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- BEATRICE - 4/60 -
be able to keep the canoe straight, and then they must be swamped, and in all human probability drowned. So this was to be the end of his life and its ambitions. Before another hour had run its course, he would be rolling to and fro in the arms of that angry sea. What would his wife Honoria say when she heard the news, he wondered? Perhaps it would shock her into some show of feeling. And Effie, his dear little six-year-old daughter? Well, thank God, she was too young to feel his loss for long. By the time that she was a woman she would almost have forgotten that she ever had a father. But how would she get on without him to guide her? Her mother did not love children, and a growing girl would continually remind her of her growing years. He could not tell; he could only hope for the best.
And for himself! What would become of him after the short sharp struggle for life? Should he find endless sleep, or what? He was a Christian, and his life had not been worse than that of other men. Indeed, though he would have been the last to think it, he had some redeeming virtues. But now at the end the spiritual horizon was as dark as it had been at the beginning. There before him were the Gates of Death, but not yet would they roll aside and show the traveller what lay beyond their frowning face. How could he tell? Perhaps they would not open at all. Perhaps he now bade his last farewell to consciousness, to earth and sky and sea and love and all lovely things. Well, that might be better than some prospects. At that moment Geoffrey Bingham, in the last agony of doubt, would gladly have exchanged his hopes of life beyond for a certainty of eternal sleep. That faith which enables some of us to tread this awful way with an utter confidence is not a wide prerogative, and, as yet, at any rate, it was not his, though the time might come when he would attain it. There are not very many, even among those without reproach, who can lay them down in the arms of Death, knowing most certainly that when the veil is rent away the countenance that they shall see will be that of the blessed Guardian of Mankind. Alas! he could not be altogether sure, and where doubt exists, hope is but a pin-pricked bladder. He sighed heavily, murmured a little formula of prayer that had been on his lips most nights during thirty years--he had learnt it as a child at his mother's knee--and then, while the tempest roared around him, gathered up his strength to meet the end which seemed inevitable. At any rate he would die like a man.
Then came a reaction. His vital forces rose again. He no longer felt fearful, he only wondered with a strange impersonal wonder, as a man wonders about the vital affairs of another. Then from wondering about himself he began to wonder about the girl who sat opposite to him. With the rain came a little lightning, and by the first flash he saw her clearly. Her beautiful face was set, and as she bent forward searching the darkness with her wide eyes, it wore, he thought, an almost defiant air.
The canoe twisted round somewhat. He dug his broken paddle into the water and once more brought her head on to the sea. Then he spoke.
"Are you afraid?" he asked of Beatrice.
"No," she answered, "I am not afraid."
"Do you know that we shall probably be drowned?"
"Yes, I know it. They say the death is easy. I brought you here. Forgive me that. I should have tried to row you ashore as you said."
"Never mind me; a man must meet his fate some day. Do not think of me. But I can't keep her head on much longer. You had better say your prayers."
Beatrice bent forward till her head was quite near his own. The wind had blown some of her hair loose, and though he did not seem to notice it at the time, he remembered afterwards that a lock of it struck him on the face.
"I cannot pray," she said; "I have nothing to pray to. I am not a Christian."
The words struck him like a blow. It seemed so awful to think of this proud and brilliant woman, now balanced on the verge of what she believed to be utter annihilation. Even the courage that induced her at such a moment to confess her hopeless state seemed awful.
"Try," he said with a gasp.
"No," she answered, "I do not fear to die. Death cannot be worse than life is for most of us. I have not prayed for years, not since--well, never mind. I am not a coward. It would be cowardly to pray now because I may be wrong. If there is a God who knows all, He will understand that."
Geoffrey said no more, but laboured at the broken paddle gallantly and with an ever-failing strength. The lightning had passed away and the darkness was very great, for the hurrying clouds hid the starlight. Presently a sound arose above the turmoil of the storm, a crashing thunderous sound towards which the send of the sea gradually bore them. The sound came from the waves that beat upon the Bryngelly reef.
"Where are we drifting to?" he cried.
"Into the breakers, where we shall be lost," she answered calmly. "Give up paddling, it is of no use, and try to take off your coat. I have loosened my skirt. Perhaps we can swim ashore."
He thought to himself that in the dark and breakers such an event was not probable, but he said nothing, and addressed himself to the task of getting rid of his coat and waistcoat--no easy one in that confined space. Meanwhile the canoe was whirling round and round like a walnut shell upon a flooded gutter. For some distance before the waves broke upon the reef and rocks they swept in towards them with a steady foamless swell. On reaching the shallows, however, they pushed their white shoulders high into the air, curved up and fell in thunder on the reef.
The canoe rode towards the breakers, sucked upon its course by a swelling sea.
"Good-bye," called Geoffrey to Beatrice, as stretching out his wet hand he found her own and took it, for companionship makes death a little easier.
"Good-bye," she cried, clinging to his hand. "Oh, why did I bring you into this?"
For in their last extremity this woman thought rather of her companion in peril than of herself.
One more turn, then suddenly the canoe beneath them was lifted like a straw and tossed high into the air. A mighty mass of water boiled up beneath it and around it. Then the foam rushed in, and vaguely Geoffrey knew that they were wrapped in the curve of a billow.
A swift and mighty rush of water. Crash!--and his senses left him.
THE WATCHER AT THE DOOR
This was what had happened. Just about the centre of the reef is a large flat-topped rock--it may be twenty feet in the square--known to the Bryngelly fishermen as Table Rock. In ordinary weather, even at high tide, the waters scarcely cover this rock, but when there is any sea they wash over it with great violence. On to this rock Geoffrey and Beatrice had been hurled by the breaker. Fortunately for them it was thickly overgrown with seaweed, which to some slight extent broke the violence of their fall. As it chanced, Geoffrey was knocked senseless by the shock; but Beatrice, whose hand he still held, fell on to him and, with the exception of a few bruises and a shake, escaped unhurt.
She struggled to her knees, gasping. The water had run off the rock, and her companion lay quiet at her side. She put down her face and called into his ear, but no answer came, and then she knew that he was either dead or senseless.
At this second Beatrice caught a glimpse of something white gleaming in the darkness. Instinctively she flung herself upon her face, gripping the long tough seaweed with one hand. The other she passed round the body of the helpless man beside her, straining him with all her strength against her side.
Then came a wild long rush of foam. The water lifted her from the rock, but the seaweed held, and when at length the sea had gone boiling by, Beatrice found herself and the senseless form of Geoffrey once more lying side by side. She was half choked. Desperately she struggled up and round, looking shoreward through the darkness. Heavens! there, not a hundred yards away, a light shone upon the waters. It was a boat's light, for it moved up and down. She filled her lungs with air and sent one long cry for help ringing across the sea. A moment passed and she thought that she heard an answer, but because of the wind and the roar of the breakers she could not be sure. Then she turned and glanced seaward. Again the foaming terror was rushing down upon them; again she flung herself upon the rock and grasping the slippery seaweed twined her left arm about the helpless Geoffrey.
It was on them.
Oh, horror! Even in the turmoil of the boiling waters Beatrice felt the seaweed give. Now they were being swept along with the rushing wave, and Death drew very near. But still she clung to Geoffrey. Once more the air touched her face. She had risen to the surface and was floating on the stormy water. The wave had passed. Loosing her hold of Geoffrey she slipped her hand upwards, and as he began to sink clutched him by the hair. Then treading water with her feet, for happily for them both she was as good a swimmer as could be found upon that coast, she managed to open her eyes. There, not sixty yards away, was the boat's light. Oh, if only she could reach it. She spat the salt water from her mouth and once more cried aloud. The light seemed to move on.
Then another wave rolled forward and once more she was pushed down into the cruel depths, for with that dead weight hanging to her she could not keep above them. It flashed into her mind that if she let him go she might even now save herself, but even in that last terror this Beatrice would not do. If he went, she would go with him.
It would have been better if she had let him go.
Down she went--down, down! "I will hold him," Beatrice said in her heart; "I will hold him till I die." Then came waves of light and a sound as of wind whispering through the trees, and--all grew dark.
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