Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Wreck on the White Flat
By Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard (18231902)
[Temple House. A Novel. 1867.Republished, 1888.]
THOUGH the storm raged the next morning, as storm had not raged for years, Argus remained in the green room, and pored over the book of plays, so well remembered by Virginia. About noon Mat Sutcliffe burst in, with his tarpaulin jammed over his head, and carrying an immense spy-glass in a canvas case. His tidings did not astonish Argus. A vessel putting into the bay the night before had dragged her anchors and struck on the White Flat; her flag was flying from the rigging, and there were men there; it being low water when she struck, her quarter deck might afford temporary safety, provided the cold did not increase and freeze the crew to death.
I thought, continued Mat, looking hard at Argus, it might be best to look at the shingle below here; the ice is about gone there. If we could start under the lee of Bass Headland a boat might slant
The loons have tried to launch her, but theres something wrong, and they are trying to tinker her up. The will of folks is good enough, but they cant get out there,thats the long and short ont. Bill Bayley swore hed go out alone; his cock-boat swamped, first thing, and they had to throw him a rope. He swore at the man who threw it,at the boat,at the bay,the wreck,and the Almighty, and then he cried. I never liked Bill so well.
Mat spit into the fire furiously, and stumped round the room, a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, his trousers settling over the hips in spite of his tight leather belt. He was growing frantic with excitement.
Mat made an energetic, beseeching motion towards the door; he would have put up his soul for sale for the sake of seeing Argus move with the intention he wished to inspire him with. Argus turned back his sleeves, baring a snow-white wrist, and abstractedly felt his pulse and the muscles of his arms.
Now then, said Mat, having swallowed nearly a tumbler of brandy. Argus drank a little, and poured the rest of the bottle into a flask which he buttoned inside his coat. Tempe ran down to the door as they passed out, and Argus looking back called out:
Roxalana said no more, but went her way, feeling a painful excitement. She replenished the fires, hung kettles of water over them, collected blankets, cordials, and liquors, and then went to the kitchen to bake bread.
Twilight brought Mary Sutcliffe and her youngest boys. Dumping them in a corner of the kitchen as if they were sacks, and threatening them with a whipping if they moved, she rolled up her sleeves, and said that she thought the fathers of families had better stay at home, instead of risking themselves to save nobody knew who. Another boat had started since Mat had got under way, and she guessed the wreck would turn out to be a great cry and little wool; she did not think there would be much drowning this time. She wondered if the good folks in Kent had stirred themselves,your religious Drakes, and your pious Brandes, and the rest of the church.
Then Mary whimpered, sobbed, and shrieked, declaring she had known all along she should never set eyes on Mat Sutcliffe again, who was well enough, considering what he was. And who else would have done what he was doing? and she gloried in his spunk. Drying her eyes with her fat hands, and shaking out her apron, she begged Roxalana to let her make the bread, and put the house to rights,in case there were bodies coming in.
Roxalana was quite ready to act upon Marys suggestion. Death was near, and she felt it. After dark Mary began to walk about,to the alley, and into the garden, and report what she saw and heard. She ran down to the quay once, but came back scared and subdued at the sight of the angry solitude of the hoarse, black sea, though she shook her impotent fist at it with indignation.
Roxalana felt a relief when Virginia Brande came down from the Forge, enveloped in a plaid cloak. She had ventured at last to come by the path, the moment she heard that Captain Gates was making an attempt to get to the wreck. Her mother was so frightened and ill about it, that Chloe and herself were obliged to make representations of the necessity for help in Kent from every hand and heart, before she consented to spare her. The Forge was deserted; her father had gone into town with the intention of offering a reward to the man who should first reach the wreck. Mary Sutcliffe, hearing this, cried:
And I suppose old Drake has offered as much again,hasnt he? Wouldnt I like to see Mr. Mat Sutcliffe Esquire handling that reward? I wish somebody would pay me for doing my duty. Id put the money right into the contribution box at Mr. Brandes church. Oh, yes, dont I see myself doing it.
At last the boat was launched. Argus and Mat were afloat; so much was gained, and Argus thought the danger was preferable to the labor they had undergone in getting ready to risk their lives. The gloomy twilight, spreading from the east, dropped along the shore, while they were dragging, pushing, and lifting the boat over the shingle, slush, and into the opposing sea.
Mat seemed a part of the storm; his spirits were in a wild commotion, his clothes were torn and soggy with brine, and his hands were gashed and bloody. Argus had lost his cap, and broken his oar; he bound his head with Mats woolen comforter, jammed his shoulder against the gunwale, and used the shortened oar with much composure. They did not make much headway; the boat appeared to be riding in all directions in the roar and foam of the sea; darkness pressed upon them, and shut them between the low-hanging sky and the shaking plain of water. In the midst of his silent, measured, energetic action the thoughts of Argus drifted idly back to the trifling events of his life; a new and surprising charm was added to them; they were as bright, quiet, and warm as the golden dust of a summer sunset which touches everything as it vanishes.
If the moon was out we should see the White Flat. I reckon we are on the tongue of the bar, and the vessel has struck below. Her hull must be sunk ten feet by this time, and her shrouds and spars are washed off; that yell will not be heard again.
The endless, steady-going rockers which slid under them from the bay outside tossed the boat no longer; the wind ceased to smite their faces, but tore overhead and ripped the clouds apart. The moon rolled out, and to the right they saw the ghastly, narrow crest of the White Flat. A mass of spume on their left which hissed madly proved what Argus had said, that they were close to the end of the bar. Within the limits of the moonlight they saw nothing. In the bewildering, darkling illumination of the shattering water around them they were alone.
Argus had seen, or thought he had, to the right of the boat, some object dipping in and out of the water and making towards them. He met it coming sideways, where the water was just below his breast: missed a hold of it, struggled for it, the shifting bottom impeding his footway, and the water battling against his head and arms, till rearing itself up and stranding on the beach, he stumbled and fell beside it exhausted.
Raising himself on his hands and knees, he brought his face close to two persons, a man and a woman, fastened together by the embrace of death. The womans face was upturned; its white oval, wet and glistening, shed a horrid light; the repeated blows of the murderous waves had tangled and spread her long hair over her. Tears of rage rushed into Arguss eyes when he saw that it had been half torn from its roots. Her arms were round the mans head; her hands clutched his temples; his face was so tightly pressed into her bosom that Argus instinctively believed he was still alive in a stifled swoon. She was dead. Take her lover away from that breast of stone, Argus, let him not see those open lipsno longer the crimson gates to the fiery hours of his enjoyment, nor let him feel those poor bruised fingers clenching his brain; those delicate stems of the will are powerless to creep round his heart! May Satan of the remorseless deep alone be destined to know and remember the last hour of this womans passion, despair, and sacrifice!
Argus rose to his feet, wondering why he saw so clearly, and possessed with an idea which was a mad one, perhaps, but which allied him, in greatness of soul, to the woman before him. He was still confused, and had forgotten where Mat and the boat were, but Mat had seen his dark figure rising against the sky, and was ploughing through the sand with the intention of remonstrating with Argus, on the impossibility of ever getting it off again. But when he came up behind him, there was something in his attitudea familiar onewhich imposed his respectful attention. Mat bent over the bodies silently, and touched them with his foot.
It may raly be called pleasant. There now I have got you, safe enough from her. God! She put on shirt and trousers to jump overboard with him, swapping deaths, and getting nothing to boot. He is limber; give me the brandy and lets warm up the boy.
Here, said Argus, in a suppressed voice, pour it down, quick. Have you a lashing? I should like to put her out of sight; one of the ballast stones will do. Help me to carry her to the other side of the bar; the deep water will cover her.
Argus wrapped the poor girl in his Mackintosh, and staggered towards the boat carrying her; there was no help against it, and Mat rose to his assistance. In a moment or two she was buried in the grave she had so terribly resisted.
The gale was nearly spent, and Mat ventured to hoist the sail. Argus tumbled the still insensible man into the boat by the head and heels, and they ran across the harbor, landing at the quay below the house. Mary was there before the boat was tied to a spile.
How are you off for elbow-grease? cried Mat. Put the lantern down, and jump in; heres a bundle for you to take up to the house. Capen and I are clean gone, I tell you. Ive lost the rims of my ears, and expect to leave a few toes in these ere boots when I pull em off. Come, quick.
Without a word she lifted the man from the bottom of the boat, and, with Mats help, clambered up the wharf, and took him into the house. Tempe ran shrieking when she saw him stretched on the floor before the fire, in the greenroom. Roxalana sat rigid, nailed to her chair, incapable of motion at the sight; Virginia and Mary were collected. Mat adroitly peeled off a portion of his wet clothes, and told Mary to rub him like damnation. It was a long time before he gave sign of life. At the first choking breath Mat poured some brandy over his face and neck; he rose galvanically to a sitting posture, and fell back again, to all appearance dead. But Mat declared he was all right, and went out to change his own wet clothes for dry ones. Virginia looked up at Argus, convinced herself that the man was saved.
At the sound of his voice she turned in her chair. Mat returned with his arms full of clothes for Argus, and asked her if she would be good enough to step out with Virginia, and go to bed. There wasnt any use in praying now, for they were back. Not one of them thought of the unhappy crew, all lost, except one who laid before them.
That ere Virginia, said Mat, when she and Roxalana had gone, and he was watching the mans eyelids, is as mealy a gal as I ever saw in my life. Shes cool, and smooth, and soft. She beat Moll in rubbing. Hullo! his eyes are open. Look here, Spaniard, you belong to us. Drink this, my lad, and let me hold you up. Soall-right, young un . Hark yehes off in a regular, natural sleep, aint he?