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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter IX

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Chapter IX.

‘Ships are but boards; sailors but men.’
‘For here, when the night roars round, and under
The white sea lightens and leaps like fire,
Acclaimed of storm and applauded in thunder,
Sits death on the throne of his crowned desire.
Yea, hardly the hand of the god might fashion
A seat more strong for his strength to take,
For the might of his heart and the pride of his passion
To rejoice in the wars they make.’

The steamer ploughed her way onwards. From stem to stem all her lamps were burning, like a chain of stars shining cheerily above the gloomy waters. There were no other stars, for the sky was not less gloomy than the sea. The sun had gone down with angry redness, and ever since the clouds had been surging upwards from the south-east, until a canopy of gray hid the blue of heaven. There was a melancholy moaning now and then, which meant that the wind would rise in a few hours, and the long steady roll of the green billows, which as yet only rocked the steamer, would be stronger by and by.

In the lulls between the puffs of wind there was a great quietness. No sounds for miles and miles, page 134 except those which the steamer bore along with her —the regular throb of the engines, the music and singing, the voices and laughter of the passengers. They were spending a merry evening. They had been a week in each other's company, and at sea a week is quite a long time, during which one may become very intimate with a fellow-voyager. There were those who had formed friendships which they vowed should not be broken by the end of the voyage. It was agreed that this had been one of the most pleasant trips any of them could remember, and there were some on board who had often made the passage. It had been a smooth passage too, till their faithful vessel's keel had plunged into the boisterous seas which rush about the extremity of New Zealand. They were in New Zealand waters now, and to one-half of the passengers New Zealand meant home.

Yes—they were going home, and with the land they lived in so near, that, but for the darkness they could have seen it, they felt too secure to have a care for the evil portents of the sky and sea. A landsman will love to hug the shore, though it may have been strewn with wrecks. Timid souls who, while on a ship in mid-ocean, are never able to forget that only a few planks stand between them and fathomless depths, will sleep in peace while they are running the gauntlet between the reefs, the islands, and headlands of a coast to which a sailor would much rather give a wide berth. But such things do not claim the page 135 thoughts of those who are but a day from their hearths and homes.

The Australasians are a nation of travellers. Of New Zealanders, in particular, it has been said that they travel more than any other community of the same size. As usual, at that season of the year, the steamer was crowded. What with sunburnt Victorians hastening to recruit their energies in a cooler climate, and what with New Zealanders whose business or pleasure in distant countries was ended, every berth was full, and doubtless many places as well which never had been designed for berths. This was the favourite boat, and many who might have waited for another had chosen to return by her. There was nothing to warn them that a fate pursued her from wave to wave, and would overtake her in the end.

There were men whom money affairs had taken abroad; had they foreseen the end of their journey a world's wealth would not have tempted them. There were honest artisans who had been to sell the labour of their hands in the best market, and after a time of industry and careful saving were bringing their gains to their families. There were sons and daughters returning home after an education had been finished or a profession learnt. There were the old couple whom a son had sent for, and who were so happy, because they had only a peaceful old age before them, and toil and penury would know them no more. There were the sisters who page 136 were coming out to their brother, and who had laughed, and chattered, and been more unaffectedly joyous during the last two months than in all their lives before, because they had left behind them the poor pinched life of a school governess. And, oh, the pity of it!—there was the brightest, sweetest, most lovable, the favourite of them all—the smiling light-hearted girl, who herself was at school only the other day, and had come half-way round the world because some one in New Zealand had asked her to share his fortunes. She must needs tell this to all the other ladies; for with such guileless creatures the mouth really does speak out of the abundance of the heart. They have all heard, even before the Bluff is reached, how long she has been engaged, and how it might have happened before, only Mamma thought she was too young, and how Walter—who, of course, is the some one awaiting her—has been very fortunate; so that they will be perfectly comfortable, which has removed Papa's great objection. Some of them—a favoured few—have seen the fortunate Walter's portrait, and have sworn with all the feminine oaths of asseveration that he is handsome. Some other persons (not feminine) have been heard to say that Walter is a lucky fellow. And there have been confidential descriptions—blame her not for this frivolity—of the trousseau, folded away in I know not how many boxes, and consigned to inaccessible regions, or she would have been delighted to show it. Especially page 137 has every one heard of that dress of cream white satin, shimmering through filmy lace, which has been packed with an infinity of care, and in wrappers innumerable, in a trunk all to itself. An unsurpassable bridal dress, they have assured her.

They have been told all this, and naturally they have retailed it to others; so that all on the steamer, passengers, captain, officers, even sailors, know her as the ‘bride.’ She is a privileged passenger; stewards and stewardesses, who consult their own ease when ordinary persons desire their attendance, would wear themselves out in her service. And when she has confessed to a great fear which troubles her, that there will be some mistake, and no one will come to meet her when the steamer arrives, and then she will feel so desolate, and not know what to do or where to go,—it is a small wonder that one and all should vow to take care of her in that trying hour. She is in charge of them all, from the captain downwards, and it will be strange if harm or trouble befall her.

Amongst those who were not home-returning New Zealanders a young Australian had, more than all the rest, attracted Randall's notice. It was not merely because they shared the same cabin, and were thus forced into a certain degree of intimacy; there was something peculiarly winning in the quiet, almost melancholy manner of his companion, which interested Randall in the first hour of their acquaintance, and would have compelled his attention where- page 138 ever they might have met. He was still in the same restless, disturbed state of mind which had come over him in Sydney, and he had little inclination for the conversation or the amusements of the other passengers. Wearied of everything, and impatient to be at the end of the journey, he would willingly have travelled alone, had such a thing been possible, except for the companionship of this one person whose society really was pleasant to him. It did not pass unnoticed that he would talk with him when he did not seem to be in a mood to converse with any one else, and those who remarked this intimacy, and contrasted it with the reserved habits of Randall, said that they must have known each other for a long while, as he was too misanthropical in his character to form a friendship with any one in a few days. Other people, however, more justly attributed his misanthropy to the fact that he had been ill, or would be very soon,—a supposition which his appearance rendered probable enough. He gave them some music one evening; and then they said he was a genius; and after that no one would have been surprised at any eccentricity of conduct he might have manifested. After that, too, his friend, whom they called Moray, seemed to make him the subject of a sort of hero-worship. They were something alike, perhaps, in disposition, and in one thing they certainly resembled each other—both were in a great hurry to be in New Zealand. Mr. Moray's mission, however, was only a prosaic page 139 affair of every-day life: he was obliged to go to collect money which was owing to him, and he seemed such a gentle amiable sort of man that it was not thought his debtors would be much terrified at his appearance. ‘Will he ever get it, d'ye think?’ said a sporting gentleman to a friend of his, as in the blissful retirement of the smoking-room they were discussing other people's business. ‘Not he!’ replied the friend. The sporting gentleman expected to get a good deal during his sojourn in New Zealand.

Mr. Moray wore mourning. He told Randall it was for his father, and that this debt-collecting excursion was one of the results of taking the business into his own hands. His mother and sister had been unreasonably anxious about him, and had wanted him to let the money go rather than take a voyage on its account.

‘I don't know why; but they have made me as timid as themselves,’ he said. ‘I almost wish I had let it go. But our means are not so large that we can allow two or three hundred to be lost. They have put thoughts into my head I can't get rid of. I even feel sometimes as if I were not to see Melbourne again.’

‘This is not such a long or dangerous passage, though,’ said Randall.

‘No. I don't know of anything; but perhaps one may feel a danger which can't be seen. I wish, at least, I had not come by this steamer. page 140 They wanted me to wait. If anything should happen——’

‘But we have no reason to suppose that anything will happen.’

‘You think I'm foolishly nervous? I thought at first you were anxious like myself.’

‘Not about that,’ said Randall, feeling perfectly apathetic on the subject of danger. ‘I never thought of it.’

‘The others don't, evidently,’ said Moray, as, mingled with bursts of laughter and loud exclamations, the strains of a comic song, and a noisy rattling pianoforte accompaniment, came to their ears. ‘I would rather be like them, and not know till it comes. You are not going down, are you? I don't think either of us is much inclined to sleep. Stay here a little longer.’

‘Not to humour you in your fancies of danger, though,’ said Randall. ‘The cautiousness with which we are feeling our way along the coast ought to convince you that we are in careful hands.’

They went below soon after this. There had been no change up to the time of their leaving the deck. Still the same gray curtain over everything. The night went on; there was not a passenger astir, and probably not one awake—few lights now; no laughter nor music. The same great stillness was on the sea; the wind had hardly freshened, and the expected storm seemed long in coming. To the north-east was the land; but it is a low-lying coast, page 141 and the mists hid it from sight. But from that direction, when the wind was quiet, came a sound which as yet no one on the steamer had heard. It is a sound you will never forget if you hear it, on such a night as this, from a hidden coast. It is a sound they who shall live to tell of this night never will forget to the last day of their lives.

But no one hears, and they steam on. Nearer yet; and now it cannot be mistaken. Breakers ahead! there are the white crests curling over as they fling themselves on the rocks. So near are they that the foam swirls around the steamer. There is but a second, and in that second the captain has sprung to the wheel; but no steersman can save her now. Into the white water she rushes; they have been steering her to her doom for the last half-hour. There is a grating, a quivering start, and then, with a fearful shock, she has hurled herself with all the force of her weight upon the reef, and wave after wave dashes on her in wild triumph.

At that shock all below started from their slumbers. Oh, what an awakening from sweet dreams of home! Frightened, shrieking women and children crowded on to the deck, believing from the loud noise of the seas which struck the vessel, and from her continual bumping on the rock, that she was going to pieces. But the land was now in sight, and there was comfort in that; it was so near, they must be safe. The captain assured them there was no danger (did he believe it himself?); the steamer page 142 was not breaking up, and they would be landed when it was light enough.

Landed — but how? What boat would live through the surf which was running in upon the beach? Nevertheless his words quieted them, and the most panic-stricken soon saw the uselessness of their outcries. There was no disturbance after the first shock had passed over, and amongst the crew all were willing to abide by orders. The boats were cleared away in readiness to be lowered as soon as it should be light enough to find a landing-place; and they waited for the morning as they had never yet waited for another day.

It came at last. Not with a rosy glow; not with the sun going up in his strength behind the eastern hills. A clouded sky, an angry sea, and a long line of surf between them and the shore, were what it showed them. It seemed well-nigh impossible to pass that barrier of foam; but, with so many lives at stake, impossibilities must be dared. No boat can be taken through the surf, but a man may swim through it, and bear the tidings of the disaster to those on land.

When the first boat was being lowered, and some of the men were with difficulty taking their places in it, Randall saw that Moray was close to him. Curiously enough he had not seen anything of him up to that time, although they had been aroused at the same moment, and had left the cabin together. Moray was without coat or waistcoat; he had not page 143 had time to find these, and the greatcoat he had snatched up in his hurry he had taken off to wrap round a poor shivering woman, who, thinking only of saving bare life, had rushed out in her night-clothes. It had been impossible to return to the cabins after the first ten minutes, for the water had immediately gushed in at every opening. The engine-room, as Randall had just seen, was half full of water, and the fires were out. The unfortunate vessel had broken amidships, and the sea washed over her stern. But most of those on her deck, in view of the waste of storm-driven water around them, thought it safest to hold by her till rescue came.

Moray's eyes met Randall's with a peculiar, half-reproachful glance. ‘You laughed at my fancies,’ he said.

‘Do you mean to say you foresaw this?’ answered his friend. ‘All isn't over yet.’

‘You have heard the captain saying there was no danger. He is obliged to say such things, or those poor women would be mad with fright. He knows better than you or I what case we are in. Can we land through that surf, or can we afford to wait for help? I think’ — and he lowered his voice—‘that help must come within the next six hours, or we are lost. Do you see those fellows? They would rush the boat, but the captain is firm, and keeps them in hand.’

Some passengers, who had attempted to get into the boat, were ordered out by the captain, and sullenly fell back to their places. The men whom page 144 he had selected from the crew, on the contrary, though they obeyed without a murmur, said to one another that they were going to their deaths. The captain called for volunteers to swim ashore from the boat. He looked for a response towards the steerage passenger, a number of whom were strong young men. They were ready to offer themselves for the work, dangerous though it was. Some were chosen by the captain, and afterwards sent back. In his anxiety not to throw away life in vain he resolved only to send one man. Randall, followed by his friend, had pressed forward with the rest. Something which Moray saw in the other's face prompted him to ask, ‘Are you going?’

‘Yes,’ said Randall. ‘I can't endure to stand here doing nothing. If a life has to be risked it may as well be mine. I will go,’ he cried, stepping out before the rest.

The captain took time, even in the hurry of the moment to notice the excited look, the flushed face, and dilated eyes of the man who cried out to him in this way. ‘Do you know what you have to do?’ he said doubtfully.

‘I have swam through a surf as heavy as that once before,’ said Randall. ‘I know this coast. You can't see it from here, but there is a house near to the beach. The nearest telegraph station is in that direction, twenty miles away. Some of these men who have volunteered have wives and children. I had better go than they.’

page 145

‘I would go with you if I could swim,’ said Moray.

‘One life is enough to risk,’ said the captain. He gave his instructions to Randall in a few plain words; whoever might have lost his head that day he was not the one. Long afterwards Randall remembered his face as he saw it last, and the look with which he followed the boat as it left the ship. The fixed calmness which comes near to utter despair was on his countenance. He would do all that he could to the very end, but hope had left him.

Moray was at his friend's side as he turned to leave the deck.

‘Take care of this for me,’ said Randall, giving him a ring. ‘It has worn loose lately, and I should lose it if I kept it on. If I don't get through you will send it to my mother. Better put it on; that's the safest way.’

‘If I live she shall have it,’ said Moray; ‘but it may be safer with you among the breakers than here on my hand. Good-bye, for I may never see you again.’

He was holding on with one hand; with the other, cold and stiffened as a leaden one, he grasped Randall's. As long as Randall could look back he was standing in the same place, straining his eyes after the departing boat, the wind blowing his hair about his blanched face, and the spray of the seas, which dashed almost to his feet, drenching through and through his clothing.

They watched that boat—oh, how anxiously! page 146 Like a little shell it was tossed from the crest to the hollow of the waves; like a shell it might be crushed in an instant by their power. As one roller after another, like a great wall of dark green water, followed it, they dreaded lest it should be swallowed up in their mass. Now it was hidden from their eyes; it had gone. No; it rose again, buoyant as a float, on the crest of another wave. It neared the beach; it had reached that impassable line of breakers. They held their breath while they saw the swimmer fling himself into the whirling flood. Now—now was the moment, and their eyes pierced the distance with an intensity of longing. They saw him again! No: it was nothing: in that seething cauldron, where wave crashed into wave every moment, what was the strength of a man? What was his life worth now? The time grew long; he must be lost. But that last great wave which went up so high on the beach has thrown something from its grasp—a living thing, which can just weakly drag itself out of the backward sweep. A cheer burst from those on the steamer; their messenger was safe.

They had forgotten themselves in watching him; now they could think again of their own danger. They saw him leave the beach, as soon as he had recovered strength, to take the news of their peril and their cry for help where help might be found. But it would be long ere help could reach them. Every minute now was an immensity of time in its possibilities; every grain of sand in the hour-glass page 147 was as a precious jewel in their sight. Three of their boats were broken in pieces; the other two had saved a few; but they could no longer approach the steamer on account of the fearful sea which had been steadily rising ever since daybreak. Hope left those who clustered together on the highest part of the forecastle, just above the wash of the sea. They saw people running to and fro on the beach, watching their agony, and wringing their hands because they were powerless to save them. They stood face to face with death; and in the awe of his approach the tears dried in their eyes, and the poor sobbing women, who clung to their children as if they could hold them safe in their arms, were quieted and calm. For it must come now; all has been done that men can do. To the last they have been faithful to one another. No sailor has turned from his duty; the captain has valued his own life less than theirs. No one can tell their story to the end; no one could bear to listen to it, if it were told in all its truth. This they knew who watched from the beach, that one by one the waves tore them from their hold and carried them away in their depths. The sea rose higher and higher till it rolled in mountain waves. Onward they came like hungry wolves; they broke upon the lost vessel; her decks crashed beneath their weight. They swirled back again; and where were the few who had clung to the railing a moment ago? Wave upon wave again; there was nothing now to check their wild rush but the masts. Would it beat them page 148 down also, or would they defy the power of the sea till help came for the few men who were on them? Oh, well may they look seaward for a sail, and well may they look landward to the fires on the beach, where the watchers are who will not leave before the tragedy is played out to its end! O day, that has seemed so long, because from moment to moment life and death have wrestled with each other—be longer yet! But slowly—slowly, yet all too soon, the sun declines, and the gray mists rise from the heaving sea.

Then Darkness and the Night. The horrors of the sea are tenfold greater when the light is gone. The shout of an army is on the blast; the army of those who were never wrapped in shrouds, for whom no grave was hollowed, no knell was rung, nor prayer repeated. Victims of the insatiate sea, their phantoms rise and fall with the waves, their hands beckon from the depths to those who are so nearly in their grasp.

All through the night it beats upon them; all through the night they hang there. There is a light moving on the waters; surely help is nigh, and they raise a feeble cheer. But a mist comes before them, and the light is gone. And towards morning, above the roar of the sea, and above the crash of the breaking masts, a cry goes up—it is the last. Down, down now with everything; the sea has its way at last, and its proud waves find nothing to stay them in their wild career.

And they need wait no longer in the towns, whose lights shine within the bays and on the headlands of page 149 the coast, for those who have so nearly won home will come no more. And they need make no wedding-feast for the golden-haired girl whom they called the bride, for she has been bidden to another marriage-supper, and whiter far her bridal robe than that prepared for her on earth. They will find it on the shore, tangled amongst the sea-weeds; but her they will not find. The jealous sea hides that calm white face, lying fathoms down, where no storm can ever rage. Not a whisper; not a footfall breaks the silence of that dark grave.

And again it was morning. Oh, what a fair and lovely dawn! The clouds had all been blown from the sky, and the roughest of the waves had golden crests in the sunlight. The sea was high—it is never stilled on this coast; but it rolled in rejoicingly, as if it were a sport to toss upon the sand the fragments of the ship it had broken on the rocks. A long way outside the reef a faintly-outlined pillar of smoke rose into the clear sky. Larger it grew and rose higher above the water line, until the red funnel and dark hull of a steamer could be seen. There was other life upon the waters: a white-sailed cutter, towing an open boat which had tossed up and down here all night. It had held some of the few who were saved from the wreck. The steamer met them, received them on board, and altered her course. There was no need now to steer closer to the fatal reefs, for it was certain that the help she brought was all too late.