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Treasure of the Seas
James De Mille
THE TORSO OF CORBET.
The aged Schooner.—The Ancient Mariner.—The Waste of Waters.—Perplexity.—Solomon and the Saw-dust Soup.—The decrepit Compass.—The baffled, Navigator.—The despondent Boys.—A sudden Squall.—The Sails come to Grief.—Captain Corbet to the Rescue.—No Use! Too far gone!—The Antelope at the Mercy of the Winds and Waves.
THE waters of the Atlantic Ocean were reddened far and wide by the rays of the rising sun. The glorious beams had flashed over tract after tract of the watery expanse as they came from the east, until at length they poured in a full blaze upon a certain gay and gallant bark which lay tossing upon the tide somewhere within a hundred miles or so of the shore of the western world.
Yet though undeniably gay and gallant, the hand of time was visible on that bounding bark. For her buoyant hull was worn, and torn, and aged, and weather-beaten, and in fact decrepit. Aloft, over that battered hull, whose dilapidated sides, covered with bruises and bare of paint, showed gaping seams, from which the oakum protruded, rose the rickety masts and rotten old rigging. The sails, all torn, and worn, and rent, and patched, were spread to catch the breeze, while on high floated a gallant but dingy flag, bearing the blazonry of a now undecipherable emblem, together with letters now half effaced, which looked like “B. O. W. C.”
Such a disreputable craft, and such preposterous sails, had surely never before met the eye of the astonished sun in these waters, and great must have been the hardihood, or else the ignorance, of those who dared commit themselves and her to the merciless ocean. Whether bold or ignorant, however, there they were, all of them—Captain Corbet, the mate, Solomon, and the boys of the “B. O. W. C.;” and these now all stood on the deck of the Antelope, looking at the reddening dawn.
At the helm of his gallant bark stood her bold commander, as wise, as vigilant, and as care-worn as ever, shading his venerable brow with his hand, while, with eagle eye, he sought to make out some floating object or some friendly shore. But to that eagle eye the wide waste of waters showed nothing of the kind; and so it came to pass that, at length, the aged Corbet heaved a gentle sigh, and his eyes rested with mournful meaning upon his young companions.
“Well, captain,” said Bart, who was standing near him, “we don’t seem to have made land yet—do we?”
The captain shook his head slowly and solemnly. “Kine o’ curous, too,” he ejaculated, after a thoughtful pause.
“I don’t suppose you have any more idea of where we are than you had yesterday.”
“Wal,” said Captain Corbet, “not to say much of an idea; but I’m kine o’ comin round, an mebbe I’ll get the hang of it yet.”
“Well, why not head her west? We’ll be sure to come in sight of land then.”
Again the captain shook his head.
“Wal, I don’t know,” said he, “about that. Thar’s currents, an thar’s eddies; an thar’s the Gulf Stream to be considered. Now, if we’d kep straight on at fust, when we got out o’ Canso, we’d been all right; or even after we left Louisbourg, ef we’d only kep along the coast, in sight—but thar’s the mischief of it. I let her git out o’ sight o’ land that night, an she got kine o’ slewed round, and ’s kep kine o’ cantin round every which way, until at last she’s in this here onfort’nit position. An now I’m all teetotally aderrift!”
“O, I shouldn’t think that we can be more than a hundred miles or so south-east of the Nova Scotia coast.”
“Wal, I don’t know; seems to me we may jest as well be off Bermudy as anywhars else.”
“Bermuda!” exclaimed Bart, in amazement. “You don’t mean that.”
“Wal, I don’t see why not. Here we air, after a kerrewsin around a whole fortnight every which way, driven up an down by wind an tide, an canterin along with the Gulf Stream; an whenever, we ventured to hail a passin vessel, only gettin the finger o’ scorn a pinted at us for our pains, an the laughter of frivolous an light-minded men. So what’s to hender us from bein anywhars?”
“Well,” said Bart, “don’t you think it would be better to take some one course, and stick to it?”
“Ain’t I done it?” said the captain. “Ain’t I done it every day? Every day I took some definite course, and stuck to it; an what’s the result? Young sir, if you seek a answer, look around.”
“But something must be done,” said Bart, “or else we’ll find the Antelope becoming a second edition of the Flying Dutchman. A fortnight of this sort of thing’s no joke.”
“Who ever said it was?” said Captain Corbet. “An what’s wuss, every passin vessel will pussist in makin it a joke. They think we’re a fishin schooner, bound to the banks; an if we ask a honest question, they won’t do anything but yell out jokes that ain’t got any pint that ever I can see. Wal, this sarves me right, for ever ventrin outside of old Fundy. Put me in old Fundy an I’m all right; out here I ain’t any good, an hadn’t ought ever to dreamt of comin.”
From this it will be seen that the ill-fated Antelope was once more in a most unpleasant predicament, and the company on board appeared in danger of encountering adventures of as unpleasant a kind as they had known in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, if not worse. And certainly the prospect was dark indeed, when the captain himself could go so far as to hint at Bermuda as being by any possibility in their neighborhood. So Bart thought; and as he walked away there was a shade of anxiety on his brow.
As he walked forward he saw Solomon drawing some water for breakfast out of one of the barrels.
“Solomon,” asked Bart, “how are we off for provisions this time?”
The sable functionary raised his aged form, and, holding the water-pail in one hand, with the other he slowly scratched his venerable wool.
“Wal, Masr Bart,” said he, “dis yar time we ain’t got no ’tiklar cause for ’ziety. Dar’s a barl of salt pork, an two barls of biscuit, an dat ar’s ’ficient for de ’quirements of dis yar company. Lucky for us, too, dat Cap’n Fuggeson cars for us. He put this pork an biscuit aboard for extry, an say dat we all boun to come to roonatium some how. An dat ar am de very ’visiums dat we got to lib on now.”
“But haven’t we got anything better than salt pork and biscuit left?” asked Bart, in a rueful tone.
“Well, notin ’tiklar. Dar’s a drawin or two ob tea—an a grain or two ob flour—an some red her’n; but, law sakes! Child alive—what you mean by frettin and pinin so long’s dar’s lot to eat? Neb-ber you mind. I’ll cook up dis yar pork so ’s you’ll blieve it’s roast turkey. Will so. You don’t know me yet. Tell you what,—wait till you see how I cook up dis yar.”
“O, I know,” said Bart; “I believe you could feed us on saw-dust soup, if you hadn’t anything else. It wasn’t that.”
“Saw-dust soup!” cried Solomon. His eyes rolled fearfully. His aged figure bent double. He put the pail of water down, and then seated himself on the deck, where he proceeded to shake his venerable sides, and swing his body backward and forward, while chuckles, and giggles, and choking laughter burst from him. Every little while, as he could get his breath, he would roll up the whites of his eyes with a look of ecstasy, and whisper to himself, “Saw-dust soup!—saw-dust soup!—dat’s so. Tell you what! Takes ole Solomon to do it. He’s de boy. Is so! Yah, yah, yah!”
From this outburst of African sentiment Bart turned mournfully away, and stood apart, looking pensively upon the water. The other boys seemed to feel as he did, for they all had on their faces an expression of anxiety and disappointment. They all knew how they were situated, and the situation was not agreeable to any one of them. Whatever novelty there may have been in it had gone off long ago, and there was nothing now left but impatience and vexation of spirit.
The wind had been freshening during the night; and now, as the day advanced, it grew more and more boisterous.
“It’s blowin a leetle mite too fresh,” said Captain Corbet to Bruce, “for to contennew on this course; so I’ll jest come round, an run afore it. Arter all, it’s the best course,—for it’s west, an had ought to fetch us up somewhar eventooly, though I ain’t got overly much confidence in this here compass.”
“Compass! Why, what’s the matter with the compass?” asked Bruce.
“Wal, yesterday at sunrise,” said Captain Corbet, in a gentle tone of regret, “I noticed that, accordin to the compass, the sun was a risin in the nothe, an that was agin natur. So I knowed that either the sun was wrong or the compass, and nat’r’ly concluded that it was the compass. So I jest examined it, an sure enough, I found the needle all rusted up; an I’m a leetle mite afeared it ain’t no more good, jest now, than a rusty nail. Consequently, I don’t feel like settin any very great confidence on her. Wal, for that matter, I never thought much of compasses, an don’t gen’rally go by them when I’m in old Fundy, though here-, abouts they might p’aps be some use.”
At this fresh instance of Captain Corbet’s way of navigating, Bruce was so overwhelmed that he could not say a single word. A flush passed over his face. His lips parted as though he was about to speak; but he checked the rising remark, and walked forward, where he began to talk earnestly with the other boys.
But suddenly their conversation was interrupted. There was a sharp crash, a wild flap, a dark shadow, and in an instant a large object floated away through the air on the wings of the wind, while the noise of flapping, snapping, and cracking still filled their ears. A hurried, startled glance showed them all. As the Antelope was coming round, a gust of wind more violent than usual had struck her. The old sails were too weak to stand it. The mainsail yielded utterly, and was torn clean off, and flung away upon the waters. The foresail had suffered but little less injury, for it had been torn completely asunder, and now showed a huge rent, while the two portions flapped wildly and furiously in the blast.
“Wal,” said Captain Corbet, “ef—this—here—don’t—beat—all!”
He was silent for a moment, and stood contemplating the ruin before him.
“Wal,” he continued, drawing a long breath, “what’s got to be must be. I knowed it would come some day. You can’t fight agin the wind an storm for more’n seventeen year without feelin it; and these sails has been an had their day. I knowed it. I told you, boys, once—I dar say you mind the time—that them sails might be stronger, and that they wasn’t adapted to be hung on to a ship of a thousand ton. Still I did hope that they’d stand this here vyge.”
“But what are we going to do now, captain?” asked Tom.
“Do?” said the captain. “O, wal, ’tain’t so bad’s it might be. We’ve got the foresail yet; an me and Wade ’ll fix her; we’ll take her, an sew her up, and make her as good as new; an we’ll work along some how. You needn’t be troubled; it ain’t goin to make a mite of difference; an I don’t know, after all, but what in the long run p’aps it’s a goin to be better for us. We ain’t ben a doin much with the two sails, that sartain; p’aps now we’ll do better with only one.”
And now the venerable captain and his noble mate prepared to obtain possession of the sail. This was done without any very great effort, the boys all assisting. Then the two navigators (master and mate), having armed themselves with sail-needles and twine, proceeded to sew up the rent, to patch, to mend, and, in general, to renovate the old, old wornout sail. At length this last was happily accomplished; the sail was restored to its place, and as it swelled out at the pressure of the ocean blast, it seemed as efficient as ever. But either, in this case, appearances were deceptive, or else its previous condition had been deplorably weak. Certain it is, that after having sustained the blast for about half an hour, the old rag of a sail began to give way again in a dozen different places, and at length split up almost close beside the former rent. At this Captain Corbet surveyed the tattered canvas with melancholy resignation.
“This here wind,” said he, “is a leetle too stiff for her jest now. I think we’d better save her from another time. She’ll do very well in milder weather.”
By “she” Captain Corbet meant the sail, which he thus personified with affectionate familiarity. As he said this, he proceeded to lower the tattered canvas, and examine it in a pitying, compassionate, and caressing sort of way, quite oblivious of any other duty.
Meanwhile the Antelope tossed and pitched about at the mercy of the waves. There was nothing that deserved the name of a storm; yet, nevertheless, the wind was boisterous, and the sea somewhat rough. The position of the Antelope became, therefore, in the highest degree unpleasant, and this last example of Captain Corbet’s helplessness and incapacity served to complete the despondency of the boys. It now seemed as though their last hope had gone. The compass was useless; the sails were reduced to rags; they had no means of flight from their present misery; and the only comfort remaining was, that the danger which menaced them was not immediate, and might yet be evaded.
Nothing now was left to the boys but to watch with eager eyes the scene around—to search over the waste of waters with the hope of seeing some sail, or perhaps some sign of land. And to this they devoted themselves. It was indeed a cheerless task, and one, too, which gave them but little hope. Hours passed, yet no sail appeared. Dinner time came, and the dinner was spread; yet the boys showed but little appetite. They had been in far worse circumstances than this, yet still this was sufficiently unpleasant to destroy all relish for Solomon’s cookery, even if the banquet had been composed of greater dainties than salt pork and sea biscuit.
Thus the guests at that banquet were not at all appreciative; and they sat there in the schooner’s hold, not to eat, but merely to pass the time, which hung so heavy on their hands. Yet even thus their impatience did not allow them to spend much time at the dinner, for they soon retreated, and took up their stations on deck once more, to stare around, to scan the horizon, and to peer into empty space.
Hours passed. On that afternoon, the wind gradually went down, and there seemed a prospect of calmer weather. Captain Corbet began to talk of mending the sail, and hoisting it again; and at length, calling upon Wade, he and his mate proceeded with needles and sail twine to patch up as before. Into this occupation these two plunged, but the boys still stood on the lookout.
At length, Bart directed Bruce’s attention to something which appeared on the margin of the sea, far away on the horizon.
“Bruce,” said he, “don’t you see something out there that looks like the mast of a vessel?”
Bruce looked eagerly in the direction where Bart was pointing, and the others, who had heard the remark, did the same.
A strange and startling Sight.—A Mast in Midocean.—Land.—A Land of Terror.—A Panic.—The worst Place in all the World.—Tom drives away the Panic.—Drifting.—The Anchor dropped.—The Dawn of Day.—The low Land on the Horizon.—Preparing to go ashore.—The Confidences of the unfortunate Solomon.
AS they all stood looking in the direction where Bart was pointing,—
“I see it,” said Bruce. “It’s certainly the mast, and the mast of a ship, for there is the yard and the rigging; but there’s only one mast.”
“It’s a sloop,” said Phil.
“No,” said Tom; “it’s a square-rigged vessel of some sort.”
“Sure an it ain’t got no more ’n one mast,” said Pat; “an be the same token, there’s no hull at all at all. Be the powers, but it would be a quare thing intirely if it was to turrun out to be another wather-logged ship. An if it is, it’s meself that’ll not set fut aboord of her; not me, so it isn’t.”
“There’s something,” said Bruce, “that may be a hull. I can see it sometimes quite plain. Now look, boys, carefully, all of you, as we rise on the top of a wave.”
All this time Arthur had been examining the object through the spy-glass. As Bruce said this, he handed the glass to him.
“It’s not a ship,” said he, “nor a vessel of any kind. It’s land.”
“Land!” cried all the boys.
“Yes,” said Arthur.
All were silent. Bruce took a look through the glass, and then passed it to Bart, who, after looking through it, passed it on to the others.
“It’s a fact,” said Bruce. “It’s land; and that’s a flag-staff.”
“It’s very low land,” said Arthur.
“It’s a mere sand-bank,” said Bruce.
“A sand-bank,” said Bart, “with a flag-staff in the middle of the ocean! It’s queer.”
“Yes,” said Bruce; “and remember this, too, that this sand-bank in the ocean, with this flagstaff, is probably not very far away from the coast of Nova Scotia. Now, put this and that together, boys, and where do you think we are?”
At this question they all looked at one another in silence, and for a time no answer was made.
“Well,” said Tom, at length, “I’ll tell you what it is, boys. I believe that another prophecy of Captain Ferguson’s is turning out true. He prophesied that we’d be thrown upon Anticosti, and so we were. He prophesied that we’d be thrown on another place, and this is that place. You all know what I mean. I mean Sable Island.”
The boys made no remark. This thought had been in the minds of all of them. It was a thought that brought the deepest anxiety and gloom. For, bad as Anticosti was, there was one worse place; and that place was the very sand-bank before them—Sable Island!
The boys had all along been hoping for deliverance, either in the shape of some passing vessel or some sign of land. But this land, which they had approached unwittingly, seemed to be surrounded by a terror far worse than anything that was connected with their present situation. For Sable Island—that treacherous sand-bank in the midst of the sea—had always been known to all of them as the dread of seamen, the trap of ships, and the graveyard of shipwrecked sailors. The solitary flag-staff rose there out of the low island, as though to warn them away, like a signal of danger; and yet it was impossible for them to move away. Without sails, and without a compass, they were helpless; and there seemed now no prospect, except to go ashore there and meet their doom.
Tom was the first to rouse himself. “Captain,” said he, “here’s Sable Island. Come and take a good look at it, for we’re going ashore.” Captain Corbet had been so intent upon his work of patching the old sail, that he had heard and seen nothing of this excitement among the boys. These words of Tom came, therefore, suddenly and abruptly, and filled him with a terror equal to theirs. He started as though he had been shot. His needle dropped from his hands. For a few moments he sat staring at Tom; and then he rose slowly to his feet, and going over to where the boys stood, he looked out over the waters to where their eyes were directed. He stood staring for a long time in perfect silence.
“Sable Island!” he at length said, in a low voice. “Wal, boys,—I didn’t ever think—I’d ever live—to see—this here day. I’ve ben a tryin all my life, boys, to keep clar of this here island; but fate’s stronger than the hand of man,—an here we air!”
“O, see here now,” said Tom. “Come, now, captain, this here sort of thing won’t do at all, you know. There can’t be any very great danger. The wind’s gone down, you know. The sea’s ever so much smoother than it was, and it’s going to be smoother still. All sorts of vessels visit this island. The Nova Scotia government send supplies here regularly; and so I don’t see what danger there is. For my part, I think we’d all better go ashore. The more I think of it, the more convinced I am that we’ll be better off ashore on Sable Island than we are drifting about on board of the Antelope. And so I say, Hurrah, boys, for Sable Island! Let’s go ashore, and get a decent sail for this vessel, and some supplies.”
These words cheered the boys amazingly. A reaction at once took place. Tom was right. The sea was calm enough here to admit of a landing anywhere: and in the face of this fact thoughts of danger were not to be entertained.
Yet the panic which had been inspired by the very name of Sable Island may easily be explained; and, in circumstances like these, it was quite justifiable. For of all places in the world, Sable Island is, perhaps, most dreaded by seamen. It is a low sand-bank, about twenty miles long and one mile wide. This much is above water. But besides what is visible to the eye, there is much more invisible, treacherous, beneath the sea, extending all around it. Sable Island is, in fact, the crest of a vast sand-bank or shoal, which rises out of the ocean depths, about a hundred miles southeast of the coast of Nova Scotia, in the very track of the vast commerce between England and America. Though the island itself is not more than twenty miles long, the shoal extends much farther; and it has been calculated that, for a distance of fifty miles, there is danger to the ship which ventures too near. Moreover, this shoal runs in a curved line, and may be said to enclose in a segment of a dangerous circle all vessels sailing north of it, or between it and the main land. Approach to it in a storm is always dangerous; and with certain winds it is positive destruction; wherefore ships always give it a wide berth. Many are the vessels which are known to have been lost there; but many more, by far, are supposed to have perished on the outlying shoals, without leaving a vestige behind to tell of their fate.
Now, however, there was nothing like a storm. The wind, that had prevailed all day, was gone; and it only needed Tom’s cheery words to drive away from all of them the terror that for a time had taken possession of their souls. They therefore roused themselves from the silence and the gloom into which they had fallen, and began to talk over the probabilities of a landing. Each one brought forth all that he knew about Sable Island, and added it to the common stock of knowledge, until at length a very favorable idea of the place was formed. Bart knew that there was a regular overseer, or governor, or superintendent of the island, placed there by the Nova Scotia government. Bruce knew that a vessel was sent there four times a year to convey supplies, and to take away any shipwrecked people who might be there. Arthur knew that there were huts, built for the purposes of refuge, in different parts of the island. Tom was sure that a landing could be made in ordinary weather, without much trouble; and Phil was eloquent on the subject of the ponies which live and thrive on the island, constituting a peculiar breed, well known in Nova Scotia, where a batch of Sable Island ponies are brought every year, sold at auction, and dispersed through the country. The result of this interchange of ideas was, that the boys at length began to look upon Sable Island as rather a desirable place, and to feel impatient for the time to come when they might drift near enough to make a landing.
But this was a thing for which they had to wait. The Antelope was certainly drifting; yet her progress was slow, and there was no way of hastening it. For hour after hour they watched the flag-staff, and the low line of land away on the horizon, without finding themselves near enough to think of going ashore. By the shifting and changing position of the flag-staff, they knew that they were drifting past it; and yet there was no way by which they could prevent this. In the first moments of their panic, the possibility of drifting clear of Sable Island would have seemed most welcome to all of them; but now that they had formed the plan of landing there, such a prospect seemed not at all desirable; and the slow drift of the schooner, while it baffled their hopes, filled them all with impatience.
In this way the hours of the day passed away. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when they first saw Sable Island. The hours went by, and sunset came; still they were not near enough. Night was impending, yet the weather was too calm to allow of uneasiness, and they could only hope that on the following day they might be able to make the landing which they all desired so earnestly.
Passing the night in the vicinity of such a place as Sable Island is what few would choose for any amount of money. On this occasion, most fortunately, the weather was calm. The wind had died away to a gentle breeze, and the water was quite smooth. The only motion experienced by those on board the Antelope was that long rise and fall which is always felt out at sea, owing to the never-ending undulation of the ocean waters.
The boys went below and slept. Captain Corbet, however, remained on deck, and kept his lonely vigil far into the night. The first mention of Sable Island had produced upon him a profound effect. His first words exhibited something like a panic terror, which might have communicated itself to the boys, had it not been for Tom’s cheery exhortation. From that first terror the captain had managed to extricate himself; yet still there remained, deep within his soul, the gloomiest anticipations. The night was not particularly dark. The sky was dotted with innumerable stars; yet so low was the island, and so destitute of any conspicuous landmark, that it passed out of view with the early twilight; nor was the eagle eye of the watchful Corbet able to detect any sign of the vanished land. At length he determined to guard against the danger of any further drifting, and accordingly proceeded to let fall the anchor. It was about two hours after midnight when this was done, and the rattle of the chains awaked the sleepers below, and announced that at last their long wanderings were arrested.
On the following morning they were all on deck with the dawn of day, and looking out eagerly upon the waters. The sight which met their eyes was one which could have given nothing like pleasure to any others; yet to them it was indeed pleasant, so far as it went. They saw rising out of the sea a low, sandy shore, which extended as far as the eye could reach. About opposite them rose a flag-staff, which they supposed to be the one that they had seen on the previous evening, though there was a difference of a most important character between what they saw then and now. For here they saw buildings which looked like comfortable residences, perhaps the abode of the keeper of the island. Except this house and its belongings, nothing else was visible along that sandy shore.
The Antelope had come to anchor in good time, and the shore was not quite two miles away from this place. Still, so shallow were the waters, and so treacherous the sea bottom, that it was not at all advisable to attempt to approach nearer. If they wished to land, they would have to do so in the boat. The boat floated astern, all ready, being no other than that one which they had saved from the ship Petrel. Into this they prepared to go.
For this voyage all the boys volunteered, and Captain Corbet also. Wade was to be left aboard with Solomon. Bart noticed that the venerable African was looking at the island with a pensive gaze, and thought that he saw disappointment in his face.
“Would you like to come ashore, too, Solomon?” he asked, kindly.
Solomon shook his head.
“Darsn’t,” said he. “Darsn’t, no how.”
“Pooh, nonsense! Why not? Come along,” said Bart, who thought that this was some of Solomon’s superstitious fancies which were now affecting him.
“Darsn’t,” said Solomon, again. “Couldn’t ebber leave it agin. An don you go an try to ’suade dis yer ole man, Mas’r Bart, if you don want to lose him. Tell you what—dat ar island’s too safe; an ef I foun myself dar, I wouldn’t ebber leave it.”
“Safe? What from?” asked Bart.
Solomon looked all around with the glance of one who fears pursuit and capture by some mysterious enemy.
“De ole complaint,” said he at last, with a groan.
“What, rheumatism?” asked Bart, innocently.
“No, sah,” said Solomon. “It’s Broom-atiz—an acute Broomatiz too—what I notches from de ole woman whenebber she finds a broomstick handy. It generally attacks me over de back and shoulders. An what’s wuss, dar ain’t a medicine, or a liniment, or a wash, or a poultice, dat does a mite ob good. De only cure is for me to go an hunt up some desert island in de middle ob de ocean, an habit it for do ress ob my days; an so, ef I was to go shore dar, I might hide, an nebber come back. Too great ’tractium; couldn’t resist it. Safe dar forebbermo from dat ar ole woman; safe an free; no more knocks an bruises; no more terror. O, Mas’r Bart, p’raps, after all, dis here ole man better go asho dar, an hab peace.”
“Nonsense, Solomon,” said Bart, who was astonished at learning the real cause of Solomon’s strange fancy for Sable Island. “Nonsense. Don’t get that notion into your head. Your wife ’ll never find you. You come to Grand Pré, and Dr. Porter will protect you.”
“Dat ar place is de berry place whar I kin nebber be safe. She’s dar now, a waitin, an a watch-in, an a waitin for me. I know it. I feel it in my ole bones. Dey allers aches when I think ob her. Ebery mile we go brings me nearer to her broom-handle; an de longer I stay away, de wuss I’m goin to cotch it. So, p’raps, Mas’r Bart, I’d better go asho on Sable Island.”
The idea seemed to have taken full possession of Solomon’s mind, and to such an extent, that Bart found all efforts to banish it utterly useless.
He therefore gave it up, and concluded, under the circumstances, that it was better for Solomon to remain on board.
The boat was now ready. The boys and Captain Corbet were calling for Bart to hurry up. Bart got on board, and they pulled away. It was a long pull; but the water was smooth, and they made good progress. At length the boat touched the shore, and they all leaped out upon the sand.
Landing.—A friendly Reception, and a bounteous Repast.—Sable Island.—The strange Soil.—The sandy Ridge.—The Lake.—The long Walk.—A wonderful Sight.—The ancient Ship.—The Governor’s Story.—A tremendous Storm and its Effects.—A great Surprise.—Examination and Exhumation.—Disappointment.—Theories.—The Governor rides a Hobby-horse.
WHEN they stepped ashore upon Sable Island they found themselves in the presence of the whole of the population. This population amounted to about eleven souls; namely, the governor, or keeper, or guardian, or regent, or whatever else he may be called, of the island, six of the members of his family of various ages, and four able-bodied men. The governor was a bluff, broad-shouldered, red-faced, bearded personage, with a bright gray eye and a cheery smile. He had a reefing-jacket and “sou’-wester” hat; while his four satellites were dressed, two in reefers, and two in Guernsey jackets. The intercourse of the Sable Islanders with the outside world was very infrequent, and usually very exciting, so that on the present occasion they had turned out in force to greet their extraordinary visitors.
Not far off was a substantial and comfortable-looking house, that seemed well adapted to withstand the Atlantic storms, and shelter its inmates from the severity of the weather. A few small out-houses adjoined it, and in the distance, where the ground rose a little higher than usual, was the signal-staff already mentioned.
Whatever doubts the visitors might have had about the reception which they would meet with were dispelled at once and utterly by the first words of the potentate, whom I will call the “Governor.” Without any remark as to the suddenness of their appearance, and without any question about their errand, he at once shook hands with them all round, and invited them to the house to breakfast, which, he informed them, was all ready, and waiting for them. A long and dreary voyage and monotonous sea life made a meal on shore seem attractive beyond expression to all of them, and the kind invitation was most thankfully accepted. Whereupon the governor led the way to the house above-mentioned, and ushered his visitors into a large but low room, where a long table was spread, and lay invitingly before their eyes. Here they seated themselves, and partook of the governor’s Sable Island hospitality, in the shape of fragrant coffee, and hot rolls, and baked potatoes, and corned beef and tongue, with other articles too numerous to mention; all of which served to efface from the minds of the guests the memory of late hardships, and to diffuse among them a general feeling of peace and calm, of cheerfulness and content.
In the course of this repast the visitors made known to the governor their whole story, and that story was heard by him with an astonishment which he did not attempt to conceal. The fact that they should have been drifting blindly about without finding any place of refuge, and that they had finally been forced to seek for help from him in this place, of all others, was so overwhelming, that at first he seemed unable to believe it; and even after he had been compelled to yield his faith, his reason remained unsatisfied. The thing was true, yet unintelligible, and to his mind simply preposterous. Yet there was the fact, and here were the factors, that went to constitute that fact. The governor was dumfounded. Captain Corbet was clearly beyond him.
At length, like a wise man, he gave up the attempt to fathom what was inscrutable, and devoted himself rather to the practical duties of hospitality. He promised to let Captain Corbet have what he wanted, and also he offered to do the honors of Sable Island, and show the boys all that was worth seeing.
The governor was thus not only hospitable, but also very communicative. He told them all about Sable Island, and gave them much information, in addition to what they had already learned about this singular place.
The little colony was placed here for the purpose of giving aid and comfort to any who might be unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked here. Full supplies of all sorts of stores and provisions were placed on the island under his care. In addition to the buildings at this place there were two other houses of refuge, farther away towards the east, and also two other signal-staffs. In the other houses of refuge no one lived, but supplies of food and fuel were laid up there for the benefit of those who might need them. There was no lighthouse, because it was believed that a light might have a tendency to mislead, and because all seamen sought to keep as far away as possible from the island.
Sable Island, in fact, is nothing more than the ridge of a vast sand-bank, which rises from the ocean depths, and at this place emerges for a few feet above its surface. The sandy ridge is over twenty miles in length, and is curved in its form. The shallows at either extremity also follow this curved line, so that the whole extent of this place of danger, including the shoals as well as the island, is not much less than fifty miles. Its concave side is towards the north-west, and ships on that side in stormy weather are in great peril whenever they come within twenty miles of the place. As a consequence, many wrecks occur, some of which are known, while more are never heard of, and can only be conjectured. Caught, so to speak, between the long-extended arms of this treacherous sand-bank, they are swept helplessly to destruction among the waters that rage over these far-reaching shoals.
Once every three months a vessel comes here from Nova Scotia to bring supplies and to take off any who may have been cast ashore. The landing is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, so that the vessel has to keep away for a long time before daring to venture near.
The governor informed them that life here, on the whole, was not unpleasant, but that in winter there were times when it was impossible to venture forth out of the house. The cold was never excessive, for the surrounding waters made the temperature milder than that of the adjacent main land; but the storms were terrific, and sometimes the sea seemed to make a clean sweep over the island, and all the air was filled with clouds of driving spray. After such storms as these it was always their practice to explore the island in search of shipwrecks. Sometimes they found human beings, who had been cast ashore, huddled for shelter behind hillocks, or in the other houses of refuge and brought them back; but more frequently the only result of their search was the sight of some fragments of a lost ship which the furious waves had washed ashore; or, worse still, the lifeless bodies of those who had perished amid the raging waters. These last were always conveyed to the burial-ground of the island, where they were committed to the grave with solemn ceremony, the governor reading over them the burial service of the church.
This information and much more was communicated at breakfast; and after the repast was over, the governor proceeded to fulfil his promise by taking the boys out to show them Sable Island.
It did not appear as though there could be much to see. On leaving the house there spread away a sandy waste, whereon grew some coarse grass. This grass grew not close enough to form anything like turf, yet in sufficient abundance to afford pasturage to herds of wild ponies which belong to the island. These ponies were put here many years ago, and in successive generations have become developed into a wonderfully intelligent and hardy little animal, ugly, woolly, yet strong, and capable of feeding on anything. They endure the severity of the winter season here without any shelter whatever; and when snow is on the ground they get at the grass underneath with the same ready instinct that is exhibited by the buffaloes on the western prairies.
After walking some distance, they reached the crest of the sand ridge, and from this place they saw a long, narrow sheet of water. This they were informed was a lake, which took up half of the length of the island, being more than ten miles in length; the formation of the island being what may be called a long, irregular oval, enclosing this sheet of water. The eastern half of the island is, however, a solid, continuous sand-bank, and the lake lies rather towards its western end.
It is the eastern end which is most affected by storms. Here the herbage is scanter, and the hillocks more frequent; here, too, the sand shifts and changes with every storm. The governor informed them that after every very great storm, important changes might be seen in this direction, and mentioned that one of a very interesting nature had occurred a few months previously in a tremendous equinoctial gale, which had been by far the wildest that had taken place since his residence on the island. This he promised to show them, and led the way to the place where the object to which he referred might be seen.
They walked about four miles, and at length reached a pond which was about in the middle of the island, and at an equal distance from either side. Here a black object arose, which the boys at first took for some sort of a rock. As they drew nearer, it looked more like a hut; but finally, on coming close, they saw, to their utter amazement, that it was nothing else than the hull of a ship.
That ship had a most singular form. The timbers had been greatly broken, and the decks had vanished long ago; but the outlines were visible by the broken beams, and it seemed to have been about five or six hundred tons burden. But what most impressed them was the quaint and singular appearance of the stern. This part had been less injured than the rest. It rose to a height of over sixteen feet, and much more was still buried in the sand. The uppermost portion was battered and broken; but beneath this there was a second deck and a third. Between this second deck and the third was what might once have been a cabin, and the broken port-holes astern, that once gave light, were still plainly visible. The great height of the stern and its division into successive stories, reminded the boys of the pictures which they had seen of the ships of three centuries back, and filled their minds with intense excitement.
“This ship,” said the governor, “was uncovered by the great gale of last March. Until that time it had been completely covered by the sand, which formed around it the biggest hillock on the island. I never had any idea that inside of that hillock there was anything of this sort. I attributed the formation of the hillock to the accidental concurrence of the winds which had gathered the sand up here. You would scarcely believe how large it was. Why, for hundreds of yards all around here that hill extended, and it was over thirty feet higher than where we now are.
“Well, a few days after the great gale, I came out in this direction, and noticed, to my amazement, that the hill was gone! That didn’t surprise me much, for I had known other such changes to take place in every storm, though I had never known any on such an extensive scale. But when I came nearer, and saw this old hull, you may depend upon it I was astonished enough. Here it was,—all laid bare, all the sand blown away just as you see it now, except the cabin there, which I proceeded to clear out as soon as I could.