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In the Cradle of the Deep by Charles Warren Stoddard

 

Forty days in the great desert of the sea—forty nights camped under cloud-canopies, with the salt dust of the waves drifting over us. Sometimes a Bedouin sail flashed for an hour upon the distant horizon, and then faded, and we were alone again; sometimes the west, at sunset, looked like a city with towers, and we bore down upon its glorified walls, seeking a haven; but a cold gray morning dispelled the illusion, and our hearts sank back into the illimitable sea, breathing a long prayer for deliverance.

Once a green oasis blossomed before us—a garden in perfect bloom, girded about with creaming waves; within its coral cincture pendulous boughs trailed in the glassy waters; from its hidden bowers spiced airs stole down upon us; above all, the triumphant palm trees clashed their melodious branches like a chorus with cymbals; yet from the very gates of this paradise a changeful current swept us onward, and the happy isle was buried in night and distance.

In many volumes of adventure I had read of sea-perils: I was at last to learn the full interpretation of their picturesque horrors. Our little craft, the Petrel, had buffeted the boisterous waves for five long weeks. Fortunately, the bulk of her cargo was edible: we feared neither famine nor thirst. Moreover, in spite of the continuous gale that swept us out of our reckoning, the Petrel was in excellent condition, and, as far as we could judge, we had no reason to lose confidence in her. It was the gray weather that tried our patience and found us wanting: it was the unparalleled pitching of the ninety-ton schooner that disheartened and almost dismembered us. And then it was wasting time at sea. Why were we not long before at our journey's end? Why were we not threading the vales of some savage island, reaping our rich reward of ferns and shells and gorgeous butterflies?

The sea rang its monotonous changes—fair weather and foul, days like death itself, followed by days full of the revelations of new life, but mostly days of deadly dullness, when the sea was as unpoetical as an eternity of cold suds and blueing.

I cannot always understand the logical fitness of things, or, rather, I am at a loss to know why some things in life are so unfit and illogical. Of course, in our darkest hour, when we were gathered in the confines of the Petrel's diminutive cabin, it was our duty to sing psalms of hope and cheer, but we didn't. It was a time for mutual encouragement: very few of us were self-sustaining, and what was to be gained by our combining in unanimous despair?

Our weatherbeaten skipper—a thing of clay that seemed utterly incapable of any expression whatever, save in the slight facial contortion consequent to the mechanical movement of his lower jaw—the skipper sat, with barometer in hand, eyeing the fatal finger that pointed to our doom: the rest of us were lashed to the legs of the centre-table, glad of any object to fix our eyes upon, and nervously awaiting a turn in the state of affairs, that was then by no means encouraging.

I happened to remember that there were some sealed letters to be read from time to time on the passage out, and it occurred to me that one of the times had come, perhaps the last and only, wherein I might break the remaining seals and receive a sort of parting visit from the fortunate friends on shore.

I opened one letter and read these prophetic lines: "Dear child"—she was twice my age, and privileged to make a pet of me—"Dear child, I have a presentiment that we shall never meet again in the flesh."

That dear girl's intuition came near to being the death of me: I shuddered where I sat, overcome with remorse. It was enough that I had turned my back on her and sought consolation in the treacherous bosom of the ocean—that, having failed to find the spring of immortal life in human affection, I had packed up and emigrated, content to fly the ills I had in search of change; but that parting shot, below the water-line as it were, that was more than I asked for, and something more than I could stomach. I returned to watch with the rest of our little company, who clung about the table with a pitiful sense of momentary security, and an expression of pathetic condolence on every countenance, as though each were sitting out the last hours of the others.

Our particular bane that night was a crusty old sea-dog whose memory of wrecks and marine disasters of every conceivable nature was as complete as an encyclopædia. This "old man of the sea" spun his tempestuous yarn with fascinating composure, and the whole company was awed into silence with the haggard realism of his narrative. The cabin must have been air-tight—it was as close as possible—yet we heard the shrieking of the wind as it tore through the rigging, and the long hiss of the waves rushing past us with lightning speed. Sometimes an avalanche of foam buried us for a moment, and the Petrel trembled like a living thing stricken with sudden fear: we seemed to be hanging on the crust of a great bubble that was, sooner or later, certain to burst and let us drop into its vast, black chasm, where in Cimmerian darkness we should be entombed for ever.

The scenic effect, as I then considered, was unnecessarily vivid: as I now recall it, it seems to me strictly in keeping and thoroughly dramatic. At any rate, you might have told us a dreadful story with almost fatal success.

I had still one letter left—one bearing this suggestive legend: "To be read in the saddest hour." Now, if there is a sadder hour in all time than the hour of hopeless and friendless death, I care not to know of it. I broke the seal of my letter, feeling that something charitable and cheering would give me strength. A few dried leaves were stored within it. The faint fragrance of summer bowers reassured me: somewhere in the blank world of waters there was land, and there Nature was kind and fruitful: out over the fearful deluge this leaf was borne to me in the return of the invisible dove my heart had sent forth in its extremity. A song was written therein, perhaps a song of triumph: I could now silence the clamorous tongue of our sea-monster, who was glutting us with tales of horror, for a jubilee was at hand, and here was the first note of its trumpets.

I read:

Beyond the parting and the meeting
I shall be soon:
Beyond the farewell and the greeting,
Beyond the pulse's fever-beating,
I shall be soon.

I paused. A night black with croaking ravens, brooding over a slimy hulk, through whose warped timbers the sea oozed—that was the sort of picture that arose before me. I looked farther for a crumb of comfort:

Beyond the gathering and the strewing
I shall be soon:
Beyond the ebbing and the flowing,
Beyond the coming and the going,
I shall be soon.

A tide of ice-water seemed rippling up and down my spinal column: the marrow congealed within my bones. But I recovered. When a man has supped full of horror, and there is no immediate climax, he can collect himself and be comparatively brave. A reaction restored my soul.

Once more the melancholy chronicler of the ill-fated Petrel resumed his lugubrious narrative. I resolved to listen, while the skipper eyed the barometer, and we all rocked back and forth in search of the centre of gravity, looking like a troupe of mechanical blockheads nodding in idiotic unison. All this time the little craft drifted helplessly, "hove to" in the teeth of the gale.

The sea-dog's yarn was something like this: He once knew a lonesome man who floated about in a waterlogged hulk for three months—who saw all his comrades starve and die, one after another, and at last kept watch alone, craving and beseeching death. It was the staunch French brig La Perle, bound south into the equatorial seas. She had seen rough weather from the first: day after day the winds increased, and finally a cyclone burst upon her with insupportable fury. The brig was thrown upon her beam-ends, and began to fill rapidly. With much difficulty her masts were cut away, she righted, and lay in the trough of the sea rolling like a log. Gradually the gale subsided, but the hull of the brig was swept continually by the tremendous swell, and the men were driven into the foretop cross-trees, where they rigged a tent for shelter and gathered what few stores were left them from the wreck. A dozen wretched souls lay in their stormy nest for three whole days in silence and despair. By this time their scanty stores were exhausted, and not a drop of water remained: then their tongues were loosened, and they railed at the Almighty. Some wept like children, some cursed their fate: one man alone was speechless—a Spaniard with a wicked light in his eye, and a repulsive manner that had made trouble in the forecastle more than once.

When hunger had driven them nearly to madness they were fed in an almost miraculous manner. Several enormous sharks had been swimming about the brig for some hours, and the hungry sailors were planning various projects for the capture of them: tough as a shark is, they would willingly have risked life for a few raw mouthfuls of the same. Somehow, though the sea was still and the wind light, the brig gave a sudden lurch and dipped up one of the monsters, who was quite secure in the shallow aquarium between the gunwales. He was soon despatched, and divided equally among the crew: some ate a little, and reserved the rest for another day; some ate till they were sick, and had little left for the next meal. The Spaniard with the evil eye greedily devoured his portion, and then grew moody again, refusing to speak with the others, who were striving to be cheerful, though it was sad enough work.

When the food was all gone save a few mouthfuls that one meagre eater had hoarded to the last, the Spaniard resolved to secure a morsel at the risk of his life. It had been a point of honor with the men to observe sacredly the right of ownership, and any breach of confidence would have been considered unpardonable. At night, when the watch was sleeping, the Spaniard cautiously removed the last mouthful of shark hidden in the pocket of his mate, but was immediately detected and accused of theft. He at once grew desperate, struck at the poor wretch whom he had robbed, missed his blow, and fell headlong from the narrow platform in the foretop, and was lost in the sea. It was the first scene in the mournful tragedy about to be enacted on that limited stage.

There was less disturbance after the disappearance of the Spaniard: the spirits of the doomed sailors seemed broken: in fact, the captain was the only one whose courage was noteworthy, and it was his indomitable will that ultimately saved him.

One by one the minds of the miserable men gave way: they became peevish or delirious, and then died horribly. Two, who had been mates for many voyages in the seas north and south, vanished mysteriously in the night: no one could tell where they went nor in what manner, though they seemed to have gone together.

Somehow, these famishing sailors seemed to feel assured that their captain would be saved: they were as confident of their own doom, and to him they entrusted a thousand messages of love. They would lie around him—for few of them had strength to assume a sitting posture—and reveal to him the story of their lives. It was most pitiful to hear the confessions of these dying men. One said: "I wronged my friend; I was unkind to this one or to that one; I deserve the heaviest punishment God can inflict upon me;" and then he paused, overcome with emotion. But another took up the refrain: "I could have done much good, but I would not, and now it is too late." And a third cried out in his despair: "I have committed unpardonable sins, and there is no hope for me. Lord Jesus, have mercy!" The youngest of these perishing souls was a mere lad: he too accused himself bitterly. He began his story at the beginning, and continued it from time to time as the spirit of revelation moved him: scarcely an incident, however insignificant, escaped him in his pitiless retrospect. Oh the keen agony of that boy's recital! more cruel than hunger or thirst, and in comparison with which physical torture would have seemed merciful and any death a blessing.

While the luckless Perle drifted aimlessly about, driven slowly onward by varying winds under a cheerless sky, sickness visited them: some were stricken with scurvy; some had lost the use of their limbs and lay helpless, moaning and weeping hour after hour; vermin devoured them, and when their garments were removed and cleansed in the salt water, there was scarcely sunshine enough to dry them before night, and they were put on again, damp, stiffened with salt, and shrunken so as to cripple the wearers, who were all blistered and covered with boils. The nights were bitter cold: sometimes the icy moon looked down upon them; sometimes the bosom of an electric cloud burst over them, and they were enveloped for a moment in a sheet of flame. Sharks lingered about them, waiting to feed upon the unhappy ones who fell into the sea overcome with physical exhaustion, or who cast themselves from that dizzy scaffold, unable longer to endure the horrors of lingering death. Flocks of sea-fowl hovered over them; the hull of the Perle was crusted with barnacles; long skeins of sea-grass knotted themselves in her gaping seams; myriads of fish darted in and out among the clinging weeds, sporting gleefully; schools of porpoises leaped about them, lashing the sea into foam; sometimes a whale blew his long breath close under them. Everywhere was the stir of jubilant life—everywhere but under the tattered awning stretched in the foretop of the Perle.

Days and weeks dragged on. When the captain would waken from his sleep—which was not always at night, however, for the nights were miserably cold and sleepless—when he wakened he would call the roll: perhaps some one made no answer; then he would reach forth and touch the speechless body and find it dead. He had not strength now to bury the corpses in the sea's sepulchre; he had not strength even to partake of the unholy feast of the inanimate flesh: he lay there in the midst of pestilence, and at night, under the merciful veil of darkness, the fowls of the air gathered about him and bore away their trophy of corruption.

By and by there were but two left of all that suffering crew—the captain and the boy—and these two clung together like ghosts, defying mortality. They strove to be patient and hopeful: if they could not eat, they could drink, for the nights were dewy, and sometimes a mist covered them—a mist so dense it seemed almost to drip from the rags that poorly sheltered them. A cord was attached to the shrouds, the end of it carefully laid in the mouth of a bottle slung in the rigging. Down the thin cord slid occasional drops: one by one they stole into the bottle, and by morning there was a spoonful of water to moisten those parched lips—sweet, crystal drops, more blessed than tears, for they are salt—more precious than pearls. A thousand prayers of gratitude seemed hardly to quiet the souls of the lingering ones for that great charity of Heaven.

There came a day when the hearts of God's angels must have bled for the suffering ones. The breeze was fresh and fair; the sea tossed gayly its foam-crested waves; sea-birds soared in wider circles, and the clouds shook out their fleecy folds, through which the sunlight streamed in grateful warmth: the two ghosts were talking, as ever, of home, of earth, of land. Land—land anywhere, so that it were solid and broad. Oh, to pace again a whole league without turning! Oh, to pause in the shadow of some living tree!—to drink of some stream whose waters flowed continually—flowed, though you drank of them with the awful thirst of one who has been denied water for weeks, and weeks, and weeks!—for three whole months—an eternity, as it seemed to them!

Then they pictured life as it might be if God permitted them to return to earth once more. They would pace K——street at noon, and revisit that capital restaurant where many a time they had feasted, though in those days they were unknown to one another; they would call for coffee, and this dish and that dish, and a whole bill of fare, the thought of which made their feverish palates grow moist again. They would meet friends whom they had never loved as they now loved them; they would reconcile old feuds and forgive everybody everything; they held imaginary conversations, and found life very beautiful and greatly to be desired; and somehow they would get back to the little café and there begin eating again, and with a relish that brought the savory tastes and smells vividly before them, and their lips would move and the impalpable morsels roll sweetly over their tongues.

It had become a second nature to scour the horizon with jealous eyes: never for a moment during their long martyrdom had their covetous sight fixed upon a stationary object. But it came at last. Out of a cloud a sail burst like a flickering flame. What an age it was a-coming! how it budded and blossomed like a glorious white flower, that was transformed suddenly into a barque bearing down upon them! Almost within hail it stayed its course, the canvas fluttered in the wind; the dark hull slowly rose and fell upon the water; figures moved to and fro—men, living and breathing men! Then the ghosts staggered to their feet and cried to God for mercy. Then they waved their arms, and beat their breasts, and lifted up their imploring voices, beseeching deliverance out of that horrible bondage. Tears coursed down their hollow cheeks, their limbs quaked, their breath failed them: they sank back in despair, speechless and forsaken.

Why did they faint in the hour of deliverance when that narrow chasm was all that separated them from renewed life? Because the barque spread out her great white wings and soared away, hearing not the faint voices, seeing not the thin shadows that haunted that drifting wreck. The forsaken ones looked out from their eyrie, and watched the lessening sail until sight failed them, and then the lad with one wild cry leaped toward the speeding barque, and was swallowed up in the sea.

Alone in a wilderness of waters! Alone, without compass or rudder, borne on by relentless winds into the lonesome, dreary, shoreless ocean of despair, within whose blank and forbidding sphere no voyager ventures; across whose desolate waste dawn sends no signal and night brings no reprieve; but whose sun is cold, and whose moon is clouded, and whose stars withdraw into space, and where the insufferable silence of vacancy shall not be broken for all time.

O pitiless Nature! thy irrevocable laws argue rare sacrifice in the waste places of God's universe!...


The Petrel gave a tremendous lurch, that sent two or three of us into the lee corners of the cabin; a sea broke over us, bursting in the companion-hatch, and half filling our small and insecure retreat; the swinging lamp was thrown from its socket and extinguished; we were enveloped in pitch-darkness, up to our knees in salt water. There was a moment of awful silence: we could not tell whether the light of day would ever visit us again; we thought perhaps it wouldn't. But the Petrel rose once more upon the watery hilltops and shook herself free of the cumbersome deluge; and at that point, when she seemed to be riding more easily than usual, some one broke the silence: "Well, did the captain of the Perle live to tell the tale?"

Yes, he did. God sent a messenger into the lonesome deep, where the miserable man was found insensible, with eyes wide open against the sunlight, and lips shrunken apart—a hideous breathing corpse. When he was lifted in the arms of the brave fellows who had gone to his rescue, he cried "Great God! am I saved?" as though he couldn't believe it when it was true: then he fainted, and was nursed through a long delirium, and was at last restored to health and home and happiness.

Our cabin-boy managed to fish up the lamp, and after a little we were illuminated: the agile swab soon sponged out the cabin, and we resumed our tedious watch for dawn and fairer weather.

Somehow, my mind brooded over the solitary wreck that was drifting about the sea: I could fancy the rotten timbers of the Perle clinging together, by a miracle, until the Ancient Mariner was taken away from her, and then, when she was alone again, with nothing whatever in sight but blank blue sea and blank blue sky, she lay for an hour or so, bearded with shaggy sea-moss and looking about a thousand years old. Suddenly it occurred to her that her time had come—that she had outlived her usefulness, and might as well go to pieces at once. So she yawned in all her timbers, and the sea reached up over her, and laid hold of her masts, and seemed to be slowly drawing her down into its bosom. There was not an audible sound, and scarcely a ripple upon the water, but when the waves had climbed into the foretop, there was a clamor of affrighted birds, and a myriad bubbles shot up to the surface, where a few waifs floated and whirled about for a moment. It was all that marked the spot where the Perle went down to her eternal rest.

"Ha, ha!" cried our skipper, with something almost like a change of expression on his mahogany countenance, "the barometer is rising!" and sure enough it was. In two hours the Petrel acted like a different craft entirely, and by and by came daybreak, and after that the sea went down, down, down, into a deep, dead calm, when all the elements seemed to have gone to sleep after their furious warfare. Like half-drowned flies we crawled out of the close, ill-smelling cabin to dry ourselves in the sun: there, on the steaming deck of the schooner, we found new life, and in the hope that dawned with it we grew lusty and jovial.

Such a flat, oily sea as it was then! So transparent that we saw great fish swimming about, full fathom five under us. A monstrous shark drifted lazily past, his dorsal fin now and then cutting the surface like a knife and glistening like polished steel, his brace of pilot-fish darting hither and thither, striped like little one-legged harlequins.

Flat-headed gonies sat high on the water, piping their querulous note as they tugged at something edible, a dozen of them entering into the domestic difficulty: one after another would desert the cause, run a little way over the sea to get a good start, leap heavily into the air, sail about for a few minutes, and then drop back on the sea, feet foremost, and skate for a yard or two, making a white mark and a pleasant sound as it slid over the water.

The exquisite nautilus floated past us, with its gauzy sail set, looking like a thin slice out of a soap-bubble; the strange anemone laid its pale, sensitive petals on the lips of the wave and panted in ecstasy: the Petrel rocked softly, swinging her idle canvas in the sun; we heard the click of the anchor-chain in the forecastle, the blessedest sea-sound I wot of; a sailor sang while he hung in the ratlines and tossed down the salt-stained shrouds. The afternoon waned: the man at the wheel struck two bells—it was the delectable dog-watch. Down went the swarthy sun into his tent of clouds; the waves were of amber; the fervid sky was flushed; it looked as though something splendid were about to happen up there, and that it could hardly keep the secret much longer. Then came the purplest twilight; and then the sky blossomed all over with the biggest, ripest, goldenest stars—such stars as hang like fruits in sun-fed orchards; such stars as lay a track of fire in the sea; such stars as rise and set over mountains and beyond low green capes, like young moons, every one of them; and I conjured up my spells of savage enchantment, my blessed islands, my reefs baptized with silver spray; I saw the broad fan-leaves of the banana droop in the motionless air, and through the tropical night the palms aspired heavenward, while I lay dreaming my sea-dream in the cradle of the deep.

Charles Warren Stoddard.