The Black Pearl: A Gossamer Tale

A YOUNG girl of seventeen ran downstairs at four o’clock on a summer morning. The house was noiseless, for her mother was lying asleep in bed, and her father was ten weeks out at sea. Jane had suddenly lifted her head from her pillow in the dark of daybreak, disturbed by the sound of footsteps in the street and men’s thick voices. A lantern flashed its light across her ceiling. She leaned out of her bed, and heard one voice say, ‘The Black Pearl.’

The familiar excitement of knowing that a ship had arrived, caused her to shake off sleep, and the beauty of daybreak lifted her up like music. As she descended the stairs half an hour later, the sun was beginning to color the sky, and Jane was wide awake, her skin as cool and fresh as the petals that were then unfolding in the garden.

She went through the airless, rigid little rooms below and opened the windows wide. She opened the door toward the west, and saw the garden as it lay in lovely morning shadow. On either side of the doorway was a large pink shell, brought from some tropical island, each wet with frosty dew.

The sleepy cat, Cleopatra, came out of the parlor, rubbing against Jane’s legs, and went arching past, lifting her feet high among the wet grass-blades. Cleopatra had gone to sea in days past as the ship’s cat. Seven times she had sailed round the Horn with Jane’s father in the Queen of the Seas. Now she was large and old, and was spending her last years ashore in comfort and safety.

Over the fence at the back of the garden, Jane could see the masts of ships at anchor, and she could hear men shouting on the wharves, and the rumble of barrels rolling over the gangplank. She followed Cleopatra down the little brick path that was laid in the grass. The smell of the box hedge was sharp and strong, distilled by the moist night. The pear trees had dropped their blossoms on the grass. The lilac bush had opened heavy purple plumes, giving out their heavy aroma. And more pervasive and richer still than the smell of box or lilac or pear blossoms, was the smell of the sea that filled the garden.

The narrow brick path turned at an angle and led to the wicket-gate that opened on the street. Beside the path grew a hawthorn tree. And hanging from one of the branches of the hawthorn tree was a large wooden birdcage. Jane, standing beside the cage, could look up and down the street, and be hidden by the tree. She looked into the cage, and saw her bird still half asleep, its feathers ruffled.

‘Good morning, Scheherazade! ’ Jane said coaxingly. ‘Wake up! Wake up, you sleepy beauty!’

Jane’s father had got the bird from a peddler in Singapore who said he had brought it from Arabia. And Scheherazade had never sung, as the peddler had promised. She had never uttered a sound. For two years her melancholy had been unbroken. She brooded heavily for hours on end, eating nothing, and responding to no endearments. Or, for hours, she swept tirelessly up and down the cage, stopping only to peck bitterly at her prison bars. Jane had tried in vain to pet and win her, and now she wished with all her heart that she might be sent back to Arabia. One could scarcely be happy in one’s garden, in the presence of an unhappy stranger. The bird was a blight in the peaceful garden, a constant reproach.

Two young men came down the street toward the wharves. Jane went to the gate.

‘Is there a ship in, Martin?’ she asked one of them.

‘Yes, the Black Pearl — William Gregory is her third mate.’

This was said with friendly significance, and Jane annoyed herself by blushing.

They disappeared round the corner and Jane gazed after them, wondering what treasures were being rolled out of the depths of the Black Pearl. Also she gave a moment’s consideration to William Gregory, who would doubtless soon appear. She glowed serenely with the prospect of his coming, although she was not quite sure whether she was pleased, or only a little interested.

She stared musingly down the empty street, watching the early sunlight on the cobblestones, and with William Gregory’s image in her mind. Suddenly her musing gaze was caught and sharpened by a figure coming from the wharves. Round the corner came, or rather flashed, a solitary figure, yielded up by the Black Pearl. His feet were brown and sandaled. His body was covered with a tunic of lemon-yellow cloth, and he wore a turban of faded red. Names familiar, yet exotic, ran through Jane’s mind — Tunis, Algiers, Arabia. Familiar as these names were to her, and the wares of the East, never before had she set her eyes on a native of the Eastern world.

She watched him as he slowly advanced, sombre and proud. Every now and then he stopped and looked about him with deep, solemn curiosity, slowly observing the shuttered houses and garden fences. Then he looked toward the top of the street where it wound into the town. He came nearer, and Jane stood stock-still, hidden behind the hawthorn tree.

Her eyes followed every inch of his progress as he crossed her narrow horizon. She saw the fine stitches of colored embroidery on the flowing edge of his tunic. She saw his long brown hands, and the golden bracelets on his wrists. She saw his aristocratic chin, his finely curved Egyptian nose, his thin nostrils, his heavy straight black brows, and the eyes beneath, glowing black. His beauty thrilled and startled her.

She thought that, as he passed so near, he would hear her breathing. If she stirred a hair’s breadth, he must surely turn and see her through the leaves. Her blood leaped at the thought of his turning and catching sight of her. In that dark, burning face, that lithe step, there was romance for Jane, romance which made her tingle, romance which her instinct seized immediately for its own.

An unconsidered impulsive word was rising to her lips, and she had taken a step forward, when from the cage above her came a sharp cry. She turned her head, and saw Scheherazade stirring uneasily. She turned again, and started toward the gate, and found to her amazement that she was unable to lift her feet from the ground. She stood, rooted like a flower, and watched the stately, sombre head pass by, and the last flutter of the lemon-yellow tunic disappear in the direction of the Square.

When he was gone, her power of moving returned. She went back into the garden, full of surprise. She gazed for a long time at Scheherazade. The exotic bird swept up and down the cage. For what purpose had her dumbness been broken ? What was the meaning of her cry? Jane wished more than ever that Scheherazade were back with the peddler in Singapore. She wandered round the garden, musing. A potent face was stamped on her mind. She was so deeply absorbed that she did not even hear a voice that spoke to her from the gate.

‘Good morning, Jane!' the gentle voice repeated.

She started quickly, and saw a tall yellow-haired youth standing at the gate, his sailor’s cap in one hand, and a small wooden box in the other. His blue eyes were looking at her happily.

‘William!’ she exclaimed.

She went toward him, and be pushed open the gate. His eyes held her with gentle eagerness. Long absences gave boldness to this shy soul, and he took her hand and held it fervently. Then he looked down at the wooden box he held, and her eyes rested on it also.

‘Here is something that I got for you in Hong Kong,’ he said in his soft voice.

She took the box. It was inlaid along the edge with ivory, and it had a silver lock and key.

‘Let’s sit down on the steps while you open it,’ he said.

She sat down passively, and leaned forward, her fingers lightly holding the box that lay on her knees. He sat watching her face, and smiling with simple triumph. He could not see how far away she was. Her entire being was wrapped in an enchantment. The image of the exotic stranger filled her brain, and as she opened the box her fingers trembled, because her mind’s eye was dwelling upon that dark face.

The opened box revealed many small feminine implements, carved out of ivory: needle-cases, bobbins, stilettos, spools — the work-box of a Chinese princess. William kept looking from the box to Jane’s face, as she picked up and admired each piece of carving in turn, and he blushed with pleasure in the long-anticipated moment.

The more eagerly he watched her, and waited to be repaid by her glowing delight, the more difficult it was for her to find any words. Over and over she fingered the ivory rose-petals, the deeply wrought flowers. She tried to bring her attention to them, and respond. But there was no glow in her for William, only a sharp rush of blood to her heart as she returned again and again to the thought of the stranger.

‘ It took me a long time to pick it out. I went back to the bazaar three times before I chose this one. There are more pieces in it than there were in the others. I don’t know what all these funny little things are for, but I suppose you know. Ever since we left Hong Kong I’ve been wondering if you would have liked something else better, — there were silk slippers.’

She scarcely heard him.

‘I knew you had come,’ she said. ‘ I heard the men on the wharf, and Martin Rowe told me it was the Black Pearl. Then I saw the strangest man. He must have come with you.’

‘Oh, did you see him?’ William said amusedly, his eyes still drinking her in.

‘Who is he?’

‘We picked him up at Singapore; or rather, he picked us up. Why he wanted to come so badly, nobody could make out. He told the captain he was looking for somebody in this port.’

‘Who could it be?’ Jane breathed.

‘We told him none of his kind had ever come here. We tried to discourage him, but we could n’t turn him off his track.’

William paused. The stranger interested him but faintly. He stood up, and turning toward her, he took her hand, undenied. He drew her up from the doorstep.

‘O Jane!’ he said with emotion. His face changed suddenly, became gravely pleading. ‘It’s fine to be at home. Be sweet to me.’

She drew away, but he would not drop her hand. He was the sailor, demanding his share of happiness after long, vigilant exile.

‘I’ve got to go South as soon as we ’re unloaded here, and then round the world again. I’ve only got two or three days here if we get a wind. I say, may we have a dead calm! I’ll come and see you this evening. Every moment I have is for you, Jane.’

He gave her hand a sharp press, and went out of the yard.

By noon every doorway in the Square and along Front Street had exchanged gossip about the astonishing Eastern gentleman with bare ankles. Jane’s mother came home from the market, saying, —

‘He’s a religious man, a kind of priest, some say. The second mate, Jim Teazle, told Mr. Peabody in the grocer’s that he got down on his face whenever the sun was rising or setting, and got up with a very strange look in his eyes. There’s something he’s praying for, — something he’s after, — and nobody can find out what it is. And he would sit for hours and hours on the deck, on top of his own bundles, and never move or speak.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard.’

‘You didn’t hear much, I fancy, from William Gregory. He had plenty to talk to you about, without telling you about the Eastern gentleman. I met William in the Square, and I’ve asked him to have supper with us tonight. He seemed very much pleased.’

Jane tossed her head.

‘I’m not in any hurry to eat with William,’ she said.

Her mother’s large, wise face was not given to sudden flashes of change like Jane’s. Her mother’s blue eyes followed her exit, and smiled a comprehending smile at surface passions.

In the late midsummer twilight, mother, daughter, and lover sat eating together. William was wonderfully happy in his promotion to a family meal. Jane’s crisp white ruffles, her sweet odor, her ingenuous, graceful head — these in the beauty and intimacy of candle-light were heaven enough to the sailor. He leaned constantly toward her, while she, erect, gave him looks that were lovely but remote. Her mother was placidly observant.

When supper was nearly over, Jane paused for a second, in the midst of chatting, as if listening to a far-off sound. A quick blush mounted to her forehead.

‘I forgot to bring in the fresh cake, mother.’

She jumped up and disappeared from the room.

‘She’s gone out to the dairy. She’ll be back in a second,’ said Jane’s mother to William, suddenly bereft.

Jane flew past the dairy into the garden. She had heard children shouting in the street, and had guessed at the object of their shouting. The approach of the stranger had drawn her forth, headlong and careless.

He was there! He came down the street, and he appeared unconscious of his mercurial train of children. On his face had deepened the look of passionate search. The evening breezes ruffled his tunic, as he walked erect and slow.

Jane’s young heart set up a clamor.

‘I understand him!’ it cried within her. ‘ I must speak to him. Oh, look this way! Look at me! I will greet you!’

She ran forward. Her hand was on the gate. But her fingers lay paralyzed on the latch, without power to lift it. She was unable to go forward. Scheherazade had uttered again her annihilating cry, and Jane was powerless to move or to speak. Not until the stranger had disappeared in the direction of the wharves, did the curious paralysis go out of her. She turned away from the gate, exhausted by the veil of impotence that had been flung upon her and then snatched away. She looked at Scheherazade and a fire of resentment went swirling through her.

‘O Scheherazade, what is your secret?’ she thought, ‘and why do I feel so ill and so strange?’

When Jane returned to the diningroom, without the slightest thought in her mind of fresh cake, William jumped up at the sight of her, and held his own glass of wine to her lips.

‘You’re very white! What has happened?’ he said.

She could not explain, and she could not reject his solicitude. She sank into her chair, and William hung over her for the rest of the evening.

On the following morning the compelling spirit within her roused Jane from sleep, and made her dress and go down into the garden. She heard the infinitesimal and steady trill of crickets in the grass. There was a gentle, cold breeze from the west. She took a halfknit stocking from the kitchen shelf, and wandered round the garden, clicking her needles. Dawn gave her scarcely light enough to see her stitches, and she went to the gate to watch the eastern sky.

The air touched her eyelids and her throat with autumnal freshness. Darkness was lifting from the horizon, and day was burning just below. Masts moved gently in the harbor, rocked on the tide. There was no sound from the wharves. The hold of the Black Pearl had been emptied, and she rode high at anchor. Her log and her bills had been taken to her owner, in the countinghouse, where his clerk made long satisfactory columns of pounds, shillings, and pence.

Against the increasing brightness of the water at the bottom of the street, Jane’s eyes suddenly beheld the thrilling color, yellow and faded red, emerging, soft and brilliant, in the crystal atmosphere. The stranger was coming up at daybreak from the empty ship, where he was still a privileged guest.

When he reached Jane’s fence, he stopped and turned about, facing the harbor. She saw him go down on his knees. He dipped forward, his tunic falling round him, and his head and hands touched the stones. There he remained, motionless in his morning prayer, while the sun came over the harbor and bathed his figure, and the cool leaves rustled overhead.

Jane felt as if he were her captive, kneeling there. She thought, ‘I will go and stand at the gate. And when he gets up, he will be looking at me. Nothing shall hinder me.’

She felt that a great moment had come at last. Romance was at her feet. She made one step toward the gate. Scheherazade was slowly turning in her cage. Her long, shimmering feathers swept slowly round, and in her throat was the beginning of the fateful cry.

Jane came forward in a flash of hope and fear, and in passing, she gave the cage a flying blow with her strong, willful hand. The cage broke and fell to the ground. The stranger got up from his prayer and stood beside the gate.

He looked into the garden, attracted by the shattering of the. cage and by Jane’s sudden advance. She met his mature, powerful eyes for a moment only, for they instantly left her face to gaze beyond her with burning intentness.

She felt the stir of another human presence near her. She turned to look. The splintered bird-cage lay on the grass, and beside it a young woman was standing. Her dark, slender feet pressed the grass beside the broken wood. Round her smooth ankles were golden anklets. In her ears were silver hoops, and over her breast hung countless silver chains and enamels. A spangled veil was thrown back from her face and hung down her back.

The young woman stood for a moment perfectly still. She was fresh and stainless as if she had emerged from the crystal air, or as if, like the goddess of antiquity, she had risen out of the foam. A curious shimmer like the shimmer of heat enfolded her for an instant, and then left her, alive in mortal beauty. She moved a step. The thrill of daybreak was in her motion. Her face was a dark jewel, clear-cut and flawless. Yet in her face, in spite of its new-created look, there was emotion long remembered — the strength of an inviolable love.

The man burst open the gate as if he were breaking into paradise. The mute despair which had sunk so deep into his face was all gone, changed into a lifting adoration. He spoke to her in a strange tongue, only a few words, which gushed from his throat in pain and joy.

Jane saw how their hands touched, and how their eyes held each other in a magnet look. Long moments went by. He pressed her head between his hands. Her ear-rings shook, and she gave him a smile which restored in one moment the years that had been lost.

At last Jane saw them move instinctively away from the alien enclosure. She watched the man lay his hand on the gate, and open it, while he and his love went slowly out. With them went romance.

They vanished toward the wharf, where now the sun had risen warm. The day’s activity began. The Isis was to sail at noon for the East Indies, and the usual clatter and shouting, the hurry and excitement of a departing vessel were heard through the streets.

All day long Jane’s mother battered against the inscrutable mystery of the broken cage and the bird that had flown.

Jane went through the day entranced. Occasionally she left her work, and stood for a few moments beneath the hawthorn tree, gazing with reminiscent eyes at the empty air.

At dusk, when William Gregory opened the garden gate, he found Jane sitting in the doorway, over the Chinese work-box. She looked at him with an enigmatic, yet warm smile.

Although he saw nothing enigmatic in his chosen one, her smile gave him a glow of confidence such as he had not felt since he had disembarked from the Black Pearl.

After his single-minded greeting, the news of the day occurred to him.

‘You know, Jane, the foreigner who came on the Black Pearl? He found his prize. A lady, as brown as he is, is sailing home with him on the Isis. A strange foreign lady no man, woman, or child ever laid eyes on before. He conjured her right up out of the ground. Honestly, it is an unfathomable thing. She was hidden away somewhere or other. He’s contented now at last. But he’s not the only man who feels happy — Jane.’

She gave him a warm look, and it came over her suddenly that William was an irresistibly sweet person.