Story type: Literature
“Now listen to me, Neddie Dibbs,” she said, as she bounced the ball lightly on her tennis-racket, “you are very precipitate. It’s only four weeks since you were court-martialed, and you escaped being reduced by the very closest shave; and yet you come and make love to me, and want me to marry you. You don’t lack confidence, certainly.”
Commander Dibbs, R.N. was hurt; but he did not become dramatic. He felt the point of his torpedo-cut beard, and smiled up pluckily at her–she was much taller than he.
“I know the thing went against me rather,” he said, “but it was all wrong, I assure you. It’s cheeky, of course, to come to you like this so soon after, but for two years I’ve been looking forward up there in the China Sea to meeting you again. You don’t know what a beast of a station it is–besides, I didn’t think you’d believe the charge.”
“The charge was that you had endangered the safety of one of her Majesty’s cruisers by trying to run through an unexplored opening in the Barrier Reef. Was that it?”
“That was it.”
“And you didn’t endanger her?”
“Yes, I did, but not wilfully, of course, nor yet stupidly.”
“I read the evidence, and, frankly, it looked like stupidity.”
“I haven’t been called stupid usually, have I?”
“No. I’ve heard you called many things, but never that.”
Every inch of his five-feet-five was pluck. He could take her shots broadside, and laugh while he winced. “You’ve heard me called a good many things not complimentary, I suppose, for I know I’m not much to look at, and I’ve an edge to my tongue sometimes. What is the worst thing you ever said of me?” he added a little bitterly.
“What I say to you now–though, by the way, I’ve never said it before–that your self-confidence is appalling. Don’t you know that I’m very popular, that they say I’m clever, and that I’m a tall, good-looking girl?”
She looked down at him, and said it with such a delightful naivete, through which a tone of raillery ran, that it did not sound as it may read. She knew her full value, but no one had ever accused her of vanity–she was simply the most charming, outspoken girl in the biggest city of Australia.
“Yes, I know all that,” he replied with an honest laugh. “When you were a little child,–according to your mother, and were told you were not good, you said: ‘No, I’m not good–I’m only beautiful.’”
Dibbs had a ready tongue, and nothing else he said at the moment could have had so good an effect. She laughed softly and merrily. “You have awkward little corners in your talk at times. I wonder they didn’t reduce you at the court-martial. You were rather keen with your words once or twice there.”
A faint flush ran over Dibbs’s face, but he smiled through it, and didn’t give away an inch of self-possession. “If the board had been women, I’d have been reduced right enough–women don’t go by evidence, but by their feelings; they don’t know what justice really is, though by nature they’ve some undisciplined generosity.”
“There again you are foolish. I’m a woman. Now why do you say such things to me, especially when–when you are aspiring! Properly, I ought to punish you. But why did you say those sharp things at your trial? They probably told against you.”
“I said them because I felt them, and I hate flummery and thick-headedness. I was as respectful as I could be; but there were things about the trial I didn’t like–irregular things, which the Admiral himself, who knows his business, set right.”
“I remember the Admiral said there were points about the case that he couldn’t quite understand, but that they could only go by such testimony as they had.”
“Exactly,” he said sententiously.
She wheeled softly on him, and looked him full in the eyes. “What other testimony was there to offer?”
“We are getting a long way from our starting-point,” he answered evasively. “We were talking of a more serious matter.”
“But a matter with which this very thing has to do, Neddie Dibbs. There’s a mystery somewhere. I’ve asked Archie; but he won’t say a word about it, except that he doesn’t think you were to blame.”
“Your brother is a cautious fellow.” Then, hurriedly: “He is quite right to express no opinion as to any mystery. Least said soonest mended.”
“You mean that it is proper not to discuss professional matters in society?”
“That’s it.” A change had passed over Dibbs’s face–it was slightly paler, but his voice was genial and inconsequential.
“Come and sit down at the Point,” she said.
They went to a cliff which ran out from one corner of the garden, and sat down on a bench. Before them stretched the harbour, dotted with sails; men-of-war lay at anchor, among them the little Ruby, Commander Dibbs’s cruiser. Pleasure-steamers went hurrying along to many shady harbours; a tall-masted schooner rode grandly in between the Heads, balanced with foam; and a beach beneath them shone like opal: it was a handsome sight.
For a time they were silent. At last he said: “I know I haven’t much to recommend me. I’m a little beggar–nothing to look at; I’m pretty poor; I’ve had no influence to push me on; and just at the critical point in my career–when I was expecting promotion–I get this set-back, and lose your good opinion, which is more to me, though I say it bluntly like a sailor, than the praise of all the Lords of the Admiralty, if it could be got. You see, I always was ambitious; I was certain I’d be a captain; I swore I’d be an admiral one day; and I fell in love with the best girl in the world, and said I’d not give up thinking I would marry her until and unless I saw her wearing another man’s name–and I don’t know that I should even then.”
“Now that sounds complicated–or wicked,” she said, her face turned away from him.
“Believe me, it is not complicated; and men marry widows sometimes.”
“You are shocking,” she said, turning on him with a flush to her cheek and an angry glitter in her eye. “How dare you speak so cold-bloodedly and thoughtlessly?”
“I am not cold-blooded or thoughtless, nor yet shocking. I only speak what is in my mind with my usual crudeness. I know it sounds insolent of me, but, after all, it is only being bold with the woman for whom–half-disgraced, insignificant, but unquenchable fellow as I am–I’d do as much as, and, maybe, dare more for than any one of the men who would marry her if they could.”
“I like ambitious men,” she said relenting, and meditatively pushing the grass with her tennis-racket; “but ambition isn’t everything, is it? There must be some kind of fulfilment to turn it into capital, as it were. Don’t let me hurt your feelings, but you haven’t done a great deal yet, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. There must be occasion. The chance to do something big may start up any time, however. You never can tell when things will come your way. You’ve got to be ready, that’s all.”
“You are very confident.”
“You’ll call me a prig directly, perhaps, but I can’t help that. I’ve said things to you that I’ve never said to any one in the world, and I don’t regret saying them.”
She looked at him earnestly. She had never been made love to in this fashion. There was no sentimentalism in it, only straightforward feeling, forceful, yet gentle. She knew he was aware that the Admiral of his squadron had paid, and was paying, court to her; that a titled aide-de-camp at Government House was conspicuously attentive; that one of the richest squatters in the country was ready to make astonishing settlements at any moment; and that there was not a young man of note acquainted with her who did not offer her gallant service-in the ball-room. She smiled as she thought of it. He was certainly not large, but no finer head was ever set on a man’s shoulders, powerful, strongly outlined, nobly balanced. The eyes were everywhere; searching, indomitable, kind. It was a head for a sculptor. Ambition became it well. She had studied that head from every stand-point, and had had the keenest delight in talking to the man. But, as he said, that was two years before, and he had had bad luck since then.
She suddenly put this question to him: “Tell me all the truth about that accident to the Ruby. You have been hiding something. The Admiral was right, I know. Some evidence was not forthcoming that would have thrown a different light on the affair.”
“I can tell you nothing,” he promptly replied.
“I shall find out one day,” she said.
“I hope not; though I’m grateful that you wish to do so.”
He rose hurriedly to his feet; he was looking at the harbour below. He raised the field-glass he had carried from the veranda to his eyes. He was watching a yacht making across the bay towards them.
She spoke again. “You are going again to-morrow?”
“Yes; all the ships of the squadron but one get away.”
“How long shall you be gone?”
“Six months at least—-Great God!”
He had not taken the glasses from his eyes as they talked, but had watched the yacht as she came on to get under the lee of the high shore at their right. He had noticed that one of those sudden fierce winds, called Southerly Busters, was sweeping down towards the craft, and would catch it when it came round sharp, as it must do. He recognised the boat also. It belonged to Laura Harman’s father, and her brother Archie was in it. The gale caught the yacht as Dibbs foresaw, and swamped her. He dropped the glass, cried to the girl to follow, and in a minute had scrambled down the cliff, and thrown off most of his things. He had launched a skiff by the time the girl reached the shore. She got in without a word. She was deadly pale, but full of nerve. They rowed hard to where they could see two men clinging to the yacht; there had been three in it. The two men were not hauled in, for the gale was blowing too hard, but they clung to the rescuing skiff. The girl’s brother was not to be seen. Instantly Dibbs dived under the yacht. It seemed an incredible time before he reappeared; but when he did, he had a body with him. Blood was coming from his nose, the strain of holding his breath had been so great. It was impossible to get the insensible body into the skiff. He grasped the side, and held the boy’s head up. The girl rowed hard, but made little headway. Other rescue boats arrived presently, however, and they were all got to shore safely.
Lieutenant Archie Harman did not die. Animation was restored after great difficulty, but he did not sail away with the Ruby next morning to the Polynesian Islands. Another man took his place.
Little was said between Commander Dibbs and Laura Harman at parting late that night. She came from her brother’s bedside and laid her hand upon his arm. “It is good,” she said, “for a man to be brave as well as ambitious. You are sure to succeed; and I shall be proud of you, for–for you saved my brother’s life, you see,” she timidly added; and she was not often timid.
Five months after, when the Ruby was lying with the flag-ship off one of the Marshall Islands, a packet of letters was brought from Fiji by a trading-schooner. One was for Commander Dibbs. It said in brief: “You saved my brother’s life–that was brave. You saved his honour–that was noble. He has told me all. He will resign and clear you when the Admiral returns. You are a good man.”
“He ought to be kicked,” Dibbs said to himself. “Did the cowardly beggar think I did it for him–blast him!”
He raged inwardly; but he soon had something else to think of, for a hurricane came down on them as they lay in a trap of coral with only one outlet, which the Ruby had surveyed that day. He took his ship out gallantly, but the flag-ship dare not attempt it–Dibbs was the only man who knew the passage thoroughly. He managed to land on the shore below the harbour, and then, with a rope round him, essayed to reach the flag-ship from the beach. It was a wild chance, but he got there badly battered. Still, he took her with her Admiral out to the open safely.
That was how Dibbs became captain of a great iron-clad.
Archie Harman did not resign; Dibbs would not let him. Only Archie’s sister knew that he was responsible for the accident to the Ruby, which nearly cost Dibbs his reputation; for he and Dibbs had surveyed the passage in the Barrier Reef when serving on another ship, and he had neglected instructions and wrongly and carelessly interpreted the chart. And Dibbs had held his tongue.
One evening Laura Harman said to Captain Dibbs: “Which would you rather be–Admiral of the Fleet or my husband?” Her hand was on his arm at the time.
He looked up at her proudly, and laughed slyly. “I mean to be both, dear girl.”
“You have an incurable ambition,” she said.