The Wife’s Answer.
BY CHRISTINE MARTINEZ,
The fishing fleet had set out early in the morning from the little harbour of Leeport. The atmosphere was very clear, and the boats could still be seen in the distance, strung out in a long line across the horizon, far out at sea. A few sailors’ wives, children, and old men, still loitered on the wharves, all in excellent humour, for with such weather there should certainly be a fine haul of fish. The sea was admirably blue, but, lashed by the wind it broke into little waves, which rushed, white capped, toward the shore. ‘Do you see papa’s sloop, yet mamma?’ asked a little fellow, who had stayed away from school that morning in order to see his father start with the fleet. His mother had a fine telescope, a luxury that her neighbours envied her. In such clear weather as this, if they could not distinguish the men they could at least recognise most of the fishing smacks. The boy would have remained a long time watching his father’s sloop, the Laurent, as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance, out his mother led him away. They must go back to the house to their work. They loitered by the harbour, which had lost its animation now that its fleet of fishing craft was gone. Mrs Fanshawe stopped mechanically in the centre of the wharf to look at a fine brig, the Harding, which came every week with a cargo of assorted merchandise. A sailor, leaning over the rail of the ship, saw her, and waved his cap gayly to her. She turned away and hurried up the street to her home. Two hours later the loungers in the main street of the village were greatly surprised to see Captain Robert Fanshawe, the owner of the fishing sloop Ajax, hastening angrily homeward. He had not entered the house before the neighbours had ran to learn the reason of his sudden return. Why had he come back? The backstay of the Ajax had been broken, and Fanshawe was compelled to come back to port for repairs. These were already under way, and, once he had seen his men at work, he had come up to see his wife a moment.
‘Your wife she has gone out but she will be back directly.’ He was pouring out a glass of cider from the pitcher he had drawn that morning before leaving, when he noticed the inkstand open on the table, and the pen beside it, still wet with ink. It was his son’s pen and inkstand, but as the little fellow never wrote during the day, he concluded that his wife must have been writing. Almost at the same moment he noticed a letter in the blue vase on the mantel-piece, and, without thinking, he opened it and read, ‘Dear Mrs Fanshawe, I love you more than I can tell. I implore you to set a time when we can meet. You are free; your husband is gone. Harry Evans.”
“Oh, Heavens!” cried Fanshawe, Harry Evans! He knew him well, this handsome sailor of the Harding, who had already ruined more than one home in Leeport; a tall fellow, as tall as Fanshawe himself, fair, with the complexion of a girl, and tender blue eyes. He sprang up to rush to the wharf and strangle the audacious rascal, when he heard his wife returning. Evidently she had answered that insulting letter, and she would tell him what answer she had given. He trusted his wife. ‘I hurried back,’ she said, as she came in. ‘I heard of the accident as I was doing my marketing.’ As she laid on the table the purchases she had made, he had time to thrust the letter back into the vase. He would wait for her to speak. Mrs Fanshawe continued to busy herself with her household duties. He watched her, and he found her still young, browned like himself, a most graceful woman in her No. 3 boot, and with a waist still slender. From time to time she looked at him with a smile. She was not surprised to see him looking sombre after the accident. She did not say anything about it, for she knew to discuss the accident would annoy him.
‘Wife, have you nothing new to tell me?’
‘Nothing, my dear husband.’
His face contracted as with a sudden pain. His wife, thinking it due to chagrin at the accident, kissed him tenderly. He pressed her to him with unaccustomed force. Never, even in the fiercest tempest, had he suffered as he suffered now. Suspicion entering his simple, loyal heart, ravaged it terribly.
‘Well, good-bye. I am going to the wharf. We shall go out with the next tide if the backstay is repaired. Good-bye!’
She accompanied him to the end of the street, and bade him farewell so frankly, that he asked himself if it were possible that such a woman could lie. He was about to go to the Harding, and taunt Harry Evans with his infamy, when one of his crew saw him and came after him. Compelled to return to his vessel, he had time to reflect. A sudden fit of rage, a fight would prove nothing, and he would never know the truth. So he calmly watched the work of repairs, which was going on apace. At twelve o’clock his wife brought him his lunch; at five his son came to kiss him good-bye and that evening he set sail again, after having seen the Harding sail out of Leeport.
The following Saturday, after a terrible tempest, the fishing fleet returned to Leeport, laden with a fine catch of fish. Captain Fanshawe looked quickly to see if the Harding was at the wharf, but she was not there. Disembarking, he learned that the Harding had gone down in the storm, in sight of Owl’s Head Bluff, and that all on board had been lost. Harry Evans, then, was dead. His wife alone knew the truth; he would not dare to question her; he would never know the truth; he would doubt her always. From that time everyone in Leeport remarked that Captain Fanshawe had grown taciturn. They asked his wife the reason, but she replied evasively that she did not know. His crew found him rougher than before and more avaricious. He often returned to Leeport on Sunday morning and left again the same evening without a night’s rest. One week he came on Tuesday, and the news spread that the Ajax had brought back the corpse of a drowned man. He had returned earlier than usual, he said, in order to bury the drowned man. Accompanied by two of his crew, he made his deposition before a commissioner of deeds, and the latter had him sign the declaration that the body of a drowned man had been recovered by the Ajax at a point fifteen miles south-south-west of Owl’s Head Bluff, measuring five feet ten inches in height, dressed in a blue shirt, trousers of gray cloth, and neckerchief of black silk, no papers, no marks to establish identity supposed, from the place of drowning, in default of other evidence, to be one of the crew of the Harding. Early the next morning a funeral procession traversed the little village, and bore to the church the remains of the unknown sailor found by the Ajax. Behind the coffin walked the crew of the Ajax, their captain at their head, and behind the men came the wives, sisters, or mothers of the sailors. The religious ceremony was brief, and the unknown dead was conducted to the cemetery by the great family of sailors of Leeport, who honour themselves in thus honouring the remains of others.
‘Get yourselves ready,’ announced Captain Fanshawe to his men, ‘we go to sea directly.’
Fanshawe led his wife to a little knoll a few paces away from the cemetery. He wished to speak to her in private. ‘Wife,’ he said, ‘do you know for whom you have come to pray?’
She trembled and pressed her husband’s hand. She had never seen him so solemn. ‘The man we have just buried was Harry Evans.’
Mrs Fanshawe turned pale. Her husband tendered her a paper, stained as with water. ‘Wife, I have doubted your fidelity. My punishment is to accuse myself of it. I read the letter he dared to write to you, and I have been very miserable. The other night when this drowned man was found, I searched him. I could not show to others, not even to the commissioner of deeds, the only paper he had on him, in a little bag of oiled silk. The water had dimmed it a little, but I have read it nevertheless.’
It was the answer written to the handsome sailor by Mrs Fanshawe.
‘Sir, I love my husband ; that is the sole answer I can make to your letter. I shall say nothing to my husband, for he would kill you. Never come here again.’
‘Wife, do you forgive me?’
‘Oh, my poor husband, how you have suffered!’
From that day Captain Fanshawe grew young and gay again and he honours and trusts his wife as a jewel beyond price.
Observer, 14 September 1895: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: She was, indeed, a “jewel beyond price,” if all she could say is “my poor husband, how you have suffered!” A woman of the paste-gem variety would have been indignant at the slur to her honour; it would not have been unthinkable for her to resort to spiteful words or the skillet on the skull.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.