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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMiles Wallingford - Chapter 22
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Miles Wallingford - Chapter 22 Post by :Khemal Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :819

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Miles Wallingford - Chapter 22

Chapter XXII

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime, adored;
By saint, by savage, or by sage--
Jehovah! Jove! or Lord!

Pope.


Feeling the necessity of possessing all my strength I ate a breakfast before I commenced work. It was with a heavy heart, and but little appetite, that I took this solitary meal; but I felt that its effects were good. When finished, I knelt on the deck, and prayed to God, fervently, asking his divine assistance in my extremity. Why should an old man, whose race is nearly run, hesitate to own, that in the pride of his youth and strength, he was made to feel how insufficient we all are for our wants? Yes, I prayed; and I hope in a fitting spirit, for I felt that this spiritual sustenance did me even more good than the material of which I had just before partaken. When I rose from my knees, it was with a sense of hope, that I endeavoured to suppress a little, as both unreasonable and dangerous. Perhaps the spirit of my sainted sister was permitted to look down on me, in that awful strait, and to offer up its own pure petitions in behalf of a brother she had so warmly loved. I began to feel myself less alone, and the work advanced the better from this mysterious sort of consciousness of the presence of the souls of those who had felt an interest in me, while in the body.

My first measure was to lead the jib-stay, which had parted near the head of its own mast, to the head of the main-mast. This I did by bending on a piece of another rope. I then got up the halyards, and loosened and set the jib; a job that consumed quite two hours. Of course, this sail did not set very well, but it was the only mode I had of getting forward canvass on the ship at all. As soon as the jib was set, in this imperfect manner, I put the helm up, and got the ship before the wind. I then hauled out the spanker, and gave it sheet. By these means, aided by the action of the breeze on the hull and spars, I succeeded in getting something like three knots' way on the ship, keeping off a little northerly, in which direction I felt sensible it was necessary to proceed in quest of the spars. I estimated the drift of the wreck at a knot an hour, including the good and moderate weather; and, allowing for that of the ship itself, I supposed it must be, by that time, some twelve miles to leeward of me. These twelve miles I managed to run by noon, when I hauled up sufficiently to bring the wind abeam, heading northwardly. As the ship would now steer herself, that is as small as it was necessary for me to go, I collected some food, took a glass, and went up into the main-top, to dine, and to examine the ocean.

The anxious, anxious hours I passed in that top! Not an object of any sort appeared on the surface of the wide ocean. It seemed as if the birds and the fishes had abandoned me to my loneliness. I watched and examined the surrounding sea, until my hands were tired with holding the glass, and my eyes became weary with their office. Fortunately, the breeze stood, though the sea went down fast; giving me every opportunity I could desire of effecting my object. The ship yawed about a good deal, it is true; but, on the whole, she made a very tolerable course. I could see by the water that she had a motion of about two knots, for most of the time; though, as the day advanced, the wind began to fall, and her rate of going diminished quite one half.

At length, after passing hours aloft, I went below, to look after things there. On sounding the pumps, I found ten feet water in the hold; though the upper works were now not at all submerged, and the motion of the vessel was very easy. That the Dawn was gradually sinking under me, was a fact too evident to be denied; and all the concerns of thir life began to narrow into a circle of some four-and-twenty hours. That time the ship would probably float,--possibly a little longer, should the weather continue moderate. The wind was decreasing still, and, thinking I might have a tranquil night, I determined to pass that time in preparing for the last great change. I had no will to make--little to leave, indeed, after my vessel was gone: for the debt due to John Wallingford would go far towards absorbing all my property. When his $40,000 were paid, under a forced sale, little, indeed, would be the residue.

The state of things would have been somewhat different, under a fair sale, perhaps; but a forced sale would probably sweep away everything. It is true my creditor was my heir; for, a legacy to Lucy and a few bequests to my slaves excepted, I had fairly bequeathed all I owned to my cousin. As for the blacks themselves, under the new policy of New York, they would soon be free; and I had no other interest in their fate than that of habit and affection.

But why speak of property, in the situation in which I was placed? Had I owned the whole of Ulster county, my wishes, or any new will I might make, must die with me. The ocean would soon engulf the whole. Had I no desire to make an effort to save myself, or at least to prolong my existence, by means of a raft?--of boat, there was none in the ship. The English had the yawl, and the launch had been driven away. The spare spars were swept overboard, as well as all the water-casks that had been lashed on deck. I might have done something with the hatches, and mizen-top-mast, possibly, could I have gotten the last into the water; but the expedient was so desperate, it did not hold out any hopes to be encouraged. Even the handspikes had gone in the launch, and two of the buoys had been left with the anchors, on the Irish coast. Under all the circumstances, it appeared to me, that it would be more manly and resigned, to meet my fate at once, than to attempt any such feeble projects to prolong existence for a few hours. I came to the resolution, therefore, to go down in my ship.

What was there to make life particularly dear to me?--My home, my much-beloved Clawbonny, must go, at all events; and I will own that a feeling of bitter distrust crossed my mind, as I thought of these things, and that I began to fancy John Wallingford might have urged me to borrow his money, expressly to obtain a chance of seizing an estate that was so much prized by every Wallingford. I suppressed this feeling, however; and in a clear voice I asked my cousin's pardon, the same as if he had been within hearing. Of Lucy, I had no longer any hope;--Grace was already in heaven; and the world contained few that cared for me. After Mr. Hardinge, Lucy always excepted I now loved Marble and Neb the most; and these two were probably both dead, or doomed, like myself. We must all yield up our lives once; and, though my hour came rather early, it should be met as a man meets everything, even to death itself.

Some time before the sun set, I went aloft to take a last look at the ocean. I do not think any desire to prolong my existence carried me up the mast, but there was a lingering wish to look after my mate. The ocean beamed gloriously that eventide, and I fancied that it was faintly reflecting the gracious countenance of its divine Creator, in a smile of beneficent love. I felt my heart soften, as I gazed around me, and I fancied heavenly music was singing the praises of God, on the face of the great deep. Then I knelt in the top, and prayed.

Rising, I looked at the ocean, as I supposed, for the last time. Not a sail was anywhere to be seen. I cannot say that I felt disappointed;--I did not expect relief from that quarter. My object was, to find my mate, that we might die together. Slowly I raised the glass, and the horizon was swept with deliberation. Nothing appeared. I had shut the glass, and was about to sling it, when my eye caught the appearance of something floating on the surface of the ocean, within a mile of the ship; well to leeward, and ahead. I had overlooked it, in consequence of ranging above it with the glass, in the desire to sweep the horizon. I could not be mistaken: it was the wreck. In a moment the glass was levelled, and I assured myself of the fact. The top was plainly visible, floating quite high above the surface, and portions of the yards and masts were occasionally seen, as the undulations of the ocean left them bare. I saw an object, lying motionless across the top-rim, which I supposed to be Marble. He was either dead or asleep.

What a revulsion of feeling came over me at this sight! A minute before, and I was completely isolated; cut off from the rest of my species, and resigned to a fate that seemed to command my quitting this state of being, without further communion with mankind. Everything was changed. Here was the companion of so many former dangers, the man who had taught me my profession, one that I can truly say I loved, quite near me, and possibly dying for the want of that aid which I might render! I was on deck in the twinkling of an eye; the sheets were eased off, and the helm put up. Obedient to my wishes, the ship fell off, and I soon got a glimpse, from the spot where I stood, at the wheel, of the wreck a little clear of the weather cat-head. By this time, the wind was so light, and the ship had got to be so deep in the water, that the motion of the last was very slow. Even with the helm up, it scarce equalled half a knot; I began to fear I should not be able to reach my goal, after all!

There were, now, intervals of dead calm; then the air would return in little puffs, urging the great mass heavily onward. I whistled, I prayed, I called aloud for wind; in short, I adopted all the expedients known, from that of the most vulgar nautical superstition, up to profound petitions to the Father of Mercies. I presume all this brought no change, though the passage of time did. About half an hour before the sun dipped into the ocean, the ship was within a hundred yards of the wreck. This I could ascertain by stolen glances, for the direction I was now compelled to steer, placed the forward part of the ship between me and my object, and I did not dare quit the wheel to go forward, lest I should miss it altogether. I had prepared a grapnel, by placing a small kedge in the lee-waist, with a hawser bent, and, could I come within a few feet of the floating hamper, I felt confident of being able to hook into something. It appeared to me, now, as if the ship absolutely refused to move. Go ahead she did, notwithstanding, though it was only her own length in five or six minutes. My hasty glances told me that two more of these lengths would effect my purpose. I scarce breathed, lest the vessel should not be steered with sufficient accuracy. It was strange to me that Marble did not hail, and, fancying him asleep, I shouted with all my energy, in order to arouse him. 'What a joyful sound that will be in his ears,' I thought to myself, though to me, my own voice seemed unearthly and alarming. No answer came. Then I felt a slight shock, as if the cut-water had hit something, and a low scraping sound against the copper announced that the ship had hit the wreck. Quitting the wheel, I sprang into the waist, raising the kedge in my arms. Then came the upper spars wheeling strongly round, under the pressure of the vessel's bottom against the extremity of the lower mast. I saw nothing but the great maze of hamper and wreck, and could scarcely breathe in the anxiety not to miss my aim. There was much reason to fear the whole mass would float off, leaving me no chance of throwing the kedge, for the smaller masts no longer inclined in, and I could see that the ship and wreck were slowly separating. A low thump on the bottom, directly beneath me, drew my head over the side, and I found the fore-yard, as it might be, a cock-bill, with one end actually scraping along the ship's bottom. It was the only chance I had, or was likely to have, and I threw the kedge athwart it. Luckily, the hawser as it tautened, brought a fluke directly under the yard, within the Flemish horse, the brace-block, and all the other ropes that are fitted to a lower yard-arm. So slow was the motion of the ship, that my grapnel held, and the entire body of the wreck began to yield to the pressure. I now jumped to the jib-halyards and down-haul, getting that sail reduced; then I half-brailed the spanker; this was done lest my hold on the yard should give way.

I can say, that up to this instant, I had not even looked for Marble. So intense had been my apprehensions of missing the wreck, that I thought of nothing else, could see nothing else. Satisfied, however, that my fast would hold, I ran forward to look down on the top, that the strain of the hawser had brought directly under the very bow, over which it had fallen. It was empty! The object I had mistaken for Marble, dead or asleep, was a part of the bunt of the main-top-sail, that had been hauled down over the top-rim, and secured there, either to form a sort of shelter against the breaking seas, or a bed. Whatever may have been the intention of this nest, it no longer had an occupant. Marble had probably been washed away, in one of his adventurous efforts to make himself more secure or more comfortable.

The disappointment that came over me, as I ascertained this fact, was scarcely less painful than the anguish I had felt when I first saw my mate carried off into the ocean There would have been a melancholy satisfaction in finding his body, that we might have gone to the bottom together, at least, and thus have slept in a common grave, in the depths of that ocean over which we had sailed so many thousands of leagues in company. I went and threw myself on the deck, regardless of my own fate, and wept in very bitterness of heart. I had arranged a mattress on the quarter-deck, and it was on that I now threw myself. Fatigue overcame me, in the end, and I fell into a deep sleep. As my recollection left me, my last thought was that I should go down with the ship, as I lay there. So complete was the triumph of nature, that I did not even dream. I do not remember ever to have enjoyed more profound and refreshing slumbers; slumbers that continued until returning light awoke me. To that night's rest I am probably indebted, under God, for having the means of relating these adventures.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the night had been tranquil; otherwise, a seaman's ears would have given him the alarm. When I arose, I found the ocean glittering like a mirror, with no other motion than that which has so often been likened to the slumbering respiration of some huge animal. The wreck was thumping against the ship's bottom, announcing its presence, before I left the mattress. Of wind there was literally not a breath. Once in a while, the ship would seem to come up to breathe, as a heavy groundswell rolled along her sides, and the wash of the element told the circumstance of such a visit; else, all was as still as the ocean in its infancy. I knelt, again, and prayed to that dread Being, with whom, it now appeared to me, I stood alone, in the centre of the universe.

Down to the moment when I arose from my knees, the thought of making an effort to save myself, or to try to prolong existence a few hours, by means of the wreck, did not occur to me. But, when I came to look about me, to note the tranquil condition of the ocean, and to heed the chances, small as they were, that offered, the love of life was renewed within me, and I seriously set about the measures necessary to such an end.

The first step was to sound the pumps, anew. The water had not gained in the night as rapidly as it had gained throughout the preceding day. But it had gained; there being three feet more of it than when I last sounded--the infallible evidence of the existence of a leak that no means of mine could stop. It was, then, hopeless to think of saving the ship. She had settled in the water, already, so as to bring the lower bolts of both fore and main channels awash; and I supposed she might float for four-and-twenty hours longer, unless an injury that I had discovered under the larboard cat-head, and which had been received from the wreck, should sooner get under water. It appeared to me that a butt had been started there: such a leak would certainly hasten the fate of the vessel by some hours, should it come fairly into the account.

Having made this calculation as to the time I had to do it in, I set seriously about the job of making provisions with my raft. In one or two particulars, I could not much improve the latter; for, the yards lying underneath the masts, it rendered the last as buoyant as was desirable in moderate weather. It struck me, however, that by getting the top-gallant and royal masts, with their yards, in, around the top, I might rig a staging, with the aid of the hatches, that would not only keep me entirely out of water, in mild weather, but which would contain all one man could consume, in the way of victuals and drink, for a month to come. To this object, then, I next gave my attention.

I had no great difficulty in getting the spars I have mentioned, loose, and in hauling them alongside of the top. It was a job that required time, rather than strength; for my movements were greatly facilitated by the presence of the top-mast rigging, which remained in its place, almost as taut as when upright. The other rigging I cut, and having got out the fids of the two masts, one at a time, I pushed the spars through their respective caps with a foot. Of course, I was obliged to get into the water to work; but I had thrown aside most of my clothes for the occasion, and the weather being warm, I felt greatly refreshed with my bath. In two hours' time, I had my top-gallant-mast and yard well secured to the top-rim and the caps, having sawed them in pieces for the purpose. The fastenings were both spikes and lashings, the carpenter's stores furnishing plenty of the former, as well as all sorts of tools.

This part of the arrangement completed, I ate a hearty breakfast, when I began to secure the hatches, as a sort of floor, on my primitive joists. This was not difficult, the hatches being long, and the rings enabling me to lash them, as well as to spike them. Long before the sun had reached the meridian, I had a stout little platform, that was quite eighteen inches above the water, and which was surrounded by a species of low ridge-ropes, so placed as to keep articles from readily tumbling off it. The next measure was to cut all the sails from the yards, and to cut loose all the rigging and iron that did not serve to keep the wreck together. The reader can easily imagine how much more buoyancy I obtained by these expedients. The fore-sail alone weighed much more than I did myself, with all the stores I might have occasion to put on my platform. As for the fore-top-sail, there was little of it left, the canvass having mostly blown from the yard, before the mast went.

My raft was completed by the time I felt the want of dinner; and a very good raft it was. The platform was about ten feet square, and it now floated quite two feet clear of the water. This was not much for a sea; but, after the late violent gale, I had some reason to expect a continuation of comparatively good weather. I should not have been a true seaman not to have bethought me of a mast and a sail. I saved the fore-royal-mast, and the yard, with its canvass, for such a purpose; determining to rig them when I had nothing else to do. I then ate my dinner, which consisted of the remnants of the old cold meat and fowls I could find among the cabin eatables.

This meal taken, the duty that came next was to provision my raft. It took but little time or labour. The cabin stores were quite accessible; and a bag of pilot-bread, another of that peculiarly American invention, called crackers--some smoked beef, a case of liquors, and two breakers of water, formed my principal stock. To this I added a pot of butter, with some capital smoked herrings, and some anchovies. We lived well in the cabin of the Dawn, and there was no difficulty in making all the provision that six or eight men would have needed for a month. Perceiving that the raft, now it was relieved from the weight of the sails and rigging, was not much affected by the stores, I began to look about me in quest of anything valuable I might wish to save. The preparations I had been making created a sort of confidence in their success; a confidence (hope might be the better word) that was as natural, perhaps, as it was unreasonable. I examined the different objects that offered, with a critical comparison of their value and future usefulness, that would have been absurd, had it not afforded a melancholy proof of the tenacity of our desires in matters of this nature. It is certainly a sad thing to abandon a ship, at sea, with all her appliances, and with a knowledge of the gold that she cost. The Dawn, with her cargo, must have stood me in eighty thousand dollars, or even more; and here was I about to quit her, out on the ocean, with an almost moral certainty that not a cent of the money could be, or would be, recovered from the insurers. These last only took risks against the accidents of the ocean, fire included; and there was a legal obligation on the insured to see that the vessel was properly found and manned. It was my own opinion that no accident would have occurred to the ship, in the late gale, had the full crew been on board; and that the ship was not sufficiently manned was, in a legal sense my own fault. I was bound to let the English carry her into port, and to await judgment,--the law supposing that justice would have been done in the premises. The law might have been greatly mistaken in this respect; but potentates never acknowledge their blunders. If I was wronged in the detention, the law presumed suitable damages. It is true, I might be ruined by the delay, through the debts left behind me; but the law, with all its purity, cared nothing for that. Could I have shown a loss by means of a falling market, I might have obtained redress, provided the court chose to award it, and provided the party did not appeal; or, if he did, that the subsequent decisions supported the first; and provided,--all the decrees being in my favour,--my Lord Harry Dermond could have paid a few thousands in damages:--a problem to be solved, in itself.

I always carried to sea with me a handsome chest, that I had bought in one of my earlier voyages, and which usually contained my money, clothes and other valuables. This chest I managed to get on deck, by the aid of a purchase, and over the ship's side, on the raft. It was much the most troublesome task I had undertaken. To this I added my writing-desk, a mattress, two or three counterpanes, and a few other light articles, which it struck me might be of use--but, which I could cast into the sea at any moment, should it become necessary. When all this was done, I conceived that my useful preparations were closed.

It was near night, and I felt sufficiently fatigued to lie down and sleep. The water had gained very slowly during the last few hours, but the ship was now swimming so low, that I thought it unsafe to remain in the vessel, while asleep. I determined, therefore, to take my leave of her, and go on the raft for that purpose. It struck me too, it might be unsafe to be too near the vessel when she went down, and I had barely time to get the spars a short distance from the ship, before darkness would come. Still, I was unwilling to abandon the Dawn altogether, since the spars that stood on board her, would always be a more available signal to any passing vessel, than the low sail I could set on the raft. Should she float during the succeeding day, they would increase the chances of a rescue, and they offered an advantage not to be lightly thrown away.

To force the spars away from the ship was not an easy task of itself. There is an attraction in matter, that is known to bring vessels nearer together in calms, and I had this principle of nature first to overcome; then to neutralize it, without the adequate means for doing either. Still I was very strong, and possessed all the resources of a seaman. The raft, too, now its length was reduced, was much more manageable than it had been originally, and in rummaging about the twixt-decks, I had found a set of oars belonging to the launch, which had been stowed in the steerage, and which of course were preserved. These I had taken to the raft, to strengthen my staging, or deck, and two of them had been reserved for the very purpose to which they were now applied.

Cutting away the kedge, then, and casting off the other ropes I had used with which to breast-to the raft, I began to shove off, just as the sun was dipping. So long as I could pull by the ship, I did very well, for I adopted the expedient of hauling astern, instead of pushing broad off, under the notion that I might get a better drift, if quite from under the lee of the vessel, than if lying on her broadside. I say the 'lee,' though there wasn't a breath of air, nor scarcely any motion of the water. I had a line fast to a stern-davit, and placing myself with my feet braced against the chest, I soon overcame the _vis inertia of the spars, and, exerting all my force, when it was once in motion, I succeeded in giving the raft an impetus that carried it completely past the ship. I confess I felt no personal apprehension from the suction, supposing the ship to sink while the raft was in absolute contact with it, but the agitation of the water might weaken its parts, or it might wash most of my stores away. This last consideration induced me, now, to go to work with the oars, and try to do all I could, by that mode of propelling my dull craft. I worked hard just one hour, by my watch; at the expiration of that time, the nearest end of the raft, or the lower part of the foremast, was about a hundred yards from the Dawn's taffrail. This was a slow movement, and did not fail to satisfy me, that, if I were to be saved at all, it would be by means of some passing vessel, and not by my own progress.

Overcome by fatigue, I now lay down and slept. I took no precautions against the wind's rising in the night; firstly, because I thought it impossible from the tranquil aspects of the heavens and the ocean; and secondly, because I felt no doubt that the wash of the water and the sound of the winds would arouse me, should it occur differently. As on the previous night, I slept sweetly, and obtained renewed strength for any future trials. As on the preceding morning, too, I was awaked by the warm rays of the rising sun falling on my face. On first awaking, I did not know exactly where I was. A moment's reflection, however, sufficed to recall the past to my mind, and I turned to examine my actual situation.

I looked for the ship, towards the end of the mast, or in the direction where I had last seen her; but she was not visible. The raft had swung round in the night, I thought, and I bent my eyes slowly round the entire circle of the horizon, but no ship was to be seen. The Dawn had sunk in the night, and so quietly as to give no alarm! I shuddered, for I could not but imagine what would have been my fate, had I been aroused from the sleep of the living, only to experience the last agony as I passed away into the sleep of the dead. I cannot describe the sensation that came over me, as I gazed around, and found myself on the broad ocean, floating on a little deck that was only ten feet square, and which was raised less than two feet above the surface of the waters. It was now that I felt the true frailty of my position, and comprehended all its dangers. Before, it had been shaded by the ship, as it might be, and I had found a species of protection in her presence. But, the whole truth now stood before me. Even a moderate breeze would raise a sea that could not fail to break over the staging, and which must sweep everything away. The spars had a specific lightness, it is true, and they would never sink; or, if they did sink, it would only be at the end of ages, when saturated with water and covered with barnacles; but, on the other hand, they possessed none of the buoyancy of a vessel, and could riot rise above the rolling waters, sufficiently to clear their breakers.

These were not comfortable reflections; they pressed on my mind even while engaged at my morning devotions. After performing, in the best manner I could, this never-ceasing duty, I ate a little, though I must admit it was with a small appetite. Then I made the best stowage I could of my effects, and rigged and stepped the mast, hoisting the sail, as a signal to any vessel that might appear. I expected wind ere long; nor was I disappointed; a moderate breeze springing up from the north-west, about nine o'clock. This air was an immense relief to me, in more ways than one. It cooled my person, which was suffering from the intense heat of a summer's sun beating directly on a boundless expanse of water, and it varied a scene that otherwise possessed an oppressively wearisome sameness. Unfortunately this breeze met me in the bows; for I had stepped my mast in the foremast, lashed it against the bottom of the top, which it will be remembered was now perpendicular, and stayed it to the mast-heads and dead-eyes of the top-mast rigging, all of which remained as when erect, though now floating on the water. I intended the fractured part of the foremast for my cut-water, and, of course, had to ware ship before I could gather any way. This single manoeuvre occupied a quarter of an hour, my braces, tacks, and sheets not working particularly well. At the end of that time, however, I got round, and laid my yard square.

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