Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter XIII. In Peril by Water.
"All aboard!" said Roger.
"Ay! ay! Captain!" said Hildegarde, cheerily. She handed in the groceries which they had bought at the little store, half a mile away, stepped lightly into the exact middle of the canoe, and sank with one motion to her seat.
Roger nodded approvingly. "You are perfect in your entrances!" he said. "Some day I shall have to drill you in your exits, as I did the girls."
"What do you mean?" asked Hilda. "Don't I get out properly?"
"Quite well enough for ordinary occasions. But I made the girls put on their bathing-dresses, and then took them out and tipped them over, so that they would know just what to do."
"Thank you kindly. As I have not my bathing-dress on to-day, please don't give me a lesson just now."
They paddled on in silence; the two had become fast friends since the day of Madge's visit, and had had many pleasant paddles together. Hildegarde looked about her, at peace with all the world. Pollock's Cove was a thousand miles away, and there was nothing to break the spirit of peace that brooded over the water.
Are you so sure, Hilda?
The girl's face was set toward the land; she saw the wooded island with its fringe of silver birches standing like sentinels to guard the water's edge; she saw the lovely tangle of asters and golden- rod that gave it its name of Royal Island, and the strip of sand on which the waves were lapping gently; but she saw nothing of the west behind her.
"What are you watching so earnestly, Captain?" she said presently. "No boats, I hope?"
"No, no boats! we may have a shower by-and-bye; but I hope we shall get home in time."
It was a curious sky that Roger was watching. The day had been smoky throughout, with ragged brown clouds hanging about the horizon, and thunder muttering low in the distance. The smoky fringe might well come from the forest fires which were raging in a neighbouring district, Roger thought, and the thunder was an every-day matter of hot weather; but now the clouds were beginning to thicken at one point, and their ragged edges turned to firmer roundings, and their hue was fast deepening to black. Roger paddled with strong, even strokes, and the canoe flew over the water. The distant thunder-growl took on a more insistent voice, and every now and then came a long rolling note, which seemed to pass on and over their heads.
"'Hear now how dey roll de great balls about,'" quoted Hildegarde. "If we were in the Catskills, we might look out for Hendrik Hudson and his men, after such a peal as that."
"I am afraid we may have to look out for ourselves!" said Roger, laughing. "I begin to feel rather doubtful about getting home before the storm, Miss Hilda."
"It is growing dark, isn't it?" said Hilda, innocently. "Will it be much of a shower, do you think, Captain?"
"Well,--I think we may observe slight alterations in the atmospheric conditions. You are not afraid of a squall?"
"No, indeed! only tell me what I must do."
"Nothing but sit still--the hardest thing for some people to do; but I have noticed that you are not fidgety. Is your hat securely fastened?"
"As securely as my head!"
"That is well. Stand by, then, and be ready, for it is coming pretty near."
Roger was used to every variety of weather, but he had been wholly unprepared for the velocity of the storm which was moving down the lake. The clouds, which, a moment before, it seemed, had been merely a thickening of the general smoky condition, were now gathered into a heavy mass, dense blackness fringed with a misty gleam. It came sweeping over the water toward them, devouring the sunlight. A rushing sound was heard, that rose into a roar. "Steady, now!" said Roger. "Steady, child! and don't be frightened. Here it comes!"
Next moment they were struck, beaten, blinded. For a moment Hildegarde struggled for breath, so furious was the onset of the storm; she crouched low in the canoe, but remained perfectly still. The wind tore at them as if with frantic hands that sought their life; the water hissed under them, raced past them madly. No waves could rise under the raging gale, but black flaw after flaw flew along the surface of the lake. The rain fell in torrents; the falling streams were caught by the wind, tossed hither and thither, twisted into fantastic shapes of spray, sent flying forward, forward with the storm.
No glimpse of land could be seen now; the night was around them,-- night gone mad, and they helpless toys in its grasp. Helpless? No! for Roger's strong arm kept the tiny boat steady, as she drove before the wind. His face was streaming with rain, his fair hair tossed wildly over his brow, but his look was steadfast as ever, and now and then he glanced at Hildegarde and smiled encouragement. Bewildered at first, Hildegarde felt no fear, and presently, seeing the quiet confidence of her companion, a wild exhilaration possessed her. She had read of this kind of thing; it had been a dream, a picture in her mind always; now she was wrapped in the great storm, almost a part of it, borne along on its wings like the birds that beat their wings past her upon the gale. The lightning, which till now had shaken quivering lances of flame across the black water, a flash, then darkness, then again a flash, now became continuous, playing in lambent flames amid the blackness, lighting up the wild turmoil of wind and wave and cloud. The thunder rolled without pause,--overhead, around, beneath them. Crash! boom! crash! And all the while the water hissed past them; all the while the wind buffeted and shook them, and the rain lashed their faces with stinging whips. The frail canoe quivered like a living thing in mortal terror. What would be the end?
The end came soon enough. Hildegarde was suddenly brought down from her airy castle of storm-wrapped bliss by hearing Roger's voice, high-pitched to carry across the uproar, saying with calm emphasis, "Take off your shoes! We shall very likely go over when we round this point. If we do, strike out at once, and swim till I get hold of you."
Hildegarde nodded, and pulled off her low shoes; then she tried to think how it would feel to be flung into this mad water. The next moment the wind, which had lulled for an instant,--or had it only recoiled to take a fresh spring?--the wind rushed out of the darkness, and caught the canoe. It was a breathless struggle, man against the powers of air and of water. Hilda saw the powerful arms braced like steel to meet the onset, saw the quiet face set like marble, clenched teeth and frowning brow,--and saw no more, for here the canoe, having borne all that birch-bark could bear, capsized, and the girl found herself in the black water.
Down, down, down! Was she going to the bottom? She struck out blindly, as she had been told, trying to keep her thoughts together. They said that drowning was pleasant; but she did not want to drown. Should she ever be able to breathe again? Her dress clung about her ankles, the water hummed and buzzed in her ears, in her nostrils; but still she swam bravely. Suddenly she felt a strong arm thrown round her, and in another moment her head was out of water. Oh, the blessed air of heaven! how she drank it in, in deep, gasping breaths! Just to be alive, to breathe, was happiness enough. Roger was swimming strongly and steadily with one arm, holding her with the other. He caught the paddle in his teeth as it floated by, and at first Hildegarde could think of nothing but how funny he looked, like a great fair-haired dog swimming about. He had righted the canoe, and now flung the paddle into it, and turned to Hildegarde. "All right? Thank Heaven! Take hold by the bow, and I will tow you ashore."
"I can swim," said Hildegarde. "I am all right, truly. Can't I swim on the other side and help her along, instead of hindering?"
"To be sure. Hurrah for you!"
Hilda grasped the canoe with her left hand and tried to swim with her right. She could do little, however, against the furious battling of wind and wave; and Captain Roger set his teeth, and wondered whether he was going to be beaten this time. "I won't!" he said aloud to the storm; and shook his head, lion-like, and braced his strong shoulders, and swam on grimly. A few moments of silent, breathless fighting, the wind screeching, like Bedlam loose, the foam driving and hissing, the lightning blazing, incessant, maddening.
Could they reach the shore? Hildegarde asked herself. Was this only prolonging the agony, dragging this brave man to death with her, on her account? If he were not hampered with her, he would have been safe on shore before this. If she were a girl in a story-book, she would loose her hold now, and sink silently; but she was not a girl in a story-book. She was a very real Hilda Grahame, and she did not want to sink. And how could our poor Hilda know that the Merryweather obstinacy was roused, and that Roger meant to save her and himself, and the canoe, too, if he had to swim across the lake to do it? But now she heard him cry out, in a joyful tone: "Courage, little girl! here we are, all right!"
Next moment,--oh, joy! oh, wonder past belief! she felt the ground beneath her feet. She was walking, standing upright on the good, solid, blessed earth. The canoe touched bottom, grazed, floated again, then grounded gently and was still.
"Shake yourself as well as you can," said Roger, "while I haul her up. So, now then! under this, and here we are!"
In the turn of a hand he hauled the canoe up on the sand, turned it over, and drew Hildegarde beneath the shelter. A clump of bushes broke the force of the wind, so they could breathe in peace, without having to fight for every breath.
For a few minutes they sat in silence, panting, dripping, gazing at each other with dilated eyes. Their thoughts were utterly irrelevant, as thoughts are apt to be after a great crisis. Roger was thinking that a pretty face looked much prettier wet than dry, and compared apples and flowers; Hildegarde wondered if Saint Bernard dogs could swim. "Because Newfoundlands are black, you know," she found herself saying aloud in an explanatory tone.
"I beg your pardon!" said Roger, remorsefully. "I--I am afraid you are very wet."
Hildegarde felt that she must either cry or laugh, so she laughed. "If it were not for you, Captain, I should not be alive now. I should have gone down, down,--and the water was so black. Was it ever anything but black in that place?" Her voice shook, but she pulled herself together instantly. "Why do you look troubled, Captain?" she asked. "The island is solid, isn't it?"
"You are so wet!" said Roger again, more ruefully than before.
"No wetter than you!" said Hilda, with a little laugh. Indeed, they were both streaming with water, and looked like a merman and mermaid very much out of their element.
"I? Oh, I never know whether I am wet or dry. But it is different for you; you will take cold, or--or something, won't you?"
"You are afraid I shall melt?" asked Hildegarde. She stooped down and gathered her skirt together, wringing little floods of water from it. "No, I don't think I shall melt, really, Captain. Do I look as if I were melting?"
"You look--" began Roger, and stopped suddenly, and then wondered why he stopped, and told himself he was an ass.
"Speaking of melting, reminds me," he said, laughing. He felt in his pockets, and produced a small parcel. "I hope this is not melted. No, it is all right. Have some chocolate, and let us make merry on our desert island! See! the worst of the squall is over. It is lightening already; I can see the nearest island."
"Yes, and the water begins to show grey, instead of all black and white. But has this really been nothing more than a squall, Captain Roger?"
"Oh, if you like the dignities of meteorology, I think we might very properly call this a tornado."
"A tornado! I have been out in a tornado! And how splendid it all is!"
Roger laughed again. "Splendid, eh? So it is! Rather good fun, too, now we are on dry land."
"Glorious fun!" cried Hildegarde.
The water still raced past at their feet; the rain still poured down, the thunder cracked and roared and bellowed, and the lightning blazed. But under the canoe it was really quite dry, considering; and the chocolate was excellent, and, on the whole, both Hildegarde and Roger thought well of tornadoes.
Meanwhile, there were some anxious faces at the camp. The storm had broken there as suddenly as out on the lake. Bell and Gertrude were out fishing, but fortunately near the shore, and they reached home just as the fury broke loose. Obadiah and Ferguson were blown in on the gale, turning handsprings as they came, and singing
"Oh, I'd give a sight For to be a kite When the wind is howly-wowling!"
Willy and Kitty were discovered, after a few minutes' anxious search, under the great apple-tree, in high glee because it was raining apples, and the wind would mash them, and the lightning would cook them, and there was no need of coming home to tea, with apple-sauce growing on every tree. Being hoisted on the shoulders of the twins, they changed their point of view, and turning into Arabs mounted on camels, capered joyously into the house, to escape the sand-storm of the desert. Mr. Merryweather, who was spending a day or two in camp, came in from the boathouse, where he was tinkering boats as usual. The whole party sat down, wet and dishevelled, and drew breath as they looked at each other.
"Well, this is a visitation!" said Mr. Merryweather. "Why didn't some of you tell me what was going on?"
"None of us knew till we found our faces slapped and our hair pulled out," said Bell. "This is a surprise-party, I think, got up for our special benefit."
"Are we all here?" asked Mrs. Merryweather. "Let me count! One, two, three, four, five, six, and you and I, Miles, make eight. But where are Roger and Hilda?"
"Out in the Cheemaun!" was the reply in chorus. There was a general exclamation of dismay, then each one commented in his fashion.
"Cricky!" said Phil. "The Professor will have a great chance for meteoro-lolli-lolli-logical observations, won't he?"
"I fear, my gentle Roger, You'll be as wet as Bodger!"
"Who is Bodger?" asked little Kitty.
"Bodger, my blessed child, was a stodger, and a codger, and a very artful dodger; he carried his bones to David Jones, and asked to be took as a lodger."
"Do be quiet, Jerry!" said Bell. "Father, can the canoe stand such a gale as this?"
"And Hilda had on her best dress!" said Kitty, with tragic emphasis.
"Ho! Hilda doesn't care for dresses!" said Willy, scornfully. "I got wheel-grease all over her skirt, the other day, and she didn't say a word."
"I do feel anxious, Miles," said Mrs. Merryweather. "This is an awful gale."
"Pooh! pooh!" said her husband. "Roger knows how to take care of himself, and Hilda too. Boys, is the skiff well moored?"
The boys knew it was, but thought it would be well to see, and disappeared by handsprings into the darkness. A double splash, followed by joyous shouts, announced their arrival on and departure from the wharf; and they shortly reappeared, dripping and gleeful.
"Boys, how can you!" exclaimed their mother. "This is the fifth time you have been in to-day; besides, I have just tidied up this room. Go away with you, and drip in the tent."
"He pushed me off, and I pulled him in!" said Phil, in explanation. "Very sorry, shall not occur again."
"I wanted to see how deep the water was," said Gerald. "Very important, you know, to take soundings in a storm."
"Still more important to quicken the circulation after a cold bath," said Mr. Merryweather, taking up a leather strap from the table. The boys shrieked, and vanished through the window in a fine harlequin act.
The lightning blazed incessantly, the wind howled and roared about the camp, and the thunder pounded and smashed the clouds overhead. Bell and her mother drew closer together, and Kitty nestled down between them, and held a hand of each, "to keep herself safe."
"If the lightning strikes the camp, what shall we do?" asked Willy.
"I think we shall be very likely to keep still!" said his father, dryly.
"Miles, how can you?" said Mrs. Merryweather. "I wonder you can joke, with those two children out in the canoe in this horror!"
"My dear, I would gladly weep, if I thought it would be of any assistance to Roger; as it is, I rather fancy he is quite as well off as we are, if not bet--"
Crack! The world turned to blue light, showing a ring of ghastly faces, looking terror at each other; then the sky fell, and all was night.
"All speak who are unhurt!" said Mr. Merryweather's calm voice; and no one would have guessed the anguish of suspense in which he waited for the reply. But it came in a chorus: "Miranda!" "Bell!" "Gertrude!" "Will!" "Kitty!"
"Thank God!" said Miles Merryweather. "That was a close call. Boys, are you all right?" He stepped to the window as he spoke.
"All right, father!" For once the boys' voices sounded grave; as the pall of darkness lifted, they entered, very pale, and holding each other tightly by the hand. "The big oak is struck!" they said. "Shivered into kindling-wood. We were just going to climb it, to look at the storm."
"We don't like this!" said Gerald. "We feel very much uncomfortable inside us, and we want our mother."
And sure enough, the two tall fellows sat down on the floor by their mother, and put their heads in her lap; and she patted the curly heads, and talked to them soothingly, and forgot that they were not still her little lads, whom she had rocked in her arms together many and many a time.
"Your nerves are upset," said their father. "Always the case when a stroke comes so near as that. If you ever feel inclined to climb a tree in a thunderstorm again, just mention it to me, and I will see to you." He spoke lightly, but he took occasion to pass near the boys, and laid his hand on them, as if to make sure that they were really there and safe, and rubbed their shoulders and gave them a little affectionate slap.
For a while they sat quiet, for all were still quivering from the blow that had passed so near them. Gradually the fury of the storm abated; the lightning ceased to play continuously, and though each separate flash was still terribly vivid, yet the pauses between gave strength and refreshment to the wearied eyes and nerves. The great shocks of thunder rolled heavily, but still farther and farther away. The storm was moving off across the lake, and one thought was in the hearts of all--the birch canoe. How was it with those two, alone in that frail boat in the wild tempest? It seemed hours that they sat there, waiting and listening. At length--"It is lighter now," said Mr. Merryweather. "Come, boys, let us go down to the wharf, and see what we can see. Hark! what was that?"
For a moment every heart stood still. Then Mrs. Merryweather began to cry, and Bell and Gertrude and Kitty all fell into her arms and round her neck, and sobbed in chorus; but the boys started to their feet with a wild "Hurrah!" and dashed out of the house, followed by their father and Willy. For now, clearer every moment and clearer, came ringing across the water the words of the Skye Boat Song, sung by joyous voices of a youth and a maiden.
"Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing, Onward, the sailors cry. Carry the lad that's born to be king Over the sea to Skye."
"But Roger is not a king!" said Gerald, with a queer little break in his voice. "He is only a codger!"