I SAW THREE SHIPS
The Second Ship
Fate, which had freakishly hurled a ship's crew out of the void upon this particular bit of coast, as freakishly preserved them.
The very excess of its fury worked this wonder. For the craft came in on a tall billow that flung her, as a sling might, clean against the cliff's face, crumpling the bowsprit like paper, sending the foremast over with a crash, and driving a jagged tooth of rock five feet into her ribs beside the breastbone. So, for a moment it left her, securely gripped and bumping her stern-post on the ledge beneath. As the next sea deluged her, and the next, the folk above saw her crew fight their way forward up the slippery deck, under sheets of foam. With the fifth or six wave her mizen-mast went; she split open amidships, pouring out her cargo. The stern slipped off the ledge and plunged twenty fathoms down out of sight. And now the fore-part alone remained--a piece of deck, the stump of the foremast, and five men clinging in a tangle of cordage, struggling up and toppling back as each successive sea soused over them.
Three men had detached themselves from the group above the cliff, and were sidling down its face cautiously, for the hurricane now flattened them back against the rock, now tried to wrench them from it; and all the way it was a tough battle for breath. The foremost was Jim Lewarne, Farmer Tresidder's hind, with a coil of the farmer's rope slung round him. Young Zeb followed, and Elias Sweetland, both similarly laden.
Less than half-way down the rock plunged abruptly, cutting off farther descent.
Jim Lewarne, in a cloud of foam, stood up, slipped the coil over his head, and unwound it, glancing to right and left. Now Jim amid ordinary events was an acknowledged fool, and had a wife to remind him of it; but perch him out of female criticism, on a dizzy foothold such as this, and set him a desperate job, and you clarified his wits at once. This eccentricity was so notorious that the two men above halted in silence, and waited.
Jim glanced to right and left, spied a small pinnacle of rock about three yards away, fit for his purpose, sidled towards it, and, grasping, made sure that it was firm. Next, reeving one end of the rope into a running noose, he flung it over the pinnacle, and with a tug had it taut. This done, he tilted his body out, his toes on the ledge, his weight on the rope, and his body inclined forward over the sea at an angle of some twenty degrees from the cliff.
Having by this device found the position of the wreck, and judging that his single rope would reach, he swung back, gained hold of the cliff with his left hand, and with his right caught and flung the leaded end far out. It fell true as a bullet, across the wreck. As it dropped, a sea almost swept it clear; but the lead hitched in a tangle of cordage by the port cathead; within twenty seconds the rope was caught and made fast below.
All was now easy. At a nod from Jim young Zeb passed down a second line, which was lowered along the first by a noose. One by one the whole crew--four men and a cabin-boy--were hauled up out of death, borne off to the vicarage, and so pass out of our story.
Their fate does not concern us, for this reason--men with a narrow horizon and no wings must accept all apparent disproportions between cause and effect. A railway collision has other results besides wrecking an ant-hill, but the wise ants do not pursue these in the Insurance Reports. So it only concerns us that the destruction of the schooner led in time to a lovers' difference between Ruby and young Zeb--two young people of no eminence outside of these pages. And, as a matter of fact, her crew had less to do with this than her cargo.
She had been expressly built by Messrs. Taggs & Co., a London firm, in reality as a privateer (which explains her raking masts), but ostensibly for the Portugal trade; and was homeward bound from Lisbon to the Thames, with a cargo of red wine and chestnuts. At Falmouth, where she had run in for a couple of days, on account of a damaged rudder, the captain paid off his extra hands, foreseeing no difficulty in the voyage up Channel. She had not, however, left Falmouth harbour three hours before she met with a gale that started her steering-gear afresh. To put back in the teeth of such weather was hopeless; and the attempt to run before it ended as we know.
When Ruby looked up, after the crash, and saw her friends running along the headland to catch a glimpse of the wreck, her anger returned. She stood for twenty minutes at least, watching them; then, pulling her cloak closely round her, walked homewards at a snail's pace. By the church gate she met the belated Methodists hurrying up, and passed a word or two of information that sent them panting on. A little beyond, at the point where the peninsula joins the mainland, she faced round to the wind again for a last glance. Three men were following her slowly down the ridge with a burden between them. It was the first of the rescued crew--a lifeless figure wrapped in oil-skins, with one arm hanging limply down, as if broken. Ruby halted, and gave time to come up.
"Hey, lads," shouted Old Zeb, who walked first, with a hand round each of the figure's sea-boots; "now that's what I'd call a proper womanly masterpiece, to run home to Sheba an' change her stockings in time for the randivoose."
"I don't understand," said his prospective daughter-in-law, haughtily.
"O boundless depth! Rest the poor mortal down, mates, while I take breath to humour her. Why, my dear, you must know from my tellin' that there hev a-been such a misfortunate goin's on as a wreck, hereabouts."
He paused to shake the rain out of his hat and whiskers. Ruby stole a look at the oil-skin. The sailor's upturned face was of a sickly yellow, smeared with blood and crusted with salt. The same white crust filled the hollows of his closed eyes, and streaked his beard and hair. It turned her faint for the moment.
"An the wreck's scat abroad," continued Old Zeb; an' the interpretation thereof is barrels an' nuts. What's more, tide'll be runnin' for two hour yet; an' it hasn' reached my ears that the fashion of thankin' the Lord for His bounty have a-perished out o' this old-fangled race of men an' women; though no doubt, my dear, you'd get first news o' the change, with a bed-room window facin' on Ruan Cove."
"Thank you, Old Zeb; I'll be careful to draw my curtains," said she, answering sarcasm with scorn, and turning on her heel.
The old man stooped to lift the sailor again. "Better clog your pretty ears wi' wax," he called after her, "when the kiss-i'-the-ring begins! Well-a-fine! What a teasin' armful is woman, afore the first-born comes! Hey, Sim Udy? Speak up, you that have fifteen to feed."
"Ay, I was a low feller, first along," answered Sim Udy, grinning. "'Sich common notions, Sim, as you do entertain!' was my wife's word."
"Well, souls, we was a bit tiddlywinky last Michaelmas, when the Young Susannah came ashore, that I must own. Folks blamed the Pa'son for preachin' agen it the Sunday after. 'A disreppitable scene,' says he, ''specially seein' you had nowt to be thankful for but a cargo o' sugar that the sea melted afore you could get it.' (Lift the pore chap aisy, Sim.) By crum! Sim, I mind your huggin' a staved rum cask, and kissin' it, an' cryin', 'Aw, Ben--dear Ben!' an' 'After all these years!' fancyin' 'twas your twin brother come back, that was killed aboard the Agamemny--"
"Well, well--prettily overtook I must ha' been. (Stiddy, there, Crowder, wi' the legs of en.) But to-day I'll be mild, as 'tis Chris'mas."
"Iss, iss; be very mild, my sons, as 'tis so holy a day."
They tramped on, bending their heads at queer angles against the weather, that erased their outlines in a bluish mist, through which they loomed for a while at intervals, until they passed out of sight.
Ruby, meanwhile, had hurried on, her cloak flapping loudly as it grew heavier with moisture, and the water in her shoes squishing at every step. At first she took the road leading down-hill to Ruan Cove, but turned to the right after a few yards, and ran up the muddy lane that was the one approach to Sheba, her father's farm.
The house, a square, two-storeyed building of greystone, roofed with heavy slates, was guarded in front by a small courtlage, the wall of which blocked all view from the lower rooms. From the narrow mullioned windows on the upper floor, however, one could look over it upon the duck-pond across the road, and down across two grass meadows to the cove. A white gate opened on the courtlage, and the path from this to the front door was marked out by slabs of blue slate, accurately laid in line. Ruby, in her present bedraggled state, avoided the front entrance, and followed the wall round the house to the town-place, stopping on her way to look in at the kitchen window.
"Mary Jane, if you call that a roast goose, I cull it a burning shame!"
Mary Jane, peeling potatoes with her back to the window, and tossing them one by one into a bucket of water, gave a jump, and cut her finger, dropping forthwith a half-peeled magnum bonum, which struck the bucket's edge and slid away across the slate flooring under the table.
"Awgh--awgh!" she burst out, catching up her apron and clutching it round the cut. "Look what you've done, Miss Ruby! an' me miles away, thinkin' o' shipwrecks an' dead swollen men."
"Look at the Chris'mas dinner, you mazed creature!"
In truth, the goose was fast spoiling. The roasting apparatus in this kitchen was a simple matter, consisting of a nail driven into the centre of the chimney-piece, a number of worsted threads depending therefrom, and a steel hook attached to these threads. Fix the joint or fowl firmly on the hook, give it a spin with the hand, and the worsted threads wound, unwound, and wound again, turning it before the blaze--an admirable jack, if only looked after. At present it hung motionless over the dripping-pan, and the goose wore a suit of motley, exhibiting a rich Vandyke brown to the fire, an unhealthy yellow to the window.
"There now!" Mary Jane rushed to the jack and gave it a spin, while Ruby walked round by the back door, and appeared dripping on the threshold. "I declare 'tis like Troy Town this morning: wrecks and rumours o' wrecks. Now 'tis 'Ropes! ropes!' an' nex' 'tis 'Where be the stable key, Mary Jane, my dear?' an' then agen, 'Will'ee be so good as to fetch master's second-best spy-glass, Mary Jane, an' look slippy?'--an' me wi' a goose to stuff, singe, an' roast, an' 'tatties to peel, an' greens to cleanse, an' apples to chop for sauce, an' the hoarders no nearer away than the granary loft, with a gatherin' 'pon your second toe an' the half o' 'em rotten when you get there. The pore I be in! Why, Miss Ruby, you'm streamin'-leakin'!"
"I'm wet through, Mary Jane; an' I don't care if I die." Ruby sank on the settle, and fairly broke down.
"Hush 'ee now, co!"
"I don't, I don't, an' I don't! I'm tired o' the world, an' my heart's broke. Mary Jane, you selfish thing, you've never asked about my banns, no more'n the rest; an' after that cast-off frock, too, that I gave you last week so good as new!"
"Was it very grand, Miss Ruby? Was it shuddery an' yet joyful-- lily-white an' yet rosy-red--hot an' yet cold--'don't lift me so high,' an' yet 'praise God, I'm exalted above women'?"
"'Twas all and yet none. 'Twas a voice speakin' my name, sweet an' terrible, an' I longed for it to go on an' on; and then came the Gauger stunnin' and shoutin' 'Wreck! wreck!' like a trumpet, an' the church was full o' wind, an' the folk ran this way an' that, like sheep, an' left me sittin' there. I'll--I'll die an old maid, I will, if only to s--spite such ma--ma--manners!"
"Aw, pore dear! But there's better tricks than dyin' unwed. Bind up my finger, Miss Ruby, an' listen. You shall play Don't Care, an' change your frock, an' we'll step down to th' cove after dinner an' there be heartless and fancy-free. Lord! when the dance strikes up, to see you carryin' off the other maids' danglers an' treating your own man like dirt!"
Ruby stood up, the water still running off her frock upon the slates, her moist eyes resting beyond the window on the midden-heap across the yard, as if she saw there the picture Mary Jane conjured up.
"No. I won't join their low frolic; an' you ought to be above it. I'll pull my curtains an' sit up-stairs all day, an' you shall read to me."
The other pulled a wry face. This was not her idea of enjoyment. She went back to the goose sad at heart, for Miss Ruby had a knack of enforcing her wishes.
Sure enough, soon after dinner was cleared away (a meal through which Ruby had sulked and Farmer Tresidder eaten heartily, talking with a full mouth about the rescue, and coarsely ignoring what he called his daughter's "faddles"), the two girls retired to the chamber up-stairs; where the mistress was as good as her word, and pulled the dimity curtains before settling herself down in an easy-chair to listen to extracts from a polite novel as rendered aloud, under dire compulsion, by Mary Jane.
The rain had ceased by this, and the wind abated, though it still howled around the angle of the house and whipped a spray of the monthly-rose bush on the quarrels of the window, filling the pauses during which Mary Jane wrestled with a hard word. Ruby herself had taught the girl this accomplishment--rare enough at the time--and Mary Jane handled it gingerly, beginning each sentence in a whisper, as if awed by her own intrepidity, and ending each in a kind of gratulatory cheer. The work was of that class of epistolary fiction then in vogue, and the extract singularly well fitted to Ruby's mood.
"My dearest Wil-hel-mina," began Mary Jane, "racked with a hun-dred conflicting em-otions, I resume the nar-rative of those fa-tal moments which rapt me from your affec-tion-ate em-brace. Suffer me to re--to re-cap--"
"Better spell it, Mary Jane."
"To r.e., re--c.a.p., cap, recap--i.t, it, re--capit--Lor'! what a twister!--u, recapitu--l.a.t.e, late, re-cap-it-u-late the events de-tailed in my last letter, full stop--there! if I han't read that full stop out loud! Lord Bel-field, though an ad-ept in all the arts of dis-sim-u-la-tion (and how of-ten do we not see these arts al-lied with un-scru-pu-lous pas-sions?), was un-able to sus-tain the gaze of my in-fu-ri-a-ted pa-pa, though he com-port-ed himself with suf-fic-ient p.h.l.e.g.m--Lor'! what a funny word!"
Ruby yawned. It is true she had drawn the dimity curtains--all but a couple of inches. Through this space she could see the folk busy on the beach below like a swarm of small black insects, and continually augmented by those who, having run off to snatch their Christmas dinner, were returning to the spoil. Some lined the edge of the breakers, waiting the moment to rush in for a cask or spar that the tide brought within reach; others (among whom she seemed to descry Young Zeb) were clambering out with grapnels along the western rocks; a third large group was gathered in the very centre of the beach, and from the midst of these a blue wreath of smoke began to curl up. At the same instant she heard the gate click outside, and pulling the curtain wider, saw her father trudging away down the lane.
Mary Jane, glancing up, and seeing her mistress crane forward with curiosity, stole behind and peeped over her shoulder.
"I declare they'm teening a fire!"
"Who gave you leave to bawl in my ear so rudely? Go back to your reading, this instant." (A pause.) "Mary Jane, I do believe they'm roastin' chestnuts."
"What a clever game!"
"Father said at dinner the tide was bringin' 'em in by bushels. Quick! put on your worst bonnet an' clogs, an' run down to look. I must know. No, I'm not goin'--the idea! I wonder at your low notions. You shall bring me word o' what's doin'--an' mind you're back before dark."
Mary Jane fled precipitately, lest the order should be revoked. Five minutes later, Ruby heard the small gate click again, and with a sigh saw the girl's rotund figure waddling down the lane. Then she picked up the book and strove to bury herself in the woes of Wilhelmina, but still with frequent glances out of window. Twice the book dropped off her lap; twice she picked it up and laboriously found the page again. Then she gave it up, and descended to the back door, to see if anyone were about who might give her news. But the town-place was deserted by all save the ducks, the old white sow, and a melancholy crew of cocks and hens huddled under the dripping eaves of the cow-house. Returning to her room, she settled down on the window-seat, and watched the blaze of the bonfire increase as the short day faded.
The grey became black. It was six o'clock, and neither her father nor Mary Jane had returned. Seven o'clock struck from the tall clock in the kitchen, and was echoed ten minutes after by the Dutch clock in the parlour below. The sound whirred up through the planching twice as loud as usual. It was shameful to be left alone like this, to be robbed, murdered, goodness knew what. The bonfire began to die out, but every now and then a circle of small black figures would join hands and dance round it, scattering wildly after a moment or two. In a lull of the wind she caught the faint sound of shouts and singing, and this determined her.
She turned back from the window and groped for her tinder-box. The glow, as she blew the spark upon the dry rag, lit up a very pretty but tear-stained pair of cheeks; and when she touched off the brimstone match, and, looking up, saw her face confronting her, blue and tragical, from the dark-framed mirror, it reminded her of Lady Macbeth. Hastily lighting the candle, she caught up a shawl and crept down-stairs. Her clogs were in the hall; and four horn lanterns dangled from a row of pegs above them. She caught down one, lit it, and throwing the shawl over her head, stepped out into the night.
The wind was dying down and seemed almost warm upon her face. A young moon fought gallantly, giving the massed clouds just enough light to sail by; but in the lane it was dark as pitch. This did not so much matter, as the rain had poured down it like a sluice, washing the flints clean. Ruby's lantern swung to and fro, casting a yellow glare on the tall hedges, drawing queer gleams from the holly-bushes, and flinging an ugly, amorphous shadow behind, that dogged her like an enemy.
At the foot of the lane she could clearly distinguish the songs, shouts, and shrill laughter, above the hollow roar of the breakers.
"They're playin' kiss-i'-the-ring. That's Modesty Prowse's laugh. I wonder how any man can kiss a mouth like Modesty Prowse's!"
She turned down the sands towards the bonfire, grasping as she went all the details of the scene.
In the glow of the dying fire sat a semicircle of men--Jim Lewarne, sunk in a drunken slumber, Calvin Oke bawling in his ear, Old Zeb on hands and knees, scraping the embers together, Toby Lewarne (Jim's elder brother) thumping a pannikin on his knee and bellowing a carol, and a dozen others--in stages varying from qualified sobriety to stark and shameless intoxication--peering across the fire at the game in progress between them and the faint line that marked where sand ended and sea began.
"Zeb's turn!" roared out Toby Lewarne, breaking off The Third Good Joy midway, in his excitement.
"Have a care--have a care, my son!" Old Zeb looked up to shout. "Thee'rt so good as wed already; so do thy wedded man's duty, an' kiss th' hugliest!"
It was true. Ruby, halting with her lantern a pace or two behind the dark semicircle of backs, saw her perfidious Zeb moving from right to left slowly round the circle of men and maids that, with joined hands and screams of laughter, danced as slowly in the other direction. She saw him pause once--twice, feign to throw the kerchief over one, then still pass on, calling out over the racket:--
"I sent a letter to my love,
He dropped the kerchief over Modesty Prowse.
Young Zeb whipped the kerchief off Modesty's neck, and spun round as it shot.
The dancers looked; the few sober men by the fire turned and looked also.
"'Tis Ruby Tresidder!" cried one of the girls; "'Wudn' be i' thy shoon, Young Zeb, for summatt."
Zeb shook his wits together and dashed off towards the spot, twenty yards away, where Ruby stood holding the lantern high, its ray full on her face. As she started she kicked off her clogs, turned, and ran for her life.
Then, in an instant, a new game began upon the sands. Young Zeb, waving his kerchief and pursuing the flying lantern, was turned, baffled, intercepted--here, there, and everywhere--by the dancers, who scattered over the beach with shouts and peals of laughter, slipping in between him and his quarry. The elders by the fire held their sides and cheered the sport. Twice Zeb was tripped up by a mischievous boot, floundered and went sprawling; and the roar was loud and long. Twice he picked himself up and started again after the lantern, that zigzagged now along the fringe of the waves, now up towards the bonfire, now off along the dark shadow of the cliffs.
Ruby could hardly sift her emotions when she found herself panting and doubling in flight. The chase had started without her will or dissent; had suddenly sprung, as it were, out of the ground. She only knew that she was very angry with Zeb; that she longed desperately to elude him; and that he must catch her soon, for her breath and strength were ebbing.
What happened in the end she kept in her dreams till she died. Somehow she had dropped the lantern and was running up from the sea towards the fire, with Zeb's feet pounding behind her, and her soul possessed with the dread to feel his grasp upon her shoulders. As it fell, Old Zeb leapt up to his feet with excitement, and opened his mouth wide to cheer.
But no voice came for three seconds: and when he spoke this was what he said--
"Good Lord, deliver us!"
She saw his gaze pass over her shoulder; and then heard these words come slowly, one by one, like dropping stones. His face was like a ghost's in the bonfire's light, and he muttered again--"From battle and murder, and from sudden death--Good Lord, deliver us!"
She could not understand at first; thought it must have something to do with Young Zeb, whose arms were binding hers, and whose breath was hot on her neck. She felt his grasp relax, and faced about.
Full in front, standing out as the faint moon showed them, motionless, as if suspended against the black sky, rose the masts, yards, and square-sails of a full-rigged ship.
The men and women must have stood a whole minute--dumb as stones--before there came that long curdling shriek for which they waited. The great masts quivered for a second against the darkness; then heaved, lurched, and reeled down, crashing on the Raney.