The Tidal Wave by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IX. The Vision
Down on the howling shore the great waves were hurling themselves in vast cataracts of snow-white surf that shone, dimly radiant, in the fitful moonlight. The sky was covered with broken clouds, and a rising storm-wind blew in gusts along the cliffs. The peace of the night was utterly shattered, the shining glory had departed. A wild and desolate grandeur had succeeded it.
"Shouldn't wonder if there was some trouble tonight," said Adam, awaking to the tumult.
"Lor' bless you!" said Mrs. Peck sensibly. "Wait till it comes."
The hint of impatience that marked her speech was not without reason, for a gale was to Adam as the sound of a gun to a sporting-dog. It invariably aroused him, even from the deepest slumber, to a state of alert expectation that to a woman as hard-working as Mrs. Peck was most exceptionally trying. When Adam scented disaster at sea there was no peace for either. As she was wont to remark, being the wife of the lifeboat coxswain wasn't all jam, not by any manner of means it wasn't. She knew now, by the way Adam turned, and checked his breathing to listen, that the final disturbance was not far off.
She herself feigned sleep, possibly in the hope of provoking him to consideration for her weariness; but she knew the effort to be quite futile even as she made it. Adam the coxswain was considerate only for those who might be in peril. At the next heavy gust that rattled the windows he flung the bedclothes back without the smallest thought for his companion's comfort, and tumbled on to his feet.
"Just going to have a look round," he said. "I'll lay the fire in the kitchen, and you be ready to light it in a jiffy if wanted!"
That was so like Adam. He could think of nothing but possible victims of the storm. Mrs. Peck sniffed, and gathered the bedclothes back about her in expressive silence. It was quite useless to argue with Adam when he got the jumps. Experience had taught her that long since. She could only resume her broken rest and hope that it might not be again disturbed.
Adam pulled on his clothes with his usual brisk deftness of movement and went downstairs. The rising storm was calling him, and he could not be deaf to the call. He had belonged to the lifeboat ever since he had come to man's estate, and never a storm arose but he held himself ready for service.
His first, almost instinctive, action was to take the key of the lifeboat house from its nail in the kitchen. Then, whistling cheerily below his breath, he set about laying the fire. The kettles were already filled. Mrs. Peck always saw to that before retiring. There was milk in the pantry, brandy in the cupboard. According to invariable custom, all was in readiness for any possible emergency, and having satisfied himself that this was the case, he thrust his bare feet into boots and went to the door.
It had begun to rain. Great drops pattered down upon him as he emerged, and he turned back to clap his sou'wester upon his head. Then, without further preparation, he sallied forth.
As he went down the road that ran to the quay a terrible streak of lightning reft the dark sky, and the wild crash of thunder that followed drowned even the roaring babel of the sea.
It did not check his progress; he was never one to be easily daunted. It was contrary to his very nature to seek shelter in a storm. He went swinging on to the very edge of the quay, and there stood facing the violence of the waves, the fierce turmoil of striving elements.
The tide was extraordinarily high--such a tide as he believed he had never seen before in summer. He stood in the pouring rain and looked first one way, then the other, with a quick birdlike scrutiny, but as far as his eyes could pierce he saw only an empty desolation of waters. There seemed none in need of his help that night.
"I wonder if Rufus is awake," he speculated to the angry tumult.
Nearly three miles out from the Spear Point there was a lighthouse with a revolving light. That light shone towards him now, casting a weird radiance across the tossing water, and as if in accompaniment to the warning gleam he heard the deep toll of the bell-buoy that rocked upon the swell.
Adam turned about. "I'll go and knock up Rufus," he decided. "It'd be a shame to miss a night like this."
Again the lightning rent the sky, and the whole great outline of the Spear Point was revealed in one awful second of intolerable radiance. Adam's keen eye chanced to be upon it, and he saw it in such detail as the strongest sunlight could never have achieved. The brightness dazzled, almost shocked him, but there was something besides the brightness that sent an odd sensation through him--a curious, sick feeling as if he had suddenly received a blow between the shoulders. For in that fraction of time he had seen something which reason, clamouring against the evidence of his senses, declared to be the impossible. He had seen a human figure--the figure of his son--clinging to the naked face of the rock, hanging between sea and sky where scarcely a bird could have found foothold, while something--a grey, indistinguishable burden--hung limp across his shoulder, weighing him down.
The thunder was still rolling around him when with a great shake Adam pulled himself together.
"I'm dreaming!" he told himself angrily. "A man couldn't ever climb the Spear Point, let alone live on a ledge that wouldn't harbour a sea-gull if he did. I'll go round to Rufus. I'll go round and knock him up."
With the words he tramped off through the rushing rain, and leaving the quay, struck upwards along the cliff in the direction of the narrow path that ran down to Rufus's dwelling above the Spear Point Caves.
Despite the spareness of his frame, he climbed the ascent with a rapidity that made him gasp. The wind also was against him, blowing in strong gusts, and the raging of the sea below was as the roaring of a thousand torrents. The great waves boomed against the cliff far beyond the summer watermark. They had long since covered the quicksand, and he thought he felt the ground shake with the shock of them.
He reached at length the gap in the cliff that led down to the cottage, and here he paused; for the descent was sharp, and the light that still filtered through the dense storm-clouds was very dim. But in a few seconds another great flash lit up the whole wild scene. He saw again the Spear Point Rock standing out, scimitar-like, in the sea. The water was dashing all around it. It stood up, grim and unapproachable, the great waves flinging their mighty clouds of spray over its stark summit. But--possibly because he viewed it from above instead of from below--he saw naught beside that grand and futile struggle of the elements.
Reassured, he started in the rain and darkness down the twisting path that led to his old home. He knew every foot of the way, but even so, he stumbled once or twice in the gloom.
The roaring of the sea sounded terribly near when finally he reached the little garden-gate and caught the ray of the lamp in the window.
Evidently it had awakened Rufus also. Almost unconsciously he quickened his pace as he went up the path.
He reached the door and fumbled for the latch; but ere he found it, it was flung open, and a strange and tragic figure met him on the threshold.
"Ah!" cried a woman's voice. "It is you! Where--where is Rufus?"
Adam's keen and birdlike eyes nearly leapt from his head. "Why--Columbine?" he said.
She was dressed in Rufus's suit of navy serge. It hung about her in clumsy folds, and over her shoulders and about her snow-white throat her glorious hair streamed like a black veil, still wet and shining in the lamplight.
She flung out her hands to him in piteous appeal. "Oh, Adam!" she said. "Have you seen them? Have you seen Rufus? He went--he went an hour ago--to save Mr. Knight from the quicksand!"
Adam's quick brain leapt to instant activity. The girl's presence baffled him, but it was no time for explanation. In some way she had discovered Knight in danger, and had rushed to Rufus for help. Then--then--that vision of his from the quay--that flash of revelation--had been no dream, after all! He had seen Rufus indeed--and probably for the last time in his life.
He stood, struck dumb for the moment, recalling every detail of the clinging figure that had hung above the leaping waves. Then the tragedy in Columbine's face made him pull himself together once more. He took her trembling hands.
"It's no good, my girl," he said. "I seen him. Yes, I seen him. I didn't believe my eyes, but I know now it was true. He was hanging on to a bit of rock half-way up the Spear Point, and t'other chap was lying across his shoulder. They've both been washed away by this, for the water's still coming up. There's not the ghost of a chance for 'em. I say it 'cos I know--not the ghost of a chance!"
A wild cry broke from the girl's lips. She wrenched her hands free and beat them upon her breast. Then suddenly a burst of wild tears came to her. She leaned against the cottage wall and sobbed in an agony that possessed her, soul and body.
Adam stood and looked at her. There was something terrible about the abandonment of her grief. It made him feel that his own was almost insignificant beside it. He had never seen any woman weep like that before. The anguish of it went through his heart.
He moved at length, laid a very gentle hand upon her shaking shoulder.
"My girl--my girl!" he said. "Don't take on so! I never thought as you cared a ha'p'orth for poor Rufus, though o' course I always knew as he loved you like mad."
She bowed herself lower under his hand. "And now I've killed him!" she gasped forth inarticulately. "I've killed him!"
"No, no, no!" protested Adam. "That ain't reasonable. Come, now--you're distraught! You don't know what you're saying. My Rufus is a fine chap. He'd take most any risk to save a life. He's got a big heart in him, and he don't stop to count the cost."
She uncovered her face sharply and looked at him, so that he clearly saw the ravages that her distress had wrought. "That wasn't what made him go," she said. "He wouldn't have gone but for me. It was I as made him go. But I thought he'd be in time. I hoped he'd be in time." Her voice rose wildly; she wrung her hands. "Oh, can't you do anything? Can't you take out the lifeboat? There must be some way--surely there must be some way--of saving them!"
But Adam shook his head. "He's past our help," he said. "There's no boat could live among them rocks in such a tide as this. We couldn't get anywhere near. No--no, there's nothing we can do. The lad's gone--my Rufus--finest chap along the shore, if he was my son. Never thought as he'd go before me--never thought--never thought!"
The loud roll of the waves filled the bitter silence that followed, but the battering of the rain upon the cottage roof was decreasing. The storm was no longer overhead.
Adam leaned on the back of a chair with his head in his hands. All the wiry activity seemed to have gone out of him. He looked old and broken.
The girl stood motionless behind him. A strange impassivity had succeeded her last fruitless appeal, as though through excess of suffering her faculties were numbed, animation itself were suspended. She leaned against the wall, staring with wide, tragic eyes at the flame of the lamp that stood in the window. Her arms hung stiffly at her sides, and the hands were clenched. She seemed to be gazing upon unutterable things.
There was nothing to be done--nothing to be done! Till the waves had spent their fury, till that raging sea went down, they were as helpless as babes to stay the hand of Fate. No boat could live in that fearful turmoil of water. Adam had said it, and she knew that what he said was true, knew by the utter dejection of his attitude, the completeness of his despair. She had never seen Adam in despair before; probably no one had ever seen him as he was now. He was a man to strain every nerve while the faintest ray of hope remained. He had faced many a furious storm, saved many a life that had been given up for lost by other men. But now he could do nothing, and he crouched there--an old and broken man--for the first time realising his helplessness.
A long time passed. The only sound within the cottage was the ticking of a grandfather-clock in a corner, while without the great sound of the breaking seas filled all the world. The storm above had passed. Now the thunder-blast no longer shook the cottage. A faint greyness had begun to show beyond the lamp in the window. The dawn was drawing near.
As one awaking from a trance of terrible visions, the girl drew a deep breath and spoke:
He did not stir. He had not stirred for the greater part of an hour.
She made a curiously jerky movement, as if she wrenched herself free from some constricting hold. She went to the bowed, despairing figure.
"Adam, the day is breaking. The tide must be on the turn. Shan't we go?"
He stood up with the gesture of an old man. "What's the good?" he said. "Do you think I want to see my boy's dead body left behind by the sea?"
She shivered at the question. "But we can't stay here," she urged. "Aunt Liza, you know--she'll be wondering."
"Ah!" He passed his hand over his eyes. He was swaying a little as he stood. She supported his elbow, for he seemed to have lost control of his limbs. He stared at her in a dazed way. "You'd better go and tell your Aunt Liza," he said. "I think I'll stay here a bit longer. Maybe my boy'll come and talk to me if I'm alone. We're partners, you know, and we lived here a good many years alone together. He wouldn't leave me--not for the long voyage--without a word. Yes, you go, my dear, you go! I'll stay here and wait for him."
She saw that no persuasion of hers would move him, and it seemed useless to remain. An intolerable restlessness urged her, moreover, to be gone. The awful inertia of the past two hours had turned into a fevered desire for action. It was the swing of the pendulum, and she felt that if she did not respond to it she would go mad.
Her knees were still trembling under her, but she controlled them and turned to the door. As she lifted the latch she looked back and saw Adam drop heavily into the chair upon which he had leaned for so long. His attitude was one of almost stubborn patience, but it was evident that her presence had ceased to count with him. He was waiting--she saw it clearly in every line of him--waiting to bid his boy Godspeed ere he fared forth finally on the long voyage from which there is no return.
A sharp sob rose in her throat. She caught her hand to it, forcing it back. Then, barefooted, she stepped out into the grey dimness that veiled all things, and left the door of Rufus's cottage open behind her.