After dinner the ladies tried to get a nap, but such of them as re-appeared on the piazza later agreed that it was perfectly useless. They tested every corner for a breeze, but the wind had fallen dead, and the vast sweep of sea seemed to smoulder under the sun. "This is what Mr. Barlow calls having it cooler," said Mrs. Alger.
"There are some clouds that look like thunderheads in the west," said Mrs. Frost, returning from an excursion to the part of the piazza commanding that quarter.
"Oh, it won't rain to-day," Mrs. Alger decided.
"I thought there was always a breeze at Jocelyn's," Mrs. Scott observed, in the critical spirit of a recent arrival.
"There always is," the other explained, "except the first week you're here."
A little breath, scarcely more than a sentiment of breeze, made itself felt. "I do believe the wind has changed," said Mrs. Frost. "It's east." The others owned one by one that it was so, and she enjoyed the merit of a discoverer; but her discovery was rapidly superseded. The clouds mounted in the west, and there came a time when the ladies disputed whether they had heard thunder or not: a faction contended for the bowling alley, and another faction held for a wagon passing over the bridge just before you reached Jocelyn's. But those who were faithful to the theory of thunder carried the day by a sudden crash that broke over the forest, and, dying slowly away among the low hills, left them deeply silent.
"Some one," said Mrs. Alger, "ought to go for those children." On this it appeared that there were two minds as to where the children were,—whether on the beach or in the woods.
"Was n't that thunder, Grace?" asked Mrs. Breen, with the accent by which she implicated her daughter in whatever happened.
"Yes," said Grace, from where she sat at her window, looking seaward, and waiting tremulously for her mother's next question.
"Where is Mrs. Maynard?"
"She is n't back, yet."
"Then," said Mrs. Breen, "he really did expect rough weather."
"He must," returned Grace, in a guilty whisper.
"It's a pity," remarked her mother, "that you made them go."
"Yes." She rose, and, stretching herself far out of the window, searched the inexorable expanse of sea. It had already darkened at the verge, and the sails of some fishing-craft flecked a livid wall with their white, but there was no small boat in sight.
"If anything happened to them," her mother continued, "I should feel terribly for you."
"I should feel terribly for myself," Grace responded, with her eyes still seaward.
"Where do you think they went?"
"I did n't ask," said the girl. "I wouldn't," she added, in devotion to the whole truth.
"Well, it is all of the same piece," said Mrs. Breen. Grace did not ask what the piece was. She remained staring at the dark wall across the sea, and spiritually confronting her own responsibility, no atom of which she rejected. She held herself in every way responsible,—for doubting that poor young fellow's word, and then for forcing that reluctant creature to go with him, and forbidding by her fierce insistence any attempt of his at explanation; she condemned herself to perpetual remorse with even greater zeal than her mother would have sentenced her, and she would not permit herself any respite when a little sail, which she knew for theirs, blew round the point. It seemed to fly along just on the hither side of that mural darkness, skilfully tacking to reach the end of the-reef before the wall pushed it on the rocks. Suddenly, the long low stretch of the reef broke into white foam, and then passed from sight under the black wall, against which the little sail still flickered. The girl fetched a long, silent breath. They were inside the reef, in comparatively smooth water, and to her ignorance they were safe. But the rain would be coming in another moment, and Mrs. Maynard would be drenched; and Grace would be to blame for her death. She ran to the closet, and pulled down her mother's India-rubber cloak and her own, and fled out-of-doors, to be ready on the beach with the wrap, against their landing. She met the other ladies on the stairs and in the hall, and they clamored at her; but she glided through them like something in a dream, and then she heard a shouting in her ear, and felt herself caught and held up against the wind.
"Where in land be you goin', Miss Breen?"
Barlow, in a long, yellow oil-skin coat and sou'wester hat, kept pushing her forward to the edge of the cliff, as he asked.
"I'm going down to meet them!" she screamed.
"Well, I hope you WILL meet 'em. But I guess you better go back to the house. Hey? WUNT? Well; come along, then, if they ain't past doctorin' by the time they git ashore! Pretty well wrapped up, any way!" he roared; and she perceived that she had put on her waterproof and drawn the hood over her head.
Those steps to the beach had made her giddy when she descended with leisure for such dismay; but now, with the tempest flattening her against the stair-case, and her gossamer clutching and clinging to every surface, and again twisting itself about her limbs, she clambered down as swiftly and recklessly as Barlow himself, and followed over the beach beside the men who were pulling a boat down the sand at a run.
"Let me get in!" she screamed. "I wish to go with you!"
"Take hold of the girl, Barlow!" shouted one of the men. "She's crazy."
He tumbled himself with four others into the boat, and they all struck out together through the froth and swirl of the waves. She tried to free herself from Barlow, so as to fling the waterproof into the boat. "Take this, then. She'll be soaked through!"
Barlow broke into a grim laugh. "She won't need it, except for a windin'-sheet!" he roared. "Don't you see the boat's drivin' right on t' the sand? She'll be kindlin' wood in a minute."
"But they're inside the reef! They can come to anchor!" she shrieked in reply. He answered her with a despairing grin and a shake of the head. "They can't. What has your boat gone out for, then?"
"To pick 'em up out the sea. But they'll never git 'em alive. Look how she slaps her boom int' the water! Well! He DOES know how to handle a boat!"
It was Libby at the helm, as she could dimly see, but what it was in his management that moved Barlow's praise she could not divine. The boat seemed to be aimed for the shore, and to be rushing, head on, upon the beach; her broad sail was blown straight out over her bow, and flapped there like a banner, while the heavy boom hammered the water as she rose and fell. A jagged line of red seamed the breast of the dark wall behind; a rending crash came, and as if fired upon, the boat flung up her sail, as a wild fowl flings up its wing when shot, and lay tossing keel up, on the top of the waves. It all looked scarcely a stone's cast away, though it was vastly farther. A figure was seen to drag itself up out of the sea, and fall over into the boat, hovering and pitching in the surrounding welter, and struggling to get at two other figures clinging to the wreck. Suddenly the men in the boat pulled away, and Grace uttered a cry of despair and reproach: "Why, they're leaving it, they're leaving it!"
"Don't expect 'em to tow the wreck ashore in this weather, do ye?" shouted Barlow. "They've got the folks all safe enough. I tell ye I see 'em!" he cried, at a wild look of doubt in her eyes. "Run to the house, there, and get everything in apple-pie order. There's goin' to be a chance for some of your doctor'n' now, if ye know how to fetch folks to."
It was the little house on the beach, which the children were always prying and peering into, trying the lock, and wondering what the boat was like, which Grace had seen launched. Now the door yielded to her, and within she found a fire kindled in the stove, blankets laid in order, and flasks of brandy in readiness in the cupboard. She put the blankets to heat for instant use, and prepared for the work of resuscitation. When she could turn from them to the door, she met there a procession that approached with difficulty, heads down and hustled by the furious blast through which the rain now hissed and shot. Barlow and one of the boat's crew were carrying Mrs. Maynard, and bringing up the rear of the huddling oil-skins and sou'westers came Libby, soaked, and dripping as he walked. His eyes and Grace's encountered with a mutual avoidance; but whatever was their sense of blame, their victim had no reproaches to make herself. She was not in need of restoration. She was perfectly alive, and apparently stimulated by her escape from deadly peril to a vivid conception of the wrong that had been done her. If the adventure had passed off prosperously, she was the sort of woman to have owned to her friend that she ought not to have thought of going. But the event had obliterated these scruples, and she realized herself as a hapless creature who had been thrust on to dangers from which she would have shrunk. "Well, Grace!" she began, with a voice and look before which the other quailed, "I hope you are satisfied! All the time I was clinging to that wretched boat. I was wondering how you would feel. Yes, my last thoughts were of you. I pitied you. I did n't see how you could ever have peace again."
"Hold on, Mrs. Maynard!" cried Libby. "There's no, time for that, now. What had best be done, Miss Green? Had n't she better be got up to the house?"
"Yes, by all means," answered Grace.
"You might as well let me die here," Mrs. Maynard protested, as Grace wrapped the blankets round her dripping dress. "I 'm as wet as I can be, now."
Libby began to laugh at these inconsequences, to which he was probably well used. "You would n't have time to die here. And we want to give this hydropathic treatment a fair trial. You've tried the douche, and now you're to have the pack." He summoned two of the boatmen, who had been considerately dripping outside, in order to leave the interior to the shipwrecked company, and they lifted Mrs. Maynard, finally wrapped in, Grace's India-rubber cloak, and looking like some sort of strange, huge chrysalis, and carried her out into the storm and up the steps.
Grace followed last with Mr. Libby, very heavyhearted and reckless. She had not only that sore self-accusal; but the degradation of the affair, its grotesqueness, its spiritual squalor, its utter gracelessness, its entire want of dignity, were bitter as death in her proud soul. It was not in this shameful guise that she had foreseen the good she was to do. And it had all come through her own wilfulness and self-righteousness. The tears could mix unseen with the rain that drenched her face, but they blinded her, and half-way up the steps she stumbled on her skirt, and would have fallen, if the young man had not caught her. After that, from time to time he put his arm about her, and stayed her against the gusts.
Before they reached the top he said, "Miss Breen, I'm awfully sorry for all this. Mrs. Maynard will be ashamed of what she said. Confound it! If Maynard were only here!"
"Why should she be ashamed?" demanded Grace. "If she had been drowned, I should have murdered her, and I'm responsible if anything happens to her,—I am to blame." She escaped from him, and ran into the house. He slunk round the piazza to the kitchen door, under the eyes of the ladies watching at the parlor windows.
"I wonder he let the others carry her up," said Miss Gleason. "Of course, he will marry her now,—when she gets her divorce." She spoke of Mrs. Maynard, whom her universal toleration not only included in the mercy which the opinions of the other ladies denied her, but round whom her romance cast a halo of pretty possibilities as innocently sentimental as the hopes of a young girl.