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   Chapter 1 ONE STORMY NIGHT.

A Sailor's Lass By Emma Leslie Characters: 13867

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Mother, we're afloat agin." It was a gruff, sleepy voice that spoke, and the old fisherman turned over and snored on, as though the fact of their home being afloat was of no consequence to him. His wife, however, was by no means so easy in her mind, for it was only during the equinoctial gales and an unusually high tide that their home was lifted from its moorings; and now it had been swinging and swaying for hours, and the rusty chains that held it fast to some posts were creaking and straining as though the next gust of windwould certainly carry them out to sea or drive them up the river, where they would inevitably be swamped in a very short time, for their boat-home was leaky at the bottom-had been a water-logged boat before the fisherman took possession of it and turned it into a quaint-looking cottage by running up some wooden walls along the sides, and roofing it in with planks and tarpaulin. Thus converted into a dwelling-house, the boat had been secured, by four chains fixed to posts in the ground, on the top of a mud-bank that formed the boundary of the mouth of the river.

The ocean itself was less than a quarter of a mile from where the old boat was moored, and so the poor woman might well be excused for growing more alarmed as the minutes went on and the gale increased, until the boat fairly rocked, and the children in the adjoining cabin began crying and screaming in their fright.

"Coomber! Coomber!" she said at last, shaking her husband, and starting up in bed; for a sound more dreadful than the children'sscreams had made itself heard above the din of the wind and waves.

"There's a ship, Coomber, close in shore; I can hear the guns!" screamed his wife, giving him another vigorous shake.

"Ship! guns!" exclaimed the old fisherman, starting up in bed. The next minute he was on his feet, and working himself into his clothes. "She must be on the sand-bar if you heard the guns," he said.

A sudden lurch of the boat almost pitched the old man forward, and the children's screams redoubled, while Mrs. Coomber hastily scrambled out of bed and lighted the lantern that hung against the wall.

"What are yer going to do?" asked her husband, in some surprise; "women ain't no good in such work as this."

"What are you going to do?" asked Mrs. Coomber, almost crying herself; "the boat will soon be adrift with this wind and tide, and we shall all be drowned like rats in a hole."

"Nay, nay, old woman, the boat was made taut enough before I brought you here, and you think she wouldn't have broke away before this if she was going to do it? Don't be a stupid lubber," he added.

"But the children, Coomber, the children. I ain't afraid for myself," said the mother, with a sob.

"Well, well, the old boat'll hold the boys for many a day yet," said the fisherman; "you go in and stop their noise, while I get help for the poor souls that are surely perishing out there."

"But what can you do for them?" asked his wife; "there ain't a boat besides ours at Bermuda Point, nor a man to help you manage it besides Bob."

"No, no; Bob and I couldn't manage the boat in such a sea as this; but he shall go with me to Fellness. Bob! Bob!" called his father, in the same breath.

"Aye, aye," came an answering shout from the adjoining cabin.

"Slip into your things as quick as you can; we must be off to Fellness; there's a ship out there on the bar sands."

"I'm a'most ready, dad; I heard mother call yer, and thought you'd let me go along," replied Bob.

Before the fisherman put on his sou'-wester he took a black bottle from a recess, and after taking a hearty draught, he said, "It's lucky we've got a drop to-night," as he handed it to his wife; and with a parting word to her not to be afraid, he and Bob stepped out of the boat-house door, to meet the full fury of the blast, that threatened at first to carry them off their legs. The three miles' walk to the little fishing village of Fellness was no easy task such a wild night as this, for although the road was inland, it was fully exposed to the sea, and between the wilder outbreaks of the wind and rain they could hear the guns of distress, and occasionally see a rocket piercing the midnight blackness of the sky, appealing for help for the drowning men.

At the coastguard station, midway betweenthe Point and the village, they found the men on the alert, and two volunteered to go with Coomber and help man the boat. Then the four plodded silently along the slushy road, for talking was next to impossible in such a gale, and it needed all the strength and energy they could muster to fight the wind and rain.

They made their way to the beach as soon as they reached Fellness, and, as they expected, found most of the men gathered there, watching the distressed vessel.

"Halloo! here's Coomber from the Point," said one, as the new-comers pushed their way in among them.

"What are yer standing here for?" shouted Coomber, in some impatience; "looking won't do her no good."

"We can't do nothing else," said the man; "we've got Rodwell's boat here-she's the best craft on this coast for such a trip, and we've made three tries in her, but it's no good; nothing could live in such a sea as this; we've been beat back every time, and well-nigh swamped."

"Well, mates, I don't say nothing but what yer may have tried; but suppose now one of yer had got a boy out in that there ship-I've got a boy in that, or another, if he ain't gone to where there's no more sea," said the old fisherman, with a groan; and before he had done speaking, one or two had moved to where the boat had been dragged on to the low sandy shore.

"We'll try again," they said, in quiet but determined voices.

"Let the youngsters go," said Coomber, as two or three married men pressed forward; "them as has got wives ain't no call to go on such a trip as this. There'll be enough of us; there's me and Bob, and Rook and White came with us a purpose, and--"

"But how about your wife, Coomber?" interrupted one of the men.

"Oh, never you fear, lads; she'll not grudge me if I save her boy. Now, lads, look here; seven of us'll be enough, and we've got four."

There were so many volunteers for the three vacant places, that the men seemed on the point of quarrelling among themselves now for the privilege of joining in this dangerous errand; but by common consent Coomber was constituted the leader of the party, and he chose three of the most stalwart of the single men, and the rest were allowed to run the boat down through the surf. Then, with a loud cheer from all who stood on the shore, the seven brave men bent to their oars, and during a slight lull in the wind, they made a little headway towards the wreck. But the next minute they were beaten back again, and the boat well-nigh swamped. Again they pushed off, but again were they driven back; and five times was this repeated, and thus

an hour was lost in the fruitless endeavour to get away from the shore. At length the fury of the storm somewhat abated, and they were able to get away, but it was a long time before they could get near the dangerous bar sands, on which the vessel had struck, and when they did get there, the ship had disappeared. There was plenty of wreckage about-broken spars, fragments of masts and torn sail-cloth.

"We're too late," groaned one of the men, as he peered through the darkness, trying to descry the hull of the vessel. They had not heard the guns or seen a rocket thrown up for some time.

"They're all gone, poor fellows," said another, sadly; "we may as well go back now, before the gale freshens again."

"Oh, stop a bit; we'll look among this rubbish, and see what there is here; perhaps some of them are holding on to the floating timber," said Coomber, who had frequently been out on a similar errand.

They raised their voices together, and cried "Hi! hi!" trying to outscream the wind; but it was of no use; there was no answering call for help, and after waiting about for some time, and going as near to the dangerous sands as they dared, they at length reluctantly turned their boat towards the shore, and began to row back. But before they had got far on their way, they descried the gleam of something white floating in front of them.

"Only a bit of sail-cloth," said one, as they paused in their rowing to concentrate all their attention upon the object.

"Let's make sure, mates," said Coomber. "Steady, now; mind your oars; let her float; it's coming this way, and we'll pick it up;" and in another minute Coomber had reached over and seized the white bundle, which he found to be carefully lashed to a spar.

"It's a child!" he exclaimed. "Mates, we ain't come out for nothing, after all. Now row for dear life," he said, as he carefully laid the bundle in the bottom of the boat. They could do nothing for it here, not even ascertain whether it was dead or alive; and they pulled for the shore with even greater eagerness than they had left it.

The dawn was breaking before they got back, and they were welcomed with a shout from their waiting comrades, who were watching anxiously for the return of the boat. There was disappointment, however, in the little crowd of watchers when they saw only the brave crew returning from the perilous journey.

"What, nothing!" exclaimed one of the men, as the boat drew close in shore.

"Only a child, and that may be dead," shouted one of the crew.

"But I think it's alive," said Coomber. "Run, Peters, and rouse up your missus; the womenfolk are better hands at such jobs than we are;" and as soon as he could leave the boat, he picked up the white bundle, and hurried after Peters, leaving his companions to tell the story of their disappointment.

Mrs. Peters was a motherly woman, and had already lighted a fire to prepare some breakfast for her husband, in readiness for his return from the beach, so the wet clothes were soon taken off the child, and they saw it was a little girl about five years old, fair and delicate-looking, decently, but not richly clad, with a small silver medal hung round her neck by a black ribbon. At first they feared the poor little thing was dead, for it was not until Mrs. Peters had well-nigh exhausted all her best-known methods for restoring the apparently drowned, that the little waif showed any sign of returning life.

Coomber stood watching with silent but intense anxiety the efforts of the dame to restore animation, not daring to join in the vigorous chafings and slappings administered, for fear his rough horny hands should hurt the tender blue-white limbs.

For some time the woman was too much occupied with her task to notice his presence, but when her labour was rewarded by a faint sigh, and a slightly-drawn breath parted the pale lips, she heard a grunt of satisfaction behind her; and turning her head, she exclaimed, "What gowks men are, to be sure."

"Eh, what is it, dame?" said Coomber, meekly; for he had conceived a wonderful respect for Mrs. Peters during the last ten minutes. "Ha' you been a-standing there like a post all this while, and never put out yer hand to help save the child?" she said, reproachingly.

"I couldn't, dame, I couldn't with such hands as these; but I'll do anything for you that I can," whispered the fisherman, as though he feared to disturb the child.

"Well, I want a tub of hot water," snapped Mrs. Peters. "You'll find the tub in the backyard, and the kettle's near on the boil. Look sharp and get the tub, and then go upstairs and get a blanket off the bed."

Coomber soon brought the tub, and a pitcher of cold water that stood near, but it was not so easy for him to grope his way upstairs. The staircase was narrow and dark, and seemed specially contrived that the uninitiated might bump and bruise themselves. Coomber, in his boat-home, having no such convenience or inconvenience in general use, found the ascent anything but easy, and the dame's sharp voice was heard calling for the blanket long before he had groped his way to the bedroom door. But what would he not do for that child whose faint wail now greeted his ears? He pushed on, in spite of thumps and knocks against unexpected corners, and when he had found the blanket, was not long in making his way down with it.

"Now what's to be done with her?" demanded the woman, as she lifted the little girl out of the water, and wrapped her in the blanket.

"Won't she drink some milk?" said Coomber, scratching his head helplessly.

"I dessay she will presently; but who's to keep her? You say there ain't none of the people saved from the wreck to tell who she belongs to?"

"No, there ain't none of 'em saved, so I think I'll take her myself," said Coomber.

"You take her!" exclaimed the woman; "what will your wife say, do you think, to another mouth to fill, when there's barely enough now for what you've got-four hearty boys, who are very sharks for eating?"

"Well, dame, I've had a little gal o' my own, but ain't likely to have another unless I takes this one," said Coomber, with a little more courage, "and so I ain't a-going to lose this chance; for I do want a little gal."

"Oh, that's all very well; but you ain't no call to take this child that's no ways your own. She can go to the workus, you know. Peters'll take her by-and-by. Her clothes ain't much, so her belongings ain't likely to trouble themselves much about her. Yer can see by this trumpery medal she don't belong to rich folks; so my advice is, let her go to the workus, where she'll be well provided for."

"No, no! the missus'll see things as I do, when I talk to her a bit. So if you'll take care of her for an hour or two, while I go home and get off these duds, and tell her about it, I'll be obliged;" and without waiting for the dame's reply, Coomber left the cottage.

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