The slave of the lamp, p.30
The Slave of the Lamp, p.30
THE MAKING OF CHRISTIAN VELLACOTT
"Money," Captain Lebrun was saying emphatically, as the _Agnes andMary_ drifted slowly past Gravesend pier on the rising tide. "Hangmoney! Now, I should think that you make as much of it in a month as Ido in a year. You're a young man, and as far as I know ye, ye're asuccessful one. Life spreads out before you like a clean chart. I'm anold 'un--my time is nearly up. I've lived what landsmen call a hardlife, and now I'm slowly goin' home. Ay, Mr. Vellacott, goin' home! Andyou think that with all your manifold advantages you're a happier manthan me. Not a bit of it! And why? 'Cause you belong to a generationthat looks so far ahead that it's afraid of bein' happy, just for fearthere's sorrow a comin'. Money, and lookin' ahead, that's what spoilsyer lives nowadays."
The skipper emphasised these weighty observations by expectoratingdecisively into the water, and walked away, leaving Christian Vellacottwith a vaguely amused smile upon his face. It is just possible thatSilas Lebrun, master and owner of the _Agnes and Mary_, was nearerthe mark than he thought.
An hour later, Vellacott was walking along the deserted embankment aboveWestminster, on the Chelsea side of the river. It was nine o'clock, forwhich fact Big Ben solemnly gave his word, far up in the fog. Themorning was very dark, and the street lamps were still alight, whileevery window sent forth a gleam suggestive of early autumnal fires.
Turning up his own street he increased his pace, realising suddenly thathe had not been within his own doors for more than four months. Muchmight have happened in that time--to change his life, perhaps. As heapproached the house he saw a strange servant, an elderly woman, on herknees at the steps, and somehow the sight conveyed to his mind thethought that there was something waiting for him within that peacefullittle house. He almost ran those last few yards, and sprang up thesteps past the astonished woman without a word of explanation.
The gas in the narrow entrance-hall was lighted, and as he threw asidehis cap he perceived a warm gleam of firelight through the half-opendoor of the dining-room. He crossed the carpeted hall, and pushed openthat door.
Near the little breakfast-table, just under the gas, stood Hilda Carew.In _his_ room, standing among _his_ multifarious possessions,in the act of pouring from _his_ coffee-pot. She was dressed inblack--he noticed that. Instead of being arranged high upon her head,her marvellous hair hung in one massive plait down her back. She lookedlike a tall and beautiful school-girl. He had not seen her hair likethat since the old days when he had been as one of the Carews.
As he pushed open the door, she looked up; and for a moment they stoodthus. She set down the coffee-pot, carefully and symmetrically, in thecentre of the china stand provided for its reception--and the colourslowly left her face.
"You have come back at last!" she said quite monotonously. It soundedlike a remark made for the purpose of filling up an awkward silence.
Then he entered the room, and mechanically closed the door behind him.She noticed the action, but did not move. He passed round the table,behind Aunt Judy's chair, and they shook hands conventionally.
"Yes," he said almost breathlessly; "I am back; you do not seem elatedby the fact."
Suddenly she smiled--the smile that suggested, in some subtle way, akitten.
"Of course--I am glad ... to see you."
In a peculiar dreamy way she began to add milk to the coffee. It seemedas if this were mere play-acting, and not real life at all.
"How is it that you are here?" he asked, with a broken, disjointedlaugh. "You cannot imagine how strange an effect it was ... for me ...to come in and see you ... here--of all people."
She looked at him gravely, and moved a step towards him.
"Aunt Judy is dead!" she explained; "and Aunt Hester is very ill. Motheris upstairs with them--_her_--now. I have just come from the room,where I have been since midnight."
She stopped, raised her hand to her hair as if recollecting something,and stood looking sideways out of the window.
"There is something about you this morning," he said, with aconcentrated deliberation, "that brings back the old Prague days. Isuppose it is that I have not seen your hair as you have itto-day--since then."
She turned quite away from his hungry gaze, looking out of the window.
After a pause she broke the silence--with infinite tact--not speakingtoo hurriedly.
"It has been a terrible week," she said. "Mother heard from Mr. Boderythat they were very ill; so we came. I never dreamt that it was so badwhen you spoke of them. Five years it has been going on?"
"Yes; five years. Thank you for coming, but I am sorry you should haveseen it."
"Every one should keep guard over his own skeleton."
She was looking at him now.
"You look very ill," she said curtly. "Where have you been?"
"I was kidnapped," he said, with a short laugh, "and then I got typhoid.The monks nursed me."
"You were in a monastery?"
"Yes; in Brittany."
She was idly arranging the cups and saucers with her left hand, whichshe seemed desirous of bringing under his notice; but he could look atnothing but her face.
"Then," she said, "it would have been impossible to find you?"
"Quite," he replied, and after a pause he added, in a singularly easymanner, "Tell me what happened after I disappeared."
She did not seem to like the task.
"Well--we searched--oh! Christian, it was horrid!"
"I wondered," he said, in a deep, soft voice, "whether you would find itso."
"Yes, of course, we _all_ did."
This did not appear to satisfy him.
"But you," he persisted, "you, yourself--what did you think?"
"I do not know," she answered, with painful hesitation. "I don't think Ithought at all."
"Then what did you do, Hilda?"
"I--oh, we searched. We telegraphed for Mr. Bodery, who came down atonce. Then Fred rode over, and placed himself at Mr. Bodery's disposal.First he went to Paris, then to Brest. He did everything that could bedone, but of course it was of no avail. By Mr. Bodery's adviceeverything was kept secret. There was nothing in the newspapers."
She stopped suddenly, and there was a silence in the room. He waslooking at her curiously, still ignoring that little left hand. Only oneword of her speech seemed to have attached itself to his understanding.
"Fred?" he said. "Fred Farrar?"
He turned away--walked towards the door, and then returned to thehearthrug, where he stood quite still.
"I suppose it was a quiet wedding," he said in a hard voice, "on myaccount; eh?"
"Yes," she whispered. He waited, but she added nothing.
Then suddenly he laughed.
"I have made a most extraordinary mistake!" he said, and again laughed.
"Oh, don't" she exclaimed.
He came nearer to her--quite near, until his sleeve almost touched herbowed head.
"I thought--at St. Mary Western--that you loved _me_."
She seemed to shrink away from him.
"What made me think so, Hilda?"
She raised her head, and her eyes flashed one momentary appeal formercy--like the eyes of a whipped dog.
"Tell me," he said sternly.
"It was," she whispered, "because _I_ thought so myself."
"And when I was gone you found out that you had made a mistake?"
"Yes; he was so kind, so _brave_, Christian--because he knew of mymistake."
Christian Vellacott turned away, and looked thoughtfully out of thewindow.
"Well," he said, after a pause, "so long as you do not suffer by it--"
"Oh--h," she gasped, as if he were whipping her. She did not quite knowwhat he meant. She does not know now.
At last he spoke again, slowly, deliberately, and without emotion.
"Some day," he said, "when you are older, when you have more experienceof the world, you will probably fall into the habit of thanking God, inyour prayers, that I am what I am. It is not because I am good ...perhaps it is because I am ambitious--my father, you may remember, wasconsidered heartless; it may be _that_. But if I were different--ifI were passionate instead of being what the world calls cold andcalculating--you would be ... your life would be--" he stopped, andturning away he sat down wearily in Aunt Judy's armchair. "You willknow some day!" he said.
It is probable that she does know now. She knows, in all likelihood,that her husband would have been powerless to save her from ChristianVellacott--from herself--from that Love wherein there are no roses butonly thorns.
And in the room above them Aunt Hester was dying. So wags the world.There is no attention paid to the laws of dramatic effect upon the stageof life. The scenes are produced without sequence, without apparentrhyme or reason; and Chance, the scene-shifter, is very careless, forcomedies are enacted amid scenic effects calculated to show off toperfection the deepest tragedy, while tragedies are spoilt by theirsurroundings.
The doctor and Mrs. Carew stood at the bedside, and listened to the oldwoman's broken murmurings. Into her mind there had perhaps strayed agleam of that Light which is not on the earth, for she was not abusingher great-nephew.
"Ah, Christian," she was murmuring, "I wish you would come. I want tothank you for your kindness, more especially to Aunt Judy. She is old,and we must make allowances. I know she is aggravating. It happened longago, when your father was a little boy--but it altered her whole life. Ithink women are like that. There is something that only comes to themonce. I am feeling far from well, nephew Vellacott. I think I shouldlike to see a doctor. What does Aunt Judy think? Is she asleep?"
She turned her head to where she expected to find her sister, and in theact of turning her eyes closed. She slumbered peacefully. The twosisters had slept together for seventy years--seventy long, monotonousyears, in which there had been no incident, no great joy, no deepsorrow--years lost. Except for the natural growth and slow decay oftheir frames, they had remained stationary, while around them childrenhad grown into men and women and had passed away.
Presently Aunt Hester opened her eyes, and they rested on the vacantpillow at her side. After a pause she slowly turned her head, and fixedher gaze upon the doctor's face. He thought that the power of speech hadleft her, but suddenly she spoke, quite clearly.
"Where is my sister Judith?" she asked.
There are times when the truth must be spoken, though it kill.
"Your sister died yesterday," replied the doctor.
Aunt Hester lay quite still, staring at the ceiling. Her shrivelledfingers were picking at the counter-pane. Then a gleam of intelligencepassed across her face.
"And now," she said, "I shall have a bed to myself. I have waited longenough."
Aunt Hester was very human, although the shadow of an angel's wing layacross her bed.
* * * * *
It was many years later that Christian Vellacott found himself in thepresence of the Angel of Death again. A telegram from Havre was one dayhanded to him in the room at the back of the tall house in the Strand,and the result was that he crossed from Southampton to Havre that samenight.
As the sun rose over the sea the next morning, its earliest rays glancedgaily through the open port-hole of a cabin in a large ocean steamer,still panting from her struggle through tepid Eastern seas.
In this little cabin lay the Jesuit missionary, Rene Drucquer, watchingthe moving reflections of the water, which played ceaselessly on thepainted ceiling overhead. He had been sent home from India by akind-hearted army surgeon; a doomed man, stricken by a climatic diseasein which there was neither hope nor hurry. When the steamer arrived inthe Seine it was found expedient to let the young missionary die wherehe lay. The local agent of the Society of Jesus was a kind-hearted man,and therefore a faithless servant. He acceded to Rene Drucquer's prayerto telegraph for Christian Vellacott.
And now Vellacott was actually coming down the cabin stairs. He enteredthe cabin and stood by the sick man's bed.
"Ah, you have come," said the Frenchman, with that peculiar tone ofpathetic humour which can only be rendered in the language that hespoke.
"But how old! Do I look as old as that, I wonder? And hard--yes, hard assteel."
"Oh no," replied Vellacott. "It may be that the hardness that was oncethere shows now upon my face--that is all."
The Frenchman looked lovingly at him, with eyes like the eyes of awoman.
"And now you are a great man, they tell me."
Vellacott shrugged his shoulders.
"In my way," he admitted. "And you?"
"I--I have taught."
"Ah! and has it been a success?"
"In teaching I have learnt."
Vellacott merely nodded his head.
"Do you know why I sent for you?" continued the missionary.
"I sent for you in order to tell you that I burnt that letter atAudierne."
"I came to that conclusion, for it never arrived."
"I want you to forgive me."
"I never thought of it again," he replied heartily.
The priest was looking keenly at him.
"I did not say 'thou,' but '_you_,'" he persisted gently.
Vellacott's glance wavered; he raised his head, and looked out of theopen port-hole across the glassy waters of the river.
"What do you mean?" he inquired.
"I thought," said Rene Drucquer, "there might be some one else--somewoman--who was waiting for news."
After a little pause the journalist replied.
"My dear Abbe," he said, "there is no woman in the whole world who wantsnews of me. And the result is, as you kindly say, I am a great mannow--in my way."
But he knew that he might have been a greater.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes