Story type: Literature
Rufus the Red sat on the edge of his boat with his hands clasped between his knees, staring at nothing. His nets were spread to dry in the sun; the morning’s work was done. Most of the other men had lounged into their cottages for the midday meal, but the massive red giant sitting on the shore in the merciless heat of noon did not seem to be thinking of physical needs.
His eyes under their shaggy red brows were fixed with apparent concentration upon his red, hairy legs. Now and then his bare toes gripped the moist sand almost savagely, digging deep furrows; but for the most part he sat in solid contemplation.
There was only one other man within sight along that sunny stretch of sand–a small, dark man with a shaggy, speckled beard and quick, twinkling eyes. He was at work upon a tangled length of tarred rope, pulling and twisting with much energy and deftness to straighten out the coil, so that it leaped and writhed in his hands like a living thing.
He whistled over the job cheerily and tunelessly, glancing now and again with a keen, birdlike intelligence towards the motionless figure twenty yards away that sat with bent head broiling in the sun. His task seemed a hopeless one, but he tackled it as if he enjoyed it. His brown hands worked with a will. He was plainly one to make the best of things, and not to be lightly discouraged–a man of resolution, as the coxswain of the Spear Point lifeboat needed to be.
After ten minutes of unremitting toil he very suddenly ceased to whistle and sent a brisk hail across the stretch of sand that intervened between himself and the solitary fisherman on the edge of the boat.
The fiery red head turned in his direction without either alacrity or interest. The fixed eyes came out of their trance-like study and took in the blue-jerseyed, energetic figure that worked so actively at the knotted hemp. There was something rather wonderful about those eyes. They were of the deep, intense blue of a spirit-fed flame–the blue of the ocean when a storm broods below the horizon.
He made no verbal answer to the hail; only after a moment or two he got slowly to his feet and began leisurely to cross the sand.
The older man did not watch his progress. His brown, lined face was bent again over his task.
Rufus the Red drew near and paused. “Want anything?”
He spoke from his chest, in a voice like a deep-toned bell. His arms hung slack at his sides, but the muscles stood out on them like ropes.
The coxswain of the lifeboat gave his head a brief, upward jerk without looking at him. “That curly-topped chap staying at The Ship,” he said, “he came messing round after me this morning, wanted to know would I take him out with the nets one day. I told him maybe you would.”
“What did you do that for?” said Rufus.
The coxswain shot him a brief and humorous glance. “I always give you the plums if I can, my boy,” he said. “I said to him, ‘Me and my son, we’re partners. Going out with him is just the same as going out with me, and p’raps a bit better, for he’s got the better boat.’ So he sheered off, and said maybe he’d look you up in the evening.”
“Maybe I shan’t be there,” commented Rufus.
The coxswain chuckled, and lashed out an end of rope, narrowly missing his son’s brawny legs. “He’s not such a soft one as he looks, that chap,” he observed. “Not by no manner of means. Do you know what Columbine thinks of him?”
“How should I know?” said Rufus.
He stooped with an abrupt movement that had in it a hint of savagery, and picked up the end of rope that lay jerking at his feet.
“Tell you what, Adam,” he said. “If that chap values his health he’ll keep clear of me and my boat.”
Everyone called the coxswain Adam, even his son and partner, Rufus the Red. No two men could have formed a more striking contrast than they, but their partnership was something more than a business relation. They were friends–friends on a footing of equality, and had been such ever since Rufus–the giant baby who had cost his mother her life–had first closed his resolute fist upon his father’s thumb.
That was five-and-twenty years ago now, and for eighteen of those years the two had dwelt alone together in their cottage on the cliff in complete content. Then–seven years back–Adam the coxswain had unexpectedly tired of his widowed state and taken to himself a second wife.
This was Mrs. Peck, of The Ship, a widow herself of some years’ standing, plump, amiable, prosperous, who in marrying Adam would have gladly opened her doors to Adam’s son also had the son been willing to avail himself of her hospitality.
But Rufus had preferred independence in the cottage of his birth, and in this cottage he had lived alone since his father’s defection.
It was a dainty little cottage, perched in an angle of the cliff, well apart from all the rest and looking straight down upon the great Spear Point. He tended the strip of garden with scrupulous care, and it made a bright spot of colour against the brown cliff-side. A rough path, steep and winding, led up from the beach below, and about half-way up a small gate, jealously padlocked in the owner’s absence, guarded Rufus’s privacy. He never invited any one within that gate. Occasionally his father would saunter up with his evening pipe and sit in the little porch of his old home looking through the purple clematis flowers out to sea while he exchanged a few commonplace remarks with his son, who never broke his own silence unless he had something to say. But no other visitor ever intruded there.
Rufus had acquired the reputation of a hermit, and it kept all the rest at bay. He had lived his own life for so long that solitude had grown upon him as moss clings to a stone. He did not seem to feel the need of human companionship. He lived apart.
Sometimes, indeed, he would go down to The Ship in the evening and lounge in the bar with the rest, but even there his solitude still wrapped him round. He never expanded, however genial the atmosphere.
The other men treated him with instinctive respect. He was powerful enough to thrash any two of them, and no one cared to provoke him to wrath. For Rufus in anger was a veritable mad bull.
“Leave him alone! He’s not safe!” was the general advice and warning of his fellows, and none but Adam ever interfered with him.
Just recently, however, Adam had begun to take a somewhat quizzical interest in the welfare of his son. It had been an established custom ever since his second marriage that Rufus should eat his Sunday dinner at the family table down at The Ship. Mrs. Peck–Adam’s wife was never known by any other title, just as the man’s own surname had dropped into such disuse that few so much as knew what it was–had made an especial point of this, and Rufus had never managed to invent any suitable excuse for refusing. He never remained long after the meal was eaten. When all the other fisher-lads were walking the cliffs with their own particular lasses, Rufus was wont to trudge back to his hermitage and draw his mantle of solitude about him once more. He had never walked with any lass. Whether from shyness or surliness, he had held consistently aloof from such frivolous pastimes. If a girl ever cast a saucy look his way the brooding blue eyes never seemed aware of it. In speech with womenkind he was always slow and half-reluctant. That his great bull-like physique could by any means be an object of admiration was a possibility that he never seemed to contemplate. In fact, he seemed expectant of ridicule rather than appreciation.
In his boyhood he had fought several tough fights with certain lads who had dared to scoff at his red hair. Sam Jefferson, who lived down on the quay, still bore the marks of one such battle in the absence of two front teeth. But he did not take affront from womenkind. He looked over their heads, and went his way in massive unconcern.
But lately a change had come into his life–such a change as made Adam’s shrewd dark eyes twinkle whenever they glanced in his son’s direction, comprehending that the days of Rufus’s tranquillity were ended.
A witch had come to live at The Ship, such a witch as had never before danced along the Spear Point sands. Her name was Maria Peck, and she was the daughter of Mrs. Peck’s late lamented husband’s vagabond brother–“a seafaring man and a wastrel if ever there was one,” as Mrs. Peck was often heard to declare. He had picked up with and eventually married a Spanish pantomime girl up London way, so Mrs. Peck’s information went, and Maria had been the child of their union.
No one called her Maria. Her mother had named her Columbine, and Columbine she had become to all who knew her. Her mother dying when she was only three, Columbine had been left to the sole care of her wastrel father. And he, then a skipper of a small cargo steamer plying across the North Sea, had placed her in the charge of a spinster aunt who kept an infants’ school in a little Kentish village near the coast. Here, up to the age of seventeen, Columbine had lived and been educated; but the old schoolmistress had worn out at last, and on her death-bed had sent for Mrs. Peck, as being the girl’s only remaining relative, her father having drifted out of her ken long since.
Mrs. Peck had nobly risen to the occasion. She had no daughter of her own; she could do with a daughter. But when she saw Columbine she sucked up her breath.
“My, but she’ll be a care!” was her verdict.
“She don’t know–how lovely she is,” the dying woman had whispered. “Don’t tell her!”
And Mrs. Peck had staunchly promised to keep the secret, so far as lay in her power.
That had happened six months before, and Columbine was out of mourning now. She had come into the Spear Point community like a shy bird, a little slip of a thing, upright as a dart, with a fashion of holding her head that kept all familiarity at bay. But the shyness had all gone now. The girlish immaturity was fast vanishing in soft curves and tender lines. And the beauty of her!–the beauty of her was as the gold of a summer morning breaking over a pearly sea.
She was a creature of light and laughter, but there were in her odd little streaks of unconsidered impulse that testified to a passionate soul. She would flash into a temper over a mere trifle, and then in a moment flash back into mirth and amiability.
“You can’t call her bad-tempered,” said Mrs. Peck. “But she’s sharp–she’s certainly sharp.”
“Ay, and she’s got a will of her own,” commented Adam. “But she’s your charge, missus, not mine. It’s my belief you’ll find her a bit of a handful before you’ve done. But don’t you ask me to interfere! It’s none o’ my job.”
“Lor’ bless you,” chuckled Mrs. Peck, “I’d as soon think of asking Rufus!”
Adam grunted at this light reference to his son. “Rufus ain’t such a fool as he looks,” he rejoined.
“Lor’ sakes! Whoever said he was?” protested the equable Mrs. Peck. “I’ve a great respect for Rufus. It wasn’t that I meant–not by any manner o’ means.”
What she had meant did not transpire, and Adam did not pursue the subject to inquire. He also had a respect for Rufus.
It was not long after that brief conversation that he began to notice a change in his son. He made no overtures of friendship to the dainty witch at The Ship, but he took the trouble to make himself extremely respectable when he made his weekly appearance there. He kept his shag of red hair severely cropped. He attired himself in navy serge, and wore a collar.
Adam’s keen eyes took in the change and twinkled. Columbine’s eyes twinkled too. She had begun by being almost absurdly shy in the presence of the young fisherman who sat so silently at his father’s table, but that phase had wholly passed away. She treated him now with a kindly condescension, such as she might have bestowed upon a meek-souled dog. All the other men–with the exception of Adam, whom she frankly liked–she overlooked with the utmost indifference. They were plainly lesser animals than dogs.
“She’ll look high,” said Mrs. Peck. “The chaps here ain’t none of her sort.”
And again Adam grunted.
He was fond of Columbine, took her out in his boat, spun yarns for her, gave her such treasures from the sea as came his way–played, in fact, a father’s part, save that from the very outset he was very careful to assume no authority over her. That responsibility was reserved for Mrs. Peck, whose kindly personality made the bare idea seem absurd.
And so to a very great extent Columbine had run wild. But the warm responsiveness of her made her easy to manage as a general rule, and Mrs. Peck’s government was by no means exacting.
“Thank goodness, she’s not one to run after the men!” was her verdict after the first six months of Columbine’s sojourn.
That the men would have run after her had they received the smallest encouragement to do so was a fact that not one of them would have disputed. But with dainty pride she kept them at a distance, and none had so far attempted to cross the invisible boundary that she had so decidedly laid down.
And then with the summer weather had come the stranger–had come Montagu Knight. Young, handsome, and self-assured, he strolled into The Ship one day for tea, having tramped twelve miles along the coast from Spearmouth, on the other side of the Point. And the next day he came again to stay.
He had been there for nearly three weeks now, and he seemed to have every intention of remaining. He was an artist, and the sketches he made were numerous and–like himself–full of decision. He came and went among the fishermen’s little thatched cottages, selecting here, refusing there, exactly according to fancy.
They had been inclined to resent his presence at first–it was certainly no charitable impulse that moved Adam to call him “the curly-topped chap”–but now they were getting used to him. For there was no gainsaying the fact that he had a way with him, at least so far as the women-folk of the community were concerned.
He could keep Mrs. Peck chuckling for an hour at a time in the evening, when the day’s work was over. And Columbine–Columbine had a trill of laughter in her voice whenever she spoke to him. He liked to hear her play the guitar and sing soft songs in the twilight. Adam liked it too. He was wont to say that it reminded him of a young blackbird learning to sing. For Columbine was as yet very shy of her own talent. She kept in the shallows, as it were, in dread of what the deep might hold.
Knight was very kind to her, but he was never extravagant in his praise. He was quite unlike any other man of her acquaintance. His touch was always so sure. He never sought her out, though he was invariably quite pleased to see her. The dainty barrier of pride that fenced her round did not exist for him. She did not need to keep him at a distance. He could be intimate without being familiar.
And intimate he had become. There was no disputing it. From the first, with his easy savoir-faire, he had waived ceremony, till at length there was no ceremony left between them. He treated her like a lady. What more could the most exacting demand?
And yet Adam continued to call him “the curly-topped chap,” and turned him over to his son Rufus when he requested permission to go out in his boat.
And Rufus–Rufus turned with a gesture of disgust after the utterance of his half-veiled threat, and spat with savage emphasis upon the sand.
Adam uttered a chuckle that was not wholly unsympathetic, and began deftly to coil the now disentangled rope.
“Do you know what I’d do–if I was in your place?” he said.
Rufus made a sound that was strictly noncommittal.
Adam’s quick eyes flung him a birdlike glance. “Why don’t you come along to The Ship and smoke a pipe with your old father of an evening?” he said. “Once a week’s not enough, not, that is, if you–” He broke off suddenly, caught by a whistle that could not be resisted.
Rufus was regarding the horizon with those brooding eyes of vivid blue.
Abruptly Adam ceased to whistle. “When I was a young chap,” he said, “I didn’t keep my courting for Sundays only. I didn’t dress up, mind you. That weren’t my way. But I’d go along in my jersey and invite her out for a bit of a cruise in the old boat. They likes a cruise, Rufus. You try it, my boy! You try it!”
The rope lay in an orderly coil at his feet, and he straightened himself, rubbing his hands on his trousers. His son remained quite motionless, his eyes still fixed as though he heard not.
Adam stood up beside him, shrewdly alert. He had never before ventured to utter words of counsel on this delicate subject. But having started, he was minded to make a neat job of it. Adam had never been the man to leave a thing half done.
“Go to it, Rufus!” he said, dropping his voice confidentially. “Don’t be afraid to show your mettle! Don’t be crowded out by that curly-topped chap! You’re worth a dozen of him. Just you let her know it, that’s all!”
He dug his hands into his trousers pockets with the words, and turned to go.
Rufus moved then, moved abruptly as one coming out of a dream. His eyes swooped down upon the lithe, active figure at his side. They held a smile–a fiery smile that gleamed meteor-like and passed.
“All right, Adam,” he said in his deep-chested voice.
And with a sidelong nod Adam wheeled and departed. He had done his morning’s work.
“Where’s that Columbine?” said Mrs. Peck.
A gay trill like the call of a blackbird in the dawning answered her. Columbine, with a pink sun-bonnet over her black hair, was watering the flowers in the little conservatory that led out of the drawing-room. She had just come in from the garden, and a gorgeous red rose was pinned upon her breast. Mrs. Peck stood in the doorway and watched her.
The face above the red rose was so lovely that even her matter-of-fact soul had to pause to admire. It was a perpetual wonder to her and a perpetual fascination. The dark, unawakened eyes, the long, perfect brows, the deep, rich colouring, all combined to make such a picture as good Mrs. Peck realised to be superb.
Again the pure contralto trill came from the red lips, and then, with a sudden movement that had in it something of the grace of an alighting bird, Columbine turned, swinging her empty can.
“I’ve promised to take Mr. Knight to the Spear Point Caves by moonlight,” she said. “He’s doing a moonlight study, and he doesn’t know the lie of the quicksand.”
“Sakes alive!” said Mrs. Peck. “What made him ask you? There’s Adam knows every inch of the shore better nor what you do.”
“He didn’t ask,” said Columbine. “I offered. And I know the shore just as well as Adam does, Aunt Liza. Adam himself showed me the lie of the quicksand long ago. I know it like my own hand.”
Mrs. Peck pursed her lips. “I doubt but what you’d better take Adam along too,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel easy about you. And there won’t be any moonlight worth speaking of till after ten. It wouldn’t do for you to be traipsing about alone even with Mr. Knight–nice young gentleman as he be–at that hour.”
“Aunt Liza, I don’t traipse!” Momentary indignation shone in the beautiful eyes and passed like a gleam of light. “Dear Aunt Liza,” laughed Columbine, “aren’t you funny?”
“Not a bit,” maintained Mrs. Peck. “I’m just common-sensical, my dear. And it ain’t right–it never were right in my young day–to go walking out alone with a man after bedtime.”
“A man, Aunt Liza! Oh, but a man! An artist isn’t a man–at least, not an ordinary man.” There was a hint of earnestness in Columbine’s tone, notwithstanding its lightness.
But Mrs. Peck remained firm. “It wouldn’t make it right, not if he was an angel from heaven,” she declared.
Columbine’s gay laugh had in it that quality of youth that surmounts all obstacles. “He’s much safer than an angel,” she protested, “because he can’t fly. Besides, the Spear Point Caves are all on this side of the Point. You could watch us all the time if you’d a mind to.”
But Mrs. Peck did not laugh. “I’d rather you didn’t go, my dear,” she said. “So let that be the end of it, there’s a good girl!”
“Oh, but I–” began Columbine, and broke off short. “Goodness, how you made me jump!” she said instead.
Rufus, his burly form completely blocking the doorway, was standing half in and half out of the garden, looking at her.
“Lawks!” said Mrs. Peck. “So you did me! Good evening, Rufus! Are you wanting Adam?”
“Not specially,” said Rufus. He entered, with massive, lounging movements. “I suppose I can come in,” he remarked.
“What a question!” ejaculated Mrs. Peck.
Columbine said nothing. She picked up her empty watering-can and swung it carelessly on one finger, hunting for invisible weeds in the geranium-pots the while.
Mrs. Peck was momentarily at a loss. She was not accustomed to entertaining Rufus in his father’s absence.
“Have a glass of mulberry wine!” she suggested.
“Columbine, run and fetch it, dear! It’s in the right-hand corner, third shelf, of the cupboard under the stairs. I’m sure you’re very welcome,” she added to Rufus, “but you must excuse me, for I’ve got to see to Mr. Knight’s dinner.”
“That’s all right, Mother,” said Rufus.
He always called her mother; it was a term of deference with him rather than affection. But Mrs. Peck liked him for it.
“Sit you down!” she said hospitably. “And mind you make yourself quite at home! Columbine will look after you. You’ll be staying to supper, I hope?”
“Thanks!” said Rufus. “I don’t know. Where’s Adam?”
“He’s chopping a bit of wood in the yard. He don’t want any help. You’ll see him presently. You stop and have a chat with Columbine!” said Mrs. Peck; and with a smile and nod she bustled stoutly away.
When Columbine returned with the mulberry wine and a glass on a tray the conservatory was empty. She set down her tray and paused.
There was a faintly mutinous curve about her soft lips, a gleam of dancing mischief in her eyes.
In a moment a step sounded on the path outside, and Rufus reappeared. He had been out to fill her watering-can, and he deposited it full at her feet.
“Don’t put it there!” she said, with a touch of sharpness. “I don’t want to tumble over it, do I? Thank you for filling it, but you needn’t have troubled. I’ve done.”
“Then it’ll come in for tomorrow,” said Rufus, setting the can deliberately in a corner.
Columbine turned to pour out a glass of Mrs. Peck’s mulberry wine.
“Only one glass?” said Rufus.
She threw him a quizzing smile over her shoulder. “Well, you don’t want two, do you?”
“No,” said Rufus slowly. “But I don’t drink–alone.”
She gave a low, gurgling laugh. “You’ll be saying you don’t smoke alone next. If you want someone to keep you company, I’d better fetch Adam.”
She turned round to him with the words, offering the glass on the tray. Her eyes were lowered, but the upward curl of the black lashes somehow conveyed the impression that she was peeping through them. The tilt of the red lips, with the pearly teeth just showing in a smile, was of so alluring an enchantment that the most level-headed of men could scarcely have failed to pause and admire.
Rufus paused so long that at last she lifted those glorious eyes of hers in semi-scornful interrogation.
“What’s the matter?” she inquired. “Don’t you want it?”
He made an odd gesture as of one at a loss to explain himself. “Won’t you drink first?” he said, his voice very low.
“No, thank you,” said Columbine briskly. “I don’t like it.”
“Then–I don’t like it either,” he said.
“Don’t be silly!” she said. “Of course you do! I know you do! Take it, and don’t be ridiculous!”
But Rufus turned away with solid resolution. “No, thanks,” he said.
Columbine set down the tray again with a hint of exasperation. “You’re just like a child,” she said severely. “A great, overgrown boy, that’s what you are!”
“All right,” said Rufus, propping himself against the door-post.
“It’s not all right. It’s time you grew up.” Columbine picked up the full glass, and, carrying it daintily, advanced upon him. “I suppose I shall have to make you take it like medicine,” she remarked.
She stood against the door-post, facing him, upright, slender, exquisite as an opening flower.
“Drink, puppy, drink!” she said flippantly, and elevated the glass towards her guest’s somewhat grim lips.
The sombre blue eyes came down to her with something of a flash. And in the same moment Rufus’s great right hand disengaged itself from his pocket and grasped the slim wrist of the hand that held the wine.
“You drink–first!” said Rufus, and guided the glass with unmistakable resolution to the provocative red lips.
She jerked back her head to avoid it, but the doorpost against which she stood checked the backward movement. Before she could prevent it the wine was in her mouth.
She flung up her free hand and would have knocked the glass away, but Rufus could be prompt of action when he chose. He caught it from her and drained it almost in the same movement. Not a drop was spilt between them. He set down the glass on a shelf of the conservatory, and propped himself up once more with his hands in his pockets.
Columbine’s face was burning red; her eyes literally blazed. Her whole body vibrated as if strung on wires. “How–dare you?” she said, and showed her white teeth with the words like an angry tigress.
He looked down at her, a faint smile in his blue eyes. “But I don’t drink–alone,” he said in such a tone of gentle explanation as he might have used to a child.
She stamped her foot. “I hate you!” she said. “I’ll never forgive you!”
“A joke’s a joke,” said Rufus, still in the tone of a mild instructor.
“A joke!” Her wrath enwrapped her like a flame. “It was not a joke! It was a coarse–and hateful–trick!”
“All right,” said Rufus, as one giving up a hopeless task.
“It’s not all right!” flashed Columbine. “You’re a bounder, an oaf, a brute! I–I’ll never speak to you again, unless–you–you–apologise!”
He was still looking down with that vague hint of amusement in his eyes–the look of a man who watches the miniature fury of some tiny creature.
“I’ll do anything you like,” he said with slow indulgence. “I didn’t know you’d turn nasty, or I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Nasty!” echoed Columbine. And then her wrath went suddenly into a superb gust of scorn. “Oh, you–you are beyond words!” she said. “You had better get along to the bar and drink there. You’ll find your own kind there to drink with.”
“I’d rather drink with you,” said Rufus.
She uttered a laugh that was tremulous with anger. “You’ve done it for the first and last time, my man,” she said.
With the words she turned like a darting, indignant bird, and left him.
Someone was entering the drawing-room from the hall with a careless, melodious whistle–a whistle that ended on a note of surprise as Columbine sped through the room. The whistler–a tall, bronzed young man in white flannels–stopped short to regard her.
His eyes were grey and wary under absolutely level brows. His hair was dark, with an inclination–sternly repressed–to waviness above the forehead. He made a decidedly pleasant picture, as even Adam could not have denied.
Columbine also checked herself at sight of him, but the red blood was throbbing at her temples. There was no hiding her agitation.
“You seem in a hurry,” remarked Knight. “I hope there is nothing wrong.”
His chin was modelled on firm lines, but there was a very distinct cleft in it that imparted to him the look of one who could smile at most things. His words were kindly, but they did not hold any very deep concern.
Columbine came to a stand, gripping the back of a chair to steady herself. “Oh, I–I have been–insulted!” she panted.
The straight brows went up a little; the man himself stiffened slightly. Without further words he moved across to the door into the conservatory and looked through it. He was in time to see Rufus’s great, lounging figure sauntering away in the direction of the wood-yard.
Knight stood a moment or two and watched him, then quietly turned and rejoined the girl.
She was still leaning upon the chair, but she was gradually recovering her self-control. As he drew near she made a slight movement as if to resume her interrupted flight. But some other impulse intervened, and she remained where she was.
Knight came up and stood beside her. “What has he been doing to annoy you?” he asked.
She made a small, vehement gesture of disgust. “Oh, we won’t talk of him. He is an oaf. I dare say he doesn’t know any better, but he’ll never have a chance of doing it again. I don’t mix with the riff-raff.”
“He’s Adam’s son, isn’t he?” questioned Knight.
She nodded. “Yes, the great, hulking lubber! Adam’s all right. I like Adam. But Rufus–well, Rufus is a bounder, and I’ll never have anything more to say to him.”
“I think you are quite right to hold your head up above these fisher fellows,” remarked Knight, his grey eyes watching her with an appraising expression. “They are as much out of place near you as a bed of bindweed would be in the neighbourhood of a passion-flower.” His glance took in her still panting bosom. “I think you are something of a passion-flower,” he said, faintly smiling. “I wonder at any man daring to risk offending you.”
Columbine stood up with the free movement of a disdainful princess. “Oh, he’s just a lout,” she said. “He doesn’t know any better. It isn’t as if you had done it.”
“That would have been different, would it?” said Knight.
She smiled, but a sombre light still shone in her eyes. “Quite different,” she said with simplicity. “You see, you’re a gentleman. And–gentlemen–don’t do unpleasant things like that.”
He laughed a little. “You make me feel quite nervous. What a shocking thing it would be if I ever did anything to forfeit your good opinion.”
“You couldn’t,” said Columbine.
“Couldn’t!” He repeated the word with an odd inflection.
“It wouldn’t be you,” she explained with the utmost gravity, as one stating an irrefutable fact.
“Thank you,” said Knight.
“Oh, it’s not a compliment,” she returned. “It’s just the truth. There are some people–a few people–that one knows one can trust through and through. And you are one of them, that’s all.”
“Is that so?” said Knight. “You know, that’s rather–a colossal thing–to say of any one.”
“Then you are colossal,” said Columbine, smiling more freely.
Knight turned aside, and picked up the sketch-book he had laid upon the table on entering. “Are you sure you are not rash?” he said, rather in the tone of one making a remark than asking a question.
“Fairly sure,” said Columbine.
She followed him. Perhaps he had foreseen that she would. She stood by his side.
“May I see the latest?” she asked.
He opened the book and showed her a blank page. “That is the latest,” he said.
She looked at him interrogatively.
“I am waiting for my–inspiration,” he said.
“I hope you will find it soon,” she said.
He answered her with steady conviction. “I shall find it tonight by moonlight at the Spear Point Rock.”
Her face clouded a little. “I believe Adam is going to take you,” she said.
“What?” said Knight. “You are never going to let me down?”
She smiled with a touch of irony. “It was the Spear Point you wanted,” she reminded him.
“And you,” said Knight, “to show the way.”
Something in his tone arrested her. Her beautiful eyes sank suddenly to the blank page he held. “Adam can do that–as well as I can,” she said.
“But you said you would,” said Knight. His voice was low; he was looking full at her. He saw the rich colour rising in her cheeks. “What is it?” he said. “Won’t they let you?”
She raised her head abruptly, proudly. “I please myself,” she said. “No one has the ordering of me.”
His grey eyes shone a little. “Then it pleases you–to let me down?” he questioned.
Her look flashed suddenly up to his. She saw his expression and laughed. “I didn’t think you’d care,” she said. “Adam knows the lie of the quicksand. That’s all you really want.”
“Oh, pardon me!” said Knight. “You are quite wrong, if you imagine that I am indifferent as to who goes with me. Inspiration won’t burn in a cold place.”
She dropped her lids, still looking at him. “Isn’t Adam inspiring?” she asked.
“He couldn’t furnish the particular sort of inspiration I am needing for my moonlight picture,” said Knight.
He spoke deliberately, but his brows were slightly drawn, belying the coolness of his speech.
“What is the sort of inspiration you are wanting?” asked Columbine.
He smiled with a hint of provocation. “I’ll tell you that when we get there.”
Her answering smile was infinitely more provocative than his. “That will be very interesting,” she said.
Knight closed his sketch-book. “I am glad to know,” he said thoughtfully, “that you please yourself, Miss Columbine. In doing so, you have the happy knack of pleasing–others.”
He made her a slight, courtly bow, and turned away.
He left her still standing at the table, looking after him with perplexity and gathering resolution in her eyes.
“Not stopping to supper even? Well, you must be a darned looney!”
Adam sat down astride his wood-block with the words, and looked up at his son with the aggressive expression of a Scotch terrier daring a Newfoundland.
Rufus, with his hands in his pockets, leaned against the woodshed. He made no reply of any sort to his father’s brisk observation. Obviously it made not the faintest impression upon him.
After a moment or two he spoke, his pipe in the corner of his mouth. “If that chap bathes off the Spear Point rocks when the tide’s at the spring he’ll get into difficulties.”
“Who says he does?” demanded Adam.
Rufus jerked his head. “I saw him–from my place–this afternoon. Tide was going down, or the current would have caught him. Better warn him.”
“I did,” responded Adam sharply. “Warned him long ago. Warned him of the quicksand, too.”
Rufus grunted. “Then he’s only himself to thank. Or maybe he doesn’t know a spring tide from a neap.”
“Oh, he’s not such a fool as that,” said Adam.
Rufus grunted once again, and relapsed into silence.
It was at this point that Mrs. Peck showed her portly person at the back door of The Ship.
“Why, Rufus,” she said, “I thought you was in the front with Columbine.”
Rufus stood up with the deference that he never omitted to pay to Adam’s wife. “So I was,” he said. “I came along here after to talk to Adam.”
Mrs. Peck’s round eyes gave him a searching look. “Did you have your mulberry wine?” she asked.
“You were mighty quick about it,” commented Mrs. Peck.
“Yes, he’s in a hurry,” said Adam, with one of his birdlike glances. “Can’t stop for anything, missus. Wants to get back to his supper.”
“I never!” said Mrs. Peck. “You aren’t in that hurry, Rufus, surely! Just as I was going to ask you to do something to oblige me, too!”
“What’s that?” said Rufus.
Mrs. Peck descended into the yard with a hint of mystery. “Well, just this,” she said confidentially. “That there Mr. Knight, he’s a very nice young gentleman; but he’s an artist, and you know, artists don’t look at things like ordinary folk. He wants to get a moonlight picture of the Spear Point, and he’s got our Columbine to say she’ll take him there tonight. Well, now, I don’t think it’s right, and I told her so. But, of course, she come out as pat as anything with him being an artist and different-like from the rest. Still, I said as I’d rather she didn’t, and Adam had better take him, because of the quicksand, you know. It wouldn’t be hardly safe to let him go alone. He’s a bit foolhardy too. But Adam’s not so young as you, Rufus, and he was out before sunrise. So I thought as how maybe you’d step into the breach and take Mr. Knight along. Come, you won’t refuse?”
She spoke the last words coaxingly, aware of a certain hardening of the young fisherman’s rugged face.
Adam had got off his chopping-block, and was listening with pursed lips and something of the expression of a terrier at a rat-hole.
“Yes, you go, Rufus!” he said, as Mrs. Peck paused. “You show him round! I’d like him to know you.”
“What for?” said Rufus.
Adam contorted one side of his face into something that was between a wink and a grin. “Do you good to go into society,” he said. “That’s all right, missus, he’ll go. Better go and ask Mr. Knight what time he wants to start.”
“Wait a bit!” commanded Rufus.
Mrs. Peck waited. She knew that her stepson was as slow of speech as his father was prompt, but she thought none the less of him for that. Rufus was solid, and she respected solid men.
“It comes to this,” said Rufus, speaking ponderously. “I’ll go if I’m wanted. But I’m not one for shoving myself in otherwise. Maybe the chap won’t be so keen himself when he knows he can’t have Columbine to go with him. Find that out first!”
Mrs. Peck looked at him with an approving smile. “Lor’, Rufus! You’ve got some sense,” she said. “But I wonder how Columbine will take it if I says anything to Mr. Knight behind her back.”
Adam chuckled. “Columbine in a tantrum is one of the best sights I know,” he remarked.
“Ah! She don’t visit her tantrums on you,” rejoined his wife. “You can afford to smile.”
“And I does,” said Adam.
Rufus turned away. There was no smile on his countenance. He said nothing, but there was that in his demeanour that clearly indicated that he personally was neither amused nor disconcerted by the tantrums of Columbine.
He followed Mrs. Peck indoors, and sat down in the kitchen to await developments. And Adam, whistling cheerfully, strolled to the bar.
Mrs. Peck had to dish up the visitor’s dinner before she could tackle him upon the subject in hand. She trotted to and fro upon her task, too intent for further speech with Rufus, who sat in unbroken silence, gazing steadily before him with a Sphinx-like immobility that made of him an impressive figure.
The beefsteak was already in the dish, and Mrs. Peck was in the act of pouring the gravy over it when there sounded a light step on the stone of the passage and Columbine entered.
She had removed her sun-bonnet and donned a dainty little apron. The soft dark hair clustered tenderly about her temples.
“Oh, Aunt Liza,” she said, “if I didn’t go and forget that Sally was out tonight! I’m sorry I’m too late to help with the dinner. But I’ll take it in.”
She caught her breath at sight of the massive, silent figure seated against the wall, but instantly recovered her composure and passed it by with an upward tilt of the chin.
“You needn’t trouble yourself to do that, my dear,” rejoined Mrs. Peck, with a touch of tartness. “I’ll wait on Mr. Knight myself. You can lay the supper in the parlour if you’ve a mind to be useful. There’ll be four to lay for.”
Columbine turned with something of a pounce. “No, there won’t! There’ll be three,” she said. “If that–oaf–stays to supper, I go without!”
“Good gracious!” ejaculated Mrs. Peck.
Rufus came out of his silence. “That’s all right. I’m not staying to supper,” he said.
“But–lor’ sakes!–what’s the matter?” questioned Mrs. Peck. “Have you two been quarrelling?”
“No, we haven’t!” flashed Columbine. “I wouldn’t stoop. But I’m not going to sit down to supper with a man who hasn’t learnt manners. I’d sooner go without–much.”
Rufus remained absolutely unmoved. He made no attempt at self-justification, though Mrs. Peck was staring from one to the other in mystified interrogation.
Columbine turned swiftly and caught up a cover for the savoury dish that steamed on the table. “You’d better let me take this in before it gets cold,” she said.
“No; put it on the rack!” commanded Mrs. Peck. “There’s a drop of soup to go in first. And, Columbine, my dear, I don’t think it’s right of you to go losing your temper that way. Rufus is Adam’s son, remember, and you can’t refuse to sit at table with him.”
“Leave her alone, Mother!” For the second time Rufus intervened. “I’ve offended her. My mistake. I’ll know better next time.”
His deep voice was wholly devoid of humour. It was, in fact, devoid of any species of emotion whatever. Yet, oddly enough, the anger died out of Columbine’s face as she heard it. She turned to the tablecloth-press and began to unwind it in silence.
Mrs. Peck sniffed, and took up the soup-tureen.
As she waddled out of the kitchen Columbine withdrew the parlour tablecloth and turned round.
“If you’re really sorry,” she said, “I’ll forgive you.”
Rufus regarded her for several seconds in silence, a slow smile dawning in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said finally.
“You are sorry then?” insisted Columbine.
He shook his great bull-head, the smile still in his eyes. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” he said.
There was no perceptible familiarity in the remark, and Columbine, after brief consideration, decided to dismiss it without discussion. “Well, let it be a lesson to you, and don’t you ever do such a thing again!” she said severely. “For I won’t have you or any man lay hands on me–not even in fun.”
“All right,” said Rufus.
He thrust his hands deep into his pockets as if to remove all cause of offence, and was rewarded by a swift smile from Columbine. The storm had blown away.
“I’ll lay for four after all,” she said, as she whisked out of the room.
Rufus was still seated in solitary state in the kitchen when Mrs. Peck returned from the little coffee-room where she had been serving her guest.
She peered round with caution ere she came close to him and spoke.
“It’s as you thought. He don’t want to go with either you or Adam.”
Rufus’s face remained unchanged; it was slightly bovine of expression as he received the news. “We’ll both get to bed in good time then,” was his comment.
Mrs. Peck’s smooth brow drew in momentary exasperation. She had expected something more dramatic than this.
“I’m glad you’re so easily satisfied,” she said. “But let me tell you–I’m not!”
She paused to see if this piece of information would take more effect than the first, but again Rufus proved a disappointment. Neither by word nor look did he express any sympathy.
Mrs. Peck continued, it being contrary to her nature to leave anything to the imagination of her hearers. “If he’d been content to go with one of you, I wouldn’t have given it another thought. Goodness knows, I’m not of a suspicious turn. But the moment I mention the matter, he turns round with his sweetest smile and he says, ‘Oh, don’t you trouble, Mrs. Peck!’ he says. ‘I quite understand. Miss Columbine explained it all, and I quite see your point. It ought to have occurred to me sooner,’ he says, smiling with them nice teeth of his, ‘but, if you’ll believe me, it didn’t.’ And then, when I suggested maybe he’d like you or Adam to go with him instead, it was, ‘No, no, Mrs. Peck. I wouldn’t ask it of ’em. I couldn’t drag any man at the chariot-wheels of Art. If I did, she would see to it that the chariot was empty.’ He most always talks like that,” ended Mrs. Peck in an aggrieved tone. “He’s that airy in his ways.”
A sudden trill of laughter from the doorway caused her to straighten herself sharply and trot to the fireplace with a guilty air.
Columbine entered, light of foot, her eyes brimful of mirth. “You’re caught, Aunt Liza! Yes, you’re caught!” she commented ungenerously. “I know exactly what you were saying. Shall I tell you? No, p’raps I’d better not. I’ll tell you what you looked like instead, shall I? You looked exactly like that funny old speckled hen in the yard who always clucks such a lot. And Rufus”–she threw him a merry glance from which all resentment had wholly departed–“Rufus looks–and is–just like a great red ox.”
“Don’t you be pert!” said Mrs. Peck, stooping stoutly over the fire. “Get a duster and dust them plates!”
Columbine laughed again with her chin in the air. She found a duster and occupied herself as desired.
Her eyes were upon her work. Plainly she was not looking at Rufus, not apparently thinking of him. But–very suddenly–without changing her attitude, she flashed him a swift glance. He was looking straight at her, and in his blue eyes was an intense, deep glow as of flaming spirit.
Columbine’s look shot away from him with the rapidity of a swallow on the wing. The colour deepened in her cheeks.
“P’raps he’s almost more like a prize bull,” she said meditatively. “Perhaps he’s a Minotaur, Aunt Liza. Do you think he is?”
“My dear, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Mrs. Peck, with a touch of acidity.
Columbine laughed a little. “Do you know, Rufus?” she said.
She did not look at him with the question; there was a quivering dimple in her red cheek that came and went.
“I’d like to know,” said Rufus with simplicity.
“Would you, really?” Columbine polished the last plate vigorously and set it down. “The Minotaur,” she said, in the tone of a schoolmistress delivering a lecture, “was a monster, half-bull, half-man, who lived in a place like the Spear Point Caves, and devoured young men and maidens. You live nearer to the Caves than any one else, don’t you, Rufus?”
Again she ventured a darting glance at him. His look was still upon her, but its fiery quality was less apparent. He met the challenge with his slow, indulgent smile.
“Yes, I live there. I don’t devour anybody. I’m not–that sort of monster.”
Columbine shook her head. “I’m not so sure of that,” she said. “But I dare say you’d tame.”
“P’raps you’d like to do it,” suggested Rufus.
It was his first direct overture, and Columbine, who had angled for it, experienced a thrill of triumph. But she was swift to mask her satisfaction. She tossed her head, and turned: “Oh, I’ve no time to waste that way,” she said. “You must do your own taming, Mr. Minotaur. When you’re quite civilised, p’raps I’ll talk to you.”
She was gone with the words, carrying her plates with her.
“She’s a deal too pert,” observed Mrs. Peck to the saucepan she was stirring. “It’s my belief now that that Mr. Knight’s been putting ideas into her head. She’s getting wild; that’s what she is.”
Knowing Rufus, she expected no response, and for several seconds none came.
Then to her surprise she heard his voice, deep and sonorous as the bell-buoy that was moored by the Spear Point Reef.
“Maybe she’d tame,” he said.
And “Goodness gracious unto me!” said Mrs. Peck, as she lifted her saucepan off the fire.
THE RISING TIDE
A long dazzling pathway of moonlight stretched over the sea, starting from the horizon, ending at the great jutting promontory of the Spear Point. The moon was yet three nights from the full. The tide was rising, but it would not be high for another two hours.
The breakers ran in, one behind the other, foaming over the hidden rocks, splashing wildly against the grim wall of granite that stood sharp-edged to withstand them. It was curved like a scimitar, that rock, and within its curve there slept, when the tide was low, a pool. When the tide rose the waters raged and thundered all around the rock, but when it sank again the still, deep pool remained, unruffled as a mountain tarn and as full of mystery.
Over a tumble of lesser rocks that bounded the pool to shoreward the wary might find a path to the Spear Point Caves; but the path was difficult, and there were few who had ever attempted it. For the quicksand lay like a golden barrier between the outer beach and the rocks that led thither.
It was an awesome spot. Many a splinter of wreckage had been tossed in over the Spear Point as though flung in sport from a giant hand. And when the water was high there came a hollow groaning from the inner caves as though imprisoned spirits languished there.
But on that night of magic moonlight the only sound was the murmurous splash of the rising waves as they met the first grim rocks of the Point. Presently they would dash in thunder round the granite blade, and the sleeping pool would be turned to a smother of foam.
On the edge of the pool a woman’s figure clad in white stood balanced with outstretched arms. So still was the water, so splendid the moonlight, that the whole of her light form was mirrored there–a perfect image of nymph-like grace. She sang a soft, low, trilling song like the song of a blackbird awaking to the dawn.
“By Jupiter!” Knight murmured to himself. “If I could get her only once–only once–as–she–is!”
The gleam of the hunter was in his look. He stood on the rocks some yards away from her, gazing with eyes half-shut.
Suddenly she turned herself, and across the intervening space her voice came to him, half-mocking, half-alluring, “Have you found your inspiration yet?”
“Not yet,” he said.
She raised her shoulders with a humorous gesture, “Hasn’t the magic begun to work?”
He came towards her, moving slowly and with caution. “Don’t move!” he said.
She waited for him on the edge of the pool. There was laughter in her eyes, laughter and the sublime daring of innocence.
He reached her. They stood together on the same flat rock. He bent to her, in his eyes the burning worship of beauty.
“Columbine!” he said. “Witch! Enchantress! Queen!”
The red blood raced into her face. Her eyes shone into his with a sudden glory–the glory of the awaking soul. But the woman-instinct in her checked the first quick impulse of surrender.
She made a little motion away from him. She laughed and veiled her eyes from the fiery adoration that flamed upon her. “The magic is working–evidently,” she said. “What a good thing I brought you here!”
“Yes; it is a good thing,” he said, and in his voice she heard the deep note of a mastery that would not be denied. “Do you know what you have done to me, you goddess? You have opened the eyes of my heart. I am dazzled. I am blinded. I believe I am possessed. When I paint my picture –it will be such as the world has never seen.”
“Hadn’t you better begin it?” whispered Columbine.
He held out his hand to her–a hand that was not wholly steady. “Not yet,” he said. “The vision is too near, too wonderful. How shall I paint the rapture that I have hardly yet dared to contemplate? Columbine!”
His voice suddenly pleaded, and as though in answer she laid her hand in his. But she did not raise her eyes. She palpitated from head to foot like a captured bird.
“You are not–afraid?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” she whispered back. “Not of you–not of you!”
“Ah!” he said. “We are caught in the same net. There is nothing terrible in that. The same magic is working in us both. Let it work, dear! We understand each other. Why should there be anything to fear?”
But still she did not raise her eyes, and still she trembled in his hold. “I never thought,” she faltered, “never dreamed. Oh, is it true?”
“True that you are the most beautiful creature that this earth contains?” he said, and his voice throbbed upon the words. “True that the very sight of you turns my blood to fire? Aphrodite, goddess and sorceress, do you doubt that? Wait till you see my picture, and then ask! I have found my inspiration tonight–yes, I have found it–but it is so immense–so overwhelming–that I cannot grasp it yet. Tonight, dear, just for tonight–let me worship at your feet! This madness must have its way. In the morning I shall be sane again. Tonight–tonight I tread Olympus with the Immortals.”
He was drawing her towards him, and Columbine–Columbine, who suffered no man’s hand upon her–was yielding slowly, but inevitably, to the persuasion of his touch. Just at the last, indeed, she made a small, wholly futile attempt to free herself; but the moment she did so his hold became the hold of the conqueror, and with a faint laugh she flung aside the instinct that had prompted it. The next instant, freely and splendidly, she raised her downcast face and abandoned herself utterly to him.
To give without stint was the impulse of her passionate, Southern nature, and she gave freely, royally, that night. The magic that ran in the veins of both was too compelling to be resisted. The girl, with her half-awakened soul, the man, with his fiery thirst for beauty, were caught in the great current that sweeps like a tidal wave around the world, and it bore them swiftly, swiftly, whither neither he in his restlessness nor she in her in experience realised or cared. If the sound of the breakers came to them from afar they heeded it not. They were too far away to matter as yet, and Knight had steered a safe course for himself in troubled seas before. As for Columbine, she knew only the rapture of love triumphant, and tasted perfect safety in the holding of her lover’s arms. He had won her with scarcely a struggle, and she gloried with an ecstasy that was in its way sublime in the completeness of her surrender. On such a night as that it seemed to her that the whole world lay at her feet, and she knew no fear.
The still pool slept in the moonlight, a lake of silver, unspeakably calm. Beyond the outstretched blade of rock the great waters rose and rose. The murmur of them had swelled to a roar. The splash of them mounted higher and ever higher. Suddenly a crest of foam gleamed like a tongue of lightning at the point of the curve. The pool stirred as if awakening. The moonlight on its surface was shivered in a thousand ripples. They broke in a succession of tiny wavelets against the encircling rocks.
Another silver crest appeared, burst in thunder, and in a moment the pool was flooded with tossing water.
“Do you see that?” whispered Columbine. “It is like my life.”
They stood together under the frowning cliff and watched the wonder of the pool’s awakening. Knight’s arm held her close pressed to his side. He could feel the beating of her heart. She stood with her face upturned to his and all the glory of love’s surrender shining in her eyes.
He caught his breath as he looked at her. He stooped and kissed the red, red lips that gave so generously. “Is my love as the rising tide to you, sweet?” he murmured.
“It is more!” she answered passionately. “It is more! It is the tidal wave that comes so seldom–maybe only once in a lifetime–and carries all before it.”
He pressed her closer. “My passion-flower!” he said. “My queen!”
He kissed the throbbing whiteness of her throat, the loose clusters of her hair. He laid his hot face against her neck, and held it so, not breathing. Her arms stretched upwards, clasping him. She was panting–panting as one in deep waters.
“I love you! I love you!” she whispered tensely. “Oh, how I love you!”
Again there came the thunder of the surf. The waters of the pool leapt as if a giant hand had churned them. The foam from beyond the reef overspread them like snow. The whole world became full of the sound of surging waters.
Knight opened his eyes. “The tide is coming up fast,” he said. “We must be getting back.”
She clung closer to him. “I could die with you on a night like this,” she said.
He crushed her to his heart. “Ah, goddess!” he said. “You couldn’t die! But I am only mortal, and the tide won’t wait.”
Again the swirling breakers swept around the Point. Reluctantly she came to earth. The pool had become a seething whirl of water.
“Yes,” she said, “we must go, and quickly–quickly! It rises so fast here.”
Sure-footed as a doe over the slippery rocks, she led the way. They left the magic place and the dazzling tumble of moonlit water, the dark caves, the enchanted strand. Progress was not easy, but Knight had been that way before, though only by day. He followed his guide closely, and when presently they emerged upon level sand, he overtook and walked beside her.
She slipped her hand into his. “It’s the lie of the quicksand that’s puzzling,” she said, “if you don’t know it well.”
“I am in thy hands, O Queen,” he made light reply. “Lead me whither thou wilt!”
She laughed–a low, sweet laugh of sheer happiness. “And if I lead you astray?”
“I would follow you down to the nethermost millstone,” he vowed.
Her hand tightened upon his. She paused a moment, looking out over the stretch of sand that intervened between them and the little fishing-quay. He had safely negotiated that stretch of sand by daylight, though even then it had needed an alert eye to detect that slight ooziness of surface that denoted the presence of the sea-swamp. But by night, even in that brilliant moonlight, it was barely perceptible. Columbine herself did not trust to appearances. She had learnt the way from Adam as a child learns a lesson by heart. He had taught her to know the danger-spot by the shape of the cliffs above it.
After a very brief pause to take her bearings, she moved forward with absolute assurance. Knight accompanied her with unquestioning confidence. His faith in his own luck was as profound as his faith in the girl at his side. And the tumult in his veins that night was such as to make him insensible of danger. The roar of the rising tide exhilarated him. He walked with the stride of a conqueror, free and unafraid, his face to the sea.
Unerringly she led him, but she did not speak again until they had made the passage and the treacherous morass of sand was left behind.
Then, with a deep breath, she stopped. “Now we are safe!”
“Weren’t we safe before?” he asked carelessly.
Her eyes sought his; she gave a little shiver. “Oh, are we ever safe?” she said. “Especially when we are happy? That quicksand makes one think.”
“Never spoil the present by thinking of the future!” said Knight sententiously.
She took him seriously. “I don’t. I want to keep the present just as it is–just as it is. I would like to stay with you here for ever and ever, but in another half-hour–in less–the tide will be racing over this very spot, and we shall be gone.” Her voice vibrated; she cast a glance behind. “One false step,” she said, “too sharp a turn, too wide a curve, and we’d have been in the quicksand! It’s like that all over. It’s life, and it’s full of danger, whichever way we turn.”
He looked at her curiously. “Why, what has come to you?” he said.
She caught her breath in a sound that was like a sob. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s being so madly happy that has frightened me. It can’t last. It never does last.”
He smiled upon her philosophically. “Then let us make the most of it while it does!” he said. “Tonight will pass, but–don’t forget–there is tomorrow.”
She answered him feverishly. “The moon may not shine tomorrow.”
He laughed, drawing her to him. “I can do without the moon, queen of my heart.”
She went into his arms, but she was trembling. “I feel–somehow–as if someone were watching us,” she whispered.
“Exactly my own idea,” he said. “The moon is a bit too intrusive tonight. I shan’t weep if there are a few clouds tomorrow.”
She laughed a little dubiously. “We couldn’t cross the quicksand if the light were bad.”
“We could get down to the Point by the cliff-path,” he pointed out. “I went that way only this afternoon.”
“Ah! But it is very steep, and it passes Rufus’s cottage,” she murmured.
“What of it?” he said indifferently. “I’m sure he sleeps like a log.”
She turned from the subject. “Besides, you must have moonlight for your picture. And the moon won’t last.”
“My picture!” He pressed her suddenly closer. “Do you know what my picture is going to be?”
“Tell me!” she whispered.
“Shall I?” He turned gently her face up to his own. “Shall I? Dare I?”
She opened her eyes wide–those glorious, trusting eyes. “But why should you be afraid to tell me?”
He laughed again softly, and kissed her lips. “I will make a rough sketch in the morning and show it you. It won’t be a study–only an idea. You are going to pose for the study.”
“I?” she said, half-startled.
“You–yes, you!” His eyes looked deeply into hers. “Haven’t you realised yet that you are my inspiration?” he said. “It is going to be the picture of my life–‘Aphrodite the Beautiful!’”
She quivered afresh at his words. “Am I really–so beautiful?” she faltered. “Would you think so if–if you didn’t love me?”
“Would I have loved you if you weren’t?” laughed Knight. “My darling, you are exquisite as a passion-flower grown in Paradise. To worship you is as natural to me as breathing. You are heaven on earth to me.”
“You love me–because of that?”
“I love you,” he answered, “soul and body, because you are you. There is no other reason, heart of my heart. When my picture of pictures is painted, then–perhaps–you will see yourself as I see you–and understand.”
She uttered a quick sigh, clinging to him with a hold that was almost convulsive. “Ah, yes! To see myself with your eyes! I want that. I shall know then–how much you love me.”
“Will you? But will you?” he said, softly derisive. “You will have to show me yourself and your love–all there is of it–before you can do that.”
She lifted her head from his shoulder. The fire that he had kindled in her soul was burning in her eyes. “I am all yours–all yours,” she told him passionately. “All that I have to offer is your own.”
His face changed a little. The tender mockery passed, and an expression that was oddly out of place there succeeded it. “Ah, you shouldn’t tell me that, sweetheart,” he said, and his voice was low and held a touch of pain. “I might be tempted to take too much–more than I have any right to take.”
“You have a right to all,” she said.
But he shook his head. “No–no! You are too young.”
“Too young to love?” she said, with quick scorn.
His arm was close about her. “No,” he answered soberly. “Only so young that you may–possibly–make the mistake of loving too well.”
“What do you mean?” Her voice had a startled note; she pressed nearer to him.
He lifted a hand and pointed to the silver pathway on the sea. “I mean that love is just moonshine–just moonshine; the dream of a night that passes.”
“Not in a night!” she cried, and there was anguish in the words.
He bent again swiftly and kissed her lips. “No, not in a night, sweetheart. Not even in two. But at last–at last–tout passe!”
“Then it isn’t love!” she said with conviction.
He snapped his fingers at the moonlight with a gesture half-humorous, yet half-defiant. “It is life,” he said, “and the irony of life. Don’t be too generous, my queen of the sea! Give me what I ask–of your graciousness! But–don’t offer me more! Perhaps I might take it, and then–“
He turned with the words, as if the sentence were ended, and Columbine went with him, bewildered but too deeply fascinated to feel any serious misgiving. She did not ask for any further explanation, something about him restrained her. But she knew no doubt, and when he halted in the shadow of the deserted quay and took her face once more between his hands with the one word, “Tomorrow!” she lifted eyes of perfect trust to his and answered simply, “Yes, tomorrow!”
And the rapture of his kisses was all-sufficing. She carried away with her no other memory but that.
It was two mornings later, very early on Midsummer Day, that Rufus the Red, looking like a Viking in the crystal atmosphere of sky and sea, rowed the stranger with great, swinging strokes through the fishing fleet right out into the burning splendour of the sun. Knight had entered the boat in the belief that he was going to see something of the raising of the nets. But it became apparent very soon that Rufus had other plans for his entertainment, for he passed his father by with no more than a jerk of the head, which Adam evidently interpreted as a sign of farewell rather than of greeting, and rowed on without a pause.
Knight, with his sketch-book beside him, sat in the stern. He had never taken much interest in Rufus before; but now, seated facing him, with the giant muscles and grim, unresponsive countenance of the man perpetually before his eyes, the selecting genius in him awoke and began to appraise.
Rufus wore a grey flannel shirt, open at the neck, displaying a broad red chest, immensely powerful, with a bull-like strength that every swing of the oars brought into prominence. He had not the appearance of exerting himself unduly, albeit he was pulling in choppy water against the tide.
His blue eyes gazed ever straight at the shore he was leaving. He seemed so withdrawn into himself as to be oblivious of the fact that he was not alone. Knight watched him, wondering if any thoughts were stirring in the slow brain behind that massive forehead. Columbine had declared that the man was an oaf, and he felt inclined to agree with her. And yet there was something in the intensity of the fellow’s eyes that held his attention, the possibility of the actual existence of an unknown element that did not fit into that conception of him. They were not the eyes of a mere animal. There was no vagueness in their utter stillness. Rather had they the look of a man who waits.
Curiosity began to stir within him. He wondered if by judicious probing he could penetrate the wall of aloofness with which his companion seemed to be surrounded. It would be interesting to know if the fellow really possessed any individuality.
Airily he broke the silence. “Are you going to take me straight into the temple of the sun? I thought I was out to see the fishing.”
The remote blue eyes came back as it were out of the far distance and found him. There came to Knight an odd, wholly unwonted, sensation of smallness. He felt curiously like a pigmy disturbing the meditations of a giant.
Rufus looked at him for several seconds of uninterrupted rowing before, in his deep, resounding voice, he spoke. “They won’t be taking up the nets for a goodish while yet. We shall be back in time.”
“The idea is to give me a run for my money first, eh?” inquired Knight pleasantly.
He had not anticipated the sudden fall of the red brows that greeted his words. He felt as if he had inadvertently trodden upon a match.
“No,” said Rufus slowly, speaking with a strangely careful accent, as if his mind were concentrated upon being absolutely intelligible to his listener. “That was not my idea.”
The spirit of adventure awoke in Knight. There was something behind this granite calmness of demeanour then. He determined to draw it forth, even though he struck further sparks in the process.
“No?” he said carelessly. “Then why this pleasure trip? Did you bring me out here just to show me–the ‘Pit of the Burning’?”
His eyes were upon the dazzling glory of the newly risen sun as he threw the question. Rufus’s massive head and shoulders were strongly outlined against it. He had ceased to row, but the boat still shot forward, impelled by the last powerful sweep of the oars, the water streaming past in a rush of foam.
Slowly, like the hammer-strokes of a deep-toned bell, came Rufus’s voice in answer. “It wasn’t to show you anything I brought you here. It was just to tell you something.”
“Really?” Knight’s interest was thoroughly aroused. He became alert to the finger-tips. There was something in the deliberate utterance that conveyed a sense of danger. A wary gleam shone in his eyes under their level brows. It was one of his principles when dealing with an uncertain situation never to betray surprise. “And what may this valuable piece of information be?” he inquired, with a smile.
Rufus shipped his oars steadily, gravely, with purpose. “I saw you cross the quicksand last night,” he said.
“Indeed!” Knight’s voice was of the most casual quality. He was feeling for his cigarette-case.
Rufus continued heavily, fatefully, gathering force with every word, as a loosened rock beginning to roll down a mountain side. “The light was bad. It was a tomfool thing to do. And Columbine was with you.”
Knight raised his shoulders ever so slightly. “Or rather–I was with her. Miss Columbine knows the lie of the quicksand. I–do not.”
Rufus went on as if he had not spoken. “There’s danger all along that beach as far as the Spear Point. Adam will tell you the same. When it’s a spring tide there’s times when there’s such a swell that it’s round the Point and over the pool like a tidal wave. You’ll hear the bell-buoy tolling when there’s a swell like that. We call it the Death Current hereabouts, because there’s nothing could live in it, and the bell always tolls. And once it comes up like that the way to the cliff-path is under water in less than thirty seconds. And the quicksand is the only chance left.” He paused; it was as if the rock halted for a moment on the edge of the precipice before plunging finally into the abyss of silence below. “When there’s a ground swell,” he said, “the quicksand will pull a man down quicker than hell. And there’s no one–not Adam himself–can tell the lay of it for certain when the light is bad.”
His mouth closed upon the words like the snap of a strong spring. Knight waited for more, but none came. Whatever the thought behind the warning that he had just uttered it was evident that Rufus had no intention of giving it expression. He had uttered the girl’s name with no more emotion than that of his father, but it seemed to Knight that by that very fact he had managed to convey a warning more potent than any that had followed. Otherwise he would scarcely have taken the trouble to mention her. The possibility of subtlety in this great, slow-speaking giant piqued him to a keener interest. He resolved to probe a little deeper.
“Miss Columbine is a very reliable guide,” he remarked. “If you and Adam have been her instructors in shore-craft, she does you credit.”
His remark went into utter silence. Rufus, with huge hands loosely clasped between his knees, appeared to be engrossed in watching the progress of the boat as she drifted gently on the rising tide. His face was utterly blank of expression, unless a certain grim fixity could be described as such.
Knight became slightly exasperated. Was the fellow no more than the fool Columbine believed him to be after all? He determined to settle this question once and for all at a single stroke.
“I suppose she has all you fellows at Spear Point at her feet?” he said, with an easy smile. “But I hope you are all too large-minded to grudge a poor artist the biggest find that has ever come his way.”
There was a pause, but the burning blue eyes were no longer fixed upon the sparkling ripples through which they had travelled. They were turned upon Knight’s face, searching, piercing, intent. Before he spoke again, Knight’s doubt as to the existence of a brain behind the massive brow was fully set at rest.
“There is another thing I have to say,” said Rufus.
Knight’s smile broadened encouragingly. “By all means let us hear it!” he said.
Rufus proceeded. “You speak of Columbine as if she were just a bit of amber or such-like as you’d found on the shore and picked up and put in your pocket. You speak as if she’s your property to do what you like with. That’s just what she is not. You’re making love to her. I know it. I seen it. And it’s got to stop.”
He spoke with blunt force; his hands were suddenly locked upon each other in a hard grip.
Knight lifted his shoulders; his smile had become whimsical. He had drawn the fellow at last. “I thought you’d seen something,” he remarked, “by your way. But who could help making love to a girl with a face like that? It would take a heart of stone to resist it. Why, even you”–and his look challenged Rufus with careless derision–“even you have fallen to that temptation before now, or I’m much mistaken. But I gather that your attentions did not meet with a very favourable response.”
He was baiting the animal now, taunting him, with the semi-humorous malice of the mischievous schoolboy. He had no particular grudge against Rufus, but he had a lively desire to see him squirm.
But this desire was not to be gratified. Rufus met the thrust without the faintest hint of feeling.
“What you think,” he said, in his weighty fashion, “has nothing to do with me. What you do is all that matters. And I tell you straight”–a blue flame suddenly leapt up like a volcanic light in the sombre eyes–“that no man that hasn’t honest intentions by her is going to make love to Columbine.”
“Great Jove!” mocked Knight, with his careless laugh. “And who told you, most worthy swain, what my intentions were?”
Rufus leaned towards him slowly, with something of the action of a crouching beast. “No one told me,” he said in a voice that was deeply menacing. “But–I know.”
Knight made a gesture of supreme indifference. “You are on an entirely wrong scent,” he observed. “But you seem to be enjoying it.” He paused to take out a cigarette. “Have a smoke!” he suggested after a moment, proffering his case.
Rufus did not so much as see it. His whole attitude was one of strain, as if he barely held himself back from springing at the other’s throat.
Knight, however, was elaborately unconscious of any tension. He smiled and closed his cigarette case. Then with the utmost deliberation he searched for his matches, found them, and lighted his cigarette.
Having puffed forth the first deep breath with luxurious enjoyment, he spoke again. “It is a little difficult to get a man of your stamp to comprehend the fact that an artist–a true artist–is not one to be greatly drawn by the grosser things of life, more especially when he is in ardent pursuit of that elusive flame called inspiration. But you would hardly grasp a condition in which the body–and the impulses of the body–are in complete subjection to the aspirations of the mind. You”–he blew forth a cloud of smoke–“are probably incapable of realizing that the worship of beauty can be of so purely artistic a nature as to be practically free from the physical element, certainly independent of it. I am taking you out of your depth, I know, but it is hard to make myself clear to an untrained mind. I might try a homely simile and suggest to you that you go a-fishing, not for love of the fish, but because it is your profession; but that does not wholly illustrate my meaning, for I love everything in the way of beauty that comes my way. I follow beauty like a guiding star. And sometimes–but seldom, oh, very seldom”–a sudden odd thrill sounded in his voice as if by accident some hidden string had been struck and set vibrating–“I fulfil my desire–I realise my dream–I grasp and hold a spark of the Divine.” He paused again, his face to the gold of the dawn and in his eyes the far-off rapture of one who watches some soaring flight of fancy. Then abruptly, lightly, he resumed his normal, half-quizzing demeanour. “Doubtless I weary you,” he said. “But you mustn’t run away with the idea that I am in love because I feel myself inspired. It may sound callous to you, but if Miss Columbine were to lose her exquisite beauty (which heaven forbid!) I should never voluntarily look upon her again. That I take it, is the test of love, which, we are told, is blind to all defects.”
He ceased to speak, and carelessly, yet with obvious enjoyment, he sent forth another cloud of smoke into the crystal air of the morning.
He was not looking at Rufus. It was abundantly evident that he had not realised how near to open violence the young fisherman had been. His nonchalant explanation was plainly all-sufficing in his own opinion, and during the very marked silence that followed he displayed no faintest hint of anxiety or even interest as to the fashion of its reception.
The boat was rocking lightly on the swell; the sea all around was flooded with gold. The great jagged outline of the Spear Point looked like the castle of a dream. The haze of the newly risen sun had touched with magic all the world. Knight’s eyes were half-closed. He had the look of a man at peace with himself.
And Rufus relaxed. The tension went out of his attitude; the volcanic fires died down. For half a minute or more he sat absolutely passive. Then slowly, with massive deliberation, he moved, unshipped the oars, and bent himself to pull. In another ten seconds the boat was rushing through the water under the compulsion of his powerful strokes, heading straight for the boats of the fishing fleet that dotted the bay….
It must have been fully a quarter of an hour later that Knight, having finished his cigarette, came out of his reverie.
“And so, you see,” he remarked in the tone of one pleasantly rounding off a conversation, “until my picture is painted I remain the slave of my dream. I wonder if I have succeeded at all in making myself intelligible.”
His eyes opened lazily and met Rufus’s sombre gaze; they held a laughing challenge, the easy challenge of the practised fencer who condescends to try a bout with ignorance.
Stolidly Rufus met the look. If he realised the challenge he did not accept it. He had barred himself in once more behind an impenetrable wall of unresponsiveness. His gaze was once more obscure and bovine. All hint of violence was gone from his bearing. Only solid force remained–the force that drove the boat strongly, unerringly, through the golden-crested waves.
“If you’re going to do a picture of Columbine,” he said slowly, “I hope it’ll be a good one.”
“It will probably be–great,” said Knight, and flicked some ash from his sleeve with the complacent air of a man who has accomplished his purpose.
THE MIDSUMMER MOON
It was very late that night, just as the first long rays of a full moon streamed across a dreaming sea, that the door that led out of the conservatory at The Ship softly opened, and a slim figure, clad in a long, dark garment, flitted forth. Neither to right nor left did it glance, but, closing the door without sound, slipped out over the grass almost as if it moved on wings, and so down to the beach-path that wound steeply to the shore.
The tide was rising with the moon; the roar of it swelled and sank like the mighty breathing of a giant. The waters shone in the gathering light in a vast silver shimmer almost too dazzling for the eye to endure. In another hour it would be as light as day. A few dim clouds were floating over the stars, filmy wisps that had escaped from the ragged edges of a dark curtain that had veiled the sun before its time. The breeze that had blown them free wandered far overhead; below, especially on the shore, it was almost tropically warm, and no breath of air seemed to stir.
Swiftly went the flitting figure, like a brown moth drawn by the glitter of the moonlight. There was no other living thing in sight.
All the lights of Spear Point village had gone out long since. Rufus’s cottage, with its slip of garden on the shelf of the cliff, was no more than a faint blur of white against the towering sandstone behind. No light had shone there all the evening, for the daylight had not died till ten, and he was often in bed at that hour. The fishing fleet would be out again with the dawn if the weather held, or even earlier; and the hours of sleep were precious.
Down on the rocks on the edge of the sleeping pool a grey shadow lurked amidst darker shadows. A faint scent of cigarette smoke hung about the silver beach–a drifting suggestion intangible as the magic of the night.
Could it have been this faint, floating fragrance that drew the flitting brown moth by way of the quicksand, swiftly, swiftly, along the moonlit shore travelling with mysterious certainty, irresistibly attracted? There was no pause in its rapid progress, though the course it followed was tortuous. It pursued, with absolute confidence, an invisible, winding path. And ever the roar of the sea grew louder and louder.
Across the pool, carved in the blackness of the outstretched curving scimitar of rock, there was a ledge, washed smooth by every tide, but a foot or more above the water when the tide was out. It was inaccessible save by way of the pool itself, and yet it had the look of a pathway cut in the face of the Spear Point Rock. The moonlight gleamed upon its wet surface. In the very centre of the great curving rock there was a deeper darkness that might have been a cave.
It must have been after midnight when the little brown figure that had flitted so securely through the quicksand came with its noiseless feet over the tumble of rocks that lay about the pool, and the shadow that lurked in the shadows rose up and became a man.
They met on the edge of the pool, but there was about the lesser form a hesitancy of movement, a shyness, almost a wildness, that seemed as if it would end in flight.
But the man remained quite motionless, and in a moment or two the impulse passed or was controlled. Two quivering hands came forth to him as if in supplication.
“So you are waiting!” a low voice said.
He took the hands, bending to her. The moonlight made his eyes gleam with a strange intensity.
“I have been waiting a long time,” he said.
Even then she made a small, fluttering movement backward, as if she would evade him. And then with a sharp sob she conquered her reluctance again. She gave herself into his arms.
He held her closely, passionately. He kissed her face, her neck, her bosom, as if he would devour the sweetness of her in a few mad moments of utter abandonment.
But in a little he checked himself. “You are so late, sweetheart. The tide won’t wait for us. There will be time for this–afterwards.”
She lay burning and quivering against his heart. “There is tomorrow,” she whispered, clinging to him.
He kissed her again. “Yes, there is tomorrow. But who can tell what may happen then? There will never be such a night as this again, sweet. See the light against that rock! It is a marvel of black and white, and I swear that the pool is green. There is magic abroad tonight. Let me catch it! Let me catch it! Afterwards!–when the tide comes up–we will drink our fill of love.”
He spoke as if urged by strong excitement, and having spoken his arms relaxed. But she clung to him still.
“Oh, darling, I am frightened–I am frightened! I couldn’t come sooner. I had a feeling–of being watched. I nearly–very nearly–didn’t come at all. And now I am here–I feel–I feel–afraid.”
He bent his face to hers again. His hand rested lightly, reassuringly upon her head. “No, no! There is nothing to frighten you, my passion-flower. If you had only come to me sooner it would have made it easier for you. But now there is no time.” The soothing note in his voice sounded oddly strained, as though an undernote of fever throbbed below it. “You’re not going to fail me,” he urged softly. “Think how much it means to you–to me! And there is only half an hour left, dear. Give me that half-hour to catch the magic! Then–when the tide comes up”–his voice sank, he whispered deeply into her ear–“I will teach you the greatest magic this old world knows.”
She thrilled at his words, thrilled through her trembling. She lifted her face to the moonlight. “I love you!” she said. “Oh, I love you!”
“And you will do this one thing for me?” he urged.
She threw her arms wide. “I would die for you,” she told him passionately.
A moment she stood so, then with a swift movement that had in it something of fierce surrender she sprang away from him on to the flat rock above the pool where but two nights before the gates of love’s wonderland had first opened to her.
Here for a second she stood, motionless it seemed. And then strangely, amazingly, she moved again. The brown garment slipped from her, and like a streak of light, she was gone, and the still pool received her with a rippling splash as of fairy laughter.
The man on the brink drew a short, hard breath, and put his hand to his eyes as if dazed. And from beyond the Spear Point there sounded the deep tolling of the bell-buoy as it rocked on the rising tide.
THE DEATH CURRENT
The pool was still again, still as a sheet of glass, reflecting the midnight glory of the moon. It was climbing high in the sky, and the cloud-wreaths were mounting towards it as incense smoke from an altar. The thick, black curtain that hung in the west was growing like a monstrous shadow, threatening to overspread the whole earth.
Down on the silver beach, crouched on one of the rocks that bordered the shining pool, Knight worked with fevered intensity to catch the magic of the hour. The light was wonderful. The pool shone strangely, deeply green; the rocks about it might have been delicately carved in ivory. And across the pool, clear-cut against the utter darkness of the Spear Point Rock, stood Aphrodite the Beautiful, clad in some green translucent draperies, her black hair loose about her, her white arms outstretched to the moonlight, her face–exquisite as a flower–upturned to meet the glory. She was like a dream too wonderful to be true, save for the passion that lived in her eyes. That was vivid, that was poignant–the fire of sacrifice burning inwardly.
The man worked on as one driven by a ruthless force. His teeth were clenched upon his lower lip. His hands were shaking, and yet he knew that what he did was too superb for criticism. It was the work of genius–the driving force within that would not let him pause to listen to the wild urgings of his heart. That might come after. But this–this power that compelled was supreme. While it gripped him he was not his own master. He was, as he himself had said, a slave.
And while he worked at its behest, watching the wonderful thing that inspiration was weaving by his hand, scarcely conscious of effort, though the perspiration was streaming down his face, he whispered over and over between his clenched teeth the title of the picture that was to astonish the world–“The Goddess Veiled in Foam.”
There was no foam as yet on the pool, but he remembered how two nights before he had seen the breaking of the first wave that had turned it into a seething cauldron of surf. That was what he wanted now–just the first great wave washing over her exquisite feet and flinging its garment of spray like a flimsy veil over her perfect form. He wanted that as he wanted nothing else on earth. And then–then–he would catch his dream, he would chain for ever the fairy vision that might never be granted again.
There came a boom like a distant gunshot on the other side of the Spear Point Rock, and again, but very far away, there sounded the tolling of the bell beyond the reef. The man’s heart gave a great leap. It was coming!
In the same moment the girl’s voice came to him across the pool, mingling with the rushing of great waters.
“The tide is coming up fast. It won’t be safe much longer.”
“Don’t move! Don’t move!” he cried back almost frantically. “It is absolutely safe. I will swim across and help you if you are afraid. But wait–wait just a few moments more!”
She did not urge him. Her surrender had been too complete. Perhaps his promise reassured her, or perhaps she did not fully realise the danger. She waited motionless and the man worked on.
Again there came that sound that was like the report of a distant gun, and the roaring of the sea swelled to tumult.
“Don’t move! Don’t move!” he cried again.
But she could not have heard him in the overwhelming rush of the sea.
There came a sudden dimness. A cloud had drifted over the moon, and Knight looked up and cursed it with furious impatience. It passed, and he saw her again–his vision, the goddess of his dream, still as the rock behind her, yet splendidly alive. He bent himself again to his work. Would that wave never come to veil her in sparkling raiment of foam?
Ah! At last! The peace of the pool was shattered. A shining wave, curved, green, transparent, gleamed round the corner, ran, swift as a flame, along the rock, and broke with a thunderous roar in a torrent of snow-white surf. In a moment the pool was a seething tumult of water, and in that moment Knight saw his goddess as the artist in him had yearned to see her, her beauty half-veiled and half-revealed in a shimmering robe of foam.
The vision vanished. Another cloud had drifted over the moon. Only the swirling water remained.
Again he lifted his head to curse the fate that baffled him, and as he did so a hand came suddenly from the darkness behind and gripped him by the shoulder. A voice that was like the angry bellow of a bull roared in his ear.
What it said he did not hear; so amazed was he by the utter unexpectedness of the attack. Before he had time to realise what was happening, he was shaken with furious force and flung aside. He fell–and his precious work fell with him–on the very edge of that swirling pool….
Seconds later, when the moon gleamed out again, he was still frantically groping for it on the stones. The roar of the sea was terrible and imminent, like the roar of a destroying monster racing upon its prey, and from the caves there came a hollow groaning as of chained spirits under the earth.
The light flashed away again just as he spied his treasure on the brink of the dashing water. He sprang to save it, intent upon naught else; but in that instant there came a roar such as he had not heard before–a sound so compelling, so nerve-shattering, that even he was arrested, entrapped as it were by a horror of crashing elements that made him wonder if all the fiends in hell were fighting for his soul. And, as he paused, the swirl of a great wave caught him in the darkness like the blow of a concrete thing, nearly flinging him backwards. He staggered, for the first time stricken with fear, and then in the howling uproar of that dreadful place there came to him like a searchlight wheeling inwards the thought of the girl. The water receded from him, leaving him drenched, almost dazed, but a voice within–an urgent, insistent voice–clamoured that his safety was at stake, his life a matter of mere moments if he lingered. This was the Death Current of which Rufus had warned him only that afternoon. Had not the bell-buoy been tolling to deaf ears for some time past? The Death Current that came like a tidal wave! And nothing could live in it. The girl–surely the girl had been washed off her ledge and overwhelmed in the flood before it had reached him. Possibly Rufus would manage to save her, for that it was Rufus who had so savagely sprung upon him he had no doubt; but he himself was powerless. If he saved his own life it would be by a miracle. Had not the fellow warned him that retreat by way of the cliff-path would be cut off in thirty seconds when the tide raced up like that? And if he failed to reach that, only the quicksand was left–the quicksand that dragged a man down quicker than hell!
He set his teeth and turned his face to the cliff. A light was shining half-way up it–that must come from the window of Rufus’s cottage. He took it as a beacon, and began to stumble through the howling darkness towards it. He knew the cliff-path. He had come down it only that night to make sure that there was no one spying upon them. The cottage had been shut and dark then, the little garden empty. He had concluded that Rufus had gone early to rest after a long day with the nets, and had passed on securely to wait for Columbine on the edge of their magic pool. But what he did not know was exactly where the cliff-path ran out on to the beach. The opening was close to the Caves and sheltered by rocks. Could he find it in this infernal darkness? Could he ever make his way to it in time? With the waves crashing behind him he struggled desperately towards the blackness of the cliffs.
The rocks under his feet were wet and slippery. He fought his way over them, feeling as if a hundred demons were in league to hold him back. The swirl of the incoming tide sounded in his ears like a monstrous chant of death. Again and again he slipped and fell, and yet again he dragged himself up, grimly determined to fight the desperate battle to the last gasp. The thought of Columbine had gone wholly from him, even as the thought of his lost treasure. Only the elemental desire of life gripped him, vital and urgent, forcing him to the greatest physical effort he had ever made. He went like a goaded animal, savage, stubborn, fiercely surmounting every obstacle, driven not so much by fear as by a furious determination to frustrate the fate that menaced him.
It must have been nearly a minute later that the moon shone forth again, throwing gleaming streaks of brightness upon the mighty breakers that had swallowed the magic pool. They were riding in past the Spear Point in majestic and unending procession, and the rocks that surrounded the pool were already deeply covered. The surf of one great wave was rushing over the beach to the Caves, and the spray of it blew over Knight, drenching him from head to foot. Desperately, by that passing gleam of moonlight, he searched for the opening of the path, the foam of the oncoming procession already swirling about his feet. He spied it suddenly at length, and in the same instant something within him–could it have been his heart?–dropped abruptly like a loosened weight to the very depths of his being. The way of escape in that direction was already cut off. In the darkness he had not taken a straight course, and it was too late.
Wildly he turned–like a hunted animal seeking refuge. With great leaps and gigantic effort, he made for the open beach. He reached it, reached the loose dry sand so soon to be covered by the roaring tumult of great waters. His eyes glared out over the level stretch that intervened between the Spear Point Rock and the harbour quay. The tide would not be over it yet.
He flung his last defiance to the fate that relentlessly hunted him as he took the only alternative, and set himself to traverse the way of the quicksand–that dragged a man down quicker than hell.
Someone was mounting the steep cliff-path that led to Rufus’s cottage–a man, square-built and powerful, who carried a burden. The moon shone dimly upon his progress through a veil of drifting cloud. He was streaming with water at every step, but he moved as if his drenched clothing were in no way a hindrance–steadily, strongly, with stubborn fixity of purpose. The burden he carried hung limply in his arms, and over his shoulder there drifted a heavy mass of wet, black hair.
He came at length on his firm, bare feet to the little gate that led to the lonely cottage, and, without pausing, passed through. The cottage door was ajar. He pushed it back and entered, closing it, even as he did so, with a backward fling of the heel. Then, in the tiny living-room, by the light of the lamp that shone in the window, he laid his burden down.
White and cold, she lay with closed eyes upon the little sofa, motionless and beautiful as a statue recumbent upon a tomb, her drenched draperies clinging about her. He stood for a second looking upon her; then, still with the absolute steadiness of set purpose, he turned and went into the inner room.
He came back with a blanket, and stooping, he lifted the limp form and, with a certain deftness that seemed a part of his immovable resolution, he wrapped it in the rough grey folds.
It was while he was doing this that a sudden sigh came from between the parted lips, and the closed eyes flashed open.
They gazed upon him in bewilderment, but he continued his ministrations with grim persistence and an almost bovine expression of countenance. Only when two hands came quivering out of the enveloping blanket and pushed him desperately away did he desist. He straightened himself then and turned away.
“You’ll be–all right,” he said in his deep voice.
Then Columbine started up on her elbow, clutching wildly at the blanket, drawing it close about her. The cold stillness of her was gone, as though a sudden flame had scorched her. Her face, her neck, her whole body were burning, burning.
“What–what happened?” she gasped. “You–why have you brought me–here?”
He did not look at her.
“It was the nearest place,” he said. “The Death Current caught you, and you were stunned. I got you out.”
“You–got me–out!” she repeated, saying the words slowly as if she were teaching herself a lesson.
He nodded his great head.
“Yes. I came up in time. I saw what would happen. There’s often a tidal wave about now. I thought you knew that–thought Adam would have told you. He”–his voice suddenly went a tone deeper–“knew it. I told him this morning.”
“Ah!” She uttered the word upon a swift intake of breath; her startled eyes suddenly dilated. “Where is he?” she said.
The man’s huge frame stiffened at the question; she saw his hands clench. But he kept his head turned from her; she could not see his face. There followed a pause that seemed to her fevered imagination to have something deadly in it. Then: “I hope he’s gone where he belongs,” said Rufus, with terrible deliberation.
Her cry of agony cut across his last word like the severing of a taut string. She leapt to her feet, in that moment of anguish supremely forgetful of self.
“Rufus!” she cried, and wildly gripped his arm, “You’ve never–left him–to be–killed!”
She felt his muscles harden in grim resistance to her grasp. She saw that his averted face was set like a stone mask.
“It’s none of my business,” he said, speaking through rigid lips.
She turned from him with a gasp of horror and sprang for the door. But in an instant he wheeled, thrust out a great arm, and caught her. His fingers closed upon her bare shoulder.
“Columbine!” he said.
She resisted him frantically, bending now this way, now that. But he held her in spite of it, held her, and slowly brought her nearer to him.
“Stand still!” he said.
His voice came upon her like a blow. She flinched at the sound of it–flinched and obeyed.
“Let me go!” she gasped out. “He–may be drowning–at this moment!”
“Let him drown!” said Rufus.
She lifted her tortured face in frenzied protest, but it died upon her lips. For in that moment she met his eyes, and the blazing blue of them made her feel as though spirit had been poured upon her flame, consuming her. Words failed her utterly. She stood palpitating in his hold, not breathing–a wild thing trapped.
Slowly he bent towards her. “Let him drown!” he said again. “Do you think I’m going to let you throw your life away for a cur like that?”
There was uncloaked ferocity in the question. His hold was merciless.
“I saved you,” he said. “It wasn’t especially easy. But I did it. For the matter of that, I’d have gone through hell for you. And do you think I’m going to let you go again–now?”
She did not answer him. Only her lips moved stiffly, as though they formed words she could not utter. She could not take her eyes from his, though his looks seared her through and through.
He went on, deeply, with gathering force. “He’d have let you be swept away. He didn’t care. All he wanted was to get you for his picture. That was all he made love to you for. He’d have sacrificed you to the devil for that. You don’t believe me, maybe, but I know–I know!”
There was savage certainty in the reiterated words, and the girl recoiled from them, her face like death. But he held her still, implacably, relentlessly.
“That’s all he wants of you,” he said. “To use you for his purpose, and then–to throw you aside. Why”–and he suddenly showed his clenched teeth–“he dared–damn him!–he dared to tell me so!”
“He–told you!” Her lips spoke the words at last, but they seemed to come from a long way off.
“Yes.” With suppressed violence he answered her. “He didn’t put it that way–being a gentleman! But he took care to make me understand that he only wanted you for the sake of his accursed picture. That’s the only thing that counts with him, and he’s the sort not to care what he does to get it. He wouldn’t have got you–like this–if he hadn’t made you love him first. I know that too–as well as if you’d told me.”
The passion in his voice was rising, and it was as if the heat of it rekindled her animation. With a jerky movement she flung up both her hands, grasping tensely the arms that held her so rigidly.
“Yes, I love him!” she said, and her voice rang wildly. “I love him! I don’t care what he is! Rufus–Rufus–oh, for the love of Heaven, don’t let him drown!” The words rushed out desperately; it was as if her whole nature, all her pride, all her courage, were flung into that frantic appeal. She clung to the man with straining entreaty. “Oh, go down and save him!” she begged. “I’ll do anything for you in return–anything you like to ask! Only do this one thing for me! He may have escaped the tide. If so, he’ll try the quicksand, and he don’t know the lie of it! Rufus, you wouldn’t want–your worst enemy–to die like that!”
She broke off, wildly sobbing, yet still clinging to him in agonised entreaty. The man’s face, with its crude ferocity, the untamed glitter of its fiery eyes, was still bent to hers, but she no longer shrank from it. The power that moved her was too immense to be swayed by lesser things. His attitude no longer affected her, one way or another. It had ceased to count, so that she only wrenched from him this one great boon.
And Rufus must have realised the fact, for he stood up sharply and backed against the door, releasing her.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he said gruffly.
“I do–I do!” With anguished reiteration she answered him. “I’m not the sort that offers and then doesn’t pay. Oh, don’t waste time talking! Every moment may be his last. Go down–go down to the shore! You’re so strong. Save him–save him!”
She beat her clasped hands against his broad chest, till abruptly he put up his own again and held them still.
“Columbine!” For the second time he uttered her name, and for the second time the command in his voice caught and compelled her. “Just you listen a minute!” he said, and as he spoke his look swept her with a mastery that dominated even her agony. “If I go and save the cur, you’ve done with him for ever–you swear that?”
“Yes!” she cried. “Yes! Only go–only go!”
But he remained square and resolute against the door. “And you’ll stay here–you swear to stay here till I come back?”
“Yes!” she cried again.
He bent to her once more; his gaze possessed her. “And–afterwards?” he said, his voice deep and very low.
Her eyes had been raised to his; they closed suddenly and sharply, as if to shut him out. “I will give you–all I have,” she said, and shivered, violently, uncontrollably.
The next instant his hands were gone from hers, and she was free.
Trembling, she sank upon the sofa, hiding her face; and even as she did so the banging of the cottage door told her he was gone.
Thereafter she sat crouched for a long, long time in the paralysis of a great fear.
Down on the howling shore the great waves were hurling themselves in vast cataracts of snow-white surf that shone, dimly radiant, in the fitful moonlight. The sky was covered with broken clouds, and a rising storm-wind blew in gusts along the cliffs. The peace of the night was utterly shattered, the shining glory had departed. A wild and desolate grandeur had succeeded it.
“Shouldn’t wonder if there was some trouble tonight,” said Adam, awaking to the tumult.
“Lor’ bless you!” said Mrs. Peck sensibly. “Wait till it comes.”
The hint of impatience that marked her speech was not without reason, for a gale was to Adam as the sound of a gun to a sporting-dog. It invariably aroused him, even from the deepest slumber, to a state of alert expectation that to a woman as hard-working as Mrs. Peck was most exceptionally trying. When Adam scented disaster at sea there was no peace for either. As she was wont to remark, being the wife of the lifeboat coxswain wasn’t all jam, not by any manner of means it wasn’t. She knew now, by the way Adam turned, and checked his breathing to listen, that the final disturbance was not far off.
She herself feigned sleep, possibly in the hope of provoking him to consideration for her weariness; but she knew the effort to be quite futile even as she made it. Adam the coxswain was considerate only for those who might be in peril. At the next heavy gust that rattled the windows he flung the bedclothes back without the smallest thought for his companion’s comfort, and tumbled on to his feet.
“Just going to have a look round,” he said. “I’ll lay the fire in the kitchen, and you be ready to light it in a jiffy if wanted!”
That was so like Adam. He could think of nothing but possible victims of the storm. Mrs. Peck sniffed, and gathered the bedclothes back about her in expressive silence. It was quite useless to argue with Adam when he got the jumps. Experience had taught her that long since. She could only resume her broken rest and hope that it might not be again disturbed.
Adam pulled on his clothes with his usual brisk deftness of movement and went downstairs. The rising storm was calling him, and he could not be deaf to the call. He had belonged to the lifeboat ever since he had come to man’s estate, and never a storm arose but he held himself ready for service.
His first, almost instinctive, action was to take the key of the lifeboat house from its nail in the kitchen. Then, whistling cheerily below his breath, he set about laying the fire. The kettles were already filled. Mrs. Peck always saw to that before retiring. There was milk in the pantry, brandy in the cupboard. According to invariable custom, all was in readiness for any possible emergency, and having satisfied himself that this was the case, he thrust his bare feet into boots and went to the door.
It had begun to rain. Great drops pattered down upon him as he emerged, and he turned back to clap his sou’wester upon his head. Then, without further preparation, he sallied forth.
As he went down the road that ran to the quay a terrible streak of lightning reft the dark sky, and the wild crash of thunder that followed drowned even the roaring babel of the sea.
It did not check his progress; he was never one to be easily daunted. It was contrary to his very nature to seek shelter in a storm. He went swinging on to the very edge of the quay, and there stood facing the violence of the waves, the fierce turmoil of striving elements.
The tide was extraordinarily high–such a tide as he believed he had never seen before in summer. He stood in the pouring rain and looked first one way, then the other, with a quick birdlike scrutiny, but as far as his eyes could pierce he saw only an empty desolation of waters. There seemed none in need of his help that night.
“I wonder if Rufus is awake,” he speculated to the angry tumult.
Nearly three miles out from the Spear Point there was a lighthouse with a revolving light. That light shone towards him now, casting a weird radiance across the tossing water, and as if in accompaniment to the warning gleam he heard the deep toll of the bell-buoy that rocked upon the swell.
Adam turned about. “I’ll go and knock up Rufus,” he decided. “It’d be a shame to miss a night like this.”
Again the lightning rent the sky, and the whole great outline of the Spear Point was revealed in one awful second of intolerable radiance. Adam’s keen eye chanced to be upon it, and he saw it in such detail as the strongest sunlight could never have achieved. The brightness dazzled, almost shocked him, but there was something besides the brightness that sent an odd sensation through him–a curious, sick feeling as if he had suddenly received a blow between the shoulders. For in that fraction of time he had seen something which reason, clamouring against the evidence of his senses, declared to be the impossible. He had seen a human figure–the figure of his son–clinging to the naked face of the rock, hanging between sea and sky where scarcely a bird could have found foothold, while something–a grey, indistinguishable burden–hung limp across his shoulder, weighing him down.
The thunder was still rolling around him when with a great shake Adam pulled himself together.
“I’m dreaming!” he told himself angrily. “A man couldn’t ever climb the Spear Point, let alone live on a ledge that wouldn’t harbour a sea-gull if he did. I’ll go round to Rufus. I’ll go round and knock him up.”
With the words he tramped off through the rushing rain, and leaving the quay, struck upwards along the cliff in the direction of the narrow path that ran down to Rufus’s dwelling above the Spear Point Caves.
Despite the spareness of his frame, he climbed the ascent with a rapidity that made him gasp. The wind also was against him, blowing in strong gusts, and the raging of the sea below was as the roaring of a thousand torrents. The great waves boomed against the cliff far beyond the summer watermark. They had long since covered the quicksand, and he thought he felt the ground shake with the shock of them.
He reached at length the gap in the cliff that led down to the cottage, and here he paused; for the descent was sharp, and the light that still filtered through the dense storm-clouds was very dim. But in a few seconds another great flash lit up the whole wild scene. He saw again the Spear Point Rock standing out, scimitar-like, in the sea. The water was dashing all around it. It stood up, grim and unapproachable, the great waves flinging their mighty clouds of spray over its stark summit. But–possibly because he viewed it from above instead of from below–he saw naught beside that grand and futile struggle of the elements.
Reassured, he started in the rain and darkness down the twisting path that led to his old home. He knew every foot of the way, but even so, he stumbled once or twice in the gloom.
The roaring of the sea sounded terribly near when finally he reached the little garden-gate and caught the ray of the lamp in the window.
Evidently it had awakened Rufus also. Almost unconsciously he quickened his pace as he went up the path.
He reached the door and fumbled for the latch; but ere he found it, it was flung open, and a strange and tragic figure met him on the threshold.
“Ah!” cried a woman’s voice. “It is you! Where–where is Rufus?”
Adam’s keen and birdlike eyes nearly leapt from his head. “Why–Columbine?” he said.
She was dressed in Rufus’s suit of navy serge. It hung about her in clumsy folds, and over her shoulders and about her snow-white throat her glorious hair streamed like a black veil, still wet and shining in the lamplight.
She flung out her hands to him in piteous appeal. “Oh, Adam!” she said. “Have you seen them? Have you seen Rufus? He went–he went an hour ago–to save Mr. Knight from the quicksand!”
Adam’s quick brain leapt to instant activity. The girl’s presence baffled him, but it was no time for explanation. In some way she had discovered Knight in danger, and had rushed to Rufus for help. Then–then–that vision of his from the quay–that flash of revelation–had been no dream, after all! He had seen Rufus indeed–and probably for the last time in his life.
He stood, struck dumb for the moment, recalling every detail of the clinging figure that had hung above the leaping waves. Then the tragedy in Columbine’s face made him pull himself together once more. He took her trembling hands.
“It’s no good, my girl,” he said. “I seen him. Yes, I seen him. I didn’t believe my eyes, but I know now it was true. He was hanging on to a bit of rock half-way up the Spear Point, and t’other chap was lying across his shoulder. They’ve both been washed away by this, for the water’s still coming up. There’s not the ghost of a chance for ’em. I say it ‘cos I know–not the ghost of a chance!”
A wild cry broke from the girl’s lips. She wrenched her hands free and beat them upon her breast. Then suddenly a burst of wild tears came to her. She leaned against the cottage wall and sobbed in an agony that possessed her, soul and body.
Adam stood and looked at her. There was something terrible about the abandonment of her grief. It made him feel that his own was almost insignificant beside it. He had never seen any woman weep like that before. The anguish of it went through his heart.
He moved at length, laid a very gentle hand upon her shaking shoulder.
“My girl–my girl!” he said. “Don’t take on so! I never thought as you cared a ha’p’orth for poor Rufus, though o’ course I always knew as he loved you like mad.”
She bowed herself lower under his hand. “And now I’ve killed him!” she gasped forth inarticulately. “I’ve killed him!”
“No, no, no!” protested Adam. “That ain’t reasonable. Come, now–you’re distraught! You don’t know what you’re saying. My Rufus is a fine chap. He’d take most any risk to save a life. He’s got a big heart in him, and he don’t stop to count the cost.”
She uncovered her face sharply and looked at him, so that he clearly saw the ravages that her distress had wrought. “That wasn’t what made him go,” she said. “He wouldn’t have gone but for me. It was I as made him go. But I thought he’d be in time. I hoped he’d be in time.” Her voice rose wildly; she wrung her hands. “Oh, can’t you do anything? Can’t you take out the lifeboat? There must be some way–surely there must be some way–of saving them!”
But Adam shook his head. “He’s past our help,” he said. “There’s no boat could live among them rocks in such a tide as this. We couldn’t get anywhere near. No–no, there’s nothing we can do. The lad’s gone–my Rufus–finest chap along the shore, if he was my son. Never thought as he’d go before me–never thought–never thought!”
The loud roll of the waves filled the bitter silence that followed, but the battering of the rain upon the cottage roof was decreasing. The storm was no longer overhead.
Adam leaned on the back of a chair with his head in his hands. All the wiry activity seemed to have gone out of him. He looked old and broken.
The girl stood motionless behind him. A strange impassivity had succeeded her last fruitless appeal, as though through excess of suffering her faculties were numbed, animation itself were suspended. She leaned against the wall, staring with wide, tragic eyes at the flame of the lamp that stood in the window. Her arms hung stiffly at her sides, and the hands were clenched. She seemed to be gazing upon unutterable things.
There was nothing to be done–nothing to be done! Till the waves had spent their fury, till that raging sea went down, they were as helpless as babes to stay the hand of Fate. No boat could live in that fearful turmoil of water. Adam had said it, and she knew that what he said was true, knew by the utter dejection of his attitude, the completeness of his despair. She had never seen Adam in despair before; probably no one had ever seen him as he was now. He was a man to strain every nerve while the faintest ray of hope remained. He had faced many a furious storm, saved many a life that had been given up for lost by other men. But now he could do nothing, and he crouched there–an old and broken man–for the first time realising his helplessness.
A long time passed. The only sound within the cottage was the ticking of a grandfather-clock in a corner, while without the great sound of the breaking seas filled all the world. The storm above had passed. Now the thunder-blast no longer shook the cottage. A faint greyness had begun to show beyond the lamp in the window. The dawn was drawing near.
As one awaking from a trance of terrible visions, the girl drew a deep breath and spoke:
He did not stir. He had not stirred for the greater part of an hour.
She made a curiously jerky movement, as if she wrenched herself free from some constricting hold. She went to the bowed, despairing figure.
“Adam, the day is breaking. The tide must be on the turn. Shan’t we go?”
He stood up with the gesture of an old man. “What’s the good?” he said. “Do you think I want to see my boy’s dead body left behind by the sea?”
She shivered at the question. “But we can’t stay here,” she urged. “Aunt Liza, you know–she’ll be wondering.”
“Ah!” He passed his hand over his eyes. He was swaying a little as he stood. She supported his elbow, for he seemed to have lost control of his limbs. He stared at her in a dazed way. “You’d better go and tell your Aunt Liza,” he said. “I think I’ll stay here a bit longer. Maybe my boy’ll come and talk to me if I’m alone. We’re partners, you know, and we lived here a good many years alone together. He wouldn’t leave me–not for the long voyage–without a word. Yes, you go, my dear, you go! I’ll stay here and wait for him.”
She saw that no persuasion of hers would move him, and it seemed useless to remain. An intolerable restlessness urged her, moreover, to be gone. The awful inertia of the past two hours had turned into a fevered desire for action. It was the swing of the pendulum, and she felt that if she did not respond to it she would go mad.
Her knees were still trembling under her, but she controlled them and turned to the door. As she lifted the latch she looked back and saw Adam drop heavily into the chair upon which he had leaned for so long. His attitude was one of almost stubborn patience, but it was evident that her presence had ceased to count with him. He was waiting–she saw it clearly in every line of him–waiting to bid his boy Godspeed ere he fared forth finally on the long voyage from which there is no return.
A sharp sob rose in her throat. She caught her hand to it, forcing it back. Then, barefooted, she stepped out into the grey dimness that veiled all things, and left the door of Rufus’s cottage open behind her.
THE LONG VOYAGE
She never remembered afterwards how she accomplished the homeward journey. The rough stones cut her feet again and again, but she never felt the pain. She went as one who has an urgent mission to perform, though what that mission was she scarcely knew.
The night–that night of dreadful tragedy–had changed her. Columbine, the passionate, the impulsive had turned into a being that was foreign to herself. All the happy girlhood had been stamped out of her as by the cruel pressure of a hot iron. She had ceased to feel the agony of it; somehow she did not think that she ever could feel pain again. The nerve tissues had been destroyed and all vitality was gone. The creature that passed like a swift shadow through the twilight of the dawn was an old and withered woman who had lived beyond her allotted time.
She reached the old Ship Inn, meeting no one. She entered by the door of the conservatory through which she had flitted aeons and aeons before to meet her lover. She went to her room and changed into her own clothes. The suit that had belonged to Rufus so long ago she laid away with an odd reverence, still scarcely knowing what she did, driven as it were by a mechanism that worked without any volition of hers.
Then she went to the glass and began to coil up her hair. It was dank and heavy yet with the seawater, but she wound it about her head without noticing. The light was growing, and she peered at herself with a detached sort of curiosity, till something in her own eyes frightened her, and she turned away.
She went to the window and opened it wide. The sound of the sea yet filled the world, but it was not so insistent as it had been. The waves, though mountainous still, were gradually receding from the shore. It was as though the dawn had come just in time to prevent the powers of darkness from triumphing.
She heard someone moving in the house and turned back into the room. Aunt Liza must be told.
Through the spectral dawnlight she went down the stairs and took her way to the kitchen. The door stood half open; she heard the cheery crackling of the newly lighted fire before she entered. And hearing it, she was aware of a great coldness that clung like a chain, fettering her every movement.
Someone moved as she pushed open the door. An enormous shadow leaped upon the wall like a fantastic monster of the deep. She recoiled for a second, then, as if drawn against her will, she entered.
By the ruddy glow of the fire she saw a man’s broad-chested figure, she saw the gleam of tawny hair above a thick bull-neck. He was bending slightly over the fire at her entrance, but, hearing her, he turned. And in that moment every numbed nerve in Columbine’s body was pierced into quivering life.
She stood as one transfixed, and he stood motionless also in the flickering light of the flames, gazing at her with eyes of awful blue that were as burning spirit. But he spoke not a word–not a word. How could a dead man speak?
And as they stood thus, facing each other, the floor between them began suddenly to heave, became a mass of seething billows that rocked her, caught her, engulfed her. She went down into them, and as the tossing darkness received her, her last thought was that Rufus had come back indeed–not to say farewell, but to take her with him on the long voyage from which there is no return….
Wild white roses that grew in the sandy stubble above the shore, little orange-scented roses that straggled through the grass–they called to something that ran in Columbine’s blood, they spoke to her of the South. She was sure that she would find those roses all about her feet when she came to the end of the long voyage. She would see their golden hearts wide open to the sun. For their fragrance haunted her day by day as she floated down the long glassy stretches and rocked on the waveless swells.
Sometimes she had a curious fancy that she was lying dead, and they had strewn the sweet flowers all about her. She hoped that they might not be buried with her; they were too beautiful for that.
At other times she thought of them as a bridal wreath, purer than the purest orange-blossom that ever decked a bride. Once, too–this was when she was nearing the end of the voyage–there came to her a magic whiff of wet bog-myrtle that made her fancy that she must be a bride indeed.
At last, just when it seemed to her that her boat was gently grounding upon the sand where the little white roses grew, she opened her eyes widely, wonderingly, and realised that the voyage was over.
She was lying in her own little room at The Ship, and Mrs. Peck, with motherly kindness writ large on her comely, plump face, was bending over her with a cup of steaming broth in her hand.
Columbine gazed at her with a bewildered sense of having slept too long.
Mrs. Peck nodded at her cheerily. “There, my dear! You’re better, I can see. A fine time you’ve given us. I thought as I should never see your bright eyes again.”
Columbine put forth a trembling hand with a curious feeling that it did not belong to her at all. “Have I been ill?” she said.
Mrs. Peck nodded again cheerily. “Why, it’s more than a week you’ve been lying here, and how I have worrited about you! Prostration following severe shock was what the doctor called it, but it looked to me more like a touch of brain fever. But there, you’re better! Drink this like a good girl, and you’ll feel better still!”
Meekly, with the docility of great weakness, Columbine swallowed the proffered nourishment. She wanted to recall all that had happened, but her brain felt too clogged to serve her. She could only lie and gaze and gaze at a little vase of wild white roses that faced her upon the mantelpiece. Somehow those roses seemed to her to play an oddly important part in her awakening.
“Where did they come from?” she suddenly asked.
Mrs. Peck glanced up indifferently. “They’re just those little common things that grow with the pinks on the cliff,” she said.
But that did not satisfy Columbine. “Who brought them in?” she said. “Who gathered them?”
Mrs. Peck hesitated momentarily, almost as if she did not want to answer. Then, half defiantly, “Why, Rufus, to be sure,” she said.
“Rufus!” A great hot wave of crimson suddenly suffused Columbine’s face–a pitiless, burning blush that spread tingling over her whole body.
She lay very still while it lasted, and Mrs. Peck set down the cup and, rising energetically, began to tidy the room.
At length, faintly, the girl spoke again: “Aunt Liza!”
Mrs. Peck turned. There was a curious look in her eyes, a look half stern and yet half compassionate. “There, my dear, that’ll do,” she said. “I think you’ve talked enough. The doctor said as I was to keep you very quiet, especially when you began to get back your senses. Shut your eyes, do, and go to sleep!”
But Columbine’s eyes remained open. “I’m not sleepy,” she said. “And I must speak to you. I want to know–I must know”–she faltered painfully, but forced herself to continue–“Rufus–did he–did he really come back–that night?”
Mrs. Peck’s compassion perceptibly diminished and her severity increased. “Oh, if you want the whole story,” she said, “you’d better have it and have done; that is, so far as I know it myself. There are certain ins and outs that I don’t know even yet, for Rufus can be very secretive if he likes. Well then, yes, he did come back, and he brought Mr. Knight with him. They were washed up by a great wave that dropped ’em high and dry near the quay. Mr. Knight was half drowned, and Rufus left him at Sam Jefferson’s cottage and came on here for brandy and hot milk and such. He wasn’t a penny the worse himself, but I suppose you thought it was his ghost. You behaved like as if you did, anyway. That’s all I can tell you. Mr. Knight he got better in a day or two, and he’s gone, said he’d had enough of it, and I don’t blame him neither. Now that’ll do for the present. By and by, when you’re stronger, maybe I’ll ask you to tell me something. But the doctor says as I’m not to let you talk at present.”
Mrs. Peck took up the empty cup with the words, and turned with decision to the door.
Columbine did not attempt to detain her. She had read the doubt in the good woman’s eyes, and she was thankful at that moment for the reprieve that the doctor’s fiat had secured her.
She lay for a long, long time without moving after Mrs. Peck’s departure. Her brain felt unutterably weary, but it was clear, and she was able to face the situation in all its grimness. Mr. Knight had gone. Mr. Knight had had enough of it. Had he really left without a word? Was she, then, so little to him as that? She, who had clung to him, had offered him unconditionally and without stint all that was hers!
She remembered how he had said that it would not last, that love was moonshine, love would pass. And how passionately–and withal how fruitlessly!–had she revolted against that pronouncement of his! She had declared that such was not love, and he–he had warned her against loving too well, giving too freely. With cruel distinctness it all came back to her. She felt again those hot kisses upon brow and lips and throat. Though he had warned her against giving, he had not been slow to take. He had revelled in the abandonment of that first free love of hers. He had drained her of all that she held most precious that he might drink his fill. And all for what? Again she burned from head to foot, and, groaning, hid her face. All for the making of a picture that should bring him world-wide fame! His love for her had been naught but small change flung liberally enough that he might purchase therewith the desire of his artist’s soul. It had been just a means to an end. No more than that! No more than that!
* * *
Time passed, but she knew naught of its passing. She was in a place of bitterness very far removed from the ordinary things of life. She shed no tears. The misery and shame that burned her soul were beyond all expression or alleviation. She could have laughed over the irony of it all more easily than she could have wept.
That she–the proud and dainty, for whom no one had been good enough–should have fallen thus easily to the careless attraction of a man to whom she was nothing, nothing but a piece of prettiness to be bought as cheaply as possible and treasured not at all. Some whim of inspiration had moved him. He had obeyed his Muse. And he had been ready–he had been ready–even to offer her life in sacrifice to his idol. She did not count with him in the smallest degree. He had never cared–he had never cared!
She lifted her face at last. The torture was eating into her soul. It was more than she could bear. All the tender words he had spoken, the caresses he had lavished upon her, were as burning darts that pierced her whichever way she turned. Her surrender had been so free, so absolute, and in return he had left her in the dark. He had gone his careless way without a single thought for all the fierce devotion she had poured out to him. It had only appealed to him while the mood lasted. And now he had had enough of it. He had gone.
The murmur of the summer sea came to her as she lay, and she thought of the Death Current. Why–ah, why–had it been cheated of its prey? She shivered violently as the memory of that awful struggle in deep waters came to her. She had been saved, how she scarcely realised, though deep within her she knew–she knew!
Her burning eyes fell upon the little wild white roses on the shelf. Why had he brought them to her? Why had he chosen them? She felt as if they held a message for her, but it was a message she did not dare to read. And then again she quivered as the dread memory of that night swept over her anew, and the eyes of flaming blue that had looked into hers.
Somewhere–somewhere outside herself, it seemed to her–a voice was speaking, very articulate and persistent, and she could not shut out the words it uttered. She lacked the strength.
“I always knew,” it said, and it averred it over and over again, “as he loved you like mad.”
Love! Love! But what was Love? Was any man capable of it? Was it ever anything more than brutal passion or callous amusement? And hearts were broken and lives were ruined to bring men sport.
She clenched her hands, still gazing at the wild white roses with their orange scent of purity. Why had he sent them? What had moved him to gather them? He who had bargained with her, had wrung from her submission to his will as it were at the sword’s point! He who had forced her to promise herself to him! What was love–or the making of love–to such as he?
The sweetness of the flowers seemed to pierce her. Ah, if they had only been Knight’s gift, how different–how different–had been all things.
But they had come from Rufus. And so somehow their message passed her by. The blackness of utter misery, utter hopelessness, closed in like a prison-cell around her soul.
THE SAFE HAVEN
In the days that followed, Mrs. Peck’s honest soul was both vexed and anxious concerning her charge. She found Columbine extraordinarily reticent. As she herself put it, it was impossible to get any sense out of her.
In compliance with the doctor’s order and by the exercise of extreme self-restraint, she refrained from questioning her upon the matter of her behaviour on the night of the great tide. That Columbine would have enlightened her had she done so was exceedingly doubtful. But there was no doubt that something very unusual had taken place. The little white roses that Rufus presented as a daily offering would have told her that, apart from any other indications. She would have questioned Rufus, but something held her back; and Adam, when urged thereto, flatly refused to interfere.
Adam, rejuvenated and jubilant, went whistling about his work as of yore. His boy had come back to him in the flesh, and he was more than satisfied to leave things as they were.
“Leave ’em alone, Missus!” was his counsel “Rufus he knows what he’s about. He’ll steer a straight course, and he’ll bring her into harbour sooner or later. You leave it to him, and be thankful that curly-topped chap has sheered off at last!”
Mrs. Peck had no choice but to obey, but her anxiety regarding Columbine did not diminish. The girl was so listless, so unlike herself, so miserable. It was many days before she summoned the energy to dress, and even then she displayed an almost painful reluctance to go downstairs. She seemed to live in continual dread of some approaching ordeal.
“I believe it’s Rufus she’s afraid of,” was Mrs. Peck’s verdict.
But Adam scouted the idea as absurd. “What will you think of next, woman? Why, any one can see as he’s quiet and well-behaved enough for any lass. She’s missing the curly-topped chap a bit maybe. But she’ll get over that. Give her time! Give her time!”
So Mrs. Peck gave her time and urged her not at all. She was not very friendly with Columbine in those days. She disapproved of her, and her manner said as much. She kept all suspicions to herself, but she could not behave as if nothing had happened.
“There’s wild blood in her,” she said darkly. “I mistrust her.”
And Columbine was fully aware of the fact, but she was too wretched to resent it. In any case, she would never have turned to Mrs. Peck for comfort.
She came downstairs at last one summer evening when Mrs. Peck was busy in the kitchen and no one was about. She had made no mention of her intention; perhaps she wanted to be unhampered by observation. It had been a soft, showery day, and there was the promise of more rain in the sky.
She moved wearily, but not without purpose; and soon she was walking with a hood drawn over her head in the direction of the cliff-edge where grew the sweet bog-myrtle and the little roses.
She met no one by the way. It was nearing the hour for the evening meal, nearing the hour when Mrs. Peck usually entered her room with the daily offering of flowers that filled it with orange fragrance. Mrs. Peck was not very fond of that particular task, though she never expressed her reluctance. Well, she would not have it to accomplish tonight.
A bare-legged, blue-jerseyed figure was moving in a bent attitude along the slope that overlooked Rufus’s cottage and the Spear Point. The girl stood a moment gazing out over the curving reef as if she had not seen it. The pool was smooth as a mirror, and reflecting the drifting clouds. The tide was out. But, stay! It must be on the turn, for as she stood, there came the deep, tolling note of the bell-buoy. It sounded like a knell.
As it struck solemnly over the water, the man straightened himself, and in a moment he saw her.
He did not move to meet her, merely stood motionless, nearly knee-deep in the bog-myrtle, and waited for her, the white roses in one great, clenched hand. And she, as if compelled, moved towards him, till at last she reached and stood before him, white, mute, passive as a prisoner in iron fetters.
It was the man who spoke, with an odd jerkiness of tone and demeanour that might have indicated embarrassment or even possibly some deeper emotion. “So you’ve come along at last!” he said.
She nodded. For an instant her dark eyes were raised, but they flashed downwards again immediately, almost before they had met his own.
Abruptly he thrust out to her the flowers he held. “I was getting these for you.”
She took them in a trembling hand. She bent her face over them to hide the piteous quivering of her lips. “Why–do you get them?” she whispered almost inarticulately.
He did not answer for a moment. Then: “Come down to my place!” he said. “It’s but a step.”
She made a swift gesture that had in it something of recoil, but the next moment, without a word, she began to walk down the slope.
He trod through the growth beside her, barefooted, unfaltering. His blue eyes looked straight before him; they were unwavering and resolute as the man himself.
They reached the cottage. He made her enter it before him, and he followed, but he did not close the door. Instead, he stopped and deliberately hooked it back.
Then, with the low call of the sea filling the humble little room, he turned round to the girl, who stood with her head bent, awaiting his pleasure.
“Columbine,” he said, and the name came with an unaccustomed softness from his lips, “I’ve something to say to you. You’ve been hiding yourself from me. I know. I know. And you needn’t. Them flowers–I gathered ’em and I sent ’em up to you every day, because I wanted you to understand as you’ve nothing to fear from me. I wanted you to know as everything is all right, and I mean well by you. I didn’t know how to tell you, and then I saw the roses growing outside the door, and I thought as maybe they’d do it for me. They made me think of you somehow. They were so white–and pure.”
“Ah!” The word was a wrung sound, half cry, half sob. His roses fell suddenly and scattered upon the floor between them. Columbine’s hands covered her face.
She stood for a second or two in tense silence, then under her breath she spoke. “You don’t believe–that–of me!”
“I do, then,” asserted Rufus, in his deep voice a note that was almost aggressive.
She lifted her face suddenly, even fiercely, showing him the shamed blush that burned there. “You didn’t believe it–that night!” she said.
His eyes met hers with a certain stubbornness. “All right. I didn’t,” he said.
Her look became a challenge. “Then why–how–have you come to change your mind?”
He faced her steadily. “Maybe I know you better than I knew you then,” he said slowly.
She made a sharp gesture as if pierced by an intolerable pain. “And that–that has made a difference to your–your intentions!”
He moved also at that. His red brows came together. “You’re quite wrong,” he said, his voice very low. “That night–I know–I was beyond myself, I was mad. But since then I’ve some to my senses. And–I love you too much to harm you. That’s the truth. I’d love you anyway–whatever you were. It’s just my nature to.”
His hands clenched with the words; he spoke with strong effort; but his eyes looked deeply into hers, and they held no passion. They were still and quiet as the summer sea below them.
Columbine stood facing him as if at bay, but she must have felt the influence of his restraint, for she showed no fear. “There’s no such thing as love,” she said bitterly. “You dress it up and call it that. But all the time it’s something quite different. And I tell you this”–recklessly she flung the words–“that if it hadn’t been for that tidal wave I’d be just what you took me for that night, what Aunt Liza thinks I am this minute. I wasn’t keeping back–anything, and”–she uttered a sudden wild laugh–“if I’ve kept my virtue, I’ve lost my innocence. I know–I know now–just what the thing you call love is worth! And nothing will ever make me forget it!”
She stopped, quivering from head to foot, passionate protest in every line.
But the blue eyes that watched her never wavered. The man’s face was rock-like in its steadfast calm. He did not speak for a full minute after the utterance of her wild words. Then very steadily, very forcibly, he answered her. “I’ll tell you, shall I, what the thing I call love is like?” He turned with a sweep of the arm and pointed out to the harbour beyond the quay. “It’s just like that. It’s a wall to keep off the storms. It’s a safe haven where nothing hurtful can reach you. You’re not bound to give yourself to it, but once given you’re safe.”
“Not bound!” Sharply she broke in upon him. “Not bound–when you made me promise–“
He dropped his arm to his side. “I set you free from that promise,” he said.
Those few words, sombrely spoken, checked her wild outburst as surely as a hand upon her mouth. She stood gazing at him for a space in utter amazement, but gradually under his unchanging regard her look began to fail. She turned at length with a little gasp, and sat down on the old horsehair sofa, huddling herself together as if she desired to withdraw herself from his observation.
He did not stir, and a long, long silence fell between them, broken only by the ticking of the grandfather-clock in the corner and the everlasting murmur of the sea.
The deep, warning note of the bell-buoy floated presently through the summer silence, and as if in answer to a voice Rufus moved at last and spoke. “You’d better go, lass. They’ll be wondering about you. But don’t be afraid of me after this! I swear–before God–I’ll give you no cause!”
She started a little at the sound of his voice, but she made no movement to go. Her face was hidden in her hands. She rocked herself to and fro, to and fro, as if in pain.
He stood looking down at her with troubled eyes, but after a while, as she did not speak, he moved to her side and stood there. At last, slowly and massively, he stooped and touched her.
She made no direct response, only suddenly, as if his action had released in her such a flood of emotion as was utterly beyond her control, she broke into violent weeping, her head bowed low upon her knees.
“My dear!” he said.
And then–how it came about neither of them ever knew–he was on his knees beside her, holding her close in his great arms, and she was sobbing out her agony upon his breast.
It lasted for many minutes that storm of weeping. All the torment of humiliation and grief, which till then had found no relief, was poured out in that burning torrent of tears. She clung to him convulsively as though she even yet struggled in the deep waters, and he held her through it all with that sustaining strength that had borne her up safely against the Death Current on that night of dreadful storm.
Possibly the firm upholding of his arms brought back the memory of that former terrible struggle, for it was of that that she first spoke when speech became possible.
“Oh, why didn’t you leave me to die? Why–why–why?”
He answered her in a voice that seemed to rise from the depths of the broad chest that supported her.
“I wanted you.”
She buried her face deeper that he might not see the cruel burning of it. “So did he–then.”
“Not he!” The deep voice held unutterable contempt. “He wanted to make his fortune out of you, that’s all. He didn’t care whether you lived or died, the damn’ cur!”
She shrank at the fierce words, and was instantly aware of the jealous closing of his arms about her.
“You aren’t going to break your heart for a dirty swab like that,” he said, with more of insistence than interrogation in his voice. “Look you here, Columbine! You’re too honest to care for a beast like that. Why–though I pulled him out of the quicksand and saved him from the sea–I’d have wrung his neck if he’d stayed another day. I would that.”
She started at the fiery declaration, and raised her head. “Oh, it was you who sent him away, then?”
Her look held almost desperate entreaty for a moment, but he met it with the utmost grimness and it quickly died.
“I didn’t then,” he said, with rough simplicity. “He made up his mind without any help from me. He knew he couldn’t face you again. It’s not a mite of good trying to deceive yourself now you know the truth. He’s gone, and he won’t come back. Columbine, don’t tell me as you want him to!”
His expression for the moment was formidable. She caught an ominous gleam in the stern eyes, but almost immediately they softened. He uttered a sigh that ended in a groan. “Now I’m being a brute to you, when there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for your sake.” His voice shook a little. “You won’t believe it, but it’s true–it’s true.”
“Why shouldn’t I believe it?” she said swiftly. She had begun to tremble in his hold.
He looked at her with an odd wistfulness. “Because I’m too big an oaf–to make you understand,” he said.
“And that is why you have set me free?” she questioned.
He bent his head, almost as if the sudden question embarrassed him. “Yes, that,” he said after a moment. “And because I care too much about you to–marry you against your will.”
“And you call that love?” she said.
He made a slight gesture of surprise. “It is love,” he said simply.
His arms were still around her, but she had only to move to be free. She did not move, save that she quivered like a vibrating wire, quivered and hid her face.
“Rufus!” she said.
“Yes?” His head was bent above hers, but he could only see her black hair, so completely was her face averted from him.
Her voice came, tensely whispering. “What if I were–willing to marry you?”
Something of her agitation had entered into him. A great quiver went through him also. But–“You’re not,” he said quietly, with conviction.
A trembling hand strayed upwards, feeling over his neck and throat, groping for his face. “Rufus”–again came the tense whisper–“how do you know that?”
He took the wandering hand and pressed it softly against his cheek. “Because you don’t love me, Columbine,” he said.
“Ah!” A low sob escaped her; she lifted her head suddenly; the tears were running down her face. “But–but–you could teach me, Rufus. You could teach me what love–true love–is. I want the real thing–the real thing. Will you give it to me? I want it–more than anything else in the world.” She drew nearer to him with the words, like a frozen creature seeking warmth, and in a moment her arms were slipping round his neck. “You are so true–so strong!” she sobbed. “I want to forget–I want to forget that I ever loved–any one but you.”
His arms were close about her again. He pressed her so hard against his heart that she felt its strong beating against her own. His eyes gazed straight into hers, and in them she saw again that deep, deep blue as of flaming spirit.
“You mean it?” he said.
Breathlessly she answered him. “Yes, I mean it.”
“Then”–he bent his great head to her, and for the fraction of a moment she saw the meteor-like flash of his smile–“yes, I’ll teach you, Columbine,” he said.
With the words he kissed her on the lips, kissed her closely, kissed her lingeringly, and in that kiss her torn heart found its first balm of healing.
* * *
“Well, what did I say?” crowed Adam a little later. “Didn’t I tell you if you left ’em alone he’d steer her safe into harbour? Wasn’t I right, missus? Wasn’t I right?”
“I’m not gainsaying it,” said Mrs. Peck, with a touch of severity. “And I’m sure I hope as all will turn out for the best.”
“Turn out for the best? Why, o’ course it will!” said Adam, with cheery confidence. “My son Rufus he may be slow, but he’s no fool. And he’s a good man, too, missus, a long sight better than that curly-topped chap. Him and me’s partners, so I ought to know.”
“To be sure you ought,” said Mrs. Peck tolerantly. “And it’s to be hoped that Columbine knows it as well.”
And in the solitude of her own room Columbine bent her dainty head and kissed with reverence the little wild white roses that spoke to her of the purity of a good man’s love.
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