The Woman of His Dream by Ethel M. Dell
It was growing very dark. The decks gleamed wet in the light of the swinging lamps. The wind howled across the sea like a monster in torment. It would be a fearful night.
The man who stood clutching at the slanting deck rail was drenched from head to foot, but, despite this fact, he had no thought of going below. Reginald Carey had been for many voyages on many seas, but the fascination of a storm in the bay attracted him irresistibly still. He had no sympathy with the uneasy crowd in the saloons. He even exulted in the wild tumult of wind and sea and blinding rain. He was as one spellbound in the grip of the tempest.
Curt and dry of speech, abrupt at times almost to rudeness, he was a man of whom most people stood in awe, and with whom very few were on terms of intimacy. Yet in the world of men he had made his mark.
By camp-fires and on the march, in prison and in hospital, Carey the journalist had become a byword for coolness and endurance. It was Carey, caustic of humour, uncompromising of attitude, who sauntered through a hail of bullets to fill a wounded man's water-tin; Carey who pushed his way among stampeding mules to rescue sorely needed medical stores; Carey who had limped beside footsore, jaded men, and whistled them out of their depression.
There were two fingers missing from Carey's left hand, and the limp had become permanent when he sailed home from South Africa at the end of the war, but he was the personal friend of half the army though there was not a single man who could boast that he knew him thoroughly well. For none knew exactly what this man, who scoffed so freely at disaster, carried in his heart.
As he leaned on the rail of the tossing vessel, gazing steadfastly into the howling darkness, his face was as serene as if he sailed a summer sea. The great waves that dashed their foam over him as he stood were powerless to raise fear in his soul! He stood as one apart--a lonely watcher whom no danger could appal.
It was growing late, but he took no count of time. More than once he had been hoarsely advised to go below, but he would not go. He believed himself to be the only passenger on deck, and he clung to his solitude. The bare thought of the stuffy saloon was abhorrent to him. He marvelled that no one else had developed the same distaste.
And with the thought he turned, breathless from the buffeting spray of a mighty wave, to find a woman standing near him on the swirling deck.
She stood poised lightly as a bird prepared for flight, her head bare, her face upturned to the storm. Her hands were fast gripped upon the rail, and the gleam of a gold ring caught Carey's eye. He saw that she was unconscious of his presence. The shifting, uncertain light had not revealed him. For a space he stood watching her, unperceived, wondering at the courage that upheld her. Her hair had blown loose in the wind, and lay in a black mass upon her neck. He could not see her features, but her bearing was superb.
And then at length, as if his quiet scrutiny had somehow touched in her a responsive chord, she turned her head and saw him. Their eyes met, and a curious thrill ran tingling through the man's veins. He had never seen this woman before, but as she looked at him, with wonderful dark eyes that seemed to hold a passionate exultation in their depths, he suddenly felt as if he had known her all his life. They were comrades. It was no hysterical panic that had driven her up from below. Like himself, she had been drawn by the magic of the storm.
Impulsively, almost involuntarily, he moved a pace towards her and stretched out a hand along the dripping rail.
She gave him her own instantly and confidently, responding to his action with absolute simplicity. It was a gesture of sympathy, of fellowship. She bore herself as a queen, but she did not condescend to him.
No words passed between them. Both realised the impossibility of speech in that shrieking tempest. Moreover, there was no need for speech. Earth's petty conventions had fallen away from them. They were as children standing hand in hand on the edge of the unknown, hearing the same thunderous music, bound by the same magic spell.
Carey wondered later how long a time elapsed whilst they stood thus, intently watching. It might have been for merely a few minutes, or it might have been for the greater part of an hour. He never knew.
The spell broke at length suddenly and terribly, with a grinding crash that flung them both sideways upon the slippery deck. He went down, still clinging instinctively to the rail, and the next instant, by its aid, he was on his feet again, dragging his companion up with him.
There followed a pause--a shuddering, expectant pause--while wind and sea raged all around them like beasts of prey. And through it there came the sound of the engine throbbing impotently spasmodically, like the heart of a dying man. Quite suddenly it ceased, and there was a frightful uproar of escaping steam. The deck on which they stood began to tilt slowly upwards.
Carey knew what had happened. They had struck a rock in that awful darkness, and they were going down with frightful rapidity into the seething, storm-tossed water.
He had never been shipwrecked before, but, as by instinct, he realised the madness of remaining where he was. A coil of rope lay almost at his feet, and he stooped and seized it. There had come a brief lull in the storm, but he knew that there was not a moment to spare. Still supporting his companion, he began to bind the rope around them both.
She looked up at him quickly, and he saw her lips move in protest. She even set her hands against his breast, as if to resist him. But he overcame her almost savagely. It was no moment for argument.
The slope of the deck was becoming every instant more acute. The wind was racing back across the sea. Above them--very far above them, it seemed--there was a confusion of figures, but the tumult of wind and waves drowned all other sound. Carey's feet began to slip on that awful slant. They were sinking rapidly, rapidly.
He knotted the rope and gathered himself together. An instant he hung on the rail, breathing deeply. Then with a jerk he relaxed his grip and leaped blindly into the howling darkness, hurling himself and the woman with him far into the raging sea.
* * *
It was suffocatingly hot. Carey raised his arms with a desperate movement. He felt as if he were swimming in hot vapour. And he had been swimming for a long time, too. He was deadly tired. A light flashed in his eyes, and very far above him--like an object viewed through the small end of a telescope--he saw a face. Vaguely he heard a voice speaking, but what it said was beyond his comprehension. It seemed to utter unintelligible things. For a while he laboured to understand, then the effort became too much for him. The light faded from his brain.
Later--much later, it seemed--he awoke to full consciousness, to find himself in a Breton fisherman's cottage, watched over by a kindly little French doctor who tended him as though he had been his brother.
"Monsieur is better, but much better," he was cheerily assured. "And for madame his wife he need have no inquietude. She is safe and well, and only concerns herself for monsieur."
This was reassuring, and Carey accepted it without comment or inquiry. He knew that there was a misunderstanding somewhere, but he was still too exhausted to trouble himself about so slight a matter. He thanked his kindly informant, and again he slept.
Two days later his interest in life revived. He began to ask questions, and received from the doctor a full account of what had occurred.
He had been washed ashore, he was told--he and madame his wife--lashed fast together. The ship had been wrecked within half a mile of the land. But the seas had been terrific. There had not been many survivors.
Carey digested the news in silence. He had had no friends on board, having embarked only at Gibraltar.
At length he looked up with a faint smile at his faithful attendant. "And where is--madame?" he asked.
The little doctor hesitated, and spread out his hands deprecatingly.
"Oh, monsieur, I regret--I much regret--to have to inform you that she is already departed for Paris. Her solicitude for you was great, was pathetic. The first words she speak were: 'My husband, do not let him know!' as though she feared that you would be distressed for her. And then she recover quick, quick, and say that she must go--that monsieur when he know, will understand. And so she depart early in the morning of yesterday while monsieur is still asleep."
He was watching Carey with obvious anxiety as he ended, but the Englishman's face expressed nothing but a somewhat elaborate indifference.
"I see," he said, and relapsed into silence.
He made no further reference to the matter, and the doctor discreetly abstained from asking questions. He presently showed him an English paper which contained the information that Mr. and Mrs. Carey were among the rescued.
"That," he remarked, "will alleviate the anxiety of your friends."
To which Carey responded, with a curt laugh: "No one knew that we were on board."
He left for Paris on the following day, allowing the doctor to infer that he was on his way to join his wife.