In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 17

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In the Roar of the Sea by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII.


FOR LIFE OE DEATH.


Coppinger did not hesitate a moment now to leave the corpse on the beach where he had found it, and to hasten to the cave.

There was a third alternative to which hitherto he had given no attention. Judith, in ascending the cliff, might have strayed from the track, and be in such a position that she could neither advance nor draw back. He would, therefore, explore the path from the chimney mouth, and see if any token could be found of her having so done.

He again held his smouldering tinder and by this feeble glimmer made his way up the inclined beach within the cave, passed under the arch of the rock where low, and found himself in that portion where was the boat.

Here he knew of a receptacle for sundries, such as might be useful in an emergency, and to that he made his way, and drew from it a piece of candle and a lantern. He speedily lighted the candle, set it in the lantern, and then ascended the chimney.

On reaching the platform at the orifice in the face of the rock, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to bring rope with him. He would not return for that, unless he found a need for it. Rope there was below, of many yards length. Till he knew that it was required, it seemed hardly worth his while to encumber himself with a coil that might be too long or too short for use. He did not even know that he would find Judith. It was a chance, that was all. It was more probable that she had strayed on the down, and was now back at Polzeath, and safe and warm in bed.

From the ledge in front of the shaft Coppinger proceeded with caution and leisure, exploring every portion of the ascent with lowered lantern. There were plenty of impressions of feet wherever the soft and crumbly beds had been traversed, and where the dissolved stone had been converted into clay or mud, but these were the impressions of the smugglers escaping from their den. Step by step he mounted, till he had got about half-way up, when he noticed, what he had not previously observed, that there was a point at which the track left the ledge of stratified vertical rock that had inclined its broken edge upward, and by a series of slips mounted to another fractured stratum, a leaf of the story-book turned up with the record of infinite ages sealed up in it. It was possible that one unacquainted with the course might grope onward, following the ledge instead of deserting it for a direct upward climb. As Coppinger now perceived, one ignorant of the way and unprovided with a light would naturally follow the shelf. He accordingly deserted the track, and advanced along the ledge. There was a little turf in one place, in the next a tuft of armeria, then mud or clay, and there—assuredly a foot had trodden. There was a mark of a sole that was too small to have belonged to a man.

The shelf at first was tolerably broad, and could be followed without risk by one whose head was steady; but for how long would it so continue? These rough edges, these laminae of upheaved slate were treacherous—they were sometimes completely broken down, forming gaps, in places stridable, in others discontinuous for many yards.

The footprints satisfied Coppinger that Judith had crept along this terrace, and so had missed the right course. It was impossible that she could reach the summit by this way—she must have fallen or be clinging at some point farther ahead, a point from which she could not advance, and feared to retreat.

He held the lantern above his head, and peered before him, but could see nothing. The glare of the artificial light made the darkness beyond its radius the deeper and more impervious to the eye. He called, but received no answer. He called again, with as little success. He listened, but heard no other sound than the mutter of the sea, and the wail of the wind. There was nothing for him to do but to go forward; and he did that slowly, searchingly, with the light near the ground, seeking for some further trace of Judith. He was obliged to use caution, as the ledge of rock narrowed. Here it was hard, and the foot passing over it made no impression. Then ensued a rift and a slide of shale, and here he thought he observed indications of recent dislodgement.

Now the foot-hold was reduced, he could no longer stoop to examine the soil; he must stand upright and hold to the rock with his right hand, and move with precaution lest he should be precipitated below.

Was it conceivable that she had passed there?—there in the dark? And yet—if she had not, she must have been hurled below.

Coppinger, clinging with his fingers, and thrusting one foot before the other, then drawing forward that foot, with every faculty on the alert, passed to where, for a short space, the ledge of rock expanded, and there he stooped once more with the light to explore. Beyond was a sheer fall, and the dull glare from his lantern showed him no continuance of the shelf. As he arose from his bent position, suddenly the light fell on a hand—a delicate, childish hand—hanging down. He raised the lantern, and saw her whom he sought. At this point she had climbed upward to a higher ledge, and on that she lay, one arm raised, fastened by a chain to a tuft of heather—her head fallen against the rock, and feet and one arm over the edge of the cliff. She was unconscious, sustained by a dog-chain and a little bunch of ling.

Coppinger passed the candle over her face. It was white, and the eyes did not close before the light.

His position was vastly difficult. She hung there chained to the cliff, and he doubted whether he could sustain her weight if he attempted to carry her back while she was unconscious, along the way he and she had come. It was perilous for one alone to move along that strip of surface; it seemed impossible for one to effect it bearing in his arms a human burden.

Moreover, Coppinger was well aware that his left arm had not recovered its strength. He could not trust her weight on that. He dare not trust it on his right arm, for to return by the way he came the right hand would be that which was toward the void. The principal weight must be thrown inward.

What was to be done? This, primarily: to release the insensible girl from her present position, in which the agony of the strain on her shoulder perhaps prolonged her unconsciousness.

Coppinger mounted to the shelf on which she lay, and bowing himself over her, while holding her, so that she should not slip over the edge, he disentangled the chain from her wrist and the stems of the heather. Then he seated himself beside her, drew her toward him, with his right arm about her, and laid her head on his shoulder.

And the chain?

That he took and deliberately passed it round her waist and his own body, fastened it, and muttered, "For life or for death!"

There, for a while, he sat. He had set the lantern beside him. His hand was on Judith's heart, and he held his breath, and waited to feel if there was pulsation there; but his own arteries were in such agitation, the throb in his finger ends prevented his being able to satisfy himself as to what he desired to know.

He could not remain longer in his present position. Judith might never revive. She had swooned through over-exhaustion, and nothing could restore her to life but the warmth and care she would receive in a house; he cursed his folly, his thoughtlessness, in having brought with him no flask of brandy. He dared remain no longer where he was, the ebbing powers in the feeble life might sink beyond recall.

He thrust his right arm under her, and adjusted the chain about him so as to throw some of her weight off the arm, and then cautiously slid to the step below, and, holding her, set his back to the rocky wall.

So, facing the Atlantic Ocean, facing the wild night sky, torn here and there into flakes of light, otherwise cloaked in storm-gloom, with the abyss below, an abyss of jagged rock and shingle shore, he began to make his way along the track by which he had gained that point.

He was at that part where the shelf narrowed to a foot, and his safety and hers depended largely on the power that remained to him in his left arm. With the hand of that arm he felt along and clutched every projecting point of rock, and held to it with every sinew strained and starting. He drew a long breath. Was Judith stirring on his arm?

The critical minute had come. The slightest movement, the least displacement of the balance, and both would be precipitated below.

"Judith!" said he, hoarsely, turning his head toward her ear. "Judith!"

There was no reply.

"Judith! For Heaven's sake—if you hear me—do not lift a finger. Do not move a muscle."

The same heavy weight on him without motion.

"Judith! For life—or death!"

Then suddenly from off the ocean flashed a tiny spark—far, far away.

It was a signal from the Black Prince.

He saw it, fixed his eyes steadily on it, and began to move sideways, facing the sea, his back to the rock, reaching forward with his left arm, holding Judith in the right.

"For life!"

He took one step sideways, holding with the disengaged hand to the rock. The bone of that arm was but just knit. Not only so, but that of the collar was also recently sealed up after fracture. Yet the salvation of two lives hung on these two infirm joints. The arm was stiff; the muscles had not recovered flexibility, nor the sinews their strength.

"For death!"

A second sidelong step, and the projected foot slid in greasy marl. He dug his heel into the wet and yielding soil, he stamped in it; then, throwing all his weight on the left heel, aided by the left arm, he drew himself along and planted the right beside the left.

He sucked the air in between his teeth with a hiss. The soft soil was sinking—it would break away. The light from the Black Prince seemed to rise. With a wrench he planted his left foot on rock and drew up the right to it.

"Judith! For life!"

That star on the the black sea—what did it mean? He knew. His mind was clear, and though in intense concentration of all his powers on the effort to pass this strip of perilous path, he could reason of other things, and knew why the Black Prince had exposed her light. The lantern that he had borne, and left on the shelf, had been seen by her, and she supposed it to be a signal from the terrace over the cave.

The next step was full of peril. With his left foot advanced, Coppinger felt he had reached the shale. He kicked into it, and kicked away an avalanche of loose flakes that slid over the edge. But he drove his foot deep into the slope, and rammed a dent into which he could fix the right foot when drawn after it.

"For death!"

Then he crept along upon the shale.

He could not see the star now. His sweat, rolling off his brow, had run over his eyelids and charged the lashes with tears. In partial blindness he essayed the next step.

"For life!"

Then he breathed more freely. His foot was on the grass.

The passage of extreme danger was over. From the point now reached the ledge widened, and Coppinger was able to creep onward with less stress laid on the fractured bones. The anguish of expectation of death was lightened; and as it lightened nature began to assert herself. His teeth chattered as in an ague fit, and his breath came in sobs.

In ten minutes he had attained the summit—he was on the down above the cliffs.

"Judith," said he, and he kissed her cheeks and brow and hair. "For life—for death—mine, only mine."