A heavy gale, a wreck, and a rescue.
We had run out in our galley as far as the Start, when the appearance of the weather became very threatening. It was just about the time of the equinoctial gales, and there was a consultation among us whether we should run into Torquay or return to Deal.
Bramble observed, that as the gale coming on would, in all probability, blow for three days, he thought it was no use remaining all that time at Torquay, where we should be put to extra expense, and that we should be better on shore at our own homes. This remark decided the point, and about dusk we put the boat's head along shore for up Channel. The wind was at that time about S.S.W., but occasionally shifting a point or two. The sky had become covered over with one black mass of clouds, which hung down so low that they appeared almost to rest on the water; and there was that peculiar fitful moaning which is ever the precursor of a violent gale of wind. At nightfall we reefed our lug-sails; and, while one sat at the helm, the rest of us lounged against the gunnel, buttoned up in our pilot jackets; some shutting their eyes, as if to invite sleep, others watching the waves, which now rose fast, and danced and lapped at the weather broadside as if they would fain have entered into the boat. But of that we had little fear; our galley was one of the finest boats that ever swam, and we felt as secure as if we were on board of a three-decked ship. As the night advanced, so did the wind increase and the sea rise; lightning darted through the dense clouds, and for a moment we could scan the horizon. Everything was threatening; yet our boat, with the wind about two points free, rushed gallantly along, rising on the waves like a sea-bird, and sinking into the hollow of the waters as if she had no fear of any attempt on their part to overwhelm her. Thus did we continue to run on during the night, every hour the gale increasing, the billows mounting up until they broke in awful and majestic crests, and often so near to us that we presented our backs in a close file against the weather bulwarks to prevent any body of water from pouring in.
"We shall have light soon," observed one of the men.
"And we shall want it to beach the boat in such weather as this," replied another. "We shall have it harder yet before day."
"Depend upon it this will be a mischievous gale," observed Bramble, "and our coast will be strewed with wrecks. Any ships under canvas now, between the Channel shores, will stand but a poor chance against this heavy sea, which bears down with such force. I'd rather be in this boat now than in any vessel in mid-Channel."
"And I had rather be on shore than in either," rejoined I.
"Well, Tom," said one of the pilots, "I do really believe you this time."
When it was broad daylight, the coast to leeward presented a wild and terrific scene, lashed as it was by the furious surf, which dashed its spray half-way up the towering white cliffs, for it was within two hours of high water. The waves were now really mountains high, and their broad surfaces were pitted into little waves by the force of the wind, which covered the whole expanse of waters with one continued foam. On our weather bow a vessel with her foremast gone was pitching heavily, and at times nearly buried beneath the wild tumult. Her fate was sealed; to leeward were the cliffs of the South Foreland, and on our lee-bow lay the shelving beach of Deal.
"This will be awkward landing, shipmates," said Bramble; "and yet we must try it. I'll fill my pipe—hope it won't be the last."
Although not said in a serious manner, there were few of us whose hearts did not flutter responsively to this surmise, for the danger became every minute more imminent, and we knew what a terrific surf there must be then running on the shingle beach. But we now rapidly approached the shore; we were near to the floating light, and in the roadstead not a vessel remained; all had weighed and preferred being under what canvas they could bear. At last we were within two cables' lengths of the beach, and even at this distance from it we were surrounded with the breakers; the surf broke many feet high, and roared as it rushed up with a velocity that was appalling, dashing the foam right to the door of Bramble's cottage, which was forty or fifty yards higher than it generally gained to even in very bad weather. We now lowered our sails, stowed them in the boat, and got our oars to pass, backing against the surf to prevent it from forcing us on the beach until the proper time.
It may not, perhaps, be known to many of my readers that there is a sort of regularity even in the wild waves; that is, occasionally a master wave, as it is termed, from being of larger dimensions than its predecessors, pours its whole volume on the beach; after which, by watching your time, you will find that two waves will run into one another, and, as it were, neutralize each other, so that, for a few seconds, you have what they call a smooth; the safest plan of landing then is to watch these two chances, either to run in on the master wave, or to wait till the arrival of the smooth.
The latter is generally preferred, and with good reason, as unless a boat can be forced in as fast as the master wave runs in, you are worse off than if you had landed at any other time.
The helm had been resigned to Bramble, who ordered me to go forward with the boat's painter, a long coil of rope, and stand ready either to leap out with it or throw it to those on shore, as might be most advisable; the other men were sitting on the thwarts, their long oars in the rowlocks, backing out as desired, and all ready to strain every nerve when the order was given by Bramble to pull in.
The danger which we were about to incur was fully evident to the crowds which were assembled on the beach; not only the pilots, who stood there ready to assist us—some with ropes with iron hooks at the end of them—others all ready to dart into the surf to hold on the boat, or, if required, to link their arms together, so as to form a living chain which the undertow could not drag away with it; higher up, women and children, their clothes driven by the furious gale, with one hand holding on their caps, and with the other supporting themselves by the gunnels of the boats hauled up, the capstans, or perhaps an anchor with its fluke buried in the shingle, were looking on with dismay and with beating hearts, awaiting the result of the venturous attempt, and I soon discovered the form of Bessy, who was in advance of all the others.
After a careful watching for perhaps two minutes on the part of Bramble, he gave the word, and on dashed the galley toward the strand, keeping pace with the wild surges, and although buried in the foam, not shipping one drop of water.
"Now, my men, give way—for your lives, give way," cried Bramble, as a cresting wave came towering on, as if in angry pursuit of us. The men obeyed, but, in their exertions, the stroke oar snapped in two, the man fell back, and prevented the one behind him from pulling. Our fate was sealed; the surge poured over, and throwing us broadside to the beach, we were rolled over and over in the boiling surf. A cry was heard—a cry of terror and despair—on the part of the women. I heard it as I was swept away by the undertow, and the next wave poured over me; but all was activity and energy on the part of the men who were on the beach: the next wave that run in, they recovered me and two more by linking their arms and allowing the surf to break over them. We were so much bruised that we could not stand; they dragged us up, and left us to the women. Bramble and four others were still struggling for life; again two were saved—but the men on the beach were exhausted by their strenuous exertions.
I had just recovered myself so as to sit up, when I perceived that they were not acting in concert as before; indeed, in the last attempt, several of them had narrowly escaped with their own lives. Bessy was now down among them wildly gesticulating; Bramble still floated on the boiling surf, but no chain was again formed; the wave poured in bearing him on its crest; it broke, and he was swept away again by the undertow, which dragged him back with a confused heap of singles clattering one over the other as they descended. I saw him again, just as another wave several feet in height was breaking over him—I felt that he was lost; when Bessy, with a hook rope in her hand, darted toward him right under the wave as it turned over, and as she clasped his body, they both disappeared under the mountain surge. Another shriek was raised by the women, while the men stood as if paralyzed. In my excitement I had gained my legs, and I hastened to seize the part of the rope which remained on the beach. Others then came and helped; we hauled upon it, and found that there was weight at the end. Another sea poured in; we hastily gathered in the slack of the rope, and when the water retreated, we found both Bramble and Bessy clinging to the rope. In a moment the men rushed down and hauled up the bodies. Bramble had hold of the rope by both hands—it was the clutch of death; Bessy had her arms round her father's neck; both were senseless. The boatmen carried them up to the cottage, and the usual methods of recovery were resorted to with success. Still we had to lament the death of two of our best pilots, whose loss their wives and children were loudly wailing, and whose bodies were not found for many days afterward. Alas! they were not the only ones who were lamented. Upward of three hundred vessels were lost during that dreadful gale, and hardly a seaport or fishing town but bewailed its many dead.
Whether it was that the women who attended Bessy were more active than the men, or that she was younger, and her circulation of blood was more rapid, or because she was a female, certain it is that Bessy first recovered her speech, and her first question was, "Where was her father?" Bramble did not speak, but fell into a sleep immediately after he was brought to life. I had changed my clothes, and was watching by him for an hour or more when he woke up.
"Ah! Tom, is that you? Where's Bessy?"
"She is in bed, but quite recovered."
"Quite recovered—I recollect. I say, Tom, ain't she a fine creature? God bless her. Well, she owes me nothing now, at all events. I think I should like to get up, Tom. I wonder whether I smashed my old pipe on the shingle? Just look into my wet jacket. I say, Tom, were they all saved?"
"No," I replied; "Fisher and Harrison were both drowned."
"Poor fellows! I wish they had been spared. Fisher has seven children—and Harrison, he has a wife, I think."
"Yes, and two children, father."
"Poor woman! God's will be done! He giveth and He taketh away! Tom, I must get up and see Bessy."
I assisted Bramble to dress, and as soon as he had put on his clothes he went to Bessy's room. I stayed at the door. "You may come in, Tom; she's muffled up in her blankets, and fast asleep."
"Quite fast," said Mrs. Maddox; "she has slept more than an hour. Dear heart, it will do her good."
Bramble kissed Bessy's pale forehead, but it did not waken her. "Look, Tom," said Bramble, "look at that smooth, clear skin—those pretty features. Look at the delicate creature! and would you have thought that she would have dared what no man dared to do—that she would have defied those elements raging in their might, and have snatched their prey from their very grasp? Did I ever imagine, when I brought her as a helpless baby on shore, that she would ever have repaid the debt with such interest, or that such a weak instrument should have been chosen by the Lord to save one who otherwise must have perished? But His ways are not our ways, and He works as He thinks fit. Bless you, bless you, my Bessy—and may your fond heart never be again put to such trial! Is she not beautiful, Tom? just like a piece of cold marble. Thank Heaven, she is not dead, but sleepeth!"
I certainly never did look upon Bessy with so much interest; there was something so beautifully calm in her countenance as she lay there like an effigy on a tomb, hardly appearing to breathe; and when I thought of the courage and devotion shown but a few hours before by the present almost inanimate form, I bent over her with admiration, and felt as if I could kneel before the beautiful shrine which contained such an energetic and noble spirit. While this was passing through my mind, Bramble had knelt by the bedside, and was evidently in prayer. When he rose up he said, "Come away, Tom: she is a maiden, and may feel ashamed if she awaken and find us men standing by her bedside. Let me know when she wakes up, Mrs. Maddox, and tell her I have been in to see her; and now, Tom, let's go down. I never felt the want of a pipe so much as I do now."