"And Woman, wit a flaming torch
Sings heedless, in a powder--
Her careless smiles they warp and scorch
Man's heart, as fire the pine
Cuts keener than the thrust of lance
The trouble about this story is that it really has no ending. Taking an ocean voyage is something like picking up an interesting novel, and reading a chapter in the middle of it. The passenger on a big steamer gets glimpses of other people's lives, but he doesn't know what the beginning was, nor what the ending will be.
The last time I saw Mrs. Tremain she was looking over her shoulder and smiling at Glendenning as she walked up the gangway plank at Liverpool, hanging affectionately on the arm of her husband. I said to myself at the time, "You silly little handsome idiot, Lord only knows what trouble you will cause before flirting has lost its charm for you." Personally I would like to have shoved Glendenning off the gangway plank into the dark Mersey; but that would have been against the laws of the country on which we were then landing.
Mrs. Tremain was a woman whom other women did not like, and whom men did. Glendenning was a man that the average man detested, but he was a great favourite with the ladies.
I shall never forget the sensation Mrs. Tremain caused when she first entered the saloon of our steamer. I wish I were able to describe accurately just how she was dressed; for her dress, of course, had a great deal to do with her appearance, notwithstanding the fact that she was one of the loveliest women I ever saw in my life. But it would require a woman to describe her dress with accuracy, and I am afraid any woman who was on board the steamer that trip would decline to help me. Women were in the habit of sniffing when Mrs. Tremain's name was mentioned. Much can be expressed by a woman's sniff. All that I can say about Mrs. Tremain's dress is that it was of some dark material, brightly shot with threads of gold, and that she had looped in some way over her shoulders and around her waist a very startlingly coloured silken scarf, while over her hair was thrown a black lace arrangement that reached down nearly to her feet, giving her a half-Spanish appearance. A military-looking gentleman, at least twice her age, was walking beside her. He was as grave and sober as she appeared light and frivolous, and she walked by his side with a peculiar elastic step, that seemed hardly to touch the carpet, laughing and talking to him just as if fifty pair of eyes were not riveted upon her as the pair entered. Everybody thought her a Spanish woman; but, as it turned out afterward, she was of Spanish-Mexican-American origin, and whatever beauty there is in those three nationalities seemed to be blended in some subtle, perfectly indescribable way in the face and figure of Mrs. Tremain.
The grave military-looking gentleman at her side was Captain Tremain, her husband, although in reality he was old enough to be her father. He was a captain in the United States army, and had been stationed at some fort near the Mexican border where he met the young girl whom he made his wife. She had seen absolutely nothing of the world, and they were now on their wedding trip to Europe, the first holiday he had taken for many a year.
In an incredibly short space of time Mrs. Tremain was the acknowledged belle of the ship. She could not have been more than nineteen or twenty years of age, yet she was as perfectly at her ease, and as thoroughly a lady as if she had been accustomed to palaces and castles for years. It was astonishing to see how naturally she took to it. She had lived all her life in a rough village in the wilds of the South-West, yet she had the bearing of a duchess or a queen.
The second day out she walked the deck with the captain, which, as everybody knows, is a very great honour. She always had a crowd of men around her, and apparently did not care the snap of her pretty fingers whether a woman on board spoke to her or not. Her husband was one of those slow-going, sterling men whom you meet now and again, with no nonsense about him, and with a perfect trust in his young wife. He was delighted to see her enjoying her voyage so well, and proud of the universal court that was paid to her. It was quite evident to everybody on board but himself that Mrs. Tremain was a born coquette, and the way she could use those dark, languishing, Spanish-Mexican eyes of hers was a lesson to flirts all the world over. It didn't, apparently, so much matter as long as her smiles were distributed pretty evenly over the whole masculine portion of the ship. But by-and-by things began to simmer down until the smiles were concentrated on the most utterly objectionable man on board--Glendenning. She walked the deck with him, she sat in cozy corners of the saloon with him, when there were not many people there, and at night they placed their chairs in a little corner of the deck where the electric light did not shine. One by one the other admirers dropped off, and left her almost entirely to Glendenning.
Of all those of us who were deserted by Mrs. Tremain none took it so hard as young Howard of Brooklyn. I liked Howard, for he was so palpably and irretrievably young, through no fault of his own, and so thoroughly ashamed of it. He wished to be considered a man of the world, and he had grave opinions on great questions, and his opinions were ever so much more settled and firm than those of us older people.
Young Howard confided a good deal in me, and even went so far one time as to ask if I thought he appeared very young, and if I would believe he was really as old as he stated.
I told him frankly I had taken him to be a very much older man than that, and the only thing about him I didn't like was a certain cynicism and knowledge of the world which didn't look well in a man who ought to be thinking about the serious things of life. After this young Howard confided in me even more than before. He said that he didn't care for Mrs. Tremain in that sort of way at all. She was simply an innocent child, with no knowledge of the world whatever, such as he and I possessed. Her husband--and in this I quite agreed with him--had two bad qualities: in the first place he was too easy going at the present, and in the second place he was one of those quiet men who would do something terrible if once he were aroused.
One day, as young Howard and I walked the deck together, he burst out with this extraordinary sentiment--
"All women," he said, "are canting hypocrites."
"When a man says that," I answered, "he means some particular woman. What woman have you in your eye, Howard?"
"No, I mean all women. All the women on board this boat, for instance."
"Except one, of course," I said.
"Yes," he answered, "except one. Look at the generality of women," he cried bitterly; "especially those who are what they call philanthropic and good. They will fuss and mourn over some drunken wretch who cannot be reclaimed, and would be no use if he could, and they will spend their time and sympathy over some creature bedraggled in the slums, whose only hope can be death, and that as soon as possible, yet not one of them will lift a finger to save a fellow creature from going over the brink of ruin. They will turn their noses in the air when a word from them would do some good, and then they will spend their time fussing and weeping over somebody that nothing on earth can help."
"Now, Howard," I said, "that's your cynicism which I've so often deplored. Come down to plain language, and tell me what you mean?"
"Look at the women on board this steamer," he cried indignantly. "There's pretty little Mrs. Tremain, who seems to have become fascinated by that scoundrel Glendenning. Any person can see what kind of a man he is--any one but an innocent child, such as Mrs. Tremain is. Now, no man can help. What she needs is some good kindly woman to take her by the hand and give her a word of warning. Is there a woman on board of this steamer who will do it? Not one. They see as plainly as any one else how things are drifting; but it takes a man who has murdered his wife to get sympathy and flowers from the modern so-called lady."
"Didn't you ever hear of the man, Howard, who made a large sum of money, I forget at the moment exactly how much, by minding his own business?"
"Oh yes, it's all very well to talk like that; but I would like to pitch Glendenning overboard."
"I admit that it would be a desirable thing to do, but if anybody is to do it, it is Captain Tremain and not you. Are you a married man, Howard?"
"No," answered Howard, evidently very much flattered by the question.
"Well, you see, a person never can tell on board ship; but, if you happen to be, it seems to me that you wouldn't care for any outsider to interfere in a matter such as we are discussing. At any rate Mrs. Tremain is a married woman, and I can't see what interest you should have in her. Take my advice and leave her alone, and if you want to start a reforming crusade among women, try to convert the rest of the ladies of the ship to be more charitable and speak the proper word in time."
"You may sneer as much as you like," answered young Howard, "but I will tell you what I am going to do. 'Two is company, and three is none'; I'm going to make the third, as far as Mrs. Tremain and Glendenning are concerned."
"Supposing she objects to that?"
"Very likely she will; I don't care. The voyage lasts only a few days longer, and I am going to make the third party at any tete-a-tete."
"Dangerous business, Howard; first thing, you know, Glendenning will he wanting to throw you overboard."
"I would like to see him try it," said the young fellow, clenching his fist.
And young Howard was as good as his word. It was very interesting to an onlooker to see the way the different parties took it. Mrs. Tremain seemed to be partly amused with the boy, and think it all rather good fun. Glendenning scowled somewhat, and tried to be silent; but, finding that made no particular difference, began to make allusions to the extreme youth of young Howard, and seemed to try to provoke him, which laudable intention, to young Howard's great credit, did not succeed.
One evening I came down the forward narrow staircase, that leads to the long corridor running from the saloon, and met, under the electric light at the foot, Mrs. Tremain, young Howard, and Glendenning. They were evidently about to ascend the stairway; but, seeing me come down, they paused, and I stopped for a moment to have a chat with them, and see how things were going on.
Glendenning said, addressing me, "Don't you think it's time for children to be in bed?"
"If you mean me," I answered, "I am just on my way there."
Mrs. Tremain and young Howard laughed, and Glendenning after that ignored both Howard and myself.
He said to Mrs. Tremain, "I never noticed you wearing that ring before. It is a very strange ornament."
"Yes," answered Mrs. Tremain, turning it round and round. "This is a Mexican charmed ring. There is a secret about it, see if you can find it out." And with that she pulled off the ring, and handed it to Glendenning.
"You ought to give it to him as a keepsake," said young Howard, aggressively. "The ring, I notice, is a couple of snakes twisted together."
"Little boys," said Mrs. Tremain, laughing, "shouldn't make remarks like that. They lead to trouble."
Young Howard flushed angrily as Mrs. Tremain said this. He did not seem to mind it when Glendenning accused him of his youth, but he didn't like it coming from her.
Meanwhile Glendenning was examining the ring, and suddenly it came apart in his hand. The coils of the snake were still linked together, but instead of composing one solid ring they could now be spread several inches apart like the links of a golden chain. Mrs. Tremain turned pale, and gave a little shriek, as she saw this.
"Put it together again," she cried; "put it together quickly."
"What is the matter?" said Glendenning, looking up at her. She was standing two or three steps above him; Glendenning was at the bottom of the stair; young Howard stood on the same step as Mrs. Tremain, and I was a step or two above them.
"Put it together," cried Mrs. Tremain again. "I am trying to," said Glendenning, "is there a spring somewhere?"
"Oh, I cannot tell you," she answered, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands; "but if you do not put it together without help, that means very great ill-luck for both you and me."
"Does it?" said Glendenning, looking up at her with a peculiar glance, quite ignoring our presence.
"Yes, it does," she said; "try your best to put that ring together as you found it." It was quite evident that Mrs. Tremain had all the superstition of Mexico.
Glendenning fumbled with the ring one way and another, and finally said, "I cannot put it together."
"Let me try," said young Howard.
"No, no, that will do no good." Saying which Mrs. Tremain snatched the links from Glendenning, slipped them into one ring again, put it on her finger, and dashed quickly up the stairs without saying a word of good night to any of us.
Glendenning was about to proceed up the stair after her, when young Howard very ostentatiously placed himself directly in his path. Glendenning seemed to hesitate for a moment, then thought better of it, turned on his heel and walked down the passage towards the saloon.
"Look here, Howard," I said, "you are going to get yourself into trouble. There's sure to be a fuss on board this steamer before we reach Liverpool."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised," answered young Howard.
"Well, do you think it will be quite fair to Mrs. Tremain?"
"Oh, I shan't bring her name into the matter."
"The trouble will be to keep her name out. It may not be in your power to do that. A person who interferes in other people's affairs must do so with tact and caution."
Young Howard looked up at me with a trace of resentment in his face. "Aren't you interfering now?" he said.
"You are quite right, I am. Good night." And I went up the stairway. Howard shouted after me, but I did not see him again that night.
Next day we were nearing Queenstown, and, as I had letters to write, I saw nothing of young Howard till the evening. I found him unreasonably contrite for what he had said to me the night before; and when I told him he had merely spoken the truth, and was quite justified in doing so, he seemed more miserable than ever.
"Come," he said, "let us have a walk on the deck."
It was between nine and ten o'clock; and when we got out on the deck, I said to him, "Without wishing to interfere any further----"
"Now, don't say that," he cried; "it is cruel."
"Well, I merely wanted to know where your two charges are."
"I don't know," he answered, in a husky whisper; "they are not in the usual corner to-night, and I don't know where they are."
"She is probably with her husband," I suggested.
"No, he is down in the saloon reading."
As young Howard was somewhat prone to get emphatic when he began to talk upon this subject, and as there was always a danger of other people overhearing what he said, I drew him away to a more secluded part of the ship. On this particular boat there was a wheelhouse aft unused, and generally filled up with old steamer chairs. A narrow passage led around this at the curving stern, seldom used by promenaders because of certain obstructions which, in the dark, were apt to trip a person up. Chains or something went from this wheelhouse to the sides of the ship, and, being covered up by boxes of plank, made this part of the deck hard to travel on in the dark. As we went around this narrow passage young Howard was the first to stop. He clutched my arm, but said nothing. There in the dark was the faint outline of two persons, with their backs towards us, leaning over the stern of the ship. The vibration at this part of the boat, from the throbbing of the screw, made it impossible for them to hear our approach. They doubtless thought they were completely in the dark; but they were deluded in that idea, because the turmoil of the water left a brilliant phosphorescent belt far in the rear of the ship, and against this bright, faintly yellow luminous track their forms were distinctly outlined. It needed no second glance to see that the two were Glendenning and Mrs. Tremain. Her head rested on his shoulder, and his arm was around her waist.
"Let us get back," I said in a whisper; and, somewhat to my surprise, young Howard turned back with me. I felt his hand trembling on my arm, but he said nothing. Before we could say a word to each other a sadden and unexpected complication arose. We met Captain Tremain, with a shawl on his arm, coming towards us.
"Good evening, captain," I said; "have a turn on the deck with us?"
"No, thanks," he replied, "I am looking for my wife. I want to give her this shawl to put over her shoulders. She is not accustomed to such chilly weather as we are now running into, and I am afraid she may take cold."
All this time young Howard stood looking at him with a startled expression in his eyes, and his lower jaw dropped. I was afraid Captain Tremain would see him, and wonder what was the matter with the boy. I tried to bring him to himself by stamping my heel--not too gently--on his toes, but he turned his face in the semi-darkness toward me without changing its expression. The one idea that had taken possession of my mind was that Captain Tremain must not he allowed to go further aft than he was, and I tried by looks and nudges to tell young Howard to go back and give her warning, but the boy seemed to be completely dazed with the unexpected horror of the situation. To have this calm, stern, unsuspecting man come suddenly upon what we had seen at the stern of the boat was simply appalling to think of. He certainly would have killed Glendenning where he stood, and very likely Mrs. Tremain as well. As Captain Tremain essayed to pass us I collected my wits as well as I could, and said--
"Oh, by the way, captain, I wanted to speak to you about Mexico. Do you--do you--think that it is a good--er--place for investment?"
"Well," said Captain Tremain, pausing, "I am not so sure about that. You see, their Government is so very unstable. The country itself is rich enough in mineral wealth, if that is what you mean." All the while Howard stood there with his mouth agape, and I felt like shoving my fist into it.
"Here, Howard," I said, "I want to speak to Captain Tremain for a moment. Take this shawl and find Mrs. Tremain, and give it to her." Saying this, I took the shawl from the captain's arm and threw it at young Howard. He appeared then to realise, for the first time, what was expected of him, and, giving me a grateful look, disappeared toward the stern.
"What I wanted more particularly to know about Mexico," I said to the captain, who made no objection to this move, "was whether there would be any more--well, likely to have trouble--whether we would have trouble with them in a military way, you know--that's more in your line."
"Oh, I think not," said the captain. "Of course, on the boundary where we were, there was always more or less trouble with border ruffians, sometimes on one side of the line and sometimes on the other. There is a possibility always that complications may arise from that sort of thing. Our officers might go over into the Mexican territory and seize a desperado there, or they might come over into ours. Still, I don't think anything will happen to bring on a war such as we had once or twice with Mexico."
At this moment I was appalled to hear Glendenning's voice ring out above the noise of the vibration of the vessel.
"What do you mean by that, you scoundrel," he said.
"Hallo," exclaimed the captain, "there seems to be a row back there. I wonder what it is?"
"Oh, nothing serious, I imagine. Probably some steerage passengers have come on the cabin deck. I heard them having a row with some one to-day on that score. Let's walk away from it."
The captain took my arm, and we strolled along the deck while he gave me a great deal of valuable information about Mexico and the state of things along the border line, which I regret to say I cannot remember a word of. The impressions of a man who has been on the spot are always worth hearing, but my ears were strained to catch a repetition of the angry cry I had heard, or the continuation of the quarrel which it certainly seemed to be the beginning of. As we came up the deck again we met young Howard with the shawl still on his arm and Mrs. Tremain walking beside him. She was laughing in a somewhat hysterical manner, and his face was as pale as ashes with a drawn look about the corners of his lips, but the captain's eyes were only on his wife.
"Why don't you put on the shawl, my dear?" he said to her affectionately. "The shawl?" she answered. Then, seeing it on young Howard's arm, she laughed, and said, "He never offered it to me."
Young Howard made haste to place the shawl on her shoulders, which she arranged around herself in a very coquettish and charming way. Then she took her husband's arm.
"Good night," she said to me; "good night, and thanks, Mr. Howard."
"Good night," said the captain; "I will tell you more about that mine to-morrow."
We watched them disappear towards the companion-way. I drew young Howard towards the side of the boat.
"What happened?" I asked eagerly. "Did you have trouble?"
"Very nearly, I made a slip of the tongue. I called her Mrs. Glendenning."
"you called her what?"
"I said, 'Mrs. Glendenning, your husband is looking for you.' I had come right up behind them, and they hadn't heard me, and of course both were very much startled. Glendenning turned round and shouted, 'What do you mean by that, you scoundrel?' and caught me by the throat. She instantly sprang between us, pushing him toward the stern of the boat, and me against the wheelhouse. "'Hush, hush,' she whispered; 'you mean, Mr. Howard, that my husband is there, do you not?'
"'Yes,' I answered, 'and he will be here in a moment unless you come with me.' With that she said 'Good night, Mr. Glendenning,' and took my arm, and he, like a thief, slunk away round the other side of the wheelhouse. I was very much agitated. I suppose I acted like a fool when we met the captain, didn't I?"
"You did," I answered; "go on."
"Well, Mrs. Tremain saw that, and she laughed at me, although I could see she was rather disturbed herself."
Some time that night we touched at Queenstown, and next evening we were in Liverpool. When the inevitable explosion came, I have no means of knowing, and this, as I have said before, is a story without a conclusion.
Mrs. Tremain the next day was as bright and jolly as ever, and the last time I saw her, she was smiling over her shoulder at Glendenning, and not paying the slightest attention to either her husband on whose arm she hung, or to young Howard, who was hovering near.
Return to the Robert Barr library , or . . . Read the next short story; My Stowaway