A RACE FOR A WOMAN
IN Clifden, the chief coast town of Connemara, there is a house at the end of a triangle which the two streets of the town form, the front windows of which look straight down the beautiful harbour and bay, whose waters stretch out beyond the islands which are scattered along the coast and, with the many submerged reefs, make the entrance so difficult.
In the first-floor double-windowed room of this house, furnished as a bed-sitting room, there was a man sitting at a writing-table not an ordinary writing-table, but one the dimensions of which were more suited to the needs of an architect or an engineer than to those of a writer. In the middle of the table was a large drawing-desk, and on it was pinned a sheet of cartridge paper, which was almost covered with portions of designs.
In one corner there was what might be the conception of an engine designed for a destroyer or a submarine. In another corner there was a sketch of something that looked like a lighthouse, and over against this the design of what might have been a lantern. The top left-hand corner of the sheet was merely a blur of curved lines and shadings and cross-lines, running at a hundred different angles which no one, save the man who had drawn them, could understand the meaning of.
In the middle of the sheet there was a very carefully-outlined drawing in hard pencil of a craft which was different from anything that had ever sailed upon the waters or below them, or, for the matter of that, above them.
To the right hand there was a rough, but absolutely accurate, copy of this same craft leaving the water and flying into the air, and just underneath this a tiny sketch of a flying fish doing the same thing.
The man sitting before the drawing-board was an Irishman. He was one of those men with the strong, crisp hair, black brows and deep brown eyes, straight, strong nose almost in a line with his forehead, thin, nervous lips and pointed jaw, strong at the angles but weak at the point, which come only from one descent.
Nearly four hundred years before, one of the ships of the great Armada had been wrecked on Achill Island, about twenty miles from where he sat. Half a dozen or so of the crew had been saved, and one of these was a Spanish gentleman, captain of Arquebusiers who, drenched and bedraggled as he was when the half-wild Irish fishermen got him out of the water, still looked what he was, a Hidalgo of Spain. He had been nursed back to health and strength in a miserable mud and turf-walled cottage, and, broken in fortune for he was one of the many gentlemen of Spain who had risked their all on the fortunes of King Philip and the Great Armada, and lost he refused to go back to his own country a beaten man.
And meanwhile he had fallen in love with the daughter of his nurse, the wife of the fisherman who had taken him more than half dead out of the raging Atlantic surf.
No man ever knew who he was, save that he was a gentleman, a Spaniard, and a Catholic. But when he returned to the perfection of physical and mental health, and had married the grey-eyed, dark-browed girl, who had seemed to him during his long hours of sickness the guardian angel who had brought him back across the line which marks the frontier between life and death, he developed an extraordinary talent in boat-building, which was the real origin of the wonderful sea-worthiness of small craft which to this day brave, almost with impunity, the terrible seas which, after an unbroken run of almost two thousand miles, burst upon the rockbound, island-fenced coast of Connemara.
The man at the table was the descendant in the sixth generation of the unknown Spanish Hidalgo, who nearly four hundred years before had said in reply to a question as to what his name was:
"Juan de Castillano."
As the generations had passed, the name, as usual, had got modified, and this man's name was John Castellan.
"I think that will about do for the present," he said, getting up from the table and throwing his pencil down. "I've got it almost perfect now;" and then as he bent down again over the table, and looked over every line of his drawings, "Yes, it's about all there. I wonder what my Lords of the British Admiralty would give to know what that means. Well, God save Ireland, they shall some day!"
He unpinned the paper from the board, rolled it up, and put it into the top drawer of an old oak cabinet, which one would hardly have expected to find in such a room as that, and locked the drawer with a key on his key-chain. Then he took his cap from a peg on the door, and his gun from the corner beside it, and went out.
There are three ways out of Clifden to the west, one to the southward takes you over the old bridge, which arches the narrow rock-walled gorge, which gathers up the waters of the river after they have had their frolic over the rocks above. The other is a continuation of the main street, and this, as it approaches the harbour, where you may now see boats built on the pattern which John Castellan's ancestor had designed, divides into two roads, one leading along the shore of the bay, and the other, rough, stony, and ill-kept, takes you above the coast-guard station, and leads to nowhere but the Atlantic Ocean.
Between these two roads lies in what was once a park, but which is now a wilderness, Clifden Castle. Castle in Irish means country house, and all over the south and west of Ireland you may find such houses as this with doors screwed up, windows covered with planks, roofs and eaves stripped of the lead and slates which once protected them from the storms which rise up from the Atlantic, and burst in wind and rain, snow and sleet over Connemara, long ago taken away to sell by the bankrupt heirs of those who ruined themselves, mortgaged and sold every acre of ground and every stick and stone they owned to maintain what they called the dignity of their families at the Vice-Regal Court in Dublin.
John Castellan took the lower road, looking for duck. The old house had been the home of his grandfather, but he had never lived in it. The ruin had come in his father's time, before he had learned to walk. He looked at it as he passed, and his teeth clenched and his brows came together in a straight line.
Almost at the same moment that he left his house an Englishman came out of the Railway Hotel. He also had a gun over his shoulder, and he took the upper road. These two men, who were to meet for the first time that day, were destined to decide the fate of the world between them.
As John Castellan walked past the ruined distillery, which overlooks the beach on which the fishing boats are drawn up, he saw a couple of duck flying seaward. He quickened his pace, and walked on until he turned the bend of the road, at which on the right-hand side a path leads up to a gate in the old wall, which still guards the ragged domains of Clifden Castle. A few hundred yards away there is a little peninsula, on which stands a house built somewhat in bungalow fashion. The curve of the peninsula turns to the eastward, and makes a tiny bay of almost crescent shape. In this the pair of duck settled.
John Castellan picked up a stone from the road, and threw it into the water. As the birds rose his gun went up. His right barrel banged and the duck fell. The drake flew landward: he fired his left barrel and missed.
Then came a bang from the upper road, and the drake dropped. The Englishman had killed it with a wire cartridge in his choked left barrel.
"I wonder who the devil did that!" said Castellan, as he saw the bird fall. "It was eighty yards if it was an inch, and that's a good gun with a good man behind it.
The Englishman left the road to pick up the bird and then went down the steep, stony hillside towards the shore of the silver-mouthed bay in the hope of getting another shot farther on, for the birds were now beginning to come over; and so it came about that he and the Irishman met within a few yards of each other, one on either side of a low spit of sand and shingle.
"That was a fine shot you killed the drake with," said the Irishman, looking at the bird he was carrying by the legs in his left hand.
"A good gun, and a wire cartridge, I fancy, were mainly responsible for his death," laughed the Englishman. "See you've got the other."
"Yes, and missed yours," said the Irishman.
The other recognised the tone as that of a man to whom failure, even in the most insignificant matter, was hateful, and he saw a quick gleam in his eyes which he remembered afterwards under very different circumstances.
But it so happened that the rivalry between them which was hereafter to have such momentous consequences was to be manifested there and then in a fashion much more serious than the hitting or missing of a brace of wild fowl.
Out on the smooth waters of the bay, about a quarter of a mile from the spit on which they stood, there were two boats. One was a light skiff, in which a girl, clad in white jersey and white flannel skirt, with a white Tam o'Shanter pinned on her head, was sculling leisurely towards the town. From the swing of her body, the poise of her head and shoulders, and the smoothness with which her sculls dropped in the water and left it, it was plain that she was a perfect mistress of the art; wherefore the two men looked at her, and admired.
The other craft was an ordinary rowing boat, manned by three lads out for a spree. There was no one steering and the oars were going in and out of the water with a total disregard of time. The result was that her course was anything but a straight line. The girl's sculls made no noise, and the youths were talking and laughing loudly.
Suddenly the boat veered sharply towards the skiff. The Englishman put his hands to his mouth, and yelled with all the strength of his lungs.
"Look out, you idiots, keep off shore!"
But it was too late. The long, steady strokes were sending the skiff pretty fast through the smooth water. The boat swerved again, hit the skiff about midway between the stem and the rowlocks, and the next moment the sculler was in the water. In the same moment two guns and two ducks were flung to the ground, two jackets were torn off, two pairs of shoes kicked away, and two men splashed into the water. Meanwhile the sculler had dropped quietly out of the sinking skiff, and after a glance at the two heads, one fair and the other dark, ploughing towards her, turned on her side and began to swim slowly in their direction so as to lessen the distance as much as possible.
The boys, horrified at what they had done, made such a frantic effort to go to the rescue, that one of them caught a very bad crab; so bad indeed that the consequent roll of the boat sent him headlong into the water; and so the two others one of whom was his elder brother, perhaps naturally left the girl to her fate, and devoted their energies to saving their companion.
Both John Castellan and the Englishman were good swimmers, and the race was a very close thing. Still, four hundred yards with most of your clothes on is a task calculated to try the strongest swimmer, and, although the student had swum almost since he could walk, his muscles were not quite in such good form as those of the ex-athlete of Cambridge who, six months before, had won the Thames Swimming Club Half-mile Handicap from scratch.
Using side stroke and breast-stroke alternately they went at it almost stroke for stroke about half a dozen yards apart, and until they were within thirty yards or so of the third swimmer, they were practically neck and neck, though Castellan had the advantage of what might be called the inside track. In other words he was a little nearer to the girl than the Englishman.
When circumstances permitted they looked at each other, but, of course, neither of them was fool enough to waste his breath in speech. Still, each clearly understood that the other was going to get the girl first if he could.
So the tenth yard from the prize was reached, and then the Englishman shook his head up an inch, filled his lungs, rolled on to his side, and made a spurt with the reserve of strength which he had kept for the purpose. Inch by inch he drew ahead obliquely across Castellan's course and, less than a yard in front of him, he put his right hand under the girl's right side.
A lovely face, beautiful even though it was splashed all over with wet strands of dark chestnut hair, turned towards him; a pair of big blue eyes which shone in spite of the salt water which made them blink, looked at him; and, after a cough, a very sweet voice with just a suspicion of Boston accent in it, said:
"Thank you so much! It was real good of you! I can swim, but I don't think I could have got there with all these things on, and so I reckon I owe you two gentlemen my life."
Castellan had swum round, and they took her under the arms to give her a rest. The two boys left in the boat had managed to get an oar out to their comrade just in time, and then haul him into the boat, which was now about fifty yards away; so as soon as the girl had got her breath they swam with her to the boat, and lifted her hands on to the gunwale.
"If you wouldn't mind, sir, picking up those oars," said the Englishman, "I will get the young lady into the boat, and then we can row back."
Castellan gave him another look which said as plainly as words: "Well, I suppose she's your prize for the present," and swam off for the oars. With the eager help of the boys, who were now very frightened and very penitent, the Englishman soon had the girl in the boat; and so it came about that an adventure which might well have deprived America of one of her most beautiful and brilliant heiresses, resulted in nothing more than a ducking for two men and one girl, a wet, but somehow not altogether unpleasant walk, and a slight chill from which she had quite recovered the next morning.
The after consequences of that race for the rescue were of course, quite another matter.