BETWEEN DEVIL AND DEEP SEA.
"O well for him who has a friend,
Or makes a friend where'er he comes,
And loves the world from end to end,
And wanders on from home to home."
Tennyson, The Wanderer.
The doctor stepped ashore at Plymouth a restored man. He spoke that same night to an immense audience assembled in the matchless Guildhall, from whose pictured windows the early settlers of England looked down.
Speeding by train through hedge-bound fields, beneath ancestral oaks and elms, across the garden of England— the fairy-land of Devon—winding beside gleaming sands, beneath beetling cliffs, he paused at length as in a dream—the joy of which only the exile knows—at his native vale of Dawlish.
A lump was in the wanderer's throat, as, perfect stranger, he mounted the sloping hill to right, and gazed on the well-remembered lineaments of the vale that pours its beauties on to the rock-sentinelled sands. He crossed the valley and ascended the embowered hill opposite, moving solemnly, as over the graves of ancestors and relics of early youth, to the old church amongst the trees, out by the lych-gate to the rectory, reposing, as when first he awoke to consciousness of being, beneath the giant trees in that fairy hollow.
He dare not move forward. His heart was too full for speech with strangers, where parents' voices, long since hushed, had so lovingly sounded. There hour after hour he sat, envying the passing farmer and rustic children, who, seeming not to realize that they dwelt in a paradise upon earth, eyed him curiously.
When the warm beams of the July sun were beating life into the decaying walls of old Exeter, he passed, one Sunday morning, up the well-remembered winding hill from the station to the Close in which stood the ancient Norman pile. Under its time-scarred portal, from whose countless niches the sculptured figures had departed—as had the faces he once knew from the streets—alone in the venerable nave he knelt as in another world. On more than one great tablet of brass he read the names of school-boy chums, fallen in battle, or distinguished in State.
Slowly he moved in London, lost in its crowds; out to the docks, where college-mates, who had promised to impress the age, spent their lives in a desert of vice and crime that gathers around the great store-houses of the world.
Into the Black Country, seeking vanished faces, he wandered, where strong men stalked the street craving work that, half the year, never came. Thinking of scenes afar, of thousands of unpeopled miles in his adopted country, wasting for lack of people to till it, his heart sank within him. Gaunt-looking men, vouched for by clergy and employers, followed him, as he moved from thronged halls in which he had been telling of the resources of the lands across the sea. Eager trembling voices begged—
"Oh, sir, for God's sake help us! Take us to where is hope and work."
These faces haunted him. Long he conferred with early friends, now in authority, but ever with the same result.
England would keep her battalions of abjects, that she might have a ragged army from which to select her underpaid hirelings.
"If you take the best, we must pay higher wages to the worst," they argued.
So, for the sake of gain, masters clung to their shivering, starving slaves, and cried—
"After us the Deluge. Though the great arising come, please God it be not in our time." Meanwhile they held to cheap labour and abundance to choose from, in the course of the infernal barter of flesh and blood for wage.
From Victoria Street, Westminster, came the echo of an equally coward cry across the sea—"If these men come to the Island' Continent that a handful hold, then our monopoly fails, our wages fall."
So between the grasping ones who would keep and the greedy ones who would not have, our doctor beat his wings against the iron bars of a hideous custom in which he found himself enclosed. None dared help him open up a highway between the landless people and the unpeopled lands of a world-embracing empire of lust and greed.
"One day," he remarked to some, whose appeals rang long in his ears as he afterwards moved in bright, distant scenes, "one day I may return, and thousands of you, carefully gathered, shall be borne away, in fleets bringing cheapened food, to rich unpeopled lands of yours across the sea."
In Europe and America plans were matured for disposal of produce, plant was procured, agents appointed, methods observed, and again the good ship turned her prow from American ports towards the lands across the Pacific, where the long roll of southern seas beat out their music on illimitable Austral shores.
The demon that accompanied Elms urged him more strenuously as the Mimosa glided each day two hundred miles nearer home. Would nothing happen?
Of the flight of his daughter from home, Malduke had given an account calculated to arouse resentment against the Courtenays and so against the doctor. Again and again, at a critical moment, the demon of passion and greed prompted him to stretch out a hand that would have consigned his master to eternity. A special Providence seemed to hedge him round.
While the good doctor was engaged reviewing business transactions, the Sergeant, to drown his care, betook himself to drink. Not until Elms was on the verge of delirium did Dr. Courtenay observe his condition.
One evening, when between fever and drink the Sergeant was wandering in mind, the doctor was surprised to find him, half-dressed in his cabin, poring over a document taken from his trunk. Standing unperceived at the door, the doctor heard him muttering: "If anything happens him the place is mine. Only I must destroy this Will, as we did that other. Dick Malduke's not here, the devil that he is, to clap it into a tin and hold it as a witness against me. There it goes," cried the lunatic, as, crushing the document, he flung it almost at the doctor's feet.
Something in the texture and colour of the paper caused Dr. Courtenay to pick up the paper hurriedly. What was his surprise to discover one of the testamentary forms that he had left, as he thought, in his safe at Mimosa Vale! Meanwhile the Sergeant had rolled himself muttering into his bunk.
When the fever had abated and the stores of intoxicants that were discovered had been removed, the man rapidly recovered. The doctor, much perplexed by what he had heard, spoke to the Sergeant on the subject. His reply was evasive.
"That settles it," declared Elms with an oath. "God knows what I may not have said, how much he knows. He's such a cool customer you never can tell what information he possesses. Now at any rate he shall not return."
The excessive heat that had contributed to unsettle the Sergeant's mind, culminated in a thunderstorm and hurricane that, as in an instant, whipped the placid ocean into fury. The one possible course was to run before the wind. The tight little craft was, virtually, battened down, mountains of waters hurled themselves after her, as if seeking to overtake and overwhelm the scudding bark. Now and then a mighty wave would break on the quarter, causing the vessel to tremble like an affrighted steed, sweeping the deck fore and aft. The engine fires were extinguished, only the remnants of foresail and mainsail sufficed to keep her on her course. The howling of the winds and thud of the waves were broken only, all through a dreadful night, by the hoarse cries of the captain on the bridge, giving directions, or by the crash of rigging falling about the deluged deck.
Elms, not yet fully recovered from his fever, tormented by a guilty conscience, cowered in his bunk in an agony of fear.
"Good God!" he cried, "save me from this death, and I will yet be an honest man."
The doctor, as the lurching of the ship and shifting of movable fittings permitted, proceeded calmly with the calculations with which he had proposed to pass the spare hours of the voyage.
His mind, however, would wander onward to scenes he had hoped he was nearing. Again he stood on the quay, felt the pressure of loving hands, those from whom he seemed so long to have been parted. Above the tumult of the elements he almost seemed to hear his daughter's voice singing, as so often before, 'Rocked in the cradle of the deep.' He hummed the familiar tune to the accompaniment of his hand on the empty saloon table. A smile settled on his countenance. "Soon," he mused, "we shall be there, if it is to be; if not, all is well."
He was awakened from his reverie, not an unpleasant one, by the shouting of officers, scrambling of slippery feet upon the treacherous deck, and, above all, by the cry ringing from end to end of the bounding vessel, "Breakers ahead."
"Ah," he murmured, "the end of the voyage may be near. It will have to come some day. I can do no good on deck." He looked at his watch. "Five o'clock; thank God we have daylight," he said.
"Make ready the boats," was shouted down the companion way. A wave of spent water followed and swept along the floor of the saloon: In a moment all hands were on deck. The dark outline of a cliff was looming out of the morning haze. To right and left, a mile or so away, the waves were hurling themselves scores of feet high, against two low headlands. These were the extremities of a small island towards which the vessel was running. The captain was evidently seeking to round the nearer of these points that lay to the starboard.
The dullest landsman's eye could recognize that there was but small chance of passing that cruel cliff.
Within an encircling ridge of rock lay comparatively calm water and a shelving beach. Hurled on that outer wall of coral, however, no man could hope for escape to the palm-clad slopes that seemed, tantalizingly, to offer an arbour of repose, "so near and yet so far." The doctor secured himself, as directed, upon the bridge beside the captain.
After a while it was evident that the agile craft, answering splendidly as she was to the helm, though almost broadside to the tempest, could never round the bluff or escape to the open sea.
"Let her run," shouted the captain, seeming to think that, dashed high on the outer rocks, some might be hurled over the bar into the calm beyond. As the doomed vessel flew, as if relieved to have the strain withdrawn and the matter settled, towards the cruel rocks, the breakers that were dashing scores of feet high above the bar revealed how slender was the hope of one man escaping to tell the tale of the last of the Mimosa. The line of breakers, stretching two miles in each direction, dead ahead, seemed but a hundred yards off. For one second the captain grasped the doctor's hand as he passed, with eyes, still staring into the yeasty Maelstrom before them.
"We've done our best, doctor. This is the end of it."
"No good ends," replied the other calmly.
The next second the captain started, as if struck. "Hard aport!" he suddenly shouted. That moment a narrow opening through the bar, seemingly no broader than the vessel's width, presented itself. To the last, like British seamen, all had stood at their posts. Round whirled the wheel, about sprang the ship as though understanding what was being done. The hungry waves to the starboard dashed themselves on the rocks that the mainyard almost touched as it passed. A huge wave lifted the fragile Mimosa on its breast, and just in the nick of time, turning the vessel, as with unseen hands, fairly hurled her through the narrow opening.
A cheer, such as Englishmen alone can raise, even when death stares them in the face, rang out above the Titanic thudding of the breakers claiming their prey. The little vessel glided across calm waters within the bar.
"If the lagoon runs round clear to the lee, we need not even beach her," the captain exclaimed. In a few moments, as it seemed, the inner point was rounded, and, sheltered by the island-rock, in perfect calm the gear-strewn vessel lay.
Those who have battled a week on the Indian Ocean against the stiffest monsoon, spray painting white with salt the topmost ring of the leviathan's rolling funnel, to glide in an instant into still waters beneath the welcome cliffs of Socotra; those who, after three months' voyage, having been hurled at last, by the storm with which Australian shores often welcome the wanderer, within the overlapping, precipice-gates of Sydney harbour, to find its bosom without a ripple, the flowers in the gardens of Watson's Bay scarce bending to the breeze; those who have looked sudden death in the face, in a moment surveying all the voyage of life and conjuring up last fleeting pictures of blanched, praying ones at home—only they can estimate the feelings with which the small crew of the Mimosa dropped anchor in the calm lagoon, and lowered boats to reconnoitre the garden-isle that had threatened, so nearly, to mark the scene of their watery graves.
We may not stay to tell of pleasant rambles about the azalea groves and live-oak clumps of Walpole Island. It was quite uninhabited, being, as the captain explained, outside the beaten tracks of commerce, that follow one marked highway as closely as if buoys floated at every knot. It was removed, too, from the Polynesian groups, he showed, and was too small to maintain a population of its own.
"Woe betide," continued the skipper, "the trader marooned or sailor cast away on this lonely isle! A year he might wait the passing of some craft, swept, like ourselves, out of its course. A canoe driven to sea from the distant islands might land here for water and cocoanuts; but the visitors would, most likely, gobble up the marooner, if he were not too utterly starved to be toothsome."
These remarks impressed the benevolent doctor. Ere they weighed anchor, after a few pleasant days' repose, a supply of stores was landed and stowed away in a cave that was duly walled up. Directions were inscribed on a board beside the beach.
When a last visit was made to the island by the doctor, accompanied by Elms, together with the first mate and apprentice, Doctor Courtenay further supplemented the provision made for any possible castaway by flinging into the cave a tomahawk, a few rough tools, a gun and ammunition, fishing-lines, and also a copy of Shakespeare and of the Bible. "The poor fellow would die," he remarked, "even if he had plenty to eat, with nothing to read. I am sure I should."
The party, having a few hours to spare, ascended the one cliff to which the backbone-like central ridge ascends, until, attaining an altitude of some hundred feet, it falls precipitously into the ocean.
The view was pleasing—a sweep of ocean on all sides, save for the little garden-isle of palms fenced in by a low wall of coral and foam.
The mate and the apprentice, his nephew, lay on the summit and smoked and dozed. Seeking, as he said, to photograph the scene on his mind, the doctor sat on the edge of the bluff. The opportunity he seized of conversing with Elms concerning his possession of the slip of paper supposed to be deposited in the safe.
As they conversed, almost angrily at times, the temptation came again and again upon the perplexed Sergeant to hurl the doctor from the cliff. His legs dangled over the edge. Once Elms started to his feet. One push from behind would effect his purpose! A bush hid them from the eyes of the mate. Elms gasped. He beat his breast as he stood behind his victim, fighting a terrible battle. The doctor, observing his excitement, which he attributed to his remarks, thought to leave the man a few moments to recover his composure. Perhaps he had pressed him unduly.
"Elms, lend me your hand; there's a good fellow. Here, take the end of my stick," he said, stepping down the face of the cliff to gather a rare rock-plant that had caught his eye.
"Hold firm, my man," he continued, as he stooped carefully on a slight track below which the precipice seemed to fall away, perpendicular, to the sea.
"Don't be frightened," cried he, as he felt the stick he grasped tremble in his hand. "I always had a cool head for this kind of work. Have often crept along wilder cliffs than this in dear old Devon."
"Come back, sir; for God's sake, come," suddenly cried the Sergeant. Somewhat startled, the doctor, raising his eyes carefully, beheld an ashen face peering over the cliffs upon him. The wretch was fighting the devil he had played with so long. Two men looked down on the doomed doctor—Elms as God created him, and Elms as the devil was making him. His mind was in a whirl. Here was his opportunity. The deed so long contemplated might be—must be—done. The arm of the better man, however, his very physical nature, refused to perform the treacherous act to which the devil-mind of the man prompted.
In the almost lunatic eyes of the wrestler the doctor read his own terrible peril. He must, however, retrace his steps, though few, with care. One sudden movement, and he was lost. Still he was cool. Fixing his eyes on the craven, on whose trembling hand his life hung, he steadied him with the spell of his powerful gaze. One step, now another, he felt his way back.
At the last critical point, when to round a boulder he must needs hang heavily on his friend for support, a wild, diabolical expression sprang into the face of the man he watched.
At times, so strained are man's nerves that they perceive, as by a flash of intuition, what 'no ordinary sense could reveal. Courtenay saw that he was doomed. His hour was come. With a hiss of hate or of madness, the wretch above, at the critical moment, deliberately released his hold on the cane on which hung the life of his benefactor. For one second the miserable man balanced himself, seeking to cling with one hand to the cliff, stretching out the stick with the other towards his companion, imploring with wide, despairing eyes and working features that he would snatch it again. Human Elms almost did so; the Satanic Elms restrained him. Again the human prevailed; the true man's heart beat. Relenting, Elms frantically reached forth the hand that had momentarily failed to seize the cane.
"Give it me again! Another inch further!" he almost shrieked, as he stretched forth himself over the yawning abyss. Alas! his victim's balance, almost miraculously maintained, was lost. With a last look the set face seemed to recognize the traitor's repentance. It was too late. Still outstretched, the stick described a circle in the air. The saviour of many human lives fell headlong down the cliff!
The wretched man above almost hurled himself after. Remorse, despair filled his breast. He was not by nature a bad man, as men term it. He was but a greedy, cunning one, that had played with his besetting sin till it mastered him. In a sense it was worse for him. From a higher height to a lower depth of torment he was falling.
On the face of the cliff the murderer grovelled. He tore the ground. "My God!" he cried, "slay me. Hurl me from this rock! I see it now; it is stamped with fire upon my brain. My friend! My benefactor! O God! his eye! That last look! He forgave me. Ah! he saw that I would save him. And I could not. My God, I could not!"
By wild cries the mate was awakened from a peaceful dream of return to home beside the inland sea. Starting to his feet, he was horrified to find the Sergeant alone, seemingly in a fit, on the edge of the cliff. No possible means of descending presented itself. The unfortunate chief, Elms stated half-coherently, had fallen by accident down the precipice. Dragging away the dazed, tottering man, who was calmer now, they descended to the beach. Long they searched by boat beneath the bluff. The unfortunate man would have fallen into the water that ran deep under the beetling rock. His hat and cane they picked up. Two enormous sharks cruised round the boat as they searched. The doctor would be dead before he touched the water. They shuddered to think that doubtless his body had already been mangled and devoured by cruel fishes of prey. The stains of blood one thought he saw on the water. All the next day sorrowing investigation was made of cliff and shore, but no vestige or memento of the loss was discovered, save that hat and stick.
When the latter was brought to the ship, Elms at the sight of it shuddered, and talked all night in his sleep of a hat and cane, and a face that haunted him. None were surprised at the effect the terrible accident had on the doctor's fast friend and right-hand man.
As the vessel sped uneventfully westward, Elms slowly recovered. One part of him was dead, and the other part felt as though a burden was rolled away.
"I am sorry for the poor old man," he would mutter; "but, as Malduke would say, it had to be. He had done his work, and now vaster prospects open out for Mimosa Vale—and plain John Elms."
For the twentieth, time that day he folded up the precious Will he had recovered from the doctor's papers, and examined, with the interest of a proprietor, all the provisions the good man had made for extension of the new system he had inaugurated.