Read CHAPTER XXV. - THE WRECK OF THE “SAMARITAN.” of The Ship of Stars, free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

Taffy stood for a moment listening.  He judged the wreck to be somewhere on the near side of the light-house, between it and the mouth of the creek; that was, if she had already struck.  If not, the gale and the set of the tide together would be sweeping her eastward, perhaps right across the mouth of the creek.  And if he could discover this his course would be to run back, intercept the coast-guard, and send him around by the upper bridge.

He waited for a second signal to guide him ­a flare or a rocket:  but none came.  The beach lay in the lew of the weather, deep in the hills’ hollow and trebly land-locked by the windings of the creek, but above him the sky kept its screaming as though the bare ridges of the headland were being shelled by artillery.

He resolved to keep along the lower slopes and search his way down to the creek’s mouth, when he would have sight of any signal shown along the coast for a mile or two to the east and north-east.  The night was now as black as a wolf’s throat, but he knew every path and fence.  So he scrambled up the low cliff and began to run, following the line of stunted oaks and tamarisks which fenced it, and on the ridges ­where the blown hail took him in the face ­crouching and scuttling like a crab sideways, moving his legs only from the knees down.

In this way he had covered half a mile and more when his right foot plunged in a rabbit hole and he was pitched headlong into the tamarisks below.  Their boughs bent under his weight, but they were tough, and he caught at them, and just saved himself from rolling over into the black water.  He picked himself up and began to rub his twisted ankle.  And at that instant, in a lull between two gusts, his ear caught the sound of splashing, yet a sound so unlike the lapping of the driven tide that he peered over and down between the tamarisk boughs.

“Hullo there!”

“Hullo!” a voice answered.  “Is that someone alive?  Here, mate ­for Christ’s sake!”

“Hold on!  Whereabouts are you?”

“Down in this here cruel water.”  The words ended in a shuddering cough.

“Right ­hold on for a moment!” Taffy’s ankle pained him, but the wrench was not serious.  The cliff shelved easily.  He slid down, clutching at the tamarisk boughs which whipped his face.  “Where are you?  I can’t see.”

“Here!” The voice was not a dozen yards away.

“Swimming?”

“No ­I’ve got a water-breaker ­can’t hold on much longer.”

“I believe you can touch bottom there.”

“Hey?  I can’t hear.”

“Try to touch bottom.  It’s firm sand hereabouts.”

“So I can.”  The splashing and coughing came nearer, came close.  Taffy stretched out a hand.  A hand, icy-cold, fumbled and gripped it in the darkness.

“Christ!  Where’s a place to lie down?”

“Here, on this rock.”  They peered at each other, but could not see.  The man’s teeth chattered close to Taffy’s ear.

“Warm my hands, mate ­there’s a good chap.”  He lay on the rock and panted.  Taffy took his hands and began to rub them briskly.

“Where’s the ship?”

“Where’s the ship?” He seemed to turn over the question in his mind, and then stretched himself with a sigh.  “How the hell should I know?”

“What’s her name?” Taffy had to ask the question twice.

“The Samaritan, of Newport, brigantine.  Coals she carried.  Ha’n’t you such a thing as a match?  It seems funny to me, talkin’ here like this, and me not knowin’ you from Adam.”

He panted between the words, and when he had finished lay back and panted again.

“Hurt?” asked Taffy after a while.

The man sat up and began to feel his limbs, quite as though they belonged to some other body.  “No, I reckon not.”

“Then we’d best be starting.  The tide’s rising.  My house is just above here.”

He led the way along the slippery foreshore until he found what he sought, a foot-track slanting up the cliff.  Here he gave the sailor a hand and they mounted together.  On the grass slope above they met the gale and were forced to drop on their hands and knees and crawl, Taffy leading and shouting instructions, the sailor answering each with “Ay, ay, mate!” to show that he understood.

But about half-way up these answers ceased, and Taffy, looking round and calling, found himself alone.  He groped his way back for twenty yards, and found the man stretched on his face and moaning.

“I can’t . . .  I can’t!  My poor brother!  I can’t!”

Taffy knelt beside him on the soaking turf.  “Your brother?  Had you a brother on board?”

The man bowed his face again upon the turf.  Taffy, upright on both knees, heard him sobbing like a child in the roaring darkness.

“Come,” he coaxed, and putting out a hand, touched his wet hair.  “Come.”  They crept forward again, but still as he followed the sailor cried for his drowned brother, up the long slope to the ridge of the headland, where, with the light-house and warm cottage windows in view, all speech and hearing were drowned by stinging hail and the blown grit of the causeway.

Humility opened the door to them.

“Taffy!  Where have you been?”

“There has been a wreck.”

“Yes, yes ­the coast-guard is down by the light-house.  The men there saw her before she struck.  They kept signalling till it fell dark.  They had sent off before that.”

She drew back, shrinking against the dresser as the lamplight fell on the stranger.  Taffy turned and stared too.  The man’s face was running with blood; and looking at his own hands he saw that they also were scarlet.

He helped the poor wretch to a chair.

“Bandages:  can you manage?” She nodded, and stepped to a cupboard.  The sailor began to wail again like an infant.

“See ­above the temple here:  the cut isn’t serious.”  Taffy took down a lantern and lit it.  The candle shone red through the smears his fingers left on the horn panes.  “I must go and help, if you can manage.”

“I can manage,” she answered quietly.

He strode out, and closing the door behind him with an effort, faced the gale again.  Down in the lee of the light-house the lamps of the coast-guard carriage gleamed foggily through the rain.  The men were there discussing, George among them.  He had just galloped up.

The Chief Officer went off to question the survivor, while the rest began their search.  They searched all that night; they burned flares and shouted; their torches dotted the cliffs.  After an hour the Chief Officer returned.  He could make nothing of the sailor, who had fallen silly from exhaustion or the blow on his head; but he divided his men into three parties, and they began to hunt more systematically.  Taffy was told off to help the westernmost gang and search the rocks below the light-house.  Once or twice he and his comrades paused in their work, hearing, as they thought, a cry for help.  But when they listened, it was only one of the other parties hailing.

The gale began to abate soon after midnight, and before dawn had blown itself out.  Day came, filtered slowly through the wrack of it to the south-east; and soon they heard a whistle blown, and there on the cliff above them was George Vyell on horseback, in his red coat, with an arm thrown out and pointing eastward.  He turned and galloped off in that direction.

They scrambled up and followed.  To their astonishment, after following the cliffs for a few hundred yards, he headed inland, down and across the very slope up which Taffy had crawled with the sailor.

They lost sight of his red coat among the ridges.  Two or three ­ Taffy amongst them ­ran along the upper ground for a better view.

“Well, this beats all!” panted the foremost.

Below them George came into view again, heading now at full gallop for a group of men gathered by the shore of the creek, a good half-mile from its mouth.  And beyond ­midway across the sandy bed where the river wound ­lay the hull of a vessel, high and dry; her deck, naked of wheelhouse and hatches, canted toward them as if to cover from the morning the long wounds ripped by her uprooted masts.

The men beside him shouted and ran on, but Taffy stood still.  It was monstrous ­a thing inconceivable ­that the seas should have lifted a vessel of three hundred tons and carried her half a mile up that shallow creek.  Yet there she lay.  A horrible thought seized him.  Could she have been there last night when he had drawn the sailor ashore?  And had he left four or five others to drown close by, in the darkness?  No, the tide at that hour had scarcely passed half-flood.  He thanked God for that.

Well, there she lay, high and dry, with plenty to attend to her.  It was time for him to discover the damage done to the light-house plant and machinery, perhaps to the building itself.  In half an hour the workmen would be arriving.

He walked slowly back to the house, and found Humility preparing breakfast.

“Where is he?” Taffy asked, meaning the sailor.  “In bed?”

“Didn’t you meet him?  He went out five minutes ago ­I couldn’t keep him ­to look for his brother, he said.”

Taffy drank a cupful of tea, took up a crust, and made for the door.

“Go to bed, dear,” his mother pleaded.  “You must be worn out.”

“I must see how the works have stood it.”

On the whole, they had stood it well.  The gale, indeed, had torn away the wire table and cage, and thus cut off for the time all access to the outer rock; for while the sea ran at its present height the scramble out along the ridge could not be attempted even at low water.  But from the cliff he could see the worst.  The waves had washed over the building, tearing off the temporary covers, and churning all within.  Planks, scaffolding ­everything floatable-had gone, and strewed the rock with matchwood; and ­a marvel to see-one of his two heaviest winches had been lifted from inside, hurled clean over the wall, and lay collapsed in the wreckage of its cast-iron frame.  But, so far as he could see, the dovetailed masonry stood intact.  A voice hailed him.

“What a night!  What a night!”

It was old Pezzack, aloft on the gallery of the light-house in his yellow oilers, already polishing the lantern panes.

Taffy’s workmen came straggling and gathered about him.  They discussed the damage together but without addressing Taffy; until a little pock-marked fellow, the wag of the gang, nudged a mate slily and said aloud ­

“By God, Bill, we can build a bit ­you and me and the boss!”

All the men laughed; and Taffy laughed too, blushing.  Yes; this had been in his mind.  He had measured his work against the sea in its fury, and the sea had not beaten him.

A cry broke in upon their laughter.  It came from the base of the cliff to the right:  a cry so insistent that they ran toward it in a body.

Far below them, on the edge of a great boulder which rose from the broken water and seemed to overhang it, stood the rescued sailor.  He was pointing.

Taffy was the first to reach him!

“It’s my brother!  It’s my brother Sam!”

Taffy flung himself full length on the rock and peered over.  A tangle of ore-weed awash rose and fell about its base; and from under this, as the frothy waves drew back, he saw a man’s ankle protruding, and a foot still wearing a shoe.

“It’s my brother!” wailed the sailor again.  “I can swear to the shoe of en!”