- chapter: WOMAN AGAINST WOMAN. CHAPTER I. AT GIBRALTAR.
|chapter 2 >||chapter 37 >>|
WOMAN AGAINST WOMAN.
MY story is not a common story (or I trust so), and yet the scene with which it opens is a common scene enough. Fancy the garden of a villa, situated midway on the steep sides of Gibraltar Rock, with the rays of a Mediterranean sunset creeping over the sea, and lighting up each leaf and flower—each pane of glass and whitened wall, until both Nature and Art flushes red as a maiden's cheek beneath her lover's gaze; and last (though first), those component parts of the world's curse and blessing, love—a man and woman—and you have the place, time, and dramatis personœ of the first picture I want you to draw for yourself.
The subject under discussion between them did not appear to have been of a pleasant nature, if one might judge by the expression of their faces, for they both looked troubled. He was leaning against a portion of trellis-work which surmounted part of the low wall, with his eyes fixed upon her changing features. She, sitting on the wall itself, hung over it almost too carelessly, as she looked across the quiet waters of the bay, and thought.
With a small, slight figure, and a dark skin, the girl (she was only a girl) was more piquante than pretty. Indeed, with the exception of a good complexion, through which upon occasions the damask blood showed clearly, and a pair of liquid hazel eyes, she had little pretensions to beauty of any decided order. But she possessed a higher gift than beauty: she was fascinating—dangerously so. There was more danger for men in the society of this little brown girl, with her | | 2 ready blood, her killing glances, when she turned eyes upon them that could flash like diamonds when she was angry, or grow misty with unshed tears when she was moved—her arch, unstudied manner, and her animated conversation—than in association with the biggest, fairest Juno in creation, who was incapable of feeling the same excitement, or saying the same things. As she sat now upon the low wall, her hazel eyes, black from their intensity of thought, gazing into space; her wavy rust-coloured hair (well calculated to provoke a pre-Raphaelite's enthusiasm), appearing from its quantity almost too heavy for the small head it graced; and her bust, which was large for the slight waist beneath it, clearly defined against the evening sky—it would have been a critical eye indeed, and a cold heart, that could have found serious fault with the charms of Rachel Norreys.
She was not a Venus-Aphrodite in form, nor an angel in disposition, but she was better than either. She was a warm, impulsive, energetic woman, as quick to resent an injury to others as she was to confess a fault of her own; passionate in temper, yet open as the day; passionate in feeling, but faithful unto death. She had not yet completed her one-and-twentieth year; and yet to look at her, one would have fancied she was older than the man who was leaning against the trellis-work, and staring at her on the present occasion. His thirty years had passed in such a prosperous pleasant-indolence away, that they had left few traces, as they went, upon his handsome features; whilst the nervous creature before him had lived twenty-four months in every twelve ever since she had awakened to the meaning of that great word, Life, But in personal appearance her companion had decidedly the advantage over her. He was really very good-looking, quite an Apollo, so far as the inexorable exigencies of civilization and the irrefutable laws of his Bond-street tailor would permit one to judge; too much of an Apollo, indeed, to leave much room for anything but good-temper, and the strong sense of honour which, thank God, no true-bred English gentleman has ever yet been found too stupid to possess beneath that low forehead, which was so very much on a line with the straight Grecian nose. Added to which, he had almond-shaped, sleepy blue eyes, and long fair moustaches and | | 3 whiskers, and was, in fact, Captain Cecil Craven, of Her Majesty's 3rd Regiment of Royal Bays.
He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow—a fact which was, perhaps, in itself a sufficient excuse for many of the faults and follies of his useless life. For these widowed mothers with only sons have a vast deal to answer for in this world; and Cecil Craven's mother had proved no exception to the general rule. Left very rich by her late husband, her great desire had been that her son should not follow any profession, but live at home with her, looking after and enjoying what was his own and hers. And had it not been that beneath those handsome, effeminate features there lay hidden a tolerable amount of determination (generally shown by persistently going the wrong way), Cecil Craven had never entered the Bays—above all, followed the fortunes of his regiment upon foreign service. But his ideas of pleasure differed from those of his mother. Gibraltar suited his fancy, and therefore Gibraltar had had the honour of his presence for the last three years. He had been known for a longer time than that to the girl by his side, although she had not met him as a man until she also came to Gibraltar. But her father had been and was still an intimate friend of his mother's, and many of her school holidays had been spent at Craven Court, where she had always commanded a great amount of attention. At the time this story opens, the 3rd Royal Bays had already received orders to return to England, and was daily expecting the arrival of the transport containing the regiment destined to relieve it.
The girl was the first to break the silence, so suddenly and impetuously that she almost made her companion start.
"I cannot believe it, Captain Craven," were the passionate words; "I will not believe it; oh, say it is not true—that it cannot be true!"
"I wish I could, for your sake and my own," he rejoined, as her eyes went upward to meet his, almost imploringly; "but I am afraid it is only too true. I have been speaking on the subject again with him this morning, and his assertions are too strong for disbelief. But don't let it trouble you so, Rachel," he continued, with an attempt at consolation as he saw the light die out of the dark, humid eyes, and the heavy | | 4 eyelashes droop again despondingly. The apparent supineness of his words kindled all the fire in her nature.
"Don't let it trouble me!" she exclaimed, loudly; "how can I help its troubling me? It has haunted me every moment since I heard it, it will haunt me (that bitter knowledge) till the last hour of my life. Oh! may God's curse!"——and then she stopped short, blushing deeply, and lowered her tone: "I didn't mean that, Captain Craven; I forgot—please forgive me; but I am infinitely miserable!"
Cecil Craven's sleepy blue eyes had opened as wide as nature would permit them to do, as he heard her last exclamation, and they had scarcely resumed their normal condition when he said in answer,
"Do you know, I am almost afraid of you, Rachel!"
"Why?" she asked, quickly.
"Because you are so hasty; so—what d'ye call it—so hot; you'll be letting it all out some day before you know what you are about."
Her lip curled very visibly as she answered him, but he was not a man to detect sarcasm easily. "I swore, did I not?" she said; and to him, "why need you fear?"
"It's not for myself," he went on to say, without appearing to notice the interruption, "so much as for——, there are others involved in it, and in a quarter——it would hurt one very much, Rachel; I have never received anything but affection and consideration, yet, and——you don't suppose I don't feel it?"
His sentences were broken, as if he scarcely knew how to express himself, and a glow very much like shame had overspread his honest face the while.
"You need not be in the least afraid," the girl repeated, still looking away from him and over the sea; "a promise has always been a sacred thing with me. I cannot remember having broken one yet. This will be doubly so—for many reasons. Death shall not wrest the truth from me—whatever I suffer," she said in a lower tone, and then assuming a more cheerful one, added, "and now let us change the subject, Captain Craven. We can find a pleasanter one if we try."
But to turn a conversation quickly from an unpleasant to | | 5 a pleasant subject is by no means an easy task, particularly if the former is one which materially affects your happiness, and has engrossed your mind for days past. Rachel Norreys and Cecil Craven felt it to be so, and for many minutes after her last words they preserved a total silence. The scene before them was a very lovely one. The garden in which they stood, and which lay at the back of the house, scarcely deserved the name, consisting of nothing more than a long belt of grass, with a few flowering shrubs to break its monotony; but it overlooked the sea. Before them lay the deep-blue waters of the Mediterranean, like a broad sheet of glass, with vessels of all sizes, shapes, and characters riding snugly at anchor upon its bosom. On one side lay the convict-hulks, black and surly-looking, like evil consciences which refuse to smile when all the world is smiling—types of the guilt within them; whilst round and about their dark bodies the light skiffs and pleasure-boats, with their white sails and coloured awnings, went darting to and fro, under the influence of the breeze which had just commenced to ripple over the water: and still nearer inland might be seen the mail-packet from England, which had arrived that afternoon, and was employed in the unpleasant business of taking in coal, whilst her passengers were pleasure-seeking on shore. On the broad road which ran alongside of the water's edge, they might have been encountered in noisy, happy parties, harmessly riotous in their excess of animal spirits, mixed up with groups of equestrians, and carriages full of residents turning out for their evening's amusement. And looking beyond all this—beyond the carriages and horses, the pleasure-boats and convict-hulks—beyond the sea itself—the opposite shores of Africa were just visible in the clearness of the evening air—although the warmth was still the warmth of a summer's day.
This time Cecil Craven was the first to speak—
"You know the steamer has arrived?" he said, interrogatively.
All the colour faded out of her face—
"Not the transport!" she exclaimed.
"No, no. The mail. How I frightened you, Rachel! but you know we may expect the other at any moment."| | 6
"I am aware of it," she answered; "but I hope against Hope, and try to cheat myself into believing something may detain it.
"What if it should come? Do you think Dr. Browne is too ill to travel?"
"I am afraid so," she said, sadly. "He has certainly not gained strength during the last week. Sometimes I fancy he will never be strong again."
"Oh nonsense! That is only your fancy, said her companion, though he knew the girl was right; "but even supposing that he could not sail with the head-quarters——"
Rachel interrupted him, "We should have to stay here," she said; and then added hurriedly, "I can't bear the thoughts of it, Captain Craven! The transport is not likely to arrive so soon, is it? for I shall never see any of you again, if it does."
Her face was so distressed that he attempted to soothe her, against his conscience.
"No, no, far likelier to be delayed than not. Sometimes they keep a corps under orders for home for months. And what, if it does come? Dr. Browne would rejoin as soon as he was able. We should all be together again before long."
"But not me," said the girl, shaking her head, "not me. You forget, Captain Craven."
"Is that likely to come to pass so soon, then, Rachel?"
"Papa," she began, and then hesitated, but went on directly afterwards with a slight stamp of her foot to emphasize the word. "Papa says so. He says it cannot be long now; he is always talking of it, he makes me wretched whenever he mentions the subject."
"It is the strangest thing I ever heard of," remarked Captain Craven, reflectively; "can't you remember him at all?"
"Remember him!" she repeated, impatiently, "of course I can. Cannot you remember things that took place when you were sixteen? I remember him only too well."
"What is he like?" he asked, nothing daunted by her manner.
"Why do you want to know?" she rejoined, quickly, and then added, "when we were—when I knew him—he was tall—no, not very tall, about as tall as you are now, with dark eyes and hair; brown eyes, at least I think so, or grey—but I almost forget his face, it is so long ago. I know he was thin and tallish, and had no whiskers."| | 7
"You like men then with dark eyes and hair, and without any whiskers," remarked Cecil Craven, with what was intended to be a careless air, as he fondly drew his own through and through his fingers.
She jerked her shoulders impatiently, and something of a frown came over her face.
"You know I do not," was all she said in reply.
"Have you no picture of him?"
"Why really?" she said again, looking up.
"What! no picture to look at every spare moment, and talk to, and kiss, and put under your pillow every night. I thought that was what all ladies did when they were in love."
"I don't know anything about it," she answered, biting her lips.
"Are you not longing for the time to arrive when he shall come home? I suppose he will stay on shore for good now, wont he?"
He was torturing her, and he knew it, although for what reason God only could have witnessed, unless it were for that unnecessary evidence of our fallen nature, which will permit the most generous of men at times to wound the women they love best, where one of their own sex is concerned, be there rivalry or not between them. Rachel Norreys, still sitting with her face turned from him, let the tears rise to her eyes in mute reply, and drop thence upon her lap without so much as noticing their fall.
"It will be all right then, Rachel," he continued, "will it not? You will forget all about the poor 3rd, and the days we have passed at old Gib together, eh?"
Then she could stand it no longer, and all her attempted show of pride and unconcern melted away beneath something rising in her heart.
"Oh, Captain Craven," she cried, "do you want to kill me? Don't torture me in this way. You know I shall be wretched and miserable: I feel as if I couldn't leave the 3rd, and Elise, and all of you. I know I shall never have a happy day afterwards. Oh! you are very cruel to me—you are very, very cruel!"| | 8
She was crying violently now. She sobbed and sobbed with her face in her hands till he was afraid that not only the inmates of the house, but the passers-by beneath the garden wall would hear her, and be alarmed. So he tried to pull her hands apart, and when he found he could not do so, he commenced to pour soothing words into her ear.
"Rachel, dear Rachel!" he said, "pray don't cry; I meant nothing. I was only in fun. I dare say none of these horrible things will come to pass. I bet we have months of happiness here together still. My dear girl, don't cry."
He had knelt on one knee beside her, trying to look into her face as he spoke; but she kept it persistently covered with her hands. The path on which they were (and which ran along the inside of the wall) was partially hidden from the house by a few clumps of shrubs, and as he was attempting to console her, and she remained with her face still buried, a step came across the grass, and round the shrubs, before they were cognisant of any one's approach. It was only a servant with a note—the wife of one of the soldiers of the regiment who had been promoted to the place of maid to Dr. Browne's daughter some little time before. She was a tall, angular woman, with sharp, black eyes, and hair growing low on her forehead, in what is termed a "widow's peak." A woman with a vindictive temper and a quiet respectful voice—a woman whom her mistress hated, had hated from the first, and trusting to the instinct of her nature, should never have taken into her service. As she appeared now, noiselessly creeping under the sheltering shrubs, Captain Craven sprang to his feet at once, and Rachel, uncovering her wet face, without time to conceal her emotion, asked her what she wanted?
"Only a note for Mrs. Norreys from Mrs. Arundel," said the woman, with a sufficiently perceptible emphasis on the first title to have made a stranger turn at once to look for the wedding-ring upon Rachel's left hand. Yes, it was there, although almost hidden by three or four ordinary rings which surmounted it. As Mrs. Norreys took the note and looked the woman in the face, the return glance that met hers had something in it that roused her quick temper.
"Why cannot you walk like other people, Caroline?" she | | 9 demanded, angrily, "instead of sneaking down the garden as if you wanted to listen to what was being said."
"Sneaking!" echoed the woman, with eyes full of a respectfully reproachful surprise; "I walked as I always do walk, Mrs. Norreys, and I didn't suppose I was likely to hear anything that I should not——"
"Go away," said Mrs. Norreys, shortly; and as the servant disappeared, she exclaimed with warmth, "I hate that woman, Captain Craven, she is always listening at keyholes and opening drawers; I know she is, and yet if I ever catch her at it she has always a ready excuse. She is a horribly sly creature!"
"Rather dangerous, though, isn't it," remarked Captain Craven, who had not liked the expression in the servant's face, "to make an enemy of a woman like that? They are very revengeful sometimes."
"Revengeful!" said Rachel, opening her note and her eyes at the same moment. "Why, what harm could she do me? I'll give her warning if I hear any more of it." And then she skimmed her note, with looks still sparkling and cheeks flushed from her late excitement, whilst Cecil Craven switched off the leaves of the wall-creepers, and wished that the servant had not caught them just at that identical moment.
"Elise wants me to go over there this evening after papa is asleep," said Rachel, presently, in reference to her note; "that will not be till nine o'clock. Are you going, Captain Craven?"
"Yes, Mrs. Arundel asked me this morning, when we were riding together, if I would look in after mess. We seem always to be meeting there now, don't we? This will make the third time this week."
"If you would rather I did not go——" said Rachel, demurely.
"Rather you did not go!—yes, you know I would rather you did not go, don't you?" he answered, laughing. "Why, Rachel, I feel, I have felt, ever since—you know what—that we cannot be too near or dear to one another. You will give me that consolation, will you not? You will let me feel that to all the pain of such a discovery there is at | | 10 least some counterbalancing happiness? You will let me have a little of the affection which I have almost a right, or I feel so, to claim from you?"
She had blushed visible as he bantered her, but with his last words her looks grew earnest, and as he concluded, her hand stole into his. He accepted the action as answer, and raised it to his lips. Then he said, "How very intimate you seem with Mrs. Arundel: why, you are always there!"
"Pretty nearly always," she replied, gaily; "for the little divertissement which her indignation against the servant had occasioned had had the effect of making her lose sight for the time of her previous cause of trouble, and apparently restored her spirits. "I am there every day regularly; I have so few friends, you see, and Elise is the dearest creature possible; she is just like a sister to me; we are inseparable."
"Bosom friends, eh?" said Captain Craven. "I suppose that means that you tell her everything, doesn't it?"
"Not quite everything," answered Rachel, blushing again; "but very nearly: so does she me; she tells me all about her husband, and her private affairs; and I tell her——"
"All about yours," surmised Captain Craven. A dark cloud came over her face, and she was silent. "Well, all about who, then," he continued; "not all about me, I hope, Rachel?"
"I have nothing to tell about you," she answered, though she felt she was not saying the exact truth, and then added; "but why should I not?"
He pulled his moustaches for some time, in hope of pulling out an answer, but it was long coming, she gazing inquiringly into his face the while.
"Well, I don't know," he at last ejaculated; "but still what passes between friends, I think best kept to themselves."
"But I thought you were great friends with Elise, or you used to be," said Rachel.
It was an innocent remark on her part, but the random shaft hit hard, for, as it happened, Cecil Craven had been "very good friends " with Mrs. Arundel, so good, indeed, that to that fact alone might be attributed the reason that he did not now particularly care that she should know he was "very good | | 11 friends" with anybody else. But, however this may have been, he kept it to himself.
"Not such friends as I am with you, Rachel—as I should wish to be with you. Mrs. Arundel may be a very good creature, but——"
"Now, I'll have no 'buts' about dear Elise," interposed Rachel; "she is the best friend I have, Captain Craven, and you shall not abuse her before me."
Captain Craven was just about to indignantly refute the accusation of having had the slightest intention of abusing any friend of Mrs. Norreys, when their conversation was interrupted for the second time that evening.
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