Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER VI of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on


‘Nan, do you see that ship out there?’ said Mary Beresford.

‘I saw it as I came along,’ said Nan. This was the afternoon on which she had fallen in with Singing Sal. Nan was rather tired after her long walk, and was not inclined to show much interest in that now lessening vessel, which was slowly sinking into the dusk of the west.

‘Do you know what her name is?’ said Mary Beresford, still regarding her younger sister.

‘No,’ said Nan. ‘I heard people say she was a man-of-war.’

‘That is the Fly-by-Night.’

‘Oh, indeed,’ said Nan, with no greater interest than before.

‘And Lieutenant King has just called here,’ the elder sister said, pointedly.

‘Oh, indeed,’ said Nan. ’I wish I had been in; I should like to have seen him in uniform.’

That was all she said, and all she thought; for now there were far more serious things than ballrooms and young lieutenants occupying Nan’s attention. She and her sisters were going abroad she for the first time; and she was busy with foreign languages, and lives of the great painters, and catalogues, and guide-books, and dressing-cases. The world she hoped to plunge into on the following week was, in her imagination, composed of nothing but cathedrals and picture-galleries; and she could have wished that the picture-galleries might contain nothing but the labours of Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto. The clear ethereal beauty and tenderness of the one, the solemn thoughtfulness of the other: these were things that filled her mind with a mysterious gladness, as if something had been added to her own life. Rubens she cordially hated. Of Titian she had as yet seen hardly anything.

At last the wonderful day of setting out arrived, and Mr. Tom graciously consented to accompany his sisters as far as Newhaven. It was towards the afternoon that they started, in an open carriage, the maid on the box beside the coachman. Tom was making facetious remarks about south-west gales, and his two elder sisters were angrily remonstrating with him. Nan was silent. She had not a thought for the ships and sailors out there, or for any pensive young officer bitterly saying to himself that out of sight was out of mind; and she had forgotten for a moment all about Singing Sal and her free-and-easy ways. Nan’s mind was at this time filled with Dante, and Florence, and the young Raphael, and the Doge wedding the Adriatic, and Pompeii, and Savonarola, and goodness knows what else. When they reached Newhaven when they forced her to descend from the carriage her eyes had a bewildered look. She had not seen Newhaven at all. She had been watching the execution of Savonarola she standing in the middle of the great crowd in a square in Florence.

They stayed the night at the hotel at Newhaven. Next morning falsified all Mr. Tom’s malicious forecasts; the weather was fine, and they had a smooth passage across. In due time they reached Paris.

To Nan, Paris meant picture-galleries. The streets were new-looking, non-historical, filled with commonplace people; but in the picture-galleries she was with great names, in great times.

‘Nan,’ her sisters remonstrated, ’what is the use of dawdling over pictures like this? The Old Masters are all alike. There are plenty of Holy Families and broken-necked angels in England. Why don’t you put off all this till you get back to the National Gallery?’

Fortunately, Nan was the most biddable of companions. She seemed to be in dreamland. You could do what you liked with her if only you allowed her to gaze with her great eyes, and think, and be silent.

Now it is unnecessary to follow in detail the various journeyings and adventures of these three young ladies and their maid; we may pass on to a certain evening when they found themselves in Lucerne. It was an exceedingly hot evening; and after dinner the crowd in this great hotel had been glad to pour out into the spacious verandah, which was formed by a succession of arches all hanging with evergreens. There they formed little groups round the small tables, lit up by the orange glow streaming out from the windows of the hotel, some taking coffee, some smoking, all chatting idly.

‘It feels like thunder,’ said Mary Beresford to her sister Edith. ’It would be odd if we were to have a real thunderstorm just after listening to the imitation one in the cathedral.’

‘The vox humana stop is better at some things than at others,’ said Miss Edith, critically. ‘In the chanting the boys’ voices are good, and the tenor voices are good; but the bass is too musical. You hear that it is the organ. And it vibrates too much.’

‘They must make a good deal of money by it,’ said the elder sister, ’in the tourist season. I am sure there were a hundred people there.’

’I wish I knew the name of the piece. I should like to try one or two of the airs.’

’It was considerate of them to finish up in time to let us get back for the table d’hote.’

’Sooner or later that organ will shake the Cathedral to bits: the vibrations were fearful. I thought there was a great deal too much noise. You lose effect when you pile up the agony like that: people only want to stop their ears to prevent their heads being split.’

So they chatted on. But what was it that Nan, who had accompanied them, had heard as she sat in the great, empty, dimly-lit Cathedral, with her hands clasped, her head bent forward on them, her eyes closed? Or, rather, what was it that she saw? for this seemed to be a picture in music. She saw a small chapel far away up in the mountains, the trembling red rays in the windows looking strange above the snow. She heard the monks at their midnight chanting low, and sad, and distant. And then it seemed, as she listened, as if the stars overhead were being blurred out, and a murmuring wind came down the gorge, and the air grew cold. The darkness deepened; the wind rose and moaned through the pine forests; then an angry gust swept along, so that the intoning of the monks was lost altogether. There was a rumble of distant thunder overhead, among the unseen peaks. But still, unconscious of the threatening storm, those within the small building went on with their holy office, and there were snatches of the clear singing of boys so faint that you could scarcely hear; and again the strong, sad, sombre voices of the men. Then the tempest broke, fierce and terrible: the elements seemed mingled together. She lost sight of the chapel in the whirling snow; the heavens rattled overhead; and the wind swept down so that the whole earth trembled. A horror of wrath and darkness has overwhelmed the world; and what of the patient choristers now? No longer are their voices heard amid the appalling fury of the hurricane; the sudden lightning-flash reveals nothing in the blackness; the powers of evil have overcome; and the universe has lost its hope. But now there comes a lull; and suddenly far away, and faint, and triumphant rises the song of reliance and joy. The demons of the night mutter and moan; but the divine song rises clearer and more clear. It is the voice of faith, silver-toned and sweet; and the very heavens themselves seem to listen; and the thunders rumble away into the valleys; and the stars, shining, and calm, and benignant, come out again over the mountain-peaks. And lo! once more she can descry the faint red rays above the snow; and she can almost see the choristers within the little building; and she listens to the silver-clear song; and her heart is filled with a strange new gladness and trust. What must she do to keep it there for ever? By what signal self-sacrifice by what devotion of a whole life-time by what patient and continuous duty shall she secure to herself this divine peace, so that the storms and terrors and trials of the world may sweep by it powerless and unregarded?

When she rose and blindly followed her sisters, she was all trembling, and there was a great lump in her throat. She was, indeed, in that half-hysterical state in which rash resolves are sometimes made that may determine the course of a human life. But Nan had the sense to know that she was in this state; and she had enough firmness of character to enable her to reason with herself. She walked, silent, with her sisters from the Cathedral to the hotel; and she was reasoning with herself all the time. She was saying to herself that she had had a glimpse, an impression of something divinely beautiful and touching, that at some time or other might influence or even determine her course of life. When that time came she could remember. But not now not now. She was not going to resolve to become a Catholic, or join a sisterhood, or give herself up to the service of the poor, merely because this wonderful music had filled her heart with emotion. It was necessary that she should think of something hard and practical something that would be the embodiment of common sense. She would force herself to think of that. And, casting about, she determined to think about Singing Sal!

It was rather hard upon Sal, who had a touch of vanity, and was quite conscious of what she deemed the romantic side of her way of life, that she should be taken as the sort of incarnation of the prosaic. Nevertheless, all through that table d’hote dinner, Nan kept to her self-imposed task, and was busying herself about the wages of the coastguardsmen, and the probable cost of mackerel, and the chances of Sal’s having to face a westerly squall of wind and rain when she was breasting the steep hill rising from Newhaven. Was Sal singing that night before the Old Ship? Or was she in the little cul-de-sac near the Town-hall where the public-house was that the fishermen called in at on their way home? Nan was apparently dining at the table d’hote of a hotel in Lucerne; but in reality she spent that evening in Brighton.

And she was still thinking of Brighton when, as has been related, there was a migration from the dining-saloon to the verandah outside; so that she did not hear much of what her sisters were saying.

’We are certainly going to have a real thunderstorm after the imitation one,’ Miss Beresford repeated. ‘Do you hear that?’

There was a low rumble of thunder; likewise some pattering of rain-drops on the leaves outside.

‘It won’t be half as fine though,’ said the musical sister.

There was a sudden white flash of light that revealed in a surprising manner the sharp outline of Pilatus; then darkness and a crashing peal of thunder. The rain began to pour; and some passers by took shelter under the densely-foliaged trees fronting the gravelled terrace of the hotel. The light that came through the tall windows fell on those dark figures; but dimly.

Nan had been thinking so much of Brighton, and Sal, and the downs, and ships and sailors, that when this orange glow fell on a gentleman whom she thought she recognised as Lieutenant Frank King she was scarcely astonished. She looked hard through the dusk; yes, surely it was he.

‘Mary,’ she said, but without any great interest, ’isn’t that Lieutenant King standing by that farthest tree?’

The eldest sister also peered through the obscurity.

’Well, yes, it is. What an extraordinary thing! Oh, I remember, he said he was going abroad. But what a curious coincidence! Why don’t you go and speak to him, Nan?’

‘Why should I go and speak to him?’ said Nan. ‘I should only get wet.’

‘What can have brought him here?’ said Edith.

‘Not his ship, at all events,’ said Mary Beresford, smartly. ’It’s only Shakspeare who can create seaports inland.’

‘You ought to know better than that,’ said Nan with some asperity, for she was very valiant in protecting her intellectual heroes against the attacks of a flippant criticism. ’You ought to know that at one time the Kingdom of Bohemia had seaports on the Adriatic; every school-girl knows that nowadays.’

‘They didn’t when I was at school,’ said Mary Beresford. ’But aren’t you going to speak to Lieutenant King, Nan?’

‘Oh, he won’t want to be bothered with a lot of girls,’ said Nan; and she refused to stir.

A few seconds thereafter, though there was still an occasional flash of lightning, the rain slackened somewhat; and the young Lieutenant who was clad in a travelling-suit of gray, by-the-way, and looked remarkably like the other young Englishmen loitering about the front of the hotel emerged from his shelter, shook the rain-drops from his sleeves, and passed on into the dark.

The very next morning the Beresfords left Lucerne for Zurich. They stayed there three days Nan busy all the time in teaching herself how to propel a boat with two oars, her face to the bow; and she liked to practise most in moonlight. Then they left Zurich one afternoon, and made their way southward into the mountainous region adjacent to the sombre Wallensee. The stormy sunset deepened and died out; rain, rain, rain pursued them all the way to Chur. They got to their hotel there in an omnibus that jolted through the mud and the darkness.

But next morning, when Nan Beresford went to the window of the little sitting-room and looked abroad, she uttered a cry of surprise that was also meant as a call to wake her sleeping sisters. She stepped out on to a wooden balcony, and found herself poised high above the flooded river that was roaring down its channel, while in front of her was the most vivid and brilliant of pictures, the background formed by a vast semicircle of hills. She had it all to herself on this lovely morning the fresh air and sunlight; the plunging river below; the terraced gardens on the opposite bank; over that again, the tumbled-about collection of gleaming white houses, and green casements, and red roofs, and old towers and belfries; and then, higher still, and enclosing, as it were, the picturesque little town, the great ethereal amphitheatre of pale blue mountains, with here and there a sprinkling of snow glittering sharply, as if it were quite close at hand. How fresh and cold the morning air was, after the sultry atmosphere of the lakes! How beautiful the snow was! Nan did not like to be alone. She wished to share her delight with some one. ‘Edith! Edith!’ she called. There was no answer.

Suddenly she found she was no longer the solitary possessor of this brilliant little picture. Happening to turn her head somewhat, she perceived some one coming across the bridge; and, after a minute’s surprise and doubt and astonishment, she convinced herself that the stranger was no other than Frank King. The discovery startled her. This time it could be no mere coincidence. Surely he was following them? Could it be possible that he had come with bad news from Brighton?

She did not stay to waken her sisters. She hastily put on her hat and went downstairs; and the first person she saw was Lieutenant King himself, who was calmly looking over the list of arrivals.

to be infectious; even Nan felt herself smiling, though she thought that the commander of a man-of-war ought not to go on like this. And how could Frank King, who had been practically all his life at sea, know so much about the rustics in Wiltshire? How could he have gone through those poaching adventures, for example? She knew that Kingscourt was in Wiltshire; but if, as he had told her, he was in the navy when the English fleet paid its famous visit to Cherbourg, he must have left Wiltshire when he was a very small boy indeed.

They got higher and higher into the mountains as the evening fell, and the mists closed down upon them. Outside they heard nothing but the rattle of the rain on the top of the carriage, and the tinkle of the horses’ bells. By and by the lamps were lit. Later they were in absolute blackness plunging through the streaming night; but they were contented enough.

When the carriage stopped they were quite surprised. Splugen already! And where was the inn? Frank King sprang out, and found himself in a sort of big square, with the rain pelting down, and the building opposite him apparently closed. But presently a man appeared with a lantern, who informed him that they could have beds certainly, but in the dépendance, as the hotel was overcrowded. Then the gentleman with the lantern disappeared.

It was fortunate, indeed, for these young ladies that they had a male protector and champion with them; for the bad weather had detained many people, the hotel was crammed full, and as this was the table d’hote hour, the landlord and all his staff, with every disposition in the world to be obliging, were at their wits’ end. Every one was wanted in the dining-chamber: how could any one look after the new arrivals, or show them their rooms on the other side of the square, or attend to their luggage? Now it was that this young sailor began to show a touch of authority. First of all he got the young ladies to descend, and bundled them into the little reading-room; that was clearing the decks for action. The last they saw of him was that he had seized a man by the collar and was quietly, but firmly, taking him to the door, addressing him the while in an extraordinary mixture of French and German concerning luggage, and rooms, and the necessity of a lantern to show people across the square. In about a quarter of an hour he returned, dripping wet.

‘Well, that’s all settled,’ he said, cheerfully, as he dried his face with his handkerchief. ’I’ve seen the rooms very big, and bare, and cold, but the best they have. And I’ve left Miss Parsons in the kitchen, tearing her hair over some things that have got wet. And I’ve got four places at the table d’hote, which is going on. Now, if you wish to go and see your rooms and dress for dinner, there is a little girl waiting with a lantern; or if you prefer going in to the table d’hote at once ’