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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 32. By The Binnacle
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 32. By The Binnacle Post by :MichelleT Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1789

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 32. By The Binnacle

CHAPTER XXXII. BY THE BINNACLE

The owner was at the wheel. But he had not got there at once. This singular man, who strangely enough was wearing one of his most effulgent and heterogeneous club neckties, had begun by dancing. He danced with all three ladies, one after the other; and he did not merely dance--he danced modernly, he danced the new dances to the new tunes, given off like intoxicating gas from the latest of gramophones. He knew how to hold the arm of a woman above her head, while coiling his own around it in the manner of a snake, and he knew how to make his very body a vast syncopation. The effect of his arrival was as singular as himself. Captain Wyatt, Doctor Cromarty and Mr. Price withdrew to that portion of the deck about the wheel which convention had always roped off for them with invisible ropes. The captain, by custom, messed by himself, whereas the other two had their meals in the saloon, entering and leaving quickly and saying little while at table. But apart from meals the three formed a separate clan on the yacht. The indisposition of the owner had dissolved this clan into the general population of the saloon. The recovery of the owner re-created it. Mr. Price had suddenly begun to live arduously for the gramophone alone. And when summoned by the owner to come and form half of the third couple for dancing, Doctor Cromarty had the air of arousing himself from a meditation upon medicine. Also, the passengers themselves danced with conscientiousness, with elaborate gusto and with an earnest desire to reach a high standard. And between dances everybody went up to Mr. Gilman and said how lovely it all was. And it really was lovely.

Mr. Gilman had taken the wheel after about the sixth dance. Approaching Audrey, who owed him the next dance, he had said that the skipper had hinted something about his taking the wheel and he thought he had better oblige the old fellow, if Audrey was quite, quite sure she didn't mind, and would she come and sit by him instead--for one dance? ... As soon as two sailors had fixed cushions for Audrey, and the skipper had given the owner the course, all persons seemed to withdraw respectfully from the pair, who were in the shadow of a great spar, with the glimmer of the binnacle just in front of them. The square sail had been lowered, and the engines started, and a steady, faint throb kept the yacht mysteriously alive in every plank of her. The gramophone and the shuffle of feet continued, because Mr. Gilman had expressly desired that his momentary defection with a lady and in obedience to duty should not bring the ball to an end. Laughter and even giggles came from the ballroom. Males were dancing together. The power of the moon had increased. The binnacle-light, however, threw up a radiance of its own on to Mr. Gilman's lowered face, the face of a kind, a good, and a dependably expert individuality who was watching over the safety, the welfare and the highest interests of every soul on board.

"I was very sorry to be laid up to-day," Mr. Gilman began suddenly, in a very quiet voice, frowning benevolently at the black pointer on the compass. "But, of course, you know my great enemy."

"No, I don't," said Audrey gently.

"Hasn't Doc told you?"

"Doctor Cromarty? No, he doesn't tell much."

"Well," said Mr. Gilman, looking round quickly and shyly, rather in the manner of a boy, "it's liver."

Audrey seemed to read in his face, first, that Doctor Cromarty had received secret orders never to tell anybody anything, and, second, that the great enemy was not liver. And she thought: "So this is human nature! Mature men, wise men, dignified men, do descend to these paltry deceits just in order to keep up appearances, though they must know quite well that they don't deceive anyone who is worth deceiving." The remarkable fact was that she did not feel in the least shocked or disdainful. She merely decided--and found a certain queer pleasure in the decision--that human nature was a curious phenomenon, and that there must be a lot of it on earth. And she felt kindly towards Mr. Gilman.

"If you'd said gout----" she remarked. "I always understood that men generally had gout." And she consciously, with intention, employed a simple, innocent tone, knowing that it misled Mr. Gilman, and wanting it to mislead him.

"No!" he went on. "Liver. All sailors suffer from it, more or less. It's the bugbear of the sea. I have a doctor on board because, with a score or so of crew, it's really a duty to have a doctor."

"I quite see that," Audrey agreed, thinking mildly: "You only have a doctor on board because you're always worrying about your own health."

"However," said Mr. Gilman, "he's not much use to me personally. He doesn't understand liver. Scotsmen never do. Fortunately, I have a very good doctor in Paris. I prefer French doctors. And I'm sure they're right on the great liver question. All English doctors tell you to take plenty of violent exercise if you want to shake off a liver attack. Quite wrong. Too much exercise tires the body and so it tires the liver as well--obviously. What's the result? You can see, can't you? The liver works worse than ever. Now, a French doctor will advise complete rest until the attack is over. _Then exercise, if you like; but not before. Of course, _you don't know you've got a liver, and I dare say you think it's very odd of me to talk about my liver. I'm sure you do."

"I don't, honestly. I like you to talk like that. It's very interesting." And she thought: "Suppose Tommy was wrong, after all! ... She's very spiteful."

"That's you all over, Mrs. Moncreiff. You understand men far better than any other woman I ever saw, unless, perhaps, it's Madame Piriac."

"Oh, Mr. Gilman! How can you say such a thing?"

"It's not the first time you've heard it, I wager!" said Mr. Gilman. "And it won't be the last! Any man who knows women can see at once that you are one of the women who understand. Otherwise, do you imagine I should have begun upon my troubles?"

Now, at any rate, he was sincere--she was convinced of that. And he looked very smart as he spied the horizon for lights and peered at the compass, and moved the wheel at intervals with a strong, accustomed gesture. And, assuredly, he looked very experienced. Audrey blushed. She just had to believe that there must be something in what he said concerning her talent. She had noticed it herself several times.

In an interval of the music the sea washed with a long sound against the bow of the yacht; then silence.

"I do love that sudden wash against the yacht," said Audrey.

"Yes," agreed Mr. Gilman, "so do I. All doctors tell me that I should be better if I gave up yachting. But I won't. I couldn't. Whatever it costs in health, yachting's worth it."

"Oh! It must be!" cried Audrey, with enthusiasm. "I've never been on a yacht before, but I quite agree with you. I feel as if I could live on a yacht for ever--always going to new places, you know; that's how I feel."

"You do?" Mr. Gilman exclaimed and gazed at her for a moment with a sort of ecstasy. Audrey instinctively checked herself. "There's a freemasonry among those who like yachting." His eyes returned to the compass. "I've kept your secret. I've kept it like something precious. I've enjoyed keeping it. It's been a comfort to me. Now I wonder if you'll do the same for me, Mrs. Moncreiff?"

"Do what?" Audrey asked weakly, intimidated.

"Keep a secret. I shouldn't dream of telling it to Madame Piriac. Will you? May I tell you?"

"Yes, if you think you can trust me," said Audrey, concealing, with amazing ease and skill, her excitement and her mighty pleasure in the scene.... "He wouldn't dream of telling it to Madame Piriac." ...It is doubtful whether she had ever enjoyed anything so much, and yet she was as prim as a nun.

"I'm not a happy man, Mrs. Moncreiff. Materially, I've everything a man can want, I suppose. But I'm not happy. You may laugh and say it's my liver. But it isn't. You're a woman of the world; you know what life is; and yet experience hasn't spoilt you. I could say anything to you; anything! And you wouldn't be shocked, would you?"

"No," said Audrey, hoping, nevertheless, that he would not say "anything, anything," but somehow simultaneously hoping that he would. It was a disconcerting sensation.

"I want you always to remember that I'm unhappy and never to tell anybody," Mr. Gilman resumed.

"But why?"

"It will be a kindness to me."

"I mean, why are you unhappy?"

"My opinions have all changed. I used to think I could be independent of women. Not that I didn't like women! I did. But when I'd left them I was quite happy. You know what the facts of life are, Mrs. Moncreiff. Young as you are you are older than me in some respects, though I have a long life before me. It's just because I have a long life before me--dyspeptics are always long-lived--that I'm afraid for the future. It wouldn't matter so much if I was an old man."

"But," asked Audrey adventurously, "why should you be unhappy because your opinions have changed? What opinions?" She endeavoured to be perfectly judicial and indifferent, and yet kind.

"What opinions? Well, about Woman Suffrage, for instance. You remember that night at the Foas', and what I remarked afterwards about what you all said?"

"Yes, I remember," said Audrey. "But can _you remember it? Fancy you remembering a thing like that!"

"I remember every word that was said. It changed me.... Not at first. Oh, no! Not for several days, perhaps weeks. I fought against it. Then I said to myself, 'How absurd to fight against it!' ... Well, I've come to believe in women having the vote. You've no more stanch supporter than I am. I _want women to have the vote. And you're the first person I've ever said that to. I want _you to have the vote."

He smiled at her, and she saw scores and scores of excellent qualities in his smile; she could not believe that he had any defect whatever. His secret was precious to her. She considered that he had confided it to her in a manner both distinguished and poetical. He had shown a quality which no youth could have shown. Youths were inferior, crude, incomplete. Not that Mr. Gilman was not young! Emphatically he was young, but her conception of the number of years comprised in youthfulness had been enlarged. She saw, as in a magical enlightenment, that forty was young, fifty was young, any age was young provided it had the right gestures. As for herself, she was without age. The obvious fact that Mr. Gilman was her slave touched her; it saddened her, but sweetly; it gave her a new sense of responsibility.

She said:

"I still don't see why this change of view should make you unhappy. I should have thought it would have just the opposite effect."

"It has altered all my desires," he replied. "Do you know, I'm not really interested in this new yacht now! And that's the truth."

"Mr. Gilman!" she checked him. "How can you say such a thing?"

It now appeared that she was not a nice girl. If she had been a nice girl she would not have comprehended what Mr. Gilman was ultimately driving at. The word "marriage" would never have sounded in her brain. And she would have been startled and shocked had Mr. Gilman even hinted that there was such a word in the dictionary. But not being, after all, a nice girl, she actually dwelt on the notion of marriage with somebody exactly like Mr. Gilman. She imagined how fine and comfortable and final it would be. She admitted that despite her riches and her independence she would be and could be simply naught until she possessed a man and could show him to the world as her own. Strange attitude for a wealthy feminist, but she had the attitude! And, moreover, she enjoyed having it; she revelled in it. She desired, impatiently, that Mr. Gilman should proceed further. She thirsted for his next remark. And her extremely deceptive features displayed only a blend of simplicity and soft pity. Those features did not actually lie, for she was ingenuous without being aware of it and her pity for the fellow-creature whose lot she could assuage with a glance was real enough. But they did suppress about nine-tenths of the truth.

"I tell you," said Mr. Gilman, "there is nothing I could not say to you. And--and--of course, you'll say I scarcely know you--yet----"

Clearly he was proceeding further. She waited as in a theatre one waits for a gun to go off on the stage. And then the gun did go off, but not the gun she was expecting.

Skipper Wyatt's head popped up like a cannon shot out of a hole in the forward deck, and it gazed sharply and apprehensively around the calm, moonlit sea. Mr. Gilman was, beyond question, perturbed by the movements of that head, though he could not see the expression of the eyes. This was the first phenomenon. The second phenomenon was a swirling of water round the after part of the ship, and this swirling went on until the water was white with a thin foam.

"Reverse those d----d engines!" shouted Captain Wyatt, quite regardless of the proximity of refined women. He had now sprung clear of the hole and was running aft. The whole world of the yacht could not but see that he was coatless and that his white shirtsleeves, being rather long, were kept in position by red elastic rings round his arms. "Is that blithering engineer asleep?" continued Captain Wyatt, ignoring the whole system of yacht etiquette. "She's getting harder on every second!"

"Ay, ay, skipper!" came a muffled voice from the engine-room.

"And not too soon either!" snapped the captain.

The yacht throbbed more violently; the swirling increased furiously. The captain stared over the rail. Then, after an interval, he stamped on the deck in disgust.

"Shut off!" he yelled. "It's no good."

The yacht ceased to throb. The swirling came to an end, and the thin white foam faded into flat sombre water. Whereupon Captain Wyatt turned back to the wheel, which, in his extreme haste, he had passed by.

"You've run her on to the sand, sir," said he to Mr. Gilman, respectfully but still accusingly.

"Oh, no! Impossible!" Mr. Gilman defended himself, pained by the charge.

"She's hard on, anyhow, sir. And many a good yacht's left her bones on this Buxey."

"But you gave me the course," protested Mr. Gilman, with haughtiness.

Captain Wyatt bent down and looked at the binnacle. He was contentedly aware that the compass of a yacht hard aground cannot lie and cannot be made to lie. The camera can lie; the speedometer of an automobile after an accident can lie--or can conceal the truth and often does, but the compass of a yacht aground is insusceptible to any blandishment; it shows the course at the moment of striking and nothing will persuade it to alter its evidence.

"What course did I give you, sir?" asked Captain Wyatt.

And as Mr. Gilman hesitated in his reply, the skipper pointed silently to the compass.

"Where's the chart? Let me see the chart," said Mr. Gilman with sudden majesty.

The chart in its little brass frame was handy. Mr. Gilman examined it in a hostile manner; one might say that he cross-examined it, and with it the horizon. "Ah!" he muttered at length, peering at the print under the chart, "'Corrected 1906.' Out of date. Pity they don't re-issue these charts oftener."

His observations had no relation whatever to the matter in hand; considered as a contribution to the unravelling of the matter in hand they were merely idiotic. Nevertheless, such were the exact words he uttered, and he appeared to get great benefit and solace from them. They somehow enabled him to meet, quite satisfactorily, the gaze of his guests who had now gathered in the vicinity of the wheel.

Audrey alone showed a desire to move away from the wheel. The fact was that the skipper had glanced at her in a peculiar way and his eyes had seemed to say, with disdain: "Women! Women again!" Nothing but that! The implications, however, were plain. Audrey may have been discountenanced by the look in the captain's eyes, but at the same time she had an inward pride, because it was undeniable that Mr. Gilman, owing to his extreme and agitated interest in herself, had put the yacht off the course and was thereby imperilling numerous lives. Audrey liked that. And she exonerated Mr. Gilman, and she hated the captain for daring to accuse him, and she mysteriously nursed the wounded dignity of Mr. Gilman far better than he could nurse it himself.

Her feelings were assuredly complex, and they grew more complex when the sense of danger began to dominate them. The sense of danger came to her out of the demeanour of her companions and out of the swift appearance on deck of every member of the crew, including the parlourmaid, and including three men who were incompletely clothed. The yacht was no longer a floating hotel, automobile and dancing-saloon; it was a stranded wreck. Not a passenger on board knew whether the tide was making or ebbing, but, secretly, all were convinced that it was ebbing and that they would be left on the treacherous sand and ultimately swallowed up therein, even if a storm did not supervene and smash the craft to bits in the classical manner. The skipper's words about the bones of many a good yacht had escaped no ear.

Further, not a passenger knew where the yacht was or whither, exactly, she was bound or whether the glass was rising or falling, for guests on yachts seldom concern themselves about details. Of course, signals might be made to passing ships, but signals were often, according to maritime history, unheeded, and the ocean was very large and empty, though it was only the German Ocean.... Musa was nervous and angry. Audrey knew from her intimate knowledge of him that he was angry and she wondered why he should be angry. Madame Piriac, on the other hand, was entirely calm. Her calmness seemed to say to those responsible, and even to the not-responsible passenger: "You got me into this and it is inconceivable that you should not get me out of it. I have always been looked after and protected, and I must be looked after and protected now. I absolutely decline to be worried." But Miss Thompkins was worried, she was very seriously alarmed; fear was in her face.

"I do think it's a shame!" she broke out almost loudly, in a trembling voice, to Audrey. "I do think it's a shame you should go flirting with poor Mr. Gilman when he's steering." And she meant all she said.

"Me flirting!" Audrey exclaimed, passionately resentful.

Withal, the sense of danger continued to increase. Still there were the boats. There were the motor-launch, the cutter and the dinghy. The sea was--for the present--calm and the moon encouraging.

"Lower the dinghy there and look lively now!" cried the captain.

This command more than ever frightened all the passengers who, in their nervousness and alarm, had tried to pretend to themselves that nervousness and alarm were absurd, and that first-class yachts never did, and could not, get wrecked. The command was a thunderstroke. It proved that the danger was immediate and intense. And the thought of all the beautiful food and drink on board, and all the soft cushions and the electric hair-curlers and the hot-water supply and the ice gave no consolation whatever. The idea of the futility and wickedness of luxury desolated the guests and made them austere, and yet even in that moment they speculated upon what goods they might take with them.

And why the dinghy, though it was a dinghy of large size? Why not the launch?

After the dinghy had been dropped into the sea an old sail was carefully spread amidships over her bottom and she was lugged, by her painter, towards the bow of the yacht where, with much grating of windlasses and of temperaments and voices, an anchor was very gently lowered into her and rested on the old sail. The anchor was so immense that it sank the dinghy up to Her gunwale, and then she was rowed away to a considerable distance, a chain grinding after her, and in due time the anchor was pitched with a great splash into the water. The sound of orders and of replies vibrated romantically over the surface of the water. Then a windlass was connected with the engine, and the passengers comprehended that the intention was to drag the yacht off the sand by main force. The chain clacked and strained horribly. The shouting multiplied, as though the vessel had been a great beast that could be bullied into obedience. The muscles of all passengers were drawn taut in sympathy with the chain, and at length there was a lurch and the chain gradually slackened.

"She's off!" breathed the captain. "We've saved a good half-hour."

"She'd have floated off by herself," said Mr. Gilman grandly.

"Yes, sir," said the captain. "But if it had happened to be the ebb, sir--" He left it at that and began on a new series of orders, embracing the dinghy, the engines, the anchor and another anchor.

And all the passengers resumed their courage and their ancient notions about the excellence of luxury, and came to the conclusion that navigation was a very simple affair, and in less than five minutes were sincerely convinced that they had never known fear.

Later, the impressive sight was witnessed of Madame Piriac, on her shoulders such a cloak as certainly had never been seen on a yacht before, bearing Mr. Gilman's valuable violin like a jewel casket. She had found it below and brought it up on deck.

The _Ariadne_, was now passing to port those twinkling cities of delight, Clacton and Frinton, and the long pier of Walton stretched out towards it, a string of topazes. The moon was higher and brighter than ever, but clouds had heaped themselves up to windward, and the surface of the water was rippled. Moreover, the yacht was now working over a strong, foul tide. The company, with the exception of Mr. Gilman, who had gone below--apparently in order to avoid being on the same deck with Captain Wyatt--had decided that Musa should be asked to play. Although the sound of his practising had escaped occasionally through the porthole of a locked cabin, he had not once during the cruise performed for the public benefit. Dancing was finished. Why should not the yacht profit by the presence of a great genius on board? The doctor and the secretary were of one mind with the women that there was no good answer to this question, and even the crew obviously felt that the genius ought to show what he was made of.

"Dare we ask you?" said Madame Piriac to the youth, offering him the violin case. Her supplicatory tone and attitude, though they were somewhat assumed, proved to what a height Musa had recently risen as a personage.

He hesitated, leaning against the rail and nervously fingering it.

"I know it is a great deal to ask. But you would give us so much pleasure," said Madame Piriac.

Musa replied in a dry, curt voice:

"I should prefer not to play."

"Oh! But Musa--" There was a general protest.

"I cannot play," Musa exclaimed with impatience, and moved almost savagely away.

The experience was novel for Madame Piriac, left standing there, as it were, respectfully presenting the violin case to the rail. This beautiful and not unpampered lady was accustomed to see her commands received as an honour; and when she condescended to implore, the effect usually was to produce a blissful and deprecatory confusion in the person besought. Her husband and Mr. Gilman had for a number of years been teaching her that whatever she desired was the highest good and the most complete felicity to everybody concerned in the fulfilment of the desire. She bore the blow from Musa admirably, keeping both her smile and her dignity, and with one gesture excusing Musa to all beholders as a capricious and a sensitive artist in whom moodiness was lawful. It was exquisitely done. It could not have been better done. But not even Madame Piriac's extreme skill could save the episode from having the air of a social disaster. The gaiety which had been too feverishly resumed after the salvage of the yacht from the sandbank expired like a pricked balloon. People silently vanished, and only Audrey was left on the after deck.

It was after a long interval that she became aware of the reappearance of Musa. Seemingly, he had been in the engine-room; since the beginning of the cruise he had shown a fancy for both the engine-room and the engineer. To her surprise, he marched straight towards her deckchair.

"I must speak to you," he said with emotion.

"Must you?" Audrey replied, full of hot resentment. "I think you've been horrid, Musa. Perfectly horrid! But I suppose you have your own notions of politeness now. Everything has been done for you, and--"

"What is that?" he stopped her. "Everything has been done for me. What is it that has been done for me? I play for years, I am ignored. Then I succeed. I am noticed. Men of affairs offer me immense sums. But am I surprised? Not the least in the world. It is the contrary which would have surprised me. It was inevitable that I should succeed. But note well--it is I myself who succeed. It is not my friends. It is not the concert agent. Do I regard the concert agent as a benefactor? Again, not the least in the world. You say everything has been done for me. Nothing has been done for me, Madame."

"Yes, yes," faltered Audrey, who was in a dilemma, and therefore more resentful than ever. "I--I only mean your friends have always stood by you." She gathered courage, sat up erect in her deck-chair, and finished haughtily: "And now you're conceited. You're insufferably conceited."

"Because I refused to play?" He laughed stridently and grimly. "No. I refused to play because I could not, because I was outside myself with jealousy. Yes, jealousy. You do not know jealousy. Perhaps you are incapable of it. But permit me to tell you, Madame, that jealousy is one of the finest and most terrible emotions. And that is why I must speak to you. I cannot live and see you flirt so seriously with that old idiot. I cannot live."

Audrey jumped up from the chair.

"Musa! I shall never speak to you again.... Me ... flirt.... And you call Mr. Gilman an old idiot!"

"What words would you employ, Madame? He was so agitated by your intimate conversation that he brought us all near to death, in any case. Moreover, it jumps to the eyes that the decrepit satyr is mad about you. Mad!"

And Musa's voice broke. In the midst of all her fury Audrey was relieved that it did break, for the reason that it was getting very loud, and the wheel, with Captain Wyatt thereat, was not far off.

There was one thing to do, and Audrey did it. She walked away rapidly. And, as she did so, she was startled to discover a sob in her throat. The drawn, highly emotionalised face of Musa remained with her. She was angry, indignant, infuriated, and yet her feelings were not utterly unpleasant, though she wanted them to be so. In the first place, they were exciting. And in the second place--what was it?--well, she had the strange, sweet sensation of being, somehow, the mainspring of the universe, of being immensely important in the scheme of things.

She thought her cup was full. It was not. Staring blankly over the side of the ship she saw a buoy float slowly by. She saw it with the utmost clearness, and on its round black surface was painted in white letters the word "Flank." There could not be two Flank buoys. It was the Flank buoy of the Mozewater navigable channel. ... She glanced around. The well-remembered shores of Mozewater were plainly visible under the moon. In the distance, over the bowsprit, she could discern the mass of the tower of Mozewater church. She could not distinguish Flank Hall, but she knew it was there. Why were they threading the Mozewater channel? It had been distinctly given out that the yacht would make Harwich harbour. Almost unconsciously she turned in the direction of the wheel, where Captain Wyatt was. Then, controlling herself, she moved away. She knew that she could not speak to the captain. She went below, and, before she could escape, found the saloon populated.

"Oh! Mrs. Moncreiff!" cried Madame Piriac. "It is a miraculous coincidence. You will never guess. One tells me we are going to the village of Moze for the night; it is because of the tide. You remember, I told you. It is where lives my little friend, Audrey Moze. To-morrow I visit her, and you must come with me. I insist that you come with me. I have never seen her. It will be all that is most palpitating."

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