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Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 13208

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

For two or three days after our visit to the church ruins, rain kept us prisoners within the houseboat. Such times are good tests to determine how much one possesses of the houseboating spirit. All the charms usually associated with such a life are blotted out by the lowering clouds, washed away by the falling water. And how the houseboat shrinks when it gets so wet! With decks unavailable, what a little thing the floating home suddenly becomes! Then there is the ceaseless patter overhead, and so close overhead that one almost feels like raising an umbrella.

But to the true houseboater there is a charm in it all. With water above, below, and all around, the little craft is yet tight and snug. There is plenty of food for the mind on the book-shelves above and plenty for the body in the lockers below. Lady Fairweather found a diversion of her own. She sat for a good part of one wet afternoon, with a short pole thrust out of a window, a baited hook in the water, and an expectant look on her face. But we had an omelet for supper.

On the first bright morning we made preparations to visit the island again. As we were about to start, the sailor rushed into the forward cabin with story enough in his eyes, but only one word on his lips-" Fire!"

Then there was commotion. Nautica ran into the galley and Lady Fairweather ran for the Commodore, who was out on deck. He reached the galley to find one end of it in flames and himself half buried under a shower of boxes, cans, paper bags, and packages of breakfast food. Nautica, suddenly remembering one of the best things for extinguishing burning gasoline, was making everything fly as she frantically sought to reach a stowed-away bag of flour. The bag and the Commodore appeared about the same time, and together they made toward the gasoline stove from which the blaze was flaming across the galley. In an instant all of the flour was cast into the flames. It proved wholly insufficient, though warranted on the bag to go farther than any other brand.

Already the blaze was about the gasoline font. All knew that there was over a barrelful of the inflammable liquid in the tank on the upper deck. Calling to the sailor to get the shore-boat ready, the Commodore scooped up the fallen flour and cast it again on the fire. Distracted Lady Fairweather suddenly rushed to her cabin and back again, and she too wildly cast a shower of something white into the blaze. Then she stood pale and speechless, all unconscious of the dainty, empty pink box clasped in both hands, and of her own heroism in sacrificing her complexion to save the houseboat. As it turned out, we had no need to row ashore. With little or nothing to account for it, except the perversity of gasoline, or perhaps the contents of the little pink box, the flames with a final flare went out.

Then we took account of the situation. Flour was everywhere. Nautica had eyebrows and hair singed, though she found that out only when she got the flour off. It was hard to tell what was the matter with the Commodore, or to take his troubles seriously. He had slightly scorched hands of course. But then one forgot them in looking at his expressive face made out of flour and soot, and in watching him spill breakfast food and tapioca when he walked.

We never knew how the fire came to start, any more than how it came to go out. When fairly presentable again, we went up on the upper deck to find a cool place under the awning.

Evidently, we were adapting ourselves promptly to the ways of the country. Having fires seems to have been one of the chief diversions in old James Towne, and we had no sooner got to the island than we fell in with the custom. It was not a good custom. Even with the fire out we were in trouble; for Gadabout hadn't a piece of bread to her name, and we had thrown on the fire the last bit of flour aboard. We were falling in with more than one of the ways of the colonists-it was fire and famine too.

The Commodore suggested that we send a message to the owner of the island praying that a "Supply" be despatched to the starving new colonists. But Nautica held that such an appeal should be made in person; that the Commodore, like a true Captain John Smith, should start out himself to get food for his famishing little colony.

Thus put upon his mettle, the Commodore, trailed by the sailor with his basket, soon set off along the island road. Upon reaching the neighbourhood of the church ruins he met an old negro.

"Mornin', suh." And the shapeless hat came off in a way that told that this was a survival of the old school.

"Good morning, uncle. Can you tell me which way to go to find the big house?"

"Yas, suh. I don' b'long heah myse'f, suh; but you see dat brick house down de road yondah, what's done been burn down? Well, dat was de big house, yas, suh. But it ain' no good to stop dere now, no, suh. You go right on by, and de big house now is de firs' little house you comes to."

According to these directions, the way was now along a road leading down the island. It ran not far from the river bank and through grounds having a border of trees skirting the water's edge. At last the "little big" house was reached. All the members of the family were away for the summer except one daughter who, with a friend from Richmond for company, was in charge of the servants and managing the island.

The Commodore introduced himself and his sad story of fire and famine. He explained that it would be two or three days before supplies could be got from Norfolk, and darkly hinted at a new chapter of suffering that might be added to the woeful history of the island unless something were done at once. The gloomy picture did not seem to impress the young woman very painfully, for her reply was a laughing one; but a sack of flour went into the basket and a big loaf of bread besides. Upon its coming out in the conversation that we wished to remain at our anchorage for some time and should like to know of any limitations placed upon visitors, the freedom of the island was most kindly extended to us. The Commodore proudly returned with his supplies to the houseboat.

"Saved by the Daughter of the Island!" exclaimed Lady Fairweather. And by that name we came to speak of our benefactress.

After we had broken bread, borrowed bread and good too, another and more successful attempt was made to go on the island. Our object was to visit the old graveyard. Crossing again to the grove on the James River side, we entered in among the shadows that enwrap the ruined church and the crumbling tombs of the

village dead. The graveyard, or what remains of it, is coextensive with the grove. When most of the deserted church crumbled and fell a hundred years ago, some of the bricks were used to build a wall around the old burying-ground. Parts of it are standing yet in picturesque, moss-covered ruins.

This time we found workmen engaged on the foundations for the memorial building. So we were prevented from seeing satisfactorily some of the tombs, as they were boxed over to protect them while this work was in progress. However, the caretaker did all that he could for us.

Pitifully few are the stones remaining to mark the graves of that vanguard of English colonization. For most who lie here, the last record has crumbled away. Proud knight, proud lady, gentlemen, gentlewomen, and unknown humble folk, in common brotherhood at last, "dust to dust" and unmarked level ground above them.

One of the most notable of the remaining tombs is that of Lady Frances Berkeley, who rests beneath the shadow of the great hackberry tree that is said to have been brought over, a slender sapling, from England. But a few parts of words remain on the broken stone, and the date is gone. Though after the death of her husband, Sir William Berkeley, this lady became Mrs. Philip Ludwell, yet she clung to the greater name and insisted that her long sleep should be under its carven pomp.

Peeping into a shed that temporarily covered the old chancel floor, we caught a glimpse of the mysterious tomb of the island. It is an ironstone tablet, once doubtless inlaid with brass, as the channellings for the metal are yet clearly defined. They show a draped figure and some smaller designs that have been taken as indications of knighthood, and have led to the conjecture that this is the tomb of Sir George Yeardley, governor of the Colony of Virginia, who died here in 1627. It is said to be the only tomb of the kind in America. Evidently, the stone has become somewhat displaced; for instead of being orientated as it must once have been, it now lies almost north and south.

We were not able to see the grave of William Sherwood, that humble but hopeful wrong-doer who lies under the chiselled words, "A Great sinner Waiting for a joyfull Resurrection."

The old graveyard, like the hoary tower, awes the mind and touches the heart. And this partly because of its pitiful littleness. A handful of cracked and broken stones to tell of all that terrible harvest that Death reaped in the ruined village! But perhaps they tell it all as hosts of tombs could not do. One reads between the stones, then far out beyond them where mouldering bones are feeding the smiling fields; and there is borne in upon him the thought that our country had life through so much of death that this whole island is a graveyard.

After leaving the old tombs, we crossed a roadway and entered a ruined fort. In those few steps we made a long plunge down the years of history, and passed far away from old James Towne. None of the colonists ever saw those walls of earth. They are the remains of a Confederate fort. But, modern as they are, they have done what they could to put themselves in harmony with the ancientness all about. The slopes are grass-grown and even tree-grown. Within the walls is the caretaker's cottage in the midst of such a wealth of trees, flowering shrubs, and vines as makes a greenwood retreat. The grass-grown embrasures and the drooping branches over them form frames for river views that seem set there in place of the rusty cannon pieces.

It was toward evening when we started back across the island, houseboatward. We sauntered slowly at first, turning for a backward glance at the old church tower and pausing again to look out over the water at the island's outer sentinel, the "Lone Cypress." We paused yet another time down where the marsh reeds lined the way. Grasping handfuls of the coarse grass, the Commodore started to illustrate how the colonists bound thatch, doubtless from that very marsh, to make roofs for their flimsy cabins. But the marsh furnished something besides grasses; and before the Commodore's explanation had gone far, his auditors had gone farther. He valiantly slew the snake, the whole six inches of it, and hastening forward found those more progressive houseboaters safely ensconced in the shore-boat.

As the little skiff moved out upon the river, a carriage rattled across the bridge. Sightseers who had driven over from Williamsburg were returning. However satisfied they may have felt with their short visit, we could only pity them. Yet such a visit, of a few hours at most, is all that is possible here except for one who brings his home with him, for there is no public house on the island. Stepping aboard Gadabout, we congratulated ourselves that she enabled us to live indefinitely right in the suburbs of old James Towne.

However, as days went on, Lady Fairweather became somewhat daunted by the dire predictions of chills and fever as a result of our long lying in the marshes; and one day she deserted the ship and sailed away on a bigger one. We thought she was to be gone only a little while, but she proved a real deserter and Gadabout saw no more of her to the end of the cruise.

But chills and fever never came to Gadabout's household, though the dog-day sun beat upon the waste of reeds and rushes about us and though striped-legged mosquitoes were our nearest and most attentive neighbours. Fortunately, the mosquitoes did not feel that hospitality required them to call upon the strangers or to show them any attention except in the evening. Even then they were more or less distant, rarely coming into the houseboat, but lingering in a neighbourly way about doors and windows, and whispering assurances of their regard through some crossed wires that we happened to have there.

One of the chief causes of illness among the colonists, impure water, we did not have to contend with. In the early days of James Towne, the river was the only water supply; later, shallow wells were dug; both the river and the wells furnished impure, brackish water. To-day, two artesian wells are flowing on the island. As we got our supply from them, we often thought of how those first settlers suffered and died for want of pure water, when all the while this inexhaustible supply lay imprisoned beneath their cornfields. But even the water from the artesian wells we took the precaution to boil. So, pitting screens against mosquitoes and the teakettle against water germs, we lived on, chill-less and fever-less in the marshes of Back River.

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