The Little Girl and Dering
THE night smelt of heat and of rotting fruit in the hold, and of tar that had sweated from the decks all day. From the bridge sky and sea were black as the pupil of the eye, and the fret of breakers on unseen reefs was all round the Lulu as she ran south before the light trade-wind. She was loaded to the taffrail with island stuff, and, by Ferguson's oath, anxiety had made the skipper "no a fit man to speak to."
Ferguson was first mate, and he had come down to the little saloon to deliver his opinions. The saloon was full of tobacco smoke and the odour of whisky, and of men who sat in their shirt-sleeves and drank pegs or quarrelled over cards at the centre table. Dering looked up as Ferguson burst in. He had a corner against the transom, and there he had smoked six pipes without speech. For Dering only, among the noisy cheerful men, was an alien, and the shibboleth of trade and shipping did not come easily off his tongue.
"A fog, is it?" he asked.
"There or thereabouts," said Ferguson. "The skipper's callin' it wuss. If we clear these reefs wi'out bumping, we'll do weel, I'm thinkin'."
From the table a fair-headed boy laughed. In the early hours of the evening Dering had seen him flirting earnestly with the only white girl aboard.
"What happens to the natives in a wreck, Ferguson?" he asked. "There are about thirty women for'ard, and I guess they could mix things up a few."
"Ah, dinna speak o' wrecks the night, man. This blank dark is ower near the real thing. What wad ye yersel' do in a wreck, Billy?"
The boy laughed again, scooping in his pile of matches.
"Do? Get out and walk, of course. Great Heavens, what's that?"
Every man was on his feet—white-faced, staring, speechless. Below them a shudder ran through the Lulu from bowsprit to stern. She heaved with a groan like a wounded animal, lurched as the trade caught her sideways, and then shrieked in all her timbers as the jagged reef tore the side out of her.
Dering was at the boy's elbow as the two leapt aft to the cabins.
"She's in Number Five," said the boy, thick in his throat. "We can get her out. We must! We——"
Dering bad never spoken to the only white girl on board, but he understood. Perhaps the instinctive chivalry of the Englishman told him.
"There are life-belts!" he cried. And then something swift and mighty and resistless took him under the arm-pits, swept him up to the low roof, where he ducked his head to take the impact on his arms, and drew him back and down in a roar of waters split through by the bursting of timbers and the shrieking of many voices.
Something cut at his shoulder as he went down, something struck him over the head. Desire to fight left him; the fierce struggle with straining lungs and eyes that saw red was past. And then the sea gave him back to life, and to the blowing of the spicy wind, and to the knowledge that under his hand floated something that he knew by the feel for a hen-crate. He crooked his knee over it and sat up. The night was black up to his eye-balls and silent as space without shape. It was as though Earth in her spinning had left him behind—alone in the void where no sight nor sound was.
Dering clung to the coop, and slowly understanding came back to him. Then he laughed—a laugh without any mirth in it.
"Me!" he said. "Me—out of them all! And Billy Hollan's gone, and the little girl he thought so much of. The powers that be love a joke!"
Across the water a voice called, thin and weak, Dering's start near loosed his hold on the wood. Then he sent a shout in answer, and forged toward the cry, pushing the coop with effort. A faint ripple of white showed on the dead black of the sea. The cry came again—near—on his left. Dering reached out, touched an oar, slid his hand along until it closed on the cold flesh of a slim wrist. Even in that moment he knew. It was the white girl whom Billy Hollan had gone to his death to save.
"Wait a minute," he said, and gripped her under the arm, and thrust the hen-coop between them. "Now!" he said, and pulled her up the swell of the boards. Then he put an arm about her tightly, across the waist, holding her up by the grasp of his twisted fingers in the bars.
"Oh!" said the girl in a long sobbing breath.
Her head was close at Dering's shoulder, and her wet hair swept his face as they rose and fell to the tide.
"It's all right," he said lamely. "Don't be frightened. We'll know what to do when it gets light."
"Yes," whispered the girl. And then there was silence. Dering was afraid. He knew the women of tears and hysterics, and he knew the slightness of his chances should the girl favour either. But she made no movement, no sound. Presently he felt the tearing strain on his arm lessen by more than half.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, and a little ghost of a laugh met the words.
"Hanging on for myself," said the girl. "Better, isn't it?"
"Rather!" said Dering, and then silence fell again.
To Dering the minutes were slow eternities charged with nothingness. The breath of the girl at his side, the warm weight of her against him, the lazy rock of the unseen sea, all were part of a dream that had neither end nor beginning, threat nor promise, hope nor fear.
The black lessened to grey, the grey to pearl. Faint light walked upon the waters, and to the man and the woman came dawn, pure and sure as a prayer. Dering took a fresh grip with his numbed fingers, and hoisted himself. And his first look was not on the girl beside him. From his level his eyes raked the horizon greedily, drew blank, and he jerked himself higher. A gleam of green palm-tops showed above the crest of a wave.
"Ah!" he said, and dropped back. Then he looked at the girl.
Her face was turned up to meet the coming day, and its glory of strengthening gold and rose-pink and opal was upon her. But the glory of earth was poor to the glory in her eyes and on her trembling mouth, and Dering looked away hurriedly. This girl's holy of holies was not for such as he to meddle with. Then he grew angry—with himself and with her.
"There's land of some sort ahead," he said. "We'd best try for it while our strength lasts. We are inside the reef, anyhow, for the sea is calm as a lagoon, and the sharks have let us alone so far."
Ten minutes later he staggered up the trend of the coral beach, dragged her after him, and fell on his face, exhausted. And when he sat up again, the girl was on her feet, wringing the water from her skirts. She was young and strong and very vivid with life; and she laughed out bravely at Dering, tossing her hair back from the rounded face.
"Do you know," she cried, "we've never been introduced? Why, I don't even know your name!"
"I know yours," said Dering. "Billy Hollan used to talk about you a lot."
A moment the girl stared at him with a sudden shock of realisation. Then she slid down on the coral, pressing her face in her hands.
"I forgot," she sobbed—"I forgot! Oh, tell me it isn't true! It can't be true! Oh, it is too terrible to be true!"
Dering stood up, kicking out each leg slowly to ease the stiffness.
"Your logic is rather weak," he said drily. "I have seldom found truth less terrible than falsehood."
"Then why were we saved?" cried the girl. "I'm no better than any of the others, and I don't suppose you are, either. Why were we the only two saved of them all?"
"Heaven knows, I suppose," said Dering. "I don't."
He turned on his heel, feeling a sudden hate of the girl and her tears, and began to make investigation of his island. It did not take long. He walked round it three times inside of twenty minutes, and then he stood still with his lips pressed together, looking out on the barren oily sea.
"A score stunted cocoa-palms with no fruit on them," he told himself, "no water—no undergrowth. A dozen more dabs within horizon-mark of equal merit with this—and that's all. The Lulu must have been clean off her course, for we should have raised the Santa Cruz group by now. Well, the Lord ha' mercy, for we're not likely to get much from man out here."
He went back to the girl, and she looked up at him, laughed, and pushed out her bare feet on the coral.
"I'm making believe that I'm paddling at Manly," she said. "I hadn't time to put anything on my feet—just jumped into the first dress I saw, and it's the biggest chance in the world that I didn't get in upside down. It must have belonged to one of those half-castes, too, for I never was fifty inches round the waist in my life."
Her lips were quivering and her eyes asked questions. But the gay words brought a throb of admiration to Dering's heart.
"She's game as a pebble," he told himself. "I wonder how women like her face death?"
And his soul sickened, because he knew that he would find out before long.
"Come back into the shade," he said; and there he dropped down beside her, looking away to the wash of the sea.
"I've been making an inventory of our assets," he said. "We have got some—er—some shade, and we—we've had a chance to come in out of the wet. I can't think of anything that we've gained by coming in just yet."
The girl held up her slim fingers, crooking them as she counted.
"Men are unimaginative animals," she cried. "Listen till I tell you. First, we've got our lives. Second, we've got our strength. Third, we've got palm-trees to cut down and eat. Fourth, we've got hope—heaps and heaps of it. Haven't we?"
The quick bird-like turn of the head caught him unprepared. She read what his face was saying. Then she leaned over, laying a hand on his.
"Don't," she said earnestly. "God saved us for some good reason. Don't you believe that? I couldn't think of all that happened last night and live if I didn't believe that. We have got to be glad we're alive. We have got to trust God in this. We have——"
Before his eyes her own dropped. She flushed.
"I—I didn't mean to try to—to teach you," she faltered.
Dering stooped his lips suddenly to the hand that lay over his. He had kissed the hands of women before this day, but never at the command of reverence as now.
"You dear, brave little girl!" he said gently. "Keep all your faith, for you'll need it."
The long morning flared to aching noon, burnt itself in ash of cinnamon and scarlet to night. Under the first stars the girl sat with Dering, looking into the last flushes of the afterglow.
"I've been chasing our patch of shade till I'm afraid of turning into a kitten chasing its tail," she confided. "But I could give points to any kitten living, for I always got the shade. Good thing I haven't shoes, isn't it? I'd be wearing them out so awfully quick."
Dering glanced down at the smudges of blood on her bare feet, and compunction hit him like a shut fist.
"Take mine!" he cried. "I never thought——"
The girl rocked in a fit of laughter.
"Number nine boots and a fifty-inch waist!" she cried. "Oh! And I get my frocks from England! Do say something else funny!"
"Funny!" said Dering. "Good Heavens!" Then the torture that had followed him all day spoke in his dried throat.
"Are you thirsty?" he asked.
The girl poked out her chin, drumming on her knee.
"Well," she said, "it's an experiment, and I always did love experiments. If it was possible to have this one without the skin peeling off my nose, I'd be just as glad, though. It makes me squint horribly, and I never admired squints much."
Dering slid the coral chips through his fingers in silence. Five times he had tried to scale the rough palm-boles for the crown of green cool leaves at the top. Then, in wrath and desperation, he had chipped the bark until his knife snapped. Now, strong man though he was, he could do nothing. And the spirit of this young brave-eyed girl was not his to thank God for. The stars were big in the purple plush of the sky. Somewhere a fish flopped, and the wet splash gave Dering a thought.
"I might get some fish," he said, and the girl crowed in delight.
"Good for you! We'll make lines out of my hair. Oh, this is going to be fun!"
Through the barren hours of the next day Dering fished. He found a quarter-inch crab for bait, and when that dropped off, he hacked a scrap of flesh from his forearm. But the day wore by, empty and merciless, and the laugh died on the girl's cracked lips, and the gay words came thickly off her swollen tongue. She asked Dering riddles, she told him stories, she fought him in clever argument, she gave him, frankly as a boy, the heads of her life-history, and it was in one sentence only, spoken after the second day's sun went down, that he understood how much she knew of what was coming.
"I've always been rather sorry for myself because I was alone," she said, "but now I'm glad. There is no one to care very much, you see."
"Same here," said Dering curtly. But his black brows drew together as he looked out on the crawling shadows.
The wind blew up cold, and carrying the spray sheer over the little island. Dering pulled off his coat, wrapping it round the girl, unheeding her indignation.
"Don't let me have to allow the whole palm of pluck to a woman," he said. "I'd give you more than my coat if you wanted it."
"I know," she said. And they sat without speech, with the ramp of the wind over their heads and the hiss of the rising sea behind them.
The wet salt-drops against his cheek and his lips were agony to Dering. He would have sold himself to an eternity of hell for a long shandy with ice at the brim. Suddenly the slim shoulder under his arm began to shake, and he heard the girl smother a sob.
"Don't," he said hurriedly—"don't! I—I can't stand that!"
Where his hand held the coat across her he felt the beat of her heart—the long gasp as she struggled for control. Then the brave spirit broke down for the time before the natural weakness of the woman.
"What's it going to be like?" she sobbed. "Will it hurt very much? Oh, I'm afraid—I'm afraid! Don't die first, will you? Promise me you won't leave me by myself. I couldn't bear it—indeed, indeed I couldn't!"
"I won't," promised Dering. "On my honour, I won't."
"But you mightn't be able to help it. Most women live longer than men. Statistics say so. Oh, I'm frightened—I'm frightened!"
The sobbing, piteous words tore Dering's heart open. He gathered her close.
"You're the bravest woman ever I knew," he said. "Be brave still. There's a chance yet. We can last a day or two longer, you know."
"Not if it's as hot to-morrow as it was to-day. I'm burnt dry right into the middle of me. I don't mind dying. But if it's very dreadful! Oh, is it very hard to die of thirst?"
"It won't be any worse than it is now," he said, and passed his tongue over his cracked lips before he could speak. "Perhaps it will be better. Let's pretend it will be, anyway. You're such a first-class hand at pretending."
"I've got to the end of my pretending now!" she sobbed. "It's all too real!"
"Poor little girl!" said Dering huskily. "Poor dear little girl!"
His arms were close round her. He bent his lips to her hair and kissed it. This swift complete break-up told him the high tension that had strained her courage so long. He felt her shiver as tie salt spray hissed by, and he tried to laugh.
"That's right," he said, "catch cold: it will help us keep cool to-morrow."
Her laugh was a ghost's echo of his.
"You're usurping my prerogative," she said. "I'm king's fool in this dominion."
"Am I king?" demanded Dering, in an eagerness that amazed him.
He heard her struggling with her sobs. Then she laughed again.
"A king without a subject! It's a barren honour. That reminds me of a riddle. What king came after Elizabeth?"
Dering dragged out three idiotic answers. He had forgotten past history, but he had not forgotten the future, and he knew that it was well that he and this girl, who was so little more than a child, should break their little jests bravely under the very shadow of death.
"I don't believe you know enough history to see the point," she told him. "It was Philip of Spain. He wanted to walk out with her, just as the gardener does with our parlour-maid."
"Even kings are not exempt from folly," said Dering in bitter remembrance.
"They wouldn't be kings if they were. I've seen several, and—I'm so sleepy——"
Her voice trailed to silence, and she slept. The tortures of bodily craving held Dering awake. He was a big, heavily built man, and the whole of him cried out most fiercely for food and drink.
"I wouldn't stand it if it wasn't for her," he muttered. "There's the sea again—or my knife! And anything's better than the thirst madness. But if I feel that coming The sweat sprang out on him in terror of the thought. His muscles contracted. The roaring in his ears, brought by weakness, grew loud, wild, rampant.
"God," he said, panting—and it was the first time that Name had come to his lips in prayer these many years—"God, not that! For her sake, not that! Keep me sane till the last—for her sake!"
The wind shrieked and tickled him with mocking fingers as it fled by. The boom of the surf sounded long and monotonous as a drum-roll. The stinging drops on his cheek were pure salt when he licked them off once.
"To-morrow must finish it," he said. "To-morrow——"
And then his head fell forward, and the stupor of exhaustion cradled him until the sun was high and cruel over them again.
Through the next day they spoke but little. Suffering had brought them into close understanding, and endurance taken together was welding their souls unknowingly. Once Dering got up and staggered to the furthest cocoa-nut tree, and struggled fiercely to climb its fifty-foot bole, until his clothes were ripped and the blood spurted from his hands. Then he went back and saw her kneeling with face up and hands shut together.
He turned, stumbled to the beach, flung himself down, with hands gripping the rough coral, and fought through his Gethsemane of rebellion in all the savageness of a caged animal. Then he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he sat up. And under her eyes his dried lips mumbled apology.
"I can't take it like you." he said. "For myself, perhaps, but not for you. It's too cruel—too cruel!"
Her face was drawn into deep lines, and blackened and skinned by the sun, her swollen lips cracked to bleeding, and she tottered as she walked. But the Power that is greater than man's power shone in her eyes, and Dering knew again that Billy Hollan's "grand little girl" had a bigger grip on the infinities of life than he himself.
She slipped down on the coral beside him, putting her parched hand on his.
"It can't be much longer," she said, "and it has been worth while. You told me long ago—right at the beginning—that you'd never done much good with your life. You have justified yourself now. I needed you, and you've given me what I needed."
"God knows—if I could have given you more!" he cried.
She looked at him with the frank trustful eyes of a child.
"I was so lonely," she said. "I could never be lonely again, now that I have once known you. I didn't know men were so kind and so thoughtful and so unselfish, and—and——"
Dering's head went round. A blazing sense of glory was about him; his thinned blood quickened in his veins.
"Why not tell her?" he said in his throat. "Why not? Nothing matters now, and she knows I care."
He drew her to him and told her what she knew, thickly, hoarsely, in words that were born of the man's soul and of the torture that was burning him. Then they crawled back to the patch of shade, and lay there; and she slid into the stupor of utter exhaustion with a smile on her little pinched face, and Dering got up and staggered round the island, driven by the whips of his suffering.
It was from the far side of the island that he saw the faint blot of smoke on the horizon, saw a black hull rise, saw, sunk on his knees and praying with every quivering nerve of his body, the big ocean tramp loom up, big and bigger, on the level floor of the sea. Nearer she came, and more near. The sharp coral-trash cut Dering's knees as he knelt; the sun, flaring out of a speckless sky, poured over the little dab of coral rock and bleached earth and grey drooping palms. But Dering heard only the truth that battered his brain with triumphant shouts.
"She's been told to keep a watch for the Lulu, She's come from Santa Cruz, and she guesses—— She's standing close in! Oh, God——"
It was four days later that he came up on the deck of the great tramp steamer, to see the headlands and the lights of Santa Cruz villages shining through the mirk of cool evening. The burly second officer stopped him with a jolly laugh.
"Almighty glad to see you!" he cried. "That little girl of yours is aft under the awning. We tied her down fur fear she blow away wi' the draught. But she's goin' to pull through. Yes, her pluck'll pull her through all right."
He passed on, and Dering hesitated. His face was gaunt yet, and his chest seemed sunken. The suffering that had been in his eyes on the island was there still, although the reason for it had changed. Suddenly he flung up his head, swung round, and walked down the deck. She was there, in a corner, made cosy with rugs and awnings and books. The officers and men of the ocean tramp knew well when they entertained royalty.
There was none of the eager frank greeting he had looked for, but he understood. Here, in the world again, she had withdrawn behind the reserve of her maidenhood. She was a woman to be wooed and won as a woman—a woman to whom he must plead as man.
He dropped into the chair next her, looking away to the purple, shimmering sea. The few civil questions were asked and answered. Then he said—
"I'm awfully glad to have the chance to see you alone for a few minutes. We'll be into Santa Cruz before long, and there won't be much hope of it after that, I expect. I get off there, and I suppose you go straight on to Sydney."
He heard the creak of her chair as she moved. He stared at the sea.
"Yes," she said quietly.
"The skipper tells me a boat leaves for Fiji to-morrow," said Dering. "I must catch it. My wife's down in Fiji, and she'll probably have heard of my death by now. I've got to go along and prove an alibi, you know."
In the two seconds of silence that followed, every drop of blood in his body seemed driven to Dering's throat. The lump there swelled until it almost choked him. Her voice came without a shake in it.
"How very glad she will be to see you!"
"Yes," said Dering.
He sat still, with hand clinched on his knee and his lower lip bitten. He had come to the end of all that he meant to say, but temptation was tugging at him with wire ropes.
"Better she should think me a cad," he was telling himself. "She'll forget me the sooner, and pride will help her."
The girl at his side made no movement. Dering half turned to her, driven by an impulse too strong for him. But he dared not lift his eyes. Then he got up, raised his cap, and walked aft to the very stern, where the phosphorus spread out in a wide fan of shimmering cruel light.
Dering leaned on the rail, and the fiery trail which both the boat and himself were leaving struck to his mind the memory of some words of Browning's. He said them half aloud, staring on the play and quiver of the light—
"There may be Heaven, there may be hell,
Meanwhile there is our life here. Well?"
A heavy hand slapped his shoulder, a big voice roared in his ears.
"Dering! Bless my soul, it's Dering! How are you, man? How are you? Haven't seen you this—how long is it? Blest if I can remember!"
Dering turned sullenly.
"Four years," he said. "How are you, Mallock? Where are you from?"
"New York, last. I say, old man, I was dead sorry to hear about your wife. I was that."
Dering's face whitened, and his nostrils drew in.
"That's a subject I don't discuss with anyone," he said.
"What in the nation—— Well, if I heard a man's wife was dead——"
Before voice and face the burly man staggered back.
"Why—why——" he stammered. "You knew she was dead, I s'pose?"
Dering controlled himself.
"She left me two years ago, and I haven't heard of her since. When did she die?"
"Oh, I say! I—I never——"
"Last winter—in Vancouver. But, I say, I was sure you'd a-known——"
But Dering spun round on his heel, and the burly man heard his quick tread up the deck to the corner where a little brave-eyed girl looked out on the murmuring sea.