The Tidal Wave by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter XI. Deep Waters
Wild white roses that grew in the sandy stubble above the shore, little orange-scented roses that straggled through the grass--they called to something that ran in Columbine's blood, they spoke to her of the South. She was sure that she would find those roses all about her feet when she came to the end of the long voyage. She would see their golden hearts wide open to the sun. For their fragrance haunted her day by day as she floated down the long glassy stretches and rocked on the waveless swells.
Sometimes she had a curious fancy that she was lying dead, and they had strewn the sweet flowers all about her. She hoped that they might not be buried with her; they were too beautiful for that.
At other times she thought of them as a bridal wreath, purer than the purest orange-blossom that ever decked a bride. Once, too--this was when she was nearing the end of the voyage--there came to her a magic whiff of wet bog-myrtle that made her fancy that she must be a bride indeed.
At last, just when it seemed to her that her boat was gently grounding upon the sand where the little white roses grew, she opened her eyes widely, wonderingly, and realised that the voyage was over.
She was lying in her own little room at The Ship, and Mrs. Peck, with motherly kindness writ large on her comely, plump face, was bending over her with a cup of steaming broth in her hand.
Columbine gazed at her with a bewildered sense of having slept too long.
Mrs. Peck nodded at her cheerily. "There, my dear! You're better, I can see. A fine time you've given us. I thought as I should never see your bright eyes again."
Columbine put forth a trembling hand with a curious feeling that it did not belong to her at all. "Have I been ill?" she said.
Mrs. Peck nodded again cheerily. "Why, it's more than a week you've been lying here, and how I have worrited about you! Prostration following severe shock was what the doctor called it, but it looked to me more like a touch of brain fever. But there, you're better! Drink this like a good girl, and you'll feel better still!"
Meekly, with the docility of great weakness, Columbine swallowed the proffered nourishment. She wanted to recall all that had happened, but her brain felt too clogged to serve her. She could only lie and gaze and gaze at a little vase of wild white roses that faced her upon the mantelpiece. Somehow those roses seemed to her to play an oddly important part in her awakening.
"Where did they come from?" she suddenly asked.
Mrs. Peck glanced up indifferently. "They're just those little common things that grow with the pinks on the cliff," she said.
But that did not satisfy Columbine. "Who brought them in?" she said. "Who gathered them?"
Mrs. Peck hesitated momentarily, almost as if she did not want to answer. Then, half defiantly, "Why, Rufus, to be sure," she said.
"Rufus!" A great hot wave of crimson suddenly suffused Columbine's face--a pitiless, burning blush that spread tingling over her whole body.
She lay very still while it lasted, and Mrs. Peck set down the cup and, rising energetically, began to tidy the room.
At length, faintly, the girl spoke again: "Aunt Liza!"
Mrs. Peck turned. There was a curious look in her eyes, a look half stern and yet half compassionate. "There, my dear, that'll do," she said. "I think you've talked enough. The doctor said as I was to keep you very quiet, especially when you began to get back your senses. Shut your eyes, do, and go to sleep!"
But Columbine's eyes remained open. "I'm not sleepy," she said. "And I must speak to you. I want to know--I must know"--she faltered painfully, but forced herself to continue--"Rufus--did he--did he really come back--that night?"
Mrs. Peck's compassion perceptibly diminished and her severity increased. "Oh, if you want the whole story," she said, "you'd better have it and have done; that is, so far as I know it myself. There are certain ins and outs that I don't know even yet, for Rufus can be very secretive if he likes. Well then, yes, he did come back, and he brought Mr. Knight with him. They were washed up by a great wave that dropped 'em high and dry near the quay. Mr. Knight was half drowned, and Rufus left him at Sam Jefferson's cottage and came on here for brandy and hot milk and such. He wasn't a penny the worse himself, but I suppose you thought it was his ghost. You behaved like as if you did, anyway. That's all I can tell you. Mr. Knight he got better in a day or two, and he's gone, said he'd had enough of it, and I don't blame him neither. Now that'll do for the present. By and by, when you're stronger, maybe I'll ask you to tell me something. But the doctor says as I'm not to let you talk at present."
Mrs. Peck took up the empty cup with the words, and turned with decision to the door.
Columbine did not attempt to detain her. She had read the doubt in the good woman's eyes, and she was thankful at that moment for the reprieve that the doctor's fiat had secured her.
She lay for a long, long time without moving after Mrs. Peck's departure. Her brain felt unutterably weary, but it was clear, and she was able to face the situation in all its grimness. Mr. Knight had gone. Mr. Knight had had enough of it. Had he really left without a word? Was she, then, so little to him as that? She, who had clung to him, had offered him unconditionally and without stint all that was hers!
She remembered how he had said that it would not last, that love was moonshine, love would pass. And how passionately--and withal how fruitlessly!--had she revolted against that pronouncement of his! She had declared that such was not love, and he--he had warned her against loving too well, giving too freely. With cruel distinctness it all came back to her. She felt again those hot kisses upon brow and lips and throat. Though he had warned her against giving, he had not been slow to take. He had revelled in the abandonment of that first free love of hers. He had drained her of all that she held most precious that he might drink his fill. And all for what? Again she burned from head to foot, and, groaning, hid her face. All for the making of a picture that should bring him world-wide fame! His love for her had been naught but small change flung liberally enough that he might purchase therewith the desire of his artist's soul. It had been just a means to an end. No more than that! No more than that!
* * *
Time passed, but she knew naught of its passing. She was in a place of bitterness very far removed from the ordinary things of life. She shed no tears. The misery and shame that burned her soul were beyond all expression or alleviation. She could have laughed over the irony of it all more easily than she could have wept.
That she--the proud and dainty, for whom no one had been good enough--should have fallen thus easily to the careless attraction of a man to whom she was nothing, nothing but a piece of prettiness to be bought as cheaply as possible and treasured not at all. Some whim of inspiration had moved him. He had obeyed his Muse. And he had been ready--he had been ready--even to offer her life in sacrifice to his idol. She did not count with him in the smallest degree. He had never cared--he had never cared!
She lifted her face at last. The torture was eating into her soul. It was more than she could bear. All the tender words he had spoken, the caresses he had lavished upon her, were as burning darts that pierced her whichever way she turned. Her surrender had been so free, so absolute, and in return he had left her in the dark. He had gone his careless way without a single thought for all the fierce devotion she had poured out to him. It had only appealed to him while the mood lasted. And now he had had enough of it. He had gone.
The murmur of the summer sea came to her as she lay, and she thought of the Death Current. Why--ah, why--had it been cheated of its prey? She shivered violently as the memory of that awful struggle in deep waters came to her. She had been saved, how she scarcely realised, though deep within her she knew--she knew!
Her burning eyes fell upon the little wild white roses on the shelf. Why had he brought them to her? Why had he chosen them? She felt as if they held a message for her, but it was a message she did not dare to read. And then again she quivered as the dread memory of that night swept over her anew, and the eyes of flaming blue that had looked into hers.
Somewhere--somewhere outside herself, it seemed to her--a voice was speaking, very articulate and persistent, and she could not shut out the words it uttered. She lacked the strength.
"I always knew," it said, and it averred it over and over again, "as he loved you like mad."
Love! Love! But what was Love? Was any man capable of it? Was it ever anything more than brutal passion or callous amusement? And hearts were broken and lives were ruined to bring men sport.
She clenched her hands, still gazing at the wild white roses with their orange scent of purity. Why had he sent them? What had moved him to gather them? He who had bargained with her, had wrung from her submission to his will as it were at the sword's point! He who had forced her to promise herself to him! What was love--or the making of love--to such as he?
The sweetness of the flowers seemed to pierce her. Ah, if they had only been Knight's gift, how different--how different--had been all things.
But they had come from Rufus. And so somehow their message passed her by. The blackness of utter misery, utter hopelessness, closed in like a prison-cell around her soul.