Susan Warner.

The Old Helmet, Volume II online

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it, to watch the approaches to the land. Fresher and fairer and greener
every moment it lifted itself to her view; she could hardly bear to
look steadily; her head went down for a minute often under the pressure
of the thoughts that crowded together. And when she raised it up, the
lovely hills of the island, with their novel outline and green
luxuriance, were nearer and clearer and higher than they had been a
minute before. Now she could discern here and there, she thought,
something that must be a dwelling-house; then trees began to detach
themselves from the universal mass; she saw smoke rising; and she
became aware too, that along the face of the island, fronting the
approach of the schooner, was a wall of surf; and a line of breakers
that seemed to stretch right and left and to be without an interval in
their white continuity. Eleanor did not see how the schooner was going
to get in; for the surf did not break evidently on the shore of the
island, but on a reef extending around the shore and at some little
distance from it. Yet the vessel stood straight on; and the sweet smell
of the land began to come with the freshness of the morning air.

"Is this Vuliva before us?" she asked of the skipper whom she found
standing near.

"Ay, ay!"

"Where are you going to get in? I see no opening."

"Ay, ay! There _is_ an opening, though."

And soon, looking keenly, Eleanor thought she could discern it. Not
until they were almost upon it however; and then it was a place of
rough water enough, though the regular fall of the surf was interrupted
and there was only a general upheaving and commotion of the waves among
themselves. It was nothing very terrific; the tide was in a good state;
and presently Eleanor saw that they had passed the barrier, they were
in smooth water, and making for an opening in the land immediately
opposite which might be either the mouth of a river or an inlet of the
sea. They neared it fast, sailed up into it; and there to Eleanor's
mortification the skipper dropped anchor and swung to. She saw no
settlement. Some few scattered houses were plain enough now to be seen;
but nothing even like a village. Tufts of trees waved gracefully; rock
and hill and rich-coloured lowland spread out a variety of beauty;
where was Vuliva, the station? This might be the island. Where were the
people? Could they come no nearer than this?

Mr. Amos made enquiry. The village, the skipper said, was "round the
pint;" in other words, behind a woody headland which just before them
bent the course of the river into a sharp angle. The schooner would go
no further; passengers and effects were to be transported the rest of
the way in boats. People they would see soon enough; so the master of
the "Queen Esther" advised them.

"I suppose the natives will carry the news of the schooner being here,
and our friends will come and look after us," Mr. Amos said.

Eleanor changed colour, and sat with a beating heart looking at the
fair fresh landscape which was to be - perhaps - the scene of her future
home. The scene was peace itself. Still water after the upheavings of
the ocean; the smell and almost the fluttering sound of the green
leaves in the delicious wind; the ripple on the surface of the little
river; the soft stillness of land sounds, with the heavy beat of the
surf left behind on the reef outside. Eleanor drew a long breath.
People would find them out soon, the skipper had said. She was
exceedingly disposed to get rid of her sea dress and put on something
that looked like the summer morning; for without recollecting what the
seasons were in the Southern Ocean, that was what the time seemed like
to her. She looked round at Mrs. Amos, who was sitting up and beginning
to realize that she had done with the sea for the present.

"How do you do?" said Eleanor.

"I should feel better if I could get on something clean."

"Come, then!"

The two ladies disappeared down the companion way, into one of the most
sorry tiring rooms, surely, that ever nicety used for that purpose. But
it served two purposes with Eleanor just now; and the second was a
hiding place. She did not want to be taken unawares, nor to be seen
before she could see. So under the circumstances she made both Mrs.
Amos and herself comfortable, and was as helpful as usual in a new
line. Then she went to look out; but nobody was in sight yet, gentle or
savage; all was safe; she went back to Mrs. Amos and fastened the door.

"Let us kneel down and pray together, will you?" she said. "I cannot
get my breath freely till we have done that."

Mrs. Amos's lips trembled as she knelt. And Eleanor and she joined in
many petitions there, while the very stillness of their little cabin
floor reminded them they were come to their desired haven, and the long
sea journey was over. They rose up and kissed each other.

"I am so glad I have known you!" said Mrs. Amos. "What a blessing you
have been to us! I wish we might be stationed somewhere together."

"I suppose that would be too good to hope for," said Eleanor. "I am
going to reconnoitre again."

Mrs. Amos half guessed why, and smiled to herself at Eleanor's blushing
shyness. "Poor child, her hands were all trembling too," she said in
her thoughts. They were broken off by a low summons to the cabin door,
which Eleanor held slightly ajar. Through the crack of the door they
had a vision.

On the deck of the "Queen Esther" stood a specimen of the native
inhabitants of the land. A man of tall stature, nobly developed in
limbs and muscles, he looked in his native undress almost of giant
proportions. His clothing was only a long piece of figured native cloth
wound about his loins, one end falling like a train to the very sloop's
deck. A thorough black skin was the only covering of the rest of his
person, and shewed his breadth of shoulder and strength of muscle to
good advantage; as if carved in black marble; only there was sufficient
graceful mobility and dignified ease of carriage and attitude; no
marble rigidity. Black he was, this savage, but not negro. The features
were well cut and good. What the hair might be naturally could only be
guessed at; the work of a skilful hair-dresser had left it something
for the uninitiated to marvel at. A band of three or four inches in
breadth, completely white, bordered the face; the rest, a very
luxuriant head, was jet black and dressed into a perfectly regular and
smooth roundish form, projecting everywhere beyond the white inner
border. He had an uncouth necklace, made of what it was impossible to
say, except that part of it looked like shells and part like some
animal's teeth; rings of one or two colours were on his fingers; he
carried no weapon. But in his huge, powerful black frame, uncouth
hair-dressing, and strange uncoveredness, he was a sufficiently
terrible object to unused eyes. In Tonga the ladies had seen no such
sight.

"Do shut the door!" said Mrs. Amos. "He may come this way, and there is
nobody that knows how to speak to him."

Eleanor shut the door, and looked round at her friend with a smile.

"I am foolish!" said Mrs. Amos laughing; "but I don't want to see him
just yet - till there is somebody to talk to him."

The door being fast, Eleanor applied herself to a somewhat large
knot-hole she had long ago discovered in it; one which she strongly
suspected the skipper had fostered, if not originated, for his own
convenience of spying what was going on. Through this knot-hole Eleanor
had a fair view of a good part of the deck, savage and all. He was
gesticulating now and talking, evidently to the captain and Mr. Amos,
the former of whom either did not understand or did not agree with him.
Mr. Amos, of course, was in the former condition. Eleanor watched them
with absorbed interest; when suddenly this vision was crossed by
another, that looked to her eyes much as a white angel might, coming
across a cloud of both moral and physical blackness. Mr. Rhys himself;
his very self, and looking very much like it; only in a white dress
literally, which in England she had never seen him wear. But the white
dress alone did not make the impression to her eyes; there was that air
of freshness and purity which some people always carry about with them,
and which has to do with the clear look of temperance as well as with
great particularity of personal care, and in part also grows out of the
moral condition. In three breathless seconds Eleanor took note of it
all, characteristics well known, but seen now with the novelty of long
disuse and with the background of that huge black savage, to whom Mr.
Rhys was addressing some words, of explanation or exhortation - Eleanor
could not tell which. She noticed the quiet pleasant manner of his
speech, which certainly looked not as if Mrs. Amos had any reason for
her fears; but he was speaking earnestly, and she observed too the
unbending look of the savage in answer and a certain pleasant deference
with which he appeared to be listening. Mr. Rhys had taken off his hat
for a moment - it hung in his hand while the other brushed the hair from
his forehead. Eleanor's eye even in that moment fell to the hand which
carried the hat; it was the same, - she recognized it with a curious
sense of bringing great and little things together, - it was the same
white and carefully looked-after hand that she remembered it in
England. Mr. Rhys's own personal civilization went about with him.

Eleanor did not hear any of Mrs. Amos's words to her, which were
several; and though Mrs. Amos, half alarmed by her deafness, did not
know but she might be witnessing something dreadful on deck, and spoke
with some importunity. Eleanor was thinking she had not a minute to
lose. Beyond the time of Mr. Rhys's talking to the other visitor on the
schooner's deck, there could be but small interval before he would
learn all about her being on board; two words to the skipper or Mr.
Amos would bring it out; and if she wished to gain that first minute's
testimony of look and word, she must be beforehand with them. She
thought of all that with a beating heart in one instant's flash of
thought, hastily caught up her ship cloak without daring to stop to put
it on, slipped back the bolt of the door, and noiselessly passed out
upon the deck. She neither heard nor saw anybody else; she was
conscious of an intense and pitiful shame at being there and at thus
presenting herself; but everything else was second to that necessity,
to know from Mr. Rhys's look, with an absolute certainty, where _he_
stood. She was not at that moment much afraid; yet the look she must
see. She went forward while he was yet speaking to his black neighbour,
she stood still a little behind him, and waited. She longed to hide her
eyes, yet she looked steadfastly. _How_ she looked, neither she nor
perhaps anybody else knew. There was short opportunity for observation.

Mr. Rhys had no sooner finished his business with his sable friend,
when he turned the other way; and of course the motionless figure
standing so near his elbow, the woman's bonnet and drapery, caught his
first glance. Eleanor was watching, with eyes that were strained
already with the effort; they got leave to go down now. The flash of
joy in those she had been looking at, the deep tone of the low uttered,
"Oh, Eleanor!" which burst from him, made her feel on the instant as if
she were paid to the full, not only for all she had done, but for all
that life might have of disagreeable in store for her. Her eyes fell;
she stood still in a sudden trance of contentment which made her as
blind and deaf as another feeling had made her just before. Those two
words - there had been such a depth in them, of tenderness and gladness;
and somehow she felt in them too an appreciation of all she had done
and gone through. Eleanor was satisfied. She felt it as well in the
hold of her hand, which was taken and kept in a clasp as who should
say, 'This is mine.'

Perhaps it was out of consideration for her state, that without any
further reference to her he turned to Mr. Amos and claimed acquaintance
and brotherhood with him; and for a little while talked, informing
himself of various particulars of their journey and welfare; never all
the while loosing his hold of that hand, though not bringing her into
the conversation, and indeed standing so as somewhat to shield her. The
question of landing came up and was discussed. The skipper objected to
send the schooner's boat, on the score that it would leave too few men
on board to take care of the vessel. Mr. Rhys had only a small canoe
with him, manned by a single native. So he decided forthwith to return
to the village and despatch boats large enough to bring the
missionaries and their effects to land; but about that there might be
some delay. Then for the first time he bent down and spoke to Eleanor;
again that subdued, tender tone.

"Are you ready to go ashore?"

"Yes."

"I will take you with me. Do you want anything out of this big ship?
The canoes may not be immediately obtained, for anything but the live
freight."

He took the grey ship cloak from Eleanor's arm and put it round her
shoulders. She felt that she was alone and forlorn no more; she had got
home. She was a different creature that went into the cabin to kiss
Mrs. Amos, from the Eleanor that had come out.


"I've seen him!" whispered Mrs. Amos. "Eleanor! you will not be married
till we come, will you?"

"I hope not - I don't know," said Eleanor hurriedly seizing her bag and
passing out again. Another minute, and it and she were taken down the
side of the schooner and lodged in the canoe; and their dark oarsman
paddled off.




CHAPTER XVIII.

AT DINNER.


"Nor did she lift an eye nor speak a word,
Rapt in the fear and in the wonder of it."


Eleanor's shamefacedness was upon her in full force when she found
herself in the canoe pushing off from the schooner and her friends
there. She felt exceeding shy and strange, and with that a feeling very
like awe of her companion. A feeling not quite unknown to her in former
days with the same person, and in tenfold force now. There was no doubt
to be sure of the secret mind of them both towards each other;
nevertheless, he had never spoken to her of his affection, nor given
her the least sign of it, except on paper, up to that day; and now he
sat for all she could see as cool and grave as ever by her side. The
old and the new state of things it was hard to reconcile all at once.
To do Eleanor justice, she saw as one sees without looking; she was too
shame-faced to look; she bent her outward attention upon their boatman.
He was another native, of course, but attired in somewhat more
civilized style, though in no costume of civilized lands. What he wore
was more like a carman's frock at home than anything else it could be
likened to. He was of pleasant countenance, and paddled along with
great activity and skill.

They had been silent for the first few minutes since leaving the
schooner, till at length Mr. Rhys asked her, with a little of the sweet
arch smile she remembered so well, "how she had liked the first sight
of a Fijian?" It brought such a rush upon Eleanor of past things and
present, old times and changes, that it was with the utmost difficulty
she could make any answer at all.

"I was too much interested to think of liking or disliking."

"You were not startled?"

"No."

"That was a heathen chief, of the opposite village."

"He wanted something, did he not?"

"Yes; that the captain of the schooner should accommodate him in
something he thought would be for his advantage. It was impossible, and
so I told him."

Eleanor looked again towards the oarsman.

"This is one of our Christian brethren."

"Are there many?" she asked, though feeling as if she had no breath to
ask.

"Yes. And we have cause to be thankful every day at hearing of more. We
want ten times as many hands as we, have got. How has the long voyage
been to you?"

Eleanor answered briefly; but then she was obliged to go on and tell of
Mrs. Caxton, and of Mr. and Mrs. Amos, and of various other matters; to
all which still she answered in as few words as possible. She could not
be fluent, with that sense of strangeness upon her; conscious not only
that one of her hands was again in Mr. Rhys's hold, but that his eyes
were never off her face. He desisted at last from questions, and they
both sat silent; until the headland was rounded, and "There is Vuliva!"
came from Mr. Rhys's lips.

In a little bay curve of the river, behind the promontory, lay the
village; looking pretty and foreign enough. But very pretty it was. The
odd, or rather the strange-looking houses, sitting apart from each
other, some large and some small, intermingled gracefully with trees
whose shape and leafage were as new, made a sweet picture. One house in
particular as they neared the shore struck Eleanor; it had a neat
colonnade of slender pillars in front, and a high roof, almost like a
Mansard in form, but thatched with native thatch. A very neat paling
fence stretched along in front of this. Very near it, a little further
off, rose another building that made Eleanor almost give a start of
joy; so homelike and pleasant it looked, as well as surprising. This
was an exceeding pretty chapel; again with a high thatched roof, and
also with a neat slight bell-tower rising from one end. In front two
doors at each side were separated by a large and not inelegant window;
other windows and doors down the side of the building promised light
and airiness; and the walls were wrought into a curious pattern;
reminding Eleanor of the fanciful brick work of a past style of
architecture. Near the shore and back behind the chapel and houses,
reared themselves here and there the slender stems of palm and
cocoa-nut trees, with their graceful tufts of feathery foliage waving
at top; other trees of various kinds were mingled among them. Figures
were seen moving about, in the medium attire worn by their oarsman. It
was a pretty scene; cheerful and home-like, though so unlike home.
Further back from the river, on the opposite shore, other houses could
be seen; the houses of the heathen village; but Eleanor's eyes were
fastened on this one. Mr. Rhys said not one word; only he held her hand
in a still closer grasp which was not meaningless.

"How pretty it is!" Eleanor forced herself to say. He only answered,
"Do you like it?" but it was in such a satisfied tone of preoccupation
that Eleanor blushed and thought she might as well leave his
meditations alone.

Yet though full of content in her heart, Mr. Rhys and his affection
seemed both at a distance. It was so exactly the Mr. Rhys of Plassy,
that Eleanor could not in a moment realize their changed relations and
find her own place. A little thing administered a slight corrective to
this reckoning.

The little canoe had come to land. Eleanor was taken out of it safely,
and then for a moment left to herself; for Mr. Rhys was engaged in a
colloquy with his boatman and another native who had come up. Not being
able to understand a word of what was going on, though from the tones
and gestures she guessed it had reference to the disembarkation of the
schooner's party, and a little ready to turn her face from view,
Eleanor stood looking landward; in a maze of strangeness that was not
at all unhappy. The cocoa-nut tops waved gently a welcome to her; she
took it so; the houses looked neat and inviting; glimpses of other
unknown foliage helped to assure her she had got home; the country
outlines, so far as she could see them, looked fair and bright. Eleanor
was taking note of details in a dreamy way, when she was surprised by
the sudden frank contact of lips with hers; lips that had no
strangeness of their own to contend with. Turning hastily, she saw that
the natives with whom Mr. Rhys had been talking had run off different
ways, and they two were alone. Eleanor trembled as much as she had done
when she first read Mr. Rhys's note at Plassy. And his words when he
spoke did not help her, they were spoken so exactly like the Mr. Rhys
she had known there. Not exactly, neither, though he only said,

"Do you want this cloak on any longer?"

"Yes, thank you," said Eleanor stammering, - "I do not feel it."

Which was most literally true, for at that moment she did not feel
anything external. He looked at her, and exercising his own judgment
proceeded to unclasp the cloak from her shoulders and hang it on his
arm, while he put her hand on the other.

"There is no need for you to be troubled with this now," said he. "I
only put it round you to protect your dress." And with her bag in his
hand, they went up from the river-side and past the large house with
the colonnade. "Whither now?" thought Eleanor, but she asked nothing.
One or two more houses were passed; then a little space without houses;
then came a paling enclosure, of considerable size, apparently, filled
with trees and vines. A gate opened in this and let them through, and
Mr. Rhys led Eleanor up a walk in the garden-like plantation, to a
house which stood encompassed by it. "Not at home yet!" he remarked to
her as they stood at the door; with a slight smile which again brought
the blood to her cheeks. He opened the door and they went in.

"The good news is true, sister Balliol!" he said to somebody that met
them. "I have brought you one of our friends, and there are more to
come, that I must go and look after. Is brother Balliol at home?"

"No, he is not; he has gone over the river."

"Then I will leave this lady in your care, and I will go and see if I
can find canoes. I meant to have pressed him into my service. This is
Miss Powle, sister Balliol."

The lady so called had come forward to meet them, and now took Eleanor
by the hand and kissed her cordially. Mr. Rhys took her hand then, when
she was released, and explained.

"I am going back to the schooner after our friends - if I can find a
canoe."

And without more words, off he went. Eleanor and Mrs. Balliol were left
to look at each other.

This latter was a lady of middle height, and kindly if not fine
features. A pair of good black eyes too. But what struck Eleanor most
about her was her air; the general style of her figure and dress, which
to Miss Powle's eyes was peculiar. She wore her hair in a crop; and
that seemed to Eleanor a characteristic of the whole make up. Her dress
was not otherwise than neat, and yet that epithet would never have
occurred to one in describing it; all graces of style or attire were so
ignored. Her gown sat without any; so did her collar; both were rather
uncivilized, without partaking of the picturesqueness of savage
costume. The face was by no means disagreeable; lacking neither in
sense, nor in spirit nor in kindliness; but Eleanor perceived at once
that the mind must have a serious want somewhere, in refinement or
discernment: the exterior was so ruthlessly abandoned to ungainliness.

Mrs. Balliol took her to an inner room, where the cloak and the bonnet
were left; and returned then to her occupations in the other apartment,
while Eleanor set herself down at the window to make observations. The
room was large and high, cheerful and airy, with windows at two sides.
The one where she sat commanded a view of little beside the garden,
with its luxuriant growth of fruit trees and shrubs and flowers. A
tropical looking garden; for the broad leaves of the banana waved there
around its great bunches of fruit; the canopy of a cocoa-nut palm
fluttered slightly overhead; and various fruits that Eleanor did not
know displayed themselves along with the pine-apples that she did know.
This garden view seemed very interesting to Eleanor, to judge by her
intentness; and so it was for its own qualities, besides that a bit of
the walk could be seen by which she had come and the wicket which had
let her in and by which Mr. Rhys had gone out; but in good truth, as
often as she turned her eyes to the scene within, she had such a sense
of being herself an object of observation and perhaps of speculation,
that she was fain to seek the garden again. And it was true, that while
Mrs. Balliol plied her needle she used her eyes as well, and her
thoughts with her needle flew in and out, as she surveyed Eleanor's
figure in her neat fresh print dress. And the lady's eyebrows grew
prophetical, not to say ominous.

"She's too handsome!" - that was the first conclusion. "She is quite too
handsome; she cannot have those looks without knowing it. Better have
brought a plain face to Fiji, than a spirit of vanity. Hair done as if
she was just come out of a hair-dresser's! - hum - ruffle all down the


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Online LibrarySusan WarnerThe Old Helmet, Volume II → online text (page 20 of 25)