Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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But Pell caught up the clear Munich glass, blocked every now and then with foam; he wiped it with his cuff, and levelled it on a stony ledge. There he lay behind the pebbles, himself not out of danger, unable to move, or look away, spellbound by the awe of death in numbered moments coming. Round him many a sturdy boatman, gazing, listening, rubbing his eyes, wondering about the wives and children of the brave men there. The great disaster imminent was known all over the village, and all who dared to cross the gale had crept, under shelter, hitherwards. None was fool enough to talk of boat, or tug, or lifeboat; a child who had then first seen the sea must have known better than that. The best ship in the British navy could not have come out of the Needles in the teeth of such a hurricane.
Some of the tars had brought their old Dollonds, preventive glasses long cashiered, and smugglers? night–rakers cheek by jowl, and every sort of “perspective,” fifty years old and upward, with the lenses cracked and rattling, and fungoid tufts in the object–glass. Nevertheless, each man would swear that his own glass was the best of the lot, and his neighbour?s “not of much count.” To their minds, telescopes like spectacles suit the proprietor only.
“By Jove, I believe she?ll do it!” cried Pell, the chief interpreter, his glass being the only clear one.
“Do what, sir? what?” asked a dozen voices, hurriedly.
“Get her head round to windward, and swing into smoother water. They?re in the undertow already. Oh, if they only knew it!”
They knew it, he saw, in a moment. They ran up a spare sail, ere he could speak, to the stump of the mizen–mast, and a score of brave men strained on the sheets until they had braced them home. They knew that it could not stand long; it would fly away to leeward most likely when once they mounted the wave–crest; but two or three minutes might save them. With eight hands jamming the helm up, and the tough canvas tugging and bellying, the ship, with the aid of the undertow, plunged heavily to windward. All knew that the ship herself was doomed, that she never could fetch off shore; but, if she could only hold her course for some half–mile to the westward, she would turn the flank of those fearful rollers, and a good stout boat might live. For there a south–western headland broke the long fury of the sea.
Every eye was intent, every bosom drew a deep breath, as the next great billow rose under the ship, and tossed her up to the tempest. They had brought her as near to the wind as they dared, so as still to have steerage way on her, and she took the whole force of the surge on her port bow, not on her beam, as the people on shore had feared. The sea broke bodily over her, and she staggered back from the blow, and shook through every timber, then leaped and lurched down the terrible valley, but still, with the good sail holding. She was under noble seamanship, that was clear to every one, and herself a noble fabric.If she could but surmount two billows more, without falling off from the wind, within three points of which her head lay, most of the crew might be rescued. Already a stout galley, manned with ten oars, was coming out of Christchurch Harbour, dancing like a cork on the waves, though sheltered by the headland.
Our ship rode over the next billow gallantly; it was a wave that had some moderation, and the lungs of the gale for the moment were panting, just as she topped the comb of it. “Hurrah!” shouted the men ashore; “By God, she?ll do it yet!”
By God alone could she do it. But the Father saw not fit; the third billow was the largest of all that had yet rolled up from the ocean. Beam–end on she clomb the mountain, heeling over heavily, showing to the shore her deck–seams, – even the companion–finial, and the poor things clinging there; a wail broke from them as the great sea struck her, and swept away half a score of them.
“Now?s your chance, men. D – n your eyes! She won?t hang there two minutes. Out with the boats you – lubbers. Look sharp, and be d – d to you.”
The ancient pilot, Thwarthawse, dancing and stamping, his blue jacket flapping in the wind, and his face of the deepest plum colour, roared to windward his whirlwind of oaths up an old split trumpet, down which the wind came bellowing harder than his voice went up it.
“Stow that, Jacob!” cried an old Scotchman, survivor of many a wreck; “can ye nae see his reverence, mon? It?s an unco thing for an auld mon like you to swear at your mates in their shrouds, chap. I ken the skipper of that there ship, and he?s no lubber, no more than I be.”
Sandy Macbride was known to fear God, and to have fifty pounds in the savings bank. Therefore no one flouted him.
“You?re right, Mac; you?re right, by George!” cried Pell. “What a glorious fellow! I can see him there holding on by the stanchion, giving his orders as coolly as if for the cabin dinner. I could die with that man.”
The tear in Octavius Pell?s right eye compelled him to shift the glass a bit. He was just the man who would have done even as that captain did.
“Hurrah, hurrah! they?ve got the launch out; only she and the gig are left. Troops on the deck, drawn up in a line, and the women hoisted in first. Give them three cheers, men, though they can?t hear you! Three cheers, if you are Englishmen! Glorious, glorious! There they go; never saw such a fine thing in all my life. Oh, I wish I had been a sailor!”
The tears ran down the young parson?s cheeks, and were blown into the eyes of old Macbride; or else he had some of his own.
“Shove off, shove off; now?s your time, for the under–current is failing her. Both of them off, as I?m alive; and yet a third boat I could not see. What magnificent management! That man ought to command a fleet. Two of them off for Christchurch Harbour; away, away, while the wind lulls; but what is the third boat doing?” Every one was looking: no one answered. Old Mac knew what it was, though his eyes were too old to see much.
“Captain Roberts, I?ll go bail, at his old tricks again. And there?s none with the sense to mutiny on him, and lash his legs, as we did in the Samphire.”
“At the side of the ship there is some dispute. The boat is laden to the water?s edge, and the ship paying off to leeward, for there is no man at the wheel; there goes the sail from the bolt–ropes. If they don?t push off, ere an oar?s length, they will all be sucked into the rollers! Good God! now I see what it is. There is only room for one more, and not one of those three will take it. Two white–haired men and a girl. Life against honour with the old men; and what is life compared with it? Both resolved not to stir a peg; now they join to make the girl go. Her father has got her in his arms to pitch her into the boat; she clings around his neck so that both must go, or neither. He could not throw her; she falls on her knees, and clings to his legs to die with him. Smack – there, the rope is parted, and it is too late for further argument. The troops in the boat salute the officer, and he returns it as on parade.”
“Name of that ship?” said Jacob, curtly, to old Sandy Macbride.
“Aliwal, East India trader, Captain Roberts. Calcutta to Southampton.”
“Then it?s all up now with the Aliwal, and every soul on board of her.”
“Don?t want a pilot to tell us that,” answered old Mac, testily. “You?ve seed a many good craft, pilot, but never one as could last five minutes on the Shingle Bank, with this sea running.”
“Ropes, ropes!” cried Octave Pell; “in five minutes she?ll be ashore here.”
“No, she ‘ont, nor yet in ten,” answered his landlord, gruffly; “she?ll fetch away to the eastward first, now she is in the tide again, specially with this gale on; and she?ll take the ground over yonner, and go to pieces with the next breaker.”
She took her course exactly as old Jacob mapped it out for her. He knew every run and flaw of the tide, and how it gets piled in the narrows by a very heavy storm, and runs back in the eddy which had saved so many lives there. This has nothing to do with the “double tide;” that comes after high–water. As the good ship traced the track of death, doing as the waves willed (like a little boy?s boat in the Serpentine), the people on shore could see those three, who had contested the right of precedence to another world.
They were all upon the quarter–deck; and three finer figures never yet came to take the air there, in the weariness of an Indian voyage. Captain Roberts, a tall, stout man, with ruddy cheeks and a broad white beard, stood with his hands in his pockets, and his feet asunder, and a sense of discipline in his face, as of a man who has done his duty, and now obeys his Maker. No sign of flinching or dismay in his weather–beaten eyes, as he watched his death roll towards him; though the gazers fancied that one tear rose, perhaps at the thought of his family just coming down–stairs at Lymington. The military man beside him faced his death quite differently; perhaps with even less of fear, but with more defiance, broken, every now and then, by anguish for his daughter. He had not learned to fear the Lord, as those men do who go down into the great deep. He looked as if he ought to be commanding–officer of the tempest. The ship, running now before wind and sea, darted along as a serpent darts over the graves in the churchyard; she did not lurch any more, or labour, but rose and fell, just showing her fore–foot or stern–post, as the billows passed under her. And so that young maiden could stand and gaze, with her father?s arm thrown round her.
She was worthy to be his daughter; tall, and light of form, and calm, with eyes of wondrous brightness, she was looking at her father?s face to say the last good–bye. Then she flung both arms around his neck, and fondly, sadly, kissed him. Meanwhile the ship–captain turned away, and thought of Susy Roberts. Suddenly he espied a life–belt washed into the scuppers. He ran for it in a moment, came behind the maid, and, without asking her consent, threw it over her, and fastened it. There was little chance of it helping her, but that little chance she should have.
“She?ll take the ground next biller,” cried the oracular Jacob; “stand by there with the ropes, boys.”
On the back of a huge wave rose for the last time the unfortunate Aliwal. Stem on, as if with strong men steering, she rushed through the foam and the white whirl, like a hearse run away with in snow–drifts. Then she crashed on the stones, and the raging sea swept her from taffrail to bowsprit, rolled her over, pitched her across, and broke her back in two moments. The shock rang through the roar of billows, as if a nerve of the earth were thrilling. Another mountain–wave came marching to the roll of the tempest–drum. It curled disdainfully over the side, like a fog sweeping over a hedgerow; swoop – it broke the timbers away, as a giant tosses a fir–cone.
“I can?t look any longer,” cried Pell; “give me something to feel, men. Quick, there! I see something!”
He seized the bight of a rope, and rushed anyhow into the waters. But John Rosedew and the life–boatmen held hard upon the coil of it, and drew him with all their might back again. They hauled Octavius Pell up in the manner of a cod–fish, and he was so bruised and stupefied, that he could not tell what he had gone for. They only saw floating timber and gear, and wreck of every sort drifting, till just for one sight–flash a hoary head, whiter than driven waters, leaped out of the comb of the billow. A naval man, or a military – who knows, and to whom does it matter?
Brave men ashore, all waiting ready, dashed down the steep of death to save him, if the great wave should toss up its plaything. All Rushford strained at the cables that held them from the savage recoil. Worse than useless; the only chance of it was to make more widows. The sea leaped at those gallant strong men; there were five on either cable; it leaped at them as the fiery furnace leaped on the plain of Dura. It struck the two ropes into one with a buffet, as a lion?s paw shatters a cobweb; it dashed the men?s heads together, and flung them all in a pile on a ballast–heap. Lucky for them that it fought with itself, and clashed there, and made no recoil. The white–haired corpse was seen no more; and all Rushford shrunk back in terror.
The storm was now at its height; and of more than a hundred people gathered on the crown of the shore, and above the reach of the billows, not one durst stand upright. Nearer the water the wind had less power, for the wall of waves broke the full brunt of it. But there no man, unless he were most quick of eye and foot, might stand without great peril. For scarcely a single billow broke, but what, in the first rebound and toss, two churning hummocks of surf met, and flashed up the strand like a mad white horse, far in advance of the rest. Then a hissing ensued, and a roll of shingle, and the water poured huddling and lappeting back from the chine itself had crannied.
As brave men fled from a rush of this sort, and cowards on the bank were laughing at them, something white was seen in the curl of the wave which was breaking behind it. The ebb of that inrush met the wave and partly took the crash of it, then the white thing was shot on the shore like a pellet, and lay one instant motionless. There was no rope there, and the men hung back; John Rosedew cried “Shame!” and ran for it; but they joined hands across and stopped him. Before they could look round again, some one had raised the body. ‘Twas young Bob Garnet, and in his arms lay the maiden senseless. She had looked at him once, and then swooned away from the whirl, and the blows, and the terror. No rope round his body, no cork, no pad; he had rushed full into the raging waves, as he woke from his sleep of heaviness. He lifted the girl, and a bending giant hung thirty feet above them.
Then a shriek, like a woman?s, rang out on the wind, and two great arms were tossed to heaven. Bull Garnet stood there, and strove to rush on, strove with every muscle, but every nerve strove against it. He was balanced and hung on the wind for a moment, as the wave hung over his heart?s love. Crash came the wave – what shriek should stop it, after three hundred miles of rolling? – a crash that rang in the souls of all whom youth could move or nobleness. Nothing was seen in the depth of water, the swirling, hurling whiteness, until the billow had spent its onset, and the curdle of the change was. Then Bob, swept many a fathom in–shore, but griping still that senseless thing, that should either live or die with him – Bob, who could swim as well or better than he could climb a tree, but felt that he and his load were only dolls for the wave to dandle – down he went, after showing his heels, and fought the deadly outrush. None but Nature?s pet would have thought of, none but the favoured of God could have done, it. He felt the back–wave tugging at him, he felt that he was going; if another billow broke on him, it was all up with his work upon wire–worm. Holding his breath, he flung his right leg over the waist of the maiden, dug his two hands deep into the gravel, and clapped his feet together. Scarcely knowing what was up, he held on like grim death for life, and felt a barrowload of pebbles rolling down the small of his back. Presently he saw light again, and sputtered out salt water, and heard a hundred people screaming out “Hurrah!” and felt a strong arm thrown round him – not his father?s, but John Rosedew?s. Three senseless bodies were borne to the village – Bull Garnet?s, and Bob?s and the maiden?s.
Meanwhile that keen engineering firm, wind, wave, and tide, had established another little business on the coast hard by. This was the general wreck and crack–up of the stout Pell–castle, a proceeding unnoticed by any one except good mother Jacob, whose attention was drawn to it forcibly, as the head of the bed fell in upon her. Thereupon the stout dame made a rush for it, taking only her cat and spectacles, and the little teapot of money. As she started at a furious pace, and presented to the elements a large superficial area, the wind could not resist the temptation, but wafted her to the top of the bunney, without her feet so much as once a–touching the blessed earth – she goes mad if any one doubts it – and planted her in a white–thorn tree, and brought an “elam” of thatch to shelter her from her own beloved roof. There, when the wind subsided, she was happily discovered by some enterprising children; the cat was sitting at her side; in one blue hand she held her specs, and in the other a teapot.
Poor Pell?s easy–chair was thrown up, three miles to the westward, in the course of the next spring–tides, and, being well known all over the neighbourhood (from his lending it to sick people), was brought to him, with a round of cheers, by half a dozen fishermen. They refused the half–crown he offered them, and displayed the greatest anxiety lest his honour should believe it was them as had taken the shine off. The workmanship not being modern, the chair was little the worse for its voyage; only it took six months to dry, and had a fine smell of brine ever afterwards. Then, having been lent to an old salt?s widow, it won such a reputation, all across the New Forest, as a specific for “rheumatics in the small of the back,” that old women, having no small to their backs, walked all the way from Lyndhurst, “just to sot themselves down in it, and how much was to pay, please, for a quarter of an hour?” “A shilling,” said Octave Pell, “a shilling for the new lifeboat that lives under Christchurch Head.” Then they pulled out mighty silver watches, and paid the shilling at the fifteen minutes. The walk, and the thought of the miracle, and the fear of making fools of themselves, did such a deal of good, that a man got up a ‘bus for it; but Pell said, “No; none who come by ‘bus shall sit in my chair of ease.”
The greedy sea returned brave Pell no other part of his property. His red tobacco–jar, indeed, was found by some of the dredgemen three or four years afterwards, but they did not know it was his, and sold it – crusted as it was with testacea, and ribboned with sea–weed – to the zealous secretary of – I won?t say what museum. “Roman, or perhaps Samian, or possibly Ph?nician ware,” cried the secretary, lit with fine – though, it may be, loose – ideas; and he catalogued it: “Ph?nician in the opinion of an F.A.S. There is every reason to believe it a vase for Thuricremation.” “Hollo!” cried Pell, when he went there to lecture upon cricket as played by Ulysses, “why, I?m blessed if you haven?t got – ” “The most undoubted Ph?nician relic contained in any museum!” So he laughed with other people?s cheeks, like a man of sense.
All the folk of Rushford, and many too of Nowelhurst, contributed to a secret fund for refurnishing Octavius Pell. So great were the mystery and speed, and so clever the management of the dissenting parson, that two great vans were down upon Pell before he had heard a word of it. He stood at the door of the cobbler?s shop, and tried to make a speech; but the hurrahs were too many for him, and he turned away and cried. Tell me that any man in England need be anything but popular who has a heart of his own, and is not ashamed of having it!
At the Crown, where the three sick people were, a very fine trade was doing; but a finer one still upon the beach, as the sea went down and the choice contents of the Aliwal came up. For that terrible storm began to abate about noon on the 26th. It had blown as hard for twenty–four hours as it ever does blow in any land, except in the gaps of the Andes and during cyclones of the tropics. Now the core of the storm had no more cells in it; and the puffs that came from the west and north–west, and so on till it got to the pole–star, were violent indeed, but desultory, and seemed not to know where they were going. Finally, about midnight, the wind owned that its turn was over, and sunk (well satisfied with its work) into the arms of slumber – “placid?que ibi demum morte quievit.” And its work had been done right well. No English storm since the vast typhoon of 1703 – which I should like to write about some day if my little life–storm blows long enough – had wrought such glorious havoc upon that swearing beaver, man. It had routed his villages at the Land?s End, and lifted like footstools his breakwater blocks; it had scared of their lives his Eddystone watchmen, and put out half his lighthouses; it had broken upon his royalty, and swept down the oaks of the New Forest; it had streaked with wrecks the Goodwin Sands, and washed ships out of harbours of refuge; it had leaped upon London as on a drain–trap, and jarred it as a man whistles upon his fingers; it had huddled pell–mell all the coal–trade; – saddest vaunt (though not the last), it had strewn with gashed and mangled bodies (like its own waves, countless) the coasts of Anglesea and Caernarvon.
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