Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
A Wreck on the White Flat
By Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard (1823–1902)
 
[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.
  1
  “What is the town doing, Mat?” asked Roxalana.  2
  “A great many people are out doing nothing. They are on the wharves, on the top of King’s Hill, the hair blowing off their heads, and, I believe, there’s a gang along shore somewhere,” he replied.  3
  “No boat can live if put out,” said Argus. “How low down the bar did the vessel drive on?”  4
  “As near to Bass Headland as can be. If the wind would chop round, somebody might get out there.”  5
  “So the sailors must drown,” cried Tempe, notwithstanding she had put her fingers in her ears, not to hear. “I’ll shut myself up in the cellar till it is all over.”  6
  “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—”  7
  Argus gave such a shrug and grimace that Mat suddenly stopped, and without another word abruptly left the room.  8
  “Argus,” said Roxalana, with great composure, “I shall not get you a mouthful of dinner to-day.”  9
  “I trust you will consent to do your share in disposing of the poor corpses,” added Tempe sharply.  10
  For reply, Argus rose, book in hand, opened the shutter of the window towards the quay, sat down by it, and went on with his comedy….  11
  Mat came in late in the afternoon, with as little ceremony as before, and said roughly to Argus, “You are wanted.”  12
  “I won’t go.”  13
  “Captain, if we don’t get across within twelve hours, every soul on board that vessel now will be in hell.”  14
  “I supposed so.”  15
  “She’s bilged, and the White Flat begins to hug her. It’s flood tide, and the waves must be washing the main deck; a few hours of that work will settle their hash.”  16
  “What’s doing with the life-boat?”  17
  “The loons have tried to launch her, but there’s something wrong, and they are trying to tinker her up. The will of folks is good enough, but they can’t get out there,—that’s the long and short on’t. Bill Bayley swore he’d 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.”  18
  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.  19
  Argus laughed.  20
  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.  21
  “Push ahead,” he said.  22
  “Aye, aye, sir,” Mat shouted, turning very pale, and lurching towards the door.  23
  “Stop; where is Roxalana?”  24
  “Roxalana!” Mat shouted.  25
  “What is it, Mat?” she answered, coming with a bottle.  26
  “Yes; give us a dram, old girl,” continued Mat, utterly oblivious of the proprieties.  27
  Argus laughed again, and asked for his Mackintosh.  28
  “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:  29
  “Where is your crape veil, Tempe?”  30
  “Where the courage of Kent is,—shut up in a band-box,” she answered.  31
  Roxalana, after gazing at her a moment, took her by the arm, and dragged her into the green room.  32
  “I believe,” she said, in a breathless undertone, “that you are possessed sometimes. Do you know that your uncle Argus may have gone for his shroud?”  33
  “Was that why he inquired for the veil?”  34
  “Could you choose no other moment to express your insensibility? Are you never to be anything but a child?”  35
  “Mother, you must be crazy. You don’t mean to say that you are going to protest against the Gates character,—as I represent it?”  36
  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.  37
  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.  38
  “Hold your tongue, Mary Sutcliffe,” ordered Tempe.  39
  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.  40
  “Do, Mrs. Gates,” she pleaded; “I feel as strong as a giant to-night; I can wrestle with any amount of work.”  41
  “If you will stop whining, Mary, I will accept your services; for, to tell the truth, my head is not very clear just now; I am afraid I may spoil something.”  42
  “Likely as not,” replied Mary; “go right into your sitting-room, sit down in your own chair, and you’ll come to. It won’t do for you, of all persons, to be upset, Mrs. Gates.”  43
  Roxalana was quite ready to act upon Mary’s 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.  44
  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:  45
  “And I suppose old Drake has offered as much again,—hasn’t he? Wouldn’t I like to see Mr. Mat Sutcliffe Esquire handling that reward? I wish somebody would pay me for doing my duty. I’d put the money right into the contribution box at Mr. Brande’s church. Oh, yes, don’t I see myself doing it.”  46
  “Mary,” said Virginia, “you are talking nonsense. Please find some hair-pins; mine must have dropped along the path.”  47
  She removed the cloak-hood, and her hair tumbled in a mass down her shoulders; she could have hid herself in it.  48
  “Goodness me!” cried Mary, “what splendid hair you’ve got; I never thought of it before. It is as black as the sky was just now on the quay.”  49
  “Have you been to the quay?” asked Roxalana. “Do content yourself within doors. Where is Tempe?… Tell her that Virginia Brande is here.”  50
  Tempe fell into a fit of weeping and laughing the moment she saw Virginia, which was ended by a dead faint.  51
  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.  52
  “Hell-bent be it!” said Mat, apostrophizing the waves, “if you say so. You are not alone, my friends.”  53
  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 Mat’s 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.  54
  Mat swore at the top of his voice, that the wind was more nor’ard, and it would be an even chance about beating back—or not. Argus looked up, and saw a circular break in the clouds, but said nothing.  55
  “By the crucifix,” cried Mat, throwing himself forward, “I heard a yell. Where away are we? We are shoaling!”  56
  Argus plunged his hands into the water from the stern sheets; it felt like the wrinkled, hideous flesh of a monster, trying to creep away.  57
  “We are under lee, or there is a lull, for the water don’t break,” he said.  58
  “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.”  59
  “Damn ’em,” said Mat savagely, “if they have drowned afore ever we could reach ’em, I’ll take ’em dead, carry every mother’s son of ’em to Kent, and bury ’em against their wills.”  60
  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.  61
  “If she’s parted,” continued Mat, “something might wash this way; her gear at least. I’d like to catch a cabin door, or an article to that effect; it might come handy.”  62
  Argus did not hear him, for he was overboard. Missing him, Mat gave way for a moment; he felt the keel shove resisting sand, and remained passive, merely muttering, “I’m blasted, but she may drive.”  63
  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.  64
  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 woman’s 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 Argus’s eyes when he saw that it had been half torn from its roots. Her arms were round the man’s 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 lips—no 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 woman’s passion, despair, and sacrifice!  65
  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 attitude—a familiar one—which imposed his respectful attention. Mat bent over the bodies silently, and touched them with his foot.  66
  “She is dead?” interrogated Argus.  67
  “Never will be more so.”  68
  “This man is alive. Lift his head. I am out of breath. The wind is going down, and we can run him back easy.”  69
  “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 let’s warm up the boy.”  70
  “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.”  71
  Mat pretended to be too busy to hear.  72
  “Crazier than ever,” he muttered. “I might have known his damned crankiness would bile out somewhere.”  73
  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.  74
  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.  75
  “How are you off for elbow-grease?” cried Mat. “Put the lantern down, and jump in; here’s a bundle for you to take up to the house. Capen and I are clean gone, I tell you. I’ve lost the rims of my ears, and expect to leave a few toes in these ’ere boots when I pull ’em off. Come, quick.”  76
  Without a word she lifted the man from the bottom of the boat, and, with Mat’s 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.  77
  “Take care of me, if you please,” he said. “I want two bottles of brandy, and a dry shirt. How are you, Roxalana?”  78
  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 wasn’t 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.  79
  “That ’ere Virginia,” said Mat, when she and Roxalana had gone, and he was watching the man’s eyelids, “is as mealy a gal as I ever saw in my life. She’s 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. So—all-right, young un…. Hark ye—he’s off in a regular, natural sleep, ain’t he?”  80
 
 
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