A Simpleton by Charles Reade
Mrs. Falcon's bitter feeling against Dr. Staines did not subside; it merely went out of sight a little. They were thrown together by potent circumstances, and in a manner connected by mutual obligations; so an open rupture seemed too unnatural. Still Phoebe was a woman, and, blinded by her love for her husband, could not forgive the innocent cause of their present unhappy separation; though the fault lay entirely with Falcon.
Staines took her on board the steamer, and paid her every attention. She was also civil to him; but it was a cold and constrained civility.
About a hundred miles from land the steamer stopped, and the passengers soon learned there was something wrong with her machinery. In fact, after due consultation, the captain decided to put back.
This irritated and distressed Mrs. Falcon so that the captain, desirous to oblige her, hailed a fast schooner, that tacked across her bows, and gave Mrs. Falcon the option of going back with him, or going on in the schooner, with whose skipper he was acquainted.
Staines advised her on no account to trust to sails, when she could have steam with only a delay of four or five days; but she said, "Anything sooner than go back. I can't, I can't on such an errand."
Accordingly she was put on board the schooner, and Staines, after some hesitation, felt bound to accompany her.
It proved a sad error. Contrary winds assailed them the very next day, and with such severity that they had repeatedly to lie to.
On one of these occasions, with a ship reeling under them like a restive horse, and the waves running mountains high, poor Phoebe's terrors overmastered both her hostility and her reserve. "Doctor," said she, "I believe 'tis God's will we shall never see England. I must try and die more like a Christian than I have lived, forgiving all who have wronged me, and you, that have been my good friend and my worst enemy, but you did not mean it. Sir, what has turned me against you so--your wife was my husband's sweetheart before he married me."
"My wife your husband's--you are dreaming."
"Nay, sir, once she came to my shop, and I saw directly I was nothing to him, and he owned it all to me; he had courted her, and she jilted him; so he said. Why should he tell me a lie about that? I'd lay my life 'tis true. And now you have sent him to her your own self; and, at sight of her, I shall be nothing again. Well, when this ship goes down, they can marry, and I hope he will be happy, happier than I can make him, that tried my best, God knows."
This conversation surprised Staines not a little. However, he said, with great warmth, it was false. His wife had danced and flirted with some young gentleman at one time, when there was a brief misunderstanding between him and her, but sweetheart she had never had, except him. He courted her fresh from school. "Now, my good soul," said he, "make your mind easy; the ship is a good one, and well handled, and in no danger whatever, and my wife is in no danger from your husband. Since you and your brother tell me that he is a villain, I am bound to believe you. But my wife is an angel. In our miserable hour of parting, she vowed not to marry again, should I be taken from her. Marry again! what am I talking of? Why, if he visits her at all, it will be to let her know I am alive, and give her my letter. Do you mean to tell me she will listen to vows of love from him, when her whole heart is in rapture for me? Such nonsense!"
This burst of his did not affront her, and did not comfort her.
At last the wind abated; and after a wearisome calm, a light breeze came, and the schooner crept homeward.
Phoebe restrained herself for several days; but at last she came back to the subject; this time it was in an apologetic tone at starting. "I know you think me a foolish woman," she said; "but my poor Reginald could never resist a pretty face; and she is so lovely; and you should have seen how he turned when she came in to my place. Oh, sir, there has been more between them than you know of; and when I think that he will have been in England so many months before we get there, oh, doctor, sometimes I feel as I should go mad; my head it is like a furnace, and see, my brow is all wrinkled again."
Then Staines tried to comfort her; assured her she was tormenting herself idly; her husband would perhaps have spent some of the diamond money on his amusement; but what if he had? he should deduct it out of the big diamond, which was also their joint property, and the loss would hardly be felt. "As to my wife, madam, I have but one anxiety; lest he should go blurting it out that I am alive, and almost kill her with joy."
"He will not do that, sir. He is no fool."
"I am glad of it; for there is nothing else to fear."
"Man, I tell you there is everything to fear. You don't know him as I do; nor his power over women."
"Mrs. Falcon, are you bent on affronting me?"
"No, sir; Heaven forbid!"
"Then please to close this subject forever. In three weeks we shall be in England."
"Ay; but he has been there six months."
He bowed stiffly to her, went to his cabin, and avoided the poor foolish woman as much as he could without seeming too unkind.