Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The lots upon the raft

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Some years ago I happened to be wind bound in the port of L——. A furious westerly gale had set in at the full of the moon, and raged with a violence which can be appreciated only by those “who go down to the sea in ships,” and “behold the wonders of the deep.”

Right heartily did our hardy crew enjoy the shelter of that quaint old haven; grouped around their cheerful, cosy forecastle, the caboose giving forth a merry, homely, social blaze, they yarned away of by-gone dangers and hair-breadth escapes, which caused the older seamen to shake their heads in grave attestation of the narrators’ truth, and the green boys to listen with open-mouthed wonder, thinking, and perchance hoping, that the day might come when they too should be enabled to relate similar wonders of maritime adventure.

The hurricane whistled wildly through the rigging; great sheets of surge, beaten into foam-froth over the rough breastwork of rocks under whose shelter we lay, were whirled aloft through the spars, showing against the black scud that careered above, like clouds of snowdrift flying through the pines on a dark mountain side.

From boyhood I have been a lover of Nature in calm and in storm, in smiling peacefulness and dire wrath; by land and by sea have I studied her beauties; but of all the scenes I love to dwell upon is that of the sea when lashed into wild fury by the roaring tempest.

Such a scene had I now before me; in the bottom, or rather, as a sailor would call it, the “bight” of a deep bay, lay the little haven of L——, securely sheltered by a massive breakwater of granite rock; on the right, as you looked seaward, the margin was defined by rugged precipices and outlying cliffs, whilst the left hand side was bounded by a chain of lofty mountains; obliquely up this bay was now raging a south-westerly gale, hurling the giant waves of the broad Atlantic into confused masses of foaming broken water; ever and anon tremendous squalls would sweep down the hill sides with resistless force, marking their paths by dense masses of smoke-like mist torn from the mighty surges that rolled along in solemn grandeur, until broken by crag and cliff and solid rock wall, they roared a dull great roar of impotent rage, as though they would shake earth’s foundations and open a passage to the ravening waters. Turning from the fierce battle of the elements that raged without, the peaceful security of the well-sheltered little harbour, our own good little ship looking so neat and trim, as if hugging herself in the enjoyment of such good quarters, the merry voices and jocund laugh that occasionally resounded from her decks, formed such a picture of war and peace, that being lost in silent contemplation I was not aware of a companion until a light touch upon the arm, and the gruff tones of our tough old pilot, Murtagh Moriarty, smote upon my ear.

“Hardy weather, hardy weather, yer honer,” exclaimed Murtagh, ducking his head as he spoke, to avoid a sheet of foam that arched over the rocky parapet.

“Ay, ay, pilot; for the poor fellows outside, it’s rough and wild work indeed!”

“Troth, id just is what yer honer says,—wicked, wild, cruel work; an’ shure id makes one’s heart bleed for thim poor coasthers that’s sint to say in sich wild winthery weather, an’ wid vessels ill-found, wid ropes as ould and as rotten as haybands; short manned, too, the way they may bring long profits to their naygur-hearted owners; ay, in troth, yer honer, many is the brave-hearted stout sayman that has had to give in whin human nathur couldn’t stand agin hardships that id break a frame uv iron; an', eh Lord a mercy, sir dear! isn’t id cruel wringin’ to a sthrong man’s sperit, whin he finds himself in the pride uv his prime, an’ health and sthringth, sowld maybe to save a few fathoms uv rope or a few feet uv new plank; an’ hurryin’ on in the broad light uv day agin the tall cliffs that stan’ up like a tombstone forninst him, wid his white shroud bilin’ up an’ roarin’ all round him!”

“Sail ho! a sail, Misthur Moriarty! A sail, Murtagh jewel!” exclaimed two or three fishermen who had joined us.

We peered anxiously to seaward, and in the intervals of the drift and mist, just under the lofty cliffs, and almost within the broad belt of snowy breakers that foamed at their base, was a gallant ship under close-reefed topsails and courses, staggering under the pressure of the latter, as if carried on with a reckless desperation akin to despair, in order to extricate her from the fearful position into which over confidence or the thick haze of rain and surge had betrayed her.

“God be marciful! Bud by the living ——

Whatever else the old pilot would have said died upon his lips; a mighty wall of waters came rolling down upon the hapless bark just as she was about to clear the point of greatest danger; for a moment she wavered on her course, as though her helmsman was paralysed at the appalling peril; it was, however, for a moment only; again she lay over to the hurricane squall, until all her broad decks were visible; there was a great sheet of hissing surge boiling out from under her lee bow, which showed the tremendous velocity with which her desperate crew were forcing her through the broken water; gallantly, coolly, and with stern resolve she was held on that fearful course, as if gathering up her speed and her strength for the last great struggle to escape destruction. Already was the towering mass upon her, another moment and she would be rolled broadside on into that seething caldron, a mass of riven planks and timbers, the chaos of despair, of death! We held our breaths in torturing anticipation of what was to follow; already the cry of the strong swimmers in their agony seemed resounding in our ears; no mortal hand could help, no human aid could reach them. Suddenly her helm was put down; as she came up in the wind the thunder of her shivering canvas sounded like the knell of doom; she lifted buoyantly to the giant sea, rose upon its advancing crest, as if with the last great effort of exhausted strength, burst through the curling ridge of white foam, and, falling off on the other tack, disappeared from our fevered gaze in a column of spray-smoke, and rain-mist.

“Bravely done! Bravely and well done!” shouted old Moriarty, in intense excitement. “Ay—ay—by my sowl, the child that sails her is no chicken! He knows every shtick in her timper, too, or he’d never thry such a divil’s thrick as that wid her. If a rope yarn failed him, his sperit id be on the road to glory now. The Lord be praised for his marcy in sparin’ them! Ids down on ther knees they ought to be this blessed minit?”

“Th’er no sthrangers here any how, Murtagh!”

“Thrue for you, Billy Duncan, alanna, ay, indeed, that th’er not; here she comes now, squared away afore the wind; but my ould eyes are so mildewed wid the say dhrift, that I can’t make out what she is at all!”

“Whisht, boys, whisht! Spake aisy, can’t you? Ye’ll know what she is now. Don’t ye see who’s comin’ along the pier?”

All eyes were turned from the rapidly approaching vessel, in the direction indicated by the speaker. A tall and stately looking female was striding along the rugged causeway, heedless alike of the furious tempest or the pitiless peltings of rain and spray. She was clothed in garments of rusty black, which barely sufficed to cover her poor weak frame, much less to protect her from the inclemency of the elements. In the hard-drawn lines of her aged and care-worn features, could be traced the vestiges of early and wondrous beauty—the wreck of one of earth’s fairest flowers. A look of patient suffering strangely contrasted with the expression of her bright dark eyes, from which a baleful, almost ferocious, fire gleamed fitfully. Her hands were clasped with feverish energy, as if in earnest, ceaseless supplication: her gaze wandered not: it was fixed upon the approaching ship. She moved through pointed rocks, and across yawning chasms, like a being of another world. Ever and anon her lips moved, as if in prayer, yet she spoke to none, nor seemed to be aware of the presence of a human being. The moment she gained the lighthouse platform she knelt at its margin, lonely, sad, and weird looking, swaying her body backwards and forwards, her hands raised in prayer. Her voice now rose in incoherent murmurings, and anon died away; but the same intensely vengeful light gleamed ever from her eyes.

“Letty Blair, God help her!” exclaimed old Murtagh. “If I was Black Will Gardiner, I’d sooner my bones were washing under yon cliffs than face such a welkim as this afther every vy’ige!”

“For Heaven’s sake, Murtagh! what is the meaning of all this? Surely the poor creature must be mad: she will die from such exposure. Let us remove her to shelter and warmth.”

“Hist, yer honer, hist! it’s poor Letty Blair. She’s goin’ to curse Black Will Gardiner, the skipper of the Gipsy Bride.”

Meanwhile, the vessel which had caused all this excitement had drawn nigh, and her bowsprit now appeared as she rounded the pier end, in such close proximity that a man might have stepped on to her bulwarks. Usually, when a vessel returns to her port after a voyage, there are those at hand to give the tempest-tossed mariners a cheery welcome home. Some few stragglers had joined us, but, save an odd cry of recognition, her dripping and startled-looking crew were grouped forward in sullen silence: no joyous outburst welcomed the wanderers of the deep; no triumphant cheer acknowledged the gallant battle for life that had been fought and won. No: a deep and ominous gloom appeared to hang over the ship and her crew. At this moment the appearance and movements of the captain of the Gipsy Bride arrested my attention. He was a man in the prime of life, of colossal stature, powerful and athletic frame, but withal of a stern, gloomy, and forbidding aspect; and if ever the face of man gave index of the mind, his might be read without envy. His swarthy features were convulsed in a manner fearful to behold: hatred, rage, fear, despair, all the evil passions which crime entails upon its followers, reigned in turn: the veins upon his forehead stood out like knotted rope yarns; his powerful grasp clutched at everything within reach as though he fevered to grapple with a deadly foe. The struggle for mastery over his feelings were terrible. The short quick walk along the quarter-deck ceased the moment he caught sight of that kneeling woman. He stood glaring like some ferocious beast about to spring upon his prey. A howl of torture—the pent-up cry of racking mental agony—burst from his lips. It increased into a half-shriek, half-roar. His hand shook like a man’s with ague, as, pointing to the form which bent over him from the rocky platform, like that of an avenging angel, with a burst of fearful imprecations, he thundered forth:

“Eternal fires! will no one strike that old hag from my sight!”

It was a solemn sight, accompanied by fearful sounds! That ship and her crew just gliding into the safe and sheltered haven, escaped as by a marvel of Providence from a horrible death, and instead of voices upraised in glad thanksgiving for mercy vouchsafed, to hear that awful shout of ribald blasphemy rising high above the roaring of the sea and the howling of the wind! And then that weird-looking kneeling woman, wrapped in her graveyard garments of woe, muttering forth incoherent ejaculations, in which invocations of Heaven’s wrath were strangely mingled with supplications for mercy! The visitation that destroyeth the body and the soul was prayed for in the same breath as the exemption of the innocent from the doom of the guilty! By the night or by the day, in the calm or in the storm, by the land or by the sea, sleeping or waking, in health or in sickness, that “the worm which dieth not, and the fire which is never quenched,” might prey upon the spirit, blast the hope, wither the strong frame, and dry up the life’s blood of William Gardiner—the outcast of God and of man!

The close of that eventful day saw the storm unabated, the good ship the Gipsy Bride safely moored, her captain bestowed wherever his evil spirit could best find a resting-place; the mysterious visitant of the pier, I trust, where her broken heart and fevered mind were lulled into forgetfulness of the terrible past, and myself awaiting the pilot and his promised yarn; at length, having satisfied his craving for a pipe of Maryland, he made his appearance aft.

“I’m thinking yer honer is aiger to hear the story of poor Letty Lorimer?”

“Perhaps, Murtagh, your memory, like an old hat, would be refreshed by damping!” handing him as I spoke a stiff compound of Admiral Vernon’s favourite mixture.

“Ough-ah!” coughed the old pilot, making the cabin to resound again, “bedad, its curious yer honer, that two of uz should be thinking the same thing!”

“Now, then, pilot!” I exclaimed, “to develope this mystery that has puzzled me all day.”

“Ay, yer honer. It’s now many a long year since ould Clement Lorimer was a big man, an’ a sthrong shipowner in this same port of L——. He owned ships that wint to a great many places beyant the say, an’ his word was as good as another man’s bond. Well, Clement had a daughter, the poor wake craythur yer honer seen to-day, an’ och! weary me! ids myself that remimbers poor Letty Lorimer, the purtiest Colleen Dhas that every tossed a spidthers-web from a grass-brake on a May mornin’, an’ becoorse all the gay young chaps about these parts used to be cocking their caubeens at her, but Letty id have none of ’em; she was grand-like in her idayies, an’ was given to readin’ about great men that wint across the says, an’ med great fortins. Well, there were two apprentices sint to ould Clement—the sons of marchints he used to have dalins wid—one was a fine dashin’ young Scotchman, none uv yer hard-lined, skin-the-cat sort of chaps, bud a great, big-hearted, jovial chap; och! shure, they said he was descinded from the great King Robert the Bruce; anyhow no matther who was at the beginning of him, he was a raale fine, handsome, slashin’ sailor, an’ no two ways about him; to’ther fellow, they said, was a side-wind from Spain, bud he’d an English name at all events, an’ was a great big-limbed, dark-lookin’ customer,—morose and self-given like—nobody fancied him, but bonny Donald Blair was in everybody’s mouth; an’ the way he’d dance the reel of Tullogorum, an’ sing the Laird o’ Co’pen, bedad it id bring the tears into yer eyes wid fair delight. William Gardiner was ould Lorimer’s favourite, at all events; whether his people had more money nor Donald’s nobody knew rightly, bud people said that Letty was to be married to him whin he was out uv his time. Ther’s always two voices to a bargain, and although Letty wasn’t much consulted at first, bedad she was daytermined she’d have her own way; so the very day Donald Blair was out uv his time the two uv them sets off an’ gets married hard an’ fast, an’ may-be there wasn’t the devil’s own rooksun about it; however, Clement, sinsible-like, med the best uv the bargain his daughter got, an’ had them home, an’ daycently married, an’ a powerful jollification ther’ was; everybody got dhrunk uv coorse, for Donald was such a favourite that nobody envied him but one, that one was Will Gardiner; next or near the weddin’ he never kem, but was black and sulky as a chained bear. I’m told t’was dhreadful, to hear the oaths he swore about the revenge he’d take on Donald Blair.

“Clement Lorimer, to make up wid him like, gev him the command uv one uv his best ships, an’ to show that there was no ill-will betwixt nor between them, he sent Donald Blair out as chief mate: she was as fine a barque as ever yer honer clapped eyes on, oh! a raale beauty, called the Carlo Zeno: that was a woful vy’ige for Donald, poor, light-hearted, gay, Donald Blair, he never kem back; he was logged as washed overboord in a squall off the Great Piton Rocks, near the island of Saint Lucia; there was whisperins uv foul play, but Will Gardiner challenged ’em all, an’ as the log was found all square, an’ the crew spoke up, why there the thing ended.

“Not wid poor Letty, though; the poor craythur! she never lifted her head from that day; an’ the poor ould masther, too, wid all Donald’s wild ways was fond uv him, for who wouldn’t; the poor lad was as honest an’ open-hearted as the light uv day, only fond uv his joke, an’ his divarshun, small blame to him, ids a sorry sowl that goes through the world without rubbing a few bright spots in id.

“In the coorse of time the widow Blair became a mother; an’ if ever the dead came to life again the father did in that boy, only he had the mother’s beauty an’ all her winnin’ ways to the back of all poor Donald’s dash an’ bravery; he grew fast, an’ ould Clement began to regard him as the apple uv his eye, couldn’t bear him out uv his sight for a minit; bud the dark times wor at hand, things began to go cross wid the poor ould masther,—first one ship was wracked, thin another, until, at last, the only one he had left was the Carlo Zeno.

“Well, the time kem when something must be done, wid young Donald—he’d no longer his grandfather to look to, so bedad the heritage uv his poor drowned father was bestowed upon him—and he was sint to sarve his time wid Will Gardiner: oh! but that was a sorry partin’, for Clement Lorimer had parted wid his last ship to him, an’ in sending his darlin’ grandson wid him id seemed like a last hope that he’d bring back the fortune that was gone. Many, many was the requests he made uv Will that he’d behave to his poor boy, an’ do by him what he had done for Will Gardiner to make him an honest sailor, an’ a Christian man. That same night Black Will, as we always called him, had a long talk with Mrs. Blair, an’ he asked her the question that had been the aim an’ object of his life; he asked her to be his wife, an’ to forget all she had ever loved as only a woman can love—once; but he spoke uv him that was dead and gone, of the man with whom he’d broken the same bread, and drunk the same cup as a ne’er-do-well that desarved to be forgotten: little knowin’, the black-hearted villain! the woman he had to dale with. Oh, my jewel! it was Letty that up an’ gev him her mind, and he left her that night wid the scowl upon his brow and the curse upon his lips.

“More nor a year passed away, and still no news uv the Carlo Zeno. The poor mother was well nigh disthracted, and as for ould Clement, he was fairly beside himself. At last, one fine day, who should come back, as if the finger uv Fate was on him, but Black Will himself, and nobody else wid the exception of Art Sullivan, a very ould man, who was carpenter of the ship; she had foundered at say—the crew escaped on a raft; but, after days of awful sufferin’, the only two that were picked off that fatal raft was himself and the carpenter.

“The measure of poor Clement Lorimer’s bitterness was now full; he had seen ships and money and everything pass away from him, and now the only being that bound him to earth, that his poor old wearied heart clung to, the fair golden-haired laughin’ boy, whose presence was like sunshine to him, and whose life was wrapt up in his own, he was gone too, and all the world was black and dreary to him. He longed for rest, the rest that knows no brakin’ ’til the last day comes, and the poor broken-hearted desolate sowl was not long findin’ it. We laid him in his last restin’-place, an’ all that remained of the once great ship-master was a narrow grave and a plain little headstone; and poor Letty was left in solitary widowhood to mourn the days that wor past—too happy to be lastin’ and too fleetin’ to be true.

“The little that was left her she spent in charity and preparin’ herself for the home where those she loved best had gone before her.

“Well, yer honer, one night Letty was tould that a dyin’ man wanted to make his peace wid the world, and that he should see her.

‘Do you know me?’ says he to her whin she wint into the wretched cabin, where he was lyin’ on a lock uv sthraw.

‘You’re Art Sullivan!’ says she, ‘a faithful servant of my poor father’s.’

‘Ay, God help me, Miss Letty!’ says he; ‘I was once honest, an’ had a clear conscience, bud for that black villain Will Gardiner!’ says he.

‘What about him? What of him?’ says she. ‘Oh! Art Sullivan, asthore machree! if you know anything of my poor lost boy—as you are now about to appear before your Judge—tell me!’

‘Listen, my poor Colleen!’ says he. ‘Listen—’twas for that I sint for you. Whin we escaped on the raft young Donald was safe and sound, and so wor’ all the crew, but we had days and nights of awful sufferin’—hunger and thirst and the killin’ heat by day soon sent most of them mad, and they jumped into the say, where the sharks made short work of them, and the rest died of fair starvation. At last, none were left but Will Gardiner, myself, and young Donald Blair. Oh! but he was a brave fine boy! he kept our spirits goin’, day by day, and bid us cheer up, although the poor darlin’s bones wor’ peepin’ thro’ his skin. That terrible man had a little store of rum and biscuit, for I kept my eye on him night an’ day, and when he knew I had discovered him, he gave me a taste now and then, but never a morsel nor a sup would he give the brave child that was dyin’ before his face. I took it, and I tried to make the little Donald swallow some; but no, he had the sperit of a lion, “No!” he used to whisper, and his little eyes would flash, “What the black rascal would not give to the poor men that’s gone shall never pass my lips!” It was a just rebuke to myself, a big man, to hear that from the lips of a child; but I was wake and feeble, and the great black thief was sthrong thro’ his own cowardly selfishness—so, what could I do? When a man is driven to death by inches, he craves for life more than ever—pride, manliness, everything is wake in him; but that boy was a hero, if ever there was one born. At last the day came that all was gone; another and another followed, and Black Will Gardiner stooped over me and whispered a horrid timptation, for, says he, “if we can only prolong life a couple of days more, we’ll be sure to fall in wid some of the homeward-bounders!” My blood curdled at his words; but as the day wore on, and no sign uv a sail, he spoke to me again; but I swore at him, and he swore at and cursed me, and called me a drivellin’ old fool to cant about mercy to a worthless brat. I wondther now he did not throw me overboard, but the coward was afraid of his conscience—he feared being alone. At last, he spoke out bold, and said the time was come we should draw lots for life, one must die to keep the others alive. The lots were drawn, and, God forgive him and me! the lots were drawn falsely, and poor little Donald—Oh! God shield that sight from my memory!—there was that arch-demon struggling wid that poor small child. I screamed; I tried to rise and help and save him; but no, I was feebler than he was, and at last the blow was struck; ay, God forgive him, that man-devil! he murdered poor little Donald—he drank of his blood and he eat of his flesh, and he forced it upon me, too, and bound me by fearful oaths never to reveal what I do now, but I could not die aisy. Oh, mercy! mercy, Miss Letty! I am goin’—I am—’ The wild cry alone answered, the spirit of the old man had fled, and with it the senses of poor Letty Blair.”

“And is it possible, Murtagh?” I exclaimed, “that nothing has ever been done about this?”

‘God bless yer honer!’ said the old man, ‘what could we do?’ Letty told me the story herself in a few odd clear moments she had after the first shock passed away, bud then she got worse than ever. Our only witness was dead, and who would take a man’s life on the word of a poor crazed woman? Bud his day will come, yer honer—sooner or later! The finger is on him, sure an’ fixed! He tried sailin’ from other ports, bud he always comes back to this. Bud tell me, yer honer,’ said the old man with intense eagerness, ‘do you believe in the appearance of sperits from the other world?

“Why do you ask the question?”

Because poor Letty often wandthers by the sayside, and says that she is talking to little Donald; and thin she kneels down beside old Clement’s grave, and whispers to him to be of good cheer, that little Donald is comin’ to him, and that she is comin’ too, but that she must wait for Will Gardiner; and, sure enough, when we see her doin’ this, we know he is not far off; and let it be by day or by night that he comes back, there she kneels upon that platform of rock—the first that he sees whin he comes, and the last whin he goes away. God forgive her poor wanderin’ broken sperit, it’s not Christian-like, but shure she knows no better—she asks for her poor lost son—once the pride of the heart that shall never bloom again, the light of the eyes that shall never sparkle more but in madness. Terrible will be the fate of the man that wrongs the widowed and the fatherless!

The old pilot ceased, and I shall do the same, good reader. I tell you the tale as it was told to me; and, for aught I know, the poor maniac mother may still frequent the little pier of L——, and Black Will Gardiner may still be prosperous; but, as sure as the old pilot said it, his day will come.

I need hardly say that the names I have introduced are not the real ones.

W. C.