The Project Gutenberg eBook of Passion fruit

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Title: Passion fruit

Author: H. De Vere Stacpoole

Release date: April 27, 2023 [eBook #70651]

Language: English

Original publication: New York, NY: The Ridgway Company, 1924

Credits: Roger Frank and Sue Clark


Passion Fruit

A Grim Chapter from the South Seas. Carstairs Loves and Forgets, but the Girl—Never
By H. De Vere Stacpoole

Miles and miles of coral reef, foam-dashed, and flown about by gulls—beyond the reef the hills and highlands of Paradise engraved on a sky of azure; a tall white lighthouse like a ghost in the smoky blue of the sea.

That is New Caledonia as you see it coming up from Sydney or Brisbane, and the lighthouse marks the entry to the harbor of Noumea.

For long years France exported to this Paradise all the evil passions of man done up in the form of convicts; and though the exportation has stopped, though the only prisoners now are those left over from the old régime and the libérés who may not return to France, the passions remain.

Some of the descendants of the old deportees are good citizens, some are not. Monsieur Roche, who kept and maybe still keeps a restaurant in the Rue Marengo, which opens off Coconut Square, was quite open with me on this point. His father, so he told me, had been exported unjustly. He had been a clock-maker and had made the clockwork that worked a bomb that blew up a deputy, or something of that sort—it was all a matter of politics; his father would not have hurt a fly in the ordinary way of life, whereas Chauvin, the keeper of an opposition restaurant round the corner, his father had been an assassin. “Yes, monsieur, a brigand, and ’tis easy to see how the blood has come out in the son.”

Monsieur Roche knew everything about everybody in Noumea.

He told me some strange stories and one of the strangest had to do with a woman; one of the strangest-looking women I have ever seen.

A half-breed of extraordinary but faded beauty, gay as a wasp in yellow and black striped foulard, but with something about her that would have repelled the mind, even if her beauty had been as fresh as the dew on the tamarisk blossoms.

She was mad.

As she passed the café door where we were talking she glanced at Monsieur Roche, laughed and went on.

“That is Marianne Ribot,” said the old fellow, craning his neck to look after her, “daughter of Jacques Ribot, who came here a great many years ago, served his sentence and settled down, marrying a Malay woman. He sold tobacco in the Rue Austerlitz; he had two daughters by the woman: Marianne, whom you have seen, and Cerise. Twins and like as two cherries. They were beauties. There is a curious thing about races, if you have ever noticed it, monsieur. To a Frenchman or an Englishman two, shall we say, Japanese women will look pretty much alike; but if there exists a real likeness between two eastern women, even though it is not very strong to their fellows, a Westerner will be unable to distinguish between them; he will be unable to distinguish the little differences that count so much. It was so with the Ribot girls. Would Monsieur like to hear their story?”

This is the story in my own words.

Some fifteen years ago the Hawk, a seven-hundred-ton brig, came into the harbor of Noumea with a general cargo from Brisbane; the second officer was a young fellow named Carstairs, an exceedingly good-looking individual with a taking manner and a way with him where women were concerned.

Monsieur Roche, who was a philosopher, or at least a restaurant keeper who had always kept his eyes open, gave it as his opinion that it were better for a man to be born ugly than very good-looking, and a boor than a fascinator; better for himself and for others. However that may be, Carstairs, on account of his superficial qualities, made many friends among the town people, and the cargo of the Hawk, being French government stores and discharged by convict labor, he had plenty of time on his hands. He did no harm; he neither drank nor gambled, and his main amusements seem to have been fishing, excursions into the country, dining at cheap restaurants and drinking grenadines with fat Frenchmen on Coconut Square of an evening while the convict band discoursed sweet music beneath the flame trees.

Then one day, wanting a packet of cigarettes, he turned into the Maison Ribot.

Ribot had died the year before and the two girls carried on the shop. They were excellent business women, despite their youth and beauty, and they sold other things besides cigarettes: colored syrups, pipes, tobacco pouches, postage stamps, books and native baskets made of palm leaves. Their only help was an old woman, Marie Rimbaut, who lived like a licossa in the darkness of the back premises, helping at times in the shop.

The woman was of that terrible type whose central nervous system would seem to be compounded of the end organs of observatory nerves and little more. She was a spy serving no master but Inquisitiveness, a creature with one interest, the doings of others and more especially of the Ribot sisters; a recording instrument; what she did not see she heard, what she did not hear she guessed. If a ferret were trained for the purpose there is not a village where it would not dig you out at least one specimen of this tribe more or less perfect. Marie Rimbaut was perfect; she saw and recorded the whole of the Ribot story without putting out a hand to warn the protagonists, content to watch till the first snip of the scissors of Atropos.

Carstairs turned into the little shop to buy his cigarettes, found Marianne behind the counter and remained half an hour.

It was a case of love at first sight. The old woman in the back part of the shop saw and heard everything. Cerise was lying down or attending to household matters, for the two girls took it in turn to attend at the counter. It was the time of the day when customers are few, so there was little interruption and the young people had it all to themselves; but the listener heard nothing that might not have been said in the presence of a crowd. Toward the end of it Cerise appeared; she did not come forward but stood in the half-darkness amid the boxes and hanging baskets, watching and listening. From where she stood Carstairs was plainly visible with the light full upon him and Marianne in profile, her face upturned, laughing, and lit with a new interest.

Cerise did not notice the old woman seated knitting in the half-dark, or noticed her only as she might have noticed the hanging baskets and piles of cardboard boxes; she seemed fascinated by what she saw, and stood, her lips apart, smiling at the animation of her sister and her evident interest in the handsome stranger. Marianne was flirting!

Marianne of all people in the world! For, of the sisters, Marianne was the staid one.

“I will see you again,” said Carstairs, taking his leave.

“When you please,” replied Marianne, and off he went, while in came a soldier from the garrison for tobacco.

When he was gone Cerise came forward; it was her hour for taking on duty. There was a ledge behind the counter which was used as a seat when business was slack; and taking her seat on the ledge, Cerise produced from her pocket a small piece of embroidery work. She did not notice a yellow packet of cigarettes on the counter; her mind was engaged otherwise. Then suddenly she rose. A customer had entered; it was Carstairs.

Carstairs returned for his cigarettes, which he had paid for but forgotten to take away. Fancying that he was still talking to Marianne, he explained, laughing; she handed him the cigarettes, their fingers touched and then, suddenly, the laughter still on his lips, he kissed her. Kissed her full on the lips like an adept and yet like a light-hearted boy. A woman returns a kiss by taking it. The butterfly something in her soul had suddenly fluttered up; without thought, in the fraction of a second, she had consented—not resisted—and there you are. He went out with his cigarettes, with a laugh that seemed part of the whole light business, and Cerise, taking her seat again on the ledge, rested her hands in her lap. No one had seen. There was only Mother Rimbaut and she was half blind and bound up in her knitting; besides, even if she had possessed the eyes of a hawk, she was not in the proper line of vision; then, too, she was deaf—what did it matter?

The shop was empty, Carstairs was gone, but the kiss....

It was her first kiss and it clung, and a warmth that was warmer than her southern blood stole from it through her veins and to her heart. It was as though he had kissed her heart.

A burly prison warden in white with a huge revolver at his hip came in for tobacco, and she found herself thinking, “Good heavens, that thing is a man!” She was contrasting him with Carstairs. She had talked of men, talked of marriage, talked of love with Marianne or her girl friends just as she had talked of the price of salt fish or Norfolk Island strawberries or the latest fashion from Paris as exhibited by the garrison officers’ wives; but she had talked without knowing, almost without thinking. Her butterfly mind had flitted above these vast subjects as a butterfly flits sentient yet unthinking above a field of corn. It had suddenly come to rest—that which a moment before had been all wings suddenly becoming all eyes; come to rest swaying on the wind that moved the corn-stalk, astonished by the vision that had come so close, seeing everything but the poppies that nature so carefully hides amid the corn.

As she sat, her hands folded and her eyes fixed on the shop door as though she were wondering what else might come through it, the silence of the shop was broken by a faint clicking sound, the clicking of the old woman’s needles as she worked, forever busy like a spider in the dark; and now through the mind of the girl, as she sat with her eyes on the door, came half harlequin, half demon, stealing and hirpling, limping and laughing and turning somersaults, the strangest thought.

He didn’t kiss you, he kissed Marianne. He had mistaken her for Marianne; the warmth about her heart belonged to Marianne; the new outlook which had come to her was Marianne’s.

In a moment he had managed to put the spell on her, made of himself so to speak a window through which she saw a new world; and the window was Marianne’s, and the new world—by rights, if there are any rights in a matter of that sort.

She laughed as she thought over this matter. The thing was not yet serious with her; the handsome man whom she had admired while he talked to her sister, the man who had kissed her in mistake for her sister, was still a figure at a distance; he had not made himself yet a part of her life. That was to come.

It came with the rapidity which marks the processes of life and death in the warm lands, those terrible pays chauds where a woman is old at twenty-five, a passion full blown in an hour, a corpse corrupt in a day.

Every day Carstairs made his call at the shop. Being in love, he smoked many cigarettes; he called at the same hour and Marianne was there to receive him.

But there were two watchers now. After the fashion of his kind he did not push matters, knowing by instinct exactly the sort of girl he had to deal with. No one could have been more respectful than Carstairs, and at the end of a week when he told Marianne of his love for her he proposed marriage. Though a mate of a ship he had money of his own, not much but enough for him to engage in some business in the island; they would get married when he had made all his arrangements.

She consented but meanwhile, as the engagement was of such a nebulous nature and until the matter was absolutely fixed, she refused his invitations to walk with him of an evening when the band was playing in the square or along those country roads when the moonlight casts the shadows of the palms and makes fairyland of the groves.

Cerise heard it all.

Never in her life before had she spied on any one, or possessed a secret unshared by Marianne; her passion for Carstairs, which had developed pari passu with the progress of Marianne’s love affair, had changed her nature as it had changed her outlook on life.

She hungered for him, and to feel his lips again on hers she would have parted with her soul.

Something of Ribot, her convict father, was perhaps awakened in her just as something of the same parent was perhaps dormant in the demure Marianne, and meanwhile Carstairs, a straight man in everything but love, in which he was a villain, saw the day of the Hawk’s sailing approach and Marianne as far off as ever.

He had no money to start a business in New Caledonia; he had no intention of marrying; he had lied throughout and all he had got for his trouble was disappointment, dalliance and the feeling that he had been cheated. For, to a man of his type, love is a game against love where any sort of bluff is permissible and woman is a counter to be played for, cashed and forgotten.

But in Marianne he had come on a woman who refused to be a counter though her passion for him was as real as the passion of Cerise. He might as well have tried to play with the statue of Joan of Arc which stands in front of Noumea’s Cathedral.

Marianne was hopeless, so he thought, till the afternoon of the day before the Hawk’s departure, when coming along the Rue Austerlitz he met an old woman who put a little note in his hand.

“Do not come to the shop today, but meet me this evening—sunset—on the road of the palms.” That was all.

Carstairs with the note in his pocket went on his way to complete his preparations and half an hour before sunset he started for the road of the palms through an evening sultry and perfumed with cassia and the flowers of the gardens by the way.

Next day he did not come to the shop, nor the next. He had told Marianne the name of his ship because in a small port like Noumea to have told a lie might have meant being found out; but he had also told her that it would not leave for some months as it would have to wait for repairs. In the meantime money for which he had cabled to England would arrive and they could get married and the ship get another second mate. So sure was Marianne in her faith that it was not till the third day of his absence that she made inquiries and found the Hawk gone. Mother Rimbaut sent down among the people of the quayside and obtained details. Carstairs had sailed with the Hawk; no accident had happened to him; he was not sick; he had left no debts behind him and no enemies.

Marianne found herself face to face with an utterly inexplicable problem. Why had this man left her suddenly and without a word of good-by?

Cerise was facing the same problem but in her case she could say nothing and open her mind to no one, not even Mother Rimbaut—who yet knew everything.

Then Marianne remembered what he had said about the ship being under repair, and making inquiries through the old woman she discovered that the Hawk had never been in dock, that there had been nothing wrong with her, and that Carstairs was a liar.

The revelation was complete and sudden as the unveiling of a statue, the unmasking of a battery, the view of a landscape by a lightning flash; but it did not tell her why this man had fooled her, simply because she could not yet understand the man.

She was innocent enough to ask herself, “Why did he say he loved me, why did he ask me to marry him, and why, all that time, was he telling me lies?” She could not understand that all that time he was making plans to betray her, plans foiled by her own common sense in refusing his offers of amusement, evenings in the public square, walks beneath the palm trees and remaining firm behind her counter in the commonplace atmosphere of the tobacco shop.

So things went on for two months or more, her anger against Carstairs deepening and spreading like fire in tinder. Then one day came a new revelation.

One day returning from the market she found Cerise gone.

She had left behind her a letter confessing everything. Her love for Carstairs, the fact that he had betrayed her, and the fact that she had betrayed Marianne—by making an appointment with him to meet him on the road of the palms that fatal evening before he left. Marianne remembered how late it was that night before Cerise returned, saying she had been with friends; and she had believed the story because Cerise never lied.

The letter went on to say much more: how he had kissed her by mistake on that first day of their meeting; how she had grown to love him and fight against her passion for the sake of Marianne; and how, just for one kiss more, she had asked him to meet her in the name of Marianne, knowing that in the dark, in the moonlight, he would not know the difference between them; how he took advantage of the blindness of love to betray her—“as he would have betrayed you,” said the letter, which went on to say that all was over and that poor Cerise would be seen no more.

Next day people knew that Cerise Ribot had vanished; the shop was open again and Marianne behind her counter. She would say nothing but that her sister had gone out and had not come back. Search was made without result; bad characters were arrested and interrogated; the wind blew the palms and the foam dashed the coral; time passed, but poor Cerise never returned.

Of all the people in Noumea outside the Maison Ribot, Monsieur Roche alone knew the facts of the matter.

Mother Rimbaut had told him and Roche, though a true man of the world, an innkeeper and the son of a convict, was shocked at the tragedy and that Carstairs, a customer whom he had liked, should have been the villain of the piece. “Perhaps some day he will come back,” said Roche.

The Hawk on leaving New Caledonia called at Sydney, and before reaching Sydney and tying up at Circular Wharf Carstairs had almost forgotten the incident at Noumea. A storm they had encountered three days out had helped in the obliteration, and with the soil of New South Wales under his feet the affair would have seemed to him remote as a love affair in Jupiter.

From Sydney the ship went to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Honolulu, at least toward Honolulu, for she was wrecked on that voyage and of all her company only Carstairs and half a dozen others were saved and taken to Chile, where great luck waited for him. One of the saved passengers, a woman very wealthy and with vast interests in the Islands, fell in love with him and married him and died a month after the marriage, leaving him a rich man, but tied. Wealth is not all jam.

Poor and working his way through life, Carstairs had been a happy man; that is to say, a man with perfect health, no worries and without a conscience. Wealth had suddenly developed a host of worries for him.

If you wish for revenge on any man, don’t cut his throat, leave him a huge fortune and thus bar him, possibly from the kingdom of heaven, probably from the kingdom of rest. Carstairs on reviewing his possessions found all sorts of things that were wrong. Shares that had depreciated in value and were likely to depreciate more, a lawsuit in the egg over some lands in California, a suit to upset the will, which was frantically absurd, yet irritating; interests everywhere that had to be looked after and papers in legions that had to be signed, including American income-tax papers, the most appalling documents ever devised by the wit of man for man’s distraction.

Much will love more; at all events it is ever anxious to keep itself intact, and Carstairs, who had been indifferent to money when he had none, became fretful now over the loss of a few dollars and sleepless over some depreciation that would not have kept an ordinary business man awake. And yet he was free-handed in spending on his own pleasures, though the instinct to protect his fortune from the hands of others developed and forced itself and dominated him with whip and spur. He felt that every man was trying to rob him—as in fact was the case—and not trusting the agent of some property in Queensland he went there to look into things himself. New Caledonia lay on the road to Queensland and on the way back his ship, a schooner belonging to a trading company in which he had an interest, touched at Noumea—because he ordered her to do so. The sight of New Caledonia recalled again the most beautiful girl he had ever seen; recollection of that last evening added fuel to the desire to meet her once again; and there would be no trouble to worry about. Cerise had shown him enough of her real nature on that parting over two years and six months ago to tell him that.

Was she married? Maybe. Was she single? Who could tell? But well he knew that, whether she were married or single, she was his. Why not, if she were still as beautiful as ever, why not keep her as his—her, whom the sharks had eaten over thirty long months ago.

There are women who persist in the memory like perfumes or tunes, and the sweet perfume of Cerise breathed in one ecstatic hour had never quite vanished; the sight of the foam line of New Caledonia, the hills and the ghost-white lighthouse brought it back, revived it. It was almost as though she stood on the deck beside him; and at the cost of three thousand dollars the wheel of the schooner spun, the main boom lashed out to starboard. Altering her course, the ship steered due east for the break.

She came into the harbor with a flooding tide and a failing wind, a tremendous sunset lighting the wharves and the town from which faint on the flower- and harbor-scented air came the sound of the band playing in the public square.

Everything looked just the same, from the town and its fortifications to the trees topped by the spires of the cathedral.

But Carstairs found himself forgotten. No one would have recognized in the well dressed man wearing a Panama the mate of the Hawk, and he saw nobody that he recognized. The very hotel where he put up was new-built. Having booked his room, he left the place before dining, crossed Coconut Square and entered the Rue Austerlitz.

Ribot’s shop stood just as of old, the name over the front and the baskets swinging in the doorway.

He went in, and there behind the counter stood Marianne Ribot just as she had stood on the day when first he saw her.

“Monsieur,” said old Roche, “there is no doubt in my mind that she had been expecting him. Some instinct had told her that he would come back; maybe she had willed it—who knows?—but the fact remained that she had a cane knife on a ledge behind the counter. And as he came up to her with a bold smile on his lips and his hand outstretched, she turned as if to pick up some trifle and, turning again, drove the knife into his throat.

“When the police arrived she refused to speak, Monsieur Carstairs was taken to the hospital and she was taken to prison, where a magistrate visited her; but she would only say, ‘I have done what I have done’—nothing more.

“Mother Rimbaut was examined and she told the magistrate Carstairs had been to the shop years ago and had carried on a flirtation with Marianne; but she said nothing about Cerise—she had never said anything about that matter to any one but me. Months passed and the wounded man lay in hospital half in and half out of death’s door. He had plenty of time to think of his sins and there is no doubt but that he repented of them, for he made a full confession, saying he had wronged her and that he deserved what she had done to him.

“At the trial she would say neither yes nor no. Nothing but ‘I have done what I have done.’ She seemed indifferent to everything and after six months’ imprisonment she went back to her shop just as you see her today, not mad, yet not sane. As for Carstairs, he left the island and we have heard no more of him.

“But to me the interest of the whole business lies in the question: did she stab that man to revenge Cerise or herself? And also in the thought that Monsieur Carstairs, who was responsible for the death of Cerise, had, to his own knowledge, never even seen the girl. He had heard Marianne speak of her sister, but as they were never in the shop together he did not know of the extraordinary likeness.

“To this day, if he is alive, Monsieur Carstairs does not know that he is responsible for a woman’s death. He will not know till the judgment comes; and that is a thought to give one pause, for does any man know his full account or the consequences of his sins?”

Later that day, toward evening, finding myself in the Rue Austerlitz I went into the Maison Ribot out of curiosity and to buy a packet of cigarettes. Marianne was behind the counter looking just the same as when I had seen her passing Roche’s restaurant, but sane enough in her business methods and making not a centime’s mistake in the change. As she handed me my cigarettes with the indifference of an automatic figure and with scarcely a glance, the commonplace things of that little shop seemed of more tragic importance than the girl, and the commonplace sounds; the voices of the passers-by in the street, the laughter of a child, the click of knitting needles from the gloom behind the piled baskets, a sound microscopic and intermittent as the ticking of a death-watch beetle or the crawling of a snail on the pane.

Transcriber’s Note: This story appeared in the August 1924 issue of Everybody’s Magazine.