- CHAPTER XXXVI. VERY NEAR DEATH.
|<< chapter 35||< chapter 1||chapter 37 >|
VERY NEAR DEATH.
"CECIL, you are surely not so crazy as to think of bathing!" exclaimed Lady Frances Morgan, as her lover entered the breakfast-room with a very suspicious-looking bundle in his hand, which he immediately thrust out of the door again, and upon the hall table.
"Why not?" he replied. "It's a lovely morning, and as warm as a toast."
It certainly was so for the time of year, for one of those autumnal suns had risen upon Brighton which do occasionally, in this climate, cheat us into the belief that summer is not quite gone, and make us accountable for very foolish actions, which we have sometimes reason to remember and regret afterwards.
"So it may be for a walk," pouted Lady Frances; "but it will be frightfully cold in the water."
She looked very pretty in the lavender dress which she had assumed in compliment to the Cravens' mourning, as she spoke; but not sufficiently so, apparently, to deter Major Craven from his whim, for he answered—
"Cold! I wish you'd try a good swim against the tide on a day like this, Fan. You wouldn't call it cold, then. It's precious hot work, I can tell you."
"Well! I can't try a good swim, and so I don't know anything about it," rejoined Lady Frances, who had set her heart upon a morning stroll with her fiancé, and did not admire having to change her plans. "What are you going to do, Lady Norreys?"| | 419
"I don't know," said Rachel, lifting her heavy eyes to Lady Frances' face. They had finished breakfast, and she was sitting by the window, watching apparently the passers-by.
"Wont you come for a walk on the pier, or shall we ride? We can do so very well without Cecil; and I want to explore some of the surrounding country. It is just the morning a ride, so beautifully warm," for the window was open,and the air circulating through the apartment. "Who are you watching for—the postman?"
The colour flew violently to Rachel's face as the unpremeditated shaft hit her hard. The fact is, she was watching for the postman, although she would hardly have acknowledged it to herself, and would sooner have done anything than had it thus sharply brought home to her by others. Ever since she had received that letter from Christine (which she had answered without mentioning her husband's name), she had, almost without her own cognizance, watched for the postman. She had risen each day with an unnamed hope fluttering in her breast—a hope which had continued there to flutter, by slow degrees to fail, and then to die, as morning succeeded to afternoon, and afternoon to evening, and the several postmen passed the door, or stopping, left letters for every one but herself. She had hoped, unknown to herself, that the sister (from the enthusiasm with which her own letter was written) might strive to influence the brother in her behalf, or that Raymond himself, in the desolation of their enforced separation, might feel the want of the love he had once rejected at her hands, and write a few short words to tell her so. However few, however tardy, so they breathed regret, Rachel in those days would not have scorned them. The hunger which had raged in her own heart (since the night which might have reunited them for ever, but had only served to separate them further), had grown to be so great and so continuous, that she would have snatched for satisfaction at the smallest crumb of love that Raymond deigned to throw her. She was not vehement now—the passion and the force seemed spent together; she was simply numbed—numbed to every outward thing, but conscious herself of a gnawing, never-ceasing pain, which dwelt about the region of her heart, and | | 420 would not cease for effort or for argument, and yet to heal which she had no balm to call her own.
As Lady Frances' random question struck her ear, Rachel rose from her position near the window, and tried to answer it cheerfully. She did not affect a gay or careless manner, for it would have been as much beyond her power as it would have been unsuited to the circumstances through which her family had lately past.
"I am quite ready to go either for a walk or a ride, whichever you prefer, Frances," she replied; "but I must wait until my mother comes downstairs" (for Mrs. Northland had not been well the last few days, and had lain in bed later than usual). "Unless, indeed," Rachel continued, with a smile, "Cecil finds, when it comes to the point, that looking at the sea is sufficient enjoyment for this weather, and returns to escort you himself."
"Cecil is not likely to do anything of the sort," rejoined her brother, preparing for his start, "so you must be each other's cavaliers for this morning, ladies. Au revoir!"
"By-the-bye," he continued, re-entering the room (it was a custom of Cecil's always to reappear for a last word), "who do you think I encountered when I was at the Court, Rachel?"
He meant when he had gone there to conduct her father's funeral, for only a week had elapsed since that time.
"How can I tell," she said, colouring, for her husband rushed into her remembrance, but then she added, "unless, indeed, it was Elise."
"That's it," he replied, laughing, for Major Craven never treated the subject of Mrs. Arundel, except with the keenest satisfaction at the recollection of her late defeat. "Norreys and I were having a smoke together, and had strayed outside the gate, when who should I see but my Lady Arundel, all frills and furbelows, sauntering along the king's highway."
"Did you speak to her, Cecil?" demanded his sister.
"Speak to her, Rachel!" he replied, in the greatest surprise. "What do you think I am made of? I should think not, indeed, nor did she appear to wish to give me the opportunity, for she turned and ran before the enemy's flag. And what is better still, hearing that Laburnum Cottage was in the market again, and the widow desirous to get rid of it | | 421 at any price, I sent Andrews to the landlord and bought the lease of him. I intend to install my bailiff there for the future —we'll have no widows settling themselves just under our noses, whether we wish it or not. Will we, Fan?"
"No, indeed," said the prospective mistress of Craven Court, as she thought of how nearly its owner had been lost to her by the machinations of the widow under dispute.
"So I hope we have seen the last of Mrs. Arundel," said Cecil, in conclusion, "and now I am really and truly off."
He left the room as he spoke, and soon after they saw him walk carelessly along the sunlighted cliff, as he made his way towards Kemp Town.
But he had not gone far before he saw the back of a figure leaning over the palings on the opposite side of the road, which struck him as familiar; he crossed at once, and in another moment had clapped Sir Raymond Norreys on the back.
"Why, Norreys!" he exclaimed, "what the deuce are you doing here; or being here, why are you not in my moth house? It's a lovely morning, isn't it? Where have you sprung from?"
The face of Raymond Norreys appeared very careworn and restless, as he turned round to answer him.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I am here because I do not know what on earth to do with myself; I feel so restless. I am infinitely miserable, Craven, and that's the fact."
He looked the words as he spoke them. His sister Christine had said to him only the night before—
"Where are you going to now, Raymond? You will wear yourself out, rushing about in this manner, and taking no rest;" and he had affirmed that he had an engagement, or given vent to some equally convenient fiction, knowing all the time, however, that his intention was to go down to Brighton, to be on the spot where she was, to breathe the same air, perhaps to see her as she passed. For the heavier portion of his business accomplished, and the novelty of his altered fortunes gone, as Raymond Norreys' wife, so Raymond Norreys found himself unutterably wretched and alone. As Rachel chafed beneath the slow march of the weary hours, as she hungered and thirsted for a word or look from him she loved, to tell her she was not altogether lost to him: so Raymond chafed | | 422 and fretted, longed and pined, and could find no diversion in pleasure, or forget fulness in active employment. And this restless hunger had brought him down like a love-sick maiden, to try and find a satisfaction, however sorry, in gazing on the windows of the house she dwelt in, or watching the door from which his yearning eyes hoped to see her issue.
But anything like a confession of misery or hopelessness, from the light-hearted, reckless, bravado spirit of Raymond Norreys, fell with such strange earnestness upon the ear of Cecil Craven, that he felt quite affected by it.
"My dear Norreys," he replied, "I can see you are, but I believe it's all your own fault. In your way, you know, you are as deucedly proud as Rachel is; and until one or other of you gives in, this sort of thing will go on. And yet, I believe, that if you were just to summon up pluck to walk into that house, and say two words to her (I know it's not your part, old fellow, but she is only a woman, you know, after all, and we must humour the creatures sometimes), that she'd fall into your arms, and it would be all right. She is quite as wretched as you are, and that's the truth."
"Are you sure of it?" replied Raymond, a gleam of hope lighting up his eyes as his friend spoke. "I did not feel it so keenly at first, Craven, having so much to occupy me, but the last few days I have been nearly m-ad with thinking of her, and the cause of our separation."
"I am sure of it," said Cecil. "Here, just walk on with me, Norreys, and I'll tell you all about her."
Then the two men commenced to stroll together in the direction Cecil had chosen, and he told his friend so much about Rachel's lassitude and despondency, and nervous anxiety, that poor Raymond's step grew lighter with each sentence uttered, until he almost seemed to walk upon air.
"All you have to do, is, to bring down your pride to make the first advance to her," concluded Cecil; "but I wont swear to the upshot of an interview with her otherwise."
"I'll do it," exclaimed Raymond. "I'd kneel to her, Craven, if I thought she really cared for me. I'd humble myself to any degree; I'd——"
"Well, well, my dear fellow; you need not let all Brighton know your honourable intentions," said Cecil, laughing at | | 423 poor Raymond's ardour. "You come and bathe with me first, and we'll settle the other matter afterwards."
"Bathe!" exclaimed Raymond, opening his eyes. "Why you don't mean to say you are going to bathe to-day?"
"Indeed I am," said the other; "why the water will be as warm as possible with this sun upon it. You'll come, too wont you?"
"Not I," replied Raymond. "I've had too much salt water forced on me in the pursuit of duty, to make me care to tumble in it this sort of weather. I expect you will find a little of it go a long way, Craven."
"Not if you were with me," he replied; "I've hoard so much of your swimming exploits, Norreys, I wanted you to give me a few examples of the same."
"Ask me six months hence," laughed Raymond, whose spirits had risen in a most extraordinary manner during the last half hour. "I believe I am considered rather a good swimmer, but I should think the sea this morning would be enough to chill any one's ardour."
And it appeared as though the populace were of Raymond Norreys' opinion, for when the two men arrived at that part of the beach, whence Cecil purposed to bathe, there was not a soul within hailing distance, and all the machines were drawn up on the shingles, with their doors locked.
"Hang it!" said Cecil, impatiently, "I shall start from here then."
"Better not, Craven," was the reply, "you'll be fined before you know where you are. Wait a minute, and I will knock up some of the people belonging to those baths."
There was a line of buildings labelled " Baths" within sight, and Raymond Norreys having applied there, learnt that all the proprietors of the machines were away, and the machines themselves laid up for the season.
"You see, there ain't many as apply for them at this time of the year," added his informant, who was a superannuated sailor, "at least, not at this end of the beach, and so it isn't worth their while to stay about with them; but that's my boat you see there, and my lad can handle an oar, and so if the gentleman likes to have himself run out a bit, he can, and bathe from the boat's side."| | 424
"You had better give up the idea for to-day, Craven," said Raymond, when the former, on hearing the proposal, expressed his willingness to acquiesce in it; "it will be very cold, bathing from a boat."
"I don't care a fig about the cold," replied Cecil, who was rather obstinately inclined when he had once got a notion in his head; and the old seaman strengthened his determination by remaking that—
"'Twas a beautiful day to be sure, and a beautiful sea; and he didn't think as the water would be so cold as it had been the week before, and they had had plenty of bathers about then. 'Twas only last Monday as the machines were drawn up," he concluded by asserting, "and they never would have done it, if they could have guessed there'd come such a change, but it was a change to be sure, and would the gentleman please to have the boat," &c. &c. &c.
And the gentleman would please, and so the little craft was launched, and the lad, a boy of fifteen or thereabouts, jumped into it, and took his seat.
"Take an oar, Norreys," shouted Cecil, as they prepared to push off from the shore.
"Thanks, I'd rather not, if you can manage without me," returned Raymond.
A moment afterwards he was sorry he had said so; a moment afterwards (Cecil having only thrown him back some laughing rejoinder as he seized the other oar himself) Raymond regretted that he had not gone with his friend—that he had not been subjected to a little more persuasion. But the fact was, he wanted to be alone with his own thoughts for a while; he could hardly believe yet, that what his brother-in-law told him was true—that Rachel was really fretting at his absence and pining for his return. If so, what happiness!—what bliss!—what ecstasy, was in store for both of them! But the idea was so new to him; he had been bemoaning her indifference for so long, and of late had so determined within himself that her own assertion to the contrary was false, that he could not all at once take it in, as he wished to do; and, therefore, to be alone with this fresh delicious hope was company—the best of company—to him, and he wanted to indulge himself by a few minutes of solitude before he | | 425 sought her presence. And yet he was sorry that he had not accepted Cecil's offer, and gone in the boat with him. He could not understand why (for fear was a stranger to the breast of Raymond Norreys), but the regret returned more than once, surprising him each time, the knowledge struck him, that it was there again. In the meanwhile, he cast himself upon the beach, and dreamt of Rachel. The sunshine certainly felt very warm there, and was inviting, although it had not the power to lessen the deep colour in the fingers and noses of some half-dozen little children, who, with their nursery-maid, were all the human creatures within sight of him, for the superannuated sailor had retired again to his chimney-corner, and the boat was no longer within hail. As Raymond lay upon the beach, his cigar between his lips, and that happiest of dreams warming his heart's blood, he remarked how soon the distance widened between him and the sea, and how fast the tide was running out.
"If Craven means to bathe this morning, he had bettor do it," he thought, as he marked the rapid progress of the waters; "he will find it heavy work swimming back against this tide."
The boat had made some distance by this time, and he could see Cecil standing in it and undressing. He tried to holloa out some words to him between his closed bands, to the same effect as the channel in which his thought! were running, but his efforts were ineffectual, although hit action did not pass unnoticed; Cecil Craven shook his head merrily at him, and the wind brought back his words upon the shore, and scattered them. So then he lay down on the shingles again, and resumed his smoking and his train of thought. The nursery-maid, meanwhile, with her charge, all eagerness to watch the exploits of the gentleman in the boat, stood near him, gazing.
Raymond had remained inactive for another ten minutes, when he was roused from his reverie by an exclamation from the girl beside him.
"Look, sir! he's gone—the gentleman's gone!"
"Eh! what did you say?" said Raymond, carelessly—"gone. Ah! yes," fully thinking that 'she had watched the first plunge into the sea on Cecil's part, and become excited in consequence.| | 426
"He ain't coming up again, sir. Look! look!"
This time she touched his arm, and Raymond raised his eyes in the direction of the water. There he saw what made him start to his feet with a loud exclamation, for the lad was standing in the boat, with every appearance of being greatly alarmed, as he waved his oar and his woollen cap alternately, and then gazed over the side, evidently not knowing what to do.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed Raymond, appealing to the excited girl beside him. "Where is he?"
"Please, sir, he's gone down!" she answered. "I told you so. I seed him jump ever so many minutes ago, when you was thinking. He swam a little way out, and then his arms went up, and he went down, and he ain't come up since."
"Good God!" exclaimed Raymond. "Cramp."
He had been divesting himself of his coat and waistcoat as the nursery-maid spoke, and now threw them in a heap upon the beach.
"Look after my clothes," he said, hurriedly. "My watch and purse are there; and tell some one, girl, if you can;" and without further thought or direction, Raymond Norreys strode into the shallow water up to his knees—up to his middle—deeper—a little deeper still—and then there was heard a dull plunge, and he was striking out manfully to the rescue of his friend.
It was easy swimming out, for the heavy tide was running fast, and one huge wave but bore him to its crested top, to toss him into the arms of another. Raymond Norreys had not exaggerated his own powers; he was both an able and a gallant swimmer, and he had the courage of a young lion. As his well knit muscles did their work surely, each stroke brought him nearer and nearer to the side of the boat; but as soon as he gained it, the lad hurriedly directed him to a spot some distance further on.
"He went down just there, sir," he almost screamed. "It wasn't my fault, indeed. I can't swim, sir, or I would have gone after him. I'm a deal nearer than I was when he sunk, but I don't see signs of him nowhere."
But Raymond had not stayed to hear half the frantic speech. His practised eye, accustomed to the sea, had spied | | 427 something on before him, which, to the inexperienced, might have seemed a log, or a mass of floating seaweed, but which he knew to be a human head, and struck out for it. But even as he neared it, it disappeared again, and when it next rose, had been carried far away on the fast receding tide. Again he went on, cleaving with powerful strokes the buoyant waters, never thinking of his waning strength, never calculating on the chances of his own return, whilst a hope remained of bringing that indistinct something before him, back to shore.
The nursery-maid had stood staring after him for some minutes after he had entered the water, crying with her excitement and her fear, whilst she admired the prowess he displayed; but then the idea seemed to strike her, dull as she was, that the boldest swimmers sometimes do not return to shore, and under this new dread she deserted her little charges.
"Now, Mary Ann, you just stay along of Charley and Jane and the rest of them, whilst I run to the baths;" and without further preamble she was off.
Once clear of the mass of hard, unyielding shingle, so difficult to tread swiftly, and beyond the beach, her task was easy. Above the overhanging cliff, and on the thoroughfare, a dozen voices and a dozen pairs of hands answered at once to her call for help, and in another five minutes a second; was launched and manned, and proceeded rapidly, under the stroke of four oars, to the place of the accident, whilst a little crowd collected on the beach to watch its progress, to all of which in turn the nursery-maid related the alarming incidents she had witnessed, acquiring quite an importance in her own eyes from the eagerness with which the various questioners assailed her, and the desire they each expressed to keep her conversation wholly to themselves.
And meanwhile the boat was ploughing the waters, and now had reached the other.
"They are on a-head," shouted the lad, as soon as they were within hail. "He's got him, and turned, They're coming this way."
"And why haven't you steered to meet 'em, stupid?" was the reply he got. "What good do you expect to do looking | | 428 at them?" And then to one of the men—" Do you see 'em, Tom!"
"Just a-head of us," replied the other.
"Now, mates, all together," and the boat resumed her course. But the next moment the same voice exclaimed—
"Steady, there! they're down!"
Yes! it was true. He had struck out to the relief of Cecil Craven encumbered by his shirt and heavy trousers, had gained and rescued him (as far as supporting the senseless form, so much weightier than his own, above water, could be called a rescue). And then Raymond Norreys had turned and attempted to swim back against that cruel tide, in support of that heavy burthen, and having reached so far, had failed. First, his muscles had performed their office slower, and he had drawn his breath laboriously; then sensation had in a measure deserted him, and he could not any longer feel the grasp he still rigidly maintained upon that inanimate body. And lastly, his own head had become giddy, and his arm, unconsciously to himself, had relaxed its hold, and his limbs had failed, and Raymond Norreys knew his hands were empty, and that he himself was sinking. And then the heavy waters closed over his eyes and ears and mouth, and he knew and felt no more.
"Steady, Tom—a little more to this side—that's it; gently, lads, gently—there's another yet. This here's the one as was bathing. That's right, Bill, lay 'em down there, and keep their heads raised whilst we make the best of our way home. I doubt but what the dark 'un's gone, if the other ain't, too. Cover them up with these coats. Well, the Lord preserve us all!"
And in profound silence (some of their party having volunteered to help the lad home with the other boat) the men rowed back to shore, although the shout which arose thence, as they lifted the bodies from the water, showed them that their benevolent action had been watched and appreciated.
"And now where shall we take them?" was the inquiry which simultaneously arose from several voices, as the boat was hauled up by friendly aid, and grated on the shingles. At first no one answered. The shed of the Humane Society was at the other end of the beach, and no efficient aid was near.| | 429
"To the baths," suggested a voice in the crowd.
"But they ain't got no blankets there," said a second.
"Here's the doctor," exclaimed a third, as a professional man, who had heard of the accident from a witness above, pushed his way into the assemblage. He walked up to the bodies of Cecil Craven and Raymond Norreys, and lifted the fallen eyelids with his thumb.
"Who are they?" he demanded, shortly.
"I don't know the dark one," replied one of the boatmen "but the tallest is Major Craven. He's often about here in the summer-time."
"Does he live near?" was the next inquiry.
"Quite close, sir—at No.—, in the Parade."
"Then carry them home at once; they both breathe," was the decisive order. "I will go forward and prepare the family for their arrival. Policeman, keep the crowd off."
And starting upon his errand, he was closely followed by the sad procession carrying the bodies of the two young men, covered with sailcloth.
Rachel and Lady Frances had not gone out riding or walking after all, and were still sitting at the dining-room window (now closed), whilst Mrs. Northland reclined in an arm-chair near the fire; for the fictitious beauty of the morning had proved evanescent, and the sky had already re-settled itself into its November shade of grey.
"What can all these men be doing?" exclaimed Lady Frances, as the cavalcade first met her eye. "Look, Lady Norreys, they are carrying something between them—is it a man?"
Rachel, quicker to see things than Lady Frances, instinctively guessed the truth.
"Oh, don't watch them, Frances," she said, shuddering; "I daresay it is some poor drowned creature that they are taking home;" and at that moment the doctor's knock sounded at their own hall-door.
Then there commenced a hurried colloquy in the passage, in which the surprise expressed by the woman of the house, was so soon blended with exclamations of horror and tears of commiseration, that Mrs. Northland grew alarmed, and rushed out of the room to learn what was the matter. The girls | | 430 were about to follow her, when the landlady entered, and essayed to stop them.
"Pray don't go, my dear ladies, it isn't a fit sight for you —it isn't, indeed. Ah! poor dear gentlemen; and to think it should happen so soon after the other, and in my house, too. Well, they always say one death makes three."
"Good heavens! what do you mean?" screamed Rachel, as, followed by Lady Frances, she darted past her into the passage, just in time to see her poor mother faint in the arms of one of the servants, whilst a crowd of wet and dirty men were blocking up the narrow staircase.
"Oh, what is it!" vociferated Lady Frances. "What are they doing? who is hurt, Rachel? who is dead?"
But Rachel did not need to ask information of either herself or others.
"Cecil, Frances!" she gasped. "Drowned! Oh, poor mamma!"
|<< chapter 35||< chapter 1||chapter 37 >|