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Not till brought face to face with her unanswerable simplicity did I descend within myself. It seemed I had descended so deeply that, for a time, I lost the sound of her voice. And again I heard her.
"There's time yet," she was saying. "Think, young sir [she had addressed me throughout as " young sir "]. My husband and I have been talking it over most anxiously. Think well before you commit the young lady for life. You are both so young. It looks as if we had been sent providentially. . . ."
What was she driving at? Did she doubt my love? It was rather horrible; but it was too startling and too extravagant to be met with anger. We looked at each other, and I discovered that she had been, in reality, tremendously excited by this adventure. This was the secret of her audacity. And I was also possessed by excitement. We stood there like two persons meeting in a great wind. Without moving her hands, she clasped and unclasped her fingers, looking up at me with soliciting eyes; and her lips, firmly closed, twitched.
"I am looking for the means of explaining to you how much I love her," I burst out. "And if I found a way, you could not understand. What do you know ?—what can you know? . . ."
I said this not in scorn, but in sheer helplessness. I was at a loss before the august magnitude of my feeling, which I saw confronting me like an enormous presence arising from that blue sea. It was no longer a boy-and-girl affair; no longer an adventure; it was an immense and serious happiness, to be paid for by an infinity of sacrifice.
"I am a woman," she said, with a fluttering dignity. "And it is because I know how women suffer from what men say. . . ."
Her face flushed. It flushed to the very bands of her hair. She was rosy all over the eyes and forehead. Rosy and ascetic, with something outraged and inexpressibly sweet in her expression. My great emotion was between us like a mist, through which I beheld strange appearances. It was as if an immaterial spirit had blushed before me. And suddenly I saw tears—tears that glittered exceedingly, falling hard and round, like pellets of glass, out of her faded eyes.
"Mrs. Williams." I cried, "you can't know how I love her. No one in the world can know. When I think of her—and I think of her always—it seems to me that one life is not enough to show my devotion. I love her like something unchangeable and unique—altogether out of the world; because I see the world through her. I would still love her if she had made me miserable and unhappy."
She exclaimed a low "Ah!" and turned her head away for a moment.
"But one cannot express these things," I continued. "There are no words. Words are not meant for that. I love her so that, were I to die this moment, I verily believe my soul, refusing to leave this earth, would remain hovering near her. . . ."
She interrupted me with a sort of indulgent horror. "Sh! sh!" I mustn't talk like that. I really must not—and inconsequently she declared she was quite willing to believe me. Her husband and herself had not slept a wink for thinking of us. The notion of the fat, sleepy Williams, sitting up all night to consider, owlishly, the durability of my love, cooled my excitement. She thought they had been providentially thrown into our way to give us an opportunity of reconsidering our decision. There were still so many difficulties in the way.
I did not see any; her utter incomprehension began to weary me, while she still twined her fingers, wiped her eyes by stealth, as it were, and talked unflinchingly. She could not have made herself clearly understood by Seraphina. Moreover, women were so helpless—so very helpless in such matters. That is why she was speaking to me. She did not doubt my sincerity at the present time—' but there was, humanly speaking, a long life before us—and what of afterwards? Was I sure of myself—later on—when all was well?
I cut her short. Seizing both her hands:
"I accept the omen, Mrs. Williams!" I cried. "That's it! When all is well! And all must be well in a very short time, with you and your husband's help, which shall not fail me, I know. I feel as if the worst of our troubles were over already. . . ."
But at that moment I saw Seraphina coming out on deck. She emerged from the companion, bare-headed, and looked about at her new surroundings with that air of imperious and childlike beauty which made her charm. The wind stirred slightly her delicate hair, and I looked at her; I looked at her stilled, as one watches the dawn or listens to a sweet strain of music caught from afar. Suddenly dropping Mrs. Williams' hand, I ran to her. ...
When I turned round, Williams had joined his wife, and she had slipped her arm under his. Her hand, thin and white, looked like the hand of an invalid on the brawny forearm of that man bursting with health and good condition. By the side of his lustiness, she was almost ethereal—and yet I seemed to see in them something they had in common—something subtle, like the expression of eyes. It was the expression of their eyes. They looked at us with commiseration; one of them sweetly, the other with his owlish fixity. As we two, Seraphina and I, approached them together, I heard Williams' thick, sleepy voice asking, "And so he says he won't?" To which his wife, raising her tone with a shade of indignation, answered, " Of course not." No, I was not mistaken. In their dissimilar persons, eyes, faces, there was expressed a common trouble, doubt, and commiseration. This expression seemed to go out to meet us sadly, like a bearer of ill-news. And, as if at the sight of a downcast messenger, I experienced the clear presentiment of some fatal intelligence.
It was conveyed to me late in the afternoon of that same day out of Williams' own thick lips, that seemed as heavy and inert as his voice.
"As far as we can see," he said, "you can't stay in the ship, Kemp. It would do no one any good—not the slightest good. Ask Sebright here."
It was a sort of council of war, to which we had been summoned in the saloon. Mrs. Williams had some sewing in her lap. She listened, her hands motionless, her eyes full of desolation. Seraphina's attitude, leaning her cheek on her hand, reminded me of the time when I had seen her absorbed in watching the green-and-gold lizard in the back room of Ramon's store, with her hair falling about her face like a veil. Castro was not called in till later on. But Sebright was there, leaning his back negligently against the bulkhead behind Williams, and looking down on us seated on both sides of the long table. And there was present, too, in all our minds, the image of the Rio Medio schooner, hull down on our quarter. In all the trials of sailing, we had not been able to shake her off that day.
"I don't want to hide from you, Mr. Kemp," Sebright began, "that it was I who pointed out to the captain that you would be only getting the ship in trouble for nothing. She's an old trader and favorite with shippers; and if we once get to loggerheads with the powers, there's an end of her trading. As to missing Havana this trip, even if you, Mr. Kemp, could give a pot of money, the captain could never show his nose in there again after breaking his charter-party to help steal a young lady. And it isn't as if she were nobody. She's the richest heiress in the island. The biggest people in Spain would have their say in this matter. I suppose they could put the captain in prison or something. Anyway, good-by to the Havana business for good. Why, old Perkins would have a fit. He got over one runaway match. . . . All right, Mrs. Williams, not another word. . . . What I meant to say is that this is nothing else but a love story, and to knock on the head a valuable old-established connection for it. ... Don't bite your lip, Mr. Kemp. I mean no disrespect to your feelings. Perkins would start up to break things—let alone his heart. I am sure the captain and Mrs. Williams think so, too."
The festive and subdued captain of the Lion was staring straight before him, as if stuffed. Mrs. Williams moved her fingers, compressed her lips, and looked helplessly at all of us in turn. "Besides altering his will," Sebright breathed confidentially at the back of my head. I perceived that this old Perkins, whom I had never seen, and was never to see in the body, whose body no one was ever to see any more (he died suddenly on the echoing staircase, with a flat candlestick in his hand; was already dead at the time, so that Mrs. Williams was actually sitting in the cabin of her very own ship)—I perceived that old Perkins was present at this discussion with all the power of a malignant, bad-tempered spirit. Those two were afraid of him. They had defied him once, it is true—but even that had been done out of fear, as it were.
Dismayed, I spoke quickly to Seraphina. With her head resting on her hand, and her eyes following the aimless tracings of her finger on the table, she said:
"It shall be as God wills it, Juan."
"For Heaven's sake, don't!" said Sebright, coughing behind me. He understood Spanish fairly well. "What I've said in perfectly true. Nevertheless the captain was ready to risk it."
"Yes," ejaculated Williams profoundly, out of almost still lips, and otherwise so motionless all over that the deep sound seemed to have been produced by some person under the table. Mrs. Williams' fingers were clasped on her lap, and her eyes seemed to beg for belief all round our faces.
"But the point is that it would have been no earthly good for you two," continued Sebright. "That's the point I made. If O'Brien knows anything, he knows you are on board this ship. He reckons on it as a dead certainty. Now, it is very evident that we could refuse to give you up, Mr. Kemp, and that the admiral (if the flagships off Havana, as I think she must be by now) would have to back us up. How you would get on afterwards with old Groggy Rowley, I don't know. It isn't likely he has forgotten you tried to wipe the floor with him, if I am to take the captain's yarn as correct."
"A regular hero," Williams testified suddenly, in his concealed, from-under-the-table tone. "He's not afraid of any of them; not he. Hal ha! Old Topnambo must have . . ." He glanced at his wife, and bit his tongue—perhaps at the recollection of his unsafe conjugal position—ending in disjointed words, " In his chaise —warrant—separationist—rebel," and all this without moving a limb or a muscle of his face, till, with a low, throaty chuckle, he fluttered a stony sort of wink to my address.
Sebright had paused only long enough for this ebullition to be over. The cool logic of his surmise appalled me. He didn't see why O'Brien or anybody in Havana should want to interfere with me personally. But if I wanted to keep my young lady, it was obvious she must not arrive in Havana on board a ship where they would be sure to look for her the very first thing. It was even worse than it looked, he declared. His firm conviction was that if the Lion did not turn up in Havana pretty soon, there would be a Spanish man-of-war sent out to look for her—or else Mr. O'Brien was not the man we took him for. There was lying in