Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. The Man of no Reputation
XXV. In Extremity
Sweetwater's one thought as he sank was, "Now Mr. Sutherland need fear me no longer."
But the instinct of life is strong in every heart, and when he found himself breathing the air again he threw out his arms wildly and grasped a spar.
It was life to him, hope, reconnection with his kind. He clutched, clung, and, feeling himself floating, uttered a shout of mingled joy and appeal that unhappily was smothered in the noise of the waters and the now rapidly rising wind.
Whence had come this spar in his desperate need? He never knew, but somewhere in his remote consciousness an impression remained of a shock to the waves following his own plunge into the water, which might mean that this spar had been thrown out after him, perhaps by the already repentant hands of the wretches who had tossed him to his death. However it came, or from whatever source, it had at least given him an opportunity to measure his doom and realise the agonies of hope when it alternates with despair.
The darkness was impenetrable. It was no longer that of heaven, but of the nether world, or so it seemed to this dazed soul, plunged suddenly from dreams of exile into the valley of the shadow of death. And such a death! As he realised its horrors, as he felt the chill of night and the oncoming storm strike its piercing fangs into his marrow, and knew that his existence and the hope of ever again seeing the dear old face at the fireside rested upon the strength of his will and the tenacity of his life- clutch, he felt his heart fail, and the breath that was his life cease in a gurgle of terror. But he clung on, and, though no comfort came, still clung, while vague memories of long-ago shipwrecks, and stories told in his youth of men, women, and children tossing for hours on a drifting plank, flashed through his benumbed brain, and lent their horror to his own sensations of apprehension and despair.
He wanted to live. Now that the dread spectre had risen out of the water and had its clutch on his hair, he realised that the world held much for him, and that even in exile he might work and love and enjoy God's heaven and earth, the green fields and the blue sky. Not such skies as were above him now. No, this was not sky that overarched him, but a horrible vault in which the clouds, rushing in torn masses, had the aspect of demons stooping to contend for him with those other demons that with long arms and irresistible grip were dragging at him from below. He was alone on a whirling spar in the midst of a midnight ocean, but horror and a pitiless imagination made this conflict more than that of the elements, and his position an isolation beyond that of man removed from his fellows. He was almost mad. Yet he clung.
Suddenly a better frame of mind prevailed. The sky was no lighter, save as the lightning came to relieve the overwhelming darkness by a still more overwhelming glare, nor were the waves less importunate or his hold on the spar more secure; but the horror seemed to have lifted, and the practical nature of the man reasserted itself. Other men had gone through worse dangers than these and survived to tell the tale, as he might survive to tell his. The will was all--will and an indomitable courage; and he had will and he had courage, or why had he left his home to dare a hard and threatening future purely from a sentiment of gratitude? Could he hold on long enough, daylight would come; and if, as he now thought possible, he had been thrown into the sea within twenty hours after leaving Sutherlandtown, then he must be not far from Cape Cod, and in the direct line of travel from New York to Boston. Rescue would come, and if the storm which was breaking over his head more and more furiously made it difficult for him to retain his hold, it certainly would not wreck his spar or drench him more than he was already drenched, while every blast would drive him shoreward. The clinging was all, and filial love would make him do that, even in the semi-unconsciousness which now and then swept over him. Only, would it not be better for Mr. Sutherland if he should fail and drop away into the yawning chasms of the unknown world beneath? There were moments when he thought so, and then his clutch perceptibly weakened; but only once did he come near losing his hold altogether. And that was when he thought he heard a laugh. A laugh, here in the midst of ocean! in the midst of storm! a laugh! Were demons a reality, then? Yes; but the demon he had heard was of his own imagination; it had a face of Medusa sweetness and the laugh--Only Amabel's rang out so thrillingly false, and with such diabolic triumph. Amabel, who might be laughing in her dreams at this very moment of his supreme misery, and who assuredly would laugh if conscious of his suffering and aware of the doom to which his self-sacrifice had brought him. Amabel! the thought of her made the night more dark, the waters more threatening, the future less promising. Yet he would hold on if only to spite her who hated him and whom he hated almost as much as he loved Mr. Sutherland.
It was his last conscious thought for hours. When morning broke he was but a nerveless figure, with sense enough to cling, and that was all.