CHAPTER XX  THE KEEPER OF THE LAGOON

    The woods here had been less affected by the cyclone than those upon the other side of the island, but there had been destruction enough. To reach the place he wanted, Dick had to climb over felled trees and fight his way through a tangle of vines that had once hung overhead.

    The banana trees had not suffered at all; as if by some special dispensation of Providence even the great bunches of fruit had been scarcely injured, and he proceeded to climb and cut them. He cut two bunches, and with one across his shoulder came back down through the trees.

    He had got half across the sands, his head bent under the load, when a distant call came to him, and, raising his head, he saw the boat adrift in the middle of the lagoon, and the figure of the girl in the bow of it waving to him with her arm. He saw a scull floating on the water half-way between the boat and the shore, which she had no doubt lost in an attempt to paddle the boat back. He remembered that the tide was going out.

    He flung his load aside, and ran down the beach; in a moment he was in the water. Emmeline, standing up in the boat, watched him.

    When she found herself adrift, she had made an effort to row back, and in her hurry shipping the sculls she had lost one. With a single scull she was quite helpless, as she had not the art of sculling a boat from the stern. At first she was not frightened, because she knew that Dick would soon return to her assistance; but as the distance between boat and shore increased, a cold hand seemed laid upon her heart. Looking at the shore it seemed very far away, and the view towards the reef was terrific, for the opening had increased in apparent size, and the great sea beyond seemed drawing her to it.

    She saw Dick coming out of the wood with the load on his shoulder, and she called to him. At first he did not seem to hear, then she saw him look up, cast the bananas away, and come running down the sand to the water's edge. She watched him swimming, she saw him seize the scull, and her heart gave a great leap of joy.

    Towing the scull and swimming with one arm, he rapidly approached the boat. He was quite close, only ten feet away, when Emmeline saw behind him, shearing through the clear rippling water, and advancing with speed, a dark triangle that seemed made of canvas stretched upon a sword-point.

    Forty years ago he had floated adrift on the sea in the form and likeness of a small shabby pine-cone, a prey to anything that might find him. He had escaped the jaws of the dog-fish, and the jaws of the dog-fish are a very wide door; he had escaped the albicore and squid: his life had been one long series of miraculous escapes from death. Out of a billion like him born in the same year, he and a few others only had survived.

    For thirty years he had kept the lagoon to himself, as a ferocious tiger keeps a jungle. He had known the palm tree on the reef when it was a seedling, and he had known the reef even before the palm tree was there. The things he had devoured, flung one upon another, would have made a mountain; yet he was as clear of enmity as a sword, as cruel and as soulless. He was the spirit of the lagoon.

    Emmeline screamed, and pointed to the thing behind the swimmer. He turned, saw it, dropped the oar and made for the boat. She had seized the remaining scull and stood with it poised, then she hurled it blade foremost at the form in the water, now fully visible, and close on its prey.

    She could not throw a stone straight, yet the scull went like an arrow to the mark, balking the pursuer and saving the pursued. In a moment more his leg was over the gunwale, and he was saved.

    But the scull was lost.


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