The Great Secret/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER XIX.

THE "GEORGE WASHINGTON" COMES.

The Countess de Bergamont laughed in her fashion-battered heart as she watched the slavery of her world-worn sisters towards their uncouth monster. She laughed, as the doctor did, at the new emotions that were stirring within herself, even while she did not try to resist them. It was all so Arcadian, so foolishly fresh, and yet so delicious that she would not, even if she could, have crushed them. They were like violets and other early spring flowers budding through the snow, fragile and short-lived perhaps, yet so precious while they lasted.

It was so curious, she who had been kissed so often to feel this fluttering of the heart, this virginal tremour over the kisses of Anatole. Why should her lips become so moist and sensitive when his lips approached hers who had ran the gamut of fiery lips? Why should she be contented to lie in his arms on this bleak shore, or in that damp cave, and look into his eyes as if eternity brooded within their brown depths? She had looked into many brown, black, blue and grey eyes before, simulating the raptures that she now felt. She had listened with her pink ears pressed against many hearts to the throbbing of passion without more than a secondary response. How was it that now the heart thuds made her own heart bound and throb with an intoxication that would not pass? His arms were shapely and strong, and his flesh firm and warm, but no firmer nor warmer than other arms which had encircled her, yet his had a new magic which she had not felt before. How came it to pass? she wondered, as she lay in his arms and looked into his eyes with her own flashing the full delight of her being for the first time really woke.

"Would that I could die now," she murmured brokenly, as her dewy lips lay half open upon his, and he felt the same wish.

Strange that passion when complete should long for death, when life seems to be the only basis which can continue it.

They were all in the little cavern now, which, through the exertions of the hunters with the seals, had been made more comfortable. They no longer lay on the damp earth, but had thick, smooth furs to cover them and to rest upon. It was night outside, dark and dismal, and inside also reigned darkness, for the dying embers of their fire emitted only a dull crimson that gave out no light. They had dined fairly well, and the doctor lay in his corner alone and seemingly asleep, although his breathing could not be heard.

That Dennis was asleep could be heard plainly enough, for no wild boar in his lair ever grunted or snorted so powerfully. His devoted slaves also may have been asleep, for they lay subdued and silent enough, only Eugene and her sailor lover were awake, feeling that the world was their own.

An overpowering tenderness was upon them both, as perhaps the tiger and tigress may feel at times when they have retired from their repast. She was womanly and incapable of evil, he was uplifted and heroic, and both felt as if heaven's hosts were bending over them.

In her heart she knew that if ever he returned he would be doomed for his mistake. How empty all these projects were to her at this moment; how much better it would be to forget the world—all her wrongs and hatreds—and keep this man to herself. Could they not steal away together, and hide themselves in some other part of the island until their companions left. Here they might endure cold and privations, but they need not fear the long arm and dagger-holding hand of the Red Terror to which they had pledged themselves. Here they would be beyond its reach, for they would be alone with each other.

Love and nature had played strange havoc with her heart lately, since she could prefer ice, snow and want, to keep this man all to herself.

"Darling! Are you asleep?"

"No, Eugene," he whispered softly.

"Let us leave them to-morrow, my dearest love, and conceal ourselves till they go. We can manage to live even here, and I desire no more, only to live with you and for you."

"Yes, we shall go to-morrow," he murmured, as his head sank on her soft breast, while she held him jealously close with her smooth white arms.

********

The next morning Anatole announced, at breakfast, his intention of going for a day or two's exploration, and it did not surprise any of them when the countess said she would accompany him.

"I'd like to make a third of your party," said the doctor, "only that now we may expect the sealing vessels any day, and we must look out for them; therefore you two go, and be back within a week, if at all possible. Go south-west, for I have read that there is an active volcano and hot springs in that direction, and the island is only some seventy or eighty miles from coast to coast. You will have to walk fast to keep your blood in circulation as you pass over those lofty and rugged ridges; therefore you ought to cover the distance within a week or ten days at the most. I am deeply interested in that volcano and these geysers, so pay great attention to objects as you pass along."

"We'll tell you all about the volcano when we come back," replied Anatole, as he packed up what he thought would be most needful for them.

"They will never come back," thought the doctor, as he watched their preparations quietly. "They mean to give us the slip, and it will be as well for themselves if they stay away or die en route, for I perceive that they are both renegades, and I have no desire to execute them for their half-heartedness if it can be avoided. On this barren land they can do us no harm; only they had better not indulge in any home-sickness, or they will be doomed to extinction. Who could have thought that the countess would ever have given way to this sublime idiocy of love after all her experiences."

He watched this infatuated pair go off, carrying their baggage mutually divided, for Eugene insisted on bearing her share, and laughed gaily and proudly as she squared her magnificent shoulders before the load that had been arranged, knapsack-fashion, on her back, to prove how little she cared for such a burden. Anatole, lover-like, had remonstrated with her for carrying anything, but one bright flash of those appealing and brilliant blue eyes forced him to yield to her whim. She had given up the refinements of life for love's dear sake, and was going to brave hardship and live the life of natural womanhood, and she was too proud of the strength which enabled her to do it to forego one item of this new pleasure. To suffer and sacrifice are true passion's pleasures.

Dr Fernandez watched them leaving the camp with a sardonic smile on his thin lips and a mocking gleam in his dark eyes. He was one of those gifted individuals who had a wonderful talent for planting stings and saying disagreeable things at the most telling moment, and was as perfectly free from the weakness of generosity as he was beyond pity or mercy, yet he refrained on that occasion, and left unuttered the many clever barbed words that hovered on his envenomed tongue, and looked bilious and melancholy instead, as he bade them a quiet farewell, and waved his white hand languidly after them as they turned to go. Their sentence was fixed in his dark mind if they ever came back, and he was artistic enough to admire the animal beauty and vigour of both victims as they went forth with elastic tread.

The countess was tall for a woman, and the past weeks had hardened her. On this morning she had borrowed from the wardrobe of the late actress a pair of high boots, with short skirts, and a seal-skin tight-fitting jacket; a little seal cap was also on her golden tresses, which she had coiled up in Greek fashion. She was a graceful woman, who knew how to dress, who had learnt how to walk, and therefore looked charming, happy, and like a lady who is prepared for an Alpine expedition.

Anatole also looked well, yet not so well as when he was less dressed. He had muffled himself in a rough pilot jacket, which made him appear shorter and stouter, with a pair of high sea-boots, under which his blue trousers were stuffed. He was not so gay as his companion, for men cannot cover their emotions so completely as women can, and he had a sneaking fondness for the comrades he was forsaking, which made him regard the parting with regret.

"Bon voyage!" cried the doctor, as he stood at the cave entrance and watched them go off.

"Take care of yourselves!" cried Dennis and his two obedient slaves, and then the business of the day began for those that were left, while the new Adam and Eve went out to find their heritage.

The sun showed its disc for the first time since they had landed—a watery and wan orb amongst the clouds, yet holding forth a promise of warmer days to come.

This gleam cheered the fond travellers on their way, as they passed along the cliff tops and followed the inland course of the fjord.

They were going south-west, towards the lofty ranges which towered, glittering white, in the distance. They intended to keep on that course for a time, and then return to the first cave and watch until their companions had gone away. After that they would live as they best could until some other ship came and picked them up.

"We will go to some of the islands of the South Seas, Anatole, and there make a home for ourselves, where we will be forgotten," said Eugene enthusiastically.

"Will you be content with such a savage existence?" inquired Anatole, with a half doubt in his tone.

"Thoroughly. Do you think the doctor is a fool, my own love!"

"No; but why that question!"

"Because he permitted us to go without giving me any private instructions concerning you."

"Well, what of that?"

"He suspects me, as well as you, of disaffection to the Cause, and has now given us both our last chance of escape. When he returns to Europe, we will be marked with the fatal cross. There is not a city or centre of civilisation in the world where we can be safe after that, only a wilderness such as this is, or in some tropic island where commerce with the outer world is unknown. Here, my love, we are safe and at liberty to live and die as we like best, and for that I shall ever adore this bleak and lonely land."

"We must get away from it, however, somehow, Eugene, for I doubt if we could live through its winter."

"Never mind the winter; summer is coming to us, and sufficient for my day is the good thereof," she answered merrily, striding alongside of him like a good comrade, and ignoring the burden on her shoulders as if it had been nothing.

They followed the course of the fjord for many miles, as it was fringed with high cliffs, watching it gradually become narrower as it approached the mountains, and when night fell upon them, they found themselves at the entrance of a steep gorge, down which a tumultuous and roaring torrent rushed. Here, selecting a spot sheltered from the wind between some high boulders, they made their camp, fairly satisfied with their day's fatigue, and happy that they were together and so far away from the others.

********

It was not many hours after the truants had left that the wishes of Dr Fernandez were realised. They had just finished their mid-day meal when they saw the welcome sails of a schooner bear in sight, and soon afterwards they had the pleasure of watching her tack in between the rocks to their fine and sheltered natural harbour, and drop her anchor almost opposite to where they waited.

The George Washington, from New York, was the name of this Antarctic cruising schooner, and she had on board as hardy a set of sea-heroes as ever worked a ship through stormy waters.

The captain, three mates, and a dozen of tried seamen, comprised her crew—crafty hunters of seals and whales. This was their usual headquarters for the season just now beginning.

They gave the shipwrecked party a kindly and hearty greeting, listened to their fictitious story with credulity, and without demur promised to give them a free passage home in return for their assistance during the fishing season, which they gladly promised.

At the doctor's advice, his companions said nothing about the two absentees. He told them that he had heard the countess and her lover plotting during the night to go away and abandon the Cause, therefore that they were not likely to come back; so that it would be only causing delay to tell these humane men about others being on the land. Their main object now was to get off themselves.

They threw themselves with energy into the work, which suited both the doctor and Dennis, while the ladies made themselves agreeable to the sealers, and attended to their comfort, so that they soon became friends, and were treated with every mark of confidence and respect.

For three months they hunted and fished with good success, filling their barrels with oil and their holds with skins; and having fairly good weather during that time, for the sun came out and warmed the land, making it bloom with mosses, ferns and grass, and appear almost a pleasant place to live in.

A great number of seals fell before these skilled trappers, so that when they left the shores there was much mourning amongst the seal families at this wholesale slaughter, and doubtless many discussions with the survivors whether an emigration farther south was not advisable; already they were becoming more wary and scarcer than they had been in former years.

Still the Countess de Bergamont and Anatole remained absent, and the doctor was pleased that he had said nothing about them. They would not come now.

At last the ship was loaded up and the hatches securely battened down, then the crew and their dangerous guests went on board, and, hoisting their anchor, they sailed away once again to torment and destroy their unsuspecting fellow-beings.