Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Waiting for the tide

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Illustrated by George John Pinwell.


Waiting for the Tide.png

Ever so many years ago, when the few people who wrote letters were still hardly used to dating their compositions with “18—" instead of “17—,” there lived, at the flourishing seaport town of Filby, in Yorkshire, one Jonathan Gale. Mr. Gale was employed in one of the seven dockyards that Filby then maintained, or that then maintained Filby, and was eminently well-to-do and respectable. At the time of this narrative, Mr. Gale must be supposed to have prospered in this life for some forty years, and to have been married somewhere about half that time. Such an hypothesis is necessary in order that there may be no difficulties in the way of introducing Miss Patience Gale, Jonathan’s daughter, as a bright, loveable, English girl of seventeen.

Of the many ships “of Filby,” one good brig was the property of Master Henry Harborough, a kindly and prudent seaman. The skipper of the “Camilla” brig could not have been more than ten years younger than Mr. Jonathan Gale; but for all that he had won the heart, and a promise of the hand, of Patience. Patience was one of those natures who love to cling to something stoutly set. The quiet earnestness and unobtrusive self-reliance of her friend outweighed the more boisterous attractions of a score of younger wooers. Besides, certain whaling adventures in the South Seas had made Harborough somewhat of a hero. A hero with a frank fearless face, strong and tender, and withal steady and sober, is no bad match for any girl, though he be forty instead of thirty. We have high authority for believing that in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. It cannot be unreasonable to hold that the same phenomenon may be observed in a young woman.

Let none, therefore, deem it an exaggerated impossibility that the afore-mentioned Henry and Patience should be described as meeting in the ruins of the old abbey of Filby, on an evening in the May of 18—, to discuss their matrimonial prospects. Let none, however, imagine, from the mention of a meeting in a ruin, that the alliance under consideration was in the least degree clandestine. Henry and Patience had walked boldly forth from the parlour of Mr. and Mrs. Gale, with the full consent and approbation of that worthy couple. So far from Jonathan’s being a too stern parent he was possibly too lax. Nevertheless in one matter he was stern, or firm, or obstinate. Patience Gale should never be Patience Harborough, with his willing blessing, until Henry, the bridegroom, should be able to show fifteen hundred guineas side by side with the dowry he intended for his daughter.

These fifteen hundred guineas formed one subject of the lovers’ talk in the ruined abbey. As yet, their existence was only a possibility. Henry did not despair of acquiring them; but he was of opinion that their acquisition would be easier if he were cheered in his work by the smiles of a wife. Patience by no means disagreed with him. But her father was immovable. Harborough must make more than one other voyage en garçon; and this was the eve of his departure. The moon and the ruin and the far sea make up a fine set scene for a parting lovers’ dialogue. The reader may fill it up at his or her pleasure, only remembering that Henry and Patience really and honestly cared a great deal for one another.

“Patience,” said her lover, pointing over the rippling sea, marked with a long tapering stripe of moonshine, “it looks very bright and kind. It will bring me back to you.”

At last it was time to part. The suitor led the lady to her father’s door.

“Good-bye, Henry.”

“God bless you, my girl.”

A close quick embrace, and a smothered sob, and Captain Harborough was off to his boat. The Camilla was bound for the South Seas again. With Patience at home the days and the nights went slowly by. Her thoughts were in the Pacific. When the wind howled over Filby, she trembled for the Camilla. When the sun shone down on a calm sea, she remembered that there were storms elsewhere. Still she did her duties without complaint. And she was not without consolation. Her father fell ill, and grew peevish and fretful. But an old uncle of Harborough’s died, and left the captain two thousand pounds. At first old Gale declared that this should make no difference in the sum to be earned; but he was induced at last to say that, as far as he was concerned, the wedding might take place on the day after Harborough’s return.

So Patience worked and waited. She was gentle to her cross-grained father. She was the kindly friend of scores of the poor. She prayed at church. And she sat a great many more hours than was necessary with a black profile portrait of her absent friend, which hardly did him justice. Icebergs, French cruisers, whales, South-sea islanders, filled her heart with a thousand terrors. So nine months went by. Then came a letter. Harborough had prospered, and was unscathed. So far from the French having been a cause of loss to him, they had been a gain. He had encountered a privateer, and encountered her successfully. He should sail homewards within three months of the date of his letter. “And being sure of your true love, I hope and pray you will be safe when I come to you. The very day after we are home again, Patience, I shall claim you as my wife. Good-bye, dearest. Mark Elling, of the City of York, carries this for me. So no more from yours till death. H. Harborough.” These precious lines of great round-hand writing shared the attentions of Miss Gale with the black profile and several other letters from the same writer.

The paper grew worn with perpetual fingering. But Patience had now an occupation immediately connected with her hero. If she was going to be married to him in three months she must be properly supplied with raiment and household linen. So mother and daughter toiled diligently at the fashioning of garments which, were they worn now-a-days, would at once mark the owners as candidates for Colney Hatch. And when Patience was busy neither with her outfit nor with her poor pensioners, she would wander forth with the escort of her diminutive maid, and indulge in fond retrospect and anticipation under the suggestive shadow of the abbey ruin. The light that streamed through the narrow openings of the long lancet windows seemed to figure to her the hope that lit her own dull life. And as she gazed over the far sea, she thought again and again of her lover’s words uttered on that very spot: “It will bring me back to you.”

She had perfect faith that these words would be fulfilled.

At last the time arrived when the Camilla might be daily expected home. Everything was ready for the wedding. Patience was of opinion that it would be unnecessary for her Henry to go to sea again. His little property would go far to maintain them; and he could no doubt obtain occupation in the dockyards. There was a very charming little house just vacated that she was confident would exactly suit such a couple as that of which she hoped soon to constitute the better half. Of course Captain Harry would agree with her. On that point she never felt any doubt. Of course the statement of that person that he should claim his “wife” on the day of his arrival was an amatory exaggeration. Sundry forms as well ecclesiastical as civil must be complied with. But the day was to be postponed for as short a time as possible. So Patience had every hope that before the lapse of a month at most she would be a happy bride.

Her visits to her point of observation at the abbey now became more frequent. Every speck that broke the line of the horizon was watched with the intensest interest. At last the long watch was rewarded. On a sunny afternoon in June a brig was descried making for Filby, which knowing ones declared to be the Camilla. Patience watched it—I beg pardon—watched her growing and growing, her white sails scarcely bowed by the gentle summer breeze. Patience did not wish to exhibit before the loungers of the hill-top the excitement which she could not repress. From the roof of her father’s house, she could see the advancing brig. Thither she repaired in company with an old telescope of her father’s, and glued her eyes on the sea. The Camilla sailed on till she was within some mile and a half of the shore. The sheets of canvas suddenly rose in thick folds. The brig hove-to under—but perhaps Patience was not learned in the terminology of rigging; it is her emotions which are being described; there is therefore no obligation that the technical details of the heave-to should be given. But let none think this omission is the result of the author’s ignorance. Of course not. Well, the Camilla hove-to. There was great signalling between the brig and the shore. Dates were given. The state of the tide was told. It may be presumed that Harborough should have known that on such a day he could not enter Filby harbour at such an hour. But it may also be presumed that he was anxious to hear news of folks at home as soon as possible. The peace of Patience’s mind did not depend only on the signal of “All Well.” By the help of the big telescope she could distinctly see her Henry commanding on his deck. His tall stalwart figure was easily distinguished among the rest; and if only Miss Gale had been as severely educated as are many of the young ladies of the present day, she might have quoted:

Εξοχος Ἀργείων κεφαλήν τε καὶ εὐρέας ὤμους.

Not that it would have added to her happiness. That was now supreme. There was Henry, safe and sound. The good girl thanked God for this mercy vouchsafed to her, and a joyful tear impeded the use of the glass. But what was this? The canvas curtains were dropping again, and filling with the lazy wind. The tide would not allow of the Camilla’s coming into Filby till the next morning. Patience liked her friend all the better because he would not leave his ship and his men, even for her. Still, she had half-expected to see a boat put off from the brig; she had thought that she might hold her treasure in her arms that very day. It would be more tantalising to wait those eight or ten hours, than it had been to wait long months. To see him, and see him sail out of her sight! For the Camilla was moving seaward. It was evident that she was going to stand off for the night. Smaller and smaller grew the moving figures on the deck. Then there was nothing to be seen but hull and sail. The sun set behind the hills. The Camilla was nothing but a darker shadow against the dark bank of eastern clouds.

Patience came down into the house.

“Mother dear, I think I shall go to bed. I must be up very early, you know. They can be in by six o’clock; and I should like to watch them from the down.”

So the happy girl shut herself up with her thoughts—that night the pleasantest possible companions. The profile portrait met with little attention. The image suggested by the telescope was far more satisfactory. The letters were turned over once again, and confided to their resting-place with a happy kiss. Of course Patience could not sleep. She lay in a dreamy reverie, her thoughts wandering backwards and forwards between that brig at sea and the outlines and the noises of her room and the night. The rumble of each rare vehicle seemed very loud. The cries of revelling sailors seemed shriller than on other nights. The sea surely sounded more harshly than it did an hour ago. The low grating murmur of the calm seemed to have given place to the quicker, angrier noise of taller breakers. And hark! What was that? The shutter, too loosely fastened back to the wall, banged suddenly on the window-post, and shook the little panes. The wind was rising. But it was hardly likely to be much. It was so still at sunset. And perhaps it would bring in the Camilla all the more quickly. Patience dozed. She was unconscious for an hour and a half or two hours, and then was roused again. There was more noise now. The wind was shrieking up the street, and the roar of the sea was deep and loud. The girl sprung from her bed, and looked from the window. The night was very dark. The roaring of the gale was enough to drown every sound of passers by. But the street was deserted; more deserted than the streets of a seaport usually are, even in the dead of night. The men of Filby were all down at the port.

Patience grew very white. A strange terror numbed her limbs. Then she went to the door of her parents’ room, and, as she walked gently in, she said:

“Mother, do you hear the wind?”

“Hush! my child; don’t wake your father. I hear. We must be still and wait, dear. Let us hope the best. Is it very wild outside?”

“Mother, I am going out; I shall—”

“Out, child? you cannot! You must—”

“No, mother, I cannot wait. Hark! Peggy can go with me to the port. I must see and hear for myself.”

Mrs. Gale rose from her bed and tried her best to move her daughter’s will. But a weird resolution had set the lines of that gentle face. It was very white, and very sad, but very firm. The two girls went bravely down to the port; it was dark; a thin rain hissed along with the gale. Fishermen, sailors, dockyardmen, and many less professional inhabitants, were grouped along the quays. Nor were women wanting to the crowd; but their wan and tearful faces told of something more than curiosity as the motive of their coming. What was the latest news? Two fishing-boats had gone to pieces on the rocks; one had just got across the bar; it was about three o’clock; the dawn would soon be breaking. Had anything been heard of the Camilla? Nothing. The men looked on Patience with a tender and respectful interest. More than one knew why she was out on that angry night. The morning light spread over the east, and the fury of the storm abated. When the sun rose over the horizon, it seemed to struggle to burst the black bank of clouds. Wider and wider grew the clefts of blue. At five o’clock the scene was one of the fairest that is to be beheld anywhere—a storm dying in sunshine. Great piles of white clouds, thick, massive, and of ever shifting shape, rolled over the heaven. Nearer the horizon the same mighty mountains of vapour rested in darker groups. The waves that had loomed so threatening in the darkness now seemed the very personification of strong joyous life. They swelled up tall and bulky before the wind, their green summits gladly housing the sunlight. At the top of their triumphant rise they broke into a thousand columns of foam and spray, tossing their glittering drops high into the clear air. All over their surface great circling lines of floating foam marked the commotions that raged below. And ever and anon it seemed as though the coursing waves lost the order of their flying march; they jostled one another; and then the crash of force and force and the roar with which each water-mountain strove to overtop his neighbour was glorious to hear and see. On they surged in swift succession to the shore, some soaking the crags for many yards above the beach; some trying hard to rend the plank of the jetty from its huge cramps, and force it upwards. All nature seem to shake with boisterous laughter. Of what account in the face of such a scene of life were the half-dozen corpses from the fishing boats broken in the bay? Or the dull, stupefying misery of one young girl?

For where was the Camilla? The Camilla was nowhere to be seen.

Patience had watched the dawn of day and the sinking of the tempest. She stood on the port stiff and cold, and watched for four weary hours. Rough men, who knew her father and herself, stood round her as a little body-guard, kindly and seasonably offering such comfort as they could. There was danger, no doubt; but there was hope. Harborough was a skilful seaman. It was by no means impossible for him to have kept his vessel clear of the shore. The Camilla was perhaps quite safe. Patience looked up with listless, uninterested eyes. Something at her heart told her that the Camilla was lost. She did not know. There was no certainty. But she dared not hope.

The hours wore on, and Patience was induced to go home. It was now eight o’clock. Not a ship was to be seen at sea. The Camilla must be either safe, or lost out of the reach of the Filby seamen.

While Mrs. Gale was lovingly tending her poor child—tending her with comfort both physical and mental—three men passed the parlour-window and stopped before the Gales’ door.

“Mother, they are come to say he’s dead.”

“Nay, child, we don’t know that. Don’t think the worst.”

The mother went out to speak to the strangers. One of them was a farmer, from a village some four miles from Filby. The other two were Filby men. Patience was not far wrong. The Camilla had gone ashore on the rocks close to this neighbouring village. The cottagers were some unwilling and all unable to be of any material service to the crew. The rocks were far spread and dangerous. The brig went to pieces before any communication could be established between her and the shore. The old yeoman’s eyes shewed two big tears as he narrated the scene of desolation when the morning broke.

“When a knew ’t were t’ Camilla, a coomed to t’ Master Gale. A knew t’ lass and skipper i’yon—” But here he fairly broke down; for out of the doorway of the inner room the white face of Patience glared with a fixed gaze of piteous intensity.

“Mother, I am going to Rilcar. Master Kirby, will you take me back with you?”

The old man shook his grey head.

“Nowt can coom on’t noo.”

“But I must go. I must see where he was killed. Perhaps they will find—” She shuddered, and, with little opposition from her parent, set off for the scene of the wreck.

The little cart rolled roughly over the road. Patience sat very still, her eyes fixed straight before her. Her conductor knew better than to trouble her with a word of pity or encouragement. They travelled in silence.

At last the scene of the wreck was reached. The tide was high, and the surf curled over the crags almost at the foot of the steep cliffs. Many yards to seaward the brig had struck and gone to pieces. Riven timbers were still seen floating on the surface. All that remained together of the ill-fated vessel was hidden under the waters of the sea.

Little knots of the country folk and strangers from Filby were gathered here and there on the narrow ledge of rock below the down, that the sea had not yet covered. They pointed everywhere, and then with strange significance to a fisherman’s hut hard by. There were laid the battered remnants of what had once been men. Seven bodies had as yet been washed on shore. Patience did not even ask if that of her betrothed were there. She still gazed wistfully out to sea. For, like the plaintive refrain that runs through some melody in a minor key, one sentence sounded and sounded again in her ears. “It will bring me back to you.” “It will bring me back to you.”

Presently all heads were turned in one direction. A dark something was seen among the coming surf. The something came nearer and nearer,—now rolled high above the waves, now sucked back again into the hissing water; tossed at last on a shelving stone. They met at last, after so many months of separation, those two faithful lovers. The sea had not violated the pledge taken in its name. It brought the bridegroom back to his mistress. Bruised and bloody, the crisp hair dank and matted over the forehead, the frank eyes dimmed for ever, that face was once more shown to her who loved it best.

Patience looked upon it very calmly. She followed the men who bore the body reverently out of the reach of the “cruel crawling foam.” She looked, and that was all. If only she could have wept. But that was impossible. Old Kirby led her to his cart. He would have conducted her through the village to his kindly wife to be comforted with loving sympathy, but the sorrowful girl pointed so steadfastly towards home that he did not like to offer the smallest opposition.

Patience went home, fell into her mother’s arms, and then at last burst into a long passion of tears.

The story is done. The most melancholy part of it is that, in substance, it is but a simple record of facts.

The story is done; or rather we should say the incident of the story is done. Good orthodox novels always leave their hero and heroine on the point of setting out on their wedding tour. In this sad tale there is no such event with the details of which to weave a peroration. And perhaps the most useful part of this true story is the end come to by the principal character. It is no end invented to point a moral. It is what really happened to the real Patience.

She went home. She wept. She did not die. She did not go mad. She did not become another man’s mistress before the end of six months. She never married; but she did not live a peevish and useless old maid.

As long as her parents lived she nursed them patiently and assiduously. When they were laid not far from Henry Harborough in the graveyard attached to the old abbey, she was not left all alone. Certain cousins of her own, and certain nephews and nieces of the dead sailor, had a tender interest in “Aunt Patience.”

Loving and loved by poor and rich alike; never merry, but always cheerful; Patience Gale was Patience Gale to the day of her death.

Strangers who saw a grave elderly woman wandering alone and apparently purposeless and dreaming round the ruin of Filby Abbey, fancied that the poor lady was a little wrong in her head. They who had heard her story knew far otherwise.

Patience was still thinking of the old words written on every wave of the shifting sea. It will bring him back to me. So often did she gaze and think that the great deep seemed an image of a Great Love, deep and infinite, a Love on which she trusted she was being borne up, a Love which in her firm faith she believed would one day bring back, not dead, but alive, all that she had loved and lost.