`ALL around everything was still as far as the ear could reach. The mist of his feelings shifted between us, as if disturbed by his struggles, and in the rifts of the immaterial veil he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture. The chill air of the night seemed to lie on my limbs as heavy as a slab of marble.
"`I see," I murmured, more to prove to myself that I could break my state of numbness than for any other reason.
"`The Avondale picked us up just before sunset," he remarked, moodily. "Steamed right straight for us. We had only to sit and wait."
`After a long interval, he said, "They told their story." And again there was that oppressive silence. "Then only I knew what it was I made up my mind to," he added.
"`You said nothing," I whispered.
"`What could I say?" he asked, in the same low tone. . . . "Shock slight. Stopped the ship. Ascertained the damage. Took measures to get the boats out without creating a panic. As the first boat was lowered ship went down in a squall. Sank like lead. . . . What could be more clear" . . . he hung his head . . . "and more awful?" His lips quivered while he looked straight into my eyes. "I had jumped--hadn't I?" he asked dismayed. "That's what I had to live down. The story didn't matter." . . . He clasped his hands for an instant, glanced right and left into the gloom: "It was like cheating the dead," he stammered.
"`And there were no dead," I said.
`He went away from me at this. That is the only way I can describe it. In a moment I saw his back close to the balustrade. He stood there for some time, as if admiring the purity and the peace of the night. Some flowering shrub in the garden below spread its powerful scent through the damp air. He returned to me with hasty steps.
"`And that did not matter," he said, as stubbornly as you please.
"`Perhaps not," I admitted. I began to have a notion he was too much for me. After all, what did I know?
"`Dead or not dead, I could not get clear," he said. "I had to live; hadn't I?"
"`Well, yes--if you take it in that way," I mumbled.
"`I was glad, of course," he threw out carelessly with his mind fixed on something else. "The exposure," he pronounced, slowly, and lifted his head. "Do you know what was my first thought when I heard? I was relieved. I was relieved to learn that those shouts--did I tell you I heard shouts? No? Well, I did. Shouts for help . . . blown along with the drizzle. Imagination I suppose. And yet I can hardly . . . How stupid. . . . The others did not. I asked them afterwards. They all said No. No? And I was hearing them even then! I might have known--but I didn't think--I only listened. Very faint screams--day after day. Then that little half-caste chap here came up and spoke to me. `The Patna . . . French gunboat . . . towed successfully to Aden . . . Investigation . . . Marine Office . . . Sailors' Home . . . arrangements made for your board and lodging.' I walked along with him, and I enjoyed the silence. So there had been no shouting. Imagination. I had to believe him. I could hear nothing any more. I wonder how long I could have stood it. It was getting worse, too . . . I mean--louder."
`He fell into thought.
"`And I had heard nothing! Well--so be it. But the lights! The lights did go! We did not see them. They were not there. If they had been, I would have swam back--I would have gone back and shouted alongside-- I would have begged them to take me on board. . . . I would have had my chance. . . . You doubt me? . . . How do you know how I felt? . . . What right have you to doubt? . . . I very nearly did it
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