Chapter 4: Stormy Weather
I will not feign, however, that I was perfectly comfortable in my mind. Anything at sea but thick weather! I never pretended to be more than a summer-holiday sailor, and such anxiety as I should have felt had I been alone was now mightily accentuated, as may be supposed, by having the darling of my heart in my little ship with me.
I had a long talk with Caudel that afternoon, and, despite my eager desire to remain at sea, I believe I would have been glad had he advised that the Spitfire should be steered for the nearest harbor. But his counsel was all the other way.
"Lord love ye, Mr. Barclay, sir," he exclaimed, "what's going wrong, that we should tarn to and set it right? Here's a breeze of wind that's doing all that could be asked for. I don't say it ain't thick, but there's nothin' in it to take notice of. Of course you've only got to say the word, sir, and I'll put the helium up; but even for that there job it would be proper to make certain first of all where we are.
There's no want of harbors under our lee, from Portland Bill to Bolt Head, but I can't trust to my dead-reckoning, seeing what's involved," said he, casting a damp eye at the skylight, "and my motto is, there's nothin' like seeing when you're on such a coast as this here. Having come all this way, it'd be a pity to stop now.'"
"So long as you're satisfied—" I exclaimed; and no doubt he was, though I believe he was influenced by vanity too. Our putting into a harbor might affect him as a reflection upon his skill. He would also suppose that if we entered harbor we should travel by rail to our destination,—which would be as though he were told we could not trust him further. After the service he had done me, it was not to be supposed I could causelessly give the worthy fellow offence.
"You steer by the compass, I suppose?" said I.
"By nothin' else, sir," he answered, in a voice of wonder.
"Well, I might have known that" said I, laughing at my own stupid question, that yet had sense in it too. "I should have asked you if the compass is to be trusted."
"Ay, sir. He's a first-class compass. There's nothin' to make him go wrong. Yet it's astonishing what a little thing will put a compass out. I've heard of a vessel that was pretty nigh run ashore all along of the helmsman,—not because he couldn't steer; a better hand never stood at a wheel; but because he'd been physicking himself with iron and steel and had taken so much of the blooming stuff that the compass was wrong all the time he was at the helm."
"A very good story," said I.
"I'm sure you'll forgive me, sir," he proceeded, "for asking if your young lady wears any steel bones about her,—contrivances for hoisting her dress up astern,—crinolines,—bustles,——you know what I mean, Mr. Barclay ?"
"I cannot tell," said I.
"I've heard speak of the master of a vessel," he went on (being a very talkative man when he got into the "yarning" mood), "whose calculations was always falling to pieces at sea. Two and two never seemed to make four with him, until he found out that one of his lady passengers every morning brought a stool and sat close against the binnacle; she wore steel hoops to swell her dress out with, and the local attraction was such, your honor, that the compass was sometimes four or five points out."
I told him that if the compass went wrong it would not be Miss Bellassys's fault, and, having had enough of the deck, I rejoined my sweetheart; and in the cabin, with talking, reading, she singing,—-very sweetly she sang,—we killed the hours till bedtime.
This was our third night at sea, and I was now beginning to think that instead of three or four days we should occupy a week, and perhaps longer, in making Mount's Bay,—in which conjecture I was confirmed when, finding myself awake at three o'clock in the morning, I pulled on my clothes and went on deck to take a look round, and found the wind a light off-shore air, the stars shining, and the Spitfire, with her canvas falling in and out with sounds like the discharge of small-arms, rolling stagnantly upon a smooth-backed run of swell lifting out of the northeast, but with a slant in the heave of it that made one guess the impulse which set it running was fair north.
I was up again at seven o'clock, with a resolution to let the weather shape my decision as to sticking to the vessel or going ashore, and was not a little pleased to find the yacht making good way, with a brilliant breeze gushing steady off her starboard bow. The heavens looked high, with fine-weather clouds, prismatic mare-tails for the most part, here and there a snow-white swelling vapor hovering over the edge of the sea.
The greater part of this day Grace and I spent on deck, but nothing whatever happened good enough to keep my tale waiting whilst I tell you about it. Strong as the off-shore breeze was, there was but little sea, nothing to stop the yacht, and she ran through it like a sledge over a snow plain, piling the froth to her stem-head and reeling off a fair nine knots, as Caudel would cry out to me with an exultant countenance of leather every time the log was hove. He talked of being abreast of the Start by three o'clock in the morning.
"Then," said I to my sweetheart, "if that be so, Grace, there will be but a short cruise to follow."
At this she looked grave, and fastened her eyes with a wistful expression upon the sea over the bows, as though Mount's Bay lay there and the quaint old town of Penzance with its long esplanade and its rich flanking of green and well-tilled heights would be presently showing.
I read her thoughts, and said, "I have never met Mrs. Howe, but Frank's letters about her to me were as enthusiastic as mine were about you to him. He calls her sweetly pretty; so she may be. I know she is a lady; her connections are good; I am also convinced by Frank's description that she is amiable; consequently I am certain she will make you happy and comfortable until " And here I squeezed her hand.
"It is a desperate step, Herbert," she sighed.
Upon which I changed the subject.
We went below, and Grace and I killed the time, as heretofore, in talking and reading. We found the evening too short, indeed, so much had we to say to each other. Wonderful is the amount of talk which lovers are able to get through and feel satisfied with! You hear of silent love, of lovers staring on each other with glowing eyes, their lips incapable of expressing the emotions and sensations which crowd their quick hearts and fill their throats with sighs.
This may be very well, too, but for my part I have generally observed that lovers have a very great deal to talk about. Remark an engaged couple; sooner than be silent they will whisper if there be company at hand, and when alone, or when they think themselves alone, their tongues—particularly the girl's—are never still.
Grace and I were of a talking age,—two-and-twenty, and one not yet eighteen: our minds had no knowledge of life, no experience, nothing in them to keep them steady; they were set in motion by the lightest, the most trivial breath of thought, and idly danced in us in the manner of some gossamer-like to most leaf to the faintest movement of the summer air.
She withdrew to her berth at ten o'clock that night with a radiant face and laughing eyes, for, insipid as the evening must have proved to others, to us it had been one of perfect felicity. Not a single sigh had escaped her, and twice had I mentioned the name of Mrs. Howe without witnessing any change of countenance in her.
I went on deck to take a last look round, and found all well,—no change in the weather, the breeze a brisk and steady pouring out of the north, and Caudel pacing the deck well satisfied with our progress.
I returned below without any feeling of uneasiness, and sat at the cabin table for some minutes or so to smoke out a cigar and to refresh myself with a glass of seltzer-and-brandy. A sort of dream-like feeling came upon me as I sat. I found it hard to realize that my sweetheart was close to me, separated only by a curtained door from the cabin I was musing in.
What was to follow this adventure ? Was it possible that Lady Amelia Roscoe could oppose any obstacle to our union after this association ? I gazed at the mirrors I had equipped the cabin with, picked up a handkerchief my sweetheart had left behind her and kissed it, stared at the little silver shining lamp that swung over my head, pulled a flower and smelt it in a vacant sort of way of which nevertheless I was perfectly sensible. "Is there anything wrong with my nerves tonight ?" thought I.
I extinguished my cigar and went to bed. It was then about a quarter to eleven, and till past one I lay awake, weary, yet unable to sleep. I lay listening to the frothing and seething of the water thrashing along the bends, broken into at regular intervals by the low thunder of the surge burying my cabin port-hole and rising to the line of the rail as the yacht's stern sank with a long slanting heel-over of the whole fabric. I fell asleep at last, and, as I afterwards gathered, slept till somewhat after three o'clock in the morning.
I was awakened by suddenly and violently rolling out of my bunk. The fall was a heavy one: I was a big fellow, and struck the plank of the deck hard, and, though I was instantly awakened by the shock of the capsizal, I lay for some moments in a condition of stupefaction, sensible of nothing but that I had tumbled out of my bunk.
The little berth was in pitch darkness, and I lay, as I have said, motionless, and almost dazed; till my ear caught a sound of shrieking ringing through a wild but subdued note of storm on deck, mingled with loud and fearful shouts as of men bawling for life or death, with a trembling in every plank and fastening of the little fabric as though she were tearing herself to pieces.
I got on to my legs, but the angle of the deck was so prodigious that I leaned helpless against the bulkhead to the base of which I had rolled, though unconsciously. The shrieks were continued. I recognized Grace's voice, and the sound put a sort of frenzy into me, in so much that, scarcely knowing how I managed, I had in an instant opened the door of my little berth, and was standing grabbing hold of the cabin table, shouting to let her know that I was awake and up and that I heard her.
Now the uproar of what I took to be a squall of hurricane power was to be easily heard. The bellowing of the wind was horrible, and it was made more terrifying to land-going cars by the incessant hoarse shouts of the fellows on deck; but, bewildered as I was, agitated beyond expression, not knowing but that as I stood there gripping the table and shouting my sweetheart's name the yacht might be foundering under my feet, I had wits enough to observe that the vessel was slowly recovering a level keel, rising from the roof-like slant which had flung me from my bed to an inclination that rendered the use of one's legs possible.
I likewise noticed that she neither plunged nor rolled with greater heaviness than I had observed in her before I lay down. The sensation of her motion was as though she was slowly rounding before the wind and beginning to fly over a surface that had been almost flattened by a hurricane-burst into a dead level of snow. I could hear no noise of breaking seas nor of rushing water,—nothing but a caldron-like hissing through which rolled the notes of the storm in echoes of great ordnance.
Fortunately, I had no need to clothe myself, since on lying down I had removed nothing but my coat, collar, and shoes. I had a little silver match-box in my trousers-pocket, and swiftly struck a match and lighted the lamp. I looked at Grace's door, expecting to find her standing in it. It was closed, and she continued to scream. It was no time for ceremony; I opened the door and called to her.
"Oh, Herbert, save me!" she shrieked. "The yacht is sinking!"
"No," I cried, "she has been struck by a gale of wind. I will find out what is the matter. Are you hurt?"
"The yacht is sinking!" she repeated, in a wild voice of terror.
Spite of the lamplight in the cabin, the curtain and the door combined eclipsed the sheen, and I could not see her.
"Are you in bed, dearest ?"
"Yes," she moaned.
"Are you hurt, my precious?"
"No, but my heart has stopped with fright. We shall be drowned! Oh, Herbert, the yacht is sinking!"
"Remain as you are, Grace. I shall return to you in a moment. Do not imagine that the yacht is sinking. I know by the buoyant feel of her movements that she is safe."
And, thus hurriedly speaking, I left her, satisfied that her shrieks had been produced by terror only; nor did I wish her to rise, lest the yacht should again suddenly heel to her first extravagantly dreadful angle, and throw her and break a limb or injure her more cruelly yet.
The companion-hatch was closed. The idea of being imprisoned raised such a feeling of consternation in me that I stood in the hatch as one paralyzed; then terror set me pounding upon the cover with my fists till you would have thought that in a few moments I must have reduced it to splinters.
After a little, during which I hammered with might and main, roaring out the name of Caudel, the cover was cautiously lifted a few inches, letting in a very yell of wind, such a shock and blast of it that I was forced back off the ladder as though by a blow in the face, and in a breath the light went out.
"It's all right, Mr. Barclay," cried the voice of Caudel, hoarse and yet shrill too with the life-and-death cries he had been already delivering. "A gale of wind's busted down upon us. We've got the yacht afore it whilst we clear away the wreckage. There's no call to be alarmed, sir. On my word and honor as a man, there's no call, sir. I beg you not to come on deck yet; you'll only be in the way. Trust to me, sir; it's all right, I say." And the hatch was closed again.
I now knocked on Grace's door, and told her to rise and dress herself and join me in the cabin.
"There is no danger," I shouted; "nothing but a capful of wind."
She made some answer which I could not catch, but I might be sure the upright posture and buoyant motions of the scudding yacht had tranquillized her mind.
I sat alone for some ten minutes, during which the height and volume of the sea sensibly increased, though as the yacht continued flying dead before the wind her plunges were still too long and gradual to be distressing. Occasionally a shout would sound on deck, but what the men were about I could not conceive.
The door of the forward berth was opened, and Grace entered the cabin. Her face was white as death; her large eyes, which seemed of a coal blackness in the lamplight and by contrast with the hue of her cheeks, sparkled with alarm. She swept them round the cabin as though she expected to behold one knows not what sort of horror, then came to my side and linked my arm tightly in hers.
"Oh, Herbert, tell me the truth. What has happened ?"
"Nothing serious, darling. Do not you feel that we are afloat and sailing bravely?"
"But just now ?—Did not the yacht turn over? Something was broken on deck, and the men began to shriek."
"And so did you, Grace," said I, trying to smile.
"But if we should be drowned ?" she cried, drawing herself closer to me and fastening her sweet, terrified eyes upon my face.
I shook my head, still preserving my smile, though Heaven knows, had my countenance taken its expression from my mood it must have shown as long as the yacht herself. I could observe her straining her ears to listen, whilst her gaze—large, bright, her brows arched, her lips parted, her breast swiftly heaving—roamed over the cabin.
"What is that noise of thunder, Herbert ?"
"It is the wind," I answered.
"Are not the waves getting up ? Oh! feel this!" she cried, as the yacht rose with velocity and something of violence to the underrunning hurl of a chasing sea, of a power that was but too suggestive of what we were to expect.
"The Spitfire is a stanch, noble little craft," said I, "built for North Sea weather. She is not to be daunted by anything that can happen hereabouts."
"But what has happened ?" she cried, irritable with alarm.
I was about to utter the first reassuring sentence that occurred to my mind, when the hatch-cover was slid a little way back, and I just caught sight of a pair of legs and the cabin lamp was extinguished by such another yell and blast of wind as had before nearly stretched me.
Grace shrieked and threw her arms round my neck; the cover was closed, and the interior instantly becalmed again.
"Who's that?" I roared.
"Me, sir," sounded a voice out of the blackness where the companion-steps stood,-—"Files, sir. The captain has asked me to step below to report what's happened. He doesn't leave the deck himself."
I released myself from my darling's clinging embrace and lighted the lamp for the third time.
Files, wrapped in streaming oil-skins, resembled an ebony figure over which a bucket of dripping has been emptied, as he stood at the foot of the steps with but a bit of his wet, gray-colored face showing between the ear-flaps and under the fore-thatch of his southwester.
"Now for your report, Files; and bear a hand with it, for mercy's sake.
"Well, sir, it's just this; it had been breezing up, and we double reefed the main-sail, Captain Caudel not liking the look of the weather when a slap of wind carried pretty high half the mast over the side. We reckon—for we can't see—that it's gone some three or four feet below the cross-trees. The sail came down with a run, and there was a regular mess of it, sir, the vessel being buried. We've had to keep her afore it until we could cut the wreckage clear, and now we're a-going to heave her to, and I'm to tell ye, with Captain Caudel's compliments, not to take any notice of the capers she may cut when she heads the sea."
"How does the weather look, Files?"
"Wary black and noisy, sir."
"Tell Caudel to let me see him whenever he can leave the deck," said I, unwilling to detain him, lest he should say something to add to the terror of Grace, whose eyes were riveted upon him as though he were some frightful ghost or hideous messenger of death.
I took down the lamp and screened it whilst he opened the cover and crawled out. No man could imagine that so heavy a sea was already running until Caudel hove the yacht to. The instant the helm was put down the dance began. As she rounded to, a whole green sea struck her full abeam, and fell with a roar like a volcanic discharge upon her decks, staggering her to the heart,—sending a throe of mortal agony through her, as one might have sworn.
I felt that she was buried in the foam of that sea. As she gallantly rose, still valiantly rounding into the wind, as though the spirit of the British soil in which had grown the hardy timber out of which she was manufactured was never stronger in her than now, the water that filled her decks roared cascading over her rails.
Grace sat at my side; her arm locked in mine; she was motionless with fear; her eyes had the fixed look of the sleep-walker's. Nor will I deny that my own terror was extreme; for, imagining that I had heard a shriek, I believed that my men had been washed overboard and that we two were locked up in a dismantled craft that was probably sinking,—-imprisoned, I say, by reason of the construction of the companion-cover, which when closed was not to be opened from within.
I waited a few minutes with my lips set, wondering what was to happen next, holding Grace close to me, and hearkening with feverish ears for the least sound of a human voice on deck. There was a second blow,-—this time on the yacht's bow,—followed by a sensation as of every timber thrilling, and by a bolt-like thud of falling water, but well forward.
Immediately afterwards I heard Caudel shouting close against the skylight, and I cannot express the emotion—in truth, I may (all it the transport of joy—his voice raised in me. It was like being rescued from a dreadful death that an instant before seemed certain.
I continued to wait, holding my darling to me; her head lay upon my shoulder, and she rested as though in a swoon. The sight of her white face was inexpressibly shocking to me, who very well knew that there was nothing!) could say to soften her terrors amid such a sea as the yacht was now tumbling u on. Indeed, the vessel's motions had be come on a sudden violently heavy.
I was never in such a sea before,— that is to say, in so small a vessel,—and the leaping of the craft from peak to base, and the dreadful careening of her as she soared, lying down on her beam-ends, to the next liquid summit, were absolutely soul-sickening.
Well, some twenty minutes or perhaps half an hour passed, during all which time I believed every moment to be our last, and I recollect cursing myself for being the instrument of introducing the darling of my heart into this abominable scene of storm, in which, as I believed, we were both to perish.
Why had I not gone ashore yesterday ? Did not my instincts advise me to quit the sea and take to the railway? Why had I brought my pet away from the security of the Rue de Maquétra? Why, in the name of all the virtues, was I so impatient that I could not wait till she was of age, when I could have married her comfortably and respectably, freed from all obligation of ladders, dark lanterns, tempests, and whatever was next to come?
I could have beaten my head upon the table. Never did I better understand what I have always regarded as a stroke of fiction,—I mean the disposition of a man in a passion to tear out his hair by the roots.
At the expiration, as I supposed, of twenty minutes, the hatch-cover was opened, this time without any following screech and blast of wind, and Caudel descended. Had he been a beam of sunshine he could not have been more welcome to my eye. He was clad from head to foot in oil-skins, from which the wet ran as from an umbrella in a thunder shower, and the skin and hue of his face resembled soaked leather.
"Well, Mr. Barclay, sir," he exclaimed, "and how have you been a-getting on? It's been a bad job; but there's nothin' to alarm ye, I'm sure." Then, catching sight of Grace's face, he cried, "The young lady ain't been and hurt herself, I hope, sir?"
"Her fear and this movement," I answered, "have proved too much for her. I wish you would pull off your oil-skins and help me to convey her to the side there. The edge of this table seems to be cutting me in halves,"—the fact being that I was to windward, with the whole weight of my sweetheart, who rested lifelessly against me, to increase the pressure, so that at every leeward stoop of the craft my breast was caught by the edge of the table with a sensation as of a knife cutting through my shirt.
He instantly whipped off his streaming water-proofs, standing without the least inconvenience whilst the deck slanted under him like a seesaw, and in a very few moments he had safely placed Grace on the lee locker, with her head on a pillow. I made shift to get round to her without hurting myself, then cried to Caudel to sit and tell me what had happened.
"Well, it's just this, sir," he answered, "the mast was carried away some feet below the head of it. It went on a sudden in the squall in which the wind burst down upon us. Perhaps it was as well it happened, for she lay down to that there in a way so obstinate that I did believe she'd never lift herself out of the water again. But the sail came down when the mast broke, and I managed to get her afore it, though I don't mind owning to you now, sir, that what with the gear fouling the helm, and what with other matters which there ain't no call for me to talk about, "it was as close a shave with us, sir, as ever happened at sea."
"Is the yacht tight, do you think, Caudel ?" cried I.
"I hope she is, sir."
"Hope! My God! but you must know, Caudel!"
"Well, sir, she's a-draining a little water into her,—I'm bound to say it,—but nothin' that the pump won't keep under, and I believe that most of it finds its way into the well from up above."
I stared at him with a passion of anxiety and dismay, but his cheery blue eyes steadfastly returned my gaze, as though he would make me know that he spoke the truth,—that matters were not worse than he represented them as being.
"Has the pump been worked ?" I inquired.
He lifted his finger as I asked the question, and I could hear the beat of the pump throbbing through the dull roar of the wind, as though a man had seized the brake of it in response to my inquiry.
"Was any one hurt by the sea as you rounded to?"
"Bobby was washed aft, sir, but he's all right again."
I plied him with further questions, mainly concerning the prospects of the weather, our chances, (die drift of the yacht, that I might know into what part of the Channel we were being blown, and how long it would occupy to storm us at this rate into the open Atlantic; and then, asking him to watch by Grace for a few minutes, I dropped on my knees and crawled to my cabin, where I somehow contrived to scramble into my boots, coat, and cap. I then made for the companion-steps, still on my knees, and clawed my way up the hatch till I was a head and shoulders above it, and there I stood looking.
I say looking; but there was nothing to see, save the near, vast, cloud-like spaces of foam, hovering, as it seemed, high above the rail, or descending the pouring side of a sea like bodies of mist sweeping with incredible velocity with the breath of the gale.
Past these dim masses the water lay in blackness,—a huge spread of throbbing obscurity. All overhead was mere rushing darkness. The wind was wet with spray, and forward there would show at intervals a dull shining of 0am, flashing transversely across the laboring little craft.
It was blowing hard indeed, yet from the weight of the seas and the motions of the Spitfire I could have supposed the gale severer than it was. I returned to the cabin; and Caudel, after putting on his oil skins and swallowing a glass of brandy-and-water,—the materials for which were swaying furiously in a silver-plated swinging tray suspended over the table,—went on deck, leaving the companion-cover a little way open in case I should desire to quit the cabin.
Until the dawn, and some time past it, I sat close beside Grace, holding her hand or bathing her brow. She never spoke: she seldom opened her eyes, indeed; she lay as though utterly prostrated, without power to articulate or perhaps even to think. It was the effect of fear, however, rather than of nausea.
At any rate, I remember hoping so, for I had heard of people dying of sea-sickness, and if the weather that had stormed down upon us continued it might end in killing her; whereas the daylight, and perhaps some little break of blue sky, would reanimate her if her sufferings were owing to terror only, and when she found the little craft buoyant and our lives in no danger her spirits would rise and her strength return.