The String of Pearls/Chapter 6
VI The Conference, and the Fearful Narration in the Garden
The Temple clock struck the hour of meeting, and Johanna looked anxiously around her for anyone who should seem to bear the appearance of being such a person as she might suppose Mark Ingestrie would choose for his messenger.
She turned her eyes towards the gate, for she thought she heard it close, and then she saw a gentlemanly-looking man, attired in a cloak, and who was looking about him, apparently in search of someone.
When his eye fell upon her he immediately produced from beneath his cloak a white rose, and in another minute they met.
'I have the honour,' he said, 'of speaking to Miss Johanna Oakley?'
'Yes, sir; and you are Mark Ingestrie's messenger?'
'I am; that is to say, I am he who comes to bring you news of Mark Ingestrie, although I grieve to say I am not the messenger that was expressly deputed by him to do so.'
'Oh! sir, your looks are sad and serious; you seem as if you would announce that some misfortune had occurred. Tell me that it is not so; speak to me at once, or my heart will break!'
'Compose yourself, lady, I pray you.
'I cannot - dare not do so, unless you tell me he lives. Tell me that Mark Ingestrie lives, and then I shall be all patience: tell me that, and you shall not hear a murmur from me. Speak the word at once - at once! It is cruel, believe me, to keep me in this suspense.'
'This is one of the saddest errands I ever came upon,' said the stranger, as he led Johanna to a seat. 'Recollect, lady, what creatures of accident and chance we are - recollect how the slightest circumstances will affect us, in driving us to the confines of despair, and remember by how frail a tenure the best of us hold existence.'
'No more - no more!' shrieked Johanna, as she clasped her hands -'I know all now and am desolate.'
She let her face drop upon her hands, and shook as with a convulsion of grief.
'Mark! Mark!' she cried, 'you have gone from me! I thought not this - I thought not this. Oh, Heaven! why have I lived so long as to have the capacity to listen to such fearful tidings? Lost - lost - all lost! God of Heaven! what a wilderness the world is now to me!'
'Let me pray you, lady, to subdue this passion of grief, and listen truly to what I shall unfold to you. There is much to hear and much to speculate upon; and if, from all that I have learnt, I cannot, dare not tell you that Mark Ingestrie lives, I likewise shrink from telling you he is no more.'
'Speak again - say those words again! There is a hope, then - oh, there is a hope!'
'There is a hope; and better it is that your mind should receive the first shock of the probability of the death of him whom you have so anxiously expected and then afterwards, from what I shall relate to you, gather hope that it may not be so, than that from the first you should expect too much, and then have those expectations rudely destroyed.'
'It is so - it is so; this is kind of you, and if I cannot thank you as I ought, you will know that it is because I am in a state of too great affliction so to do, and not from want of will; you will understand that - I am sure you will understand that.'
'Make no excuses to me. Believe me, I can fully appreciate all that you would say, and all that you must feel. I ought to tell you who I am, that you may have confidence in what I have to relate to you. My name is Jeffery, and I am a colonel in the India army.'
'I am much beholden to you, sir; but you bring with you a passport to my confidence, in the name of Mark Ingestrie, which is at once sufficient. I live again in the hope that you have given me of his continued existence, and in that hope I will maintain a cheerful resignation that shall enable me to bear up against all you have to tell me, be that what it may, and with a feeling that through much suffering there may come joy at last. You shall find me very patient, ay, extremely patient - so patient that you shall scarcely see the havoc that grief has already made here.'
She pressed her hands on her breast as she spoke, and looked in his face with such an expression of tearful melancholy that it was quite heart-rending to witness it; and he, although not used to the melting-mood, was compelled to pause for a few moments ere he could proceed in the task which he had set himself. 'I will be as brief,' he said, 'as possible, consistent with stating all that is requisite for me to state, and I must commence by asking you if you are aware under what circumstances Mark Ingestrie went abroad?'
'I am aware of so much: that a quarrel with his uncle, Mr Grant, was the great cause, and that his main endeavour was to better his fortunes, so that we might be happy and independent of those who looked not with an eye of favour on our projected union.'
'Yes; but what I meant was, were you aware of the sort of adventure he embarked in to the Indian seas?'
'No, I know nothing further; we met here on this spot, we parted at yonder gate, and we have never met again.'
'Then I have something to tell you, in order to make the narrative clear and explicit.'
'I shall listen to you with an attention so profound that you shall see how my whole soul is wrapped up in what you say.'
They both sat upon the garden-seat; and while Johanna fixed her eyes upon her companion's face, expressive as it was of the most generous emotions and noble feelings, he commenced relating to her the incidents which never left her memory, and in which she took so deep an interest.
'You must know,' he said, 'that what it was which so much inflamed the imagination of Mark Ingestrie consisted in this. There came to London a man with a well-authenticated and extremely well put together report, that there had been discovered, in one of the small islands near the Indian seas, a river which deposited an enormous quantity of gold dust in its progress to the ocean. He told his story so well, and seemed to be such a perfect master of all the circumstances connected with it, that there was scarcely room for a doubt upon the subject.
'The thing was kept quiet and secret; and a meeting was held of some influential men - influential on account of the money they possessed, among whom was one who had towards Mark Ingestrie most friendly feelings; so Mark attended the meeting with this friend of his, although he felt his utter incapacity, from want of resources, to take any part in the affair.
'But he was not aware of what his friend's generous intentions were in the matter until they were explained to him, and they consisted in this: he, the friend, was to provide the necessary means for embarking in the adventure, so far as regarded taking a share in it, and he told Mark Ingestrie that, if he would go personally on to the expedition, he would share in the proceeds with him, be they what they might.
'Now, to a young man like Ingestrie, totally destitute of personal resources, but of ardent and enthusiastic temperament, you can imagine how extremely tempting such an offer was likely to be. He embraced it at once with the greatest pleasure, and from that moment he took an interest in the affair of the closest and most powerful description. It seized completely hold of his imagination, presenting itself to him in the most tempting colours; and from the description that has been given me of his enthusiastic disposition, I can well imagine with what kindness and impetuosity he would enter into such an affair.'
'You know him well,' said Johanna, gently.
'No, I never saw him. All that I say concerning him is from the description of another who did know him well, and who sailed with him in the vessel that ultimately left the port of London on the vague and wild adventure I have mentioned.'
'That one, be he who he may, must have known Mark Ingestrie well, and have enjoyed much of his confidence to be able to describe him so accurately.'
'I believe that such was the case; and it is from the lips of that one, instead of mine, that you ought to have heard what I am now relating. That gentleman, whose name was Thornhill, ought to have made to you this communication; but by some strange accident it seems he has been prevented, or you would not be here listening to me upon a subject which would have come better from his lips.'
'And he was to have come yesterday to me?'
'Then Mark Ingestrie kept his word; and but for the adverse circumstances which delayed his messenger, I should have heard yesterday what you are now relating to me. I pray you go on, sir, and pardon the interruption.'
'I need not trouble you with all the negotiations, the trouble, and the difficulty that arose before the expedition could be started fairly - suffice it to say, that at length, after much annoyance and trouble, it was started, and a vessel was duly chartered and manned for the purpose of proceeding to the Indian seas in search of the treasure, which was reported to be there for the first adventurer who had the boldness to seek it.
'It was a gallant vessel. I saw it sail many a mile from England ere it sunk beneath the waves, never to rise again.'
'Yes; it was an ill-fated ship, and it did sink; but I must not anticipate - let me proceed in my narrative with regularity.
'The ship was called the Star; and if those who went with it looked upon it as the star of their destiny, they were correct enough, and it might be considered an evil star for them, inasmuch as nothing but disappointment and bitterness became their ultimate portion.
'And Mark Ingestrie, I am told, was the most hopeful man on board. Already in imagination he could fancy himself homeward-bound with the vessel, ballasted and crammed with the rich produce of that shining river.
'Already he fancied what he could do with his abundant wealth, and I have not a doubt but that, in common with many who went on that adventure, he enjoyed to the full the spending of the wealth he should obtain in imagination - perhaps, indeed, more than if he had obtained it in reality.
'Among the adventurers was one Thornhill, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and between him and young Ingestrie there arose a remarkable friendship - a friendship so strong and powerful, that there can be no doubt they communicated to each other all their hopes and fears; and if anything could materially tend to beguile the tedium of such a weary voyage as those adventurers had undertaken, it certainly would be the free communication and confidential intercourse between two such kindred spirits as Thornhill and Mark Ingestrie.
'You will bear in mind, Miss Oakley, that in making this communication to you, I am putting together what I myself heard at different times, so as to make it for you a distinct narrative, which you can have no difficulty in comprehending, because, as I before stated, I never saw Mark Ingestrie, and it was only once, for about five minutes, that I saw the vessel in which he went upon his perilous adventure - for perilous it turned out to be - to the Indian seas. It was from Thornhill I got my information during the many weary and monotonous hours consumed in a homeward voyage from India.
'It appears that without accident or cross of any description the Star reached the Indian Ocean, and the supposed immediate locality of the spot where the treasure was to be found, and there she was spoken with by a vessel homeward-bound from India, called the Neptune.
'It was evening, and the sun had sunk in the horizon with some appearance that betokened a storm. I was on board that Indian vessel; we did not expect anything serious, although we made every preparation for rough weather, and as it turned out, it was well indeed we did, for never, within the memory of the oldest seaman, had such a storm ravished the coast. A furious gale, which it was impossible to withstand, drove us southward; and but for the utmost precautions, aided by the courage and temerity on the part of the seamen, such as I have never before witnessed in the merchant- service, we escaped with trifling damage, but we were driven at least 200 miles out of our course; and instead of getting, as we ought to have done, to the Cape by a certain time, we were an immense distance east of it. 'It was just as the storm, which lasted three nights and two days, began to abate, that towards the horizon we saw a dull red light; and as it was not in a quarter of the sky where any such appearance might be imagined, nor were we in a latitude where electric phenomena might be expected, we steered towards it, surmising what turned out afterwards to be fully correct.'
'It was a ship on fire!' said Johanna.
'Alas! alas! I guessed it. A frightful suspicion from the first crossed my mind. It was a ship on fire, and that ship was -,'
'The Star, still bound upon its adventurous course, although driven far out of it by adverse winds and waves. After about half an hour's sailing we came within sight distinctly of a blazing vessel.
'We could hear the roar of the flames, and through our glasses we could see them curling up the cordage and dancing from mast to mast, like fiery serpents, exulting in the destruction they were making. We made all sail, and strained every inch of canvas to reach the ill-fated vessel, for distances at sea that look small are in reality very great, and an hour's hard sailing in a fair wind with every stitch of canvas set, would not do more than enable us to reach that ill-fated bark; but fancy in an hour what ravages the flames might make! o 'The vessel was doomed. The fiat had gone forth that it was to be among the things that had been; and long before we could reach the spot upon which it floated idly on the now comparatively calm waters, we saw a bright shower of sparks rush up into the air. Then came a loud roaring sound over the surface of the deep, and all was still - the ship had disappeared, and the water had closed over her for ever.'
'But how knew you,' said Johanna, as she clasped her hands, and the pallid expression of her countenance betrayed the deep interest she took in the narration, 'how knew you that ship was the Star? might it not have been some other ill-fated vessel that met with so dreadful a fate?'
'I will tell you: although we had seen the ship go down, we kept on our course, straining every effort to reach the spot, with a hope of picking up some of the crew, who surely had made an effort by the boats to leave the burning vessel.
'The captain of the Indiaman kept his glass at his eye, and presently he said to me, "There is a floating piece of wreck, and something clinging to it; I know not if there be a man, but what I can perceive seems to me to be the head of a dog."
'I looked through the glass myself, and saw the same object; but as we neared it, we found that it was a large piece of the wreck, with a dog and a man supported by it, who were clinging with all the energy of desperation. In ten minutes more we had them on board the vessel - the man was the Lieutenant Thornhill I have before mentioned, and the dog belonged to him.
'He related to us that the ship we had seen burning was the Star; that it had never reached its destination, and that he believed all had perished but himself and the dog; for, although one of the boats had been launched, so desperate a rush was made into it by the crew that it had swamped, and all perished.
'Such was his own state of exhaustion, that, after he had made to us this short statement, it was some days before he left his hammock; but when he did, and began to mingle with us, we found an intelligent, cheerful companion - such a one, indeed, as we were glad to have on board, and in confidence he related to the captain and myself the object of the voyage of the Star, and the previous particulars with which I have made you acquainted.
'And then, during a night-watch, when the soft and beautiful moonlight was more than usually inviting, and he and I were on the deck, enjoying the coolness of the night, after the intense heat of the day in the tropics, he said to me, "I have a very sad mission to perform when I get to London. On board our vessel was a young man named Mark Ingestrie; and some time before the vessel in which we were went down, he begged of me to call upon a young lady named Johanna Oakley, the daughter of a spectacle-maker in London, providing I should be saved and he perish; and of the latter event, he felt so strong a presentiment that he gave me a string of pearls, which I was to present to her in his name; but where he got them I have not the least idea, for they are of immense value."
'Mr Thornhill showed me the pearls, which were of different sizes, roughly strung together, but of great value; and when we reached the river Thames, which was only three days since, he left us with his dog, carrying his string of pearls with him, to find out where you reside.'
'Alas! he never came.'
'No; from all the enquiries we can make, and all the information we can learn, it seems that he disappeared somewhere about Fleet-street.'
'Yes; we can trace him to the Temple-stairs, and from thence to a barber's shop, kept by a man named Sweeney Todd; but beyond there no information of him can be obtained.'
'Yes; and what makes the affair more extraordinary, is that neither force nor persuasion will induce Thornhill's dog to leave the place.'
'I saw it - I saw the creature, and it looked imploringly, but kindly, in my face; but little did I think, when I paused a moment to look upon that melancholy but faithful animal, that it held a part in my destiny. Oh! Mark Ingestrie, Mark Ingestrie, dare I hope that you live when all else have perished?'
'I have told you all that I can tell you, and according as your own judgement may dictate to you, you can encourage hope, or extinguish it for ever. I have kept back nothing from you which can make the affair worse or better - I have added nothing; but you have it simply as it was told to me.'
'He is lost - he is lost.'
'I am one, lady, who always thinks certainty of any sort preferable to suspense; and although, while there is no positive news of death, the continuance of life ought fairly to be assumed, yet you must perceive from a review of all the circumstances, upon how very slender a foundation all your hopes must rest.'
'I have no hope - I have no hope - he is lost to me for ever! It were madness to think he lived. Oh! Mark, Mark! and is this the end of all our fond affection? did I indeed look my last upon that face, when on this spot we parted?'
'The uncertainty,' said Colonel Jeffery, wishing to withdraw as much as possible from a consideration of her own sorrows, 'the uncertainty, too, that prevails with the regard to the fate of poor Mr Thornhill, is a sad thing. I much fear that those precious pearls he had have been seen by someone who has not scrupled to obtain possession of them by his death.'
'Yes, it would seem so indeed; but what are pearls to me? Oh! would that they had sunk to the bottom of that Indian sea, from whence they had been plucked. Alas, alas! it has been their thirst for gain that has produced all these evils. We might have been poor here, but we should have been happy. Rich we ought to have been, in contentment; but now all is lost, and the world to me can present nothing that is to be desired, but one small spot large enough to be my grave.
She leant upon the arm of the garden-seat, and gave herself up to such a passion of tears that Colonel Jeffery felt he dared not interrupt her.
There is something exceedingly sacred about real grief, which awes the beholder, and it was with an involuntary feeling of respect that Colonel Jeffery stepped a few paces off, and waited until that burst of agony had passed away.
It was during those few brief moments that he overheard some words uttered by one who seemed likewise to be suffering from that prolific source of all affliction, disappointed affection. Seated at some short distance was a maiden, and one not young enough to be called a youth, but still not far enough advanced in existence to have had all his better feelings crushed by an admixture with the cold world, and he was listening while the maiden spoke.
'It is the neglect,' she said, 'which touched me to the heart. But one word spoken or written, one message of affection, to tell me that the memory of a love I thought would be eternal, still lingered in your heart, would have been a world of consolation; but it came not, and all was despair.'
'Listen to me,' said her companion, 'and if ever in this world you can believe that one who truly loves can be cruel to be kind, believe that I am that one. I yielded for a time to the fascination of a passion which should never have found a home within my heart; but yet it was far more of a sentiment than a passion, inasmuch as never for one moment did an evil thought mingle with its pure aspirations.
'It was a dream of joy, which for a time obliterated a remembrance that ought never to have been forgotten; but when I was rudely awakened to the fact that those whose opinions were of more importance to your welfare and your happiness knew nothing of love, but in its grossest aspect, it became necessary at once to crush a feeling which, in its continuance, could shadow forth nothing but evil.
'You may not imagine, and you may never know, for I cannot tell the heart-pangs it has cost me to persevere in a line of conduct which I felt was due to you - whatever heart-pangs it might cost me. I have been content to imagine that your affection would turn to indifference, perchance to hatred; that a consciousness of being slighted would arouse in your defence all a woman's pride, and that thus you would be lifted above regret. Farewell for ever! I dare not love you honestly and truly; and better is it thus to part than to persevere in a delusive dream that can but terminate in degradation and sadness.'
'Do you hear those words?' whispered Colonel Jeffery to Johanna. 'You perceive that others suffer, and from the same cause, the perils of affection.'
'I do. I will go home, and pray for strength to maintain my heart against this sad affliction.' 'The course of true love never yet ran smooth; wonder not, therefore, Johanna Oakley, that yours has suffered such a blight. It is the great curse of the highest and noblest feelings of which humanity is capable, that while, under felicitous circumstances, they produce an extraordinary amount of happiness, when anything adverse occurs, they are most prolific sources of misery. Shall I accompany you?' Johanna felt grateful for the support of the colonel's arm towards her own home, and as they passed the barber's shop they were surprised to see that the dog and the hat were gone.