The Great Secret/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II.

THE VAGUE HORROR.

A couple of weeks at sea is sufficient to bring the stranger passengers together and make them tolerably intimate. A month, and they know all about each other, and belong, more or less, all to one family. Families quarrel and make up again, so do passengers at sea. Some vow friendships, which are forgotten, when they land; some make love which lasts a little longer; others remember those bewitching days and nights at sea longer and more tenderly than they ought to do.

The Rockhampton was rushing with regular piston-drives to her doom. She had touched at Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Ceylon, and was now pushing her way through the soft waves, azure by day, phosphorescent by night, towards the centre belt of the world, those vast and trembling waters, brimful of mystery and deliciousness as well as terror, for here the monsters of the deep have their abode—the blue-nosed shark, most ferocious of all its vicious tribe, with other strange scaly mammoths, which old sailors tell about and no one believes in this cynical age of cold reason.

Philip Mortlake had recovered his nerves and mental equilibrium during this month at sea. He had quitted England with the shamed feeling upon him that he was a pariah, and his excited nerves gave him this morbid self-consciousness. Now that he had recovered tone, he knew that the world does not care one iota what any man and woman does with their lives. It is vanity, born of solitude and brooding, which makes us fancy that we are of importance enough to disturb the daily routine of our friends and neighbours. If we write a big book, paint a great picture, win a battle, or commit a monstrous crime, we only rise to the surface for a moment, show our heads, as it were, with a portion of our shoulders over the other swimmers, and then we subside once again into the general crowd.

He could wonder now why he had given up his clubs and shunned his friends, which was the best sign of returning health. Who need care about the nasty remarks of a purblind old judge, more than the schoolboy does about the cut of the master's cane? What although his club friends might say behind his back that he was a brute, he knew before that they had called him a fool? They would shake hands with him the same, drink with him, eat with him, and revile some other dear absentee to him as heartily as ever, for in the end of the nineteenth century all the glass houses are broken, and no one thinks about re-glazing their shattered property, with so many brick-bats flying all round. Virtue gets no more credit than does vice. It has become an optional habit, like the putting on of a dress-suit.

He had known a literary notoriety, who was much admired and sought after, by some people. This thing had been kicked times out of number for his opinions and insinuations, but that made no difference to him, he still went about with unabashed brow, ready to present the appropriate portions of his anatomy to any aggressive toe, and men smoked, drank and dined with him the same as usual, abusing him no more than they did the most virtuous members. These things Philip could now recall with philosophy, as he lounged and smoked about the deck on these eternal summer days through which they rushed.

A black-leg and thief had to disappear for a moment, but he was soon forgotten; the murderer went into Newgate, and was buried in quicklime; the traducer got kicked, yet a fortnight covered them all mercifully in oblivion, and they emerged once more purified and made welcome, all save the poor fellow who had been covered with quicklime, of course—he had to be content with oblivion. That's fin-de-siècle society. The good and the evil drift together, and get the drift of the river over them both, until there does not seem much difference, for they are costumed and enshrined alike.

He had another excitement, however, which recalled the Englishman in him and made a man of him. There was something wrong about the passengers. There was a mystery going on aboard which called forth his active qualities, made him more observant, and did a lot to steady his nerves, by supplying him with another excitement.

There was danger on board this peaceful-looking steam packet,—treason, anarchy,—danger to each of the saloon passengers; a crowd of harmless enough people, who had done nothing particularly base to deserve death, and who did not covet that release from their mediocrity to a higher plane. They were content, as the pigs and aldermen are, in their eating, drinking and digestive periods, and Nature had made them so.

He had seen things on board the ship which had woke up his fighting qualities, the nearest approach to soul that Westerns can aspire to, according to the Easterns.

There are different qualities and degrees of danger which touch the human heart with more or less intensity. The danger of death in battle, or while the tempest is raging at its fiercest, and driving the vessel full butt against the rocks. These thrill the brave heart with an excitement which is almost a pleasure after the first pang of anticipated agony has passed. They know, who have been wounded, that the plunge of a dagger or a sword into the body gives no more pain than the prick of a pin, less if the stroke is swiftly dealt and deadly. Those who have been crushed by a fall or a heavy blow can never recall any sensation of pain when the smash came, it is afterwards, when Nature begins to set about the mending, that the pain comes.

A bed of sickness, if lingering, is probably one of the hardest ordeals humanity has to pass through before the friend of man—Death—liberates him, for that is Nature's inquisition, where no pity is shown to the victim while consciousness remains to endure. But the most excruciating of all dangers is when it attacks the imagination with its nightmare-like vagueness and suspense of uncertainty. Hell-fire is one of those dangers which has weighed upon and worn the imagination for so many centuries, making base slaves of the stoutest hearts, as Hamlet says":—

To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream; ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

It was a vague and horrible uncertainty, and horror like that of Hades which had fallen upon the passengers of the Rockhampton. Ever since leaving Ceylon, a rumour had crept through the ship that there were Anarchists on board in force, with infernal machines, bombs, dynamite and other explosives, enough to wipe them off the face of the ocean as completely as if they had never existed.

How the rumour got about no one knew; perhaps the dynamitards themselves had originated it, knowing so well the paralysing effect of terror. It was not talked about nor discussed, for with the terror had come suspicion, and as they were all strangers, or at least had been before this voyage began, each eyed the other askance and waited with horror on the dénouement. Were the infernal clocks already wound up to go so many hours or days with that deadly precision and regularity until the fatal hour arrived? This was the thought which occupied each mind as they promenaded the deck, tried to enjoy the breakfast, tiffin, or dinner, or music of an evening. Was it annihilation the murderers had resolved upon, or only the practical capture of the ship. Could they have been sure that it was only the ship the demons wanted, the others would have been comparatively happy; but the uncertainty was the evil which troubled them one and all.

The captain and officers went about their duties outwardly calm, yet with the same uncertainty that tortured the passengers. The stewards brought round the dishes with trembling hands and pallid faces; the passengers played with their forks, knives and spoons, chattering noisily with each other while they waited, as the sleeper seems to wait on the unknown horror which has chained all his faculties of resistance. They talked wildly about anything to keep themselves from shrieking out their terror. Men as well as women were under the awful spell, and already were completely demoralised. Half a dozen resolute men could have taken that ship any hour.

Philip Mortlake found it an easy task to read this general panic. He was not quite free from it himself, yet he had the advantage of being a little more certain about the enemies than were the others, for he had kept his eyes open, and studied his fellow-passengers.

The quietest and most indifferent he saw was the woman who had so strangely interested him at first, by reason of the apathy which misery had fixed upon her.

She was an Englishwoman, by name Mrs Austin, but whether a widow or a wife no one as yet knew. Philip had watched her keenly on the first day, yet had not intruded himself upon her, preferring to wait her own time.

It chanced, whether by accident or fate, that they were placed together at the table during the voyage, and thus a kind of intimacy grew between them. They talked commonplaces at the table, and often found themselves together on the deck, where naturally they sat and conversed, or walked occasionally, so that he had greater opportunities of observing her, and it must be said his admiration grew as the days passed, for she was not an ordinary woman.

A refined lady undoubtedly she was. Philip Mortlake could not have been interested in any other type of woman. Quiet and grave always, it seemed as if those lips had lost the art of smiling, the grey eyes all humidity or light. They were fine eyes, and would have been softly grey had they not been so steadfast and dry. The time for tears seemed to have gone past for this lonely spirit, as it was for him. Cynicism also had passed, for after grief comes the period of defiance, which produces cynicism, and after that the death-in-life—apathy. She was at the apathetic stage, which even the shock of an anticipated bomb could not shake or terrorise.

She partook of the dishes regularly, and with moderation, dressed always well, yet without ostentation, as a lady must do. When speaking, she uttered her words evenly and correctly, with a voice that was silvery and soft, yet, like her eyes, a little too colourless. To the others she seemed to be an uninteresting person, for the jokes passed without any recognition from her, and humorists, great or little, do not like that kind of reception of their small change, yet, if the subject was serious, she took her share in it, without any apparent effort, and conversed modestly and well.

She looked to be twenty-nine or thirty; possibly she was younger, for sorrow and disappointment age one quickly. Philip saw more than a few white hairs shining amongst her brown tresses; these, with the tiny lines at the side of her firm lips and across and between the brows, revealed a history to him which he would fain have penetrated for the purpose of consoling. Perhaps she read that intuition in him, as well as something of his own drama, for she made him more of an intimate than she did the others.

Her figure was willowy and slender, yet firmly built and healthy; the hands were white, small, and carefully cared for—such hands, long and shapely, that wearied men like to have passed over their fevered brows. The wedding-ring and keeper were on the left hand, with a few other rings. The strongest minded of women cannot dispense with those feminine adornments. This taste has come down the ages with them from the days when they were the slaves and toys of men, as they must always be when they are happy.

Her face would have been a pretty one under the conditions of content and happiness, the face of a woman made to honour and worship the man whom she recognised as her master. It was feminine to the core, although it had been petrified by disillusions. "Curse the man who had wrought this woeful change," thought Philip as he watched that face, for only a man could have done it, and the alteration must have been the work of time, as the soft sands of past ages have been turned into stone by slow degrees, degrees of hardening with, perhaps, the final convulsion which buried all from the light of hope.

She had a fair face this lonely Mrs Austin. The features were Greek-like, sensitive and refined; while they lived they had been mobile and quick to flash into warmth, the red lips to part lovingly, the eyes to become deep and lustrous, the oval cheeks to flush with rosy dyes, and the brown hair to gleam with sunshine. She had once been a woman tender and pulsating, she was now a statue calm and cold.

He had looked at that face day after day, and built up its history in his own heart. He did not love her, for he could as yet love no one, but he had the interest that a tender brother might feel towards a broken sister. He remembered his religious, remorseless wife, and how he had flung his own heart against her strong nature, as the yielding surf beats against the boulders in vain to move the impediment. So must this woman have beaten upon the iron nature the warm waves of her passion until the tide went down, and lay still after the storm of love was past.

He was a disappointed and lonely man, she was a disappointed and lonely woman. Neither of them had life enough yet to appreciate or ask for sympathy. Both had the past memories, cravings and dead passions to separate them. They could never again love as they had loved. A man and a woman had put out that flame. They were both patient and sober. This friendship, if even they were friends, could only be the friendship of the dead and buried.