Page:Once a Week Volume V.djvu/491

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484
[Oct. 26, 1861.
ONCE A WEEK.

but talking ’s no use. If we reach the shore safe, we’ll may be get some one there to come back for the old man, if the girl offers a proper reward. Come along, men, and let us launch the skiff.”

“Not till you say you’ll bring both the girl and her father,” cried Bennett, springing forward; “let me see the man that dares lay hand on it against my will.”

He was a remarkably strong, active young fellow, and though the odds were so great on the side of the sailors, they were not inclined to provoke a struggle which each man felt might be fatal to himself, however it fared with his companions; for whoever Bennett chose to single out, on the first attack, would be sure to get the worse of it. Withdrawing a few paces, they whispered sullenly together, and then one of the sailors came forward and spoke:

“We don’t want to have no fight with you, Captain Bennett; you’re a brave sailor and a generous, there’s no mistake; and if there’s any man on earth we’d be willing to run a risk for, it’s you; but it’s hardly fair to suppose we’d do as much for two strangers we never set eyes on till a week ago, and don’t care if we never set eyes on again.”

“They’re no more to me than to you,” said Bennett; “but I’d rather put a rope round my neck and hang myself at the mast’s head than act such a cowardly part as to leave them.”

“Well,” said the mate, “let him have his way, let us all sink or swim together. Let the girl bring up her father while we lower away the skiff.”

While this dispute was going on Helen remained in a state of agonising suspense, for she had gathered enough from their looks, gestures, and the few words that reached her, to comprehend the subject of their quarrel. Eagerly she looked into Bennett’s frank face as he came up to her, believing that she could read there her doom. It was no time for many words, and the skipper’s were quick and few.

“Get your father on deck at once, Miss Helen, we’re going off in the boat. Make haste; and keep up your courage like a brave girl, as you are.”

“God bless you-God reward you, Captain Bennett!” cried Helen.

“With renewed hope she hastened below, while he hurried to assist the men in getting out the skiff. It was soon launched, two of the sailors were already in it, and Bennett was handing them some of the oars, when the mate, who was behind him, seized hold of him with a suddenness which took him completely by surprise, and pitched him into the skiff; the sailors held him down till the mate cast loose the fastenings and sprang in after him, and then they shoved off from the schooner. At the same instant a woman’s cry rang through the stormy air. Helen had just come on deck with her father as Bennett was forced into the skiff; she comprehended all in a second, and as her sharp cry of agony reached her father’s oars, he, too, knew that they had been left to perish.

“My child! my child!” he exclaimed in despair, “they have left her behind!”

Overcome with weakness and the shock of disappointment he sank down on the deck, supporting himself against the broken mast.

“Wait here, dear father,” said Helen, whose courage had only for a moment deserted her, “perhaps they have not really gone.”

Darting to the vessel’s side, she steadied herself by grasping a rope, and gazing after the skiff, which was already several yards from the schooner; the wind, blowing towards the shore, swept it on with fearful rapidity, but as she looked, Bennett stood up, and by his gestures she judged that he was urging them to return to the schooner. Still the boat held on its way; but just then a huge wave hid it from her sight, and when it again became visible, she saw Bennett leap into the water. The brave fellow was coming back to share the fate of those who seemed to have no earthly hope but him. He was a good swimmer, but the wind and the waves were full against him. No words could tell the breathless agony of mingled hope and fear with which Helen watched him, as he manfully fought his way against the furious waves; the passionate intensity with which she longed for some power to give him aid. In that moment of excitement she felt as if the infinite sympathy that filled her whole soul would have been as infinite in might, if she could but have reached him. But this torture did not last long. Strong and determined as young Bennett was, the waves were stronger, and more unconquerable; his efforts grew weaker and weaker, and he was swept under the billows, and she saw him no more. At any time to have seen a fellow-creature perish would have caused her great pain, but to see him die when she had watched his struggles for life with such intense sympathy that every effort had seemed her own, and when she knew that it was to save her and her father he had braved death, was almost too bitter to be borne. For the moment all thought of herself, or even of her father, all anxiety, all fear, were lost in the convulsion of grief and despair she felt when she knew he was gone; all hope and faith in a God who loves and protects the right seemed to die within her; and for the first time in her life she felt the shadow of that dark anguish, worse than any death, which a noble nature feels when it loses its trust in an over-ruling Providence, that designs and provides for the final triumph of goodness, fall over her. Dashing away her blinding tears, she looked after the skiff, now tossing like a weed on the billows.

“Will they escape,” she cried, “when he was suffered to perish?” and she turned away her head with a bitterness of feeling such as she had never known before.

When she looked again the skiff had disappeared, and not a vestige of it, or its crew, was to be seen. A shudder of horror passed over her frame, and the sensations of awe and fear with which she gazed on the whirling waters, swallowing life after life before her eyes, brought back her thoughts from Bennett’s fate to the consciousness that she and her father were destined soon to share it. Her heart, which a minute before had seemed transformed to ice, melted to all its natural softness, and going back to her father, she sat down beside him and wound her