Oldalképek
PDF

maroon-velvet settee and drawing at his cigar, nodded toward the talented Serge, who was now playing an intricate version of 'Tipperary,' with many arpeggios, and remarked that he had to use him as an interpreter. The senior naval officer saved was a gentleman who came aboard in his shirt and drawers and a gold wrist-watch, having slipped off his clothes on the bridge before jumping; but he spoke no English. Serge spoke 'pretty good English.' Serge interpreted excellently. Having seen the lady and her little boy, who had gray eyes and a freckled nose, installed in the main cabin, he drew the captain aside and explained to him the supreme importance of securing the exact position of the foundered ship; 'in case,' he said, 'it was found possible to raise her.'

And when we got in, and transferred the men to hospital, and I had made my report, they gave me no information to speak of about the ship. I don't think they were very clear themselves what she was to do, beyond making for the Adriatic. As for the passengers, they never mentioned them at all, so of course I held my tongue and drew my conclusions. Serge told me they had been bound for an Italian port, whence his party was to proceed to Paris. Now he would have to arrange passages to Marseilles. He took suites in the Marina Hotel, interviewed agents and banks, hired a motor-car, and had uniforms made by the best Greek tailor in the town. We were living at the Marina while ashore, you see, and so it was easy for us to get very friendly. Heatly, there, was soon very friendly with the lady.

'No,' said Captain Gosnell with perfect frankness in reply to my look of sophistication, 'not in the very slightest degree. Nothing of that. If you ask me, I should call it a sort of — chivalry. Anybody who thinks there was ever anything — er — what you suggest —

has no conception of the real facts of the case.'

This was surprising. It seemed to put Emma in an equivocal position, and my respect for that woman made me reluctant to doubt her intelligence. But Captain Gosnell was in a better position than Emma to give evidence. Captain Gosnell was conscious that a man can run right through the hazards of existence and come out on the other side with his fundamental virtues unimpaired. They all shared this sentiment, I gathered, for this lovely woman with the bronze hair and gray eyes; but Heatly's imagination had been touched to an extraordinary degree. In their interminable discussions concerning their future movements, discussions highly technical in their nature, because investigating a sunken armored warship is a highly technical affair, Heatly would occasionally interpret a word, emphasizing the importance of giving her a fair deal.

'But she never reached Marseilles. They were two days off Malta when an Austrian submarine torpedoed the French liner and sank her. They did not fire on the boats. And our lady friend found herself being rowed slowly toward a place of which she had no knowledge whatever. Serge told us they were pulling for eighteen hours before they were picked up.'

'And she is here now?' I asked cautiously.

'Here now,' said Captain Gosnell. 'She usually comes down here for an hour in the evening. If she's here, I'll introduce you.'

VI

She was sitting on a plush lounge at the extreme rear of the cafe, and when I first set eyes on her, I was disappointed. I had imagined something much more magnificent, more alluring, than this. In spite of Captain Gosnell's severely prosaic narrative of concrete facts, he had been unable to keep from me the real inspiration of the whole adventure. I was prepared to murmur, 'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?' and so on, as much as I could remember of that famous bit of rant. One gets an exalted notion of women who are credited with such powers, who preserve some vestige of the magic that can make men 'immortal with a kiss.' Bionda, in a large fur coat and a broad-brimmed hat of black velvet, had cloaked her divinity, and the first impression was Christian rather than pagan. 'A tired saint,' I thought, as I sat down after the introduction and looked at the pale bronze hair and the intelligent gray eyes.

She had a very subtle and pretty way of expressing her appreciation of the homage rendered by these diverse masculine personalities. Her hands, emerging from the heavy fur sleeves, were white and extremely thin, with several large rings. She had nothing to say to a stranger, which was natural enough, and I sat in silence watching her. She spoke English with musical deliberation, rolling the r's and hesitating at times in a choice of words, so that one waited with pleasure upon her pauses and divined the rhythm of her thoughts. She preserved in all its admirable completeness that mystery concerning their ultimate purpose in the world which is so essential to women in the society of men. And it was therefore with some surprise that I heard her enunciate with intense feeling, 'Oh, never, never, never!' There was an expression of sad finality about it. She was conveying to them her fixed resolve never to board a ship again. Ships had been altogether too much for her. She had been inland all her life, and her recent catastrophes had robbed her of her reserves of fortitude. She would remain here in this island. She sat staring at the marble

table as if she saw in imagination the infinite reaches of the ocean, blue, green, gray, or black, forever fluid and treacherous, a sinister superficies beneath which the bodies and achievements of men disappeared as into some unknown lower region.

Women have many valid reasons for hating the sea; and this woman seemed dimly aware of a certain jealousy of it — that alluring masculine element which destroys men without any aid from women at all. Her faith in ships had not suffered shipwreck, so much as foundered.

They were all agreed. Serge was of the opinion that, if they recovered a tenth of the bullion which her husband, who had a platinum concession in the Asiatic Urals, had consigned to his agent in Paris, there would be enough for all. Serge, in short, became the active spirit of the enterprise. He knew how to obtain funds from mysterious firms who had quiet offices down secluded alleys near Copthall Court and Great St. Helens, in London. He made sketches and explained where the stuff was stowed, and, presuming the ship to be in such and such a position, what bulkheads had to be penetrated to get into her. He obtained permission to accompany the Ouzel on her four-day cruises, and they never had a dull moment. He brought water-colors along, purchased at immense expense from the local extortioners, and made astonishing drawings of his hosts and their excursion steamer. He sang songs in a voice like a musical snarl — songs in obscure dialects, songs in indecent French, songs in booming Russian. He danced native Russian dances, and the click of his heels was like a pneumatic calking-tool at work on a rush job. His large, serious face, with the long, finely formed nose, the sensitive mouth, the sad dark eyes suddenly illuminated by a beautiful smile, the innumerable tiny criss-cross corrugations above the cheek-bones which are the marks of life in polar regions, fascinated the Englishmen. Without ever admitting it in so many words, they knew him to be that extremely rare phenomenon, a leader of men on hazardous and lonely quests. Without being at all certain of his name, which was polysyllabic and rather a burden to an Anglo-Saxon larynx, they discovered his character with unerring accuracy. From the very first they seem to have been conscious of the spiritual aspect of the adventure. They listened to the tittle-tattle of the hotel bars and the Casino dances, and refrained from comment. The scheme grew in their minds and preoccupied them. Mr. Marks and Heatly spent days and nights over strange designs, and Heatly himself worked at the bench in the port alleyway, between the paddle-box and the engine-room, constructing mechanical monstrosities.

But as weeks went by and Serge continued to communicate with Paris and London, it became clear that he was not at all easy in his mind. Some people say, of course, that no Russian is easy in his mind; but this was an altruistic anxiety. He judged that it would be best for them to get on to Paris, where Bionda had relatives and he himself could resume active operations.

And so they started, this time in a French mail-boat bound for Marseilles. Our three mine-sweepers saw them off. And Captain Gosnell, as we walked up the Strada Stretta and emerged upon the brilliant Strada Reale, was able to convey a hint of the actual state of affairs.

'She knew nothing,' he said. 'She was still under the impression that there would always be an endless stream of money coming from somebody in Paris or London. She was, if you can excuse the word, like a child empress. But there was n't any such stream. Serge

and the others had a little of their own; but hers was mostly in an ammunition chamber on B deck in a foundered warship, along with the bullion, bound to the Siberian Bank. She was n't worrying about money at all. She was wishing she was in Marseilles, for her experiences on ships had n't given her a very strong confidence in their safety. And Serge was anxious to get her to Paris, to her relatives, before what money she had ran out.'

Suddenly she gathered up her gloves and trinkets and said she must be going. She had worked hard that day and was tired. We rose and, as if by preconcerted arrangement, divided into two parties. It was the general rule, I gathered, that the gentlemen who had acted as her bodyguard for so long should undertake this nightly escort. We filed out into the deserted square, and the last view we had of them was the small fur-clad figure tripping away up the empty and romantic street, while over her towered the three tall soldiers, looking like benevolent brigands in their dark cloaks.

As we turned toward the Grand Harbor, Captain Gosnell remarked that, if I cared to come, they could show me something I had probably never seen before. We descended the stone stairs leading to the Custom House Quay. To see them diving with long strides down those broad, shallow steps, the solitary lamps, burning before dim shrines high up, lighting their forms as for some religious mystery, they appeared as men plunging in the grip of powerful and diverse emotions. The captain was plain enough to any intelligence. He desired money that he might maintain his position in England — a country where it is almost better to lose one's soul than one's position. Mr. Marks, beneath the genial falsity of a wig, concealed an implacable fidelity to a mechanical ideal. Heatly, on the other hand, was not so easily analyzed as Emma had suggested. He appeared the inarticulate victim of a remote and magnificent devotion. He gave the impression of a sort of proud disgust that he should have been thus afflicted.

So we came down to the water, and walked along the quay until we hailed a small, broad-beamed steamer, very brightly lighted but solitary, so that Captain Gosnell had to use a silver whistle that he carried, and the shrill blast echoed from the high ramparts of the Castle of Sant' Angelo.

A boat came slowly toward us, and we went aboard. She was a strange blend of expensive untidiness. Great pumps and hoses, costly even when purchased second-hand, lay red and rusty and slathered with dry mud about her decks. We descended a foul ladder through an iron scuttle leading to the one great hold forward. The 'tween-decks were workshops, with lathes, drills, and savage-looking torch-furnaces. Things that looked like lawn-mowers afflicted with elephantiasis revealed themselves on inspection as submersible boring-heads and cutters that went down into inaccessible places, like marine ferrets, and did execution there.

In the centre, however, suspended from a beam, was the masterpiece. It would be vain to describe the indescribable. It resembled in a disturbing way a giant spider with its legs curled semicircularly about its body. A formidable domed thing, with circular glass eyes set in it, and a door as of a safe or the breech-block of a gun. From this protruded a number of odd-looking mechanisms, and below it, flanked by caterpillar belts, on which the contrivance walked with dignity upon the bed of the ocean, were large, sharp-bladed cutters, like steel whorls.

While I gazed at this, endeavoring to

decide how much was reality and how much merely excited imagination, Mr. Marks went down and proceeded to set a ladder against the side of the machine. He grasped wheels and levers, he spoke with vehemence to Heatly, who ran to a switchboard and encased his head in a kind of listening helmet. Then Mr. Marks climbed nimbly through the aperture and drew the door to with a click. A light appeared within, shining through the enormously thick glass, and showing a fantastic travesty of Mr. Marks moving about in his steel prison. Captain Gosnell indicated the triumphant perfection of this thing. They were in constant telephonic connection with him. He could direct a bright beam in any direction, and he could animate any one or all of the extraordinary limbs of the machine. Suppose a ship lay in sand shale, mud, or gravel. He could dig himself under her, dragging a hawser which could be made fast to a float on each side. He could fasten on to a given portion of the hull, drill it, cut it, and in time crawl inside on the caterpillar feet. He had food, hot and cold drinks, and oxygen for two days. He could sit and read if he liked, or talk to the people on the ship. And quite safe, no matter how deep. Wonderful!

I dare say it was. It was a fabulouslooking thing, anyhow, and as Mr. Marks, moving like a visible brain in a transparent skull, started and stopped his alarming extremities, it struck me that humanity was in danger of transcending itself at last. It was soothing to come up on deck again and see Sant' Angelo in the moonlight like the backcloth of an Italian opera. It was a comfort to hear that one of the men, who ought to have been on duty, was drunk. Perhaps he had found the machinery too powerful for his poor weak human soul and had fled ashore to drown the nightmare of mechanism in liquor. One could imagine the men-at-arms, whose duty it was to watch from those stone towers, slipping out of some newly invented corselet with a jangle and clang, and stealing away in an old leather jerkin, only half laced, to make a night of it.

Not that there was anything fundamentally at odds with romance in this extraordinary adventure into deep waters, I mused, as I lay in my vast chamber that night. Knights in armor, releasing virgin forces of wealth buried in the ocean. Heatly was moving about in the next room, smoking a cigarette.

'What does she do for a living?' I asked.

He came and stood in the doorway in his pajamas. He blew a thread of tobacco from his lips.

'She keeps a tea-shop near the Opera House,' he said. 'We don't go there; knowing her as we do, it would n't be the right thing.'

'But I can, I suppose,' I suggested.

'Yes, you can, I suppose,' he assented from somewhere within his room.

'You don't object, of course?' I went on.

The light went out.

vn

Wedged in between Lanceolotte's music-shop and Marcus's emporium of Maltese bijouterie I found a modest door and window. In the latter was a simple card with the word TEAS in large print. Below it was a samovar, and a couple of table centres made of the local lace.

'Can I go upstairs?' I asked the little boy with the gray eyes and freckled nose; and he smiled and nodded with delightful friendliness.

'Then I will,' I said; and he rushed up in front of me.

There was nobody there. He cleared a table by the low window. Across the street was the broad and beautiful facade of the Opera House. The an

nouncement board bore the legend 'Tonight — Faust.'

'You want tea?' said the boy, with a forward dart of his head, like an inquisitive bird.

I nodded.

'Toast?'

I nodded again. 'I thought you were at the hotel,' I remarked.

'Only in the evenings,' he explained, lifting his tray. 'You want cakes, too?'

I nodded again, and he seemed to approve of my catholic taste. A low voice said,'Karl!' and he hurried down out of sight.

I was sitting there munching a bun and enjoying some really well-made tea (with lemon), and watching a number of cheerful well-dressed people emerging from the theatre, when something caused me to look round, and I saw the face of Bionda just above the floor. She was standing at a turn in the stair, regarding me attentively. I rose, and she came on up.

'I thought,' she said without raising her eyes, 'that I had seen you before. Have you everything you wish?'

'Everything except someone to talk to,' I said.

She raised her eyes with a serious expression in them. 'I will talk if you wish,' she said gravely.

'Do sit down,' I begged.

I wished to sit down myself, for the window was low. She complied.

'I am a friend of Mr. Heatly,' I went on.

Her face lighted up. 'He is a very nice man,' she said, laughing. 'He likes me very much. He told me he was going to look after me for the rest of my life. He makes me laugh very much. You like him?'

'I used to be on the same ship with him,' I said; 'years ago, before he was married.'

'Ah, yes, before he was married. I see. Now you go on a ship again?'

« ElőzőTovább »