On the Flood-Tide
By HAROLD BINDLOSS
THE night was frosty, and Mrs. Nixon and her step-daughter were cold and tired when they drove through a belt of mist that crawled across the marsh. As they climbed the low rise at Dryholm, the wild cry of a curlew came out of the dark, and in the distance they heard the murmur of the sea. It was past low water, and the tide would soon sweep across the broad expanse of sands.
In spite of their relationship, Mrs. Nixon and Alice were good friends, and sometimes accomplices, for Nixon was hard to live with when he took liquor. He had other faults, but he was fond of his children. Mrs. Nixon had two, and, although she had hardly hoped for this, the little girls loved Alice. She ought to have seen the Hallows' lights from the top of Dryholm knowe, but all was dark on the low marsh, and she urged the pony. Hallows Farm was small and poor, the women had no help, and when they went to market, Nixon took care of the children. It, however, looked as if there was nobody in the house, and Mrs. Nixon knew her husband had not gone to Dryholm. Strachan and he were neighbours, but they had not spoken for twenty years.
She lighted a fire in the cold, flagged kitchen while Alice stabled the pony, and, as the light spread, she saw a note on the table.
"I'm takin' bairns to their granny's," the loosely-written message ran.
When the kettle was boiling, Alice came in, and Mrs. Nixon said: "It's all right. Your father's left a note. They've gone to Langdivock."
"Granny's not there," said Alice. "Mrs. Bell told me she'd seen her at the market."
There was silence for a few moments while they looked at each other. Mrs. Nixon was wrinkled and faded, Alice was young and fresh, but there was a hint of strain in both faces. Their work was hard, for they kept the house, and sometimes worked in the fields, while Nixon was a violent bully when in liquor. Between his fits of indulgence he was often morose, and he was always obstinate. In order to reach Langdivock he must cross the sands. The crossing was dangerous, since there were channels up which the flood-tide ran; but Nixon knew the way, and had taken the children to Langdivock before. The trouble was, the Sportsman Inn stood at the top of theas one came from the beach. Alice and Mrs. Nixon did not talk about this, but each knew what the other thought.
"Oh, well," said Mrs. Nixon, "tide won't be in big gutter for an hour yet. They'll be back soon. We'll gan on with oor tea."
They ate and talked about the market, but now and then stopped and listened to the distant roar of the surf. It was louder than usual, and sounded like a train, although the night was calm. The tides were irregular, and sometimes, before a storm, the stream turned earlier than usual.
Alice was anxious and disturbed. She was fond of her little step-sisters, but she had other grounds for gloomy thought. Life was hard at Hallows, and there were numerous jars. She had been away at a good school, and her mother had left her a small legacy. The money, however, was in Nixon's hands, and she knew he would not give it her unless she married as he liked. She doubted if he had legal power to keep it back, but the marsh folk are primitive, and Nixon was hard to move. Moreover, he hated the man she had chosen. At length Mrs. Nixon got up.
"They're not coming," she said. "You'll better gan to Dryholm and ask Stephen to look the sands."
The girl hesitated. Stephen would go willingly, but she had never entered Dryholm, and old Peter Strachan passed her with a sour look when they met. He was as stubborn as Nixon, with whom he had quarrelled when she was a child.
"You know I cannot go to Dryholm," she replied.
"Then I must," said Mrs. Nixon. "Peter willunt fratch with a woman, and the bairns canna be let to droon."
Alice conquered her reluctance and got her hat. Old Peter had a bitter tongue, and had told her that if she was a modest lass she would leave his son alone; but somebody must go, and her step-mother was lame with rheumatism.
"Oh, well," she said, "Stephen may be there, and, if he's not, I'm used to hard words."
Five minutes afterwards she walked fast through the fog that drifted in low-lying belts across the marsh. The roar of the sea was plainer, and she knew what it meant. Wind was coming from the west, and the tide beginning to creep up the gutters; but it would presently rise in a white-topped wave and run up the bay. For all that, she hesitated when she reached the Dryholm lonning. Misty moonlight touched the old house, and, standing beside a frozen pool, it looked desolate and forbidding with its black, tarred front and broken turf dyke. A yellow gleam shone through the crack of a shutter, but everything else was dark. Alice braced herself and opened the kitchen door.
There was no light except the uncertain glow of a peat fire, but she saw Peter Strachan knit his white brows as he looked up from his seat by the hearth.
"Weel," he said, "what are you wanting here, Miss Nixon?"
Alice was afraid of Strachan. He was like her father—grim and vindictive. There was a vein of primitive savageness in the older marshmen that they had, perhaps, inherited from their ancestors, the North Sea pirates. Their life was a struggle against a waterlogged soil and inhospitable climate, and Strachan was badly crippled by long exposure to the damp.
"Is Stephen about?" she asked.
Strachan gave her an ironical glance. "So he hasn't been to see you, and you have come to look for him! He's a canny lad and weel-doing; I reckon you'll not can let him go!"
"If he wants to go, he may," Alice rejoined, while the blood rushed to her face. "But I'll not take your word; Stephen can speak for himself."
"Aweel," said Strachan, who looked rather amused than angry, "I kenned you had pluck!"
"I've done you no harm," said Alice. "Now I've come for help."
Strachan did not hear all—he was rather deaf—and he rejoined thoughtfully, with his eyes fixed on her hot face: "You're Andrew Nixon's lass. I alloo that's no' your fault, but it canna be altered. Hooiver, you can gan back to Hallows. Stephen's no' aboot."
"Father's on the sands. He went to Langdivock. There's a fog, and we're afraid he has lost his way."
"Like enough! He'll not have left 'The Sportsman ' sober. I wunner he has not drooned himsel' before noo."
"But he's taken the bairns!" Alice cried in desperation, and Strachan frowned as he looked at her.
"He'll ha' left them at oad Martha's."
"No. Martha was at the market, and could not have got home."
Strachan got up and leaned upon his stick. "The bairns! That's different. I canna gan. Frost's gripped my oad bones; I've not been doon t' lonning for a week. But Stephen's oot on sands, watching wild geese. Mayhappen you might find him near t' Swirrel bank." He limped across the floor and lifted down a long single-barrel fowling piece. Tak' t' gun; he'll hear her if fog's ower thick to see."
Alice took the gun and bag of cartridges with dull surprise. It was a costly London-made duck-gun that Strachan had bought at a country house sale, and would not lend Stephen. She could not remember if she thanked him, for she had lost some time and, running down the lonning, she plunged into the fog.
There was less fog on the wet sands, where Stephen followed the edge of a channel with a cheap double-barrel gun on his shoulder. As the tide rose, the wild geese would fly across to feed on the marsh, and Stephen knew the line they took. He was not shooting for sport; a grey-lag goose was worth some shillings, and money was scarce. Some day Dryholm would be his, for the Strachans had a traditional right to the lease, and his father would leave him enough to farm it well. Although it was a struggle against the weather, something could be done to improve the stock and soil, and Stephen had studied modern methods that Strachan never tried.
In the meantime Strachan paid him a hired man's wages and worked him hard. They lived with stern frugality, and Strachan's savings, that would have earned a good profit if invested in new machines and better stock, were regularly banked. As he splashed across the muddy sands in his long waders, Stephen mused with a touch of bitterness. Marshcote, with its grazing stints and strip of plough land, was advertised, and the agent would give him the first chance; but money was needed, and Stephen had about a hundred pounds. Alice had two or three hundred, and his father was able to lend him the rest. Still, there was no use in thinking about Marshcote. If Nixon thought Alice meant to marry him, he would not give up her legacy, and Strachan would not let him have a shilling.
The quarrel began about a lame horse when Stephen was a boy. Then there was a dispute about the right to cut basket willows, and the grudge had grown to a sullen, illogical hate. The thing was ridiculous, but there it was, and it must be reckoned on. By and by, however, Stephen stopped and looked about. The tide was creeping up the channel, and he had some distance to go before he expected to get a shot at the geese. If he could fire both barrels into the flock; he might earn ten shillings, and he needed the money. For one thing, there was a small present he meant to buy for Alice.
As he went on he wondered whether it was a misfortune that he had been well taught at school, and had afterwards tried to study modern agriculture. He knew enough to see that his father's parsimonious methods were not economical, and often felt he was wasting such talents as he had; but he could not start in a new country without some capital, and he knew no trade. While his father lived he must work for a ploughman's wages and obey orders that he often knew were wrong. It was a dreary lot, but not uncommon. Others like him bore it well, and he tried to banish his disturbing thoughts.
The tide had begun to ripple in the gutter when he heard a noise like a hoarse, mocking laugh. It was a black-backed gull flying towards the marsh, and soon afterwards he heard the geese. He had not expected they would get up yet; there was a muddy spot where they fed until the tide drove them off. In the daytime they were afraid of a peregrine falcon that frequented the bay, but he did not think the peregrine hunted at night. Yet something had disturbed them, and their cries indicated that they were grey-lag. A lag goose was worth more than a brant or bernicle.
He stopped and crouched in a hollow of the bank, where sand the current undermined fell into the channel. Dim moonlight shone through, and the fog was thin, but his grey waders and yellow oilskins were indistinct against the bank. The harsh cries stopped and a measured beat of wings came out of the nearest belt of haze. The noise was marked by a curious creak, as if the wings were rusty. The geese were coming over, nearly a mile from their usual line, and Stephen wondered why they had left their feeding-grounds so soon.
The creak got louder; two or three indistinct objects with long necks cut against the sky. More appeared, and when the front of the straggling wedge was nearly overhead, Stephen threw up his gun. Two thin flashes leaped from the muzzle, a little smoke drifted about his head, and the echoes of the reports rolled across the sands. The wedge wheeled and broke up, there was a confused clamour, and he heard a splash in the channel and a thud on the opposite bank.
He plunged in, and the water was at his knees when he picked up a fat grey-lag. The other had fallen farther off. A trail of fog crept up, and he searched for some time before he found the goose. Then he stopped and listened. The geese had gone. One could not expect another shot, but the ducks were not so timid, and there was a pool half a mile off where he might find a widgeon. The surf, however, was ominously loud, and the tide would presently swirl up the channels in a white-topped bore. While he tried to calculate how long he could stop, he heard the shrill scream of oyster-catchers and the whistle of small wading birds across the misty sand. They had resumed feeding after the shot, but something had since disturbed them, as something had disturbed the geese.
He waited a few minutes, wondering whether he would go on to the pool. The water was rising behind him; there was, perhaps, some risk. And then he started, for another sound came out of the fog. It was faint, but strange to hear on the lonely sands. He thought it was like the cry of a frightened child. Stephen pushed the geese into his net bag and began to run. The geese were heavy, the ground was soft, and his wet waders hampered him; but if it was a child that called, he had no time to lose. He had learned while wild-fowling to locate a sound, and by and by a small, dark figure loomed out of the fog and ran to meet him. "Hullo, Anne!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
The child trembled, and he saw she was frightened and wet.
"Dolly's on the other side," she said.
"Across the gutter? But why did you leave her?"
"I went through first, because it was deep. Then I ran to see if there was a better place, and when I went back she had gone. Now I'm frightened. Perhaps she's drowned."
"That's silly," said Stephen. "She can't have got drowned. We're going to find her. Come along!"
He gave the child his hand, but she was tired and kept him back. It was not a time to bother her by questions, and to some extent he understood. Dolly was younger, and Anne had been afraid to take her across the channel until she tried its depth. Stephen knew it was not as deep as the other that he had crossed; the trouble was, it was some distance off and the tide was rising fast. The fog, however, was not thick, the moon was up, and he could see Anne's footsteps in the soft ground. When they reached the edge of the channel, he stopped.
"You must wait here and not move until I come back," he said. "If I call you, shout as loud as you can."
She clung to him, but he gently shook her off and plunged into the water. It was not deep, but it was running up the channel, and rippled about his legs. When he got across he found some small footprints. They were not plain, and for a time puzzled him; but, after striking some matches, he saw two rows of tracks. One indicated that both children had wandered about together, the other that one had gone along the bank alone. He followed this, and presently found the child, sitting, limp and tearful, near the advancing tide.
"Anne's gone—I've lost her!" she wailed, as he came up.
"Anne's all right," said Stephen, and took her in his arms.
He had been luckier than he had thought. But there was something else that might have to be done, and he asked: "Where's daddy?"
"Daddy didn't come wiv us; we com't ourselves," she said.
This was enough for Stephen, who had been disturbed about Nixon. Speed was needful, and although he had some trouble to carry Dolly and his gun, he crossed the channel and went back to Anne. It would embarrass him to carry both children, but he pushed the gun through the net of his game-bag before he picked Dolly up again. Then, as they set off, a thick belt of fog rolled across the sand.
For a time Stephen tried to guide himself by the noise of the sea. He must keep the surf on his right, and after crossing the channel he would reach the Point, where the marsh ran out. The dull roar was nearer than he liked; but if he bore to the left, he might wander up the bay, which widened behind its mouth. Still, he knew the sands, and there would not be much risk when he reached the shore flats; the trouble was he could not find the channel. The fog was getting very thick, and rolled by in smothering grey waves.
The sweat began to run down Stephen's face. He was anxious and heavily loaded; but the geese were worth ten shillings, and it would be a long time before he could save enough to buy another gun. Besides, little Anne could not walk faster if he threw away his load. He went on, trying to comfort the children, and breathing hard while he listened to the advancing surf. He bore to the right and then to the left; but the sand ran on smooth and level, and there was nothing to indicate the slope to the gutter. The water would be getting deep, and soon the white-topped bore would sweep up the hollow. Still he could not find it. The surf was horribly loud, and he dreaded to see it glimmer in the fog. They were a mile from land, and tides run fast and rise high when the moon is full.
He was breathless, and Anne was crying from fatigue, when he stopped abruptly. A sharp report rolled across the waste, and he wondered who was shooting, since the water had driven the wild-fowl from their feeding-grounds. There was another report, and he thought he knew the noise. It was a larger gun than the usual 12-bore, and like his father's No. 10. But his father had kept the house for a week, because he could not walk. For all that, the fellow who had fired the shots was on the other side of the channel, and the noise was a guide. Stephen shouted, and heard the gun again.
He was nearly sure of its location, and ran forward, dragging little Anne. There was another report. He knew the shooter meant to guide him now, and presently something glimmered in the fog. He stopped at the edge of the water and put Dolly down while he got his breath. He could not see across, but drifting weed and flakes of scum showed how fast the current ran. Moreover, it was creeping up the bank, and he took Anne in his arms.
"You're heaviest," he said. "Don't be frightened—hold tight."
After a few moments he lost the bank, and the water rose to his waist and made confused eddies as it ran past. He could hardly keep his feet, and was sorry he had not left the geese and gun; but he could not get rid of them now, although, if the water got deeper, it would sweep him and the child away. It did not get deeper. The current slackened, and as he stumbled forward, he saw a shadowy figure on the bank. The figure ran to meet him with a cry, and he gasped as he put Anne into her step-sister's arms.
"Oh, Stephen!" she said, and kissed him. Then she asked: "Where's Dolly?"
"On the other side; I'm going back," he said, throwing down his load; and Alice clung to him for a moment and then let him go.
He could now move freely, but the water was deeper, and it would be a race to get across in time. On his way he fell into a hole and thought he would have to swim, and then gasped with relief as his feet touched bottom. One cannot swim far in waders and oilskins. He got across, and, seizing Dolly, threw her on his shoulder when he plunged in, and had afterwards only a blurred recollection of the last struggle. He was swept off his feet by swirling water, and nearly went under, but found bottom and staggered on again. For a few moments he was forced to stop for breath while the current foamed about his waist, and then the fierce rush slackened as the eddy revolved, and he made some ground. He could not speak when he came out, and Alice put her arms round him when he dropped the child. She was laughing and sobbing, but he did not know what she said.
Then Stephen pulled himself together and, picking up bag and gun, set off with Dolly, while Alice followed with Anne.
"I think I can find the Point, but we must be quick," he said hoarsely.
A few moments afterwards a dull roar came out of the fog, and Alice, glancing back, saw a broad white line stretched across the hollow. It passed and vanished, but there was an angry splash as the undermined bank went down, and glimmering water flowed across the sand. Alice urged the tired child, and caught her breath with a dry sob when they left the advancing flood.
"In another minute or two you would have been too late," she said.
"It doesn't matter now," Stephen answered rather gruffly, for he disliked emotional strain. "Perhaps Anne can tell us why your father let her and Dolly cross the sands alone."
Anne's story was confused, but Stephen understood that Nixon had taken the children to the inn and had stopped some time. He quarrelled with another man, and when they made a noise Anne got frightened and Dolly began to cry. They ran out, and, after wandering up and down in the cold, resolved to go home. Anne had crossed the sands before, and did not lose her way until the fog rolled up. Stephen, knowing Nixon's habits, imagined he would not miss the children, and would be incapable of looking for them if the landlady remarked that they had gone. He would stop at Langdivock until morning, as he often did. Alice agreed, and they pushed on for the Point, which they presently reached.
Next morning Nixon came home, repentant and badly alarmed. His head ached, his eyes were dull, and his face was haggard, but Mrs. Nixon went on with her occupation when he entered the kitchen. She owed her step-daughter and Stephen much, and had chosen her line.
"Where's t' bairns?" Nixon asked awkwardly.
"You ought to ken," his wife replied. "they went with you."
Nixon looked hard at her, and his voice was hoarse as he resumed: "Have they no come back?"
For a few moments Mrs. Nixon kept him in suspense. Then she said: "They're here, no thanks to you! Stephen and Alice found them wannering on t' sands, but he was nearly too late to bring them across big gutter."
"Stephen's a canny lad," Nixon remarked, and sat down limply, for he had borne some strain. "I've nowt against him except that he's oad Peter's son. Weel, I'll tak' a cup o' tea and gan off to bed."
"You will not," said Mrs. Nixon, who had conquered her fear of him and knew she must be firm. "You'll bide here and listen, my man. You're not fit to bring up children, and the bairns are mine. I've had enough o' slaving for a drunken brute, and I'll gan back to Langdivock, unless you give Alice her mother's money."
"Why does she want t' money?" Nixon asked, with a suspicious frown.
"So she can marry Stephen. Marshcote's to let, and agent will give him t' lease."
Nixon growled, but he was too dull and shaken by strain and liquor for rage. Besides, he saw his wife was resolute, and after some sullen grumbling he gave way.
"She can have t' money," he said, and added with a sour smile: "It's no' enough, and if they mean to get t' rest from oad Peter, they've a hard nut to crack. Noo give me some tea, and let me gan to bed."
He went off, and Mrs. Nixon admitted that the hardest fight was yet to come. Still, Alice's money would help, and Stephen was as obstinate as his father. He came in by and by, and, after they had made a plan, went back to Dryholm and stated his terms. Strachan, he argued, could not carry on the farm with the help of his herd. Wages were high, and he could not hire a man who would work and care for the land like his son. Marshcote was small, and with occasional help the two farms could be worked together. It was obvious that the plan had economical advantages. Stephen wanted two hundred pounds, which would be repaid, and, if he was refused, Alice and he would try their luck in Canada.
Strachan fought hard and used bitter words, but by and by saw that he was beaten.
"Weel," he said, "t' lass has pluck, and the warst I ken o' her is that she comes o' a bad stock. Hooiver, since they say t' lass and Andrew dinnot agree, mayhappen she will not want t' oad wastrel hanging aboot t' farm."
Stephen felt limp when he went out, for his father was a stern antagonist, and the victory had cost him much. He took Marshcote, and when Alice was married she wore a grey goose feather in her hat.