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C. S. FORESTER
Leading Seaman Albert Brown lay dying on Resolution. He was huddled in a cleft in the grey-brown lava of which that desolate island is largely composed, on his back with his knees half-drawn up in his fevered delirium. Sometimes he would mumble a few meaningless words and writhe feebly on to his side, only to fall back again a second later. He was dressed in what had once been a sailor's suit of tropical white, but now it was so soiled and stained and draggled, so torn and frayed, as literally to be quite unrecognizable—it was now only a few thin, filthy rags feebly held together. His face was swollen and distorted, as were his hands, being quite covered with hideous lumps as a result of the poisoned bites of a myriad of flies—a little cloud of which hung murderously over him as he lay, combining with the shimmering reek of the sun-scorched rock almost to hide him from view. His feet, too, although a few fragments of what were once shoes still clung to them, were horribly swollen and bruised and cut. They were more like sodden lumps of raw horse-flesh than human feet. Not the cruellest human being on earth could have contemplated those dreadful feet without a throb of pity.
Yet a very cursory inspection of Albert Brown's dying body would be enough to show that he was not dying because of the biting flies, nor even because of the hideous condition of his feet. For the dingy rags on his right shoulder were stained a sinister brown, and when he turned on his side he revealed the fact that those at his back were similarly stained, and a closer look through the tatters of cloth would discover that Brown's right breast was covered with a black, oozing clot of blood like an empty football bladder hanging from a bullet wound over Brown's third rib.
Brown lay at the edge of the central, lifeless portion of the island. Mounting up above him rose the bare lava of the highest point of Resolution, a distorted muddle of naked rock bearing a million million razor edges—razor edges which readily explained the frightful condition of his feet. Just at Brown's level, stretching along at each side (for Resolution is a hog-backed island bent into a half-moon) began the cactus, ugly, nightmarish plants, like bottle-nosed pokers, clustering together thicker and thicker on the lower slopes, each bearing a formidable armament of spikes which explained the tattered condition of Brown's clothes. Frequently, stretched out in the scanty line of shade cast by the cacti, there lay iguanas—mottled crested lizards—somnolently stupid. Overhead wheeled sea-birds, and occasionally a friendly mocking-bird, strayed up from the lower slopes, would hop close round Brown's dying body and peer at him in seeming sympathy. Down at the water's edge, where the Pacific broke against the lava boulders, there massed a herd of marine iguanas—fantastic creatures which bear only their Latin generic name—industriously gnawing the seaweed on which they live, while round them strayed marvellous scarlet crabs and the other representatives of the amphibious life of this last, almost unknown member of the Galapagos Islands.
The sky above was of a glaring, metallic blue, in which hung a burnished sun that seemed to be pouring a torrent of molten heat upon the tortured fragment of land beneath it. The sea was of a kindlier blue, and far out near the horizon could be seen a grey line stretching out of sight in both directions, which marked the edge of an ocean current, haunted by sea-birds in hundreds, gathered there to revel in the food, living and dead, which clustered along this strange border.
No trace of human life could be seen around the whole wide horizon, save only for Leading Seaman Albert Brown, huddled in his cleft, and hunger and thirst and fever and loss of blood were soon to make an end even of him, the sole representative of the human race in all this wide expanse; perhaps in years to come some exploring scientist would happen across his bleached bones and would ponder over that broken rib and that smashed shoulder-blade. It is doubtful, though, whether he would explain them.
It all began more than twenty years earlier, with Lieut.-Commander R. E. S. Saville-Samarez, R.N., seated in the train which was carrying him from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and a not very arduous course of professional study therein, towards London and a not very closely planned week of relaxation therein. He sat in his first-class carriage and looked, now at his newspaper, now out of the window, now up at the carriage roof, now at the lady who was seated demurely in the diametrically opposite corner of the carriage. For the Commander was not much given to prolonged reading, nor to prolonged following of any one train of thought. He thought, as was only natural, of the influence of first-class certificates upon promotion, and from that he passed to the consideration of Seniority versus Selection, and the Zone System, and he wondered vaguely if he would ever attain the comfortable security and majestic authority of Captain's rank with its consequent inevitable climb upwards to the awesome heights of an Admiral's position. Admirals in one way were mere commonplaces to the Commander, for he came of a long line of naval ancestors, and an uncle of his was an Admiral at that moment, and his grandfather had commanded a ship of the line at Cronstadt during the Crimean War, and his grandfather had fought at the Nile and had been an Admiral during the reign of George IV.
But he did not think long about Admirals, for he felt oddly restless and fidgety, and he wished that the lady was not in his carriage so that he could put his feet up on the opposite seat and smoke. He glanced across at her, and found, to his surprise, that she was contemplating him in a manner difficult to describe—detached yet friendly; certainly not in the way a lady ought to look at a man (even if it is granted she might look at all) with whom she was alone in a railway carriage in the year of our Lord 1893. The Commander was quite startled; he looked away, but his eyes strayed back, stealthily and shyly, as soon as he was sure her gaze was averted. No, she was not at all that sort—no one could be with that placid, calm look, almost like a nun's. But she was a fine woman, for all that, with her stylish sailor hat on the top of her head with a feather at the back, and her smart costume with its leg-of-mutton sleeves and her white collar, and the toe of one neat shoe just showing beneath her skirt as she sat. A fine upstanding figure of a woman, in fact, trim-waisted and corseted with correct severity. As he looked, she turned and met his gaze again, and he flushed with shy embarrassment down his sunburnt neck and hurriedly looked out of the window. But once again his eyes stole back again, inevitably. And she was smiling at him.
Agatha Brown's father was a Nonconformist green-grocer; but, as his Nonconformist friends would hurriedly explain when speaking of him, a greengrocer in a very large line of business. His big shop at Lewisham employed a dozen assistants, and he had two other shops besides, at Woolwich and Deptford, and the wealthy residents of the big houses of Blackheath always came to him for such delicacies as asparagus and early strawberries. He even handled a little wholesale trade, and long ago he had climbed high enough to leave off living over his shop and to take instead a substantial house beside Greenwich Park and furnish it in the best manner of the 1880's. Here he lived with his three sons and his daughter (his eldest child) who managed the house in the efficient and spacious manner possible in that era. His wife was dead and much regretted, but, thanks to Agatha's domestic efficiency, not much missed in the economic sphere.
That morning at breakfast Agatha had not felt any premonition of what was going to be the most marvellous day of her life. She had risen at her usual hour of six-thirty, and had helped one maid with the breakfast while the other looked to the fires. She had poured out tea for Will and Harry and sat at table with them while they hurried through breakfast, and had closed her eyes and clasped her hands devoutly when Dad, having come back with George in the trap from market, read prayers what time the other two stood impatiently waiting to get off to their business of managing the Woolwich and Deptford shops. Then Dad, too, ate his breakfast, and it was then that Agatha had the first inkling that it was time something happened to her. Dad of course read his newspaper, and of course being preoccupied with that he could not attend properly to his table manners. With the newspaper propped up against the marmalade jar he would bring his mouth down to his fork rather than his fork up to his mouth, and he would open the latter alarmingly (which was quite unpleasant when, as was usual, he had not quite swallowed the preceding mouthful) and thrust the fork home and snap down his big moustache upon it in the way he always did, which Agatha found on this particular morning to be positively distressing. He drank his tea, too, noisily, through his moustache, and although Agatha had listened to the performance daily for twenty-nine years somehow she found it unusually distasteful. She found herself telling herself that it was time she had a change, and realizing on the instant that although she was that very day going for five days' stay with a bosom friend at Ealing that amount of change would not suffice her. Her first reaction was to promise herself a dose of senna that evening (senna was Agatha's prescription for all the ills flesh is heir to) and her second, amazingly, was to consider senna inadequate. Only slightly introspective though she was, Agatha found herself surprised at being in such an odd frame of mind.
Then when Dad had taken his departure Agatha had busied herself with the stupendous task of leaving everything in the house prepared for her five days' absence. She went round and paid the tradesmen's books. She instructed the cook very positively as to all the menus to come; she enjoined upon the housemaid the necessity to turn out the drawing-room on Tuesday and the dining-room on Wednesday, and Mr. Brown's bedroom and Mr. George's bedroom on Thursday and Mr. Harry's bedroom and Mr. Will's bedroom on Friday. She did her share of the morning's work; she lunched, as was her habit, excessively lightly, and when the afternoon came round she made herself ready for departure. At four o'clock she left the house with her little suitcase. She felt lighthearted and carefree; the tingle of her clean starched underlinen was pleasant to her; she was free of the house and all its troubles for five whole days; but all the same she did not want to spend five days at the home of Adeline Burton at Ealing. The old great friendship between Agatha and Adeline had of course cooled a little with the coming of maturity and with the migration of the Burton family to Ealing, and the Burton household was very like the Brown household, when all was said and done. But, still, Agatha felt strangely light-hearted as she walked to the station; she hummed a little song; and then she found herself in the same carriage as Lieut.-Commander R. E. S. Saville-Samarez.
She liked him, at first sight, and at first sight she knew him for what he was, a naval officer of the best brand of British stupidity. She liked his good clothes and his smooth cheeks (Agatha, as she regarded these last, felt a revulsion of feeling against the fashionable hairiness of 1893) and the way he blushed when she caught him looking at her. She knew he would speak to her soon, and she knew she would answer him.
Agatha's smile set the coping-stone on Samarez's unsettledness. He positively jumped in his seat. Automatically his hands fluttered to his pockets.
'Mind if I smoke?' he asked hoarsely;
'Not at all,' said Agatha. 'I should like it.'
That, of course, was at least four words more than any lady ought to have said. Samarez feverishly pulled out his silver cigarette-case and matchbox, lit a cigarette with fingers which were nearly trembling, and drew a lungful of smoke deep into himself in an unthinking effort after self-control.
Agatha was still smiling at him, the placid, innocent smile one would expect to see on the face of a nun or a mother. Samarez simply had to go on talking to her, and the Englishman's invariable opening topic came to his lips like an inspiration.
'Beastly weather,' he said, with a nod through the carriage window, where February sunshine fought a losing battle against February gloom.
'I rather like it, somehow,' said Agatha. She would have liked any weather at the moment. 'Of course you find it very different from the tropics,' she went on, to Samarez's amazement. How on earth could she tell he had been to the tropics?
'Er—yes,' he said. 'Beastly hot there, sometimes.'
'China station?' she asked. Agatha's knowledge of the Navy was only what might be expected of a secluded young woman of the middle class of 1893, but she had heard the blessed words 'China Station' somewhere and they drifted into her mind now and were seized upon gratefully.
'Yes,' said Samarez, more amused than ever, 'that was my last commission.'
The China Station was a pleasant source of conversation. Thanks to the exaltation of her mood, Agatha was able to talk—or rather to induce Samarez to talk—without displaying any annoying ignorance, and by the blessing of Providence they chatted really amicably for a few minutes. Samarez's heart warmed to this charming woman, so refined, so friendly without being cheap, with such a musical contralto voice and such a ready laugh. Stations came and stations went unheeded, and Samarez was quite surprised when they peered out of the window and saw that they had reached London Bridge—London Bridge on a dark, damp, February evening. With a little chill of disappointment he realized that in a few minutes he would have to separate from this friend. He deemed himself fortunate even that she was travelling on to Charing Cross.
Friends at the moment were scarce. Samarez had a week's leave on his hands, and he was almost at a loss as to how to employ it. He had had in mind dinner at the Junior Rag, possibly an encounter with an acquaintance, and a seat at a musical comedy afterwards. But he had done that for several evenings already, previous to his course at Greenwich, and the prospect bored him, nearly unborable as he was. On the China Station, stifling under the awnings, the most delectable spot on earth had appeared to be the dining-room of the Junior Army and Navy Club, but now it did not seem half so attractive.
And, above all, Agatha Brown was a woman, well fleshed and desirable to the eye of 1893. Women did not count for much in Samarez's life; marriage, of course, was unthinkable to a man of his sturdy devotion to the profession, and his contact with other women had been slight and nearly forgotten. But—but the urge was there, unadmitted but overwhelming. Samarez at present had nothing more in his mind than companionship. He wanted to talk to a woman—to this woman, now that he had made the first impossible plunge. He wanted neither men's talk nor solitude. He would have been scared by his intensity of emotion had he had a moment in which to realize it—but he had not. They had rattled through Waterloo Junction, and were rumbling on to Charing Cross railway bridge. Through the window he could see the wide, grey river, and the lights of Charing Cross Station were close at hand. Agatha glanced up at her suitcase on the rack, in evident mental preparation for departure. Samarez stood up in the swaying carriage; his hands flapped with embarrassment.
'L-look here,' he said, 'we don't want to say good-bye yet. Oh, we don't. Let's—let's come and have dinner somewhere.'
He stood holding to the luggage rack, appalled by his realization that he had definitely committed himself, that he was guilty (if the lady chose to find him so) of an ungentlemanly action. His innocent eyes pleaded for him. And Agatha's eyes softened; for he was so like an artless little boy begging for more cake. She felt motherly and not a bit daring as she said yes.
Once out of the train Samarez, despite his stupefied elation, displayed all the orderly logic of deed of the disciplined man of action. Agatha's suitcase and his own leather kit-bag were ticketed-in at the cloakroom, a cab was summoned, and with a flash of brilliance he recalled the name of the one restaurant which in those bleak days was suitable for ladies and at the same time was tolerant of morning dress. The cab-horse's hoofs clattered across the station courtyard and out into the Strand, and they sat side by side as the lamps went by.
Pleasant it was, and each was conscious of a comforting warmth from the other. Each felt supremely befriended and most deliciously expectant—of what, they could not say. The drive passed all too quickly; to Agatha it hardly seemed a moment before she found herself being helped from the cab by the whiskered and uniformed restaurant porter.
From opposite sides of the table each regarded the other, seemingly with some slight misgiving regarding their good fortune. It was too good to be true, for the one that he should be sitting with and talking dazzlingly to a woman of good sense and irreproachable morals (to a sailor such an encounter is all too rare an occurence), and for the other that she should be in a restaurant at all (this was nearly Agatha's first experience of restaurants) let alone with a clean-bred, good-looking young man opposite her. Samarez ordered a good dinner—trust him for that—and summoned the wine waiter. The very mention of the word 'wine' caused Agatha to start a little in her chair, for the worthy Mr. Brown was a staunch, true-blue, even violent, abstainer, who would not allow villainous alcohol even the shelter of his roof. But here of course, amid the gilding and the gay people and the supple-backed waiters, it was all different.
'Choose for yourself,' said Agatha, as Samarez looked across at her from the wine list.
Dinner passed by in a delicious dream. Agatha's acquaintance with food so far had been of the roast beef and apple-tart order. When she consulted Mrs. Beeton, it had been for the purpose of designing substantial and unambitious meals for the hearty Browns, who one and all, following in Mr. Brown's footsteps, lost no opportunity of expressing their contempt for what they termed 'made dishes.' So far the subtleties of sauces and the refinements of foods had passed Agatha by, so that now each succeeding course lingering brilliantly upon the palate came as a new and delicious revelation. Not even the necessity of tactfully observing which implements Samarez employed and imitating his example could mar her enjoyment, and the wine, with its unaccustomed influence, warming and comforting and heartening, was the finishing touch. She leant forward towards Samarez and talked without a care, and he talked back with what seemed to him to be positively dazzling wit. They made a good pair; Agatha with her smooth cheeks and bright eyes and upright figure, Samarez bronzed and blond and clean-looking, with the far-seeing expression in his grey eyes which characterizes the majority of sailors. He was very young for his years; even though, as Agatha realized with a pang of regret, he was actually younger than she was. And once or twice his head went back and he chuckled deep down in his chest with wrinkles round his eyes in a manner which brought a great big pain into Agatha's breast, and made her long to stretch out her barren arms and draw his rough head down to her bosom. She found herself imagining herself rubbing her cheek against his short rebellious hair, and the mere thought turned her faint with longing as she sat in her chair, strangely maternal.
'Well, I'm blest,' said the Commander suddenly. 'Do you know, I've been talking to you all this time and I don't even know what your name is?'
'It's Agatha,' said Agatha—that much of her name was tolerable to her, although the 'Brown' always rankled—'and I don't know yours either.'
Samarez hesitated for one regretted second; he was sure that it was unwise to tell one's name to a strange woman, but this woman was so different.
'It's a very long one,' he said, 'but it begins with Richard.'
'Of course it would,' said Agatha bewilderingly, 'and they call you Dickie, don't they?'
'They used to,' admitted Samarez, 'but they mostly call me Sammy nowadays, men do.'
'Then I shall call you Dickie,' said Agatha decidedly, and she finished her coffee as though to seal the bargain.
So dinner was finished, and the room was beginning to throng with more sensible people dining at a more reasonable hour. They had no possible excuse for lingering on, and yet they both of them were most desperately unwilling to part. Their eyes met again and again across the table, and conversation died a fevered death, and neither could voice what each had most in mind. Agatha simply did not know the usual gambits leading up to the making of a new appointment; Samarez with an odd touch of sensitiveness felt that it would be banal and discordant to speak about it—this was not an ordinary woman. The restaurant was growing crowded; the waiter brought his bill unasked, and hovered round the table with the unmistakable intention of showing them that the management would prefer to see them make way for fresh comers. Fate simply forced them, with sinking hearts, to rise from the table with the words unspoken. Samarez waited for her in the foyer in a really restless and unsettled state of mind.
And Agatha, adjusting her veil in the cloakroom, felt on the verge of tears. She had been mostly wildly unladylike; she had talked with strange men in the gilded halls of vice; it was past seven o'clock and she really must reach Ealing and the Burtons' by nine at the latest; and she did not want to leave Dickie. Most emphatically she did not want to. But she had not the faintest idea of what she did want.
At the door circumstances forced them further towards separation.
'Cab, I suppose?' said Samarez huskily.
They climbed into a four-wheeler, and Samarez, still retaining a grain of sanity, directed the driver to Charing Cross Station. Agatha had clean forgotten the luggage left there. The cab wormed its way through the clattering traffic and turned into Chandos Street, dim-lighted and quiet. Restlessly Samarez took off his hat and wiped his fretted forehead. A passing street lamp showed up his boyish face and his rumpled hair.
'Oh,' said Agatha uncontrollably. One hand went to his shoulder, the other fumbled for his lean brown hand in the darkness. Samarez turned clumsily with his arms out to her, and all their unhappiness melted away under their wild kisses.
It was the lights of the Strand and of the courtyard entrance at Charing Cross which brought them back momentarily to reality. Agatha's face was wet with tears, her hat hung by one hatpin, as their embrace came to an end. The cab halted outside the station and a porter tore open the door.
'I—I can't get out,' stammered Agatha, shrinking away into a corner.
Samarez climbed out and shut the door.
'Wait!' he flung at the driver, and pelted into the station, dragging out the luggage receipt from his pocket as he hastened to the cloakroom with fantastic strides, blinded by the lights. By the grace of Providence there was no one there awaiting attention; it was only a matter of seconds before he came back, suitcase and kit-bag in hand. He opened the door of the cab, and Agatha came to life again out of her mazed dream.
'Where to, sir?' asked the cab-driver.
'Where to?' echoed Samarez stupidly.
'I don't know—Ealing, I suppose,' said a little voice from the depths of the cab.
'Ealing,' said Samarez to the cab-driver.
'Ealing, sir? Ealing Broadway, sir? Right, sir,' said the cab-driver, and round came the horse and the door slammed to, with Samarez and Agatha in blessed solitude once more, happily ignorant of the meaning wink of the cabdriver and the broad grins of the porters. It was quite several seconds before hand met hand and lip met lip again in the velvet darkness of the cab, while the horse's hoofs clip-clopped solidly onwards towards Ealing.
Passion had them greatly in thrall. Agatha's hat was off by now, and the tears flowed freely from her eyes as she pressed against Samarez with all the abandon her corseted waist permitted. Agatha had forgotten she was twenty-nine, of strict Wesleyan upbringing. Twenty-nine years of bottled-up emotion were tearing her to pieces; some faint, unknown cause had obscurely begun the explosion—perhaps even before she had met Samarez—and there was no power on earth that could check it now before it had run its course. She gave herself up to him in an ecstasy of giving.
As for Samarez there is less to be said. He at least had known kisses before, and the encirclement of a woman's arms was not quite new to him. Even purchased caresses ought to have given him sufficient experience to have told him whither they were straying, but reaction from loneliness and the fierce insistent urge of his sex had swept him away. Agatha's sweet flesh in his arms and the touch of her unpractised lips on his mouth were all the facts of which he was conscious at the moment. He never dreamed of discretion while he let his instincts carry him away in the darkness, and he pressed her hotly.
Somehow or other Agatha found herself speaking, her hands on his breast and her face lifted to his.
'Of course, I've got to go to Ealing,' she said. It was a statement doomed to extinction at birth, made automatically in an automatic hope of contradiction.
'What are you going to do there?' asked Samarez.
'I'm going to stay with friends. They're expecting me.'
The little voice whispering in the darkness added fresh fuel to the flames of Samarez's passion. Into the back of his mind leapt the sudden realization that in the cab with them, beside them on the other seat lay her luggage and his, all their necessaries for days.
'Can't you put them off?' he asked, hardly realizing what he was saying. 'Send them a wire. Don't go.'
'Oh, my dear,' came the answering whisper.
Let it not be imagined that Agatha acted in ignorance. At twenty-nine, when one is an old maid and busy with Chapel work, one hears things. Married women say things just as if one were married oneself, and Chapel work sometimes brings one into contact with illegitimate motherhood and even sometimes undisguised adultery. Agatha knew quite well what happened when a man 'stayed with' a woman—at least, she had a general idea of it even if she were hazy as to detail. So that her wordless consent to Samarez's fierce suggestion, and her acquiescence when Samarez leaned out of the window and redirected the cabman, were absolutely inexcusable, so her fellow-workers would think. But her fellow-workers had never known, perhaps would never know, the careless, happy stupefaction of sudden passion.
The hotel porter was discreet; the hotel reception clerk was friendly; in fact, no one in the hotel thought twice about them, because Agatha looked the last person in the world to share a bedroom with a man who was not her husband, and her glove concealed the absence of a wedding-ring. In the dignified seclusion of the hotel bedroom Samarez's enforced calm fell away from him like a discarded garment. He opened his arms to her and she came gladly to them, giving herself with a delicious, cool relaxation. She felt fantastically motherly towards this tousle-headed boy even during his greediest caresses, and when he sighed out his content with his face upon her bosom she clasped him against it with the same gesture as she would have used to a child.
And the next day, and the day after, and the day after that this maternal attitude became more and more marked. She was so many years older than he, she felt. The sheer physical longing she had felt for him had given way to a stranger, calmer affection. She seemed to have grown suddenly used to him. It was odd, but true. No twinge of conscience came to ruffle the serenity of her soul; she was flooded with a sense of well-being that was not diminished by the necessity for practical arrangements, such as writing to Adeline Burton a careful letter explaining that an unforeseen domestic crisis had compelled her reluctantly to postpone her visit at such brief notice as to prevent her even from letting her know. Agatha would come some other time, as soon as she could, if Adeline did not mind. The lies which Agatha wrote flowed so naturally from her pen that she did not give them a thought—to Agatha's mind the aged aunt suddenly stricken with mortal illness and demanding immediate nursing seemed to be an actual living character. She did not even feel relieved that Greenwich and Ealing should be so far apart as to render it quite impossible for Adeline to discover by a casual call that no such lady existed.