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   Chapter 6 BEN HARDEN.

The Wreckers of Sable Island By J. Macdonald Oxley Characters: 11832

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


As the words fell one by one from Ben's lips, Eric realized more and more clearly how critical was his situation. In his gladness at escape from the present peril of the wreck, he had forgotten to take thought for the future; but now he was brought face to face with a state of affairs by which that future was filled with dark foreboding. Little as he had seen of the men into whose midst he had been so strangely thrown, it was enough to make very plain to him that they wanted no witness of their doings.

So far they had been too much occupied with their own concerns to take much notice of him; but once he became the object of their attention, the question as to his disposal must be settled. The issue was more than doubtful, to say the least.

An awful feeling of desolation and despair came upon him. He seemed unable to utter a word, but looked up into Ben's bronzed face with an expression in which pathetic appeal was so mingled with harrowing dread as to touch this strange man.

He sprang to his feet, dashed his pipe out of his mouth, clenched his huge fists, and shouted aloud, as though all the other wreckers were there to hear,-

"They had better take care! I saved ye, and I'm going to stand by ye. Whoever wants to do you harm'll have to reckon with Ben Harden first; and come what may, I'll get you off this place with a whole skin, somehow."

Eric was as much surprised at Ben's sudden display of strong feeling as he had been alarmed by his ominous words. He gazed at him, with wide-open mouth, until the wrecker, recovering his self-control by an evident effort, threw himself down on the sand again, picked up his pipe, carefully relit it, and vigorously resumed puffing forth clouds of smoke.

It was some time before he spoke again. In a quiet, natural tone he asked Eric,-

"Have you any notion, my lad, why I troubled myself about ye at all?"

Eric shook his head, and there was something inexpressibly winning in his smile as he answered,-

"No, sir. Unless because you have too kind a heart to let Evil-Eye do me any harm."

Ben smiled in return, but it was in a grim sort of a way.

"My heart was softer once than it is now. There were better days then, and never did I think that I'd come to be a wrecker on Sable Island," said he; and the remembrance of those better days evidently gave him saddening thoughts, for he relapsed into the moody silence that was his wont. It continued so long that Eric began to feel uncomfortable, and was about to move away a little, in order to have a frolic with Prince, when Ben roused himself, and motioned him to draw near him.

"Sit ye down in front of me, my lad," said he, "and listen to me a bit, and I'll tell you why I couldn't find it in my heart to let any harm come to you. I had a boy of my own once, as trim a lad as ever sat in a boat; and many a fine trip we made together, for I was at an honest trade then, and wasn't ashamed to take my boy into it. Ah, lad! those were the good times. We went fishing on the Banks, getting our outfit at Halifax, and selling our fare there. But our home was at Chester, where I had a snug cottage, all my own, without a shilling of debt on it, and pretty well fitted up too. The wife-she was the best wife that ever I knew-she looked after the cottage, and we looked after the little schooner; and after each trip we'd stay at home awhile and have a little time together.

"We were mostly always in luck on the Banks, and it was not often the Sea-Slipper missed a good fare, if there were any fish to be caught. And so it went on, until I lost my lad. He and his mate were out in their dory fishing, and the cod were plentiful, and they were so full of catching them that they did not notice the fog coming up and creeping all around them. They lost their bearings, and no man ever set eyes on them again.

"I didn't give up hoping I'd find them for months afterwards. I cruised about the Banks, I called at all the ports that sent out Bankers, and I tried at Halifax, Boston, New York, and other big places, hoping that some ship might have picked them up. But not a word did I hear. There was a heavy blow right after the fog, and no doubt they were lost in that. I lost a lot of time hunting for my boy, and it seemed as though when he went my luck followed him. Everything went wrong. The fish would hardly touch my hooks, and I never got a full fare. Then the wife died. She never held up her head after the day I came home without our boy. I took to the drink. It didn't make matters any better, of course, but I couldn't keep from it.

"I got knocking about with a bad lot of chaps; and the end of it was, some of us came here. I don't care how soon it's all over with me. I hate this business, and I hate myself."

Here Ben came to a pause, as though he had said more than he intended; and Eric, not knowing what to interpose, looked at him in silent sympathy, until he began again.

"But I haven't told ye why I saved ye from Evil-Eye.

"Well, it was just this way. When I found ye, you were lying on the sand like as though you were asleep; and you fairly gave me a start, you looked so like my own boy. He was just about your age when he was lost, and you'd be much the same size, and he had brown hair just like yours.

"If my boy had been lying half-dead on the beach, I'd have thought any man worse than a brute that wouldn't help the lad. So I just made up my mind to take your part, Evil-Eye or no Evil-Eye; and now I'm going to stick to it."

Having spoken thus, Ben put his pipe back between his lips, evidently having no more to say. Eric hardly knew how to give expression to his feelings. Sympathy for his rescuer's troubles and gratitude for his assurance of safe-keeping filled his heart. The tears gathered in his eyes, and his voice trembled as, turning to the big man beside him, he laid his hand upon his knee, and looking up in

to his face, said,-

"You've been very good to me, Mr. Ben. You're the only friend I've got here except Prince, and I'm sure you won't let any harm come to me, if you can help it. And I'm so sorry about your son. You see, we've both lost somebody: you've lost your boy, and I-I've lost my mother."

His voice sank to a whisper as he uttered the words, and the tears he had been bravely keeping back overflowed upon his cheeks.

Ben said not a word. There was a suspicious glistening about his eyelids, and the quite superfluous vigour of his puffing told plainly enough that he was deeply moved. After a moment he rose to his feet, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and putting it into his pocket, said,-

"Come, lad, let us go back to the hut."

The two retraced their steps to the wreckers' abode. Eric now felt more at ease than he had since the shipwreck. With such protectors as Ben and Prince he surely had not much to fear, even in the evil company among which he had been cast. As to the future-well, it certainly did seem dark. But he had been taught to put trust in the Heavenly Father to whom he prayed, and he looked up to him now for help and guidance.

When they arrived at the hut they found the whole party of wreckers there, waiting somewhat impatiently for a huge negro to serve them their supper.

This negro did duty as cook; they called him Black Joe. They took little notice of the new-comers, and Eric, going quietly over to his bunk, sat down on the edge and looked about him. This was his first opportunity of getting a good look at his strange companions.

By listening to their conversation and studying their countenances he made out that the majority of them were English, but that there were a few Frenchmen amongst them. There was only one negro, a stalwart, bull-necked, bullet-headed fellow, with a good-natured face, who seemed the butt of the others, and a target for their oaths and jeers, as he bustled about the fireplace preparing their food.

The whole party appeared to be in excellent humour, the cause thereof being plainly enough the fact of the Francis having proved so rich a prize. Each man had been able to secure sufficient plunder to satisfy him, so there was no necessity for quarrelling over the division. They each had some precious find to boast of, and they vied with one another in relating with great gusto their successful efforts after the wreckage. From what they said, Eric gathered that the Francis did not break up after striking. Her stout oak frame resisted the fiercest attempts of the billows to tear it asunder. The storm subsided during the night, and the men were able in the morning to make their way to the wreck, and despoil her of whatever took their fancy.

The thousands of valuable books, and the holdful of costly but cumbrous furniture, they contemptuously left to the mercy of wind and wave. The great store of gold and silver plate, the casks of finest wines, the barrels and cases of delicious biscuits, conserves, pickles, and other dainties, together with the racks of muskets, swords, and other weapons-these were all very much to their liking. Moreover, the clothing chests had been ransacked, each man helping himself according to his fancy. The result was a display of gorgeous uniforms and elegant apparel that would have been quite imposing had not the faces and manners of the wearers been so ludicrously out of keeping with their costumes.

Little did Prince Edward imagine, when ordering liberal additions to his wardrobe, that those resplendent garments were destined to be worn to tatters on the backs of the wreckers of Sable Island. What would have been his feelings could he have seen Evil-Eye strutting about as proud as a turkey-cock in the superb uniform intended for the commander of the forces at Halifax?

Although the profuse profanity of the speakers shocked and sickened him, Eric listened attentively to all that was said, in the hope of picking up something about his future. But the wreckers were too much occupied with their own affairs to pay any attention to him. Presently Black Joe announced that supper was ready, whereupon they all stopped talking, and fell to with ravenous appetites.

The table looked curiously out of keeping with its associations of squalid hut and coarse, brutal men. It was covered with a cloth of richest damask that should have adorned a royal dining-room, and set out with china, glass, plate, and cutlery of corresponding elegance. It filled Eric with indignation and disgust to see the wreckers hacking their meat with ivory-handled knives, impaling their potatoes upon silver forks, and quenching their thirst by copious draughts out of cut-glass goblets, which seemed to be desecrated by their foul touch.

Ben motioned him to a seat beside himself, and helped him bountifully. Ill at ease as the boy felt, he was very hungry, and was glad to do full justice to the coarse but plentiful fare provided by Black Joe. The wine he would not touch.

The hearty supper and the abundant wine put the men in even better humour than before, and Ben now saw his opportunity to carry out a plan that had been forming in his mind. Rising to his feet, he secured his companions' attention by rapping loudly upon the table with the handle of his knife, and then proceeded to surprise them by making a little speech; for so chary of his words was he, as a usual thing, that they sometimes called him Silent Ben.

"I want a word with you, mates," said he; and at once every face was turned toward him.

"You see this boy here. Now, I've taken a great liking to him, and I'm willing that he and his dog shall be counted as part of my share of this last prize. That's all right, ain't it?"

"Ay, ay, Ben; right enough," came from half-a-dozen of them, while some of the others looked a little doubtful, as if they didn't know exactly what was coming.

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