Mrs. Falchion by Gilbert Parker

Mrs. Falchion by Gilbert Parker.jpg

CHAPTER I. THE GATES OF THE SEA

The part I played in Mrs. Falchion’s career was not very noble, but I shall set it forth plainly here, else I could not have the boldness to write of her faults or those of others. Of my own history little need be said in preface. Soon after graduating with honours as a physician, I was offered a professional post in a college of medicine in Canada. It was difficult to establish a practice in medicine without some capital, else I had remained in London; and, being in need of instant means, I gladly accepted the offer. But six months were to intervene before the beginning of my duties—how to fill that time profitably was the question. I longed to travel, having scarcely been out of England during my life. Some one suggested the position of surgeon on one of the great steamers running between England and Australia. The idea of a long sea-voyage was seductive, for I had been suffering from over-study, though the position itself was not very distinguished. But in those days I cared more for pleasing myself than for what might become a newly-made professor, and I was prepared to say with a renowned Irish dean: “Dignity and I might be married, for all the relations we are.”

I secured the position with humiliating ease and humiliating smallness of pay. The steamer’s name was the ‘Fulvia’. It was one of the largest belonging to the Occidental Company. It carried no emigrants and had a passenger list of fashionable folk. On the voyage out to Australia the weather was pleasant, save in the Bay of Biscay; there was no sickness on board, and there were many opportunities for social gaiety, the cultivation of pleasant acquaintances, and the encouragement of that brisk idleness which aids to health. This was really the first holiday in my life, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Nothing of unusual interest occurred on the outward voyage; for one thing, because there were no unusual people among the passengers; for another, because the vessel behaved admirably. The same cannot be said of the return voyage: and with it my story really begins. Misfortune followed us out of Sydney harbour. We broke a crank-shaft between there and Port Phillip, Melbourne; a fire in the hold occurred at Adelaide; and at Albany we buried a passenger who had died of consumption one day out from King George’s Sound. At Colombo, also, we had a misfortune, but it was of a peculiar kind, and did not obtrude itself at once; it was found in an addition to our passenger list. I had spent a day in exploring Colombo—visiting Arabi Pasha, inspecting Hindu temples, watching the jugglers and snake-charmers, evading guides and the sellers of brummagem jewellery, and idling in the Cinnamon Gardens. I returned to the ship tired out. After I had done some official duties, I sauntered to the gangway, and, leaning against the bulwarks, idly watched the passengers come on board from the tender. Two of these made an impression on me. One was a handsome and fashionably-dressed woman, who was followed by a maid or companion (as I fancied), carrying parcels; the other, a shabbily-dressed man, who was the last to come up from the tender. The woman was going down the companion-way when he stepped on deck with a single bag in his hand, and I noticed that he watched her with a strange look in his eyes. He stood still as he gazed, and remained so for a moment after she had gone; then he seemed to recover himself, and started, as I thought, almost guiltily, when he saw that my attention was attracted. He nervously shifted his bag from one hand to the other, and looked round as though not certain of where he should go. A steward came to him officiously, and patronisingly too,—which is the bearing of servants to shabbily-dressed people,—but he shook his head, caught his bag smartly away from the steward’s fingers, and moved towards the after part of the ship, reserved for intermediate passengers. As he went he hesitated, came to the side of the vessel, looked down at the tender for a moment, cast his eyes to where the anchor was being weighed, made as if he would go back to the tender, then, seeing that the ladder was now drawn up, sighed, and passed on to the second-class companion-way, through which he disappeared.

I stood commenting idly to myself upon this incident, which, slight though it was, appeared to have significance of a kind, when Hungerford, the fifth officer, caught me slyly by the arm and said, “Lucky fellow! Nothing to do but watch the world go by. I wish I had you in the North Atlantic on a whaler, or in the No Man’s Sea on a pearl-smack for a matter of thirty days.”

“What would come of that, Hungerford?” said I.

“An exchange of matter for mind, Marmion; muscle for meditation, physics for philosophy.”

“You do me too much honour; at present I’ve neither mind, meditation, nor philosophy; I am simply vegetating.”

“Which proves you to be demoralised. I never saw a surgeon on a ship who wasn’t. They began with mind—more or less—they ate the fruits of indolence, got precious near being sinful as well as indolent, and ended with cheap cynicism, with the old ‘quid refert’—the thing Hamlet plagiarised in his, ‘But it is no matter.’”

“Isn’t this an unusual occupation for you, Hungerford—this Swift-like criticism?”

“Swift-like, is it? You see, I’ve practised on many of your race, Marmion, and I have it pat now. You are all of two classes—those who sicken in soul and leave after one trip, and those who make another trip and are lost.”

“Lost? How?”

Hungerford pressed his fingers hard on my breastbone, looked at me enigmatically from under his well-hung brows, and replied: “Brains put out to seed, morals put out to vegetate—that’s ‘lost.’”

“What about fifth officers?”

“Fifth officers work like navvies, and haven’t time for foolishness. They’ve got to walk the bridge, and practise the boats, and be responsible for luggage—and here I am talking to you like an infallible undergraduate, while the lascars are in endless confusion with a half-dozen pieces of baggage, and the first officer foams because I’m not there to set them right. I leave you to your dreams. Good-bye.”

Hungerford was younger than myself, but he knew the world, and I was flattered by these uncommon remarks, because he talked to no one else on the ship in the same way. He never sought to make friends, had a thorough contempt for social trifling, and shrugged his shoulders at the “swagger” of some of the other officers. I think he longed for a different kind of sea-life, so accustomed had he been to adventurous and hardy ways. He had entered the Occidental service because he had fallen in love with a pretty girl, and thought it his duty to become a “regular,” and thus have the chance of seeing her every three months in London. He had conceived a liking for me, reciprocated on my part; the more so, because I knew that behind his blunt exterior there was a warm and manly heart. When he left me I went to my cabin and prepared for dinner, laughing as I did so at his keen, uncompromising criticism, which I knew was correct enough; for of all official posts that of a ship-surgeon is least calculated to make a man take a pride in existence. At its best, it is assisting in the movement of a panorama; at its worst, worse than a vegetation. Hungerford’s solicitude for myself, however, was misplaced, because this one voyage would end my career as ship-surgeon, and, besides, I had not vegetated, but had been interested in everything that had occurred, humdrum as it was. With these thoughts, I looked out of the port-hole, to see the shores of Colombo, Galle Face, and Mount Lavinia fading in the distance, and heard seven bells—the time for dinner. When I took my seat at the table of which I was the head, my steward handed to me a slip of paper, saying that the chief steward had given a new passenger, a lady, the seat at my right hand, which had been vacated at Colombo. The name on the paper was “Mrs. Falchion.” The seat was still empty, and I wondered if this was the beautiful passenger who had attracted me and interested the Intermediate Passenger. I was selfish enough to wish so: and it was so.

We had finished the soup before she entered. The chief steward, with that anxious civility which beauty can inspire in even so great a personage, conducted her to her seat beside me. I confess that though I was at once absorbed in this occurrence, I noticed also that some of the ladies present smiled significantly when they saw at whose table Mrs. Falchion was placed, and looked not a little ironically at the purser, who, as it was known, always tried to get for his table the newest addition to the passenger list—when it was a pretty woman. I believe that one or two rude people chaffed the chief steward about “favouring the doctor”; but he had a habit of saying uncomfortable things in a deferential way, and they did not pursue the subject. Then they commiserated the purser, who was an unpleasant little Jew of an envious turn of mind; and he, as I was told, likened me to Sir John Falstaff. I was sensitive in those days, and this annoyed me, particularly that I had had nothing to do with placing Mrs. Falchion at my table. We are always most sensitive when guilty concerning the spirit and not the letter.

One who has lived the cosmopolitan life of London should be quick at detecting nationalities, but I found it difficult, even after I heard her speak, to guess at Mrs. Falchion’s native land. There were good reasons for this, as may be duly seen. Her appearance in the saloon caused an instant buzz of admiration and interest, of which she seemed oblivious. If it was acting, it was good acting; if it was lack of self-consciousness, it was remarkable. As I soon came to know, it was the latter—which, in such a woman, increased the remarkableness. I was inclined at first to venture the opinion that she was an actress; but I discovered that she possessed the attracting power of an actress without the calculated manner of one; her very lack of self-consciousness was proof of this emancipation.

When she sat down, I immediately welcomed her by name to my table. The only surprise she showed at my knowledge of her name and my self-introduction was to lift her head slightly and look at me, as if wondering whether I was likely to be an inquisitive and troublesome host; and also, as I thought, to measure me according to her measure. It was a quick look, and the interest she showed was of a passive kind. She asked me as she might an old acquaintance—or a waiter—if the soup was good, and what the fish was like; decided on my recommendation to wait for the entrees; requested her next neighbour to pass the olives; in an impersonal way began to talk about the disadvantages of life at sea; regretted that all ship food tasted alike; wondered if the cook knew how to make a Russian salad; and added that the menu was a national compromise.

Now that she was close to me, I could see that her beauty was real and notable. Her features were regular, her eyes of a greyish violet, her chin strong, yet not too strong—the chin of a singer; her hands had that charming quiet certainty of movement possessed by so few; and her colour was of the most delightful health. In this delightful health, in her bountiful yet perfect physical eloquence, her attractiveness, as it seemed to me, chiefly lay. For no one would ever have guessed her to possess an emotional temperament. All that was outer was fascinating, all that was inner suggested coldness. After experience assured me that all who came to know her shared this estimate, even in those days when every man on the ship was willing to be her slave. She had a compelling atmosphere, a possessive presence; and yet her mind at this time was unemotional—like Octavia, the wife of Mark Antony, “of a cold conversation.” She was striking and unusual in appearance, and yet well within convention and “good form.” Her dress was simply and modestly worn, and had little touches of grace and taste which, I understand, many ladies on board sought to imitate, when they recovered from the first feeling of envy.

She was an example of splendid life. I cared to look at her as one would dwell on the sleek beauty of a deer—as, indeed, I have many a time since then, in India, watched a tigress asleep on her chain, claws hidden, wild life latent but slumbering. I could have staked my life that Mrs. Falchion was insensible to love or passion, and unimpeachable in the broad scheme of right and wrong; imperious in requiring homage, incapable of giving it. I noticed when she laughed, as she did once at table, that her teeth were very white and small and square; and, like a schoolgirl, she had a habit of clicking them together very lightly, but not conspicuously, as if trying their quality. This suggested, however, something a little cruel. Her appetite was very good. She was coolly anxious about the amusements; she asked me if I could get her a list of the passengers, said that she was never sea-sick, and took a languid interest in the ladies present. Her glance at the men was keen at first, then neutral.

Once again, during the meal, she slowly turned and flashed an inquiring glance at me. I caught her eyes. She did not show the least embarrassment, and asked me if the band insisted on playing every day. Before she left the saloon, one could see that many present were talking about her. Even the grim old captain followed her with his eyes as she went. When she rose, I asked her if she was going on deck. I did it casually, as though it was her usual custom to appear there after dinner. In like fashion she replied that her maid had some unpacking to do, she had some things to superintend, and, when this was done, she intended to spend a time on deck. Then, with a peculiar smile, she passed out.

   [Note by Dr. Marmion appended to his MSS.:—“Many of the
   conversations and monologues in this history, not heard by myself
   when they occurred, were told to me afterwards, or got from the
   diaries and notes of the persons concerned. Only a few are purely
   imaginary.”]

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Categories: English Literature

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