The Sole Survivor
A few weeks later I landed in England, I, who no longer desired to set foot on any land again.
At nine-and-twenty I was gaunt and gray; my nerves were shattered, my heart was broken; and my face showed it without let or hindrance from the spirit that was broken too. Pride, will, courage, and endurance, all these had expired in my long and lonely battle with the sea. They had kept me alive-for this. And now they left me naked to mine enemies.
For every hand seemed raised against me, though in reality it was the hand of fellowship that the world stretched out, and the other was the reading of a jaundiced eye. I could not help it: there was a poison in my veins that made me all ingratitude and perversity. The world welcomed me back, and I returned the compliment by sulking like the recaptured runaway I was at heart. The world showed a sudden interest in me; so I took no further interest in the world, but, on the contrary, resented its attentions with unreasonable warmth and obduracy; and my would-be friends I regarded as my very worst enemies. The majority, I feel sure, meant but well and kindly by the poor survivor. But the survivor could not forget that his name was still in the newspapers, nor blink the fact that he was an unworthy hero of the passing hour. And he suffered enough from brazenly meddlesome and self-seeking folk, from impudent and inquisitive intruders, to justify some suspicion of old acquaintances suddenly styling themselves old friends, and of distant connections newly and unduly eager to claim relationship. Many I misjudged, and have long known it. On the whole, however, I wonder at that attitude of mine as little as I approve of it.
If I had distinguished myself in any other way, it would have been a different thing. It was the fussy, sentimental, inconsiderate interest in one thrown into purely accidental and necessarily painful prominence - the vulgarization of an unspeakable tragedy - that my soul abhorred. I confess that I regarded it from my own unique and selfish point of view. What was a thrilling matter to the world was a torturing memory to me. The quintessence of the torture was, moreover, my own secret. It was not the loss of the Lady Jermyn that I could not bear to speak about; it was my own loss; but the one involved the other. My loss apart, however, it was plain enough to dwell upon experiences so terrible and yet so recent as those which I had lived to tell. I did what I considered my duty to the public, but I certainly did no more. My reticence was rebuked in the papers that made the most of me, but would fain have made more. And yet I do not think that I was anything but docile with those who had a manifest right to question me; to the owners, and to other interested persons, with whom I was confronted on one pretext or another, I told my tale as fully and as freely as I have told it here, though each telling hurt more than the last. That was necessary and unavoidable; it was the private intrusions which I resented with all the spleen the sea had left me in exchange for the qualities it had taken away.
Relatives I had as few as misanthropist could desire; but from self-congratulation on the fact, on first landing, I soon came to keen regret. They at least would have sheltered me from spies and busybodies; they at least would have secured the peace and privacy of one who was no hero in fact or spirit, whose noblest deed was a piece of self preservation which he wished undone with all his heart.
Self-consciousness no doubt multiplied my flattering assailants. I have said that my nerves were shattered. I may have imagined much and exaggerated the rest. Yet what truth there was in my suspicions you shall duly see. I felt sure that I was followed in the street, and my every movement dogged by those to whom I would not condescend to turn and look. Meanwhile, I had not the courage to go near my club, and the Temple was a place where I was accosted in every court, effusively congratulated on the marvellous preservation of my stale spoilt life, and invited right and left to spin my yarn over a quiet pipe! Well, perhaps such invitations were not so common as they have grown in my memory; nor must you confuse my then feelings on all these matters with those which I entertain as I write. I have grown older, and, I hope, something kindlier and wiser since then. Yet to this day I cannot blame myself for abandoning my chambers and avoiding my club.
For a temporary asylum I pitched upon a small, quiet, empty, private hotel which I knew of in Charterhouse Square. Instantly the room next mine became occupied.
All the first night I imagined I heard voices talking about me in that room next door. It was becoming a disease with me. Either I was being dogged, watched, followed, day and night, indoors and out, or I was the victim of a very ominous hallucination. That night I never closed an eye nor lowered my light. In the morning I took a four-wheel cab and drove straight to Harley Street; and, upon my soul, as I stood on the specialist's door-step, I could have sworn I saw the occupant of the room next mine dash by me in a hansom!
"Ah!" said the specialist; "so you cannot sleep; you hear voices; you fancy you are being followed in the street. You don't think these fancies spring entirely from the imagination? Not entirely - just so. And you keep looking behind you, as though somebody were at your elbow; and you prefer to sit with your back close to the wall. Just so - just so. Distressing symptoms, to be sure, but - but hardly to be wondered at in a man who has come through your nervous strain." A keen professional light glittered in his eyes. "And almost commonplace," he added, smiling, "compared with the hallucinations you must have suffered from on that hen-coop! Ah, my dear sir, the psychological interest of your case is very great!"
"It may be," said I, brusquely. "But I come to you to get that hen-coop out of my head, not to be reminded of it. Everybody asks me about the damned thing, and you follow everybody else. I wish it and I were at the bottom of the sea together!"
This speech had the effect of really interesting the doctor in my present condition, which was indeed one of chronic irritation and extreme excitability, alternating with fits of the very blackest despair. Instead of offending my gentleman I had put him on his mettle, and for half an hour he honored me with the most exhaustive inquisition ever elicited from a medical man. His panacea was somewhat in the nature of an anti-climax, but at least it had the merits of simplicity and of common sense. A change of air - perfect quiet - say a cottage in the country - not too near the sea. And he shook my hand kindly when I left.
"Keep up your heart, my dear sir," said he. "Keep up your courage and your heart."
"My heart!" I cried. "It's at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean."
He was the first to whom I had said as much. He was a stranger. What did it matter? And, oh, it was so true - so true.
Every day and all day I was thinking of my love; every hour and all hours she was before me with her sunny hair and young, young face. Her wistful eyes were gazing into mine continually. Their wistfulness I had never realized at the time; but now I did; and I saw it for what it seemed always to have been, the soft, sad, yearning look of one fated to die young. So young - so young! And I might live to be an old man, mourning her.
That I should never love again I knew full well. This time there was no mistake. I have implied, I believe, that it was for another woman I fled originally to the diggings. Well, that one was still unmarried, and when the papers were full of me she wrote me a letter which I now believe to have been merely kind. At the time I was all uncharitableness; but words of mine would fail to tell you how cold this letter left me; it was as a candle lighted in the full blaze of the sun.
With all my bitterness, however, you must not suppose that I had quite lost the feelings which had inspired me at sunset on the lonely ocean, while my mind still held good. I had been too near my Maker ever to lose those feelings altogether. They were with me in the better moments of these my worst days. I trusted His wisdom still. There was a reason for everything; there were reasons for all this. I alone had been saved out of all those souls who sailed from Melbourne in the Lady Jermyn. Why should I have been the favored one; I with my broken heart and now lonely life? Some great inscrutable reason there must be; at my worst I did not deny that. But neither did I puzzle my sick brain with the reason. I just waited for it to be revealed to me, if it were God's will ever to reveal it. And that I conceive to be the one spirit in which a man may contemplate, with equal sanity and reverence, the mysteries and the miseries of his life.Next