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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 10 - AT SEA
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The Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 10 - AT SEA Post by :calvin_thompson Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :March 2011 Read :3130

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The Grand Babylon Hotel - Chapter 10 - AT SEA

IT seemed to Nella that she was being rocked gently in a vast
cradle, which swayed to and fro with a motion at once slow and
incredibly gentle. This sensation continued for some time, and
there was added to it the sound of a quick, quiet, muffled beat.
Soft, exhilarating breezes wafted her forward in spite of herself,
and yet she remained in a delicious calm. She wondered if her
mother was kneeling by her side, whispering some lullaby in her
childish ears. Then strange colours swam before her eyes, her
eyelids wavered, and at last she awoke. For a few moments her
gaze travelled to and fro in a vain search for some clue to her
surroundings. was aware of nothing except sense of repose and a
feeling of relief that some mighty and fatal struggle was over; she
cared not whether she had conquered or suffered defeat in the
struggle of her soul with some other soul; it was finished, done
with, and the consciousness of its conclusion satisfied and
contented her. Gradually her brain, recovering from its obsession,
began to grasp the phenomena of her surroundings, and she saw
that she was on a yacht, and that the yacht was moving. The
motion of the cradle was the smooth rolling of the vessel; the beat
was the beat of its screw; the strange colours were the cloud tints
thrown by the sun as it rose over a distant and receding shore in the
wake of the yacht; her mother's lullaby was the crooned song of
the man at the wheel. Nella all through her life had had many
experiences of yachting. From the waters of the River Hudson to
those bluer tides of the Mediterranean Sea, she had yachted in all
seasons and all weathers. She loved the water, and now it seemed
deliciously right and proper that she should be on the water again.
She raised her head to look round, and then let it sink back:

she was fatigued, enervated; she desired only solitude and calm;
she had no care, no anxiety, no responsibility: a hundred years
might have passed since her meeting with Miss Spencer, and the
memory of that meeting appeared to have faded into the remotest
background of her mind.

It was a small yacht, and her practised eye at once told that it
belonged to the highest aristocracy of pleasure craft. As she
reclined in the deck-chair (it did not occur to her at that moment to
speculate as to the identity of the person who had led her therein)
she examined all visible details of the vessel. The deck was as
white and smooth as her own hand, and the seams ran along its
length like blue veins. All the brass-work, from the band round the
slender funnel to the concave surface of the binnacle, shone like
gold.

The tapered masts stretched upwards at a rakish angle, and the
rigging seemed like spun silk. No sails were set; the yacht was
under steam, and doing about seven or eight knots. She judged that
it was a boat of a hundred tons or so, probably Clyde-built, and not
more than two or three years old.

No one was to be seen on deck except the man at the wheel: this
man wore a blue jersey; but there was neither name nor initial on
the jersey, nor was there a name on the white life-buoys lashed to
the main rigging, nor on the polished dinghy which hung on the
starboard davits. She called to the man, and called again, in a
feeble voice, but the steerer took no notice of her, and continued
his quiet song as though nothing else existed in the universe save
the yacht, the sea, the sun, and himself.

Then her eyes swept the outline of the land from which they were
hastening, and she could just distinguish a lighthouse and a great
white irregular dome, which she recognized as the Kursaal at
Ostend, that gorgeous rival of the gaming palace at Monte Carlo.
So she was leaving Ostend. The rays of the sun fell on her
caressingly, like a restorative. All around the water was changing
from wonderful greys and dark blues to still more wonderful pinks
and translucent unearthly greens; the magic kaleidoscope of dawn
was going forward in its accustomed way, regardless of the
vicissitudes of mortals.

Here and there in the distance she descried a sail - the brown sail
of some Ostend fishing-boat returning home after a night's
trawling. Then the beat of paddles caught her ear, and a steamer
blundered past, wallowing clumsily among the waves like a
tortoise. It was the Swallow from London. She could see some of
its passengers leaning curiously over the aft-rail. A girl in a
mackintosh signalled to her, and mechanically she answered the
salute with her arm. The officer of the bridge of the Swallow
hailed the yacht, but the man at the wheel offered no reply. In
another minute the Swallow was nothing but a blot in the distance.

Nella tried to sit straight in the deck-chair, but she found herself
unable to do so. Throwing off the rug which covered her, she
discovered that she had been tied to the chair by means of a piece
of broad webbing. Instantly she was alert, awake, angry; she knew
that her perils were not over; she felt that possibly they had
scarcely yet begun. Her lazy contentment, her dreamy sense of
peace and repose, vanished utterly, and she steeled herself to meet
the dangers of a grave and difficult situation.

Just at that moment a man came up from below. He was a man of
forty or so, clad in irreproachable blue, with a peaked yachting
cap. He raised the cap politely.

'Good morning,' he said. 'Beautiful sunrise, isn't it?' The clever and
calculated insolence of his tone cut her like a lash as she lay bound
in the chair. Like all people who have lived easy and joyous lives
in those fair regions where gold smoothes every crease and law
keeps a tight hand on disorder, she found it hard to realize that
there were other regions where gold was useless and law without
power. Twenty-four hours ago she would have declared it
impossible that such an experience as she had suffered could
happen to anyone; she would have talked airily about civilization
and the nineteenth century, and progress and the police. But her
experience was teaching her that human nature remains always the
same, and that beneath the thin crust of security on which we good
citizens exist the dark and secret forces of crime continue to move,
just as they did in the days when you couldn't go from Cheapside
to Chelsea without being set upon by thieves. Her experience was
in a fair way to teach her this lesson better than she could have
learnt it even in the bureaux of the detective police of Paris,
London, and St Petersburg.

'Good morning,' the man repeated, and she glanced at him with a
sullen, angry gaze.

'You!' she exclaimed, 'You, Mr Thomas Jackson, if that is your
name! Loose me from this chair, and I will talk to you.' Her eyes
flashed as she spoke, and the contempt in them added mightily to
her beauty. Mr Thomas Jackson, otherwise Jules, erstwhile head
waiter at the Grand Babylon, considered himself a connoisseur in
feminine loveliness, and the vision of Nella Racksole smote him
like an exquisite blow.

'With pleasure,' he replied. 'I had forgotten that to prevent you from
falling I had secured you to the chair'; and with a quick movement
he unfastened the band. Nella stood up, quivering with fiery
annoyance and scorn.

'Now,' she said, fronting him, 'what is the meaning of this?'

'You fainted,' he replied imperturbably. 'Perhaps you don't
remember.'

The man offered her a deck-chair with a characteristic gesture.
Nella was obliged to acknowledge, in spite of herself, that the
fellow had distinction, an air of breeding. No one would have
guessed that for twenty years he had been an hotel waiter. His
long, lithe figure, and easy, careless carriage seemed to be the
figure and carriage of an aristocrat, and his voice was quiet,
restrained, and authoritative.

'That has nothing to do with my being carried off in this yacht of
yours.'

'It is not my yacht,' he said, 'but that is a minor detail. As to the
more important matter, forgive me that I remind you that only a
few hours ago you were threatening a lady in my house with a
revolver.'

'Then it was your house?'

'Why not? May I not possess a house?' He smiled.

'I must request you to put the yacht about at once, instantly, and
take me back.' She tried to speak firmly.

'Ah!' he said, 'I am afraid that's impossible. I didn't put out to sea
with the intention of returning at once, instantly.' In the last words
he gave a faint imitation of her tone.

'When I do get back,' she said, 'when my father gets to know of this
affair, it will be an exceedingly bad day for you, Mr Jackson.'

'But supposing your father doesn't hear of it - '

'What?'

'Supposing you never get back?'

'Do you mean, then, to have my murder on your conscience?'

'Talking of murder,' he said, 'you came very near to murdering my
friend, Miss Spencer. At least, so she tells me.'

'Is Miss Spencer on board?' Nella asked, seeing perhaps a faint ray
of hope in the possible presence of a woman.

'Miss Spencer is not on board. There is no one on board except you
and myself and a small crew - a very discreet crew, I may add.'

'I will have nothing more to say to you. You must take your own
course.'

Thanks for the permission,' he said. 'I will send you up some
breakfast.'

He went to the saloon stairs and whistled, and a Negro boy
appeared with a tray of chocolate. Nella took it, and, without the
slightest hesitation, threw it overboard. Mr Jackson walked away a
few steps and then returned.

'You have spirit,' he said, 'and I admire spirit. It is a rare quality.'

She made no reply. 'Why did you mix yourself up in my affairs at
all?' he went on. Again she made no reply, but the question set her
thinking: why had she mixed herself up in this mysterious
business? It was quite at variance with the usual methods of her
gay and butterfly existence to meddle at all with serious things.
Had she acted merely from a desire to see justice done and
wickedness punished? Or was it the desire of adventure? Or was it,
perhaps, the desire to be of service to His Serene Highness Prince
Aribert? 'It is no fault of mine that you are in this fix,' Jules
continued. 'I didn't bring you into it. You brought yourself into it.
You and your father - you have been moving along at a pace which
is rather too rapid.'

'That remains to be seen,' she put in coldly.

'It does,' he admitted. 'And I repeat that I can't help admiring you -
that is, when you aren't interfering with my private affairs. That is
a proceeding which I have never tolerated from anyone - not even
from a millionaire, nor even from a beautiful woman.' He bowed. 'I
will tell you what I propose to do. I propose to escort you to a
place of safety, and to keep you there till my operations are
concluded, and the possibility of interference entirely removed.
You spoke just now of murder. What a crude notion that was of
yours! It is only the amateur who practises murder - '

'What about Reginald Dimmock?' she interjected quickly.

He paused gravely.

'Reginald Dimmock,' he repeated. 'I had imagined his was a case of
heart disease. Let me send you up some more chocolate. I'm sure
you're hungry.'

'I will starve before I touch your food,' she said.

'Gallant creature!' he murmured, and his eyes roved over her face.
Her superb, supercilious beauty overcame him. 'Ah!' he said, 'what
a wife you would make!' He approached nearer to her. 'You and I,
Miss Racksole, your beauty and wealth and my brains - we could
conquer the world. Few men are worthy of you, but I am one of the
few. Listen! You might do worse. Marry me. I am a great man; I
shall be greater. I adore you. Marry me, and I will save your life.
All shall be well. I will begin again. The past shall be as though
there had been no past.'

'This is somewhat sudden - Jules,' she said with biting contempt.

'Did you expect me to be conventional?' he retorted. 'I love you.'

'Granted,' she said, for the sake of the argument. 'Then what will
occur to your present wife?'

'My present wife?'

'Yes, Miss Spencer, as she is called.'

'She told you I was her husband?'

'Incidentally she did.'

'She isn't.'

'Perhaps she isn't. But, nevertheless, I think I won't marry you.'
Nella stood like a statue of scorn before him.

He went still nearer to her. 'Give me a kiss, then; one kiss - I won't
ask for more; one kiss from those lips, and you shall go free. Men
have ruined themselves for a kiss. I will.'

'Coward!' she ejaculated.

'Coward!' he repeated. 'Coward, am I? Then I'll be a coward, and
you shall kiss me whether you will or not.'

He put a hand on her shoulder. As she shrank back from his
lustrous eyes, with an involuntary scream, a figure sprang out of
the dinghy a few feet away. With a single blow, neatly directed to
Mr Jackson's ear, Mr Jackson was stretched senseless on the deck.
Prince Aribert of Posen stood over him with a revolver. It was
probably the greatest surprise of Mr Jackson's whole life.

'Don't be alarmed,' said the Prince to Nella, 'my being here is the
simplest thing in the world, and I will explain it as soon as I have
finished with this fellow.'

Nella could think of nothing to say, but she noticed the revolver in
the Prince's hand.

'Why,' she remarked, 'that's my revolver.'

'It is,' he said, 'and I will explain that, too.'

The man at the wheel gave no heed whatever to the scene.

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