The Great Secret/Chapter 1

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Philip Mortlake stood near the gangway of the Rockhampton, and watched with languid attention the passengers who were to be his companions for the next six weeks. He had come early on board, and alone—a weary and world-worn man, the wrong side of forty, disappointed with life, disillusioned, prematurely grey, with what might have been ties and fetters of affection snapped and withered. He was leaving England, hopeless and indifferent, and going where or to what he neither knew nor cared.

Philip Mortlake was in a very bad way, and likely to be worse if something did not come to give him the rousing up which was required in his case. He was troubled with a disease which is considerably on the increase at the close of this busy century, a trouble not unlike and yet different from ennui, because it proceeds from opposite causes, a longing for our class, a weariness which is all-devouring, a melancholy and apathy which cannot be lifted.

The victim to ennui has been born aimless, and surfeited himself by indulgences; but the victim to this trouble is the active worker who has over-exerted himself, the passionate lover who has been wantonly maltreated in the court of love, and who at last breaks down, in spite of his frantic efforts to act the part of a man.

Philip Mortlake, after years of battling with Destiny, had been struck down, and, like the wounded animal, all that he knew yet of his wounds was the desire for solitude.

His doctors had advised him to go for a long voyage, not by himself, but where there was good company, people who did not know about him or his peculiar reasons for leaving England. The condolences of friends were poison to his mind. A man may be comforted by friendship if death has snatched all that he loves from him, but not in such a case as Philip's.

He had loved, wooed and married a woman who gave him her heart in return, then, after a period of trust and happiness, she had changed towards him; instead of trust she had plagued him almost to the point of madness with vile suspicions, evil and groundless charges, until gradually, without reason or provocation on his part, her love and faith had become the direst hatred. She had grown to be his most bitter enemy, who would pause at nothing to encompass his ruin and destruction.

Had they been lovers only they might have parted, and the hatred on one side and the passionate gnawing misery on the other might have been fought down in the course of time. But they were married, and could not be liberated from the yoke, except at the loss of their reputation.

Philip Mortlake loved his wife, or would have loved her if she had allowed him to do so. She was a virtuous and religious woman—intensely religious, as far as her mistaken ideas about religion went. He was not religious, but he had a certain moral dignity which made him abhor being what his hating partner so constantly charged him with.

His friends told him that she was insane, and should be shut up; that it was a monomania which he should not trouble himself about. They were friends only who could not be expected to enter into his memory of the past fond days; they saw only an evil-minded woman trying to drag a man down to shame and perdition; but he carried with him for ever the picture of a fresh young girl who had loved him once, but whom he had always adored; and this was his misery and humiliation now, the calamity that had broken him down at last.

Yes, he was now a liberated man, as far as the law could free him, and the woman could curse and revile him when she was not praying.

He had humbled himself to the dust first in the futile effort to win her back; then, seeing how idle all these efforts were, he gave her what she wanted—her liberty.

It was easily enough managed with a little money. The creature was bought to swear in court that she was his mistress, while he had only to remain silent under the charges of cruelty and unfaithfulness; and she had not spared him.

The papers had recounted all his dastardly acts of unmanly abuse of this pure wife; the audience in the court hissed him when he departed, shamed, yet free; the judges had said in strong terms that hanging was too mild a punishment for such an unmitigated scoundrel; and so he had become a branded criminal, and his wife an universally pitied martyr, on this day when he stood alone, watching the passengers bidding their friends farewell at the dock of Tilbury.

He had some friends who had known him in the past and who would have been glad enough to have wished him God-speed on his voyage, but he did not want them, and therefore had taken his passage out without letting them know his intentions. It seemed ridiculous for a man at his time of life (for he had felt very old for some years past) to let such a trifle as love trouble him so greatly, such a mere modern incident as divorce prey so much upon his mind.

If he had been a young man and lived in the romantic first half of the century, his trouble might have been defined as a broken-heart; but, alas! he was no longer young, and the doctors decided that his trouble was a complication of mental fag, rheumatic gout and a disorganised liver, therefore they ordered him first to take a course of mineral waters and afterwards a tour round the world, and doubtless they were correct in their diagnosis.

He had taken their advice, as men must do when they have lost their will-grip and have become nervous and demoralised, and spent a couple of preliminary weeks at a Hydropathic in the company of other health-wrecks, who find the most absorbing topic of conversation the recounting of their different real or imaginary ailments.

On his entrance to the establishment he was interviewed by a doctor attached to the place, who gave him his first little bit of amusement and so assisted in his cure, therefore he did not grudge him his fee. He, the doctor, gravely felt his pulse, commanded him to exhibit his tongue, and then proceeded to tap his body.

"Do you feel a fluttering of the heart?" asked the doctor.

"No," replied the patient.

"But if you were to walk rapidly up a hill, would you?"

"I think I might."

"Ah! very bad symptoms," continued the doctor, with an ominous shake of his head. "You are in a most critical state, I can assure you—heart disorganised, liver abnormally enlarged, kidneys seriously deranged—"

"How long have I got to live?" asked the patient, with the first twinkle of humour in his wearied eyes that he had been able to call up for some time.

"I cannot answer that question, but you must be very careful. I shall write you out a course of treatment, and I think you will find this place suit you, if you stay long enough."

The doctor took him to the bath-room and ordered him a vapour bath with a mustard pack and then filled up a form for three days' treatment, in which massage formed part.

He obeyed the doctor's advice, but added a little to it, as he had no desire to stay longer than he could help in this nest of valetudinarians, and opened the bathman's eyes when he told him what the doctor had ordered. It was the most heroic course that had ever been attempted at that health resort.

"I never knew the doctor push on a patient like this before," said the bathman, as he obeyed the supposed orders from headquarters. "Why, you will be better in a week."

"That's what the doctor wants—to work a miracle," replied the audacious Philip, as he plunged recklessly into vapour baths, mustard packs, wet and electric massages, with copious draughts from the sacred wells.

In a week he was reduced to a fine state of passive quietude, and could look round and observe his neighbour. One lady opposite him at dinner had been ordered to abstain rigidly from taking any salt with her food; another, close at hand, to regard sugar as poison to her system. The husband of the saltless lady was forced to exist on jugged hare exclusively; in fact, he began to think, as he heard the varied treatment of the patients, what a series of practical and remunerative jokes a doctor's life must be, and he no longer wondered that the successful ones wore such compressed lips and stolid faces, or that they could tell such capital stories after dinner without grinning. If he had only studied medicine and practised, he might have been able to endure his domestic calamities much more easily.

One patient, after fixing him with a glassy eye for several nights in the smoke-room without speaking, abruptly broke the spell of silence at last by saying,—

"I believe in diet entirely; but what do you think of the marriage laws?"

Philip thought for a moment, and then replied that "dieting was a good idea and that the marriage laws were decidedly faulty."

"Women are born devils—that's my opinion of them," replied the man savagely, and then he relapsed into gloomy silence.

"Another victim to matrimony," thought Philip, as he looked at the fire and puffed his pipe.

He spent an innocent week at this Hydropathic, where each visitor took the other on trust and made themselves agreeable, and if he had been at all impressionable might have drifted easily into matrimony a second time; yet it did him good, for he was tenderly treated, and therefore was able to hold up his head a little and shove back his shame and brooding care.

He had learnt one thing also, which, if hurtful to his vanity as a man, consoled him in other ways. He was too old to interest young women, although not yet old enough to get them to make up to him, therefore he might safely indulge himself in their company. Professional flirts, middle-aged spinsters and widow's might lay traps for him, but woman's devotion was over as far as he was concerned; he must remain an outsider and watch the game of life for the rest of his days.

Therefore he leaned carelessly against the side of the steamship and looked at the people, young and old, passing along to their different cabins, or fussing about their luggage, with something of the same curiosity that a disembodied spirit might be supposed to feel if it revisited earth. His wife had gone from him, and all his interests and ties were snapped. He was no longer a human being, he was only a spectator.

There was nothing about his personal appearance to attract attention or engage interest. His hair and beard were getting rapidly grey; very soon they would be bleached white, and then he would take his place as a veteran. His eyes were blue, and had once been keen and bright, his figure strongly built but carelessly dressed; and what if his heart tingled for sympathy, he did not show this desire, therefore no careless spectator could perceive it. To such he was only an ordinary, middle-aged man, with a good-natured face, who stood quietly, smoking heavily, waiting for the ship to unmoor and the friends to say farewell, before he went down to arrange his cabin or prepare for the rough waters of Biscay Bay.

That is all that people can see of the tragedies of real life, except on the stage where the morose comrades pose, unless they happen to have suffered themselves. Then perhaps they acquire an extra sense or instinct, such as Philip Mortlake now possessed—the gift of reading below the surface.

He was able with this misery-given gift to read most of the passengers as they passed him and pretty accurately gauge their habits and pursuits, for it is astonishing how plainly the occupations of humanity print indexes on the faces, and, as he afterwards found on closer intimacy, his first impressions had not been far out.

But what struck him most curiously was the foreign element who came on board on this morning—a few to the saloon, but the greater bulk to the second cabin. In the first class he saw all sorts and conditions of men and women—Christians and Jews, men and women travelling for health or pleasure, others business bent, with more than the usual sprinkling of people who did not speak the English language.

It was the first long trip that the Rockhampton was taking. One of the latest improvements in passenger packets, she had done her trial trip satisfactorily, and was now about to prove her superior speed round the world. A splendid specimen of ironwork and machinery, with fittings like the finest West End hotel, so that her complement of passengers was complete.

Philip noticed that most of the passengers for the second class were dark-bearded, dark-eyed and swarthy-visaged men, with only a small proportion of women. Most of these men carried their own meagre luggage themselves, and bore it carefully along, inquiring their way in broken English, and jealously keeping themselves aloof from each other. About a couple of dozen went to the first-class division, the rest, as we have said, went to the second cabin.

While Philip was languidly watching this migration, his attention was attracted by one woman who came alone, like himself, without friends to see her off.

A thin woman, plainly dressed, about twenty-five, with dim, grey eyes, pale cheeks and brown hair—a woman who might have been good-looking if she had been happy, but who looked, as he himself was, uninteresting as she glided along, looking at no one.

He knew the symptoms which that pale face with the wearied eyes expressed, and felt a surge of sympathy swell up in his breast as he followed her slowly down to the saloon. She had tried the world as he had, and found it wanting. They were both desolate souls on an arid strand, waiting hopelessly and helplessly on their fate.

And Fate had brought them together on this ocean hotel.

They might hate each other, perhaps, for they were both defiant and miserable. Philip Mortlake was inured to hatred, and prepared almost to court it again as he took his seat beside her at the lunch prepared for the passengers and their friends.