Plunging thus, helpless, unseeing, they seemed to be flying as swiftly as the wind. A wild ride—to where? Were they driving out into the lonely heart of the deep, there to perish in a last long dive? Or was it shoreward, with oblivion coming in the dreadful grinding and crashing and shattering of timbers?
Neither had the heart for even a faint hope for safety; and yet Dan, with his hands stiffened on the wheel spokes, fought on. The girl, with her head bowed, sat still, her hands clinging to his shoulders. They did not speak. Twice Dan had attempted to utter a cheering word, but the wind had swept the sounds from his lips.
Both knew that at any moment the derelict might succumb to the forces striving to destroy her. And, as they sat waiting, the realization came to both what a small part of the incidents of this heaving night the dismemberment of their washing vessel would be. In the vortex of the riot, when the heavens and the ocean seemed united in the creation of chaos, they sensed the littleness of their own lives and the vanity of their affairs.
As a thunderous roar of wind smote the vessel Dan felt the pressure of Virginia's hand on his shoulder suddenly tighten. He turned to her, and through the darkness caught the vague outlines of her face, which was fixed on the faint blur which marked the forward part of the hulk.
His eyes followed just as her fingers loosened their grasp. He saw nothing save the dull flash of swirling waters and the amorphous blotch of hull. Slowly her hand tightened again; and then, as he looked he caught above the deck an impression of something moving. It seemed to be something that was revealing itself to the instinct rather than to their visual senses.
As the wind passed on, leaving that confused murmur, broken only by the dogged rush of waters, Virginia spoke to Dan with trembling voice.
"What is it?"
Dan's eyes were still staring forward. He spoke through his clenched teeth.
"Wait a moment." More accustomed to the gloom ahead he was able to determine that the sail had torn from the boom and was waving out from the shattered mast-top like a flag. The mast itself seemed to be reeling. Was the hull opening and disintegrating?
Almost without volition he half arose to his feet. The girl followed his action, still clinging to his shoulder. Dan inclined his head to speak to her, when with a shriek the wind came again. There was a dull crash forward, a splintering and rearing of wood, a quivering of the entire hull; and then, as though hurled by a giant hand, a huge section of wood, whether a part of cargo or hull Dan could not tell, shot out of the night, crashing a hole in the roof of the cabin behind which they were crouching, and then bounded over their heads into the sea.
Both remained still, as though carved in stone. Forward there was a crashing sound, a series of blows, as though some great hammer were engaged in disintegrating the hull. There was a grinding of wood against wood which caused the deck under their feet to tremble. Still neither moved. The terrible thought that the derelict was going to pieces was in both their minds. They had no doubt of this now. They simply waited.
Virginia had no great fear. Her dominant thought was the dread of the first immersion in the cold, cruel, black waters. But it would not last long. Not long, not long—these two words kept ringing in her mind. Her shoulders were drawn up, as though preparing for the shock.
Dan had not moved. Half crouching, half kneeling, his eyes were fastened upon the vague deck ahead. Now, as though the elements had worked to give him sight, the black sky was suddenly seared by a long, lurid line of lightning. It was but the fraction of a second; it was long enough. In that blue glow the derelict took form, grim, ghostly, heaving, as a spirit picture might be thrown upon a black cloth, every detail limned in filmy perfection.
With a cry Dan leaped to his feet and seized an axe lying by his side.
"We are not breaking," he shouted. "The mast has torn out of its step and is pounding us. I am going to cut it away. We shall be all right."
The girl heard his voice, caught the enthusiasm of it, but distinguished not a single word. As he crawled slowly by the side of the cabin to the steps leading to the deck she half arose as though to follow him.
"Dan, Dan," she cried, "don't leave me!"
He waved her back, and a second later had gained the deck. For a few minutes she sat there, wondering, fearing, and then in a lull in the storm she heard the blows of the axe. A great wave rose over the quarter and ran forward with a roar. There came a shout. She listened. The sounds of the axe were heard no more.
"Dan!" she called. "Dan!" Her words were whistled away on the wind.
In desperation she worked her way to the steps and peered down upon the deck. She heard nothing but the wind and the waves. And then with her hair streaming wild, with lips bloodless, she stood upright and rushed to the deck. The wind tore at her, flying water buffeted her, and the hulk swayed under her feet; but, as though endowed with superhuman power, as though scorning the elements to which she had bowed through the night she ran forward, heedless of everything but that her companion was in danger.
Where she was going she knew not, nor cared. A hand grasped the end of her slicker and brought her to a halt. She looked down and saw Dan stretched upon the deck, the mast lying across his legs. She knelt at his side.
He drew her head down so that her ear was near his mouth.
"Not hurt," he said coolly. "The wave knocked the mast across me just as I had almost cut it through. Find the axe. Two strokes will free me. Hurry. Another wave may drown me."
The girl swept her hands hastily over the deck. She found the axe a few feet from Dan, and with that frenzied, nervous strength which comes to women in times of stress, she hacked at the mast, which Dan had almost cut through when the wave struck him. Three times the edge of the implement glanced. She ground her teeth, raised it a fourth time taking careful aim. Then she let fly with all her strength, and the axe bit deep. She raised it again, smiling now. Two strokes, three strokes, four strokes. The keen blade severed the last inch of wood, the hulk pitched forward, and the mast with its boom and its tangle of rigging and canvas rolled from Dan and plunged into the sea.
He was on his feet in a second, and with his arm about her waist they ran astern and reached their posts at the wheel in safety. But there was no need to bother with the wheel now. There was nothing to do, in fact, but sit inactive and accept what came to them.
And yet, had they but known it, Fate, which it may be said takes the lives of the young grudgingly, had worked for their ultimate good. The Gulf Stream had carried them to a point off Hatteras, and there the storm had enveloped them. As Dan had surmised, it was from the south-east, and laboring and flailing as sorely as she might, the winds and the waves had steadily lashed the vessel toward safety.
They could not know that. It was only after an unusual interval in the powerful wind-blast that Dan looked upward and suddenly held up his hand. He looked at the vague form of the girl and bared his teeth in a quick, mirthless smile.
"The wind is changing," he muttered. "What now?"
There came another rush of wind. But it was not so strong as its predecessors had been; and looking into the sky he could see the cloud movement. He shook Virginia by the shoulder, and there was a triumphant ring in his voice as he shouted into her ear,
"The gale is passing!"
Gradually but surely the shrieking of the elements diminished; the seas were palpably falling. Great, dark shapes could now be seen rushing across the lightening firmament, and once the girl, stretching her arm upward, exclaimed, as through a rift overhead she caught a glimpse of a little star.
Half an hour—there came a great peace.
Now, a man and a woman out of the chaos—with the world and all its civilization and its manners and its men and its affairs as though they had never been, as though the two had lived for a flashing minute in some old dream—the strain of years that makes for ceremony and diffidence and convention and custom suddenly stopped, turned backward.
They were the first man and the first woman on the verge of upheaval, having felt fear, not as we feel it, but in a dull, instinctive way—wondering horribly. Just two, just a man and a woman, emerging from all the destructive might of the world.
She—not Virginia Howland now—just She—turned toward the man who crouched with one hand still clutching the wheel, the other lying loosely, palm downward upon the deck. Her face was filled with the glow of returning blood, her hair streamed, her eyes shone.
Gone, the tempest. The waves were lashing, surly, hissing a monotone as old as Time is old. The darkness was the gloom of an age before the sun was born. The air was filled with low sounds that had been dead for aeons. And she turned to him, and he turned to her.
Her bosom was rising and falling; he could hear her quick, hard breathing. As though without volition, she moved a step forward, and with a low cry held out her arms to him, trembling no more, her heart filled with a wild, joyous song. Suddenly she felt his breath upon her face, felt herself crushed in his arms, as she would be crushed. Gently he kissed her upon the lips, and then again and again and again. For a moment she lay dumb in his arms, and then as he drew back his head she put her arms around his neck and held his lips to hers. So they stood.
A force far greater than the unharnessed might of the ocean now thrilled and filled and exalted them. Slowly she raised her hands and passed them over his face, lingeringly; once more she felt herself drawn to him, and laughed joyously.
As Dan turned, out of the darkness ahead he saw a light. He looked again. He saw it plainly now, that steady white disc with its red sector.
"Cape Henry!" he cried. "Good God!"
The girl started.
"What?" she said, wonderingly.
"Cape Henry to port, Virginia. We'll have a tug in an hour. The dawn is coming now. The sun will see us in Newport News."
Virginia regarded him dreamily, and tightened her clasp about his neck.
"Newport News," she said; "and what do I care! You have not kissed me in an age."
The next afternoon Horace Howland sat in his office at No. 11 Broadway, staring moodily at his desk with its accumulation of papers. For long, it seemed, he had lived in an agony of suspense. Friends had come and gone and said their words, and passed on unrecognized and unheeded.
How many times had he wished that the Ward liner which had crossed the path of the boats and picked them up the morning after the fire had left him at least to perish. A full half-dozen tugs and steamships had been sent to the scene of the conflagration there to cruise about until some trace of the missing should be found. A Clyde vessel had sighted the burned steamship, a mere mass of charred and twisted frames and plates, sinking low in the sea. A Government cruiser and a revenue cutter had joined in the search.
But no word had come. An hour before, a messenger boy had arrived with a telegram. It was one of many received by Mr. Howland every day, and he tossed it, unopened, upon a pile of similar envelopes upon his desk.
Now, as he turned his eyes yearningly out of a window which gave upon the harbor, the name of a reporter was announced. Mr. Howland had talked and talked and talked to reporters until he was sick of them as of every one and everything else. He turned to his secretary.
"See that fellow, will you?" he said.
In less than a minute the secretary hurried into the office with an excited manner, the reporter at his heels, bearing a long sheet of tissue paper filled with typewriting.
"I have come to see you about the rescue of your daughter, Mr. Howland."
The merchant wheeled quickly in his chair.
"What!" he cried. Then he sprang to his feet and seized the manuscript which the reporter held out to him. Quickly he read it. Then he read it again, more slowly. He read it a third time. His hand flew to his forehead, and he staggered back to his chair. The secretary stepped to his side, but Mr. Howland waved him away.
"When did this come?" he asked.
"A few moments ago," replied the reporter.
"Well," and Mr. Howland gazed at his informant with suffused eyes, "I thank you for your kindness. You must know how grateful I am. Of course there is nothing I can tell you—nothing you want to know."
The reporter hesitated a moment.
"No," he said, "I don't suppose you can tell me much. Except—"
"Eh?" said Mr. Howland.
"Except—you read the despatch. It speaks of Captain Merrithew as Miss Howland's fiance."
"Yes." Mr. Howland's years of business resource and acumen were beginning to assert themselves. "Oh, fiance! I see. Romance will help your article. Well, there isn't any. Captain Merrithew and my daughter were engaged before we started on this Tampico jaunt." He looked at the reporter steadily. "Merrithew, you know, is really the Assistant Marine Superintendent of the Coastwise Company; also a stock-holder. He was sailing the Tampico merely for experience."
The reporter smiled at Mr. Howland.
"Merrithew is to be congratulated," he said.
"I fancy so," replied Mr. Howland. "In fact," he added, "do you know, I have reason to be quite sure of it."