The Great Secret/Chapter 18
In this island, where the shipwrecked Anarchists had found a shelter, there was not much variety of climate throughout the year. It was nearly always stormy, pretty generally cold, damp and comfortless; perhaps on the surface of the globe they could not have been cast upon a more cheerless abode.
Yet the season was coming on when what might be called summer would be with them. They could not tell much difference in the nights, which were tempestuous and Arctic as ever, and tried all severely; yet as the weeks advanced the days seemed to be a shade warmer, or they were becoming accustomed to their new mode of life.
Amongst the flotsam and jetsam which they had secured were many articles to comfort the hearts of shipwrecked men. Some cases came ashore—wood-covered, tin-lined, and compact—containing dresses, mantles and furs, which gave the ladies great delight, for they had been sadly bedraggled birds before that grateful advent; and as amongst the articles were a feminine dressing-case, and some cakes of soap, with other aids to the toilet, including a pocket-mirror, rouge and powders—for the dressing-case and wardrobe had belonged to a professional—they were once more happy.
The men also had good reason to bless these lady adventuresses, for, like most foreigners, they had learnt the art of cooking, and could turn out toothsome dishes with scanty material. Wood was scarce after the boxes and cases had been used up; yet so is fuel on the Continent, and they managed to utilise roots and weeds to serve their purpose so far.
They had good wines, several barrels of beer, brandy, and a case of schnapps. Other provisions there were—biscuits, salt meat, tinned meat of various descriptions, soups; indeed a great number of the articles stored against emergencies in the hold of a floating hotel like the Rockhampton drifted into this harbour and were secured and stored from time to time, for the first week, after they had settled down.
Eggs were plentiful, also birds, for both Dennis MacBride and Anatole became skilful hunters; shellfish were found clinging to the rocks, and if they had to forego their tobacco that was a small item. The gods of destruction were watching over them.
A description of cabbage grew on the island in great quantities, which, with other herbs that the doctor picked out as wholesome, gave them material for soup and salads. All these with the fish in the sea, easy to catch, made them a thousand times more comfortable than they had any right to expect.
Naturally the ladies, accustomed to the attentions of the opposite sex, and who, when not plotting murder, amused themselves with love, or what was considered that passion by their society, set themselves diligently to cultivate and practise the only occupation left to them on this almost-deserted island. Anatole was the favourite, for he was debonair and handsome, but he had fixed his amorous glances on the golden-haired Countess de Bergamont, so that the princess and baroness had to content themselves with being rivals for the favours of the red-haired and gigantic savage Dennis.
Dr Fernandez was out of their calculations, for he had no inclination towards beauty or vice as represented in female guise. He could have seen and appreciated the beauty and completeness of a charge strong enough to scatter over the Thames, Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, or send St Paul's sky-high in one fell and right instant when these buildings were properly crammed with dignitaries on some great state occasion, such as the Queen's Jubilee ceremony. Such an invention properly carried out would indeed be soul-enthralling and dramatic, but to listen to or to have to flatter a woman was to him weariness unutterable, therefore he left this pastime to those who seemed to like it, and betook himself to thinking instead.
He walked a great deal and alone, as these spare, bilious men must do to keep in health, looking about him for botanical, genealogical and other subjects of interest, and in these pursuits perhaps time passed more quickly with this strange demoniac nature than it did with the others.
The variety of insects interested him with their peculiarities of form, different from what he had seen anywhere else. Very few of them were capable of flying. Some of their shapes were also grotesque in the extreme. He collected a great number of these, and kept himself in practice for larger victims by putting them to death in his own cold-blooded and investigating fashion.
He made the acquaintance of sea-elephants, sea-leopards, and. other members of the seal family, stalking them carefully and spearing them with a harpoon which he had found in the carpenter's box, or braining them with the carpenter's adze when he could get close enough. He found these animals, at times far up the fjords as well as on the seashore. Altogether he had opportunities of pursuing his choice occupation of murder even here.
He was living, as they all were, in hopes of being rescued as the season advanced by some sealer or whaler, and they had their story made up. They were to represent themselves as passengers of a sailing vessel from America to Australia, driven out of their course and wrecked here. It would not be difficult to impose on these daring but simple-minded sailors, and get a passage back to Europe. Any point of landing would suit them, for they had secret agents almost everywhere that commerce and money existed.
He took long walks, during the daylight, inland, and explored the country on the side of the island where they had been cast, satisfying himself that this was where ships would most likely put in, climbing the mountains as high as he dared go amongst the snow, which on the heights never melted, although the dampness of the atmosphere rendered it rotten and dangerous. As he explored he came upon many fossilised remains of trees, which proved how abundant the forest must have been at one time on these hills and valleys, although now so barren of such life. It was an interesting country to a scientist, although he felt that, as Darwin felt about Australia, he would not regret bidding it a long adieu.
It is interesting, although not at all singular, to watch how quickly attachments spring up between people who are thrown together, yet isolated from the rest of the world, and how much more tender and real these enforced attachments become.
The Countess de Bergamont on board the steamer had been courted and made much of in a flippant way, but it was reserved for Anatole to discover that the rich gold of her magnificent tresses had been bestowed upon her by Dame Nature, instead of being the gift of art, and this fact none of her other lovers had ever been certain of—even her late lord and master would not like to have sworn to its genuineness.
As the weeks rolled on, however, Anatole had proof positive, for that the dressing-case of the actress contained none of this fashionable tint the poor baroness slowly but surely showed to all observers. Her tresses, formerly lustrous and radiant, began to dim at the ends and show black at the roots, a singular contrast of colour that was not becoming.
The countess, however, with her natural burnish, and the princess with her pale flaxen continued exactly the same. Anatole remarked this with all a man's delight over trifles, and was tempted to look closer.
Then he discovered that her eyes were more clearly blue than any he had ever gazed into before, and that they could melt with what appeared real tenderness and sentiment. True he had never taken so much time to study eyes before, for his life had been restless and busy, and his pleasures snatched with haste.
The rouge and powder of the actress did not last long amongst three. There was a more plentiful supply of soap tablets, and water was pure and plentiful in this region. These, with the keen air and enforced exercise, did more in the way of beautifying those jaded complexions than any cosmetics could have done.
The countess was undoubtedly a beautiful woman, as were her two sisters in adversity, in their different styles, but Eugene was the freshest and youngest looking, having a superb constitution which was soon able to recover its tone now that the excitements and excesses of her former existence were removed. Work did for her what narcotics could only partially do formerly with so much after-injury. Her development was perfect and almost ideal. Her habits, like her hands and feet, were refined and charming.
In her days of popularity she would not have given Anatole a moment of consideration, for he was but an ordinary, good-looking young fellow, with no very brilliant parts and not too much brains.
But he was good-looking and handsomely made, as well as active, with strong muscles, great endurance, and without doubt was the most unselfish and obliging man of the three.
In a state of primitive society wit is not so greatly admired as strength and personal courage. The white-faced and imp-like cynic may appear a remarkably fine fellow and a leader in the drawing-room and fashionable clubs of cultured society, but he is regarded as a sorry object amongst savages, and very quickly clubbed and laid at rest. Dr Fernandez was the society hero, but Anatole took the cake in Comprado Island to the eyes of Venus.
Eugene had watched his heroic efforts to reach the cliff top with approving terror. It was different to watch a comrade struggling against death on the face of a giddy precipice to flinging a bomb amongst enemies—the one was a painful and lingering effort, the other merely the devastating work of an instant.
She had watched him divest himself of his clothing on the seashore, as she shivered so wretchedly herself, and wondered how anyone could be so brave as to divest themselves on such a day, and when she saw him plunge into the icy waves she could not withhold her admiration and wonder at his resolution. She had watched him as he returned with his shapely body glowing and pink, and, even as the savagest of women would have done, she remembered these details.
It was their present surroundings which wrought the change in both natures; but now, as time passed on and each had leisure to mark the qualities of the other—the qualities which their positions alone brought out—they became natural and sentimental. They thought little of the cause to which they had devoted their lives and more of each other. They were actually becoming simple savages, prepared to vow and believe in fidelity and love, instead of being the wretched devotees of the great god "Nothing."
Dennis MacBride, however, remained in the same condition that he had always been in—a developed brute of the Bill Sykes order. He was gigantic and powerful, with a hand like a sledge-hammer, and a brain of the compass of the gorilla, and these women, who had tasted refinement and trifled with cultured men, were only women to him to caress or thrash as the mood seized him, therefore he lorded it over them and was as masterful and as coarse as a wild boar with a couple of sows who had attached themselves to him.
He did not care much how they adorned themselves —pigs do not pay much attention to decoration—neither did he study their feelings in the slightest degree. He would have fought for them to the death, of course, and gored the enemy properly, but in the lair he ruffled them with royal disregard.
Singular to say these women who had passed through saloons and mocked courtly gentlemen, who had suffered tribulations and persecutions with a fierce and bitter hatred, who had both lectured about the rights of woman, sworn to destroy tyrants, defied all superstition and fetish-worship, now bent the knee in meek and lowly servitude to as vile a tyrant, as coarse a monster, as ever frightened and cowed the spirit of woman.
They hated each other with malignant yet unrevealed hatred, all on account of this ferocious beast who treated them both with equal favour. They fawned upon this red-haired monster as if he had been a god; they abased themselves to please him, and spoke to each other as if they had been loving sisters when he was near, while Dr Fernandez, the Anarchist, laughed to himself as he watched the antics of these disciples of Liberty, Atheism and Reason, who were behaving exactly as primitive savages would have done who have never enjoyed the benefits of civilisation. Truly it does not take humanity long to hark back to the flint stage if it gets a fair chance like this.
It is so easy for the best bred, most expensively-educated woman who has the taste to mate with an ignorant boor to become as great and almost as ignorant a troll as if he had picked her up originally from the dyke-side. The quarter of a short lifetime is often enough to make her forget even the rudiments of her cultivation, more than enough to make her forget her manners.
And it is the same with the man as with the woman, if he comes down really to the level of his mate, only while women do become more subordinate and adaptable as time goes on, men more often awake to disgust after the first glamour of love has worn off.
Looking at the effect of this short space of time on individuals, as we have seen it for ourselves, the easy lapsing from cultivation into the fallow stage, and the force of constant communication and surroundings, we no longer wonder at the changes which have taken place in races. How the most civilised nations have come to lose and forget their arts, sciences, refinements and histories, and become by degrees once again skin-covered, flint-using savages, with only a glimmering of the past left in the shape of superstitions and myths. How quickly does a neglected garden become a wilderness!
Yet knowing all this, we also know that the soil too often used, too finely cultivated, must be ploughed over and left lying fallow to the weeds or what else likes to flourish over it until it can regain its original vigour, and so also super-refined and worn races must get fresh blood and become obliterated for a time after they have reached a certain stage for the sake of the unborn and new.