The Tidal Wave by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter XII. The Safe Haven
In the days that followed, Mrs. Peck's honest soul was both vexed and anxious concerning her charge. She found Columbine extraordinarily reticent. As she herself put it, it was impossible to get any sense out of her.
In compliance with the doctor's order and by the exercise of extreme self-restraint, she refrained from questioning her upon the matter of her behaviour on the night of the great tide. That Columbine would have enlightened her had she done so was exceedingly doubtful. But there was no doubt that something very unusual had taken place. The little white roses that Rufus presented as a daily offering would have told her that, apart from any other indications. She would have questioned Rufus, but something held her back; and Adam, when urged thereto, flatly refused to interfere.
Adam, rejuvenated and jubilant, went whistling about his work as of yore. His boy had come back to him in the flesh, and he was more than satisfied to leave things as they were.
"Leave 'em alone, Missus!" was his counsel "Rufus he knows what he's about. He'll steer a straight course, and he'll bring her into harbour sooner or later. You leave it to him, and be thankful that curly-topped chap has sheered off at last!"
Mrs. Peck had no choice but to obey, but her anxiety regarding Columbine did not diminish. The girl was so listless, so unlike herself, so miserable. It was many days before she summoned the energy to dress, and even then she displayed an almost painful reluctance to go downstairs. She seemed to live in continual dread of some approaching ordeal.
"I believe it's Rufus she's afraid of," was Mrs. Peck's verdict.
But Adam scouted the idea as absurd. "What will you think of next, woman? Why, any one can see as he's quiet and well-behaved enough for any lass. She's missing the curly-topped chap a bit maybe. But she'll get over that. Give her time! Give her time!"
So Mrs. Peck gave her time and urged her not at all. She was not very friendly with Columbine in those days. She disapproved of her, and her manner said as much. She kept all suspicions to herself, but she could not behave as if nothing had happened.
"There's wild blood in her," she said darkly. "I mistrust her."
And Columbine was fully aware of the fact, but she was too wretched to resent it. In any case, she would never have turned to Mrs. Peck for comfort.
She came downstairs at last one summer evening when Mrs. Peck was busy in the kitchen and no one was about. She had made no mention of her intention; perhaps she wanted to be unhampered by observation. It had been a soft, showery day, and there was the promise of more rain in the sky.
She moved wearily, but not without purpose; and soon she was walking with a hood drawn over her head in the direction of the cliff-edge where grew the sweet bog-myrtle and the little roses.
She met no one by the way. It was nearing the hour for the evening meal, nearing the hour when Mrs. Peck usually entered her room with the daily offering of flowers that filled it with orange fragrance. Mrs. Peck was not very fond of that particular task, though she never expressed her reluctance. Well, she would not have it to accomplish tonight.
A bare-legged, blue-jerseyed figure was moving in a bent attitude along the slope that overlooked Rufus's cottage and the Spear Point. The girl stood a moment gazing out over the curving reef as if she had not seen it. The pool was smooth as a mirror, and reflecting the drifting clouds. The tide was out. But, stay! It must be on the turn, for as she stood, there came the deep, tolling note of the bell-buoy. It sounded like a knell.
As it struck solemnly over the water, the man straightened himself, and in a moment he saw her.
He did not move to meet her, merely stood motionless, nearly knee-deep in the bog-myrtle, and waited for her, the white roses in one great, clenched hand. And she, as if compelled, moved towards him, till at last she reached and stood before him, white, mute, passive as a prisoner in iron fetters.
It was the man who spoke, with an odd jerkiness of tone and demeanour that might have indicated embarrassment or even possibly some deeper emotion. "So you've come along at last!" he said.
She nodded. For an instant her dark eyes were raised, but they flashed downwards again immediately, almost before they had met his own.
Abruptly he thrust out to her the flowers he held. "I was getting these for you."
She took them in a trembling hand. She bent her face over them to hide the piteous quivering of her lips. "Why--do you get them?" she whispered almost inarticulately.
He did not answer for a moment. Then: "Come down to my place!" he said. "It's but a step."
She made a swift gesture that had in it something of recoil, but the next moment, without a word, she began to walk down the slope.
He trod through the growth beside her, barefooted, unfaltering. His blue eyes looked straight before him; they were unwavering and resolute as the man himself.
They reached the cottage. He made her enter it before him, and he followed, but he did not close the door. Instead, he stopped and deliberately hooked it back.
Then, with the low call of the sea filling the humble little room, he turned round to the girl, who stood with her head bent, awaiting his pleasure.
"Columbine," he said, and the name came with an unaccustomed softness from his lips, "I've something to say to you. You've been hiding yourself from me. I know. I know. And you needn't. Them flowers--I gathered 'em and I sent 'em up to you every day, because I wanted you to understand as you've nothing to fear from me. I wanted you to know as everything is all right, and I mean well by you. I didn't know how to tell you, and then I saw the roses growing outside the door, and I thought as maybe they'd do it for me. They made me think of you somehow. They were so white--and pure."
"Ah!" The word was a wrung sound, half cry, half sob. His roses fell suddenly and scattered upon the floor between them. Columbine's hands covered her face.
She stood for a second or two in tense silence, then under her breath she spoke. "You don't believe--that--of me!"
"I do, then," asserted Rufus, in his deep voice a note that was almost aggressive.
She lifted her face suddenly, even fiercely, showing him the shamed blush that burned there. "You didn't believe it--that night!" she said.
His eyes met hers with a certain stubbornness. "All right. I didn't," he said.
Her look became a challenge. "Then why--how--have you come to change your mind?"
He faced her steadily. "Maybe I know you better than I knew you then," he said slowly.
She made a sharp gesture as if pierced by an intolerable pain. "And that--that has made a difference to your--your intentions!"
He moved also at that. His red brows came together. "You're quite wrong," he said, his voice very low. "That night--I know--I was beyond myself, I was mad. But since then I've some to my senses. And--I love you too much to harm you. That's the truth. I'd love you anyway--whatever you were. It's just my nature to."
His hands clenched with the words; he spoke with strong effort; but his eyes looked deeply into hers, and they held no passion. They were still and quiet as the summer sea below them.
Columbine stood facing him as if at bay, but she must have felt the influence of his restraint, for she showed no fear. "There's no such thing as love," she said bitterly. "You dress it up and call it that. But all the time it's something quite different. And I tell you this"--recklessly she flung the words--"that if it hadn't been for that tidal wave I'd be just what you took me for that night, what Aunt Liza thinks I am this minute. I wasn't keeping back--anything, and"--she uttered a sudden wild laugh--"if I've kept my virtue, I've lost my innocence. I know--I know now--just what the thing you call love is worth! And nothing will ever make me forget it!"
She stopped, quivering from head to foot, passionate protest in every line.
But the blue eyes that watched her never wavered. The man's face was rock-like in its steadfast calm. He did not speak for a full minute after the utterance of her wild words. Then very steadily, very forcibly, he answered her. "I'll tell you, shall I, what the thing I call love is like?" He turned with a sweep of the arm and pointed out to the harbour beyond the quay. "It's just like that. It's a wall to keep off the storms. It's a safe haven where nothing hurtful can reach you. You're not bound to give yourself to it, but once given you're safe."
"Not bound!" Sharply she broke in upon him. "Not bound--when you made me promise--"
He dropped his arm to his side. "I set you free from that promise," he said.
Those few words, sombrely spoken, checked her wild outburst as surely as a hand upon her mouth. She stood gazing at him for a space in utter amazement, but gradually under his unchanging regard her look began to fail. She turned at length with a little gasp, and sat down on the old horsehair sofa, huddling herself together as if she desired to withdraw herself from his observation.
He did not stir, and a long, long silence fell between them, broken only by the ticking of the grandfather-clock in the corner and the everlasting murmur of the sea.
The deep, warning note of the bell-buoy floated presently through the summer silence, and as if in answer to a voice Rufus moved at last and spoke. "You'd better go, lass. They'll be wondering about you. But don't be afraid of me after this! I swear--before God--I'll give you no cause!"
She started a little at the sound of his voice, but she made no movement to go. Her face was hidden in her hands. She rocked herself to and fro, to and fro, as if in pain.
He stood looking down at her with troubled eyes, but after a while, as she did not speak, he moved to her side and stood there. At last, slowly and massively, he stooped and touched her.
She made no direct response, only suddenly, as if his action had released in her such a flood of emotion as was utterly beyond her control, she broke into violent weeping, her head bowed low upon her knees.
"My dear!" he said.
And then--how it came about neither of them ever knew--he was on his knees beside her, holding her close in his great arms, and she was sobbing out her agony upon his breast.
It lasted for many minutes that storm of weeping. All the torment of humiliation and grief, which till then had found no relief, was poured out in that burning torrent of tears. She clung to him convulsively as though she even yet struggled in the deep waters, and he held her through it all with that sustaining strength that had borne her up safely against the Death Current on that night of dreadful storm.
Possibly the firm upholding of his arms brought back the memory of that former terrible struggle, for it was of that that she first spoke when speech became possible.
"Oh, why didn't you leave me to die? Why--why--why?"
He answered her in a voice that seemed to rise from the depths of the broad chest that supported her.
"I wanted you."
She buried her face deeper that he might not see the cruel burning of it. "So did he--then."
"Not he!" The deep voice held unutterable contempt. "He wanted to make his fortune out of you, that's all. He didn't care whether you lived or died, the damn' cur!"
She shrank at the fierce words, and was instantly aware of the jealous closing of his arms about her.
"You aren't going to break your heart for a dirty swab like that," he said, with more of insistence than interrogation in his voice. "Look you here, Columbine! You're too honest to care for a beast like that. Why--though I pulled him out of the quicksand and saved him from the sea--I'd have wrung his neck if he'd stayed another day. I would that."
She started at the fiery declaration, and raised her head. "Oh, it was you who sent him away, then?"
Her look held almost desperate entreaty for a moment, but he met it with the utmost grimness and it quickly died.
"I didn't then," he said, with rough simplicity. "He made up his mind without any help from me. He knew he couldn't face you again. It's not a mite of good trying to deceive yourself now you know the truth. He's gone, and he won't come back. Columbine, don't tell me as you want him to!"
His expression for the moment was formidable. She caught an ominous gleam in the stern eyes, but almost immediately they softened. He uttered a sigh that ended in a groan. "Now I'm being a brute to you, when there's nothing that I wouldn't do for your sake." His voice shook a little. "You won't believe it, but it's true--it's true."
"Why shouldn't I believe it?" she said swiftly. She had begun to tremble in his hold.
He looked at her with an odd wistfulness. "Because I'm too big an oaf--to make you understand," he said.
"And that is why you have set me free?" she questioned.
He bent his head, almost as if the sudden question embarrassed him. "Yes, that," he said after a moment. "And because I care too much about you to--marry you against your will."
"And you call that love?" she said.
He made a slight gesture of surprise. "It is love," he said simply.
His arms were still around her, but she had only to move to be free. She did not move, save that she quivered like a vibrating wire, quivered and hid her face.
"Rufus!" she said.
"Yes?" His head was bent above hers, but he could only see her black hair, so completely was her face averted from him.
Her voice came, tensely whispering. "What if I were--willing to marry you?"
Something of her agitation had entered into him. A great quiver went through him also. But--"You're not," he said quietly, with conviction.
A trembling hand strayed upwards, feeling over his neck and throat, groping for his face. "Rufus"--again came the tense whisper--"how do you know that?"
He took the wandering hand and pressed it softly against his cheek. "Because you don't love me, Columbine," he said.
"Ah!" A low sob escaped her; she lifted her head suddenly; the tears were running down her face. "But--but--you could teach me, Rufus. You could teach me what love--true love--is. I want the real thing--the real thing. Will you give it to me? I want it--more than anything else in the world." She drew nearer to him with the words, like a frozen creature seeking warmth, and in a moment her arms were slipping round his neck. "You are so true--so strong!" she sobbed. "I want to forget--I want to forget that I ever loved--any one but you."
His arms were close about her again. He pressed her so hard against his heart that she felt its strong beating against her own. His eyes gazed straight into hers, and in them she saw again that deep, deep blue as of flaming spirit.
"You mean it?" he said.
Breathlessly she answered him. "Yes, I mean it."
"Then"--he bent his great head to her, and for the fraction of a moment she saw the meteor-like flash of his smile--"yes, I'll teach you, Columbine," he said.
With the words he kissed her on the lips, kissed her closely, kissed her lingeringly, and in that kiss her torn heart found its first balm of healing.
* * *
"Well, what did I say?" crowed Adam a little later. "Didn't I tell you if you left 'em alone he'd steer her safe into harbour? Wasn't I right, missus? Wasn't I right?"
"I'm not gainsaying it," said Mrs. Peck, with a touch of severity. "And I'm sure I hope as all will turn out for the best."
"Turn out for the best? Why, o' course it will!" said Adam, with cheery confidence. "My son Rufus he may be slow, but he's no fool. And he's a good man, too, missus, a long sight better than that curly-topped chap. Him and me's partners, so I ought to know."
"To be sure you ought," said Mrs. Peck tolerantly. "And it's to be hoped that Columbine knows it as well."
And in the solitude of her own room Columbine bent her dainty head and kissed with reverence the little wild white roses that spoke to her of the purity of a good man's love.