Chapter VIII. The Boon
 

Someone was mounting the steep cliff-path that led to Rufus's cottage--a man, square-built and powerful, who carried a burden. The moon shone dimly upon his progress through a veil of drifting cloud. He was streaming with water at every step, but he moved as if his drenched clothing were in no way a hindrance--steadily, strongly, with stubborn fixity of purpose. The burden he carried hung limply in his arms, and over his shoulder there drifted a heavy mass of wet, black hair.

He came at length on his firm, bare feet to the little gate that led to the lonely cottage, and, without pausing, passed through. The cottage door was ajar. He pushed it back and entered, closing it, even as he did so, with a backward fling of the heel. Then, in the tiny living-room, by the light of the lamp that shone in the window, he laid his burden down.

White and cold, she lay with closed eyes upon the little sofa, motionless and beautiful as a statue recumbent upon a tomb, her drenched draperies clinging about her. He stood for a second looking upon her; then, still with the absolute steadiness of set purpose, he turned and went into the inner room.

He came back with a blanket, and stooping, he lifted the limp form and, with a certain deftness that seemed a part of his immovable resolution, he wrapped it in the rough grey folds.

It was while he was doing this that a sudden sigh came from between the parted lips, and the closed eyes flashed open.

They gazed upon him in bewilderment, but he continued his ministrations with grim persistence and an almost bovine expression of countenance. Only when two hands came quivering out of the enveloping blanket and pushed him desperately away did he desist. He straightened himself then and turned away.

"You'll be--all right," he said in his deep voice.

Then Columbine started up on her elbow, clutching wildly at the blanket, drawing it close about her. The cold stillness of her was gone, as though a sudden flame had scorched her. Her face, her neck, her whole body were burning, burning.

"What--what happened?" she gasped. "You--why have you brought me--here?"

He did not look at her.

"It was the nearest place," he said. "The Death Current caught you, and you were stunned. I got you out."

"You--got me--out!" she repeated, saying the words slowly as if she were teaching herself a lesson.

He nodded his great head.

"Yes. I came up in time. I saw what would happen. There's often a tidal wave about now. I thought you knew that--thought Adam would have told you. He"--his voice suddenly went a tone deeper--"knew it. I told him this morning."

"Ah!" She uttered the word upon a swift intake of breath; her startled eyes suddenly dilated. "Where is he?" she said.

The man's huge frame stiffened at the question; she saw his hands clench. But he kept his head turned from her; she could not see his face. There followed a pause that seemed to her fevered imagination to have something deadly in it. Then: "I hope he's gone where he belongs," said Rufus, with terrible deliberation.

Her cry of agony cut across his last word like the severing of a taut string. She leapt to her feet, in that moment of anguish supremely forgetful of self.

"Rufus!" she cried, and wildly gripped his arm, "You've never--left him--to be--killed!"

She felt his muscles harden in grim resistance to her grasp. She saw that his averted face was set like a stone mask.

"It's none of my business," he said, speaking through rigid lips.

She turned from him with a gasp of horror and sprang for the door. But in an instant he wheeled, thrust out a great arm, and caught her. His fingers closed upon her bare shoulder.

"Columbine!" he said.

She resisted him frantically, bending now this way, now that. But he held her in spite of it, held her, and slowly brought her nearer to him.

"Stand still!" he said.

His voice came upon her like a blow. She flinched at the sound of it--flinched and obeyed.

"Let me go!" she gasped out. "He--may be drowning--at this moment!"

"Let him drown!" said Rufus.

She lifted her tortured face in frenzied protest, but it died upon her lips. For in that moment she met his eyes, and the blazing blue of them made her feel as though spirit had been poured upon her flame, consuming her. Words failed her utterly. She stood palpitating in his hold, not breathing--a wild thing trapped.

Slowly he bent towards her. "Let him drown!" he said again. "Do you think I'm going to let you throw your life away for a cur like that?"

There was uncloaked ferocity in the question. His hold was merciless.

"I saved you," he said. "It wasn't especially easy. But I did it. For the matter of that, I'd have gone through hell for you. And do you think I'm going to let you go again--now?"

She did not answer him. Only her lips moved stiffly, as though they formed words she could not utter. She could not take her eyes from his, though his looks seared her through and through.

He went on, deeply, with gathering force. "He'd have let you be swept away. He didn't care. All he wanted was to get you for his picture. That was all he made love to you for. He'd have sacrificed you to the devil for that. You don't believe me, maybe, but I know--I know!"

There was savage certainty in the reiterated words, and the girl recoiled from them, her face like death. But he held her still, implacably, relentlessly.

"That's all he wants of you," he said. "To use you for his purpose, and then--to throw you aside. Why"--and he suddenly showed his clenched teeth--"he dared--damn him!--he dared to tell me so!"

"He--told you!" Her lips spoke the words at last, but they seemed to come from a long way off.

"Yes." With suppressed violence he answered her. "He didn't put it that way--being a gentleman! But he took care to make me understand that he only wanted you for the sake of his accursed picture. That's the only thing that counts with him, and he's the sort not to care what he does to get it. He wouldn't have got you--like this--if he hadn't made you love him first. I know that too--as well as if you'd told me."

The passion in his voice was rising, and it was as if the heat of it rekindled her animation. With a jerky movement she flung up both her hands, grasping tensely the arms that held her so rigidly.

"Yes, I love him!" she said, and her voice rang wildly. "I love him! I don't care what he is! Rufus--Rufus--oh, for the love of Heaven, don't let him drown!" The words rushed out desperately; it was as if her whole nature, all her pride, all her courage, were flung into that frantic appeal. She clung to the man with straining entreaty. "Oh, go down and save him!" she begged. "I'll do anything for you in return--anything you like to ask! Only do this one thing for me! He may have escaped the tide. If so, he'll try the quicksand, and he don't know the lie of it! Rufus, you wouldn't want--your worst enemy--to die like that!"

She broke off, wildly sobbing, yet still clinging to him in agonised entreaty. The man's face, with its crude ferocity, the untamed glitter of its fiery eyes, was still bent to hers, but she no longer shrank from it. The power that moved her was too immense to be swayed by lesser things. His attitude no longer affected her, one way or another. It had ceased to count, so that she only wrenched from him this one great boon.

And Rufus must have realised the fact, for he stood up sharply and backed against the door, releasing her.

"You don't know what you're saying," he said gruffly.

"I do--I do!" With anguished reiteration she answered him. "I'm not the sort that offers and then doesn't pay. Oh, don't waste time talking! Every moment may be his last. Go down--go down to the shore! You're so strong. Save him--save him!"

She beat her clasped hands against his broad chest, till abruptly he put up his own again and held them still.

"Columbine!" For the second time he uttered her name, and for the second time the command in his voice caught and compelled her. "Just you listen a minute!" he said, and as he spoke his look swept her with a mastery that dominated even her agony. "If I go and save the cur, you've done with him for ever--you swear that?"

"Yes!" she cried. "Yes! Only go--only go!"

But he remained square and resolute against the door. "And you'll stay here--you swear to stay here till I come back?"

"Yes!" she cried again.

He bent to her once more; his gaze possessed her. "And--afterwards?" he said, his voice deep and very low.

Her eyes had been raised to his; they closed suddenly and sharply, as if to shut him out. "I will give you--all I have," she said, and shivered, violently, uncontrollably.

The next instant his hands were gone from hers, and she was free.

Trembling, she sank upon the sofa, hiding her face; and even as she did so the banging of the cottage door told her he was gone.

Thereafter she sat crouched for a long, long time in the paralysis of a great fear.