Published January 01, 2008 by
It was Christmas Eve, and outside Uncle Joe Burton's cottage, wild and stormy enough. A strong breeze from the north-west had been blowing since noon, with frequent showers of snow, and, as the day advanced, the wind had come more from the north and freshened to a gale. Great gusts ever and anon sent blinding drifts of snow swirling over the roads, piling them high against the picket fences, and wreathing quaint, curling masses over the firewood piles resting against the house. The windows rattled in their casements, and puffs of smoke poured frequently down the chimney, which roared and groaned like some huge animal in mortal pain.
It was a gloomy scene, indeed that Mrs. Burton looked out upon, as she went to the windows to draw down the blinds. The short evening was darkening rapidly over the dreary landscape, and the houses of the little fishing village lay half-buried under a winding sheet of snow. On the opposite side of the harbor the great cliff loomed frowningly through the flying blue snowflakes, while against its base the cold, white breakers were dashing with a sullenness that was fast increasing into fury. Seaward, a hazy stretch of white-capped billows chased each other tumultuously shoreward, driven hard by the fierce and still freshening wind. The good woman shuddered as she gazed. "A terrible night, sure enough," she murmured. "The good Lord pity any poor fellows in craft on this shore tonight"; and then, with a sigh that might be an Amen to her kindly prayer, she drew the red curtains over the noisy windows, and set about getting her husband's supper.
It was a pleasant enough interior. In the huge chimney recess, that had been built for open fires, a well-burnished cooking stove sent out its heat, and on its top the brewing teapot sang a cheery song, in perfect harmony with the hubble-bubble of a boiler, its companion, in which a big figgy pudding, rich with galores of suet and citron, was already undergoing the beginning of its long boil for tomorrow's dinner. An appetizing odor came from the oven, where a couple of fine fat bull-birds, part proceeds of a successful day's gunning in punt, a day or two before, were yielding up their juices, as they browned for the good man's supper. Mats, hooked in bright colors and quaint patterns, covered the clean floor, and a noisy American clock emphasized the flight of time on a shelf between the two small windows, flanked on the one side by a bright print cut from some illustrated periodical, and on the other by a gay pictorial advertisement of "Taylor's Soluble Cocoa". Gleams from the glowing wood inside the stove-bars lit up the rows of crockery on the tidy dresser, and glanced along the barrels of the skipper's guns, suspended on rests across the beams of the ceiling. A big black and white cat, evidently a privileged member of the household, purred contentedly on a settle on one side of the stove, while on the other the skipper himself, with head resting on his hands and elbows on knees, stooped, sound asleep over the fire. An air of homely content and comfort pervaded the whole apartment, with which the expression of Mrs. Burton's face, as she bustled about, and the tone of her voice, as she quietly hummed a hymn-tune, were completely in unison.
In a little while the supper was ready, it was time for tea as the teapot filled and set on the stove-fender to draw, and the bull-birds smoking temptingly on a big blue dish, supported on the one side by an overflowing plate of mealy potatoes, and, on the other, by an equally generous plate of "riz" bread and butter. As Mrs. Burton set the chairs by the table, her husband awoke with a mighty stretch and yawn, and rose to his feet.
"Why, I b'lieve I bin dozin' a bit," he said.
"Dozin'! You've bin fast asleep for an hour or more, I allow," replied his wife, laughing; "an' I don't wonder, after bein' in the woods all day. Draw over now, and take hold. You must want your supper, I'm sure."
As Uncle Joe sits down at his humble board, let us have a good look at him. Short, sturdy, square-set, with a large head set firmly on his broad shoulders; the face wrinkled and weather-beaten, but fresh and ruddy, framed all round with grey whiskers; eyes that twinkled good-humouredly beneath shaggy brows; a tumbling chaos of iron-grey hair above a broad, honest forehead - a typical fisherman in build and appearance. And Aunt Betsy, as the people called her, was a fitting match for her husband. She, too, was short and square, and sturdy; but the hair beneath the trim cap was still jet-black, and the placid brow unwrinkled; and, though the face had lost something of the color and contour that in youth had made her the belle of the harbor, there was a matronly sweetness about her that more than made up for any loss of youthful charms. Uncle Joe, kindly, shrewd and blunt, was, by sheer force of personal character, a "leadin' man" in the little settlement, while his wife was known for miles around as the friend and sympathizer, readiest with help of word and deed in all cases of emergency or illness; in her quiet way, a true Lady Bountiful, devoting herself in personal ministration to the sick and the poor. The worthy couple had no children; but this deprivation, while it sometimes brought secret sorrow to the gentle Aunt Betsy's loving heart, made it open none the less warmly to mother the children of others, and many a little one, sick and sorrowful, had been nursed back to health and gladness in her kind embrace.
"My! ’Tis a wild night," said Uncle Joe, pausing with a cup of tea midway to his lips, as a gust of more than usual violence shook the house. "I'm afeard there's craft about, too. I had seen three goin' up the Bay as I was comin' out 0' the woods. People goin' up craft-buildin', I s'pose, though it's very late. I hope there's no one near this shore, anyway; the wind's come right in on it."
"I thought o' the same thing just now," said his wife. "I don't know how 'tis people will leave it so late. ’Tis no weather this for craft to be knockin' about in."
"But, my maid, what can ‘em do, if they happen to be out and get caught in it? You know it looked civil enough this mornin', an' I'm sure 'twas as mild as October yesterday; an' I'm afeard, as I say, that some of 'em is not far off. I do hope they got into harbor somewhere afore these snow-dwies got so bad. Wind an' sea is bad enough when you're anywhere near land, but when snow comes with 'em, 'tis awful work."
Little more was said on the subject during the meal, and the conversation branched off to other topics. Two or three hours later, as they were sitting by the fire, Aunt Betsy knitting and Uncle Joe busy putting new soles on a pair of fishing boots, a sudden hurried scuffling in the back porch and a loud rap at the door, startled them from the quiet in which they had been working. Then the door was abruptly opened and half-dozen men appeared in the entry. "Is Uncle Joe in?" exclaimed the first. "Oh, yes, there he is." "Uncle Joe, there's a craft ashore down here in the Devil's Gulch, and we want you to come and help us to get the poor creatures out of her afore she goes to pieces."
No time was lost in idle questioning, but in the few minutes it took Uncle Joe to get ready, the leader explained how he had come to know of the wreck. Living not far from the ugly chasm known as the Devil's Gulch, he had happened to be returning home, a quarter of an hour before, from a neighbor's house, had heard, through the storm, the shouts and screams which told him that a craft was close to or on the rocks, and had hurried to the nearest houses for help.
In less time than it takes to write it, all was ready; and, well provided with lanterns and ropes, the party started on their errand of mercy.
"Keep up a good heart, and a good fire, Betsy," was Uncle Joe's parting injunction. "I'll be back as soon as I can, an', maybe, bring some of the poor chaps’ home with me, please God we can save 'em. Pray for us, maid; we're in God's hands."
It was not more than half a mile to the gulch, and amid the thick blinding snow-storm, long before they reached it, they could hear the hoarse "rote" of the breakers and the boom of the waves, as they were hurled into the chasm.
The Devil's Gulch was appropriately named. It was a ragged rift in the steep cliffs, as if by some titanic force they had been violently torn asunder, leaving a narrow opening of perhaps a hundred feet in width, and two hundred in length, the bottom filled with huge, jagged rocks. Around it the cliffs rose sheer and beetling, except where, at the extreme end, a narrow margin of shingly beach intervened at low tide between the water and the rock. Into this narrow gulch the waves tore with relentless violence in bad weather, seething and foaming around the sharp rocks with a terrible sound; and far in through this awful chasm had a hapless craft been driven on the night in question, escaping instant destruction on the ragged teeth at the entrance, only to be hurled against the beach, at the extremity. Here she lay wedged in the rocks the waters howling like hungry wolves around her.
But not a sound came from the wreck as Uncle Joe and the rest of the men stood on the ledge immediately over her. Far down below them, a couple of hundred feet at least, they could make out a dim outline of her hull; but no shout or cry for help reached their ears. Were all dead? Were they too late? Long the men waited, peering down into the darkness, and shouting. But no answering voice came back, nothing but a hollow echo from the opposite cliffs, sounding as if a fiend were mocking them.
"'Tis no use," said one of the men, at length. "They're all gone, poor fellows. We're too late."
"Aye," said another, "I'm afeard we are; and yet I could ha' sworn I heard 'em not two minutes afore we come."
"Heard 'em? To be sure we did!" exclaimed a third. "Maybe they've got ashore somehow."
"Sure you know very well they couldn't do that," answered the first speaker. "'Tis a straight up an' down cliff, an' even if they got on that bit 0' beach at the bight, they couldn't stand there a minute without bein' washed off. I think myself we'd best go home. They're all gone, I b'lieve, poor mortals."
All this time Uncle Joe had been creeping cautiously out to the edge of a beetling crag which projected immediately over the wreck; and stretching himself out at full length, lay with head and shoulders over the edge, peering down into the darkness and listening intently to the confused noises below. "Hark!" he cried, suddenly; and the men were silent - not a sound but the roar of the sea and the cruel hiss of the sleet-laden wind. Anxiously the men listened, every ear strained, every breath hushed.
"It must ha' bin the wind," said one of them, at length.
"Hush!" said Uncle Joe, "I believe I hear it again. Listen there, will you?" At that moment there was a lull in the tempest, one of those strange, short, sudden silences in which the storm-king seems to take breath for renewed fury,- and now, undoubtedly, up through the darkness there came a feeble cry - a thin, weak, pitiful wail.
"Oh, men," cried Uncle Joe, "there's a child aboard that craft, - the poor little creature. There's a little child aboard that craft. We must save it - we must save it, by the help of God. Give me the end of that rope there; quick! And take a couple of turns of the other end around the tree here. I'll go down and get that child"; and he began to tie the rope securely around his body.
"Let me go, Uncle Joe," said one of the others; "I'm a younger man than you, an' ought to take the risk."
"No, boy," replied Uncle Joe. "God Almighty let me hear its cry, poor little thing, an' I believe He will help me to save it. Anyhow, I'm doin' His work, an' I'm not afeard, whatever way it goes. Lower away handsomely, boys, when I give you the word, and when I pull the rope three times, you'll know I want to be hauled up. Now, then, steady!"
Carefully the brave fisherman swung himself clear of the cliff and hung suspended over the dark chasm. Down, down he went, the men above paying out the rope, inch by inch, slowly and carefully,- down, down, swaying heavily in the fierce wind, half-blinded by the driving, icy snow, until at length his feet touched the deck, and he turned the light of his bull's eye lantern around it. Alas! There was little to see; the whole fore part of the vessel had disappeared. She had parted amidships, and only the after part remained, wedged as in a vice between two huge rocks. Hurriedly, Uncle Joe hastened to the spot whence the feeble cry still proceeded. The companion-way was gone, but the ladder remained in place and down it swiftly and cautiously he descended into the cabin. What a sight met his eyes as the lantern flashed upon it. The cabin was full of water, on which, as it rolled to and fro, floated the dead body of a woman; while high in an upper berth, at the side, saturated, but not yet submerged by the relentless sea, was a little child of perhaps two years old, sobbing most pitifully amid its awful surroundings. There was no time to be lost, and quickly, yet very tenderly, he snatched it from the berth, wrapped a quilt carefully around it, and regained the deck. Then, giving three tugs at the rope which still secured him, he was swung steadily off the reeling deck, the little one held safely in his strong right arm. Not a moment too soon, for scarcely had he swung clear when the pent-up fury of the storm burst into the gulch with a noise like thunder, and a huge wave, surging upon the remains of the ill-fated craft, wrenched them from their position, and dashed them to pieces against the cliff. Meantime, swaying awfully in midair, the two precious lives hung suspended. Up, up, up, steadily, slowly, surely, they were pulled, until at length Uncle Joe heard a voice a few feet above his head, "All right, Uncle Joe?" "Yes, boy," he said, cheerily. "Have you got the child with you?" "Yes, boy, thank God," he answered, and a chorus of thankfulness came from the men above. As they reached the top, one of the men bending over while another held his feet, lifted the child from Uncle Joe's arms, and in another moment both were safe. Untying the rope from around his body, Uncle Joe took the little one in his arms again. "It's no use waiting, boys," he said, sadly. "This is the only life that's left, and this'll be gone if we don't get shelter and warmth for it soon. I'm going to take it home. Lead the way there, boys, with the lanterns, quick." With all speed, the return journey was made, and the house was soon reached. Aunt Betsy rose from her knees as the door opened. "I've brought a Christmas gift box for 'ee, Bets, my maid," said her husband, with a strange quiver in his voice, placing the little one in her motherly arms; and then the nerves that had been so long strung to their utmost tension suddenly gave way, and the strong man threw himself on the settle, and wept like a child.
Years have passed, many long years, since that stormy Christmas Eve.
Uncle Joe and Aunt Betsy are old and feeble now, and the babe, and then rescued, have grown into early womanhood, their more than daughter, and the light of their eyes and the stay of their declining years. Yet, still the old man's eye will kindle, and his wife's hand stroke softly the fair hair of the girl on the low seat beside her, when at the Christmas season the friends gather round his fireside to hear anew the sad and startling story of Uncle Joe Burton's Strange Christmas Box.