"Haul in twenty feet of the rope when it reaches you, make fast, and throw back the loose end. You must get across as best you can. No time to rig a safer tackle."
"Ay, ay, Sir!" was the reply.
"Heave away, Peridot!"
Tollemache, though not neglecting his special duty, spared one glance over his shoulder; but the rope did not undertake its spiral flight at once. The resourceful Breton awaited a momentary lull in the wind. Then the heavy coil was flung, and fell into the hands of one of the men on the bridge. As he was securing it to a stanchion, his companion, he whose gigantic stature had first caught Yvonne's attention, climbed into the tiny wheelhouse, and reappeared almost immediately, carrying a woman in his arms.
The sight caused a fresh thrill on board the Hirondelle. Somehow it was totally unexpected.
"Fools!" said Tollemache, meaning, no doubt, that men might, if they chose, venture their lives in fair fight against the storm gods, but they had no right to subject a woman to the ordeal.
Ingersoll overheard, and understood. He even smiled. Lorry regarded Yvonne as a chum to be trusted in fair weather or foul. It did not occur to him that her father might reasonably have urged the same plea against attempting a seemingly mad and impracticable rescue.
Evidently some fierce dispute was being waged on the Stella. The other man on the bridge, who turned out to be the captain, had thrown back the rope to Peridot, and summoned all hands to gather near. Now he was urging the big man to intrust his inanimate burden to one of the sailors, but met with the most positive refusal. Every second was vital, and Peridot blazed into annoyance.
"Gars!" he roared. "If they waste time, I'll back out!"
The commander of the yacht, however, was well aware of the greatest peril which threatened now; so without more ado he steadied the giant while the latter raised the woman's body to his left shoulder, grasped the double rope in both hands, and lowered himself into the water.
The passage was not difficult. The ropes were fairly taut, and the distance between the two craft not more than sixteen feet. Indeed, such a Hercules in physique might well regard the task as a mere nothing, and he set out with quiet confidence, extending his left arm in each onward movement, and closing up with the right.
Yvonne, watching his progress, suddenly yielded to another memory of Tollemache swinging from the shepherds' hooks of Sainte Barbe's tower. Suppose the rope were to break – just as one of the rings had come away in Lorry's grip? Of course the notion was stupid. She knew that each strand of that particular rope was sound, that it might be trusted to hold the Hirondelle herself against the straining of wind and tide, let alone bear the dead weight of two people; but a woman's intuition is stronger than reason. And in this instance her foreboding came true, though from a cause that she had not foreseen.
All at once Peridot uttered a yell that degenerated into a semihysterical shriek; for temperament counts in such crises, and the Breton nature was being strung to a high pitch.
"Hold tight, all hands! Here's a tidal wave!" The monster whose coming the fisherman had feared all day was upon them before Tollemache could translate the warning.
Then their blinded eyes emerged into blessed daylight again, their lungs filled with air, the flood subsided, the Hirondelle rose, trembling like a living creature, and the wave boomed away across the half-mile of channel to tear at the rocks of Finist?re in a last paroxysm.
Peridot, secure in the faith that one born with a caul could not drown, was perhaps the first to regain his senses. When he swept the water from his eyes he looked for the Stella; but that unfortunate little vessel had only been driven still more tightly into the jaws of the reef, though a great gap showed to starboard amidships. She was breaking in two.
"God be thanked for that, at any rate!" he muttered.
The concession was due to the strong commonsense of a Breton, which told him that signs and portents would prove of no avail against instant death if the Stella had rolled over. Then, having ascertained that his own people were safe, he looked for the colossus he had last seen clutching the ropes. The ropes were there; but man and woman had vanished. Something bobbed up among the spume and foam close to the Hirondelle's side. He leaned over and grabbed a huge arm. With one powerful tug he drew a body half out of the water. It was the man; but the woman had been reft from his close embrace at the moment when some chance of safety seemed to have come most surely within reach. His sou'wester cap had been wrenched off, and, even when hauling the limp body on board, Peridot knew that his quickness of eye and hand would avail naught.
He held a corpse in his grasp. The top of the unfortunate man's skull was visibly flattened, and the gray hair was already darkened by an ominous dye. In all likelihood the wave struck him when least prepared, tore his fingers from the ropes, and dashed him head foremost against the Hirondelle's timbers.
Peridot was no sentimentalist. He did not waste a needless sigh over the fate of one when the lives of many were trembling in the balance. Even when he was placing the body at Yvonne's feet, where it would be out of the way for the time, he peered up at her with a grim smile.
"Two gone, Ma'mselle," he said; "but with the help of the Madonna we'll save the rest!"
A shriek from the girl's lips, and an expression of terror in her eyes which assuredly was not there after the gallant Hirondelle had thrown off her mightiest and most vindictive assailant, told him that some worse tragedy was imminent. He turned, and saw Tollemache leaping into the frothing vortex that raged between the stern of the boat and the nearest rock. The Breton guessed instantly that the young American had seen the drowning woman. Leaving the Stella momentarily in charge of Ingersoll and Yvonne, he raced aft, and seized the sweep that Tollemache had dropped. Simultaneously his friend's head rose above the maelstrom; for the cork jacket bore Lorry bravely. He was clasping the woman's apparently lifeless form with one hand, and battling against the sea with the other when the long oar was thrust within reach, and he too was drawn to the side.
Meanwhile Ingersoll, exercising splendid self control, had not deserted his post. After the heavy backwash caused by the tidal wave, a sea had curled in from the open to fill the inlet again, and the Hirondelle was carried so near the reef that the stout oar bent under the strain of fending her off, and might conceivably have snapped had not some assistance been given by the ropes attached to the Stella. Another and more normal backwash came in the nick of time, and the boat retreated to her earlier position. Now, if the Fates were aught but merciless, there might be a breathing space.
Peridot's gray-green eyes sparkled as they met Tollemache's brown eyes, gazing up steadily from the swirl of waters.
"You all right?" he said, seizing the woman's arms.
"Why not?" said Tollemache. "Lift her aboard. Don't bother about me."
Ere Peridot had laid the dead or unconscious woman by the side of the man who had already given his life for her sake, Tollemache was on deck again, and lending a hand to the first sailor to cross by the ropes. The survivors followed rapidly, and the last to leave the Stella was her captain.
Ten men were rescued, – five sailors, including the master, two stokers, an engineer, a steward, and a passenger. The two last were in the saloon when the vessel struck, and had crawled on deck as best they could, the passenger having sustained a broken arm, and the steward a sprained ankle.
It was obvious, from the measures taken to safeguard the injured pair, that they were in urgent need of attention; but Peridot knew that the lives of all still trembled in the balance. So he bawled to Tollemache:
"Get the lady below, and as many of the others as you can pack in. During the next few minutes I want none but sailors on deck. Gars! Be quick about it too! No, don't trouble about that poor fellow. He's gone!"
Already he had cast off the ropes that formed the precarious bridge. Tollemache told the shipwrecked crew what the Breton had said, and they obeyed with the readiness of men who were aware of the paramount necessity of prompt action.
The Stella's captain had already summed up the new problem facing the Hirondelle, and issued his orders with decision. He and a sturdy deckhand helped Tollemache and Ingersoll with the sweeps, which were now to be used as oars, while the others carried the woman to the cabin, and helped their disabled shipmates to make the descent.
Yvonne, though unwilling to leave the deck until the next ordeal was ended, felt that she ought to sacrifice her own wishes to the need of a sister in distress; but Peridot settled the matter by bidding her take the tiller.
"We can't get back to the inside passage on this wind. If we tried it, Les Verr?s would catch us," he said. "We'll forge out a bit with the sweeps. When clear of the yacht we'll be just clear of the reef too. When you see me begin to haul at the sail put the helm hard over for the seaward tack. We're going outside. You understand?"
"Perfectly," she said.
She ran between the four men laboring at the oars, well pleased to have a task that would absorb her mind to the exclusion of all else, and profoundly relieved because it took her away from the vicinity of the dead body. Even as the Stella's company were climbing on board she could not avoid an occasional glance at the huge and inert form at her feet. It was a dreadful thing to see the soul battered out of such a magnificent frame in such a way. Never before had she set eyes on a man of similar proportions. He was inches over six feet in height, and stout withal, so that he completely dwarfed the tall and sinewy frame of Laurence Tollemache, who hitherto had loomed as a giant among undersized Frenchmen. Oilskins and heavy sea boots added to the dead man's apparent bulk. His face, which wore a singularly placid expression, was well modeled. In youth he must have been extremely good looking; in middle age – apparently he was over fifty – he still retained clear-cut features, and strands of a plentiful crop of iron-gray hair dropped over a broad and high forehead.
The woman whom he had declined to intrust to the care of any but himself was probably his wife. Was she dead too? Yvonne wondered. It was almost equally certain that the yacht was theirs; though perhaps they might have hired it for a winter cruise in the Mediterranean by way of the Spanish coast.
These thoughts flitted through the girl's brain as she followed the last phases of the rescue. Now that her hand was on the tiller, and the open sea began to show beyond the yacht's bowsprit, her mind was occupied by the one remaining hazard to the exclusion of all else. She had every confidence in Peridot's seamanship, having been out with him many a time in weather that, if not quite so threatening as this, offered sufficient test of skill and nerve. But she knew well that once the full force of the tide was felt the oars would be useless, chiefly owing to their unwieldy length, and the doubt remained whether the Hirondelle would gain enough way to win out close hauled into deep water.
Still her heart leaped with high courage as her eyes took in the bold and striking picture presented by the deck of the fishing boat during that brief transit through broken seas. In the immediate foreground a small hatchway framed the weather-tanned faces of two men lodged in the companionway so as to avoid overcrowding the cabin. Behind were her father and the yacht's Captain at one oar, and Tollemache and a sailor at the other, pulling with the short, jerky, but powerful stroke alone possible in the conditions. Ingersoll's sallow, well marked, intellectual features were in sharp contrast with the fiery red skin, heavy cheeks and chin, bullet head, and short neck of the man by his side. For an instant the eyes of father and daughter met. He smiled encouragement, and the odd notion occurred to Yvonne that strangest of all the occurrences in an hour packed with incident was the fact that the thin hands that could achieve such marvels by the delicate manipulation of a camel's hair brush should be able to toil manfully at a cumbrous oar.
Then she looked at Lorry, and he grinned most cheerfully.
Skipper and sailor wore the stolid expression of men who didn't know, and didn't particularly care, what happened next. If anything, their watchful glances betrayed a total lack of belief in the wisdom of intrusting the helm to this slip of a girl.
Amidships, and slightly forward, Peridot was standing, both hands laced in the rope that should hoist the sail. The small jib had not been lowered. It was now flapping in the wind with reports like irregular pistol shots; but Yvonne knew it would fill and draw instantly when the tiller brought the boat's head around.
And beyond Peridot was the body of the man who had been snatched from life with such awful suddenness. The broad back and slightly outstretched legs kept it motionless no matter how the deck tilted; but the front skirts of the oilskin coat crackled noisily in the gale, and a lock of hair, though soaked and thick with salt, freed itself from the clammy forehead, and moved fitfully in every gust.
The artist instinct in the girl's heart dominated every other emotion at that moment. She felt that she could transfer this somber scene to canvas if she was spared. And what a study of action it would make! What staring lights and shadows! What types of character! The four men in strenuous effort, the anxious faces peering from the semiobscurity of the hatch, Peridot's sturdy figure braced for prompt and fierce endeavor, the still form with sightless eyes peering up at the sky, and all contained within the narrow compass of the deck, with the boat's prow now cutting the horizon, now threatening to take one last horrific dive into a wave overhanging it like a moving hillock! Beyond were a slate-blue sea flecked with white and scurrying clouds tipped with russet and gold by the last beams of a wintry sun.
All this, and more, Yvonne caught in one wide-eyed glance. She saw every touch of color, every changeful flicker of light on the wet deck and glistening oilskins. Tollemache alone supplied a different note. The light brown squares of the cork jacket, and the dust-colored canvas straps that clasped it to his body, stood out in marked relief. He, who had been overboard and submerged for a few seconds, looked bone dry. The others, wet as he no doubt, Ingersoll alone excepted, seemed to have come straight from the depths.
But Peridot, watching the sea with sidelong glance, suddenly bent in a very frenzy of exertion, and Yvonne, thrusting her right foot against the low gunwale, put the tiller to port and leaned against it until her left knee touched the deck. The men at the oars imitated her as best they might, while striving to keep the boat moving.
At the first mighty pull of the partly raised sail the Hirondelle flinched and fell back a little. Then she took hold, as sailors put it, and careened under the strain until the iron socket on the starboard sweep was wrenched off its pin, and Tollemache and the sailor were hard pressed to keep it from swinging inboard and dealing Yvonne a blow. Something black and sinister showed for a second in the yeasting froth beneath the boat's quarter; whether rock or patch of seaweed none could tell, though five pairs of eyes saw it.
Peridot's call came shrilly, "Keep her there, Ma'mselle!" Back swung the tiller, and Yvonne "kept her there," though during a long minute the Hirondelle tore at the rudder as a startled horse snatches at the bit, and it seemed as if she must capsize without fail.
Again the Breton's cry rang out, "Ease her now, Ma'mselle!"
The boat fell away before the wind. Soon she was on an even keel, save for the unavoidable rolling and pitching that resulted from the furious seas. But, if stout canvas and trustworthy cordage held, they were safe as though tied to the quay in the land-locked harbor at Pont Aven. Already Les Verr?s were a furlong or more in the rear. It was impossible to see what had become of the Stella, because the spray was leaping high over the reef, until its irregular crests were bitten off by the gale. But a fishing smack which had gallantly put out from Brigneau was signaled back before it crossed the bar, and the signal station was hoisting a fresh set of flags which spelled in the lingua franca of the ocean, "Well done, Concarneau 415!" which was as near the Hirondelle's name as the watchers on shore could get on the spur of the moment.
Peridot paid Yvonne the greatest of all compliments by not coming aft to relieve her. But her father, who had betrayed no flurry even when death seemed unavoidable, drew near, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"You're another Grace Darling, my dear!" was all he said.
But the look accompanying the words was enough, and the girl's eyes began to smart painfully, because the sudden moisture in them revealed how they had suffered from the spindrift.
And again, by sending her below on an errand of mercy, he only added subtly to Peridot's tribute.
"We can spare you now, Yvonne," he said. "Tell those men to come on deck, and you give an eye to the lady. You have some dry clothes down there. If she has no bones broken, she will recover more quickly in a warm bunk than under any other conditions. Get her undressed, and give her a little cognac. Take some yourself, – don't spare it, – and pass the bottle up here."
He took her place at the tiller, and she made off at once, only pausing to pat Lorry's wet and shaggy head.
Six men came up the companion stairway; but two returned at her call to lift the injured men into a lower and an upper bunk on the same side. They had contrived already to bandage the broken arm with handkerchiefs. The sprained ankle they could not deal with. The man with a broken arm was making some outcry; but the other sufferer was patient and even smiling.
"Gawd bless yer, Miss!" he said to Yvonne when he discerned her identity in the dim light of the cabin. "If it 'adn't a been fer you an' yer shipmites, we on the Stella 'ad as much chawnce as a lump o' ice in hell's flimes!"
The Cockney accent was new in Yvonne's ear, and its quaintness helped to soften the speaker's forcible simile.
"You'll soon be all right," she assured him. "We'll reach Pont Aven within the hour, and the good folk there will look after you splendidly. Please lie still now, as I must pin a blanket across these two bunks."
Then she was left alone with the insensible woman, who was alive, the sailors said, but completely unconscious. She had fainted, they believed, when the shaft snapped and the yacht was like to be lost forthwith. The immersion in the sea seemed to have revived her for a few seconds; but she swooned off again in the cabin, and, while the boat was lurching so heavily, they thought it wiser to pillow her head on a coat and not attempt to restore her senses.
On deck the captain of the Stella had picked out Ingersoll as the probable owner of the Hirondelle. He came and stood by the artist's side.
"Is this craft yours, Sir?" he inquired.
"And is that young lady your daughter, Sir?"
"Well, I need hardly say that we owe our lives to her, and you, and your two friends. I've seen some rum things durin' thirty years at sea; but I've never seen anything to ekal your pluck in runnin' into that death trap. And that girl of yours – the way she behaved! Well, there! I never could talk much. This time I'm clean stumped!"
"We did what we could. The real credit for your rescue lies with that cool-headed Breton fisherman yonder. Is the poor fellow who was killed the owner of the Stella?"
"And the lady is his wife?"
"Yes, Sir. Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. Carmac. Look out, Sir! You must ha forgotten you were leaning against the tiller."
The sailor acted promptly in bringing the Hirondelle back on her course; but, owing to her quickness in answering the helm, she had swung round a couple of points when an involuntary movement, a sort of flinching on Ingersoll's part, caused her to change direction.
Peridot came aft, smiling and debonair. "We're all a bit shaken, Monsieur," he said, noting the increased pallor of Ingersoll's ordinarily rather delicate-looking face. "A tot of cognac, eh? That's what we want. What do you say, Monsieur?"