William Bales–as nice a young man as ever wore a cummerbund on an esplanade–was in despair. For half an hour he and Miss Spratt had been sitting in silence on the pier, and it was still William’s turn to say something. Miss Spratt’s last remark had been, “Oh, Mr. Bales, you do say things!” and William felt that his next observation must at all costs live up to the standard set for it. Three or four times he had opened his mouth to speak, and then on second thoughts had rejected the intended utterance as unworthy. At the end of half an hour his mind was still working fruitlessly. He knew that the longer he waited the more brilliant he would have to be, and he told himself that even Bernard Shaw or one of those clever writing fellows would have been hard put to it now.
William was at odds with the world. He was a romantic young man who had once been told that he nearly looked like Lewis Waller when he frowned, and he had resolved that his holiday this year should be a very dashing affair indeed. He had chosen the sea in the hopes that some old gentleman would fall off the pier and let himself be saved by–and, later on, photographed with–William Bales, who in a subsequent interview would modestly refuse to take any credit for the gallant rescue. As his holiday had progressed he had felt the need for some such old gentleman more and more; for only thus, he realised, could he capture the heart of the wayward Miss Spratt. But so far it had been a dull season; in a whole fortnight nobody had gone out of his way to oblige William, and to-morrow he must return to the City as unknown and as unloved as when he left it.
“Got to go back to-morrow,” he said at last. As an impromptu it would have served, but as the result of half an hour’s earnest thought he felt that it did not do him justice.
“So you said before,” remarked Miss Spratt.
“Well, it’s still true.”
“Talking about it won’t help it,” said Miss Spratt.
William sighed and looked round the pier. There was an old gentleman fishing at the end of it, his back turned invitingly to William. In half an hour he had caught one small fish (which he had had to return as under the age limit) and a bunch of seaweed. William felt that there was a wasted life; a life, however, which a sudden kick and a heroic rescue by W. Bales might yet do something to justify. At the Paddington Baths, a month ago, he had won a plate-diving competition; and though there is a difference between diving for plates and diving for old gentlemen he was prepared to waive it. One kick and then … Fame! And, not only Fame, but the admiration of Angelina Spratt.
It was perhaps as well for the old gentleman–who was really quite worthy, and an hour later caught a full-sized whiting–that Miss Spratt spoke at this moment.
“Well, you’re good company, I must say,” she observed to William.
“It’s so hot,” said William.
“You can’t say I asked to come here.”
“Let’s go on the beach,” said William desperately. “We can find a shady cave or something.” Fate was against him; there was to be no rescue that day.
“I’m sure I’m agreeable,” said Miss Spratt.
They walked in silence along the beach, and, rounding a corner of the cliffs, they came presently to a cave. In earlier days W. Bales could have done desperate deeds against smugglers there, with Miss Spratt looking on. Alas for this unromantic age! It was now a place for picnics, and a crumpled sheet of newspaper on the sand showed that there had been one there that very afternoon.
They sat in a corner of the cave, out of the sun, out of sight of the sea, and William prepared to renew his efforts as a conversationalist. In the hope of collecting a few ideas as to what the London clubs were talking about he picked up the discarded newspaper, and saw with disgust that it was the local Herald. But just as he threw it down, a line in it caught his eye and remained in his mind:
“High tide to-day–3.30.”
William’s heart leapt. He looked at his watch; it was 2.30. In one hour the waves would be dashing remorselessly into the cave, would be leaping up the cliff, what time he and Miss Spratt—-
Suppose they were caught by the tide….
Meanwhile the lady, despairing of entertainment, had removed her hat.
“Really,” she said, “I’m that sleepy—- I suppose the tide’s safe, Mr. Bales?”
It was William’s chance.
“Quite, quite safe,” he said earnestly. “It’s going down hard.”
“Well then, I almost think—-” She closed her eyes. “Wake me up when you’ve thought of something really funny, Mr. Bales.”
William was left alone with Romance.
He went out of the cave and looked round. The sea was still some way out, but it came up quickly on this coast. In an hour … in an hour….
He scanned the cliffs, and saw the ledge whither he would drag her. She would cling to him crying, calling him her rescuer….
What should he do then? Should he leave her and swim for help? Or should he scale the mighty cliff?
He returned to the cave and, gazing romantically at the sleeping Miss Spratt, conjured up the scene. It would go like this, he thought.
Miss Spratt (wakened by the spray dashing over her face). Oh, Mr. Bales! We’re cut off by the tide! Save me!
W. Bales (lightly). Tut-tut, there’s no danger. It’s nothing. (Aside) Great Heavens! Death stares us in the face!
Miss Spratt (throwing her arms around his neck). William, save me; I cannot swim!
W. Bales (with Waller face). Trust me, Angelina. I will fight my way round yon point and obtain help. (Aside) An Englishman can only die once.
Miss Spratt. Don’t leave me!
W. Bales. Fear not, sweetheart. See, there is a ledge where you will be beyond the reach of the hungry tide. I will carry you thither in my arms and will then—-
At this point in his day-dream William took another look at the sleeping Miss Spratt, felt his biceps doubtfully, and went on—-
W. Bales. I will help you to climb thither, and will then swim for help.
Miss Spratt. My hero!
Again and again William reviewed the scene to himself. It was perfect. His photograph would be in the papers; Miss Spratt would worship him; he would be a hero in his City office. The actual danger was slight, for at the worst she could shelter in the far end of the cave; but he would not let her know this. He would do the thing heroically–drag her to the ledge on the cliff, and then swim round the point to obtain help.
The thought struck him that he could conduct the scene better in his shirt-sleeves. He removed his coat, and then went out of the cave to reconnoitre the ledge.
. . . . .
Miss Spratt awoke with a start and looked at her watch. It was 4.15. The cave was empty save for a crumpled page of newspaper. She glanced at this idly and saw that it was the local Herald… eight days old.
Far away on the horizon William Bales was throwing stones bitterly at the still retreating sea.