Read CHAPTER XXVI. - SALVAGE. of The Ship of Stars, free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

One of the masons lowered himself into the pool, and thrusting an arm beneath the ore-weed, began to grope.

“He’s pinned here.  The rock’s right on top of him.”

Taffy examined the rock.  It weighed fifteen tons if an ounce; but there were fresh and deep scratches upon it.  He pointed these out to the men, who looked and felt them with their hands and stared at the subsiding waves, trying to bring their minds to the measure of the spent gale.

“Here, I must get out of this!” said the man in the pool, as a small wave dashed in and sent its spray over his bowed shoulders.

“You ban’t going to leave en?” wailed the sailor.  “You ban’t going to leave my brother Sam?”

He was a small, fussy man, with red whiskers; and even his sorrow gave him little dignity.  The men were tender with him.

“Nothing to be done till the tide goes back.”

“But you won’t leave en?  Say you won’t leave en!  He’ve a wife and three children.  He was a saved man, sir, a very religious man; not like me, sir.  He was highly respected in the neighbourhood of St. Austell.  I shouldn’t wonder if the newspapers had a word about en . . .”  The tears were running down his face.

“We must wait for the tide,” said Taffy gently, and tried to lead him away, but he would not go.  So they left him to watch and wait while they returned to their work.

Before noon they recovered and fixed the broken wire cable.  The iron cradle had disappeared, but to rig up a sling and carry out an endless line was no difficult job, and when this was done Taffy crossed over to the island rock and began to inspect damages.  His working gear had suffered heavily, two of his windlasses were disabled, scaffolding, platforms, hods, and loose planks had vanished; a few small tools only remained, mixed together in a mash of puddled lime.  But the masonry stood unhurt, all except a few feet of the upper course on the seaward side, where the gale, giving the cement no time to set, had shaken the dove-tailed stones in their sockets ­a matter easily repaired.

Shortly before three a shout recalled them to the mainland.  The tide was drawing towards low water, and three of the men set to work at once to open a channel and drain off the pool about the base of the big rock.  While this was doing, half a dozen splashed in with iron bars and pickaxes; the rest rigged two stout ropes with tackles, and hauled.  The stone did not budge.  For more than an hour they prised and levered and strained.  And all the while the sailor ran to and fro, snatching up now a pick and now a crowbar, now lending a hand to haul, and again breaking off to lament aloud.

The tide turned, the winter dark came down, and at half-past four Taffy gave the word to desist.  They had to hold back the sailor, or he would have jumped in and drowned beside his brother.

Taffy slept little that night, though he needed sleep.  The salving of this body had become almost a personal dispute between the sea and him.  The gale had shattered two of his windlasses; but two remained, and by one o’clock next day he had both slung over to the mainland and fixed beside the rock.  The news spreading inland fetched two or three score onlookers before ebb of tide ­miners for the most part, whose help could be counted on.  The men of the coast-guard had left the wreck, to bear a hand if needed.  George had come too.  And happening to glance upwards while he directed his men, Taffy saw a carriage with two horses drawn up on the grassy edge of the cliff:  a groom at the horses’ heads and in the carriage a figure seated, silhouetted there high against the clear blue heaven.  Well he recognised, even at that distance, the poise of her head, though for almost four years he had never set eyes on her, ­nor had wished to.

He knew that her eyes were on him now.  He felt like a general on the eve of an engagement.  By the almanac the tide would not turn until 4.35.  At four, perhaps, they could begin; but even at four the winter twilight would be on them, and he had taken care to provide torches and distribute them among the crowd.  His own men were making the most of the daylight left, drilling holes for dear life in the upper surface of the boulder, and fixing the Lewis-wedges and rings.  They looked to him for every order, and he gave it in a clear, ringing voice which he knew must carry to the cliff top.  He did not look at George.

He felt sure in his own mind that the wedges and rings would hold; but to make doubly sure he gave orders to loop an extra chain under the jutting base of the boulder.  The mason who fixed it, standing waist-high in water as the tide ebbed, called for a rope and hitched it round the ankle of the dead man.  The dead man’s brother jumped down beside him and grasped the slack of it.

At a signal from Taffy the crowd began to light their torches.  He looked at his watch, at the tide, and gave the word to man the windlasses.  Then with a glance towards the cliff he started the working chant ­“Ayee-ho, Ayee-ho!” The two gangs ­twenty men to each windlass ­took it up with one voice, and to the deep intoned chant the chains tautened, shuddered for a moment, and began to lift.

Ayee-ho!

Silently, irresistibly, the chain drew the rock from its bed.  To Taffy it seemed an endless time, to the crowd but a few moments before the brute mass swung clear.  A few thrust their torches down towards the pit where the sailor knelt.  Taffy did not look, but gave the word to pass down the coffin which had been brought in readiness.  A clergyman ­his father’s successor, but a stranger to him ­climbed down after it:  and he stood in the quiet crowd watching the light-house above and the lamps which the groom had lit in Honoria’s carriage, and listening to the bated voices of the few at their dreadful task below.

It was five o’clock and past before the word came up to lower the tackle and draw the coffin up.  The Vicar clambered out to wait it, and when it came, borrowed a lantern and headed the bearers.  The crowd fell in behind.

“I am the resurrection and the life. . . .”

They began to shuffle forwards and up the difficult track; but presently came to a halt with one accord, the Vicar ceasing in the middle of a sentence.

Out of the night, over the hidden sea, came the sound of men’s voices lifted, thrilling the darkness thrice:  the sound of three British cheers.

Whose were the voices?  They never knew.  A few had noticed as twilight fell a brig in the offing, standing inshore as she tacked down channel.  She, no doubt, as they worked in their circle of torchlight, had sailed in close before going about, her crews gathered forward, her master perhaps watching through his night-glass had guessed the act, saluted it, and passed on her way unknown to her own destiny.

They strained their eyes.  A man beside Taffy declared he could see something ­the faint glow of a binnacle lamp as she stood away.  Taffy could see nothing.  The voice ahead began to speak again.  The Vicar, pausing now and again to make sure of his path, was reading from a page which he held close to his lantern.

     “Thine eyes shall see the King in His beauty:  they shall behold
      the land that is very far off.

     “Thou shalt not see a fierce people, a people of a deeper speech
      than thou canst perceive; of a stammering tongue that thou
      canst not understand.

     “But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad
      rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars,
      neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.

     “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord
      is our king; he will save us.

     “Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their
      mast, they could not spread the sail; then is the prey of a
      great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.”

Here the Vicar turned back a page, and his voice rang higher: 

     “Behold a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall
      rule in judgment.

     “And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a
      covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as
      the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

     “And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of
      them that hear shall hearken.”

Now Taffy walked behind, thinking his own thoughts; for the cheers of those invisible sailors had done more than thrill his heart.  A finger, as it were, had come out of the night and touched his brain, unsealing the wells and letting in light upon things undreamt of.  Through the bright confusion of this sudden vision the Vicar’s sentences sounded and fell on his ears unheeded.  And yet while they faded that happened which froze and bit each separate word into his memory, to lose distinctness only when death should interfere, stop the active brain, and wipe the slate.

For while the procession halted and broke up its formation for a moment on the brow of the cliff, a woman came running into the torchlight.

“Is my Joey there?  Where’s he to, anybody?  Hev anyone seen my Joey?”

It was Lizzie Pezzack, panting and bareheaded, with a scared face.

“He’s lame ­you’d know en.  Have ’ee got en there?  He’s wandered off!”

“Hush up, woman,” said a bearer.  “Don’t keep such a pore!”

“The cheeld’s right enough somewheres,” said another. “’Tis a man’s body we’ve got.  Stand out of the way, for shame!”

But Lizzie, who as a rule shrank away from men and kept herself hidden, pressed nearer, turning her tragical face upon each in turn.  Her eyes met George’s, but she appealed to him as to the others.

“He’s wandered off.  Oh, say you’ve seen en, somebody!”

Catching sight of Taffy, she ran and gripped him by the arm.

You’ll help!  It’s my Joey.  Help me find en!”

He turned half about, and almost before he knew what he sought his eyes met George’s.  George stepped quietly to his side.

“Let me get my mare,” said George, and walked away toward the light-house railing where he had tethered her.

“We’ll find the child.  Our work’s done here, Mr. Saul!” Taffy turned to the Chief Officer.  “Spare us a man or two and some flares.”

“I’ll come myself,” said the Chief Officer.  “Go you back, my dear, and we’ll fetch home your cheeld as right as ninepence.  Hi, Rawlings, take a couple of men and scatter along the cliffs there to the right.  Lame, you say?  He can’t have gone far.”

Taffy, with the Chief Officer and a couple of volunteers, moved off to the left, and in less than a minute George caught them up, on horseback.

“I say,” he asked, walking his mare close alongside of Taffy, “you don’t think this serious, eh?”

“I don’t know.  Joey wasn’t in the crowd, or I should have noticed him.  He’s daring beyond his strength.”  He pulled a whistle from his pocket, blew it twice, and listened.  This had been his signal when firing a charge; he had often blown it to warn the child to creep away into shelter.

There was no answer.

“Mr. Vyell had best trot along the upper slope,” the Chief Officer suggested, “while we search down by the creek.”

“Wait a moment,” Taffy answered.  “Let’s try the wreck first.”

“But the tide’s running.  He’d never go there.”

“He’s a queer child.  I know him better than you.”

They ran downhill toward the creek, calling as they went, but getting no answer.

“But the wreck!” exclaimed the Chief Officer.  “It’s out of reason!”

“Hi!  What was that?”

“Oh, my good Lord,” groaned one of the volunteers, “it’s the crake, master!  It’s Langona crake calling the drowned!”

“Hush, you fool!  Listen ­I thought as much!  Light a flare.  Mr. Saul ­he’s out there calling!”

The first match spluttered and went out.  They drew close around the Chief Officer while he struck the second to keep off the wind, and in those few moments the child’s wail reached them distinctly across the darkness.

The flame leaped up and shone, and they drew back a pace, shading their eyes from it and peering into the steel-blue landscape which sprang on them out of the night.  They had halted a few yards only from the cliff, and the flare cast the shadow of its breast-high fence of tamarisks forward and almost half-way across the creek, and there on the sands, a little beyond the edge of this shadow, stood the child.

They could even see his white face.  He stood on an island of sand around which the tide swirled in silence, cutting him off from the shore, cutting him off from the wreck behind.

He did not cry any more, but stood with his crutch planted by the edge of the widening stream, and looked toward them.

And Taffy looked at George.

“I know,” said George quietly, and gathered up his reins.  “Stand aside, please.”

As they drew aside, not understanding, he called to his mare.  One living creature, at any rate, could still trust all to George Vyell.  She hurtled past them and rose at the tamarisk-hedge blindly.  Followed silence ­a long silence; then a thud on the beach below and a scuffle of stones; silence again, and then the cracking of twigs as Taffy plunged after, through the tamarisks, and slithered down the cliff.

The light died down as his feet touched the flat slippery stones; died down, and was renewed again and showed up horse and rider scarce twenty yards ahead, labouring forward, the mare sinking fetlock deep at every plunge.

At his fourth stride Taffy’s feet, too, began to sink, but at every stride he gained something.  The riding may be superb, but thirteen stone is thirteen stone.  Taffy weighed less than eleven.

He caught up with George on the very edge of the water.  “Make her swim it!” he panted.  “Her feet mustn’t touch here.”  George grunted.  A moment later all three were in the water, the tide swirling them sideways, sweeping Taffy against the mare.  His right hand touched her flank at every stroke.

The tide swept them upwards ­upwards for fifteen yards at least, though the channel measured less than eight feet.  The child, who had been standing opposite the point where they took the water, hobbled wildly along shore.  The light on the cliff behind sank and rose again.

“The crutch,” Taffy gasped.  The child obeyed, laying it flat on the brink and pushing it toward them.  Taffy gripped it with his left hand, and with his right found the mare’s bridle.  George was bending forward.

“No ­not that way!  You can’t get back!  The wreck, man! ­it’s firmer ­”

But George reached out his hand and dragged the child towards him and on to his saddle-bow.  “Mine,” he said quietly, and twitched the rein.  The brave mare snorted, jerked the bridle from Taffy’s hand, and headed back for the shore she had left.

Rider, horse, and child seemed to fall away from him into the night.  He scrambled out, and snatching the crutch ran along the brink, staring at their black shadows.  By-and-by the shadows came to a standstill.  He heard the mare panting, the creaking of saddle-leather came across the nine or ten feet of dark water.

“It’s no go,” said George’s voice; then to the mare, “Sally, my dear, it’s no go.”  A moment later he asked more sharply: 

“How far can you reach?”

Taffy stepped in until the waves ran by his knees.  The sand held his feet, but beyond this he could not stand against the current.  He reached forward holding the crutch at arm’s length.

“Can you catch hold?”

“All right.”  Both knew that swimming would be useless now; they were too near the upper apex of the sand-bank.

“The child first.  Here, Joey, my son! reach out and catch hold for your life.”

Taffy felt the child’s grip on the crutch-head, and drawing it steadily toward him hauled the poor child through.  The light from the cliff sank and rose behind his scared face.

“Got him?”

“Yes.”  The sand was closing around Taffy’s legs, but he managed to shift his footing a little.

“Quick, then; the bank’s breaking up.”

George was sinking, knee-deep and deeper.  But his outstretched fingers managed to reach and hook themselves around the crutch-head.

“Steady, now . . . must work you loose first.  Get hold of the shaft if you can:  the head isn’t firm.  Work your legs . . . that’s it.”

George wrenched his left foot loose and planted it against the mare’s flank.  Hitherto she had trusted her master.  The thrust of his heel drove home her sentence, and with scream after scream ­the sand holding her past hope ­she plunged and fought for her life.  Still as she screamed, George, silent and panting, thrust against her, thrust savagely against the quivering body, once his pride for beauty and fleetness.

“Pull!” he gasped, freeing his other foot with a wrench which left its heavy riding-boot deep in the sucking mud; and catching a new grip on the crutch-head, flung himself forward.

Taffy felt the sudden weight and pulled ­and while he pulled felt in a moment no grip, no weight at all.  Between two hateful screams a face slid by him, out of reach, silent, with parted lips; and as it slipped away he fell back staggering, grasping the useless, headless crutch.

The mare went on screaming.  He turned his back on her, and catching Joey by the hand dragged him away across the melting island.  At the sixth step the child, hauled off his crippled foot, swung blundering across his legs.  He paused, lifted him in his arms and plunged forward again.

The flares on the cliff were growing in number.  They cast long shadows before him.  On the far side of the island the tide flowed swift and steady ­a stream about fourteen yards wide ­cutting him from the farther sand-bank on which, not fifty yards above, lay the wreck.  He whispered to Joey, and plunged into it straight, turning as the water swept him off his legs, and giving his back to it, his hands slipped under the child’s armpits, his feet thrusting against the tide in slow, rhythmical strokes.

The child after the first gasp lay still, his head obediently thrown back on Taffy’s breast.  The mare had ceased to scream.  The water rippled in the ears as each leg-thrust drove them little by little across the current.

If George had but listened!  It was so easy, after all.  The sand-bank still slid past them, but less rapidly.  They were close to it now, and had only to lie still and be drifted against the leaning stanchions of the wreck.  Taffy flung an arm about one and checked his way quietly, as a man brings a boat alongside a quay.  He hoisted Joey first upon the stanchion, then up the tilted deck to the gap of the main hatchway.  Within this, with their feet on the steps and their chests leaning on the side panel of the companion, they rested and took breath.

“Cold, sonny?”

The child burst into tears.

Taffy dragged off his own coat and wrapped him in it.  The small body crept close, sobbing, against his side.

Across, on the shore, voices were calling, blue eyes moving.  A pair of yellow lights came towards these, travelling swiftly upon the hillside.  Taffy guessed what they were.

The yellow lights moved more slowly.  They joined the blue ones, and halted.  Taffy listened.  But the voices were still now; he heard nothing but the hiss of the black water, across which those two lamps sought and questioned him like eyes.

“God help her!”

He bowed his face on his arms.  A little while, and the sands would be covered, the boats would put off; a little while. . . .  Crouching from those eyes he prayed God to lengthen it.