Through the Gate of Tears

by Henry Seton Merriman

     Give us—ah! give us—but Yesterday!

In the old days, when the Mahanaddy was making her reputation, she had her tragedy. And Dr. Mark Ruthine has not forgotten it, nor forgiven himself yet. Doctors, like the rest of us, are apt to make a hideous mistake or two which resemble the stream anchors of a big steamer warping out into the Hooghly. We leave them behind, but we do not let go of them. They make a distinct difference to the course of our journey down the stream. Sometimes they hold us back; occasionally they swing us into the middle of the current, where there is no shoal. Like the stream anchors, they are always there, behind us, for our good.

Some few of the Mahanaddy passengers have remarked that Mark Ruthine invariably locks his cabin-door whenever he leaves the little den that serves him for surgery and home. This is the outward sign of an inward unforgotten sore.

This, by the way, is not a moral tale. Virtue does not triumph, nor will vice be crushed. It is the mere record of a few mistakes, culminating in Mark Ruthine's blunder—a little note on human nature without vice in it; for there is little vice in human nature if one takes the trouble to sift that which masquerades as such.

It was, therefore, in old days, long ago, on an outward voyage to Madras, that Miss Norah Hood was placed under the care of the captain, hedged safely round by an engagement to an old playmate, and shipped off to the land where the Anglo-Saxon dabbles in tragedy.

Norah is fortunately not a common name. Mark Ruthine's countenance—a still one—changes ever so slightly whenever he hears the name or sees it in print. Another outward sign, and, as such, naturally small.

When the captain was introduced by a tall and refined old clergyman to Miss Norah Hood, he found himself shaking hands with a grave young person of unassertive beauty. Hers was the loveliness of the violet, which is apt to pall in this modern day—to aggravate, and to suggest wanton waste. For feminine loveliness is on the wane—marred, like many other good things, by over-education. Norah Hood was a typical country parson's daughter, who knew the right and did it, ignored the wrong and refused to believe in it.

The captain was busy with his Mahanaddy. He looked over his shoulder, and, seeing Mark Ruthine, called him by a glance.

"This is my doctor," he said, to the scholarly parson. "He will be happy to see that Miss Hood is comfortably settled among us. I am naturally rather a busy man until we leave the Start Light behind us."

So Mark Ruthine hovered about, and discreetly looked the other way when the moment of parting came. He suspected, shrewdly enough, that Norah was the eldest of a large family—one less to feed and clothe. An old story. As the great ship glided gently away from the quay—in those days the Mahanaddy loaded at Southampton—he went and stood beside Norah Hood. Not that he had anything to say to her; but his calling of novelist, his experience of doctor, taught him that a silent support is what women sometimes want. They deal so largely in words that a few unexplained deeds sometimes refresh them.

He stood there until the tall, slim form in the rusty black coat was no longer discernible. Then he made a little movement and spoke.

"Have you been to your cabin?" he asked. "Do you know where it is?"

"I have not seen it," she answered composedly. "The number of my berth is seventy-seven."

There was a singular lack of fluster. It was impossible to divine that she had never trod the deck of a big steamer before—that her walk in life had been limited to the confines of a tiny, remote parish in the eastern counties. Ruthine glanced at her. He saw that she was quite self-possessed, with something more complete than the self-possession of good breeding. It was quite obvious that this woman—for Norah Hood was leaving girlhood behind—had led a narrow, busy life. She had obviously lost the habit of attaching much importance to her own feelings, her own immediate fate or passing desires, because more pressing matters had so long absorbed her. There was a faint suggestion of that self-neglect, almost amounting to self-contempt, which characterizes the manner of overburdened motherhood. This would account for her apparent ignorance of the fact that she was beautiful.

As he led the way down below Ruthine glanced at her again. He had an easy excuse for so doing on the brass-bound stairs, where landsmen feet may slip. He was, above all things, a novelist, although he wrote under another and greater name, and those around him knew him not. He looked more at human minds than human bodies, and he was never weary of telling his friends that he was a poor doctor. He concluded—indeed, her father had almost told him—that she was going out to be married. But he needed not to be told that she was going to marry a man whom she did not love. He found that out for himself in a flash of his quiet grey eyes. An expert less skilful than himself could see that Norah Hood did not know what love was. Some women are thus—some few, God help them! go through life in the same ignorance.

He took her down to her cabin—a small one, which she was fortunate enough to have to herself. He told her the hours of the meals, the habits of the ship, and the customs of the ocean. He had a grave way with him, this doctor, and could put on a fatherly manner when the moment needed it. Norah listened with a gravity equal to his own. She listened, moreover, with an intelligence which he noted.

"If you will come," he said, "on deck again, I will introduce you to a very kind friend of mine—Mrs. Stellasis. You have heard of John Stellasis?"

"No," answered Norah, rather indifferently.

"You will some day—all the world will. Stellasis is one of our great men in India. Mrs. Stellasis is a great lady."

This was a prophecy.

They went on deck, and Mark Ruthine effected the introduction. He stayed beside them for a few moments, and did not leave them until they were deeply engrossed in a conversation respecting babies in general, and in particular a small specimen which Mrs. Stellasis had lately received.

An Indian-going steamer is rather like a big box of toys. She goes bumping down Channel, rolling through the Bay, and, by the time that Gibraltar is left behind, she has shaken her passengers into their places.

Norah Hood shook down very quietly into the neighbourhood of Mrs. Stellasis, who liked her and began to understand her. Mrs. Stellasis—a good woman and a mother—pitied Norah Hood with an increasing pity; for as the quiet Mediterranean days wore to a close she had established without doubt the fact that the engagement to the old playmate was a sordid contract entered into in all innocence by a girl worthy of a better fate. But Mrs. Stellasis hoped for the best. She thought of the "specimen" slumbering in a berth six sizes too large for it, and reflected that Norah Hood might snatch considerable happiness out of the contract after all.

"Do you know anything of the old playmate?" Mrs. Stellasis asked Dr. Ruthine suddenly one afternoon in the Red Sea.

Mark Ruthine looked into the pleasant face and saw a back to the question—many backs, extending away into a perspective of feminine speculation.

"No," he answered slowly.

They lapsed into a little silence. And then they both looked up, and saw Norah Hood walking slowly backwards and forwards with Manly Fenn of the Guides.

After all, it was only natural that these two young persons should drift together. They were both so "quiet and stupid." Neither had much to say to the world, and they both alike heard what the world had to say with that somewhat judicial calm which knocks down feeble wit.

There was no sparkle about either of them, and the world is given to preferring bad champagne to good burgundy because of the sparkle. The world therefore left Manly Fenn alone; and Manly Fenn, well pleased, went about his own business. It has been decreed that men who go about their own business very carefully find that it is a larger affair than they at first took it to be. Manly Fenn had never been aware until quite lately that these things which he took to be his own affairs were in reality the business of an Empire. The Empire found it out before Manly Fenn—found it out, indeed, when its faithful servant was hiring himself out as assistant-herdsman to a large farmer on the Beloochistan frontier.

And Major Fenn had to buy a new uniform, had to interview many high-placed persons, and had, finally, to present himself before his Gracious Sovereign, who hooked a little cross into the padding of his tunic—all of which matters were extremely disagreeable to Manly Fenn.

Finally, the devil—as the captain bluffly affirmed—brought it to pass that he, Manly Fenn, should take passage in the Mahanaddy on the voyage of which we have to do.

It was very sudden, and many thorough things are so. It happened somewhere in the Red Sea, and Mrs. Stellasis was probably the first to sniff danger in the breeze. That was why she asked Mark Ruthine if he knew anything about the old playmate to whom Norah Hood was engaged. That was why Mark Ruthine looked for the back of the question; for he was almost as expert as a woman among the humanities.

Somewhere between Ismailia and the Gate of Tears, Love came on board the Mahanaddy—a sorry pilot—and took charge of Manly Fenn and the girl who was going out to marry her old playmate.

It was a serious matter from the first—like a fever that takes a man of middle age who has never been ill before.

There was a consultation of the authorities—Mrs Stellasis, namely, and the captain, and Mark Ruthine.

The captain disgraced himself early in the proceedings.

"Perhaps it is only a flirtation," he said.

Whereupon Mrs. Stellasis laughed scornfully, and the mariner collapsed. Moreover, the consultation resulted in nothing, although Stellasis himself joined it, looking grave and thoughtful behind his great grey moustache.

"Known Manly Fenn for ten years," he said; "but I am afraid of him still. I cannot speak to him. Can you not say something to the girl?"

But Mrs. Stellasis shook her head with determination. That was the worst of it—they were not the sort of persons to whom one can say such things. The captain was technically responsible, but he had proved himself utterly incompetent. "No," said Mrs. Stellasis finally. There was nothing to be done but hope for the best. Of course, Mrs. Stellasis was without conscience—quite without justice. It is to be feared that nearly all women are. She was all for Manly Fenn and dead against the old playmate, whom she intuitively described as "that stupid."

In the mean time all the ship knew it. In some ways the two culprits were singularly innocent. It is possible that they did not know that the world is never content unless it is elbow-deep in its neighbour's pie—that their affairs were the talk of the Mahanaddy. It is also possible that they knew and did not care.

The good steamer pounded out of the Gate of Tears and struck a bee-line across the Arabian Sea. The passengers settled down to await the sequel which would be delivered to them at Madras.

Norah Hood and Fenn were together from morning till night. They seemed to ignore the sequel, which made it all the more exciting for the lookers-on. Norah still saw a good deal of Mrs. Stellasis. She still took a great interest in the "specimen," whose small ailments received her careful attention. With Mark Ruthine she was almost familiar, in her quiet way. She came to his little surgery to get such minute potions as the "specimen" might require. She even got to know the bottles, and mixed the drugs herself while he laughingly watched her. She had dispensed for a village population at home, and knew a little medicine.

Ruthine encouraged her to come, gave her the freedom of his medicine chests, and all the while he watched her. She interested him. There were so many things which he could not reconcile.

In some ways she was quite a different woman. This love which had come to her suddenly—rather late in her life—had made a strange being of her. She was still gentle, and rather prim and quite self-possessed. She looked Ruthine in the face, and knew that he knew all about her; but she was not in the least discomposed. She was astonishingly daring. She defied him and the whole world—gently.

The little Dutch lighthouse at Galle was duly sighted, and the Mahanaddy was in the Bay of Bengal. The last dinner was duly consumed, and the usual speech made by the usual self-assertive old civilian. And, for the last time, the Mahanaddy passengers said good night to each other, seeking their cabins with a pleasant sense of anticipation. The next day would bring the sequel.

A stewardess awoke Mark Ruthine up before it was light. He followed the woman to number seventy-seven cabin. There he found Norah Hood, dressed, lying quietly on her berth—dead.

A bottle—one of his bottles from the medicine-chest—stood on the table beside her.