AT eight o'clock, having fed my dogs and ferrets and left my boy Jack chatting in the harness-room with the rector's old coachman, I found myself in a snug arm-chair, pipe in mouth, my feet on the fender, and the rector sitting opposite me in his study, he also enjoying an after-dinner pipe; and after a chat over the events of the day and of the storm of the previous night, the rector began the history of the poor lame boy at the cottage thus-
"I dare say you remember that about eight years ago the Irish question was giving the authorities much trouble and anxiety owing to the active turn it had then taken. Hideous murders were of daily occurrence in that unfortunate country. Dynamite was being used in London to destroy our public buildings, and many of our statesmen were being tracked by paid assassins. Strict orders had been issued by the authorities to watch all our ports to prevent the landing from America of arms and infernal machines, and both the police and Customs officers were on the alert; and yet, in spite of all, bloodthirsty, cowardly dynamiters and assassins succeeded in sneaking into the country, and every now and then perpetrated some hateful outrage. Well, it was during this time that one November morning a queer-looking yacht-like vessel appeared in the offing, and for two days kept standing about. During the day-time it was well out in the offing, but once or twice at night it was noticed by the coastguard and sailors to have come close in to land, and altogether its movements were so mysterious that our suspicions were fully aroused, and the officer of the coastguard telegraphed to the captain of the gunboat stationed at Brockmouth to put him on the alert.
"For some days after this nothing was seen of the yacht, and our suspicions were lulled, and life in our quiet little village had settled down to its usual routine, when early one stormy morning the strange vessel was again seen close off the land, and a boat manned by six men put off for the little harbour; and just as it rounded the Point and got into smooth water, a dog-cart, that we all recognised as one let out for hire in a town ten miles inland, drove down to the beach. Beside the driver sat a tall, thin, dark man, but the few people on the beach had only time to observe this and that he had the dress and appearance of a gentleman, when he sprang from the cart and hurried to where the boat lay, and without hesitating a moment or speaking to anyone he waded out through the low surf to the boat, which at once left the harbour and made the best of its way to the yacht, which as soon as all were on board hoisted all sail and was soon out of sight, driven along by a storm that became in the course of the day as fierce a one as that of last night. There was much talk on the beach among the fishermen and in the village among us all as to what the yacht could be and who the stranger was; and we gathered from the driver of the dog-cart, who had put up his horse at the inn to rest, that he had been called by the porter at the railway station to drive the gentleman over; but that he had not heard his name, or what business brought him here. The driver, who was a sharp old fellow, said the gentleman had chatted with him as he came along, but kept pressing him to drive faster and faster, and gave him five shillings above his fare to use his best speed, and he added I don't know who he is, or what his business may be, but I know one thing—he is an Irishman. I can tell it by his tongue, and by his queer-looking blue eyes and dark hair.
"Four and twenty hours passed, and during that time many people, I among the number, did not go to bed, for the storm which had sprung up with the departing yacht had blown itself into half a hurricane, and there were fishing boats out, which made us all anxious. As we did last night, or rather this morning, I went round to a few of the fishermen's houses where there were anxious wives and mothers waiting for the absent, and chatted with and cheered them, and I was leaving the two cottages that I daresay you noticed close under the rock towards the Point when the first streaks of morning began to appear in the east. I love to see the day break at any time, but I especially like to watch it over a stormy angry sea; and therefore sheltering myself a little behind a boulder, I stood gazing for a while, when presently, like a thing of life, came plunging and driving from the very gates of the morning the same yacht that had so puzzled us. On and on it came, close-hauled to the wind, straight for the narrow rock-bound jaws of the cove; and I saw at a glance that, if it kept its course, it must strike on a group of rocks some half-mile out at sea; and, parson as I am, I knew, should she strike them, no human aid could save the lives of those on board.
"I hardly know what I did, except that I took off my coat and waved it frantically, and mounted the highest pinnacle on the rocky point to make myself seen by the fated crew; but though at last I could actually distinguish two men at the wheel holding the vessel close to the wind, yet they took no notice, and came on and on, leaping waves mountains high one minute, and lost to sight the next in the trough of the seas. Scores of fishermen soon joined me, and even their wives followed and crouched near, behind the rocks; and so fully was the ship's danger realized, that from time to time a deep groan, half of despair, half prayer, went up from all. There was but one hope—could the yacht be kept close enough to the wind to lead those steering her to believe they could make the entrance of the harbour? or would she be carried far enough to windward to make this impossible and so force those in charge to alter her course to avoid the stiff cliffs beyond? Ah, no! We saw as we watched that she was too good a vessel to fall off to leeward, and those handling her too good sailors to allow her to do so, for she flew over the waves like a beautiful bird for the entrance of the harbour, and the sunken rocks were in her direct line!
"Suddenly as we watched, with every sense strained to the utmost, and our eyes rivetted on the doomed ship, we heard away out to sea the boom of a big gun, and then another, and presently we saw emerging from the fast diminishing darkness a low, long steamer. At first we thought it was a ship also in deep distress, making signals; but the old sailors soon saw this was not so, and declared it was a gunboat firing at the yacht in the hope of driving her on to the rock-bound coast, and also to attract the attention of the coastguard, so that, should she reach the harbour, those on board might be prevented from escaping the hands of justice. It was a cruel service for British sailors to be employed on, however necessary, and hard to witness. Man hunting man to his death, when the wind and waves already held open the portals of eternity before him, and little short of a miracle could avert his doom!
"A few minutes, a few hundred yards, and the yacht is on the rocks! Gallantly she glides along the side of that green wave and dashes the foam from her crest ere she plunges deep into the sea. A monster wave rolls fast upon her as if to swallow her quivering form. High, high she rises, till half her length is in the air over the crest of the wave, and then down she sinks; then the crash comes. Waves dash over her, her masts fall, her boats are wrenched from her sides, and the next minute we see her, a tangled mass of wreck and cordage, firmly embedded on the pitiless rocks. Don't suppose our fishermen had been quietly watching this and doing nothing to help. From the first, preparations had been made. Our friend Jack, and a score of other active young men, had shoved off the only boat on the beach that had the faintest hope of living in a storm like this, and had been waiting in it close to the harbour mouth some minutes before the yacht struck. But so small was the chance of that frail boat living in such a sea, that many of the most experienced of the sailors made signals to prevent the men starting off to meet what they thought was certain death. Others thought it might be done, and waved contrary signals; and it was then that one saw what sort of women our sailors' wives are, for though many standing there with us had near and dear ones in that boat, and were suffering tortures of anxiety, not a word was spoken, but all was left for the men to do as they thought right.
"As the yacht struck, a deep, wailing shout went up from all on land, and those in the boat knew what had happened, and the next moment we saw the boat plunge into the green waves at the harbour mouth. For a moment it seemed to stagger and quail, and then, impelled by those hands and muscles of iron, it was driven forward through the blinding spray into the angry sea beyond. Shall I ever forget how we watched that boat, now mounted high on the top of a wave, now for moments lost to sight, the men all straining at their oars to the utmost, and always creeping forward yard by yard? All this time, we on the Point could see, with increasing fears, that the hope of the yacht holding together till reached by the rescuers was but a faint one. Each monster wave that rolled in lifted it from the rocks and left it to fall back with an irresistible force midst spray and foam, that constantly wholly hid it from our sight; and even before the boat started, portions of the wreck were being tossed about on the sea, making its passage even more precarious. At one time a group of human beings was seen on the deck clinging to some cordage; but when the next wave passed, most of them had disappeared, and we knew they had perished before our eyes. It was difficult to distinguish objects midst the turmoil, but it soon was whispered among us that some one or more persons were crouching behind the bulwarks, probably lashed there for safety, and from an occasional flutter of a red scarf or garment, we feared there was an unfortunate woman among them; and once, as the waves receded from the deck, we distinctly saw a man rise up from the group and look for a moment towards the approaching boat, and then sink again beside his companions, just as the incoming wave swept high over the poor shelter the stout bulwark afforded.
"If the yacht could only hold together a few minutes longer! But no! once more it rises from its bed like some agonised, dying monster, and then as it falls back it parts in two, and half of it is a drifting mass of planks and timber, washing forward as if to meet the boat and destroy it. A portion yet remained fixed on the rock, and now and then we could still see the group crouching behind the bulwark. On and on fought the boat, now a little out of the direct line to avoid the wreckage, till it was close behind the wreck and partially sheltered by the rampart it formed against the sea; but at that moment all that remained of it was again lifted high in the air and dashed forward; and when the wave had passed by, there was only the frail boat with its brave crew to be seen on the surface. We see it pause for a moment, and then the oars all dip together, and the boat dashes forward. Someone leans over the bows, and there is a moment's struggle; but the mist and foam prevent our distinguishing clearly what is going on. After a while they evidently find there is nothing further that can be done; the boat is put before the waves and comes dashing back towards land.
"All on the Point hurried down to the entrance of the harbour; and many of the men, with coils of rope in their hands, stood ready to give assistance. As each wave rolled under the boat, it flew through the water, and then sank back again hidden from our sight; but nearer and nearer it came on, till at last on the crest of a wave it darted sharp round the Point, and lay tossing in comparatively calm water. Steadily its crew rowed it up the little harbour, and as it approached the beach scores of ready hands seized it and ran it high up on to dry land, and a cheer rang out above the roar of the wind to welcome those snatched from the jaws of death. But this was not responded to by the men in the boat. They all looked stern and anxious; and then we saw that Jack, who was crouched in the bows, was supporting in his arms the slight form of a fair young girl, with long, soft, tangled hair falling around her and forming a frame to the most beautiful saint-like face my eyes had ever seen. Her lips were parted in a smile, and her eyes looked down on a small boy about two years old, who was bound in her arms by a red scarf. At first I thought she was fainting or falling asleep, but the next moment—merciful Heavens!—I saw that the back of her sweet young head was battered in and bleeding, and that she was already beyond the storms of life and the cruel raging of the destroying elements.
"Hard horny hands of rough women tenderly and deftly unwound the scarf from off the child; and Jack's wife, Mary, pressing him to her bosom, hastened with him to her cottage, while the fair dead form was carried to a fisherman's house close by, and a few days later was laid in its quiet grave in the old churchyard, within sound of the ruthless sea that had so cruelly beaten the young life out of it.
"You may easily find the grave, for the fishermen out of their deep pity had a plain cross put over it, with just the words 'Jack's mother' and the date of her death carved upon it. To this day, and I fancy for ever, the only name she will be known by is Jack's mother,' for all connected with that ill-fated yacht remains a mystery. Not a living creature escaped, except that frail little child. Many bodies were recovered during the next few days, and among them the remains of the man who had arrived the previous day in the dog-cart; but neither on any of the bodies, nor among the wreckage that came ashore, was anything found to lead to the identification of the yacht or its owners; and though the account of the disaster appeared in all the papers and was the talk of the county, yet no living soul has ever come forward to claim connection with the child or with any of those drowned.
"It was thought at the time that the owner of the yacht was one of those desperate ruffians of Irish extraction that have from time to time arrived here from America, and that when he so hastily joined the vessel he was in fear of detection and was about to sail for America. Anyhow the yacht was sighted by the gunboat sent to look after it, and chased and driven through the storm back to our little harbour, it being doubtless the intention of the fugitive to attempt his escape by land if he could once reach the shore. How miserably it ended you now know; but you don't know quite all, for I have not told you that, on reaching their cottage, Jack's wife found that the little one breathed. I have told you of the storm, and I have told you of the wreck; but words would fail to tell of all the love and care and attention that was bestowed for weeks—aye! for years, up to this day—on the little one. Only the recording angel can note such things, and only the God of love can reward them. Not that either Jack or his wife think of rewards either from earth or in heaven, for their love is wholly unselfish and all-satisfying; and were only the boy well and strong, I am sure that in all these realms there could not be found a more perfectly happy trio than Jack the fisherman, little Jack, and his adopted mother. Unfortunately it was discovered that in some way the child's back had been injured in the storm. For months he lay between life and death, at last to recover partially only in health, and without the use of his poor legs.
"Many friends have come forward with help, and great London doctors have seen and attended the boy. Till lately they gave little hope, but, thank God, there has been during the past year a slow but steady improvement, and they now think in time the boy may grow strong in health, but there is no hope of his ever walking without his crutches.
"Fortunately nature has bestowed many gifts on the poor child that compensate him somewhat for his loss—first, an intensely loving, unselfish nature; and secondly, a perfect voice and passionate love of music. Already he is carried each Sunday to church by his father, and his voice in the choir is celebrated for many miles round, and has so impressed the organist at the cathedral at Marshford that he either comes himself, or sends one of his pupils, to give the boy a lesson once a week, and there is not a better violinist within the bounds of the county than our little Jack is. His father is so proud of the boy's gifts that I have known him, when wind-bound in a harbour down the coast twenty miles away, walk over the whole distance on a Sunday morning and back at night rather than miss carrying the little fellow to church and hearing him sing there. But it is eleven o'clock, and we were up all last night. What, no grog? Well, good night! Come and see me when you can, and come and watch the sea with me in another storm, and we will see if I can't rake up another story of the doings of the rough heroes of our neighbourhood who go down to the sea in ships. Good night, good night!"
And so one of the pleasantest evenings I had spent for a long while was over.
Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on "Rat-catching for the Use of Schools," and I have drifted off the line here, toppled into a story there, and been as wild and erratic in my goings on as even Pepper would be with a dozen rats loose together in a thick hedge. Well, I can't help it. I am not much good at books, and it ain't of much consequence, for during the last few days I have heard from half a dozen head-masters of schools that they find the art of rat-catching is so distasteful to their scholars, and so much above their intellect, and so fatiguing an exercise to the youthful mind, that they feel obliged to abandon the study of it and replace it once more by those easier and pleasanter subjects, Latin and Greek. Well, I am sorry for it, very sorry. I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed; and I can only console myself with thinking that one can't make silk purses out of—you know what. Mind, in this quotation I am not thinking of myself and my failure.