I SAW THREE SHIPS
As the ship struck, night closed down again, and her agony, sharp or lingering, was blotted out. There was no help possible; no arm that could throw across the three hundred yards that separated her from the cliffs; no swimmer that could carry a rope across those breakers; nor any boat that could, with a chance of life, put out among them. Now and then a dull crash divided the dark hours, but no human cry again reached the shore.
Day broke on a grey sea still running angrily, a tired and shivering group upon the beach, and on the near side of the Raney a shapeless fragment, pounded and washed to and fro--a relic on which the watchers could in their minds re-build the tragedy.
The Raney presents a sheer edge to seaward--an edge under which the first vessel, though almost grazing her side, had driven in plenty of water. Shorewards, however, it descends by gradual ledges. Beguiled by the bonfire, or mistaking Ruby's lantern for the tossing stern-light of a comrade, the second ship had charged full-tilt on the reef and hung herself upon it, as a hunter across a fence. Before she could swing round, her back was broken; her stern parted, slipped back and settled in many fathoms; while the fore-part heaved forwards, toppled down the reef till it stuck, and there was slowly brayed into pieces by the seas. The tide had swept up and ebbed without dislodging it, and now was almost at low-water mark.
"'May so well go home to breakfast," said Elias Sweetland, grimly, as he took in what the uncertain light could show.
"Here, Young Zeb, look through my glass," sang out Farmer Tresidder, handing the telescope. He had been up at the vicarage drinking hot grog with the parson and the rescued men, when Sim Udy ran up with news of the fresh disaster; and his first business on descending to the Cove had been to pack Ruby and Mary Jane off to bed with a sound rating. Parson Babbage had descended also, carrying a heavy cane (the very same with which he broke the head of a Radical agitator in the bar of the "Jolly Pilchards," to the mild scandal of the diocese), and had routed the rest of the women and chastised the drunken. The parson was a remarkable man, and looked it, just now, in spite of the red handkerchief that bound his hat down over his ears.
"Nothing alive there--eh?"
Young Zeb, with a glass at his left eye, answered--
"Nothin' left but a frame o' ribs, sir, an' the foremast hangin' over, so far as I can see; but 'tis all a raffle o' spars and riggin' close under her side. I'll tell 'ee better when this wave goes by."
But the next instant he took down the glass, with a whitened face, and handed it to the parson.
The parson looked too. "Terrible!--terrible!" he said, very slowly, and passed it on to Farmer Tresidder.
"What is it? Where be I to look? Aw, pore chaps--pore chaps! Man alive--but there's one movin'!"
Zeb snatched the glass.
"'Pon the riggin', Zeb, just under her lee! I saw en move-- a black-headed chap, in a red shirt--"
"Right, Farmer--he's clingin', too, not lashed." Zeb gave a long look. "Darned if I won't!" he said. "Cast over them corks, Sim Udy! How much rope have 'ee got, Jim?" He began to strip as he spoke.
"Lashins," answered Jim Lewarne.
"Splice it up, then, an' hitch a dozen corks along it."
"Zeb, Zeb!" cried his father, "What be 'bout?"
"Swimmin'," answered Zeb, who by this time had unlaced his boots.
"The notion! Look here, friends--take a look at the bufflehead! Not three months back his mother's brother goes dead an' leaves en a legacy, 'pon which, he sets up as jowter--han'some painted cart, tidy little mare, an' all complete, besides a bravish sum laid by. A man of substance, sirs--a life o' much price, as you may say. Aw, Zeb, my son, 'tis hard to lose 'ee, but 'tis harder still now you're in such a very fair way o' business!"
"Hold thy clack, father, an' tie thicky knot, so's it won't slip."
"Shan't. I've a-took boundless pains wi' thee, my son, from thy birth up: hours I've a-spent curin' thy propensities wi' the strap--ay, hours. D'ee think I raised 'ee up so carefully to chuck thyself away 'pon a come-by-chance furriner? No, I didn'; an' I'll see thee jiggered afore I ties 'ee up. Pa'son Babbage--"
"Ye dundering old shammick!" broke in the parson, driving the ferule of his cane deep in the sand, "be content to have begotten a fool, and thank heaven and his mother he's a gamey fool."
"Thank'ee, Pa'son," said Young Zeb, turning his head as Jim Lewarne fastened the belt of corks under his armpits. "Now the line--not too tight round the waist, an' pay out steady. You, Jim, look to this. R-r-r--mortal cold water, friends!" He stood for a moment, clenching his teeth--a fine figure of a youth for all to see. Then, shouting for plenty of line, he ran twenty yards down the beach and leapt in on the top of a tumbling breaker.
"When a man's old," muttered the parson, half to himself, "he may yet thank God for what he sees, sometimes. Hey, Farmer! I wish I was a married man and had a girl good enough for that naked young hero."
"Ruby an' he'll make a han'some pair."
"Ay, I dare say: only I wasn't thinking o' her. How's the fellow out yonder?"
The man on the wreck was still clinging, drenched twice or thrice in the half-minute and hidden from sight, but always emerging. He sat astride of the dangling foremast, and had wound tightly round his wrist the end of a rope that hung over the bows. If the rope gave, or the mast worked clear of the tangle that held it and floated off, he was a dead man. He hardly fought at all, and though they shouted at the top of their lungs, seemed to take no notice--only moved feebly, once or twice, to get a firmer seat.
Zeb also could only be descried at intervals, his head appearing, now and again, like a cork on the top of a billow. But the last of the ebb was helping him, and Jim Lewarne, himself at times neck-high in the surf, continued to pay out the line slowly. In fact, the feat was less dangerous than it seemed to the spectators. A few hours before, it was impossible; but by this there was little more than a heavy swell after the first twenty yards of surf. Zeb's chief difficulty would be to catch a grip or footing on the reef where the sea again grew broken, and his foremost dread lest cramp should seize him in the bitterly cold water. Rising on the swell, he could spy the seaman tossing and sinking on the mast just ahead.
As it happened, he was spared the main peril of the reef, for in fifty more strokes he found himself plunging down into a smooth trough of water with the mast directly beneath. As he shot down, the mast rose to him, he flung his arms out over it, and was swept up, clutching it, to the summit of the next swell.
Oddly enough, his first thought, as he hung there, was not for the man he had come to save, but for that which had turned him pale when first he glanced through the telescope. The foremast across which he lay was complete almost to the royal-mast, though the yards were gone; and to his left, just above the battered fore-top, five men were lashed, dead and drowned. Most of them had their eyes wide open, and seemed to stare at Zeb and wriggle about in the stir of the sea as if they lived. Spent and wretched as he was, it lifted his hair. He almost called out to them at first, and then he dragged his gaze off them, and turned it to the right. The survivor still clung here, and Zeb--who had been vaguely wondering how on earth he contrived to keep his seat and yet hold on by the rope without being torn limb from limb--now discovered this end of the mast to be so tightly jammed and tangled against the wreck as practically to be immovable. The man's face was about as scaring as the corpses'; for, catching sight of Zeb, he betrayed no surprise, but only looked back wistfully over his left shoulder, while his blue lips worked without sound. At least, Zeb heard none.
He waited while they plunged again and emerged, and then, drawing breath, began to pull himself along towards the stranger. They had seen his success from the beach, and Jim Lewarne, with plenty of line yet to spare, waited for the next move. Zeb worked along till he could touch the man's thigh.
"Keep your knee stiddy," he called out; "I'm goin' to grip hold o't."
For answer, the stranger only kicked out with his foot, as a pettish child might, and almost thrust him from his hold.
"Look'ee here: no doubt you'm 'mazed, but that's a curst foolish trick, all the same. Be that tangle fast, you'm holding by?"
The man made no sign of comprehension.
"Best not trust to't, I reckon," muttered Zeb: "must get past en an' make fast round a rib. Ah! would 'ee, ye varment?"
For, once more, the stranger had tried to thrust him off; and a struggle followed, which ended in Zeb's getting by and gripping the mast again between him and the wreck.
"Now list to me," he shouted, pulling himself up and flinging a leg over the mast: "ingratitood's worse than witchcraft. Sit ye there an' inwardly digest that sayin', while I saves your life."
He untied the line about his waist, then, watching his chance, snatched the rope out of the other's hand, threw his weight upon it, and swung in towards the vessel's ribs till he touched one, caught, and passed the line around it, high up, with a quick double half-hitch. Running a hand down the line, he dropped back upon the mast. The stranger regarded him with a curious stare, and at last found his voice.
"You seem powerfully set on saving me."
His teeth chattered as he spoke, and his face was pinched and hollow-eyed from cold and exposure. But he was handsome, for all that-- a fellow not much older than Zeb, lean and strongly made. His voice had a cultivated ring.
"Yes," answered Zeb, as, with one hand on the line that now connected the wreck with the shore, he sat down astride the mast facing him; "I reckon I'll do't."
"Unlucky, isn't it?"
"To save a man from drowning."
"Maybe. Untie these corks from my chest, and let me slip 'em round yourn. How your fingers do shake, to be sure!"
"I call you to witness," said the other, with a shiver, "you are saving me on your own responsibility."
"Can 'ee swim?"
"I could yesterday."
"Then you can now, wi' a belt o' corks an' me to help. Keep a hand on the line an' pull yoursel' along. Tide's runnin' again by now. When you'm tired, hold fast by the rope an' sing out to me. Stop; let me chafe your legs a bit, for how you've lasted out as you have is more than I know."
"I was on the foretop most of the night. Those fools--" he broke off to nod at the corpses.
"They'm dead," put in Zeb, curtly.
"They lashed themselves, thinking the foremast would stand till daylight. I climbed down half an hour before it went. I tell you what, though; my legs are too cramped to move. If you want to save me you must carry me."
"I was thinkin' the same. Well, come along; for tho' I don't like the cut o' your jib, you'm a terrible handsome chap, and as clean-built as ever I see. Now then, one arm round my neck and t'other on the line, but don't bear too hard on it, for I doubt 'tis weakish. Bless the Lord, the tide's running."
So they began their journey. Zeb had taken barely a dozen strokes when the other groaned and began to hang more heavily on his neck. But he fought on, though very soon the struggle became a blind and horrible nightmare to him. The arm seemed to creep round his throat and strangle him, and the blackness of a great night came down over his eyes. Still he struck out, and, oddly enough, found himself calling to his comrade to hold tight.
When Sim Udy and Elias Sweetland dashed in from the shore and swam to the rescue, they found the pair clinging to the line, and at a standstill. And when the four were helped through the breakers to firm earth, Zeb tottered two steps forward and dropped in a swoon, burying his face in the sand.
"He's not as strong as I," muttered the stranger, staring at Parson Babbage in a dazed, uncertain fashion, and uttering the words as if they had no connection with his thoughts. "I'm afraid--sir--I've broken--his heart."
And with that he, too, fainted, into the Parson's arms.
"Better carry the both up to Sheba," said Farmer Tresidder.
Ruby lay still abed when Mary Jane, who had been moving about the kitchen, sleepy-eyed, getting ready the breakfast, dashed up-stairs with the news that two dead men had been taken off the wreck and were even now being brought into the yard.
"You coarse girl," she exclaimed, "to frighten me with such horrors!"
"Oh, very well," answered Mary Jane, who was in a rebellious mood, "then I'm goin' down to peep; for there's a kind o' what-I-can't-tell-'ee about dead men that's very enticin', tho' it do make you feel all-overish."
By and by she came back panting, to find Ruby already dressed.
"Aw, Miss Ruby, dreadful news I ha' to tell, tho' joyous in a way. Would 'ee mind catchin' hold o' the bed-post to give yoursel' fortitude? Now let me cast about how to break it softly. First, then, you must know he's not dead at all--"
"Who is not?"
"Your allotted husband, miss--Mister Zeb."
"Why, who in the world said he was?"
"But they took en up for dead, miss--for he'd a-swum out to the wreck, an' then he'd a-swum back with a man 'pon his back--an' touchin' shore, he fell downward in a swound, marvellous like to death for all to behold. So they brought en up here, 'long wi' the chap he'd a-saved, an' dressed en i' the spare room blankets, an' gave en clane sperrits to drink, an' lo! he came to; an' in a minnit, lo! agen he went off; an'--"
Ruby, by this time, was half-way down the stairs. Running to the kitchen door she flung it open, calling "Zeb! Zeb!"
But Young Zeb had fainted for the third time, and while others of the group merely lifted their heads at her entrance, the old crowder strode towards her with some amount of sternness on his face.
"Kape off my son!" he shouted. "Kape off my son Zebedee, and go up-stairs agen to your prayers; for this be all your work, in a way--you gay good-for-nuthin'!"
"Indeed, Mr. Minards," retorted Ruby, firing up under this extravagant charge and bridling, "pray remember whose roof you're under, with your low language."
"Begad," interposed a strange voice, "but that's the spirit for me, and the mouth to utter it!"
Ruby, turning, met a pair of luminous eyes gazing on her with bold admiration. The eyes were set in a cadaverous, but handsome, face; and the face belonged to the stranger, who had recovered of his swoon, and was now stretched on the settle beside the fire.
"I don't know who you may be, sir, but--"
"You are kind enough to excuse my rising to introduce myself. My name is Zebedee Minards."