It rang in Felix Thurstan's ears like the sound of a bell. He gazed about him in dismay, wondering what had happened.
The first intimation he received of the accident was that sudden sharp cry from the bo'sun's mate. Almost before he had fully taken it in, in all its meaning, another voice, farther aft, took up the cry once more in an altered form: "A lady! a lady! Somebody overboard! Great heavens, it is her! It's Miss Ellis! Miss Ellis!"
Next instant Felix found himself, he knew not how, struggling in a wild grapple with the dark, black water. A woman was clinging to him-clinging for dear life. But he couldn't have told you himself that minute how it all took place. He was too stunned and dazzled.
He looked around him on the seething sea in a sudden awakening, as it were, to life and consciousness. All about, the great water stretched dark and tumultuous. White breakers surged over him. Far ahead the steamer's lights gleamed red and green in long lines upon the ocean. At first they ran fast; then they slackened somewhat. She was surely slowing now; they must be reversing engines and trying to stop her. They would put out a boat. But what hope, what chance of rescue by night, in such a wild waste of waves as that? And Muriel Ellis was clinging to him for dear life all the while, with the despairing clutch of a half-drowned woman!
The people on the Australasian, for their part, knew better what had occurred. There was bustle and confusion enough on deck and on the captain's bridge, to be sure: "Man overboard!"-three sharp rings at the engine bell:-"Stop her short!-reverse engines!-lower the gig!-look sharp, there, all of you!" Passengers hurried up breathless at the first alarm to know what was the matter. Sailors loosened and lowered the boat from the davits with extraordinary quickness. Officers stood by, giving orders in monosyllables with practised calm. All was hurry and turmoil, yet with a marvellous sense of order and prompt obedience as well. But, at any rate, the people on deck hadn't the swift swirl of the boisterous water, the hampering wet clothes, the pervading consciousness of personal danger, to make their brains reel, like Felix Thurstan's. They could ask one another with comparative composure what had happened on board; they could listen without terror to the story of the accident.
It was the thirteenth day out from Sydney, and the Australasian was rapidly nearing the equator. Toward evening the wind had freshened, and the sea was running high against her weather side. But it was a fine starlit night, though the moon had not yet risen; and as the brief tropical twilight faded away by quick degrees in the west, the fringe of cocoanut palms on the reef that bounded the little island of Boupari showed out for a minute or two in dark relief, some miles to leeward, against the pale pink horizon. In spite of the heavy sea, many passengers lingered late on deck that night to see the last of that coral-girt shore, which was to be their final glimpse of land till they reached Honolulu, en route for San Francisco.
Bit by bit, however, the cocoanut palms, silhouetted with their graceful waving arms for a few brief minutes in black against the glowing background, merged slowly into the sky or sank below the horizon. All grew dark. One by one, as the trees disappeared, the passengers dropped off for whist in the saloon, or retired to the uneasy solitude of their own state-rooms. At last only two or three men were left smoking and chatting near the top of the companion ladder; while at the stern of the ship Muriel Ellis looked over toward the retreating island, and talked with a certain timid maidenly frankness to Felix Thurstan.
There's nowhere on earth for getting really to know people in a very short time like the deck of a great Atlantic or Pacific liner. You're thrown together so much, and all day long, that you see more of your fellow-passengers' inner life and nature in a few brief weeks than you would ever be likely to see in a long twelvemonth of ordinary town or country acquaintanceship. And Muriel Ellis had seen a great deal in those thirteen days of Felix Thurstan; enough to make sure in her own heart that she really liked him-well-so much that she looked up with a pretty blush of self-consciousness every time he approached and lifted his hat to her. Muriel was an English rector's daughter, from a country village in Somersetshire; and she was now on her way back from a long year's visit, to recruit her health, to an aunt in Paramatta. She was travelling under the escort of an amiable old chaperon whom the aunt in question had picked up for her before leaving Sydney; but, as the amiable old chaperon, being but an indifferent sailor, spent most of her time in her own berth, closely attended by the obliging stewardess, Muriel had found her chaperonage interfere very little with opportunities of talk with that nice Mr. Thurstan. And now, as the last glow of sunset died out in the western sky, and the last palm-tree faded away against the colder green darkness of the tropical night, Muriel was leaning over the bulwarks in confidential mood, and watching the big waves advance or recede, and talking the sort of talk that such an hour seems to favor with the handsome young civil servant who stood on guard, as it were, beside her. For Felix Thurstan held a government appointment at Levuka, in Fiji, and was now on his way home, on leave of absence after six years' service in that new-made colony.
"How delightful it would be to live on an island like that!" Muriel murmured, half to herself, as she gazed out wistfully in the direction of the disappearing coral reef. "With those beautiful palms waving always over one's head, and that delicious evening air blowing cool through their branches! It looks such a Paradise!"
Felix smiled and glanced down at her, as he steadied himself with one hand against the bulwark, while the ship rolled over into the trough of the sea heavily. "Well, I don't know about that, Miss Ellis," he answered with a doubtful air, eying her close as he spoke with eyes of evident admiration. "One might be happy anywhere, of course-in suitable society; but if you'd lived as long among cocoanuts in Fiji as I have, I dare say the poetry of these calm palm-grove islands would be a little less real to you. Remember, though they look so beautiful and dreamy against the sky like that, at sunset especially (that was a heavy one, that time; I'm really afraid we must go down to the cabin soon; she'll be shipping seas before long if we stop on deck much later-and yet, it's so delightful stopping up here till the dusk comes on, isn't it?)-well, remember, I was saying, though they look so beautiful and dreamy and poetical-'Summer isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea,' and all that sort of thing-these islands are inhabited by the fiercest and most bloodthirsty cannibals known to travellers."
"Cannibals!" Muriel repeated, looking up at him in surprise. "You don't mean to say that islands like these, standing right in the very track of European steamers, are still heathen and cannibal?"
"Oh, dear, yes," Felix replied, holding his hand out as he spoke to catch his companion's arm gently, and steady her against the wave that was just going to strike the stern: "Excuse me; just so; the sea's rising fast, isn't it?-Oh, dear, yes; of course they are; they're all heathen and cannibals. You couldn't imagine to yourself the horrible bloodthirsty rites that may this very minute be taking place upon that idyllic-looking island, under the soft waving branches of those whispering palm-trees. Why, I knew a man in the Marquesas myself-a hideous old native, as ugly as you can fancy him-who was supposed to be a god, an incarnate god, and was worshipped accordingly with profound devotion by all the other islanders. You can't picture to yourself how awful their worship was. I daren't even repeat it to you; it was too, too horrible. He lived in a hut by himself among the deepest forest, and human victims used to be brought-well, there, it's too loathsome! Why, see; there's a great light on the island now; a big bonfire or something; don't you make it out? You can tell it by the red glare in the sky overhead." He paused a moment; then he added more slowly, "I shouldn't be surprised if at this very moment, while we're standing here in such perfect security on the deck of a Christian English vessel, some unspeakable and unthinkable heathen orgy mayn't be going on over there beside that sacrificial fire; and if some poor trembling native girl isn't being led just now, with blows and curses and awful savage ceremonies, her hands bound behind her back-Oh, look out, Miss Ellis!"
He was only just in time to utter the warning words. He was only just in time to put one hand on each side of her slender waist, and hold her tight so, when the big wave which he saw coming struck full tilt against the vessel's flank, and broke in one white drenching sheet of foam against her stern and quarter-deck.
The suddenness of the assault took Felix's breath away. For the first few seconds he was only aware that a heavy sea had been shipped, and had wet him through and through with its unexpected deluge. A moment later, he was dimly conscious that his companion had slipped from his grasp, and was nowhere visible. The violence of the shock, and the slimy nature of the sea water, had made him relax his hold without knowing it, in the tumult of the moment, and had at the same time caused Muriel to glide imperceptibly through his fingers, as he had often known an ill-caught cricket-ball do in his school-days. Then he saw he was on his hands and knees on the deck. The wave had knocked him down, and dashed him against the bulwark on the leeward side. As he picked himself up, wet, bruised, and shaken, he looked about for Muriel. A terrible dread seized upon his soul at once. Impossible! Impossible! she couldn't have been washed overboard!
And even as he gazed about, and held his bruised elbow in his hand, and wondered to himself what it could all mean, that sudden loud cry arose beside him from the quarter-deck, "Man overboard! Man overboard!" followed a moment later by the answering cry, from the men who were smoking under the lee of the companion, "A lady! a lady! It's Miss Ellis! Miss Ellis!"
He didn't take it all in. He didn't reflect. He didn't even know he was actually doing it. But he did it, all the same, with the simple, straightforward, instinctive sense of duty which makes civilized man act aright, all unconsciously, in any moment of supreme danger and difficulty. Leaping on to the taffrail without one instant's delay, and steadying himself for an indivisible fraction of time with his hand on the rope ladder, he peered out into the darkness with keen eyes for a glimpse of Muriel Ellis's head above the fierce black water; and espying it for one second, as she came up on a white crest, he plunged in before the vessel had time to roll back to windward, and struck boldly out in the direction where he saw that helpless object dashed about like a cork on the surface of the ocean.
Only those who have known such accidents at sea can possibly picture to themselves the instantaneous haste with which all that followed took place upon that bustling quarter-deck. Almost at the first cry of "Man overboard!" the captain's bell rang sharp and quick, as if by magic, with three peremptory little calls in the engine-room below. The Australasian was going at full speed, but in a marvellously short time, as it seemed to all on board, the great ship had slowed down to a perfect standstill, and then had reversed her engines, so that she lay, just nose to the wind, awaiting further orders. In the meantime, almost as soon as the words were out of the bo'sun's lips, a sailor amidships had rushed to the safety belts hung up by the companion ladder, and had flung half a dozen of them, one after another, with hasty but well-aimed throws, far, far astern, in the direction where Felix had disappeared into the black water. The belts were painted white, and they showed for a few seconds, as they fell, like bright specks on the surface of the darkling sea; then they sunk slowly behind as the big ship, still not quite stopped, ploughed her way ahead with gigantic force into the great abyss of darkness in front of her.
It seemed but a minute, too, to the watchers on board, before a party of sailors, summoned by the whistle with that marvellous readiness to meet any emergency which long experience of sudden danger has rendered habitual among seafaring men, had lowered the boat, and taken their seats on the thwarts, and seized their oars, and were getting under way on their hopeless quest of search, through the dim black night, for those two belated souls alone in the midst of the angry Pacific.
It seemed but a minute or two, I say, to the watchers on board; but oh, what an eternity of time to Felix Thurstan, struggling there with his live burden in the seething water!
He had dashed into the ocean, which was dark, but warm with tropical heat, and had succeeded, in spite of the heavy seas then running, in reaching Muriel, who clung to him now with all the fierce clinging of despair, and impeded his movement through that swirling water. More than that, he saw the white life-belts that the sailors flung toward him; they were well and aptly flung, in the inspiration of the moment, to allow for the sea itself carrying them on the crest of its waves toward the two drowning creatures. Felix saw them distinctly, and making a great lunge as they passed, in spite of Muriel's struggles, which sadly hampered his movements, he managed to clutch at no less than three before the great billow, rolling on, carried them off on its top forever away from him. Two of these he slipped hastily over Muriel's shoulders; the other he put, as best he might, round his own waist; and then, for the first time, still clinging close to his companion's arm, and buffeted about wildly by that running sea, he was able to look about him in alarm for a moment, and realize more or less what had actually happened.
By this time the Australasian was a quarter of a mile away in front of them, and her lights were beginning to become stationary as she slowly slowed and reversed engines. Then, from the summit of a great wave, Felix was dimly aware of a boat being lowered-for he saw a separate light gleaming across the sea-a search was being made in the black night, alas, how hopelessly! The light hovered about for many, many minutes, revealed to him now here, now there, searching in vain to find him, as wave after wave raised him time and again on its irresistible summit. The men in the boat were doing their best, no doubt; but what chance of finding any one on a dark night like that, in an angry sea, and with no clue to guide them toward the two struggling castaways? Current and wind had things all their own way. As a matter of fact, the light never came near the castaways at all; and after half an hour's ineffectual search, which seemed to Felix a whole long lifetime, it returned slowly toward the steamer from which it came-and left those two alone on the dark Pacific.
"There wasn't a chance of picking 'em up," the captain said, with philosophic calm, as the men clambered on board again, and the Australasian got under way once more for the port of Honolulu. "I knew there wasn't a chance; but in common humanity one was bound to make some show of trying to save 'em. He was a brave fellow to go after her, though it was no good of course. He couldn't even find her, at night, and with such a sea as that running."
And even as he spoke, Felix Thurstan, rising once more on the crest of a much smaller billow-for somehow the waves were getting incredibly smaller as he drifted on to leeward-felt his heart sink within him as he observed to his dismay that the Australasian must be steaming ahead once more, by the movement of her lights, and that they two were indeed abandoned to their fate on the open surface of that vast and trackless ocean.