Read CHAPTER XXV - TO SEA of The Cruise of the Shining Light , free online book, by Norman Duncan, on ReadCentral.com.

Judith had vanished!  Our maid-servant, astir in the child’s behalf before dawn, in her anxious way, was returned breathless from Whisper Cove with the report.  There was no Judith with the wife of Moses Shoos:  nor had there been that night.  ’Twas still but gray abroad-a drear dawn:  promising a belated, sullen day.  We awoke the harbor to search the hills, the ledges of the cliffs, the surf-washed shore.  ’Twas my uncle hither, the maid-servant thither, myself beyond.  Clamorous knocking, sudden lights in the cottages, lights pale in the murky daylight, and a subdued gathering of our kind men-folk:  I remember it all-the winged haste, the fright of them that were aroused, the shadows and the stumbling of the farther roads, the sickly, sleepy lights in the windows, the troubled dawn.  We dispersed:  day broadened, broke gray and glum upon Twin Islands-but discovered no lost maid to us.

’Twas whispered about, soon, that the women had spoken evil of Judith in our harbor; and pursuing this ill-omened rumor, in a rage I could not command, I came at last upon the shameful truth:  the women had spoken scandal of the maid, the which she had learned from Aunt Esther All, the Whisper Cove gossip.  The misfortune of gentle Parson Stump, poor man! who had in the ear of Eli Flack’s wife uttered a sweetly jocular word concerning Judith and the honorable intention of John Cather, who walked with her alone on the roads, about his love-making.  But, unhappily, the parson being absent-minded, ’twas into the dame’s deaf ear he spoke, and his humor became, in transmission, by pure misfortune, an evil charge.

There was then no help for it, old wives being what they are:  authorized by the gentle parson, depending upon the report of a dame of character, the tittle-tattle spread and settled like a mist, defiling Judith to the remotest coves of Twin Islands.  And Judith was vanished!  I knew then, in the gray noon of that day, why the child had cried in that leafy nook of the Whisper Cove road that she could go nowhere.

I cursed myself.

“Stop, Dannie!” cries my uncle.  “She’s still on the hills-somewheres there, waitin’ t’ be sought out an’ comforted an’ fetched home.”

I thought otherwise.

“She’ve lied down there,” says he, “t’ cry an’ wait for me an’ you.”

I watched him pace the garden-path.

“An’ I’m not able, the day, for sheer want o’ rum,” he muttered, “t’ walk the hills.”

I looked away to the sombre hills, where she might lie waiting for him and me; but my glance ran far beyond, to the low, gray sky and to a patch of darkening sea.  And I cursed myself again-my stupidity and ease of passion and the mean conceit of myself by which I had been misled to the falsely meek conclusion of yesterday-I cursed myself, indeed, with a live wish for punishment, in that I had not succored the maid when she had so frankly plead for my strength.  John Cather? what right had I to think that she had loved him?  On the hills? nay, she was not there; she was not on the hills, waiting for my uncle and me-she was gone elsewhere, conserving her independence and self-respect, in the womanly way she had.  My uncle fancied she was a clinging child:  I knew her for a proud and impulsively wilful woman.  With this gossip abroad to flout her, she would never wait on the hills for my uncle and me:  ’twas the ultimate pain she could not bear in the presence of such as loved and trusted her; ’twas the event she had feared, remembering her mother, all her life long, dwelling in sensitive dread, as I knew.  She would flee the shame of this accusation, without fear or lingering, unable to call upon the faith of us.  ’Twas gathering in my mind that she had fled north, as the maids of our land would do, in the spring, with the Labrador fleet bound down for the fishing.  ’Twas a reasonable purpose to possess her aimless feet.  She would ship on a Labradorman:  she might, for the wishing-she would go cook on a north-bound craft from Topmast Harbor, as many a maid of our coast was doing.  And by Heaven! thinks I, she had.

Her mother’s punt was gone from Whisper Cove.

“She’ve lied down there on the hills,” my uncle protested, “t’ cry an’ wait.  Ye’re not searchin’, Dannie, as ye ought.  She’ve jus’ lied down, I tell ye,” he whimpered, “t’ wait.”

’Twas not so, I thought.

“She’ve her mother’s shame come upon her,” says he, “an’ she’ve hid.”

I wished it might be so.

“Jus’ lied down an’ hid,” he repeated.

“No, no!” says I.  “She’d never weakly hide her head from this.”

He eyed me.

“Not Judith!” I expostulated.

“She’d never bear her mother’s shame, Dannie,” says he.  “She’d run away an’ hide.  She-she-told me so.”

I observed my uncle:  he was gone with the need of rum-exhausted and unnerved:  his face all pallid and splotched.  ’Twas a ghastly thing to watch him stump the gravelled walk of our garden in the gray light of that day.

“Uncle Nicholas, sir,” says I, for the moment forgetting the woe of Judith’s hapless state in this new alarm, “do you come within an’ have a dram.”

“Ye’re not knowin’ how t’ search,” he complained.  “Ye’re but a pack o’ dunderheads!”

“Come, sir!” I pleaded.

“Is ye been t’ Skeleton Droch?” he demanded.  “She’ve a habit o’ readin’ there.  No!” he growled, in a temper; “you isn’t had the sense t’ go t’ Skeleton Droch.”

“A dram, sir,” I ventured, “t’ comfort you.”

“An’ ye bide here, ye dunderhead!” he accused.

I put my hand on his shoulder:  he flung it off.  I took his arm:  he wrenched himself free in an indignant passion.

“Ye’re needin’ it, sir,” says I.

“For God’s sake, child!” he cried; “do you go find the maid an’ leave me be.  God knows I’ve trouble enough without ye!”

The maid was not at Skeleton Droch:  neither on the hills, nor in the hiding-places of the valleys, nor lying broken on the ledges of the cliffs, nor swinging in the sea beneath-nor was she anywhere on the land of Twin Islands or in the waters that restlessly washed the boundary of gray rock.  ’Twas near evening now, and a dreary, angrily windy time.  Our men gathered from shore and inland barren-and there was no Judith, nor cold, wet body of Judith, anywhere to be found.  ’Twas unthinkingly whispered, then, that the maid had fled with John Cather on the mail-boat:  this on Tom Tulk’s Head, in its beginning, and swiftly passed from tongue to tongue.  Being overwrought when I caught the surmise-’twas lusty young Jack Bluff that uttered it before me-I persuaded the youth of his error, which, upon rising, he admitted, as did they all of that group, upon my request, forgiving me, too, I think, the cruel abruptness of my argument, being men of feeling, every one.  The maid was not gone with John Cather, she was not on the hills of Twin Islands; she was then fled to Topmast Harbor for self-support, that larger settlement, whence many Labradormen put out at this season for the northerly fishing.  And while, sheltered from the rising wind, the kind men-folk of our harbor talked with my uncle and me on Eli Flack’s stage, there came into the tickle from Topmast Harbor, in quest of water, a punt and a man, being bound, I think, for Jimmie Tick’s Cove.  ’Twas by him reported that a maid of gentle breeding had come alone in a punt to Topmast in the night.  And her hair? says I. She had hair, and a wonderful sight of it, says he.  And big, blue eyes? says I. She had eyes, says he; an’ she had a nose, so far as he could tell, which had clapped eyes on the maid, an’ she had teeth an’ feet, himself being able to vouch for the feet, which clipped it over the Topmast roads quite lively, soon after dawn, in search of a schooner bound down the Labrador.

I knew then into what service the Shining Light should be commissioned.

“Ay, lad,” says my uncle.

“And will you ship, sir?”

“Why, Lord love us, shipmate!” he roared, indignantly, to the amazement of our folk; “is ye thinkin’ I’m past my labor?”

I nodded towards Whisper Cove.

“The man,” he agreed.

It came about thus that I sought out Moses Shoos, wishing for him upon this high adventure because of his chivalry.  Nay, but in Twist Tickle, whatever the strength and courage and kindliness of our folk, there was no man so to be desired in a crucial emergency.  The fool of the place was beyond purchase, beyond beseeching:  kept apart by his folly from every unworthy motive to action.  He was a man of pure leading, following a voice, a vision:  I would have him upon this sacred adventure in search of the maid I loved.  ’Twas no mean errand, no service to be paid for; ’twas a high calling-a ringing summons, it seemed to me, to perilous undertakings, rewarded by opportunity for peril in service of a fond, righteous cause.  Nay, but I would have this unspoiled fool:  I would have for companion the man who put his faith in visions, could I but win him.  I believed in visions-in the deep, limpid, mysterious springs of conduct.  I believed in visions-in the unreasoning progress, an advance in the way of life not calculated, but made in unselfish faith, with eyes lifted up from the vulgar, swarming, assailing advantages of existence.  My uncle and the fool and I! there was no peril upon the sea to daunt us:  we would find and fetch, to her own place, in perfect honor, the maid I loved.  And of all this I thought, whatever the worth of it, as I ran upon the Whisper Cove road, in the evening of that gray, blustering day.

Moses was within.

“Here you is,” he drawled.  “I ’lowed you’d come.  How’s the weather?”

“’Twill blow big guns, Moses,” I answered; “and I’ll not deceive you.”

“Well, well!” he sighed.

And would he go with us?

“I been waitin’ for you, Dannie,” says he.  “I been sittin’ here in the kitchen-waitin’.”

’Twas a hopeful word.

“If mother was here,” he continued, “she’d have ’lowed I’d better wait.  ‘You wait for Dannie,’ mother would have ’lowed, ’until he comes.’  An’ so I been waitin’.”

Well, there I was.

“That was on’y mother,” he added; “an’, o’ course, I’m married now.”

Walrus Liz of the Labrador came in.  I rose-and was pleasantly greeted.  She sat, then, and effaced herself.

“Mrs. Moses Shoos,” says Moses, with a fond look upon that woman of ill-favor and infinite tenderness, “haves jus’ got t’ be consulted.”

I was grown hopeless-remembering Tumm’s story of the babies.

“In a case like this,” Moses confided, “mother always ’lowed a man ought to.”

“But your wife?” I demanded.

“Oh, my goodness, Dannie!” cries he.  “For shame!”

“Tell me quickly, Moses.”

“Mrs. Moses Shoos,” he answered, with gravest dignity, “always ‘lows, agreein’ with me-that mother knowed!”

’Twas in this way that Moses Shoos shipped on the Shining Light....

Shortly now, by an arrangement long made and persistently continued, we had the Shining Light ready for sea-provisioned, her water-casks full.  I ran through the house upon a last survey; and I found my uncle at the pantry door, his bag on his back, peering into the dark interior of the little room, in a way most melancholy and desirous, upon the long row of bottles of rum.  He sighed, closed the door with scowling impatience, and stumped off to board the ship:  I was not heroic, but subtracted one from that long row, and stowed it away in a bag I carried.  We dropped the anchor of the Shining Light, and beat out, through the tickle, to the wide, menacing sea, with the night coming down and a gale of wind blowing lustily up from the gray northeast.  ’Twas thus not in flight the Shining Light continued her cruise, ’twas in pursuit of the maid I loved:  a thing infinitely more anxious and momentous-a thing that meant more than life or death to me, with the maid gone as cook on a Labrador craft.  ’Twas sunset time; but there was no sunset-no fire in the western sky:  no glow or effulgent glory or lurid threat.  The whole world was gone a dreary gray, with the blackness of night descending:  a darkening zenith, a gray horizon lined with cold, black cloud, a coast without tender mercy for the ships of men, a black sea roughening in a rage to the northeast blasts.  ’Twas all hopeless and pitiless:  an unfeeling sea, but troubled, it seemed to me, by depths of woe and purpose and difficulty we cannot understand.  We were bound for Topmast Harbor, on a wind favorable enough for courageous hearts; and my uncle had the wheel, and the fool of Twist Tickle and I kept the deck to serve him.  He did not call upon us to shorten sail, in answer to the old schooner’s complaint; and I was glad that he did not, as was the fool also....

’Twas night when we put into Topmast Harbor; but my uncle and the fool and I awoke the place without regard for its way-harbor importance or number of houses.  There was no maid there, said they; there had been a maid, come at dawn, but she was fortunately shipped, as she wished to be.  What maid was that?  They did not know.  Was she a slender, tawny-haired, blue-eyed, most beauteous maid?  They did but sleepily stare.  I found a man, awakened from sound slumber, who remembered:  ay, there was a maid of that description, who had shipped for cook on the Likely Lass.  And whence the Likely Lass?  Bonavist’ Bay, says he, put in for rest:  a seventy-tonner, put out on the favoring wind.  And was there another woman aboard?  Ecod! he did not know:  ’twas a craft likely enough for any maid, other woman aboard or not.  And so we set out again, in the night, dodging the rocks of that tickle, by my uncle’s recollection, and presently found ourselves bound north, in search of the Likely Lass, towards a sea that was bitter with cold and dark and wind, aboard a schooner that was far past the labor of dealing with gusts and great waves.

And in the night it came on to blow very hard from the east, with a freezing sleet, which yet grew colder, until snow mixed with it, and at last came in stifling clouds.  It blew harder:  we drove on, submerged in racing froth to the hatches, sheathed in ice, riding on a beam, but my uncle, at the wheel, standing a-drip, in cloth of ice, as long ago he had stood, in the first of the cruise of the Shining Light, would have no sail off the craft, but humored her northward in chase of the Likely Lass.  ’Twas a reeling, plunging, smothered progress through the breaking sea, in a ghostly mist of snow swirling in the timid yellow of our lights, shrouding us as if for death in the rush and seethe of that place.  There was a rain of freezing spray upon us-a whipping rain of spray:  it broke from the bows and swept past, stinging as it went.  ’Twas as though the very night-the passion of it-congealed upon us.  There was no reducing sail-not now, in this cold rage of weather.  We were frozen stiff and white:  ’twas on the course, with a clever, indulgent hand to lift us through, or ’twas founder in the crested waves that reached for us.

“Dannie!” my uncle shouted.

I sprang aft:  but in the roar of wind and swish and thud of sea could not hear him.

“Put your ear close,” he roared.

I heard that; and I put my anxious ear close.

“I’m gettin’ kind o’ cold,” says he.  “Is ye got a fire in the cabin?”

I had not.

“Get one,” says he.

I got a fire alight in the cabin.  ’Twas a red, roaring fire.  I called my uncle from the cabin door.  The old man gave the wheel to the fool and came below in a humor the most genial:  he was grinning, indeed, under the crust of ice upon his beard; and he was rubbing his stiff hands in delight.  He was fair happy to be abroad in the wind and sea with the Shining Light underfoot.

“Ye got it warm in here,” says he.

“I got more than that, sir,” says I.  “I got a thing to please you.”

Whereupon I fetched the bottle of rum from my bag.

“Rum!” cries he.  “Well, well!”

I opened the bottle of rum.

“Afore ye pours,” he began, “I ’low I’d best-God’s sake!  What’s that?”

’Twas a great sea breaking over us.

“Moses!” my uncle hailed.

The schooner was on her course:  the fool had clung to the wheel.

“Ice in that sea, Dannie,” says my uncle.  “An’ ye got a bottle o’ rum!  Well, well!  Wonderful sight o’ ice t’ the nor’ard.  Ye’ll find, I bet ye, that the fishin’ fleet is cotched fast somewheres long about the straits.  An’ a bottle o’ rum for a cold night!  Well, well!  I bet ye, Dannie,” says he, “that the Likely Lass is gripped by this time.  An’ ye got a bottle o’ rum!” cries he, in a beaming fidget.  “Rum’s a wonderful thing on a cold night, lad.  Nothin’ like it.  I’ve tried it.  Was a time,” he confided, “when I was sort o’ give t’ usin’ of it.”

I made to pour him a dram.

“Leave me hold that there bottle,” says he.  “I wants t’ smell of it.”

’Twas an eager sniff.

’Tis rum,” says he, simply.

I raised the bottle above the glass.

“Come t’ think of it, Dannie,” says he, with a wistful little smile, “that there bottle o’ rum will do more good where you had it than where I’d put it.”

I corked the bottle and returned it to my bag.

“That’s good,” he sighed; “that’s very good!”

I made him a cup o’ tea....

When I got the wheel, with Moses Shoos forward and my uncle gone asleep below, ’twas near dawn.  We were under reasonable sail, running blindly through the night:  there were no heroics of carrying-on-my uncle was not the man to bear them.  But we were frozen stiff-every block and rope of us.  And ’twas then blowing up with angrier intention; and ’twas dark and very cold, I recall-and the air was thick with the dust of snow, so that ’twas hard to breathe.  Congealing drops of spray came like bullets:  I recall that they hurt me.  I recall, too, that I was presently frozen to the deck, and that my mitts were stuck to the wheel-that I became fixed and heavy.  The old craft had lost her buoyant will:  she labored through the shadowy, ghostly crested seas, in a fashion the most weary and hopeless.  I fancied I knew why:  I fancied, indeed, that she had come close to her last harbor.  And of this I soon made sure:  I felt of her, just before the break of day, discovering, but with no selfish perturbation, that she was exhausted.  I felt of her tired plunges, of the stagger of her, of her failing strength and will; and I perceived-by way of the wheel in my understanding hands-that she would be glad to abandon this unequal struggle of the eternal youth of the sea against her age and mortality.  And the day broke; and with the gray light came the fool of Twist Tickle over the deck.  ’Twas a sinister dawn:  no land in sight-but a waste of raging sea to view-and the ship laden forward with a shameful burden of ice.

Moses spoke:  I did not hear him in the wind, because, I fancy, of the ice in my ear.

“Don’t hear ye!” I shouted.

“She’ve begun t’ leak!” he screamed.

I knew that she had.

“No use callin’ the skipper,” says he.  “All froze up.  Leave un sleep.”

I nodded.

“Goin’ down,” says he.  “Knowed she would.”

My uncle came on deck:  he was smiling-most placid, indeed.

“Well, well!” he shouted.  “Day, eh?”

“Leakin’,” says Moses.

“Well, well!”

“Goin’ down,” Moses screamed.

“Knowed she would,” my uncle roared.  “Can’t last long in this.  What’s that?”

’Twas floe ice.

“Still water,” says he.  “Leave me have that there wheel, Dannie.  Go t’ sleep!”

I would stand by him.

“Go t’ sleep!” he commanded.  “I’ll wake ye afore she goes.”

I went to sleep:  but the fool, I recall, beat me at it; he was in a moment snoring....

When I awoke ’twas broad day-’twas, indeed, late morning.  The Shining Light was still.  My uncle and the fool sat softly chatting over the cabin table, with breakfast and steaming tea between.  I heard the roar of the wind, observed beyond the framing door the world aswirl and white; but I felt no laboring heave, caught no thud and swish of water.  The gale, at any rate, had not abated:  ’twas blowing higher and colder.  My uncle gently laughed, when I was not yet all awake, and the fool laughed, too; and they ate their pork and brewis and sipped their tea with relish, as if abiding in security and ease.  I would fall asleep again:  but got the smell of breakfast in my nose, and must get up; and having gone on deck I found in the narrow, white-walled circle of the storm a little world of ice and writhing space.  The Shining Light was gripped:  her foremast was snapped, her sails hanging stiff and frozen; she was listed, bedraggled, incrusted with ice-drifted high with snow.  ’Twas the end of the craft:  I knew it.  And I went below to my uncle and the fool, sad at heart because of this death, but wishing very much, indeed, for my breakfast.  ’Twas very warm and peaceful in the cabin, with pork and brewis on the table, my uncle chuckling, the fire most cheerfully thriving.  I could hear the wind-the rage of it-but felt no stress of weather.

“Stove in, Dannie,” says my uncle.  “She’ll sink when the ice goes abroad.”

I asked for my fork.

“Fill up,” my uncle cautioned.  “Ye’ll need it afore we’re through.”

’Twas to this I made haste.

“More pork than brewis, lad,” he advised.  “Pork takes more grindin’.”

I attacked the pork.

“I got your bag ready,” says he.

Then I had no cause to trouble....

’Twas deep night, the gale still blowing high with snow, when the wind changed.  It ran to the north-shifted swiftly to the west.  The ice-pack stirred:  we felt the schooner shiver, heard the tumult of warning noises, as that gigantic, lethargic mass was aroused to unwilling motion by the lash of the west wind.  The hull of the Shining Light collapsed.  ’Twas time to be off.  I awoke the fool-who had still soundly slept.  The fool would douse the cabin fire, in a seemly way, and put out the lights; but my uncle forbade him, having rather, said he, watch the old craft go down with a warm glow issuing from her.  Presently she was gone, all the warmth and comfort and hope of the world expiring in her descent:  there was no more a Shining Light; and we three folk were cast away on a broad pan of ice, in the midst of night and driving snow.  Of the wood they had torn from the schooner against this time, the fool builded a fire, beside which we cowered from the wind; and soon, the snow failing and the night falling clear and starlit, points of flickering light appeared on the ice beyond us.  There were three, I recall, diminishing in the distance; and I knew, then, what I should do in search of Judith when the day came.  Three schooners cast away beyond us; one might be the Likely Lass:  I would search for Judith, thinks I, when day came.  ’Twas very long in coming, and ’twas most bitter cold and discouraging in its arrival:  a thin, gray light, with no hopeful hue of dawn in the east-frosty, gray light, spreading reluctantly over the white field of the world to a black horizon.  I wished, I recall, while I waited for broader day, that some warm color might appear to hearten us, some tint, however pale and transient, to recall the kindlier mood of earth to us; and there came, in answer to my wishing, a flush of rose in the east, which waxed and endured, spreading its message, but failed, like a lamp extinguished, leaving the world all sombre and inimical, as it had been.

I must now be off alone upon my search:  my wooden-legged uncle could not travel the ice-nor must the fool abandon him.

“I ’lowed ye would, lad,” says he, “like any other gentleman.”

I bade them both good-bye.

“Three schooners cast away t’ the nor’ard,” says he.  “I’m hopin’ ye’ll find the Likely Lass.  Good-bye, Dannie.  I ’low I’ve fetched ye up very well.  Good-bye, Dannie.”

I was moved away now:  but halted, like a dog between two masters.

“Good-bye!” he shouted.  “God bless ye, Dannie-God bless ye!”

I turned away.

“God bless ye!” came faintly after me.

That night I found Judith with the crew of the Likely Lass, sound asleep, her head lying, dear child! on the comfortable breast of the skipper’s wife.  And she was very glad, she said, that I had come....