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When at last they reached Boulogne and went on board the packet, Coxeter's ill-humour vanished. It was cold, raw, and foggy, and most of their fellow-passengers at once hurried below, but Mrs. Archdale decided to stay on the upper deck. This pleased her companion; now at last he would have her to himself.
In his precise and formal way he went to a good deal of trouble to make Nan comfortable; and she, so accustomed to take thought for others, stood aside and watched him find a sheltered corner, secure with some difficulty a deck chair, and then defend it with grim determination against two or three people who tried to lay hands upon it.
At last he beckoned to her to sit down. "Where's your rug?" he asked. She answered meekly, "I haven't brought one."
He put his own rug,—large, light, warm, the best money could buy—round her knees; and in the pleasure it gave him to wait on her thus he did not utter aloud the reproof which | | 255 had been on his lips. But she saw him shake his head over a more unaccountable omission—on the journey she had somehow lost her gloves. He took his own off, and with a touch of masterfulness made her put them on, himself fastening the big bone buttons over each of her small, childish wrists; but his manner while he did all these things—he would have scorned himself had it been otherwise—was impersonal, businesslike.
There are men whose every gesture in connection with a woman becomes an instinctive caress. Such men, as every woman learns in time, are not good "stayers," but they make the time go by very quickly—sometimes.
With Coxeter every minute lasted sixty seconds. But Nan Archdale found herself looking at him with unwonted kindliness. At last she said, a little tremulously, and with a wondering tone in her voice, "You're very kind to me, Mr. Coxeter." Those who spend their lives in speeding others on their way are generally allowed to trudge along alone; so at least this woman had found it to be. Coxeter made no answer to her words—perhaps he did not hear them.
Even in the few minutes which had elapsed since they came on board, the fog had deepened. The shadowy figures moving about the | | 256 deck only took substance when they stepped into the circle of brightness cast by a swinging globe of light which hung just above Nan Archdale's head. Coxeter moved forward and took up his place in front of the deck-chair, protecting its occupant from the jostling of the crowd, for the sheltered place he had found stood but a little way back from the passage between the land gangway and the iron staircase leading to the lower deck.
There were more passengers that night than usual. They passed, a seemingly endless procession, moving slowly out of the darkness into the circle of light and then again into the white, engulfing mist.
At last the deck became clear of moving figures; the cold, raw fog had driven almost everyone below. But Coxeter felt curiously content, rather absurdly happy. This was to him a great adventure. . . .
He took out his watch. If the boat started to time they would be off in another five minutes. He told himself that this was turning out a very pleasant journey; as a rule when crossing the Channel one meets tiresome people one knows, and they insist on talking to one. And then, just as he was thinking this, there suddenly surged forward out of the foggy mist two people, a newly married couple | | 257 named Rendel, with whom both he and Mrs. Archdale were acquainted, at whose wedding indeed they had both been present some six or seven weeks ago. So absorbed in earnest talk with one another were the bride and bridegroom that they did not seem to see where they were going; but when close to Mrs. Archdale they stopped short, and turned towards one another, still talking so eagerly as to be quite oblivious of possible eavesdroppers.
John Coxeter, standing back in the shadow, felt a sudden gust of envious pain. They were evidently on their way home from their honeymoon, these happy young people, blessed with good looks, money, health, and love; their marriage had been the outcome of quite a pretty romance.
But stay,—what was this they were saying? Both he and Nan unwillingly heard the quick interchange of words, the wife's shrill, angry utterances, the husband's good-humoured expostulations. "I won't stay on the boat, Bob. I don't see why we should risk our lives in order that you may be back in town to-morrow. I know it's not safe—my great-uncle, the Admiral, always said that the worst storm at sea was not as bad as quite a small fog!" Then the gruff answer: "My dear child, don't | | 258 be a fool! The boat wouldn't start if there was the slightest danger. You heard what that man told us. The fog was much worse this morning, and the boat was only an hour late!" "Well, you can do as you like, but I won't cross to-night. Where's the use of taking any risk? Mother's uncle, the Admiral——" and Coxeter heard with shocked approval the man's "Damn your great-uncle, the Admiral!"
There they stood, not more than three yards off, the pretty, angry little spitfire looking up at her indignant, helpless husband. Coxeter, if disgusted, was amused; there was also the comfort of knowing that they would certainly pretend not to see him, even if by chance they recognized him, intent as they were on their absurd difference.
"I shall go back and spend the night at the station hotel. No, you needn't trouble to find Stockton for me—there's no time." Coxeter and Nan heard the laughing gibe, "Then you don't mind your poor maid being drowned as well as your poor husband," but the bride went on as if he hadn't spoken—"I've quite enough money with me; you needn't give me anything—good-bye."
She disappeared into the fog in the direction of the gangway, and Coxeter moved hastily to one side. He wished to save Bob Rendel the | | 259 annoyance of recognizing him; but then, with amazing suddenness, something happened which made Coxeter realize that after all women were even more inexplicable, unreasonable beings than even he had always known them to be.
There came the quick patter of feet over the damp deck, and Mrs. Rendel was back again, close to where her husband was standing.
"I've made up my mind to stay on the boat," she said quietly. "I think you are very unwise, as well as very obstinate, to cross in this fog; but if you won't give way, then I'd rather be with you, and share the danger."
Bob Rendel laughed, not very kindly, and together they went across to the stair leading below.
Coxeter opened his mouth to speak, then he closed it again. What a scene! What a commentary on married life! And these two people were supposed to be "in love" with one another.
The little episode had shocked him, jarred his contentment. "If you don't mind, I'll go and smoke a pipe," he said stiffly.
Mrs. Archdale looked up. "Oh yes, please do," and yet she felt suddenly bereft of something warm, enveloping, kindly. The words formed themselves on her lips, "Don't go too | | 260 far away," but she did not speak them aloud. But, as if in answer to her unspoken request, Coxeter called out, "I'm just here, close by, if you want anything," and the commonplace words gave her a curious feeling of security,—a feeling, though she herself was unaware of it, which her own care and tenderness for others often afforded to those round whom she threw the sheltering mantle of her kindness.
Perhaps because he was so near, John Coxeter remained in her thoughts. Almost alone of those human beings with whom life brought her in contact, he made no demand on her sympathy, and very little on her time. In fact, his first offer of marriage had taken her so much by surprise as to strike her as slightly absurd; she had also felt it, at the time, to be an offence, for she had given him no right to encroach on the inner shrine of her being.
Trying to account for what he had done, she had supposed that John Coxeter, being a man who evidently ordered his life according to some kind of system, had believed himself ripe for the honourable estate of marriage, and had chosen her as being "suitable."
When writing her cold letter of refusal, she had expected to hear within a few weeks of his engagement to some "nice" girl. But time | | 261 had gone by and nothing of the sort had happened. Coxeter's second offer, conveyed, as had been the first, in a formal letter, had found her in a very different mood, for it had followed very closely on that done by her of which he, John Coxeter, had so greatly disapproved. She had been touched this second time and not at all offended, and gradually they had become friends. It was after his second offer that Nan began making use of him, not so much for herself as on behalf of other people.
Nan Archdale led her life without reference to what those about her considered appropriate or desirable; and years had gone by since the boldest busybody among them would have ventured a word of rebuke. Her social background was composed of happy, prosperous people. They had but little to do with her, however, save when by some amazing mischance things went wrong with them; when all went well they were apt to forget Nan Archdale. But John Coxeter, though essentially one of them by birth and instinct, and though it had been through them that she had first met him, never forgot her.
Yet though they had become, in a sense, intimate, he made on her none of those demands which endear a man to a woman. Living up | | 262 on a pleasant tableland of self-approval, he never touched the heights or depths which go to form the relief map of most human beings' lives. He always did his duty and generally enjoyed doing it, and he had no patience, only contempt, for those who shirked theirs.
The passion of love, that greatest of the Protean riddles set by nature to civilized man and woman, played no part, or so Nan Arch-dale believed, in John Coxeter's life. At the time she had received the letter in which he had first asked her to marry him, there had come to her, seen through the softening mists of time, a sharp, poignant remembrance of Jim Archdale's offer, "If you won't have me, Nan, I'll do something desperate! You'll be sorry then!" So poor Jim Archdale had conquered her; and looking back, when she recalled their brief married life, she forgot the selfishness and remembered only the love, the love which had made Jim so dependent on her presence and her sympathy.
But if John Coxeter were incapable of love, she now knew him to be a good friend, and it was the friend—so she believed, and was grateful to him for it,—who had asked her to accept what he had quixotically supposed would be the shelter of his name when she | | 263 had done that thing of which he had disapproved.
To-night Nan could not help wondering if he would ever again ask her to marry him. She thought not—she hoped not. She told herself quite seriously that he was one of those men who are far happier unwedded. His standard, not so much of feminine virtue as of feminine behaviour, was too high. Take what had happened just now; she had listened indulgently, tenderly, to the quarrel of the newly married couple, but she had seen the effect it had produced on John Coxeter. To him it had been a tragedy, and an ugly, ignoble tragedy to boot.
The deck was now clear of passengers. Out in the open sea the fog had become so thick as to be impenetrable, and the boat seemed to be groping its way, heralded by the mournful screaming of the siren. Mrs. Archdale felt drowsy; she leant back and closed her eyes. Coxeter was close by, puffing steadily at his pipe. She felt a pleasant sensation of security.
She was roused, rather startled, by a man bending over her, while a voice said gruffly, "I think, ma'am, that you'd better get into shelter. The deck saloon is close by. Allow me to lead you to it."| | 264
Nan rose obediently. With the petty officer on one side and Coxeter on the other, she made a slow progress across the deck, and so to the large, brilliantly lighted saloon. There the fog had been successfully shut out, and some fifteen to twenty people sat on the velvet benches; among them was the sweetmeat merchant to whom Nan had talked in the train.
Coxeter found a comfortable place for Nan rather apart from the others, and sitting down he began to talk to her. The fog-horn, which was trumpeting more loudly, more insistently than ever, did not, he thought, interfere with their conversation as much as it might have done.
"We shan't be there till morning," Coxeter heard a man say, "till morning doth appear, at this rate!"
"I suppose we're all right. There's no real danger in a fog—not in the Channel; there never has been an accident on the Channel passage—not an accident of any serious kind."
"Yes, there was—to one of the Dieppe boats—a very bad accident!"
And then several of those present joined in the discussion. The man who had recalled the Dieppe boat accident could be heard, self-assertive, pragmatical, his voice raised above the voices around him. "I've been all over | | 265 the world in my time, and when I'm caught in a fog at sea I always get up, dress, and go up on deck, however sleepy I may be."
Coxeter, sitting apart by Nan's side, listened with some amusement. His rather thin sense of humour was roused by the fact that the people around him were talking in so absurd a manner. This delay was not pleasant; it might even mean that he would be a few hours late at the Treasury, a thing he had never once been after a holiday, for Coxeter prided himself on his punctuality in the little as well as the great things of life. But, of course, all traffic in the Channel would be delayed by this fog, and his absence would be accounted for by the fact.
Sitting there, close to Mrs. Archdale, with no one sufficiently near to attract her attention, or, what was more likely, to appeal to her for sympathy, he felt he could well afford to wait till the fog cleared off. As for the loud, insistent screaming of the siren, that sound which apparently got on the nerves of most of those present in the deck saloon, of course it was a disagreeable noise, but then they all knew it was a necessary precaution, so why make a fuss about it?
Coxeter turned and looked at his companion, and as he looked at her he felt a little posses- | | 266 sive thrill of pride. Mrs. Archdale alone among the people there seemed content and at ease, indeed she was now smiling, smiling very brightly and sweetly, and, following the direction of her eyes, he saw that they rested on a child lying asleep in its mother's arms. . . .
Perhaps after all it was a good thing that Nan was so detached from material things. Before that burst of foolish talk provoked by the fog, he had been speaking to her about a matter very interesting to himself—something connected with his work, something, by the way, of which he would not have thought of speaking to any other woman; but then Mrs. Archdale, as Coxeter had good reason to know, was exceptionally discreet. . . . She had evidently been very much interested in all he had told her, and he had enjoyed the conversation.
Coxeter became dimly conscious of what it would mean to him to have Nan to come back to when work, and the couple of hours he usually spent at his club, were over. Perhaps if Nan were waiting for him, he would not wish to stay as long as two hours at his club. But then of course he would want Nan all to himself. Jealous? Certainly not. He was far too sensible a man to feel jealous, but he would expect his wife to put him first— | | 267 a very long way in front of anybody else. It might be old-fashioned, but he was that sort of man.
Coxeter's thoughts leapt back into the present with disagreeable abruptness. Their Jewish fellow-traveller, the man who had thrust on Mrs. Archdale such unseemly confidences, had got up. He was now heading straight for the place where Mrs. Archdale was sitting.
Coxeter quickly decided that the fellow must not be allowed to bore Mrs. Archdale. She was in his, Coxeter's, care to-night, and he alone had a right to her interest and attention. So he got up and walked down the saloon. To his surprise the other, on seeing him come near, stopped dead. "I want to speak to you," he said in a low voice, "Mr.—er—Coxeter."
Coxeter looked at him, surprised, then reminded himself that his full name, "John Coxeter," was painted on his portmanteau. Also that Mrs. Archdale had called him "Mr. Coxeter" at least once, when discussing that life-saving toy. Still, sharp, observant fellows, Jews! One should always be on one's guard with them. "Yes?" he said interrogatively.
"Well, Mr. Coxeter, I want to ask you to | | 268 do me a little favour. The truth is I've just made my will—only a few lines—and I want you to be my second witness. I've no objection, none in the world, to your seeing what I want you to witness."
He spoke very deliberately, as if he had prepared the form of words in which he made his strange request, and as he spoke he held out a sheet of paper apparently torn out of a notebook. "I asked that gentleman over there"—he jerked his thumb over his shoulder—"to be my first witness, and he kindly consented. I'd be much obliged if you'd sign your name just here. I'll also ask you to take charge of it—only a small envelope, as you see. It's addressed to my mother. I've made her executor and residuary legatee."
Coxeter felt a strong impulse to refuse. He never mixed himself up with other people's affairs; he always refused to do so on principle.
The man standing opposite to him divined what was passing through his mind, and broke in, "Only just while we're on this boat. You can tear it up and chuck the pieces away once we're on land again—" he spoke nervously, and with contemptuous amazement Coxeter told himself that the fellow was afraid. "Surely you don't think there's any danger?" | | 269 he asked. "D'you mean you've made this will because you think something may happen to the boat?"
The other nodded, "Accidents do happen"; he smiled rather foolishly as he said the words, pronouncing the last one, as Coxeter noted with disapproval, "habben." He was holding out a fountain pen; he had an ingratiating manner, and Coxeter, to his own surprise, suddenly gave way.
"All right," he said, and taking the paper in his hand he glanced over it. He had no desire to pry into any man's private affairs, but he wasn't going to sign anything without first reading it.
This odd little will consisted of only two sentences, written in a clear, clerkly hand The first bequeathed an annuity of £240 (six thousand francs) to Léonie Lenoir, of Rue Lafayette, Paris; the second appointed the testator's mother, Mrs. Solomon Munich, of Scott Terrace, Maida Vale, residuary legatee and executor. The will was signed "Victor Munich."
"Very well, I'll sign it," said Coxeter, at last, "and I'll take charge of it till we're on land. But look here—I won't keep it a moment longer!" Then, perhaps a little ashamed of his ungraciousness, "I say, Mr. | | 270 Munich, if I were you I'd go below and take a stiffish glass of brandy and water. I once had a fright, I was nearly run over by a brewer's dray at Charing Cross, and I did that—took some brandy I mean—" he jerked the words out, conscious that the other's sallow face had reddened.
Then he signed his name at the bottom of the sheet of paper, and busied himself with putting the envelope carefully into his pocket-book. "There," he said, with the slight supercilious smile which was his most marked physical peculiarity, but of which he was quite unconscious, "your will is quite safe now! If we meet at Folkestone I'll hand it you back; if we miss one another in the—er—fog I'll destroy it, as arranged."
He turned and began walking back to where Nan Archdale was sitting. What a very odd thing! How extraordinary, how unexpected!
Then a light broke in on him. Why, of course, it was Nan who had brought this about! She had touched up the Jew fellow's conscience, frightened him about that woman—the woman who had so absurdly termed him her "petit homme adoré." That's what came of mixing up in other people's business; but Coxeter's eyes nevertheless rested on the sitting figure of his friend with a certain | | 271 curious indulgence. Odd, sentimental, sensitive creatures—women! But brave—not lacking in moral courage anyway.
As he came close up to her, Mrs. Archdale moved a little, making room for him to sit down by her. It was a graceful, welcoming gesture, and John Coxeter's pulse began to quicken. . . . He told himself that this also was an extraordinary thing—this journey with the woman he had wished to make his wife. He felt her to be so tantalizingly near, and yet in a sense so very far away.
His eyes fell on her right hand, still encased in his large brown glove. As he had buttoned that glove, he had touched her soft wrist, and a wild impulse had come to him to bend yet a little closer and press his lips to the white triangle of yielding flesh. Of course he had resisted the temptation, reminding himself sternly that it was a caddish thing even to have thought of taking advantage of Nan's confiding friendliness. Yet now he wondered whether he had been a fool not to do it. Other men did those things.
There came a dragging, grating sound, the boat shuddering as if in response. Coxeter had the odd sensation that he was being gently but irresistibly pushed round, and yet he sat | | 272 quite still, with nothing in the saloon changed in relation to himself.
Someone near him exclaimed in a matter-of-fact voice, "We've struck; we're on a rock." Everyone stood up, and he saw an awful look of doubt, of unease, cross the faces of the men and women about him.
The fog-horn ceased trumpeting, and there rose confused sounds, loud hoarse shouts and thin shrill cries, accompanying the dull thunder caused by the tramping of feet. Then the lights went out, all but the yellow flame of a small oil lamp which none of them had known was there.
The glass-panelled door opened widely, and a burly figure holding a torch, which flared up in the still, moist air, was outlined against the steamy waves of fog.
"Come out of here!" he cried; and then, as some people tried to push past him, "Steady, keep cool! There'll be room in the boats for every soul on board," and Coxeter, looking at the pale, glistening face, told himself that the man was lying, and that he knew he lied.
They stumbled out, one by one, and joined the great company which was now swarming over the upper deck, each man and woman forlorn and lonely as human beings must ever be when individually face to face with death.| | 273
Coxeter's right hand gripped firmly Mrs. Archdale's arm. She was pressing closely to his side, shrinking back from the rough crowd surging about them, and he was filled with a fierce protective tenderness which left no room in his mind for any thought of self. His one thought was how to preserve his companion from contact with some of those about them; wild-eyed, already distraught creatures, swayed with a terror which set them apart from the mass of quiet, apparently dazed people who stood patiently waiting to do what they were told.
Close to Nan and Coxeter two men were talking Spanish; they were gesticulating, and seemed to be disagreeing angrily as to what course to pursue. Presently one of them suddenly produced a long knife which glittered in the torchlight; with it he made a gesture as if to show the other that he meant to cut his way through the crowd towards the spot, now railed off with rope barriers, where the boats were being got ready for the water.
With a quick movement Coxeter unbuttoned his cloak and drew Nan within its folds; putting his arms round her he held her, loosely and yet how firmly clasped to his breast. "I can't help it," he muttered apologetically. "Forgive me!" As only answer she seemed to | | 274 draw yet closer to him, and then she lay, still and silent, within his sheltering arms,—and at that moment he remembered to be glad he had not kissed her wrist.
They two stood there, encompassed by a living wall, and yet how strangely alone. The fog had become less dense, or else the resin torches which flared up all about them cleared the air.
From the captain's bridge there whistled every quarter minute a high rocket, and soon from behind the wall of fog came in answer distant signals full of a mingled mockery and hope to the people waiting there.
But for John Coxeter the drama of his own soul took precedence of that going on round him. Had he been alone he would have shared to the full the awful, exasperating feeling of being trapped, of there being nothing to be done, which possessed all the thinking minds about him. But he was not alone——
Nan, lying on his breast, seemed to pour virtue into him—to make him extraordinarily alive. Never had he felt death, extinction so near, and yet there seemed to be something outside himself, a spirit informing, uplifting, and conquering the flesh.
Perceptions, sympathies, which had lain dormant during the whole of his thirty-nine | | 275 years of life, now sprang into being. His imagination awoke. He saw that it was this woman, now standing, with such complete trust in the niceness of his honour, heart to heart with him, who had made the best of that at once solitary and companioned journey which we call life. He had thought her to be a fool; he now saw that, if a fool, she had been a divine fool, ever engaged while on her pilgrimage with the only things that now mattered. How great was the sum of her achievement compared with his. She had been a beacon diffusing light and warmth; he a shadow among shadows. If to-night he were engulfed in the unknown, for so death was visioned by John Coxeter, who would miss him, who would feel the poorer for his sudden obliteration?
Coxeter came back into the present; he looked round him, and for the first time he felt the disabling clutch of physical fear. The lifebelts were being given out, and there came to him a horrid vision of the people round him as they might be an hour hence, drowned, heads down, legs up, done to death by those monstrous yellow bracelets which they were now putting on with such clumsy, feverish eagerness.
He was touched on the arm, and a husky voice, with which he was by now familiar, said | | 276 urgently," Mr. Coxeter—see, I've brought your bag out of the saloon." The man whose name he knew to be Victor Munich was standing at his elbow. "Look here, don't take offence, Mr. Coxeter, I think better of the——" he hesitated—"the life-saver that you've got in this bag of yours than you do. I'm willing to give you a fancy price for it—what would you say to a thousand pounds? I daresay I shan't have occasion to use it, but of course I take that risk."
Coxeter, with a quick, unobtrusive movement, released Mrs. Archdale. He turned and stared, not pleasantly, at the man who was making him so odd an offer. Damn the fellow's impudence! "The life-saver is not for sale," he said shortly.
Nan had heard but little of the quick colloquy. She did not connect it with the fact that the strong protecting arms which had been about her were now withdrawn,—and the tears came into her eyes. She felt both in a physical and in a spiritual sense suddenly alone. John Coxeter, the one human being who ever attempted to place himself on a more intimate, personal plane with her, happened, by a strange irony of fate, to be her companion in this awful adventure. But even he had now turned away from her. . . .| | 277
Nay, that was not quite true. He was again looking down at her, and she felt his hand groping for hers. As he found and clasped it, he made a movement as if he wished again to draw her towards him. Gently she resisted, and at once she felt that he responded to her feeling of recoil, and Nan, with a confused sense of shame and anger, was now hurt by his submission. Most men in his place would have made short work of her resistance,—would have taken her, masterfully, into the shelter of his arms.
There came a little stir among the people on the deck. Coxeter heard a voice call out in would-be-cheery tones, "Now then, ladies! Please step out—ladies and children only. Look sharp!" A sailor close by whispered gruffly to his mate, "I'll stick to her anyhow. No crowded boats for me! I expect she'll be a good hour settling—perhaps a bit longer."
As the first boat-load swung into the water, some of the people about them gave a little cheer. Coxeter thought, but he will never be quite sure, that in that cheer Nan joined. There was a delay of a minute; then again the captain's voice rang out, this time in a sharper, more peremptory tone, "Now, ladies, look sharp! Come along, please."
Coxeter unclasped Nan's hand—he did not | | 278 know how tightly he had been holding it. He loved her. God, how he loved her! And now he must send her away—away into the shrouding fog—away, just as he had found her. If what he had overheard were true, might he not be sending Nan to a worse fate than that of staying to take the risk with him?
But the very man who had spoken so doubtfully of the boats just now came forward. "You'd best hurry your lady forward, sir. There's no time to lose." There was an anxious, warning note in the rough voice.
"You must go now," said Coxeter heavily. "I shall be all right, Mrs. Archdale," for she was making no movement forward. "There'll be plenty of room for the men in the next boat I'd walk across the deck with you, but I'm afraid they won't allow that." He spoke in his usual matter-of-fact, rather dry tone, and Nan looked up at him doubtingly. Did he really wish her to leave him?
Flickering streaks of light fell on his face. It was convulsed with feeling,—with what had become an agony of renunciation. She withdrew her eyes, feeling a shamed, exultant pang of joy. "I'll wait till there's room for you, too, Mr. Coxeter." She breathed rather than actually uttered the words aloud.
Another woman standing close by was saying | | 279 the same thing to her companion, but in far more eager, more vociferous tones. "Is it likely that I should go away now and leave you, Bob? Of course not—don't be ridiculous!" But the Rendels pushed forward, and finally both found places in this, the last boat but one.
Victor Munich was still standing close to John Coxeter, and Mrs. Archdale, glancing at his sallow, terror-stricken face, felt a thrill of generous pity for the man. "Mr. Coxeter," she whispered, "do give him that life-saver! Did he not ask you for it just now? We don't want it."
Coxeter bent down and unstrapped his portmanteau. He handed to Nan the odd, toy-like thing by which he had set so little store, but which now he let go with a touch of reluctance. He saw her move close to the man whose name she did not know. "Here is the life-saver," she said kindly; "I heard you say you would like it."
"But you?"—he stammered—"how about you?"
"I don't want it. I shall be all right. I shouldn't put it on in any case."
He took it then, avidly; and they saw him go forward with a quick, stealthy movement to the place where the last boat was being got ready for the water.| | 280
"There's plenty of room for you and the lady now, sir!" Coxeter hurried Nan across the deck, but suddenly they were pushed roughly back. The rope barriers had been cut, and a hand-to-hand struggle was taking place round the boat,—an ugly scrimmage to which as little reference as possible was made at the wreck inquiry afterwards. To those who looked on it was a horrible, an unnerving sight; and this time Coxeter with sudden strength took Nan back into his arms. He felt her trembling, shuddering against him,—what she had just seen had loosed fear from its leash.
"I'm frightened," she moaned. "Oh, Mr. Coxeter, I'm so horribly frightened of those men! Are they all gone?"
"Yes," he said grimly, "most of them managed to get into the boat. Don't be frightened. I think we're safer here than we should be with those ruffians."
Another man would have found easy terms of endearment and comfort for almost any woman so thrust on his protection and care, but the very depth of Coxeter's feeling seemed to make him dumb,—that and his anguished fear lest by his fault, by his own want of quickness, she had perhaps missed her chance of being saved.| | 281
But what he was lacking another man supplied. This was the captain, and Nan, listening to the cheering, commonplace words, felt her nerve, her courage, come back.
"Stayed with your husband?" he said, coming up to them. "Quite right, mum! Don't you be frightened. Look at me and my men, we're not frightened—not a bit of it! My boat will last right enough for us to be picked off ten times over. I tell you quite fairly and squarely, if I'd my wife aboard I'd 'a kept her with me. I'd rather be on this boat of mine than I would be out there, on the open water, in this fog." But as he walked back to the place where stood the rocket apparatus, Coxeter heard him mutter, "The brutes! Not all seconds or thirds either. I wish I had 'em here, I'd give 'em what for!"
Later, when reading the narratives supplied by some of the passengers who perforce had remained on the doomed boat, Coxeter was surprised to learn how many thrilling experiences he had apparently missed during the long four hours which elapsed before their rescue. And yet the time of waiting and suspense probably appeared as long to him as it did to any of the fifty odd souls who stayed, all close together, on the upper deck | | 282 waiting with what seemed a stolid resignation for what might next befall them.
From the captain, Coxeter, leaving Mrs. Archdale for a moment, had extracted the truth. They had drifted down the French coast. They were on a dangerous reef of rock, and the rising of the wind, the lifting of the fog, for which they all looked so eagerly, might be the signal for the breaking up of the boat. On the other hand, the boat might hold for days. It was all a chance.
Coxeter kept what he had learnt to himself, but he was filled with a dull, aching sensation of suspense. His remorse that he had not hurried Mrs. Archdale into one of the first boats became almost intolerable. Why had he not placed her in the care even of the Jew, Victor Munich, who was actually seated in the last boat before the scramble round it had begun?
More fortunate than he, Mrs. Archdale found occupation in tending the few forlorn women who had been thrust back. He watched her moving among them with an admiration no longer unwilling; she looked bright, happy, almost gay, and the people to whom she talked, to whom she listened, caught something of her spirit. Coxeter would have liked to follow her example, but though he saw that some of the men round him were eager to talk | | 283 and to discuss the situation, his tongue refused to form words of commonplace cheer.
When with the coming of the dawn the fog lifted, Nan came up to Coxeter as he stood apart, while the other passengers were crowding round a fire which had been lit on the open deck. Together in silence they watched the rolling away of the enshrouding mist; together they caught sight of the fleet of French fishing boats from which was to come succour.
As he turned and clasped her hand, he heard her say, more to herself than to him, "I did not think we should be saved."
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