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Twelve

Winter days flew by like magic, the snow was deep, the cold steady, paths had to be kept clear, chores and wood attended to. Men came and hauled birch and maple logs from the woodlot, cut them into stove lengths and heaped them in a huge conical pile. It reminded Rosalie of Hercule’s woodpile. There was always dressmaking or cooking to fill any hours in daylight that might have been idle. They looked forward to the coming of evening.

One night Rosalie read in her sweet lilting voice;

 

Napoleon, before ordering the charge of Milhaud’s cuirassiers, had examined the ground, but could not see this hollow road, which did not make even a wrinkle on the surface of the plateau. Warned, however, and put on his guard by the little white chapel, which marks its junction with Nivelles road, he had, probably on the contingency of an obstacle, put a question to the guide LaCoste. The guide had answered no. It may almost be said, that from the shake of a peasant’s head came the catastrophe of Napoleon.

Still other fatalities must arise. Was it possible that Napoleon should win this battle? We answer, no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Be­cause of God.

For Bonaparte to be conqueror at Waterloo, was not in the law of the nineteenth century. Another series of facts was appearing in which Napoleon had no place. The ill-will of events had long been announced.

It was time that this vast man should fall.

 

“Oh, Old Lady,” said Rosalie eagerly, “do you think there’s a great Destiny that rules all human affairs?”

“Of course, the centuries swing along, Destiny shapes the big events; old men cannot see the new things that are coming and become useless and young men with open minds take their places. Napoleon had played his part, and at Waterloo he was old-fashioned and out of date. Events had marched past him.”

“But is there a destiny, a fate for each man and woman?” asked Rosalie.

“A little, when they march on the road of advancement for all men; when they flow with the great river of God’s progress. If they get into a backwater or bayou of their own little desires, for such there is no destiny.”

“How shall I ever know?” said Rosalie.

“You will know, you must only wait patiently, and work at whatever work, even the commonest, that comes to your hand. Men must march with the events of their times.”

“What do you mean by that, Old Lady?”

“Well, I have seen it all about me in my lifetime. When the time of wooden sailing ships was past and steam and iron ships began to replace them, certain stubborn old men hung on to their wooden ships and died in poverty. The full-rigged ship was such a tall and beautiful thing; it is no wonder they loved them. But no one had wit enough in our province to begin a new industry of building iron steam ships, though we had plenty of coal and iron nearby in the ground. So from the richest province, we have sunk to the poorest because we did not march with Destiny. Mat might have done it, though he had no training in iron ships, but fate took him.”

“I hope I shall find my destiny,” said Rosalie. “I hope I shall march with events. Tell me more Old Lady, about you and Mat, somehow that helps me to find myself.”

“Mat said to me one day, ‘It’s always bad luck to salvage another vessel so sailor men say; it looks like a lot of money, but it often brings bad luck.’

“ ‘Nonsense,’ I said to him, ‘we’ve sailed the seas in safety for ten happy years; there’s no such thing as luck’—I was young then—you make your own luck in life by being careful and watching the weather, and having a sound well-rigged ship under you. Mat used to say that I was better than any barometer, because I could always tell by the feel of the air, when a gale was coming up.

“ ‘You’re wrong about that Kitty,’ Mat said. ‘No matter how careful you are, and no matter how good a sailor-man you are, you can always have a run of bad luck.’

“And Mat was right, for on the run over to Liverpool after we salvaged the Ardmore we ran by night plunk into a big whale. That sounds impossible doesn’t it? He must have been sick and lying half submerged on the sur­face. Well, you know it’s no joke running into a whale that weighs twenty or thirty tons. It didn’t hurt the Arethusa much, but it shook her from stem to stern and almost jarred me out of my berth. I thought we’d struck a reef, though I knew that was impossible in mid-ocean. I expect we almost cut the whale in half for there was a good breeze, and we were doing seven knots. The trouble was to get clear of the whale for we’d struck it fair in the middle, gone deep into it, it was fast to our stem and that made it almost impossible to steer the ship. Mat hove the Arethusa to till day­break, and then in boats they hacked the monster off with axes. All the sharks in mid-atlantic gathered for the kill.

“There was a great scar on the Arethusa’s stem where she’d struck the whale’s backbone and some of her forward timbers were started so that we had to pump three hours every day to keep her clear till we reached Liverpool.

“From Liverpool we went all right to Shanghai, and there we shipped a bad crew. They were put aboard by runners, and a Finn was among them, a Finn with his fur cap, that he hangs on to even in the tropics, always, it is said, brings bad luck to a ship, and that Shanghai crew was surly and half-mutinous from the time they sobered up. The runners you know, Rosalie, often put a crew aboard half-drunk.

“Everything went wrong that voyage. We had very weak first and second mates that we’d picked up in the port of London when the beef-barrels were broached, the meat was found to be bad—we’d been sucked in on that beef—and the biscuits were so full of weevils that the men could scarcely eat them.

“Mat put in at Cape Town, and took on beef, biscuits and water but he didn’t allow the men to go ashore, for desertion in that year was common, and it wasn’t easy to pick up a fresh crew. That further annoyed the men who had troublesome leaders.

“Before we reached the Line, we had a half mutiny on our hands. Our first mate was in a panic, and said that he’d heard from the bos’n, that the crew had arms, and some night they were coming aft to murder us all and seize the ship for themselves. He was a coward, and kept crying out ‘Oh, Mister, what will we do?’

“But Mat knew what to do. He got out his revolvers and loaded them, and told the mate to order all men in both watches at noon-day to the break of the poop. Before he went on deck he handed me a brace of loaded pistols and said, ‘Stand in the companion-way, Kitty, but don’t show your head. If you hear me shoot or shout Come on deck, pop out quick and blaze away.’ I stood in the companion-way, trembling but not afraid and listened to Mat’s words; they were as simple as some of the talk in the Old Testament.

“ ‘I hear’, said he, ‘there’s been some talk of mutiny among you, and that you’ve got arms and ammunition hidden in the foc’s’le; and this I say unto you, that I intend to shoot and kill the first man who disobeys an order, and to hang from the yard-arm any man I find guilty of leading or inciting to mutiny.’ I was trembling with pride at Mat’s courage. He went on, ‘Now as you know, it is not common for the captain or officers of a ship to enter the foc’s’le for that in a way is your home. I have lived in the foe’s’le and I know the unwritten laws, but now entrance has to be made; stand stock still there in the waist of the ship; any man or men who move will die in their tracks. First mate, go forward and search the foc’s’le and bring any hidden arms or ammunition to me.’ The craven first mate did as he was bid, laws, waist Hirst and the men stood still looking awkward and foolish—Mat was a commanding figure especially with a revolver in each hand. Presently the mate came back with three revolvers and a sawed-off shotgun. How they managed to get these arms we could never imagine. Mat took them and tossed them into the sea. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘Chief Mutineer Hopkins,’ and to the mate, ‘put the irons on him and lock him in the brig.’ And that was the end of the mutiny. I never had to come on deck, but I wanted so much to stand by Mat in danger, that I almost rushed out.

“But that wasn’t by a long shot the end of our bad luck. In the North Atlantic we struck a hurricane or rather a hurricane struck us. It came on us suddenly and for once, the barometer and I were both caught out, much the worst gale of wind we’d ever been in. First it blew hard from the south-west and kicked up a nasty sea of short steep rollers: then all of a sudden it fell almost dead calm, as far as the wind was concerned, though the sea ran high and battered us about with scarce steerage way; then suddenly it began to blow twice as hard from the north-east. That’s the way with hurricanes, they’re circular storms, you get a blast from one quarter, and then another twice as hard from the opposite corner.

“It took the foremast clean out of the Arethusa, though we had only a scrap of sail on her and what a mess of wreckage that was, with the broken spar and yards and jib-stays and jibs all trailing to leeward with the yard arms—we had steel lower yards—doing their utmost to punch a hole in the side-timbers of the Arethusa. Of course, we couldn’t steer her; there she lay and wallowed in the trough of the sea, with the wind howling at its worst, and the waist of the ship half full of water as the big seas struck her. Wind and sea can be cruel; they have no pity for men. Mat and the sailors set to work with axes to cut stays and rigging, to let the wreckage of the foremast float clear. I could hear them slashing and pounding in the lulls of the gale as I clung to the sides of my berth. It seemed hours and hours, though perhaps it was only a little while, till I heard a pounding at my cabin door. I opened and there stood the craven mate with his silly mouth hanging open.

“ ‘He’s gone Missus’

” ‘Who’s gone?’ cried I.

” ‘The Old Man, the captain, your husband.’

” ‘Gone!’ I cried.

” ‘Gone,’ said he, ‘a big wave struck him, and an end of rigging whipped round him just as we got the foremast clear.’

” ‘Get off a boat,’ I shouted.

” ‘No boat can’t live in that sea,’ said he, ‘and he’s a mile to leeward by now.’

“I pulled on some oil skins and dashed on deck. I could barely stand by holding fast by both hands as the blast of the hurricane struck me and I had sense enough to know that for once the craven mate was right; no boat could live a minute in that gale and sea. I stared to leeward, the sky was clouded with wind-blown water, there was no wreckage within the range of my vision. Mat was gone, gone for good and all. Gone forever. Somewhere far to leeward he was perhaps clinging to a piece of rope, and I heard his voice, or so it seemed through the fury of all that gale ‘Get a rag of sail on her, Kitty, and heave her to.’ I was stunned but I gave that order to the mate, and we hove the wounded Arethusa to with her foremast gone. You don’t need head sail on a ship to heave to.

“Then in two hours as if by miracle the hurricane left us, and the sun burst out through ragged clouds, and the Arethusa headed into the seas, still running high.

“I lay in my berth saying to myself; ‘What shall I do?’ What shall I do?’ I guess I grew many years older in those few hours. And presently something said to me: ‘Be brave and strong as Mat would expect you to be.’ So in the early afternoon, when the mate came aft, with his silly mouth hanging open and said, ‘I guess I’m master of the Arethusa now.’ I answered, ‘Bring all the revolvers and ammunition here to me in this cabin.’ He did as I told him. ‘Now, mister mate,’ said I, ‘you’ve made a wrong guess. I’m owner of this ship and I appoint myself master of the Arethusa. I can work out a position, and take a sight and calculate on it, far better than you can and I’ll bring the Arethusa home.” His jaw dropped an inch. ‘And you and the crew will do exactly as I say. I have all the firearms locked in my cabin do you under­stand that?’

“ ‘Yes Missus,’ said he, ‘but I never yet heard of a ship sailed by

a woman master.’

“ ‘You’re hearing about it now,’ said I. ‘There has to be a first time to everything. Remember, one disloyal step and you’re for it first of all plump through the belly.’

“ ‘Yes Missus,’ he said quite humbly, ‘I’ll take your orders and do exactly what you say.’

“And do you know that the crew, mutinous a few days past, were all for me and did everything to help me. We rigged a jury-mast on the stump of the foremast, got some jibs and head sails on her, and shaped a course for home. I hardly slept, I kept the deck, I shot the sun and worked out positions, I read the log and checked against the dead reckoning. I was so tired and weary and busy that I had no time to grieve for Mat lying somewhere full fathom deep. Not yet, not yet. It was only when I was idle at home, and had sympathy heaped upon me, that I fully realized my loss and knew a vast emptiness in life. We had no fog, but sunshine and fair winds all the way and in fifteen days I saw the hills of home.  A flood tide swept us through the Gut, a stubby tug hooked on to us below the drawbridge. I stood behind the bos’n as he steered the Arethusa up the little crooked river, he foremast gone, a flag at half-mast on her mizzen. So I brought the Arethusa home.”

“That,” said Rosalie, “is the saddest story I have bear ever heard. I’m so sorry you lost your lovely Mat. How did you ever to bear it, Old Lady?”

“One learns to bear anything. Only cowards fold up and want to die when trouble comes. Time wears the edges off grief, especially when there are happy memories.”

“Little Old Lady,” said Rosalie, ” I think you are the most wonderful lady in all the world.”

“I brought the Arethusa home anyway with a broken spar, and a tough crew. Don’t ever let men tell you women can’t do everything. They can. They’re weak helpless creatures no more.”

“I’ll remember,” said Rosalie.

“They’re not so strong in body as men, but they’re often stronger in character and mind; mind is what really counts, and they have a kind of wisdom through intuition that men never get.”

“I’ll remember,” said. Rosalie.

“They’re not just breeding heifers,”

“That’s what I think,” said Rosalie.

“Nor just dish-washers or scrubbers either. Come along now, let’s forget our little sadness in a little minor gambling and then to bed.”

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Twelve by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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