The Tidal Wave by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter V. Midsummer Morning
It was two mornings later, very early on Midsummer Day, that Rufus the Red, looking like a Viking in the crystal atmosphere of sky and sea, rowed the stranger with great, swinging strokes through the fishing fleet right out into the burning splendour of the sun. Knight had entered the boat in the belief that he was going to see something of the raising of the nets. But it became apparent very soon that Rufus had other plans for his entertainment, for he passed his father by with no more than a jerk of the head, which Adam evidently interpreted as a sign of farewell rather than of greeting, and rowed on without a pause.
Knight, with his sketch-book beside him, sat in the stern. He had never taken much interest in Rufus before; but now, seated facing him, with the giant muscles and grim, unresponsive countenance of the man perpetually before his eyes, the selecting genius in him awoke and began to appraise.
Rufus wore a grey flannel shirt, open at the neck, displaying a broad red chest, immensely powerful, with a bull-like strength that every swing of the oars brought into prominence. He had not the appearance of exerting himself unduly, albeit he was pulling in choppy water against the tide.
His blue eyes gazed ever straight at the shore he was leaving. He seemed so withdrawn into himself as to be oblivious of the fact that he was not alone. Knight watched him, wondering if any thoughts were stirring in the slow brain behind that massive forehead. Columbine had declared that the man was an oaf, and he felt inclined to agree with her. And yet there was something in the intensity of the fellow's eyes that held his attention, the possibility of the actual existence of an unknown element that did not fit into that conception of him. They were not the eyes of a mere animal. There was no vagueness in their utter stillness. Rather had they the look of a man who waits.
Curiosity began to stir within him. He wondered if by judicious probing he could penetrate the wall of aloofness with which his companion seemed to be surrounded. It would be interesting to know if the fellow really possessed any individuality.
Airily he broke the silence. "Are you going to take me straight into the temple of the sun? I thought I was out to see the fishing."
The remote blue eyes came back as it were out of the far distance and found him. There came to Knight an odd, wholly unwonted, sensation of smallness. He felt curiously like a pigmy disturbing the meditations of a giant.
Rufus looked at him for several seconds of uninterrupted rowing before, in his deep, resounding voice, he spoke. "They won't be taking up the nets for a goodish while yet. We shall be back in time."
"The idea is to give me a run for my money first, eh?" inquired Knight pleasantly.
He had not anticipated the sudden fall of the red brows that greeted his words. He felt as if he had inadvertently trodden upon a match.
"No," said Rufus slowly, speaking with a strangely careful accent, as if his mind were concentrated upon being absolutely intelligible to his listener. "That was not my idea."
The spirit of adventure awoke in Knight. There was something behind this granite calmness of demeanour then. He determined to draw it forth, even though he struck further sparks in the process.
"No?" he said carelessly. "Then why this pleasure trip? Did you bring me out here just to show me--the 'Pit of the Burning'?"
His eyes were upon the dazzling glory of the newly risen sun as he threw the question. Rufus's massive head and shoulders were strongly outlined against it. He had ceased to row, but the boat still shot forward, impelled by the last powerful sweep of the oars, the water streaming past in a rush of foam.
Slowly, like the hammer-strokes of a deep-toned bell, came Rufus's voice in answer. "It wasn't to show you anything I brought you here. It was just to tell you something."
"Really?" Knight's interest was thoroughly aroused. He became alert to the finger-tips. There was something in the deliberate utterance that conveyed a sense of danger. A wary gleam shone in his eyes under their level brows. It was one of his principles when dealing with an uncertain situation never to betray surprise. "And what may this valuable piece of information be?" he inquired, with a smile.
Rufus shipped his oars steadily, gravely, with purpose. "I saw you cross the quicksand last night," he said.
"Indeed!" Knight's voice was of the most casual quality. He was feeling for his cigarette-case.
Rufus continued heavily, fatefully, gathering force with every word, as a loosened rock beginning to roll down a mountain side. "The light was bad. It was a tomfool thing to do. And Columbine was with you."
Knight raised his shoulders ever so slightly. "Or rather--I was with her. Miss Columbine knows the lie of the quicksand. I--do not."
Rufus went on as if he had not spoken. "There's danger all along that beach as far as the Spear Point. Adam will tell you the same. When it's a spring tide there's times when there's such a swell that it's round the Point and over the pool like a tidal wave. You'll hear the bell-buoy tolling when there's a swell like that. We call it the Death Current hereabouts, because there's nothing could live in it, and the bell always tolls. And once it comes up like that the way to the cliff-path is under water in less than thirty seconds. And the quicksand is the only chance left." He paused; it was as if the rock halted for a moment on the edge of the precipice before plunging finally into the abyss of silence below. "When there's a ground swell," he said, "the quicksand will pull a man down quicker than hell. And there's no one--not Adam himself--can tell the lay of it for certain when the light is bad."
His mouth closed upon the words like the snap of a strong spring. Knight waited for more, but none came. Whatever the thought behind the warning that he had just uttered it was evident that Rufus had no intention of giving it expression. He had uttered the girl's name with no more emotion than that of his father, but it seemed to Knight that by that very fact he had managed to convey a warning more potent than any that had followed. Otherwise he would scarcely have taken the trouble to mention her. The possibility of subtlety in this great, slow-speaking giant piqued him to a keener interest. He resolved to probe a little deeper.
"Miss Columbine is a very reliable guide," he remarked. "If you and Adam have been her instructors in shore-craft, she does you credit."
His remark went into utter silence. Rufus, with huge hands loosely clasped between his knees, appeared to be engrossed in watching the progress of the boat as she drifted gently on the rising tide. His face was utterly blank of expression, unless a certain grim fixity could be described as such.
Knight became slightly exasperated. Was the fellow no more than the fool Columbine believed him to be after all? He determined to settle this question once and for all at a single stroke.
"I suppose she has all you fellows at Spear Point at her feet?" he said, with an easy smile. "But I hope you are all too large-minded to grudge a poor artist the biggest find that has ever come his way."
There was a pause, but the burning blue eyes were no longer fixed upon the sparkling ripples through which they had travelled. They were turned upon Knight's face, searching, piercing, intent. Before he spoke again, Knight's doubt as to the existence of a brain behind the massive brow was fully set at rest.
"There is another thing I have to say," said Rufus.
Knight's smile broadened encouragingly. "By all means let us hear it!" he said.
Rufus proceeded. "You speak of Columbine as if she were just a bit of amber or such-like as you'd found on the shore and picked up and put in your pocket. You speak as if she's your property to do what you like with. That's just what she is not. You're making love to her. I know it. I seen it. And it's got to stop."
He spoke with blunt force; his hands were suddenly locked upon each other in a hard grip.
Knight lifted his shoulders; his smile had become whimsical. He had drawn the fellow at last. "I thought you'd seen something," he remarked, "by your way. But who could help making love to a girl with a face like that? It would take a heart of stone to resist it. Why, even you"--and his look challenged Rufus with careless derision--"even you have fallen to that temptation before now, or I'm much mistaken. But I gather that your attentions did not meet with a very favourable response."
He was baiting the animal now, taunting him, with the semi-humorous malice of the mischievous schoolboy. He had no particular grudge against Rufus, but he had a lively desire to see him squirm.
But this desire was not to be gratified. Rufus met the thrust without the faintest hint of feeling.
"What you think," he said, in his weighty fashion, "has nothing to do with me. What you do is all that matters. And I tell you straight"--a blue flame suddenly leapt up like a volcanic light in the sombre eyes--"that no man that hasn't honest intentions by her is going to make love to Columbine."
"Great Jove!" mocked Knight, with his careless laugh. "And who told you, most worthy swain, what my intentions were?"
Rufus leaned towards him slowly, with something of the action of a crouching beast. "No one told me," he said in a voice that was deeply menacing. "But--I know."
Knight made a gesture of supreme indifference. "You are on an entirely wrong scent," he observed. "But you seem to be enjoying it." He paused to take out a cigarette. "Have a smoke!" he suggested after a moment, proffering his case.
Rufus did not so much as see it. His whole attitude was one of strain, as if he barely held himself back from springing at the other's throat.
Knight, however, was elaborately unconscious of any tension. He smiled and closed his cigarette case. Then with the utmost deliberation he searched for his matches, found them, and lighted his cigarette.
Having puffed forth the first deep breath with luxurious enjoyment, he spoke again. "It is a little difficult to get a man of your stamp to comprehend the fact that an artist--a true artist--is not one to be greatly drawn by the grosser things of life, more especially when he is in ardent pursuit of that elusive flame called inspiration. But you would hardly grasp a condition in which the body--and the impulses of the body--are in complete subjection to the aspirations of the mind. You"--he blew forth a cloud of smoke--"are probably incapable of realizing that the worship of beauty can be of so purely artistic a nature as to be practically free from the physical element, certainly independent of it. I am taking you out of your depth, I know, but it is hard to make myself clear to an untrained mind. I might try a homely simile and suggest to you that you go a-fishing, not for love of the fish, but because it is your profession; but that does not wholly illustrate my meaning, for I love everything in the way of beauty that comes my way. I follow beauty like a guiding star. And sometimes--but seldom, oh, very seldom"--a sudden odd thrill sounded in his voice as if by accident some hidden string had been struck and set vibrating--"I fulfil my desire--I realise my dream--I grasp and hold a spark of the Divine." He paused again, his face to the gold of the dawn and in his eyes the far-off rapture of one who watches some soaring flight of fancy. Then abruptly, lightly, he resumed his normal, half-quizzing demeanour. "Doubtless I weary you," he said. "But you mustn't run away with the idea that I am in love because I feel myself inspired. It may sound callous to you, but if Miss Columbine were to lose her exquisite beauty (which heaven forbid!) I should never voluntarily look upon her again. That I take it, is the test of love, which, we are told, is blind to all defects."
He ceased to speak, and carelessly, yet with obvious enjoyment, he sent forth another cloud of smoke into the crystal air of the morning.
He was not looking at Rufus. It was abundantly evident that he had not realised how near to open violence the young fisherman had been. His nonchalant explanation was plainly all-sufficing in his own opinion, and during the very marked silence that followed he displayed no faintest hint of anxiety or even interest as to the fashion of its reception.
The boat was rocking lightly on the swell; the sea all around was flooded with gold. The great jagged outline of the Spear Point looked like the castle of a dream. The haze of the newly risen sun had touched with magic all the world. Knight's eyes were half-closed. He had the look of a man at peace with himself.
And Rufus relaxed. The tension went out of his attitude; the volcanic fires died down. For half a minute or more he sat absolutely passive. Then slowly, with massive deliberation, he moved, unshipped the oars, and bent himself to pull. In another ten seconds the boat was rushing through the water under the compulsion of his powerful strokes, heading straight for the boats of the fishing fleet that dotted the bay....
It must have been fully a quarter of an hour later that Knight, having finished his cigarette, came out of his reverie.
"And so, you see," he remarked in the tone of one pleasantly rounding off a conversation, "until my picture is painted I remain the slave of my dream. I wonder if I have succeeded at all in making myself intelligible."
His eyes opened lazily and met Rufus's sombre gaze; they held a laughing challenge, the easy challenge of the practised fencer who condescends to try a bout with ignorance.
Stolidly Rufus met the look. If he realised the challenge he did not accept it. He had barred himself in once more behind an impenetrable wall of unresponsiveness. His gaze was once more obscure and bovine. All hint of violence was gone from his bearing. Only solid force remained--the force that drove the boat strongly, unerringly, through the golden-crested waves.
"If you're going to do a picture of Columbine," he said slowly, "I hope it'll be a good one."
"It will probably be--great," said Knight, and flicked some ash from his sleeve with the complacent air of a man who has accomplished his purpose.