"Let broad leagues dissever
Him from yonder foam,
O God! to think man ever
Comes too near his home—HOOD
The ship that was to carry us swung at the buoy a quarter of a mile offshore, and there were row-boats waiting to take us to her. She was a brig of some 120 tons burthen, and as we came under the stern I saw her name was the Aurungzebe.
'Twas with regret unspeakable I took my last look at Europe; and casting my eyes round saw the smoke of the town dark against the darkening sky; yet knew that neither smoke nor sky was half as black as was the prospect of my life.
They sent us down to the orlop or lowest deck, a foul place where was no air nor light, and shut the hatches down on top of us. There were thirty of us all told, hustled and driven like pigs into this deck, which was to be our pigsty for six months or more. Here was just light enough, when they had the hatches off, to show us what sort of place it was, namely, as foul as it smelt, with never table, seat, nor anything, but roughest planks and balks; and there they changed our bonds, taking away the bar, and putting a tight bracelet round one wrist, with a padlocked chain running through a loop on it. Thus we were still ironed, six together, but had a greater freedom and more scope to move. And more than this, the man who shifted the chains, whether through caprice, or perhaps because he really wished to show us what pity he might, padlocked me on to the same chain with Elzevir, saying, we were English swine and might sink or swim together. Then the hatches were put on, and there they left us in the dark to think or sleep or curse the time away. The weariness of Ymeguen was bad indeed, and yet it was a heaven to this night of hell, where all we had to look for was twice a day the moving of the hatches, and half an hour's glimmer of a ship's lantern, while they served us out the broken victuals that the Dutch crew would not eat.
I shall say nothing of the foulness of this place, because 'twas too foul to be written on paper; and if 'twas foul at starting, 'twas ten times worse when we reached open sea, for of all the prisoners only Elzevir and I were sailors, and the rest took the motion unkindly.
From the first we made bad weather of it, for though we were below and could see nothing, yet 'twas easy enough to tell there was a heavy head-sea running, almost as soon as we were well out of harbour. Although Elzevir and I had not had any chance of talking freely for so long, and were now able to speak as we liked, being linked so close together, we said but little. And this, not because we did not value very greatly one another's company, but because we had nothing to talk of except memories of the past, and those were too bitter, and came too readily to our minds, to need any to summon them. There was, too, the banishment from Europe, from all and everything we loved, and the awful certainty of slavery that lay continuously on us like a weight of lead. Thus we said little.
We had been out a week, I think—for time is difficult enough to measure where there is neither clock nor sun nor stars—when the weather, which had moderated a little, began to grow much worse. The ship plunged and laboured heavily, and this added much to our discomfort; because there was nothing to hold on by, and unless we lay flat on the filthy deck, we ran a risk of being flung to the side whenever there came a more violent lurch or roll. Though we were so deep down, yet the roaring of wind and wave was loud enough to reach us, and there was such a noise when the ship went about, such grinding of ropes, with creaking and groaning of timbers, as would make a landsman fear the brig was going to pieces. And this some of our fellow-prisoners feared indeed, and fell to crying, or kneeling chained together as they were upon the sloping deck, while they tried to remember long-forgotten prayers. For my own part, I wondered why these poor wretches should pray to be delivered from the sea, when all that was before them was lifelong slavery; but I was perhaps able to look more calmly on the matter myself as having been at sea, and not thinking that the vessel was going to founder because of the noise. Yet the storm rose till 'twas very plain that we were in a raging sea, and the streams which began to trickle through the joinings of the hatch showed that water had got below.
'I have known better ships go under for less than this,' Elzevir said to me; 'and if our skipper hath not a tight craft, and stout hands to work her, there will soon be two score slaves the less to cut the canes in Java. I cannot guess where we are now—may be off Ushant, may be not so far, for this sea is too short for the Bay; but the saints send us sea-room, for we have been wearing these three hours.'
'Twas true enough that we had gone to wearing, as one might tell from the heavier roll or wallowing when we went round, instead of the plunging of a tack; but there was no chance of getting at our whereabouts. The only thing we had to reckon time withal, was the taking off of the hatch twice a day for food; and even this poor clock kept not the hour too well, for often there were such gaps and intervals as made our bellies pine, and at this present we had waited so long that I craved even that filthy broken meat they fed us with.
So we were glad enough to hear a noise at the hatch just as Elzevir had done speaking, and the cover was flung off, letting in a splash of salt water and a little dim and dusky light. But instead of the guard with their muskets and lanterns and the tubs of broken victuals, there was only one man, and that the gaoler who had padlocked us into gangs at the beginning of the voyage.
He bent down for a moment over the hatch, holding on to the combing to steady himself in the sea-way, and flung a key on a chain down into the orlop, right among us. 'Take it,' he shouted in Dutch, 'and make the most of it. God helps the brave, and the devil takes the hindmost.'
That said, he stayed not one moment, but turned about quick and was gone. For an instant none knew what this play portended, and there was the key lying on the deck, and the hatch left open. Then Elzevir saw what it all meant, and seized the key. 'John,' cries he, speaking to me in English, 'the ship is foundering, and they are giving us a chance to save our lives, and not drown like rats in a trap.' With that he tried the key on the padlock which held our chain, and it fitted so well that in a trice our gang was free. Off fell the chain clanking on the floor, and nothing left of our bonds but an iron bracelet clamped round the left wrist. You may be sure the others were quick enough to make use of the key when they knew what 'twas, but we waited not to see more, but made for the ladder.
Now Elzevir and I, being used to the sea, were first through the hatchway above, and oh, the strength and sweet coolness of the sea air, instead of the warm, fetid reek of the orlop below! There was a good deal of water sousing about on the main deck, but nothing to show the ship was sinking, yet none of the crew was to be seen. We stayed there not a second, but moved to the companion as fast as we could for the heavy pitching of the ship, and so came on deck.
The dusk of a winter's evening was setting in, yet with ample light to see near at hand, and the first thing I perceived was that the deck was empty. There was not a living soul but us upon it. The brig was broached to, with her bows against the heaviest sea I ever saw, and the waves swept her fore and aft; so we made for the tail of the deck-house, and there took stock. But before we got there I knew why 'twas the crew were gone, and why they let us loose, for Elzevir pointed to something whither we were drifting, and shouted in my ear so that I heard it above all the raging of the tempest—'We are on a lee shore.'
We were lying head to sea, and never a bit of canvas left except one storm-staysail. There were tattered ribands fluttering on the yards to show where the sails had been blown away, and every now and then the staysail would flap like a gun going off, to show it wanted to follow them. But for all we lay head to sea, we were moving backwards, and each great wave as it passed carried us on stern first with a leap and swirling lift. 'Twas over the stern that Elzevir pointed, in the course that we were going, and there was such a mist, what with the wind and rain and spindrift, that one could see but a little way. And yet I saw too far, for in the mist to which we were making a sternboard, I saw a white line like a fringe or valance to the sea; and then I looked to starboard, and there was the same white fringe, and then to larboard, and the white fringe was there too. Only those who know the sea know how terrible were Elzevir's words uttered in such a place. A moment before I was exalted with, the keen salt wind, and with a hope and freedom that had been strangers for long; but now 'twas all dashed, and death, that is so far off to the young, had moved nearer by fifty years—was moving a year nearer every minute.
'We are on a lee shore,' Elzevir shouted; and I looked and knew what the white fringe was, and that we should be in the breakers in half an hour. What a whirl of wind and wave and sea, what a whirl of thought and wild conjecture! What was that land to which we were drifting? Was it cliff, with deep water and iron face, where a good ship is shattered at a blow, and death comes like a thunder-clap? Or was it shelving sand, where there is stranding, and the pound, pound, pound of the waves for howls, before she goes to pieces and all is over?
We were in a bay, for there was the long white crescent of surf reaching far away on either side, till it was lost in the dusk, and the brig helpless in the midst of it. Elzevir had hold of my arm, and gripped it hard as he looked to larboard. I followed his eyes, and where one horn of the white crescent faded into the mist, caught a dark shadow in the air, and knew it was high land looming behind. And then the murk and driving rain lifted ever so little, and as it were only for that purpose; and we saw a misty bluff slope down into the sea, like the long head of a basking alligator poised upon the water, and stared into each other's eyes, and cried together, 'The Snout!'
It had vanished almost before it was seen, and yet we knew there was no mistake; it was the Snout that was there looming behind the moving rack, and we were in Moonfleet Bay. Oh, what a rush of thought then came, dazing me with its sweet bitterness, to think that after all these weary years of prison and exile we had come back to Moonfleet! We were so near to all we loved, so near—only a mile of broken water—and yet so far, for death lay between, and we had come back to Moonfleet to die. There was a change came over Elzevir's features when he saw the Snout; his face had lost its sadness and wore a look of sober happiness. He put his mouth close to my ear and said: 'There is some strange leading hand has brought us home at last, and I had rather drown on Moonfleet Beach than live in prison any more, and drown we must within an hour. Yet we will play the man, and make a fight for life.' And then, as if gathering together all his force: 'We have weathered bad times together, and who knows but we shall weather this?'
The other prisoners were on deck now, and had found their way aft. They were wild with fear, being landsmen and never having seen an angry sea, and indeed that sea might have frighted sailors too. So they stumbled along drenched with the waves, and clustered round Elzevir, for they looked on him as a leader, because he knew the ways of the sea and was the only one left calm in this dreadful strait.
It was plain that when the Dutch crew found they were embayed, and that the ship must drift into the breakers, they had taken to the boats, for gig and jolly-boat were gone and only the pinnace left amidships. 'Twas too heavy a boat perhaps for them to have got out in such a fearful sea; but there it lay, and it was to that the prisoners turned their eyes. Some had hold of Elzevir's arms, some fell upon the deck and caught him by the knees, beseeching him to show them how to get the pinnace out.
Then he spoke out, shouting to make them hear: 'Friends, any man that takes to boat is lost. I know this bay and know this beach, and was indeed born hereabouts, but never knew a boat come to land in such a sea, save bottom uppermost. So if you want my counsel, there you have it, namely, to stick by the ship. In half an hour we shall be in the breakers; and I will put the helm up and try to head the brig bows on to the beach; so every man will have a chance to fight for his own life, and God have mercy on those that drown.'
I knew what he said was the truth, and there was nothing for it but to stick to the ship, though that was small chance enough; but those poor, fear-demented souls would have nothing of his advice now 'twas given, and must needs go for the boat. Then some came up from below who had been in the spirit-room and were full of drink and drink-courage, and heartened on the rest, saying they would have the pinnace out, and every soul should be saved. Indeed, Fate seemed to point them that road, for a heavier sea than any came on board, and cleared away a great piece of larboard bulwarks that had been working loose, and made, as it were, a clear launching-way for the boat. Again did Elzevir try to prevail with them to stand by the ship, but they turned away and all made for the pinnace. It lay amidships and was a heavy boat enough, but with so many hands to help they got it to the broken bulwarks. Then Elzevir, seeing they would have it out at any price, showed them how to take advantage of the sea, and shifted the helm a little till the Aurungzebe fell off to larboard, and put the gap in the bulwarks on the lee. So in a few minutes there it lay at a rope's-end on the sheltered side, deep laden with thirty men, who were ill found with oars, and much worse found with skill to use them. There were one or two, before they left, shouted to Elzevir and me to try to make us follow them; partly, I think, because they really liked Elzevir, and partly that they might have a sailor in the boat to direct them; but the others cast off and left us with a curse, saying that we might go and drown for obstinate Englishmen.
So we two were left alone on the brig, which kept drifting backwards slowly; but the pinnace was soon lost to sight, though we saw that they were rowing wild as soon as she passed out of the shelter of the ship, and that they had much ado to keep her head to the sea.
Then Elzevir went to the kicking-wheel, and beckoned me to help him, and between us we put the helm hard up. I saw then that he had given up all hope of the wind shifting, and was trying to run her dead for the beach.
She was broached-to with her bows in the wind, but gradually paid off as the staysail filled, and so she headed straight for shore. The November night had fallen, and it was very dark, only the white fringe of the breakers could be seen, and grew plainer as we drew closer to it. The wind was blowing fiercer than ever, and the waves broke more fiercely nearer the shore. They had lost their dirty yellow colour when the light died, and were rolling after us like great black mountains, with a combing white top that seemed as if they must overwhelm us every minute. Twice they pooped us, and we were up to our waists in icy water, but still held to the wheel for our lives.
The white line was nearer to us now, and above all the rage of wind and sea I could hear the awful roar of the under-tow sucking back the pebbles on the beach. The last time I could remember hearing that roar was when I lay, as a boy, one summer's night 'twixt sleep and waking, in the little whitewashed bedroom at my aunt's; and I wondered now if any sat before their inland hearths this night, and hearing that far distant roar, would throw another log on the fire, and thank God they were not fighting for their lives in Moonfleet Bay. I could picture all that was going on this night on the beach—how Ratsey and the landers would have sighted the Aurungzebe, perhaps at noon, perhaps before, and knew she was embayed, and nothing could save her but the wind drawing to east. But the wind would hold pinned in the south, and they would see sail after sail blown off her, and watch her wear and wear, and every time come nearer in; and the talk would run through the street that there was a ship could not weather the Snout, and must come ashore by sundown. Then half the village would be gathered on the beach, with the men ready to risk their lives for ours, and in no wise wishing for the ship to be wrecked; yet anxious not to lose their chance of booty, if Providence should rule that wrecked she must be. And I knew Ratsey would be there, and Damen, Tewkesbury, and Laver, and like enough Parson Glennie, and perhaps—and at that perhaps, my thoughts came back to where we were, for I heard Elzevir speaking to me:
'Look,' he said, 'there's a light!'
'Twas but the faintest twinkle, or not even that; only something that told there was a light behind drift and darkness. It grew clearer as we looked at it, and again was lost in the mirk, and then Elzevir said, 'Maskew's Match!'
It was a long-forgotten name that came to me from so far off, down such long alleys of the memory, that I had, as it were, to grope and grapple with it to know what it should mean. Then it all came back, and I was a boy again on the trawler, creeping shorewards in the light breeze of an August night, and watching that friendly twinkle from the Manor woods above the village. Had she not promised she would keep that lamp alight to guide all sailors every night till I came back again; was she not waiting still for me, was I not coming back to her now? But what a coming back! No more a boy, not on an August night, but broken, branded convict in the November gale! 'Twas well, indeed, there was between us that white fringe of death, that she might never see what I had fallen to.
'Twas likely Elzevir had something of the same thoughts, for he spoke again, forgetting perhaps that I was man now, and no longer boy, and using a name he had not used for years. 'Johnnie,' he said, 'I am cold and sore downhearted. In ten minutes we shall be in the surf. Go down to the spirit locker, drink thyself, and bring me up a bottle here. We shall both need a young man's strength, and I have not got it any more.'
I did as he bid me, and found the locker though the cabin was all awash, and having drunk myself, took him the bottle back. 'Twas good Hollands enough, being from the captain's own store, but nothing to the old Ararat milk of the Why Not? Elzevir took a pull at it, and then flung the bottle away. '’Tis sound liquor,' he laughed, '"and good for autumn chills", as Ratsey would have said.'
We were very near the white fringe now, and the waves followed us higher and more curling. Then there was a sickly wan glow that spread itself through the watery air in front of us, and I knew that they were burning a blue light on the beach. They would all be there waiting for us, though we could not see them, and they did not know that there were only two men that they were signalling to, and those two Moonfleet born. They burn that light in Moonfleet Bay just where a little streak of clay crops out beneath the pebbles, and if a vessel can make that spot she gets a softer bottom. So we put the wheel over a bit, and set her straight for the flare.
There was a deafening noise as we came near the shore, the shrieking of the wind in the rigging, the crash of the combing seas, and over all the awful grinding roar of the under-tow sucking down the pebbles.
'It is coming now,' Elzevir said; and I could see dim figures moving in the misty glare from the blue light; and then, just as the Aurungzebe was making fair for the signal, a monstrous combing sea pooped her and washed us both from the wheel, forward in a swirling flood. We grasped at anything we could, and so brought up bruised and half-drowned in the fore-chains; but as the wheel ran free, another sea struck her and slewed her round. There was a second while the water seemed over, under, and on every side, and then the Aurungzebe went broadside on Moonfleet beach, with a noise like thunder and a blow that stunned us.
I have seen ships come ashore in that same place before and since, and bump on and off with every wave, till the stout balks could stand the pounding no more and parted. But 'twas not so with our poor brig, for after that first fearful shock she never moved again, being flung so firm upon the beach by one great swamping wave that never another had power to uproot her. Only she careened over beachwards, turning herself away from the seas, as a child bows his head to escape a cruel master's ferule, and then her masts broke off, first the fore and then the main, with a splitting crash that made itself heard above all.
We were on the lee side underneath the shelter of the deckhouse clinging to the shrouds, now up to our knees in water as the wave came on, now left high and dry when it went back. The blue light was still burning, but the ship was beached a little to the right of it, and the dim group of fishermen had moved up along the beach till they were opposite us. Thus we were but a hundred feet distant from them, but 'twas the interval of death and life, for between us and the shore was a maddened race of seething water, white foaming waves that leapt up from all sides against our broken bulwarks, or sucked back the pebbles with a grinding roar till they left the beach nearly dry.
We stood there for a minute hanging on, and waiting for resolution to come back to us after the shock of grounding. On the weather side the seas struck and curled over the brig with a noise like thunder, and the force of countless tons. They came over the top of the deck-house in a cataract of solid water, and there was a crash, crash, crash of rending wood, as plank after plank gave way before that stern assault. We could feel the deck-house itself quiver, and shake again as we stood with our backs against it, and at last it moved so much that we knew it must soon be washed over on us.
The moment had come. 'We must go after the next big wave runs back,' Elzevir shouted. 'Jump when I give the word, and get as far up the pebbles as you can before the next comes in: they will throw us a rope's-end to catch; so now good-bye, John, and God save us both!'
I wrung his hand, and took off my convict clothes, keeping my boots on to meet the pebbles, and was so cold that I almost longed for the surf. Then we stood waiting side by side till a great wave came in, turning the space 'twixt ship and shore into a boiling caldron: a minute later 'twas all sucked back again with a roar, and we jumped.
I fell on hands and feet where the water was a yard deep under the ship, but got my footing and floundered through the slop, in a desperate struggle to climb as high as might be on the beach before the next wave came in. I saw the string of men lashed together and reaching down as far as man might, to save any that came through the surf, and heard them shout to cheer us, and marked a coil of rope flung out. Elzevir was by my side and saw it too, and we both kept our feet and plunged forward through the quivering slack water; but then there came an awful thunder behind, the crash of the sea over the wreck, and we knew that another mountain wave was on our heels. It came in with a swishing roar, a rush and rise of furious water that swept us like corks up the beach, till we were within touch of the rope's-end, and the men shouted again to hearten us as they flung it out. Elzevir seized it with his left hand and reached out his right to me. Our fingers touched, and in that very moment the wave fell instantly, with an awful suck, and I was swept down the beach again. Yet the under-tow took me not back to sea, for amid the floating wreckage floated the shattered maintop, and in the truck of that great spar I caught, and so was left with it upon the beach thirty paces from the men and Elzevir. Then he left his own assured salvation, namely the rope, and strode down again into the very jaws of death to catch me by the hand and set me on my feet. Sight and breath were failing me; I was numb with cold and half-dead from the buffeting of the sea; yet his giant strength was powerful to save me then, as it had saved me before. So when we heard once more the warning crash and thunder of the returning wave we were but a fathom distant from the rope. 'Take heart, lad,' he cried; '’tis now or never,' and as the water reached our breasts gave me a fierce shove forward with his hands. There was a roar of water in my ears, with a great shouting of the men upon the beach, and then I caught the rope.