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My Danish Sweetheart: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3

William Clark Russell

  Produced by Robert Cicconetti, Mary Meehan and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at (Thisfile was produced from images generously made availableby The Internet Archive)


  A Novel




  VOL. I.

  Methuen & Co. 18, BURY STREET, LONDON, W.C. 1891 [_All rights reserved_]







  V. DAWN 107








  On the morning of October 21, in a year that one need not count very farback to arrive at, I was awakened from a light sleep into which I hadfallen after a somewhat restless night by a sound as of thunder somelittle distance off, and on going to my bedroom window to take a view ofthe weather I beheld so wild and forbidding a prospect of sea and skythat the like of it is not to be imagined.

  The heavens were a dark, stooping, universal mass of vapour--swollen,moist, of a complexion rendered malignant beyond belief by a sort ofgreenish colour that lay upon the face of it. It was tufted here andthere into the true aspect of the electric tempest; in other parts, itwas of a sulky, foggy thickness; and as it went down to the sea-line itwore, in numerous places, a plentiful dark shading that caused theclouds upon which this darkness rested to look as though their heavyburthen of thunder was weighing their overcharged breasts down to thevery sip of the salt.

  A small swell was rolling in betwixt the two horns of cliff which framedthe wide bight of bay that I was overlooking. The water was very darkand ugly with its reflection of the greenish, sallowish atmosphere thattinged its noiseless, sliding volumes. Yet spite of the shrouding shadowof storm all about, the horizon lay a clear line, spanning the yawn ofocean and heaven betwixt the foreland points.

  There was nothing to be seen seaward; the bay, too, was empty. I stoodfor a little while watching the cloud of foam made by the swell where itstruck upon the low, black ledge of what we call in those parts DeadlowRock, and upon the westernmost of the two fangs of reef, some littledistance away from the Rock, and named by the sailors hereabouts theTwins; I say I stood watching this small play of white water andhearkening for another rumble of thunder; but all remained hushed--not abreath of air--no glance of dumb lightning.

  On my way to the parlour I looked in upon my mother, now an old lady,whose growing infirmities obliged her to keep her bed till the day wasadvanced. I kissed and greeted her.

  'It seems a very dark melancholy morning, Hugh,' says she.

  'Ay, indeed,' I answered. 'I never remember the like of such a sky as ishanging over the water. Did you hear the thunder just now, mother?'

  She answered no, but then, to be sure, she was a little deaf.

  'I hope, Hugh,' said she, with a shake of her head and smoothing hersnow-white hair with a hand that slightly trembled, 'that it may not endin a lifeboat errand. I had a wretched dream last night. I saw you enterthe boat and sail into the bay. The sun was high and all was bright andclear; but on a sudden the weather grew black--dark as it now is. Thewind swept the water, which leaped high and boiled. You and the menstrove hard to regain the land, and then gave up in despair, and you putright before the wind, and the boat sped like an arrow into the gloomand haze; and just before she vanished a figure rose by your side whereyou sat steering, and gazed at me thus'--she placed her forefinger uponher lip in the posture of one commanding silence. 'It was your father,Hugh: his face was full of entreaty and despair.' She sighed deeply.'How clearly does one sometimes see in dreams!' she added. 'Never wasyour father's face in his dear life more distinct to my eyes than inthis vision.'

  'A Friday night's dream told on a Saturday!' said I, laughing; 'nochance of its coming true, though. No fear of the _Janet_'--for that wasthe name of our lifeboat--'blowing out to sea. Besides, the bay isempty. There can be no call. And supposing one should come and thisweather should burst into a hurricane, I'd rather be afloat in the_Janet_ than in the biggest ship out of London or Liverpool docks;' andso saying I left her, never giving her dream or her manner anotherthought.

  After I had breakfasted I walked down to the esplanade to view the_Janet_ as she lay snug in her house. I was her coxswain, and how ithappened that I filled that post I will here explain.

  My father, who had been a captain in the merchant service, had savedmoney, and invested his little fortune in a couple of ships, in one ofwhich, fifteen years before the date of this story, he had embarked totake a run in her from the river Thames to Swansea, where she was tofill up with cargo for a South American port. She was a brand-new ship,and he wished to judge of her sea-going qualities. When she had roundedthe North Foreland the weather thickened; it came on to blow a gale ofwind; the vessel took the ground somewhere near the North Sand Head, andof twenty-three people aboard of her fifteen perished, my father beingamong those who were drowned.

  His brother--my uncle, George Tregarthen--was a well-to-do merchant inthe City of London, and in memory of my father's death, which grievedhim to the soul, and which, with the loss of the others, had come aboutthrough delay in sending help from the land--for they fired guns andburnt flares, and the adjacent light-ship signalled with rockets that avessel was ashore; but all to no purpose, for when the rescue wasattempted the ship was breaking up, and most of her people were corpses,as I have said--my uncle, by way of memorializing his brother's death,at his own cost presented the little town in which my father had livedwith a lifeboat, which he called the _Janet_, after my mother. I wasthen too young to take a part in any services she rendered; but by thetime I had reached the age of twenty I was as expert as the smartestboatman on our part of the coast, and as I claimed a sort of captaincyof the lifeboat by virtue of her as a family gift, I replaced the manwho had been her coxswain, and for the last two years had taken her helmduring the six times she had been called upon; and not a little proudwas I to be able to boast that, under my charge, the _Janet_ in thosetwo years had rescued twenty-three men, five women, and two childrenfrom certain death.

  No man could love his dog or his horse--indeed, I may say, no man couldlove his sweetheart--with more fondness than I loved my boat. She was aliving thing, to my fancy, even when she was high and dry. She seemed toappeal to me out of a vitality that might well have passed for human, tojudge of the moods it kindled in me. I would sit and view her, and thinkof her afloat, figure some dreadful scene of shipwreck, some furioussurface of seething yeast, with a ship in the heart of it, coming andgoing amid storms of spray; and then I would picture the boat crushingthe savage surge with her shoulder, as she stormed through thetremendous play of ocean on her way to the doomed craft whose shroudswere thick with men; until such emotions were raised in me that I haveknown myself almost unconsciously to make an eager step to the craft,and p
at her side, and talk to her as though she were living and couldunderstand my caress and whispers.

  My mother was at first strongly opposed to my risking my life in the_Janet_. She said I was not a sailor, least of all was I of the kind whomanned these boats, and for some time she would not hear of me going ascoxswain in her, except in fine weather or when there was little risk.But when, as coxswain, I had brought home my first little load ofprecious human freight--five Spaniards, with the captain's wife and alittle baby, wrapped in a shawl, against her heart--my mother'sreluctance yielded to her pride and gratitude. She found somethingbeautiful, noble, I had almost said divine, in this life-saving--in thisplucking of poor human souls from the horrible jaws of Death--in thehope and joy, too, raised in the heart of the shipwrecked by the sightof the boat, or in the supporting animation which came from knowledgethat the boat would arrive in time, and which enabled men to bear up,when, perhaps, had there been no promise of a boat coming to them, theymust have drooped and surrendered their spirits to God.

  Well, as I have said, I went down to the esplanade, where the boat-housewas, to take a look at the boat, which was, indeed, my regular dailycustom, one I could find plenty of leisure for, since I was withoutoccupation, owing to a serious illness that had baulked my efforts sixyears before, and that had left me too old for another chance in thesame way--and without will, either, for the matter of that; for mymother's income was abundant for us both, and, when it should pleaseGod to take her, what was hers would be mine, and there was more thanenough for my plain wants.

  Before entering the house I came to a stand to light a pipe and cast alook around. The air was so motionless that the flame of the match Istruck burnt without a stir. I took notice of a slight increase in theweight of the swell which came brimming into the bay out of the wide,dark field of the Atlantic Ocean: for that was the sea our town faced,looking due west from out of the shadow of the Cornwall heights, at thebase of which it stood--a small, solid heap of granite-colouredbuildings dominated by the tall spire of the church of St. Saviour, thegilt cross atop of which gleamed this morning against the scowl of thesky as though the beam of the risen sun rested upon it.

  The dark line of the broad esplanade went winding round with the trendof shore to the distance of about a mile. The dingy atmosphere gave it acolouring of chocolate, and the space of white sand which stretched tothe wash of the water had the glance of ivory from the contrast. Thesurf was small, but now that I was near I could catch a note in thenoise of it as it foamed in a cloudy line upon the sand, which made methink of the voice of a distant tempest, as though each running foldbrought with it, from far past the sea-line, some ever-dying echo of thehurricane's rage there. But a man had need to live long at the seasideto catch these small accents of storm in the fall and pouring of theunvexed breaker.

  A number of white-breasted gulls, with black-edged wings, were flyingclose inshore this side the Deadlow Rock and Twins: their posture was inthe main one of hovering and peering, and there was a sort of subduedexpectancy rather than restlessness in their motions; but theyfrequently uttered sharp cries, and were certainly not afishing, forthey never stooped. Within a stone's-throw of the lifeboat house was acoastguard's hut, a little place for keeping a look-out from, marked bya flag-post; and the preventiveman, with a telescope under his arm,stood in the doorway, talking to an aged boatman named Isaac Jordan. Theland past that flagstaff went in a rise, and soared into a very nobleheight of dark cliff, the extremity of which we called Hurricane Point.It looked a precipitous, deadly, inhospitable terrace of rocks in thedismal light of that leaden morning. The foreland rose out of the bed offoam which was kept boiling at the iron base by the steadfast hurl ofthe Atlantic swell; yet Hurricane Point made a fine shelter of our baywhen the wind came out from the north, and I have seen the sea therebursting and soaring into the air in volumes of steam, and the water amile and a half out running wide and wild and white with the whipping ofthe gale, when, within, a wherry might have strained to her painterwithout shipping a cupful of water.

  There was an old timber pier going into the sea from off a projection ofland, upon the northernmost point of which the lifeboat house stood;this pier had a curl like the crook of a sailor's rheumatic forefinger;but it was not possible to find any sort of harbour in the rude, black,gleaming embrace of its pitched and weedy piles, save in smooth andquiet weather. It was an old pier, and had withstood the wash and shocksof fifty years of the Atlantic billow--enough to justify a man instaring at it, since ours was a wild and stormy seaboard, whereeverything had to be as strong as though we were at sea and had themighty ocean itself to fight. At times a collier would come sailinground Bishopnose Point, a tall, reddish-hued bluff past Deadlow Rock,and slide within the curve of the pier, and discharge her freight. Here,too, in the seasons might be seen a cluster of fishing-boats, mainly thesharp-ended luggers of Penzance; but this morning, as I have alreadysaid, all was vacant from the horizon to the white sweep of sand--vacantand, in a manner, motionless too, with the quality of stagnation thatcame into the picture out of the sullen, breathless, gloom-ladenatmosphere, nothing stirring, as it seemed, save the heave of the swell,and a few active figures of 'longshoremen down by the pier hauling uptheir boats high and dry upon the sand, with an eye to what was comingin the weather.

  I entered the lifeboat house and killed ten minutes or so in surveyingthe fabric inside and out, and seeing that everything was in readinessshould a call come. A ship's barometer--a good instrument--hung againstthe wall or bulkhead of the wooden edifice. The mercury was low, with adepression in the surface of the metal itself that was like emphasizingthe drop.

  Our manner of launching the _Janet_ was by means of a strong timberslipway, that went in a pretty sharp declivity from the forefoot of theboat to some fathoms past low-water mark. There could be no better wayof getting her water-borne. The sand was flat; there was little to bedone with a heavy boat on such a platform, let us have laid what greasedwoods or rollers we chose under her keel. But from the elevation of herhouse she fled, when liberated, like a gull into the rage of the water,topping the tallest comber, and giving herself noble way in the teeth ofthe deadest of inshore hurricanes.

  As I stood at the head of this slipway, looking along it to where itburied itself in the dark and sickly green of the flowing heave of thesea, old Isaac Jordan came slowly away from the coastguardsman andsaluted me in a voice that trembled under the burthen of eighty-fiveyears. Such another quaint old figure as this might have been hunted forin vain the whole coast round. His eyes, deep-seated in his head seemedto have been formed of agate, so stained and clouded were they by time,by weather, and, no doubt, by drink. His tall hat was bronzed with wearand exposure, the skin of his face lay like a cobweb upon hislineaments, and when he smiled, he exhibited a single tobacco-stainedtooth, which made one think of Deadlow Rock. Isaac did not belong tothese parts, yet he had lived in the place for above half a century,having been brought ashore from a wreck in which he had been found, theonly occupant, lying senseless upon the deck. When he recovered he waswithout memory, and for five years could not have told his father's namenor the place he hailed from. When at last recollection returned to him,he was satisfied to remain in the corner of this kingdom on which theocean, so to speak, had cast him, and for fifty years he had never gonehalf a mile distant from the town unless seaward, and then never beyondthe bay, where he would fish for his own feeding, or ply as a carrierbetween the shore and such ships as brought up.

  'Good-marning, Mr. Tregarthen,' said he in the accent of Whitstable,which was his native place; 'reckon there'll be some work afore ye if sobe as this here muckiness ain't agoing to blow away;' and he turned uphis marbled eyes to the sky in a sort of blind groping way.

  'I never remember the like of such a morning as this, Isaac,' said I,going down to him that I might not oblige him to strain his poor oldtrembling voice.

  'Lard love ye!' he exclaimed; 'scores and scores, Mr. Tregarthen. Irecollect of just such another marning as this in fo
rty-four; ay, an' anuglier marning yet in thirty-three. That were the day when the_Kingfisher_ went down and drownded all hands saving the dawg.'

  'What's going to happen, d'ye think, Isaac?'

  'A gale o' wind, master, but not yet. He's a bracing of himself up, andit'll be all day, I allow, afore he's ready;' and once again he cast uphis agate-like eyes to the sky. 'What's the day o' the month, sir?' headded with a little briskening up.

  'October the 21st, isn't it?'

  'Why, Gor bless me! yes, an' so it be!' he exclaimed, with a face whoseexpression was rendered spasmodic by an assumption of joyful thought.'The hanniversary of Trafalgar, as sure as my name's Isaac! On this dayLord Nelson was killed. Gor bless me! to think of it! I see him now,' hecontinued, turning his eyes blindly upon my face. 'There's nothen Iforget about him. There's his sleeve lying beautifully pinned agin hisbreast, and the fin of his decapitated harm a-working full of excitementwithin; there's his cocked-hat drawed down ower the green shade as lieslike a poor man's plaister upon his forehead; there's his one eyea-looking through and through a man as though it were a bradawl, andt'other eye, said to be sightless, a-imitating of the seeing one till yecouldn't ha' told which was which for health. There was spunk in thewerry wounds of that gent. He carried his losses as if they was gains.What a man! There ain't public-houses enough in this country, to drinkto the memory of such a gentleman's health in. There ain't. That's mycomplaint, master. Not public-houses enough, I says, seeing what he didfor this here Britain.'

  Though nobody in Tintrenale (as I choose to call the town) in the leastdegree believed that old Isaac ever saw Lord Nelson, despite hisswearing that he was five years old at the time, and that he couldrecollect his mother hoisting him up in her arms above the heads of thecrowd to view the great Admiral--I say, though no man believed this oldfellow, yet we all listened to his assurances as though very willing tocredit what he said. In truth, it pleased us to believe that there was aman in our little community who with his own eyes had beheld the famousSailor, and we let the thing rest upon our minds as a sort of honourabletradition, which we would not very willingly have disturbed. However,more went to this talk of Nelson in old Isaac than met the ear; it wasindeed, his way of asking for a drink, and, as he had little or nothingto live upon save what he could collect out of charity, I slipped acouple of shillings into his hand, for which he continued to God-blessme till his voice failed him.

  I held my gaze fixed upon the sky for some time, to gather, if possible,the direction in which the great swollen canopy of cloud was moving,that I might know from what quarter to expect the wind when it shouldarise; but the sullen greenish heaps of shadow hung over the land andsea as motionless as they were dumb. Not the least loose wing of scudwas there to be seen moving. It was a wonderfully breathless heaven oftempestuous gloom, with the sea at its confines betwixt the two pointsof land looking to lift to it in its central part as though swelled,owing to the illusion of the line of livid shade there, and to adepression on either side, caused by a smoky commingling of theatmosphere with the spaces of water.

  While I stood surveying the murky scene, that was gradually growing moredim with an insensible thickening of the air, several drops of rainfell, each as large as a half-crown.

  'Stand by now for a flash o' lightning,' old Isaac cried in histrembling voice; 'wance them clouds is ripped up, all the water theyhold 'll tumble down and make room for the wind!'

  But there was no lightning. The rain ceased. The stillness seemed todeepen to my hearing, with a fancy to my consciousness of a closerdrawing together of the shadows overhead.

  ''Tain't so wery warm, neither,' said old Isaac; 'and yet here be astrue a tropic show as old Jamaikey herself could prowide.'

  Every sound was startlingly distinct--the calls and cries of thefellows near the pier, as they ran their boats up; the grit of the keelson the hard sand, like the noise of skates travelling on ice; the loworganlike hum of the larger surf beating upon the coast pastBishopnose Point; the rattle of vehicles in the stony streets behind me;the striking of a church bell--the hoarse bawling of a hawker cryingfish: it was like the hush one reads of as happening before anearthquake, and I own to an emotion of awe, and even of alarm, as Istood listening and looking.

  I hung about the boat-house for hard upon two hours, expecting everyminute to see the white line of the wind sweeping across the sea intothe bay; for by this time I had persuaded myself that what motion therewas above was out of the westward; but in all that time the glass-smoothdark-green surface of the swell was never once tarnished by the smallestbreathing of air. Only one thing that was absent before I now tooknotice of: I mean a strange, faint, salt smell, as of seaweed incorruption, a somewhat sickly odour of ooze. I had never tasted the likeof it upon the atmosphere here; what it signified I could not imagine.One of my boat's crew, who had paused to exchange a few words with meabout the weather, called it the smell of the storm, and said that itarose from a distant disturbance working through the sea through leaguesand leagues, as the dews of the body are discharged through the pores ofthe skin.

  This same man had walked up to the heights near to Hurricane Point totake a view of the ocean, and now told me there was nothing in sight,save just a gleam of sail away down in the north-west, almost swallowedup in the gloom. He was without a glass, and could tell me no more thanthat it was the canvas of a ship.

  'Well,' said I, 'nothing, if it be not steam, is going to show itself inthis amazing calm.' And, saying this, I turned about and walkedleisurely home.

  We dined at one o'clock. We were but two, mother and son; and the littlepicture of that parlour arises before me as I write, bringing moistureto my eyes as I recall the dear, good, tender heart never more to bebeheld by me in this world--as I see the white hair, the kindly agedface, the wistful looks fastened upon me, and hear the little sighs thatwould softly break from her when she turned her head to send a glancethrough the window at the dark malignant junction of sea and sky rulingthe open between the points and at the frequent flashing of the foam onthose evil rocks grinning upon the heaving waters, away down to thesouthward. I could perceive that the memory of her dream lay upon her ina sort of shadow. Several times she directed her eyes from my face tothe portrait of my father upon the wall opposite her. Yet she did notagain refer to the dream. She talked of the ugly appearance of the sky,and asked what the men down about the pier thought of it.

  'They are agreed that it is going to end in a gale of wind,' I answered.

  'There is no ship in the bay,' said she, raising a pair of gold-rimmedglasses to her eyes and peering through the window.

  'No,' said I; 'and the sea is bare, saving a single sail somewhere downin the north-west.'

  She smiled, as though at a piece of good news. There could be no summonsfor the lifeboat, she knew, if the bay and the ocean beyond remainedempty.

  After dinner, while I sat smoking my pipe close against the fire--forthe leaden colour in the air somehow made the atmosphere feel cold,though we were too far west for any touch of autumnal rawness justyet--and while my mother sat opposite me, poring through her glassesupon a local sheet that told the news of the district for the weekpast--the Rector of Tintrenale, the Rev. John Trembath, happening topass our window, which was low-seated, looked in, and, spying theoutline of my figure against the fire, tapped upon the glass, and Icalled to him to enter.

  'Well, Mr. Coxswain,' says he, 'how is this weather going to end, pray?I hear there's a ship making for this bay.'

  'I hope not,' says my mother quietly.

  'How far distant is she?' said I.

  'Why,' he answered, 'I met old Roscorla just now. He was fresh fromBishopnose way, and told me that there was a square-rigged vessel comingalong before a light air of wind out of the west, and apparently headingstraight for this bight.'

  'She may shift her helm,' said I, who, though no sailor, had yet someacquaintance with the terms of the sea; 'there'll be no shelter for herhere if it comes on to blow from the west.'

And that's where it is coming from,' said Mr. Trembath.

  'Oh for a little break of the sky--for one brief gleam of sunshine!'cried my mother suddenly, half starting from her chair as if to go tothe window. 'There's something in a day of this kind that depresses myheart as though sorrow were coming. Do you believe in dreams, Mr.Trembath?' And now I saw she was going to talk of her dream.

  'No,' said he bluntly; 'it is enough to believe in what is proper forour spiritual health. A dream never yet saved a soul.'

  'Do you think so?' said I. 'Yet a man might get a hint in a vision, andin that way be preserved from doing a wrong.'

  'What was your dream?' said Mr. Trembath, rounding upon my mother; 'fora dream you have had, and I see the recollection of it working in yourface as you look at me.'

  She repeated her dream to him.

  'Tut! tut!' cried he; 'a little attack of indigestion. A small glass ofyour excellent cherry brandy would have corrected all these crudities ofyour slumbering imagination.'

  Well, after an idle chat of ten minutes, which yet gave the worthyclergyman time enough to drink to us in a glass of that cherry brandywhich he had recommended to my mother, he went away, and shortlyafterwards I walked down to the pier to catch a sight of the ship. Inall these hours there had been no change whatever in the aspect of theweather. The sky of dark cloud wore the same swollen, moist, andscowling appearance it had carried since the early morn, but the tuftedthunder-coloured heaps of vapour had been smoothed out or absorbed bythe gathering thickness which made the atmosphere so dark that, thoughit was scarcely three o'clock in the afternoon, you would have supposedthe sun had set. The swell had increased; it was now rolling into thebay with weight and volume, and there was a small roaring noise in thesurf already, and a deeper note yet in the sound of it where it boiledseawards past the points. A light air was blowing, but as yet the waterwas merely brushed by it into wrinkles which put a new dye into thecolour of the ocean--a kind of inky green--I do not know how to conveyit. Every glance of foam upon the Twins or Deadlow Rock was like a flashof white fire, so sombre was the surface upon which it played.

  Hurricane Point shut out the view of the sea in the north-west, evenfrom the pierhead, and the ship was not to be seen. There was a group ofwatermen on the look-out, one or two of them members of the lifeboatcrew; and among these fellows was old Isaac Jordan, who, as I mighteasily guess, had drunk out my two shillings. He wore a yellowsou'-wester over his long iron-gray hair, and he lurched from one man toanother, with his arm extended and his fingers clawing the air, arguingin the shrill voice of old age, thickened by the drams he had swallowed.

  'I tell 'ee there's going to be a airthquake,' he was crying as Iapproached. 'I recollects the likes of this weather in eighteen hunnerdan' eighteen, and there was a quake at midnight that caused the folks atFaversham to git out of their beds and run into the street; 'twor feltat Whitstable, and turned the beer o' th' place sour. Stand by for aairthquake, I says. Here's Mr. Tregarthen, a scholard. The likes of me,as is old enough to be granddad to the oldest of ye all, may raison witha scholard and be satisfied to be put right if so be as he's wrong, whensuch scow-bankers as you a'n't to be condescended to outside the givingof the truth to ye. And so I says. Mr. Tregarthen----'

  But I quietly put him aside.

  'No more money for you, Isaac,' said I, 'so far as my purse isconcerned, until you turn teetotaler. It is enough to make one blush forone's species to see so old a man----'

  'Mr. Tregarthen,' he interrupted, 'you're a gin'man, ain't ye! What haveI 'ad? Is a drop o' milk and water going to make ye blush for a man?'

  Some of the fellows laughed.

  'And how often,' he continued, 'is the hanniversary of the battle o'Trafalgar agoing to come round in a year? Twenty-voorst of Octoberto-day is, and I see him now, Mr. Tregarthen, as I see you--his rightfin agoing, his horders upon his breast----'

  'Here, come you along with me, Isaac!' exclaimed one of the men, and,seizing the old fellow by the arm, he bore him off.