Julia France and Her Times A Novel
JULIA FRANCE AND
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
All rights reserved
By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published April, 1912.
J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
The entrance of a British cruiser into the harbor ofSt. Kitts was always followed by a ball at Government Housein the little capital of Basse Terre. To-night there was asquadron of three at anchor; therefore was the entertainmentoffered by the island’s President even more temptingthan common, and hospitality had been extended to theofficials and distinguished families of the neighboring islands,Nevis, Antigua, and Monserrat. On Nevis there remainedbut one family of eminence, that great rock having beenshorn long since of all but its imperishable beauty.
But Mrs. Edis of “Great House,” an old stone mansionunaffected by time, earthquake, or hurricane, and surroundedby a remnant of one of the oldest estates in the West Indies,was still a personage in spite of her fallen fortunes, and to-nightshe contributed a young daughter. The introductionof Julia Edis to society had been expected all winter asshe was several months past eighteen, and the President hadoffered her a birthday fête; but Mrs. Edis, with whom noman was so hardy as to argue, had replied that her daughtershould enter “the world” at the auspicious moment and notbefore. This was taken to mean one of two things: eitherthat in good time a squadron would arrive with potentialhusbands, or (but this, of course, was mere frivolous gossip)when the planets proclaimed the hour of destiny. For morethan thirty years Mrs. Edis had been suspected of dabblingin the black arts, incited originally by an old creole fromMartinique, grandson of the woman who so accurately castthe horoscope of Josephine. For the last eighteen of theseyears it had been whispered among the birds in the highpalm trees that a not unsimilar destiny awaited Julia Edis.
Therefore, when the word ran round the great ball-roomof Government House that the big officer with the heavymustache and curiously hard, shallow eyes, who had pursuedthe debutante from the moment she entered with herfearsome mother, was Harold France, heir presumptive toa dukedom, whose present incumbent was sickly and unmarried,the dowager pack (dressed for the most part in thethick old silks and “real lace” of the mid-Victorian period)crystallized the whisper for the first time and condescendedto an interest in astrology.
“But it would be odd,” said the wife of the President, “althoughI, for one, neither believe in that absurd old science,nor that there ever was any basis for the story. No doubtit originated with the blacks, who love any superstition.”
“Ah!” said the wife of the Magistrate, “but it is curiousthat the blacks on Nevis, led by the Obi doctors, besiegedGreat House for a night, some twenty years ago. In themorning they were driven off by Mrs. Edis herself, a whip inone hand and a pistol in the other. She handled the situationalone, for Mr. Edis was a—ill—as usual.”
“Drunk,” said the blunter lady of quality. “And sowere the blacks. By dawn they were sober, sick, andflaccid. A woman of ordinary resolution could have dispersedthem—and Mrs. Edis!” She shrugged hershoulders significantly.
One of the younger women, the wife of an Antiguaofficial, chimed in eagerly. “But do you really believe sheis a—a— Oh, it is too silly! I am almost ashamed tosay it!”
“Astrologer,” supplied the wife of the Magistrate, whohad an unprovincial mind, although she had spent the bestof her years in the islands. “Look at her.”
Mrs. Edis was sitting apart from the other women, talkingto the President, the Captain of the flagship, and severalofficers of riper years than the steaming young men intheir hot uniforms frisking about the room with the coolwhite creole girls. Mrs. Edis had not liked women in hertriumphant youth, and now in her embittered age (she waspast sixty, for Julia was the last of many children), sheclassed them as mere tools of Nature, purveyors of scandal,and fools by right of sex and circumstance. Even in theearly nineties, at all events in the world’s backlands, it wasstill the fashion for women of strong brains and characterto despise their own sex, and Mrs. Edis had not sailed outof the Caribbean Sea since her return to Nevis, from herfirst and only visit to England, forty years ago. Living analmost isolated life on a tropic island, she held women inmuch the same regard as the unenlightened male doesto-day, despite his growing uneasiness and horrid momentsof vision. Upon the rare occasions when she deigned toenter the little world of the Leeward Islands, she greetedthe women with a fine old-time courtesy, and demandedforthwith the attention of high officials too dignified or tooportly to dance. The men, since she was neither beautifulnor young, were amused by her caustic tongue, and correspondinglyflattered when she chose to be amiable.
It was difficult to believe that she had once been handsome—beautifulno one had ever called her. She was a very tallwoman, already a little bowed, raw-boned, large of feature,save for the eyes, which were small, black, and piercing. Herblack hair was still abundant, strong of texture, and changingonly at the temples; her skin was sallow and muchwrinkled, her expression harsh, haughty, tyrannical.There was no sign of weakness about her anywhere, although,now and again, as her eyes followed the brightfigure of her daughter, they softened before flashing withpride and triumph.
She found herself alone with the Captain and turned tohim abruptly.
“This is the eighth time Lieutenant France has taken mygirl out,” she announced. “And it is true that he will be aduke?” Mrs. Edis disdained finesse, although she wascapable of hoodwinking a parliament.
The Captain started under this direct attack. His largeface darkened until it looked like well-laid slabs of brickpricked out with white. He cleared his throat, glanceduneasily at the formidable old lady, then answered resolutely: —
“Better take your girl home, ma’am, and keep her closewhile we’re in harbor.”
The look she turned on him under heavy glistening brows,that reminded the imaginative Scot of lizards, and were fitcompanions for her thick dilating nostrils, made him quailfor a moment: like many sea martinets he was shy withwomen of all sorts. Then he reflected (never having heard ofthe black arts) that looks could not kill, and returned tothe attack.
“I mean, madam, that France is not a decent sort andwould have been chucked long since but for family influence.”
“What do you mean by not a decent sort, sir?”
“He’s dissipated, vicious—”
“All young men sow their wild oats.” Mrs. Edis hadforgotten none of the early and mid-Victorian formulæ,and would have felt disdain for any young aristocrat whodid not illustrate the most popular of them.
“That’s all very well, but France’s crop is sown in a soilfertile to rottenness, and it will take him a lifetime to exhaustit. I’d rather see a daughter of mine in her coffin thanmarried to him, duke or no duke.”
Mrs. Edis favored him with another look, under which hishue deepened to purple: poor worm, he was but the son ofan industrious merchant, and he knew that the sharp eyesof this old woman, despite the eagle in his glance and a spinelike a ramrod, read his family history in his honest face.
“It’s God’s truth, ma’am. It’s not that I mind a youngfellow’s being a bit wild; there’s plenty that are and makegood husbands when their time comes. But with Franceit’s different.” He hesitated, then floundered for a momentas if unaccustomed to analysis of his fellows. “It’s notthat he’s a cad—not in the ordinary sense—I mean asfar as manners go—. I’ve never seen a man with betterwhen it suits him—or more insolent when that suits him;and they’re more natural to him, I fancy, for he’s faireaten up with pride—out of date in that respect, rather.It’s the fashion, nowadays, for the big-wigs to be affableand easy and democratic, whether they feel that way ornot—however, I don’t mind a man’s feeling his birthand blood, for like as not he can’t help it, although it doesn’tmake you love him. No. It’s more like this: I believeFrance to be entirely without heart. That’s something Inever believed in until I met him—that a human beinglived without a soft spot somewhere. But I’ve seen anexpression in his eyes, especially after he’s been drinking,that appalls me, although I can only express it by a wordcommonplace enough—heartless. It’s that—a heartlessglitter in his eyes, usually about as expressionless as glassmarbles; and although I’m no coward, I’ve felt afraid ofhim. I don’t mean physically—but absolute lack ofheart, of all human sympathy, must give a person an awfulpower—but it’s too uncanny for me to describe. I’m notmuch at words, ma’am, and, for the matter of that,I shouldn’t have got on the subject at all, it not being myhabit to discuss my officers with any one, if this wasn’t thefirst time I’ve ever seen him devote himself to a respectablegirl. But he’s smitten with that pretty child of yours, nodoubt of it; and there are three handsome young marriedwomen in the room, too. I don’t like the look of it.”
“I do.” Mrs. Edis had not removed her eyes from theold sailor’s face as he endeavored to elucidate himself.
“There’s many a slip, you know. The duke’s not so old,only fifty odd, and marvellous cures are worked these days.Some mother is always tracking him with a good-lookinggirl. As for France, his debts are about all he has to liveon —”
“The President just told me that he has an income independentof his allowance from the head of his house,and I have knowledge that his expectations are foundedupon certainty.”
The Captain, not long enough in port to have heard aughtof Mrs. Edis’s dark reputation, glanced at her with a puzzledexpression, then gave it up and answered lightly, “Hisincome is good enough, yes, but nothing to his debts, whichhe never pays.”
“If he doesn’t pay his debts, what do they matter?” askedthe old aristocrat, whose husband had never paid his, andwhose son, having sold the last of his acres, was drinkinghimself into Fig Tree churchyard.
The Captain laughed. “I know your creed, madam.And I must admit that France is a true blood. He neverarrives in port without being showered with writs, and hebrushes them off as he would these damned mosquitoes—begpardon, ma’am. But all the same, it wouldn’t bepleasant for your little girl. Fancy being served with awrit every morning at breakfast.”
The contempt in