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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Out of the Sea

By Maud Howe Elliott (1854–1948)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1854. Died in Newport, R. I., 1948. The San Rosario Ranch. 1884.]

THE LAST day of their visit had come, and the morrow would see them on their way back to San Rosario. Millicent and Barbara had prolonged their sea dip beyond their usual wont. Never before had the water seemed so bracing and delicious. As there were twenty or thirty bathers to keep her company, Millicent lingered among the breakers, while Barbara regained the shore. She swam leisurely about, displacing the clear water with her white arms and pretty, small feet. She suddenly became aware that a swimmer was gaining on her from behind, and her stroke instinctively quickened. Millicent swam as only the women of Venice can swim; and the race between her and her unseen pursuer bade fair to be hotly contested. With head high lifted from the waves which circled caressingly about the smooth round throat, knotting the tendril curls at the nape of the neck, the girl kept steadily on her course without turning her head to see who might be so audacious as to follow her. Strong as were her strokes, she slowly lost ground; and finally the water about her rippled with the strokes of the man who was gaining. Soon he had caught up with her, and side by side they swam for a space. Then the victor spoke in a voice well known to her, and the girl answered him with a laugh which rang out fresh and crisp as the sound of the wavelets. Then she turned her head and looked full at him as he moved by her side, strong and graceful as a young merman.

“So, my nymph, you are at home in Father Neptune’s arms as well as in the embrace of the great tree. Which is your native element, earth, air, or water?”

“I am amphibious.”

“And which of your three elemental homes do you like the best?”

“When I am dancing, the air; when I am walking, dear mother earth; and when I swim, the sea.”

“When I paint you, it will be as I see you now, triumphing over the waves as our great mother, Aphrodite, triumphed over them before you.”

“That compliment would go to my head, were it not mixed with so much water.”

Then they both laughed, because the sky was sapphire clear and the sea beryl green; because the golden sun warmed them with its kind rays; because each was fair and good to look upon; because, when they were together, winds blew more softly, and sky and sea took on a more tender hue where they melted at the horizon into one ineffable kiss. A pair of white-winged gulls swept above them, shrieking their love-notes hoarsely, while the white-armed girl and the strong-limbed man breasted the waves together, side by side. Though lapped by the cool water, Graham felt the warm influence which folded about him like a cloak in Millicent’s presence. When she grew tired the girl turned upon her side and floated, while Graham swam about her in little circles, first moving like a shark on one side, with long, far-reaching strokes, then swimming upon his back, and finally beneath the waves, looking always at her face seen dimly through the dark-green water.

After a space Millicent looked about to find herself alone, far from the shore with its group of bathers. At first she fancied that her companion must be swimming below the water as he had done before; but, as the slow-passing seconds went by, she realized that some ill must have befallen him. Stretching her arms above her head, she dived straight and swift through the clear water towards the pebbled bottom of the ocean shining through the pellucid waters. In that dim under-current she touched him, stiff and cold, rising toward the surface, but through no effort of his own helpless limbs. In that terrified heart-beat of time she saw his face set and white, with horror-stricken eyes widely strained apart. Into them she looked, her own firing with hope and courage, and giving a mute promise of rescue. She seized his rigid arm with her strong, small hands, and they rose together to the surface. The man was as if paralyzed; and the girl for an instant tried to support him, but, feeling such a strain would soon out-wear her half-spent strength, she cried:

“Put your hand on my shoulder—so, and I will swim below you.” Her voice was hoarse and shrill as that of the screaming sea-gulls. He could not speak, but looked toward the shore as if he would have her save herself and abandon him to his fate.

“No, no!” she cried, “I will save you”; and placing his hands on her shoulders, struck out bravely toward the shore. To reach it seemed at first an easy thing, but the struggle proved a terrible one, cruelly unequal, between the girl’s small strength, with the burden now added to her own weight, and the waves grown hungry for human prey. Their babbling music now was changed to Millicent’s ears, and they clamored greedily for her life, for that other life which she was striving to snatch from their cruel embrace. Again and again the man would loosen his hold. She could not save him: why should she die too, she was so young, so fair! This he tried to tell her in gasping accents, but she only gripped his hand more firmly and placed it as before. They should both live or die. Fate, which had been so cruel to her, had cast their lots together for that day at least; and death seemed sweeter by his side than life without him. Her brave spirit fainted not, though her labored strokes grew slower and feebler. Then she gave one great cry for help to those who were so near them, and yet so unconscious of their danger. She heard their voices plainly,—the mothers talking to romping children, whose ringing laughter mocked her agony. Was it their death-knell, this sound of sweet child-voices that drowned her frenzied cry and filled the ears of the strong men and women, keeping out the fainting accents which pleaded for his life and her own? Once again, and this time with a thrilling vibration of despair, the woman’s voice rang out across the waves. It was freighted with her last hope; it was the latest sound her gasping lungs could utter. Could love and hope of life outshriek the murmur of the waves, the shrill note of the sea-mews, the noisy prattle of the infants? The man, long since despairing, groaned: it seemed murder to him that his helpless weight should drag down the fair, brave young creature to her grave; his death agony was made more bitter by the thought. The girl’s determination never wavered, and her little strength was not wasted in a longer struggle; she managed to keep his face above the waves, but now only held her own, and had ceased to make the slightest progress. She could now no longer see the bathers. Had her cry been heard? O waves! be merciful and still your clamor! White-winged partners, cry no more your mocking love-notes! Sweet mothers, list no longer to your children’s laughter, for there is other sound which must reach your fond ears and chill your warm hearts with horror! For a moment there grew a great silence as of listening, and then over the water came answering cries of women agonized with sympathy, came the hearty voices of strong men saying, “Keep up, keep up! for help is coming, it is close beside you.” Ah, God! it is in time, for the two white faces, lying so close in the green waters, have but just vanished from sight; they still shine through the waves, but a little space beneath the surface. Strong helping arms raise the nerveless bodies from the waves that murmur sullenly, bear them safely to the shore with its shining white sands, and, last, gently loose the maiden’s white hands, clinging still, though all unconsciously, to the man whose life she has saved. Weeping women gather about them, lying there so still and fair upon the white beach; frightened children look curiously at the half-drowned figures of the man and the woman. Still are they man and woman, and not yet fallen to that terrible neuter of death, wherein age and sex are not, where serf and queen are equals.