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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCharles Rex - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Abyss
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Charles Rex - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Abyss Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2901

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Charles Rex - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Abyss

PART I CHAPTER VI. THE ABYSS

They sighted the English shore a few days later on an evening of mist and rain. The sea was grey and dim, the atmosphere cold and inhospitable.

"Just like England!" said Saltash. "She never gushes over her prodigals."

He was dining alone in the saloon with Toby behind his chair, Larpent being absent on the bridge.

"Don't you like England, sir?" said Toby.

"I adore her," said Saltash with his most hideous grimace. "But I don't go to her for amusement."

Toby came forward to fill his glass with liqueur. "Too strait-laced, sir?" he suggested with the suspicion of a smile.

Saltash nodded with a sidelong glance at the young face bent over the decanter. "Too limited in many ways, my Toby," he said. "But at the same time useful in certain emergencies. A stern mother perhaps, but a wise one on the whole. You, for instance--she will be the making of you."

A slight tremor went through Toby. He set down the decanter and stepped back. "Of me, sir?" he said.

Saltash nodded again. He was fingering the stem of his glass, his queer eyes dancing a little. "We've got to make a respectable citizen of you--somehow," he said.

"Do you think that matters, sir?" said Toby.

Saltash raised his glass. "You won't always be a boy of sixteen, you know, Toby," he said lightly. "We've got to think of the future--whether we want to or not."

"I don't see why, sir," said Toby.

"You see, you're young," said Saltash, and drank with the air of one who drinks a toast.

Suddenly he turned in his chair, the glass still in his hand.

"Our last night on board!" he said, with a royal gesture of invitation. "You shall drink with me."

Toby's face flushed burningly. He hung back. "Not--not--from your glass, sir!" he said. "Not--liqueur!"

"Why not? Afraid?" mocked Saltash.

Toby was silent. His hand closed involuntarily upon the back of his master's chair. The flush died out of his face.

Saltash sat and looked at him for a few seconds, still with that dancing gleam in his eyes. Then abruptly he moved, rose with one knee upon the chair, lifted the glass to Toby's lips.

"Afraid?" he said again, speaking softly as one speaks to a frightened child.

Toby raised a hand that sought to take the glass but closed instead nervously upon Saltash's wrist. He drank in response to Saltash's unspoken insistence, looking straight at him the while.

Then oddly he smiled. "No, not afraid, sir," he said. "Only--lest I might not bring you luck."

"Oh, don't fret yourself on that account!" said Saltash. "I'm not used to any luck."

Toby's eyes widened. "I thought you had--everything, sir," he said.

Saltash laughed and set down the empty glass. "_Au contraire, mon cher_," he said. "I am no richer than you are. Like Tantalus, I can never quench my thirst. Like many a better man than I, I see the stars, but I never reach them."

"Does anybody?" said Toby in the tone of one not expecting an answer.

Saltash laughed briefly, enigmatically. "I believe some people soar. But they generally come down hard in the end. Whereas those who always crawl on the earth haven't far to fall. Now look here, Toby, you and I have got to have a talk."

"Yes, sir," said Toby, blinking rather rapidly.

Saltash was watching him with a faint smile in his eyes, half-derisive and half-tender. "What are you going to be, Toby?" he said. "It all turns on that."

Toby's hand still gripped the back of his chair. He stood up very straight, facing him. "That is for you to decide, sir," he said.

"Is it?" said Saltash, and again his eyes gleamed a little. "Is it for me to decide?"

"Yes, sir. For you alone." There was no flinching in Toby's look now. His eyes were wide and very steady.

Saltash's mouth twitched as if he repressed some passing emotion. "You mean--just that?" he asked, after a moment.

"Just that, sir," said Toby, with a slight quickening of the breath. "I mean I am--at your disposal alone."

Saltash took him suddenly by the shoulder and looked at him closely. "Toby!" he said. "Aren't you making--rather a fool of yourself?"

"No, sir!" Swiftly, with unexpected vehemence, Toby made answer. "I'm doing--the only thing possible. But if you--if you--if you--"

"Well?" Saltash said. "If I what?"

"If you want to get rid of me--at any time," Toby said, commanding himself with fierce effort, "I'll go, sir--I'll go!"

"And where to?" Saltash's eyes were no longer derisive; they held something that very few had ever seen there.

Toby made a quick gesture of the hands, and dropped them flat at his sides. "I'll get rid of myself--then, sir," he said, with sudden chill pride. "That won't be very difficult. And I'll do it--so that you won't even know."

Saltash stood up abruptly. "Toby, you are quite unique!" he said. "Superb too in your funny little way. Your only excuse is that you're young. Does it never occur to you that you've attached yourself to the wrong person?"

"No, sir," breathed Toby.

"You're not afraid to stake all you've got on a bad card?" pursued Saltash, still curiously watching him.

"No, sir," he said again; and added with his faint, unboyish smile, "I haven't much to lose anyway."

Saltash's hand tightened upon him. He was smiling also, but the gleam in his eyes had turned to leaping, fitful flame. "Well," he said slowly, "I have never yet refused--a gift from the gods."

And there he stopped, for suddenly, drowning all speech, there arose a din that seemed to set the whole world rocking; and in a moment there came a frightful shock that pitched them both headlong to the floor.

Saltash fell as a monkey falls, catching at one thing after another to save himself, landing eventually on his knees in pitch darkness with one hand still gripped upon Toby's thin young arm. But Toby had struck his head against a locker and had gone down stunned and helpless.

The din of a siren above them filled the world with hideous clamour as Saltash recovered himself. "Damn them!" he ejaculated savagely. "Do they want to deafen us as well as send us to perdition?"

Then very suddenly it stopped, leaving a void that was instantly filled with lesser sounds. There arose a confusion of voices, of running feet, a hubbub of escaping steam, and a great rush of water.

Saltash dragged himself up in the darkness, sought to drag Toby also, found him a dead weight, stooped and lifted him with wiry strength. He trod among broken glass and plates as he straightened himself. The noise above them was increasing. He flung the limp form over his shoulder and began desperately to claw his way up a steep slant towards the saloon-door and the companion-way. Sound and instinct guided him, for the darkness was complete. But he was not the man to die like a trapped animal while the most slender way of escape remained. Hampered as he was, he made for the open with set teeth and terrible foreign oaths of which he was utterly unconscious.

Whether that fierce struggle for freedom could ever have ended in success single-handed, however, was a point which he was not destined to decide, for after a space of desperate effort which no time could measure, there suddenly shone the gleam of an electric torch in front of him, and he saw the opening but a few feet away.

"Saltash!" cried a voice, piercing the outer din, "Saltash!"

"Here!" yelled back Saltash, still fighting for foothold and finding it against the leg of the table, "That you, Larpent? How long have we got?"

"Seconds only!" said Larpent briefly. "Give me the child!"

"No! Just give me a hand, that's all! Hang on tight! It'll be a pull."

Saltash flung himself forward again, his free hand outstretched, slipped and nearly fell on his face, then was caught by a vice-like grip that drew him upward with grim strength. In a moment he was braced against the frame of the door, almost standing on it, the saloon gaping below him--a black pit of destruction. Larpent's torch showed the companion stairs practically perpendicular above them.

"Go on!" said Larpent. "Better give me the child. It's you that matters."

"Get out, damn you!" said Saltash, and actually grinned as he began to climb with his burden still hanging upon his shoulder.

Larpent came behind him, holding his torch to light the way. They climbed up into a pandemonium indescribable, a wild torrent of sound.

There was light here that shone in a great flare through billows of fog, showing the monster form of a great vessel towering above them with only a few yards of mist-wreathed water between. The deck on which they stood sloped upwards at an acute angle, and still from below there came the clamour of escaping steam accompanied by a spasmodic throbbing that was like the futile beating of giant wings against Titanic bars.

A knot of men were struggling to lower a boat by the ghostly glare that lit the night about them, clambering and slipping against the rails, while a voice from beyond the fog-curtain yelled through a megaphone unintelligible commands.

All these things were registered upon Saltash's brain, his quick perception leaping from point to point with a mental agility that was wholly outside all conscious volition on his part. He was driven by circumstance as a bird is driven by storm, and he went before it undismayed, missing no chance of refuge.

A life-buoy hanging beside the hatch caught his eye as he glanced swiftly around and in a second he pounced upon it. Toby slipped from his shoulder as he bent, and slipping awoke. But he only lay and stared with dazed eyes at the man frantically unlashing the rope, as one who looked on from afar.

Then Larpent was with them again. He dragged Toby to his feet, and in a flash Saltash turned, the life-buoy on his arm.

"What the devil are you doing?"

Larpent pointed. "They've got the boat free. Go--while you can!"

But Saltash barely glanced across. He put the life-buoy over Toby's head and shoulders, and began to wind the rope around him. It did not need a glance to know that the boat would never get away.

At his action Toby gasped, and sudden understanding awoke in his eyes. He dragged one arm free, and made as if he would cling to Saltash.

"Keep me with you, sir!" he cried out wildly. "Don't make me go alone!"

Saltash gripped the clutching hand, dropping the end of rope. It trailed down, and Larpent caught it, flung it round Saltash's body, and knotted it while he was lifting Toby over the rail.

Then for a second Saltash hung, one hand still gripping Toby's, the other holding to the rail of his sinking yacht, the two of them poised side by side above the abyss.

"You'll save yourself, Larpent!" he cried. "I shall want you."

And with that he turned suddenly to his shivering companion and actually smiled into the terrified eyes. "Come on, Toby!" he said. "We go--together!"

He flung his leg over with the words, and leapt straight downwards.

Toby's shriek sounded through the tumult as they went into the grey depths.

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