Chapter XV.
 

Staines fell head-foremost into the sea with a heavy plunge. Being an excellent swimmer, he struck out the moment he touched the water, and that arrested his dive, and brought him up with a slant, shocked and panting, drenched and confused. The next moment he saw, as through a fog--his eyes being full of water--something fall from the ship. He breasted the big waves, and swam towards it: it rose on the top of a wave, and he saw it was a life-buoy. Encumbered with wet clothes, he seemed impotent in the big waves; they threw him up so high, and down so low.

Almost exhausted, he got to the life-buoy, and clutched it with a fierce grasp and a wild cry of delight. He got it over his head, and, placing his arms round the buoyant circle, stood with his breast and head out of water, gasping.

He now drew a long breath, and got his wet hair out of his eyes, already smarting with salt water, and, raising himself on the buoy, looked out for help.

He saw, to his great concern, the ship already at a distance. She seemed to have flown, and she was still drifting fast away from him.

He saw no signs of help. His heart began to turn as cold as his drenched body. A horrible fear crossed him.

But presently he saw the weather-boat filled, and fall into the water; and then a wave rolled between him and the ship, and he only saw her topmast.

The next time he rose on a mighty wave he saw the boats together astern of the vessel, but not coming his way; and the gloom was thickening, the ship becoming indistinct, and all was doubt and horror.

A life of agony passed in a few minutes.

He rose and fell like a cork on the buoyant waves--rose and fell, and saw nothing but the ship's lights, now terribly distant.

But at last, as he rose and fell, he caught a few fitful glimpses of a smaller light rising and falling like himself. "A boat!" he cried, and raising himself as high as he could, shouted, cried, implored for help. He stretched his hands across the water. "This way! this way!"

The light kept moving, but it came no nearer. They had greatly underrated the drift. The other boat had no light.

Minutes passed of suspense, hope, doubt, dismay, terror. Those minutes seemed hours.

In the agony of suspense the quaking heart sent beads of sweat to the brow, though the body was immersed.

And the gloom deepened, and the cold waves flung him up to heaven with their giant arms, and then down again to hell: and still that light, his only hope, was several hundred yards from him.

Only for a moment at a time could his eyeballs, straining with agony, catch this will-o'-the-wisp, the boat's light. It groped the sea up and down, but came no near.

When what seemed days of agony had passed, suddenly a rocket rose in the horizon--so it seemed to him.

The lost man gave a shriek of joy; so prone are we to interpret things hopefully.

Misery! The next time he saw that little light, that solitary spark of hope, it was not quite so near as before. A mortal sickness fell on his heart. The ship had recalled the boats by rocket.

He shrieked, he cried, he screamed, he raved. "Oh, Rosa! Rosa! for her sake, men, men, do not leave me. I am here! here!"

In vain. The miserable man saw the boat's little light retire, recede, and melt into the ship's larger light, and that light glided away.

Then, a cold, deadly stupor fell on him. Then, death's icy claw seized his heart, and seemed to run from it to every part of him. He was a dead man. Only a question of time. Nothing to gain by floating.

But the despairing mind could not quit the world in peace, and even here in the cold, cruel sea, the quivering body clung to this fragment of life, and winced at death's touch, though more merciful.

He despised this weakness; he raged at it; he could not overcome it.

Unable to live or to die, condemned to float slowly, hour by hour, down into death's jaws.

To a long, death-like stupor succeeded frenzy. Fury seized this great and long-suffering mind. It rose against the cruelty and injustice of his fate. He cursed the world, whose stupidity had driven him to sea, he cursed remorseless nature; and at last he railed on the God who made him, and made the cruel water, that was waiting for his body. "God's justice! God's mercy! God's power! they are all lies," he shouted, "dreams, chimeras, like Him the all-powerful and good, men babble of by the fire. If there was a God more powerful than the sea, and only half as good as men are, he would pity my poor Rosa and me, and send a hurricane to drive those caitiffs back to the wretch they have abandoned. Nature alone is mighty. Oh, if I could have her on my side, and only God against me! But she is as deaf to prayer as He is: as mechanical and remorseless. I am a bubble melting into the sea. Soul I have none; my body will soon be nothing, nothing. So ends an honest, loving life. I always tried to love my fellow-creatures. Curse them! curse them! Curse the earth! Curse the sea! Curse all nature: there is no other God for me to curse."

The moon came out.

He raised his head and staring eyeballs, and cursed her.

The wind began to whistle, and flung spray in his face.

He raised his fallen head and staring eyeballs, and cursed the wind.

While he was thus raving, he became sensible of a black object to windward.

It looked like a rail, and a man leaning on it.

He stared, he cleared the wet hair from his eyes, and stared again.

The thing, being larger than himself and partly out of water, was drifting to leeward faster than himself.

He stared and trembled, and at last it came nearly abreast, black, black.

He gave a loud cry, and tried to swim towards it; but encumbered with his life-buoy, he made little progress. The thing drifted abreast of him, but ten yards distant.

As they each rose high upon the waves, he saw it plainly.

It was the very raft that had been the innocent cause of his sad fate.

He shouted with hope, he swam, he struggled; he got near it, but not to it; it drifted past, and he lost his chance of intercepting it. He struggled after it. The life-buoy would not let him catch it.

Then he gave a cry of agony, rage, despair, and flung off the life- buoy, and risked all on this one chance.

He gains a little on the raft.

He loses.

He gains: he cries, "Rosa! Rosa!" and struggles with all his soul, as well as his body: he gains.

But when almost within reach, a wave half drowns him, and he loses.

He cries, "Rosa! Rosa!" and swims high and strong. "Rosa! Rosa! Rosa!"

He is near it. He cries, "Rosa! Rosa!" and with all the energy of love and life flings himself almost out of the water, and catches hold of the nearest thing on the raft.

It was the dead man's leg.

It seemed as if it would come away in his grasp. He dared not try to pull himself up by that. But he held on by it, panting, exhausting, faint.

This faintness terrified him. "Oh," thought he, "if I faint now, all is over."

Holding by that terrible and strange support, he made a grasp, and caught hold of the woodwork at the bottom of the rail. He tried to draw himself up. Impossible.

He was no better off than with his life-buoy.

But in situations so dreadful, men think fast; he worked gradually round the bottom of the raft by his hands, till he got to leeward, still holding on. There he found a solid block of wood at the edge of the raft. He prised himself carefully up; the raft in that part then sank a little: he got his knee upon the timber of the raft, and with a wild cry seized the nearest upright, and threw both arms round it and clung tight. Then first he found breath to speak. "Thank God!" he cried, kneeling on the timber, and grasping the upright post--"Oh, thank God! Thank God!"