CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XII

It was a wet, miserable day when they drew alongside at Port Philip. Louis took the communal eight shillings, Marcella kept sixpence for luck. He went ashore before most of the passengers; she waited on board for her uncle.

When he came he was not at all what she had expected him to be. To begin with, he was very chilly—a queer, nervous man who told her he had not been in Melbourne for ten years and found great changes. He seemed to live so much alone that he was frightened to talk to anyone. His hands were hard with labour, but he told her casually that he had a sheep run bigger than Yorkshire and a hundred thousand sheep. His wife had been dead for five years: his house was run by his three daughters.

"We live seventy miles from a station, and fifty miles from the nearest neighbours," he said, looking at her doubtfully. "You don't think you'll be lonely? It's a hard life—I had no time to tell your aunt the many disadvantages, for she said you'd started when she cabled."

Marcella saw quite well that she was not wanted and felt immensely relieved that there was no necessity for her to go to Wooratonga. Haltingly and stumblingly she asked him for the money, without telling him Louis's chain of lies at all. He took little notice of what she said. Money means very little in Australia where things are done on a large scale. Looking immensely relieved he said it would no doubt be much happier for her to go to stay with her friends—and how much money did she want?

Marcella thought ten pounds—she really did not know. But he laughed at that and, taking her along to his bank, gave her fifty pounds. It seemed a lot of money to her, but he waved her thanks away, telling her a long tale about catching fresh-water oysters in the creek near his homestead. He seemed frightened of the traffic, frightened of the people.

"I'll be very glad to get back," he said, as they stood outside the bank watching the street cars clang by. "I've lived in the back blocks so long that houses suffocate me and people all look like monstrosities. I'm glad to have seen you, though. I was very fond of Rose, as a boy."

But he asked no questions about her or Andrew. He simply took for granted all that Marcella said, and was immensely interested in his sheep and his garden. He had recently imported a Chinese gardener who was going to do wonderful things.

"I ought to take you somewhere to get lunch," he said doubtfully, looking at the crowds of people and then at his watch. "There's a train in one hour that will let me catch a connection at midnight."

"Then I'll take you to the station," said Marcella promptly, and added on impulse, "I'm a bit sorry I'm not coming with you, though. I'd have liked to see my cousins—"

"I don't suppose you'd like them much. They are nothing like Rose. I married an Australian, you know, and the girls are like her. They have had very little schooling. They are good girls, very good girls, but just a little hard," he sighed a little, and Marcella felt a quick pang of regret for his loneliness. Obvious though it was that he did not want her, she wished, for a moment, she could have gone with him to cheer his solitude.

"But Ah Sing makes all the difference to me," he added hopefully. "He's growing strawberries, and next week, I hope, we shall see the asparagus peep through."

So she left him on the platform to dream of his sheep and Ah Sing his only friend, while she dreamed of what next week would bring.

She felt it was almost impossible to wait to tell Louis the good news; she wished she had arranged to meet him in the city; she wished all sorts of things as she wandered, solitary, round the streets, feeling very unsteady on her feet after so long on a buoyant floor, and expecting the pavement to rock and sway at every step. She went into the Post Office and despatched letters home. As she was going down the street again rather aimlessly she caught sight of Mrs. Hetherington and Mr. Peters coming out of a restaurant, and was reminded forcibly of Jimmy who would be alone in the drizzling rain on board.

Buying a great box of chocolates, a basket of peaches and a clockwork train she hurried back to the ship, feeling very wealthy.

It was a dreary day. Great Customs House buildings blotted out any possible view, reminding her very much of the ugliness of Tilbury. The rain drizzled down, warm rain that covered the walls of the cabins in streams of moisture; the sailors loading and unloading cargoes with loud creakings of donkey engines swore in sheer irritation; somewhere on the wharf sheep kept up an incessant and pitiful bleating all the day while sirens shrieked out in the stream. Jimmy was the only happy person on board, loading his train with chocolates and unloading them into his mouth after a tortuous trip along the dining table amongst glasses, knives and forks. It was the longest day Marcella had ever known; as the swift twilight passed, the passengers came aboard damp and damped; most of them were grumbling; all looked thoroughly pessimistic about Australia. The schoolmaster was one of the first to come solemnly along the deck under an umbrella. He had avoided Marcella rather pointedly lately, but he came and talked quite affably for a while, didactically contrasting Melbourne with Naples and Colombo.

The Oriana was to sail at eight o'clock; Marcella would not let herself be anxious; she had resolved that she must trust Louis now, and, knowing that he had scarcely any money and no friends, she could not imagine he would get into mischief. But as the last passengers came aboard and the first warning bell rang out, she began to grow cold with fear. The rain was pouring now in a sheet of water; she stood on deck in the green white glare of the arc lamps, which only lighted a circumscribed pool of radiance, and made the surrounding darkness blacker.

The second bell went; she heard the engine-room telegraph ring and the ship began to vibrate to the throb of the engines. She was feeling choked with fear: a thousand apprehensions went through her mind: he had been run over and was dead: he had lost his way: he was ill in hospital, crying out for her.

"Has your friend not come aboard?" asked the schoolmaster at her elbow.

She shook her head. It was impossible to speak.

"I suppose he has mistaken the time of sailing," said the schoolmaster soothingly.

"Do you think I ought to go ashore to look for him?" she cried, articulate at last in her misery, and ready to take advice.

"I think he should be able to take care of himself," he said carefully.

"Ah, but he isn't. I must go and find him," she cried wildly. "What sort of hands will he get into if he's left to himself?"

At that moment the last bell rang, and the boat began to move very slowly away from the wharf—perhaps a minute early. Knollys told Marcella afterwards that he guessed the captain had sailed early on purpose, for just at that moment he saw a group of four people dripping with rain rush on to the slippery boards of the jetty. They were four who had been pretty noticeable as law-breakers during the whole trip—at least, so the captain thought. Marcella gave a cry of hapless disappointment as she saw Louis with Ole Fred, the red-haired man and another. They were laughing wildly, and almost close enough to touch the rails of the ship.

"Jump, Louis," she cried wildly.

"Some flow's—for you, ole girl!" he cried, grinning loosely. "Mished bally boat! Catch, ole girl—flow's," and he threw a great bunch of bedraggled-looking flowers that had very obviously been dropped several times in the greasy mud. They fell helplessly into the water. Marcella could not stop to think of anything sensible. All she could see to do was to jump overboard to him and snatch him from the grinning men who were lurching at his side. But as she put her hand on the rail the schoolmaster drew her back.

"Thass ri! Come on, ole girl! Marsh—Marshella—come an' sleep in—sh-sh-shtreets! Got no money, ole girl. Marsh—Marshella! Parlez vous Franshay? Eh? Ah, oui, oui. Marsh-la! I wan' a woman! Beau-ful wi' shoulders—"

"Oh—oh," she cried, burying her face in her hands in horror.

"I should advise you to go below," said the schoolmaster's restrained voice.

But she was irresistibly drawn to look at Louis, to plead with him with her eyes, though her voice refused to work. And at that moment his unsteady foothold on the streaming planks gave way, and he sat down heavily. There were six or eight feet of black water now between the ship and the quay, but Marcella could hear plainly the foolish laughter of the other three as they tried to lift him to his feet. Ole Fred fell beside him, smashing a bottle as he did so, while several cans of tinned stuff went rolling out of his arms into the water. Louis sat, laughing helplessly until he realized that Marcella's white face was vanishing and he kissed his hand to her solemnly.

"Goo' ni' ole girl. Going fin' woman. Meet thee at Philippi! Ah, oui, oui! Marsh—ella! Look! Noblest Rom' of them all! Elements so mixshed—mixshed—can't stan' up, ole girl."

She heard no more for the laughter of the others who were all sitting heaped together on the slippery boards now. Sick and aching she stood there in the rain, scarcely realizing when the schoolmaster wrapped his raincoat round her; she was wondering whether she would have been happier if she had known he was lying dead in the mortuary, or ill in the hospital instead of sitting, too drunk to move out in the rain on the quay. And suddenly she knew quite well. He had said love was a hunger, and she would understand some day that it was as tigerish a hunger as drink hunger or any other. In that moment of utter disgust and pain and despair she understood that that hunger had come to her though she did not yet comprehend it. It had taken hold of her now—she writhed at the indignity of the thought, but she knew quite well that she actually wanted his presence with her whether he were rude and overbearing, weak and appealing, superior and instructive or drunk and filthy. She simply hungered to have him about her. Always ready to query, to examine motives, she asked herself whether this were not, after all, merely a species of vanity in her that wanted to hold and save this helpless man who, it seemed, could not live for a day without her. And she got no answer to the question—the black water rushed past, chill and pitiless: the rain-swept sky was starless, the streaming decks deserted.

At last she went below, and found it impossible to pass his cabin door. Everybody else was there, about the alleyways or in the saloon, safe and happy: only Louis had to bring himself to disaster every time. Opening his cabin door she went in. His things were all thrown about, his shaving tackle on the bunk, his pyjamas on the floor. Taking them up with hands that trembled she noticed that there were no buttons on them. The pathos of this was more than she could bear. On the floor were the two cups in which he had made tea before they reached port that morning. The teapot they had bought at Gibraltar lay overturned. Quite mechanically she cleaned up the tea-leaves and washed the cups. Then she could bear it no longer and, throwing herself on his bunk, she buried her face in his pillow and sobbed until she was exhausted.



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