In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 15

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In the Roar of the Sea by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV.


CHAINED.

To ascend is easier than to go down. Judith was no longer alarmed. There was danger still, that was inevitable; but the danger was as nothing now to what it had been. It is one thing to descend in total darkness into an abyss where one knows that below are sharp rocks, and a drop of two hundred feet to a thundering, raging sea, racing up the sand, pouring over the shelves of rock, foaming where divided waves clash. When Judith had been on the beach in the afternoon the tide was out; now it was flowing, and had swept over all that tract of white sand and pebble where she had walked. She could not indeed now see the water, but she heard the thud of a billow as it smote a rock, the boil and the hiss of the waves and spray. To step downward, groping the way, with a depth and a wild-throbbing sea beneath, demanded courage, and courage of no mean order; but it was other to mount, to be able to feel with the foot the ascent in the track, and to grope upward with the hand from one point of clutch to another, to know that every step upward was lessening the peril, and bringing nearer to the sward and to safety.

Without great anxiety, therefore, Judith turned to climb. Cruel Coppinger had allowed her to essay it unaided. Would he have done that had he thought it involved danger, or, rather, serious danger? Judith was sure he would not. His confidence that she could climb to the summit unassisted made her confident. As she had descended she had felt an interior qualm and sinking at every step she took; there was no such sensation now as she mounted.

She was not much inconvenienced by the wind, for the wind was not directly on shore; but it soughed about her, and eddies caught her cloak and jerked it. It would have been better had she left her cloak above on the turf. It incommoded her in her climb; it caught in the prongs of rock.

The rain, the water running off the rock, had wet her shoes, soaked them, and every step was in moisture that oozed out of them. She was glad now to rest on her right hand. In descending, the left had felt and held the rock, and it had been rubbed and cut. Probably it was bleeding.

Surely there was a little more light in the sky where the sky showed between the dense masses of vapor. Judith did not observe this, for she did not look aloft; but she could see a steely tract of sea, fretted into foam, reflecting an illumination from above, greater than the twilight could cast. Then she remembered that there had been a moon a few nights before, and thought that it was probably risen by this time.

Something chill and wet brushed her face. It startled her for a moment, and then she knew by the scent that it was a bunch of samphire growing out of the side of the crag.

Shrill in her ear came the scream of a gull that rushed by in the darkness, and she felt, or believed she felt, the fan from the wings. Again it screamed, and near the ear it pierced her brain like an awl, and then again, still nearer, unnerving her. In the darkness she fancied that this gull was about to attack her with beak and claws, and she put up her left arm as a protection to her eyes. Then there broke out a jabber of sea-birds' voices, laughing mockingly, at a little distance.

Whither had she got?

The way was no longer easy—one step before another—there was a break of continuity in the path, if path the track could be called.

Judith stood still, and put forward her foot to test the rock in front. There was no place where it could rest. Had she, bewildered by that gull, diverged from the track? It would be well to retreat a few steps. She endeavored to do this, and found that she encountered a difficulty in finding the place where she had just planted her foot.

It was but too certain that she was off the track line. How to recover it she knew not. "With the utmost difficulty she did reach a point in her rear where she could stand, clinging to the rock; but she clung now with both hands. There was no tuft of samphire to brush her face as she descended. She must have got wrong before she touched that. But where was the samphire? She cautiously felt along the surface of the crag in quest of it, but could not find it. There was, however, a little above her shoulder, a something that felt like a ledge, and which might be the track. If she had incautiously crept forward at a level without ascending rapidly enough, she was probably below the track. Could she climb to this point—climb up the bare rock, with sheer precipice below her? And, supposing that the shelf she felt with her hand were not the track, could she descend again to the place where she had been?

Her brain spun. She lost all notion as to where she might be—perhaps she was below the path, perhaps she was above it. She could not tell. She stood with arms extended, clinging to the rock, and her heart beat in bounds against the flinty surface. The clasp of her cloak was pressing on her throat, and strangling her. The wind had caught the garment, and was playing with the folds, carrying it out and flapping it behind her over the gulf. It was irksome; it was a danger to her. She cautiously slid one hand to her neck, unhasped the mantle, and it was snatched from her shoulders and carried away. She was lighter without it, could move with greater facility; cold she was not, wet she might become, but what mattered that if she could reach the top of the cliff?

Not only on her own account was Judith alarmed. She had undertaken a commission. She had promised to bear a message to her aunt from Coppinger that concerned the safety of his men. What the signal meant she did not know, but suspected that it conveyed a message of danger.

She placed both her hands on the ledge, and felt with her knee for some point on which to rest it, to assist her in lifting herself from where she stood to the higher elevation. There was a small projection, and after a moment's hesitation she drew her foot from the shelf whereon it had rested and leaned the left knee on this hunch. Then she clung with both hands, and with them and her knee endeavored to heave herself up about four feet, that is, to the height of her shoulders. A convulsive quiver seized on her muscles. She was sustained by a knee and her hands only. If they gave way she could not trust to recover her previous lodgement place. One desperate strain, and she was on the ledge, on. both knees, and was feeling with her hands to ascertain if she had found the track. Her fingers touched thrift and passed over turf. She had not reached what she sought. She was probably farther from it than before. As all her members were quivering after the effort, she seated herself on the shelf she had reached, leaned back against the wet rock, and waited till her racing pulses had recovered evenness of flow, and her muscles had overcome the first effects of their tension.

Her position was desperate. Rain and perspiration mingled dripped from her brow, ran over and blinded her eyes. Her breath came in sobs between her parted lips. Her ears were full of the booming of the surge far below, and the scarcely less noisy throb of her blood in her pulses.

When she had started on her adventurous expedition she had seen some stars that had twinkled down on her, and had appeared to encourage her. Now. not a star was visible, only, far off on the sea, a wan light that fell through a rent in the black canopy over an angry deep. Beyond that all was darkness, between her and that all was darkness.

As she recovered her self-possession, with the abatement of the tumult in her blood she was able to review her position, and calculate her chances of escape from it.

Up the track from the cave the smugglers would almost certainly escape, because that was the only way, unwatched, by which they could leave the beach without falling into the hands of the Preventive men.

If they came by the path—that path could not be far off, though in which direction it lay she could not guess. She would call, and then Coppinger or some of his men would come to her assistance.

By this means alone could she escape. There was nothing for her to do but to wait.

She bent forward and looked down. She might have been looking into a well; but a little way out she could see, or imagine she saw, the white fringes of surf stealing in. There was not sufficient light for her to be certain whether she really saw foam, or whether her fancy, excited by the thunder of the tide, made her suppose she saw it.

The shelf she occupied was narrow and inclined; if she slipped from it she could not trust to maintain herself on the lower shelf, certainly not if she slid down in a condition of unconsciousness. And now reaction after the strain was setting in, and she feared lest she might faint. In her pocket was the dog-chain that had caught her foot. She extracted that now, and groping along the wall of rock behind her, caught a stout tuft of coarse heather, wiry, well rooted; and she took the little steel chain and wound it about the branches and stem of the plant, and also about her wrist—her right wrist—so as to fasten her to the wall, That was some relief to her to know that in the event of her dropping out of consciousness there was something to hold her up, though that was only the stem of an erica, and her whole weight would rest on its rootlets. Would they suffice to sustain her? It was doubtful; but there was nothing else on which she could depend.

Suddenly a stone whizzed past, struck the ledge, and rebounded. Then came a shower of earth and pebbles. They did not touch her, but she heard them clatter down. Surely they had been displaced by a foot, and that a foot passing above.

Then she heard a shot—also overhead, and a cry. She looked aloft, and saw against the half-translucent vapors a black struggling figure on the edge of the cliff. She saw it but for an instant, and then was struck on the face by an open hand, and a body crashed on to the shelf at her side, rolled over the edge, and plunged into the gulf below.

She tried to cry, but her voice failed her. She felt her cheek stung by the blow she had received. A feeling as though all the rock were sinking under her came on, as though she were sliding—not shooting—but sliding down, down, and the sky went up higher, higher—and she knew no more.