Woven with the Ship: A Novel of 1865

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Woven with the Ship: A Novel of 1865

CHAPTER XXII
"Samson Agonistes"

As Revere and Barry walked down the hill the soul of the younger man was filled with light-hearted joy. He talked gayly to the old sailor, who had speedily joined him; and although the monologue – since Barry had said nothing – could not have been called a conversation, Richard did not heed his silence.

It was but a short distance from the house to the ship, but in the brief time required for the passage Barry lived over his life, or that part of it at least which was of moment. As life is compassed in instants to the drowning, so in these seconds through his mental vision swept the past. He saw again the admiral as he had seen him in the prime of manhood; he recalled once more the blue-eyed, sunny little baby he had held so tenderly in his unfamiliar arms; who, in the society of the two men, had grown to be a woman whom he loved. The days and years of happy companionship, of humble and faithful service on the one hand, of kind and generous recognition on the other, passed before him with incredible swiftness.

The thought moved him to a sudden tenderness. As his eyes fell upon the gay, debonair figure walking so carelessly by his side, he hesitated. For a moment his determination wavered. Revere did not look or act like a scoundrel, perhaps; but with equal swiftness came the terrible evidence of those papers, those damning papers in the locker! The ship, the maiden! The one was to be sold, the other betrayed. Under God, that should never be! And he had kissed her. He was bound to another. And she loved him and had wept before him. This trifler was breaking her heart.

Every laugh that rang in his ears in his changed mood added intensity to his malign purpose. He was no murderer, though. He believed himself a chosen instrument in God's hand to effect a mighty purpose, – salvation to those he loved.

Alas! humanity is never so hopelessly blind as when it does wrong, believing that God sanctions it for some longed-for end.

The two men stopped as they reached the ship.

"It's just here, sir," said the old sailor, hoarsely. "I've been examinin' her all mornin'. The supports is rottin' away. I think a touch'll send her down. Would you mind goin' in there an' takin' a look?"

He pointed toward a place on the keel enclosed between two rows of weather-worn timbers, which supported, or helped to support, the body of the ship. It was the place where, the night before, he and Emily had pledged their hearts to each other and solemnly plighted their troth. Revere recognized the spot, of course, with a thrill of recollection; but of course he made no mention of the fact. Barry knew it, however, and for that reason he had chosen it. The choice was part of his revenge. Where Revere had loved – or trifled – there he should die!

"Looks bad, doesn't it?" Revere said, walking into the cul-de-sac so carefully prepared for him, and stooping down and laying his finger on the mouldering keel.

Barry promptly followed him and stood between the outermost stanchions, barring the exit. The unconscious Revere was completely enclosed. The keel on the rotting ways was in front of him, on either side the close rows of supports, overhead the mighty floor of the ship, back of him the huge form of Captain Barry. He suspected nothing, however, – how should he? – until he turned to go back after his brief examination, when he was greatly surprised to find the way blocked.

His situation beneath the ship was such that he could not even stand upright, but was forced to remain in a crouching position of great disadvantage before the sailor. The old man stood with his arms extended from stanchion to stanchion, a perfect tower of strength and determination. It was useless for Revere, even if he had realized at that moment what was about to happen, to attempt to move him by force. In his weakened state he could do nothing. Even at his best he was no match for the huge old giant barring his way.

The old man's face was engorged with blood, his jaw was set rigidly, and a little fleck of foam hung upon his nether lip. There was such a glare of demoniac rage in his eyes, such an expression of mortal bitterness and malevolent antipathy in his grim and forbidding countenance, that the heart of the young man, though he was as brave a sailor as ever trod a deck, sank within him. He was fairly appalled by this display of sinister and unsuspected passion.

"My God, man!" cried Revere. "What's the matter? Stand aside!"

"No, sir, you can't pass me. I'll never stand aside. Say a prayer, for, as there's a ship above you an' a God that favors no traitors, your hour is come."

His usually rough voice, harsher than ever on account of his emotion, was shaking with passion.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean to kill you where you stand, where you kissed her last night, you traitor, you dog, you that disgraces your uniform, you that sells my ship, mine! You that robs the old admiral of life, that betrays Miss Emily, that breaks her heart! You thought to play with that child. But I know you! I found your orders. I read 'em, curse you! To sell the ship, – God! my ship, that I've lived on, that I've loved, for twenty-five years! I read your letters writ by that woman you're goin' to marry! I saw you kiss Miss Emily, I saw her go from you cryin'! Tears for you, damn you! You've got to die, an' I'll die with you! You'll have the company of a better man to hell, where you belong!"

The old man's voice rose almost to a scream as he recounted the ideas which had goaded him to this madness. The torrential sentences of the grim indictment fairly burst from his lips with ever-increasing force and fury. Revere heard him in a daze of surprise, at first scarcely comprehending the man's meaning; yet, after all, his words explained many things. As soon as the lieutenant found voice he protested.

"Barry, I swear to you – "

"Silence! It's too late to swear!"

Revere was brave; he fain would not die without a struggle for his life. Indeed, he had not divined the manner of his death; but before he could spring forward, Barry, as if he understood what he was about to do, said, ruthlessly, —

"Stand where you are! If you move, I'll kick you to death like a dog!"

He could easily have done it, as the advantage of position was with him. Rather anything than that, thought Revere, shuddering at the brutality of it. A prisoner, he could do nothing. The man was mad. If he chose to carry out his purpose, whatever it might be, the young man was helpless.

"Very well, Barry," he said, instantly accepting the situation, and summoning all his resolution to meet the inevitable, though his cheeks and lips were white, "you saved my life once, you may take it back now. I wish I could die standing, but if I cannot, why kneeling is as good a way as any for a man to meet his Maker. You tell me to say a prayer. Here it is. May God have mercy on your soul and on my soul, and may He keep the child. That's all."

Not moving from his position, the old man began kicking at the stanchions. The one on the right was defective, and gave way and fell at the first blow. A shiver seemed to run through the ship; Richard, for the first time, divined what was about to happen. He looked forward and aft. The effective supports were all gone; some rotten ones remained, outwardly intact, but bound to go under almost any pressure; the few sound ones left had been carefully sawed almost through. Why had he not noticed it? The whole ship, therefore, practically rested on a single stout stanchion toward which Barry had already turned. It was a splendid piece of timber, and Barry had put it in himself a year before. When that came down, the ship would crash into ruins and bury them beneath it.

As the prop upon the right had fallen, the hope leaped into his mind that he might get away through the gap; but Barry reached down and grasped him by the collar with one hand the instant the way was open, and held him firmly while he turned his attention to the other stanchion. It was hopeless for Revere to attempt anything.

Strange as it may seem, there was a certain admiration for the sailor in Revere's mind, even in that frightful moment. He realized that the attack upon him was not inspired by any petty cause. Given the belief of the sailor, it was natural; he respected him for his desire to stop what he believed to be base treachery; and Revere could have loved him for his willingness to sacrifice himself to prevent what he conceived to be a crime against the life of the admiral, the happiness of Emily, and the existence of the ship.

"Barry," said Revere, calmly, – he was quite master of himself now, – as the old man struck the last sound support a heavy blow with his foot, "I must tell you, not because I am afraid to die, or because I fear you, but to acquit myself of evil purpose in your mind, that my engagement with that other woman is broken; that not an hour ago, in my mother's presence, the admiral promised to give me his granddaughter to be my wife."

"The ship?" cried Barry, hoarsely, as he felt his vengeance slipping away from him, the cause itself being taken.

"I offered to buy it myself and leave it standing until it fell."

Men do not often lie in the very presence of death, and truth spoke in the younger man's voice, – truth so clear that it pierced the tortured soul of the jealous, mad, broken sailor. But, like many another man convinced against his will, he refused to accept these statements. It was a device, a cunning attempt to stay his hand and gain a life. He would not heed.

"I don't believe you, damn you!" he said, kicking furiously at the stanchion.

The last blow loosened it. Under the tremendous pressure from above, the stick began slowly, very slowly, to slide on its wooden shoe. Its motion was scarcely perceptible, yet it moved. Barry released his hold on it, took a single backward step, and Revere rose to his feet. Barry instantly grappled him with both hands. Revere was as a child in that iron grasp. He did not struggle. He would preserve his dignity in the face of death, and to attempt to escape would have been futile, anyway. The two faces confronted one another, the sailor's convulsed with anguish and rage, the officer's pale, but smiling a little; both equally determined.

 

Forward and aft the rotten or sawed supports were giving way in quick succession. Above them the ship was trembling and shivering from stem to stern. A strange creaking was heard. A moaning cry, swelling into a deep groan of anguish that had a sound of despair unspeakable in it. The death-song of the ship! It was coming down on the ways! Moving toward the water at last!

Fascinated, Revere turned his face upward and watched the shivering frame above his head, murmuring, as he did so, Emily's name. The huge bulk seemed to rise in the air for a second. To his distorted vision it appeared to sway back and forth, up and down, yet it had scarcely begun to move.

Ah! was it upon them?

It all happened in a few seconds. In another it would be over. Revere closed his eyes.

At that instant a scream fraught with terrible agony broke upon the ears of the two men.

"The ship is falling!" cried Emily's voice, high-pitched, shrill with mortal terror. "Richard! What are you doing? Oh, God! Captain Barry, save him!"

"Would that she might have been spared this!" flashed into Revere's mind. He would have called to her had not something happened instantly.

The voice awakened the dormant reason in the old man's being. She loved this boy; perhaps he had told the truth.

"Save him! save him!"

The words rang in his ears. He had never disobeyed a command of hers. He would not now. Too late! There was a terrible grating sound; the last stanchion was grinding in its wooden shoe; it was sliding faster! In another moment the ship would be upon them! He had turned his head as the first cry had met his ear, and had seen in one swift glance Emily and another woman not a hundred feet away. Emily was bending forward, her hands outstretched, struggling. She would have run to them under the ship had not the other woman held her firmly, protectingly. Both girls were white as death.

Barry seized Revere by the collar and threw him violently far from him. The young man pitched downward and fell headlong on the grass in the direction of the two women. The ground sloped abruptly away toward the water on that side of the ship. In that same instant the sailor threw up two great arms and caught the impending ship. He took the place of the quivering, buckling, sliding oaken timber. For a second he stood there in mighty majesty, a pillar of strength and resolution, a tower of flesh and blood, sustaining a ship-of-the-line, a human stanchion, magnificent in the frenzied, awful expression of a power superhuman. Rigid, unbreakable, indomitable, he shored up the ship, – Atlas holding the world!

"Go!" he gasped.

Revere, who had risen instantly, stepped toward him as if to assist him.

"Go! Can't hold – "

It had come. Angry at the momentary check, the ship fell upon the man as an avalanche falls upon the mountain. Beneath it the mighty knees were bowing, the stubborn back bending, the great arms trembling.

Revere sprang backward and slipped far down the slope.

As he fell he caught sight of burning eyes from a face white as the sea-froth, of lips set and bloodless, of jaws clinched, of sweat standing upon a bronzed forehead – picture impressed upon his soul forever!

There was a mighty roaring, detonating crash and all was over.

Crushed were the mighty arms, beaten down the massive shoulders, broken the iron knees. The life of the man went out in the fall, and the blood of his heart rippled along the blocks of the keel. With a concussion like the discharge of a battery, the mighty war-monster collapsed into a shapeless mass of timber, burying beneath it the man who had loved it best. The ship that had been his own was nothing but a heap of ruins above his still heart.

A cloud of dust rose and hung over the wreck in the quiet air.

War was to have been the trade of that ship-of-the-line. Blood should have run upon her white decks, death she should have dealt out and received, great battles should have made her famous, heroic men should have written her name eternally on the red pages of her country's history. Now it was finished; and yet, in the ending at least, there had been a slight fulfilment of her destiny – to kill.

No struggle could have been more superb than the quiet one just over; no effort more magnificent, no conflict more terrible, than that between the man and the ship. No ship had ever claimed a nobler victim than Barry, after all, and no fate could have been more fitting than that which had come to man and ship together in the end.

The old war-vessel had lived through the still ages of peace, had survived the long period of decay, had endured the disintegrating assaults of time, only to accomplish her manifest purpose of destruction as she fell.

And the hand that had loved her was the hand that had laid her low!

With dreadful feelings in their hearts, the three stood looking at the ruins of the ship.

"Barry! Captain Barry!" screamed Emily, wildly. "Where is he?"

"There!" gasped Revere, hoarsely.

"And is there no hope?"

"None. He is gone forever. My God, wasn't it terrible? He held up the ship!"

"Grandfather!" cried the girl, distraught. "Let us run to him."

The old man still sat on the porch, staring at what had been the object of his gaze for so many years. There was a peaceful, yet sorrowful, look upon his face. He had seen the ship fall; he realized that his hour had come. He was fronting death and he knew it, yet he was as calm as he had been when he had fronted death many times years before. They gathered about him, understanding, helpless.

"Ay," he said, "the cruise is over. Where's Barry?"

"Under the ship, sir."

"And a good end! Strike the flag. I've lost my last command."

Instantly Revere ran to the foot of the staff and silently cast off the halliards. As the little blue flag of a rear-admiral, with its white stars, came floating gracefully, reluctantly, down from the masthead where it had flown so long, the veteran slowly and painfully rose to his feet. With his right hand he lifted the sword of the Constitution, with his old vigor and his old grace he bared the blade and brought it up before him in graceful salute, while the flag fell into Revere's arms.

"Come aboard, sir," he said, softly, as if to an Eternal Captain.

He stood erect a moment and then sank gently back into the chair. For the first time in his life he forgot the weapon in his hand. The sword fell clattering at his feet. The emblem of power, authority, and rank, all now slipping from him, lay neglected where it fell. A smile quivered upon his lips, but otherwise he sat still and quiet, looking out into the future. A few seconds. The light faded from his eyes, the life left his heart. The ship had fallen, the flag was down. It was the end.

The old man had entered the last haven, dropped anchor in the final harbor. The little breeze which lifted his white hairs so tenderly had wafted his soul into another country, a better – that is, an heavenly!

With a low cry, Emily threw herself on her knees before him.

Down on Ship House Point a light, a flame, burst out amid the torn and shattered timbers. In a few moments the ruins of the now unheeded ship were blazing furiously. Barry had cunningly planned it so that the ship, after it had buried him, should be his funeral pyre.

Fitting it might have been, thought Revere in his heart, as he looked at the flames roaring up from the ship, if the body of the admiral, like that of the Vikings of old, might have been laid upon its burning timbers.

L'Envoi.

When he was buried, his country, recognizing his merit and remembering his services again, sent its best to honor him in death. Admiral Farragut, with a brilliant staff, was there. He was of the navy of the present, Revere represented the navy of the future, and both stood together at the grave of the navy of the past.

They buried him on the high hill overlooking Ship House Point. Down on the Point, at the admiral's feet as it were, and just where the ship had stood, Revere erected a huge block of rough granite which bore this inscription:

John Barry, Chief Boatswain's Mate of the United States Ship-of-the-Line Susquehanna, Who perished in the fall of that ship, September 20th, 1865
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

In the lofty character of his motives, in the atonement of his self-sacrifice, in the greatness of his end, his purpose of destruction was forgotten.

When his naval duties permitted, Emily and Richard often came back to the old white house on the hill in the summer, and to Charles Stewart Revere, John Barry Revere, little Emily Revere, and Richard Revere, Junior, it was the most fascinating spot on earth. They stand with their father by the huge Celtic cross which marks the admiral's resting-place, and hear again the story of the sword of the Constitution, destined one day to be drawn against the country in which it had been made. Or – and this they like even better – they sit with their mother (lovelier in Richard's eyes with every passing year) beneath the shadow of the mighty rock on the Point, while she tells them stories of old John Barry, and how at the last he held up the ship.

Part II
VERACIOUS TALES OF VARIOUS SORTS

 
"When fiction rises pleasing to the eye,
Men will believe, because they love the lie;
But truth herself, if clouded with a frown,
Must have some solemn proof to pass her down."
 
Churchill
 
"'Tis strange – but true, for truth is always strange,
Stranger than fiction."
 
Byron
 
"Variety's the very spice of life."
 
Cowper

Copyright, 1900 and 1902, by J. B. Lippincott Company.

Copyright, 1901 and 1902, by Charles Scribner's Sons.

Copyright, 1902, by Henry T. Coates & Company.

Copyright, 1902, by The Golden Rule Company.

Copyright, 1902, by Daily Story Company.

Copyright, 1902, by Cyrus Townsend Brady.

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