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HOME > Inspiring Novel > The Yarn of Old Harbour Town > CHAPTER XIII LUCY'S MADNESS
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 The monotonous and commonplace demands of everyday life on board ship as well as on shore will enter into the most exalted and uncommon forms of romance at sea. Whether Lucy Acton was mad, or whether she was merely acting a part, it was as certain she must be fed as though she was a vulgar, homely, steerage passenger with nothing more poetic and soul-lifting in her life than the faded portrait of the milkman who wooed and then jilted her.  
The cabin breakfast was served at half-past eight. A tray for Lucy was placed at the side of Mr Lawrence, who with his own hand furnished it. He then directed Paul, whilst giving him the key, to leave the door unlocked on quitting the berth, and, turning in his chair, he watched the hunchback enter. But the door, as before, was closed by the swing of the ship, and he caught but a[Pg 312] glimpse of the interior, which did not frame its inmate.
This time Paul was for some minutes in the berth. He came out, leaving the door unlocked as ordered, though shut, and stood beside Mr Lawrence to make his report.
"How does the lady seem?" said Mr Lawrence.
"She made me put the tray on the deck, sir," answered Paul, "and I see her running her eyes over it, and she says, 'Where's the knife, you man of the forest?' I says, 'I don't know, mum.'"
He paused.
"Nothing but a slice or two of tongue was sent to her," said Mr Lawrence, "that requires a knife to cut it with. Go on! Tell me what followed."
"After she told me to put the tray on the deck, and looked at it and asked about the knife, she stares at me just as I was about to go, and then, your honour, her face changes as if she'd pulled off a mask. She smiled with so cunning a look, such a trembling of the eyelids, that I reckoned she'd got something hidden and was going to stab me with it, and she lifts her shoulders all the while, a-looking at me with a cunning smile and trembling eyes, till I supposed she was a-imitating of my figure; and then she whispers so soft[Pg 313] that I could just hear what she said, whilst she beckons to me, smiling: 'If I show it, swear you'll keep it a secret.' 'I don't know what you mean, ma'am,' I says. 'Here,' she says, with her cunning smile, and still a-beckoning. 'But if you don't keep the secret I'll kill you as sartin as that you was born in a forest.'"
Here again the fellow paused, apparently striving to find words to produce his picture.
"Go on!" said Mr Lawrence fiercely. "What did she show you?"
Paul started, and answered: "She took me to the locker that's under the window, and, lifting the lid, pointed down into the inside, and began to laugh with a strange, crying noise, like a cat quarrelling, and then says she, 'Do you see it?' There was nothing in the locker, saving that in one end of it she'd made a sort of bird's nest out of the bed feathers which I 'adn't swept away, and in it was her rings, a piece of soap, a salt-cellar which I hadn't missed from the tray, and what I took for a ball, but which, I allow, was her gloves rolled up tight. 'Do you see it?' she said, looking so cunning and a-whispering so mysterious, it was more like dreaming than living to see and watch her. 'That's my secret!' and then she slams the lid of the locker to, with a noise which I thought your[Pg 314] honour would believe was a pistol-shot, and says, frownin' and starin' at me with eyes that seemed to be in a blaze, 'If you says a word about what you've seen I'll kill you.'"
The fellow ceased. He had told all he had to relate, and he was by no means such a fool as not to see in his listener's face that he had related much more than enough. He scratched his thigh as a monkey would, and fell to waiting upon his master.
When Mr Lawrence had finished breakfast he went on deck consistently with the innovation he had made in the ship's routine aft to relieve Mr Eagle, who had come on watch at eight o'clock, and who now with Mr Pledge went to breakfast in the cabin.
It was a very fine, clear, sparkling May morning far down in the English Channel, and still the sea stretched desolate to its dim blue recesses: which, had all been right with Mr Lawrence, would have pleased him very much indeed, but he had something else to think of. The waters frolicked in little sliding runs; it was a chasing dance of waters with the billows pointing their white satin shoes under their brilliant skirts of liquid blue. Mr Lawrence walked the deck, and seemed to be keeping a bright look-out as he swept the horizon with the glass he had brought with him, and often his stern, haughty, and[Pg 315] handsome face was directed towards the men, who seemed to know that a vigilant eye had hove into view through the companion, and they clapped a fresh colour of activity into those motions of limbs which accompanied their labours.
But in truth Mr Lawrence was all the while thinking of what he had heard from Paul, and every time he took a turn his gaze went to the companion hatch, whence, now that her cabin door was unlocked, he expected at any moment to see the figure of Lucy Acton emerge.
What would she do if she came on deck? And what was he to do if his treatment of her had driven her mad? It seemed like all the world to a very little, for here was this one man in conflict with really stupendous circumstances brought about by himself. Upon his hands was the girl of his heart, the most adorable of women in his opinion, as mad—if he was to trust the evidence of his own senses and the report of his steward—as any howling, grimacing, jibbering inmate of a lunatic asylum. Upon his hands, too, was the ship with a crowd of sailors, the ship to be feloniously sold, the sailors to be fraudulently got rid of: and much must depend upon the reception accorded him and his friend Dick, if it ever should come to[Pg 316] the Minorca's safe arrival at Rio de Janeiro, by the intelligent scoundrel whom he had named in his letter as Don José Zamovano y Villa.
Mr Eagle did not keep him long waiting, and when that surly, awkward seaman arrived Mr Lawrence went below and found Mr Thomas Pledge in the act of leaving the table and the cabin, with his jaw still working in mastication. It was clear that Mr Pledge had no intention of keeping his seat, even though he had not entirely swallowed his last mouthful, when Mr Lawrence hove in sight.
As the second mate climbed the companion steps Mr Lawrence stood with his hand upon the table and his eyes fastened upon Lucy's door, thinking. It was clear he was hanging in the wind, as sailors say. He could head a boarding party, he could look a loaded cannon full in the muzzle, he could risk seizing the side-rope which was connected with a fuse for exploding the powder-room of a pirate that was to be boarded and taken; but he seemed to lack heart for such an enterprise as his opening of that door, and his entrance into that berth signified.
He formed his resolution, and stepping to the door, knocked. He received no answer, whereupon he entered.
[Pg 317]
He started as though he was confronted by something totally different from the lady he expected to see. In truth Mr Lawrence had never seen Lucy Acton with her hair down. Always when they met her hair had been dressed in the prevailing mode, with a little fringing or shadowing of wisps on her fair brow and curls on the beautiful outlines of her shoulders. Whether her hair had become disengaged from its fastenings in the night, or whether the deck mattress had done half and she with her fingers had let fall the rest, matters not; she was before him, clothed all about her back and breast with her abundance of soft dark hair.
She was kneeling or crouching at the breakfast tray which was upon the deck, and when Mr Lawrence entered, she held in one hand a piece of cold tongue, a bite or two out of which she was eating, and in the other hand a white biscuit. The cup was half-full of tea. She did not lift her eyes when he entered, nor seem to be aware that another occupied the cabin besides herself. She looked at the piece of tongue with a smile which was a miracle of idiotism in its perfect conveyance of no meaning, then bit what was in her mouth, then smiled again; and again as suddenly frowned with a marvellous swiftness of transformation of facial[Pg 318] expression. So that whilst she looked, she appeared idiotic in one instant, in the next she wore a strange and alarming look of angry madness, dreadful to witness, working in her lineaments so sweetly feminine, so purely gentle.
Her natural colour had not wholly faded from her cheek, but the bloom was very faint indeed, once removed only perhaps from pallor, so that her eyes, which in the full glow of her beauty were as a sorceress's for liquid softness and the lambent lights of passions and emotions, making one think of a dark midnight sea illuminated by the moon, gathered a keenness of outline, a vitality of colour and play which of themselves would have suffered her to pass as the mad girl she was or figured to be.
"I wish, madam," he said, "I could see you seated more comfortably. But I wish more that you could see into my heart, what I feel there, and how my pain is infinitely keener than yours, because my love for you, my inexorable passion for you, my determination to win you and make you my own for life, paralysing the efforts of those who would keep us asunder, make the very soul within me shrink to behold you so uneasy, so unhappy, so reluctant to cast upon me one look—even one look—to persuade me that my stratagem was based upon my conviction that I am not[Pg 319] indifferent to you, nay, that deep in your spirit your love for me dwells as a jewel in a casket that yourself dare not open, though willing that I should."
She continued at one moment smiling her idiot smile, at another moment frowning her madwoman's frown, whilst he spoke. Then looking up she seemed to perceive him for the first time, sprang erect with a wonderful convulsion of terror in her whole form, and a sharp, short, piercing shriek of distress.
"Who are you, sir?" she cried, brushing her hair by a fling of both hands from her brow and cheeks. "How durst you intrude upon me? Do you know I am a woman—a lady—a lady—a princess—the Princess Tatters, sir, the daughter of a great and powerful lord who would condemn you to be hanged if he caught you here!"
It was sure that neither the spirit nor the inspiration of the genius of the famous Kitty O'Hara was far distant from her child when this sweet and astonishing young creature executed the above feat of dramatic gymnastics and delivered the words just recorded.
The bewildered man stared at her as though he was himself bereft of reason. Amazement, confusion, love, pity, horror, doubt were amongst the expressions which ran through his countenance like shadow chasing shadow.
[Pg 320]
"My dearest madam!" he cried. "My sweetest Lucy!" and here he clasped his hands and swayed with passion in his posture of piteous and painful appeal, which rendered him as a figure a really noble piece of flesh and blood, exalted as it was by its peculiar manly beauty of face. "Is it possible that you do not know me? How can I act to undo the dreadful distress my love has brought upon you? Oh, thou fair and everlasting darling of my heart, have those secret sweet feelings with which you regard me no power to influence your moods, to control these strange manifestations, to——"
He drew his breath in a gasp and stopped, arrested by her suddenly turning her back upon him and bowing with the exquisite grace of the finished curtsy of those days to what Mr Lawrence guessed was an apparition.
"It is good of your Royal Highness," she exclaimed in softly modulated, respectful tones, uttered in a measure that gave them a courtier-like dignity, "to visit me in my loneliness and distress. The great Duke of Clarence, sir"—again she curtsied—"will ever be remembered with love and pride by a kingdom whose glory lies in the deeds of her sailors, for his devotion to the sea, to those who sail it, and who bleed for their country upon it."
[Pg 321]
She seemed to listen in a profoundly respectful attitude to the reply of the vision, and then said as though in answer to it: "Your Royal Highness, I am imprisoned in this ship by a man who is the son of a sailor and was himself a sailor until he was expelled from the Service of which your Royal Highness is one of the most brilliant lights, by a shameful and a barbarous act unworthy of an officer and a gentleman. He hopes to marry me, sir, by stealing me from my father, who was a captain in the Royal Navy, and who trusted him. I entreat your Royal Highness's influence to procure my immediate liberation from this wicked man that I may return to my father who will be breaking his heart over my disappearance and loss."
She pronounced the words "who will be breaking his heart" in a plaintive Irish accent. But it did not occur to the listener that the apparition she apostrophised was not H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence but Mrs Kitty O'Hara, her mother, who was as famous in her day as Peg Woffington and equal to Mrs Jordan in some scenes of romping and roguishness.
Like most sailors of his time Mr Lawrence possessed the instinct of superstition, a quality or element which has contributed the most brilliant of the rays to the glory of the[Pg 322] romance of the sea. He was sensible of an emotion of awe as he watched Lucy bowing to and addressing a royal apparition so well known to him as the Sailor Prince whose viewless eye might be upon him, whose invisible ear might be taking in his story whilst the wild-haired girl bowed apparently to the bulkhead or addressed the thin air.
She appeared to be listening: then with a profound curtsy, said: "I thank your Royal Highness for your gracious condescension. It is not my wish that this unhappy man should be severely punished. If, sir, it should be your pleasure to order him to be executed, I would travel twenty miles upon my knees to beg him off. I am reduced to this one gown, and am now the Princess Tatters. My cruel gaoler will not suffer me to use a knife to cut the food he sends me. Look at that tray, sir! I feed upon the floor because I have been made a beggar of, and as though I were a savage, I am obliged to use my fingers to eat with."
Here she paused and looked round at the tray as though she would have Mr Lawrence catch a sight of her face, whose composite expression of indignation, distress, and eager yearning for help and sympathy was heightened and scored by the mad look her eyes wore, and the unmeaning smile[Pg 323] which deformed her mouth. She again addressed the apparition.
"Can I trust your Royal Highness with a secret?... How good you are, sir! Your Royal Highness shall see my treasure, but you are too great as a Prince, and too virtuous as a man, to betray me."
With that, and looking round about her with insane cunning glittering in her eyes as diamonds tremble in the dancer's ear, as though she feared she might be watched by another in that berth, albeit her manner persuaded Mr Lawrence that she did not know he was looking on, she went to the locker, lifted the lid and disclosed her treasure-hidings of rings, soap, and the rest of it, looking up meanwhile as though into the face of a person who was bending a little to catch a sight of that nest of feathers, but looking up with such marvellous vitality in the composition of her lineaments, and in the penetrating glare of those eyes of hers which in hours of repose and content seemed to brood upon what they viewed, that Mr Lawrence could almost swear that he beheld the spectral shadow of the Royal apparition into whose face she gazed, stooping and peering into the nest at the end of the locker.
She spoke again to the phantom, but this[Pg 324] time in such a mere muttering of words that the listener caught nothing of her meaning, and then sank her figure in a profoundly respectful curtsy whilst she seemed to kiss a hand extended to her.
She stood a few moments with her hands clasped before her at arm's length, and her head bowed as though deep in thought, then went to the tray again, knelt beside it and continued her meal, taking the biscuit and the tongue in her hands without seeming to be in the least conscious of the presence of Mr Lawrence.
"Madam," said he softly, "after so lively a conversation with your Royal but unrevealed visitor, have you no word for me—no look——"
"I have no piano in this cabin, sir," she answered, without raising her eyes. "And I have no heart to sing without music."
"I do not ask you to sing," he said. "Give me but a word, give me but a look. You tear my heart by this behaviour."
She looked up at him suddenly with her eyes trembling cunningly again as when she asked the phantom to view............
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