previous
next



  ― 167 ―

A Pawn of Fate's.

“Poems so unemotional and moral.”—The criticism hit Crackton's soul with an awakening shock. The applause that followed was as wormwood. The eulogy of him as a man, whom lovers of literature were proud to see among them, seemed superfluous. But his pride checked a betrayal of discomposure, and he smiled complacently at the speaker when he reseated himself. He had hitherto held a calm reserve during the evening, consistent with what he considered his position among the company. The speech he had anticipated with unctuous assumption. He had always had a contempt for the Bohemians, and held aloof from them through a desire to be uncontaminated by even the remotest wafting of their abandonment, hugging to his soul his ascetic ideals in voluntary loneliness, and publishing his verses and receiving the praise of a selected few with self-gratification. He would have courteously excused himself from being a guest at the dinner in honour of the birthday of “the most popular poet of the day,” had not some neatly-turned phrases about his own reputation as a poet in the invitation seduced his faculty for appreciation. And this was how “the most popular poet of the day” reciprocated his condescension. However, in his congratulatory reply, he aimed high and succeeded in electrifying his listeners with his aphorisms, playfully piquing them with sprinkles of


  ― 168 ―
praise of a limited value over the reputation of “the most popular poet of the day.” Thereafter his most intimate friends would have had difficulty in reconciling their impressions of him with his almost reckless exhibitions of sociability. He recited, gave toasts, coruscated with quips and repartees, and—most alarming symptom—drank whisky with unaffected satisfaction. The Bohemians were delighted. Whispers of “a fine fellow,” “one of us,” “a revelation, boys,” seemed but a fitting prelude to “the most popular poet of the day's” glorious outburst as he clinked his glass on the table with decision—“By Thunder, Crackton, what slashingly fine poems you could write did you let yourself go!” Crackton's innocent “Do you think so?” with a humourously lachrymose, face twist, was superb. When the laughter subsided he was withdrawn by the honoured guest to a corner to receive hints and suggestions, while the disciples fawned at elbow distance, and the acolytes rolled out their good-night, rollicking Bohemian song.

Humming snatches of the last song of the evening, which have obstinately clung to his memory, Crackton shot across the street and dived down the road that led city-ward. His nerves tingled with such exhilaration that he broke every now and again into a half-run for sheer relief.

“What a fool I've been,” he murmured, halting


  ― 169 ―
and wiping his wet brow. “Any way,” he continued, interrogating the moon, “I'm not unemotional now, and as for being moral, why—” Whatever was on his tongue slipped into a half smothered laugh. Instantly something approaching gravity glanced across his face as some unexpected thought pushed itself forward. He moved on, hat in hand, at a pondering pace. With a jerk he replaced his hat as with a thought's dismissal and pressed it down significant of determination to keep the thought precluded. The shrill notes of a violin relieved his mind of further effort in that direction, and caused him to quicken his pace. They issued from a dancing saloon at the street corner, and, as he approached, were supported by a piano's accompaniment. He crossed the street, and entered the saloon as though it had been his goal at starting. He had just time ere the waltz's prelude ceased, to select a partner, a black-eyed damsel dressed in pink, with a red rose in her hair. Oh! the rapture of the dance. The music, vile as it was, seemed heavenly. His feet appeared to have a gliding intelligence. He fancied his partner clung closer to him every moment. The pressure of her bosom swayed him luxuriously to some enticing deliciousness. A faint subtle odour, as of a tropical bloom, mounted to his brain like wine-fumes. “It is her breath,” he murmured within himself. The music ceased, and with a buoyancy unknown since his boyhood, he seated himself beside her.




  ― 170 ―

“We dance well together,” she said, in a low voice, and as though she had betrayed something, continued in a higher key:

“You work at Richards and Richards, don't you?”

The question jarred him, but he was too dazed to analyse her motive so simply expressed.

“And you?”

“Oh! I work at Miss Cates, you know the dressmaker in Earl Street. I've often wondered who you was.”

His vanity was touched. He had always plumed himself on his good looks. His impressions were too pronounced to permit even an abortive attempt of his reason to mockingly acknowledge to itself how prepossessing he was. He felt something attracting him to her. What was it? She had a comely figure, but her face; well, it was decidedly plain, and he hated plain women. She had coarse hands, too. He could excuse her woeful lack of artistic perception displayed in those abominable colours, but not Nature's rough handiwork. But a mastering passion was sweeping his poetic susceptibilities aside. That faint subtle odour he had previously inhaled was more evident; it came to him in breaths of animal sweetness. He watched her full red lips as she chatted, carelessly lodging in his memory that she was under the doctor, and had been


  ― 171 ―
forbidden to dance. He felt rather than saw the heaving of her half-exposed bosom.

“What nice blue eyes you have. I like blue eyes. Let me have a look at them. Don't be shy, you silly boy.”

He looked searchingly into her black glowing eyes.

“That's enough!” she laughed, swerving her head, and her hand pushing his till he nipped it.

“Another dance.”

She hesitated, but at a caressing touch arose, and they whirled among the dancers. Her swaying form, her pressing hands, her hot breath, administered to a passion already perilously assertive in his soul. When the music ceased he felt irritated as from an insult.

“It was too short,” he exclaimed, and noticing how heavily she breathed, and that she pressed her hand to her bosom:

“Have you hurt yourself?”

“I won't dance any more. I can hardly get my breath.”

She fanned herself with her handkerchief.

“Must I get you something?”

“No! No! Don't leave me, it'll soon go. There!” and she gave a sigh of relief, and bending her black eyes on him, murmured caressingly:

“What a nice boy you are. I'm so glad I've met you.”




  ― 172 ―

“I'll take you home,” he whispered.

She shook her head, and her fingers twitched at her handkerchief's hem.

“But I will!” he said emphatically.

“How hot the room is. Goodness gracious! One would think it was summer.”

“Do you hear? I'm going to take you home.”

“Don't be silly.”

“Don't you want me?”

“Why, yes, if you like, but I live a long way.”

“Don't care. I'm going to take you home. Another dance?”

“No! No! I mustn't. I feel quite faint.”

“But I say you must,” and he looked firmly into her eyes.

“What a funny man you are. Well, this must be the last.”

She seemed exhausted when he conducted her back to her seat, and he noticed dark circles under her eyes, and that her hands were cold and clammy though her brow was wet with perspiration. He felt an ominous chill, and tried to collect his thoughts. A passing desire for whisky touched him. His limbs were trembling. He had a craving for something that beckoned obscurely. He again looked into her face and again that chill crept over him. A presentiment hung about his soul like a thundercloud.




  ― 173 ―

“I will get you something,” and not waiting a reply, he hastened to the room from which he had seen refreshments brought. The smuggling away of a bottle from the counter piqued him into interrogatory expressions of countenance with the caterer. The signals were accepted, and with a gaping throat he tossed off a tumbler full of neat whisky. He returned to her with a glass of lemonade. Leaning against him, she clutched his hand. A fierce yearning to again feel her in his arms flung itself through him. The music once more filled the saloon. Heedless of her remonstrances and exerting power over her he grasped her to himself, and whirled her away among the dancers. His whole self, body and soul, was in a fever, and he communicated it to her. His soul devoured the impressions his senses poured on it. He could have shouted delirious defiances to imaginary opponents. Dance on! Dance on! though the sky shatter and rain fire; though the earth crack, and swallow all—was the chorus of the infuriated rebels within.

Breathless and streaming with perspiration, with flashing eyes and every nerve on a white quiver, he swung with her to a form laughing hysterically. There is a simultaneous movement among the dancers near them to catch her as she falls heavily to the floor. Several hasten for water, others tear open her bodice. Meanwhile he stands staring stupidly at her. Then


  ― 174 ―
the dancers, the lamps, the bunting get inextricably mixed, heave and collapse with black discs spinning off. A rough voice, and a heavy hand on his shoulder drive him blinking into consciousness of his surroundings:

“That young 'oman's real bad, and a bloke 'as knows 'er seys its 'art disease, and seys 'e send for the doctor quick.”

With a horrified exclamation he catches up his hat and hurries from the room.

The cool air without revives him. Taking the middle of the street he walks at a quick pace. His reason begins to recover from the shock that had prostrated his fascination. A dreadful thought suddenly fastens itself on him and he instinctively slips from the moonlight to the shadow. It still presses on him, and to escape it he breaks into a half-run with an inward voice of “heart-disease, death; heart-disease, death;” set to the sound of his feet. The refrain pauses whilst he hammers at the doctor's door, to again begin when he hurries away not waiting to hear further than the doctor was out. He must find another doctor. “No! No! I must go back; this suspense is dreadful!” He starts at the shrillness of his voice not knowing he had spoken. He falls into a swinging stride and communes with himself. He endeavours to cheat himself that she has only fainted,


  ― 175 ―
and actually catches himself laughing at the merriment he will have when he reviews his night's episode a few hours later. But the fervent “Thank God,” when he hears the saloon music betrays his real feelings.

He is met at the doorway, and quietly conducted through the dancers to the ladies' dressing room by the caterer, who whispers, as his hand turns the doorknob:

“She's dead. Have a look at her.”

Ere he grasps the import of the man's words the scene confronts him. Lying on a cloak in the centre of the room is his late partner. Her face is darkish ashen with black shadows about the eyes—eyes once so black and brimful of expression, but dull and heavy now beneath half-closed lids. Poor coarse hands—hands he had despised and dallied with in—spare him the thrust! A woman kneels beside the body and strokes the brow with a wet handkerchief, pausing now and again to gaze sorrowfully into the hushed countenance. She presses back some stray locks, and arises silently as a constable enters, helmet in hand. Another woman, with a baby, stands near its feet with drooping head and bosom heaving with half-stifled sobs that fret the ear. Meanwhile, he stands near the door, a passive spectator. His body is numb, his impressions confused; nothing seems real, a stage


  ― 176 ―
tableau often had had more effect. And yet—and yet. An involuntary desire is moving him towards the body when the music for the next dance, a waltz, causes him to turn abruptly. He softly opens the door, and pushes through the dancers, indifferent to their exclamations of anger at his rudeness. He reaches the open-air, and hurries down the street without any idea as to his destination. Something within him is beginning to ferment. Hitherto all has been excitement, confusion, unreality, but now—he quickens his pace. Something is forcing itself into his mind, and he dreads it. The sudden clashing of the clock in a church close by makes him halt with a start, and he looks fearfully around. He mechanically counts the strokes which cease with a solemn tremour and a dreadful hush ensues. He is alone. The houses loom funereally, casting great shadows. He dares not glance upward where the moon sits regarding him quietly. The hush closes in upon him, and he moves on, stamping his feet to make a noise. He has a vague impression he should go home, yet he is retracing his steps towards the saloon. Anywhere but to that place, the very thought of it makes him shudder, and yet he is beginning to run as with a feverish desire to be there. He is now running at full speed, but why he does not know. Is it to find relief? Or does he shrink from something that is insidiously worming itself into his


  ― 177 ―
soul? “I must!” he mutters, as he enters the saloon.

The dancers, having discovered the tragedy, have hurried home, frightened and shivering with cold. Near the piano stands the constable writing in a pocketbook. On a table near the dressing room lies the body, the head folded in a cloak, and a few red rose leaves beside it. A casual observer might have thought it a half-muffled effigy. He straightens his back, and moves cautiously toward it on tip-toe. His mind projects her image as she was an hour ago, and contrasts it with the stiffening figure before him. Then all at once an insane desire to shout at the top of his voice comes over him. He crushes it with an effort, and a cold sweat breaks from every pore. His limbs are losing their strength, and yet they support him. An almost overpowering impulse seizes him to walk to the constable and say, “I killed her!” He feels it pass without an effort, and a faintness steals over him. He is dimly aware the place is full of reverential awe, which he vainly endeavours to realize as unconnected with himself. The constable moves towards him. The creaking of the man's boots through the solemn silence snaps his mind's extreme tension, and at the same moment the inevitable something he dreads leaps into vividness, and with a rush of horror he knows himself. Enough! Let him slink home, poor wretch, his punishment is assured.

previous
next