Noughts and Crosses/A Happy Voyage
I.—A HAPPY VOYAGE.
The cottage that I have inhabited these six years looks down on the one quiet creek in a harbour full of business. The vessels that enter beneath Battery Point move up past the grey walls and green quay-doors of the port to the jetties where their cargoes lie. All day long I can see them faring up and down past the mouth of my creek; and all the year round I listen to the sounds of them—the dropping or lifting of anchors, the wh-h-ing! of a siren-whistle cutting the air like a twanged bow, the concertina that plays at night, the rush of the clay cargo shot from the jetty into the lading ship. But all this is too far remote to vex me. Only one vessel lies beneath my terrace; and she has lain there for a dozen years. After many voyages she was purchased by the Board of Guardians in our district, dismasted, and anchored up here to serve as a hospital-ship in case the cholera visited us. She has never had a sick man on board from that day to the present. But once upon a time three people spent a very happy night on her deck, as you shall hear. She is called The Gleaner.
I think I was never so much annoyed in my life as on the day when Annie, my only servant, gave me a month's "warning." That was four years ago; and she gave up cooking for me to marry a young watchmaker down at the town—a youth of no mark save for a curious distortion of the left eyebrow (due to much gazing through a circular glass into the bowels of watches), a frantic assortment of religious convictions, a habit of playing the fiddle in hours of ease, and an absurd name—Tubal Cain Bonaday. I noticed that Annie softened it to "Tubey."
Of course I tried to dissuade her, but my arguments were those of a wifeless man, and very weak. She listened to them with much patience, and went off to buy her wedding-frock. She was a plain girl, without a scintilla of humour; and had just that sense of an omelet that is vouchsafed to one woman in a generation,
So she and Tubal Cain were married at the end of the month, and disappeared on their honeymoon, no one quite knew whither. They went on the last day of April.
At half-past eight in the evening of May 6th I had just finished my seventh miserable dinner. My windows were open to the evening, and the scent of the gorse-bushes below the terrace hung heavily underneath the verandah and stole into the room where I sat before the white cloth, in the lamp-light. I had taken a cigarette and was reaching for the match-box when I chanced to look up, and paused to marvel at a singular beauty in the atmosphere outside.
It seemed a final atonement of sky and earth in one sheet of vivid blue. Of form I could see nothing; the heavens, the waters of the creek below, the woods on the opposite shore were simply indistinguishable—blotted out in this one colour. If you can recall certain advertisements of Mr. Reckitt, and can imagine one of these transparent, with a soft light glowing behind it, you will be as near as I can help you to guessing the exact colour. And, but for a solitary star and the red lamp of a steamer lying off the creek's mouth, this blue covered the whole firmament and face of the earth.
I lit my cigarette and stepped out upon the verandah. In a minute or so a sound made me return, fetch a cap from the hall, and descend the terrace softly.
My feet trod on bluebells and red-robins, and now and then crushed the fragrance out of a low-lying spike of gorse. I knew the flowers were there, though in this curious light I could only see them by peering closely. At the foot of the terrace I pulled up and leant over the oak fence that guarded the abrupt drop into the creek.
There was a light just underneath. It came from the deck of the hospital-ship, and showed me two figures standing there—a woman leaning against the bulwarks, and a man beside her. The man had a fiddle under his chin, and was playing "Annie Laurie," rather slowly and with a deal of sweetness.
When the melody ceased, I craned still further over the oak fence and called down,
The pair gave a start, and there was some whispering before the answer came up to me.
"Is that you, sir?"
"To be sure," said I. "What are you two about on board The Gleaner?"
Some more whispering followed, and then Tubal Cain spoke again—
"It doesn't matter now, sir. We've lived aboard here for a week, and to-night's the end of our honeymooning. If 'tis no liberty sir, Annie's wishful that you should join us."
Somehow, the invitation, coming through this mysterious atmosphere, seemed at once natural and happy. The fiddle began again as I stepped away from the fence and went down to get my boat out. In three minutes I was afloat, and a stroke or two brought me to the ship's ladder. Annie and Tubal Cain stood at the top to welcome me.
But if I had felt no incongruity in paying this respectful visit to my ex- cook and her lover, I own that her appearance made me stare. For, if you please, she was dressed out like a lady, in a gown of pale blue satin trimmed with swansdown—a low-necked gown, too, though she had flung a white shawl over her shoulders. Imagine this and the flood of blue light around us, and you will hardly wonder that, half-way up the ladder, I paused to take breath. Tubal Cain was dressed as usual, and tucking his fiddle under his arm, led me up to shake hands with his bride as if she were a queen. I cannot say if she blushed. Certainly she received me with dignity: and then, inverting a bucket that lay on the deck, seated herself; while Tubal Cain and I sat down on the deck facing her, with our backs against the bulwarks.
"It's just this, sir," explained the bridegroom, laying his fiddle across his lap, and speaking as if in answer to a question: "it's just this—by trade you know me for a watchmaker, and for a Plymouth Brother by conviction. All the week I'm bending over a counter, and every Sabbath-day I speak in prayer-meeting what I hold, that life's a dull pilgrimage to a better world. If you ask me, sir, to-night, I ought to say the same. But a man may break out for once; and when so well as on his honeymoon? For a week I've been a free heathen: for a week I've been hiding here, living with the woman I love in the open air; and night after night for a week Annie here has clothed herself like a woman of fashion. Oh, my God! it has been a beautiful time—a happy beautiful time that ends to-night!"
He set down the fiddle, crooked up a knee and clasped his hands round it, looking at Annie.
"Annie, girl, what is it that we believe till to-morrow morning? You believe—eh?—that 'tis a rare world, full of delights, and with no ugliness in it?"
"And you love every soul—the painted woman in the streets no less than your own mother?"
Annie nodded again. "I'd nurse 'em both if they were sick," she said.
"One like the other?"
"And there's nothing shames you?" Here he rose and took her hand. "You wouldn't blush to kiss me before master here?"
"Why should I?" She gave him a sober kiss, and let her hand rest in his.
I looked at her. She was just as quiet as in the old days when she used to lay my table. It was like gazing at a play.
I should be ashamed to repeat the nonsense that Tubal Cain thereupon began to talk; for it was mere midsummer madness. But I smoked four pipes contentedly while the sound of his voice continued, and am convinced that he never performed so well at prayer-meeting. Down at the town I heard the church-clock striking mid-night, and then one o'clock; and was only aroused when the youth started up and grasped his fiddle.
"And now, sir, if you would consent to one thing, 'twould make us very happy. You can't play the violin, worse luck; but you might take a step or two round the deck with Annie, if I strike up a waltz-tune for you to move to."
It was ridiculous, but as he began to play I moved up to Annie, put my arm around her, and we began to glide round and round on the deck. Her face was turned away from mine, and looked over my shoulder; if our eyes had met, I am convinced I must have laughed or wept. It was half farce, half deadly earnest, and for me as near to hysterics as a sane man can go. Tubal Cain, that inspired young Plymouth Brother, was solemn as a judge. As for Annie, I would give a considerable amount, at this moment, to know what she thought of it. But she stepped very lightly and easily, and I am not sure I ever enjoyed a waltz so much. The blue light—that bewitching, intoxicating blue light—paled on us as we danced. The grey conquered it, and I felt that when we looked at each other the whole absurdity would strike us, and I should never be able to face these lovers again without a furious blush. As the day crept on, I stole a glance at Tubal Cain. He was scraping away desperately—with his eyes shut. For us the dance had become weariness, but we went on and on. We were afraid to halt.
Suddenly a string of the violin snapped. We stopped, and I saw Tubal Cain's hand pointing eastward. A golden ripple came dancing down the creek, and, at the head of the combe beyond, the sun's edge was mounting.
"Morning!" said the bridegroom.
"It's all done," said Annie, holding out a hand to me, without looking up. "And thank you, sir."
"We danced through the grey," I answered; and that was all I could find to say, as I stepped towards the ladder.
Half an hour later as I looked out of window before getting into bed I saw in the sunlight a boat moving down the creek towards the town Tubal Cain was rowing, and Annie sat in the stern. She had changed her gown.
They have been just an ordinary couple ever since, and attend their chapel regularly. Sometimes Annie comes over to make me an omelet; and, as a matter of fact, she is now in the kitchen. But not a word has ever been spoken between us about her honeymoon.