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   Chapter 18 CHAPTER XVI

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14945

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Presently, while I lay upon the shingle panting, a wet hand touched my head, and looking up with dazzled eyes I saw Grace bending down beside me. The water drained from her garments, she was shivering, but at least she had suffered no injury.

"Ralph! Ralph! tell me you are not hurt!" she said, and something in her voice and eyes thrilled me through, but, though I struggled to do so, I could not as yet overcome the weakness, and lay still, no doubt a ghastly half-drowned object, with the blood from the wound the branch made trickling down my forehead, until stooping further she laid her hand on my shoulder, and there was more than compassion in the eyes that regarded me so anxiously.

Then, slowly, power and speech came back together, and covering the slender fingers with kisses I staggered to my feet.

"Thank God, you are safe!" I said, "and whatever happens, I have saved you. You will forgive me this last folly, but all the rest was only a small price to pay for it."

She did not answer, though for a moment the hot blood suffused her cheek, and I stood erect, still dazed and bewildered-for the quartz reef had cruelly bruised me-glancing round in search of the canoe. Failing to find it, I again broke out gratefully:

"Thank heaven, you are safe!"

Grace leaned against a boulder. "Sit down on that 176 ledge. You have not quite recovered," she said; and I was glad to obey, for my limbs were shaky, and the power of command was born in her. Then with a sigh she added very slowly: "I fear you are premature. Still, I think you are a brave man, and no Carrington was ever a coward. Look around and notice the level, and remember the daily rise."

Stupidly I blinked about me, trying to collect my scattered wits. The strip of shingle stood perhaps a foot above the river and was only a few yards wide. In front, the horrible eddy lapped upon the pebbles at each revolving swirl, and behind us rose a smooth wall of rock absolutely unclimbable, even if it had not overhung. That, however, was not the worst, for a numbing sense of dismay, colder far than the chilly snow-water, crept over me as I remembered that most mountain streams in British Columbia rise and fall several feet daily. They are lowest in early morning, because at night the frost holds fast the drainage of snow-field and glacier which feeds them on the peaks above; then, as the sun unchains the waters, they increase in volume, so that many a ford which a man might pass knee-deep at dawn is swept by roaring flood before the close of afternoon.

"Watch that stone," said Grace with a stately calmness, though first she seemed to choke down some obstruction in her throat. "There! the last wash has buried it, and when we landed the one with the red veins-it is covered several inches now-was bare."

A sudden fury seized me, and raising a clenched hand aloft I ground my heels into the shingle, while Grace looked on pityingly.

"I was almost afraid to mention it at first," she said. "I-I hoped you would take it differently."

Then at last I began to understand clearly. I flung 177 back my head as I answered: "It is not for my own miserable safety that I care one atom. Neither if we had gone down together in the fall would it have seemed so hard; but after bringing you in safety so far it is horrible to be held helpless here while inch by inch the waters rise. Great God! is there nothing I can do? Grace, if I had ten lives I would gladly give them all to save you!"

Again the tell-tale color flickered in her face; then it vanished, and her voice shook a little.

"I believe you," she answered. "Indeed, it seems only too probable that you gave up one when you leaped the poor horse into the river. It was done very gallantly, and now you must wait as gallantly for what that great God sends."

She seemed so young and winsome and beautiful that suddenly in place of rage a great pity came upon me, and I think my eyes grew dim, for Grace looked at me very gently as she added: "No; death comes to all of us some time, and you must not grieve for me."

But because I was young and the full tide of lusty life pulsed within me, I could not bear to think of what must follow. Again, it seemed beyond human comprehension that she, the incarnation of all that was fair and lovable, must perish so miserably, and once more I had to struggle hard to restrain a fresh outbreak of impotent fury. Presently, however, her great fortitude infected me, and with the calmness it brought there came a feeling that I must tell her all now or never. Nevertheless, I felt that she knew it already, for one glance had made many things manifest when we first entered the ca?on.

"Grace," I said huskily, "I want you to listen while I answer a question which, without speaking, you asked me-Why should I, a rough railroad contractor, esteem it an inestimable privilege to freely lay down my life for you? 178 It is only because I love you, and have done so from the day we talked together on Starcross Moor-it seems so long ago. Listen yet. I meant never to have told you until I had won the right to do so, and had something to offer the heiress of Carrington, and I fought hard for it, toiling late and early, with a dead weight of adverse fortune against me; but all that was little when every blow was struck for your sweet sake. And, if you had chosen another, I should have kept my secret, and prayed that you might be happy. Now when, so far as worldly rank goes, we stand as equals in the valley of death, I dare open all my heart to you; and, if it must be, I should ask no better end than to enter eternity here holding your hand."

She trembled a little, great tears were brimming in her eyes, but again I read more than pity or sorrow in their liquid depths, and the next moment I had spread my wet arms about her and her head rested on my shoulder. There are some things that concern but two souls among all those on earth, and the low answer that came for the first time falteringly through her lips is to be numbered among them; but a little later, with my arm still about her, Grace smiled up at me wistfully as the remorseless waters lapped nearer.

"I loved you because you were steadfast and fearless," she said. "Sweetheart, it will not be so hard to die together now. Do you know this is all a part of the strange memories, as though I had learned somewhere and somehow what was to be. Either in dreams or a mental phantasy I saw you riding across the prairie through the whirling snow. When you strode with bronzed face, and hard hand on my bridle through the forest, that was familiar too, and-you remember the passage about Lancelot-I knew you were my own true knight. But this is not the last of the dream forecasts or memories, and there was something brighter beyond it I could not grasp. Perhaps it may be the glories 179 of the hereafter. I wonder whether the thought was born when that sunset flamed and flashed?"

I listened, tightening my grasp about her and shivering a little. This may have been due to physical cold, or a suggestion of the supernatural; but Grace spoke without terror, reverently, and ended:

"Ralph, have you ever thought about that other world? Shall we be permitted to walk hand in hand through the first thick darkness, darling?"

"Don't!" I cried, choking. "You shall not die. Wait here while I try to climb round those boulders; there might be a branch that would f

loat us, or a log of driftwood in a lower eddy," and leaving her I managed with much difficulty to scale a few great water-worn masses that had fallen from above and shut out the view of the lower river. Still, though I eagerly scanned the boulders scattered here and there along the opposite bank, there was only foam and battered stone, and at last I flung myself down dejectedly on a ledge. I dare not go back just then and tell her that the search was quite hopeless, and it may have been inherited obstinacy, but I would not own myself quite beaten yet. So I lay watching the cruel water slide past, while a host of impossible schemes flashed through my bewildered brain. They all needed at least a rope, or a few logs, though one might have been rendered feasible by a small crowbar. But I had none of these things.

Meantime a few white cloudlets drifted across the rift of blue above, and a cool breadth of shadow darkened the pine on the great rocks. Something suggested a fringe of smaller firs along the edge of a moor in Lancashire, and for a moment my thoughts sped back to the little gray-stone church under the Ling Fell. Then a slow stately droning swelled into a measured boom and I wondered what it was, until it flashed on me that this was a funeral 180 march I had once heard there on just such a day; and it was followed by a voice reading something faint and far away, snatches of which reached me brokenly, "In the sure and certain hope," and again, "Blessed are the dead."

There was, perhaps, a reason for such fancies, though I did not know it at that time, for, as I found afterward by the deep score across the scalp, my head must have been driven against the stone with sufficient violence to destroy forever the balance of a less thickly covered brain. However, it could not have lasted more than a few moments before I knew that the funeral march was only the boom of the river, and if I would not have it as sole requiem for one who was dearer far than life to me I must summon all my powers of invention. The waters had risen several inches since I first flung myself down. Great events hang on very small ones, and we might well have left our bones in the ca?on, but that when crawling over a boulder I slipped and fell heavily, and, when for a moment I lay with my head almost in the river, I could see from that level something in the eddy behind a rock on the further shore which had remained unnoticed before.

It was a dark object, half-hidden among grinding fragments of driftwood and great flakes of spume, but I caught hard at my breath when a careful scrutiny showed that beyond all doubt it was the overturned canoe. Still, at first sight, it seemed beyond the power of flesh and blood to reach it. The rapid would apparently sweep the strongest swimmer down the ca?on, while the revolving pool span suggestively in narrowing circles toward the deadly vortex where the main rush from the fall went down. Second thought, however, suggested there might be a very small chance that when swept round toward the opposite shore one could by a frantic struggle draw clear of the rotary swirl into the downward flow, which ran more slackly close 181 under the bank. I came back and explained this to Grace, and then for the first time her courage gave way.

"You must not go," she said. "No one could swim through that awful pool, and-I am only a woman, weak after all-I could not stay here and see you drown. Ralph, it was the thought of having you beside me that gave me courage-you must not leave me alone to the river."

"It is our last chance, sweetheart," I said very slowly, "and we dare not neglect it, but I will make a promise. If I feel my strength failing, when I know I can do no more, I will come back to you. Standing here you could reach my hand as the eddying current sweeps me round. Now, wish me good fortune, darling."

Grace stooped and kissed my forehead, for even as I spoke I knelt to strip off the long boots. This was no time for useless ceremony. Then with a faint ghost of a blush she added, "You must not be handicapped-fling away your jacket and whatever would hamper you," after which, standing beside me at the edge of the water, she said very solemnly, "God bless and keep you, Ralph."

Then I whirled both hands above my head, leaped out from the quartz shelf, and felt the chilly flood part before me until, instead of dull green transparency, there was daylight about me again, and my left hand swept forward through the air with the side-stroke which in younger days I had taken much pains to cultivate. Now there was the hardness in muscles which comes from constant toil behind it, besides a force which I think was not born altogether of bodily strength, and even then I could almost rejoice to feel the water sweep past me a clear half-fathom as the palm drove backward hollowed to the hip, while the river boiled and bubbled under my partly submerged head. But I swung right around the eddy, and almost under the tail rush of the fall, while once for a moment I caught sight of Grace's 182 intent face as, husbanding my strength for a few seconds, I passed tossed about on the confused welter close by the quartz shelf. Then, as the circling waters hurried me a second time round and outward toward the further shore, I made what I knew must be the last effort, made it with cracking sinews and bursting lungs, and drew clear by a foot or two of the eddy's circumference. A few more strokes and an easy paddling carried me down-stream, and a wild cry of triumph, which more resembled a hoarse cackle than a shout, went up when at last I drew myself out of the water beside the canoe.

I lay on the cold stone breathing hard for several minutes; then I managed to drag the light shell out and empty her, after which I tore up a strip of the cedar flooring to form a paddle, and found that though one side was crushed the damage was mostly above flotation level. It would serve no purpose to narrate the return passage, and it was sufficiently arduous, but a man in the poorest craft with a paddle has four times the power of any swimmer, and at last I reached the shingle, which was almost covered now. Grace stood on the brink to meet me with a cry of heartfelt relief when I ran in the bows, then a momentary dizziness came upon me, as, all dripping as I was, I lifted her into the stern. After I thrust off the craft, and, struggling clear of the eddy, we shot away on the outgoing stream, she smiled as she said:

"It was splendidly done! Ralph, is it foolish-I once supposed it would be so-that because you have the strength to do these things you make me proud of you?"

There is little more to tell, and that passage through the ca?on left behind it an unpleasant memory. Though it was rising all the time, the stream ran more evenly, there were no more cataracts or whirlpools, and while Grace was obliged to bail hard with-so closely does burlesque 183 follow on tragedy-one of my long boots, she could keep the leaks under. I did my best with the paddle, for I could see the tension was telling on her, and at last the great rock walls fell back on either hand, and dwarf pines and juniper climbed the less precipitous slopes, until these too opened out into a wide valley, and we slid forth safely into clear sunlight. Never had brightness and warmth so rejoiced me as they did after the cold damp horror of that passage through the dark rift in the earth.

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