Read Chapter Five - Coals of Fire on an enemy’s head. of A Terrible Coward , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

Harry Paul had been so busily employed in avoiding the drowning man’s grasp that, for the moment, the boat was forgotten.  Now, however, that he had mastered him, he raised his head a little to look; but the boat was far away beyond his reach, and progressing at such a rate that he could not have overtaken it even had he been alone.

A feeling of dread would have mastered him now, but for the strong nerve that he brought to bear.  There was no help there.  They were several hundred yards now from the shore, and every moment being carried farther away.  The part they were in was hidden by the great black pile of rocks by Carn Du from the little town and harbour, so that their peril could not be seen.  It was evident, too, that the loud cries for help had not reached the ears of those about the harbour, and that no one was anywhere about the boats that swung from the buoys.  On the one side there was the open sea, on the other the piled-up granite, which rose up like hand-built buttresses, composed of vast squared masses rising tier upon tier.  At their foot the foam fretted and beat, and the forests of seaweed washed to and fro, presenting an almost impenetrable barrier to any one wishing to land; though here it was impossible, for the racing current formed another barrier, which a boat propelled by stout rowers would hardly have passed.

The act of his keeping the drowning man’s face slightly above the water had a bad effect for Harry Paul, inasmuch as it made him he was trying to succour struggle and endeavour to clutch at the arms that held him.  Once he could do this, Harry knew that his case would be hopeless, for from that death-grapple there could be no escape.  He held the man then firmly and swam on, feeling himself moment by moment grow more weary, for he was swimming in his clinging clothes, and unless help soon came he knew that he must loosen his grasp and strive to save his own life.

Terrible coward as he was deemed, though, this was not in Harry Paul’s disposition.  He possessed all the stern, dogged determination of the true Englishman ­that determination which has made our race renowned throughout the length and breadth of the world.  He had determined to save this drowning man; he felt that it was incumbent upon him to give his best efforts to that end; so, setting his teeth, he cleverly managed to elude every clutch made at him, and swam on.

He did not know where he was going, but he felt that his only chance was to go with the current till he should be swept near some of the outlying rocks, when they might be drawn into an eddy, and so be able to climb up on to the shell-covered stones, and wait there till they were seen.

Try how he would, after some struggle with his captive it was impossible to help feeling a chill of dread, for he knew that he was swimming more laboriously, and that his limbs were like so much lead; but still he struggled on.  Every now and then, too, the water washed over his face, telling him that his position was lower, and at last, when all seemed to be over and his strength was ebbing away, he raised his head for a last farewell look-out for help, and one of his hands struck against a rock.

Almost as he touched it the stream bore him by, but there was another mass close at hand, hung with tresses of seaweed and thickly strewed with mussels, and here he got a hold for a few moments, in spite of the drag of the rushing water.

It required no little effort to hold on and support the drowning man as well, but even a few moments’ rest gave him some return of power, and he was helped now by his companion, who in a feeble struggle to get at and clutch something, caught at the seaweed, into which his fingers convulsively wound themselves, and thus gave Harry Paul a hand at liberty for his own use.

It was some time, though, before he dared to do more than cling to the rock.  He was too weak and helpless.  At the end of a few minutes, however, he felt stronger, and summoning up his energies for the effort, he got one hand higher, then the other, and clung there half out of the water.

There was less drag upon him here from the stream; his breath came more freely, and with it returning strength, sufficient to enable him to climb right out of the water, lie face downwards upon the rock, and, stretching down his hands, clasp the wrists of his companion, whose fingers seemed to have grown into the tough weed to which they clung.

This act brought his face within a foot or so of his companion’s countenance.  Their eyes met, and in his surprise Harry Paul nearly let go, for he now for the first time realised the fact that he had been risking his life in an endeavour to save that of the man whom he had heard accused of an attempt to destroy him the night before.

It was a strange position, and Harry Paul, as he bent down holding Penelly there, recalled all he had heard, and, in spite of his manly feelings, he could not help believing that in a sudden fit of dislike, or under a momentary temptation, Penelly had thrown the nets over him, though evidently repenting the next moment of what he had done.

Penelly, too, was fast recovering his strength, and with it the horrible sense of confusion was passing away.  He, too, realised that the man whom he had so cruelly assailed was now sustaining him after evidently swimming to his aid.

He gazed for a few moments straight into Harry’s eyes, and in their stern gaze as they seemed to read him through and through, he saw, or fancied that he saw, his own condemnation, and that Harry was going to thrust him from his hold.

It was a strange reaction as he hung there ­he, the brave and daring swimmer, famed for his dives off Carn Du, held up by the man he had always denounced as a terrible coward; whom he had hated from boyhood almost, without cause, and whom really, under the impulse of a horrible temptation, he had on the previous night tried to hamper in his swimming, though not really to drown.

Neither spoke, neither stirred for some time.  There was no great strain upon Harry’s hands now, since Penelly’s grasp was desperate.  The former was content to lie there gazing into his enemy’s eyes, for his strength was returning with every breath; that breathing was less laboured, and, in place of his heart throbbing and jumping, sending hot gushes of blood, as it were, choking to his throat, it began to settle steadily down to its ordinary labours in the breast of a strongly-built, healthy, temperate man.

“Conscience makes cowards of us all;” so the great writer has said; and truer words never stood out bold and striking from the paper on which they were written.

In his abject misery and dread, Mark Penelly saw, in the stern gaze before him, anger and a vindictive desire for revenge; he saw therein fierce hate, and an implacable, unchanging condemnation; he felt that Harry was sustaining him there where he had dragged him to make his sufferings more acute, and that, after holding him up for a while, he would loosen his hold, causing him to sink at once into the deep water by the rocks, and be swept away by the tremendous current.

He judged Harry Paul, in fact, by the same measure as he would have meted out to an enemy himself; and so terrible were his thoughts, so horrifying to him was the thought of the death from which he had escaped, that he was robbed of all energy; he had not strength to do more than hang there clinging to the weeds with desperate clutch, and, with only his head out of water, gaze up in Harry’s stern eyes.

And they were stern, for strange thoughts had intruded themselves, seeming to take possession of the young man’s mind, and making him speak and act contrary to his wont.

At last he spoke, and the trembling wretch beneath him shivered and uttered a despairing cry.

“How came you in the water?” said Harry sternly.

“Oh, in mercy, spare me, Harry Paul,” shrieked the miserable wretch, “and I’ll tell you all.”

“Then he did throw the nets over me,” thought Harry, in spite of himself; and he began to wonder why it was he did not make an effort to drag Penelly on to the rock.

“Tell me, then,” he said in a low hoarse voice, that he did not know for his own.

“I will ­yes, I will tell you,” said Penelly; “only promise me you’ll spare me.”

“Tell me this moment,” said Harry sternly.

“You are going to let me sink down,” cried Penelly in horror-stricken tones.  “Oh, Harry Paul, my good, brave fellow! help me out ­save me ­ save me!”

A curious smile curled the young man’s lip, one which horrified Penelly, who shrieked out: 

“Yes, yes; I’ll confess all.  Zekle Wynn threatened to tell ­to tell ­”

“That you threw the net over me last night?”

“Yes ­yes ­I did; but it was an accident ­an ac ­”

“What?” roared Harry.

“No, no ­I confess,” said Penelly feebly, for he felt that his last hour had come.  “I did it.  I felt tempted to do it when you swam round; but Heaven’s my witness, Harry, I only meant to duck you.  I meant to help drag you out after a minute, and so I did.”

“How came you in the race this morning?” said Harry, in a cold, cutting voice.

“I’ll ­I’ll confess all,” said Penelly faintly, “only help me out and save my life.  I’ll go away from Carn Du, Harry Paul.  I’ll be like your dog in future, only save me.”

“The dog of a terrible coward?” said Harry coldly.

“Oh, no; but you are not a coward, Harry.  Help!”

“How came you in the race?”

“I ­I ­swam off to the lugger.  I meant to swim off and cut her adrift ­ the lugger Zekle was in ­he said he’d tell you.  I got into the water this side of Carn Du, and meant to swim to the buoy, cut her adrift, and swim back, but I was caught in the race.  Help me out ­I’m dying!  Oh! help me, Harry! help!”

Harry Paul made no effort to drag the wretched man out, but gazed thoughtfully downward into his eyes, while, under the influence of that stern gaze, Penelly quailed and shuddered, his blue lips parted, his eyes seem to start, but he could not speak.

“Mark Penelly,” said Harry at length; and his voice sounded deep and angry, and like the utterance of a judge, to the despairing wretch beneath him ­“Mark Penelly, I never did you any harm.”

Penelly stared at him wildly, but he could not answer.

“You have always made yourself my enemy, and tried to ruin me in the sight of others.  It is to you I owe the character of being the greatest coward in Carn Du.  You said I was a miserable cur ­a dog.  Every dog has his day, and now it is mine.  It is my turn now, and I mean to have revenge.”

As he spoke his hands tightened round the shivering man’s wrists till they seemed like iron bands.  He changed his position rapidly, and as Penelly closed his eyes, lowered the miserable wretch down till the water covered his lips, and then, by one strong effort, dragged him out on to the weedy rock, where he lay motionless and half dead, his eyes fixed upon Harry, and evidently waiting for the end.

“Poor wretch!” said Harry to himself, as he gazed down at the helpless man, and, loosening and taking off his woollen jersey, he wrung it tightly, getting out as much water as he could, and then drew it on the stony cold figure lying in the washed-up dry brown weed.  This, too, he dragged over him, piling it up in a heap, to try and give him some warmth, while the exertion sent a thrill of heat through his own half-naked frame.

Fortunately, the sun’s rays came down hot and bright, and the rock grew warmer, so that by degrees the terribly void look began to leave Mark Penelly’s face, and at last, when Harry held out his hand, saying, “Do you feel better?” Mark Penelly caught it in both of his, clung to it, and, turning half over on his face, laid his forehead against it, and, forgetting his years of manhood, lay there in his weakness, and sobbed and cried like a child.

They were on that rock till nightfall, when a passing lugger bound for the fishing-ground answered their hail, and sent a boat to take them off, giving them the news that Harry’s boat had been found ashore, with only one oar, and Mark Penelly’s clothes beyond Carn Du, and that they were mourned as lost.

This mourning was soon, however, turned into joy; but before the two young men parted at the harbour Mark said humbly: 

“Forgive me, Harry, and I’ll try to be another man.”

With a frank smile on his face Harry held out his hand, and giving the other’s a hearty grip he exclaimed: 

“Ask God to forgive you, Mark; I am going to forget the past.  I thank Him that I saved your life.”