Margaret Fuller Ossoli.

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Volume II online

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By nine o'clock, the breeze rose to a gale, which every hour increased
in violence, till at midnight it became a hurricane. Yet, as the
Elizabeth was new and strong, and as the commander, trusting to an
occasional cast of the lead, assured them that they were not nearing
the Jersey coast, - which alone he dreaded, - the passengers remained in
their state-rooms, and caught such uneasy sleep as the howling storm
and tossing ship permitted. Utterly unconscious, they were, even then,
amidst perils, whence only by promptest energy was it possible to
escape. Though under close-reefed sails, their vessel was making way
far more swiftly than any one on board had dreamed of; and for hours,
with the combined force of currents and the tempest, had been driving
headlong towards the sand-bars of Long Island. About four o'clock, on
Friday morning, July 19th, she struck, - first draggingly, then hard
and harder, - on Fire Island beach.

The main and mizzen masts were at once cut away; but the heavy marble
in her hold had broken through her bottom, and she bilged. Her bow
held fast, her stern swung round, she careened inland, her broadside
was bared to the shock of the billows, and the waves made a clear
breach over her with every swell. The doom of the poor Elizabeth was
sealed now, and no human power could save her. She lay at the mercy of
the maddened ocean.

At the first jar, the passengers, knowing but too well its fatal
import, sprang from their berths. Then came the cry of "Cut away,"
followed by the crash of falling timbers, and the thunder of the seas,
as they broke across the deck. In a moment more, the cabin skylight
was dashed in pieces by the breakers, and the spray, pouring down like
a cataract, put out the lights, while the cabin door was wrenched from
its fastenings, and the waves swept in and out. One scream, one only,
was heard from Margaret's state-room; and Sumner and Mrs. Hasty,
meeting in the cabin, clasped hands, with these few but touching
words: "We must die." "Let us die calmly, then." "I hope so, Mrs.
Hasty." It was in the gray dusk, and amid the awful tumult, that the
companions in misfortune met. The side of the cabin to the leeward had
already settled under water; and furniture, trunks, and fragments of
the skylight were floating to and fro; while the inclined position of
the floor made it difficult to stand; and every sea, as it broke
over the bulwarks, splashed in through the open roof. The windward
cabin-walls, however, still yielded partial shelter, and against it,
seated side by side, half leaning backwards, with feet braced upon
the long table, they awaited what next should come. At first. Nino,
alarmed at the uproar, the darkness, and the rushing water, while
shivering with the wet, cried passionately; but soon his mother,
wrapping him in such garments as were at hand and folding him to her
bosom, sang him to sleep. Celeste too was in an agony of terror, till
Ossoli, with soothing words and a long and fervent prayer, restored
her to self-control and trust. Then calmly they rested, side by side,
exchanging kindly partings and sending messages to friends, if any
should survive to be their bearer. Meanwhile, the boats having been
swamped or carried away, and the carpenter's tools washed overboard,
the crew had retreated to the top-gallant forecastle; but, as the
passengers saw and heard nothing of them, they supposed that the
officers and crew had deserted the ship, and that they were left
alone. Thus passed three hours.

At length, about seven, as there were signs that the cabin would soon
break up, and any death seemed preferable to that of being crushed
among the ruins, Mrs. Hasty made her way to the door, and, looking
out at intervals between the seas as they swept across the vessel
amidships, saw some one standing by the foremast. His face was toward
the shore. She screamed and beckoned, but her voice was lost amid the
roar of the wind and breakers, and her gestures were unnoticed. Soon,
however, Davis, the mate, through the door of the forecastle caught
sight of her, and, at once comprehending the danger, summoned the men
to go to the rescue. At first none dared to risk with him the perilous
attempt; but, cool and resolute, he set forth by himself, and now
holding to the bulwarks, now stooping as the waves combed over,
he succeeded in reaching the cabin. Two sailors, emboldened by his
example, followed. Preparations were instantly made to conduct the
passengers to the forecastle, which, as being more strongly built and
lying further up the sands, was the least exposed part of the ship.
Mrs. Hasty volunteered to go the first. With one hand clasped by
Davis, while with the other each grasped the rail, they started, a
sailor moving close behind. But hardly had they taken three steps,
when a sea broke loose her hold, and swept her into the hatch-way.
"Let me go," she cried, "your life is important to all on board."
But cheerily, and with a smile,[B] he answered, "Not quite yet;" and,
seizing in his teeth her long hair, as it floated past him, he caught
with both hands at some near support, and, aided by the seaman, set
her once again upon her feet. A few moments more of struggle brought
them safely through. In turn, each of the passengers was helped thus
laboriously across the deck, though, as the broken rail and cordage
had at one place fallen in the way, the passage was dangerous and
difficult in the extreme. Angelino was borne in a canvas bag,
slung round the neck of a sailor. Within the forecastle, which was
comparatively dry and sheltered, they now seated themselves, and,
wrapped in the loose overcoats of the seamen, regained some warmth.
Three times more, however, the mate made his way to the cabin; once,
to save her late husband's watch, for Mrs. Hasty; again for some
doubloons, money-drafts, and rings in Margaret's desk; and, finally,
to procure a bottle of wine and a drum of figs for their refreshment.
It was after his last return, that Margaret said to Mrs. Hasty,
"There still remains what, if I live, will be of more value to me than
anything," referring, probably, to her manuscript on Italy; but it
seemed too selfish to ask their brave preserver to run the risk again.

There was opportunity now to learn their situation, and to discuss
the chances of escape. At the distance of only a few hundred yards,
appeared the shore, - a lonely waste of sand-hills, so far as could
be seen through the spray and driving rain. But men had been early
observed, gazing at the wreck, and, later, a wagon had been drawn
upon the beach. There was no sign of a life-boat, however, or of any
attempt at rescue; and, about nine o'clock, it was determined that
some one should try to land by swimming, and, if possible, get help.
Though it seemed almost sure death to trust one's self to the surf, a
sailor, with a life-preserver, jumped overboard, and, notwithstanding
a current drifting him to leeward, was seen to reach the shore.
A second, with the aid of a spar, followed in safety; and Sumner,
encouraged by their success, sprang over also; but, either struck by
some piece of the wreck, or unable to combat with the waves, he sank.
Another hour or more passed by; but though persons were busy gathering
into carts whatever spoil was stranded, no life-boat yet appeared;
and, after much deliberation, the plan was proposed, - and, as it was
then understood, agreed to, - that the passengers should attempt to
land, each seated upon a plank, and grasping handles of rope, while
a sailor swam behind. Here, too, Mrs. Hasty was the first to venture,
under the guard of Davis. Once and again, during their passage, the
plank was rolled wholly over, and once and again was righted, with its
bearer, by the dauntless steersman; and when, at length, tossed by
the surf upon the sands, the half-drowned woman still holding, as in
a death-struggle, to the ropes, was about to be swept back by the
undertow, he caught her in his arms, and, with the assistance of a
bystander, placed her high upon the beach. Thus twice in one day had
he perilled his own life to save that of the widow of his captain,
and even over that dismal tragedy his devotedness casts one gleam of
light.

Now came Margaret's turn. But she steadily refused to be separated
from Ossoli and Angelo. On a raft with them, she would have boldly
encountered the surf, but alone she would not go. Probably, she had
appeared to assent to the plan for escaping upon planks, with the view
of inducing Mrs. Hasty to trust herself to the care of the best man on
board; very possibly, also, she had never learned the result of their
attempt, as, seated within the forecastle, she could not see the
beach. She knew, too, that if a life-boat could be sent, Davis was one
who would neglect no effort to expedite its coming. While she was
yet declining all persuasions, word was given from the deck, that
the life-boat had finally appeared. For a moment, the news lighted up
again the flickering fire of hope. They might yet be saved, - be saved
together! Alas! to the experienced eyes of the sailors it too soon
became evident that there was no attempt to launch or man her. The
last chance of aid from shore, then, was gone utterly. They must rely
on their own strength, or perish. And if ever they were to escape,
the time had come; for, at noon, the storm had somewhat lulled; but
already the tide had turned, and it was plain that the wreck could not
hold together through another flood. In this emergency, the commanding
officer, who until now had remained at his post, once more appealed
to Margaret to try to escape, - urging that the ship would inevitably
break up soon; that it was mere suicide to remain longer; that he did
not feel free to sacrifice the lives of the crew, or to throw away
his own; finally, that he would himself take Angelo, and that sailors
should go with Celeste, Ossoli, and herself. But, as before, Margaret
decisively declared that she would not be parted from her husband or
her child. The order was then given to "save themselves," and all
but four of the crew jumped over, several of whom, together with the
commander, reached shore alive, though severely bruised and wounded by
the drifting fragments. There is a sad consolation in believing that,
if Margaret judged it to be impossible that the _three_ should escape,
she in all probability was right. It required a most rare, combination
of courage, promptness and persistency, to do what Davis had done
for Mrs. Hasty. We may not conjecture the crowd of thoughts which
influenced the lovers, the parents, in this awful crisis; but
doubtless one wish was ever uppermost, - that, God willing, the last
hour might come for ALL, if it must come for _one_.

It was now past three o'clock, and as, with the rising tide, the gale
swelled once more to its former violence, the remnants of the barque
fast yielded to the resistless waves. The cabin went by the board, the
after-parts broke up, and the stem settled out of sight. Soon, too,
the forecastle was filled with water, and the helpless little band
were driven to the deck, where they clustered round the foremast.
Presently, even this frail support was loosened from the hull, and
rose and fell with every billow. It was plain to all that the final
moment drew swiftly nigh. Of the four seamen who still stood by the
passengers, three were as efficient as any among the crew of the
Elizabeth. These were the steward, carpenter, and cook. The fourth was
an old sailor, who, broken down by hardships and sickness, was going
home to die. These men were once again persuading Margaret, Ossoli
and Celeste to try the planks, which they held ready in the lee of
the ship, and the steward, by whom Nino was so much beloved, had just
taken the little fellow in his arms, with the pledge that he would
save him or die, when a sea struck the forecastle, and the foremast
fell, carrying with it the deck, and all upon it. The steward and
Angelino were washed upon the beach, both dead, though warm, some
twenty minutes after. The cook and carpenter were thrown far upon the
foremast, and saved themselves by swimming. Celeste and Ossoli caught
for a moment by the rigging, but the next wave swallowed them up.
Margaret sank at once. When last seen, she had been seated at the foot
of the foremast, still clad in her white night-dress, with her hair
fallen loose upon her shoulders. It was over, - that twelve hours'
communion, face to face, with Death! It was over! and the prayer was
granted, "that Ossoli, Angelo, and I, may go together, and that the
anguish may be brief!"

* * * * *

A passage from the journal of a friend of Margaret, whom the news
of the wreck drew at once to the scene, shall close this mournful
story: -

"The hull of the Elizabeth, with the foremast still bound to
it by cordage, lies so near the shore, that it seems as if
a dozen oar-strokes would carry a boat alongside. And as one
looks at it glittering in the sunshine, and rocking gently in
the swell, it is hard to feel reconciled to our loss. Seven
resolute men might have saved every soul on board. I know how
different was the prospect on that awful morning, when the
most violent gale that had visited our coast for years, drove
the billows up to the very foot of the sand-hills, and when
the sea in foaming torrents swept across the beach into the
bay behind. Yet I cannot but reluctantly declare my judgment,
that this terrible tragedy is to be attributed, so far
as human agency is looked at, to our wretched system, or
_no-system_, of life-boats. The life-boat at Fire Island
light-house, three miles distant only, was not brought to the
beach till between twelve and one o'clock, more than eight
hours after the Elizabeth was stranded, and more than six
hours after the wreck could easily have been seen. When
the life-boat did finally come, the beachmen could not be
persuaded to launch or man her. And even the mortar, by which
a rope could and should have been thrown on board, was not
once fired. A single lesson like this might certainly suffice
to teach the government, insurance companies, and humane
societies, the urgent need, that to every life-boat should
be attached ORGANIZED CREWS, stimulated to do their work
faithfully, by ample pay for actual service, generous
salvage-fees for cargoes and persons, and a pension to
surviving friends where life is lost. * * *

"No trace has yet been found of Margaret's manuscript on
Italy, though the denials of the wreckers as to having seen
it, are not in the least to be depended on. For, greedy
after richer spoil, they might well have overlooked a mass of
written paper; and, even had they kept it, they would be slow
to give up what would so clearly prove their participation
in the heartless robbery, that is now exciting such universal
horror and indignation. Possibly it was washed away before
reaching the shore, as several of the trunks, it is said, were
open and empty, when thrown upon the beach. But it is sad to
think, that very possibly the brutal hands of pirates may have
tossed to the winds, or scattered on the sands, pages so rich
with experience and life. The only papers of value saved, were
the love-letters of Margaret and Ossoli.[C]

"It is a touching coincidence, that the only one of Margaret's
treasures which reached the shore, was the lifeless form of
Angelino. When the body, stripped of every rag by the waves,
was rescued from the surf, a sailor took it reverently in
his arms, and, wrapping it in his neckcloth, bore it to the
nearest house. There, when washed, and dressed in a child's
frock, found in Margaret's trunk, it was laid upon a bed; and
as the rescued seamen gathered round their late playfellow and
pet, there were few dry eyes in the circle. Several of them
mourned for Nino, as if he had been their own; and even the
callous wreckers were softened, for the moment, by a sight
so full of pathetic beauty. The next day, borne upon their
shoulders in a chest, which one of the sailors gave for a
coffin, it was buried in a hollow among the sand heaps. As I
stood beside the lonely little mound, it seemed that never
was seen a more affecting type of orphanage. Around, wiry
and stiff, were scanty spires of beach-grass; near by,
dwarf-cedars, blown flat by wintry winds, stood like grim
guardians; only at the grave-head a stunted wild-rose, wilted
and scraggy, was struggling for existence. Thoughts came
of the desolate childhood of many a little one in this hard
world; and there was joy in the assurance, that Angelo was
neither motherless nor fatherless, and that Margaret and
her husband were not childless in that New World, which so
suddenly they had entered together.

"To-morrow, Margaret's mother, sister, and brothers will
remove Nino's body to New England."

* * * * *

Was this, then, thy welcome home? A howling hurricane, the pitiless
sea, wreck on a sand-bar, an idle life-boat, beach-pirates, and not
one friend! In those twelve hours of agony, did the last scene appear
but as the fitting close for a life of storms, where no safe haven
was ever in reach; where thy richest treasures were so often stranded;
where even the dearest and nearest seemed always too far off, or just
too late, to help.

Ah, no! not so. The clouds were gloomy on the waters, truly; but their
tops were golden in the sun. It was in the Father's House that welcome
awaited thee.

"Glory to God! to God! he saith,
Knowledge by suffering entereth,
And Life is perfected by Death."


[Footnote A: The following account is as accurate, even in minute
details, as conversation with several of the survivors enabled me to
make it. - W.H.C.]

[Footnote B: Mrs. Hasty's own words while describing the incident.]

[Footnote C: The letters from which extracts were quoted in the
previous chapter.]







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Online LibraryMargaret Fuller OssoliMemoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Volume II → online text (page 24 of 24)