Catherine A. Warfield.

Miriam Monfort A Novel online

. (page 23 of 37)
Online LibraryCatherine A. WarfieldMiriam Monfort A Novel → online text (page 23 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

her race, or rather of her condition in those days, and she wore the
decent, blue-cotton frock, which marked her for a plantation-negro.
Large hoops were in her flat, enormous ears, that seemed to suspend her
shoulders as they touched them, drawn up and narrowed as these were,
even beyond their natural hideousness, by her attitude, one which she
maintained as stolidly as a dervish.

"You must help us," I said, at last, when the crisis came, and affairs
waxed desperate. "You must take the child, at least, and care for him.
See, it requires two persons to sustain his dying mother - one to wet her
lips, one - "

"'Deed, honey," she interrupted, coolly, "you must 'scuse me dis oncst;
I has jus' as much to do as I kin posomply 'complish, in keepin' of
myself dry, comfable, and singin' ob my hyme-toones. We has all to take
our chances dis time, an' do for our own selves, black and white; an' I
don't see none ob my own white folks on dis raf', wich I is mighty proud
of. Dar, now! I does b'leve dat is a ship sail way off dar. Does you see
it, honey?"

And she pointed to a large white gull, skimming the main at some
distance. Disgusted with her selfishness, I vouchsafed her no further
notice at the time, and her crooning went on during the whole period of
the bitter death-struggle of that poor sufferer, whose name I never
knew, but whose little, deformed waif, the orphan of the raft, remained
my heritage.

"You will take care of him," she had said to me, in her last conscious
moments, "my baby-boy, my little - " the name died on her lips, and she
never spoke again.

When she was dead, Christian Garth caused her to be wrapped in
sail-cloth, weighted with chains, and, with a brief prayer, consigned to
the deep. His superstitious sailor's fears rebelled against the idea of
keeping a corpse on board one moment longer than necessary, so the rites
of sepulture were speedily accomplished.

When I remonstrated, feebly enough it is true, for exhaustion was
supervening on long-sustained effort, at his haste, which, even under
the circumstances, seemed to me indecent, he coolly spoke of it as a
measure essential to the good of all.

Talismanic as were these words on such occasion, mine were the lips that
murmured the brief prayer, a portion of the solemn Episcopal
grave-service that I chanced to remember, above the poor, pale corpse,
even while my weary arms inclosed the struggling child, who,
understanding nothing of the truth, would fain have plunged after his
mother into depths unknown.

A low, long roll of thunder smote on the ear, like a message to the
ocean, from the heavens above, as we saw the waters close greedily over
the form of our dead passenger. The men who had launched the body from
the raft looked up and listened fearfully, and Christian Garth hastened
to trim his sail.

It was sunset now, and the clouds gathered so rapidly about the sun,
that he sank empalled in purple to his watery bed, leaving no trace
behind to mark his faded splendor.

A sudden breeze sprang up, infinitely refreshing at first to soul and
sense, and again the thunder lumbered and crashed about us. The billows
heaved and leaped like steeds just freed from harness, tossing their
white manes; the raft shuddered and reeled with a deadly, sickly motion,
like a creature in strong throes, plunging with frantic suddenness into
the troughs of the waves at one moment, as if impelled by fear, then
rallying to their summits, only to cast itself wildly down again.

All was confusion, dire and terrible. Then burst the storm upon
us - rain, wind!

I was conscious of clutching, with one hand, a rope which strained and
swayed desperately, while with the other I grasped the affrighted baby
to my breast.

Ada Greene and the old negro woman clung together, hanging to the same
cord of safety, flung to them, to all of us, by the hand of Christian

The barrels strained and groaned, and broke from their fastenings; the
awning was wrenched from its mooring, and swept away; the bitter brine
broke over us and choked our cries; the anguish of death was upon us
without its submission. We struggled instinctively to breathe, to live;
we grappled desperately with circumstances; we fought against our doom.

Suddenly the sea dropped to rest - the storm was spent; a low, sighing,
soughing gale swept around our nucleus of despair, and the surging of
the sea was like a bitter funeral-wail. The air grew cold and chill; one
vast, pall-like cloud enveloped the whole face of the unpitying
heavens, that seemed literally "to press down upon our very faces like a
roof of black marble."

No moon, no stars, were visible; we had no light of any kind, nor could
we ascertain the damage done until the cold, gray morning broke in gloom
and rain upon us. Then it was made plain to us that our food had all
been swept overboard - together with six seamen and five of the
passengers. There remained on the raft only three shuddering women and a
little child - and a handful of weary and discouraged men, sustained and
led to a sense of duty by the dauntless master-spirit of one alone - the
presence of Christian Garth, indomitable through all hardships. So it
had fared with us for six-and-thirty hours of our experience on "our
floating grave."

We had been washed from our little platform, which ordinarily lifted us
above the lapping of the sea during the prevalence of the storm - and we
regained it now, glad to repose even on the sea-soaked mattresses bereft
of awning. By the mercy of God some glutinous sea-zoophytes had been
tangled among them, and by the help of the brine-soaked biscuit in my
pocket (crammed there, it may be remembered, as a precious hoard for a
time of dire necessity, on the morning of the fire, by the small,
cunning fingers of the sickly child), we breakfasted, or rather broke
our fast - we four, the child, the negress, Ada Greene, and I - and life
was aroused again in every breast by means of a briny morsel.

"A cup of coffee would not be amiss just now," said the girl, laughing,
"but the Lord knows we can wait."

There was a strange, bright light in the eyes of the young girl as she
spoke these words, and she was arraying her hair coquettishly with some
bunches of sea-weed, which had been cast up by the storm, and from which
the eager, famishing lips of the little boy had been permitted to suck
the gluten before discarding the skeleton stems.

That hair was in itself a grace and glory - rippling from crown to waist
in sheeny, golden splendor, fine as silk, and glossy as the yellow floss
threads of pale, ripe Indian-corn - beautiful, even in its dishevelled
and drenched condition, as an artist's dream. Devoid as it was of
regular beauty, the face beneath, with its clear blue eyes, red lips,
and pure complexion, the pink and white that reminds one of a sweet-pea
or ocean-shell, had struck me as very lovely from the first; nothing to
support this groundwork of excellence had I discovered, however, either
in the form of the head, which was ignoble, or the expression of the
face, which was both timid and defiant, or the tones of the voice, which
were shrill and harsh by turns - yet, as my fellow-voyager and sufferer,
I was interested in this young creature, not forgetting, either, her
attention during my pending swoon, of which mention has been made.

"I am going to the party, whatever the preacher may say, and whether
Captain Ambrose wills it or no. I am under his care and protection, you
see, to go to New York to my aunt, Madame Du Vert, the famous milliner,
and I am to learn her trade. Her name is Greene, so they call her Du
Vert, to make out that she is French - _vert_ is _green_, in French, you
see; or so they tell me. Now, Captain Ambrose is a church-member, too,
and he does not want dancing on his ship, and so he made the calkers
pitch the deck - that was to break up the ball, you know; but don't tell
any one this for the 'land's sake,'" drawing near to me and whispering
strangely, with her forefinger raised - "or all those proud Southern
people would pitch into me - pitch, you understand?" and she laughed
merrily - "their white satin slippers and all!"

"You must not talk so, Ada;" and I took her hand, which was burning.

"Why not? Who are you, to prevent me? I am as good as you any day - or
Miss Lamarque either, or any of those haughty ones - though my father was
a negro-trader. Well, whose business was that but God's? If He don't
care, who need care? - An't I right, old mammy?" appealing to the ancient
negress, who had suspended her croon to listen.

"Yes, indeed - that you is, honey; right to upholden your own dad - nebber
min' what he did to serbe the debble. But you looks mighty strange,
chile, outen your eyes. Wat dat you sees ober dar - is it a ship,
gal? - or must we - " and her voice sank to a mutter - "must we fall back
on dis picaninny, to keep from starvation? - "

I understood her dreadful suggestion even before the words fully left
her cannibal lips, exposing her yellow fangs; from the glance of her
cruel eye in the direction of the child, and the working of her long,
crooked talons, rather than fingers, writhed like knotted serpents; I
understood them with an instinct that made me clutch him closely to my
breast, and narrowly watch his enemy from that hour until the time when
my brain failed and my eyes closed in unconsciousness, and with the
determination to plunge with him into the sea rather than devote him to
such a fate or yield to such an alternative as this wretch in human form
had more than hinted - even should the animal instinct, underlying every
nature, presume to dictate to reason at the last!

We could but die - that was the very worst that Fate had in store for
us - _but_ die in the body! How infinitely worse that the soul should
perish through the selfish sensuousness of cannibalism, which would
degrade life itself below dissolution, even if preserved by such means!

"I am ready now to go to Captain Ambrose for assistance," said Ada
Greene, poising herself before me, and having surrendered or forgotten
her first idea, evidently, in the new mania of the moment. "Of course,
he does not intend to leave us here to perish, and he is in the next
cabin - but a step; see how easily I can get to him, and I shall be back
before you can say 'Presto!'"

As nimbly as a sea-gull runs upon the sand, the young creature flew
across the now level raft toward the sea, but a strong hand clutched her
as she was about to step overboard, and compelled her back to her place
on the platform, where, bound with cords, she lay raving, until sleep or
unconsciousness mercifully supervened to spare me the spectacle of her
agony, which no human power could alleviate.

Hours passed before this "consummation devoutly to be wished" took
effect, and, at the end of that time, my reeling brain, my fainting
energies, warned me that I, too, was probably approaching some dreadful
crisis. With a view to the refreshment its waters could possibly afford
my head, I crept quietly from the platform on which the old negro woman
held enforced guard over the insensible form of Ada Greene, and, still
clasping the poor helpless one, so mysteriously thrust upon my tender
mercies, to my bosom, I gained the edge of the raft, unnoticed by
Christian Garth, who might otherwise have apprehended me in turn, and
borne me back to my allotted precincts, and hung above the ocean, so as
to suffer its cooling spray to fall unceasingly across my burning

From some instinctive prompting I had lashed the poor, frail baby to my
girdle with the scarf of knotted silk I wore about my neck, and, wan
and exhausted, he lay upon my shoulder tranquilly as any Indian papoose
might do on its mother's breast. A branch of sea-weed floated past as I
looked down - some gracious mermaid's gift, perhaps, extended by her
invisible fingers to greet our famishing lips - and I caught it eagerly,
dividing the welcome nutriment with the perishing child, now patient
from weakness and instinctive consciousness, perhaps, of the entire
uselessness of cries and tears.

Whether the weed was a sort of ocean-hasheesh, or wholesome aliment, I
never knew, but certain it is that, from the moment its juices passed my
lips, a strange and delightful quietude stole over my weary senses, fast
lapsing, as these had seemed, into, unconsciousness when I left my place
to seek the ocean's brink.

The rays of the declining sun seemed for a moment centred on one spot,
immediately before my impending face, supported as this was on one hand,
and my sight followed their lance-like rays to the very floor of ocean!

As the waters of the Red Sea divided for the passage of Moses and the
Israelites, so seemed these to part for my mental eyes, sundered as they
were by a golden sword of infinite splendor.

That power which neither pain nor peril can subdue had possession of me
now, and, above all, the bitter circumstances that surrounded me, and,
in the face of danger and of death, imagination asserted her supremacy.
My dream was not of passing ship or harbor gained, or rich repast, or
festival, or clustered grapes and sparkling wines, like other sufferers
from shipwreck, fevered with famine, frenzied with despair; but hasheesh
or opium never bestowed so fair, so strange a vision as that which, in
my extremity, was mercifully accorded to me.

My eyes pursued the sea-shaft to its base, as a telescope conducts the
mortal gaze to revel in the stars. Merman and mermaid, nereid and
triton, were there, rejoicing in the sunbeams thus poured upon them
through this subtle conduit of ocean, as do the motes of summer in her
rays; but soon these disappeared, a motley crowd, confused and joyous,
leaving the vision free to pierce the depths, glowing with golden light,
in search of still greater marvels.

Then I saw outspread before me the streets, the fanes, the towers, the
dwellings, of a vast, deserted city, one of those, I could not doubt,
that had existed before the flood, and which had lain submerged for
thousands of centuries; the fretwork of the coral-insect was over all
(that worker against time, so slow, so certain), in one monotonous web
of solid snow.

Statues of colossal size, and arches of Titanic strength and power,
adorned the portals, the pass-ways, the temples of this metropolis of
ocean, guarded as were these last by the effigies of griffin and dragon,
and winged elephant and lion, and stately mastodon and monstrous
ichthyosaurus, all white as gleaming spar.

Gods and demi-gods of gigantic proportions and majestic aspect were
carved on the external walls of the windowless abodes and fanes; and,
from the yawning portal of one of these, a temple vast as Dendera's
self, came forth, fold after fold, even as I seemed to gaze, the
monstrous sea-serpent of which mariners dream, more huge, more loathly,
than fancy or experience ever yet portrayed him. I still behold in
memory the stately, fearful head, with its eyes of emerald fire and
sweeping, sea-green mane, as it reared its neck for a moment as if to
scale the ladder the sunbeams had thrown down when first emerging from
its temple-cavern; and, later, the mottled, monstrous body, as coil
after coil was gradually unwound, until it seemed at last to lie in all
its loathsome length for roods along the silent, shell-paved
streets - the scaly monarch, of that scene of human desolation!

I recall the feeling of security that upheld me to look and to observe
every motion of the reptile of my dream.

"He cannot come to me here," I thought. "The ark is sacred, and God's
hand is over it; besides, I hear the singing of the priests, and the
dove is about to be cast forth! Will the raven never come back? Oh, the
sweet olive-branch! It falls so lightly! We are nearing the mountain
now, and we shall soon cast anchor!"

Then, among choral chants of joy and thanksgiving, I seemed to sleep.
How long this slumber lasted, or whether it came at all, I never knew.
It is a loving and tender thing in our Creator to decree to us this
curtain of unconsciousness when nerve and strength would otherwise give
way beneath the intensity of suffering - a holy and gentle thing for
which we are not half thankful enough in our estimate of blessings.

My sleep, or swoon, shielded me from long hours of agony, mental and
physical, that must have become unendurable ere the close. As it was, I
knew no more after the sea-shaft closed with its wondrous and mysterious
revelations (which I yet recall with marveling and admiration, as we are
wont to do a pageant of the past), until aroused from lethargy by the
hand and voice of Christian Garth.

It was night. I saw the glimmer of the moonlight on the seas, a
tranquil, balmy night; but some dark object was interposed between me
and the stars which, I knew, were shining above, and the raft lay
motionless upon the waters. I was aware, when my senses returned
temporarily, that the bow of a mighty vessel was projected above our
frail place of refuge, and that we were saved. The dove had come at

When or how we were lifted to the deck of the ship I knew not, for,
having partially revived, I soon drifted away again into profound
lethargy and entire unconsciousness, which for a time seemed death.


A woman sat sewing near my berth in the state-room in which I found
myself; a fan, lying on a small table at her side, betokened in what
manner she had divided her attentions - between her needle and her
helpless charge. I thought; indeed, that I had felt its soft plumes
glide gently across my face in the very moment of my awakening in the
first amazement of which I but dimly comprehended the circumstances that
surrounded me.

"What brought this stranger to my pillow! Who and what was she? Where
was I!" These were my mental queries at the first. Then, as the truth
gradually dawned over my sluggish and bewildered brain, I lay quietly
revolving matters, and noticed my self-constituted nurse, and my
surroundings, with the close yet careless observation of a child.

The woman, on whom my gaze was earliest fixed (while her own seemed
riveted on the work upon her knee), was of middle age or beyond it, of
medium size, of square and sturdy make, and homely to the very verge of
ugliness. She was dressed plainly if not commonly in black, but there
was a general air of decency about her that seemed to place her beyond
the sphere of servitude. She wore spectacles set in tortoise-shell
frames, and she wore her iron-gray hair straight back behind small,
funnel-shaped ears, and gathered into the tightest knot behind. Her
head was flat and narrow at the summit, though broad at and above the
base of the brain. Her forehead, wide yet low, was ignoble in
expression. The mouth, shaped like a horseshoe, was curved down at the
corners, and was full of sullen resolution. The nose, pinched, yet not
pointed, showed scarcely any nostril, and might as well have been made
of wood, for any meaning it betrayed. Her eyebrows were short, wide,
rugged, and irregular, though very black; the cast-down eyes, of course,
so far inscrutable.

She was shaping a flimsy, black-silk dress, and doing it deftly, though
it was a marvel to me how hands so stiff and cramped as hers appeared to
be could handle a needle at all.

On one of these gnarled and unlovely fingers she wore a ring which, in
the idleness of the mood that possessed me, I examined listlessly. It
was an old-fashioned and slender circle of gold, so pale that it looked
silvery, such as in times long past had commonly been used either for
troth-plight or marriage-vows, surmounted by two small united hearts of
the same dull metal by way of ornament. Mrs. Austin, I remembered,
possessed one, the aversion of my childhood, that seemed its

My weary eyes wandered from her at last, to take in the accessories of
my chamber, tiny as this was, and I saw that against the wall were
hanging a gentleman's greatcoat and hand-satchel. Cigars and books were
piled on the same table which held the spool and scissors of my
companion, and a pair of cloth slippers, embroidered with colored
chenilles and quilted lining, of masculine size and shape, reposed upon
the floor. A cane and umbrella were secured neatly in a small corner
rack. There were no traces, I saw, of feminine occupancy beyond the
transient implements of industry alluded to.

Suddenly, in their languid, listless roving, my eyes encountered those
of my attendant fixed full upon me, while a smile distorted the homely,
sallow face, disclosing a set of yellow teeth, sound, short, and strong,
like regular grains of corn.

In those eyes, in that mouth and saffron teeth, lay the whole power and
character of this repulsive and disagreeable physiognomy.

Those feline orbs of mingled gray and green, with their small, pointed
pupils, were keen, vigilant, and observing beyond all eyes it had ever
before or since been my lot to encounter. After meeting their
penetrating glance I was not surprised to hear their possessor accost me
in clear, metallic tones, that seemed only the result of her gift of
insight, and consistent with it.

"You are awake and yourself again, young lady, I am glad to see! You
have slept very quietly for the last few hours, and your fever is
wellnigh broken. Will you have some food now? You need it; you must be

"Yes, very weak; but not hungry at all. I do not want to eat. Just let
me lie quietly awhile. It is such enjoyment."

She complied silently and judiciously with my request.

After a satisfactory pause, during which I had gradually collected my
ideas, I inquired, suddenly:

"How long is it since we were lifted from the raft, and where are the
other survivors?"

"All safe, I believe, and onboard, well cared for, like yourself. It has
been nearly two days since your raft was overhauled. This was what the
captain called it," and she smiled.

"The baby - where is he? I hope he lived."

"Yes, he is at last out of danger, and we have obtained a nurse for him.
He would only trouble you now; but it is very natural you should be
anxious about him."

"Yes, he was my principal care on the raft, and I do not wish to lose
sight of him. When I am better, you must let him share my room until we
reach our friends."

"Oh, certainly!" and again she smiled her evil smile. "No one, so far as
I know of, has any right or wish to separate you; but, for the present,
you are better alone."

"Yes, I am strangely weak - confused, even," and I passed my hand over my
blistered face and dishevelled hair with something of the feeling of the
little woman in the story who doubted her own identity. Alas! there was
not even a familiar dog to bark and determine the vexed question, "Is
this I?"

Helpless as an infant, flaccid as the sea-weed when taken from its
native element, feeble in mind from recent suffering, broken in body, I
was cast on the mercies of strangers, ignorant, until they saw me, of my
existence, yet not indifferent to it, as their care testified.

"You will take some food now," said the woman, kindly, "Your weakness is
not unfavorable, since it proves the fierce fever broken; but you must
hasten to gather strength for what lies before you. We shall be in port

I put away the spoon with an impatient gesture. "I cannot; it nauseates
me but to see it, to think of it. Strength will come of itself."

"Oh, no; that is impossible. Besides, the doctor has ordered panada, and
I am responsible to him for your safety. Come, now, be reasonable. This
is very nice, seasoned with madeira and nutmeg."

Making a strong effort to overcome my repugnance, I received one
spoonful of the proffered aliment, then sank back on my pillow, soothed
and comforted, not more by the unexpectedly good effects of the
compound, than the associations it conjured up, of my sick childhood, of
Mrs. Austin, and of Dr. Pemberton.

"Ah! you smile; that is a good sign," said the woman; "favorable every
way. We shall have no more delirium now, I hope; no more 'bears and
serpents' about the berth; no more calls for 'Bertie' and 'Captain
Wentworth,' and you will soon be able to tell us all about yourself and
your people - all we want to know."

I must have lapsed again into reverie rather than slumber, from which I
was partly aroused by whispering voices at the door, one of which seemed
familiar to me. Yet this fact or fancy made little impression on me at
the moment, feeble and wretched as was my will, undiscriminating as were
my faculties.

And when the door opened, and a lady entered, I did not seek to inquire
about her interlocutor. Respectfully rising from her seat beside me, my

Online LibraryCatherine A. WarfieldMiriam Monfort A Novel → online text (page 23 of 37)