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THE ANCIENT GRUDGE

 

I

"A HERO—ALWAYS"

A wide, white beach ran for a quarter of a mile from a rocky promontory to a point covered with trees. Here and there, through the fringe of pine woods, houses, white and red, thrust their gables; the windows of these caught the blaze of the afternoon sun that was now withdrawing inland. But the beach was so wide that the shadows from the woods had not yet reached and dulled the bright crowd assembled on the sand. People had gathered from all along this part of the Massachusetts shore to see the Chester Water Carnival.

Out upon the raft, fifty yards from shore, a diving-tower was built, tall and slender. The boy who was the first to climb it knelt for a moment when he reached the top. Then, having steadied himself, he rose and stood erect. The sun glistened kindly on his yellow hair, on his wet arms raised above his head; as he stood straight and still, he formed the last mark against sea and sky, and he had a gracefully heroic quality, which appealed to the women and girls. The other boys upon the raft looked up at him; everybody looked at him.

With a spring so light that no one quite recognized the movement with which it was made, he shot out through the air, arching with a perfect curve the space from tower to sea. Slim as a greyhound in the leap, he cut the water gently and then rose to the surface in time to hear the pattering applause.

He had drawn himself up again on the sunny raft when another of the swimmers climbed the tower to dive. This was a black-haired, thick-set boy; standing on the top, he presented a sturdy but not a gracefully heroic figure. And he did not start vibrating the sympathetic nerve in the women and girls.

Suddenly he gathered himself and leaped with clumsy but impetuous power. At the height in mid-air, giving a frog-like kick, he straightened out and descended into the water with arrowy calmness. There was applause for that, too, but diving deep, he did not arise to hear it; and the clapping was of a careless kind and dwindled before his head emerged.

The boy with the yellow hair took a low, shooting dive from the raft and came up close to the judge's rowboat, which was moored near by. He addressed not the judge but the girl sitting in the stern.

"May I come in, Lydia?"

"You will be so messy," she objected.

Without regarding this protest, he paddled round to the bow and climbed aboard. The girl's face showed an ingenuous satisfaction; the judge, a young man in white flannels, said, without taking his eyes from the raft,—

"I could n't give you a prize now if I wanted to, Stewart. It would n't look right."

"I'm letting this event go by default," Stewart anwered.

"Why?" asked the girl.

"I did my best first thing."

"Floyd Halket beat you by six feet."

"Yes, that's why I'm stopping."

"Lydia," said the judge patiently, "would you just as soon ask your young friend to come over into the stern with you? He is very distracting."

Stewart changed his position with alacrity, and sitting in the bottom of the boat at the girl's feet, he embraced his bare knees with his bare arms.

"You ought to be ashamed to sit there," she said, "when all the others are going on!"

"Yes, they 're turning somersaults and things, are n't they?" he answered placidly. "I don't do those stunts."

"Floyd Halket does them beautifully."

"Yes. It seems—well, don't you think—not quite refined?"

He spoke with a twinkle in his eyes, and so she forgave him and laughed. She was of about the same age as the boy, seventeen or eighteen, perhaps, a brown, out-of-door-looking girl, with a ripened autumnal color and with dark hair that was now being blown forward about her temples. There was a merry, reckless light in her gray eyes, and pleasure-loving laughter seemed always perching on her lips.

"Of course," she said, "it's much more dignified to dive only once and be the most perfect, graceful thing that ever was."

"Well," Stewart answered comfortably, "so long as you thought I was that."

"And yet," she continued, "I hate to see anybody give a thing up because he's beaten."

"I have n't given up," he answered. "I'm only saving myself for the swim under water."

"Good gracious, you stand no chance at all in that! Why, Floyd Halket simply lives under water."

"Oh, Floyd Halket!" He spoke wearily. "Who is he, anyway? Does n't he come from your town?"

"Yes, of course; you must have heard of the Halket Steel Mills. Where have you lived all your life?"

"Funny how he learned to swim so well in that inland place!"

"As if all the good swimmers lived on the Massachusetts coast!"

"It does n't seem right for a fellow to turn up here for just a part of a summer, go into the water sports, and beat everybody that's been coming to Chester for years."

"You Bostonians"—she liked to tease him with the term—"make me wonder sometimes why I'm allowed here. And yet you are really very nice.—Oh, Bob, what is that crazy boy going to do?"

She appealed to her cousin, the judge. Floyd Halket had climbed up for his last performance; the other contestants had all dropped out; and now he stood, nearly thirty feet in air, balancing, glancing over his shoulder at the spot where he meant to make his plunge. He was evidently preparing for a backward dive, and that, from such a height, was a bolder thing than any that the others had dared to try.

On the beach tle little fluttering movements in the crowd were stilled, and the light sound of talk and laughter was hushed. Backward the boy went with a whirl, and as before he seemed to straighten out in mid-air and drop slenderly. Applause volleyed for a perfect dive.

"He wins," said Bob Dunbar, the judge, to Stewart. "Now, then, it's time for you fellows to get ready for the swim under water." He picked up his megaphone and spoke through it, ordering those who had entered for this contest out to the raft. Stewart stood up to jump overboard.

"Do you think you will win?" asked Lydia.

"Do you want me to win?" he answered.

"Suppose I said yes?"

"Then I'll do it or stay down till I bust."

She laughed in mild derision.

"Oh, I'll show you," he cried indignantly, and leaped far out so that he might not splash her.

"Do you think he has the least chance of winning, Bob?" she asked her cousin.

"Not the least."

She sighed twice, but her cousin had an uncomforting habit of silence.

There were only six to start in the race. When they stood in a row along the edge of the raft, ready for the dive, Bob Dunbar called out the final instructions. "Are you ready?" he cried, and he raised his pistol and fired. The six figures flashed and splashed into the smooth water; the crowd on the beach gave a surge of interest; Bob Dunbar and his cousin leaned over the edge of their boat, peering along the surface.

"Will any of them get out as far as this, Bob?" asked Lydia.

"One or two, maybe; it's about the limit. Hello! There's Halket."

He pointed to the figure gliding smoothly a foot below the surface. Lydia gazed with fascination. "He moves like an automaton,—almost as if he were n't alive," she murmured. "Oh, look at Jack Folsom!" and she laughed as a red face popped above the surface and settled, gasping, to its chin.

"There!" cried Lydia. "There! It's Stewart! See, Bob, it's Stewart!" She leaned out over the gunwale; her cousin, on the watch for other emerging heads, paid little attention and did not see that Stewart was beginning to turn round under water with a slow, lifeless stroke. If he had seen, he would have known that something was wrong, that the boy was in a daze, and was staying down with a confused and obstinate effort of will. Lydia, not understanding, was amused. "Why, the idiot boy! He's swimming in circles! I'm going to jab him!" And she caught up an oar and poked the blade into the water. Instantly the lips on which a laugh seemed always perching were transfixed with terror; the oar slashed down below the surface in her limp grasp.

"Bob!" she cried. "He's gone down! He's gone—I don't see him—oh, quick. Bob, quick!"

"Where?" Her cousin stared at her blanched face.

"There—right there." She put her strength frantically to the oar and raised it till only the tip of the blade touched the surface.

Bob Dunbar was unfastening his shoes. From the shore came the patter of applause, and he glanced up, hoping for one wild moment that it might be for Stewart's appearance. But it was Floyd Halket's head emerging a half-dozen yards beyond the other swimmers that had drawn the applause. Bob Dunbar stood up in the stern and dove overboard. And at that there was another cheer from the crowd and a ripple of laughter; they appreciated the judge's dive, in his white trousers and pink shirt, as a clownish jest, the climax to the afternoon's entertainment, and they were amused.

"Mr. Halket!" The cry came sharp and imploring from the girl's lips.

Just then her cousin emerged gasping; he caught his breath. "Halket! Jack! Stewart Lee's gone down!"

He seized the gunwale of the boat; Floyd Halket was swimming up with powerful overhand strokes; Jack Folsom was already clambering in over the stern.

"There—right where the oar touches," said Lydia; she had taken her cousin's seat and was holding the oars.

Her voice quivered and hurried upon the last words, and there was no longer any light or color in her face; the strands of hair blown about it by the breeze made it seem all the more stark and desolate. But she was trying to keep the boat steady, even while her eyes marked the spot where Stewart had gone down.

Jack Folsom sprang from the thwart, drenching her with the splash; instantly Floyd Halket crawled aboard and stood up ready to follow. And now there was a confused outcry from the people on shore, who after the first laughter had stood in puzzled silence. From some one came a loud shout, "What's happened?" Then fell the stillness of suspense; and when there was no answer, the cry broke from many voices, imperious and insistent. Another rowboat was drawing near. Bob Dunbar crawled in beside Lydia and caught up the megaphone. Jack Folsom came up, shaking his head, and Floyd Halket dove.

"It's Stewart," Bob Dunbar called through the megaphone to the approaching boat. "Bow ashore, Steve; tell them we'll get him."

The boat turned; another, in which were two boys, was approaching. There came from the shore a woman's piercing cry, "Where's Stewart? I don't see Stewart!"

After that there was silence.

Lydia could not bear the anguish of that cry; she turned her face imploringly toward the shore. And then she saw a woman in a white dress start from the crowd and run forward wildly. Two men sprang out and stopped her, and began leading her away.

"Don't look," Floyd Halket said to Lydia. "Just keep the boat steady. You other fellows get into that boat." He pointed to the one which had drawn near. "We can't all do this; Folsom and Blair and I will take turns."

Then, as Blair's head reappeared above the surface, he jumped, and Lydia braced with her oars while the boat rocked.

"If I were only of some use!" groaned Dunbar. "These clothes!"

"It's all eel-grass," Jack Folsom said. "If a fellow goes down into that—to the bottom—"

Floyd emerged and swam up with great lunging strokes.

"Could you see him?" Blair asked, and Floyd shook his head. Then Folsom jumped.

"We'll have to go into the eel-grass to get him," Blair said.

"I think so," Floyd answered. He pulled himself up and into the boat. "The stuff's thick; the only chance is to go in."

Lydia hardly heard the words; they were subdued to the endless, hopeless reiteration of her unspoken thought, "He is drowned by now—he is drowned by now." She was dizzy and faint, but with a sense of her dreadful responsibility she clung to the oars and did not move her steadfast eyes from the small circle of water beneath which she knew that Stewart lay.

Folsom came up from a dive. "I don't dare," he panted. "The eel-grass—the slimy stuff against my face—it choked me. If Stewart were alive—but—but now I don't dare."

Floyd spoke to Lydia.

"Will you tell me exactly where he went down?"

"The boat's moored," Lydia answered. "I've tried not to let it swing. He must be there—just there. He went down—straight."

She had not moved her eyes; they were resting on the small circle of water that she defined with her oar; and her voice was light and quivering.

Floyd filled his lungs, fixed with his eyes the place where he must strike, and made his dive. Swimming headlong down, he crushed with all speed into the mass of slimy plants. They brushed across his face, forcing him to close his eyes; they wrapped themselves about his arms, his body, his legs with cold, leisurely cruelty; but he kept crowding on his way. Then his hands touched bottom and gripped the tough stalks, and he opened his eyes.

The light was dim among the waving grasses; he could see only for a few inches, and then the mat grew tight and held its secret. His breath was leaving him fast; he turned his head, and there at his hand, face down as he had sunk, lay Stewart.

Floyd seized him under the arms and tried to raise him, but in his death grip he was clutching the tough fibres of the grass. Going upon his knees, Floyd tried to loosen the grip, but his fingers, working in a frenzy, were powerless. In desperation he raised the body, thrust a shoulder under it, and heaved. The strands of eel-grass were uprooted; Floyd clutched a fold of Stewart's bathing-suit, and with breath struggling in his throat tried to force a way up through the weeds. Once off the bottom, he thought he had won the fight; but the mass clung and tripped his legs, and the muscles in them ached as he struggled to mount upward. If a cramp should seize him now! But his head and shoulders were free at last; he tightened his grip on Stewart's shirt, for his breath was going and his brain was reeling; he swam frantically up and up and up, with the light growing and bursting before his face, yet with water always covering him; his breath was gone, and he opened his mouth on what had been a groan if the water had not rushed in to strangle it. And then, coughing, gulping, he was on the surface, within reach of Lydia's oar; he caught it and dragged Stewart's face to the air, and there he hung, gasping, and seeing only the blurred outlines of the faces in the boat. Folsom and Blair jumped overboard and took Stewart from him; the other rowboat darted up, and the boys lifted in the lifeless body and then made for shore.

Floyd crawled into the boat with Bob Dunbar and Lydia, and curled himself up in the stern, dripping and silent; his chest heaved painfully and his arms and legs were trembling.

"Let go the mooring. Bob," Lydia said; "I'll row;" and she bent to the oars. Floyd struggled up to a sitting posture and gazed over her shoulder; they were carrying Stewart up the beach.

"Oh, if you could only have got him the moment he went down!"

The girl's passionate exclamation echoed Floyd's own passionate wish. But he answered,—

"Perhaps—sometimes—they bring drowned people to life."

He glanced at her face, but it admitted no comfort or hope; tragic, desolate, cold with grief, it seemed denied even the relief of tears. Floyd dropped his eyes and watched her slender brown wrists as she pulled resolutely on the oars, and was aware of the little feet set sturdily against the braces.

Bob Dunbar said,—

"You did a mighty fine thing, Halket, to get him at all!"

"Oh, you did!" Lydia cried, "I did n't mean—" She choked for a moment, and turned her head away, still pulling on the oars. When she looked again at Floyd, there were tears on her cheeks, and her face, though utterly sad, seemed softened in its grief. "I did it—I pushed him down," she said. "That was why I spoke so—one reason why—"

She could not finish; she looked away again; and in another moment the boat ran on the sand. Lydia stepped ashore and then stood undecided.

"Come home, Lydia," said her cousin.

"Yes," she answered, "but—please find out first, Bob."

Here and there along the beach, little detached groups of women and girls stood, waiting, withdrawn some distance from a larger gathering of men. Toward this Bob Dunbar and Floyd Halket started running; one of the men was turning away, and seeing them shook his head.

"No hope?" asked Bob. And again the man, whose face was very grave, shook his head. Bob turned back, and Floyd saw him lead Lydia away.

He himself drew near the intent gathering. He noticed that several of the men were in their shirt-sleeves, and vaguely he wondered why. Then he found himself in the circle, gazing at Stewart, who lay stripped to the waist, stretched on his back; a man stood over him, chafing him with a rough towel; a young doctor, with his coat off, knelt at the boy's head and was moving his arms up and down, up and down, making his chest heave almost as if he were alive. A roll of coats was under the boy's shoulders, so that his chest should be elevated and his lungs expanded. But stark and staring-eyed he lay; and it seemed to Floyd almost gruesome that this lifeless body should be put through such exercise and caused to assume such mockery of life. And then, gazing at the handsome face and slim, straight form, he felt a thickening in his throat and turned away. Some one was rolling a barrel along the sand toward the crowd.

Floyd had seen enough; chilled and shivering, he ran to his bath-house, a hundred yards up the beach, rubbed himself down, and dressed. When he had put on his shoes, he sat down on the narrow bench of the bath-house. "Why could n't I have got him sooner!" he murmured; "why could n't I!" He added, after a moment, "And to think of his mother—and that girl—how that girl must feel!"

There came a knock on his door. "You there, Halket?"

He recognized the voice as Folsom's, and let the boy in. "Have they given up yet?" he asked.

"No, but pretty nearly," Folsom answered. He leaned against the wall. "You have n't got a comb, have you?" And then, without waiting for a reply, he said, "Is n't it awful! Halket, he was the best fellow I knew."

"Yes," said Floyd. "I liked him."

They went out upon the beach in silence, and stood for a moment looking toward the ominous circle of men. Suddenly it broke, a hat was flung into the air, and there was a cheer. The two boys ran breathlessly forward. A man, hurrying away, rushed up to them with his face all aglow; he seized Floyd's hand.

"He's alive!" he cried. "You've done the most splendid thing!"

Floyd, with his heart pounding, hurried on. As he approached, men rushed to meet him, crowded around him, grasping his hand, congratulating him, with emotion in their voices; he pressed on through them and looked for Stewart, but saw only the shining face of the young doctor, bending over a roll of blankets.

"He's unconscious yet, but breathing," some one whispered to him. "He'll pull through."

Floyd stood dazed with happiness, hearing nothing of the fine things that his clustering admirers were saying. Suddenly he broke away from them and ran, with but one thought, "I must tell Lydia Dunbar; she will be so glad." But the news had been spreading and was still spreading before him, faster than he could run; boys and men were speeding up the beach, and off through the woods. Floyd plunged into the woods path toward the Dunbar cottage, and came face to face with Lydia; she was hurrying back to learn if the word that some one had cried out to her was true. She looked at Floyd; her lips began to tremble, and there was the radiance of happy tears in her eyes. The hand that she gave Floyd was as cold as the sea.

"You will be a hero—always," she said.

She had pronounced Floyd's doom.