Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Love Stories online

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"I believe you had forgotten me entirely!"

The Chief winced. "Isn't that the best thing you could wish me?" he
said.

"Are you happy?"

"'I ha' lived and I ha' worked!'" he quoted sturdily.

Very shortly after that he left her; he made an excuse of being
needed below and swung off, his head high.


VI

They struck the derelict when the mist was thickest, about two that
morning. The Red Un was thrown out of his berth and landed, stark
naked, on the floor. The Purser's boy was on the floor, too, in a
tangle of bedding. There was a sickening silence for a moment,
followed by the sound of opening doors and feet in the passage.
There was very little speech. People ran for the decks. The Purser's
boy ran with them.

The Red Un never thought of the deck. One of the axioms of the
engine room is that of every man to his post in danger. The Red Un's
post was with his Chief. His bare feet scorched on the steel ladders
and the hot floor plates; he had on only his trousers, held up with
a belt.

The trouble was in the forward stokehole. Water was pouring in from
the starboard side - was welling up through the floor plates. The
wound was ghastly, fatal! The smouldering in the bunker had weakened
resistance there and her necrosed ribs had given away. The Red Un,
scurrying through the tunnel, was met by a maddened rush of trimmers
and stokers. He went down under them and came up bruised, bleeding,
battling for place.

"You skunks!" he blubbered. "You crazy cowards! Come back and help!"

A big stoker stopped and caught the boy's arm.

"You come on!" he gasped. "The whole thing'll go in a minute. She'll
go down by the head!"

He tried to catch the boy up in his arms, but the Red Un struck him
on the nose.

"Let me go, you big stiff!" he cried, and kicked himself free.

Not all the men had gone. They were working like fiends. It was up
to the bulkhead now. If it held - if it only held long enough to get
the passengers off!

Not an engineer thought of leaving his place, though they knew,
better even than the deck officers, how mortally the ship was hurt.
They called to their aid every resource of a business that is
nothing but emergencies. Engines plus wit, plus the grace of
God - and the engines were useless. Wits, then, plus Providence. The
pumps made no impression on the roaring flood; they lifted floor
plates to strengthen the bulkheads and worked until it was death to
work longer. Then, fighting for every foot, the little band
retreated to the after stokehole. Lights were out forward. The Chief
was the last to escape. He carried an oil lantern, and squeezed
through the bulkhead door with a wall of water behind him.

The Red Un cried out, but too late. The Chief, blinded by his
lantern, had stumbled into the pit where a floor plate had been
lifted. When he found his leg was broken he cried to them to go on
and leave him, but they got him out somehow and carried him with
them as they fought and retreated - fought and retreated. He was
still the Chief; he lay on the floor propped up against something
and directed the fight. The something he leaned against was the
strained body of the Red Un, who held him up and sniffled shamefaced
tears. She was down by the head already and rolling like a dying
thing. When the water came into the after stokehole they carried the
Chief into the engine room - the lights were going there.

There had been no panic on deck. There were boats enough and the
lights gave every one confidence. It was impossible to see the
lights going and believe the ship doomed. Those who knew felt the
list of the decks and hurried with the lowering of the boats; the
ones who saw only the lights wished to go back to their cabins for
clothing and money.

The woman sat in the Quartermaster's boat, with her daughter in her
arms, and stared at the ship. The Quartermaster said the engineers
were still below and took off his cap. In her feeble way the woman
tried to pray, and found only childish, futile things to say; but in
her mind there was a great wonder - that they, who had once been life
each to the other, should part thus, and that now, as ever, the good
part was hers! The girl looked up into her mother's face.

"The redhaired little boy, mother - do you think he is safe?"

"First off, likely," mumbled the Quartermaster grimly.

All the passengers were off. Under the mist the sea rose and fell
quietly; the boats and rafts had drawn off to a safe distance. The
Greek, who had humour as well as imagination, kept up the spirits of
those about him while he held a child in his arms.

"Shall we," he inquired gravely, "think you - shall we pay extra to
the company for this excursion?"

* * * * *

The battle below had been fought and lost. It was of minutes now.
The Chief had given the order: "Every one for himself!" Some of the
men had gone, climbing to outer safety. The two Seconds had refused
to leave the Chief. All lights were off by that time. The after
stokehole was flooded and water rolled sickeningly in the
engine-pits. Each second it seemed the ship must take its fearful
dive into the quiet sea that so insistently reached up for her.
With infinite labour the Seconds got the Chief up to the fiddley,
twenty feet or less out of a hundred, and straight ladders instead
of a steel staircase. Ten men could not have lifted him without
gear, and there was not time!

Then, because the rest was hopeless, they left him there, propped
against the wall, with the lantern beside him. He shook hands with
them; the Junior was crying; the Senior went last, and after he had
gone up a little way he turned and came back.

"I can't do it, Chief!" he said. "I'll stick it out with you." But
the Chief drove him up, with the name of his wife and child. Far up
the shaft he turned and looked down. The lantern glowed faintly
below.

The Chief sat alone on his grating. He was faint with pain. The
blistering cylinders were growing cold; the steel floor beneath was
awash. More ominous still, as the ship's head sank, came crackings
and groanings from the engines below. They would fall through at the
last, ripping out the bulkheads and carrying her down bow first.

Pain had made the Chief rather dull. "'I ha' lived and I ha'
worked!'" he said several times - and waited for the end. Into his
stupor came the thought of the woman - and another thought of the
Red Un. Both of them had sold him out, so to speak; but the woman
had grown up with his heart and the boy was his by right of
salvage - only he thought of the woman as he dreamed of her, not as
he had seen her on the deck. He grew rather confused, after a time,
and said: "I ha' loved and I ha' worked!"

Just between life and death there comes a time when the fight seems
a draw, or as if each side, exhausted, had called a truce. There is
no more struggle, but it is not yet death. The ship lay so. The
upreaching sea had not conquered. The result was inevitable, but not
yet. And in the pause the Red Un came back, came crawling down the
ladder, his indomitable spirit driving his craven little body.

He had got as far as the boat and safety. The gripping devils of
fear that had followed him up from the engine room still hung to his
throat; but once on deck, with the silent men who were working
against time and eternity, he found he could not do it. He was the
Chief's boy - and the Chief was below and hurt!

The truce still held. As the ship rolled, water washed about the
foot of the ladder and lapped against the cylinders. The Chief tried
desperately to drive him up to the deck and failed.

"It's no place for you alone," said the Red Un. His voice had
lost its occasional soprano note; the Red Un was a grown man.
"I'm staying!" And after a hesitating moment he put his small,
frightened paw on the Chief's arm.

It was that, perhaps, that roused the Chief - not love of life, but
love of the boy. To be drowned like a rat in a hole - that was not so
bad when one had lived and worked. A man may not die better than
where he has laboured; but this child, who would die with him rather
than live alone! The Chief got up on his usable knee.

"I'm thinking, laddie," he said, "we'll go fighting anyhow."

The boy went first, with the lantern. And, painful rung by painful
rung, the Chief did the impossible, suffering hells as he moved. For
each foot he gained the Red Un gained a foot - no more. What he would
not have endured for himself, the Chief suffered for the boy.
Halfway up, he clung, exhausted.

The boy leaned down and held out his hand.

"I'll pull," he said. "Just hang on to me."

Only once again did he speak during that endless climb in the
silence of the dying ship, and what he said came in gasps. He was
pulling indeed.

"About - that airtrunk," he managed to say - "I'm - sorry, sir!"

* * * * *

The dawn came up out of the sea, like resurrection. In the
Quartermaster's boat the woman slept heavily, with tears on her
cheeks. The Quartermaster looked infinitely old and very tired with
living.

It was the girl, after all, who spied them - two figures - one inert
and almost lifeless; one very like a bobbing tomato, but revealing a
blue face and two desperate eyes above a ship's lifebelt.

The Chief came to an hour or so later and found the woman near, pale
and tragic, and not so young as he had kept her in his heart. His
eyes rested on hers a moment; the bitterness was gone, and the ache.
He had died and lived again, and what was past was past.

"I thought," said the woman tremulously - "all night I thought that
you - - "

The Chief, coming to full consciousness, gave a little cry. His
eyes, travelling past hers, had happened on a small and languid
youngster curled up at his feet, asleep. The woman drew back - as
from an intrusion.

As she watched, the Red Un yawned, stretched and sat up. His eyes
met the Chief's, and between them passed such a look of
understanding as made for the two one world, one victory!











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Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 17 of 17)