The Gift Of The Waves
A Tale of Oswego
This story by Mary C. Vaughan was found in an old newspaper by Richard Palmer
Oswego Times & Journal, January 30, 1856
Night closed upon a stormy November day. As the sun set the wind had lulled, though the great waves still beat upon the rocky shore. They broke violently over the massive stone piers, and curled foaming and hissing above the lighthouse tower, dashing against the thick panes thro' which the kindly lamp shown out to indicate a port to storm-tossed mariners; or as was sometimes the case, to warn them against an entrance dangerous enough, in certain winds, to keep the craft of provident captains with closely reefed sails lying to outside until daylight shone upon the scene.
Overhead the sky, with the twilight, assumed a uniform grey, almost black, tint; but along the line of the horizon, where the arch dipped into the great plain of water, a lurid streak appeared, which lighted up the wild scene. As far as the eye could see, the waves were tossing tumultuously, their white crests relieved against the fiery brightness of the horizon. In the very center of this line of light slowly uprose the masts and rigging, and then the dark hull of a vessel, every shroud and sheet, and yard clearly defined as it stood out, black and distinct against the flame-colored background.
The man from the lighthouse saw it, and so did some other watchers, perhaps relatives of men who were known to be on board vessels bound downward, during this fearful storm, which had already raged two days. Anxiety and thought of the danger of those who were at the mercy of the elements had drawn some forth, in spite of the storm, to watch for approaching vessels. These men, wise in weather-signs, shook their heads ominously as they saw this vessel lying there, and looking like a picture drawn in ink against the red sky—a dark "phantom ship." And they said to each other, that its captain would never venture to enter that dangerous port until morning, for the wind blew on shore, and the bar which stretched across the river's mouth, was almost bare, except in the deepest part of the channel. But they watched still until the night fell, and the light fading out of the horizon, sky and water and land were all shrouded in the inky blackness of the wild, stormy night.
There was, as one might well believe, great anxiety and wakefulness in sailors' homes. Many a wife sat helplessly, with her helpless children, beside her fireside, and thought of the absent husband and father. Many tearful prayers went up, and many a lonely pillow was wet with tears, called forth by shuddering fear and impotent anxiety. Danger is harder to be borne by those who sit powerlessly at home, than by those who meet it face to face. Those who mourn by the fireside, could they once feel the power to aid and to save, would rush to the rescue, at the peril of life and limb, strong, confident, and even hopeful.
We talk, we write, we think of the perils of those whose "business is upon the great waters," and of those who go forth to the battlefield, but to them comes courage in the direct emergency, and in the greatest danger, hope whispers of deliverance. It is upon the helpless ones at home that wearying care and the sickness of "hope deferred" falls most heavily.
Anna Henderson was the wife of a lake captain. Her house stood upon the hillside, and from its windows she could see the port and the wide expanse of waters, and on a clear day, could even trace the faint blue line, near the horizon, which she had been to, the shore of Canada. The very morning of which the gale commenced, she had received a letter from her husband as he was about leaving his port upon an upper lake, for home; and now she was anxiously looking for his vessel.
All day long she had watched the dreary waters, and as night fell had seen the vessel that loomed in relief against the lurid sky. By the aid of a glass she could distinctly see that it was a three-masted vessel, like that which her husband commanded. Beyond that she could discern nothing. Very soon the light faded; and when the thick darkness shut out every object, she closed the curtains and sat down, with her little ones, to wait. The children had heard that papa was coming home, and their merry prattle fell almost painfully upon her anxious ear. But the lesson of patience had been too often conned, and she sat gently as if every nerve were not strained to listen for the footfall she so loved to hear—quietly as if her spirit were not wandering afar over the dreary waste of waters, in search of the expected one, in his danger and suffering.
And thus she sat long after her children were dreaming the placid dream of infancy in their little cribs. At midnight, the wind which had temporarily lulled, sprang up again; and, as if made furious by its short quietude, howled and roared along the bleak hill side as though a thousand demons were riding upon its pinions. The waves, too, which had fallen with a solemn cadence upon the shore, now roared and surged as if lashed to fury, and Anna could hear them as they beat upon the beach with thundering noise. Oh! How she trembled at every sound! The shrieking mariners, and every wave beat to tell of the destruction of the frail timbers which alone divided her husband and his sturdy crew from a grave in the foaming waters.
Thus she passed the night; and the first faint rays of dawn, stealing through her window, fell upon her kneeling figure as beside the bed where her children slept she prayed for him whom she thought struggling with the fury of the storm.
On board the vessel, which had as suddenly appeared in relief against the red sky, were twelve men—a large crew for a lake vessel, but this was of extraordinary size. James Henderson, its captain, well wrapped in waterproof clothing, and with his sou'wester upon his head, stood upon the deck, over which the waves rolled continuously, as the vessel dipped into the troughs of the sea. His uncouth garments did not hide the muscular proportions of his figure, and there was an expression of dauntless courage upon the handsome, though weather-browned face, which told that, though he knew the danger, he did not fear to meet it.
The crew, similarly dressed, were standing in various attitudes around, holding by the bulwarks and rigging for the force of the waves was great. But few of them had sought the protection of the cabin, though, with the exception of the man at the helm, not one of them had any employment. They were all watchful and anxious, but confident and hopeful. They had caught the first faint glimmer of the lighthouse lamps, and knew that their port and homes were in sight, but only to be reached through much peril; for the harbor of Oswego, which they approached is an artificial one, formed by two massive piers which extend nearly halfway across the mouth of the river, from each shore. The narrow entrance between these piers is always dangerous in stormy weather, though a safe port is found within where a navy might ride in security.
As the darkness settled down, the vessel sped on with only enough sail to keep her to her course. The far shining light guided her onward, and it was the unanimous voice of the men, that an entrance should be attempted, and although the Captain thought otherwise, he felt that the perils of entering the harbor or lying to outside this fearful storm were about equally balanced; and he listened to the advice of some of his veteran sailors who had seen twice as many years as himself. He apprehended a rising of the wind at midnight, but hoped to reach port before that hour.
On, then, struggled the noble craft, but her progress was slow. The wind rose as she stood off and on, striving to effect an entrance to the harbor. As if maddened by the fury of its assault, she plunged into the huge waves, which rolled over her decks, and would have swept every man into the boiling surges, but that they had lashed themselves to the rigging. The entrance was very near; the light from the beacon lamps fell upon their stern anxious faces. A few moments more, and they would have been safe; but yielding to the fury of the wind, the vessel shot past the narrow opening, and in a moment, with a shock and crash which sent one mast, with its rigging and the men lashed to it overboard, she struck upon the pier.
Again she recedes, and again, with a heavier crash, her bow runs far up on the pier; another mast topples, and with its living freight, is swept away. Another crash, and the heavy timbers quiver, and part in the centre. Two or three men cling to the forward part of the vessel; the rest are swept away, and the cries of their despair are soon smothered in the boiling waves.
Over those who remain the waves break every instant. It is intensely cold, and soon they are covered with ice, and their benumbed hands and powerless limbs relax their grasp, and all but one are carried away into the darkness and the heavy sea. He is lashed to the bulwark, and although insensible, is not borne away. Thus in sight of their homes, and with the rays of the beacon which they fondly hoped would light them to safety, they, one by one, go down in their watery grave.
The morning dawned upon this sad spectacle. With much danger and difficulty the sole survivor was saved; and borne to his home, the only one where those twelve men had dwelt which had not, that day, to mourn his death. Anna Henderson had not risen from her prayerful vigil by the bedside of her children, when she learned that she was a widow and they fatherless.
We draw a veil over the scenes which followed in that bereaved household. The little children wailed their infantile grief away, but the agony of such desolation as fell upon the widow's heart has no voice nor speech. In her sorrow she moved about the home—his no longer. For hours she would stand and gaze out upon the busy port, and the broad lake which smiled treacherous calm in the sunlight of the pleasant days which followed that fearful storm amidst which its waves engulfed her young husband. Alas! how often she pictured to herself every event of that awful night.
The inky blackness which shrouded the horror of the wreck when the waves swallowed up those living forms, and the dim beacon rays gleamed back from their crests and the ice covered shrouds of the lost vessel. There was a dull heavy despair in her heart, which shut out all sense of present duties, and brooded silently over the memory of the lost. There was but one strong feeling in her soul, and that was that the waves might give up the body of her husband, that she might look once more upon his face, and see him laid to rest beside her father and his mother in the burial ground.
Thus slowly the days and weeks passed on, and Christmas eve had come. the children who had prattled all day of Santa Claus and his expected gifts, had gone to rest, at length, and the widow sat alone by her fireside. Opposite her was placed the chair where one year ago, her husband had sat in his proud strength. He had come home with pockets filled with Christmas gifts for the little ones, and together they had taken down the tiny stockings which the chubby little hands had suspended, and had filled them to overflowing with toys and all manner of good things, talking all the while, of their darlings whose delight upon the morrow they smiling played, as fond parents will. She remembered his smile and kiss as he presented to her the handsome dress now hanging all unused, and never to be worn again—and she glanced down at her mourning robes, and with deeper sighs thought of him for whom she wore them, sleeping afar in his watery grave.
It is only to unbroken households that perfect joy comes with the holiday time. There are too many memories of the loved and lost clustering about those days of wonted festivity, to allow them to be otherwise than very sad days to those whom death has robbed of the friends whose smiles brightened those once joyous anniversaries. Treasured words, and looks and acts of kindness rise up, then from the depths of memory and the desolation of our longing hearts grows sometimes almost too intense for endurance.
The wind was blowing fresh, and the widow could hear the solemn beat of the waves upon the shore. They seemed to sound the requiem of him who rested in their depths, and their voice was mournful as the thoughts which filled her soul. Straining her ear she listened till her heart seemed bursting. Her husband's voice seemed calling to her in every sough of the wind, and she must go forth to meet him. Hastily wrapping herself in a large cloak, she sallied forth into the darkness of the night.
It was late ere she returned, drenched and weary, and sought her lonely couch. She had been wandering up and down the beach, and straining her gaze for she knew not what, but all the while full of the wild hope that the waves might cast the body of her husband at her feet. It was only when utterly exhausted that she sought her home. For the first time in all those sad weeks, she slept soundly for many hours, the sleep of utter weariness.
She dreamed of her lost husband—a pleasant, happy dream. He walked beside her and her little ones, in some green, quiet spot, and talked of the future of those who had given to her care; and though he spoke of a far-off journey, it brought no sadness, for the thought of the happy occupation he had pointed out to fill his absence. Happy, and quite lifted out of herself, she seemed to hear the joyous sound of bells mingling with his words in tones that gave her courage and cheerfulness. She awoke and found that the sound had not died away.
As she lay calm and happy from her late vision, she had heard the sweet chime from St. Paul's tower, and it seemed to say, "Peace, goodwill," "Peace, goodwill." The tones filled her soul with the sweetest peace which she had ever known, and it was with a strength of purpose unknown to her before that she listened. The great bell of St. Markšs took up the exultant strain, its deep tones seeming to swell the chorus in those words of loftiest praise, "Glory to God in the highest." She slept again, and in the morning awoke with a lighter heart than had beat in her bosom since the dismal dawn which had first looked upon her great sorrow.
The clamor of the children for their Christmas gifts, almost overcame her little fortitude as they sat at breakfast. But she showed them her mourning weeds and their own sad-colored garments, and bade them ask of their Father in heaven such gifts as they most needed, and the care denied them from an earthly father. A look of awe came over the little, eager faces, at her words, and silence fell upon the group. It was broken by a loud knock at the door, which brought all to their feet. A pleasant voice was heard parleying with the servant in the entry, for a moment, then the inner door opened, and Anna found herself clasped in the warm embrace of her only brother.
It was a happy meeting, yet saddened by the absence of the hearty welcome of that one whom all missed from the head of his table. Anna felt a great portion of her desolation lifted from her soul, as she heard the cheerful voice and saw the earnest, confident face of her much-loved brother. She was not utterly alone, not all forsaken. She had thought of God in the night-time, when the sweet bells rang out the anthem of the Nativity, and now he had sent this good and noble brother to be her stay and protector.
They sat long in conversation—sometimes sad and sometimes cheerful. All the sad story of the wreck, and a thousand other incidents which had filled up a long separation were discussed till in the midst came another knock at the outer door. Presently the brother called out, and Anna sat thoughtful but comforted where he left her. The dark midnight of her sorrow had passed, and the dawn of cheerful endurance was brightening her soul.
Presently her brother returned. He kissed her cheek fondly, and passed his arm about her. He led her trembling with a strange joy, half mournfulness, half delight, into another room. A strange, dark object was stretched upon a table there, and, in a moment, Anna looked upon the face of her dead husband.
The waters had given up their dead. Upon the very beach where she had wondered but the last night his body had been cast up, as if in answer to the longing prayer of the bereaved wife. And there he lay almost unchanged, his features rigid, but calm and peaceful, with the firm set lip still expressive of the courage with which he met his fate.
And Anna Henderson's chief wish was gratified. All that remained of him she so loved had been given back to her. A strong arm, if not the one best loved, was hers to lean upon, and she could show her children the spot where she had laid the mortal remains of one who had perished nobly in the performance of his duty, leaving to him the legacy of an unstained character, and humble though he had been, a true manhood.
These were Anna Henderson's Christmas gifts—the body of her lost husband, and the dawning of an earnest purpose in her soul, to live for the duties, the cares and the joys that remained to her in life.