By Hugh J. Cannon
Awaiting Nell in Apia, after her return from Fiji, was a letter form her mother. As usual it was full of expressions of love. The tender heart of Mrs. Redfield yearned for her daughter and no effort was made to hide the fact. One paragraph in the communication made the young lady sit, silent and oppressed for a long time. It contained information that Nate had been going out frequently with Jessie Dean and occasionally with other girls.
“Of course no one knows why you went away, except the Everetts and Mr. Gray, and they will never reveal the secret. Your friends all imagine you and Nate had a lovers’ quarrel and that rather than subdue your pride you broke with him and went to the Islands to visit your birthplace, as you have often said you were going to do. Naturally they think you will soon be coming back and that makes all of them, except Jessie, anxious to capture Nate quickly; for it is apparent that he loves you better than anyone else. He is doing well in his business, has at present a large engineering contract which your father says will make him money and a reputation as well, and is looked upon, therefore, by young ladies and enterprising mothers as a desirable catch.”
Nell had urged this very course upon her former lover but that did not lessen the pain which the news brought. Knowing her mother’s sympathetic nature she was fully convinced no reference would be made to this painful subject were it not foreseen that sooner or later news of Nate’s marriage must be sent. This was the inevitable result of propinquity which would do for her lover exactly what it had done for her father. No matter how firm his present determination to remain single, it was sure to yield to frequent association with attractive young women.
“Girls nowadays are such persistent anglers, and their mothers are even worse.” The girl spoke aloud as she often did when alone in her own home, more to hear a human voice than for any other reason. In this instance there was a waspish tone not usually found there. “Yes, they are a lot of skillful anglers.”
“Pardon me, Nell, are you speaking of a gang of fishermen or of something else?” It was Dick Hawley who had walked over the grass in front of her cottage without being heard.
“Why, Dick, when did you come? I’m so surprised and pleased to see you.”
“We dropped anchor half an hour ago for a very short call, and it takes good traveling to get here from the middle of the harbor in that length of time.” The young officer was visibly delighted at his cordial reception. He took the chair which she offered and mopped his perspiring brow.
“One of the natives who walked, or rather trotted, along the road with me says that you’ve just returned from a long trip.”
The girl entered into an enthusiastic description of her voyage but suddenly remembered she was speaking to one as familiar with the South Sea islands as the average young man is with his home town.
“You went to Fiji?” he asked.
“No, and I was greatly disappointed in that; but Mr. Emmett had no business there, and of course I dared not ask him to make the trip solely on my account, and particularly as I could not give him the real reason for wanting to go.”
“Had you a particular reason?”
“Oh, I suppose not,” she answered wearily, “but sometimes I am as desperate as a drowning person who clutches frantically at a straw. I can expect no further light to be thrown on my ancestry; had there been the slightest hope in my heart, I have received such positive confirmation of the truth that it has been killed, and yet, now that the dreaded visit to Fiji is past, I want to go to all the places where my father and mother lived. I compared myself to a drowning person. It would perhaps be truer to say I am like a murderer whose constant impulse is to visit the scene of his crime.”
“What confirmation did you receive?”
“I met General Howcroft who knew my father and mother well. He told me many of the details of their courtship. And as a final proof he recognized resemblance to my Fijian mother, though I had been introduced to him as Miss Redfield.”
There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she finished. Dick seemed inclined to wipe them away, but overcame his impulse.
“Too bad you didn’t call at Tonga,” he said. “You would have found me there.”
“Is that so? Then I regret more than ever that we missed the place. You learned nothing that would be of interest to me?”
“Nothing new, I’m sorry to say. I had very little time in Nukualofa. There seemed to be a new conspiracy on some of the islands every day, and I was kept pretty busy. But we did stay there long enough for me to meet Mr. Hunt, half minister and half wandering missionary. He has taken the place of his deceased father who, you will remember, performed the marriage ceremony for your parents. He has his father’s old records. I looked them over myself and saw the account of the marriage of John Z. Terry to Nelly Alder, performed by Josiah Hunt.”
“Then my last ray of hope is gone,” she said despairingly.
“If you haven’t any hope, you should be able to have pity on me.”
“You may be sure I have sympathy, yes, and sincere affection also, or I never would have told you my hateful story. I tried my best to save you from the misery you were approaching.”
“I’m mighty glad you failed, for being in love with you will sweeten m life. But are you still as determined as ever to martyr yourself?”
“Yes, Dick, not that I want to be heroic, but because I can not do anything else. It isn’t sentiment but honest desire to do right.”
“But what harm can result from marriage? Mr. Redfield may be a regular Solomon in most matters, but in this thing mental rheumatism or something of the kind has certainly given his mind a twist. You’re as white as any girl, the slight part of Fijian blood need never be known. If you would rather, you may go into an entirely strange environment where a new set of acquaintances will be formed. There’s no real principle involved in this matter. You’re simply making a typhoon out of a little zephyr. If you’ll marry me, in time you yourself will forget all about this.”
The impetuous fellow spoke earnestly, almost convincingly. It was what the girl longed to hear. She had repeated this argument to herself over and over again through many lonely, sleepless nights when grief, disappointment and shame had come with overpowering force, and occasionally had been soothed to slumber by the seductive thought that she took the matter too seriously. Never once since her arrival in the Islands, now more than a year ago, had a steamer left for the States that an almost irresistible temptation did not come to quit the discouraging fight and sail with it. Now, as she sat looking into the appealing face of the stalwart young officer, a confirmation came to her of the fear she had kept secret even from herself that his presence in this vicinity had robbed such a temptation of some of its severity.
She was losing her grip. Loneliness supplemented by propinquity, which General Howcroft had said was the cause of her father’s terrible mistake, was having like effect upon the daughter, just as it was operating, too, upon her dearest friends at home.
As he had said, Hawley was a fighting man. His training had been given with a view of fitting him to detect the weak spots in another’s position. And apparently he was shrewd enough to discover in the girl the faintest trace of wavering. He took her unresisting hand and impulsively carried it to his lips, the first time he had ever touched it except in the most formal manner. The caress thrilled them both, and as she rose from her chair, emboldened by her passivity, he clasped her in his arms. Overpowered by the too long repressed craving for affection, she remained there a moment and then suddenly broke from him.
“Oh, Dick! What are you doing? What am I permitting? Your love for me now is genuine and sweet, but it has no real foundation and would wane the first time you meet a really white girl.”
“I don’t change that easily, Nelly dear.”
“You’re not changeable at all, Dick. That’s what worries me now. You love honesty, admire devotion to duty and to principle, you are a hero-worshipper. A love founded upon anything less than these could not last. You must not see me again.” Beneath her breath she added, “If I am to be true to my resolutions, I must not see you.”
“Nell, don’t banish me. I was carried away by the thrill which that exquisite kiss upon your hand gave me. If you’ll forgive me this time, I’ll promise not to offend again. But aren’t you beginning to love me just a little?”
“I am beginning to love you a great deal, but it is the same childish love that existed for little Dick twenty years ago. Because of that love I want to spare you sorrow. For me, marriage is impossible. Some day, of course, you’ll marry and it must be to a girl who can meet your friends and look them proudly in the face, which I could never do. If I ever did, it would be heavenly after pride and conscience had been forgotten. We are both too honest to live a hypocritical lie.”
“But the childish love you already have will grow if you’ll only cultivate it a little, just as surely as you have developed from babyhood to maturity.”
“I must not permit any such development. Today, for the first time, I was carried away by your unexpected action, and, I shall be perfectly frank with you, by my own hunger for affection. But knowing our danger I shall not relax again. That was the first and it must be the last embrace.”
The man grasped her hand eagerly. “Nell, your words and manner convince me that your love will grow if it is not bolted down. Unshackle yourself and follow the impulses of your heart.”
“Why, Dick, you are nothing but a big, foolish boy. Where would such doctrine lead? Following one’s impulses in a case of this kind is the very thing that one must not do. You know that as well as I.”
“I don’t mean everybody, but your case is an exceptional one.”
“In detail, yes; but that makes it all the more necessary for me to keep myself shackled. And, besides, Dick, you forget Nate. I have always told you that if I were free to marry he is my first choice.”
The young officer strode up and down the porch.
“Nate is a –.” The girl could only guess what words were on his tongue, but after gulping a time or two he finally swallowed them. “Your admirer is a strange character. A man who can sit down and coolly twiddle his thumbs while a treasure like you slips away from him deserves to lose her. I’ll be – excuse me, Nell, I’ll be damned if I’ll swear in your presence, much as I’d like to, but if you had been promised to me and had confessed your love, all the ships that ever sailed the seven seas could not have taken you away alone. I’d have come along if I’d had to work my way as a stoker. I can’t interpret Everett’s actions as giving any evidence of devotion, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s married to someone else by this time.”
Some of the resentment in the girl’s heart by the first part of Dick’s impetuous speech was subdued by the last words. Still she came to the defense of the absent one.
“You are not at all fair to Nate. After days of coaxing, and indeed of threatening, he started north just before I started west. Then he rushed clear across the continent and beat me aboard the boat. Finally I was compelled to insist that I should cable Father to come to my assistance unless he would let me sail alone.”
“Do you receive letters from him?”
“I haven’t for several months.”
“Of course your parents let you know what he is doing.”
“They don’t often mention him.”
“But when they do?”
“He is doing well in his profession.”
“And making love to someone else. I haven’t a doubt.”
“Dick, I told you before you are prejudiced against Nate. Father and Mother have both urged him to go out with other girls, and if he does take a step in that direction it will be with the approval of all who have any right to be concerned.” There was a tartness in her tone which the young fellow had never heard before. “Remember that we are not likely to agree in our opinion of Nate.”
“Of course I’m jealous, Nell, but don’t be angry with me. Mr. Everett may be all right; he must be, or you wouldn’t think so much of him. Certainly he is not my style, and if he’s not already sparking someone else it is pretty certain he soon will be. So won’t you cultivate, just a little, the childish love you confess to having for me and watch it grow? You can’t spend your life here alone. Think of the years of solitude, of loneliness, your only associates the natives whose customs and training are so different from yours.”
“Oh, Dick, I do think of them. Sometimes for days and nights I can think of nothing else, until this situation has become a frightful nightmare to me. There are times when I really fear it will drive me mad.”
The man put his arm gently about her. “Come away from it all, my girl. Go with me tomorrow to Pago Pago; Mrs. Evans has urged me to bring you. We can be married by the chaplain there, and I’ll promise to make you happy.”
“Dick, please do not speak of such happiness to me; it can never, never be. Listen to me. I have dreamed of it, of having a home and a husband, and may I say it plain to you? of having my own babies cuddled to my breast. More than once I have almost come to the determination to abandon this life and consider only my personal feelings. I have tried to bring myself to believe that my father’s views are extreme. Do you know what has done more than all else to restrain me? It is the thought of an innocent baby, upon which I had lavished all a mother’s love, growing up to pass through the torments which are now a part of my existence. I struggle constantly to keep from hating my mother, though she gave her life for me.”
“But I tell you that your ancestry can easily be forgotten.”
“And I tell you, Dick, the knowledge that I had not contributed my share to the purity of blood of my child would increase the present torture. And sooner or later it would learn the truth just as I have. The thing to forget is your love for me. I don’t ask you to forget me; I am too weak for that. I did ask Nate to, but then I was much younger, if not in years, at least in experience. My life must be lived alone, but if you could subdue your love – or if it could take the form it took twenty years ago – so that I could see you occasionally, it would make me so happy.”
In their many conversations Nell had learned a good deal about the impetuous young officer’s history and character. He had knocked about a good deal as a boy, receiving only such education as his father and mother had been able to impart under most unfavorable conditions. Naturally he did not love study, but had conceived such a desire to enter the navy and was so determined to win a place there that his distaste for confinement in the school room was overcome and fair success as a student had been achieved. From his toes up he was a fighter. As a boy and later at Annapolis he was always the ally of the underdog, provided the underdog was doing his level best. She surmised that his enemies might cut him to bits without having the satisfaction of hearing a groan but that an act of unusual devotion or of heroism would bring tears to his eyes; and woe to the man who, in the spirit of ridicule, dared call attention to such tears.
It was apparent that the struggle she was making and which he considered so heroic affected him deeply. And it was also clear that his early association with mixed races had much to do with his view of this situation. There was not enough colored blood in her veins to be worth a moment’s consideration; to his mind she was white, as was her mother before her.
“To have my love take another form, Nell,” he said gently in reply to her last statement, “is perhaps impossible, but I can promise not to make it so conspicuous as to offend you. If it would please you better, I can talk of something besides love.”
The girl was eager to turn the conversation into another channel and replied, “Oh, if you only would! I want to hear something more of your adventures.”
“Will you go for another sleigh ride on the bay?”
“I suppose you mean in your cutter. Of course I will if you promise me a story as dramatic as the one you told on our last ride.”