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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

ELLIE'S ENGLISHMAN

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Based on a painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

ILLUSTRATED BY CHARLES CROMBIE

Ex Libris

First published in The Windsor Magazine, August 1914

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-08-15

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Illustration



LIGHTS blazed from the long rows of open windows and cast broken reflections on the great grassy swells which tumbled in lines of thunder upon the white beach below the tall building. Pretty girls in soft summery frocks and young men in evening-dress strolled along the broad verandahs. From the ballroom cane the strains of a lively waltz, the roar of the breakers on the sand forming a deep and splendid bass to the lilting tune.

It was the height of the winter season, and the great Bayou Blanche Hotel was crammed to the attics with pleasure-seekers who, like migrant swallows, had deserted the frost-bound North for the soft warmth of the Gulf of Mexico.

The hotel stood upon a sandy islet connected with the swampy mainland by a timber-built viaduct carrying a roadway and tram-line. Along this, about nine in the evening, strode a solitary young man, and presently, rounding the end of the building, he marched up the broad flight of steps to the main entrance, and through the wide open doors into the large, brilliantly lit hall.

Loungers cast covert glances at the new-comer. They might well stare, for the contrast which the young Englishman presented to these butterflies of fashion was a startling one. His square, powerful, and somewhat uncouth figure was clothed in a suit of plain grey tweed which had evidently seen years of service and was now somewhat the worse for wear. His face, clean-shaven but for a stubby brown moustache, was burnt by sun and wind to the colour of seasoned pigskin, and his strong hands were tanned and hard with manual work.

Unconscious of the small sensation he was creating, the Englishman went straight up to the desk, from behind which the smart hotel clerk regarded him with curiosity not unmixed with a touch of contempt.

"Is Mrs. Vansittart in the hotel?" he asked. His voice was, like himself, strong and deep.

"I guess so," answered the clerk. "What name shall I say?"

"John Wilbur."

The clerk touched a bell at his side. A negro boy in livery ran up.

"Cato you go right up to Mrs. Vansittart's room and tell her Mr. Wilbur has called to see her."

The boy went off to the lift. The clerk, leaning gracefully on the counter, observed to Wilbur that it was a mighty hot night.

"Yes," answered Wilbur, "it's more sultry than I ever remember, for the time of year. And there's a thundering big surf running in."

"Guess there's been a storm out in the Gulf," replied the clerk airily.

"If I'm not much mistaken, we're going to get it here. There was lightning playing over the sea as I came down the beach."

As Wilbur spoke, a deep rumbling sound shook the windless air and seemed to make the whole tall building vibrate slightly.

"Thunder, by Jiminy!" said the clerk. "Heavy, too! Say, you don't often get thunderstorms here in winter, do you?"

"Not often. But when they do come, they're apt to be bad."

The clerk looked a trifle uneasy. Before he could reply, the lift-boy returned.

"Mrs. Vansittart says: 'Will Mr. Wilbur come right up?'"

Wilbur followed his guide to the lift, and was run up to the first floor. He found Mrs. Vansittart alone in a spacious, handsomely-furnished sitting-room. She was a tall, stately woman who still retained traces of former beauty, but her complexion was too evidently artificial, her lips were thin, and her eyes hard.

She rose as Wilbur was ushered in, and the magnificence of her evening gown and the gleam of the jewels around her neck made the young Englishman suddenly conscious of the roughness of his own appearance. It was his best suit that he had on, but he realised all at once that it was sadly shabby.

"How do you do, Mr. Wilbur? I am very glad to see you."

The words were gracious enough, but the tone lacked cordiality. Wilbur began to feel that his call had been a mistake, and, in spite of himself, the colour rose beneath the tan of his cheeks.

"T-thank you," he stammered, and stood tongue-tied and unhappy.

"You were so kind, the other day, when we were lost. I am glad to have an opportunity of thanking you again," continued Mrs. Vansittart in her cold, well-bred voice.

"I—er—hope you were none the worse for all that long tramp," he managed to say.

"No, indeed, thank you. We got quite rested next day."

"And Miss Caroline and Miss Ellie, how are they?"

"My daughters are both quite well, thank you, Mr. Wilbur."

Wilbur felt the hidden rebuke in her words, and secretly writhed.

"But won't you sit down, Mr. Wilbur?" continued the lady. "And let me send for some refreshment for you. You must have had a long ride."

But Wilbur had had enough.

"Thank you," he answered stiffly, "but I'm afraid I must be going."

She did not attempt to stop him.

"I am so sorry," she said in that bitter-sweet tone of hers. "If you must—"

And next moment Wilbur found himself outside in the brilliantly lit corridor, making his way to the head of the stairs.

"Snob!" he muttered angrily, as he strode down into the great hall. He was bitterly hurt and disappointed. These fine Northerners had been glad enough to accept his help when lost in the woods, but now they were ashamed of him simply because of his appearance. They preferred the gilded popinjays who loafed the winter through in smart flannels and gorgeous shooting suits.

As a matter of fact, he was doing Mrs. Vansittart some injustice. He had not reckoned on the protective instinct which reigns in every mother's heart. Mrs. Vansittart had not failed to notice the impression which the sturdy young Englishman had made upon her younger daughter, and had made up her mind from the first that the two should not meet again. To her American mind, a man who was content to live in a log hut in the pine forest and tend a few acres of orange trees was a person lacking in all ambition. She would really have thought more of him had he been a shopkeeper or a newspaper reporter.

The hotel clerk saw Wilbur coming through the hall, and noticed his evident discomfiture. In spite of his dandified appearance, he was a decent fellow at heart.

"Won't you stay and take some supper, sir?" he suggested.

"I am much obliged to you," said Wilbur, "but I am unable to wait."

Wilbur passed out of the door without looking to right or left, and was crossing the verandah, when there came a patter of light feet on the painted floor, and a high-pitched but sweet voice cried—

"Mr. Wilbur—oh, Mr. Wilbur!"

A breathless little figure in a filmy frock of some soft silky fabric came running towards him.

"Is it really you, Mr. Wilbur?" she exclaimed delightedly, stretching out both her small hands. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!"

Wilbur paused. For a moment it was in his mind to bow and pass on. The slight to which he had been subjected hurt cruelly. But the evident pleasure in the girl's greeting was balm to his sore heart. He took her two soft little hands in his large hard ones.

"It's very nice of you to say that, Miss Ellie," he said gratefully.

"Nonsense! Of course I'm glad to see you. I was so hoping you would come. I was just longing to hear all about your plantation and about the alligators, and—oh, lots of things. But where were you going? I only just saw you from the other end of the verandah as you went out of the door."

"I was going home," replied Wilbur a trifle grimly.

"Home at this time of night? Why, it's miles! Haven't you seen mother?"

"Yes," answered Wilbur, and there was that in his voice which told the girl more than he knew. She faltered. "It's all right, Miss Ellie," said Wilbur kindly. "Don't you worry your little head. I quite understand. I ought not to have come—like this"—he indicated his shabby suit.

"Nonsense!" cried Ellie vehemently.

"Who cares how a man is dressed, so long as he is a man?"

Then, realising how warmly she had spoken, she blushed scarlet.

For a moment Wilbur stood embarrassed. He hardly knew what to say. Yet now he was no longer sorry, but very glad that he had come. The mother and elder sister might be silly society folk. What did it matter? Eleanor, at any rate, was genuine.

Lightning leaped like a golden dart across the sky, and a fresh bellow of thunder came booming over the dark sea. The air had become suffocating, and the tall combers broke in milk-white phosphorescence.

"Oh, I'm frightened!" cried Ellie. "I do hate a storm."

"I dare say it won't be much," said Wilbur comfortingly. "And now I must go, Miss Ellie."

"You mustn't—indeed you mustn't. You'll get caught in it. I'm not going to let you. Tell me, have you had any supper?"

"I shall get some when I get home," said Wilbur evasively.

Ellie caught him by the arm. "That won't do," she said emphatically. "Now, look here, you mustn't be proud and horrid. There's a little room I know of. Not a soul in it, and it's quite close to the supper-room. You come with me, and I'll get you all sorts of nice things."

He hesitated. She seized his arm. "Please!" she said entreatingly.

Wilbur yielded.

The loungers had, most of them, gone inside. They were nervous of the coming storm. Only two or three noticed the pretty child steering the big, heavily-built young Englishman along the verandah. Ellie was seventeen, but she was so slim and fair that she did not look anything like her age.

The little mom was empty, as Ellie had said. She made Wilbur sit down in a big arm-chair. To say truth, he was glad to do so. He had done a hard day's work and walked seven miles on top of it.

Then she flitted off and was back in a minute with a plate of chicken, salad, rolls and butter, cakes and a glass of wine. She fed him, fussing over him gently and keeping up a constant cheerful chatter, while outside the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed louder and louder.

Wilbur hardly noticed the gathering storm; he was enjoying himself too greatly. Ellie more than made amends for the rest of her family. He watched her slight, dainty figure with charmed eyes, and talked and laughed as he had not done for years.

The blind was down, but the lightning had now become so vivid that it shone through the fabric and flung its steel-blue gleam into the furthest corners of the room.

Suddenly, above the crush of the thunder, came a rumbling roar.

"The wind's coming!" cried Wilbur, starting to his feet and springing to close the window. He had hardly done so before, with a deafening crash, the first gust struck the hotel. The tall building, like most of its kind, was constructed entirely of yellow pine. It swayed under the shock of the mighty blast, and in every direction doors banged, and there was the sound of running feet as servants hurried to close every entrance.

"What a dreadful storm!" cried Ellie. She had gone a little pale, and there was a startled look in her eyes.

"Mr. Wilbur," she said. "I must go and see to mother. She will be dreadfully frightened. But I'll be down again. You won't go, will you?"

"I doubt if I could now, if I wanted to," answered Wilbur, with a smile. "The waves will be over the viaduct."

He opened the door for her, and she ran towards the hall.

Wilbur sat down again and waited. Outside, the wind was coming in great shrieking blasts. Between each was a slight lull, in which he could hear the pounding crash of the enormous waves that came smashing down on the sandy beach only a few yards away. He got up and went to the window. All was blackness, except when the vivid lightning-shafts stabbed the gloom and lit luridly the foam-crested summits of the gigantic billows.

Wilbur noticed how close they were breaking to the low bluff on which the hotel was built, and remembered, with an uncomfortable feeling, that the tide was still rising.

He thought of the frightful tempest which wrecked the city of Galveston in September, 1900, and piled its streets with corpses, and it came into his mind that, in a storm of that kind, the Bayou Blanche Island would probably be entirely covered by the sea. But being still under the impression that this was merely a thunderstorm, which would blow over in an hour, he had no real apprehension.

The wind increased. With each great moaning breath its note grew deeper, the gusts became more frequent, and the intervals shorter. Showers of spray, ripped from the crests of the ever-rising seas, were flung like hail against the thick plate glass, and the whole giant building quivered to its base.

Time passed, and the lightning became less frequent. Yet the gale allowed no signs of slackening; on the contrary, it steadily increased in fury. In the ballroom the band was still busy, but it was only now and then that a note or two reached Wilbur's ears above the elemental fury of the storm.

There came a sharp ripping sound. A great mass of planking crashed against the window, smashing in the whole frame and sending showers of broken glass into the room. The curtains flew straight out, a deluge of spray rushed in, soaking the rich carpet and gilded furniture. A flash showed Wilbur that a large part of the verandah roof had been ripped away.

He ran out into the corridor, and met Ellie hurrying towards him.

"Oh, Mr. Wilbur, this is terrible! What is going to happen?"

"Where is your mother?" he asked quickly. "She had better not stay upstairs."

"She's down in the hall, and so is Carrie. Part of the roof has been blown off. Do you think it's dangerous?"

"I hope not, Ellie," he said quietly. "It will probably blow itself out soon."

"Come to the hall," said the girl, putting her small white hand on his arm. "No, you needn't be afraid. They'll be only too glad to see you. Half the men there are worse scared than the women."

The hall was crowded with panic-stricken folk—men and women, black and white, guests and servants. Some of the women were weeping. The stout hotel manager and the dandified clerk were doing their best to comfort them.

Mrs. Vansittart, in her gorgeous evening-dress, sat shuddering in a chair, listening to the scream of the gale and the rending crashes which told that the roof above was being rent away piecemeal. She looked up as Wilbur approached.

"Oh, Mr. Wilbur, what shall we do?" she wailed. "We're all going to be killed—I know we are!"

"Not a bit of it," replied Wilbur cheerily. "It's too heavy to last. The wind may take the top storey off, but we're safe enough down here."

Ellie looked at him. "Do you really think so?" she whispered.

"Yes, so far as the wind goes. It's the sea I'm afraid of," he answered in her ear. "I wouldn't tell anyone else," he added, "but I know you are brave."

"Thank you," whispered back Ellie, with a little nod.

The hours dragged by, but there was no abatement in the fury of the storm. No one talked. Indeed, any such attempt would have been useless. The fury of the elements drowned all other sounds.

Suddenly a woman sitting near the door shrieked: "The water! Look at the water!"

Wilbur glanced round. Thin streams of water were spreading across the polished parquet floor, curling about the feet of the terrified people.

In all that crowd Wilbur was, perhaps the only one who fully realised what was happening. This was not the wind-driven spray, but the sen itself rising in its might and battering at the door of the hotel.

For the first time that night a spasm of real fear seized him, but he beat it down.

He grasped Ellie's arm.

"We must get out of this," he said quietly. "I'll take your mother. You bring your sister. Follow me closely."

Pale-checked but steady-eyed, she nodded bravely.

"Come, Mrs. Vansittart," he said to the elder lady. "It's getting too wet in here. I'll take you to a safer place."

"Oh, I can't move—I dare not!" she moaned.

"You must," said Wilbur, and there was that in his voice which compelled her to obey. He took her arm and drew her back past the great flight of polished stairs and through a passage which he knew led to the kitchen. Great fires were glowing in the ranges, but the big room was empty. They reached a back door.

"What are we going to do, Mr. Wilbur?" asked Ellie.

"Try to find a boat and cross to the mainland," replied Wilbur between set lips.

"You won't take me outside in this terrible storm? You can't be so cruel!" screamed Ellie's mother wildly.

"It's our only chance," replied Wilbur grimly. "Listen to that."

From behind came a terrible crash, followed by wild screams of terror. Next moment the door of the kitchen burst open, and a wave a foot high swept in and, striking the hot ranges, burst into clouds of hissing steam.

Wilbur flung open the back door, and all four stepped out into a roaring chaos of flying sand and foam and furious wind.

"Keep close!" he shouted to Ellie, as he dragged her mother forward. Mrs. Vansittart was almost paralysed with terror.

It was not so dark now. For that mercy Wilbur was grateful. The clouds were thinning, and the dawn was breaking; also the bulk of the hotel, to some extent, protected them from the full force of the shrieking tornado.

But the situation was terrifying enough, in all conscience. The ghostly grey light revealed the narrow strait between the island and the mainland swollen to twice its usual width, while its surface boiled white like rapids in flood-time. The tide, driven inwards by the enormous pressure of the hurricane, was rising every moment. Already the hotel boat-house was surrounded by leaping waves.

"Oh, let's go back!" wailed Caroline Vansittart. "Anything is better than this."

Another man might have yielded. Not so Wilbur. He knew that the foundations of the great building were nothing but sand, which each breaker was sapping away. It was only a matter of minutes before the whole huge pile must topple into ruin and melt into the seething maelstrom.

"Ellie," he cried above the shriek of the storm, "keep them here while I get the boat. You understand? It's our one chance of life."

"I will," she answered steadily, and stood there on guard, with her thin skirts, soaked by spray and rain, whipping around her, and her long, fair hair blowing straight out in the blast.

Wilbur drew a long breath and dashed forward into the creaming surf. He was waist-deep and half-way to the boat-house before a wave took him off his feet.

He struck out with all the strength of his iron frame. The short, steep waves broke over his head, the flying brine almost blinded him, but with eyes fixed on the dim bulk of the boat-house, he drove forward with desperate strokes.

The current seized him and swept him sideways. He battled it with a sort of blind fury, and, breathless, almost exhausted, at last reached the long low shed and grasped an upright. A moment later he had dragged himself up on the platform.

Several of the boats were already smashed and sunk at their moorings, but there was a stout dinghy still safe, and with oars in it. Into this Wilbur sprang, only to find that a padlocked chain held it to a staple. He seized the chain and, with an amazing effort of strength, wrenched the staple bodily out of the wood. Fitting the ours into the row looks, he turned the boat out of her little anchorage into the open.

Now came the worst of the struggle. It was not a hundred feet to the island, but he was facing the whole weight of the gale. For the first few seconds it seemed as though the boat would be whirled like a foam-bubble before the wind across to the mainland.

Setting his teeth, Wilbur pulled till the muscles stood out in lumps on his great arms, and the sweat poured down his face, mingling with the wind-whipped brine. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he won his way back until he could spring out into shallow water and by main force drag the boat to where the three soaked, shivering women awaited him.

A huge piece of timber, wrenched from the roof of the hotel, hurtled past on the wings of the roaring blast and vanished into the foaming strait, but Wilbur hardly noticed it.

"In you get!" he roared. It was all he could do to make himself heard above the shriek of the storm fiend. "Ellie, you in the bow, the others in the stern."

Mrs. Vansittart was helpless as a log. Somehow he lifted her in and placed her elder daughter beside her, then he pushed off.

There was no need to pull now. With the full force of the screaming hurricane behind her, the boat fairly leapt across the short waves. Foam flew across her in blinding sheets, and eddies caught her and spun her this way and that. All Wilbur's efforts were concentrated on keeping her head straight for the opposite shore.

"Breakers!" screamed Ellie.

"We must chance 'em!" roared back Wilbur.

Caroline shrieked wildly as crested combers leaped on every side and cataracts poured into the boat, half filling her. Then, with a grinding crash, she struck the hard sand of the beach, flinging the passengers forward in a heap.

"Run!" bellowed Wilbur. "Run, Ellie! I'll look after your mother."

He caught a glimpse of Ellie, like a little, wet, white ghost, fleeing up the beach and dragging Caroline behind her. He seized Mrs. Vansittart and by main force hauled her up out of reach of the greedy surf, then, utterly done, he dropped upon the gale-swept sand and lay gasping.

"Look—oh, look!" screamed Ellie.

Above the yell of the hurricane came a roar louder than thunder. The huge dark hulk on the inland opposite rolled slowly forward, then, with a crash that split the very skies and sent geysers of pale foam leaping in monstrous fountains, the great hotel heeled over like a falling cliff, and the mad waves rushed triumphantly over its site.


Illustration

"Look—oh, look!" screamed Ellie. The great hotel reeled over like a falling cliff.

* * * * *

WILBUR managed to obtain sheller for his charges in the boat-keeper's house. It was a small low-roofed place standing back in the forest, and the trees had saved it from the full fury of the storm.

Late that night he was sitting drowsily over the ashes of a fire in the living-room, listening to the dull roar of the now gradually waning storm, when he became conscious of a light footstep, and, looking round, saw Ellie at his elbow. Her small face was very pale, and she was wrapped in a dressing-gown belonging to the boat-keeper's wife, much too large for her slender little body.

He sprang up, all thought of sleep forgotten.

"Mother is calling for you," said Ellie.

"For me?"

"Yes. I can't quiet her. Come!"

He followed the girl into the adjoining room. Mrs. Vansittart lay in bed. By the dim light of an ill-trimmed lamp, Wilbur saw her face flushed dull red, while her eyes, wide open, stared painfully upwards.

She was moaning pitifully, and Wilbur distinguished his own name repeated in low, thick tones.

"Speak to her," whispered Ellie.

Wilbur came close to the bed.

"You are quite safe now, Mrs. Vansittart," he said soothingly.

"Oh, but I can't forget it! It was too horrible. I see them drowning—sunk under those terrible waves! Stay with me, Mr. Wilbur, or I shall go mad!"

Her voice rose to a shriek, and she stretched out her arms appealingly.

Wilbur took her burning hands in his cool ones, and the strong grasp seemed to quiet her at once. She lay still.

"It's a touch of fever," he whispered to Ellie. "Tell the boatman he must go for a doctor."

Ellie nodded and went.

For the next five days Mrs. Vansittart's life hung in the balance. She was very ill indeed. And the odd thing was that she could hardly bear Wilbur out of her sight; his quiet strength seemed to soothe her more than any medicine or nursing.

On the sixth day the fever left her and she slept. So did Wilbur. He did not move for fourteen hours. Then he went down to the sea and had a swim, came back mightily refreshed, and found Ellie waiting to give him breakfast.

"Mother's ever so much better," were her first words. "The doctor says she can be moved in a few days."

"I'm glad," answered Wilbur.

It was a lie. His heart sank at the idea of losing Ellie. He was suddenly face to face with the fact that he loved her, and that life without the sight of her sweet face would be a dreadful blank. He fell very silent, and though Ellie chaffed him gently, she could not rouse him.

Presently she slipped away into her mother's room, and Wilbur went off for a tramp down the beach.

The sun shone brilliantly out of a sky of cloudless blue, and the little ripples rustled softly on the broad white strand.

He stood on the spot where the boat had been flung ashore through the boiling surf on that terrible night, and gazed at the jagged, wave-bleached stumps which protruded forlornly from the sand-bank opposite, and were all that remained to tell of the terrible tragedy of that night of storm.

His set, gloomy face reflected the black thoughts within. A day or two more, and he must return to his lonely plantation and solitary work. Ellie and her people would go back to their Northern home, or perhaps to Europe. After their ghastly experience, they would never return to the South again, and as he was too poor to leave his farm, it seemed entirely improbable that he would ever see her again. At last he went back to the boat-keeper's house.

Ellie met him.

"Mother's asking for you, Jack," she said. In the close intimacy of the past week they had both dropped all formality, and now spoke to one another frankly by their Christian names.

He went into Mrs. Vansittart's room. She was sitting up in bed, propped with pillows. She looked thin and weak, but had lost much of her former artificial air.

"I'm glad you're better," said Wilbur simply.

"I have to thank you that I am alive," she answered, with more feeling than Wilbur could have believed her capable of showing. "I want to tell you how grateful I am for all you have done for us," she went on, "and"—hesitating a little—"I want to prove to you I am grateful. Mr. Wilbur, I am a rich woman. No, don't interrupt me. I am not going to insult you by offering you money, but I have influential friends, and it seems to me that a man of your abilities might do better than spend his life on a small farm. Let me find you better-paid work. Let me do something to show that I am not the snobbish person you once justly believed me."

Wilbur hesitated. He went a little white beneath his tan. Then he pulled himself together. It was now or never.

"Mrs. Vansittart, you'll probably think me a fool," he said hoarsely, "but I've fallen in love with Ellie. She's the sweetest girl I've ever met and the bravest."

"Ellie!" exclaimed Mrs. Vansittart. "She's only a child."

"I know," said Wilbur humbly, "but a child with a heart of gold."

"You've not said anything to her?"

Wilbur drew himself up sharply. "Certainly not."

Mrs. Vansittart was silent for some moments. At last she spoke again. "Mr. Wilbur, this has startled me—I never dreamed of it—and if anyone had suggested such a thing to me a week ago, I should have said 'No.' But illness is a wonderful teacher. I have learned the worth of a strong man. For the present, Ellie must finish her education. But you may write to her, and if in two years' time you are still of the same mind, you may come North and see us."

Wilbur raised her hand to his lips. "You have made me very happy," he said.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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