The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 1)


 
All Compton might think the Captain dead, but Millicent could not think so. She seemed possessed by some settled conviction that all the storms which ever rent the skies or shook the ocean would never cause the death of George Duke. She watched for his coming with a sick dread that every day might bring him. She rose in the morning with the thought that ere the early winter’s night closed in he would be seated by the hearth. She never heard a latch lifted without trembling lest his hand should be upon it, nor listened to a masculine footfall in the village High Street without dreading lest she should recognise his familiar step. Her meeting with George Duke’s shadow upon the moonlit pier at Marley had added a superstitious terror to her old dread and dislike of her husband. She thought of him now as a being possessed of unholy privileges. He might be near her, but unseen and impalpable ; he might be hiding in the shadowy corners of the dark wainscot, or crouching in the snow outside the latticed window. He might be a spy upon her inmost thoughts, and knowing her distrust and aversion, might stay away for long years, only to torment her the more by returning when she had forgotten to expect him, and had even learned to be happy…

 

 

 

I was more than a little appalled, quite some months back now, to realise I had let a year slip away between my examinations of the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon; but while I did then make a point of reading The Captain Of The Vulture, writing about it was another matter…not least because I progressively let both the second volume of The Mysteries Of London and The Sicilian join it on the list of things read-but-not-dealt-with.

But that was not the only reason for the delay. I found The Captain Of The Vulture to be the least appealing of Braddon’s novels so far, though that is not to say that it is unentertaining; on the contrary; but it does lack some of the usual Braddon spark. It is an odd book, something of an outlier in her collected works: an historical romance, rather than a contemporary sensation novel, and one lacking any obvious identification figure. It is less packed with incident than we are accustomed to, and (mostly) without the usual daring humour.

This seems to be almost a recurring theme amongst those of Braddon’s works which were intended for a “respectable” audience—as was The Captain Of The Vulture, which was serialised in weekly numbers in The Welcome Guest between April and August, 1861, before appearing as a single-volume book in 1862. It was also published in America in 1863, under the variant title, Darrell Markham; or, The Captain Of The Vulture.

Despite this retitling and his overt “hero” role, Darrell Markham is off-stage for much of the novel; while George Duke, the titular Captain, is anything but heroic. Indeed, the novel abounds in rogues—but they are all of the cut-throat variety, rather than the perversely likeable sort that we encountered in (for example) Lady Lisle. And while we may finally choose to call Millicent Duke this novel’s heroine, this is rather because of the horrors she must endure over the course of the story than for her personal qualities.

But if The Captain Of The Vulture is lacking in certain respects, there is no shortage of mystery and crime within its pages. In particular, Braddon seems to have been experimenting with “doubling”, with her narrative studded with cases of mistaken identity, certain incidents playing out more than once, various plot-points and motifs showing up in parallel at different levels of society,  and the central plot turning upon a “double” of the most explicit kind.

The Captain Of The Vulture is set in Georgian England (in-text references to the novels of Samuel Richardson place the action about 1755), and opens in the village of Compton-on-the-Moor. Darrell Markham, once a resident of the district, arrives unexpectedly at the door of the inn, the “Black Bear”, where a flurry of conversation alerts us to several things: that the woman Darrell loves, his cousin Millicent, has jilted him and married another man; that her husband, Captain George Duke, though overtly a naval officer, is suspected of having a profitable sideline as a privateer; and that Millicent’s brother, Ringwood, though “Squire”, spends most of his time going to the devil in London.

The conversation is awkwardly interrupted by a man seeking directions to a place called Marley Water. This is also Darrell’s destination, as he has already told his companions, despite the danger of highwaymen on the intervening Compton Moor. The landlord, Samuel Pecker, gives the requested information, and the horseman rides off—leaving Pecker to shake his head over the erratic behaviour and frequent absences of Captain Duke, and Darrell to absorb the fact that he has just for the first time glimpsed Millicent’s husband.

Darrell is prevented from immediately taking his leave by the arrival on the scene of Sarah Pecker, now Samuel’s help-meet – and often torment – but once Sarah Masterson, a local widow who was housekeeper to the late squire. In this role, Sarah helped to raise the orphaned young Darrell, who is the apple of her eye. She tries frantically to dissuade him from his ride across Compton Moor, but Darrell explains gravely that he must take the York coach from Marley Water the next morning on a matter of urgent business, and goes on his way.

Barely has he departed than Sarah and Samuel find themselves confronted by—Captain George Duke, who has clearly overheard Sarah’s lament regarding Darrell and Millicent; although her embarrassment swiftly turns to anger when the Captain speaks sneeringly of Darrell as, “A good-for-nothing idling reckless ne’er do-weel.”

Meanwhile, a bewildered Samuel is taking in the fact that the Captain seems to have changed his mind about crossing Compton Moor. When the Captain insists that he has only just arrived in Compton, and was certainly not at the inn half-an-hour before, Samuel can think of only one explanation:

    “Flesh and blood doesn’t creep up to a man unawares like that!”
    Captain Duke looked very hard into the face of the speaker; looked thoughtfully, gravely, earnestly at him, with bright searching brown eyes; and then again burst out laughing louder than before. So much was he amused by the landlord’s astonished and awe-stricken face, that he laughed all the way across the low old hall—laughed as he opened the door of the oak-panelled parlour in which the genteeler visitors at the Bear were accustomed to sit—laughed as he threw himself back into the great polished oaken chair by the fire, and stretched his legs out upon the stone hearth till the heels of his boots rested against the iron dogs—laughed as he called Samuel Pecker, and could hardly order his favourite beverage, rum punch, for laughing.
    The room was empty, and it was to be observed that when the door closed upon the landlord, Captain Duke, though he still laughed, something contracted the muscles of his face, while the pleasant light died slowly out of his handsome brown eyes, and gave place to a settled gloom.
    When the punch was brought him, he drank three glasses one after another. But neither the great wood fire blazing on the wide hearth nor the steaming liquid seemed to warm him, for he shivered as he drank.
    He shivered as he drank, and presently he drew his chair still closer to the fire, planted his feet upon the two iron dogs, and sat looking darkly into the red spitting hissing blaze.
    “My incubus, my shadow, my curse!” he said. Only six words, but they expressed the hatred of a lifetime…

Captain Duke spends the rest of the evening at the Black Bear, and is still there when a bloodied and near-unconscious Darrell Markham is carried in, having been left for dead on the moor. And even as Darrell earlier first glimpsed – or thought he glimpsed – the man for whom his cousin Millicent jilted him, George Duke now first lays eyes on the man he very well knows his wife still loves…

The Captain stays only long enough to learn from the surgeon that though Darrell is gravely injured, he should live provided he is not agitated into fever, before carrying the news home to Millicent.

Millicent Duke is one of Braddon’s equivocal “heroines”, as we know from the first description of her, in which Braddon’s exasperation with the prevailing taste for fair and helplessly feminine young women wrestles with her sense of how the world was likely to treat such fragile creatures:

It is a very fair and girlish face upon which the fitful firelight trembles…with delicate features and dark blue eyes in the soft depths of which there lurks a shadow—a shadow as of tears long dried, but not forgotten… It is not easy to think of her as a married woman; there is such an air of extreme youth about her, such a girlish, almost childish timidity in her manner, that, as her husband—not too loving or tender a husband at the best of times—is apt to say, “It is as difficult to deal with Millicent as with a baby, for you never know when she may begin whimpering—like a spoilt child as she is.” There are people in Compton-on-the-Moor who remember the time when the spoilt child never whimpered, and when a gleam of spring sunshine was scarcely a brighter or more welcome thing to fall across a man’s pathway than the radiant face of Millicent Markham…

Our backstory is filled in here: how the orphaned Darrell was taken in by his uncle, Squire Markham; how he grew up as Millicent’s protector and best friend and, by insensible stages, her lover; how unwittingly he mortally offended his uncle by growing into a handsome, athletic and honourable young man, while the Squire’s only son, Ringwood, grew up “a milksop”, weak and cowardly.

Darrell’s angry intervention in Ringwood’s attempted seduction of a pretty but foolish young farmer’s daughter, which ended in a blow that neither Ringwood nor the Squire could forgive or forget – the latter all the more so because of Ringwood’s subsequent pusillanimous behaviour and telling of lies – saw Darrell banished from his childhood home. Before leaving, he promised Millicent to return and marry her, when he had made his way in the world, and received in return her promise to wait.

Not long afterwards, however, the Squire and Ringwood made the acquaintance of the dashing Captain Duke, whose rollicking humour and air of worldliness suited both Markhams so well, he became all but an inmate of the Hall, and was finally offered Millicent as a bride—her fair prettiness and her fair dowry equally suiting the Captain. Her desperate letter to Darrell going astray, eighteen-year-old Millicent was then bullied and terrorised by her father into breaking her promise; while Darrell, never receiving that agonised plea for his help, knows only that Millicent has been untrue.

The marriage turns out as might have been expected: Millicent does her best but cannot hide her indifference, or her relief when her husband is going away, or her persisting thoughts of her cousin; while he, on his returns from his voyages, takes pleasure in tormenting her—perversely resenting the absence of an emotion which he knew from the outset she never felt for him, nor ever pretended to. Never before, however, has he had such a weapon in his hands as the wounding of Darrell Markham:

    “Trembling between life and death,” repeated Millicent, in the same half-conscious tone, so piteous to hear.
    “He was! Heaven knows how he may be now. That was half-an-hour ago; the scale may be turned by this time; he may be dead!”
    As George Duke said the last word, his wife sprang from her seat, and, without once looking at him, ran hurriedly to the outer door. She had her hand upon the bolts, when she cried out in a tone of anguish, “O, no, no, no !” and dropped down on her knees, with her head leaning against the lock of the door.
    The Captain of the Vulture followed her into the passage, and watched her with hard unpitying eyes.
    “You were going to run to him!” he said, as she fell on her knees by the outer door.
    For the first time since Darrell Markham’s name had been mentioned, Millicent looked at her husband; not mournfully, not reproachfully, least of all fearfully; bold, bright, and defiant, her blue eyes looked up to his.
    “I was.”
    “Then why not go? You see I am not cruel; I do not stop you. You are free. Go! Go to your—cousin—and—your lover, Mistress Duke. Shall I open the door for you?”
    She lifted herself with an effort upon her feet, still leaning for support against the street-door. “No,” she said, “I will not go to him; I could do him no good; I might agitate him; I might kill him!”
    The Captain bit his under lip, and the triumphant light faded from his brown eyes.
    “But understand this, George Duke,” said Millicent, in a tone that was strange to her husband’s ears, “it is no fear of you which keeps me here; it is no dread of your cruel words or more cruel looks that holds me from going to his side; for if I could save him by my presence from one throb of pain—if I could give him by my love and devotion one moment’s peace and comfort, and the town of Compton were one raging fire, I would walk through that fire to do it.”

Darrell does not die, however, though his recovery is anything but rapid; yet he is able deliberately to repeat the charge first made in his delirium, that it was Captain George Duke who attacked, shot, and robbed him…

Darrell is so certain and so pertinacious in his charge that it is finally referred to a reluctant magistrate, who can barely conceal his relief when the Captain can prove an alibi—that he was at the Black Bear at the time in question. Darrell is baffled and mystified, unable to dispute this yet unequally unconvinced that he is in error. Matters are not helped by the testimony of Samuel Pecker, who again nervously insists upon his ghost-story.

With this, the enmity between Darrell and the Captain escalates to a new and dangerous level. Fortunately, word is received that the Vulture has been refitted and is ready for her next voyage; while Darrell himself, as soon as he is able, returns to London and vanishes once more from his cousin’s life.

The Captain leaves Compton a few days early, in order to oversee the final arrangements for the Vulture. To the indignation of Sarah Pecker, when he is ready to sail he insists upon Millicent taking a chilly overnight stage-coach ride in order to meet him at Marley Water and see him off. Obedient upon all but one point, Millicent does as instructed, trying to hide from herself how eager she is for the absence of her husband. Upon reaching her destination, and meeting the Captain, Millicent is unnerved to see that they are being shadowed by one of her fellow passengers, a man swathed in a great coat and a muffler, his face hidden by these garments and the shadow of his hat.

Millicent speaks of her fears to her husband, who dismisses the incident as a mere coincidence of movement, but it seems that she was right: a man later calls at the inn where they are staying until the Captain’s midnight departure, asking for him. The Captain agrees to see him, though angrily, but first hastens Millicent into another room. From there, she cannot hear what is said, only that both men have raised their voices.

The departure of the unwelcome visitor leaves the Captain with no excess time on his hands. He and Millicent walk to the docks, where the latter is assured that her husband will be gone for three months at the utmost.

It is at the moment of departure that Captain George Duke demands from his wife some token, by which she may know him again, no matter how much time has passed. Bewildered, she gives him one of her earrings, of an unusual design:

    “Remember, Millicent, the man who comes to you and calls himself your husband, yet cannot give you this diamond earring, will not be George Duke.”
    “What do you mean, George?”
    “When I return to Compton, ask me for the fellow jewel to that in your ear. If I cannot show it to you—”
    “What then, George?”
    “Drive me from your door as an impostor.”
    “But I should know you, George; what need should I have of any token to tell me who you were?”
    “You might have need of it. Strange things happen to men who lead such a life as mine. I might be taken prisoner abroad, and kept away from you for years. But whether I come back three months hence, or ten years hence, ask me for the earring, and and if I cannot produce it, do not believe in me…”

After the sailing of the Vulture, Millicent hurries back through the chill night to the inn, only to encounter the strange man along the way. Her immediate fear is that she will be robbed; but when the moonlight falls upon him, she is seized with a far greater terror:

    She stood face to face with him, rooted to the ground, a heavy languor paralysing her limbs, an unearthly chill creeping to the very roots of her hair.
    Her hands fell powerless at her sides. She could only stand white and immovable, with dilated eyes staring blankly into the man’s face. He wore a blue coat, and a three-cornered hat, thrown jauntily upon his head, so as in nowise to overshadow his face.
    She was alone, half a mile from a human habitation or human help—alone at the stroke of midnight with her husband’s ghost.
    It was no illusion of the brain; no self-deception born of a fevered imagination. There, line for line, shade for shade, stood a shadow that wore the outward seeming of George Duke.
    She reeled away from the phantom figure, tottered feebly forward for a few paces, and then summoning a desperate courage, rushed blindly on towards the quay, her garments fluttering in the sharp winter air…

Despite his promise – or threat – of a three-month absence, ten tick by without any sign of Captain George Duke. Alone most of the time in her little house, with only her dog and her novels for company, and an occasional call upon Sarah Pecker at the Black Bear to relieve her loneliness and tedium, Millicent does not know that Sarah has been unable to keep the secret confided to her, and that the story of the Captain’s ghost is all over Compton. Indeed, none of the villagers expect the Captain to return, accepting this visitation as a portent; and by the ten-month mark, even Sarah is suggesting that Millicent should think of mourning—adding to her persuasions the story of her own widowing by the sea:

    “Him as you saw upon the pier at Marley, perhaps, Miss Milly,” answered Sally solemnly, “but not Captain Duke! Such things as you and Samuel see last winter aren’t shown to folks for nothing; and it seems a’most like doubting Providence to doubt that the Captain’s been drowned. I dreamt three times that I see my first husband, Thomas Masterson, lying dead upon a bit of rock in the middle of a stormy sea; and I put on widow’s weeds after the third time.”
    “But you had news of your husband’s death, Sally, hadn’t you?”
    “No more news than his staying away seventeen year and more without sending letter or message to tell that he was living in all those years, Miss Milly; and if that ain’t news enough to make a woman a widow, I don’t know what is!”

Millicent, however, who desperately wants her husband not to return, will not allow herself the comfort of believing that he won’t…

To divert her own thoughts, Millicent pursues the matter of Sarah’s first marriage, of which she rarely speaks, and soon realises that she has opened up old wounds. She hears of Sarah’s disillusioned discovery that she had been married for her small inheritance and, far worse, her further discovery three months after her marriage that Masterson was a notorious smuggler with a price on his head. Sarah’s only consolation in the life of shame and fear she was forced to lead was her baby; but as he grew, even that was poisoned for her by the realisation that Masterson was teaching the boy his own ways:

    “I could have borne to have been trampled on myself, but I couldn’t bear to see my child going to ruin before his mother’s eyes. I told Masterson so one night. I was violent, perhaps; for I was almost wild like, and my passion carried me away. I told him that I meant to take the child away with me out of his reach, and go into service and work for him, and bring him up to be an honest man. He laughed, and said I was welcome to the brat; and I took him at his word, thinking he didn’t care. I went to sleep that night with the boy in my arms, meaning to set out early the next morning, and come back to Compton, where I had friends, and where I fancied I could get a living for myself and my darling; and I thought we might be so happy together. O, Miss Millicent, Miss Millicent, may you never know such a bitter trial as mine! When I woke from pleasant dreams about that new life which never was to be, my child was gone. His cruel father had taken him away, and I never saw either Masterson or my boy again.”
    “You waited in the village where he left you?” asked Millicent.
    “For a year and over, Miss Milly, hopin’ that he’d come back, bringing the boy with him; but no tidings ever came of him or of the child. At the end of that time I left word with the neighbours to say I was gone back to Compton; and I came straight here. I’d been housemaid at the Hall when I was a slip of a girl, and your father took me as his housekeeper, and I lived happy in the dear old house for many years, and I loved you and Master Darrell as if you’d been my own children; but I’ve never forgotten my boy…”

During this time, Millicent never hears from Darrell directly; but he does write to Sarah from time to time. By these means, she (and we), learn that he has found employment in London as secretary to a Scottish nobleman: a position not without certain dangers, since his employer was “suspected of no very strong attachment to the Hanoverian cause.” (This is, we recall about a decade after Culloden.)

The narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture now shifts perspective, and we follow Darrell on various missions carried out for the nobleman, who we know only as ‘Lord C—‘. One of these finds him carrying letters through a foggy November night. He stops at an inn in Reading, the establishment already hosting a rather riotous gathering under the aegis of a Sir Lovel Mortimer. Darrell has no interest in the baronet and his drinking companions—at least, not until he goes to the stables to check on his horse, and finds stabled there his previous horse, called Balmerino, who he had owned for seven years before he was stolen the night of the attack upon Compton Moor. The two know each other instantly.

To the landlord’s dismay, Darrell insists upon being conducted into the baronet’s presence:

    In an easy-chair before the open hearth lolled an effeminate-looking young man, in a brocade-dressing-gown, silk stockings with embroidered clocks, and shoes adorned with red heels and glittering diamond buckles that emitted purple and rainbow sparks in the firelight. He wore a flaxen wig, curled and frizzed to such a degree that it stood away from his face, round which it formed a pale-yellow frame, contrasting strongly with a pair of large restless black eyes and the blue stubble upon his slender chin…
    Sir Lovel Mortimer was as effeminate in manners as in person. He had a clear treble voice, and spoke in the languid drawling manner peculiar to the maccaronis of Ranelagh and the Ring. He was the sort of fopling one reads about in the Spectator, and would have been a spectacle alike miraculous and disgusting to good country-bred Sir Roger de Coverley…

The baronet tells Darrell that he bought the horse in question a few months previously at a fair from a man who seemed to be an elderly farmer. Darrell in turn tells the story of his attack and the losses suffered; admitting disappointment at gaining no clue to the identity of the man who robbed him. The baronet almost forces the reluctant Darrell to sup with him, and spends much of the meal probing his political convictions, a topic of conversation which Darrell cautiously evades. Finally, though, Sir Lovel agrees to return Balmerino, in exchange for Darrell’s current horse and twenty guineas.

Darrell is delighted to be astride Balmerino again, so much so that the following evening he decides to ride on in the dusk rather than cut his day of travel short—and again he pays the price. And while it is not George Duke, or his double, who attacks and robs him this time, Darrell is left with a very good idea of who it was:

When Darrell Markham recovered his senses he found himself lying on his back in a shallow dry ditch; the fog had cleared away, and the stars shone with a pale and chilly glimmer in the wintry sky. The young man’s pockets had been rifled and his pistols taken from him; but tied to the hedge above him stood the grey horse which he had left in the custody of Sir Lovel Mortimer…

Painfully, Darrell makes his way to the nearest hostelry—and discovers that the people there know even more about the identity of his attacker:

    “Was the West-country baronet a fine ladyfied little chap, with black eyes and small white hands?” he asked eagerly.
    “Yes.”
    The man looked triumphantly round at the by standers. “I’m blest if I didn’t guess as much,” he said. “It’s Captain Fanny.”

(And, not for the first time, we are left to ponder whether Braddon’s respectable middle-class readers were expected to understand the implications of her improper joke.)

After this interlude, we return to poor Millicent who, the more everyone else assumes her long-absent husband is dead, becomes all the more convinced that he isn’t: that he is staying away deliberately, allowing her to grow comfortable, so that his return will make her suffer all the more.

These passages mark some of Braddon’s most daring writing within The Captain Of The Vulture: it was not often that a heroine in a Victorian novel (albeit one set a century or so before) could get away with expressing such frank dislike of her husband, such an open wish for his death—and without any attendant guilt or lip-service paid to her duties as a wife. The Duke marriage is presented from the outset as an almost deliberate act of cruelty by the three men involved, or at best one undertaken with complete disregard for Millicent’s welfare; while she, young and ignorant as she is, soon accepts one Victorian truism in place of another: that there is no hope that she will “learn to love her husband”; and the best she can do is “suffer and be still“.

Meanwhile, at the Black Bear, Sarah Pecker is up to her eyeballs in her preparations for the Christmas rush. Tradespeople and carriers make frequent appearances at the inn’s back door, delivering their wares; pedlars and beggars likewise, there to sell, beg or steal—though under Sarah’s sharp eye, opportunities are few. One pedlar is particularly pertinacious, refusing to move on at the orders of the inn’s servant, so that an angry Sarah finally confronts him—and to the great surprise of the girl and the inn’s cook, she then meekly agrees to see the man’s wares, ordering the other two away. Shut outside the room, the others try unabashedly to eavesdrop, but can hear nothing of what seems a strangely lengthy conversation…

At last the voices die away, yet Betty and the cook find the kitchen door still locked against them; nor does Sarah reply when they call out to her. The frightened Betty finally runs to Samuel Pecker.

We get one of the novel’s nastier bits of “doubling” here, as the much bullied and put-upon Samuel responds “hopefully” to Betty’s story with an inquiry of whether his wife has been, “Took bad?” – Surely it was not a ray of joy [in his face]? comments the narrator. Samuel is even more delighted by a suggestion that the pedlar has “carried off” his wife, questioning Betty as to whether he was a large enough man to succeed in such an undertaking. It takes some effort on the part of the impatient Betty to get Samuel to bring his keys, so that they can find out what has happened; and even then he dawdles:

“You’re right, Betty,” he said; “get the lantern and I’ll come round with you. But if the man has run away with your missus, Betty,” he added argumentatively, “there’s such a many roads and by-roads round Compton, that it wouldn’t be over much good going after them…”

But Sarah at least has gone nowhere:

There was no sign of the foreign pedlar; and stretched upon the hearth in a dead swoon lay Mrs Sarah Pecker…

It takes some considerable time for Samuel and Betty to bring Sarah back to consciousness, and when they do, she seems literally a different person:

    Mrs Pecker revived very slowly; but when at last she did open her eyes, and saw the meek Samuel patiently awaiting her recovery, she burst into a sudden flood of tears, and flinging her stout arms about his neck, indifferent to the presence of either Betty or the carrier, cried out passionately,—
    “You’ve been a good husband to me, Samuel Pecker, and I haven’t been an indulgent wife to you; but folks are punished for their sins in this world as well as in the next, and I’ll try and make you more comfortable for the future; for I love you truly, my dear—indeed I do!”

And a quiet and submissive Sarah it is from this point onwards, one who goes out of her way to show her appreciation of her placid husband. She does not even react with anger when it is discovered that the pedlar robbed her of her ready cash, her watch and some silver spoons, though his haul was worth some ten or fifteen pounds. As for Samuel:

    The meek landlord of the Black Bear walked about as one in a strange but delicious dream. He had the key of his cellars in his own possession, and was allowed to drink such portions of his own liquors as he thought fit; and Samuel did not abuse the unwonted privilege, for he was naturally a sober man. He was no longer snubbed and humiliated before the face of his best customers. His tastes were consulted, his wishes were deferred to. Nice little dinners were prepared for him by Sarah’s own hands, and the same hands would even deign to mix for him a nightcap of steaming rum-punch, fragrant as the perfumed groves of Araby the blest. Mr Pecker was almost master in his own house. Sometimes this new state of things seemed well nigh too much for him. Once he went to his wife, and said to her, imploringly,—
    “Sarah, speak sharp to me, will you, please; for I feel as if I wasn’t quite right in my head…”

Some months roll away after this incident, and the narrative of The Captain Of The Vulture shifts to London, where the cousins, Ringwood and Darrell Markham, are following their very different paths. Darrell, having discovered that dissipation does nothing to make him forget Millicent, has knuckled down to his work instead, and has hopes of success as a political writer. Ringwood, meanwhile, having no personal qualities that might win him friends, is wasting his inheritance in an attempt to at least buy a few. He is beginning to taste desperation when he receives a most unexpected, and unwanted, call from his cousin. It is now eighteen months or more since George Duke was last heard of, but Darrell has only just learned of it. Like everyone in Compton, his immediate reaction is “good riddance”:

    “And what do you think of all this?” asked Ringwood.
    “What do I think? Why, that Captain George Duke, and his ship the Vulture, have met the fate that all who sail under false colours deserve. I know of those who can tell of a vessel, with the word ‘Vulture’ painted on her figurehead, that has been seen off the coast of Morocco, with the black flag flying at the fore, and a crew of Africans chained down in the hold. I know of those who can tell of a wicked traffic between the Moorish coast and the West India Islands, and who speak of places where the coming of George Duke is more dreaded than the yellow fever. Good heavens! can it be that this man has met his fate, and that Millicent is free?”

(After Braddon’s The Octoroon, we are not surprised to discover the specific nature of George Duke’s “privateering”.)

Ringwood cares nothing for his sister, and less than nothing for George Duke; but he is glad to be handed something to torment Darrell with. Curiously, he comes to the same conclusion as Millicent: that Duke is choosing to stay away as his form of torment.

The real purpose of Darrell’s call, however, is to press upon Ringwood his responsibility for Millicent, who in her husband’s absence has only the interest of the pittance secured to her upon her marriage to live on. Darrell also insists upon helping Millicent himself, although he adds that Ringwood must keep it a secret. Ringwood makes no protest to any of this, but on the verge of penury himself, he has neither the means nor the inclination to help his sister. If Darrell wants to give him money, though…

Ringwood is particularly eager for a new source of income, for he has recently made a new acquaintance before whom he is eager to cut a fashionable figure:

…he had appointed to meet a gay party at Ranelagh, the chief member of which was to be a certain West-country baronet, called Sir Lovel Mortimer, and better known in two or three taverns of rather doubtful reputation than in the houses of the aristocracy.

Ringwood is too much of a country-bumpkin to recognise certain giveaway flaws in Sir Lovel’s manners and diction: he thinks he’s hit the social jackpot, and is only too eager to accept an invitation to dine and gamble at his new friend’s lodgings; being positively honoured by the thought of losing money to a baronet.

When the door is opened by Sir Lovel’s servant, Ringwood gets a shock:

    …the speaker’s face illuminated by a feeble flicker.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was drunk; his face was dirty; his wig pushed over his eyebrows, and singed by the candle in his hand; his cravat was twisted awry, and hung about his neck like a halter; his eyes were dim and watery from the effect of strong liquors; and it was with difficulty he kept himself erect by swaying slowly to and fro as he stood staring vacantly at his master and his master’s guests.
    But it was not the mere drunkenness of the man’s aspect which startled Ringwood Markham.
    Sir Lovel Mortimer’s servant was Captain George Duke!

Ringwood sends word of his sighting of Captain Duke to Darrell. He is out of town when the note is delivered, but as soon as he returns and reads the message, he forces his presence upon his cousin and demands an explanation of what seems to him a ridiculous lie. Though hungover, dull-witted at the best of times, and pretending to be gravely insulted by Darrell’s language as he is, Ringwood sticks to his guns—adding to his initial information just who Duke is working for; prompting Darrell in turn to tell what he knows of “the baronet”:

    “You mean to tell me, then,” he said ruefully, “that this Sir Lovel—”
    “Is no more Sir Lovel than you are,” answered Darrell: “all the fashionable breeding he can pretend to is what he has picked up on the king’s highway; and the only estate he will ever be master of in Devonshire or elsewhere will be enough stout timber to build him a gallows when his course comes to an abrupt termination. He is known to the knights of the road and the constables by the nickname of Captain Fanny, and there is little doubt the house in Chelsea to which he took you was a nest of highwaymen.”

And of course, Darrell’s mind goes back to the night he was attacked on Compton Moor—by, as he would still be prepared to swear, George Duke. He puts two-and-two together in startling fashion:

“The upshot of it is, that while we have thought George Duke was away upon the high seas, he has been hiding in London and going about the country robbing honest men. The ship Vulture is a fiction; and instead of being a merchant, a privateer, a pirate, or a slaver, George Duke is neither more nor less than a highway man and a thief.”

Except that the reader knows that there is a Vulture, at least…

Darrell succeeds in getting a warrant sworn out against Captain Fanny, but by the time Ringwood manages to pick out the correct house – having generally been rather tipsy when carried there by “Sir Lovel” – the occupants have fled. Darrell comes away with nothing more than the fact that the baronet called his servant by the name of Jeremiah.

Sir Lovel and his friends did not leave before emptying Ringwood’s pockets, however, and the young squire is forced to give up his efforts to cut a dash in London, and retreat to his ancestral halls. His experiences harden his heart: as his fortunes recover, Ringwood develops miserly tendencies, becoming tight-fisted and a hard landlord; he certainly has nothing to spare for his sister.

There is now a time-gap in the novel; and The Captain Of The Vulture resumes its narrative when George Duke has been missing almost a full seven years—long enough to be declared legally dead, and his widow, should she wish it, to legally remarry.

Ringwood’s niggardly tendencies have only grown, meanwhile: he acts as his own agent, so as not to have to pay one; and he distrusts his workers, so that he spends much time riding around his estate keeping an eye on them. On one of these rides, he catches a chill which, with his weak constitution, threatens his life. Like his late mother, Ringwood is consumptive…

Millicent moves back into her childhood home to nurse her brother, and her gentle unselfishness and obvious unhappiness evoke a glimmer of remorse in the self-centred Ringwood. Knowing himself dying, he is moved to apologise to Millicent for being such a bad brother, and for his part in forcing her into marriage. He also speaks to her of the estate which, neglected as it has been through his reluctance to spend money, will still bring her a good income—the bulk of their father’s money having been tied up in it, to keep Ringwood from wasting it (the late squire knew his son).

Ringwood also speaks to Millicent of George Duke—and insists upon writing a last letter, to be delivered to Darrell come the end of the following January, once the seven years have fully passed.

When Ringwood dies, the estate does indeed pass to Millicent: the manor house, its grounds, and its surrounding farmlands; as well as what is considered, in Compton, to be a tidy fortune. After her years of deprivation, in spite of the sorrowful event that brought it about her possession of so many solid blessings seems to Millicent almost too good to be true. There is, of course, just one drawback:

If he should come home! If, after all these years of fearful watching and waiting, these years of terror and suspense, in which she had trembled at the sound of every manly footstep, and shuddered at the sound of every voice which bore the faintest resemblance to that one voice which she dreaded to hear; if, after all, now that she had completely given him up—now that she was rich, and might perhaps by-and-by be happy—if, at this time of all others, the man who had been the scourge of her young life should return and claim her once more as his, to hold and to torture by the laws of God and man!

 

[To be continued…]

 

4 Comments to “The Captain Of The Vulture (Part 1)”

  1. Of course, she’s played the identical twin card before…

    I wonder if any actual privateers ever refit warships for slaving… seems a bit nautically dubious in terms of, like, cargo space and whatnot.

    • Yes, but that had been a staple since the Gothic novel. Bigamy was something that crept in during the 19th century.

      I don’t know, though if a ship had to be big enough and sturdy enough to carry cannon and a full crew, I suppose there was a way of “redistributing the weight”.

      I don’t imagine Braddon was concerned with the practicalities, rather she just thought slaving was the worst thing Duke could be doing.

  2. “Warship” isn’t the hard distinction that it would become later; a ship-of-the-line certainly has a lot of dedicated structure to withstand the shock of coordinated cannon fire, but AIUI the only difference between a sloop-of-war and a sloop is what guns you’ve got aboard.

    (Catching up slowly.)

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