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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 31. The Nostrum
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 31. The Nostrum Post by :bit_twiddler Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2688

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 31. The Nostrum

CHAPTER XXXI. THE NOSTRUM

The hemisphere of heaven was drenched in moonlight, and--rare happening either on British earth or on the waters surrounding it, in mid-summer--the night was warm. In the midst of the glittering sea the yacht moved without the appearance of motion; only by leaning over the rail and watching the bubbles glide away from her could you detect her progress. There were no waves, no ripples, nothing but a scarcely perceptible swell. The gentle breeze, unnoticeable on deck, was abaft; all the sails had been lowered and stowed except the large square sail bent on a yard to the mainmast and never used except with such a wind. The _Ariadne had a strong flood tide under her, and her 200-h.p. twin motors were stopped. Hence there was no tremor in the ship and no odour of paraffin in the nostrils of those who chanced to wander aft of the engine-room. The deck awning had been rolled up to the centre, and at the four corners of its frame had been hung four temporary electric lights within Chinese lanterns. A radiance ascended from the saloon skylight; the windows of the deck-house blazed as usual, but the deck-house was empty; a very subdued glow indicated where the binnacle was. And, answering these signs of existence, could be distinguished the red and green lights of steamers, the firm rays of lighthouses, and the red or white warnings of gas-buoys run by clockwork.

The figures of men and women--the women in pale gowns, the men in blue-and-white--lounged or strolled on the spotless deck which unseen hands swabbed and stoned every morning at 6 o'clock; and among these figures passed the figure of a steward with a salver, staying them with flagons, comforting them with the finest exotic fruit. Occasionally the huge square sail gave an idle flap. "Get that lead out, 'Orace," commanded a grim voice from the wheel. A splash followed, as a man straddled himself over the starboard bow, swung a weighted line to and fro and threw it from him. "Four." Another splash. "Four." Another splash. "Four." Another splash. "Three-half." Another splash. "Three-half." Another splash. "Three." Another splash. "Two-half." Another splash. "Three." Another splash. "Five." "That'll do, 'Orace," came the voice from the wheel. Then an entranced silence.

The scene had the air of being ideal. And yet it was not. Something lacked. That something was the owner. The owner lay indisposed in the sacred owner's cabin. And this was a pity because a dance had been planned for that night. It might have taken place without the owner, but the strains of the gramophone and especially the shuffling of feet on the deck would have disturbed him. True, he had sent up word by Doctor Cromarty that he was not to be considered. But the doctor had delivered the message without any conviction, and the unanimous decision was that the owner must, at all costs, be considered.

It was Ostend, on top of the owner's original offer to Audrey, that had brought about the suggestion of a dance. They had coasted up round Gris-Nez from Boulogne to Ostend, and had reached the harbour there barely in time to escape from the worst of a tempest that had already begun to produce in the minds of sundry passengers a grave doubt whether yachting was, after all, the most delightful of pursuits. Some miles before the white dome of the Kursaal was sighted the process of moral decadence had set in, and passengers were lying freely to each other, and boastfully lying, just as though somebody had been accusing them of some dreadful crime of cowardice or bad breeding instead of merely inquiring about the existence of physical symptoms over which they admittedly had no control whatever. The security of a harbour, with a railway station not fifty yards from the yacht's bowsprit, had restored them, by dint of calming secret fears, to their customary condition of righteousness and rectitude. Several days of gusty rainstorms had elapsed at Ostend, and the passengers had had the opportunity to study the method of managing a yacht, and to visit the neighbourhood. The one was as wondrous as the other. They found letters and British and French newspapers on their plates at breakfast. And the first object they had seen on the quay, and the last object they saw there, was the identical large limousine which they had left on the quay at Boulogne. It would have taken them to Ghent but for the owner's powerful objection to their eating any meal off the yacht. Seemingly he had a great and sincere horror of local viands and particularly of local water. He was their slave; they might demand anything from him; he was the very symbol of hospitality and chivalry, but somehow they could not compass a meal away from the yacht. Similarly, he would have them leave the Kursaal not later than ten o'clock, when the evening had not veritably begun. They did not clearly understand by what means he imposed his will, but he imposed it.

The departure from Ostend was accomplished after the glass had begun to rise, but before it had finished rising, and there were apprehensions in the saloon and out of it, when the spectacle of the open sea, and the feel of it under the feet, showed that, as of old, water was still unstable. The process of moral decadence would have set in once more but for the prudence and presence of mind of Audrey, who had laid in a large stock of the specific which had been of such notable use to herself and Miss Ingate on previous occasions. Praising openly its virtues, confessing frankly her own weakness and preaching persuasively her own faith, she had distributed the nostrum, and in about a quarter of an hour had established a justifiable confidence. Mr. Gilman alone would not partake, and indeed she had hardly dared to offer the thing to so experienced a sailor. The day had favoured her. The sea grew steadily more tranquil, and after skirting the Belgian and French coasts for some little distance the _Ariadne_, under orders, had turned her nose boldly northward for the estuary of the Thames. The _Ariadne was now in the midst of that very complicated puzzle of deeps and shallows. The passengers, in fact, knew that they were in the region of the North Edinburgh, but what or where the North Edinburgh was they had only the vaguest idea. The blot on the voyage had been the indisposition of Mr. Gilman, who had taken to his berth early, and who saw nobody but his doctor, through whom he benignantly administered the world of the yacht. Doctor Cromarty had a face which imparted nothing and yet implied everything. He said less and meant more than even the average pure-blooded Scotsman. It was imparted that Mr. Gilman had a chronic complaint. The implications were vast and baffling.

"We shall dance after all," said Miss Thompkins, bending with a mysterious gesture over Audrey, who reclined in a deck-chair near the companion leading to the deserted engine-room. Miss Thompkins was dressed in lacy white, with a string of many tinted beads round her slim neck. Her tawny hair was arranged in a large fluffiness, and the ensemble showed to a surprised Audrey what Miss Thompkins could accomplish when she deemed the occasion to be worthy of an effort.

"Shall we? What makes you think so, dear?" absently asked Audrey, in whom the scene had induced profound reflections upon life and the universe.

"He'll come up on deck," said Miss Thompkins, disclosing her teeth in an inscrutable smile that the moonbeams made more strange than it actually was. "Like to know how I know? Sure you'd like to know, Mrs. Simplicity?" Her beads rattled above Audrey's insignificant upturned nose. "Isn't a yacht the queerest little self-contained state you ever visited? It's as full of party politics as Massachusetts; and that's some. Well, I didn't use all my medicine you gave me. Didn't need it. So I've shared it with _him_. I got the empty packet with all the instructions on it, and I put two of my tablets in it, and if he hasn't swallowed them by this time my name isn't Anne Tuckett Thompkins."

"But you don't mean he's been----"

"Audrey, you're making a noise like a goose. 'Course I do."

"But how did you manage to----"

"I gave them to Mr. Price, with instructions to leave them by the--er--bedside. Mr. Price is a friend. I hope I've made that plain these days to everybody, including Mr. Gilman. Mr. Price is a good sample of what painters are liable to come to after they've found out they don't care for the smell of oil-tubes. I knew him when he always said 'Puvis' instead of 'Puvis de Chavannes.' He's cured now. If I hadn't happened to know he'd be on board I shouldn't have dared to come. He's my lifebuoy."

"But I assure you, Tommy, Mr. Gilman refused the stuff from me. He did."

"Oh! Dove! Wood-pigeon! Of course he refused it. He was bound to. Owner of a two-hundred-and-fifty-ton yacht taking a remedy for sea-sickness in public on the two-hundred-and-fifty-ton yacht! The very idea makes you shiver. But he'll take it down there. And he won't ask any questions. And he'll hide it from the doctor. And he'll pretend, and he'll expect everybody else to pretend, that he's never been within a mile of the stuff."

"Tommy, I don't believe you."

"And he's a lovely man, all the same."

"Tommy, I don't believe you."

"Yes, you do. You'd like not to, but you can't help it. I sometimes do bruise people badly in their organ of illusions-about-human-nature, but it is fun, after all, isn't it?"

"What?"

"Getting down to the facts."

Accompanied by the tattoo of her necklace, Miss Thompkins moved away in the direction of Madame Piriac, who was engaged with Musa.

"Admit I'm rather brilliant to-night," she threw over her shoulder.

The dice seem to be always loaded in favour of the Misses Thompkins of society. Less than a quarter of an hour later Doctor Cromarty, showing his head just above the level of the deck, called out:

"Price, ye can wind up that box o' yours. Mr. Gilman is coming on deck. He's wonderful better."

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