My Schools and Schoolmasters
The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:
A sailor's early career--First marriage--Escape from shipwreck--Second Love--Traits of character
Rather more than eighty years ago, a stout little boy, in his sixth or seventh year, was despatched from an old-fashioned farm-house in the upper part of the parish of Cromarty, to drown a litter of puppies in an adjacent pond. The commission seemed to be not in the least congenial. He sat down beside the pool, and began to cry over his charge; and finally, after wasting much time in a paroxysm of indecision and sorrow, instead of committing the puppies to the water, he tucked them up in his little kilt, and set out by a blind pathway which went winding through the stunted heath of the dreary Maolbuoy Common, in a direction opposite to that of the farm-house--his home for the two previous twelvemonths. After some doubtful wandering on the waste, he succeeded in reaching, before nightfall, the neighbouring seaport town, and presented himself, laden with his charge, at his mother's door. The poor woman--a sailor's widow, in very humble circumstances--raised her hands in astonishment: "Oh, my unlucky boy," she exclaimed, "what's this?--what brings you here?" "The little doggies, mither," said the boy; "I couldna drown the little doggies; and I took them to you." What afterwards befell the "little doggies," I know not; but trivial as the incident may seem, it exercised a marked influence on the circumstances and destiny of at least two generations of creatures higher in the scale than themselves. The boy, as he stubbornly refused to return to the farm-house, had to be sent on shipboard, agreeably to his wish, as a cabin-boy; and the writer of these chapters was born, in consequence, a sailor's son, and was rendered, as early as his fifth year, mainly dependent for his support on the sedulously plied but indifferently remunerated labours of his only surviving parent, at the time a sailor's widow.
The little boy of the farm-house we a descended from a long line of seafaring men,--skilful and adventurous sailors,--some of whom had coasted along the Scottish shores as early as the times of Sir Andrew Wood and the "bold Bartons," and mayhap helped to man that "verrie monstrous schippe the Great Michael," that "cumbered all Scotland to get her to sea." They had taken as naturally to the water as the Newfoundland dog or the duckling. That waste of life which is always so great in the naval profession had been more than usually so in the generation just passed away. Of the boy's two uncles, one had sailed round the world with Anson, and assisted in burning Paita, and in boarding the Manilla galleon; but on reaching the English coast he mysteriously disappeared, and was never more heard of. The other uncle, a remarkably handsome and powerful man,--or, to borrow the homely but not inexpressive language in which I have heard him described, "as pretty a fellow as ever stepped in shoe-leather,"--perished at sea in a storm; and several years after, the boy's father, when entering the Firth of Cromarty, was struck overboard, during a sudden gust, by the boom of his vessel, and, apparently stunned by the blow, never rose again. Shortly after, in the hope of screening her son from what seemed to be the hereditary fate, his mother had committed the boy to the charge of a sister, married to a farmer of the parish, and now the mistress of the farm-house of Ardavell; but the family death was not to be so avoided; and the arrangement terminated, as has been seen, in the transaction beside the pond.
In course of time the sailor boy, despite of hardship and rough usage, grew up into a singularly robust and active man, not above the middle size,--for his height never exceeded five feet eight inches,--but broad-shouldered, deep-chested, strong-limbed, and so compact of bone and muscle, that in a ship of the line, in which he afterwards sailed, there was not, among five hundred able-bodied seamen, a man who could lift so great a weight, or grapple with him on equal terms. His education had been but indifferently cared for at home: he had, however, been taught to read by a female cousin, a niece of his mother's, who, like her too, was both the daughter and the widow of a sailor; and for his cousin's only child, a girl somewhat younger than himself, he had contracted a boyish affection, which in a stronger form continued to retain possession of him after he grew up. In the leisure thrown on his-hands in long Indian and Chinese voyages, he learned to write; and profited so much by the instructions of a comrade, an intelligent and warm-hearted though reckless Irishman, that he became skilful enough to keep a log-book, and to take a reckoning with the necessary correctness,--accomplishments far from common at the time among ordinary sailors. He formed, too, a taste for reading. The recollection of his cousin's daughter may have influenced him, but he commenced life with a determination to rise in it,--made his first money by storing up instead of drinking his grog,--and, as was common in those times, drove a little trade with the natives of foreign parts in articles of curiosity and vertu, for which, I suspect, the custom-house dues were not always paid. With all his Scotch prudence, however, and with much kindliness of heart and placidity of temper there was some wild blood in his veins, derived, mayhap, from one or two buccaneering ancestors, that, when excited beyond the endurance point, became sufficiently formidable; and which, on at least one occasion, interfered very considerably with his plans and prospects.
On a protracted and tedious voyage in a large East Indiaman, he had, with the rest of the crew, been subjected to harsh usage by a stern, capricious captain; but, secure of relief on reaching port, he had borne uncomplainingly with it all. His comrade and quondam teacher, the Irishman, was, however, less patient; and for remonstrating with the tyrant, as one of a deputation of the seamen, in what was deemed a mutinous spirit, he was laid hold of, and was in the course of being ironed down to the deck under a tropical sun, when his quieter comrade, with his blood now heated to the boiling point, stepped aft, and with apparent calmness re-stated the grievance. The captain drew a loaded pistol from his belt; the sailor struck up his hand; and, as the bullet whistled through the rigging above, he grappled with him, and disarmed him in a trice. The crew rose, and in a few minutes the ship was all their own. But having failed to calculate on such a result, they knew not what to do with their charge; and, acting under the advice of their new leader, who felt to the full the embarrassing nature of the position, they were content simply to demand the redress of their grievances as their terms of surrender; when, untowardly for their claims, a ship of war hove in sight, much in want of men, and, bearing down on the Indiaman, the mutiny was at once suppressed, and the leading mutineers sent aboard the armed vessel, accompanied by a grave charge, and the worst possible of characters. Luckily for them, however, and especially luckily for the Irishman and his friend, the war-ship was so weakened by scurvy, at that time the untamed pest of the navy, that scarce two dozen of her crew could do duty aloft A fierce tropical tempest, too, which broke out not long after, pleaded powerfully in their favour; and the affair terminated in the ultimate promotion of the Irishman to the office of ship-schoolmaster, and of his Scotch comrade to the captaincy of the foretop.
My narrative abides with the latter. He remained for several years aboard a man-of-war, and, though not much in love with the service, did his duty in both storm and battle. He served in the action off the Dogger-Bank,--one of the last naval engagements fought ere the manoeuvre of breaking the line gave to British valour its due superiority, by rendering all our great sea-battles decisive; and a comrade who sailed in the same vessel, and from whom, when a boy, I have received kindness for my father's sake, has told me that, their ship being but indifferently manned at the time, and the extraordinary personal strength and activity of his friend well known, he had a station assigned him at his gun against two of the crew, and that during the action he actually outwrought them both. At length, however, the enemy drifted to leeward to refit; and when set to repair the gashed and severed rigging, such was his state of exhaustion, in consequence of the previous overstrain on every nerve and muscle, that he had scarce vigour enough left to raise the marlingspike employed in the work to the level of his face. Suddenly, when in this condition, a signal passed along the line, that the Dutch fleet, already refitted, was bearing down to renew the engagement. A thrill like that of an electric shock passed through the frame of the exhausted sailor; his fatigue at once left him; and, vigorous and strong as when the action first began, he found himself able, as before, to run out against his two comrades the one side of a four-and-twenty pounder. The instance is a curious one of the influence of that "spirit" which, according to the Wise King, enables a man to "sustain his infirmity."
It may be well not to inquire too curiously regarding the mode in which this effective sailor quitted the navy. The country had borrowed his services without consulting his will; and he, I suspect, reclaimed them on his own behalf without first asking leave. I have been told by my mother that he found the navy very intolerable;--the mutiny at the Nore had not yet meliorated the service to the common sailor. Among other hardships, he had been oftener than once under not only very harsh, but also very incompetent officers; and on one occasion, after toiling on the foreyard in a violent night-squall, with some of the best seamen aboard, in fruitless attempts to furl up the sail, he had to descend, cap in hand, at the risk of a flogging, and humbly implore the boy-lieutenant in charge that he should order the vessel's head to be laid in a certain direction. Luckily for him, the advice was taken by the young gentleman, and in a few minutes the sail was furled. He left his ship one fine morning, attired in his best, and having on his head a three-cornered hat, with tufts of lace at the corners, which I well remember, from the circumstance that it had long after to perform an important part in certain boyish masquerades at Christmas and the New Year; and as he had taken effective precautions for being reported missing in the evening, he got clear off.
Of some of the after-events of his life I retain such mere fragmentary recollections, dissociated from date and locality, as might be most readily seized on by the imagination of a child. At one time, when engaged in one of his Indian voyages, he was stationed during the night, accompanied by but a single comrade, in a small open boat, near one of the minor mouths of the Ganges; and he had just fallen asleep on the beams, when he was suddenly awakened by a violent motion, as if his skiff were capsizing. Starting up, he saw in the imperfect light a huge tiger, that had swam, apparently, from the neighbouring jungle, in the act of boarding the boat. So much was he taken aback, that though a loaded musket lay beside him, it was one of the loose beams, or foot-spars, used as fulcrums for the feet in rowing, that he laid hold of as a weapon; but such was the blow he dealt to the paws of the creature, as they rested on the gunwale, that it dropped off with a tremendous snarl, and he saw it no more. On another occasion, he was one of three men sent with despatches to some Indian port in a boat, which, oversetting in the open sea in a squall, left them for the greater part of three days only its upturned bottom for their resting-place. And so thickly during that time did the sharks congregate around them, that though a keg of rum, part of the boat's stores, floated for the first two days within a few yards of them, and they had neither meat nor drink, none of them, though they all swam well, dared attempt regaining it. They were at length relieved by a Spanish vessel, and treated with such kindness, that the subject of my narrative used ever after to speak well of the Spaniards, as a generous people, destined ultimately to rise. He was at one time so reduced by scurvy, in a vessel half of whose crew had been carried off by the disease, that, though still able to do duty on the tops, the pressure of his finger left for several seconds a dent in his thigh, as if the muscular flesh had become of the consistency of dough. At another time, when overtaken in a small vessel by a protracted tempest, in which "for many days neither sun nor moon appeared," he continued to retain his hold of the helm for twelve hours after every other man aboard was utterly prostrated and down, and succeeded, in consequence, in weathering the storm for them all. And after his death, a nephew of my mother's, a young man who had served his apprenticeship under him, was treated with great kindness on the Spanish Main, for his sake, by a West Indian captain, whose ship and crew he had saved, as the captain told the lad, by boarding them in a storm, at imminent risk to himself, and working their vessel into port, when, in circumstances of similar exhaustion, they were drifting full upon an iron-bound shore. Many of my other recollections of this manly sailor are equally fragmentary in their character; but there is a distinct bit of picture in them all, that strongly impressed the boyish fancy.
When not much turned of thirty, the sailor returned to his native town, with money enough, hardly earned, and carefully kept, to buy a fine large sloop, with which he engaged in the coasting trade; and shortly after he married his cousin's daughter. He found his cousin, who had supported herself in her widowhood by teaching a school, residing in a dingy, old-fashioned house, three rooms in length, but with the windows of its second story half-buried in the eaves, that had been left her by their mutual grandfather, old John Feddes, one of the last of the buccaneers. It had been built, I have every reason to believe, with Spanish gold; not, however, with a great deal of it, for, notwithstanding its six rooms, it was a rather humble erection, and had now fallen greatly into disrepair. It was fitted up with some of the sailor's money, and, after his marriage, became his home,--a home rendered all the happier by the presence of his cousin, now rising in years, and who, during her long widowhood, had sought and found consolation, amid her troubles and privations, where it was surest to be found. She was a meek-spirited, sincerely pious woman; and the sailor, during his more distant voyages,--for he sometimes traded with ports of the Baltic on the one hand, and with those of Ireland and the south of England on the other,--had the comfort of knowing that his wife, who had fallen into a state of health chronically delicate, was sedulously tended and cared for by a devoted mother. The happiness which he would have otherwise enjoyed was, however, marred in some degree by his wife's great delicacy of constitution, and ultimately blighted by two unhappy accidents.
He had not lost the nature which had been evinced at an early age beside the pond: for a man who had often looked death in the face, he had remained nicely tender of human life, and had often hazarded his own in preserving that of others; and when accompanied, on one occasion, by his wife and her mother to his vessel, just previous to sailing, he had unfortunately to exert himself in her presence, in behalf of one of his seamen, in a way that gave her constitution a shock from which it never recovered. A clear frosty moonlight evening had set in; the pier-head was glistening with new-formed ice; and one of the sailors, when engaged in casting over a haulser which he had just loosed, missed footing on the treacherous margin, and fell into the sea. The master knew his man could not swim; a powerful seaward tide sweeps past the place with the first hours of ebb; there was not a moment to be lost; and, hastily throwing off his heavy greatcoat, he plunged after him, and in an instant the strong current swept them both out of sight. He succeeded, however, in laying hold of the half-drowned man, and, striking with him from out the perilous tideway into an eddy, with a Herculean effort he regained the quay. On reaching it, his wife lay insensible in the arms of her mother; and as she was at the time in the delicate condition incidental to married women, the natural consequence followed, and she never recovered the shock, but lingered for more than a twelve-mouth, the mere shadow of her former self; when a second event, as untoward as the first, too violently shook the fast ebbing sands, and precipitated her dissolution.
A prolonged tempest from the stormy north-east had swept the Moray Firth of its shipping, and congregated the stormbound vessels by scores in the noble harbour of Cromarty, when the wind chopped suddenly round, and they all set out to sea,--the sloop of the master among the rest. The other vessels kept the open Firth; but the master, thoroughly acquainted with its navigation, and in the belief that the change of wind was but temporary, went on hugging the land on the weather side, till, as he had anticipated, the breeze set full into the old quarter, and increased into a gale. And then, when all the rest of the fleet had no other choice left them than just to scud back again, he struck out into the Firth in a long tack, and, doubling Kinnaird's Head and the dreaded Buchan Ness, succeeded in making good his voyage south. Next morning the wind-bound vessels were crowding the harbour of refuge as before, and only his sloop was amissing. The first war of the French Revolution had broken out at the time; it was known there were several French privateers hovering on the coast; and the report went abroad that the missing sloop had been captured by the French. There was a weather-brained tailor in the neighbourhood, who used to do very odd things, especially, it was said, when the moon was at the full, and whom the writer remembers from the circumstance that he fabricated for him his first jacket, and that, though he succeeded in sewing on one sleeve to the hole at the shoulder, where it ought to be, he committed the slight mistake of sewing on the other sleeve to one of the pocket-holes. Poor Andrew Fern had heard that his townsman's sloop had been captured by a privateer, and, fidgety with impatience till he had communicated the intelligence where he thought it would tell most effectively, he called on the master's wife, to ask whether she had not heard that all the wind-bound vessels had got back again save the master's, and to wonder no one had yet told her that, if his had not got back, it was simply because it had been taken by the French. The tailor's communication told more powerfully than he could have anticipated: in less than a week after, the master's wife was dead; and long ere her husband's return she was lying in the quiet family burying-place, in which--so heavy were the drafts made by accident and violent death on the family--the remains of none of the male members had been deposited for more than a hundred years.
The mother, now left, by the death of her daughter, to a dreary solitude, sought to relieve its tedium, during the absence of her son-in-law when on his frequent voyages, by keeping, as she had done ere his return from foreign parts, a humble school. It was attended by two little girls, the children of a distant relation but very dear friend, the wife of a tradesman of the place,--a woman, like herself, of sincere though unpretending piety. Their similarity of character in this respect could hardly be traced to their common ancestor. He was the last curate of the neighbouring parish of Nigg; and, though not one of those intolerant Episcopalian ministers that succeeded in rendering their Church thoroughly hateful to the Scottish people,--for he was a simple, easy man, of much good nature,--he was, if tradition speak true, as little religious as any of them. In one of the earlier replies to that curious work, "Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Displayed," I find a nonsensical passage from one of the curate's sermons, given as a set-off against the Presbyterian nonsense adduced by the other side. "Mr. James M'Kenzie, curate of Nigg in Ross," says the writer, "describing eternity to his parishioners, told them that in that state they would be immortalized, so that nothing could hurt them: a slash of a broadsword could not hurt you, saith he; nay, a cannon-ball would play but baff on you." Most of the curate's descendants were stanch Presbyterians, and animated by a greatly stronger spirit than his; and there were none of them stancher in their Presbyterianism than the two elderly women who counted kin from him in the fourth degree, and who, on the basis of a common faith, had become attached friends. The little girls were great favourites with the schoolmistress; and when, as she rose in years, her health began to fail, the elder of the two removed from her mother's house, to live with, and take care of her; and the younger, who was now shooting up into a pretty young woman, used, as before, to pass much of her time with her sister and her old mistress.
Meanwhile the shipmaster was thriving. He purchased a site for a house beside that of his buccaneering grandfather, and built for himself and his aged relative a respectable dwelling, which cost him about four hundred pounds, and entitled his son, the writer, to exercise the franchise, on the passing, considerably more than thirty years after, of the Reform Bill. The new house was, however, never to be inhabited by its builder; for, ere it was fully finished, he was overtaken by a sad calamity, that, to a man of less energy and determination, would have been ruin, and in consequence of which he had to content himself with the old house as before, and almost to begin the world anew. I have now reached a point in my narrative at which, from my connexion with the two little girls,--both of whom still live in the somewhat altered character of women far advanced in life,--I can be as minute in its details as I please; and the details of the misadventure which stripped the shipmaster of the earnings of long years of carefulness and toil, blended as they are with what an old critic might term a curious machinery of the supernatural, seem not unworthy of being given unabridged.
Early in November 1797, two vessels--the one a smack in the London and Inverness trade, the other the master's square-rigged sloop--lay wind-bound for a few days on their passage north, in the port of Peterhead. The weather, which had been stormy and unsettled, moderated towards the evening of the fifth day of their detention; and the wind chopping suddenly into the east, both vessels loosed from their moorings, and, as a rather gloomy day was passing into still gloomier night, they bore out to sea. The breeze soon freshened into a gale; the gale swelled into a hurricane, accompanied by a thick snow-storm: and when, early next morning, the smack opened the Firth, she was staggering under her storm-jib, and a mainsail reefed to the cross. Whatever wind may blow, there is always shelter within the Sutors; and she was soon riding at anchor in the roadstead; but she had entered the bay alone; and when day broke, and for a brief interval the driving snow-rack cleared up towards the east, no second sail appeared in the offing. "Poor Miller!" exclaimed the master of the smack; "if he does not enter the Firth ere an hour, he will never enter it at all. Good sound vessel, and better sailor never stepped between stem and stern; but last night has, I fear, been too much for him. He should have been here long ere now." The hour passed; the day itself wore heavily away in gloom and tempest; and as not only the master, but also all the crew of the sloop, were natives of the place, groups of the town's-folk might be seen, so long as the daylight lasted, looking out into the storm from the salient points of the old coast-line that, rising immediately behind the houses, commands the Firth. But the sloop came not, and before they had retired to their homes, a second night had fallen, dark and tempestuous as the first. Ere morning the weather moderated: a keen frost bound up the wind in its icy fetters; and during the following day, though a heavy swell continued to roll shorewards between the Sutors, and sent up its white foam high against the cliffs, the surface of the sea had become glassy and smooth. But the day wore on, and evening again fell; and even the most sanguine relinquished all hope of ever again seeing the sloop or her crew. There was grief in the master's dwelling,--grief in no degree the less poignant from the circumstance that it was the tearless, uncomplaining grief of rigid old age. Her two youthful friends and their mother watched with the widow, now, as it seemed, left alone in the world. The town-clock had struck the hour of midnight, and still she remained as if fixed to her seat, absorbed in silent, stupifying sorrow, when a heavy foot was heard pacing along the now silent street. It passed, and anon returned; ceased for a moment nearly opposite the window; then approached the door, where there was a second pause; and then there succeeded a faltering knock, that struck on the very hearts of the inmates within. One of the girls sprang up, and on undoing the bolt, shrieked out, as the door fell open, "O mistress, here is Jack Grant the mate!" Jack, a tall, powerful seaman, but apparently in a state of utter exhaustion, staggered, rather than walked in, and flung himself into a chair. "Jack," exclaimed the old woman, seizing him convulsively by both his hands, "where's my cousin?--where's Hugh?" "The master's safe and well," said Jack; "but the poor Friendship lies in spales on the bar of Findhorn." "God be praised!" ejaculated the widow. "Let the gear go!"
I have often heard Jack's story related in Jack's own words, at a period of life when repetition never tires; but I am not sure that I can do it the necessary justice now. "We left Peterhead," he said, "with about half a cargo of coal,--for we had lightened ship a day or two before,--and the gale freshened as the night came on. We made all tight, however; and though the snow-drift was so blinding in the thick of the shower that I could scarce see my hand before me, and though it soon began to blow great guns, we had given the land a good offing, and the hurricane blew the right way. Just as we were loosening from the quay, a poor young woman, much knocked up, with a child in her arms, had come to the vessel's side, and begged hard of master to take her aboard. She was a soldier's wife, and was travelling to join her husband at Fort-George; but she was already worn out and penniless, she said; and now, as a snow-storm threatened to block up the roads, she could neither stay where she was, nor pursue her journey. Her infant, too,--she was sure, if she tried to force her way through the hills, it would perish in the snow. The master, though unwilling to cumber us with a passenger in such weather, was induced, out of pity for the poor destitute creature, to take her aboard. And she was now with her child, all alone, below in the cabin I was stationed a-head on the out-look beside the foresail horse: the night had grown pitch dark; and the lamp in the binnacle threw just light enough through the grey of the shower to show me the master at the helm. He looked more anxious, I thought, than I had almost ever seen him before, though I have been with him, mistress, in bad weather; and all at once I saw he had got company, and strange company too, for such a night: there was a woman moving round him, with a child in her arms. I could see her as distinctly as ever I saw anything,--now on the one side, now on the other,--at one time full in the light, at another half lost in the darkness. That, I said to myself, must be the soldier's wife and her child; but how in the name of wonder can the master allow a woman to come on deck in such a night as this, when we ourselves have just enough ado to keep footing? He takes no notice of her neither, but keeps looking on, quite in his wont, at the binnacle. 'Master,' I said, stepping up to him, 'the woman had surely better go below.' 'What woman, Jack?' said he; 'our passenger, you may be sure, is nowhere else.' I looked round, mistress, and found he was quite alone, and that the companion-head was hasped down. There came a cold sweat all over me. 'Jack,' said the master, 'the night is getting worse, and the roll of the waves heightening every moment. I'm convinced, too, our cargo is shifting: as the last sea struck us, I could hear the coals rattle below; and see how stiffly we heel to the larboard. Say nothing, however, to the men, but have all your wits about you; and look, meanwhile, to the boat-tackle and the oars. I have seen a boat live in as bad a night as this.' As he spoke, a blue light from above glimmered on the deck. We looked up, and saw a dead-fire sticking to the cross-trees. 'It's all over with us now, master,' said I. 'Nay, man,' replied the master, in his easy, humorous way, which I always like well enough except in bad weather, and then I see his humour is served out like his extra grog, to keep up hearts that have cause enough to get low,--'Nay, man,' he said, 'we can't afford to let your grandmother board us to-night. If you will insure me against the shifting coal, I'll be your guarantee against the dead-light. Why, it's as much a natural appearance, man, as a flash of lightning. Away to your berth, and keep up a good heart: we can't be far from Covesea now, where, when once past the Skerries, the swell will take off; and then, in two short hours, we may be snug within the Sutors.' I had scarcely reached my berth a-head, mistress, when a heavy sea struck us on the starboard quarter, almost throwing us on our beam-ends. I could hear the rushing of the coals below, as they settled on the larboard side; and though the master set us full before the wind, and gave instant orders to lighten every stitch of sail,--and it was but little sail we had at the time to lighten,--still the vessel did not rise, but lay unmanageable as a log, with her gunwale in the water. On we drifted, however, along the south coast, with little expectation save that every sea would send us to the bottom; until, in the first grey of the morning, we found ourselves among the breakers of the terrible bar of Findhorn. And shortly after, the poor Friendship took the ground right on the edge of the quicksands, for she would neither stay nor wear; and as she beat hard against the bottom, the surf came rolling over half-mast high.
"Just as we struck," continued Jack, "the master made a desperate effort to get into the cabin. The vessel couldn't miss, we saw, to break up and fill; and though there was little hope of any of us ever setting foot ashore, he wished to give the poor woman below a chance with the rest. All of us but himself, mistress, had got up into the shrouds, and so we could see round us a bit; and he had just laid his hand on the companion-hasp to undo the door, when I saw a tremendous sea coming rolling towards us, like a moving wall, and shouted on him to hold fast. He sprang to the weather back-stay, and laid hold. The sea came tumbling on, and, breaking full twenty feet over his head, buried him for a minute's space in the foam. We thought we should never see him more; but when it cleared away, there was he still, with his iron grip on the stay, though the fearful wave had water-logged the Friendship from bow to stem, and swept her companion-head as cleanly off by the deck as if it had been cut with a saw. No human aid could avail the poor woman and her baby. Master could hear the terrible choking noise of her dying agony right under his feet, with but a two-inch plank between; and the sounds have haunted him ever since. But even had he succeeded in getting her on deck, she could not possibly have survived, mistress. For five long hours we clung to the rigging, with the seas riding over us all the time like wild horses; and though we could see, through the snow-drift and the spray, crowds on the shore, and boats lying thick beside the pier, none dared venture out to assist us, till near the close of the day, when the wind fell with the falling tide, and we were brought ashore, more dead than alive, by a volunteer crew from the harbour. The unlucky Friendship began to break up under us ere mid-day, and we saw the corpse of the drowned woman, with the dead infant still in its arms, come floating out through a hole in the side. But the surf soon tore mother and child asunder, and we lost sight of them as they drifted away to the west. Master would have crossed the Firth himself this morning to relieve your mind, but being less worn out than any of us, he thought it best to remain in charge of the wreck."
Such, in effect, was the narrative of Jack Grant, the mate. The master, as I have said, had well-nigh to commence the world anew, and was on the eve of selling his new house at a disadvantage, in order to make up the sum necessary for providing himself with a new vessel, when a friend interposed, and advanced him the balance required. He was assisted, too, by a sister in Leith, who was in tolerably comfortable circumstances; and so he got a new sloop, which, though not quite equal in size to the one he had lost, was built wholly of oak, every plank and beam of which he had superintended in the laying down, and a prime sailer to boot; and so, though he had to satisfy himself with the accommodation of the old domicile, with its little rooms and its small windows, and to let the other house to a tenant, he began to thrive again as before. Meanwhile his aged cousin was gradually sinking. The master was absent on one of his longer voyages, and she too truly felt that she could not survive till his return. She called to her bedside her two young friends, the sisters, who had been unwearied in their attentions to her, and poured out her blessing on them; first on the elder, and then on the younger. "But as for you, Harriet," she added, addressing the latter, "there waits for you one of the best blessings of this world also--the blessings of a good husband: you will be a gainer in the end, even in this life, through your kindness to the poor childless widow." The prophecy was a true one: the old woman had shrewdly marked where the eyes of her cousin had been falling of late; and in about a twelvemonth after her death her young friend and pupil had become the master's wife. There was a very considerable disparity between their ages,--the master was forty-four, and his wife only eighteen,--but never was there a happier marriage. The young wife was simple, confiding, and affectionate; and the master of a soft and genial nature, with a large amount of buoyant humour about him, and so equable of temper, that, during six years of wedded life, his wife never saw him angry but once. I have heard her speak of the exceptional instance, however, as too terrible to be readily forgotten.
She had accompanied him on ship-board, during their first year of married life, to the upper parts of the Cromarty Firth, where his sloop was taking in a cargo of grain, and lay quietly embayed within two hundred yards of the southern shore. His mate had gone away for the night to the opposite side of the bay, to visit his parents, who resided in that neighbourhood; and the remaining crew consisted of but two seamen, both young and somewhat reckless men, and the ship-boy. Taking the boy with them to keep the ship's boat afloat, and wait their return, the two sailors went ashore, and, setting out for a distant public-house, remained there drinking till a late hour. There was a bright moon overhead, but the evening was chilly and frosty; and the boy, cold, tired, and half-overcome by sleep, after waiting on till past midnight, shoved off the boat, and, making his way to the vessel, got straightway into his hammock and fell asleep. Shortly after, the two men came to the shore much the worse of liquor; and, failing to make themselves heard by the boy, they stripped off their clothes, and chilly as the night was, swam aboard. The master and his wife had been for hours snug in their bed, when they were awakened by the screams of the boy: the drunken men were unmercifully bastinading him with a rope's end apiece. The master, hastily rising, had to interfere in his behalf, and with the air of a man who knew that remonstrance in the circumstances would be of little avail, he sent them both off to their hammocks. Scarcely, however, had he again got into bed, when he was a second time aroused by the cries of the boy, uttered on this occasion in the shrill tones of agony and terror; and, promptly springing up, now followed by his wife, he found the two sailors again belabouring the boy, and that one of them, in his blind fury, had laid hold of a rope-end, armed, as is common on shipboard, with an iron thimble or ring, and that every blow produced a wound. The poor boy was streaming over with blood. The master, in the extremity of his indignation, lost command of himself. Rushing in, the two men were in a moment dashed against the deck;--they seemed powerless in his hands as children; and had not his wife, although very unfit at the time for mingling in a fray, run in and laid hold of him,--a movement which calmed him at once,--it was her serious impression that, unarmed as he was, he would have killed them both upon the spot. There are, I believe, few things more formidable than the unwonted anger of a good-natured man.
Chapter II--Childhood and childish visions--A Father's death--Favourite books--Sketch of two maternal uncles