HotFreeBooks.com
The Beach of Dreams
by H. De Vere Stacpoole
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"We will want a fire and an axe will chop wood," said she.

"Ay, and where are you to get the wood?" asked La Touche. "There's not a tree on this blasted place, nor the sign of one."

"Well, we'll have to look—there may be trees inland—there's sure to be bushes of some sort—anyhow we will take these things up to the cave, they will be safer there."

The baling tin of the boat caught her eye, she included it amongst her prizes.

This baling tin, like a psychological instrument, exhibited the mind of Bompard as though that said mind had been scooped out and placed in it.

To him it was a baling tin; here there were no boats to be baled out—where was the use of it?

To the woman it was a possible pot to boil things in if they could get a fire and things to boil.

She explained and Bompard saw the light. La Touche saw it, too, but promptly pointed out that they had no fire and nothing to boil. He seemed to find an odious satisfaction in the fact, a satisfaction which Bompard faintly reflected, and for a moment the girl seemed to glimpse in the two men a lethargy of mind almost unthinkable. A lethargy and laziness, mulish, and kicking at anything that disturbed it, that actually fought against betterment because betterment meant exercise of intellect and action.

She felt angry with them, just as a grown person feels angry with lazy children, and putting the belt with the knife round her waist and picking up some of her treasures she ordered the others to follow with the rest.

When they had been placed in the cave with the provisions, Bompard, after his great labours, cut himself some tobacco and La Touche lit his pipe. Then they sat down at their cave opening to smoke and rest themselves whilst the girl, who could not keep still, went back to the boat to explore the other lockers and see if by chance anything else of a useful nature might be found. The two men seated smoking at the cave mouth watched her as she went. She felt their eyes upon her and guessed that they were discussing her, but she did not mind.

The ceaseless activity of old Madame de Warens seemed to have descended on her through the air of Kerguelen. The will that Prince Selm had divined in her had been aroused; the surroundings seemed to call her to action from every side; the past and the future seemed phantoms before the tremendous and insistent present. Fate could perhaps have broken her spirit only in one way, by casting her upon the sordid. If she had been socially shipwrecked and thrown onto a Paris slum she might have gone under. Here where everything was clean, where the air was life, where nothing was sordid, she swam; here she was miraculously filled with a new energy and an extraordinary new interest as though she were peeping at things for the very first time.

The forward locker was now empty, she hunted in the others and discovered two more Maconochie tins that Bompard had overlooked, some cotton waste, a roll of thick copper wire and a bradawl.

She collected the lot and brought them up to the cave before which her companions were seated.

She handed them to La Touche, who, without getting up, leaned back and pushed them as far into the cave as he could reach, then he resumed his pipe whilst Cleo standing and shading her eyes looked away up and down the beach as though measuring its possibilities.

"I found a lot of things down there this morning before the tide was high," said she. "There were star-fish, big ones like what I have seen on the beach at Bordighera; the Italian people eat them. I'm sure there must be lots of food to be found here on the beach. Then there is a big break in the cliffs lower down that seems to lead inland. I think the best thing we can do is to start now and hunt about and see what we can find. You two can go inland, and I will go along the beach. It's absolutely necessary to find any sort of food, and wood to make a fire."

The smokers were disposed to argue.

Yes, it was quite true, one must look round, but there was grub enough for a month and there was plenty of time before them. Then La Touche began to argue about star-fish. He had never heard of people eating star-fish. If they were to be condemned to eat stuff like that it would be better to quit. One might have fancied from his tone that it was Cleo's fault that such a suggestion should be made.

Cleo listened patiently and Bompard sat evidently approving. It was almost as though the two were in league against her, just as children get in league against an adult who insists on unpleasant duties or uncongenial food.

But a will was at work stronger than theirs and presently, tapping out their pipes, they rose up. La Touche, at her direction, placed the new found Maconochie tins, the cotton waste, the bradawl and wire with the rest of the stores, far back in the cave, and then, following her, they lumbered along down the beach in the direction of the cliff break like two schoolboys after a governess.

The cliff break was a narrow gully piercing the basalt and bending upon itself; here they parted, the men striking up the gulley and the girl continuing her way along the beach.

"And be sure to look out for some wood," she cried after them, "any sort of wood."

"Ay, ay," said Bompard, "we'll be on the look out right enough."

Then they vanished and she pursued her way alone, picking up things as she went, turning over shells and thinking of her companions.

The wind had fanned up again to a strong breeze but the sound of the surf had fallen with the receding tide and the stretch of wet sand below high tide mark was strewn with huge kelp ribbons, masses of seaweed, shells, all empty, cuttle fish bones and the star-fish despised of La Touche.

Then she came upon something that gave her a grue, it seemed at first like a white rock, it was a skull. The skull of some enormous creature half-bedded in the sand just above the tide mark, possibly cast up in some storm. She thought it might be the skull of a whale and as she stood looking at it, suddenly, the desolation around came in upon her with the fact that she was absolutely alone.

Suppose the men lost their way—suppose that they never came back? The thought clutched her heart like a hand. To be here, alone, absolutely alone, forever!

For a moment panic seized her and the wild impulse came upon her to turn and run back to the cave. Then she mastered herself, fighting down the surging in her throat, and continuing her way steadily and with renewed strength. She had not cast the thought away, she had mastered it and as she went she contemplated it as a victor contemplates the dead body of an assailant.

Then she saw the penguins, she had not noticed them before, they were drawn up in long lines at the base of the cliff and the sight of them destroyed the desolation just as the skull had crystallized it around her.

A great pow-wow was going on amongst the penguins. Three birds, separate from the others, were standing, two facing one another bowing and discussing something, the third standing by, putting in a word now and then and now and then coming right between the disputants.

She watched them for awhile and then went on. She had no time to waste. The thought of coming back empty handed after all her talk to the men pursued her. She was looking for food and had found none—nothing but the star-fish.

The gulls evidently found plenty of food. But for a human being there seemed nothing, and as she went on and on the thought of what would happen when those tins in the cave were empty came at her just as the terror of finding herself alone had come, and this thought was not to be combated by an effort of will simply because it was born of Reason.

Her clear and practical mind saw starvation, over-leaped the slender food barrier that held hunger only a month away from them and wandered in a wilderness where nothing was.

She had reached the rock surface now that stretched away level and smooth, broken by cracks and pot holes and strewn here and there with weed. The cliffs had fallen away, giving a view of the broken country and the mountains with their snow-covered tops, immense, wrapped in distance under the dull grey day, remote, yet clearly defined in that air, crystal clear as the air of Iceland.

It was like looking at Silence herself, silence set off and explained by the beach noises, the sound of the surf, the calling of the terns, the mewing of the great white gulls.

She saw Kerguelen as it is, as it was, as it ever will be. Standing there alone she saw it for the first time in all its utter nakedness. If no food were to be found on the busy beach, what food could be found in that carved, silent, cruel land where not a single tree shewed in all the miles of desolation?

A stealthy scraping sound behind her made her wheel round.

Up from a rock pond which she had passed without examining had risen a crab, its body was not bigger than the two fists of a man put together, yet it moved standing high up like a spider on slender stilts that if stretched out would have measured four feet or more. She watched it with dilated eyes as it scrambled and hurried along, vanishing at last like a spectre in some cleft of the rock. There was something of a skeleton about it as well as something of a spider, it was like a caricature of food drawn by Famine. It made the whole beach hideous for a moment and it made the food hunter almost afraid to go on. She crushed the fear and went on, reaching a place where the rocks ceased and a broad level of sand stretched to where the rocks began again and further on the river ran down.

Where the sand met the further rocks a huge conical stone stood with a gull roosting on its top, and just as a person fixes on some object as the limit of his walk she determined to go as far as this stone and then turn back.

As she drew close to it the gull flapped its wings and flew away and she saw that the thing was not a stone but the figure-head of a ship, the form of a woman with ample breasts, broken and scarred by years of weather and stained with the droppings of gulls. The arms were gone, but the great face remained almost in its entirety staring away across the sands and the sea.

It had once worn a crown, but the crown was broken away all but a little bit on the left side of the head and it had an appearance of life that almost daunted the girl as she stood looking, watching it, and listening to the singing sound of the beach echoes and the mewing and crying of the gulls.

Then as she moved closer her foot struck on something half buried in the sand, it was a balk of timber, ships timber was all about, sanded over, and in places half uncovered. Here was firewood enough for twenty years. In the figure-head alone there was enough to supply their wants for a long time to come.

She sat down to rest on a projecting piece of this timber near the figure. Close up to it like this it lost its touch of life and became simply a block of wood, and from this point she could see the beach over which she had travelled stretching away and away to the Lizard Point with the foam breaking around it and flown about by the never-resting gulls.

She had come nearly three miles and she had found something worth finding by just keeping on.

She remembered the spectre crab. It had nearly turned her back empty-handed, but she had kept on and she registered that fact deeply in her mind, dwelling on it with a pleasure she had never felt before.

Then she fell to thinking of the ship that all this belonged to and the storm that must have driven it here. The weeds of the high tide mark did not come within ten feet of the wreckage, so the waves must have come a hundred feet or more beyond where she was sitting. Perhaps it was at night with all this coast roaring in the darkness and the wind yelling above the shouting of the waves. And all that must have happened years ago, to judge by the work of the weather on the once gaily painted woman and the depth the timbers had sunk in the sand.

She rose up, and before starting back she glanced inland towards the mountains across the broken country.

Then she shaded her eyes.

Beyond the fringe of the beach and amongst the high broken rocks stood a cross.



CHAPTER X

THE CROSS

The thing itself startled her less than the fact that she had not seen it before. It was as though it had been put up whilst she sat to rest.

It was so striking, so palpably evident that anyone coming along towards the figure-head as she had done must have been attracted by it. To verify this she walked a few yards away and even as she did so the cross vanished, shut out from sight by the rock to the left of it. Only from the point of view of the figure-head could it be seen.

It was as though the beach had tried to frighten her again.

She came towards it, noticing as she came the shortness of the arms. It was less a cross than a sign-post, a sign-post raised on a mound of small rocks; it was tarred to preserve it from the weather. From the left limb close to the post a metal box was hanging by a wire, and on the post itself, a few feet from the base, there was a plate of galvanised iron nailed to the wood. On the plate were stamped some words.

She stepped upon the mound and read: "Kestrel Expedition. Cache I. Don't disturb 19—"

The date was three years back.

The cache, whatever it might be, was under the mound. Also, this thing had evidently nothing to do with the wreck, for the embossed metal plate must have been prepared in some civilized country for the purpose to which it had been put.

She reached up and tried to detach the box and pulling on it brought down the slat of wood that formed the arms of the cross, the nails that had held it having rusted away.

Then, having detached the box, she examined it. It was an ordinary sailor's tobacco box, she pressed the spring, opened it, and found a piece of paper folded in four and inscribed as follows, the writing done with a purple indelible pencil:

Opened the cach. Took nuthing out. Stuck in som extry goods Put the ship about. To any one that finds it in this blasted hole Sam Slacum, Master Mariner. Thresler 19—

Then as an after thought:

"Keep up your spirits."

The date was a year after the date on the post. The cache had not been visited evidently since then. For three years it had lain here, and for three years, evidently, only one ship had put in. This dismal thought took all the pleasure away from the find, she sat down on the rocks forming the mound and holding the paper in her fingers gave way for a moment to a depression that came against her like a black, surging sea. Then she remembered that the cross had been only visible from one point, that vessels might have been here and not have seen it, that men might even have landed and found it without leaving the fact behind them, after the manner of the writer of this paper.

And then, suddenly, and as if from the sky came the thought of Providence, the feeling that she had been led along the beach to find the wood and to find this. The remembrance of how she had been saved from the Gaston de Paris rose up in her mind also—saved almost by a miracle.

To a person torn from civilization and flung into the arms of Nature the most terrible thing is the sense of the amorphous, the feeling that there is no structure in this world where houses are not and laws are not and streets are not, no power to intervene between oneself and injury, no thread to cling to. The idea of a Providence to such a person is like brandy.

The girl remembered the words she had spoken that morning to her companions when she said that one must not think here but work. There was no use in thinking of the past or the future, of ships coming or not, they had been taken care of so far and the feeling came to her that this would be so to the end.

She rose up, put the paper back in the box and the box in her pocket, then she turned to the cache.

She walked round the mound to a spot where the covering rocks had fallen away a bit and going down on her knees began pulling them apart and carrying them off one by one, dumping them a few yards away. Her rings hindered her and taking them off she put them in the tobacco box and the box in her pocket. Under the rocks lay a covering of sand, she fetched the arm of the cross and scraping away at the sand came upon something hard, it was the end of a barrel. Then she stood up, flushed with her work and satisfied.

The stores were there, whatever they might be, and with the help of the two men they would easily be uncovered. The question whether they would be of any use after all the years they had lain there recurred to her, but she put it aside. They would soon see.

Then she started back for the caves taking the slat of wood with her as a trophy. As she went the recollection of the find followed her agreeably, she did not know which to congratulate herself most upon, the wood of the wreck or the cache. Then came the dismal thought of winter, begotten of the idea of fires. It was the middle of August. Winter lay ahead. If no ship came to take them off what would their life be like during the winter months? Imagine this place at Christmas, covered perhaps with snow! The gloom of this idea pursued her for a mile or more till all of a sudden she stopped and laughed aloud at her own stupidity. It was not autumn, it was spring. They were south of the line and summer lay before them, not winter. That gloomy ghost, fear of the Future, which spoils so many men's lives in Civilization, had tricked her and made her miserable and as she cast it from her and pursued her way she said to herself again: "I will not think, here the person who thinks and broods is lost."

When she reached the caves the men had not yet returned; leaving the slat of wood leaning against the cliff she came down to the boat and stood for a moment looking at the sea. The tide was far out now and coming in again, the sea had fallen to a gentle glassy swell and the treacherous wind had died away to a faint breeze. Out there where the waves were coming in and at the limit of the sands rocks were uncovered, shaggy, black rocks that seemed covered with fur. She came down to them and found that the fur was a coating of mussels. Here was another find. She began to pick them and then, running back to the cave for the baling tin, filled it to the brim, and placed it in the boat. Having done this she sat down with her back to the boat to rest and wait for the men.

They ought to have returned by this. The thought that some disaster had happened to them came to her and tried to creep into her mind, but she drove it out promptly, stamped on it and began to think of how they would cook the mussles. They would make a fire with the slat she had brought back, it was tarred and would burn finely, with that and some of the bottom boards of the boat, unless Bompard could be persuaded to go and cut some wood from the wreckage three miles away. Then she thought how fortunate it was that men smoked. La Touche had a Swedish match box nearly full of matches and Bompard had a tinder box, one of the sort that makes a spark by the striking of a wheel against a flint.

Then she yawned.

She had been in the open air since early dawn and it was now noon. She was not tired, but she was filled with a craving for something, yet she could not tell what this something was that she wanted and without which she felt somehow lost. Then she knew—it was a roof.

A person accustomed to live under a roof and suddenly condemned to live in the open suffers nothing for the first few hours. Then there gradually comes upon him a weariness and distress almost unimaginable to those who have not experienced it. He craves not only for a roof but for walls around him to protect him from the great open spaces that seem sucking away his individuality. A man living absolutely in the open without tent or cave or house wherein to concentrate himself would surely and without doubt either become mad or descend to the level of the beasts.

She came up the beach to the cave where she had slept, went into it, and sat down, her mind finding instant relief from the craving that had filled it. Her hands went up to her hair and began to arrange it as best they could. Had she been alone on the beach she would have taken the pins out and left it loose for the winds to comb and blow about, but the thought of the men prevented her. She did not like the idea of their seeing her going about with her hair down; after her experiences in the boat it seemed absurd to quibble over a thing like this and she tried to argue with herself without avail. It seemed to her that if she went about in neglige like that she would lower herself. How? There was nothing unwomanly in flowing hair, there was nothing indelicate. No, but women of her class never appeared before men in that fashion, she would lower herself socially.

A fool would have laughed at her, holding that amidst castaways there was no such thing as social position, and, though fools are not inevitably wrong in their opinions, he would have been wrong.

Though Bompard and La Touche had dropped the "mademoiselle" in addressing her, they treated her since landing with a certain respect which would have been wanting had she been a woman of their own class.

The class difference held and was a greater protection to her than anything else. In their eyes she was not a woman, but a lady, a fact that chilled familiarity, or worse, and, with the aid of her superior intelligence, gave her authority.

She felt this instinctively and determined that at no time and in no manner would she allow her position to degrade.

Then, having done what she could to her hair she took the rings from the tobacco box and put them on. She would have much preferred not to have worn them, they irritated her, but they were part of her insignia and she put them on.

As she was putting the tobacco box back in her pocket something looked in at her. It was a rabbit, a grey fat rabbit that had lopped right to the cave mouth; it sat up for a moment on its hind legs, looked in, and then lopped off without any hurry, as though a girl seated in a cave were an accustomed object and a human being something not to be afraid of.

This fearlessness of the rabbit would have started her on a long and dismal train of thought had she not checked herself in time and like the man in the haunted house who kept the fear of ghosts away by thinking of plum puddings, she started to work, re-folding the sail that had served her for a pillow the night before; then she took the oilskin coat out and shook it, and folding it, placed it by the left wall of the cave with the sou'wester on top of it. She was tidying her house.

Then she went into the men's cave and did a bit of tidying there, stacking the tins more neatly and putting the odds and ends together. The sight of the cotton waste gave her an idea and going down to the boat she emptied the mussels from the baling tin on to the sand, filled the tin with sea water and bathed her face and hands, drying them on the cotton. She had finished this operation and had got the mussels back in the tin when a shout caused her to turn.

It was the men, they were coming along the beach from the break in the cliffs. Bompard leading, La Touche lagging behind.

Bompard was carrying something under his arm, it was a Kerguelen cabbage. La Touche carried nothing.



CHAPTER XI

THE CACHE

When she lay down that night on the hard sand, with the sailcloth beneath her head, she could not sleep. The wretchedness of having to lie down fully dressed, of being unable to change her clothes, fell on her like a blight.

She lay fighting the problem. It was impossible to go on like this. One might live with little food, but to live always without undressing and changing one's things was impossible. This problem was insoluble, or seemed so. Then she found a half solution. She would discard her stockings and under garments, make a bundle of them and put them under the sailcloth, she would not wear them again, she would suffer from cold, no matter, anything was better than that feeling of being fully dressed always. The weather, besides, was fairly warm. She would learn to do without shoes as well as without stockings. She would have to go about without shoes or stockings. She thought of the men. Strangely enough the thought of going about without shoes or stockings seemed less repulsive to her than the thought of going about with her hair loose.

As she lay revolving this business in her mind the whale birds flitting about in the darkness outside suddenly ceased their crying and through the silence came a vague mysterious sound that deepened into a humming like the drone of a gigantic top; the humming became a roar, the roar of rain. Rain falling in solid sheets, coming across the land like a moving Niagara, now taking the beach and now the sea. Never had she heard such rain as this, falling in the black and utter darkness. The shelve of the beach saved the cave from being flooded and the beetling of the cliff kept it dry and within a couple of feet of the entrance but it could not keep out the rain smell, the raw smell of Kerguelen carried from inland, the smell of bog patches and new washed dolerite and bitter vegetation, keen, like the smell of the Stone Age. Then after a bit the first great onslaught slackened.

The girl raised herself on her elbow, then she rose and cast off the oilskin coat that had served for a blanket. She undressed in the darkness, made a bundle of her stockings and her Jaeger underclothes and placed them beneath the sailcloth, then removing the comb from her hair and letting it fall she came out into the blackness and stood in the torrential rain.

It beat on her head and shoulders and breast, it cascaded down her limbs, soothing as the hand of mesmerism, refreshing, delightful beyond words, then she came back into the cave and, finding the cotton waste, dried herself as well as she could, dried her hair and twisted it into a knot, put on her blouse, coat and skirt and covered herself with the oilskin.

She had solved the question of a bath and change of clothes, at least for the moment. The discomfort of the rough tweed of the skirt against her unprotected limbs, of the hard bed, of the sailcloth pillow with its vague smell of canvas and jute, all these were nothing to that other discomfort. These were physical, that was psychical.

She fell asleep and slept till long after dawn. When she came out the rain had ceased and through air fresh as though from the hand of Creation vast clouds were rolling away towards the islands over a blue-green sea.

They had made a fire on the night before and had cooked some of the mussels in the baling tin, the rest had been put by to cook for breakfast; hot food of any sort is a revelation if you have been condemned to live on cold stuff for any time, but this morning there was to be nothing hot. The firewood, one of the bottom boards of the boat chopped up, had been left out in the rain. The sight of it, all soaked, made the girl forget her bare feet and her hair roughly tied up in a knot. The housekeeper that lives in every woman rose up in revolt, all the more so as the guilty ones tried to defend themselves.

"As for me," said La Touche, "I was listening to the rain, it drove everything else out of my head."

"That is so," said Bompard, "I thought every moment we would be flooded out. It was no time for a man to be thinking of firewood."

"Well, you will have no fire and nothing hot," said Cleo, "and those mussels will be wasted—they won't keep, but there's no use in saying any more about it—only you must learn to think of things. It's not pleasant, I know, to have to look ahead but one has to do it. You see I am not wearing my boots and stockings, boots wear out and stockings wear out quicker, so I just looked ahead last night and said to myself—'your stockings will soon be worn into holes, so you must begin now to learn to do without them.' It's not pleasant, but it has to be done. If that ship we ran into had looked ahead we would not have been wrecked."

"That is true," said Bompard, anxious to get off the main subject. "If those chaps had eyes in their heads they wouldn't be feeding the fishes."

"It wasn't all their fault," put in La Touche. "If those chaps on the bridge hadn't put the engines on we wouldn't have rammed her as we did."

"Well," said Cleo, "there is no use in going back over things. We have to get breakfast and then go and open the cache."

She had told them of the cache overnight and, to her wonder, the thing had interested them, so this morning when they had finished their biscuits and beef she found not the slightest difficulty in making them start.

She put on her boots for the journey and then they reeled along the beach in the usual order, Cleo first, the two others following; the great skull made them halt and discuss it for a moment but the figure-head when they reached it held them entirely in its spell.

She could scarcely tear them away, they discussed it from every point of view, argued over it, pondered over it and were only brought to their senses by a hint that it would have to be chopped up for firewood.

Then, when they reached the cache, there was another long pause for discussion, the two sitting down to smoke whilst they talked it over.

It was not till she set to work pulling more stones away that they began to get busy; then when once started they laboured like negroes. The glimpse of the barrel end seemed to inflame them, but indeed they did not want even that, for the business they had set their hands to had all the fascination of treasure hunting mixed with the thrills of house-breaking. Here was "stuff," plunder of some sort, who could tell what?

An hour and a half of labour brought them sweating to the end of the business and the presiding gulls saw exposed to the light of day two big barrels, two long cases and an amount of canned meat and vegetables enough to stock a small shop, also a harpoon of the old type and two shovels placed by the long cases. Then after a rest of half an hour the barrels were sampled. One contained flour, the other blankets and mens' clothes, sweaters and coats and trousers. One of the long cases contained kitchen utensils and tin cups and plates, also knives and forks and spoons.

The other contained "comforts," tea and coffee and sugar in sealed tins, some rolls of tobacco, drugs and a few surgical instruments. All the equipment, in fact, necessary for an expedition of a dozen men for six months. Not a drop of liquor.

Perhaps that was why the girl was more overjoyed by the details of the find than the mariners.

Bompard openly expressed his mind.

"Not a bottle of wine or a drop of rum, swabs."

"Well, you've got some tobacco," said Cleo, "and there's tea and coffee and cups and saucers, and a teapot—no coffeepot—well one can make coffee in anything—" She was running over the stores in her mind, standing, reviewing them with no thought of anything else and her soul filled with a joy and satisfaction absolutely new.

Blankets! Tea! Coffee! and clothes—even mens' clothes if it came to the worst. One might have fancied her to have fixed definitely in her mind that she was to spend a very long time on the shores of Kerguelen and to have accepted the terrible prospect with equanimity. It was not so. She was living in the moment, so entirely in the moment that these things were tremendous and vivid and compared with them Art, Music, Religion, Ambition, and the gauds of Civilization were as nothing.

This power to live in the moment is the form of strength that brings men through battles and women through adversity. It fells cities and builds them. On Kerguelen it is salvation. For, here to think of the future, unless in terms of material necessities, to dream, to brood, means death or madness.

But Bompard and La Touche, resting themselves after their labours, were not living in the moment nor in the past nor in the present, they were living in that strange sad land called the Might-Have-Been. They might have been in the way to a jolly booze by now if that fool who provisioned the cache had not forgotten the drink. They were thankful for nothing. They had food, they had clothes, they had tobacco. They were glad enough of the blankets, but even the thought of the blankets could not relieve their depression.

They were not drunkards, but the cache had given them hopes of drinks. These hopes shattered they sat like discontented children who had been promised sweets and disappointed.

But this did not last long, the Hopeless is its own antidote and after half a pipe of tobacco their cheerfulness, such as it was, returned and they fell to discussing with the girl the best way of treating the stores.

Bompard, considering the difficulty of transporting the stuff to the caves, proposed that they should move their abode right up to the cache.

Cleo pointed out that there were no caves here, so, unless they moved the caves as well as their belongings, they would have nowhere to sleep in.

"I think the best thing we can do," said she, "is to take what we want and then cover up the rest till we want some more."

"Put the stuff under the rocks again?" asked Bompard.

"Yes."

"Mon Dieu!" said La Touche.

It was not what he said but the way he said it that angered the girl.

La Touche was a problem in her mind. She could understand Bompard but she could not quite understand La Touche. It seemed to her that he was one of those people who without much intelligence, yet, or perhaps because of that fact, make fine centres of rebellion. She could fancy him leading a mob to tear down something that vexed him, and everything seemed to vex him, at times.

But though she was not clear about La Touche she was quite clear about herself and she was determined to be his master. She felt instinctively that he was the leader of Bompard and that Bompard alone would have been a much better individual, in many respects.

"There is no use in saying 'Mon Dieu,'" said she, "the thing has to be done. The gulls and the rabbits will ruin everything if we leave things about. Come, Bompard."

Bompard rose up at the order and began to assist in sorting out the things they were to take back with them. Then La Touche, not to be out of the business and perhaps ashamed of himself, or of his position as an idler, joined in.

Had she given the order direct to him he might have revolted; she had conquered him for the moment none the less.

First they began to sort out the things to be kept for immediate use. A saucepan, three tin cups, three tin plates, knives and forks, the teapot and kettle, a canister of tea, sugar and salt. The canned stuff, including thirty cans of vegetables, Cleo left untouched. She determined to keep it in reserve and depend upon the cabbage plants, one of which Bompard had brought back yesterday.

Then came the question of the flour, that too must be kept in reserve and the opening they had made in the top of the barrel closed up properly. This operation took time and was conducted with a good deal of grumbling which fell on deaf ears. The thing was done and that was the main thing. Four blankets were taken from the other barrel and that too was closed. Then with the shovels the whole lot was sanded over and the rocks replaced, the girl helping in the work as well as directing.

When everything was finished they made three bundles, using the blankets as holdalls, and started back.

It was now noon and the breeze that had been blowing ever since dawn had died away, but great clouds were banking up over the islands, vast, solemn, leaden-coloured clouds rolling up from the far sea and piling one on the other like alps on alps.

They had nearly reached the caves when a roll of thunder like the ruffle of muffled drums came over the water, but they got under shelter before the rain began to fall, just a few heavy drops, at first, and then in a moment a cataract.

The islands vanished, the sea vanished to within a few hundred yards of the beach, the voices of the gulls and the breaking of the waves became merged and vague in the hiss of the sheeting rain.

"The chaps that left the truck in that cask forgot to shove in some oilskins," said La Touche as he undid his load.

Cleo had come into the men's cave to help to unpack. Half-way back she had taken her boots off. Owing to the absence of stockings her right heel had become chafed and she had taken them off determining not to wear them any more. She was kneeling now, bare-footed, taking the things from Bompard's bundle and La Touche's remark made her look up. It was the tone rather than the words that irritated her. The recollection of an oilskin coat which she had used when fishing in Norway the year before rose in her mind. It had been put away for a long time and when taken out had been found all stuck up and quite ruined.

"You can't be much of a sailor," said she, "not to know that oilskin doesn't stand packing. The men who buried these things did. If they had known that you were so particular about rain they might have put in an umbrella."

Dead silence followed this thrust of the tongue which she instantly regretted, not because of hurting La Touche's feelings, but because she instantly felt that it had helped to widen the division between her and her mates. The extraordinary fact was that she, having assumed the responsibility of office, was, seemingly, held responsible by the others for all unpleasant happenings; she felt that the rain of Kerguelen was now, in a way, being laid at her door.

Then, again, she had singled out La Touche as a direct opponent. She felt that he and she were already matching each other and there was likely to be a struggle between them for dominance.

Women have been gifted above men with an instinctive knowledge of character. She divined in La Touche a character weak yet capable of violence, incapable of leading yet jealous of being led, and especially of being led by a woman. That was the danger point.

However, there was no use in trying to say anything smooth and she went on with her work, helping to stow the things and, when that was finished, taking off two of the blankets to her own cave.

A fire was impossible owing to the rain so they dined off biscuits and canned stuff, cold.

Bompard and La Touche on this little expedition had discovered a water source only a quarter of a mile inland, a deep pond cut in the rocks and fed by the rains. Bompard referred to it as he ate.

"But as long as the boat holds together," said he, "we don't want to bother about water; she'll catch and hold all we want. I've heard tell it rains here months on end."

"When it's not blowing," said La Touche. Cleo said nothing. It came to her almost as a new impression that conversation as we know it was almost impossible with her companions. They had no outlook over anything but the material and they seemed to see nothing but the black side of things. She felt also that any attempt to rally them and cheer them would be dumbly resented and would only help to widen even more the division between her and them.

When the meal was finished she put the plates out in the rain to wash them. Then a bright idea came to her and getting the roll of wire she asked La Touche to shew her how to make rabbit snares.

La Touche took the roll of wire and held it in his hands for a moment.

"This is all very well," said he, "but where is your wire cutters?"

They had nothing to cut the wire with, and he seemed to look on the fact as a triumph of his own cleverness over Cleo's, till Bompard intervened and shewed how, by knotting the wire and pulling hard, a break might be made. This accomplished, and three lengths of wire having been procured, the surly one proceeded to make a snare and to demonstrate how it might be set.

At the end of the business the girl regretted that she had ever started it. She had put herself under the tuition of La Touche and allowed the intimacy of master and pupil, allowed even in this slight way that he was her superior.

A yelling wind from the mountains arose that afternoon and drove the rain away across the islands. It held for half an hour and then of a sudden ceased and a howling wind from the islands rose and drove the rain back again towards the mountains.

The sea suddenly seemed to go mad, with cross currents meeting. Waves seemed fighting waves and the gulls seemed filled with the general torment, clanging and blowing about hither and thither like leaves in autumn.

Cleo went to her cave and wrapping herself in one of the blankets, with the other folded double to lie upon, took her place upon the floor with her head on the sailcloth.

It was her first really bad moment. Her first moment of real depression. The rain and the fact that their position as regarded food was secure, so that there was nothing to fight against at the moment, conspired to overthrow her.

Hitherto she had fought bravely and the struggle had kept her up; the sudden easing of the situation had brought new forces against her. Time suddenly appeared before her eyes asking: "How are you to kill me? You can't, you have no weapons. Would you like a book? Would you like embroidery work to do, companions to talk with, music to listen to? Fate, under the name of civilization, gave you all these and more, they have been taken from you and now you see me as I am, the great terror."

She fought this Bogey by thinking of La Touche. She had raised La Touche against herself. She knew that something in herself had risen against La Touche.

She felt that his respect for a woman of the higher classes was, as regarded herself, wearing thin, owing to propinquity. That he resented being "bossed" by a woman, that her superior quickness of mind and energy vexed him and that one day he would try to master her. He was of the type that is too mean to rule, yet hates to be ruled. There was also the jealousy of the male at the superiority of the female. She was physically weaker than he, a fact that means little in civilized life where power is in the hands of Order, but which means everything in primitive life. And they were steadily drifting to the primitive.

These thoughts, troublesome enough, were still excellent in their way. They gave her occupation for her mind.

Then she fell asleep, awaking towards evening to find Bompard at the cave mouth telling her that supper was ready.



CHAPTER XII

THE QUARREL

Next morning broke fine. She was awakened by voices quarrelling and came out to find a breezy and absolutely cloudless day, with the sea running smooth and the sunlight on the far islands.

The two men, who had fallen out over some trifle, were wrangling like fish-women, Bompard having the worst of it, as his ineffectual southern oaths were no match for the language of the other.

The girl stood looking at La Touche, but he seemed not to mind in the least.

Then she turned away and walked down to the boat.

She heard Bompard say: "There, you have sent her off, talking like that," and what La Touche replied she could not hear, but she guessed it was something not complimentary to Bompard or herself.

The boat was half full of rain-water. She rinsed her hands in it, then, standing with the warm sun upon her, she almost forgot the men, looking at the purple islands and the gulls like new minted gold and the great arch of the bay lined out with a thread of creamy foam.

After a while, turning round, she saw that Bompard was lighting a fire with the remains of the wood and, coming up, she helped in the business.

He had arranged the little fire between pieces of rock so as to make a stand for the kettle, and La Touche was opening the hermetically sealed canister of tea with his knife; neither man was speaking and the meal passed off almost in silence.

She felt that any moment the quarrel might break out again and her instinct was to get away from them.

She had left the fisherman's knife and belt in her cave; she went to the cave and strapped the belt around her waist. The boat hook was lying on the sand; she picked it up and, carrying it, walked away down the beach in the direction of the cache.

The boat hook was a weapon of sorts and it was better out of the men's way; the knife was different. It had come to her that in this place it was better to be armed and she determined always to wear it.

But no sounds of quarrelling followed her, only the quarrelling of the gulls, and half a mile away, looking back, she saw that the men had separated. La Touche was standing by the boat and Bompard was walking towards the Lizard point. She sat down to rest for a moment and she watched the figure of Bompard. It grew smaller and smaller till it reached the point, then it vanished over the rocks.

She saw La Touche walk away towards the caves; he disappeared, and the beach, now destitute of life, lay sung to by the sea and flown over by the gulls. Nothing speaking of man lay there but the boat that looked like a toy cast there by a child. It held her eyes, focussed her thoughts, and became the centre of a sudden longing, a desire soul searching as the desire for water—the desire for civilization, for the things and people that she knew.

Her companions had become horrible to her. To go on living with them seemed appalling. The rocks, the sea, the gulls, even the rain, all these fitted with her mind—they seemed in some way familiar, but with the men she had nothing in common.

It is worse to be wrecked on a social state than on a desert shore. She was wrecked on both.

She recognised surely that at the rate things were going she would soon, so far from being above her companions, be below them on account of her weakness. She recognised that superiority of mind would count little after a while with these minds, incapable of distinguishing grades, or values, beyond money value and the distinction of master from man, and that sex so far from being a protection would be a danger.

Her brave mind allowed itself to be borne along for a while on these currents of thought, then it reacted against them, repeating again the old formula that to think, here, on other things than the moment and the material was to die or go distraught.

She got up and shifted her position, sitting with her back towards the boat.

She could see the penguins, now, drilling beneath the cliff and beyond the penguins the figure-head of the ship and beyond that the fuming beach with its snow storm of gulls. She was soon to see something that many would travel a thousand miles to witness, but unconscious of what was coming she sat watching the penguins, then with the boat hook point she began scratching figures on the sand, but with difficulty, on account of the length of the staff.

Sitting like this her eyes were suddenly attracted seaward to a point in the water beyond the line of the figure-head. Things were moving out there, moving rapidly and drawing in-shore and now, riding an incoming wave, like a half submerged canoe, she saw a dark elongated form. It came shooting through the foam just like a beaching canoe and as it dragged itself up the sand a sound like the far off roar of a lion came echoing along the cliffs.

She knew at once what it was, a sea elephant. Prince Selm had described them and how they came ashore at Kerguelen to breed, journeying there through thousands of miles of ocean and arriving in hundreds and thousands at different points of the coast.

This was the first of the great herd and, as she watched, more were coming, breasting the waves and breaking from the foam and coming up the beach like vast, rapidly-moving slugs.

The sight held her fascinated. Every newcomer saluted the land with a roar. They were the males; the females of the herd, still far out at sea beyond the islands, would not land to give birth to their young for another fortnight.

She watched till perhaps two hundred had beached, then the invasion ceased; there was no more roaring, and over the army of invaders, lumping along hither and thither on the flat rocks, the sea-gulls flew and screamed in anger or in welcome, who could say?

Prince Selm had spoken of how the sea elephants fought together on landing. He was wrong. The great, far-distant brutes instead of fighting seemed resting and sunning themselves and the girl, rising up, came along in their direction. She had forgotten Bompard and La Touche.

She reached the river which was spating from the recent rains, but great flat-topped rocks made it always possible to cross; she crossed it.

The sea elephants were close to her now and seemed not in the least disturbed by her presence, they lay here and there, vast brutes, twenty feet in height, weighing tons, raising themselves occasionally on their flippers and then sinking back to rest with a sigh of contentment.

She measured them with her eye, noted the short trunks that seemed so useless, the tusks, the old scar marks got in battle and the splendour of their strength and mass and muscle. Like the land elephants there was something about them terrible yet benign.

She drew closer. As regarded animals of any good sort she had the fearlessness of a child, the instinct that would have been terrified by a reptile or anything truly ferocious however masked by fur or feather. These things she felt to be absolutely harmless, as regarded herself, and they were a million years closer to her than the penguins.

The penguins had amused her, but for all their quaintness and politeness they seemed as far apart from her as mechanical toys. Her heart had not gone out to them with that love of living things which lies in the heart of children, of women and most men.

She drew closer still. The great brutes were now watching her steadfastly, but seemingly without fear. She had left the boat hook behind a mile away, dropping it because of its weight, and with the exception of the knife in her belt she was unarmed. Perhaps they knew this. Vague in their brains must have lain memories of great hurts when they were the hunted and men the hunters; but this vision evidently stored up no antagonistic feelings. Possibly they knew her sex and possibly the instinct which never failed them told them that she was friendly.

Less than ten yards away from the nearest bull she sat down on a piece of rock, and no sooner had she taken her seat than they seemed immensely closer and her own position one of absolute helplessness. With a sudden rush, moving with that swiftness with which she had seen them moving on first landing, the bull could have reached her, but the bull did not move, his lordship from the sea, filled with the absolute and complete contentment of the male at rest, moved only his trunk, he seemed sniffing her and the momentary fear that had seized her passed utterly away.

She could sniff him too. Just as cows fill the air with the fragrance of milk the herd filled the place with the scent of fish and fur and a tang of deep sea like the smell of beach, only sharper and fresher.

Then, just as people talk to horses and dogs, leaning forward a bit she began to talk to him.

The effect of the sweet soothing voice was magical, and for a moment not in the least soothing. The near bulls moved, evidently deeply disturbed in their minds. The majority, including the biggest and nearest bull, turned half away as if to get off, then turned again as if to renew their astonishment.

The girl laughed, the timidity of this vast force seemed to her less timidity than masculine awkwardness, as though a number of heavy old gentlemen, taking their ease in their club, were suddenly put to confusion and flight by a female charmer appearing before them.



CHAPTER XIII

WHERE IS BOMPARD?

When they had re-settled themselves she rose to go, nodded to them and turned away towards the river. Then she looked back. The big bull was following her and the rest of the herd were moving slightly in the same direction. The bull paused when she turned, then, when she went on, he continued following her, lazily and as if drawn by some gentle magnetic attraction.

Across the river she turned and waved her hand to them. Then she went on.

In some extraordinary way the creatures had made the place less lonely and the wonder of them pursued her as she walked, keeping to the sand patches where the rocks were and then striking along the great levels of pure sand.

Her feet did not hurt her and she was beginning to recognise that touch with the world which comes to those who walk without boots, something that humanity has all but forgotten, all but ceased to remember.

As she drew near the caves she looked for the men, but the beach was deserted. Then, looking into the men's cave, she saw La Touche lying on his back asleep, his pipe beside him and his arm flung across his eyes.

Where was Bompard?

He ought to have been back by this, and as she turned and looked up and down the beach a vague uneasiness came upon her.

It was as if for the first time she had recognized the value of Bompard in their small society. Bompard with his age and heaviness and patent honesty, despite his stupidity, was a presence not to be despised.

If La Touche had been another man she might have awakened him to make enquiries. As it was, she preferred to let him lie.

Bompard she had last seen crossing the rocks of the Lizard point. It was there that she must look for him.

She went to the cave where she had left her boots and put them on for the climb. When she reached the point she found the work easier than she had suspected. The rocks were not strewn at random, they were in reality breaks off and tables of the basalt; the whole point was like a great lizard that, creeping stealthily towards the sea, had been stricken into rock.

She climbed, and in five minutes was on the highest point with a new view of the coast before her. It was like looking at Ferocity. Here the rocks were broken and tumbled about, indeed, rocks, huge and spired like churches, cliffs black and polished with the washing of the waves, monoliths standing out in the blue-green water and all ringing and singing to the chime of the sea. Inland, canons of night and shoulders of dolerite and plains where nothing grew leading to great level bastions, fortifications that seemed built by rule and plumb line, with the markings of the basalt visible through the clear air. Basalt has that terrible peculiarity. It seems the work of a hand, it makes castles and fortifications whose ruled markings bear the inevitable suggestions of masonry.

And across all that not a sign of life save the wings of the tireless birds, teal and duck, cormorants, and beyond the seaward rocks the great sea geese fishing and the guillemots flighting and the white tern darting like dragon-flies.

Where was Bompard?

Had he, by any chance, come back and taken some other road off the beach? There was only one way: the break in the cliffs, beyond the caves. She thought it highly improbable that he would have come back only to leave the beach by another way, the descent from where she stood and towards the bed country was quite easy, alluringly easy. No, he would have gone on.

She sat down to rest and watch.

At any moment he might appear in the distance. From where she sat the sea lay straight before her and the far off islands, to the left the rock strewn coast, to the right the great curving beach.

Behind her the country stormed away, stern, grey-grim and treeless, to the foothills whose misty mauve lay stretched before the mountains.

Every now and then she would turn towards the left searching the country and cliffs with her eyes, but no form appeared.

She remembered now that he had talked about sea birds' eggs and how to get them. Might he have gone hunting for eggs over those cliffs and fallen?

She remembered also when the two men had come back from their expedition inland they had brought an alarming story of a bog like a quick sand. La Touche had blundered into it and he would have gone down only for his companion. They had also said something about pot holes like shafts in the basalt. She turned her mind away from these thoughts and passing her fingers through her hair removed the comb which held it in a rough knot, shaking it free to the sun and wind. She combed it with her fingers and rearranged it and then looked again—nothing.

It came to her suddenly that though she were to sit there forever the vigil would be useless, that Bompard had gone—never to return.

She reasoned with this feeling, and reason only increased her fears. It was now noon, Bompard was not the man to go on a long expedition by himself; he was too inactive and easy-going. No, something had happened to him and he might at that moment be lying dead at the foot of some cliff or he might have broken a leg and be lying at the foot of some rock unable to move.

She rose up and came swiftly down to the beach. Reaching the caves she found La Touche opening a tin. It was dinner-time.

"What has become of Bompard?" she asked. "Have you seen him since he went off this morning over those rocks?"

"Bompard," replied the other, "Mon Dieu! How do I know? No, I have not seen him, he is big enough to take care of himself."

"That may be," she replied, "but accidents happen no matter how big a man may be. He has not returned—"

"So it would seem," said La Touche, who had now got the tin open and was turning the contents on to a plate. "But he will return when he remembers that it is dinner-time."

Her lips were dry with anger, there was a contained insolence in the manner and voice of the other that roused her as much as his callousness. His mind seemed as cold as his pale blue eyes. All her mixed feelings towards him focussed suddenly into a point—she loathed him; but she held herself in.

"If he has not returned when we have finished dinner," said she, "we will have to look for him." She took a plate and some of the beef he had turned from the tin and with a couple of biscuits drew off and taking her place outside in the sun began her wretched meal. A rabbit that had run out on the sands sat up and looked at her as she ate, then it ran off and as she followed it with her eyes she contrasted the little friendly form with the form of La Touche, the dark innocent eyes with those eyes of washed-out blue, without depth, or, perhaps, veiling depth.

When she had finished eating she put the plate by her side and sat waiting for La Touche to make a movement.

Bompard that morning had left his tinder box behind him in the cave, she heard the strike of flint on steel. La Touche was lighting his pipe. She waited ten minutes or more, then she came to the cave mouth.

"Are you not coming to look for Bompard?" asked she.

"I'll go when I choose," said he, "I don't want orders."

"I gave you no orders," she replied, "I asked you, are you not coming to look for Bompard who may be in difficulties, or lying perhaps with a broken limb—and you sit there smoking your pipe. But I give you orders now; get up and come and help to look for him. Get up at once."

He sprang to his feet and came right out. It seemed to her that she had never seen him before. This was the real La Touche.

"One word more from you," he shouted, "and I'll show you who's master. You! Talk to me, would you! A—woman more trouble than you're worth. Off with you, get down the beach—clear!"

He took a step forward with his right fist ready to strike, open-handed. Then he drew back. She had whipped the knife from its sheath.

The boat hook, which she had brought back with her, was propped against the cliff behind her and out of his reach, he had no weapon.

She did not add a word to the threat of the knife. He stood like a fool, unable to sustain her gaze, venomous, yet held, as a snake is held by a man's grip.

"Now," she said, "get on. Go search for your companion and if you dare to speak to me again like that I will make you repent it. You thought I was weak being a woman and alone. You were going to strike. Coward!—Get on, go and search for your companion."

He turned suddenly and walked off towards the Lizard rocks. "I'll go where I choose," said he.

It was a lame and impotent end of his rebellion, but she held no delusions. This was only the beginning—if Bompard did not return.

She put the knife in its sheath and then she put the boat hook away, hiding it behind the sailcloth in her cave, then she went into the men's cave. La Touche's clasp knife lay there on the sand, it was not much of a weapon but she took it. She examined the dinner knives again. They were almost useless as weapons. Then she came out. La Touche had disappeared beyond the rocks and she came to the boat. There was nothing here in the way of a weapon that he might use, unless the oars. They were heavy, but he was strong. She determined to leave nothing to chance and, carrying the oars down the beach to the break in the cliffs, she hid them amongst some scrub bushes. Then she remembered the axe, sought for it and hid it.

Then she came back and sat down to reconsider matters.

The position was as bad as could be.

As bad as La Touche. Once let this man get the upper hand and she was lost. She would be his slave and worse. She had measured him finely. Instinct, never at fault, told her that to pull down anything above him would be meat and drink to La Touche's true nature and that his hatred of her superiority was deepened by the fact that she was a woman.

Were she weak he would beat her and make her cook for him, trample on her, make her his woman to fetch and carry, and, if Bompard did not come back, she was here alone with him and would have to fight this thing out.

Well, she could not fight it by brooding over it, and she was not helping to look for Bompard.

She drew the knife from its sheath and held the eight inches of razor sharp steel balanced in her hand for a moment as though admiring it. Then she replaced it in the sheath and started towards the Lizard Point.



CHAPTER XIV

THE DEATH TRAPS

From the highest shoulder of the point she could see La Touche clambering over the seaward rocks.

He seemed more in search of shells and seaweed than of Bompard. Then, climbing down, she reached the lower ground and struck off inland. If she did not succeed in finding Bompard she would at least succeed in avoiding La Touche.

Right from the Lizard Point the plain stretched to higher ground which marked the beginning of the sea cliffs, great rocks strewed the way and the ground was torn by the beds of small water courses, depressions that would suddenly become little rivers in the deluging rains; stunted bushes huddled as if for shelter at the rock bases and the voice of the sea came here, broken and mixing with the whisper of the bushes to the wind.

This place had once been a glacier bed, rounded boulders standing in pools of water told that.

A gull flying in from the sea and carrying a fish in its beak drew her attention; it was being pursued by a larger gull. They were both of the Burgomaster type, but the fish carrier was noticeable on account of the intense blackness of its tail plumage.

As they passed the fish dropped, fell on a patch of yellow ground just in front of the girl, sank, and vanished.

She stopped dead and drew back with a chill at her heart. Then she picked up a stone and cast it on the patch of ground. It vanished even more swiftly than the fish.

It was one of the bogs the men had spoken of. They had described the treacherous ground as white, this was yellowish and not very noticeable, it was also death and another dozen steps would have led her into it.

She advanced cautiously, reached the border line and kneeling down pushed her hand into the yellow mud. It was like pushing it into a cold slimy mouth. She could scarcely draw it out again, when she did the mud was clinging to her hand like a yellow glove.

She came back to one of the rock ponds and washed her hand, it was like trying to get rid of treacle and, as she washed, she tried to fancy what would have happened but for the gull, tried to picture herself being slowly pulled down into that cold darkness and entombed there forever.

Then, skirting the place of danger, she went on, cautiously, examining carefully the ground before her. She had not gone ten yards when it seemed to her that a patch right in front of her was ever so slightly darker and moister looking than the ground she was treading.

She picked up a stone and cast it on the patch. It vanished. Then she knew the feeling of the man who finds himself ambuscaded.

This place was a death trap, or, rather, a series of death traps, there might be pits lying in wait for her quite unnoticeable. She turned and began to retrace her steps, so shaken that she would not trust even the ground that she had already covered but kept testing it by casting stones before her.

From a little distance an observer might have fancied her engaged in some new sort of game.

Near the safety of the Lizard rocks her eyes, closely scanning the ground before her, caught sight of something. It was a half-burned match. No one else but Bompard could have dropped that match. He had started without his tinder-box, had evidently found that match in his pocket, lit his pipe and walked on. There was only one direction in which he would have walked unless he had struck inland, which was improbable. He would have made as she had made to cross to the higher ground.

Even if he had walked inland he would not have escaped, for, casting her eyes in that direction she could see yellow patches spreading between the rocks.

She knew now what had become of Bompard, and with lips dry as pumice stone she began to climb till she reached the point where she had sat that morning. If the mud had taken Bompard, had he cried out? If so, La Touche would have heard his cries, for the caves were not so far from the Lizard rocks.

La Touche was nowhere to be seen, but she had no fear about him, or only the fear that he would come back. Bompard was gone. Bompard was dead, she knew it as though she had seen him engulfed, and she was here alone, in this place, with La Touche.

She put her hand to her side automatically to make sure that the knife was there. Then she sat with her eyes fixed on the distant islands, haze-purple in the light of the westering sun.

The thought of the boat on the beach came to her with the idea that she might launch it and escape, make for the islands and put all that sea between herself and the man she hated. But she could not launch the boat single-handed and, if she could, it would have been impossible to work it single-handed with those big oars.

She could see the boat from where she sat and the line of the beach leading away past the seal-nursery and the sea elephant strand to the rocks that formed the north-eastern horn of the bay. In stormy weather those rocks would be invisible in the smoke of the breakers, to-day they were clearly defined. She could see the great seals as they moved slowly hither and thither and the ship's figure-head as it stood to this side of them and, like a pin point of white the great white skull on the sands, a desolate scene, but almost benign when compared to the savagery of rocks and cliffs visible on her other side and that sinister plain, where the death traps were set and waiting with the patience of malignity for what might come to feed them.

She had fought the human failing that makes men brood and trouble about the future, a failing that is mostly born of houses and artificial life; already the struggle against it was less. She was coming more and more under that which has dominion over all things that live in the open and have to fight for life—the moment. If she had examined her own mind she would have found that the death of Bompard, of which she felt certain, affected her far less than it would have done some days ago, that her desire to escape to the islands was caused by the hatred of La Touche more than by fear of the future with him.

She would have found that her capacity for hatred had increased and also her dangerous qualities, and she would have found all this because God had so ordered life that it is adaptable, making the defensive and offensive qualities of the being capable of increase or decrease in answer to environment or need.

She came back to the beach. It wanted, still, a couple of hours of sun-down. There was no sign yet of La Touche, but, just as she knew in her heart that Bompard was dead she knew that La Touche was all right. He had been keeping to the rocks by the sea, leaving that aside; she knew that he would come back. He was of the sort that remains unscathed when the better man is taken.

She had one dread; that La Touche might get the knife from her, throw it away, and be master by his superior strength.

She had his clasp knife in her pocket, but it was a thing of little account in a struggle. Well, she must be on her guard. Then came the thought: "But how can I be on my guard when I am asleep?"

Nothing would be easier, if he were really in earnest, than for him to creep upon her whilst she slept, and disarm her.

She tried to dismiss this idea. La Touche was not crafty enough for that and, besides, would he go to the lengths of a physical struggle? He had been on the point of hitting her, it was true, but that was in a moment of excitement. Was she not painting him in too desperate colours?

Argue as she would on the question, reason, instinctive reason, always came back with the same answer: "Be on your guard, that knife is the only barrier between you and heaven knows what. Without it you would be at the mercy of a superior force. La Touche is no melodramatic villain; he is, what is perhaps worse for you, a creature of low instincts, stronger than you. Beware of being at his mercy."

With her mind filled by these thoughts she set to work getting supper ready. La Touche had taken the tinder box with him, so a fire was out of the question and she contented herself by laying out the beef that had served for dinner, and some biscuits.

Then she saw that she had only laid two plates. Working half-unconsciously she had ruled Bompard out. She looked at the things lying there on the sand, then she turned away from them. La Touche had crossed the rocks and was coming along the beach. He was trailing a long ribband of seaweed he had picked up and as he drew closer she saw that he had left his ill-humor behind him.

"There was no sight of Bompard," said he, "he has not come back, then?"

"Bompard will not come back," replied the girl, "we will never see him again."

Then she told of the death traps beyond the rocks and of the match.

La Touche listened, standing, and still holding the ribband of seaweed in his fingers.

She could see that he believed what she said and yet his words gave the lie to what was in his face.

"Oh, Bompard will come back all right," said he. "He's not such a fool as to get into any of those bogs; he's sulking, that's all."

He shaded his eyes, looking back towards the rocks as though on the chance of seeing the missing one; then he sat down before his plate and helped himself to food and the girl, loathing him and the food as well, sat down and made a pretence of eating.

She noticed that he was cheerful, for a wonder. He ate with good appetite and shewed in his movements and manner and voice when he spoke a restrained vivacity new to him.

His blondness, the washed-out blue of his eyes, his features, his voice, she considered all these anew as she sat opposite to him. It seemed to her that anything truly manly about him had come from the sea; that essentially he was a product of Mont Martre or the Banlieu of old Paris. She loathed him now as only a woman can loathe a man and, woman-like, her loathing focussed itself upon his blondness and the colour of his eyes.

Then, when she had done with the pretence of eating she rose up and, leaving him to remove the things, walked down to the water's edge and along towards the break in the cliffs.

The tide was nearly out and the sea scarcely broke on the rocks; she had never seen it calmer nor the islands closer. They seemed to have drawn in shore during the last half hour and as she looked she saw a great flock of gulls coming landward, and, as she turned to watch them, she noticed the far-off mountain tops visible through the cliff break. They were fuming. One might have fancied that fires had been lit all along their tops and round the highest peak a turban of cloud was winding itself, coil on coil.

Then as she stood watching, and from away over, there came a rumble, deep and cavernous, as if a gargantuan dray were being driven over subterranean roads. It died out in echoes amongst the foothills and the silence returned broken only by the wash of the sea on the beach.

She turned towards the sea. It had altered suddenly in colour and from away beyond the islands the wind was coming. She could see it, raking the sea like a comb. Then it struck the beach and yelled away up the break in the cliffs like a hunter in a hurry to get to the wild work going on amidst the hills.

She turned back towards the caves.

La Touche had left the tin plates lying on the sand and the wind, which seemed to possess a hundred fingers, was chasing them about. He was trying to recapture them and as he brought them back he laughed. It was the first time she had seen him laugh. Then as he stowed them away he shewed a disposition towards intimacy and talkativeness.

"That's what the winds are in this place," said he, "no wonder ships steer clear of it."

"I'm not thinking of the wind," said she, "I'm thinking of Bompard."

"Oh, Bompard will come back all right," said he, "the grub's here and that will bring him. Bompard will come back all right."

"No," said she, "he will never come back and you know it."

She turned away from him. Dusk was now falling and as she entered her cave the wind from the sea suddenly fell dead. Almost immediately it began to blow again, but now from the land and as though this land wind were spreading a pall over the sky darkness fell suddenly and with the darkness she could hear the rain coming with the sound she had heard once before like the murmuring of a great top spun by a giant.

Then the rain burst on the beach with a roar through which came the hiss of the rain-swept sea.

The sound was almost welcome. As she lay in the darkness it seemed like a protecting wall between herself and La Touche. La Touche's ill-temper would have disturbed her less than his cheerfulness and amiability, born so suddenly and from no apparent reasons. She had determined not to sleep and she had lain down fully dressed; even to the oilskin coat and with her boots on; to-morrow she would go off and hide amongst the bushes beyond the cliff break and get some sleep, but to-night she would not close her eyes; so she told herself.

She had taken the knife from its sheath and placed it beside her, her hand rested on it. An hour passed, and now, as she lay listening to the pouring of the rain her fingers felt the pattern of the hilt. The hilt was striated cross-ways to give a better grip, and as her fingers wandered up and down the strictions the cross bars of a ladder were suggested to her. The steady pouring of the rain seemed to work on this idea and make it more real. Then she was climbing a ladder set against the cliffs. La Touche was holding it at the foot and Bompard was waiting for her at the cliff top. He helped her up and then the dream changed to something else, and to something else, till she woke suddenly to the recognition that she had been asleep for a long time and that fear, deadly fear, was clutching her by the throat.

She sat up, leaning on her elbow. The rain was still falling, though the sound of it was much less, and the blackness was so intense that it seemed moulded round her. She felt for the knife and found it. Then she lay down again, listening.

The tide was coming in and she recognised, and not for the first time, a curious singing, chanting echo that always accompanied the waves of the incoming tide.

Fear is reasonless, it is also Protean, and this sea voice coming through the night turned the fear of La Touche to the fear of Bompard. What if he were to return, cold and wet, from that terrible grave-yard beyond the rocks?



CHAPTER XV

THE STROKE

As she lay, listening, through the black darkness and the singing of the sea came a faint sound as of something dragging itself along the sand at the cave entrance. She clutched the knife and sat up. A waft of wind brought with it a tang of stale tobacco and rain-wet clothes. It was La Touche.

She drew up her feet and sat crouched against the sailcloth, the knife half-held in her lap, her fingers nerveless, her mind paralysed with the knowledge that now, immediately, she would have to fight, that the Beast was all but upon her. She knew.

She could hear him breathing now and the faint sound of his hands feeling gently over the floor of the cave. He was searching for her, the fume of him filled the place, he was almost in touch with her, yet still she sat helpless as a little child, paralysed in the blackness, as a bird before a crawling cat. Yet her right hand as though endowed with a volition of its own was tightening its grasp upon the hilt of the knife.

She had no longer reasoning power. Reasoning power and energy seemed now in the possession of the knife.

Then something touched her left boot and at the touch her hand struck out into the darkness, blindly and furiously, driving the knife home to the hilt in something that fell with a choking sound across her feet. She forced her feet from the thing that had suddenly fallen on them, rose, sprang across it and passed through the cave entrance with the surety of a person moving in broad daylight.

Then the pouring rain on her face brought her to her full senses and recognition of what had happened.

The knife was still in her hand and her hand was sticky and damp.

She said to herself: "That is his blood." The thought that perhaps she had killed him did not occur to her. The fear of him was still so intense, that it made him alive, alive somewhere in the surrounding darkness, and waiting to seize her. Then she began to steal off towards the sound of the sea. Twice as she went she stopped and turned, ready to strike again, then when the water was washing round her feet she came up the beach a few paces and crouched down.

The sea was at her back and the haunting dread of being followed vanished.

It was now that she asked herself the question: "Have I killed him?" Meaning:—"Have I freed myself of him,"—hoping this was so.

The terror behind her having vanished she was now brave. It seemed to her that the sound of the sea had become sharper; then she realized that the sound of the rain had ceased. Her mind seemed working in a dual manner and she had not fully recognized the cessation of the rain till the sound of the sea clinched the fact.

Through the clear night now came the melancholy crying of the whale birds, and through the broken clouds a ray of the moon shewed a faint light in which the cliffs began to stand out.

The incoming tide washed round her so that she had to move, it seemed determined to drive her up to the caves. She could see now the whole beach desolate of life and before her, vaguely sketched in the cliff wall, the cave openings.

She came along the sea edge till she reached the break in the cliffs, then, looking behind her again to make sure, she took refuge in the bushes.

For the last few yards before reaching them she seemed wading through tides of nothingness. In the shelter of the bushes she forgot everything.



CHAPTER XVI

ALONE

She was awakened by the light of day. Kerguelen had cleared its face of clouds and the new risen sun was on sea and mountains and land.

A whole family of rabbits were disporting themselves close to her in a clear space between the bushes and as she sat up they darted off, a glimpse of their cotton white tails shewing for a moment in the sun.

She was stiff from the damp, her clothes were wet despite the oilskin coat which she had left open, and her throat was sore, every bone ached as though she had been beaten. Her soul felt sick. It was as though the crawling beast of the night before had crawled over it like a slug, poisoning it. The knife lay beside her; she picked it up and looked at it; there were red traces upon the hilt and the lines in the palm of her right hand were red. She rubbed it clean with the damp leaves of the bushes, then she stood up, shaking and weak, heedless of everything but the friendly touch of the sun. Her fear was gone, but the effect of it remained in a sense of bruising and injury.

Out on the beach there was nothing, nothing but the breaking sea and the flying gulls and lines of long legged gulls stalking or standing on the sands, the 'get-away—get-away' of the kittiwakes came across the water and the barking of brent geese from beyond the rocks of the Lizard Point. The boat lay there on its side, everything was the same.

She drew towards the caves. Nothing stirred there. Then she halted and, changing her course, came right down to the water's edge. From here she could see the three cave mouths dark cut in the cliff. She watched them for a moment as though expecting something to appear, then she came up towards them, walking more cautiously as she drew near, just as she had walked on the plain where the death traps were.

The light shone into the cave where she had slept. She saw a naked foot with toes dug into the sand and beyond the foot a form lying on its side.

Then she drew back with a cry; something was moving there. A rabbit dashed out of the cave and scuttered away along the cliff base. Then she knew.

La Touche was dead, he would never crawl again. She had killed him. She cast the knife on the sand and wiped the palm of her hand on her dress half unconsciously, gazing at the foot.

The terror of him had burned away anything in her mind that might have fed remorse. She had not killed him consciously. Searching her memory she could vaguely recollect having struck out against something appalling in the darkness. Now she knew and guessed all, and she could have hated him only that death kills hatred.

She came to the mouth of the men's cave and sat down in the sun, the soreness of her throat, the weariness of her very bones, the feel of her horrible wet clothes, all these filled her with a craving for the sun and its warmth and light, fierce as the craving for drink. She spread out her hands to it, then, with shaking fingers she began to take off her clothes. They clung to her like evil things. Had this been a day of pouring rain she might just have lain down and died.

Without getting up, and leaning on her elbow, she spread out the skirt and coat and other things on the sand beside her, then she stretched her aching limbs to the warmth.

The wind had fallen to almost a dead calm, and as she lay she saw little rabbits stealing out to play in the sunshine on the sands. She watched them running in circles like things on wheels and moving by clockwork. Then she closed her eyes, but still she saw them circling, circling, circling.

Then she was in the toy department of the Magazin du Louvre and a shop-woman was shewing her toy rabbits that ran in circles, five francs each.

She awoke at noon; the sore throat was gone, her bones no longer ached and the great beach lay under the heat of noon, humming like a stretched string to the touch of the sea.

Her left arm and side and thigh were scorched by the sun, but that was nothing; the sense of illness was gone, and her mind, quite clear and renewed, had regained its balance.

She remembered everything. La Touche was lying there in the cave, dead. The knife that had killed him she could see lying on the sand where she had dropped it; she had killed him. All these monstrous facts seemed old, settled and done with and of little more interest than the things and events of a year ago.

What seemed new was the beach and its desolation—its emptiness. It was as though a crowd of people had suddenly vanished from it; a crowd that any moment might return. The place seemed waiting and watching.

She cast her eyes towards the rocks of the Lizard Point and then towards the cave mouth; then hurriedly she began to put on her clothes, now dry and warm, and having dressed she stood for a moment again looking about her.

She could see the penguins in the distance going through their endless evolutions, and the rhythmical sound of the sea came from near and far mixed with the chanting and crying of the gulls. At any moment Bompard might appear labouring over those rocks, at any moment La Touche might step from the cave where he lay. That is what the beach told her, though she knew that the forms of the two men would appear no more; that she was here alone, utterly alone.

She took shelter from the sun in the men's cave. Bompard's tinder box was lying on the sand and half a box of Swedish matches. The men's blankets were tossed in a corner and the provisions and utensils were in their proper place. On a plate by the bags of biscuits lay the remains of the beef from last night's supper; she took it and ate it with a biscuit, sitting on the floor of the cave and staring before her out at the strip of beach where the boat lay on its side with the sea breaking beyond.

On the day the men had gone off inland on their expedition she had terrified herself with fancies of what it would be like were she to find herself here alone. Her imagination had gone far from the reality.

The thing had happened; the men were gone, gone forever, yet she was not alone. They filled the place by their absence far more than they had filled it by their presence.

The louder cry of a gull outside seemed hailing Bompard, the rustle of a rabbit on the sands seemed the coming of La Touche, the sound of the sea spoke of them, the boat seemed only waiting for them to launch it. They, whom a million years would not bring back.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse