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

She felt neither regret for the fate of La Touche nor sorrow for the fate of Bompard, all that seemed unreal, just as the darkness and terror of the night before seemed unreal. The real thing that touched her through everything was Expectancy. Expectancy, ghostly and attenuated, yet ubiquitous.

It brought her to the cave mouth before she had finished her meal. The beach seemed to say to her: "Come out and look!" and she came out and looked, and the line of foam and the wheeling or stalking gulls held her for a moment as though saying—a moment, a moment more and you will see something. They will come. Any moment now you may see Bompard crossing the rocks. La Touche is not in that cave, he is here, everywhere.

She came back into the cave and sat down and finished her meal, the food had renewed her strength and with renewed strength her indifference to all that had happened began to pass.

She had killed La Touche. The reality of that fact was coming home to her now; she did not reason in the least on the matter saying he deserved to be killed, that had all been settled long ago in her mind, but the fact that she had killed him was standing strongly out before her, also the facts that he was dead and lying quite close to her and that though she did not mind his dead body she was beginning to dread something else.

Dead, he was beginning to frighten her just as he had frightened her when living. Then she found that it was just the same with Bompard. He was frightening her too.

Suppose one or the other were to peep in at her, and nod at her—she pictured it and then crushed the picture in her mind and got up and came out again and stood in the sun.

Then she came down to the boat and stood with her hand on the gunnel, and, for a moment as she stood thus, the terror of utter loneliness came to her in a hundred tongues and ways, and always with reference to the men who had vanished.

It was impossible to stay here alone—alone—absolutely alone; like a frightened child her mind appealed against this terror; it climbed the vacant skies and passed over the desolate hills in search of comfort. Was there a God? To whom could she run for comfort, for escape—?

As if in answer to her wild but unspoken question came a far-off roar brought on the wind from the great seal beach.



CHAPTER XVII

FRIENDS IN DESOLATION

She turned her face that way and stood for a moment with the faint breeze blowing her hair. Then she came running up the beach to the caves. In the men's cave she stood glancing rapidly about her like a person in a burning house seeking what he may save.

She picked up the tinder box and the box of matches and put them in her pocket. Then she began to remove everything from the cave. Making a sack of one of the blankets, she filled it with as much as she could drag along and brought it to the break in the cliffs where she dumped the contents.

It took her three journeys. Then, having collected everything in a big pile, she sat down for a moment to rest. The things would be safe here till she could fetch them to her new home, and the weather would not hurt them, except, maybe, the biscuits.

The thought of the biscuits troubled her, and the picture of them lying exposed in one of the torrential rains. Then she caught sight of a cleft in the basalt. It was dry and big enough to contain the bags and she placed them there having taken out some of their contents.

These and a couple of tins of meat she placed in one of the blankets, making a sack of it. Then she remembered the knife she had left lying on the sand before the cave where the dead man lay.

She fought against the idea of returning for it. Then her will made her go.

As she picked up the knife she glanced once again into the cave and once again caught a glimpse of the naked foot with the toe dug into the sand; then, placing the knife in its sheath and running like a frightened child she reached the break, caught up the sack, the extra blanket and the axe, which she had hidden among the bushes, and started.

It was not a heavy load, fortunately. Had it been heavy she would have dropped it, for, once moving, she had to run. The idea that she was deserting people who did not want to be deserted pursued her; now and again she stopped and turned for a moment—nothing; the Lizard rocks lay just the same and the beach and the forsaken boat, just the same, and the jeering gulls; yet, when she turned again to go on she had to run.

Near the great skull her right bootlace, getting loose, nearly tripped her. She sat down and tied it and then went on, walking now, but swiftly, till, nearing the river and in full sight of her new companions, she found herself suddenly free.

The hounds of Fear had given up the chase. The great sea elephants had driven them away. Here was no longer loneliness.

The great beasts sunning themselves on the flat rocks seemed more numerous and, as she crossed the river, a monster coming in from the sea in a thunder of foam saluted the land with a roar.

She recognized, or thought she recognized, the great bull that had followed her, he was lying, to-day, half-tilted to one side, he looked drunk with sun and laziness and as she came amongst them and sat down, as she had sat that day, she found that though a hundred pairs of eyes were watching her, scarcely a burly figure moved.

They had grown used to her, perhaps, or perhaps they recognized that she did not fear them now in the least, or that she had come for refuge and friendship.

Then she rose up and passing amongst them as a friend amongst friends came towards the caves in the basalt cliffs. They were smaller than the caves to the west but they were dry and free from water drip. She chose one and put her bundle down with the axe beside it.



PART III

CHAPTER XVIII

GOD MADE FRIENDSHIP

The place was as populous as a town. That was the soul-satisfying fact which she absorbed as she sat with the bundle and axe beside her. To be lonely here one would have to be deaf and blind and without the sense of smell. Now that their attention was no longer strained by watching her the great brutes filled the place with all sorts of sounds, grunts and grumbles, puffs and snorts like the escape of steam from a locomotive and now and then the flop of a great body changing position. There was another sound she got to know and recognize, after a while, the grumbling and rumbling of their interiors. Infested with sea-lice they were always scratching. Quite close to the cave mouth three great bulls were lying and every now and then one of them would turn and twist round and scratch himself with his flippers, the nearest bull had lost an eye in some past battle and they were all scarred about the necks, and seen close like this, in their natural state and as one of their company, the marvel of them, was beyond speaking.

She took off the oilskin coat and laid it on the sand of the cave, took the things from the blanket and spread the two blankets out and folded them. As she moved about she saw that the bulls had turned slightly, attracted by her movements, but they shewed not the slightest sign of mind disturbance. Then, having placed the things in order, she came out and walked down to the water's edge, making a detour now and then to avoid treading on the flippers or the tail of a monster. On coming amongst them a few minutes ago she had felt not the slightest fear, but this walk in cold blood from the cliff to the sea edge made her hold her breath. She felt as she had felt that first day when she sat down close to them. Angry, and with a sudden movement, one of these creatures could have destroyed her as a man destroys a fly; but she held on, and was rewarded.

Not one of them shewed any wish to destroy her, or anger, or uneasiness. They had accepted her into their company by not attacking or ejecting her, she ran counter to none of their desires or needs and evidently her form called up no recollections of the beast Man in their dim brains.

Then she was a female. Sex is more than a physical difference between one being and another, one can fancy it as one of the outstanding signs of the Wild to be read by instinct, as instinct reads the weather or season signs, or the sea mile posts that lead the seals and sea elephants thousands of leagues to strike some particular beach as an arrow strikes the bull's eye of a target.

The female, unless with young, is not dangerous to the male. One may fancy that amongst the few but burningly important warnings and directions in the book of Instinct.

Here, at the sea edge and within a few feet of the breaking waves, she sat down on a projecting rock and tried to measure with her eye the vast herd. The whole beach from where she sat to where the flat rocks ceased a mile and a half away on her right was spotted with them and she noticed that here and there they were always putting out to sea and coming ashore again.

Making for a spot on the right, a hundred yards from her she saw one coming ashore, swift as an arrow, steering with straight steadfast eyes and landing with the water cascading from his huge shoulders, whilst on the left one was putting out to sea in a burst of foam.

Then, of a sudden, all the shore edge bulls got in commotion slithering about, raising themselves on their flippers and blowing off steam.

A sea elephant was coming towards the beach, moving with a speed thrice that of any of the others, his head was raised and she could see the eyes that seemed blazing with wrath or challenge.

Then, as he came thundering on to the rocks, he lifted the echoes with a roar that resounded for miles along the beach.

All the others had landed in silence.

She did not know that this was a newcomer, a belated bull, held days behind the arrival of the others by some chance of the sea. Maybe he had hung fishing off the South Shetlands or the Horn, or beached for repairs after some sea fight off the Falklands; whatever had held him he was late.

He came swiftly up the rocks, casting his head from side to side but unchallenged. There were no females there yet to fight for and they evidently recognized him as one of the herd and not a stranger. The herd instinct, without which a nation would be a mob, ruled here and gave the belated one his place, and after a while of squattering about and sniffing and blowing he settled down with quieted eyes to rest. He had reached one of the stopping stages of his life, with the surety with which he would reach the last, on some desolate beach or reef of the sea.

The girl watched him. Not only did these new-found companions chase away loneliness and ghostly fears, but they brought her comfort. They seemed so sure, sure of food and life and the right to live, so undisturbed; it was as though she felt the presence of the ghostly shepherd who looks after the flocks of sea and land and who counts even the sparrows. She cast her eyes towards the islands and the sea-line; some day a ship would come and all this would be a dream of the past. She knew it. Her mind went back over all that she had been saved from—the wreck, the deathtraps and worst of all—La Touche. It was strange to think that a man should be worse than the others.

If that fisherman's knife had not been included in the gear of the boat!

It was now, as she sat thinking this and watching the huge harmless things around her, that a hatred of La Touche came into her mind, a hatred that seemed to have been waiting to enter until her mind was at rest. He seemed to her evil itself. He seemed to her connected with all the disasters that had happened and part of them. He had been the lookout on the Gaston de Paris, his quarrel had sent Bompard to his death, he had nearly unhinged her mind with terror. Had he possessed the evil eye? Then, for the first time, she recalled her premonition of disaster, yet, how she had refused to let the yacht be put off its course. They might now have been at New Amsterdam only for that. Yet it was not her fault. She had refused to alter the course, not for any selfish reason, quite the reverse, she had refused because she did not wish to spoil the plans of her host. It was Fate, not blind Fate, because the premonition was full sighted, it was Fate obeying some order. And it seemed to her that she could read in the order that she was to be saved. Why? God only knew, but so she read the facts, and she would be saved to the end and go back to the life she knew, or had known and die, perhaps, at last an old, old woman.

It seemed to her that this coming on to the sea elephant beach was a stage in her great journey that had brought her definitely nearer to the end of her loneliness. And whether all this were true knowledge or whether it was only the fancy of the ego its effect was to give her peace.

Then, as she sat there the strangest lonely figure on earth, she explored the pocket of her skirt and took the things from it. La Touche's knife, her rings knotted up in her handkerchief, the tobacco box of Captain Slocum, the tinder-box and box of matches. Then she opened the tobacco box and re-read the purple writing with the tag "keep up your spirits." She could not visualize the old slab-sided whaling captain who had scrawled that, inspired no doubt by practical knowledge of disaster and the horrors of Kerguelen, but the message came now as an additional comfort, it seemed to her written by a hand other than that of man. She put the paper back in the box and, then, everything back in her pocket.

Then, like a stroke of humour, an incident occurred to lighten the whole beach.

A big platoon of penguins had crossed the river and marched up to the sacred precincts of the seal beach. Turning her head to see what the disturbance was about she sighted the penguins just at the end of their march and three bulls fronting them. The penguins wished to pass, either from impudence or a real desire to cross the beach, but the bulls barred the way, heading them off, turning and twisting, snorting as if to blow the feathered ones away.

The penguins bowed and scraped and explained, but the bulls, blind to politeness and deaf to argument only presented their heads, then they raised their rumps and made a half charge. The girl watched the penguins going at the double with heads slewed round as though fearful of their tails. Then she laughed.

The sea elephants had not only made her able to laugh, they had given her something to laugh over. Then came the thought: why had they refused the penguins and accepted her?

She did not know that the penguins were rival fishermen, she fancied that the sea elephants were somehow friendly to her, divining her friendship for them, and maybe she was right, though not perhaps in the way she fancied, for when God made friendship He made it out of queer and sometimes negative materials.

That night as she lay in her cave with a rolled-up blanket for pillow and the other blanket for covering, neither Ghosts nor Loneliness came to trouble her.

Two great bulls a few yards from the cave's mouth kept her warm and comfortable of mind.

She could hear their puffs and grunts and the occasional wobble-wobble of their digestive organs as they slept, dreaming maybe in their sleep, for sometimes they tossed and moved, and once one of them gave a "woof" as though trying to roar under the blanket of sleep.

She thought of dogs lying asleep; dogs dreamed and hunted in their dreams, why should not these?

Then suddenly the rain came down as though someone had pulled the string of a shower bath, but she knew that would not drive them away, guessing that rain to sea elephants was no more disturbing than sun to peaches.

Then she was chasing penguins along the beach, riding on a sea elephant towards that absolute oblivion which is the brand of sleep they serve at Kerguelen.



CHAPTER XIX

THE BIRDS

It rained off and on for three days, but rain in Kerguelen is not the same as rain in England, just as rain at Windmere is not the same as rain at Birmingham. It does not depress, especially when you are busy. In those three days she made three journeys to the break in the cliffs to recover the things she had left there and she made her journeys, not to put too fine a point on it, with nothing on but the oilskin coat, the blanket she used for a sack got hopelessly soaked and her head was exposed to the rain owing to the fact that the sou'wester was in the cave where the dead man lay, but she got used to it, especially as neuralgia and colds are unknown in Kerguelen.

The loss of her only towel, the lump of cotton waste, was far worse than the loss of the sou'wester and would have been worse still only that she had other things to think about, especially on these journeys. They were terrible and required all her fortitude to make them, and they were terrible for a new reason. The birds had got at La Touche. Great predatory birds like cormorants thronged the beach opposite the cave, she could see them going in and out of the cave and she could hear them quarrelling in there in the darkness.

Then, on her last journey, as she was preparing to come back, happening to glance that way she saw a gull like a Burgomaster coming out of the cave mouth and pulling after it something long like a rope upon which the other gulls flung themselves. She turned and ran.

She had saved everything but one full bag of biscuits; she determined to leave them. If worst came to the worst there was bread stuff in the cache.

That night the memory of what she had seen haunted her sleep. It was as though La Touche, unable to get at her in the material world was determined to torment her in the imaginary.

She lay awake listening to the whale birds crying and the divers mewing and quarrelling like cats, then, dropping asleep, she was awakened at dawn by a new sound. Outside on the beach she heard a moaning like the voice of someone in pain.

She raised herself on her elbow. It was a human voice without any manner of doubt. It ceased, and springing to her feet she came out. But there was no human being on the beach, nothing but the bulky forms of the great sea bulls, and quite close to the cave a smaller form, a female that had landed during the night and had just given birth to a baby, a thing like a slug which she was fondling with her flippers.

Then in the strengthening light the girl could make out here and there on the beach the forms of other females, and by noon that day there were hundreds and hundreds, and on the next day the beach was one vast nursery. It was the first great act in the life history of these sea people towards which the girl's heart was going out more and more, and as she sat that day watching the mothers and their babies, and the great old bulls shuffling about like heavy fathers, sometimes she would smile and sometimes, sitting and watching, her mind would wander away lost and trying to grapple with the great mystery of which all this was only a part.

They were so human, so warm to the heart, and yet only a few days ago there was nothing here but the rocks and the cold and trackless sea. Then she noticed that to-day the bulls were not sunning themselves lazily, although the sun was out. They seemed disturbed, moving about aimlessly, lifting themselves on their flippers and now and then raising their short trunks.

Sometimes a female would make as if to get back to the sea but she was always headed off by a bull.

When dusk fell it seemed that the sentries were doubled, to judge by the noise of the flopping and moving about. The girl came to the cave entrance and looked, and lo and behold! every bull had cleared down towards the sea edge. She could see them stretching away into the dim distance, a hedge of vast forms broken and moving here and there, but always restored.

She thought that this line of defence was to keep the females back from the water, yet there seemed more than mere precaution at the bottom of the general disturbance that filled the beach. Then as she lay awake she could hear now and then a distant roar and once a big bull only a few hundred yards from the cave took it into his head to give tongue with a blast like the first deep "woof" of a siren, then came another sound quite close to the cave entrance, a sound like the broken lapping of ripples, interrupted by movements and little snorts and sighs. It was a baby seal sucking away at the teats of its mother. The pair was just outside the cave.



CHAPTER XX

VAE VICTIS

A Howling wind that rose at midnight carrying niagaras of rain oversea from the mountains sank at dawn leaving a clear sky and a falling sea.

As she came out into the early morning light she could see boosts of spray all along the rocks, but by the time she had tidied things up and finished her breakfast these had vanished and the water was coming in, rolling lazily, and the sounds of the breakers came sleepy and evenly spaced as though ruled by a metronome.

The bulls no longer lined the shore, though keeping close to the water they had broken up into groups, yet still the sense of disturbance was there pervading the beach like an atmosphere.

The tide was just turning back from the flood, and as she stood watching she noticed the curious fact that not a single bull was taking to the water; ordinarily, here and there along the rocks, there was always some monster taking a header, some vast bulk beaching in a potter of foam. This morning there was nothing of this sort.

Picking her way between the mothers and their babies she came down to the sea edge, choosing a broad space left vacant because of the bad landing conditions. The rocks here were higher, forming a miniature cliff some four or five feet in height and from this point looking seaward something caught her eye.

Three black objects moving in a line were making a long ripple on the swell. They were the heads of three sea elephants moving like one. Then the line became the segment of a circle bending in shore. But the swimmers were not going to land; they kept parallel to the rocks and a few hundred yards out, and as they passed she could see clearly the great heads and sometimes the massive shoulders rising and washing away the water and the eyes, as the heads swung now and then shorewards, wicked eyes that seemed to blaze with the light of anger or battle.

She was not alone in observing them. They had been spotted by a trumpet-voiced sentry and instantly the whole place was in commotion. The air split with a roar that passed along from section to section of the beach whilst the cliffs resounded and a thousand sea-gulls rose as if from nowhere, crying, cat-calling and making a snowstorm in the sunlight.

On the roar and as if destroyed by it the three heads vanished.

Then, far out, they reappeared, only to dive again, leaving the sea blank, but for a school of porpoises passing along on their quiet business a mile away towards the east.

The girl sat watching. There was something in all this of greater import than the appearance of three swimming sea elephants. The beach told her that. Not a bull in all that vast herd but was in motion, either helping to crowd the females back towards the cliffs or patrolling the rocks. She could see them here and there rising up on their hind-quarters as though to get a better view of the sea. They reminded her of dogs begging for biscuits. Then, turning her eyes seaward again she saw a black spot; it was a moving head. Then another broke the surface and another, till in a moment, and for a mile-long stretch, hundreds of heads appeared, all driving shorewards and then dipping and vanishing only to reappear still closer in and closing on the beach with the swiftness of destroyers.

Then she knew, and, springing up, turned to run; but her retreat was cut off towards the caves by the females herded up and, before she could collect her thoughts, the army of invasion was flinging itself from the water, and the whole sea beach from end to end was filled with the thunder of battle.

For days the lone bulls had been cruising at sea waiting and watching till all the females were on shore under guard of their husbands. So it happened every year as now, ending in a battle for the possession of wives, a battle waged without quarter and with a fury whose sound reached the echoes of the hills.

Safe on the little rock plateau she watched the thunderous onslaught, frightened and then terrified and crying out.

The invaders drove in from the sea like the sweep of a curved sword. They struck the beach first a mile away and the battle ran towards her like fire along tinder, boomed towards her ever loudening till it broke to right and left where the sea bulls flung themselves on the rocks and the land bulls charged the on-comers like battering rams. Some were hurled back, only to return again, others held their ground. Then the real business began whilst the ground trembled and the air shook and the rocks poured blood.

Round her, and for a mile away, they fought like rams and they fought like dogs and they fought like tigers, and over the roaring siren sounds of the fight the gulls flew like the fume of it, screaming and swooping and circling in spirals, and through everything like the continuous thud-thud of a propeller came the dunch of tons of flesh meeting tons of flesh head on, shoulder on, or side on.

She saw bulls ripped beyond belief, with shoulders slashed as if by the down strokes of a sword, yet still fighting as though untouched, with rumps raised and tails up and teeth in the necks of their enemies, one had his eye torn out, yet tremendous and victorious he was literally punching his antagonist back into the sea.

The foam broke red and suddy; she saw that, just as she had seen the name of the Albatross in the tremendous moment of the great ship's eclipse, and, just as the name, the red breaking foam seemed to concentrate in itself the whole terror of the business.

Then, standing like a person helpless in a dream during the full hour that the battle raged, she saw the females break bounds and spread over the rocks carrying or pushing their young as if to get closer to the fight, and then she saw the battle beginning to break. Here and there bulls beaten and done for were taking to the sea and over all the beach the fight had spread inwards towards the cliffs. The sea bulls were beating the land bulls as a whole, interpenetrating them, getting closer to the females, herding the vanquished out.

And she saw, now, as though a curtain had been raised, that the whole great battle was between individuals.

The bulls fresh from the sea though attacking en masse were under the dominion of no enmity in common, each had come to find a rival and having found him had no eyes for anything else. Nor having once conquered did he pursue.

Another, and a wonderful thing, shewed up: the females had grouped themselves as if to be taken, and now on the clearing beach could be seen family parties, some under the dominion of their new lords and masters, some still being fought for.

So it hung, dwindling little by little till at last only two warriors were left like the last-blazing point of the fight.

They were the biggest of the two herds; they looked as though they had been rolled in gore and they seemed equally furious and equally exhausted. All their rage was in their eyes. Too beaten to bite they could only boost one against another like two schoolboys trying to push one another off a form.

It seemed a miserable and tame ending of their tremendous struggle and she recognized, or thought she recognized, that the biggest of them was the bull who had followed her that day like a dog towards the river.

This shouldering and pushing was his last effort to hold to his wife and family. In war it is the last step that counts, could he make it? Then a strange thing happened. The two monsters paused in their pushing, relaxed, and seemed for a moment to forget the existence of one another. That tremendous weariness lasted for a minute and then they woke up and the biggest bull began to shuffle off to the sea.

His heart or his mind had failed him. The closer he got to the water's edge the swifter he moved and the plunge of his body into the water was the last sound of that battle.

Not a corpse lay on the beach, nothing but the victorious lords and their ladies, and the lords seemed to pay as little attention to their ghastly wounds as they did to their old or newly got wives, who, now that peace was restored, were busy suckling their young.

A queer people, humorous and terrifying, making the girl feel that she had placed her hand on something likeable, almost lovable, that had yet, of a sudden, nearly frightened her to death.

She sat recovering herself and helped by the regiment of penguins who marched up to the seal beach and, knowing better than to attempt to cross it, stood bowing to the world in general and talking one to the other perhaps on the horrors of war.



PART IV

CHAPTER XXI

TIME PASSES

It is not good to be alone. As the weeks passed she began to lose and forget the feeling of surety in rescue and at times, now, she found herself talking out loud, putting what was in her mind into speech as though a companion were by, and sometimes she would hear a voice hallooing to her and start and cast her eyes over the desolate beach only to see the gulls.

The beach was always haunted by queer noises; the chanting sound of the waves coming in, a faint sound like the beating of a drum at very low tide, to say nothing of the booming of bitterns and the barking of brent geese and the hundred voices of the wind. She would listen and listen, her mind wandering aimlessly, and in the great rains, when the whole sea was shut out by the downpour, the noise would lull her like opium.

The baby sea elephants lost their long black coats and put on their suits of fine yellow fur and took themselves to the nursery by the river, where all day long they played and tumbled and swam, and then she would sit and watch them like a mother watching her children.

The great battle of the bulls seemed like something far away beyond which other things were becoming vague. Something that was not meant to be seen so close by human eyes, something that had pushed her still further from man.

It was full summer now, the season of tremendous sunsets and when the sky was clear, vast conflagrations lit themselves beyond the Lizard Point painting the islands and purpling the skies, and one evening as she sat in the western blaze watching the moving beach and listening to the playing and quarrelling of the nursery a voice said to her:

"Some day all these will take to the sea and leave you. There will be nothing here but the rocks and the sea."

It was as though the sunset had spoken.

The thought aroused her as a knock on the door arouses a sleeper. Fighting against it her mind became more fully awake. She said to herself: "If they go I will go too."

For a long time now she had lived without hot food or drink. On coming here first she had cut some wood from the figure-head to make a fire, but it was damp, just damp enough to prevent it from kindling, so she had let things go as women do in the matter of food when they have not any one else to feed; she had burrowed into the cache and got at some of the tins of vegetables and on these and biscuits and tinned meat she made out, eating less and less as time went on.

It is bad to be alone, even with sea elephants to ward off fears, even with provisions enough for a year and a cave to shelter one.

She had never given in. She had fought the future and refused to be frightened by it, she had worked for life and taken refuge in the moment, and now the moment was taking its revenge for being too much lived in.

To eat was almost too much trouble and presently the seal nursery became too long a walk and the little sea elephants at play had lost their power to interest her. Sleep began to take the place of food and sometimes, and for no reason, she would weep like a child.

The food she ate sometimes seemed to poison her, bringing on vomiting and dysentery, and it poisoned her because her stomach failed to digest it.

She was being poisoned, poisoned by loneliness. Had her stomach not failed her mind would have given, as it was the weakness of malnutrition saved her reason as it slowly destroyed her hold on life.

Her dreams became sometimes more vivid than reality and they always held her to the beach where she watched without terror battles between monstrous sea elephants and processions of penguins infinite in length, penguins that passed her bowing, bowing, bowing till she woke in the dark with the palms of her hands dry and burning and her lips like pumice stone and her tongue feeling hard like the tongue of a parrot, but the worst experience of all was a shock that came nearly every time she lay down at night and just before sleep took her.

It seemed like the blow of a fist, a fist that hit her everywhere, making her start and draw up her legs and cry out.

All this, perhaps, was what she had foreseen when long ago she had watched a great ship that had told her of Desolation—and something worse.

This was what no one had ever imagined in connection with Desolation. Its power to kill with its own hand. To gently destroy, sucking the vitality like a vampire and fanning the victim to dullness with its wings.

The sea elephants might have noticed that the female creature to whom they had grown so accustomed appeared little now, a shrinking vision that every day shortened its wanderings; that it walked differently, that it seemed more bent. But the sea elephants knew nothing of Loneliness or its works, nor did they notice, one morning, that though the sun was shining the figure did not appear at all.



CHAPTER XXII

A NEWCOMER

One morning, brilliant, with the deceptive brilliancy of Kerguelen, a big man, rough and red-bearded and carrying a bundle slung over his shoulder, stood on the rocks that formed the eastern point of the great beach; the sun was at his back and before him lay the seven mile stretch of sand and rock leading to the far-off Lizard Point.

He was over six feet in height but so strongly built that he scarcely looked his inches. He was a sailor. The gulls might have told that by the way he stood, and his eyes, accustomed to roving over vast spaces, swept the beach before him from end to end, took in the sea elephants moving like slugs and the seal-nursery and the river and the sands beyond and the Lizard Point crawling out to sea beyond the sands.

Then he cast his eyes inland.

He wanted to get to the west and he had to choose between seven miles of broken country or seven miles of easy beach.

The sea elephants were a bar across the beach. He could gauge their size from where he stood, they looked formidable, but they were less so than the rocks strewing that broken country. He had climbed over rocks and gone round rocks and nearly fallen from rocks till rocks had become in his mind enemies bitter, brutal, callous, and far more formidable than live things. He chose the beach and came down to it, taking his way along the sea edge as a person takes his way along a pavement edge, giving possibly turbulent people the wall.

As he closed up towards the seal beach he kept his eyes fixed on the great bulls and their families, and the bulls, as he drew closer, shifted their position to watch him, beyond that they shewed no sign. Then as he began to pass them he recognised that he had nothing to fear, the females alone, here and there, shewed any sign of disturbance, shuffling towards him with wicked eyes, rising on their flippers, but always sinking down and shuffling back as he went on.

Further along, though followed and met by a hundred pairs of eyes, even the females began to treat him with indifference. It was as though the whole herd were under the dominion of one brain that recognized him as harmless and passed him along. He would pause now and then to look at them with the admiration of strength for strength. He was of their type, a bull man, rough from the sea as themselves.

Then he saw the caves and would have passed them only for something that caught his eye. A red labelled Libby tin was lying on the dark sand close to the mouth of one of the caves, and if you wish to know how an old tomato tin or an old beef tin can shout, you must go alone to the great beach of Kerguelen and find one there—which you will not.

The sight of the tin made him start and catch in his breath. The tin was everything he knew of ships and men focussed in a point, a knight in armour riding along the beach would have astonished him no more, would have heated his blood far less.

He struck up towards it, took it in his hand, examined it inside and out and then cast his eye at the cave before which it had lain. He saw something in the cave, it was a woman; a woman lying on the sand with a rolled-up blanket under her head. She was lying on her back and he saw a thin white hand, so small, so thin, so strange that he drew slightly back, glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure that everything was all right with the world, and then glanced again, drawing closer.

Then he called out and the woman moved. He could see her face now, white, and thin and drawn, and great eyes, terrible eyes, fixed on him.

Away out at sea, terribly near the coast of Death she saw him, a living being, as the castaway sees a ship on the far horizon.

He saw her hold out her arms to him and then, throwing his bundle aside, he was down on his knees beside her, holding the hands that sought his and with those terrible eyes holding him too.

He saw her lips moving, saw that they were dry and parched. Then he knew. She wanted water.

An empty baling tin was lying near her. The sight of the river close by was in his mind, he released the hands, picked up the tin and scrambled out of the cave. As he ran to the river heedless of sea elephants or anything else he kept crying out: "Oh, the poor woman. Oh, the poor woman." He seemed like a huge thing demented. The baby sea elephants scuttered out of his way and as he came running back he spilt half the contents of the tin. Then he was down beside her again, dipping his finger in the water and moistening her lips.

She sucked his finger as a baby sucks and the feel of that made him curse with the tears running down into his beard. The size of the baling tin seemed horrible beyond words; he couldn't get it to her lips. Still he went on, not knowing that it was his finger that was giving her back life; the blessed touch of a human being that had come almost too late.

He was sitting on his heels, and now, casting his great head from side to side, he saw things stacked behind her, tins and a bag and metal things that shone dimly. Putting out his hand he caught a corner of the bag. It was a bread bag, sure enough, and as he pulled it towards him the other things came clattering down almost hitting her, and amongst them, God-sent, a little tin spoon.

He seized it and filled it and brought the tip to her lips and she swallowed the water making movements with her throat muscles as though it were half a cupful. He did this a dozen times and then rested, spoon in hand, watching her. She made a couple of slight movements with her head as if nodding to him and her eyes never left him for a moment, they seemed holding on to life through him. He offered a spoonful of water again, she moved her head slightly as though she had had enough, but her eyes never left him.

He knew. If the whole thing had been carefully explained to him he could not have known better how she was clinging to him, as a child to a mother, as a creature to life. And all the time his rough mind in a tumble of confusion and trouble was trying to think how she came like this, with a bread bag close to her and a river within reach.

A tin cup had come down with the other things, it gave him an idea, and getting a biscuit out of the bag he broke it up, put the pieces in the cup with some water and let them soak. It took a long time and all the while, now and then, he kept talking to her.

"There. Y'aren't so bad after all—keep up till I get you something more. There's no use in troubling—you'll be on your pins soon."

He would pause to swear at the biscuit for not softening quicker, helping it to crumble with his mighty thumb thrust in the cup. To "get food into her" was his main idea, it didn't matter about thumbs. He was not without experience of starvation and thirst and what they can do to people, and, as he worked away talking to her, pictures from the past came to him of people he had seen like this, nearly "done in" by the sea.

Then he began to feed her with the noxious pap. He managed to get six spoonfuls "into her" and then he saw she would stand no more; still, that was something, and as he brooded on his heels watching her he saw that she was making a struggle to keep it down, and he knew that if she brought it up she was done for. And all the time she kept holding him with her eyes as though he were helping her in the struggle.

He was. The sight of him gave her just the strength necessary to tide over the danger point; then she lay still and the food, such as it was, began to do its work.

One may say that the stomach thinks; every mood of the mind can touch it and it can influence every mood of the mind.

Then the terrible fixed eyes began to grow more human, then to close slightly. She was still far at sea, but no longer adrift; like a little boat taken in tow she was heading now back for the shore. She fell asleep holding his thumb.

The bits of wood she had chipped from the figure-head were lying in a little heap near the cave mouth and the axe lay beside them. He noted them as he sat motionless as a carved figure till the grip on his thumb relaxed, and the dry claw-like hand, now growing moist and human, gave up its hold.

Then, crawling out, stealthily and side-ways like a crab, he seized the axe and, rising up outside, axe in hand, stood looking in at the woman. He stood watching her, making sure that she was well asleep, then he turned towards the seal nursery swinging the axe. There he murdered a little girl sea elephant after a short, sharp chase over the rocks. Then, close to the caves and with his sailor's knife, he stripped her of fur and blubber. He placed the blubber on one side, cut up the meat and retaining the heart and kidneys wrapped the head and the remainders in the pelt and dumped them in a crack in the rocks.

Having done this he went to the river and washed his hands free of the blood and grease.

In his bundle there was a box with half a dozen matches, they would have been gone long ago only that long ago his tobacco had given out. They were useful now.

He knelt down and undid the bundle. There was in it beside the match-box a shirt rolled up, two sailors' knives, two tobacco boxes, a couple of huge biscuits, a piece of sail cloth and a pair of men's boots, one might have fancied from the knives and tobacco boxes that he was the only survivor of a party of three cast on the coast and that he had kept these things as relics. That was the fact.

When he had secured the matches his next thought was of the firewood and the baling tin. There was a saucepan away at the back of the cave under the other things but he could not see it. He could see the tin but he dreaded going in to get it lest he should wake the woman and she should clutch his thumb again.

That was a bad experience and he told himself that if she had not relaxed her hold he would have been sitting there still tied hand and foot and not daring to move—strength in the clutch of weakness, to whom God has given a power greater that that of strength.

He crawled in and secured the tin without wakening her and as much firewood as he wanted. It was fairly dry and with the help of the blubber he soon had it burning between two big stones, then he put the tin on, half filled with water, and dropped in the seal meat cut fine. He was making soup for himself as well as for her. He had been without hot food for ages and the smell of the stuff as it began to cook made him sometimes forget her entirely.

Predatory gulls had found the pelt and the head in the rock crevice and their quarrelling filled the beach. He turned his head sometimes to look at them as he sat squatting like a gipsy before the little fire, tilting the tin by the handle and stirring the contents with his knife. He was a man of resource for, before filling the tin with fresh water, he had dipped it in the sea so as to get some salt into the mess.

Then when the stuff was cooked, having no spoon, he had to wait until it cooled a bit before tasting it. He went to the cave mouth to have a look at the woman. The quarrelling of the great gulls had evidently awakened her, for her eyes were open, and as his figure cut the light at the cave entrance her head moved. He ran back for the precious tin and, carrying it carefully, and half carried away by the entrancing smell of it, knelt down beside her, then picking up the spoon began to feed her before feeding himself.



CHAPTER XXIII

RAFT

It took him three days to bring her back safe to life. It poured with rain during those three days but he managed to light little fires in one of the caves with seal blubber and routing out the things in her cave he found everything she had so carefully salved, the cups and plates, the tin of coffee, half empty now—everything, even to the tobacco the men had taken from the cache, he found Bompard's tinder-box and the Swedish match box belonging to La Touche. He had given the woman life and she had given him tobacco and sometimes, sitting in the adjoining cave and smoking between nursing times, he would bring his big fist down on his thigh, just that.

Here was a woman starving to death and dying of thirst with food enough for a ship's company at her elbow. And the tobacco! Where was the explanation? She was able to speak a little now. She had spoken at first in French, which he could not understand, then she spoke in English as good as his; another mystery. A woman all gone to pieces that spoke two tongues and was different somehow from any woman he had ever known.

Then the things she had said: "Who are you? I am not dreaming this? Are you really, really, truly—Oh, don't leave me." Crazy talk like that. And it was always "Oh, don't leave me." Then he would lay his pipe down carefully on the sand of the cave and pass through the sheeting rain to have a look at her. Sometimes she would have dozed off and he could get back to his pipe, sometimes she was awake and then he would have to sit down beside her and hold her hand and stroke it or play with her fingers just as one plays with the fingers of a child. At these moments he was transformed, he was no longer a man, he was a mother, and the hand that could break down the resistance of a bellying sail was the hand of a child. He no longer thought of her as the "poor woman," an infant is sexless, so did she seem, or so would she have seemed had he thought of the matter. He didn't. As a matter of fact thought was not his strong suit in the game of life. He was a man from the world of Things. That was why, perhaps, he made such a good sick nurse. He did not fuss, nor talk, his touch was firm, firm as his determination to "get food into her" and his hand, big as a ham, was delicate because it was the hand of a perfect steersman. It was used to handling women in the form of three thousand ton ships, coaxing them, humouring them—up to a point.

He fed her now from one of the tin cups. Every two hours of the day, unless she was asleep, half a cupful of food went into her whether she liked it or not; "hot stuff," for though the firewood was done he found that the blubber alone was the best fuel in the world.

On the second day she was able to raise herself up, and once when he came in he found that she had been moving about the cave and that she had rearranged the blanket that did for a pillow.

Then on the morning when the blessed sun shone she was able to come out and sit on a patch of sand with one of the blankets for a rug.

She looked old and worn, but no longer terrible, and as she sat with her thin hands folded in her lap watching the great sea bulls and the cows, as if contemplating them for the first time, the man who had helped her out and placed her there was at a loss—she was a sight to inspire pity in a savage. He took his seat beside her on a piece of rock and rolling some tobacco in his hand stuffed his pipe.

"You're all right now," said he.

She nodded her head and smiled.

"Yes," she said, "this is good."

"Lucky I came along," he said, "wouldn't have seen you only an old tin hit my eye."

He put the pipe in his pocket, got up, went to the cave where he did the cooking and came back with a cup half full of coffee and half a biscuit.

"Dip it in," said he.

She did as she was bid. It was the first time he had given her coffee and the stimulant brought a flush to her cheeks and cheered her heart so that she began to talk.

"There are more biscuits in a place down the beach," she said, "and down there," she nodded to the left, "there are a lot of things hidden under a heap of stones. It's beyond the river on the left."

Then the empty cup began to shake in her hand and he took it from her.

"You're not over strong yet," said he, "but you'll be better in a bit with this sun. Y'aren't afraid of the sea cows, are you?"

She shook her head.

"Thought you wouldn't be," said he, "there's no harm in them. Well, I'll be moving about. I'll go and have a look down the beach and see what's to be found."

He hung for a moment with the cup in his hand shading his eyes and looking seaward, then he turned towards the cave to put the cup back.

"What is your name?" she said, suddenly, bringing him to a halt.

"Raft," said he.

"Raft," she repeated the name several times in a low voice as if committing it to memory or turning it over in her mind.

"How long might you have been here?" he asked, standing in a doubtful manner, as though debating in his mind the wisdom of allowing her to strain her strength answering questions.

"I don't know," said she, "a long while. I was wrecked with two men from a yacht. The Gaston de Paris. We came here in a boat. They are both dead."

At the name Gaston de Paris Raft nodded his head. Already a suspicion that she might be one of the yacht's crowd had come into his mind, so the news came scarcely as a surprise.

"It was us you hit," said he, "I'm one of the chaps from the old hooker."

"The Albatross?"

"That's her."

She said nothing for a moment, looking away over at the islands. She could see the name, still, written as if on the night. Then she remembered the boat sail she had seen when adrift with Bompard and La Touche.

"There were four of us got off," said he, "we struck them islands over there and put in but there was nothing but rocks in that part. Next day we put out, but got blown down the coast; we got smashed landing; all but a chap named Ponting and me went under, but one chap's body was hove up and we stripped him. I've got his boots and his knife in that bundle over there in the cave, and Ponting's. We saved a bag of bread."

He took his seat again on the rock and, placing the cup beside him, took the pipe from his pocket, but he did not light it. He held it, rubbing the bowl reflectively. He seemed to have come to an end of his story.

"Did the other man die?" she asked.

"He went getting gulls' eggs one day," said Raft, "and slipped over the cliff. They're big, the cliffs, down there. I found him all broke up on the rocks. He didn't live more than a minute when I got to him and I had to leave him; the tide was coming up."

"Poor man," said she.

He rose up and, taking the cup, stood for a moment again looking seaward.

"Well, I'll be off down the beach," said he, "you won't be frightened to be here by yourself?"

"No," she replied, "but don't go very far."

"I'll keep in sight," said Raft.

He put the cup in the cave and off he went whilst she sat watching him; everything, life itself, seemed centred in him. A terrible feeling came over her at moments that he might vanish, that, looking away for a moment and turning again she might find him gone and nothing but the beach and the gulls.

Beyond the river he turned and saw her watching him and waved his hand as if to reassure her. She waved in reply and then sat watching till he reached the figure-head and stood to examine it.

He seemed very small from here. She saw him standing and looking inland, he had seen the cache, no doubt, and he would want to go to it; if he did that he would disappear from sight. But he did not go to it, he kept on always in view, exploring the rocks and the sands and stopping now and then as if to look back.

It seemed to her that he could read her mind and feel her terror of being left alone. Then her mind went back over the last few days.

She had been very near death. She had drunk the last of the water in the tin and had been too feeble to go for more. What had brought her to that pass? It seemed to her that the rocks, the sea and the sky had slowly sucked her vitality away from her till at last she could not eat, could not walk, could not think. All that time her mind had never thought of loneliness, the thing that was killing her had veiled itself by numbing her brain and weakening her body. But near death her mind had cleared and the great grief of desolation stood before her. Then God-sent, a form had pushed the grief aside and a hand had taken her lonely hand and a finger had moistened her lips. But it was the knowledge that the hand was a real hand that gave her the first lead back to life.

Then the last three days. The feeling of extreme helplessness and sickness and the knowledge that she was watched over and cared for and thought for—there was no word to express what all that meant. It turned the great rough figure to a spirit, great and tender and benign.

He was coming along back now carrying something he had picked up amongst the rocks. It was a crab.

A great satisfactory two pound crab bound up in kelp ribbon so craftily that it could neither bite nor escape. He put it on the sand for her to look at before taking it off to boil.

The sun was hot and as he stood whilst she admired his prize: "Don't you feel the sun to your head?" asked he.

"No," she replied, "I like it. I had a hat—a sou'wester but it's in a cave away down the beach. There's a dead man there."

"A dead man?" said Raft.

"Yes. I killed him."

"Killed him?"

"It was partly accident. He was one of the sailors. He was a bad man. The other sailor got lost and never came back and I was left alone with this man. He nearly frightened me to death."

"Swab," said Raft.

"Then one night he crawled into my cave in the dark and I struck out with the knife and it killed him—he's lying there now. I didn't mean to kill him, but he frightened me."

"Swab," said Raft, two tones deeper. Then he laughed as if to himself. "Well, that's a go," said he. He took a pull at his beard as he contemplated this slayer of men seated on her blankets at his feet. She glanced up and saw that he was laughing and a wan smile came around her eyes, it seemed to him like a glimmer of sunshine from inside of her. Then bending down he pulled up the blanket that had slipped from her left shoulder and settled it in its place.

"I'll tell you all about it some time," said she, "when I feel stronger."

"Ay, ay," said Raft. Then he went off with the crab to boil it.

As he attended to this business in the cave, half-sitting, half-kneeling before the little fire, he chuckled to himself now and then, and now and then he would bring his great hand down on his thigh with a slap.

The idea of her killing a man seemed to him the height of humour. He didn't put much store on men's lives in general, and none at all on the life of an unknown swab who deserved his gruel. Then he was of the type that admires a fighting thing much more than a peaceful and placid thing, and he felt the pleasure of a man who has rescued a seemingly weak and inoffensive creature only to find that it has pluck and teeth of its own.

She had gone up a lot in his estimation. Besides, her feebleness and forlorn condition had wounded him in a great soft part of his nature where the hurt felt queer. This new knowledge somehow eased the hurt. He could think of her now apart from her condition and think more kindly of her, for the strange fact remains that the very weakness and forlornness that had wakened his boundless compassion had antagonized him. When he had found the crab the idea had come to him that here was some different sort of food to "put into her;" he was thinking that same thought now but with more enthusiasm. Yes, she had gone up a lot in his estimation.



CHAPTER XXIV

A DREAM

This same Raft whom the fo'c'sle could subdue to the surroundings, making him as faithful a part of the picture as the kerosene lamp, on the beach stood immense both in size and significance.

It was as though the fo'c'sle had the power to dwindle him, the beach, to expand him.

The girl had never seen him in the fo'c'sle so she could not appreciate the difference that environment made in him, and perhaps she saw him ever so slightly magnified, but it seemed to her that he was big enough to form part of the landscape, that he was one with the seven mile beach and the Lizard Point and the great islands and the sea elephants.

Not only had she been crushed down by loneliness; size had helped. Raft seemed to reduce the size of things, so that the seven mile strand and the vast islands and sea spaces no longer burdened her, and in some magical way whilst he reduced the proportions of his surroundings they increased his potency and significance. He was in his true setting, part of a vast picture without a frame.

It was not alone his physical dimensions. Bompard had been a big man, but Bompard could not fill that beach. No, it was something else—what we call, for want of a better expression, "the man himself."

Then there was another thing about him, he found food of all sorts where Bompard and La Touche had found nothing; he brought in crabs and cray-fish and penguins eggs, he brought down rabbits with stones. That was his great art. A stone in the hand of Raft was a terrible missile and his aim was deadly.

At the end of a week the girl was able to accompany him along the beach to the cache where he unearthed some stores and came upon the harpoon which he carried back with them.

Then one day he suddenly appeared before her carrying her lost sou'wester. He had gone off down the beach in the direction of the Lizard Point and he came back carrying the hat in his hand. He must have been into the cave where the remains of La Touche lay, but he said nothing about that.

It was nearly a fortnight since she had told him of how she had lost it and he must have treasured the fact up in his mind all that time.

The weather had cleared again, after a tremendous blow from the south, and as they sat that evening in the sunset blaze before the caves, Raft, who had been staring steadfastly out to sea as if watching something, began to talk.

"That chap Ponting told me this side of the coast is no use for ships," said he. "They keep beyond them islands for fear of the reefs. I reckon the old sea cows know that or there wouldn't be so many on this beach. He said there was a bay round to the westward where ships put in."

"How far?" asked the girl.

"A goodish bit," replied Raft. "I was making for that bay when I struck you. I was thinking," he finished, "that when you were stronger on your pins we might make for there."

"Leave here?"

"Ay," said Raft, "there's not much use sticking here."

She said nothing for a moment, she felt disturbed.

Since her recovery she had fallen into a state of quietude. She who had been the leader of Bompard and La Touche, she who had fought and worked so determinedly for existence had now no ambition, no desire for anything but rest. The strength of this man who had given her back her life seemed a shield against everything, just as a wall is a shield against the wind; she was content to sit in its shelter and rest. The idea of new exertions and unknown places terrified her.

"But how are you to know the bay?" asked she, "there may be a good many bays along the coast."

"No," said Raft, "Ponting told me there wasn't a decent anchorage but this. He said this bay wasn't to be mistook, looks as if it was cut out with a spade and the cliffs run high and black, there's a seal beach that way and it's after seals the ships come. Well, there's time enough to think of it seeing you are not fit to move yet."

"Oh, I'll soon be all right," said she. "I'm getting stronger every day."

"What gets me," said Raft, "is how you fell to pieces like that, with all that stuff at your elbow and a river close by."

"It was being alone," replied she, "I did not know it at the time, but I got so that I did not care to eat and then at last I believe I didn't eat anything at all. I couldn't have imagined that just being alone would make a person like that. You see I had food and water. If I had been compelled to hunt about for food I expect I would have been all right, as it was I had nothing to do and was just driven in on myself."

Raft said nothing for a moment, he was turning this over in his mind. He could not understand it. The idea of a person with plenty of food and a good set of teeth dying of starvation just because she was lonely seemed to him outrageous, yet he knew she was speaking the truth. It was another strange thing about this strange woman. She was altogether strange, different from any human being he had ever met and growing more different every day now that she was "filling out," and getting her voice back.

That voice, soft and musical and refined, had disturbed the sea elephants when she first talked to them as people talk to horses and dogs, it was something they had never heard before in the language of tone, and so it was with this sea animal with a red beard. He could not tell whether he liked it or not, never asked himself the question, it was part of her general strangeness and to be considered along with her clinging, man killing and double-tongued qualities, also with the fact that she had starved almost to death because she was alone; also with her eyes and new face, for she was growing younger looking every day and better looking, and her eyes, naturally lovely, were growing natural again.

As he looked at her now sitting in the sunset this return of beauty struck him as it almost might have struck the sea elephants. It pleased him. Had he put his thoughts into words he would have said that she was filling out and getting more pleasant looking. At her very best he would never have tacked the word beauty on to her; a buxom, rotund, beady-eyed young female would have made the word beauty spring to his lips—Cleo de Bromsart, never. But she was getting more pleasant looking and her eyes were getting over their "stiffness"—which was something, and he felt pleased.

Presently, alone in his cave, he would bring his fist down on his thigh with a bang and chuckle over her contrarieties, reviewing her against that terrific picture he had seen in the cave when he had gone to fetch the sou'wester; the picture of a man who had been torn to pieces by Burgomasters and cormorants. It had been necessary to wash the sou'wester for a long time in sea water before bringing it back.

She had done that chap in proper; the work of the gulls and the work of the girl were hardly dissociated in his mind—there was the Result. Just as though a baby had smashed a rock with its fist. Hence the chuckles, heightened by her clinging ways, her fragility, her musical voice, her starvation due to loneliness, her double tongue, her unaccountable tricks of manner.

And she, as she sat in the sunset not knowing his thoughts, had you asked her how she felt about him would have answered with steadfast eyes that she loved him. Meaning that she loved him as she had learned to love the sea-elephants, or as she would have loved a great carthorse that had stood between her and danger, or a huge dog. She scarcely thought of him as a man—just as a great benign thing, human, but nearer to the heart than any human being life had brought her in contact with till now.

Her almost passionate gratitude had little to do with this measure of him; any kindly man might have done what he had done. It was perhaps the feeling of his great strength, of his possible fierceness that gave the touch of benignity to him.

"Weren't you afraid of them sea cows?" said he at last, "you must have come clean through them to get to that cave."

"No," she replied, "I didn't mind them, quite the reverse. I came here because of them."

"Because of them!"

"Yes. They were company."

"Meaning—"

"Friends."

"Y'mean to say—friends did you call them? Well, I don't know, there's no accountin'."

He hung in irons. So she had been keeping company with the sea cows—and she talked of them as "friends."

Now Raft, for all his limitless power of compassion for a female in distress would have slaughtered those same "sea-cows" to the last bull, and without a shred of compunction or compassion, had he possessed kettles to boil down the blubber and a vessel to carry the oil. He had already done in two of the babies for food when she was not looking. The idea of talking about them as friends tickled his mind in a new place. Then, as he glanced at the great bulls taking headers in the sunset light and snorting in from the sea and squatting over the beach, he came as near as anything to bursting into a roar of laughter.

Then he suddenly remembered supper and went off to prepare it.

The girl, left to herself, smiled. He had given her back that power and, like the sea elephants when they repulsed the penguins, he had given her something to smile over. She saw that he could not understand her in the least in a lot of little things, whilst she understood him through and through—or so she thought. She had thought the same about the sea elephants till the great battle, and—she had never seen Raft with murder in his eyes making the elements of beef tea.

He had made a stew for supper out of mussels, canned vegetables, seal meat and a piece of rabbit and when supper was over she went to bed in the bed he had made for her, for he had stripped the cache of all its wearing apparel and the remaining blankets, reserving the blankets for her use.

Then as she lay awake before dropping off to sleep she heard a sudden burst of noise from the night outside. It sounded as though one of the bulls had suddenly perceived a joke and were giving vent to his feelings.

She knew what it was, and she guessed the joke, and then, lying there in the dark, she began to laugh softly to herself with laughter that seemed to ease her mind of some old incubus clinging to it—less laughter than a sort of inverted form of crying and ending up almost in the latter with a few sniffs.

Then she fell asleep and dreamed that Raft had turned into something that seemed like a sea lion. She had never seen a sea lion, but this dream—one looked something like a lion and something like a sea elephant and something like Raft—with a touch of a carthorse. It had flippers, then it had wings, and the setting was the Place de la Concorde which bordered quite naturally the great beach of Kerguelen.



CHAPTER XXV

STORIES ON THE BEACH

For a week after that day not a word was said about their departure for that problematical bay to the westward where ships put in, or where they might put in should they find themselves in the region of Kerguelen. The idea seemed to the girl like one of those nightmare ideas, those terrific tasks which fever or indigestion sets to one in dreams.

It blew during that week as it had never blown before; blew from the north and the south and the west Atlantic oceans of rain driving seawards from the hills and passing off towards the islands, followed by breaks of clear weather and blue sparkling skies filled with the tearing screaming wind.

They talked a good deal during these days and at odd times, and the girl began to get some true glimpses of the mind of her companion, a mind that had never grown up, yet had in no wise deteriorated from remaining ungrown. Raft, who had been round the world a dozen times and more, knew less of the world than a modern child. Fights and roaring drunks and the smoke haze of bar rooms, wharf Messalinas and sailors' lodging houses had done him no harm at all. His innocence was vast and indestructible as his ignorance.

Bompard and La Touche were old men of the world compared to Raft; they were of different stuff, and being yachtsmen they had been long rubbed against the ways of high civilization.

To the girl, born and bred amongst all the intricacies of modern life and thought, and with a sense of mind-values as delicate as a jeweller's scales, Raft was a revelation.

She tried to sound his past. He had no past beyond the Albatross. He could tell all about the Albatross and his shipmates and the Old Man and so forth, but beyond that lay only a ship called the Pathfinder, and beyond that a muddle of ships and ports, a forest of masts stretching to a grey time an infinite distance away, the time of his childhood. He had no professed religion and he could neither read nor write.

Yet he had remembered her sou'wester, this man without a memory and he was always astonishing her by remembering little things she had said or things she had wished for.

Of social distinction, beyond the division of afterguard from fo'c'sle, he seemed to possess little idea, save for a vague echo, caught from the man Harbutt, about the Rich People; and as to sex, beyond a queer instinctive delicacy and a tenderness due to her weakness and the memory of how he had found her, she might just as well have been a man, or a child like himself.

Another thing that struck her forcibly was the sense of his good humour. His mind seemed to possess an equable warm temperature, a temperature that it seemed impossible to lower or raise. She could not fancy him getting angry about anything. Had she seen him as in the past during one of his rare sprees, fighting the crowd and tossing men about like ninepins, she would have said: 'This is not the same man'—and maybe she would have been right.

"Where did you come from," said he one day to her as they sat rain-bound watching the gulls dashing about over the crests of the incoming seas.

"I came from Paris—you have never been to Paris?"

No, he had never been to Paris. He knew of the place, it was in France. Then she thought that she would interest him by trying to describe it. She spoke of the busy streets and the great Boulevards, then she tried to describe the people and what they were doing and then, as she talked, it was just as though Kerguelen had become the big end of a telescope and the doings of civilisation, as exemplified by Paris, a panorama seen at the little end.

What were they all doing, those crowds that she could visualize so plainly?—deputies, lawyers, military men, shop-keepers, pleasure seekers—towards what end were they going?

Then, with a strange little shock, it came to her that they were going, as a mass, nowhere except from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn; that they were exactly like the crowd of sea gulls, each individual rotating in its own little orbit, and that the wonderful coloured and spangled crust called Civilization was nothing more than the excretion of individual ambitions, desires and energies.

Then, when she had finished her talk about the wonderful city of Paris, she found that Raft, comfortably propped against the cave wall, was asleep.

One of the disconcerting things about this huge creature was his capacity for sleep. He would drop asleep like a dog at the shortest notice and lie with his face in the crook of his arm like a dead man. She would watch him sometimes for half an hour together as he lay like this, and at first the vague fear used to come to her that he had been stricken by some malady in the form of sleeping sickness that made him act like this. She did not know that he had kept awake all those nights he had looked after her and that the same brain that could sleep and sleep and sleep could put sleep entirely away, just as the great body that lolled about like the sea elephants, could, like the sea-elephants, become a thing, tireless, and capable of infinite endurance.

Then again, he would smoke in silence for ages as though oblivious of her existence. She had observed the same thing in Bompard and La Touche who would sit cheek by jowl without a word, as though they had quarrelled. This trait pleased her, and she fell in with it unconsciously as though his mind had moulded hers and were teaching it the taciturnity of the sea.

One day, during a brief spell of calm when they were seated in the sun, dinner over and nothing to do, she tried the effect of literature upon him. She told him the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk and was delighted to find him interested when he had got his bearings and knew that a "giant" was a man fifty feet high; the cutting open of the giant—it occurred in her version—pleased him immensely. Then when she had finished she was alarmed to find, from words dropped by him, that he considered the story to be true, or at least to be taken seriously. She did not disillusion him; to do so she would have had to tell him that she had lied. That was the funny part of the thing. He would have said to himself "what made her lie to me about that chap?" By no possible means could he have imagined a person sitting down to invent in cold blood for the amusement of others a yarn about what never happened; no, it would have struck him as one of those lying personal yarns heard in the fo'c'sle sometimes and likely to produce a boot aimed at the teller's head. He had seen men reading books in the fo'c'sle occasionally and old newspapers, but of literature, fictional or otherwise, he had no more idea than the bull sea elephants of astronomy.

This she intuitively felt and so held her tongue. But she had interested him, and she went on, producing from her memory the story of the Forty Thieves.

Now he had accepted the bean stalk explanation, for he had never to his knowledge seen a bean stalk, but the jars in the Forty Thieves he revolted at, for a jar to him was a demijohn, or a thing of that size. A man could not get into that.

However, on explanation, he passed the jars, and the boiling oil repaid him. He seemed to delight in torture and blood.

"Where did you get that yarn from?" asked he.

"Out of a book," said she.

"Got any more?" he asked.

"Plenty," she replied casting round in her mind, and wondering how it happens that children's stories run so frequently to blood and ferocity.

She remembered Anatole France's story of the juggler who juggled before the shrine of Our Lady, having no better offering to make to her, and Raft sat spellbound, after having made out that Our Lady was the Virgin Mary, the patron of Catholic shipmates. She told it so well and so simply, with unobtrusive foot notes as to monasteries and their contents, that he could not but see the point, the poor man having nothing to offer but his stock in trade of tricks, offered it.

Well, what of that? It was the best he had, and, if she could see the other chaps doing things for her, she could see him. The story, whose whole point lies in the supposed non-existence of the virgin as a discerning being, ought to cast its gentle ridicule not on the ignorant juggler but on the more learned brethren of the monastery. To Raft they were all in the same boat, and as to whether she could see them or not he didn't know.

The story fell flat, horribly flat, told to the absolutely simple hearted, and to the Teller, after explanations were over, it seemed that the Listener had in some way cut open modern genius and exposed a little tricky mechanism working on a view point of chilled steel.

That Raft, in fact, was so big in a formless way that he was much above the story.

She remedied her blunder on the next storytelling occasion with Blue Beard.

Then the weather broke fair and the islands drew away and the clouds rose high and the white terns, always flitting like dragon-flies amidst the other birds, rose like the clouds, they always flew higher in fine weather, and with the smooth seas a new thing shewed like a sign: the little sea elephants were no longer confining themselves to the river and near shore. Some of them were taking boldly to the sea. Their small heads could be seen sometimes quite a long way out.

This fact gave the girl food for thought. The summer was getting on.

It almost seemed that Ponting was right, that no ships would venture into that sea between the islands and the shore, and that their only hope of rescue lay in that bay away to the west, heaven knew how far.

Then an idea came to her. Two ships had already been here for certain: the wreck and the ship of Captain Slocum, then there was the cache, some ship must have left that.

She told Raft what was in her mind but got little consolation from him. He opined that the wreck wouldn't have been a wreck if she had kept clear of this dangerous water, that the cache might have been left by people who had landed somewhere else, and as for Captain Slocum's ship she might have been a whaler. Whalers according to Raft were always off the beaten track and poking their noses into places where honest deep sea ships would not dare to go.

"Well, then," said she, "how about that bay you spoke of?"

"Oh, that place," said Raft.

"Yes."

He hung silent for a moment as if revolving the question in his mind.

"But you were set against it," said he at last.

"Yes, I know, but I am stronger now, and it seems useless staying here till perhaps the winter comes."

She paused and looked towards the islands. She hated the idea of that journey which she pictured over rocks and across plains, where? In search of a place that might not exist, and where, if it did exist, no ship might perhaps be found. An almost hopeless journey involving unknown hardships.

"You ain't strong enough," suddenly said Raft.

It was as though he had touched some spring in her character that set the machinery of determination working.

"I am strong enough," she replied. Then after a moment's pause something in her began speaking, something that seemed allied to conscience, rather than thought, something that spoke almost against her will.

"We ought to go, we ought not to lose any chance. It seems almost hopeless, but it is the right thing to do. To stay here is not fighting, and in this place one has to fight if one wants to live or to get away. I feel that. To sit here with one's hands folded is wicked."

"Well, I believe in making a fight," said the other, "question is, will we be any the better."

"There's always the chance."

"Ay, there's always a chance."

Then an idea came to her.

"How about the boat?" she asked.

"That old boat along the beach?"

"Yes, suppose we took her and rowed down the coast."

"There aren't no oars in her."

"There are oars. I hid them amongst the bushes and I can find them again."

Raft considered the proposition for a moment, then he shook his head and tapped the dottle out of his pipe.

"Not with them winds that get you here," said he, "they let out when you're least expecting it and we'd be on to the rocks and done for. I'm not saying if we had a boat crew we mightn't try, but we're under-handed. No, we'll have to hoof it if we go."

"Hoof it—what is that?" asked she.

"Walk it," replied Raft, "and I'm thinking it's beyond you, you aren't fit for travelling rough, like me."

"Aren't I?—I suppose I don't look strong, but I am, of course I'm not as strong as you, but I can keep on once I begin, and I have been through a good deal ever since that night we were wrecked, I don't think any journey we could make would be worse than that. And I was not prepared for all that as I am now for anything that may happen. Think of it, we had all been sitting at dinner, it was only a little while after dinner and I had my evening frock on."

"Your evening which?"

"Dress. They were all rich people on board the yacht and they put on different clothes always for dinner. It seems stupid—well, I was down below and I suddenly felt that I must get on deck, so I put on these clothes and my oilskin and sou'wester, then, as I was coming upstairs the collision happened. I got on deck and it was quite dark until the electric light was put on, then I saw the stern of your ship with the name on it."

She paused with a little shudder and seemed visualizing the terrible picture again.

"Heave ahead," said Raft interestedly.

"Then I was thrown into a boat and forgot everything until I woke in the early morning alone with those two men. It was all just like that. I wasn't prepared for hardship as I am now, and I hadn't a companion like you. Those two men were no use."

"How's that?" asked he.

"Well, they were always grumbling."

"Swabs."

"I didn't mind that so much, but they were no use, they wouldn't do things. I had to make them go and hunt for firewood, they might just as well have had no hands. Bompard, the oldest one wasn't so bad—"

"It was the other chap you done in," said Raft. "Well, I reckon you've been through it. Rum thing I saw you first when I was handling a topsail in that blow. The weather broke and I was holdin' on to the yard when I sighted you away to starboard with the sun on you. Old Ponting was close to me and he yelled out he'd seen you before and give you your name, the Gaston de Paree."

"And we sighted you," said she, "I was down below when the steward came with a message that there was a ship in sight, I came up and there you were with the sun on you and the storm clouds behind, and do you know you frightened me."

"How so?" asked Raft.

"I don't know. I felt there was going to be a disaster of some sort—it was almost like a warning."

"Well, there's no saying," said Raft. "I've known a chap warned he was going to be drowned, and drowned he was sure enough. I was down below asleep and shot out of my bunk by the smash; then I was on the main deck, the chaps all round shouting for boats, and if you ask me how I got off I couldn't tell you. One minute a big light was blazing, then it was black as thunder. My mind seemed to go when the black came on, I'd no more thought than a blind puppy. Something saved me. That's all I know."

"God saved you," said the girl.

"Well, maybe He did," said Raft; "but what made Him let all the other chaps drown?"

"I don't know," she replied, "but He saved you just as He saved me. I know He looks after things. Look at those sea elephants and the gulls; He leads them about by instinct."

"What's that?" asked Raft.

"Instinct," said she, suddenly formulating the idea, "is God's mind, it tells the birds and elephants where to get food and where to go and how to avoid danger; you and I have minds of our own, but our minds are nothing to the minds of the birds and animals. They are never wrong. Look out there at those porpoises."

"Them black fish," said Raft, shading his eyes.

"Yes, well, look at the way they are going along, they are on a journey, going somewhere, led by instinct, and I think when human beings find themselves having to fight for life they fall back on instinct, the mind of God comes to help them. Look at me. I believe I found that cache led by instinct and I would never have pulled through only instinct told me I would, somehow. God's mind told me."

"Well, there's no saying," said Raft.

"I don't want to leave here," she went on, "but I feel we ought to go. The chances seem small, even if we find that bay; still, I feel we ought to go."

"I'm feelin' the same way myself," said Raft.

"Then we will go and the sooner we start the better."

"I'm thinking of them porpoises," said Raft.

"What about them?"

"Well, there's a saying they hug the shore pretty close if bad weather is coming. It's fine to-day, but I've a feeling there's going to be another blow soon and maybe we'd better wait till it's over—maybe it's instinc'," he finished, looking round shyly.

The girl laughed. "If you feel like that," said she, "we had certainly better wait. Maybe the porpoises were sent to tell us."

"There's no saying," replied he. They were seated on the rocks just where she had watched the great battle and far and near the "sea cows" were sunning themselves on the rocks whilst beyond the seal beach the penguins were drilling in long lines. Scarcely a breath of wind stirred and the sea lay calm like a sheet of dim blue glass to where the islands sat beneath the sky of summer.

But the islands had drawn closer since morning and the birds seemed busier than usual and more clamorous. To the eastward where the cliffs rose higher, guillemots had their home on the ledges of basalt and the wheezy bagpipe-like cry of them came in bursts every now and then as though they were angry about something, whilst the cry of the razorbills and the "get-away, get-away" of the kittiwakes had a sharper note. The puffins alone were calm, swimming in coveys on the glassy water and leaving long ripples in their wake.



CHAPTER XXVI

THE GREAT WIND

The sun sank, broadened out and banded with mist beyond the Lizard Point, and before his upper limb had been swallowed by the rocks the business began with a blow from the hills.

Most winds come in gusts and pauses, this wind from the Infernal Regions came at first steady and warm, never ceasing, steadily growing like the thrust of an infinite sword driven with a rapidly increasing momentum and a murmur like the voice of Speed herself.

Raft and the girl saw that the sea elephants were herding up into the shelter of the cliffs and that the gulls had vanished as though they had never been.

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