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Chapter 38

HELEN uttered a shriek of agony, and her knees smote together, and she would have swooned on the spot but for the wind and the spray that beat against her.

To the fearful stun succeeded the wildest distress. She ran to and fro like some wild animal bereaved; she kept wringing her hands and uttering cries of pity and despair, and went back to the boat a hundred times; it held her by a spell.

It was long before she could think connectedly, and, even then, it was not of herself, nor of her lonely state, but only, Why did not she die with him? Why did she not die instead of him?

He had been all the world to her; and now she knew it. Oh, what a friend, what a champion, what a lover, these cruel waves had destroyed!

The morning broke, and still she hovered and hovered about the fatal boat, with great horror-stricken eyes, and hair flying to the breeze; and not a tear. If she could only have smoothed his last moments, have spoken one word into his dying ear! But no! Her poor hero had died in going to save others; died thinking her as cold as the waters that had destroyed him.

Dead or alive he was all the world to her now. She went, wailing piteously, and imploring the waves to give her at least his dead body to speak to and mourn over. But the sea denied her even that dismal consolation.

The next tide brought in a few more fragments of the wreck, but no corpse floated ashore.

Then, at last, as the waves once more retired, leaving, this time, only petty fragments of wreck on the beach, she lifted up her voice, and almost wept her heart out of her body.

Such tears as these are seldom without effect on the mind; and Helen now began to rebel, though faintly, against despair. She had been quite crushed, at first, under the material evidence--the boat driven empty by the very wind and waves that had done the cruel deed. But the heart is averse to believe calamity and especially bereavement; and very ingenious in arguing against that bitterest of all woes. So she now sat down and brooded, and her mind fastened with pathetic ingenuity on every circumstance that could bear a favorable construction. The mast had not been broken; how, then, had it been lost? The body had not come ashore. He had had time to get to the wreck before the gale from the north came on at all. And why should a fair wind, though powerful, upset the boat? On these slender things she began to build a superstructure of hope; but soon her heart interrupted the reasoning. "What would he do in my place? would he sit guessing while hope had a hair to hang by?" That thought struck her like a spur. And in a moment she bounded into action, erect, her lips fixed, and her eye on fire, though her cheek was very pale. She went swiftly to Hazel's store and searched it; there she found the jib-sail, a boat-hook, some rope, and one little oar, that Hazel was making for her, and had not quite completed. The sight of this, his last work, overpowered her again; and she sat down and took it on her knees, and kissed it and cried over it. And these tears weakened her for a time. She felt it, and had the resolution to leave the oar behind. A single oar was of no use to row with. She rigged the boat-hook as a mast; and fastened the sail to it; and, with this poor equipment, she actually resolved to put out to sea.

The wind still blew smartly, and there was no blue sky visible.

And now she remembered she had eaten nothing; that would not do. Her strength might fail her. She made ready a meal, and ate it almost fiercely, and by a pure effort of resolution; as she was doing all the rest.

By this time it was nearly high tide. She watched the water creeping up. Will it float the boat? It rises over the keel two inches, three inches. Five inches water! Now she pushes with all her strength. No; the boat has water in it she had forgotten to bale out. She strained every nerve, but could not move it. She stopped to take breath, and husband her strength. But, when she renewed her efforts, the five inches were four, and she had the misery of seeing the water crawl away by degrees, and leave the boat high and dry.

She sighed, heart-broken, awhile; then went home and prayed.

When she had prayed a long time for strength and wisdom, she lay down for an hour, and tried to sleep, but failed. Then she prepared for a more serious struggle with the many difficulties she had to encounter. Now she thanked God more than ever for the health and rare strength she had acquired in this island; without them she could have done nothing now. She got a clay platter and baled the vessel nearly dry. She left a little water for ballast. She fortified herself with food, and put provisions and water on board the boat. In imitation of Hazel she went and got two round logs, and as soon as the tide crawled up to four inches, she lifted the bow a little, and got a roller under. Then she went to the boat's stern, set her teeth, and pushed with a rush of excitement that gave her almost a man's strength.

The stubborn boat seemed elastic, and all but moved. Then instinct taught her where her true strength lay. She got to the stern of the boat, and, setting the small of her back under the projecting gunwale, she gathered herself, together and gave a superb heave that moved the boat a foot. She followed it up, and heaved again with like effect. Then, with a cry of joy, she ran and put down another roller forward. The boat was now on two rollers. One more magnificent heave with all her zeal, and strength, and youth, and the boat glided forward. She turned and rushed at it as it went, and the water deepening, and a gust catching the sail, it went out to sea, and she had only just time to throw herself across the gunwale, panting. She was afloat. The wind was S.W., and, before she knew where she was, the boat headed toward the home reefs, and slipped through the water pretty fast considering how small a sail she carried. She ran to the helm. Alas! the rudder was broken off above the water-line. The helm was a mockery, and the boat running for the reefs. She slacked the sheet, and the boat lost her way, and began to drift with the tide, which luckily had not yet turned. It carried her inshore.

Helen cast her eyes around her for an expedient, and she unshipped one of the transoms, and by trailing it over the side, and alternately slacking and hauling the sheet, she contrived to make the boat crawl like a winged bird through the western passage. After that it soon got becalmed under the cliff, and drifted into two feet water.

Instantly she tied a rope to the mast, got out into the water, and took the rope ashore. She tied it round a heavy barrel she found there, and set the barrel up, and heaped stones round it and on it, which, unfortunately, was a long job, though she worked with feverish haste; then she went round the point, sometimes wet and sometimes dry, for the little oar she had left behind because it broke her heart to look at. Away with such weakness now! With that oar, his last work, she might steer if she could not row. She got it. She came back to the boat to recommence her voyage.

She found the boat all safe, but in six inches of water, and the tide going out. So ended her voyage; four hundred yards at most, and then to wait another twelve hours for the tide.

It was too cruel; and every hour so precious. For, even if Hazel was alive, he would die of cold and hunger ere she could get to him. She cried like any woman. She persisted like a man.

She made several trips, and put away things in the boat that could possibly be of use--abundant provision, and a keg of water; Hazel's wooden spade to paddle or steer with; his basket of tools, etc. Then she snatched some sleep; but it was broken by sad and terrible dreams. Then she waited in an agony of impatience for high water.

We are not always the best judges of what is good for us. Probably these delays saved her own life. She went out at last under far more favorable circumstances--a light westerly breeze, and no reefs to pass through. She was, however, severely incommoded with a ground-swell.

At first she steered with the spade as well as she could; but she found this was not sufficient. The current ran westerly, and she was drifting out of her course. Then she remembered Hazel's lessons, and made shift to fasten the spade to the helm, and then lashed the helm. Even this did not quite do; so she took her little oar, kissed it, cried over it a little, and then pulled manfully with it so as to keep the true course. It was a muggy day, neither wet nor dry. White Water Island was not in sight from Godsend Island; but, as soon as she lost the latter, the former became visible--an ugly, grinning reef, with an eternal surf on the south and western sides.

Often she left off rowing, and turned to look at it. It was all black and blank, except the white and fatal surf.

When she was about four miles from the nearest part of the reef, there was a rush and bubble in the water, and a great shark came after the boat. Helen screamed, and turned very cold. She dreaded the monster, not for what he could do now, but for what he might have done. He seemed to know the boat, he swam so vigilantly behind it. Was he there when the boat upset with Hazel in it? Was it in his greedy maw the remains of her best friend must be sought? Her lips opened, but no sound. She shuddered and hid her face at this awful thought.

The shark followed steadily.

She got to the reef, but did not hit it off as she intended. She ran under its lee, lowered the little sail, and steered the boat into a nick where the shark could hardly follow her.

But he moved to and fro like a sentinel, while she landed in trepidation and secured the boat to the branches of a white coral rock.

She found the place much larger than it looked from Telegraph Point. It was an archipelago of coral reef incrusted here and there with shells. She could not see all over it, where she was, so she made for what seemed the highest part, a bleak, sea-weedy mound, with some sandy hillocks about it. She went up to this, and looked eagerly all round.

Not a soul.

She called as loud as her sinking heart would let her.

Not a sound.

She felt very sick, and sat down upon the mound.

When she had yielded awhile to the weakness of her sex, she got up and was her father's daughter again. She set to work to examine every foot of the reef.

It was no easy task. The rocks were rugged and sharp in places, slippery in others; often she had to go about, and once she fell and hurt her pretty hands and made them bleed; she never looked at them, nor heeded, but got up and sighed at the interruption; then patiently persisted. It took her two hours to examine thus, in detail, one half the island. But at last she discovered something. She saw at the eastern side of the reef a wooden figure of a woman, and, making her way to it, found the figurehead and a piece of the bow of the ship, with a sail on it, and a yard on that. This fragment was wedged into an angle of the reef, and the seaward edge of it shattered in a way that struck terror to Helen, for it showed her how omnipotent the sea had been. On the reef itself she found a cask with its head stove in, also a little keg and two wooden chests or cases. But what was all this to her?

She sat down again, for her knees failed her. Presently there was a sort of moan near her, and a seal splashed into the water and dived out of her sight. She put her hands on her heart, and bowed her head down, utterly desolate. She sat thus for a long time indeed, until she was interrupted by a most unexpected visitor. Something came sniffing up to her and put a cold nose to her hand. She started violently, and both her hands were in the air in a moment.

It was a dog, a pointer. He whimpered and tried to gambol, but could not manage it; he was too weak. However, he contrived to let her see, with the wagging of his tail and a certain contemporaneous twist of his emaciated body, that she was welcome. But, having performed this ceremony, he trotted feebly away, leaving her very much startled, and not knowing what to think; indeed, this incident set her trembling all over.

A dog saved from the wreck! Then why not a man? And why not that life? Oh, thought she, would God save that creature, and not pity my poor angel and me?

She got up animated with hope, and recommenced her researches. She now kept at the outward edge of the island, and so went all round till she reached her boat again. The shark was swimming to and fro, waiting for her with horrible pertinacity. She tried to eat a mouthful, but, though she was faint, she could not eat. She drank a mouthful of water, and then went to search the very small portion that remained of the reef, and to take the poor dog home with her, because he she had lost was so good to animals. Only his example is left me, she said; and with that came another burst of sorrow. But she got up and did the rest of her work, crying as she went. After some severe traveling she got near the northeast limit, and in a sort of gully she saw the dog, quietly seated high on his tail. She called him; but he never moved. So then she went to him, and, when she got near him, she saw why he would not come. He was watching. Close by him lay the form of a man nearly covered with sea-weed. The feet were visible, and so was the face, the latter deadly pale. It was he. In a moment she was by him, and leaning over him with both hands quivering. Was he dead? No; his eyes were closed; he was fast asleep.

Her hands flew to his face to feel him alive, and then grasped both his hands and drew them up toward her panting bosom; and the tears of joy streamed from her eyes as she sobbed and murmured over him, she knew not what. At that he awoke and stared at her. He uttered a loud ejaculation of joy and wonder, then, taking it all in, burst into tears himself and fell to kissing her hands and blessing her.

The poor soul had almost given himself up for lost. And to be saved, all in a moment, and by her!

They could neither of them speak, but only mingled tears of joy and gratitude.

Hazel recovered himself first; and, rising somewhat stiffly, lent her his arm. Her father's spirit went out of her in the moment of victory, and she was all woman--sweet, loving, clinging woman. She got hold of his hand as well as his arm, and clutched it so tight her little grasp seemed velvet and steel.

"Let me feel you," said she. "But no words! no words!"

He supported his preserver tenderly to the boat, then, hoisting the sail, he fetched the east side in two tacks, shipped the sail and yard, and also the cask, keg and boxes. He then put a great quantity of loose oysters on board, each as large as a plate. She looked at him with amazement.

"What," said she, when he had quite loaded the boat, "only just out of the jaws of death, and yet you can trouble your head about oysters and things."

"Wait till you see what I shall do with them," said he. "These are pearl oysters. I gathered them for you, when I had little hope I should ever see you again to give them you."

This was an unlucky speech. The act, that seemed so small and natural a thing to him, the woman's heart measured more correctly. Something rose in her throat; she tried to laugh instead of crying, and so she did both, and went into a violent fit of hysterics that showed how thoroughly her nature had been stirred to its depths. She quite frightened Hazel; and, indeed, the strength of an excited woman's weakness is sometimes alarming to manly natures.

He did all he could to soothe her; without much success. As soon as she was better he set sail, thinking home was the best place for her. She leaned back exhausted, and, after a while, seemed to be asleep. We don't believe she was, but Hazel did; and sat, cold and aching in body, but warm at heart, worshiping her with all his eyes.

At last they got ashore; and he sat by her fire and told her all, while she cooked his supper and warmed clothes at the fire for him.

"The ship," said he, "was a Dutch vessel, bound from Batavia to Callao, that had probably gone on her beam ends, for she was full of water. Her crew had abandoned her; I think they underrated the buoyancy of the ship and cargo. They left the poor dog on board. Her helm was lashed a-weather a couple of turns, but why that was done I cannot tell for the life of me. I boarded her; unshipped my mast, and moored the boat to the ship; fed the poor dog; rummaged in the hold, and contrived to hoist up a small cask of salted beef, and a keg of rum, and some cases of grain and seeds. I managed to slide these on to the reef by means of the mast and oar lashed together. But a roller ground the wreck farther on to the reef, and the sudden snap broke the rope, as I suppose, and the boat went to sea. I never knew the misfortune till I saw her adrift. I could have got over that by making a raft; but the gale from the north brought such a sea on us. I saw she must break up, so I got ashore how I could. Ah, I little thought to see your face again, still less that I should owe my life to you."

"Spare me," said Helen faintly.

"What, must not I thank you even for my life?"

"No. The account is far from even yet."

"You are no arithmetician to say so. What astonishes me most is, that you have never once scolded me for all the trouble and anxiety--"

"I am too happy to see you sitting there, to scold you. But still I do ask you to leave the sea alone after this. The treacherous monster! Oh, think what you and I have suffered on it."

She seemed quite worn out. He saw that, and retired for the night, casting one more wistful glance on her. But at that moment she was afraid to look at him. Her heart was welling over with tenderness for the dear friend whose life she had saved.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Next morning Hazel rose at daybreak as usual, but found himself stiff in the joints and with a pain in his back. The mat that hung at the opening of Helen's cave was not removed as usual. She was on her bed with a violent headache.

Hazel fed Ponto, and corrected him. He was at present a civilized dog; so he made a weak rush at the boobies and noddies directly.

He also smelled Tommy inquisitively, to learn was he an eatable. Tommy somehow divined the end of this sinister curiosity, and showed his teeth.

Then Hazel got a rope, and tied one end round his own waist, and one round Ponto's neck, and, at every outbreak of civilization, jerked him sharply on to his back. The effect of this discipline was rapid; Ponto soon found that he must not make war on the inhabitants of the island. He was a docile animal, and in a very short time consented to make one of "the happy family," as Hazel called the miscellaneous crew that beset him.

Helen and Hazel did not meet till past noon; and when they did meet it was plain she had been thinking a great deal, for her greeting was so shy and restrained as to appear cold and distant to Hazel. He thought to himself, I was too happy yesterday, and she too kind. Of course it could not last.

This change in her seemed to grow, rather than diminish. She carried it so far as to go and almost hide during the working hours. She made off to the jungle, and spent an unreasonable time there. She professed to be collecting cotton, and it must be admitted she brought a good deal home with her. But Hazel could not accept cotton as the only motive for this sudden separation.

He lost the light of her face till the evening. Then matters took another turn; she was too polite. Ceremony and courtesy appeared to be gradually encroaching upon tender friendship and familiarity. Yet, now and then, her soft hazel eyes seemed to turn on him in silence, and say, forgive me all this. Then, at those sweet looks, love and forgiveness poured out of his eyes. And then hers sought the ground. And this was generally followed by a certain mixture of stiffness, timidity and formality too subtle to describe.

The much-enduring man began to lose patience.

"This is caprice," said he. "Cruel caprice."

Our female readers will probably take a deeper view of it than that. Whatever it was, another change was at hand. Since he was so exposed to the weather on the reef, Hazel had never been free from pain; but he had done his best to work it off. He had collected all the valuables from the wreck, made a new mast, set up a rude capstan to draw the boat ashore, and cut a little dock for her at low water, and clayed it in the full heat of the sun; and, having accomplished this drudgery, he got at last to his labor of love; he opened a quantity of pearl oysters, fed Tommy and the duck with them, and began the great work of lining the cavern with them. The said cavern was somewhat shell-shaped, and his idea was to make it out of a gloomy cavern into a vast shell, lined entirely, roof and sides, with glorious, sweet, prismatic mother-of-pearl, fresh from ocean. Well, one morning, while Helen was in the jungle, he made a cement of guano, sand, clay and water, nipped some shells to a shape with the pincers, and cemented them neatly, like mosaic almost; but in the middle of his work he was cut down by the disorder he had combated so stoutly. He fairly gave in, and sat down groaning with pain. And in this state Helen found him.

"Oh, what is the matter?" said she.

He told her the truth, and said he had violent pains in the back and head. She did not say much, but she turned pale. She bustled and lighted a great fire, and made him lie down by it. She propped his head up; she set water on to boil for him, and would not let him move for anything; and all the time her features were brimful of the loveliest concern. He could not help thinking how much better it was to be ill and in pain, and have her so kind, than to be well, and see her cold and distant. Toward evening he got better, or rather he mistook an intermission for cure, and retired to his boat; but she made him take her rug with him; and, when he was gone, she could not sleep for anxiety; and it cut her to the heart to think how poorly he was lodged compared with her.

Of all the changes fate could bring, this she had never dreamed of, that she should be so robust and he should be sick and in pain.

She passed an uneasy, restless night, and long before morning she awoke for the sixth or seventh time, and she awoke with a misgiving in her mind, and some sound ringing in her ears. She listened and heard nothing; but in a few moments it began again.

It was Hazel talking--talking in a manner so fast, so strange, so loud, that it made her blood run cold. It was the voice of Hazel, but not his mind.

She drew near, and, to her dismay, found him fever-stricken, and pouring out words with little sequence. She came close to him and tried to soothe him, but he answered her quite at random, and went on flinging out the strangest things in stranger order. She trembled and waited for a lull, hoping then to soothe him with soft words and tones of tender pity.

"Dens and caves!" he roared, answering an imaginary detractor. "Well, never mind, love shall make that hole in the rock a palace for a queen; for a queen? For the queen." Here he suddenly changed characters and fancied he was interpreting the discourse of another. "He means the Queen of the Fairies," said he, patronizingly. Then, resuming his own character with loud defiance, "I say her chamber shall outshine the glories of the Alhambra, as far as the lilies outshone the artificial glories of King Solomon. Oh, mighty Nature, let others rely on the painter, the gold-beater, the carver of marble, come you and help me adorn the temple of my beloved. Amen."

(The poor soul thought, by the sound of his own words, it must be a prayer he uttered.)

And now Helen, with streaming eyes, tried to put in a word, but he stopped her with a wild Hush! and went off into a series of mysterious whisperings. "Make no noise, please, or we shall frighten her. There--that is her window--no noise, please! I've watched and waited four hours, just to see her sweet, darling shadow on the blinds, and shall I lose it for your small talk? all paradoxes and platitudes! excuse my plain speaking--Hush! here it comes--her shadow--hush!--how my heart beats. It is gone. So now" (speaking out), "good-night, base world! Do you hear? you company of liars, thieves and traitors, called the world, go and sleep if you can. I shall sleep, because my conscience is clear. False accusations! Who can help them? They are the act of others. Read of Job, and Paul, and Joan of Arc. No, no, no, no; I didn't say read 'em out with those stentorian lungs. I must be allowed a little sleep, a man that wastes the midnight oil, yet brushes the early dew. Good-night."

He turned round and slept for several hours as he supposed; but in reality he was silent for just three seconds. "Well," said he, "and is a gardener a man to be looked down upon by upstarts? When Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the gentleman? Why, where the spade was. Yet I went through the Herald's College, and not one of our mushroom aristocracy ('bloated ' I object to; they don't eat half as much as their footmen) had a spade for a crest. There's nothing ancient west of the Caspian. Well, all the better. For there's no fool like an old fool. A spade's a spade for a' that an a' that, an a' that--an a' that--an a' that. Hallo! Stop that man; he's gone off on his cork leg, of a' that an a' that--and it is my wish to be quiet. Allow me respectfully to observe," said he, striking off suddenly into an air of vast politeness, "that man requires change. I've done a jolly good day's work with the spade for this old buffer, and now the intellect claims its turn. The mind retires above the noisy world to its Acropolis, and there discusses the great problem of the day; the Insular Enigma. To be or not to be, that is the question, I believe. No it is not. That is fully discussed elsewhere. Hum! To diffuse--intelligence--from a fixed island--over one hundred leagues of water.

"It's a stinger. But I can't complain. I had read Lempriere, and Smith and Bryant, and mythology in general, yet I must go and fall in love with the Sphinx. Men are so vain. Vanity whispered, She will set you a light one; why is a cobbler like a king, for instance? She is not in love with you, ye fool, if you are with her. The harder the riddle the higher the compliment the Sphinx pays you. That is the way all sensible men look at it. She is not the Sphinx; she is an angel, and I call her my Lady Caprice. Hate her for being Caprice! You incorrigible muddle-head. Why, I love Caprice for being her shadow. Poor, impotent love that can't solve a problem. The only one she ever set me. I've gone about it like a fool. What is the use putting up little bits of telegraphs on the island? I'll make a kite a hundred feet high, get five miles of rope ready against the next hurricane; and then I'll rub it with phosphorus and fly it. But what can I fasten it to? No tree would hold it. Dunce. To the island itself, of course. And now go to Stantle, Magg, Milton, and Copestake for one thousand yards of silk--Money! Money! Money! Well, give them a mortgage on the island, and a draft on the galleon. Now stop the pitch-fountain, and bore a hole near it; fill fifty balloons with gas, inscribe them with the latitude and longitude, fly them, and bring all the world about our ears. The problem is solved. It is solved and I am destroyed. She leaves me; she thinks no more of me. Her heart is in England."

Then he muttered for a long time unintelligibly; and Helen ventured near, and actually laid her hand on his brow to soothe him. But suddenly his muttering ceased, and he seemed to be puzzling hard over something.

The result came out in a clear articulate sentence, that made Helen recoil, and, holding by the mast, cast an indescribable look of wonder and dismay on the speaker.

The words that so staggered her were these to the letter:

"She says she hates reptiles. Yet she marries Arthur Wardlaw."

Charles Reade