A girl found herself clinging to a piece of wreckage
company of the very man who... but read the story and see.
"MARJORIE SWAIN," said her uncle solemnly, "you are going to end up by marrying a tramp."
The girl, sitting on the end of the sofa swinging her foot, laughed.
Marjorie was difficult. She was very rich, and she was very pretty. She was also something of a student of affairs, wrote clever articles in The Woman's Age, and was voted eccentric by some, as unwomanly by others, and as somewhat unapproachable by most people. Only in books and stories are very pretty women, who are also very rich, surrounded by crowds of suitors. Men, on the whole, are too vain to crowd round a woman, however much in love, or in debt, they may be.
Uncle Gordon lit a fresh cigar and looked up at her quizzically.
"Marjie,"he said, "strong-minded young ladies like you end by marrying burglars."
"It must be interesting to marry a burglar—a nice, brave, Raffles person,"she meditated.
"Hmp!" growled her uncle. "The men who catch women like you aren't either nice or brave—look there!"
He pointed through the window. A disconsolate newsboy stood in the drizzling rain clutching a contents bill:
She laughed long and gleefully, throwing back her head in an ecstasy of bubbling amusement.
"Oh, uncle! Am I as bad as that—am I likely to marry Dr. Balscombe?" she asked in mock concern.
"I think nobody is likely to marry the doctor," said her relative, drawing steadily at his cigar, "he'll hang—but he is an instance of the man who captivates impossible women—that is to say, impossible to any other kind of man—by sheer fascination and blarney. If he hadn't killed two poor souls for the vulgar insurance money one could have admired his gifts."
She slipped down from the end of the couch and walked to the window.
"I've read every scrap of the evidence against him," she said, "and if the case hadn't ended yesterday I should have delayed leaving for America. Lady Grancely wanted me to go to court and see him."
Gordon Brebent muttered something about "idle, morbid women," but she ignored his offensiveness. Uncle Gordon was a dear, but somewhat old-fashioned. She walked back to where he sprawled, a model of comfortable inelegance, and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Come and see me off to-morrow, and I promise not to talk about the wicked doctor," she said.
Gordon Brebent promised and kept his word.
If the truth be told, Marjorie did not keep hers, but that was due to a locked railway compartment with drawn blinds, and the whisper that ran along the boat train that the criminal, whose name had been in everybody's mouth, was a fellow-passenger.
She learnt much from her somewhat stodgy fellows of the first saloon, and might have learnt much more but for the fact that, when the Armanic was fifty miles from Queenstown, and Marjorie was dozing in her deck chair, oblivious of the sudden excitement which thrilled the ship, something struck the great liner amidships—something that exploded with a crash like thunder and sent a white, solid column of water leaping into the air before it trembled and broke upon the dumb-stricken passengers.
An hour later she was still without any clear recollection of what had happened.
SHE looked back over the grey hummocks of water and could see nothing save the blur of the smoke from a disappearing drifter. Instinctively she glanced at her watch. It was three o'clock. So the watch was watertight. It was curious that she should remember the shopman's guarantee.
Three o'clock! There were five hours of light left—at least. What time did the sun set? She knitted her pretty forehead trying to remember. She usually dressed for dinner at 7.30, and it was not dark then. It was not even dark at 8.15 when she left her room. Nine o'clock—perhaps later. She raised her hand very gingerly and pushed back the long, soddened snakes of hair from her face. Even the salt water had not dimmed its bronze splendour.
She had need to move cautiously, because she was sitting astride of a small but buoyant bale, that bobbed and rose with the sea and threatened to capsize if she departed by a single inch breadth from her centre of balance.
The young man who swam by her side had all his eyes for the dim line of land to the north. He had a patent life-saving waistcoat about his body, and presented a somewhat bloated appearance.
Now and again he would lift his hand and give the little bale a push in the direction he wanted it to take, for he was rudder and motor power to the frail raft on which Marjorie Swain sat.
"It's awfully uncomfortable," she said, with a quick smile in answer to something he had said, "but it's ever so much nicer than being drowned."
She turned as she spoke and nearly overbalanced herself.
"Hold on!" he warned, and shot up his hand to steady her. "I guess you'd better take your skirt off, my friend—if it is possible."
She looked straight ahead.
"It is quite possible,"she said, "but I shall have to come into the water to do it." He held out his hand and she slipped from her perch.
He held her unceremoniously enough by the scruff of her neck, for she needed both hands.
"That's better, I think," he said, after the struggle which preceded her return to the bale.
She said nothing, not knowing exactly what a lady, clad grotesquely in a Paquin blouse and black silk knickers, should say to a very self-possessed young stranger whom she had never met before until he had grabbed her by the hair and pushed and hauled her to temporary safety.
"What was it struck us? "she asked, after a while.
"A torpedo. I saw the submarine before it struck—at least I saw the periscope."
"Rather beastly of them, wasn't it?" She shuddered at a certain terrible memory.
"Fairly fierce," he answered nonchalantly.
Another long pause, broken only by a smothered exclamation on the part of the girl when, in heading the raft to its course, he had all but overbalanced her.
"We're in—in danger rather, aren't we? "she asked presently.
He looked up and his eyes met hers. She realised, with a little sense of amused surprise, that she had not looked at him before. He was good-looking and something more. There was a certain hardy healthiness in his face, which told of a life spent mainly in the open.
"It all depends,"he answered cautiously. "That streak of grey is Ireland, and round about here we ought to strike a fishing-boat or two. Had you anybody with you on board?"
She shook her head and sighed.
"That's a relief," he said cheerfully. "Well, I could echo that sigh."
He swam lazily, using only one hand, and she wondered why. She thought of asking him when he spoke.
"Was there anybody on board you knew?" he asked.
She shook her head again.
"With one exception they were the most uninteresting crowd of people I ever met," she said. "Had you anybody with you?" He nodded.
"Somebody—somebody you were attached to?" she asked, and there was a pleasant little thrill of anxiety in her voice.
"Yes," he said, and she thought his tone sounded a little unsympathetic. But men hide their grief that way, she remembered.
"You were saying there was an exception in that commonplace crowd?" he said.
She looked down at him.
"I should have imagined that you knew," she said, "everybody on board knew—it was in the newspapers."
"I never read the newspapers," he said; "you see—steady!"
She was swaying wildly, and he put out his right hand to steady her. It was strange that he always gave her the hand he swam with. Perhaps he had injured the other.
"Tell me about your interesting man who was in all the newspapers," he said, after she had again recovered her sense of equation. "I am very keen on interesting men."
"Dr. Balscombe," she said briefly. "Of course he is a horrible person—but women are interested in those kind of people, even nice women. I suppose it is the working of their insatiable curiosity. Just as they want to see what is the best in man, so they want to glimpse something of the worst. People call it morbidity, but in reality it is the anxiety of every person present to learn what he or she has escaped."
"You're American, aren't you?" he asked, and she smiled.
"Boston," she answered demurely.
"That's near enough. I'm—I'm—well, I don't exactly know what I am. My father was Irish, my mother was a Scot, and I was born in Gibraltar."
"What do you call yourself?"
"Canadian," he replied, with charming inconsequence. "You see I've lived there for quite a long time. Well, did you see Dr. Balscombe?"
He asked this keeping his eyes on hers, and swimming easily on his side.
"No—I'm rather glad I didn't. They kept him hidden away somewhere. You know—but, of course, you don't know, if you do not read the papers—he is a very dangerous character. I think if I were a man who had murdered two wives I should be a dangerous character, too. They kept him handcuffed—the steward told me—and were so anxious to get him back to Canada for trial that the Canadian Government sent over a special police official to watch him."
"The devil they did!" said the stranger.
The land was perceptibly nearer. The girl, balanced on the bale, could distinguish the white specks of cottages near the thread width of beach.
"It is a long way yet," said the man, as if reading her thoughts, "but there will be a whole fleet of fishing-boats out, as soon as the news of the ship's foundering is telegraphed along the coast."
She strained her eyes toward the shore, and for the first time the full realisation of her danger came to her and her lips quivered.
"Now then!" he said sharply. "Go on talking—tell me something more about your Dr. Balscombe."
"Please, I don't want to talk any more—are you sure that we aren't drifting?"
"Go on talking," he repeated imperiously. "You're on the verge of a breakdown, my friend."
"I'm not!" she denied indignantly. "But I'm cold, and hungry, and miserable. I don't want to talk about a brute who killed women for the sheer joy of killing them."
"And you have a little lump at the back of your throat which you're trying to swallow—it is called the bolus hystericus, and it can't be swallowed."
"Are you a doctor? "she asked.
"I'm a sort of a doctor," he confessed, "but don't rely upon me to be of any assistance to you in the event of your getting panicky."
She turned sharply with a scornful retort and nearly overbalanced. So nearly, that he was surprised, not only into raising his inevitable right hand to save her, but into lifting himself so that, beneath the surface of the water, his left hand was visible also. She looked and saw, and, for a moment, she thought she would swoon.
For about his left hand, unmistakable even in the brief glimpse she secured, was the bright steel clamp of a handcuff!
She recovered her balance and her self-command at one and the same time.
For the first time that day she was frightened. The sinking of the Armanic was little more than an exciting adventure compared with this greater and more terrible experience.
"I think there is a boat coming our way," the man said suddenly. "Have you anything you could wave to attract its attention?"
She had a handkerchief, but it was no more than a sodden little ball. She took it from her belt and regarded it ruefully.
"Squeeze it out and hold it up—it will be quite dry before the boat comes anywhere near."
There was a long and strained silence.
The girl was thinking rapidly. For the first time she realised that she owed this man something—perhaps her life. She had not even a dim idea as to what had happened between the crash of the explosion, which had awakened her, and the finding of herself perched upon the little bale. Yet she must have enjoyed a lucid period, for it was quite impossible to have gained her position without some effort on her own part.
She must know before she could balance accounts between herself and him.
"Will you tell me how I was rescued?" she asked sharply.
He did not reply at first.
"I think you rescued yourself," he answered, after the pause. "At least," he corrected, "with very little assistance from me."
"How did I find this?" she asked, nodding down at her support.
"That was my bale," he confessed, "but quite unnecessary, as I had a life- saving waistcoat—so I just helped you on to it. And we sort of drifted away from the boats and here we are!"
So she did owe him her life!
She was confronted with the most painful dilemma that could face any human being. She was moving toward safety, thanks to the heroism of a convicted murderer—a man whose crimes had sent a thrill of horror through the civilised world. There was no question of Dr. Balscombe's guilt. She had read every scrap of the evidence, and knew there was no loophole of escape left to him.
That brown sail, now making directly for them, meant life and comfort for her—for the man it meant an ignominious death. She set her teeth and faced the naked verities of the situation. This man's life was forfeit to the State.
"What will you do when you get on board?" she demanded.
"Borrow a dry suit," he answered cheerfully.
"And after—when you get to land—and the police--"
She had to make a supreme effort to get the word out.
"The police?" he asked. "I see—you know?"
She nodded, still keeping her gaze directed from the upturned face.
Otherwise she might have seen evidence of his exhaustion, the hollowness of his eyes, the blue lips and pinched cheek.
"I shall just report—but don't make me talk, please."
His voice had dropped to a whisper.
She looked at him in alarm. He had stopped swimming, and his head was sinking forward till it almost touched the water.
To slip from the bale was the work of a second. With her right arm hugging the precious float, she raised his head with her disengaged hand.
It fell back wearily against her shoulder. She looked wildly, around.
"Thank God!" she said.
The boat with the brown sail was bearing down upon them. She had a half- formed plan in her mind and now it took shape.
She let go his head, lifted the manacled hand to the water's level, and endeavoured so to wrap her handkerchief about it that the handcuff was hidden. But it was too bulky. Perhaps he had a handkerchief. She searched the nearest pocket and discovered a big water-soaked bandana.
As best she could with one hand she muffled the offending wrist.
"Don't touch this bandage..." was the last thing she said to the bald-headed Irish fisherman, who hauled them to the untidy deck of his smack, before she, too, collapsed.
TWO HOURS later they were sitting one on either side of a big, smoky, peat fire in a low-roofed cottage. He was his normal self, which meant that he was flippant and extremely amusing—or he would have been but for the trouble that was at the back of the girl's mind.
He had, she noticed, rid himself in some way of the handcuff, which was a relief.
She had had the greater part of an hour to formulate her plan for loosing on to the world the most cold-blooded scoundrel in the annals of criminality, but she did not know how to commence.
"I suppose you know," she began awkwardly, "that I am very well off."
"Yes," he said, "I am very sorry."
"Sorry," he repeated. "It robs the adventure of half the romance—now if you had been poor, or just comfortably well-to-do, instead of being Marjorie Swain, a dollar millionaire--"
"How did you know my name?" she asked.
"Just now you were taking it for granted that I knew everything about you," he mocked. "The kindly handkerchief you used--"
She went very red. She had forgotten her handkerchief on his wrist under his own.
"It was fortunate that you had your full name embroidered," he went on, "but, as I was saying, if you hadn't been rich, I should imagine myself to be in love with you."
She rose to her feet.
"How dare you!" she gasped. "You! You!--"
And yet—such was the extraordinary fascination of this man, she felt something of happiness in his calm declaration. She herself realised this and went on hastily, almost incoherently:
"I was going to say—I am well off and I am under an obligation to you. I am going to do a wicked thing—get you away from here. I have twenty pounds—it was in my belt pocket—go to London and see me there. I will give you a thousand pounds to--"
The door opened behind her and the mellow voice of the fisherman tenant announced:
"It's the police, yer honours."
She sat up rigidly and looked at the man with terror in her eyes.
Again she experienced that strange thrill, sympathy—pity—liking.
As for the man, he smiled at the big red-faced inspector of Irish Constabulary, who had followed the fisherman into the room. "You got my message?"
"Did you find him?"
"Yes, sir," said the inspector, "one of the boats picked him up—dead."
The man nodded gravely.
"I gave him a chance for his life—I had just time to unlock the handcuff that bound us together before I was thrown into the water. I had to keep close to him until we were clear of the coast."
The girl stared at him.
"Who are you?" she asked in a whisper; "I am Dr. Mallington of the Canadian Prison Service," he said, "and, until recently, attached—I think you say attached?—to the late Dr. Balscombe."
He waited until the inspector had left the room and then leant forward.
"We were interrupted at a very exciting part of your proposal," he said, and had the audacity to take one of her hands. "What happens after you give me all this money—do I furnish a home or something?"
She laughed.a little shakily, but she did not withdraw her hand.