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Philip Romilly found himself alone at last with the things which he had craved--darkness, solitude, the rushing of the salt wind, the sense of open spaces. On the other, the sheltered side of the steamer, long lines of passengers were stretched in wicker chairs, smoking and drinking their coffee, but where he was no one came save an occasional promenader. Yet even here was a disappointment. He had come for peace, for a brief escape from the thrall of memories which during the last few hours had become charged with undreamed-of horrors--and there was to be no peace. In the shadowy darkness which rested upon the white-churned sea flying past him, he saw again, with horrible distinctness, the face, the figure of the man who for those few brief minutes he had hated with a desperate and passionate hatred. He saw the broken photograph, the glass splintered into a thousand pieces. He saw the man himself, choking, sinking down beneath the black waters; heard the stifled cry from his palsied lips, saw the slow dawning agony of death in his distorted features. Some one was playing a mandolin down in the second class. He heard the feet of a dancer upon the deck, the little murmur of applause. Well, after all, this was life. It was a rebuke of fate to his own illogical and useless vapourings. Men died every second whilst women danced, and no one who knew life had any care save for the measure of their own days. Some freakish thought pleaded stridently his own justification. His mind travelled back down the gloomy avenues of his past, along those last aching years of grinding and undeserved poverty. He remembered his upbringing, his widowed mother, a woman used to every luxury, struggling to make both ends meet in a suburban street, in a hired cottage filled with hired furniture. He remembered his schooldays, devoid of pocket money, unable to join in the sports of others, slaving with melancholy perseverance for a scholarship to lighten his mother's burden. Always there was the same ghastly, crushing penuriousness, the struggle to make a living before his schooldays were well over, the unbought books he had fingered at the bookstalls and let drop again, the coarse clothes he had been compelled to wear, the scanty food he had eaten, the narrow, driving ways of poverty, culminating in his mother's death and his own fear--he, at the age of nineteen years--lest the money for her funeral should not be forthcoming. If there were any hell, surely he had lived in it! This other, whose flames mocked him now, could be no worse. Sin! Crime! He remembered the words of the girl who during these latter years had represented to him what there might have been of light in life. He remembered, and it seemed to him that he could meet that ghostly image which had risen from the black waters, without shrinking, almost contemptuously. Fate had mocked him long enough. It was time, indeed, that he helped himself.
He swung away from the solitude to the other side of the steamer, paused in a sheltered spot while he lit a cigarette, and paced up and down the more frequented ways. A soft voice from an invisible mass of furs and rugs, called to him.
"Mr. Romilly, please come and talk to me. My rug has slipped--thank you so much. Take this chair next mine for a few minutes, won't you? Mr. Greene has rushed off to the smoking room. I think he has just been told that there is a rival cinema producer on board, and he is trying to run him to ground."
Philip settled himself without hesitation in the vacant place.
"One is forced to envy Mr. Raymond Greene," he sighed. "To have work in life which one loves as he does his is the rarest form of happiness."
"What about your own?" she asked him. "But you are a manufacturer, are you not? Somehow or other, that surprises me."
"And me," he acknowledged frankly. "I mean that I wonder I have persevered at it so long."
"But you are a very young man!"
"Young or old," he answered, "I am one of those who have made a false start in life. I am on my way to new things. Do you think, Miss Dalstan, that your country is a good place for one to visit who seeks new things?"
She turned in her chair a little more towards him. Against the background of empty spaces, the pale softness of her face seemed to gain a new attractiveness.
"Well, that depends," she said reflectively, "upon what these new things might be which you desire. For an ambitious business man America is a great country."
"But supposing one had finished with business?" he persisted. "Supposing one wanted to develop tastes and a gift for another method of life?"
"Then I should say that New York is the one place in the world," she told him. "You are speaking of yourself?"
"You have ambitions, I am sure," she continued. "Tell me, are they literary?"
"I would like to call them so," he admitted. "I have written a play and three stories, so bad that no one would produce the play or publish the stories."
"You have brought them with you?"
He shook his head.
"No! They are where I shall never see them again."
"Never see them again?" she repeated, puzzled.
"I mean that I have left them at home. I have left them there, perhaps, to a certain extent deliberately," he went on. "You see, the idea is still with me. I think that I shall rewrite them when I have settled down in America. I fancy that I shall find myself in an atmosphere more conducive to the sort of work I want to do. I would rather not be handicapped by the ghosts of my old failures."
"One's ghosts are hard sometimes to escape from," she whispered.
He clutched nervously at the end of his rug. She looked up and down along the row of chairs. There were one or two slumbering forms, but most were empty. There were no promenaders in sight.
"You know," she asked, her voice still very low, "why I left the saloon a little abruptly this evening?"
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because," she went on, "I could see the effect which Mr. Raymond Greene's story had upon you; because I, also, was in that train, and I have better eyesight than Mr. Greene. You were one of the two men who were walking along the towpath."
"Well?" he muttered.
"You have nothing to tell me?"
She waited for a moment.
"At least you have not attempted to persuade me that you lingered underneath that bridge to escape from the rain," she remarked.
"If I cannot tell you the truth," he promised, "I am not going to tell you a lie, but apart from that I admit nothing. I do not even admit that it was I whom you saw."
She laid her hand upon his. The touch of her fingers was wonderful, cool and soft and somehow reassuring. He felt a sense of relaxation, felt the strain of living suddenly grow less.
"You know," she said, "all my friends tell me that I am a restful person. You are living at high pressure, are you not? Try and forget it. Fate makes queer uses of all of us sometimes. She sends her noblest sons down into the shadows and pitchforks her outcasts into the high places of life. Those do best who learn to control themselves, to live and think for the best."
"Go on talking to me," he begged. "Is it your voice, I wonder, that is so soothing, or just what you say?"
She smiled reassuringly.
"You are glad because you have found a friend," she told him, "and a friend who, even if she does not understand, does not wish to understand. Do you see?"
"I wish I felt that I deserved it," he groaned.
She laughed almost gaily.
"What a sorting up there would be of our places in life," she declared, "if we all had just what we deserved!... Now give me your arm. I want to walk a little. While we walk, if you like, I will try to tell you what I can about New York. It may interest you."
They walked up and down the deck, and by degrees their conversation drifted into a discussion of such recent plays as were familiar to both of them. At the far end of the ship she clung to him once or twice as the wind came booming over the freshening waves. She weighed and measured his criticisms of the plays they spoke of, and in the main approved of them. When at last she stopped outside the companionway and bade him good night, the deck was almost deserted. They were near one of the electric lights, and he saw her face more distinctly than he had seen it at all, realised more adequately its wonderful charm. The large, firm mouth, womanly and tender though it was, was almost the mouth of a protector. She smiled at him as one might smile at a boy.
"You are to sleep well," she said firmly. "Those are my orders. Good night!"
She gave him her hand--a woman's soft and delicate fingers, yet clasping his with an almost virile strength and friendliness. She left him with just that feeling about her--that she was expansive, in her heart, her sympathies, even her brain and peculiar gifts of apprehension. She left him, too, with a curious sense of restfulness, as though suddenly he had become metamorphosed into the woman and had found a sorely-needed guardian. He abandoned without a second thought his intention of going to the smoking-room and sitting up late. The thought of his empty stateroom, a horror to him a few hours ago, seemed suddenly almost alluring, and he made his way there cheerfully. He felt the sleep already upon his eyes.
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