Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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And he a lover! And his love as good as drowned before his eyes! – for not a vestige of the ship had he seen since the original mishap to the port life-boat. It was a terrible reflection to Denis for the rest of his days – but at the time he did not think of her – did not even picture a certain shade of pink and ask himself what it meant and must mean to him till his dying day. He just lay and held on to the warm sand, foot and finger, because the earth heaved under him as the sea had done for thirteen weeks, and his vitality was very low.

Consciousness might have left him altogether; he always wanted to think so, for then he could have forgiven himself; but he was never satisfied on the point. He only knew it was a faint far cry that roused him in the end. But faint as it was, and never so far away, that thin high cry brought the half-dead man to his feet like a gunshot at the ear.

A bar of sunlight slanted through the narrow heads, and in the sun the blue waves were tipped with gold, and across the gold and the blue a black spar floated with some sodden and discoloured rags.

But Denis was in no doubt as to their shade.

CHAPTER III
THE CASTAWAYS

Denis had been a swimmer all his life; how he struck out now every swimmer will know, though none so well as the happy few who have themselves saved life. It is good to think that that noblest of human instincts had its secret place even now in this glowing heart; that Denis Dent would have given himself as unstintedly to the rescue of some unknown person; yet surely the sacred flame alone could have fired those spent members to the last pitch of redoubled endurance. The white left arm, brown as a glove from the wrist down, flew over as white a shoulder in flashing curves; the brown head dipped in the blue, to rise spluttering and dripping a good yard further; but the yards were close on two hundred from shore to spar, and when Denis came up with the latter, it was his love, indeed, but she was already senseless.

They had tied her in a life-belt, and lashed the life-belt to a spar; in time she would have been cast up on the warm sand, dead! She was not dead yet; she should not die. Denis took the hem of her dear drenched garment between his teeth, and swam in, if possible, more strenuously than he had swum out, but with the breast stroke, and in twice the time.

At last she lay where he had lain, only in the sun. Already the sand was gloriously hot to bare knees; and there was still a faint throbbing in the inanimate wrist, though the eyelids lay leaden in a livid face. Denis caught up his scattered clothes, raced behind a ti-tree thicket, and put them on as hurriedly as he had plucked them off.

The thicket grew under the cliffs between the two caves, and Denis delayed some seconds to fill his arms with branches before running back to the girl.

Her pulse seemed stronger. He arranged some of the branches, but left the sun beating on her feet.

It was the month of October, and early summer in Australia.

Sundry packages had already come ashore; there was the inevitable barrel of salt junk; there was a box of soap, that Denis spurned, and another box so similar that he left it to the last. Judge therefore of his joy on eventually discovering that here was nothing less than a case of Spanish brandy! He shrieked the good tidings to the girl. She did not stir. He had to run back to her, and lift that leaden wrist once more, before he could bear to open the box.

His sailor's knife was worth a thousand pounds to him in that hour; the great blade made short enough work of the lid, but the heavy haft knocked the neck off a bottle so prettily as to provide a measure with the medicine. Denis filled the inverted neck as he ran, and was soon spilling as much over the marble face as he managed to get between the bloodless lips. Then, for the first time, fear came to him: he retreated a little on his knees. The stuff had caught her breath, her eyelids twitched, and as she coughed the marble flushed to flesh. She did not quite open her eyes.

"I am so cold," she moaned; and the white feet were drawn up a very little, but so stiffly, as though the whole body had been dragged with them.

Denis's blood froze as he remembered some vague saying that the feet die first; even in the hot sun these looked dead enough; they also must be brought to life, and the arch enemy repulsed at every point, at any sacrifice. In Denis, or rather in the Denis who was least a Dent, the act would almost outstrip the thought; this was the Denis who was saving his darling's life without time to realize what she was to him. Quicker than thought he had tipped up the bottle itself, so that the brandy came out in gulps, first over one pale foot and then the other. And now the left, now the right, now with one hand apiece, and anon with both together for one foot, did he chafe and rub, and rub and chafe, until the little lead feet were such pink shells, but so warm, so warm that the tears stood in his eyes. For he had been long enough at it to think a little as he rubbed; but as yet it was otherwise with her; she could only lie there with closed eyes, as meek and unashamed as any other dying soul.

She was not going to die, however, unless Denis dropped dead first. When he could leave her feet he had a turn at her hands, a much shorter journey for the blood, and by the time they began to clasp his feebly there was no more brandy left. Denis went for another bottle, and half the next dose she swallowed properly; the rest she pushed toward him.

"To please me," she whispered: they were her first words, and it his first drop.

Now she was lying with her eyes tight shut, but not in sleep. Her lips moved, first in the faintest smile, then in more whispers.

"I remember – everything. I knew you would come to me. I knew it!"

He could only say her name.

"Nan! Nan! Nan!"

It was as though his heart had broken, it was so full. He had dared to call her his, the other night under the awning; he never dreamed of doing so now. His conception of honour forbade an endearment which she could not repudiate if she would; his own delicacy deplored the vital offices which had been thrust upon him. He had brought the life's blood back to leaden limbs, but he had brought it back at an expense which he already apprehended dimly. In her right senses she might have chosen death. He had taken on himself to give her life, and now she would live to love or loathe him.

Gentle birth and hard upbringing had produced in Denis an essential delicacy underneath a somewhat bluff exterior; but he was not self-conscious on either score. Qualm and pang came upon him as part of the situation, almost as his deserts. He was not aware of any fine feeling in the matter. He was full of feeling, but he did not know that it was fine.

Presently he saw she was asleep, and when he bent to listen she was breathing beautifully; he just touched one hand, with the strange new awe he had for her, and it was warmer than his own. But now he was in a new difficulty; he found time to appreciate his own exhaustion; a stiff pull of brandy alone kept him from fainting, and he foresaw in alarm how it would be. They would both lie sleeping where they were, the almost tropical sun would beat down on them all day, and they might never see another. The nearer cave was not twenty yards away. Denis went to it, and it was lined with far finer sand than outside; he came back and gazed a moment on the girl. She was very young, and so delicately made! He knew that he could carry her, feeble though he now felt: if only it did not wake her. He gathered her tenderly in his arms: he carried her to the cave, he put her down on the cool fine sand, and all she did was to smile on him in her sleep.

If only she would when she awoke!

Meanwhile a pillow she must have before Denis would lay his own head anywhere, and he had seen some rushes in the thicket. He cut an armful, and thin bundle by thin bundle he got the lot under her head at last. Then there was the table. He caught sight of it along the beach, and thought what a fine screen it would make for Nan. It kept him up another ten minutes; but by that time, and thereafter, the sun might stream into the cave, but not a fiery finger would it lay on Nan. So then Denis measured his length at last, outside the screen, as a dog lies across the door.

On finally awaking (for many times he dropped off again deliciously), his first act was to listen on hands and knees; and since the sound he could just hear was as peaceful as it was regular, his next was to go outside and stick a rush upright in the sand. Its shadow was a short finger pointing seaward, so that he knew it was about noon. The tide had gone down. Denis walked to the edge of the surf, and there stood gazing up at the cliff for many minutes. No; there was no way up that he saw or could conceive. Yet the little beach was only as the lees in the flagon of a bay. There was assuredly no way round.

It is fifty years since the wreck of the North Foreland and the second mate's extraordinary climb, but the scene of each remains an object of interest to visitors at the station on the heights above, while the minor incident is unfailing matter for conjecture, contention, and much open incredulity. It has been handed down that the sailor himself failed to identify the place within an hour of his alleged performance. The tradition is so far true. Denis never pretended to know how he had achieved the superhuman: had he been in a condition fully to appreciate what he was doing, the chances are that he never would have made the attempt. He did not mean to make it as it was. But with the brandy in him (and little else) he had clambered a few feet to see whether the thing was as impossible as it appeared. Of course, it was not; but already it seemed safer to climb a little further than to drop at the risk of broken bones; and so in a minute he found himself committed to the ascent. The cliff had beetled by insidious degrees; all at once there was nothing to be seen between his naked feet and the beach far below; one foot was soon bleeding, and the drops falling clear into the sand. To drop clear himself would have meant certain injury now; as well break neck as leg, thought Denis, for all the use he would be to Nan with either. So on and up he went, now flattened for breath against a favourable slope, now swinging by the fingers from some ledge that threatened to saw them to the bone, anon testing tuft or twig with his life, yet all with so light a head that the protracted jeopardy was an exhilaration almost to the last. According to Denis, it was just at the top, when a bunch of bracken came up so slowly as to enable him to grasp a stronger bunch in time, that his gorge rose with the roots.

Remains the undisputed fact that between one and two in the afternoon, a lad on the station, whose boundary was these cliffs, saw an eerie figure approaching through the yellow dust of a mob of sheep which he happened to be driving at the time. It was this lad whom the papers mentioned as Mr. James Doherty; but like Denis he was Irish only by descent, and not for an instant did he imagine that he had seen the devil. He appeared to be a very quick youth, who knew the bush, and a glance convinced him that the ragged wretch had been lost in it and driven to some dreadful extremity; for his face and hands were all bloody, and even his bare feet incrusted with blood and dust. Moreover, his speech was slightly indistinct, as is the case with men who are half-dead with thirst.

This lad Doherty was the first person in Australia to learn the fate of the North Foreland, and the first to discredit the wild finish of the wild man's talk.

"Why, there's stairs right down," he cried. "Over two hundred on 'em, cut in the sandstone."

"What a silly lie," sighed Denis.

"Did you sample the caves?"

"One of them."

"Which one?"

"The one with the big mouth."

"Don't you tell me you never went into the other! It's a nat'ral chimbley at the fur end, and the boss had it shoved right through, and steps cut in the sandstone for bathing."

The sailor's bloodstains were cracking in a ghastly grin.

"So that won't do, old man," added Mr. Doherty, severely.

"Will these?"

And Denis lifted one naked foot after the other; the left sole showed a purple bruise, the right a gash that still dripped as he held it up.

Mr. Doherty supposed that he must be the liar, but only allowed himself to look confounded for the moment; the next, he was emptying his water-bag, from which Denis had already enjoyed a deep pull, over the wounds. The sheep had scattered right and left, but the horse stood apparently fast asleep in the sun.

"Now up you jump," said Doherty. "He's as quiet as a cow."

Denis stared at him.

"Jump up? What for?"

"You're within a mile of the homestead. You struck the right track on top."

"Oh, but I'm not going on," said Denis hastily. "I must go back to – her."

"With them feet and without your tucker?"

And the lean brown lad stood with his bare arms akimbo, a stained statue in a flannel shirt and moleskins.

"At once," said Denis. "I've wasted time enough; and if there are stairs there's no difficulty. Go you back to the homestead, and tell them to send down everything they can think of for a young lady. Food and clothes; mind, she hasn't had a bite since dinner yesterday."

The young Australian doffed his wide-awake with a sweep.

"Why, mister!" he got out, but that was all. "I'm sorry I didn't call you 'mister' before," he added, after the stare of an idolater. "I'll never leave it out again!"

Denis was limping along only a few minutes later when the sound of a gallop made him look round for the rider who had just left him; and the same horse it was, but a different horseman, for whom the stirrups were grotesquely short. In a few seconds he had bobbed and bounded into a blue-eyed man with fair beard blowing and tanned face filled with humane distress.

"Get on this horse," he cried, flinging himself off. "If you don't, I'll carry you myself! There – let me give you a hand; my name's Kitto; this is my run. Everything's following in the buggy, but here's a biscuit to begin on; the beds will be made and aired by the time we get you both back. But only two of you – only two!"

Mr. Kitto had a heart of gold, and wore it on his sleeve; rarer still was a tact almost incongruous in that desolate spot. Not a question had Denis to answer as the horse ambled under him and the squatter strode alongside. But when they came to the mouth of a long stair tunneled through the soft sandstone, it was Mr. Kitto who looked curiously at the rude steep steps.

"Nobody has come up here," said he. "We had a dust-storm yesterday before the wind went round, and the sand on these top steps is as it drifted."

Denis could afford to smile.

"So you didn't believe it either."

"What's that? I could believe the side of a house of you, my brave fellow!" cried Mr. Kitto. "I only mean that your companion hasn't found her way up in your absence."

"Ah, if she could!" sighed Denis. "But she is so weak I am afraid we shall have to carry her up between us."

The squatter smiled, but said nothing.

"If only she is no weaker – if only she has slept right through!" Denis went on, and repeated himself all the way down; but at the base he button-holed his guide.

"Do I look very awful, sir? Is my face as bad as my hands? Wait a bit, then – stay where you are."

And his injured feet could still dance him down to the water's edge; but he came stealing back, one index finger to his lips, signing with the other to Mr. Kitto to let him go first; and the smile on the cleansed face told that good man a tale.

The mouth of the greater cave was just as Denis had left it. He crept on all fours between the table legs, and listened. There was no sound. He leaped up and looked over.

The cave was empty.

CHAPTER IV
LOST AND FOUND

Mr. Kitto saw the ragged figure shoot from the cave as though propelled by some unseen power within; and for one second he imagined the worst. He was relieved when the shipwrecked sailor raised his voice.

"Nan! Nan!" he yelled. "Miss Merridew! Miss Merridew! Nan! Nan! Nan!"

The squatter, running up, alone interrupted him.

"She's gone!" cried Denis in terrible excitement. "Gone clean away – God knows where! Look for yourself, if you like; with the sun pouring in you can see to the very end. Do you think I would miss her if it were ten times the size? See, there's where I left her lying; that was all the pillow I could give her; you can almost see the shape of her head!"

And the hoarse voice broke piteously; but such a firm, kind hand had him by the arm, that Denis bit his lips and blinked the tears back to their source.

"Come, now," said Kitto, "there's nothing wonderful in this; the only wonder is that we didn't expect it. Why should she have slept so much longer than you? She had done far less; and they are tougher than you think. She would wake up and find you flown – "

"Poor Nan! Poor Nan!"

"And having the vitality she must have, to say nothing of the pluck, you wouldn't expect her to sit still and wait, would you?"

"I suppose not," said Denis, gloomily. "I only know I would have died to save her what she must have gone through alone – alone."

"You have done your best to die for her," retorted Mr. Kitto, with his kind smile. "Were her people on board with her?"

"Her father, yes; she has no one else."

"Then you may have to live for her," the older man said gravely. "So don't commit any more of your follies, and above all don't make yourself ill without a cause. She is probably trying to find her own way to the station, and it's safe to be the wrong way."

"But you said no one had been up those stairs."

Mr. Kitto stood confounded in the sun.

"She may be about the beach somewhere," he said hurriedly. "After all, it's not so little that you take in every cranny at a glance. Come and let's look. There are all sorts of holes and corners under the cliffs," he added as they went, "where my children play hide-and-seek at picnics. It's our favourite place for them; in fact, that's why I cut those steps. No harm could come to her here."

But his voice had lost something of its cheery confidence, and in spite of him it lost more as they sought together, but sought in vain. As for Denis, there was an end to his lamentations; he was past that stage; but his dumb eyes plumbed the pit.

"Can you cooey?" asked the squatter. "No, you're too hoarse; don't try. But I can, like a blackfellow, thank God!" And he arched his sun-burned hands about his mouth.

"Cooooooooo – eeeey!"

It was long enough and loud to reach the one top-gallant mast of the North Foreland that they descried between the heads, at a certain stage of their wanderings, standing out of the waves for a monument to those beneath: had a single sailor been clinging to it, he must have heard so penetrating and so sustained a call: but from the lost one on shore, as from the drowned multitude without the gateway of sparking blue, not a sound, not a sign.

Doherty and another arrived with blankets, clothes, coffee, mutton, damper, billy-can, everything that kind thought could send, with a sweet message from her who sent them; but this fell on deaf ears. Denis would touch nothing till she whom he had lost was found again; so the squatter thrust him down into the sand, and between them they forced him to make a meal. And being at last in a more reasonable frame, he would have ended by putting on the shoes which he had cast off in the morning, and forgotten or despised ever since; but now his feet were so swollen, he could not get them on. But as for letting them send him back to the station in the buggy, and leaving the search to them, as Mr. Kitto had now the temerity to suggest, it was as much as Denis could do to hear him out civilly.

The survivor went his own way after this, and it led him first to the summit of the cliffs, to see for himself whether there was no trace up there; for he had been incredulous on that point all along; but now so many had been up and down that he had still only one man's word for the absence of foot-marks in the beginning, and he roamed far afield in vigilant circles. He had been lost himself but for a fire they made on top of the cliff; and when he came shambling back to the brink, down below there was quite a galaxy of lanterns moving in different directions, a constellation of creeping stars. So they had not found her yet; and now it was black night.

In the utter heart-break of the hour, and the last stage of physical distress, Denis had half a mind to fling himself over and be done with it all; but only half a mind, and not a hundredth part of the heart. Instead, as he went down gingerly in the dusk, one painful step at a time, he reviled himself from top to bottom for the unnecessary climb which is not wholly credited to this day. It was already at the root of everything in the climber's mind. Had he only explored the smaller cavern, he had been back with succour in one hour instead of three.



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