"What's up?" the skipper fairly yelled through the companion, as clinging and struggling his utmost he forced his way on deck, as soon as the vessel righted herself enough to make it possible. "Hard down! Hard down! Let her come up! Ease her! Ease her!"—and whether the puff of wind slackened or the mate lost hold of the wheel, he never has been able to tell, but she righted enough for a moment to let him get on the deck and rush forward to slack up the fore-sheet, bawling meanwhile through the darkness to the mate to keep her head up, as he himself tore and tugged at the rope.
The schooner, evidently well off the wind, yet with all her sheets hauled tight and clewed down, was literally flying ahead, but trying to dive right through the ponderous seas, instead of skimming over and laughing at them, as the captain well knew she ought to do. There wasn't a second to lose pondering the problem as to why she would not come up and save herself. Difficult and dangerous as it was in the pitch dark with the deck slippery with ice, and the dizzy angle at which it stood, the only certain way to save the situation was to let go that sheet. Frantically he struggled with the rope, firmly clinched though it was round its cleats with the ice that had made upon it. Knowing how sensitive the vessel was and that she would answer to a half-spoke turn of the wheel, and utterly at a loss to understand her present stubbornness, he still kept calling to the helmsman, "Hard down! Hard down!"—only to receive again the growling answer, "Hard down it is. She's been hard down this long time."
It was all no good. Up, up came the weather rail under the terrific pressure of the wind. The fore-sheet was now already well under water, cleat and all, and the captain had just time to dash for the bulwark and hold on for dear life, when over went the stout little craft, sails, masts, and rigging, all disappearing beneath the waves. It seemed as if a minute more and she must surely vanish altogether, and all hands be lost almost within sight of their own homes.
Tumultuous thoughts flooded the captain's mind as for one second he clung to the rail. Vain regrets were followed like lightning by a momentary resignation to fate. In the minds of most men hope would undoubtedly have perished right there. But Captain Bourne was made of better stuff. "Nil desperandum" is the Englishman's soul; and soon he found himself crawling carefully hand over hand towards the after end of the vessel. Suddenly in the darkness he bumped into something soft and warm lying out on the quarter. It proved to be his passenger, resigned and mute, with no suggestion to offer and no spirit to do more than lie and perish miserably.
Still climbing along he could not help marking the absence of the mate and the boy from the rail, which standing out alone against the sky-line was occasionally visible. Doubtless they must have been washed overboard when the vessel turned turtle. There was some heavy ballast in the schooner besides the barrels of flour and other supplies in her hold. Her deck also was loaded with freight, and alas, the ship's boat was lashed down to the deck with strong gripes beneath a lot of it. Moreover, it was on the starboard side, and away down under water anyhow. Though every moment he was expecting the Leading Light to make her last long dive, his courage never for a second deserted him.
He remembered that there was a new boat on the counter aft which he was carrying with him for one of his dealers. She was not lashed either, except that her painter was fast to a stanchion. It was just possible that she might still be afloat, riding to the schooner as a sea anchor. Still clinging to the rail he peered and peered through the darkness, only to see the great white mainsail now and again gleam ghostlike in the dim light when the super-incumbent water foamed over it, as the Leading Light wallowed in the sullen seas. Then something dark rose against the sky away out beyond the peak end of the gaff—something black looming up on the crest of a mighty comber. An uncanny feeling crept over him. Yet what else could it be but the boat? But what could that boat be doing out there? Fascinated, he kept glaring out in that direction. Yes, surely, there it flashed again across the sky-line. This time he was satisfied that it was the boat, and that she was afloat and partly protected by the breakwater formed by the schooner's hull. She was riding splendidly. In an instant he recalled that he had given her a new long painter; and that somehow she must have been thrown clear when the ship turned over. Anyhow, she was his only chance for life. Get her he must, and get her at once. Every second spelt less chance of success. Any moment she might break adrift or be dragged down by the sinking schooner. And then came the horrible memory that she too had been stowed on the lee side, and her painter also was under the mainsail and fastened now several feet below the surface. Even the sail itself was under water, and the sea breaking in big rushes over it with every comber that came along.
To get the boat was surely impossible. It only added to the horror of the plight to perish there miserably of cold, thinking of home and of the loved ones peacefully asleep so near, while the way to them and safety lay only a few fathoms distant—torturing him by its very nearness. For every now and then driving hard to the end of her tether she would rush forward on a sea and appear to be coming within his reach, only to mock him by drifting away once more, like some relentless lady-love playing with his very heartstrings. The rope under the sunken mainsail prevented her from quite reaching him, and each time that she seemed coming to his arms, she again darted beyond his grasp.
Whatever could be done must be done at once. Even now he realized that the cold and wet were robbing him of his store of strength. Could he possibly get out to where the boat was? There might be one way, but there could be only one, and even that appeared a desperate and utterly futile venture. It was to find a footing somehow, to let go his vise-like grip of the rail, and leap out into the darkness across the black and fathomless gulf of water surging up between the hull and the vessel's main boom in the hope of landing in the belly of the sail; to be able to keep his balance and walk out breast high through the rushing water into the blackness beyond till he should reach the gaff; and so, clinging there, perchance catch the boat's painter as she ran in on a rebounding sea. There would be nothing to hold on to. The ever swirling water would upset a man walking in daylight on a level quayside. He would have nothing but a sunken, bellying piece of canvas to support him—a piece only, for the little leach rope leading from the clew to the peak marked a sharp edge which would spell the dividing line between life and death.
He had known men of courage; he had read of what Englishmen had done. But he had never suspected that in his own English blood could lie dormant that which makes heroes at all times. A hastily breathed prayer—his mind made up, letting go of the weather rail he commenced to lower himself to the wheel, hoping to get a footing there for the momentous spring that would in all probability land him in eternity. But even as he climbed a little farther aft to reach down to it, he found himself actually straddling the bodies of the missing mate and boy, who were cowering under the rail, supported by their feet against the steering-gear boxing.
Like a thunderclap the whole cause of the disaster burst upon his mind. The mate's feet planked against the spokes of the wheel suggested it. The helm was not hard down at all, and never had been. It was hard up all the time. He remembered, now that it was too late, that the mate had always steered hitherto with a tiller; that a wheel turns exactly the opposite way to the tiller; and that with every sail hauled tight, and the helm held hard over, the loyal little craft had been as literally murdered as if she had been torpedoed, and also their lives jeopardized through this man's folly. What was the good of him even now? There he lay like a log, as dumb as the man whom he had left clinging to the taffrail.
"What's to be done now?" he shouted, trying in vain to rouse the prostrate figure with his foot. "Rouse up! Rouse up, you fool!" he roared. "Are you going to die like a coward?" And letting himself down, he put his face close to that of the man who by his stupidity had brought them all to this terrible plight. But both the mate and boy seemed paralyzed. Not a word, not a moan could he get out of them. The help which they would have been was denied him. Once more he realized that if any one was to be saved, he and he alone must accomplish it. A momentary rest between two waves decided him. There was one half-second of trying to get his balance as he stood up, then came the plunge into the wild abyss, and he found himself floundering in the belly of the sail, struggling to keep his footing, but up to his waist in water. With a fierce sense of triumph that he was safely past the first danger, the yawning gulf between the rail and boom, he threw every grain of his remaining strength into the desperate task before him, and pushed out for the gaff that was lying on the surface of the sea, thirty feet away in the darkness. Even as he started a surging wave washed him off his feet, and again he found himself hopelessly wallowing in the water, but still in the great cauldron formed by the canvas.
How any human being could walk even the length of the sail under such circumstances he does not know any more than I do. But the impossible was accomplished, and somehow he was clinging at last like a limpet to the very end of the gaff, his legs already dangling over the fatal edge, and with nothing to keep him from the clutch of death beyond it but his grip of the floating spar. To this he must cling until the mocking boat should again come taut on the line and possibly run within his reach. The next second out of the darkness what seemed to the man in the sail a mountain of blackness rushed hissing at him from the chaos beyond, actually swept across him into the belly of the sail, and tore him from his rapidly weakening hold of the spar. With the energy of despair his hands went up and caught something, probably a bight in the now slackened painter. In a trice he was gripping the rail, and a second later he was safely inside the boat, and standing shaking himself like some great Newfoundland dog.
Even now a seemingly insuperable difficulty loomed ahead. He had no knife and was unable to let go the rope. Would he be able to take his comrades aboard, and would the schooner keep afloat and form a breastwork against the sea, or would it sink and, after all his battle, drag the boat and him down with it to perdition?
Philosophizing is no help at such a time. He would try for the other men. To leave them was unthinkable. Once more fortune was on his side. The oars were still in the boat, lashed firmly to the thwarts—a plan upon which he had always insisted. Watching his chance, and skilfully manoeuvring, he succeeded in approaching the schooner stern first, when the cable just allowed him to touch the perpendicular deck. His shouts to the others had now quite a different ring. His words were commands, leaving no initiative to them. They realized also that their one and only chance for life lay in that boat; and returning hope lent them the courage which they had hitherto lacked. After a delay which seemed hours to the anxious captain at such a time, with skilful handling he had got all three aboard.
Once more he was face to face with the problem of the relentless rope, but again fortune proved to be on his side. It was the passenger, the useless, burdensome passenger, who now held the key to the situation. He had sensed the danger in a moment, and instantly handed the skipper a large clasp-knife. With it to free the boat from the wreck was but the work of a moment.
True, their position in a small open "rodney" in the middle of a dark, rough night in the North Atlantic was not exactly enviable, especially as the biting winter wind was freezing their clothing solid, and steadily sapping their small stock of remaining vitality.
Yet these men felt that they had crossed a gulf almost as wide as that between Dives and Lazarus. If they could live, they knew that the boat could, for the ice would not clog her enough to sink her before daylight, and as for the sea—well, as with the schooner, it was only a matter of handling their craft till the light came.
Meanwhile, though they did not then know it, they had drifted a very considerable way towards their own homes, so that, rowing in turn and constantly bailing out their boat they at length made the shore at the little village of Wild Bight, only a few miles away from their own. The good folk at once kindled fires, and bathed and chafed the half-frozen limbs and chilled bodies of the exhausted crew.
Now the one anxiety of all hands was to get home as quickly as possible for fear that some rumor of the disaster in the form of wreckage from the schooner might carry to their loved ones news of the accident, and lead them to be terrified over their apparent deaths. As soon as possible after dawn of day, the skipper started for home, having borrowed a small rodney, and the wind still keeping in the same quarter. To his intense surprise a large trap-boat manned by several men, seeing his little boat, hailed him loudly, and when on drawing near it was discovered who they were, proceeded to congratulate him heartily on his escape. Already the very thing that he had dreaded might happen must surely have occurred.
"How on earth did you know so soon?" he enquired, annoyed.
"As we came along before t' wind we saw what us took to be a dead whale. But her turned out to be a schooner upside down. We made out she were t' Leading Light, and feared you must all have been drowned, as there was no sign of any one on her upturned keel. So we were hurrying to your house to find out t' truth."
"Don't say a word about it, boys," said the skipper. "One of you take this skiff and row her back to Wild Bight, while I go with the others and try and tow in the wreck before the wind shifts. But be sure not to say anything about the business at home."
The wind still held fair, and by the aid of a stout line they were able, after again finding the vessel, to tow her into their own harbour and away to the very bottom of the Bight, where they stranded her at high water on the tiny beach under the high crags which shoulder out the ocean. By a clever system of pulleys and blocks from the trunks of trees in the clefts of the cliff she was hauled upright, and held while the water fell. Then the Leading Light was pumped out and refloated on the following tide. On examination, she was pronounced uninjured by her untimely adventure.
I owe it to John Bourne to say that the messenger forbidden to tell of the terrible experience told it to his own wife, and she told it—well, anyhow, the skipper's wife had heard of it before the Leading Light once more lay at anchor at her owner's wharf. Courage in a moment of danger, or to preserve life, is one thing. The courage that faces odds when the circumstances are prosaic and the decision deferred is a rarer quality. It was a real piece of courage which gave the little schooner another chance that fall to retrieve her reputation. She was permitted to deliver the goods against all odds, and what is more the captain's wife kissed him good-bye with a brave face when once again he let the foresail draw, and the Leading Light stood out to sea on her second and successful venture.
There is no doubt that when she went to bed in the ice that winter, she carried with her the good wishes and grateful thanks of many poor and lonely souls; and some have said that when they were walking round the head of the cove in which it was the habit of the little craft to hibernate, strange sounds like that of a purring cat were ofttimes wafted shoreward. "It is only the wind in her rigging," the skeptical explained; but a suspicion still lurks in some of our minds that the Eskimo are not so far from the truth in conceding souls to inanimate objects.
THE RED ISLAND SHOALS
The house was fairly shaking in the gale, and any one but Uncle Rube, who had lived in it since he put it there forty years before, would have been expecting things to happen. But the old man sat dozing in his chair beside the crackling stove, and the circling rings of smoke rising over his snow-white head were the only signs of life about him. The only other occupant of the house was a little girl whom Uncle Rube had taken for "company," the year that his wife left him. The coast knew that his only lad had been lost aboard some sealer many years ago. The little girl was lying stretched out on the wooden settle close beside him. Twice already in the dim light of the tiny window, now well covered with snow outside and frost within, I had mistaken her towsly golden curls for a hearth-brush, she lay so still.
At length, as the cottage gave a more violent lurch than usual, even my book failed to keep my mind at rest.
"Aren't you afraid the house is going to blow away, Uncle Rube? You remember that our church blew into the harbor, pews and floor as well as walls and roof. You could see the pews at low water till the ice took them away."
Crack! Crack! Crack!
"No fear of she, Doctor. She's held on this forty years, and I reckon she won't bring her anchors home till I does myself."
"Never to go again till the old man died," I hummed.
Something, however, seemed to have roused up Uncle Rube. For, carefully laying his pipe in its place on the shelf, he went to the door, opening it enough to allow him to peer out through the crack. Unfortunately another eddying gust struck the house at that very moment, tore the door from his grasp, and by sweeping in and taking the fortress from within, very nearly gave it its coup de grace. In the momentary lull that followed we managed to shut the door, and to barricade it from inside.
The child was astir before we got back to the genial warmth of the stove. Crack! Crack! Crack! went the little dwelling again, as a more than usually fierce blast of the hurricane, strengthened by the furiously driving snow, hit it like another hammer of Thor. Crack! Crack! The house seemed to swing like a pendulum before it came to rest again. I could see that the old man was uneasy.
"What is it, Uncle Rube? What is it?" the little girl cried out petulantly.
"Why, nothing, little one, nothing. Only 'tis as well to take a peek out on times. There's no knowing when there might be some one astray through this kind of weather. 'Tis no hurt to make sure, is it?"
She was a pale-faced little thing, with the lustrous eyes and delicate skin that often so pathetically array the prospective victims of the White Man's Curse. She had been a tiny, unwanted item in a large family of twelve with which "Providence had blessed" a struggling friend and neighbor. The arrival of the last had robbed him of his only help. "Daddy gived me to Uncle Rube," was her only explanation of her being there.
"'T is cold, though," she answered. "It made me dream that you were on the old island again, and I was with you, and then the house shook so that it woke me up."
For answer he went to an old and well-worn seaman's chest which served ordinarily for an additional seat. The reverent care with which he turned over the contents would have honored a priest before the sanctuary. But eventually he returned with a really beautiful shawl which he tenderly wrapped around the child, and sitting down laid her head upon his shoulder. In this position she was almost immediately asleep again, and, fearing to wake her, I had forborne to break the silence. Indeed, I was far enough away from ice and snow and blizzards for the moment—the Indian shawl having carried me home to England, and the old camphor trunk which my own mother, herself born in India, had taught us boys to reverence as the old man did his, filled as ours was with specimens of weird patterns and exquisite workmanship.
Uncle Rube had been watching my eyes fixed on the rich mantle that contrasted so strangely with every other surrounding.
"I brought it from India when I used to go overseas. I keeps it because my Mary loved it so, though she 'lowed it was too rich for t' likes o' her to wear it much. But I guess it'll last now. 'T is t' last bit o' finery left," he smiled, "and 't is most time to be hauling that down. For I reckons Nellie won't last out to need it long. Eh, Doctor?" And for a moment a tear sparkled in his merry old eyes, as he peered from under his heavy white eyebrows.
"You can always trust me to find a good home for Nellie, Uncle Rube," I answered. "I've forty like her now, and one more won't sink the ship. But you know that better than I can tell you." And suddenly it flashed over me that Uncle Rube's unexpected visit to our Children's Home must had have some relation to the curly head on his shoulder. The tear fell on his tanned cheek, and he looked away and coughed. But he said nothing.
"What was the old island that Nellie was talking about?" I broke in to relieve the situation. "It sounded as if you had been playing Robinson Crusoe some time," I added, "and have spun her yarns that you won't tell me." For the hope that here might be something which would fill in the time during which it was plain that Jack Frost intended to keep me prisoner in this bookless cabin, suddenly dawned upon me.
"Island?" he smiled, after a brief pause. "Island? Oh! that was forty years ago, when us lost t' old Manxman on t' Red Island Shoals." And the wanderlust of Uncle Rube's British blood, stirred by this leap back over the passing years, made him once more a bouncing, devil-may-care sailor lad. The sign of tears had vanished from his cheeks as he rose, and, gently laying the little figure in her old corner on the settle, leisurely lit his pipe. Like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Feather-top it seemed to send renewed youth through his veins with every puff he drew. Knowing that he was trying to think, and fearing to distract his mind, I again kept a discreet silence. At last, just as if he saw the scene again, his eyes closed and his splendid shock of long white hair was once more thrown back into its accustomed place in the rocking-chair.
"It wasn't a fair deal, Doctor. Not a fair deal. We was sailors in those days, just as much as them is in they old tin kettles that rattles up and down t' Straits now, for all they big size and they gold braid. T' Manxman wouldn't have come by her end as she did if stout arms and good seamen could 'a' saved her. Murdered she was, Doctor, murdered by this same Jack Frost what's trying to blow us out o' house and home right now. But don't you have no uneasiness, Doctor, I've got him beat this time, and she'll not drag. No, sir, not till I do"—and a fierce spirit gleamed out through his eyes.
We had often wondered why Uncle Rube, the genial, gentle, hospitable old man that the coast knew him to be, had come to put down his anchors in this wild and almost desolate gorge. Here was a possible explanation. The loss of his only lad must have been from this very Manxman, and by some strange twist of mentality the father had determined to plant himself just as near the scene and circumstance as human strength permitted, end there, single-handed if need be, fight out the battle of life, with the daily sense of flaunting the enemy that had robbed him of his joy in life—his one and only child. For with Chestertonian paradox this lonely man's passion was children.
"No. No, he can't move her, Doctor," he repeated, as if he were reading my thoughts, as I truly believe that he was. For our minds in the North are not crusted like tender feet with horny coverings from the chafe of boots, or as are minds beset with telephones, special deliveries, and editions of the yellow press.
"No, Uncle Rube, you don't think I'd sit here if I wasn't certain of it. You've got him beaten to a frazzle this time."
I was right then, for Uncle Rube "slacked away" as he put it, and took up the thread of his story again without further comment, but not before apologizing for any undue familiarity into which the excitement, of which he was well aware, might have betrayed him.
"Us found t' seals early that year, and panned a voyage of as fine young fat as ever a 'swiler' wished for, but t' weather was dirty from t' day us struck t' patch, as if Jack Frost was determined us shouldn't have 'em. Anyhow, afore we could pick up more'n half what us'd killed, a dozen o' our lads got adrift on t' floe, and though they got aboard another vessel, us thought 'em was lost. While us sailed about looking for 'em, us lost most o' t' pans. So round t' beginning of April t' skipper, in company with a score of other schooners, put her for the Norrard, in hopes of cutting off some of t' old seals in t' swatches. T' slob being very heavy outside, us lay for inside Belle Isle, and carried open water most across t' Straits. Well, sir, t' wind veered round all of a sudden, just as us was abeam of t' Devil's Table, and t' Gulf ice came out of t' Straits fair roaring"—and Uncle Rube took another contemplative puff at his pipe.
"It would have been all right if only t' big field had gone off t' same time before t' wind. But somehow there were a big block held up by t' Islands, and t' western ice just came and hit it clip! It must have been all up with us right there but for t' northeast current, and that took our vessel like a nutshell and whisked her away in t' heavy slob as if to carry her along the Labrador coast. But it proved us was not far enough off t' land, for just about midday t' Red Islands come up like dark specks out o' t' ice—right ahead t' way we was being driven. T' other schooners was caught in t' jam too and drifting with us, little black dots scattered over t' surface of t' ice field like t' currants in slices of sweet white loaf.
"I believe our skipper knowed it were no good, just as soon as t' watch called him to see for hisself. But he made out as if there was nothing to it, and ordered all hands to be ready to take t' ice, as though 't was a patch o' swiles instead of rocks ahead. But when he started getting up grub, and canvas, and all sorts of things, and had us put 'em in t' boats, us knew it were no old harps he was thinking of.
"Well, sir, it seemed as if it had to be. The old Manxman went as fair for them reefs as if she was being hauled there with a capstan. It was fair uncanny, and I believes there be more in some one driving her there than most people 'lows. Anyhow, tied up as us was in t' heavy jam, right fair towards 'em she had to go, and then on to 'em, and up over t' reef as if us 'd laid t' course express for 'em, while every other vessel round us went clear. T' reef's about five feet out o' water at high springs, and about ten feet over surface on t' neaps. Springs it was that day, t' moon being nearly full, and t' first crack ripped t' bottom clean out o' t' old ship. Us all hustled out on to t' ice, taking with us all us could carry, working as quick as ever us could, for t' pressure o' wind was rafting t' pans on to t' rocks, and almost before us knew it, what remained of her above t' ice had gone right on over t' shoals; and long before dusk, I reckons, had gone down through it. At any rate, us saw no more of her. Us tried to make a bit of shelter for t' night out o' some of t' canvas, but t' wind never slacked a peck, and t' rafting ice soon carried away even t' few things us had saved.
"Had us known in time us had better have stuck to t' boats, for they might have given us a chance. But t' wind being offshore, and t' ice running out to sea, made it seem safer to keep to t' rocks. For t' Red Island Shoal is only three or four miles from t' land, and there be liveyers, as us knew, almost opposite. If t' wind had held in t' same direction even then us might have escaped, but it dropped suddenly about day dawn, and there were huge swatches o' water between us and t' mainland before it came light enough to try and get across. Then just as suddenly t' wind clipped round, and t' sea began to make, and t' water started breaking right over them rocks.
"Us had managed to build a fire out o' some of t' wreckage saved, and had thrown in bits o' canvas and some tarry oakum to make smoke. They had seen it too on t' land, and had lit three smoke fires in a line to let us know that they would send help if they could. But the veering of the wind had made that impossible, for they could only launch small skiffs, and they would not have lived more'n a few minutes for t' ice making on 'em.
"T' breaking seas and driving spray soon wet all our men through. There were forty of us all told. But by night several were either dead or beyond help. T' ice had taken our boats, and now t' seas took all that was left. T' fire went out just before midday, and our bit o' grub got wet and frozen. Next morning t' sea was higher than ever, and t' bodies of t' men mostly washed away as they died. All that day t' rest of us just held on, some twenty or so; but it was a bare six of us that were living t' second night. There was no sleep, and not even any lying down if you wanted to live. None of them that slept ever woke again. I might have nodded standing up. Guess I must have. But t' third morning I was t' only man moving; and though it was as fine a shining morning as ever broke, and t' hot sun from t' ice soon put a little life in me, I never expected to see another night. Then I must have forgotten everything, even t' people on t' shore. For I never saw any boat coming, or any one land. Everything had been washed away but myself. I had been alone, I reckon, many hours. It seemed ages since I 'd heard a human voice; but I still remembers some one putting his hand on my shoulder. They had been calling, so they told me, but somehow I heard nothing. They kept me a good many days before I knowed anything—doing for me like a mother would for her boy. But more'n a week had gone by before I could tell 'em who I was.
"And then it all came back to me—t' cruel suffering of my shipmates, and most of all of Willy, t' only chick or child I ever had. He had my coat over his oil frock, and he were so brave, so young, and so strong. And he lived till morning—long after great strong men had perished—and me able to do nothing. Then his poor frozen body was washed to and fro in that terrible surf, as if my boy wouldn't leave me even if he was dead. Why I lived on, and why it pleased God to spare my poor life I never knowed, or shall know, Doctor, till he tells me himself."
He was sitting bolt upright now, looking me straight in the face. But the fire died suddenly from Uncle Rube's eyes, and, exhausted by the effort and the memories the story brought back to him, he fell back in the chair as if he had been struck by some knock-out blow. The thud of the fall once more woke the child, and, seeing me jump to the old man's help, she began to sob piteously. It was only for a moment, however. The splendid vitality of the man, toughened by his hard life and simple fare, soon made him master of himself again, and, apologizing for giving me trouble, he took up the child, crooning over her to get her quiet.
"Forty years I've been living here, Doctor," he went on. "Forty years—and t' last ten I've been all alone. Not a living soul have I had t' chance to save all these long years, though God knows I've kept as good a lookout as one watch could. Then Neighbor Blake lost his helpmate like I had mine, and he let me share up with him, and have Nellie. He wanted his boys to help him get food and things for t' rest, so a girl was what he gave me. And I couldn't have had a boy, Doctor, anyhow. Willy's place will never be filled for me, till he comes himself and fills it, and that won't be long now either." He looked at his pipe, which had gone out, and then continued: "No, I'm not one o' them as can take a new wife almost as soon as t' first one's gone"—and then suddenly: "But it's time to boil t' kettle. You'se getting hungry, I 'lows, and me chattering like a fool, and not thinking of anything beyond my own troubles. I'm forgetting you must be worriting over being kept so long in this bit of a tilt, but you'll not get away till morning, so just make yourself as miserable as you can!"
As he bustled around filling the kettle with ice for water, and struggling to heat up a small molasses barrel in order to let out some "sweetness" for our tea, I had made a bird, a boat, and a couple of darts out of paper, as overtures to the lady of the house. Before the humble meal was spread she had the room ringing with her laughter, as she darted now here, now there, and at last succeeded in hitting the old man himself almost in the eye. Many times that meal has come back to my memory. The rough bare boards of the walls, naked but for one old picture of a horse cut from a magazine, carefully pasted upside down, and probably designed chiefly to cover some defective spot that was admitting too much coldness; the crazy table shaking with every gust and causing a tiny kerosene lamp to flare up and menace the dim religious darkness by depositing even more lamp-black than was its wont on its already negrine globe; the meagre board of dark bread, "oleo," and molasses; the weird minstrelsy of the hurricane—the whole a harmony of poverty and war. Yet the memory brings deeper pleasure to my mind than that of many costly banquets—and even I have eaten from plates of silver with implements of gold. For in the flickering light of the crackling logs I can still see the joy of the old man's kindly face over the boisterous happiness of his quaint ward, the dance in the eyes of the merry child as some colored candies placed in my nonny-bag by my wife fell somehow from the sky right on to the table before her. The telling of his story, never before mentioned to any one but his wife and foster child, but kept like some vendetta wrong waiting for revenge in his rebellious heart these many years, seemed to have renewed his youth. A merrier, happier party it has never been my lot to share in; and now that I know the pathos of the last chapter written in this strange life, I rejoice more than ever that for that night, anyhow, the enemy that haunted him overreached, and the very blizzard proved the key for one evening at least of freedom from his obsession.
We were away before daylight, and I never saw Uncle Rube again. Life, it seems, went along tranquilly with him the following winter. As usual he kept his watch and ward on the cliffs by the Red Island Shoals. Then the fatal 10th of April came round. Once again it broke upon the solitary figure of the old man straining his eyes from his coign of vantage on the dread shoals of the Red Islands. Unquestionably he saw again reenacted there the weird tragedy that nearly half a century before had broken his life, bringing home with a strange fascination the moving picture to his very heart. But with it this spring he witnessed also a scene that for many years every man on the coast had prayed for, but no man had been privileged to take part in. The wind had come out of the Straits and the Gulf ice was driving swiftly towards the great Atlantic, exactly as it had done on the memorable day now forty years before. Once again there was ice in huge sheets jammed against the great cliffs of Belle Isle, and clear water between. Suddenly the straining eyes of the old sailor shone with a totally new light. He jumped to his feet, and with hands shading his starting eyes, stood motionless like a statue on the pedestal of his lookout, now white as the purest marble in its winter mantle.
Was it age? Or the final break-up of his mind? No, neither—he was certain of it. There were black things moving on the white ice, and driving with it once more, just as the Manxman had, straight for the shoals of the Red Islands. Nearer and nearer they came. There could be no doubt now. They moved. They could be no land debris, no shadows from the rafted ice sheets. So quickly was the floe running that just as he remembered it, before anything could be done, clip! and the advancing edge had again struck the standing ice, and woe betide anything that was in or on it, anywhere near the line of contact. As a dazed mouse watches the cat that is toying with it, the rigid figure on the hilltop gazed at the impending tragedy—too far off for his material brain correctly to interpret the image on his actual retina. He was seeing, though he failed to realize it, the same impress that emotion had recorded on the tablets of his very soul.
The realism of it was too much for human nature, and Uncle Rube, his hands covering his face, started running homewards over the familiar pathway he had trodden so often. Even as he reached the cottage in the gulch he was aware of loud shouting, and of a team of huskies literally tearing over the snow. They were making as if to pass his house without stopping, as no man ever did that lonely spot, if only for the cup of tea and the moment's "spell," and the kindly stimulus of the old man's company. Yes, the driver was shouting, shouting to him. "Ships, Uncle Rube!"—"What is it?"—"Ships on the ice!" the old man heard. Didn't he know it only too well?
Another moment and the modern Paul Revere, with dogs for horses and ice and snow for a highway, was flying on his self-imposed journey, carrying his slogan from house to house and village to village along the sparsely inhabited coast-line. As Uncle Rube opened his door and peered into the little room, to his infinite joy he saw the golden curls in their proper place on the old settle by the stove, while the regular quiet breathing assured him that the child had not yet waked from sleep. As he softly tiptoed around, seeking the outfit he needed for his great adventure, the barrenness of the house, the poverty of it, struck him for the first time. God knows he had never thought of "things," except as he had needed them for himself or others; and now he wished suddenly that he had more of them for the child's sake. Suppose, now that his "day" had at last arrived, he should not return from the long-looked-for quest. He became strangely conscious that he had nothing laid up for his darling, the child who now filled the whole horizon of his cramped life. Her very clothes were in tatters. The Indian shawl, that I had seen pressed into the service against his enemy the Frost King, was now only a thing of rags and patches. Were it not for his own big coat, even at this moment his Princess would be shivering with cold. Furtively he glanced round for his rope and gaff, relics of the last time he had gone on the ice. All these years he had kept them ready for "the day," never able to break the spell woven around them on the ill-fated Manxman. There was his nonny-bag, in it already the sugar and oatmeal, the ration of pork, and the small bottle of brandy, that each year he kept ready when the 10th of March came round—the day on which the sealers leave for the ice fields. The new idea that his life was of value for the child's sake sent a half-guilty feeling through him, lest he be caught looking at these implements, where they lay with his old converted flintlock gun on the rack above the still glowing stove. Sh! The child on the settle muttered something in her sleep, and the old man, rigid as an ice block, stood listening to her breathing, as if he were a burglar robbing a rich man's bedroom, in which the owner himself lay sleeping. But she quieted down again, and once more he breathed freely.
At last he was ready, all but the big coat. Well, he could do without that. If he were not back before dark the difference it would make would anyhow be negligible. There was no time to delay. He must go now or never; and the indomitable old warrior stooped over to kiss the child good-bye, though he dare only touch with his lips the golden hair, for fear of waking her. Then in his simple way he breathed a wordless prayer, committing her to God's keeping, and, stealthily letting himself out, made straight for the likeliest part of the headland from which to take the ice.
As one thinks now of that old man setting out alone over that endless ocean of ice, one wonders if one has one's self ever attempted anything heroic. But Uncle Rube thought only of one thing that morning—of foiling his arch enemy on the Red Island Shoals; and though nearly fourscore years had passed over him, he felt like a lad of twenty as he strode rapidly along towards the landwash.
Of course he must haul his boat, but that he could easily do. Had he not built her himself expressly, small, and of half-inch planking over the lightest of frames, with two bilge streaks to act as runners, and flat-bottomed that she should drag well over snow? When at length he had launched her over the "ballicater" ice, and had pulled her clear of the cracks by the landwash, he stopped and spent a grudgingly spared moment in lighting his pipe. Then, heigho, and away for the open sea—out on to which he marched with his head erect and his old heart dauntless, like the peaceful Minute-Men of 1776.
Meanwhile an ever-increasing crowd of men, women, and even children were pouring from apparently nowhere out on to the floe. The young men were "copying," as we say, over the ice, that is, jumping from pan to pan as they ventured far out from the land seeking the seals which the running ice, driving out before the wind, had brought down from the Gulf, and then killing them, and hauling them back into safety.
It was from them that I subsequently learned the story of the day. Before night fell the wind had risen, and blew directly from the land. Snow began to fall soon after midday, and by sundown a living blizzard howled over the frozen ocean. None of the distant neighbors had seen Uncle Rube set out; none of them even knew that he had left his house; no one before ever heard of his doing such a thing as start out on the ice alone. Nor was it till the next day that a half-frozen little girl, who was heard crying in the snow in front of a neighbor's house, disclosed the secret that Uncle Rube was missing.
How had they known at all that there were seals on the ice that day? Known? Why, Mark Seaforth had gone all along the coast telling them early in the morning. He had got the news from the lighthouse, and it was the oldest of customs to give all hands a chance whenever the seals were sighted driving alongshore.
It had not been the material ear drum to which the old man had listened for his sailing orders. On that day especially he had heard with other ears, and all the coast freed Mark from any blame for the old sailor's having understood "ships" instead of "seals."
Late in the sealing season of that same year the good ship Artemis, a stout, steel-sheathed ice hunter, a unit of the modern fleet that have long ago displaced the wooden schooners that once in hundreds followed the seal herds, was steaming north to finish up shooting old harps in the swatches, having lost a number of her pans in bad weather farther south. Seals were scarce on the west side, and the wireless had warned the skipper that a patch of old seals was passing eastward through the Straits. Cape Bauld Light had been sighted, and so also had the new light on Belle Isle. The barrelmen were eagerly scanning the ice for any signs of the expected herd.
"Something black on the ice on the port bow!" shouted the man from the foretop.
"Where away?" answered the master of the bridge.
"About four points to the northwest."
"Hard astarboard!" from the bridge.
"Starboard hard!" from the wheel, and the big ship wheeled a course direct for the Red Island Shoals.
"Steady!" from the bridge.
"Steady it is!" And the Artemis wheeled a little more, and leaving the shoals on her right, steamed towards the object that had attracted the attention of the watch. The bridge master, viewing it through his glasses, suddenly stopped short, fixing his gaze on the spot with far more than his wonted intensity.
"What is it, John?" he said to the watchman. "Seems queer to me. It's no seal, I'll swear."
John took the glasses, and, putting them to his eyes, made out at once what the object was.
"'T is a small boat upside down—and yes, there's a man's body for certain, stretched out beside it," he announced in a subdued voice.
"Go slow!" to the engine man.
"Slow!" rang back the watchful engineer.
"Stop her!" and over the side went half a dozen men.
"Take that hatch over, and bring in the man off the ice."
All the crew, some three hundred blackened figures, were now leaning over the rail to see the evidence of this latest tragedy. No one knew him, or could even guess where he and his boat had come from, or on what strange quest he had been bound. Those ice pans might have come from anywhere along the hundreds of miles between Anticosti and Cape Chidley. To these men, it was just the body of an old man, a stranger. Not much loss. He could not have lived many more years, anyhow. Probably no one would miss him. No need to trouble over it. A prompt burial at sea, thought the captain, would be as good as on the land, where a grave was an impossibility now, anyhow. Besides, he was obviously an old seaman, and what could be more appropriate? Moreover, the crew would rather have it so than to carry the corpse around while they were seal-hunting.
There was no parson aboard, but the skipper was a God-fearing man. So the flags were hauled to half-mast, the ship hove to the wind, the crew called on deck just as they were, and when the skipper had read a brief prayer, "in sure and certain hope" the body of Uncle Reuben Marston, vanquished by his enemy at last, was committed to the deep within a biscuit toss of the Red Island Shoals.
The Riverside Press CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS U.S.A.