Chapter 13 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid


I had not been in this position more than a few seconds, when some figures appeared in front of the door, and voices fell upon my ear that I thought I recognised. Another glance revealed the speakers. They were the young Creole and her steward.

The conversation passing between them was not a dialogue, but a series of exclamations—the hurried language of terror. The old man had got together a few cabin chairs; and with trembling hands was endeavouring to bind them together, with the design of forming a raft. He had no other cord than a handkerchief, and some strips of silk, which his young mistress was tearing from her dress! It would have been but a feeble raft, had it been completed—not fit to have floated a cat. It was but the effort of the drowning man “catching at straws.” I saw at a glance that it would afford to neither of them the respite of a minute’s life. The chairs were of heavy rosewood; and, perchance, would have gone to the bottom of themselves!

The scene produced upon me an impression indescribably strange. I felt myself standing upon a crisis. I felt called upon to choose between self and self-sacrifice. Had the choice left no chance of saving my own life, I fear I should have obeyed the “first law of nature;” but, as already stated, of my own life I felt secure; the question was, whether it would be possible for me also to save the lady?

I reasoned rapidly, and as follows;—The life-preserver—a very small one—will not sustain us both! What if I fasten it upon her, and swim alongside? A little help from it now and then will be sufficient to keep me afloat. I am a good swimmer. How far is it to the shore?

I looked in that direction. The glare of the blazing boat lit up the water to a wide circumference. I could see the brown bank distinctly. It was full a quarter of a mile distant, with a sharp cross-current running between it and the wreck.

“Surely I can swim it?” thought I: “sink or swim, I shall make the attempt to save her!”

I will not deny that other reflections passed through my mind as I was forming this resolve. I will not deny that there was a little French gallantry mixed up with better motives. Instead of being young and lovely, had Mademoiselle Besançon been old and plain, I think—that is—I—I fear—she would have been left to Antoine and his raft of chairs! As it was, my resolve was made; and I had no time to reflect upon motives.

“Mademoiselle Besançon!” I called out of the door.

“Ha! Some one calls me;” said she, turning suddenly. “Mon Dieu! who is there?”

“One who, Mademoiselle—”

“Peste!” muttered the old steward, angrily, as his eyes fell upon my face. He was under the belief that I wished to share his raft.

“Peste!” he repeated; “’twill not carry two, monsieur.”

“Nor one,” I replied. “Mademoiselle,” I continued, addressing myself to the lady; “those chairs will not serve,—they will rather be the means of drowning you,—here—take this! it will save your life.”

As I spoke I had pulled off the preserver, and held it towards her.

“What is this?” she inquired hastily; and then, comprehending all, she continued, “No—no—no, Monsieur! Yourself—yourself!”

“I believe I can swim ashore without it. Take it, Mademoiselle! Quick! quick! there is no time to be lost. In three minutes the boat will go down. The other is not near yet: besides, she may fear to approach the fire! See the flames! they come this way! Quick! Permit me to fasten it for you?”

“My God!—my God! generous stranger—!”

“No words; now—now it is on! Now to the water! Have no fear! plunge in, and strike out from the wreck! fear not! I shall follow and guide you! Away!”

The girl, partly influenced by terror, and partly yielding to my remonstrances, sprang off into the water; and the next moment I saw her body afloat, distinguishable by the whitish drapery of her dress, that still kept above the surface.

At that instant I felt some one grasping me by the hand. I turned round. It was Antoine.

“Forgive me, noble youth! forgive me!” he cried, while the tears ran down his cheeks.

I would have replied, but at the moment I perceived a man rush forward to the guards, over which the girl had just passed. I could see that his eye was fixed upon her, and that he had marked the life-preserver! His intention was evident—he had mounted the guard-rail, and was just springing off as I reached the spot. I caught him by the collar, and drew him back. As I did so his face came under the blaze, and I recognised my betting bully. “Not so fast, Sir!” said I, still holding him. He uttered but one word in reply—and that was a fearful oath—but at the moment I saw in his uplifted hand the shining blade of a bowie-knife! So unexpectedly did this weapon appear, that I had no chance of evading the blow; and the next moment I felt the cold steel passing through my arm. It was not a fatal stab, however; and before the brute could repeat it, I had, in the phraseology of the ring, “planted” a blow upon his chin, that sent him sprawling over the chairs, while at the same time the knife flew out of his grasp. This I caught up, and hesitated for a moment whether to use it upon the ruffian; but my better feelings overcame my passion, and I flung the weapon into the river.

Almost instantaneously I plunged after. I had no time to tarry. The blaze had reached the wheel-house, close to which we were, and the heat was no longer to be borne. My last glance at the spot showed me Antoine and my antagonist struggling among the chairs!

The white drapery served me for a beacon, and I swam after it. The current had already carried it some distance from the boat, and directly down stream.

I had hurriedly divested myself of coat and boots, and as my other garments were of light material they did not impede me. After a few strokes I swam perfectly free; and, keeping the white dress before my eyes, I continued on down the river.

Now and then I raised my head above the surface and looked back. I still had fears that the ruffian might follow; and I had nerved myself for a struggle in the water!

In a few minutes I was alongside my protegée; and, after half-a-dozen hurried words of encouragement, I laid hold of her with one hand, and with the other endeavoured to direct our course towards the shore.

In this way the current carried us in a diagonal line, but we still floated down stream at a rapid rate. A long and weary swim it seemed to me. Had it been much longer I never should have reached the end of it.

At length we appeared to be near the bank; but as we approached it my strokes became feebler, and my left hand grasped my companion with a sort of convulsive effort.

I remember reaching land, however; I remember crawling up the bank with great difficulty, my companion assisting me! I remember seeing a large house directly in front of where we had come ashore; I remember hearing the words—

“C’est drôle! c’est ma maison—ma maison veritable!”

I remember staggering across a road, led by a soft hand, and entering a gate, and a garden where there were benches, and statues, and sweet-smelling flowers—I remember seeing servants come from the house with lights, and that my arms were red, and my sleeves dripping with blood! I remember from a female voice the cry—

“Blessé!” followed by a wild shriek; and of that scene I remember no more!