Chapter IV. The Rising Tide
 

A long dazzling pathway of moonlight stretched over the sea, starting from the horizon, ending at the great jutting promontory of the Spear Point. The moon was yet three nights from the full. The tide was rising, but it would not be high for another two hours.

The breakers ran in, one behind the other, foaming over the hidden rocks, splashing wildly against the grim wall of granite that stood sharp-edged to withstand them. It was curved like a scimitar, that rock, and within its curve there slept, when the tide was low, a pool. When the tide rose the waters raged and thundered all around the rock, but when it sank again the still, deep pool remained, unruffled as a mountain tarn and as full of mystery.

Over a tumble of lesser rocks that bounded the pool to shoreward the wary might find a path to the Spear Point Caves; but the path was difficult, and there were few who had ever attempted it. For the quicksand lay like a golden barrier between the outer beach and the rocks that led thither.

It was an awesome spot. Many a splinter of wreckage had been tossed in over the Spear Point as though flung in sport from a giant hand. And when the water was high there came a hollow groaning from the inner caves as though imprisoned spirits languished there.

But on that night of magic moonlight the only sound was the murmurous splash of the rising waves as they met the first grim rocks of the Point. Presently they would dash in thunder round the granite blade, and the sleeping pool would be turned to a smother of foam.

On the edge of the pool a woman's figure clad in white stood balanced with outstretched arms. So still was the water, so splendid the moonlight, that the whole of her light form was mirrored there--a perfect image of nymph-like grace. She sang a soft, low, trilling song like the song of a blackbird awaking to the dawn.

"By Jupiter!" Knight murmured to himself. "If I could get her only once--only once--as--she--is!"

The gleam of the hunter was in his look. He stood on the rocks some yards away from her, gazing with eyes half-shut.

Suddenly she turned herself, and across the intervening space her voice came to him, half-mocking, half-alluring, "Have you found your inspiration yet?"

"Not yet," he said.

She raised her shoulders with a humorous gesture, "Hasn't the magic begun to work?"

He came towards her, moving slowly and with caution. "Don't move!" he said.

She waited for him on the edge of the pool. There was laughter in her eyes, laughter and the sublime daring of innocence.

He reached her. They stood together on the same flat rock. He bent to her, in his eyes the burning worship of beauty.

"Columbine!" he said. "Witch! Enchantress! Queen!"

The red blood raced into her face. Her eyes shone into his with a sudden glory--the glory of the awaking soul. But the woman-instinct in her checked the first quick impulse of surrender.

She made a little motion away from him. She laughed and veiled her eyes from the fiery adoration that flamed upon her. "The magic is working--evidently," she said. "What a good thing I brought you here!"

"Yes; it is a good thing," he said, and in his voice she heard the deep note of a mastery that would not be denied. "Do you know what you have done to me, you goddess? You have opened the eyes of my heart. I am dazzled. I am blinded. I believe I am possessed. When I paint my picture --it will be such as the world has never seen."

"Hadn't you better begin it?" whispered Columbine.

He held out his hand to her--a hand that was not wholly steady. "Not yet," he said. "The vision is too near, too wonderful. How shall I paint the rapture that I have hardly yet dared to contemplate? Columbine!"

His voice suddenly pleaded, and as though in answer she laid her hand in his. But she did not raise her eyes. She palpitated from head to foot like a captured bird.

"You are not--afraid?" he whispered.

"I don't know," she whispered back. "Not of you--not of you!"

"Ah!" he said. "We are caught in the same net. There is nothing terrible in that. The same magic is working in us both. Let it work, dear! We understand each other. Why should there be anything to fear?"

But still she did not raise her eyes, and still she trembled in his hold. "I never thought," she faltered, "never dreamed. Oh, is it true?"

"True that you are the most beautiful creature that this earth contains?" he said, and his voice throbbed upon the words. "True that the very sight of you turns my blood to fire? Aphrodite, goddess and sorceress, do you doubt that? Wait till you see my picture, and then ask! I have found my inspiration tonight--yes, I have found it--but it is so immense--so overwhelming--that I cannot grasp it yet. Tonight, dear, just for tonight--let me worship at your feet! This madness must have its way. In the morning I shall be sane again. Tonight--tonight I tread Olympus with the Immortals."

He was drawing her towards him, and Columbine--Columbine, who suffered no man's hand upon her--was yielding slowly, but inevitably, to the persuasion of his touch. Just at the last, indeed, she made a small, wholly futile attempt to free herself; but the moment she did so his hold became the hold of the conqueror, and with a faint laugh she flung aside the instinct that had prompted it. The next instant, freely and splendidly, she raised her downcast face and abandoned herself utterly to him.

To give without stint was the impulse of her passionate, Southern nature, and she gave freely, royally, that night. The magic that ran in the veins of both was too compelling to be resisted. The girl, with her half-awakened soul, the man, with his fiery thirst for beauty, were caught in the great current that sweeps like a tidal wave around the world, and it bore them swiftly, swiftly, whither neither he in his restlessness nor she in her in experience realised or cared. If the sound of the breakers came to them from afar they heeded it not. They were too far away to matter as yet, and Knight had steered a safe course for himself in troubled seas before. As for Columbine, she knew only the rapture of love triumphant, and tasted perfect safety in the holding of her lover's arms. He had won her with scarcely a struggle, and she gloried with an ecstasy that was in its way sublime in the completeness of her surrender. On such a night as that it seemed to her that the whole world lay at her feet, and she knew no fear.

The still pool slept in the moonlight, a lake of silver, unspeakably calm. Beyond the outstretched blade of rock the great waters rose and rose. The murmur of them had swelled to a roar. The splash of them mounted higher and ever higher. Suddenly a crest of foam gleamed like a tongue of lightning at the point of the curve. The pool stirred as if awakening. The moonlight on its surface was shivered in a thousand ripples. They broke in a succession of tiny wavelets against the encircling rocks.

Another silver crest appeared, burst in thunder, and in a moment the pool was flooded with tossing water.

"Do you see that?" whispered Columbine. "It is like my life."

They stood together under the frowning cliff and watched the wonder of the pool's awakening. Knight's arm held her close pressed to his side. He could feel the beating of her heart. She stood with her face upturned to his and all the glory of love's surrender shining in her eyes.

He caught his breath as he looked at her. He stooped and kissed the red, red lips that gave so generously. "Is my love as the rising tide to you, sweet?" he murmured.

"It is more!" she answered passionately. "It is more! It is the tidal wave that comes so seldom--maybe only once in a lifetime--and carries all before it."

He pressed her closer. "My passion-flower!" he said. "My queen!"

He kissed the throbbing whiteness of her throat, the loose clusters of her hair. He laid his hot face against her neck, and held it so, not breathing. Her arms stretched upwards, clasping him. She was panting--panting as one in deep waters.

"I love you! I love you!" she whispered tensely. "Oh, how I love you!"

Again there came the thunder of the surf. The waters of the pool leapt as if a giant hand had churned them. The foam from beyond the reef overspread them like snow. The whole world became full of the sound of surging waters.

Knight opened his eyes. "The tide is coming up fast," he said. "We must be getting back."

She clung closer to him. "I could die with you on a night like this," she said.

He crushed her to his heart. "Ah, goddess!" he said. "You couldn't die! But I am only mortal, and the tide won't wait."

Again the swirling breakers swept around the Point. Reluctantly she came to earth. The pool had become a seething whirl of water.

"Yes," she said, "we must go, and quickly--quickly! It rises so fast here."

Sure-footed as a doe over the slippery rocks, she led the way. They left the magic place and the dazzling tumble of moonlit water, the dark caves, the enchanted strand. Progress was not easy, but Knight had been that way before, though only by day. He followed his guide closely, and when presently they emerged upon level sand, he overtook and walked beside her.

She slipped her hand into his. "It's the lie of the quicksand that's puzzling," she said, "if you don't know it well."

"I am in thy hands, O Queen," he made light reply. "Lead me whither thou wilt!"

She laughed--a low, sweet laugh of sheer happiness. "And if I lead you astray?"

"I would follow you down to the nethermost millstone," he vowed.

Her hand tightened upon his. She paused a moment, looking out over the stretch of sand that intervened between them and the little fishing-quay. He had safely negotiated that stretch of sand by daylight, though even then it had needed an alert eye to detect that slight ooziness of surface that denoted the presence of the sea-swamp. But by night, even in that brilliant moonlight, it was barely perceptible. Columbine herself did not trust to appearances. She had learnt the way from Adam as a child learns a lesson by heart. He had taught her to know the danger-spot by the shape of the cliffs above it.

After a very brief pause to take her bearings, she moved forward with absolute assurance. Knight accompanied her with unquestioning confidence. His faith in his own luck was as profound as his faith in the girl at his side. And the tumult in his veins that night was such as to make him insensible of danger. The roar of the rising tide exhilarated him. He walked with the stride of a conqueror, free and unafraid, his face to the sea.

Unerringly she led him, but she did not speak again until they had made the passage and the treacherous morass of sand was left behind.

Then, with a deep breath, she stopped. "Now we are safe!"

"Weren't we safe before?" he asked carelessly.

Her eyes sought his; she gave a little shiver. "Oh, are we ever safe?" she said. "Especially when we are happy? That quicksand makes one think."

"Never spoil the present by thinking of the future!" said Knight sententiously.

She took him seriously. "I don't. I want to keep the present just as it is--just as it is. I would like to stay with you here for ever and ever, but in another half-hour--in less--the tide will be racing over this very spot, and we shall be gone." Her voice vibrated; she cast a glance behind. "One false step," she said, "too sharp a turn, too wide a curve, and we'd have been in the quicksand! It's like that all over. It's life, and it's full of danger, whichever way we turn."

He looked at her curiously. "Why, what has come to you?" he said.

She caught her breath in a sound that was like a sob. "I don't know," she said. "It's being so madly happy that has frightened me. It can't last. It never does last."

He smiled upon her philosophically. "Then let us make the most of it while it does!" he said. "Tonight will pass, but--don't forget--there is tomorrow."

She answered him feverishly. "The moon may not shine tomorrow."

He laughed, drawing her to him. "I can do without the moon, queen of my heart."

She went into his arms, but she was trembling. "I feel--somehow--as if someone were watching us," she whispered.

"Exactly my own idea," he said. "The moon is a bit too intrusive tonight. I shan't weep if there are a few clouds tomorrow."

She laughed a little dubiously. "We couldn't cross the quicksand if the light were bad."

"We could get down to the Point by the cliff-path," he pointed out. "I went that way only this afternoon."

"Ah! But it is very steep, and it passes Rufus's cottage," she murmured.

"What of it?" he said indifferently. "I'm sure he sleeps like a log."

She turned from the subject. "Besides, you must have moonlight for your picture. And the moon won't last."

"My picture!" He pressed her suddenly closer. "Do you know what my picture is going to be?"

"Tell me!" she whispered.

"Shall I?" He turned gently her face up to his own. "Shall I? Dare I?"

She opened her eyes wide--those glorious, trusting eyes. "But why should you be afraid to tell me?"

He laughed again softly, and kissed her lips. "I will make a rough sketch in the morning and show it you. It won't be a study--only an idea. You are going to pose for the study."

"I?" she said, half-startled.

"You--yes, you!" His eyes looked deeply into hers. "Haven't you realised yet that you are my inspiration?" he said. "It is going to be the picture of my life--'Aphrodite the Beautiful!'"

She quivered afresh at his words. "Am I really--so beautiful?" she faltered. "Would you think so if--if you didn't love me?"

"Would I have loved you if you weren't?" laughed Knight. "My darling, you are exquisite as a passion-flower grown in Paradise. To worship you is as natural to me as breathing. You are heaven on earth to me."

"You love me--because of that?"

"I love you," he answered, "soul and body, because you are you. There is no other reason, heart of my heart. When my picture of pictures is painted, then--perhaps--you will see yourself as I see you--and understand."

She uttered a quick sigh, clinging to him with a hold that was almost convulsive. "Ah, yes! To see myself with your eyes! I want that. I shall know then--how much you love me."

"Will you? But will you?" he said, softly derisive. "You will have to show me yourself and your love--all there is of it--before you can do that."

She lifted her head from his shoulder. The fire that he had kindled in her soul was burning in her eyes. "I am all yours--all yours," she told him passionately. "All that I have to offer is your own."

His face changed a little. The tender mockery passed, and an expression that was oddly out of place there succeeded it. "Ah, you shouldn't tell me that, sweetheart," he said, and his voice was low and held a touch of pain. "I might be tempted to take too much--more than I have any right to take."

"You have a right to all," she said.

But he shook his head. "No--no! You are too young."

"Too young to love?" she said, with quick scorn.

His arm was close about her. "No," he answered soberly. "Only so young that you may--possibly--make the mistake of loving too well."

"What do you mean?" Her voice had a startled note; she pressed nearer to him.

He lifted a hand and pointed to the silver pathway on the sea. "I mean that love is just moonshine--just moonshine; the dream of a night that passes."

"Not in a night!" she cried, and there was anguish in the words.

He bent again swiftly and kissed her lips. "No, not in a night, sweetheart. Not even in two. But at last--at last--tout passe!"

"Then it isn't love!" she said with conviction.

He snapped his fingers at the moonlight with a gesture half-humorous, yet half-defiant. "It is life," he said, "and the irony of life. Don't be too generous, my queen of the sea! Give me what I ask--of your graciousness! But--don't offer me more! Perhaps I might take it, and then--"

He turned with the words, as if the sentence were ended, and Columbine went with him, bewildered but too deeply fascinated to feel any serious misgiving. She did not ask for any further explanation, something about him restrained her. But she knew no doubt, and when he halted in the shadow of the deserted quay and took her face once more between his hands with the one word, "Tomorrow!" she lifted eyes of perfect trust to his and answered simply, "Yes, tomorrow!"

And the rapture of his kisses was all-sufficing. She carried away with her no other memory but that.