his wasted hands.
Fenella spoke to him gently. "It distresses you to speak of it," she said.
"It relieves me to speak of it. Figure to yourself, madame, how this man must have loved that wretch to sin so at her bidding. And she—she had not even the merit of being faithful to him. He found that out before the trial—for the frauds were discovered, and he was arrested. He denounced her as his accomplice. She fled before the law could lay hands on her—with one who had been, for long, her secret lover."
His face was frightful as he said the words. If he had been himself the wretched dupe, whose dreadful story he had upon his lips, he could not have looked and spoken with greater rancor. But he went on:
"So my friend—always my friend, madame will remember—is found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for eight years. He is sent to the 'Maison Gentrale' at Clairvaux. Compulsory labor, absolute silence; silence in the dormitory, silence in the workshop, silence in the yard, silence in bed, from half-past six until six the next morning is the Clairvaux routine. Madame would never imagine how many cries of execration and despair, how many sobs of anguish, how many oaths of vengeance can be packed into the space of one human breast, that has the padlock of the Law upon it."
He struck his own breast as he spoke fiercely, and shook his clenched hand in the air.
"I have been a prisoner myself," he went on; "madame is not afraid of me? I knew that man at Clairvaux. Prisoners have methods of communication in spite of rules and punishments. I knew his sorrow as he my own. I promised him, when my hour of liberation came, I would visit the island to which his child had been taken, see her without speaking to her, and send him word. The last two years of his sentence have yet to expire before my friend can speak, unless he grows desperate, as a man does when the end is near, and escapes from prison. Clairvaux is a strong place, but there is a way out of it. He has told me so. Chut! Here are the little ones returning. You are goings madame? Accept my thanks, the gratitude of a poor man whom you have helped upon his way. I have not wearied you with the story of my friend? A common criminal, no more. And once having been in prison, as philanthropic people say, it is twenty to one that he will eventually return there. I myself also; but the next crime of which that man is found guilty will not be forgery."
Fenella yielded to an uncontrollable impulse. She looked full into the hollow, glistening eyes. She put a question to the ragged creature.
"Not forgery?" she said, repeating his words. "What then?"
The man bent toward her. She recoiled from the contact of his foul and ragged garments. She shuddered as his hot breath scorched her cheek. In a single word he gave the answer to her question:
A dizziness came over her; she reeled, and put out her hands to save herself from falling. They touched the cold stone of the harbor wall. Her drooping lids lifted, she looked round vacantly. The man was gone.
"The dreadful word!" she whispered—"oh, the cruel word! It blights the present, it blackens the future. What can the future hold for Frank—or for me? What does it promise to our child? A stained title, a heritage of guilt and shame—a heavy, heavy weight for my innocent love to bear. Oh, my heart! My heart is breaking!"
Tears came to her relief. She pulled down her veil hastily, and hurried home, as the dusk October evening closed in. Late that night she knelt by the open window of her bedroom, and looked out upon the stormy heavens, upon the quiet sea. Herm loomed near the horizon, a dark and shapeless mass upon the sleeping ocean. The restless eye of the lightship opened and shut; a bat flittered noiselessly past, and vanished in the velvet darkness.
"Three days more," Fenella said, "only three days. Oh, my son, my little son! Does the time seem as long to you as it does to your mother?"
She closed the window and went to her bed. Sleep would not come at first. But toward the time of the flood tide she slept and dreamed. She dreamed that she saw a great ship—an ocean steamer—plowing homeward through a waste of waters. She knew that the vessel carried those three lives that were so dear to her. Friend, husband, child lay sleeping in the cabins, lulled by the throbbing of the incessant screw. All peace, all security apparently. And yet a voice kept whispering in her ear, "Watch, watch! Danger!"
It seemed to the dreaming woman then that she stood upon the vessel's quiet deck. Not a sound broke the quiet except that throbbing of the screw. Not a sign of life appeared, until from the dark companion-hatch of the steerage deckhouse a solitary figure crept—the figure of a woman. And the white face it turned upon her, illumined by the pale rays of the moon, was the face of Mme. de Vigny.
And the voice kept whispering, "Watch, watch! Danger!" She strove to shriek aloud and warn those on board, but her lips were sealed. She followed the creeping figure aft. Followed it down a narrow brass-bound stairway, with no conscious movement of her feet. Followed it through dusky passages, lighted by dim, swinging lanterns, and down stairways narrower still. Then it came to a halt and she stood behind it, listening and watching.
A faint rasping sound. The striking of a match. A flickering light that revealed the place in which they stood together to be a place used for the keeping of ship's stores. Oil and tallow, firewood and candles, coils of dry rope, bundles of matches and other inflammable articles were gathered there. And then she knew, as another match struck and fired, and the pale blue flame lighted that evil face, the deadly purpose of her enemy. And even as she strove to burst the bonds of silence that held her, darkness fell upon the scene.
When she opened her eyes, still dreaming, the stately vessel was still gliding through the waters, herself removed from it by a distance that seemed impassable. But still the throbbing of the screw mingled with the whisper that warned her of danger to come. She strained her eyes and held her breath, and watched as she was bidden.
Then a little smoke began to curl upward from one of the aft hatchways. Thin and white, a narrow column of vapor slanting in the freshening breeze. Then a forked tongue of yellow flame shot out menacingly. And then a great bell began to clang furiously. And mingled with other sounds came the sound of voices shouting together. Only one word they kept repeating, and that word "Fire."
Fire! fire! fire!
The darkness was banished now by the fierce red glare that came from the burning vessel. Her deck was alive with orderly gangs of men who fame and went with hose and buckets, pouring water down the hatchways upon the roaring flames. Forward the passengers crowded together. And among those white faces which the quiet stars shone down upon, and the leaping flames illuminated with their own fierce glare, the dreaming woman saw the face of her child.
He was held, not in his father's arms, but in those of Jacynth. Frank was standing with his hand upon the shoulder of that true friend and stanch companion. The men spoke together with stern, grave looks; the child laughed and clapped his hands as the hissing tons of sea water fought with the fire that gnawed at the vitals of the brave vessel, deep below the water-line. And as the mother stretched her arms toward her boy the whole picture faded for the second time. Another followed. Still the wide gray sea. No burning vessel on it now. Only a line of boats upon the waters, black against the background of a lurid, stormy dawn. The boats advanced toward the dreamer slowly. In the first only one familiar face—the face of Lord Castleton. In the second, none but strangers. In the third, strangers again. In the fourth and last, a woman bound with cords lying at the bottom of the boat amidships, a grave, stern man keeping close watch and ward over the prisoner. In the stern-sheets, rough-handed, pitying men, disheveled, compassionate women, gathered round a little group of two. One of these in the uniform of an officer of the ship; the surgeon, perhaps, from the skillful way in which he supported the convulsed and trembling figure of the other on his arm, and held a restorative to the lips and seemed to speak vain words of comfort. And the desolate creature, to whose misery that kindly ministrance brought no relief, lifted his head and looked at Fenella with eyes that were the eyes of her husband.
In her sudden agony of dread it seemed to her that she cried out the names of the two who were missing. "Frank, where is Jacynth. Where is Ronny? What have you done with my boy? Tell me, for God's sake?"
And it seemed that her husband heard. He turned despairing eyes on her. He shook his head and pointed to the sea.
She cried out then, and awoke as the first faint rays of daylight pierced through the blinds of her bedroom in the cottage at Guernsey. And the woman who waited on her, roused by that piercing cry, came running in.