The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/The Loss of the "Vanity"
THE LOSS OF THE "VANITY"
"You don't care. Oh! Susy, you don't care!"
"But I do," she sobbed. "You know, you know I care."
They were standing on a jutting headland, looking away out over the Southern Ocean, and the sea, blue and calm as the sky above, stretched out before them. Behind them were the low forest-clad ranges that bounded the coast line, shutting out the lonely selection from the rest of the colony of Victoria, and the only sign of human habitation was the weatherboard farmhouse the girl called home. Even that was hardly visible from where they stood, hidden as it was by the swell of the hill, and alone here with this man, alone with the sea and sky around her, with the soft South wind blowing among her curls, with the plaintive cry of the seagulls in her ears, the salt savour of the sea in her nostrils, she was sorely tempted to throw off the trammels of her education, to do the thing her heart prompted her to do, to tell this man he was dearer, as she felt in her heart he was dearer, than anything on earth. But so much stood in the way. For twenty years she had lived secluded in this lonely corner of the earth, all her thoughts, her hopes, her fears, bounded by the horizon of her own home, and the narrow limits of the township, just five miles away on the other side of the ranges. And now this sailor man, brought home by her young apprentice brother, had come into her life, bringing new thoughts, new ideas, new—she whispered it to herself, with a hot blush—hopes.
Five-and-twenty years ago now, Angus Mackie and his wife had emigrated from the cold and stormy western isles of Scotland to this sunny South land, and they had brought with them to their new home the stern faith of the old Puritan, the rigid adherence to the old rules, the hard, straitlaced life, and so had they brought up the children that grew up around their hearth. And Susy was the eldest, Susy with the blue eyes and rose-leaf complexion, and waving chestnut hair. So pretty she was, this daughter of the South, it hardly seemed possible she could be the child of the stern Puritan parents, and yet she had grown up in their ways, grave and obedient, walking in the narrow path set so straight before her without a question, and without a doubt. Never for one moment had she looked over the hedges with which she was set about—hardly had she realized there were hedges—and now this man had come like a fresh breeze from the sea, and he had taught her—what had he not taught her? At his glance all the passion born of the blue skies and the bright sunlight, and the warm breezes of her native land, awoke to life, and filled her heart with thoughts and longings that she, untutored, and ignorant of the world's ways, hardly understood. Only she leaned against the rock that cropped up out of the hillside, and pressed up against it till the hard stone marked her hands. Perhaps the physical pain brought her some rest from the mental disquietude which was so new to her.
The man who stood beside her was a sailor every inch of him. Not handsome perhaps, but certainly good-looking, with honest blue eyes, and a steadfast strong face. A man who had read and thought, and even though now at five-and-twenty he was but second mate of the Vanity, had lived his life to some purpose, for the fates had been against him; it had been an uphill struggle always, and in uphill struggles we have little time for the niceties of life. And now this girl, this dainty, fair, feminine thing had come across his path like a gleam of the sunshine of her own land, and when he felt he had fairly won her, his very honesty set a barrier in his way.
"You know I care," she sobbed. She would have used a stronger word, but shyness prevented her, and she put her face down on her clasped hands, and sobbed aloud.
"If you love me," he said deliberately; he was not shy now, though he turned away from her bowed head, and looked away over the sea sparkling in the November sunshine, "if you love me, what is there in God's name to stand between us?"
"That," she said, in a whisper, "just that."
She lifted up her head now, and looked away at the sea too, but she did not see it, for her eyes were misty with tears. And he did not see that, for he too looked seaward. Far too deeply moved were they to look each other in the face.
"You know," she said; and in her voice the trace of the Scotch accent which still lingered there, inherited from her father, was softened by the Australian drawl, which, whatever other folks might think, sounded infinitely sweet in Harper's ears, "you know," she repeated again, "you know," and there was an appeal in the soft voice, a prayer that he would not force her too far.
But he had gone too far for pity. In plain words she had told him she loved him, and in plain words now would he have named the bar that she had set up between them.
"What is it?" he asked, and his voice sounded cold and hard, "in heaven's name, what is it!"
"You know," she hesitated, "it is written—that—that we shall have no—no dealings—with—with the unrighteous."
"Am I unrighteous?" he asked bitterly. "How am I unrighteous?"
"You are an unbeliever. You—you told me so yourself. You don't believe in heaven or—or—hell—or—or——"
"In heaven or hell, don't I? You know, Susy—good Lord!—Susy, you know you can make this world one or the other for me.
"Don't—don't," she implored. "I mean you don't think enough about your eternal salvation."
"Child, how can I? This world is hard enough to get on in, God knows, how can I worry about the next? Who knows? There mayn't be a next."
"There is, there is!" she cried, eagerly. "Oh! if you would only repent while there is yet time—if you would only repent and be saved!"
"Oh, child, child, is there anything in the world I would not do for your sweet face?"
"Not for me—oh, not for me! Because—because——"
He put up his hand to stop her. The religious phrases that she had been accustomed to from her youth up, and that came naturally to her tongue, hurt him somehow as the foul-mouthed conversation of the fo'c'sle had never hurt him. From her lips he would not, if he could help himself, hear the phrases he had been accustomed to laugh at as canting and hypocritical.
"Don't dear, don't. I know what you are going to say. It is no good. We are so different altogether. I can't believe—as you believe—I cannot. I 'll do my best to be a good man—I 'll never lie to you or——"
"It is no use," she moaned, "no use at all. We cannot prevail by our own strength."
He laughed bitterly.
"Belief is not a matter of will," he said, "or I would believe just to please you—just because I want you more than anything in the wide world. All I can do is to be honest, and tell you I can't believe. It need never make any difference to you, dear, never, never."
The girl laid her face down on the hard rock again.
"And if—and if—next time your ship goes past here you were to fall from the mast, and be drowned, you think—you think you would just go out like a fire—that—that would be all."
He kicked a stone till it fell over the edge of the cliff, and they could hear it going by leaps and bounds into the sea a hundred feet below.
"And you think," he said, "I shall be eternally damned, tormented in fire and brimstone for ever and ever. Upon my word, Susy, mine is the kinder fate."
"I can't bear to think of it, I can't bear to think of it!" she cried. "Oh! Ben, Ben! I can't bear it!"
He made a step forward then and caught her in his arms. How could he resist the upturned face and the sweet blue eyes brimming with tears. Puritan she might be, the old Covenanter blood might be strong as ever, but she loved him—there was little doubt of that, and he clasped her close in his arms and covered her face with kisses.
"What does it matter, dear, what does it matter? Let the future take care of itself."
She tried to wrench herself from his embrace then.
"No, no, it is for eternity. I can't, I can't."
"Susy," he caught both her hands in his, "do you love me?"
"You know I do."
"Better than any one in the world?"
"Yes." She whispered it under her breath, as if afraid of her own temerity.
"Then listen. You shall do as you like with me. I 'll give up the sea, darling. I 'll take up a selection here, you shall teach me your creed and I 'll do my best to believe. There, my little girl, will that satisfy you? Who knows, in time I may become as respectable a psalm-singer as that holy swab, Clement Scott, your father's so fond of quoting. The beggar's got a tenderness for you, hasn't he, Susy? Why the first week I was here I was wild with jealousy of the canting brute!"
Gently but firmly she drew herself out of his encircling arms and leaned up drearily against the rock again.
"Clement Scott," she said, and there was a hopeless ring in her voice that went to his heart like a knife, "Clement Scott is a true Christian man, he is father's friend, and—and—oh!—" with a sudden burst of passion, "I know—I know he is the better man."
Ben Harper said nothing, only moved a step or two further seaward. What could he say? The girl loved him, he saw that she loved him well and truly, but she did not love him well enough. She wanted to put him aside, as her training taught her she ought to put aside all the pleasures of this life, all the sunshine and laughter of life, as things hurtful to her soul's salvation. And because she was young, because she had been born under sunny, laughter-loving skies, his love came to her with a cruel temptation, and because of its very strength, because of the pain it cost her, she would put it aside as a thing wrongful and wicked. He looked at the silent little figure in its pink gingham frock, leaning up against the rock with head bowed down on its clasped hands. Dimly he understood the struggle that was going on in her breast, and clearly too he foresaw the inevitable end. Her very love for him was an argument against him. Never, never, never!—the booming sea on the rocks below seemed to take up the refrain—would this woman be wife of his? Never, never, never; the play was played out. Down through the vista of years he looked, and saw her the wife of the man he hated—the man who was to him the very incarnation of hypocrisy and cant He saw the hard, loveless life; he saw the lines growing in the fair, young face that was so dear to him; he saw stern Duty take the place of Love; he saw her life grow hard and narrow; he read in her face the bitterness of unfulfilled hopes, and the longing, the unutterable longing for something that might not be put into words, and a great pity for her filled his heart. Not for worlds would he add to her pain. She had come into his life, a dainty, fair, tender thing, and he had only hurt her; by his own pain he gauged hers.
A step forward and he was looking down at the snow-white breakers thundering at the foot of the cliff. The sea was his home, the cruel, fickle sea; he would go back to it and leave the woman he loved in peace. What right had he to come into her life to spoil it? He would go back whence he came, and all should be as it had been before. Go back?—ah! we none of us can go back; surely the Greeks of old were right when they said that not even Omnipotence itself can alter the past. For him he felt, as he watched the white gulls wheel about the face of the inaccessible cliff, there could be no comfort. He had gotten a hurt that would last him a lifetime, but for her—surely he had not hurt her irredeemably.
Very slowly he walked back to her side again, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Susy," he said, and he strove with all his strength to banish from his voice all else but kindness, "are you—do you—are you going to marry Clement Scott?"
But she would not raise her face.
"My father—he—I mean—" and so low was her voice, he had to stoop his head to hear, "father said I should—he is a Godfearing man—my father said I—I should beware that I chose—the—the better man. It—it—would be for my soul's salvation."
"Susy—Susy, child, I would not harm you, not for all this world or the next could give me. See now, my darling, I must go and leave you, must I?"
She raised her face now, and the bright sunlight showed it to him white and strained. She was paying for her love, if ever woman was. It went to his heart to see her quivering lips, to read in her eyes that voiceless appeal to him, not to tempt her beyond her strength.
"My poor little girl!"
He put out his arms and drew her close to his breast again, and at the sound of his voice, at the tender touch of his hands, she broke down—broke down and cried passionately with her face hidden on his shoulder. He pushed back her hat, and some strands of her hair fell loose across his hand. He held it lightly and tenderly, noting how it shone in the sunlight, noting that it looked like spun gold.
"Don't cry like that, my darling, it breaks my heart to hear you."
But he knew there was no hope for him in those tears. There was resignation, heartbroken resignation to the inevitable, but not a touch of yielding, not a spark of hope for him.
"My poor little girl!" he said again. "My poor little girl!"
"It is my poor boy, I think," she sobbed, "if you care, my poor, poor Ben!"
She was so close and yet so far, so very far away from him.
"Susy, child, I can't bear this," his voice was hoarse with the passion that now he could not keep under control, "you must let me go—now."
She raised her face and looked with her tear-dimmed eyes straight into his.
"Ben, Ben, I love you, I will tell you this once, whether it's right or wrong. I love you, I love you, I love you!" And she flung her arms round his neck, and drawing down his face to her own covered it with kisses, hot, passionate kisses in which the future, which for her stretched away into eternity, was forgotten.
"I must go. Susy, Susy, if you will not have me, in pity's name let me go!"
"Go then, go, my darling."
She drew herself out of his arms firmly, sadly, and they stood for a moment looking into each other's eyes, only for a moment though, then with a long-drawn sigh she turned away and covered her face with her hands.
He stood a little apart and took a long farewell to all his hopes. Would the picture ever fade from his mind, he wondered. There it all lay before him, blue sea and sky and dark bushland, and the only living thing visible the trembling girl in her simple pink frock, her face hidden in her hands, and the sunlight bringing out lines of gold in her fair hair. So it ended—his month-old romance. To-day he must go back to the old dull routine that makes up the sum of a sailor's life, and this brief madness must be but a tender memory of the past.
"Susy," he whispered, "Susy," but the little figure never raised its head.
"Susy, won't you wish me good-bye. Say something to me before I go. Must I go?"
He had no hope she would change her mind. He had learned her steadfastness only too well in the last four weeks, only he asked because it gave him the faintest shadow of an excuse for stopping at her side.
"Yes, go, go!" And the command was almost prayerful in its intensity.
"But—but—one word—one word—you——"
"God bless you! God keep you! Go, go!"
He turned away then, away from the bright water sparkling in the sunlight, away from the woman he loved with all his strength; but a chimera, it seemed to him, a vague fancy, stood between them, yet it was stronger than iron bars, and with a heavy sigh he turned his face towards the dark ranges and went down to the township, five miles beyond.
The good ship Vanity had lain three long months at Port Melbourne Pier, but they were weighing anchor at last. Standing there on the poop, the second mate listened sadly enough to the chanting of the men as they walked slowly round the capstan. There was almost a wail in the tune, though the words were the essence of commonplaceness, and related how the singers had courted Sally Brown for seven years, and when she had proved obdurate, with great complacency had taken her daughter instead.
"Seven long years I courted Sally,
Ay, ay, roll and go!
Seven long years and she wouldn't marry,
Spend my money on Sally Brown."
"Ay! ay!" it rose loud and clear above the noise of the busy pier, above the voices of the men at work there, above the creaking and groaning of the crane that was loading the great iron tank that lay next them, "ay! ay! roll and go!"
Yes, he was going now, leaving all the sunshine of his life behind him, the best part of his life and——
"Now then, mister, bear a hand there, ain't there longshore lubbers enough wi'out you?"
"Ay! ay! roll and go!" It was only another way of saying "Blessed be drudgery," only a reminder that work is a universal panacea for all ills and heartaches. And after all the second mate of the sailing-ship is not likely to have much time for idle dreams—regretful or otherwise—for the life of such men is monotonous enough; and two days later when they had come through the Rip, and were out in the Southern Ocean sailing along eastward, there was little enough to remind Ben Harper of the events of a week before. True it was on this stern, forbidding coast lay the Mackie selection; it was over this expanse of sea they two had stood and looked when they said farewell—he had even heard tell that the lights from their cottage window, the bright glow from the kitchen fire, were plainly visible to ships at sea, so close was she. And he wondered to himself should he see those lights to-night. Hardly. He lay there in his bunk and listened to the row in the rigging. Things had not mended evidently since he went below. Gone was the summer and the bright November sunshine, the wind from the south was coming up cold and chill, and the prospect of four hours to-night on a very cold, wet, bleak poop was anything but inviting.
"It 's just going eight bells, sir." He scrambled out of his bunk and into some clothes and oilskins, and was standing alongside the mate under the lee of the weather cloth in the rigging, by the time the watch got aft. They were the average crew of a sailing ship, men from every nation under the sun, and as they passed slowly round the capstan, their shoulders hunched to their ears, each man answered sullenly to his name. Not that they bore the second mate any ill-will, but Jack ashore spends his last weeks in riotous living and suffers a slow recovery for the first few days of the voyage. Besides the night was bitter cold, the wind that whistled shrilly through the rigging already bore on its chill breath drops of icy rain; there was no prospect of things mending, and after the hot summer days at Port Melbourne extra wraps—indeed any clothes in the fo'c'sle beyond what each man stood up in—were conspicuous by their absence. Merchant Jack is a thriftless beggar at best, and who could have foreseen wintry weather like this?
"Andersen!" called the mate, as a tall, fair haired Swede, his hairy breast bare to the cold night air, stepped forward.
What a motley crew they were! Swedes and Germans, cockneys and niggers, they passed on till the two watches had answered to their names, and the last man was a Russian Finn, black-haired and swarthy, with a flat face and eyes like a Tartar.
"They Finns," said the bo'sun confidentially to Harper, "is just pisen. Never knew no ship come to any good as carried em.
"Pooh!" said the second mate, who was not troubled with superstitious fears; besides the bo'sun made the same remark every time the watches were mustered, then he shouted, "Relieve the wheel and look out. Keep yourselves handy there, the watch."
"She 's got the main-to'g'll'nts'le on, mister," said the mate, "and the outer jib. It's been like this all the watch, steady enough. The sea's getting up a bit, and having the spanker set makes her steer so badly, but the old man wouldn't let me douse it;" and muttering something about the "glass going right down into the hold" the oil-skinned figure departed down the companion.
It was dark, very dark indeed, for though the moon was nearly full, heavy clouds obscured the sky, and only now and then she managed to pierce them, showing as clear as day the deserted wet decks—for the watch had all stowed away—the few sails set and just under the foot of the foresail the lookout man, banging his arms to and fro to keep himself warm.
The second mate paced briskly up and down the poop, for'ard was the lookout man, aft the man at the wheel, they three seemed to compose the whole ship's company, and it gave him for a moment a sense of loneliness. Hardly a week ago and he had hoped for such different things.
He had lost nothing, nothing; he told himself so over and over again, as he drew his oilskins close round him, and yet there was a sense of loss in his life, a great and terrible loss. She would be nothing to him, the girl he loved so well, she would marry Clement Scott, she had as good as told him so—because—because he was the better man. The better man—the better man—the words formed themselves into a sort of rhythm that his steps kept time to—"the better man, the better man."
"Binnacle light 's goin' hout, sir," said the man at the wheel, breaking in on his sad thoughts.
"Below there. One of you boys trim this light."
Young Angus Mackie answered his hail, unshipped the light, and lingered for a moment.
"We 'll be right aboard t'auld place in an hour or two, sir."
"I was sayin' that goin' on this tack we 'll be awfu' close in shore. Ye could pretty nigh chuck a biscuit in at the kitchen door. I wonder if they'll be thinkin' o' us."
"E—h—h?" muttered Harper, for had not his thoughts been taking the same road, though not for worlds would he have owned it.
"I'm thinkin' Susy will. Ye see I 'm thinkin' Susy was a bit gone——"
"You boy, trim that lamp," said Harper angrily. "Look here, my lad, you just keep your tongue lashed amidships, and don't go gassing about things that don't concern you in the least, or you and I 'll part brass rags."
The boy scurried below and returned with the lamp retrimmed. He slipped the light into the binnacle and looked doubtfully at the second mate. It was dull and he was inclined to talk, but after his late rebuff hardly dared. Harper began to pace up and down again, and the boy stowed himself under the lee of the house, volunteering the information as he passed the mate.
"Bo'sun says the wind 's goin' to shift ahead."
"You be hanged, and the bo'sun too!"
But before an hour had gone by he was obliged to acknowledge that the bo'sun's weather prophecies were very correct, for the wind shifted point after point till it was right ahead and blowing half a gale. Harper looked aloft and noted the clouds scurrying across the sky. Heavier and heavier they were growing to wind'ard.
"By Jove!" he muttered to himself, "we 're in for a nasty night."
Suddenly the lookout man reported, "Light right ahead, sir."
Harper stepped forward to the skylight and peered down into the cabin, dimly lighted by an oil lamp. It was a bare enough little place at best, but it looked comfort itself as contrasted with the wet decks above. The skipper was lying on a settee sound asleep, one hairy arm thrown out, and on the table meditatively surveying him was Dinah, the ship's cat.
"Hallo there!" reported the mate through the skylight; "light right ahead, sir."
Very lazily he rolled off the sofa, scared puss out of her senses by a rough sweep of his hand, and came up on deck.
"Great Scott!" he growled, "what a night!" Then he took a squint through his night glasses.
"Oh, yes, mister," he said, "that's all right. It's just a small light—a leading mark for the small craft going into the creek there for lime. Fixed white light, I heard of it the day before we left. It's deep water right up. We 'll go right in, mister, and make a long board of it on the next tack."
The moon was completely hidden now, and both men hanging over the break of the the poop could see nothing but the bright light right ahead.
"It looks small, sir," ventured Harper, taking another look through his glasses.
"Didn't I tell ye it was small? If ye will be for ever——"
Harper still looked steadily through his glasses.
"By the Lord! sir, that looks uncommonly like a line of breakers! There—to port!"
The skipper made one hesitating step forward, and then the truth flashed on him like lightning.
"Great Scott!" he cried again, "so it is! Call all hands. Hands 'bout ship!" Then he turned to the man at the wheel, who was the Russian Finn the bo'sun objected to as unlucky, "Keep her clean full for stays."
The men came tumbling out from the holes and corners where they had stowed away, and the watch below came up growling audibly at having their rest disturbed, but none apparently understanding the danger of the situation. It is all in the day's work that a sailor should be disturbed before he has had more than a taste of the bliss of sleep. The wild tumbling waters and the shrieking wind told them no tale; they only thought the wind had gone round and freshened a bit since they went below.
Harper standing on the fife rail at the cro'jack braces could have told them a different story. Clearly he saw the danger. There ahead, a little to leeward, were the long line of breakers; even in this pitchy darkness he could see their white foam-topped crests against the inky water; he fancied that even above the roaring of the wind through the rigging he could distinguish the crash with which they flung themselves hungrily against the rocks, the long-drawn sob as of disappointment with which they fell back into the sea again, there to gather strength for a fresh onslaught. Above them was the loom of the land showing only like thick cloud-bank against the horizon, and the bright light beckoning, it seemed, with friendly hands.
"Ready about!" shouted the skipper.
"O—o—oh, o—o—oh, o—o—oh!" sang the men at the braces in mournful monotone. Bang went the wet sail against the mast, and the second mate from his vantage point watched her slowly come up to wind. Slowly—slowly—the towering seas came pouring aboard—she took it in by the deck-house by ton loads, and the men all hung on to the nearest thing handy for dear life. Slowly, slowly her nose came up to the wind. Would she go round? Would she? Would she?
"Gummy!" he heard the bo'sun's voice near him in the darkness, and above all the din; "she is a blanked old bathing machine, ain't she?"
Nobody disputed the fact. Would she come round? Would she? Would she? Surely she was coming.
Then there was a pause for a brief second. Every man in that pause, it seemed, realized the gravity of the situation.
By Jingo! Will she come? Will she not?
Then the hoarse voice of the skipper broke in.
"Up with your helm, hard up! Flatten in your head sheets! Haul in your weather cro'jack brace!"
"Jammed, by G—d!" said the bo'sun, taking a squint over the side at the racing water and the ship rolling helplessly in the trough of the seas, "jammed, by G—d! like Jackson's cat."
The ship was in irons. "Would they ever get out of this fix?" thought Harper, while he listened to the skipper shouting orders to the man at the wheel, as she gathered stern-way and heard the Russian Finn's hoarse:
"Helm's amidships, sir," in reply. He was a plucky old man, old Alick MacDonald, given to carrying on as long as he dared, which was a good deal longer than most men would have dared, and his second mate had seen him in some very tight places already, but his good luck had always stood him in good stead; would it hold good once more?
Gradually the ship paid off, slowly her nose came round, and Harper, looking at the foaming line of breakers, thought how perilously close they were. But—but—surely after all she would come through scot free, a moment more—only a moment more. The moon came from behind the heavy clouds paling the light ashore before her bright rays, and showing them just for a second the seething white water all around. So close was the danger, every man held his breath.
"We're clear!" The words were on Harper's lips, then—crash—the ship struck with a sickening shock that shook her from stem to stern, and brought down the foreto'g'll't mast from aloft with all its tackle, and strewed the deck with wreckage. In a moment the men had dropped the ropes and rushed as one man aft to be clear of the falling top hamper.
"Stand fast, men, stand fast!" sung out Harper. "Where are you off to there?"
"Well," growled the bo'sun, who still stood by the second mate, "hell's the next port, if you ask me!" And his companion could not but wonder at his coolness. He too, clinging for life, realized that the good ship Vanity was a total wreck, and as he realized it, he raised his eyes and saw the light, which had been their guiding star till now, go suddenly out and leave all the cliff in pitchy darkness.
Crash went the ship again, bumping heavily and bringing down more hamper from aloft to add to the confusion on deck, and sea after sea swept over her. The two men scrambled aft, and above the thunder of the seas that fell aboard and the roar of the breakers that were not to be disappointed of their prey, heard the skipper shouting orders for the launching of the life-boat. It seemed to Harper no boat could live in such a raging sea, of a surety no boat could land on such a coast—at least not the coast as he knew it, the coast where was the Mackie selection—and the Mackie selection was somewhere hereabouts, you might see the light of their kitchen fire from—Good God! it came upon him like a flash—was that the light that had led them to destruction?
But there was no time for questions like that. The idea passed through his mind as he heard the skipper shout,
"Port watch, rig tackles! Starboard watch, see port life-boat all clear for going out!"
The raging wind and sea seemed to have gone down for a moment, now they had accomplished their end. The moon came out again, and he saw the watch at the skids, and the tall figure of the first mate as he stood on the boat, ripping off the covering with a sheath knife. One step forward he made to go to his assistance when there rose a towering wall of dark water to wind'ard.
"Stand from under—stand from under!" yelled every throat, but it was too late. It was doubtful if they heard, it was certain they had no time to get away. The wave came on resistlessly, and when the water had passed over them, boat and skids, part of the bulwarks, the first mate, and half the starboard watch had been swept away. There was a wailing cry above the roar of the seas, but it was impossible to say who had gone.
"Gone to port," muttered the bo'sun, "an' darned quick too!" And that was their requiem, for now it was each man for himself. The old skipper's voice was silent, and the second mate feared he too must have been carried overboard by the last sea.
"Jump for a blue light," he said to a boy next him, who was clinging to the broken skylight, "they're in the locker in the cabin."
The lad hesitated, then swung himself down, and in a minute or so returned, clambering back through the skylight holding two blue lights in his hand. He struck the end of one and illuminated the whole place with the ghastly glare. The Vanity, but a few minutes before a trim, smart ship, lay there on the reef a total wreck. The bright light showed her broken bulwarks with the seas making clean sweeps through them, the decks one mass of wreckage in hopeless confusion, cordage and rigging, splintered yards, and shattered deck-house—all alike had suffered a sea change. The foremast and the mainmast were gone, and their stumps stood up jagged and torn, but the mizzen lower mast still remained, and the men—those of them that were left—were in the rigging, for the deck every moment was becoming more untenable. The wheel was broken and the Russian Finn lay dead beside it, killed by a falling gaff, his swarthy face, white now in the bright light, turned up to the stormy sky; and a little farther for'ard, close to where Harper himself was standing, lay the skipper, jammed against the skylight by a heavy hencoop.
He bent over him and attempted to move the hencoop.
"All right, mister," said the old man bitterly, "better leave it alone. The old barkie's clean done for, an' I'm thinkin' we 're all bound for the same port."
As the blue light died down the lad lighted another, and one or two men dropped from the rigging and crawled to Harper's assistance.
"I ain't worth much now, mister," moaned the old man again; "we 'll never get out of this fix;" but they succeeded in dragging him aft and lashing him in the rigging. The boy who had burned the blue lights scrambled after them, and then, clinging there, hardly out of reach of the hungry waves, commenced their long wait for daylight.
"What 's the time, sir?" asked the lad next the second mate.
The boy drew a long sigh.
"Oh, Lordy! we can never hold on till morning, can we?"
A light started out of the darkness against the cliff—a light that grew and grew till it was a great flame even from where they stood, and the men in the rigging raised a shout.
"They see us ashore! Hurrah! hurrah!"
"Mighty little good their seeing us ashore 'll do us," said the bo'sun; "hell 's between!" And looking at the strip of seething boiling water that lay between them and the coast, Harper was obliged to acknowledge the man was right.
Still it lent them some comfort—that bright fire. They were a handful of men clinging there, drenched to the skin already, and every wave wetted them again with its salt spray, the wind whistled through the rigging bitter and cold, the icy rain like spear points cut their faces; there was no hope for them, no hope at all save in that blazing fire on shore.
Who shall describe the thoughts of men in extremity? Who shall say whether they thought at all—those men half dead with cold, clinging for dear life with numb hands to a slender rope that might give way at any moment? Would they see the morning light?
Harper was surprised to find he took it so quietly. There was none of the despair he had fancied he should feel in like case—or rather, he questioned, was it not despair that made him take it so calmly, utter despair? And after all what did a few years more or less of life matter to him? If death only came quickly without much pain, would it not be well with him? What had he to live for? Bitterly came back to him the last time he had looked over this raging sea. If it was not here, it was somewhere hereabouts, somewhere quite close. He could not help thinking of it, and contrasting it, that lovely summer's afternoon, and this bitter winter's night, with just ten days in between them. He looked at the fire on shore, now dying down, now blazing up brightly, replenished by willing hands, and between it and him came Susy Mackie's fair face. So sweet and dainty and fair, all that a man might long for, and yet she would give no thought to him. No thought! A wave higher than its fellows drenched him through and through, and made him wonder was the Vanity settling down, slipping off the reef into the deep water beyond it. No thought! What did it matter? It was only a little nearer the inevitable end, and if she had given him thought—if she had given him her heart, it was in despite her better judgment; her narrow up-bringing had won the day, and only that morning he had thought that life was not worth living without her. Why should he repine now that fate had taken him at his word? Then a great wave of tenderness came over him. His little girl, his sweet, pretty little girl, who made even of the stern, hard, unlovable faith of her fathers, a thing that was holy and beautiful. His little girl! He remembered—and the very thought sent a warm glow through his chilled veins—how she had wept over his possible death, wept bitter tears because she thought her God was harder and more cruel than the children He had made with His hands. His little girl, his darling!
The boy next him began to moan, and in spite of the shrieking wind and the howling sea Harper made out that his hands were aching, that he was perished with cold and could not hold on any longer.
"Nonsense, lad, nonsense!" and he took off his strong leather belt and buckled it round the shroud and round the boy's body, "there, that 'll give you a helping hand. Hold on now." Then as the boy thanked him, he saw by a stray and watery moonbeam it was young Angus Mackie.
"It 's right on your own coast, Angus, we 've come to grief."
"I 'm thinking," said the lad, "it 's right on our own place. I 'm thinkin' yon light—not the fire, the one we saw first—is our ain kitchen fire. Mony 's the time I 've been seein' it an' me out fishin' here."
"But the fireplace doesn't face the door," wondering to himself why it was he discussed such things now.
"Naw, but there 's a bit mirror agin the wall, it reflects things. Oh, mony's the time I 've seen it. Mither, she wanted it in the parlour; but Susy, she was saying we were living in the kitchen, and it made things brighter like. Dad, he was for sayin' it was a snare o' the Evil One; but Susy, she had her way."
So after all it was his sweetheart's natural girlish longing after pretty bright things that had lured them to destruction. Should he die to-night it was her innocent hand that had dealt the blow. The boy beside him was thinking the same thing, and presently he said, "When she comes to know, what 'll she say?"
Harper said nothing. If it had been possible he would have prayed the boy to keep the knowledge from her; but he knew it was not possible. If any man escaped from this wreck, he would surely tell of the light they had mistaken for the new leading mark, and if they all perished—well—then there would be no need to plead for silence. The sea keeps her own secrets.
"Susy is gone on ye, sir," said the boy again, "why wouldn't ye have her?"
It hardly seemed strange to him now, the question he would have resented fiercely at any other time.
"Have her!" he repeated, and looking down, he noted that the last wave had left behind it a great crack in the deck, and he heard the skipper moaning, "Oh, the poor barkie, the poor barkie!" and knew that he too had seen it. "Have her? She wouldn't have me."
"She didn't think I was good enough," explained Harper hastily.
"She told ye that!—oh, Lord! They 've been at her about that pious psalm-singer Clement Scott. Ye try again when we get ashore. She's goin' to stop a bit wi' Aunt Barnes, at South Yarra, this Christmas. T' auld girl hates t' psalm-singer, an' she 'll do the job for ye. Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! I 'm starved wi' the cold."
"It 's not so long now," said Harper, and suddenly he felt as if the night were stretching itself into interminable years. The bar that Susy had thought so hopeless, so insurmountable, was it really but a thing of straw? Was there really a chance for him yet? Was there really anything in the lad's careless words? And hope awoke again in his breast, and with the hope a raging bitterness against the fate that was putting a barrier once more between him and the attainment of those hopes. She loved him, she had acknowledged that she loved him, and now to be free to win her! The eagerness for life awoke in him again. Who said the world was dreary? Who said life was not worth living? A bright, fair world stretched enticingly before him, and he was dying. Yes, dying—they were all dying, the old ship was breaking up fast, and if succour did not come quickly—He drew a long breath and looked down through the rain, that was falling in torrents now, at the decks below. One moment all was hidden by the raging seas, the next by the faint moonlight he saw the cracks widening—widening—then came another great sea, and he felt the ship bump heavily on the rocks. No, it was the poorest chance that she should last till morning, they—these men hanging to the rigging—had no chance whatever of living in the sea that boiled around them. Wider and wider grew the cracks on deck, the water was pouring into the hold, and the cargo was being washed out of her. One bale of wool—two—three—rose up on the next wave. A bale of wool! What is a bale against a man's life? And yet the skipper was moaning pitifully over their loss.
"My great Scott! eighteen hundred bales of wool gone! What will the owners say? The poor old barkie! The poor old barkie! How shall I face the owners?"
So! so! and his chances of facing those owners seemed so pitifully small, and yet the old man's thoughts were full of it. Sometimes he moaned over the wife and children in faraway England, but not as one who gives up all hopes of seeing them again, only as one who maybe had brought them to bitter poverty and pain by his mischance, for would the owners give him another ship, now he had lost the old Vanity? "Hardly likely," he muttered to himself. "Hardly likely." And so the bitter night wore on. There was nothing to mark the hours as they passed. Now a man moaned a little, now another cried aloud that he could hold on no longer, that he must fall and die before morning. Always there was the sea, sweeping over the decks and halfway up the mast towards them, with wearisome monotony. Great squalls of rain came up every now and then, blotting out all else and making all round inky-black; then they passed, and the pale and watery moon showed them the shore quite close, and the raging waters between. The tongue of the ship's bell had broken loose somehow, and the wash of the sea made it toll with mournful cadence. It rose clear and loud, even above the shrieking of the gale, and Harper fitted its notes to his own words. "Never more," it seemed to say; and then, as a heavier sea than usual swept over the wreck, shaking her down to her very keel, "Never, never more."
And yet on shore the fire leaped and danced. Kindly anxious hands were feeding it, and it was impossible not to think that the men who would stay out on such a bitter night, were not doing all they knew for the help and succour of these helpless men. There were rocket apparatus stationed along the coast, and if the ship would only hold together long enough, why should they not all be saved? If she only would. Ben Harper was feverish in his desire for life now. He must live; he must see Susy once again, he must—he must! And eagerly he watched for the dawn.
So long the night, so long, so long. Is it a truth that our hours of gladness and our hours of pain are all of a length? Surely not. The night wore on, and it seemed to those waiting men that the longed-for morning would never come. But gradually the moon sank behind the dark mass of the land to leeward, and in the east came the first faint streaks of dawn.
A shout rose up from the weary waiting men, a shout Harper fancied he heard echoed faintly from the shore. Then the day was born, stormy and cold, and the light only showed them a handful of men clinging to a wreck, which each sea threatened to break into a thousand pieces.
"Merciful God!" cried the skipper, as the daylight showed him the full extent of his peril, "my poor wee wife!"
But if the daylight showed them their danger it showed them too that those on shore had not been unmindful of them. The ugly cliffs, steep and inaccessible, were not very high, and on the nearest point to the wreck, not indeed one hundred yards away, a little knot of men were getting ready the rocket apparatus. There were women there too, with shawls thrown over their heads, and Harpers heart beat as he thought of seeing his love again. Surely now—now that he came to her from the very jaws of death—cast up out of the cruel sea—she would not reject him. Would she not rather take it as a sign from her God that she was to wed this man? Surely she would. In another few minutes he would be by her side—a little longer and he might hold her in his arms again. How long—how long? O God! if they would only make haste. Could they not see that every moment was precious, that the old ship was breaking up fast?
He began to count the men in the rigging, nineteen of them, men and boys, and the skipper was helpless with a broken leg. It would take them some time to get off. And yet not so long though—once they had the rope aboard.
They got the apparatus fixed at last, and then "swish." They could not see anything, for it was broad daylight now, but they heard the sigh of the rocket as it passed and knew it had missed. A despairing cry went up from the perishing men, for they, like the second mate, were counting their chances and reckoning them poor indeed. It almost seemed a matter of minutes now.
Again the men on shore tried, and this time the shout that went up was one of triumph. The thin line lodged beautifully over the mast, and the men in their awkward position hauled it in, and it seemed as if they had home and happiness within their grasp when the block came along.
Very carefully they made the thick rope fast round the mizzen lower masthead, the bo'sun still brisk and cheerful after the terrible night which he had spent in the rigging, his only covering a pair of torn dungaree trousers.
"None of your darned men-o'-war slippery hitches about this," said he; and Harper, as he saw the breeches-buoy come along the stout cable, could have shouted as the men were doing. Here was happiness and safety—here was the woman he loved—nay, should he not say rather the woman who loved him—waiting on shore for him, and would she deny him now he had come through so much? His little girl, his darling! One by one he watched the men go, he watched the breeches-buoy swallowed up in the raging waters, he watched them received on shore as men risen from the dead, and he counted eagerly the moments till his turn should come. They knew now on shore the name of the ship. Was that woman on shore looking seaward, his Susy? She had a red shawl, he remembered, as we do remember trifles in the supreme moments of our life. That must be Susy, and she was thinking of him. Only six now. And now only five. For one brief moment he felt as if he were tasting the bliss of perfect happiness. Could he have doubted that a merciful God ruled this world of ours? Ah, little girl, you shall learn a newer, purer, more pitiful faith, and Ben Harper will be your teacher, and then—and then—— All the exultation went out of his heart, for his eye fell on the tail of the block and he saw that it was stranded. It had lain there—that thick rope—in its house, carefully kept against the day of need, day after day, week after week, year after year, and the long waiting had told on the stout rope, slowly it had rotted, slowly—and no man knew it. And now in the day of need when a good man's life depended on it, it was failing. Was it though? Only three more men. And now only two—only the old skipper and himself. No one had noticed the rope, and where was the good of speaking of it. He watched the breeches-buoy, coming back to them, and clearly, clearly he read as in letters of fire that one of those two must die.
Twelve hours ago he would have given his life for the skipper's, gladly, willingly; but now—now it was different. It was his right to live, he' told himself fiercely—his right, just as it was the right of the skipper to be the last to leave the ship. He was an old man, what was his life to him?—loyal enough to his owners—a rough old sea-dog, hard and even cruel at times—he was old, he had lived his life, he must be the one to stay. Even for the wife and children's sake—the owners were not hard men—they would see they did not starve. And he must see Susy again—just hold her in his arms once again. Sweetheart, sweetheart, who so dear in all the world? It was his right to go, he told himself again. Then he cut the lashings with which they had bound the skipper to the mast, the breeches-buoy was so close now and it was easier for him to do it. The old man might find a difficulty by himself, and he would want to be all clear when next the buoy came back. When next the buoy came back! He looked at the stranded rope and knew that the buoy would never come back. Hardly would it reach the shore. Certain it was it would never come back, and the wreck was breaking up fast. It was his right to go, and no one would know. And even if they did, he was only taking his rights. How could he give his life, with all its fair possibilities, all its high hopes, for this worn-out old shellback? And the buoy was here!
"You go, sir. It 'll only make a few minutes' difference, and I can help you. You 're hurt, and you 'll find it hard to manage by yourself."
The old man demurred a moment—staunch old sailor, he would have stuck to the ship to the last, but the mate said again, "It only makes the difference of a minute or two, sir. That 's nothing."
He could not send a message—not one. Why should he? They would never understand. The fair-haired girl would never know how he had longed for her this night.
Down, down went the buoy, and the waters swallowed it up. A great wave—another—he had done with life, for the rotten rope had parted at last!
But on shore there was great rejoicing, for they hauled the skipper up out of the sea, bruised and hurt and half drowned, but still alive; and the cry went round that he was the last man left aboard the Vanity.
Then the bo'sun put up his hands and squinted through them seaward.
"Jimini! there's the mizzen mast gone! Poor old girl!"
"An'," said another voice, the voice of the man who had left before the skipper, "there was two men aboard when I left, an' one of 'em was the second mate. Where is he?"
"Gone to ——," but a woman's bitter cry cut short the bo'sun's speech.