Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LIV

Bruntsea Defeated

Little sleep had I that night. Such conflict was in my mind about the proper thing to be done next, and such a war of the wind outside, above and between the distant uproar of the long tumultuous sea. Of that sound much was intercepted by the dead bulk of the cliff, but the wind swung fiercely over this, and rattled through all shelter. In the morning the storm was furious; but the Major declared that his weather-glass had turned, which proved that the gale was breaking. The top of the tide would be at one o’clock, and after church we should behold a sight he was rather proud of — the impotent wrath of the wind and tide against his patent concrete.

“My dear, I scarcely like such talk,” Mrs. Hockin gently interposed. “To me it seems almost defiant of the power of the Lord. Remember what happened to poor Smeaton — at least I think his name was Smeaton, or Stanley, was it? But I dare say you know best. He defied the strength of the Lord, like the people at the mouth of their tent, and he was swallowed up.”

“Mary, my dear, get your prayer-book. Rasper’s fly is waiting for us, and the parson has no manners. When he drops off, I present to the living; and I am not at all sure that I shall let George have it. He is fond of processions, and all that stuff. The only procession in the Church of England is that of the lord of the manor to his pew. I will be the master in my own church.”

“Of course, dear, of course; so you ought to be. It always was so in my father’s parish. But you must not speak so of our poor George. He may be ‘High–Church,’ as they call it; but he knows what is due to his family, and he has a large one coming.”

We set off hastily for the church, through blasts of rain and buffets of wind, which threatened to overturn the cab, and the seaward window was white, as in a snowstorm, with pellets of froth, and the drift of sea-scud. I tried to look out, but the blur and the dash obscured the sight of every thing. And though in this lower road we were partly sheltered by the pebble ridge, the driver was several times obliged to pull his poor horse up and face the wind, for fear of our being blown over.

That ancient church, with its red-tiled spire, stands well up in the good old town, at the head of a street whose principal object now certainly is to lead to it. Three hundred years ago that street had business of its own to think of, and was brave perhaps with fine men and maids at the time of the Spanish Armada. Its only bravery now was the good old church, and some queer gables, and a crypt (which was true to itself by being buried up to the spandrels), and one or two corners where saints used to stand, until they were pelted out of them, and where fisher-like men, in the lodging season, stand selling fish caught at Billingsgate. But to Bruntsea itself the great glory of that street was rather of hope than of memory. Bailiff Hopkins had taken out three latticed windows, and put in one grand one of plate-glass, with “finishing” blinds all varnished. And even on a Sunday morning Bruntsea wanted to know what ever the bailiff was at behind them. Some said that he did all his pickling on a Sunday; and by putting up “spectacle glass” he had challenged the oldest inhabitant to come and try his focus.

Despite all the rattle and roar of the wind, we went on in church as usual. The vicar had a stout young curate from Durham, who could outshout any tempest, with a good stone wall between them; and the Bruntsea folk were of thicker constitution than to care an old hat for the weather. Whatever was “sent by the Lord” they took with a grumble, but no excitement. The clock in front of the gallery told the time of the day as five minutes to twelve, when the vicar, a pleasant old-fashioned man, pronounced his text, which he always did thrice over to make us sure of it. And then he hitched up his old black gown, and directed his gaze at the lord of the manor, to impress the whole church with authority. Major Hockin acknowledged in a proper manner this courtesy of the minister by rubbing up his crest, and looking even more wide-awake than usual; whereas Aunt Mary, whose kind heart longed to see her own son in that pulpit, calmly settled back her shoulders, and arranged her head and eyes so well as to seem at a distance in rapt attention, while having a nice little dream of her own. But suddenly all was broken up. The sexton (whose license as warden of the church, and even whose duty it was to hear the sermon only fitfully, from the tower arch, where he watched the boys, and sniffed the bakehouse of his own dinner)— to the consternation of every body, this faithful man ran up the nave, with his hands above his head, and shouted,

“All Brownzee be awash, awash”— sounding it so as to rhyme with “lash”—“the zea, the zea be all over us!”

The clergyman in the pulpit turned and looked through a window behind him, while all the congregation rose.

“It is too true,” the preacher cried; “the sea is in over the bank, my friends. Every man must rush to his own home. The blessing of the Lord be on you through His fearful visitation!”

He had no time to say more; and we thought it very brave of him to say that, for his own house was in the lower village, and there he had a wife and children sick. In half a minute the church was empty, and the street below it full of people, striving and struggling against the blast, and breasting it at an incline like swimmers, but beaten back ever and anon and hurled against one another, with tattered umbrellas, hats gone, and bonnets hanging. And among them, like gulls before the wind, blew dollops of spray and chunks of froth, with every now and then a slate or pantile.

All this was so bad that scarcely any body found power to speak, or think, or see. The Major did his very best to lead us, but could by no means manage it. And I screamed into his soundest ear to pull Aunt Mary into some dry house — for she could not face such buffeting — and to let me fare for myself as I might. So we left Mrs. Hockin in the bailiff’s house, though she wanted sadly to come with us, and on we went to behold the worst. And thus, by running the byes of the wind, and craftily hugging the corners, we got to the foot of the street at last, and then could go no further.

For here was the very sea itself, with furious billows panting. Before us rolled and ran a fearful surf of crested whiteness, torn by the screeching squalls, and tossed in clashing tufts and pinnacles. And into these came, sweeping over the shattered chine of shingle, gigantic surges from the outer deep, towering as they crossed the bar, and combing against the sky-line, then rushing onward, and driving the huddle of the ponded waves before them.

The tide was yet rising, and at every blow the wreck and the havoc grew worse and worse. That long sweep of brick-work, the “Grand Promenade,” bowed and bulged, with wall and window knuckled in and out, like wattles; the “Sea Parade” was a parade of sea; and a bathing-machine wheels upward lay, like a wrecked Noah’s Ark, on the top of the “Saline–Silico-Calcareous Baths.”

The Major stood by me, while all his constructions “went by the board,” as they say at sea; and verily every thing was at sea. I grieved for him so that it was not the spray alone that put salt drops on my cheeks. And I could not bear to turn and look at his good old weather-beaten face. But he was not the man to brood upon his woes in silence. He might have used nicer language, perhaps, but his inner sense was manful.

“I don’t care a damn,” he shouted, so that all the women heard him. “I can only say I am devilish glad that I never let one of those houses.”

There was a little band of seamen, under the shelter of a garden wall, crouching, or sitting, or standing (or whatever may be the attitude, acquired by much voyaging and experience of bad weather, which can not be solved, as to centre of gravity, even by the man who does it), and these men were so taken with the Major’s manifesto, clinched at once and clarified to them by strong, short language, that they gave him a loud “hurrah,” which flew on the wings of the wind over house-tops. So queer and sound is English feeling that now Major Hockin became in truth what hitherto he was in title only — the lord and master of Bruntsea.

“A boat! a boat!” he called out again. “We know not who are drowning. The bank still breaks the waves; a stout boat surely could live inside it.”

“Yes, a boat could live well enough in this cockle, though never among them breakers,” old Barnes, the fisherman, answered, who used to take us out for whiting; “but Lord bless your honor, all the boats are thumped to pieces, except yonner one, and who can get at her?”

Before restoring his hands to their proper dwelling-place — his pockets — he jerked his thumb toward a long white boat, which we had not seen through the blinding scud. Bereft of its brethren, or sisters — for all fluctuating things are feminine — that boat survived, in virtue of standing a few feet higher than the rest. But even so, and mounted on the last hump of the pebble ridge, it was rolling and reeling with stress of the wind and the wash of wild water under it.

“How nobly our Lyceum stands!” the Major shouted, for any thing less than a shout was dumb. “This is the time to try institutions. I am proud of my foundations.”

In answer to his words appeared a huge brown surge, a mountain ridge, seething backward at the crest with the spread and weight of onset. This great wave smote all other waves away, or else embodied them, and gathered its height against the poor worn pebble bank, and descended. A roar distinct above the universal roar proclaimed it; a crash of conflict shook the earth, and the shattered bank was swallowed in a world of leaping whiteness. When this wild mass dashed onward into the swelling flood before us, there was no sign of Lyceum left, but stubs of foundation, and a mangled roof rolling over and over, like a hen-coop.

“Well, that beats every thing I ever saw,” exclaimed the gallant Major. “What noble timber! What mortise-work! No London scamping there, my lads. But what comes here? Why, the very thing we wanted! Barnes, look alive, my man. Run to your house, and get a pair of oars and a bucket.”

It was the boat, the last surviving boat of all that hailed from Bruntsea. That monstrous billow had tossed it up like a school-boy’s kite, and dropped it whole, with an upright keel, in the inland sea, though nearly half full of water. Driven on by wind and wave, it labored heavily toward us; and more than once it seemed certain to sink as it broached to and shipped seas again. But half a dozen bold fishermen rushed with a rope into the short angry surf — to which the polled shingle bank still acted as a powerful breakwater, else all Bruntsea had collapsed — and they hauled up the boat with a hearty cheer, and ran her up straight with, “Yo — heave — oh!” and turned her on her side to drain, and then launched her again, with a bucket and a man to bail out the rest of the water, and a pair of heavy oars brought down by Barnes, and nobody knows what other things.

“Naught to steer with. Rudder gone!” cried one of the men, as the furious gale drove the boat, athwart the street, back again.

“Wants another oar,” said Barnes. “What a fool I were to bring only two!”

“Here you are!” shouted Major Hockin. “One of you help me to pull up this pole.”

Through a shattered gate they waded into a little garden, which had been the pride of the season at Bruntsea; and there from the ground they tore up a pole, with a board at the top nailed across it, and the following not rare legend: “Lodgings to let. Inquire within. First floor front, and back parlors.”

“Fust-rate thing to steer with! Would never have believed you had the sense!” So shouted Barnes — a rough man, roughened by the stress of storm and fright. “Get into starn-sheets if so liketh. Ye know, ye may be useful.”

“I defy you to push off without my sanction. Useful, indeed! I am the captain of this boat. All the ground under it is mine. Did you think, you set of salted radicals, that I meant to let you go without me? And all among my own houses!”

“Look sharp, governor, if you has the pluck, then. Mind, we are more like to be swamped than not.”

As the boat swung about, Major Hockin jumped in, and so, on the spur of the moment, did I. We staggered all about with the heave and roll, and both would have fallen on the planks, or out over, if we had not tumbled, with opposite impetus, into the arms of each other. Then a great wave burst and soaked us both, and we fell into sitting on a slippery seat.

Meanwhile two men were tugging at each oar, and Barnes himself steering with the sign-board; and the head of the boat was kept against the wind and the billows from our breakwater. Some of these seemed resolved (though shorn of depth and height in crossing) to rush all over us and drown us in the washer-women’s drying ground. By skill and presence of mind, our captain, Barnes, foiled all their violence, till we got a little shelter from the ruins of the “Young Men’s Christian Institute.”

“Hold all!” cried Barnes; “only keep her head up, while I look about what there is to do.”

The sight was a thing to remember; and being on the better side now of the scud, because it was flying away from us, we could make out a great deal more of the trouble which had befallen Bruntsea. The stormy fiord which had usurped the ancient track of the river was about a furlong in width, and troughed with white waves vaulting over. And the sea rushed through at the bottom as well, through scores of yards of pebbles, as it did in quiet weather even, when the tide was brimming. We in the tossing boat, with her head to the inrush of the outer sea, were just like people sitting upon the floats or rafts of a furious weir; and if any such surge had topped the ridge as the one which flung our boat to us, there could be no doubt that we must go down as badly as the Major’s houses. However, we hoped for the best, and gazed at the desolation inland.

Not only the Major’s great plan, but all the lower line of old Bruntsea, was knocked to pieces, and lost to knowledge in freaks of wind-lashed waters. Men and women were running about with favorite bits of furniture, or feather-beds, or babies’ cradles, or whatever they had caught hold of. The butt ends of the three old streets that led down toward the sea-ground were dipped, as if playing seesaw in the surf, and the storm made gangways of them and lighthouses of the lamp-posts. The old public-house at the corner was down, and the waves leaping in at the post-office door, and wrecking the globes of the chemist.

“Drift and dash, and roar and rush, and the devil let loose in the thick of it. My eyes are worn out with it. Take the glass, Erema, and tell us who is next to be washed away. A new set of clothes-props for Mrs. Mangles I paid for the very day I came back from town.”

With these words, the lord of the submarine manor (whose strength of spirit amazed me) offered his pet binocular, which he never went without upon his own domain. And fisherman Barnes, as we rose and fell, once more saved us from being “swamped” by his clever way of paddling through a scallop in the stern, with the board about the first floor front to let.

The seamen, just keeping way on the boat, sheltered their eyes with their left hands, and fixed them on the tumultuous scene.

I also gazed through the double glass, which was a very clear one; but none of us saw any human being at present in any peril.

“Old pilot was right, after all,” said one; “but what a good job as it come o’ middle day, and best of all of a Sunday!”

“I have heered say,” replied another, “that the like thing come to pass nigh upon three hunder years agone. How did you get your things out, Jem Bishop?”

Jem, the only one of them whose house was in the havoc, regarded with a sailor’s calmness the entry of the sea through his bedroom window, and was going to favor us with a narrative, when one of his mates exclaimed,

“What do I see yonner, lads? Away beyond town altogether. Seemeth to me like a fellow swimming. Miss, will you lend me spy-glass? Never seed a double-barreled one before. Can use him with one eye shut, I s’pose?”

“No good that way, Joe,” cried Barnes, with a wink of superior knowledge, for he often had used this binocular. “Shut one eye for one barrel — stands to reason, then, you shut both for two, my son.”

“Stow that,” said the quick-eyed sailor, as he brought the glass to bear in a moment. “It is a man in the water, lads, and swimming to save the witch, I do believe.”

“Bless me!” cried the Major; “how stupid of us! I never thought once of that poor woman. She must be washed out long ago. Pull for your lives, my friends. A guinea apiece if you save her.”

“And another from me,” I cried. Whereupon the boat swept round, and the tough ash bent, and we rushed into no small danger. For nearly half a mile had we to pass of raging and boisterous water, almost as wild as the open sea itself at the breaches of the pebble ridge. And the risk of a heavy sea boarding us was fearfully multiplied by having thus to cross the storm instead of breasting it. Useless and helpless, and only in the way, and battered about by wind and sea, so that my Sunday dress was become a drag, what folly, what fatuity, what frenzy, I might call it, could ever have led me to jump into that boat? “I don’t know. I only know that I always do it,” said my sensible self to its mad sister, as they both shut their eyes at a great white wave. “If I possibly survive, I will try to know better. But ever from my childhood I am getting into scrapes.”

The boat labored on, with a good many grunts, but not a word from any one. More than once we were obliged to fetch up as a great billow topped the poor shingle bank; and we took so much water on board that the men said afterward that I saved them. I only remember sitting down and working at the bucket with both hands, till much of the skin was gone, and my arms and many other places ached. But what was that to be compared with drowning?

At length we were opposite “Desolate Hole,” which was a hole no longer, but filled and flooded with the churning whirl and reckless dominance of water. Tufts and tussocks of shattered brush and rolling wreck played round it, and the old gray stone of mullioned windows split the wash like mooring-posts. We passed and gazed; but the only sound was the whistling of the tempest, and the only living sight a sea-gull, weary of his wings, and drowning.

“No living creature can be there,” the Major broke our long silence. “Land, my friends, if land we may. We risk our own lives for nothing.”

The men lay back on their oars to fetch the gallant boat to the wind again, when through a great gap in the ruins they saw a sight that startled manhood. At the back of that ruin, on the landward side, on a wall which, tottered under them, there were two figures standing. One a tall man, urging on, the other a woman shrinking. At a glance, or with a thought, I knew them both. One was Lord Castlewood’s first love, the other his son and murderer.

Our men shouted with the whole power of their hearts to tell that miserable pair to wait till succor should be brought to them. And the Major stood up and waved his hat, and in doing so tumbled back again. I can not tell — how could I tell in the thick of it? — but an idea or a flit of fancy touched me (and afterward became conviction) that while the man heard us not at all, and had no knowledge of us, his mother turned round and saw us all, and faced the storm in preference.

Whatever the cause may have been, at least she suddenly changed her attitude. The man had been pointing to the roof, which threatened to fall in a mass upon them, while she had been shuddering back from the depth of eddying waves below her. But now she drew up her poor bent figure, and leaned on her son to obey him.

Our boat, with strong arms laboring for life, swept round the old gable of the ruin; but we were compelled to “give it wide berth,” as Captain Barnes shouted; and then a black squall of terrific wind and hail burst forth. We bowed our heads and drew our bodies to their tightest compass, and every rib of our boat vibrated as a violin does; and the oars were beaten flat, and dashed their drip into fringes like a small-toothed comb.

That great squall was either a whirlwind or the crowning blast of a hurricane. It beat the high waves hollow, as if it fell from the sky upon them; and it snapped off one of our oars at the hilt, so that two of our men rolled backward. And when we were able to look about again the whole roof of “Desolate Hole” was gone, and little of the walls left standing. And how we should guide our course, or even save our lives, we knew not.

We were compelled to bring up — as best we might — with the boat’s head to the sea, and so to keep it by using the steering gear against the surviving oar. As for the people we were come to save, there was no chance whatever of approaching them. Even without the mishap to the oar, we never could have reached them.

And indeed when first we saw them again they seemed better off than ourselves were. For they were not far from dry land, and the man (a skillful and powerful swimmer) had a short piece of plank, which he knew how to use to support his weak companion.

“Brave fellow! fine fellow!” the Major cried, little knowing whom he was admiring. “See how he keeps up his presence of mind! Such a man as that is worth any thing. And he cares more for her than he does for himself. He shall have the Society’s medal. One more long and strong stroke, my noble friend. Oh, great God! what has befallen him?”

In horror and pity we gazed. The man had been dashed against something headlong. He whirled round and round in white water, his legs were thrown up, and we saw no more of him. The woman cast off the plank, and tossed her helpless arms in search of him. A shriek, ringing far on the billowy shore, declared that she had lost him; and then, without a struggle, she clasped her hands, and the merciless water swallowed her.

“It is all over,” cried Major Hockin, lifting his drenched hat solemnly. “The Lord knoweth best. He has taken them home.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50