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- Stella Fregelius - 20/56 -
Thus, diversified by some necessary bailing, passed the short November day, long enough for them, till once more the darkness began to gather. They had still some food and drink left; indeed, had it not been for these they would have perished. Most happily, also, with the sun the wind dropped, although for hours the sea remained dangerously high. Now wet and cold were their enemies, worse than any that they had been called upon to face. Long ago the driving spray had soaked them to the skin, and there upon the sea the winter night was very chill.
While the wind, fortunately for them, by comparison a warm one, still blew from the west, and the sea remained tempestuous, they found some shelter by wrapping themselves in a corner of the sail. Towards midnight, however, it got round to the northeast, enough of it to moderate the sea considerably, and to enable them to put the boat about and go before it with a closely reefed sail. Now, indeed, they were bitterly cold, and longed even for the shelter of the wet canvas. Still Morris felt, and Stella was of the same mind, that before utter exhaustion overtook them their best chance for life lay in trying to make the shore, which was, they knew not how far away.
There, then, for hours they cowered in the stern of the boat, huddled together to protect themselves as best they might from the weather, and plunging forward beneath their little stretch of sail. Sleep they could not, for that icy breath bit into their marrow, and of this Morris was glad, since he did not dare relax his watch for an instant. So sometimes they sat silent, and sometimes by fits and starts they talked, their lips close to each other's face, as though they were whispering to one another.
To while away the weary time, Morris told his companion about his invention, the aerophone. Then she in turn told him something of her previous life--Stella was now a woman of four and twenty. It seemed that her mother had died when she was fourteen at the rectory in Northumberland, where she was born. After that, with short intervals, she had spent five years in Denmark, whither her father came to visit her every summer. Most of this time she passed at a school in Copenhagen, going for her holidays to stay with her grandmother, who was the widow of a small landowner of noble family, and lived in an ancient, dilapidated house in some remote village. At length the grandmother died, leaving to Stella the trifle she possessed, after which, her education being completed, she returned to Northumberland to keep house for her father. Here, too, it would seem that her life was very lonely, for the place was but an unvisited coast village, and they were not rich enough to mix much with the few county families who lived anywhere within reach.
"Have you no brothers or sisters?" asked Morris.
Even then, numb as was her flesh with cold, he felt her wince at the question.
"No, no," she answered, "none now--at least, none here. I have--I mean I had--a sister, my twin, but she died when we were seventeen. This was the most dreadful thing that ever happened to me, the thing which made me what I am."
"I don't quite understand. What are you, then?"
"Oh, something very unsatisfactory, I am afraid, quite different from other people. What Mr. Tomley said /you/ were, Mr. Monk, a mystic and a dreamer of dreams; a lover of the dead; one who dwells in the past, and--in the future."
Morris did not pursue the subject; even under their strange circumstances, favourable as they were to intimacy and confidences, it seemed impertinent to him to pry into the mysteries of his companion's life. Only he asked, at hazard almost:
"How did you spend your time up there in Northumberland?"
"In drawing a little, in collecting eggs, moths, and flowers a great deal; in practising with my violin playing and singing; and during the long winters in making translations in my spare time of Norse sagas, which no one will publish."
"I should like to read them; I am fond of the sagas," he said, and after this, under pressure of their physical misery, the conversation died away.
Hour succeeded to hour, and the weather moderated so much that now they were in little danger of being swamped. This, indeed, was fortunate, since in the event of a squall or other emergency, in their numbed condition it was doubtful whether they could have found enough strength to do what might be necessary to save themselves. They drank what remained of the whiskey, which put life into their veins for a while, but soon its effects passed off, leaving them, if possible, more frozen than before.
"What is the time?" asked Stella, after a long silence.
"It should be daybreak in about two hours," he said, in a voice that attempted cheerfulness.
Then a squall of sleet burst upon them, and after this new misery a torpor overcame Stella; at least, her shiverings grew less violent, and her head sank upon his shoulder. Morris put one arm round her waist to save her from slipping into the water at the bottom of the boat, making shift to steer with the other. Thus, for a while they ploughed forward--whither he knew not, across the inky sea, for there was no moon, and the stars were hidden, driven on slowly by the biting breath of the winter wind.
Presently she awoke, lifted her head, and spoke, saying:
"We can't last much longer in this cold and wet. You are not afraid, are you?"
"No, not exactly afraid, only sorry; it is hard to go with so much to be done, and--to leave behind."
"You shouldn't think like that," she answered, "for what we leave must follow. She will suffer, but soon she will be with you again, where everything is understood. Only you ought to have died with her, and not with me, a stranger."
"Fate settles these things," he muttered, "and if it comes to that, maybe God will give her strength. But the dawn is near, and by it we may see land."
"Yes, yes,"--now her voice had sunk to a whisper,--"the dawn is always near, and by it we shall see land."
Then again Stella's head sank upon his shoulder, and she slept heavily; nor, although he knew that such slumbers are dangerous, did he think it worth while to disturb her.
The invisible seas hissed past; the sharp wind bit his bones, and over him, too, that fatal slumber began to creep. But, although he seldom exercised it, Morris was a man of strong will, and while any strength was left he refused to give way. Would this dreadful darkness never end? For the fiftieth time he glanced back over his shoulder, and now, he was sure of it, the east grew ashen. He waited awhile, for the November dawn is slow in breaking, then looked again. Heaven be thanked! the cold wind had driven away the clouds, and there, upon the edge of the horizon, peeped up the fiery circle of the sun, throwing long rays of sickly yellow across the grey, troubled surface of the waters. In front of him lay a dense bank of fog, which, from its character, as Morris knew well, must emanate from the reeking face of earth. They were near shore, it could not be doubted; still, he did not wake his companion. Perhaps he might be in error, and sleep, even a death-sleep, is better than the cheatings of disappointed hope.
What was that dim object in front of him? Surely it must be the ruin a mile or so to the north of Monksland, that was known as the Death Church? Once a village stood here, but the sea had taken most of it; indeed, all that remained to-day was this old, deserted fane, which, having been built upon a breast of rising ground, still remained, awaiting its destruction by the slow sap of the advancing ocean. Even now, at times of very high tide, the sea closed in behind, cutting the fabric off from the mainland, where it looked like a forsaken lighthouse rather than the tower and chancel of a church. But there, not much more than a mile away, yes, there it was, and Morris felt proud to think how straight he had steered homewards through that stormy darkness.
The sea was still wild and high, but he was familiar with every inch of the coast, and knew well that there was a spot to the south of the Dead Church, just where the last rood of graveyard met the sand, upon which he could beach the boat safely even in worse weather. For this nook Morris headed with a new energy; the fires of life and hope burnt up in him, giving him back his strength and judgment.
At last they were opposite to the place, and, watching his chance, he put the helm down and ran in upon the crest of a wave, till the boat grounded in the soft sand, and began to wallow there like a dying thing. Fearing lest the back-wash should suck them off into the surf again, he rolled himself into the water, for jump he could not; indeed, it was as much as he could do to stand. With a last effort of his strength he seized Stella in his arms and struggled with her to the sandy shore, where he sank down exhausted. Then she woke. "Oh, I dreamed, I dreamed!" she said, staring round her wildly.
"What?" he asked.
"That it was all over; and afterwards, that I----" and she broke off suddenly, adding: "But it was all a dream, for we are safe on shore, are we not?"
"Yes, thank Heaven!" said Morris. "Sit still, and I will make the boat secure. She has served us a good turn, and I do not want to lose her after all."
She nodded, and wading into the water, with numbed hands he managed to lift the little anchor and carry it ashore in his arms.
"There," he said, "the tide is ebbing, and she'll hold fast enough until I can send to fetch her; or, if not, it can't be helped. Come on, Miss Fregelius, before you grow too stiff to walk;" and, bending down, he helped her to her feet.
Their road ran past the nave of the church, which was ruined and unroofed. At some time during the last two generations, however, although the parishioners saw that it was useless to go to the cost of repairing the nave, they had bricked in the chancel, and to within the last twenty years continued to use it as a place of worship. Indeed, the old oak door taken from the porch still swung on rusty hinges in the partition wall of red brick. Stella looked up and saw it.
"I want to look in there," she said.
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