Emmeline, seated on the coral rock, had almost forgotten Dick for a moment. The sun was setting, and the warm amber light of the sunset shone on reef and rock-pool. Just at sunset and low tide the reef had a peculiar fascination for her. It had the low-tide smell of sea-weed exposed to the air, and the torment and trouble of the breakers seemed eased. Before her, and on either side, the foam-dashed coral glowed in amber and gold, and the great Pacific came glassing and glittering in, voiceless and peaceful, till it reached the strand and burst into song and spray.
Here, just as on the hill-top at the other side of the island, you could mark the rhythm of the rollers. "Forever, and forever--forever, and forever," they seemed to say.
The cry of the gulls came mixed with the spray on the breeze. They haunted the reef like uneasy spirits, always complaining, never at rest; but at sunset their cry seemed farther away and less melancholy, perhaps because just then the whole island world seemed bathed in the spirit of peace.
She turned from the sea prospect and looked backwards over the lagoon to the island. She could make out the broad green glade beside which their little house lay, and a spot of yellow, which was the thatch of the house, just by the artu tree, and nearly hidden by the shadow of the breadfruit. Over woods the fronds of the great cocoa-nut palms showed above every other tree silhouetted against the dim, dark blue of the eastern sky.
Seen by the enchanted light of sunset, the whole picture had an unreal look, more lovely than a dream. At dawn--and Dick would often start for the reef before dawn, if the tide served--the picture was as beautiful; more so, perhaps, for over the island, all in shadow, and against the stars, you would see the palm-tops catching fire, and then the light of day coming through the green trees and blue sky, like a spirit, across the blue lagoon, widening and strengthening as it widened across the white foam, out over the sea, spreading like a fan, till, all at once, night was day, and the gulls were crying and the breakers flashing, the dawn wind blowing, and the palm trees bending, as palm trees only know how. Emmeline always imagined herself alone on the island with Dick, but beauty was there, too, and beauty is a great companion.
The girl was contemplating the scene before her. Nature in her friendliest mood seemed to say, "Behold me! Men call me cruel; men have called me deceitful, even treacherous. I--ah well! my answer is, 'Behold me!'"
The girl was contemplating the specious beauty of it all, when on the breeze from seaward came a shout. She turned quickly. There was Dick up to his knees in a rockpool a hundred yards or so away, motionless, his arms upraised, and crying out for help. She sprang to her feet.
There had once been an islet on this part of the reef, a tiny thing, consisting of a few palms and a handful of vegetation, and destroyed, perhaps, in some great storm. I mention this because the existence of this islet once upon a time was the means, indirectly, of saving Dick's life; for where these islets have been or are, "flats" occur on the reef formed of coral conglomerate.
Emmeline in her bare feet could never have reached him in time over rough coral, but, fortunately, this flat and comparatively smoothsurface lay between them.
"My spear!" shouted Dick, as she approached.
He seemed at first tangled in brambles; then she thought ropes were tangling round him and tying him to something in the water--whatever it was, it was most awful, and hideous, and like a nightmare. She ran with the speed of Atalanta to the rock where the spear was resting, all red with the blood of new-slain fish, a foot from the point.
As she approached Dick, spear in hand, she saw, gasping with terror, that the ropes were alive, and that they were flickering and rippling over his back. One of them bound his left arm to his side, but his right arm was free.
"Quick!" he shouted.
In a second the spear was in his free hand, and Emmeline had cast herself down on her knees, and was staring with terrified eyes into the water of the pool from whence the ropes issued. She was, despite her terror, quite prepared to fling herself in and do battle with the thing, whatever it might be.
What she saw was only for a second. In the deep water of the pool, gazing up and forward and straight at Dick, she saw a face, lugubrious and awful. The eyes were wide as saucers, stony and steadfast; a large, heavy, parrot-like beak hung before the eyes, and worked and wobbled, and seemed to beckon. But what froze one's heart was the expression of the eyes, so stony and lugubrious, so passionless, so devoid of speculation, yet so fixed of purpose and full of fate.
From away far down he had risen with the rising tide. He had been feeding on crabs, when the tide, betraying him, had gone out, leaving him trapped in the rock-pool. He had slept, perhaps, and awakened to find a being, naked and defenceless, invading his pool. He was quite small, as octopods go, and young, yet he was large and powerful enough to have drowned an ox.
The octopod has only been described once, in stone, by a Japanese artist. The statue is still extant, and it is the most terrible masterpiece of sculpture ever executed by human hands. It represents a man who has been bathing on a low-tide beach, and has been caught. The man is shouting in a delirium of terror, and threatening with his free arm the spectre that has him in its grip. The eyes of the octopod are fixed upon the man--passionless and lugubrious eyes, but steadfast and fixed.
Another whip-lash shot out of the water in a shower of spray, and seized Dick by the left thigh. At the same instant he drove the point of the spear through the right eye of the monster, deep down through eye and soft gelatinous carcass till the spear-point dirled and splintered against the rock. At the same moment the water of the pool became black as ink, the bands around him relaxed, and he was free.
Emmeline rose up and seized him, sobbing and clinging to him, and kissing him. He clasped her with his left arm round her body, as if to protect her, but it was a mechanical action. He was not thinking of her. Wild with rage, and uttering hoarse cries, he plunged the broken spear again and again into the depths of the pool, seeking utterly to destroy the enemy that had so lately had him in its grip. Then slowly he came to himself, and wiped his forehead, and looked at the broken spear in his hand.
"Beast!" he said. "Did you see its eyes? Did you see its eyes? I wish it had a hundred eyes, and I had a hundred spears to drive into them!"
She was clinging to him, and sobbing and laughing hysterically, and praising him. One might have thought that he had rescued her from death, not she him.
The sun had nearly vanished, and he led her back to where the dinghy was moored, recapturing and putting on his trousers on the road. He picked up the dead fish he had speared; and as he rowed her back across the lagoon, he talked and laughed, recounting the incidents of the fight, taking all the glory of the thing to himself, and seeming quite to ignore the important part she had played in it.
This was not from any callousness or want of gratitude, but simply from the fact that for the last five years he had been the be-all and end-all of their tiny community--the Imperial master. And he would just as soon have thought of thanking her for handing him the spear as of thanking his right hand for driving it home. She was quite content, seeking neither thanks nor praise. Everything she had came from him: she was his shadow and his slave. He was her sun.
He went over the fight again and again before they lay down to rest, telling her he had done this and that, and what he would do to the next beast of the sort. The reiteration was tiresome enough, or would have been to an outside listener, but to Emmeline it was better than Homer. People's minds do not improve in an intellectual sense when they are isolated from the world, even though they are living the wild and happy lives of savages.
Then Dick lay down in the dried ferns and covered himself with a piece of the striped flannel which they used for blanketing, and he snored, and chattered in his sleep like a dog hunting imaginary game, and Emmeline lay beside him wakeful and thinking. A new terror had come into her life. She had seen death for the second time, but this time active and in being.