« ElőzőTovább »
children were away, and the hymns and chants went but very poorly. The chancel-pews were vacant of course, and only a few of the Castle servants attended. I was alone in the pew which I had so often shared with Martin, Margery, and Phæbe. The vicar's voice sounded hollow through the large, almost empty church; he read the prayers as if he were himself ill at ease, the responses were so feeble that one scarcely heard them at all, and I missed Martin's emphatic, “We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord," and his hearty “Amen," which he always gave with the true clerkly intonation. His amens were not ended, though ; he would say or sing them again and again in the heavenly kingdom.
The service for Christmas-day is not a long one, and the vicar made good speed with it. His sermon was short; but short as it was, we did not hear it nearly all, for during the prayers the tempest had increased mightily, and now the thunder of wind and waves drowned all other sounds. The driving rain dashed like hail against the great windows, the blast roared with ever-increasing fury, and the surging of the sea beating on the rocks below grew, or so it seemed to me, louder every minute. When we came out of church we all instinctively ran towards the cliff. I buttoned up my coat, tied on my hat as firmly as I could, and followed the rest. Oh, what a sea! I do not think I have ever since seen one like it. As a pall of sable blackness hung the low clouds above; here and there they broke a little, and showed rifts of pale, dismal, yellow light, which only contrasted the more lividly with the unnatural darkness brooding over sea and land. As for the waves, they ran mountain high, and the wind setting dead in shore, they broke against the cliffs with a force and fury that seemed to shake the foundations of the solid earth. Mr. Drew, the house steward, came up to me as I struggled towards the coast-guard station near at hand. “Well, this is a storm, and no mistake," was his salutation; " there will be awful mischief out there," pointing down Channel in the direction of the wind.
“ It is a blessing it is Christmas-day," I answered. “Of course all the fishing-boats are at home?'
“I should say so, though I did see some two or three putting off yesterday afternoon with the ebb-tide. The Channel seems pretty empty too. Ah! coast-guard, what do you think of this sea ?”
“What do I think, Muster Drew? Why, I think I never in all my born days—and I've had a good many of 'em-I think I never saw such a sea as this here. There will be many a wreck before the wind goes down. We shall hear some sad stories before this time to-morrow, I reckon. There's nothing as yet in our bay, that's a comfort. Ah! what's that? A vessel rounding the Point ? It can't be; they would never be so mad."
They must want to be wrecked," said Mr. Drew, "coming so close ashore in such a gale as this. Why don't they keep out to sea, I wonder ? "
“Because they can't, Muster Drew," replied the coast-guard, who had been looking through his glass. “That ship's a doomed ’un, sir. She don't answer to her helm-how should she in such a storm ? And she's a-drifting with the wind. She's coming right ashore, and in five minutes she'll be on the rocks below the lighthouse."
“Are they firing ?" I asked, for I thought I could distinguish a low sullen boom, apart from the hoarse plunge of the tide, and the awful thunder of the wind.
“Likely they are,” said the coast-guard; “but who's to know? It's all we can do to make each other hear shouting, and we side by side. But that was a gun, I do believe.”
“ The lifeboat, is it out?” I asked, quickly.
“Out, Master Travis ! Out, d'ye say? There's no lifeboat that ever swum that would live in such a sea. Men's lives are not to be perilled for naught, lad.”
“Come down to the beach,” I said to Mr. Drew; “let us see what is doing below in the Chine." “We may as well,” he replied. “I could not go home now, for
my Christmas dinner is cooking for me. We must go by the road though; the cliff-path is not to be thought of.”
No, indeed, unless we wished to be swept out bodily into the storm! We turned and fought our way, inch by inch, yard by yard, down the steep road leading to the shore. About half-way down it turned seawards, and then we were almost blinded by the spray, and the tangle, and the débris of broken shells, pebbles, and rubbish which the wind, dead in our teeth, swept up from below, and blew into our faces. Every few minutes we had to stand still, to recover breath, and gather strength. In a sudden lull of the storm we could hear the guns distinctly. “They are firing from the lighthouse as well,” said Mr. Drew: "I caught the flash, and see! that pale thin wreath of smoke !—that's old Jennings or his mate; they see the danger clearer than we do. But there! who would put to sea with waves like that; it would be just flinging life away!"
By this time we had reached the shore ; and there, round the lifeboat-house, we found all the inhabitants of the little fishingcommunity of the Chine assembled. The lifeboat had been brought out, ready to be launched, and her crew were gathered together under shelter of the cliff. They had only just received intelligence of the vessel off the Tarbutt,-as the huge rock was called, which lay beyond the grand high promontory on which eyrie-like the
lighthouse stood; and they were debating among themselves as to the possibility of putting off. The captain of the boat stood forward: "I am ready, mates; I am here at my post to take the command, but I cannot go alone. Who speaks first to go with me?”
There was a dead silence. They were no cowards, the crew of the lifeboat; they were brave men all; but most of them had wives and families, and they felt their lives were not their own to fling recklessly away.
"If I thowt there wur a chance, cap'en, I'd go, and say thank yer,” called out old Wilkins, who was a trusty seaman, an old, experienced hand; “but no boat that was ever built could weather such a gale."
“She wouldn't live five minutes in those waters," said another man, as a mighty sea swept in, breaking over the boat, and driving us all pell-mell into the boat-bouse.
And now the noble ship came full in view, driving before the wind and tide, driving full upon the cruel Tarbutt and its outlying reefs, which had been the destruction of many a gallant vessel. She was doomed clearly; nothing could save her, and the moment she struck she would go to pieces.
" There ! she strikes ! she strikes !” cried the excited crowd, pale with awe. “ See how she plunges and rocks! Why, one of her masts is clean gone, and another is shattered, and her main yards are torn away. The Lord have mercy on the poor souls aboard her."
“They are all bound for eternity this Christmas-day," said a woman near me, with a great sob. “The Lord have mercy on their souls !”
The ship was now past all control; she was come so close that we could discern the people on board. Already heavy seas were rolling over her, fore and aft. I turned to Mr. Drew. “It is of no use; I cannot bear this; the lifeboat must be launched.”
“It's easy to say 'must,' Travis; but musts have to give way to cant's sometimes. Not one of them will go with the captain, and he's right not to try to force them; he's responsible for his crew, you know; he has no right to take them into the very jaws of death."
“I will go with him, for one."
“No, I am not. I can steer or I can take an oar ; but no one knows the way out to the Tarbutt better than I do, and I have a right to do what I like with my own life.”
Have you indeed such a right?” “ Have I not?
If I am drowned, what will it matter?" " It will matter much to my lady. You best know how greatly
it will matter." And he looked me keenly and significantly in the face. Was it possible that he had divined the secret of my life? Did he know or guess what were my relations with the Marchioness? There was something in his tone and look which at the moment surprised me, and afterwards gave me great uneasiness. But, startled though I was, my nerves were too highly strung just then to heed his caution. Instead of answering him I sprang towards the captain, who was looking anxiously seaward, as if calculating possibilities. “Captain Scotton,” I cried, “cannot we get a crew together? It is awful that people should perish just off the shore. At least some lives might be saved."
He turned to me eagerly. “I'd give you my hat full of gold, lad, if I had it, if between us both we could save yonder poor creatures, that are else hound for Davy's locker.”
“I will go, captain ; but I am only one.”
“ You are worth any two, though, for I see the daring in your eyes, and you know the Tarbutt.”
“Ay, better than most. Let us sing out that we are going, and see who else will volunteer.”
We went back to the boat, and began to draw her towards the edge of the surge. “Now, then, mates,” shouted Scotton, “who will bear a hand? There are women and children in zonder siuking ship, and if ye've got the hearts of men ye will not let them perish before your very eyes, and not try at least to save them."
" Will the boat live three minutes in that sea ?” asked the old sailor who had before spoken. "Can any boat live in such a storm?"
“Please God, she shall live!” I cried, excited to the utmost. “Any way, I am going-I and Captain Scotton, and if none of you will help us we must go alone; but go we will.”
“Go to the bottom-yes," said some one close at hand.
“ You two take the boat ? ” said old Brown, only you two? Why, you couldn't! It's a biggish boat, and the wind and tide both dead against you, and oh, Lord! what a tide! what a wind ! But I'd risk it if I were ten years younger—ay, captain, I'll risk it now, if you'll take such a crazy old craft alongside ; but I'm afeard I'll only fill the place of a better man. It shall never be said that a youngster like Master Travis had more pluck in him than Peter Brown, that's more at home on salt water than on dry land. Now, lads, who goes with the cap'en, and Master Travis, and me?"
“Three more-only three more, and we can manage,” I exclaimed. “Matt Lewis, you're young, and strong, and unmarried ; won't you risk it?”
“I will," said the young man, gravely.
“And I!” “And I!” cried several voices out of the darkness, for though it was little past one o'clock in the day, a gloom, almost
a blackness, like the rapid falling of a heavy night, had gathered over us. The captain chose only young, able-bodied, and unmarried men.
He himself was the only one to whom belonged wife and child. Some one reminded him of his family, and of the risk he ran. “Ay, ay!” he answered, quietly, “it's a risk, I know; but there are other men's wives and children in yonder ship. If my old woman were here she'd say, 'Go, Tom, and God go with you,' and she'd stop ashore and pray for me with every breath she had. Any way, it's no further to heaven by water than by landmaybe it's not quite so far. Never mind; God knows. Now, Mr. Travis-now, my men, are you ready?” and he called over the names of those whom he had chosen from among the volunteers.
They all answered promptly, and as they spoke they stepped into the boat. Those on shore got ready the ropes, and they gave us a hearty cheer as we put off. “God go with you!” cried one old fisherman, reverently taking off his hat.
“ Amen!” sang ou Scotton. “Now, mates, pull away! We are doing God's work and He'll help us."
The fishermen had not exaggerated the perils of our enterprise. I had been out in one or two storms before, but anything like this strife of mad winds and raging waves I had not even imagined. I did not know till we were some yards from shore how terrible it was.
It was one thing to stand on the beach and watch the fury of the sea, and another to be tossed about on those strong, angry billows, every one of them a yawning grave. With the inky waters rolling round and over us, with the storm-wind, Euroclydon, beating us back upon the rocks, with the scudding rain blinding us, as, with our faces turned towards the great blackness out at sea, we looked towards the ship we sought to succour, we pressed on our way. We did not speak-every man worked silently at his oar; indeed, it seemed mere folly to uplift our weak human voices while that tumultuous thunder pealed and surged around us. Now we rose high on the top of some huge wave, now we sank into a deep, sable valley, with what looked like solid walls of water far above our heads; and the wind blew harder and harder, and the tide ran stronger, for it was almost flood. I thought of the Psalmist's words,—surely I had never before perfectly comprehended them,—“They mount up to the heaven; they go down again to the depths; their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.” Also I thought of Him-my Master-who, long centuries ago, wearing His robes of mortality, had trodden the deep sea's stormy wave, and said unto