The Refugees/Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVI: The Last Port
For three weeks the wind kept at east or north-east, always at a brisk breeze and freshening sometimes into half a gale. The _Golden Rod_ sped merrily upon her way with every sail drawing, alow and aloft, so that by the end of the third week Amos and Ephraim Savage were reckoning out the hours before they would look upon their native land once more. To the old seaman who was used to meeting and to parting it was a small matter, but Amos, who had never been away before, was on fire with impatience, and would sit smoking for hours with his legs astride the shank of the bowsprit, staring ahead at the skyline, in the hope that his friend's reckoning had been wrong, and that at any moment he might see the beloved coast line looming up in front of him.
"It's no use, lad," said Captain Ephraim, laying his great red hand upon his shoulder. "They that go down to the sea in ships need a power of patience, and there's no good eatin' your heart out for what you can't get."
"There's a feel of home about the air, though," Amos answered. "It seems to whistle through your teeth with a bite to it that I never felt over yonder. Ah, it will take three months of the Mohawk Valley before I feel myself to rights."
"Well," said his friend, thrusting a plug of Trinidado tobacco into the corner of his cheek, "I've been on the sea since I had hair to my face, mostly in the coast trade, d'ye see, but over the water as well, as far as those navigation laws would let me. Except the two years that I came ashore for the King Philip business, when every man that could carry a gun was needed on the border, I've never been three casts of a biscuit from salt water, and I tell you that I never knew a better crossing than the one we have just made."
"Ay, we have come along like a buck before a forest fire. But it is strange to me how you find your way so clearly out here with never track nor trail to guide you. It would puzzle me, Ephraim, to find America, to say nought of the Narrows of New York."
"I am somewhat too far to the north, Amos. We have been on or about the fiftieth since we sighted Cape La Hague. To-morrow we should make land, by my reckonin'."
"Ah, to-morrow! And what will it be? Mount Desert? Cape Cod? Long Island?"
"Nay, lad, we are in the latitude of the St. Lawrence, and are more like to see the Arcadia coast. Then with this wind a day should carry us south, or two at the most. A few more such voyages and I shall buy myself a fair brick house in Green Lane of North Boston, where I can look down on the bay, or on the Charles or the Mystic, and see the ships comin' and goin'. So I would end my life in peace and quiet."
All day Amos Green, in spite of his friend's assurance, strained his eyes in the fruitless search for land, and when at last the darkness fell he went below and laid out his fringed hunting tunic, his leather gaiters, and his raccoon-skin cap, which were very much more to his taste than the broadcloth coat in which the Dutch mercer of New York had clad him. De Catinat had also put on the dark coat of civil life, and he and Adele were busy preparing all things for the old man, who had fallen so weak that there was little which he could do for himself. A fiddle was screaming in the forecastle, and half the night through hoarse bursts of homely song mingled with the dash of the waves and the whistle of the wind, as the New England men in their own grave and stolid fashion made merry over their home-coming.
The mate's watch that night was from twelve to four, and the moon was shining brightly for the first hour of it. In the early morning, however, it clouded over, and the _Golden Rod_ plunged into one of those dim clammy mists which lie on all that tract of ocean. So thick was it that from the poop one could just make out the loom of the foresail, but could see nothing of the fore-topmast-stay sail or the jib. The wind was north-east with a very keen edge to it, and the dainty brigantine lay over, scudding along with her lee rails within hand's touch of the water. It had suddenly turned very cold--so cold that the mate stamped up and down the poop, and his four seamen shivered together under the shelter of the bulwarks. And then in a moment one of them was up, thrusting with his forefinger into the air and screaming, while a huge white wall sprang out of the darkness at the very end of the bowsprit, and the ship struck with a force which snapped her two masts like dried reeds in a wind, and changed her in an instant to a crushed and shapeless heap of spars and wreckage.
The mate had shot the length of the poop at the shock, and had narrowly escaped from the falling mast, while of his four men two had been hurled through the huge gap which yawned in the bows, while a third had dashed his head to pieces against the stock of the anchor. Tomlinson staggered forwards to find the whole front part of the vessel driven inwards, and a single seaman sitting dazed amid splintered spars, flapping sails, and writhing, lashing cordage. It was still as dark as pitch, and save the white crest of a leaping wave nothing was to be seen beyond the side of the vessel. The mate was peering round him in despair at the ruin which had come so suddenly upon them when he found Captain Ephraim at his elbow, half clad, but as wooden and as serene as ever.
"An iceberg," said he, sniffing at the chill air. "Did you not smell it, friend Tomlinson?"
"Truly I found it cold, Captain Savage, but I set it down to the mist."
"There is a mist ever set around them, though the Lord in His wisdom knows best why, for it is a sore trial to poor sailor men. She makes water fast, Mr. Tomlinson. She is down by the bows already."
The other watch had swarmed upon deck and one of them was measuring the well. "There is three feet of water," he cried, "and the pumps sucked dry yesterday at sundown."
"Hiram Jefferson and John Moreton to the pumps!" cried the captain. "Mr. Tomlinson, clear away the long-boat and let us see if we may set her right, though I fear that she is past mending."
"The long-boat has stove two planks," cried a seaman.
"The jolly-boat, then?"
"She is in three pieces."
The mate tore his hair, but Ephraim Savage smiled like a man who is gently tickled by some coincidence.
"Where is Amos Green?"
"Here, Captain Ephraim. What can I do?"
"And I?" asked De Catinat eagerly. Adele and her father had been wrapped in mantles and placed for shelter in the lee of the round house.
"Tell him he can take his spell at the pumps," said the Captain to Amos. "And you, Amos, you are a handy man with a tool. Get into yonder long-boat with a lantern and see if you cannot patch her up."
For half an hour Amos Green hammered and trimmed and caulked, while the sharp measured clanking of the pumps sounded above the dash of the seas. Slowly, very slowly, the bows of the brigantine were settling down, and her stern cocking up.
"You've not much time, Amos, lad," said the captain quietly.
"She'll float now, though she's not quite water-tight."
"Very good. Lower away! Keep up the pump in there! Mr. Tomlinson, see that provisions and water are ready, as much as she will hold. Come with me, Hiram Jefferson."
The seaman and the captain swung themselves down into the tossing boat, the latter with a lantern strapped to his waist. Together they made their way until they were under her mangled bows. The captain shook his head when he saw the extent of the damage.
"Cut away the foresail and pass it over," said he.
Tomlinson and Amos Green cut away the lashings with their knives and lowered the corner of the sail. Captain Ephraim and the seaman seized it, and dragged it across the mouth of the huge gaping leak. As he stooped to do it, however, the ship heaved up upon a swell, and the captain saw in the yellow light of his lantern sinuous black cracks which radiated away backwards from the central hole.
"How much in the well?" he asked.
"Five and a half feet."
"Then the ship is lost. I could put my finger between her planks as far as I can see back. Keep the pumps going there! Have you the food and water, Mr. Tomlinson?"
"Lower them over the bows. This boat cannot live more than an hour or two. Can you see anything of the berg?"
"The fog is lifting on the starboard quarter," cried one of the men. "Yes, there is the berg, quarter of a mile to leeward!"
The mist had thinned away suddenly, and the moon glimmered through once more upon the great lonely sea and the stricken ship. There, like a huge sail, was the monster piece of ice upon which they had shattered themselves, rocking slowly to and fro with the wash of the waves.
"You must make for her," said Captain Ephraim. "There is no other chance. Lower the gal over the bows! Well, then, her father first, if she likes it better. Tell them to sit still, Amos, and that the Lord will bear us up if we keep clear of foolishness. So! You're a brave lass for all your niminy-piminy lingo. Now the keg and the barrel, and all the wraps and cloaks you can find. Now the other man, the Frenchman. Ay, ay, passengers first, and you have got to come. Now, Amos! Now the seamen, and you last, friend Tomlinson."
It was well that they had not very far to go, for the boat was weighed down almost to the edge, and it took the baling of two men to keep in check the water which leaked in between the shattered planks. When all were safely in their places. Captain Ephraim Savage swung himself aboard again, which was but too easy now that every minute brought the bows nearer to the water. He came back with a bundle of clothing which he threw into the boat.
"Push off!" he cried.
"Jump in, then."
"Ephraim Savage goes down with his ship," said he quietly. "Friend Tomlinson, it is not my way to give my orders more than once. Push off, I say!"
The mate thrust her out with a boat-hook. Amos and De Catinat gave a cry of dismay, but the stolid New Englanders settled down to their oars and pulled off for the iceberg.
"Amos! Amos! Will you suffer it?" cried the guardsman in French. "My honour will not permit me to leave him thus. I should feel it a stain for ever."
"Tomlinson, you would not leave him! Go on board and force him to come."
"The man is not living who could force him to do what he had no mind for."
"He may change his purpose."
"He never changes his purpose."
"But you cannot leave him, man! You must at least lie by and pick him up."
"The boat leaks like a sieve," said the mate. "I will take her to the berg, leave you all there, if we can find footing, and go back for the captain. Put your heart into it, my lads, for the sooner we are there the sooner we shall get back."
But they had not taken fifty strokes before Adele gave a sudden scream.
"My God!" she cried, "the ship is going down!"
She had settled lower and lower in the water, and suddenly with a sound of rending planks she thrust down her bows like a diving water-fowl, her stern flew up into the air, and with a long sucking noise she shot down swifter and swifter until the leaping waves closed over her high poop lantern. With one impulse the boat swept round again and made backwards as fast as willing arms could pull it. But all was quiet at the scene of the disaster. Not even a fragment of wreckage was left upon the surface to show where the _Golden Rod_ had found her last harbour. For a long quarter of an hour they pulled round and round in the moonlight, but not a glimpse could they see of the Puritan seaman, and at last, when in spite of the balers the water was washing round their ankles, they put her head about once more, and made their way in silence and with heavy hearts to their dreary island of refuge.
Desolate as it was, it was their only hope now, for the leak was increasing and it was evident that the boat could not be kept afloat long. As they drew nearer they saw with dismay that the side which faced them was a solid wall of ice sixty feet high without a flaw or crevice in its whole extent. The berg was a large one, fifty paces at least each way, and there was a hope that the other side might be more favourable. Baling hard, they paddled round the corner, but only to find themselves faced by another gloomy ice-crag. Again they went round, and again they found that the berg increased rather than diminished in height. There remained only one other side, and they knew as they rowed round to it that their lives hung upon the result, for the boat was almost settling down beneath them. They shot out from the shadow into the full moonlight and looked upon a sight which none of them would forget until their dying day.
The cliff which faced them was as precipitous as any of the others, and it glimmered and sparkled all over where the silver light fell upon the thousand facets of ice. Right in the centre, however, on a level with the water's edge, there was what appeared to be a huge hollowed-out cave which marked the spot where the Golden Rod had, in shattering herself, dislodged a huge boulder, and so amid her own ruin prepared a refuge for those who had trusted themselves to her. This cavern was of the richest emerald green, light and clear at the edges, but toning away into the deepest purples and blues at the back. But it was not the beauty of this grotto, nor was it the assurance of rescue which brought a cry of joy and of wonder from every lip, but it was that, seated upon an ice boulder and placidly smoking a long corn-cob pipe, there was perched in front of them no less a person than Captain Ephraim Savage of Boston. For a moment the castaways could almost have believed that it was his wraith, were wraiths ever seen in so homely an attitude, but the tones of his voice very soon showed that it was indeed he, and in no very Christian temper either.
"Friend Tomlinson," said he, "when I tell you to row for an iceberg I mean you to row right away there, d'ye see, and not to go philandering about over the ocean. It's not your fault that I'm not froze, and so I would have been if I hadn't some dry tobacco and my tinder-box to keep myself warm."
Without stopping to answer his commander's reproaches, the mate headed for the ledge, which had been cut into a slope by the bows of the brigantine, so that the boat was run up easily on to the ice. Captain Savage seized his dry clothes and vanished into the back of the cave, to return presently warmer in body, and more contented in mind. The long-boat had been turned upside down for a seat, the gratings and thwarts taken out and covered with wraps to make a couch for the lady, and the head knocked out of the keg of biscuits.
"We were frightened for you, Ephraim," said Amos Green. "I had a heavy heart this night when I thought that I should never see you more."
"Tut, Amos, you should have known me better."
"But how came you here, captain?" asked Tomlinson. "I thought that maybe you had been taken down by the suck of the ship."
"And so I was. It is the third ship in which I have gone down, but they have never kept me down yet. I went deeper to-night than when the _Speedwell_ sank, but not so deep as in the _Governor Winthrop_. When I came up I swam to the berg, found this nook, and crawled in. Glad I was to see you, for I feared that you had foundered."
"We put back to pick you up and we passed you in the darkness. And what should we do now?"
"Rig up that boat-sail and make quarters for the gal. Then get our supper and such rest as we can, for there is nothing to be done to-night, and there may be much in the morning."