About two months before this scene in Eli’s home, the natives of a little’ maritime place between Naples and Rome might be seen flocking to the sea beach, with eyes cast seaward at a ship, that laboured against a stiff gale blowing dead on the shore.
At times she seemed likely to weather the danger, and then the spectators congratulated her aloud: at others the wind and sea drove her visibly nearer, and the lookers-on were not without a secret satisfaction they would not have owned even to themselves.
Non quia vexari quemquam est jucunda voluptas
Sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suave est.
And the poor ship, though not scientifically built for sailing, was admirably constructed for going ashore, with her extravagant poop that caught the wind, and her lines like a cocked hat reversed. To those on the beach that battered labouring frame of wood seemed alive, and struggling against death with a panting heart. But could they have been transferred to her deck they would have seen she had not one beating heart but many, and not one nature but a score were coming out clear in that fearful hour.
The mariners stumbled wildly about the deck, handling the ropes as each thought fit, and cursing and praying alternately.
The passengers were huddled together round the mast, some sitting, some kneeling, some lying prostrate, and grasping the bulwarks as the vessel rolled and pitched in the mighty waves. One comely young man, whose ashy cheek, but compressed lips, showed how hard terror was battling in him with self-respect, stood a little apart, holding tight by a shroud, and wincing at each sea. It was the ill-fated Gerard. Meantime prayers and vows rose from the trembling throng amid-ships, and to hear them, it seemed there were almost as many gods about as men and women. The sailors, indeed, relied on a single goddess. They varied her titles only, calling on her as “Queen of Heaven,” “Star of the Sea,” “Mistress of the World,” “Haven of Safety.” But among the landsmen Polytheism raged. Even those who by some strange chance hit on the same divinity did not hit on the same edition of that divinity. An English merchant vowed a heap of gold to our lady of Walsingham. But a Genoese merchant vowed a silver collar of four pounds to our lady of Loretto; and a Tuscan noble promised ten pounds of wax lights to our lady of Ravenna; and with a similar rage for diversity they pledged themselves, not on the true Cross, but on the true Cross in this, that, or the other modern city.
Suddenly a more powerful gust than usual catching the sail at a disadvantage, the rotten shrouds gave way, and the sail was torn out with a loud crack, and went down the wind smaller and smaller, blacker and blacker, and fluttered into the sea, half a mile off, like a sheet of paper, and ere the helmsman could put the ship’s head before the wind, a wave caught her on the quarter and drenched the poor wretches to the bone, and gave them a foretaste of chill death. Then one vowed aloud to turn Carthusian monk, if St. Thomas would save him. Another would go a pilgrim to Compostella, bareheaded, barefooted, with nothing but a coat of mail on his naked skin, if St. James would save him. Others invoked Thomas, Dominic, Denys, and above all, Catherine of Sienna.
Two petty Neapolitan traders stood shivering.
One shouted at the top of his voice, “I vow to St. Christopher at Paris a waxen image of his own weight, if I win safe to land.”
On this the other nudged him, and said, “Brother, brother, take heed what you vow. Why, if you sell all you have in the world by public auction, ’twill not buy his weight in wax.”
“Hold your tongue, you fool,” said the vociferator. Then in a whisper:
“Think ye I am in earnest? Let me but win safe to land, I’ll not give him a rush dip.”
Others lay flat and prayed to the sea.
“Oh, most merciful sea! oh, sea most generous! oh! bountiful sea! oh, beautiful sea! be gentle, be kind, preserve us in this hour of peril.”
And others wailed and moaned in mere animal terror each time the ill-fated ship rolled or pitched more terribly than usual; and she was now a mere plaything in the arms of the tremendous waves.
A Roman woman of the humbler class sat with her child at her half-bared breast, silent amid that wailing throng: her cheek ashy pale; her eye calm; and her lips moved at times in silent prayer, but she neither wept, nor lamented, nor bargained with the gods. Whenever the ship seemed really gone under their feet, and bearded men squeaked, she kissed her child; but that was all. And so she sat patient, and suckled him in death’s jaws; for why should he lose any joy she could give him; moribundo? Ay, there I do believe, sat Antiquity among those mediaevals. Sixteen hundred years had not tainted the old Roman blood in her veins; and the instinct of a race she had perhaps scarce heard of taught her to die with decent dignity.
A gigantic friar stood on the poop with feet apart, like the Colossus of Rhodes, not so much defying, as ignoring, the peril that surrounded him. He recited verses from the Canticles with a loud unwavering voice; and invited the passengers to confess to him. Some did so on their knees, and he heard them and laid his hands on them, and absolved them as if he had been in a snug sacristy, instead of a perishing ship. Gerard got nearer and nearer to him, by the instinct that takes the wavering to the side of the impregnable. And in truth, the courage of heroes facing fleshly odds might have paled by the side of that gigantic friar, and his still more gigantic composure. Thus, even here, two were found who maintained the dignity of our race: a woman, tender, yet heroic, and a monk steeled by religion against mortal fears.
And now, the sail being gone, the sailors cut down the useless mast a foot above the board, and it fell with its remaining hamper over the ship’s side. This seemed to relieve her a little.
But now the hull, no longer impelled by canvas, could not keep ahead of the sea. It struck her again and again on the poop, and the tremendous blows seemed given by a rocky mountain, not by a liquid.
The captain left the helm and came amidships pale as death. “Lighten her,” he cried. “Fling all overboard, or we shall founder ere we strike, and lose the one little chance we have of life.” While the sailors were executing this order, the captain, pale himself, and surrounded by pale faces that demanded to know their fate, was talking as unlike an English skipper in like peril as can well be imagined. “Friends,” said he, “last night when all was fair, too fair, alas! there came a globe of fire close to the ship. When a pair of them come it is good luck, and nought can drown her that voyage. We mariners call these fiery globes Castor and Pollux. But if Castor come without Pollux, or Pollux without Castor, she is doomed. Therefore, like good Christians, prepare to die.”
These words were received with a loud wail.
To a trembling inquiry how long they had to prepare, the captain replied, “She may, or may not, last half an hour; over that, impossible; she leaks like a sieve; bustle, men, lighten her.”
The poor passengers seized on everything that was on deck and flung it overboard. Presently they laid hold of a heavy sack; an old man was lying on it, sea sick. They lugged it from under him. It rattled. Two of them drew it to the side; up started the owner, and with an unearthly shriek, pounced on it. “Holy Moses! what would you do? ’Tis my all; ’tis the whole fruits of my journey; silver candlesticks, silver plates, brooches, hanaps —”
“Let go, thou hoary villain,” cried the others; “shall all our lives be lost for thy ill-gotten gear?” “Fling him in with it,” cried one; “’tis this Ebrew we Christian men are drowned for.” Numbers soon wrenched it from him, and heaved it over the side. It splashed into the waves. Then its owner uttered one cry of anguish, and stood glaring, his white hair streaming in the wind, and was going to leap after it, and would, had it floated. But it sank, and was gone for ever; and he staggered to and fro, tearing his hair, and cursed them and the ship, and the sea, and all the powers of heaven and hell alike.
And now the captain cried out: “See, there is a church in sight. Steer for that church, mate, and you, friends, pray to the saint, whoe’er he be.”
So they steered for the church and prayed to the unknown god it was named after. A tremendous sea pooped them, broke the rudder, and jammed it immovable, and flooded the deck.
Then wild with superstitious terror some of them came round Gerard. “Here is the cause of all,” they cried. “He has never invoked a single saint. He is a heathen; here is a pagan aboard.”
“Alas, good friends, say not so,” said Gerard, his teeth chattering with cold and fear. “Rather call these heathens, that lie a praying to the sea. Friends, I do honour the saints — but I dare not pray to them now — there is no time —(oh!) what avail me Dominic, and Thomas, and Catherine? Nearer God’s throne than these St. Peter sitteth; and if I pray to him, it’s odd, but I shall be drowned ere he has time to plead my cause with God. Oh! oh! oh! I must need go straight to Him that made the sea, and the saints, and me. Our Father which art in heaven, save these poor souls and me that cry for the bare life! Oh, sweet Jesus, pitiful Jesus, that didst walk Genezaret when Peter sank, and wept for Lazarus dead when the apostles’ eyes were dry, oh, save poor Gerard — for dear Margaret’s sake!”
At this moment the sailors were seen preparing to desert the sinking ship in the little boat, which even at that epoch every ship carried; then there was a rush of egotists; and thirty souls crowded into it. Remained behind three who were bewildered, and two who were paralyzed, with terror. The paralyzed sat like heaps of wet rags, the bewildered ones ran to and fro, and saw the thirty egotists put off, but made no attempt to join them: only kept running to and fro, and wringing their hands. Besides these there was one on his knees, praying over the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, as large as life, which the sailors had reverently detached from the mast. It washed about the deck, as the water came slushing in from the sea, and pouring out at the scuppers; and this poor soul kept following it on his knees, with his hands clasped at it, and the water playing with it. And there was the Jew palsied, but not by fear. He was no longer capable of so petty a passion. He sat cross-legged, bemoaning his bag, and whenever the spray lashed him, shook his fist at where it came from, and cursed the Nazarenes, and their gods, and their devils, and their ships, and their waters, to all eternity.
And the gigantic Dominican, having shriven the whole ship, stood calmly communing with his own spirit. And the Roman woman sat pale and patient, only drawing her child closer to her bosom as death came nearer.
Gerard saw this, and it awakened his manhood.
“See! see!” he said, “they have ta’en the boat and left the poor woman and her child to perish.”
His heart soon set his wit working.
“Wife, I’ll save thee yet, please God.” And he ran to find a cask or a plank to float her. There was none.
Then his eye fell on the wooden image of the Virgin. He caught it up in his arms, and heedless of a wail that issued from its worshipper like a child robbed of its toy, ran aft with it. “Come, wife,” he cried. “I’ll lash thee and the child to this. ’Tis sore worm eaten, but ’twill serve.”
She turned her great dark eye on him and said a single word:
But with wonderful magnanimity and tenderness.
“I am a man, and have no child to take care of.”
“Ah!” said she, and his words seemed to animate her face with a desire to live. He lashed the image to her side. Then with the hope of life she lost something of her heroic calm; not much: her body trembled a little, but not her eye.
The ship was now so low in the water that by using an oar as a lever he could slide her into the waves.
“Come,” said he, “while yet there is time.”
She turned her great Roman eyes, wet now, upon him. “Poor youth! — God forgive me! — My child!” And he launched her on the surge, and with his oar kept her from being battered against the ship.
A heavy hand fell on him; a deep sonorous voice sounded in his ear: “’Tis well. Now come with me.”
It was the gigantic friar.
Gerard turned, and the friar took two strides, and laid hold of the broken mast. Gerard did the same, obeying him instinctively. Between them, after a prodigious effort, they hoisted up the remainder of the mast, and carried it off. “Fling it in,” said the friar, “and follow it.” They flung it in; but one of the bewildered passengers had run after them, and jumped first and got on one end. Gerard seized the other, the friar the middle.
It was a terrible situation. The mast rose and plunged with each wave like a kicking horse, and the spray flogged their faces mercilessly, and blinded them: to help knock them off.
Presently was heard a long grating noise ahead. The ship had struck, and soon after, she being stationary now, they were hurled against her with tremendous force. Their companion’s head struck against the upper part of the broken rudder with a horrible crack, and was smashed like a cocoa-nut by a sledge-hammer. He sunk directly, leaving no trace but a red stain on the water, and a white clot on the jagged rudder, and a death cry ringing in their ears, as they drifted clear under the lee of the black hull. The friar uttered a short Latin prayer for the safety of his soul, and took his place composedly. They rolled along; one moment they saw nothing, and seemed down in a mere basin of watery hills: the next they caught glimpses of the shore speckled bright with people, who kept throwing up their arms with wild Italian gestures to encourage them, and the black boat driving bottom upwards, and between it and them the woman rising and falling like themselves. She had come across a paddle, and was holding her child tight with her left arm, and paddling gallantly with her right.
When they had tumbled along thus a long time, suddenly the friar said quietly —
“I touched the ground.”
“Impossible, father,” said Gerard; “we are more than a hundred yards from shore. Prithee, prithee, leave not our faithful mast.”
“My son,” said the friar, “you speak prudently. But know that I have business of Holy Church on hand, and may not waste time floating when I can walk, in her service. There I felt it with my toes again; see the benefit of wearing sandals, and not shoon. Again; and sandy. Thy stature is less than mine: keep to the mast! I walk.” He left the mast accordingly and extending his powerful arms, rushed through the water. Gerard soon followed him. At each overpowering wave the monk stood like a tower, and closing his mouth, threw his head back to encounter it, and was entirely lost under it awhile: then emerged and ploughed lustily on. At last they came close to the shore; but the suction outward baffled all their attempts to land. Then the natives sent stout fishermen into the sea, holding by long spears in a triple chain; and so dragged them ashore.
The friar shook himself, bestowed a short paternal benediction on the natives, and went on to Rome, with eyes bent on earth according to his rule, and without pausing. He did not even cast a glance back upon that sea, which had so nearly engulfed him, but had no power to harm him, without his Master’s leave.
While he stalks on alone to Rome without looking back, I who am not in the service of Holy Church, stop a moment to say that the reader and I were within six inches of this giant once before; but we escaped him that time. Now I fear we are in for him. Gerard grasped every hand upon the beach. They brought him to an enormous fire, and with a delicacy he would hardly have encountered in the north, left him to dry himself alone: on this he took out of his bosom a parchment, and a paper, and dried them carefully. When this was done to his mind, and not till then, he consented to put on a fisherman’s dress and leave his own by the fire, and went down to the beach. What he saw may be briefly related.
The captain stuck by the ship, not so much from gallantry, as from a conviction that it was idle to resist Castor or Pollux, whichever it was that had come for him in a ball of fire.
Nevertheless the sea broke up the ship and swept the poop, captain and all, clear of the rest, and took him safe ashore. Gerard had a principal hand in pulling him out of the water. The disconsolate Hebrew landed on another fragment, and on touching earth, offered a reward for his bag, which excited little sympathy, but some amusement. Two more were saved on pieces of the wreck. The thirty egotists came ashore, but one at a time, and dead; one breathed still. Him the natives, with excellent intentions, took to a hot fire. So then he too retired from this shifting scene.
As Gerard stood by the sea, watching, with horror and curiosity mixed, his late companions washed ashore, a hand was laid lightly on his shoulder. He turned. It was the Roman matron, burning with womanly gratitude. She took his hand gently, and raising it slowly to her lips, kissed it; but so nobly, she seemed to be conferring an honour on one deserving hand. Then with face all beaming and moist eyes, she held her child up and made him kiss his preserver.
Gerard kissed the child more than once. He was fond of children. But he said nothing. He was much moved; for she did not speak at all, except with her eyes, and glowing cheeks, and noble antique gesture, so large and stately. Perhaps she was right. Gratitude is not a thing of words. It was an ancient Roman matron thanking a modern from her heart of hearts.
Next day towards afternoon, Gerard — twice as old as last year, thrice as learned in human ways, a boy no more, but a man who had shed blood in self-defence, and grazed the grave by land and sea — reached the Eternal City; post tot naufragia tutus.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54