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Chapter XXXI: The Life-Line


On the coast of Angleshire the weather in the early days of September
had been stormy.  With the south-west wind had come deluges of rain,
not a common thing for the time of year on the east coast.  Stephen,
whose spirits always rose with high wind, was in a condition of
prolonged excitement.  She could not keep still; every day she rode
long distances, and found a wonderful satisfaction in facing the
strong winds.  Like a true horsewoman she did not mind the wet, and
had glorious gallops over the grassy ridge and down the slopes on the
farther side, out on the open road or through the endless grass rides
amid the pine woods.
On the Tuesday morning the storm was in full sweep, and Stephen was
in wild spirits.  Nothing would do her but to go out on the tower of
the castle where she could walk about, and leaning on the crenellated
parapet look over all the coast stretching far in front and sweeping
away to the left and right.  The prospect so enchanted her, and the
fierce sweep of the wind so suited her exalted mood, that she
remained there all the morning.  The whole coast was a mass of
leaping foam and flying spray, and far away to the horizon white-
topped waves rolled endlessly.  That day she did not even ride out,
but contented herself with watching the sea and the storm from the
tower.  After lunch she went to her tower again; and again after tea.
The storm was now furious.  She made up her mind that after dinner
she would ride down and see its happenings close at hand.
When she had finished dinner she went to her room to dress for her
ride.  The rush and roar of the storm were in her ears, and she was
in wild tumultuous spirits.  All her youth seemed to sweep back on
her; or perhaps it was that the sickness of the last two years was
swept away.  Somewhere deep down in Stephen's heart, below her
intention or even her consciousness, was a desire to be her old self
if only for an hour.  And to this end externals were of help.
Without weighing the matter in her mind, and acting entirely on
impulse, she told her maid to get the red habit she had not worn for
years.  When she was dressed she sent round to have out her white
Arab; while it was getting ready she went once more to the tower to
see the storm-effect in the darkening twilight.  As she looked, her
heart for an instant stood still.  Half-way to the horizon a great
ship, ablaze in the bows, was driving through the waves with all her
speed.  She was heading towards the little port, beyond which the
shallows sent up a moving wall of white spray.
Stephen tore down the turret stair, and gave hurried directions to
have beds prepared in a number of rooms, fires everywhere, and plenty
of provisions.  She also ordered that carriages should be sent at
once to the fishing port with clothing and restoratives.  There
would, she felt, be need for such help before a time to be measured
by minutes should have passed; and as some of her servants were as
yet strange to her ways she did not leave anything to chance.  One
carriage was to go for the doctor who lived at Lannoy, the village
over the hill, whence nothing could be seen of what was happening.
She knew that others within sight or hailing would be already on
their way.  Work was afoot, and had she time, or thought of it, she
would have chosen a more sedate garb.  But in the excitement no
thought of herself came to her.
In a few seconds she was in the saddle, tearing at full speed down
the road that led to the port.  The wind was blowing so strongly in
her face that only in the lulls could she hear the hoof-strokes of
the groom's horse galloping behind her.
At first the height of the road allowed her to see the ship and the
port towards which she was making.  But presently the road dipped,
and the curving of the hill shut both from her sight; it was only
when she came close that she could see either again.
Now the great ship was close at hand.  The flames had gained
terribly, and it was a race for life or death.  There was no time do
more than run her aground if life was to be saved at all.  The
captain, who in the gaps of the smoke could be seen upon the bridge,
knew his work well.  As he came near the shoal he ran a little north,
and then turned sharply so as to throw the boat's head to the south
of the shoal.  Thus the wind would drive fire and smoke forward and
leave the after part of the vessel free for a time.
The shock of her striking the sand was terrific, though the tinkle of
the bell borne in on the gale showed that the engines had been slowed
down.  The funnels were shaken down, and the masts broke off, falling
forward.  A wild shriek from a hundred throats cleft the roaring of
wind and wave.  The mast fell, the foremast, with all its cumbering
top-hamper on the bridge, which was in an instant blotted out of
existence, together with the little band of gallant men who stood on
it, true to their last duty.  As the wind took the smoke south a man
was seen to climb on the wreck of the mast aft and make fast the end
of a great coil of rope which he carried.  He was a huge man with a
full dark beard.  Two sailors working with furious haste helped him
with the rope.  The waves kept raising the ship a little, each time
bumping her on the sand with a shock.  The people on deck held
frantically to the wreckage around them.
Then the bearded man, stripping to his waist and cutting off his
trousers above the knee, fastened an end of the rope round his waist.
The sailors stood ready one behind the other to pay it out.  As a
great wave rolled under the ship, he threw himself into the sea.
In the meantime the coastguard had fixed Board of Trade rocket-
apparatus, and in a few seconds the prolonged roar of a rocket was
heard.  It flew straight towards the ship, rising at a high angle so
as to fall beyond it.  But the force of the wind took it up as it
rose, and the gale increased so that it rose nearly vertically; and
in this position the wind threw it south of its objective, and short
of it.  Another rocket was got ready at once, and blue lights were
burned so that the course of the venturous swimmer might be noted.
He swam strongly; but the great weight of the rope behind kept
pulling him back, and the southern trend of the tide current and the
force of the wind kept dragging him from the pier.  Within the bar
the waves were much less than without; but they were still so unruly
that no boat in the harbour--which was not a lifeboat station--could
venture out.  Indeed, in the teeth of the storm it would have been a
physical impossibility to have driven one seaward.
As the gathered crowd saw Stephen approach they made way for her.
She had left her horse with the groom, and despite the drenching
spray fought a way against the wind out on the pier.  As in the glare
of the blue light, which brought many things into harsh unnatural
perspective, she caught sight of the set face of the swimmer rising
and falling with the waves, her heart leaped.  This was indeed a man!
a brave man; and all the woman in her went out to him.  For him, and
to aid him and his work, she would have given everything, done
anything; and in her heart, which beat in an ecstasy of anxiety, she
prayed with that desperate conviction of hope which comes in such
moments of exaltation.
But it soon became apparent that no landing could be effected.  The
force of the current and the wind were taking the man too far
southward for him ever to win a way back.  Then one of coastguards
took the lead-topped cane which they use for throwing practice, and,
after carefully coiling the line attached it so that it would run
free, managed with a desperate effort to fling it far out.  The
swimmer, to whom it fell close, fought towards it frantically; and as
the cord began to run through the water, managed to grasp it.  A wild
cheer rose from the shore and the ship.  A stout line was fastened to
the shore end of the cord, and the swimmer drew it out to him.  He
bent it on the rope which trailed behind him; then, seeing that he
was himself a drag on it, with the knife which he drew from the
sheath at the back of his waist, he cut himself free.  One of the
coastguards on the pier, helped by a host of willing hands, began
drawing the end of the rope on shore.  The swimmer still held the
line thrown to him, and several men on the pier began to draw on it.
Unhappily the thin cord broke under the strain, and within a few
seconds the swimmer had drifted out of possible help.  Seeing that
only wild rocks lay south of the sea-wall, and that on them seas beat
furiously, he turned and made out for sea.  In the light beyond the
glare he could see vaguely the shore bending away to the west in a
deep curve of unbroken white leaping foam.  There was no hope of
landing there.  To the south was the headland, perhaps two miles away
as the crow flies.  Here was the only chance for him.  If he could
round the headland, he might find shelter beyond; or somewhere along
the farther shore some opening might present itself.  Whilst the
light from the blue fires still reached him he turned and made for
the headland.
In the meantime on ship and on shore men worked desperately.  Before
long the end of the hawser was carried round on the high cliff, and
pulled as taut as the force at hand could manage, and made fast.
Soon endless ropes were bringing in passengers and crew as fast as
place could be found for them.  It became simply a race for time.  If
the fire, working against the wind, did not reach the hawser, and if
the ship lasted the furious bumping on the sandbank, which threatened
to shake her to pieces each moment, all on board might yet be saved.
Stephen's concern was now for the swimmer alone.  Such a gallant soul
should not perish without help, if help could be on this side of
heaven.  She asked the harbour-master, an old fisherman who knew
every inch of the coast for miles, if anything could be done.  He
shook his head sadly as he answered:
'I fear no, my lady.  The lifeboat from Granport is up north, no boat
from here could get outside the harbour.  There's never a spot in the
bay where he could land, even in a less troubled sea than this.  Wi'
the wind ashore, there's no hope for ship or man here that cannot
round the point.  And a stranger is no like to do that.'
'Why not?' she asked breathlessly.
'Because, my lady, there's a wheen o' sunken rocks beyond the Head.
No one that didn't know would ever think to keep out beyond them, for
the cliff itself goes down sheer.  He's a gallant soul yon; an' it's
a sore pity he's goin' to his death.  But it must be!  God can save
him if He wishes; but I fear none other!'
Even as he spoke rose to Stephen's mind a memory of an old churchyard
with great trees and the scent of many flowers, and a child's voice
that sounded harsh through the monotonous hum of bees:
'To be God, and able to do things!'
Oh; to be God, if but an hour; and able to do things!  To do anything
to help a brave man!  A wild prayer surged up in the girl's heart:
'Oh! God, give me this man's life!  Give it to me to atone for the
other I destroyed!  Let me but help him, and do with me as Thou
The passion of her prayer seemed to help her, and her brain cleared.
Surely something could be done!  She would do what she could; but
first she must understand the situation.  She turned again to the old
'How long would it take him to reach the headland, if he can swim so
far?'  The answer came with a settled conviction bearing hope with
'The wind and tide are wi' him, an' he's a strong swimmer.  Perhaps
half an hour will take him there.  He's all right in himself.  He can
swim it, sure.  But alack! it's when he gets there his trouble will
be, when none can warn him.  Look how the waves are lashing the
cliff; and mark the white water beyond!  What voice can sound to him
out in those deeps?  How could he see if even one were there to
Here was a hope at any rate.  Light and sound were the factors of
safety.  Some good might be effected if she could get a trumpet; and
there were trumpets in the rocket-cart.  Light could be had--must be
had if all the fences round the headland had to be gathered for a
bonfire!  There was not a moment to be lost.  She ran to the rocket-
cart, and got a trumpet from the man in charge.  Then she ran to
where she had left her horse.  She had plenty of escort, for by this
time many gentlemen had arrived on horseback from outlying distances,
and all offered their services.  She thanked them and said:
'You may be useful here.  When all these are ashore send on the
rocket-cart, and come yourselves to the headland as quick as you can.
Tell the coastguards that all those saved are to be taken to the
castle.  In the rocket-cart bring pitch and tar and oil, and anything
that will flame.  Stay!' she cried to the chief boatman.  'Give me
some blue lights!'  His answer chilled her:
'I'm sorry, my lady, but they are all used.  There are the last of
them burning now.  We have burned them ever since that man began to
swim ashore.'
'Then hurry on the rocket-cart!' she said as she sprang to the
saddle, and swept out on the rough track that ran by the cliffs,
following in bold curves the windings of the shore.  The white Arab
seemed to know that his speed was making for life.  As he swept
along, far outdistancing the groom, Stephen's heart went out in
silent words which seemed to keep time to the gallop:
'Oh, to be God, and be able to do things!  Give me this man's life,
oh, God!  Give me this man's life, to atone for that noble one which
I destroyed!'
Faster and faster, over rough road, cattle track, and grassy sward;
over rising and falling ground; now and again so close to the edge of
the high cliff that the spume swept up the gulleys in the rocks like
a snowstorm, the white Arab swept round the curve of the bay, and
came out on the high headland where stood the fisher's house.  On the
very brink of the cliff all the fisher folk, men, women and children,
stood looking at the far-off burning ship, from which the flames rose
in leaping columns.
So intent were all on the cliff that they did not notice her coming;
as the roar of the wind came from them to her, they could not hear
her voice when she spoke from a distance.  She had drawn quite close,
having dismounted and hung her rein over the post of the garden
paling, when one of the children saw her, and cried out:
'The lady! the lady! an' she's all in red!'  The men were so intent
on something that they did not seem to hear.  They were peering out
to the north, and were arguing in dumb show as though on something
regarding which they did not agree.  She drew closer, and touching
the old fisherman on the shoulder, called out at his ear:
'What is it?'  He answered without turning, keeping his eyes fixed:
'_I_ say it's a man swimmin'.  Joe and Garge here say as it's only a
piece o' wood or sea-wrack.  But I know I'm right.  That's a man
swimmin', or my old eyes have lost their power!'  His words carried
conviction; the seed of hope in her beating heart grew on the instant
into certainty.
'It IS a man.  I saw him swim off towards here when he had taken the
rope on shore.  Do not turn round.  Keep your eyes on him so that you
may not lose sight of him in the darkness!'  The old man chuckled.
'This darkness!  Hee! hee!  There be no differ to me between light
and dark.  But I'll watch him!  It's you, my lady!  I shan't turn
round to do my reverence as you tell me to watch.  But, poor soul,
it'll not be for long to watch.  The Skyres will have him, sure
'We can warn him!' she said, 'when he comes close enough.  I have a
trumpet here!'  He shook his head sorrowfully:
'Ah! my lady, what trumpet could sound against that storm an' from
this height?'  Stephen's heart sank.  But there was still hope.  If
the swimmer's ears could not be reached, his eyes might.  Eagerly she
looked back for the coming of the rocket-cart.  Far off across the
deep bay she could see its lamp sway as it passed over the rough
ground; but alas! it would never arrive in time.  With a note of
despair in her voice she asked:
'How long before he reaches the rocks?'  Still without turning the
old man answered:
'At the rate he's going he will be in the sweep of the current
through the rocks within three minutes.  If he's to be saved he must
turn seaward ere the stream grips him.'
'Would there be time to build a bonfire?'
'No, no! my lady.  The wood couldn't catch in the time!'
For an instant a black film of despair seemed to fall on her.  The
surging of the blood in her head made her dizzy, and once again the
prayer of the old memory rang in her brain:
'Oh to be God, and able to do things!'
On the instant an inspiration flashed through her.  She, too could do
things in a humble way.  She could do something at any rate.  If
there was no time to build a fire, there was a fire already built.
The house would burn!
The two feet deep of old thatch held down with nets and battened with
wreck timber would flare like a beacon.  Forthwith she spoke:
'Good people, this noble man who has saved a whole shipload of others
must not die without an effort.  There must be light so that he can
see our warning to pass beyond the rocks!  The only light can be from
the house.  I buy it of you.  It is mine; but I shall pay you for it
and build you such another as you never thought of.  But it must be
fired at once.  You have one minute to clear out all you want.  In,
quick and take all can.  Quick! quick! for God's sake!  It is for a
brave man's life!'
The men and women without a word rushed into the house.  They too
knew the danger, and the only hope there was for a life.  The
assurance of the Countess took the sting from the present loss.
Before the minute, which she timed watch in hand, was over, all came
forth bearing armloads of their lares and penates.  Then one of the
younger men ran in again and out bearing a flaming stick from the
fire.  Stephen nodded, he held it to the northern edge of the thatch.
The straw caught in a flash and the flame ran up the slope and along
the edge of the roof like a quick match.  The squeaking of many rats
was heard and their brown bodies streamed over the roof.  Before
another minute had passed a great mass of flame towered into the sky
and shed a red light far out over the waste of sea.
It lit up the wilderness of white water where the sea churned
savagely amongst the sunken rocks; and it lit too the white face of a
swimmer, now nearly spent, who rising and falling with each wave,
drifted in the sea whose current bore him on towards the fatal rocks.