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They were of much the height and
build of Seth Brown and his brother; but what errand could possibly have taken
then to the Cape, when their father had accounted so plausibly for their
A vague, formless misgiving came
to chill my heart with dread. What errand could have led those two young men to
my desolate dwelling on a night of revelry ? I set my teeth and strode on
faster. Was that lightning, that red flash through the darkness to seaward? No.
After a pause came the sullen boom of a cannon. A signal of distress, no doubt,
from some ship in peril. I pressed on. At last I could see the light-house,
sending, as usual, its friendly heaths of radiance far over the roaring sea. As
usual? No, for my practiced eye soon detected a change. The red light burned
alone; the green lamp was gone!
"Great Heaven!" I cried, aloud,
"this is some dreadful accident, or else villains have been tampering with the
lights—those young ruffians—the ship—the invitation—I see it !" With a groan I
set off to run at my utmost speed, hoping to arrive in time to light the
extinguished lamp before the doomed ship, whose signal I had heard, should be
lured to her fate. For at a glance I had divined the heartless scheme of the
wreckers. The red light burning alone would be taken for that on Cape Lookout,
and the captain, utterly deceived, would seek an imaginary channel where the
fatal sand-banks lay.
Before I got home, however, flash
upon flash, boom after boom, told of the urgent danger which the mariners had
perceived when it was too late. Each report was nearer and nearer, and the
vessel must be driving fast toward the lee-shore. I hurried to the house. Juba
was asleep and snoring in a corner of the kitchen, and the negress was rocking
herself before the fire, crooning out some plantation ditty. Evidently the
blacks knew nothing of what had been done. I ran up to the glazed chamber, where
the lamps stood. Hastily I relighted that which had been extinguished, and then
approached the glass and looked out. For a while I saw nothing but the flashes
of the minute-guns : but presently a broad and lurid glare arose, and I could
see by the light of an enormous fire of tar-barrels and wood, which had been
hastily piled upon the beach, that the vessel had already grounded. She had
struck bows foremost, her upper spars and rigging had gone overboard, covering
her deck with a tangled mass of ruin, the waves breaking furiously over her.
Hard by I could see a number of men, their swart figures clearly defined in the
blood-red light, bustling up and down the sands. They had lighted the fire—the
wreckers. Without pausing to consider the possible consequences to myself, I
hurried down the ladder, calling on Juba to follow me; and, rushing toward the
beach, hoped that I might be in time to reach a helping hand to some of the poor
perishing creatures. When I drew near I heard a great shout. The vessel had
parted amidships. The whole sea, crimson with fire-light, was covered all over
with floating beams, bales, boxes, fragments of wreck, and struggling human
forms. The latter were but few, and their cries for help were disregarded by the
greedy wretches on shore, who rushed, with loud shouts, waist-deep into the sea,
to secure plunder. Chests, casks, and other prizes were hurriedly grasped, and
rolled or dragged above the reach of the waves, while the wreckers encouraged
each other in their unhallowed task. It was a hideous scene, but I saw little of
it, for my eye suddenly lighted on something like a bundle of clothes, lashed to
a bench of light cane-work, which was floating in an eddy hard by. The white
bundle stirred as it was swept past, and the long golden hair of a child, and
the pale pretty face of a child, were clearly visible in the crimson light. In
an instant I was standing in the foaming water, which reached above my waist,
and I had a firm grasp on the object that had attracted my notice. The under-tow
nearly bore me off my feet, and I staggered, but I held the child fast, cut the
cord that fastened her to the bench, and bore her in my arms to the beach. A
sweet face, innocent and beautiful, the face of a seraph ! She was wet and cold,
but fear had not benumbed her faculties, for she clung to my shoulder with one
tiny hand, while with the other she pointed to the sea, and murmured in a weak
voice, "Mamma! Please help! Oh pray, pray save mamma !"
Poor child ! I looked on her with
pity ; no doubt was in my mind that her mother had perished in the disaster. The
little girl—she could not have been above seven years old—pointed eagerly to a
mass of wreck that turned and twirled in the eddy as it drifted past, and begged
and prayed me passionately "to help dear mamma."
The child was right: there was a
human figure lashed to those spars, and the long brown hair and the streaming
garments showed that the apparently lifeless form was a woman's. I laid the
child lightly on the sand-bank, telling her not to be afraid, and throwing off
my coat, plunged into the sea, and with great difficulty dragged the floating
mass to shore. The little raft, hastily composed of a couple of
studding-sail-booms and a hencoop, lashed together, had drifted far out before I
reached it, and the strong current nearly sucked me out to sea as I swam back,
panting and dripping wet; but I managed to drag the poor lady from the waves.
She was quite insensible, her eyes were closed, and but for the very faintest
action of the heart I should have thought life extinct. A pale, delicately-moulded
face, with some resemblance to that of the beautiful child, though the
complexion and color of the hair were very dissimilar. The little girl put her
arms round her mother's neck, and kissed her a hundred times.
I now began very seriously to
consider how I should get the sufferer conveyed to safe shelter. To the wreckers
I dared not appeal. Fortunately they had been too busy to notice what was going
on at a distance of fifty paces, and if they had seen me at all they probably
took me for one of the gang. But I dared not call to them for help. They wanted
no living witnesses of their misdeeds,
no living claimants of the
property which they were lawlessly appropriating.
As I swam back with my second
prize my face had been toward the wreck, and I had distinctly seen two human
heads rise above the broken water, and two eager, gasping human faces, and the
outstretched hands of two half-drowned men. Both were bareheaded and drenched
with salt-water, but by the momentary glimpse I caught of them I should have
said that the elder was a seaman, the other, who wore a dark mustache, a
gentleman. They held out their hands, and cried for aid, but none came. Only a
tall man, whose face I did not see, but whose figure was like that of Japhet
Brown, repulsed them with a boat-hook he carried, and pushed them back into the
deep water, amidst the jeers and yells of the wretches on shore. And so they
sank, murdered for the sake of gain. I felt that my own life hung on a thread.
If any wrecker espied me, the villains would not hesitate at another crime. But
how could I go ? I could carry the child with ease, but her poor mother !
Juba, in person ! I had quite
forgotten that I had ordered the young negro to follow me ; I had far
outstripped him, but I looked up and saw his black face. He was dreadfully
alarmed at the fierce shouts and excited gestures of the wreckers, and was on
the point of making off when I caught him by the collar. Between us we contrived
to carry the young woman over the dreary sand-hills between us and the
light-house, the child being sufficiently recovered to walk. We laid our patient
on my bed, and when Aunt Polly had exhausted her first transports of
astonishment, she proved an excellent nurse. Thanks to the care and zeal of the
kind negress Mrs. Fairfax gradually revived. It was from her own lips that I
learned her name and position in life. She was the young wife of a gentleman of
good fortune in North Carolina, and nephew to the Governor of that State.
But—poor thing!—I could not disguise from her
that she was a widow, though I
spared her the aditional pang of knowing that her husband had been one of those
who had been inhumanly thrust back into the sea to perish, although I had little
doubt that one of the murdered men had been Captain Fairfax, whose description
tallied with that of the poor victim I had beheld.
Leaving the widow weeping over
her recent loss, while she clasped her rescued child as if she feared to lose
her too, I went to make preparations for leaving the island. Most fortunately I
had employed my leisure in repairing a dismantled boat. True, it had no mast,
but it was now water-tight, and a pair of the old oars were fit for use. Before
I slept I brought the boat from the creek, and moored it to the quay ready for a
start. My great fear was that, before we could escape, some of the wreckers
might discover that I had been an eye-witness of their crimes, and had saved
some of the passengers on board the foundered ship, which I now learned was the
Astarte, of Boston. On this account, shortly after daybreak I caused mattresses
and pillows to be placed in the boat; and Aunt Polly, Juba, and I, carried down
Mrs. Fairfax, who was too much exhausted to walk. The child followed, and Aunt
Polly arranged the blankets and cloaks around the invalid, while Juba was to
take one oar, and I the other. The black lad was not wholly unused to a boat,
having rowed on the river near Wilmington. In case of pursuit, which, however,
seemed improbable, I had placed the loaded gun in the boat, had hidden one of
the cutlasses under my pea-coat, and concealed the other in the sand. We were
just ready to push off when I remembered that my sketches and drawings, which I
was loth to leave, were still within the light-house. I ran back, put the
portfolio under my arm, and was on the threshold of my late dwelling, when the
figure of a tall man appeared in the door-way—Japhet Brown!
His face was swollen and coarse
with drink, and his fiery eyes drooped as they met mine.
"Whither away, chap ? Yew seem in
a plaguy hurry;" he growled, and extended his hand.
"I am going out. I have no time
The young villain burst out into
oaths and curses.
"Conceited British hound, who be
yew, to refuse to shake an honest man's hand?"
"A murderer's hand, you mean!" I
cried, indignantly, though I repented the words before they were well out.
Japhet turned livid with passion.
"You know too much, my gentleman. I'll stop your jaw pretty smart."
So saying, he threw himself upon
me, but I was luckily armed, and I drove him out of the lighthouse, pursuing
him, cutlass in hand, for a short distance. Then I went back to the boat. Juba
and I were not first-rate rowers, the boat was heavy, and our progress was slow.
Before we were half way across the sound I descried a swift whale-boat cleaving
the waters on our track. No doubt the wretch Japhet had given the alarm to his
comrades, and had we been overtaken the secret would have been preserved by the
sacrifice of all our lives. But a sloop passing within hail picked us up and
carried us to the main land. Before nightfall we were able to place Mrs. Fairfax
and her little daughter under the safe care of her husband's relations.
I have little more to tell. The
gratitude of the Fairfax family pressed upon me a large pecuniary reward. This I
declined, but I gladly accepted patronage which enabled me to leave for Europe
two years later with—for an artist-a purse reasonably heavy. A states marshal,
backed by an armed force, was dispatched to Cape Hatteras with a warrant for the
apprehension of the guilty. But some delay had occurred, and the Browns fled to
Texas, in which remote region, years afterward, I read of the execution, by
lynch law, of Japhet and his father for robbery and murder.