Signals of Distress
1. THE 'BELLE' AND THE 'TAR'
Both men were en voyage and sleeping in their berths. Hard winds swept in and put their ships ashore.
The coastal steampacket, Ha'porth of Tar, on which Aymer Smith had his cabin, had lifted before the wind that night as if it meant to leave the water and find a firmer passage in the clouds. It arrived at dawn off Wherrytown, hastened by the storm on its short journey along the Channel. Ten in the morning was its scheduled time of arrival. Dawn was too early for the harbour lightermen to be at work. No one with any sense was up and out in such a wind. The night was wild and cold. A few miles down the coast from Wherrytown, the Cradle Rock, which normally would take the efforts of two strong men before it began to seesaw on its pivot stone, teetered, fluctuated, rocked from just the muscle of the gale.
The Tar shipped heavy seas as it came into harbour. There was no choice but for the five-man crew to still its paddles and shut its fires. Its passage in the wind was more temperamental - and less pontificating - than its progress under steam. The Tar was thrown against the harbour boom, and then against the channel buoys which marked the vessel's road. The wind pushed north. The tide tugged south. The Tar was only fifty yards from shore. Two sailors had to land a line by rowboat and secure the ship to capstans on the quay. And then they had to coax the Tar to dock. Aymer lay awake. He wasn't any use on deck. His shoulder hurt from wherehe'd fallen from his bunk. The muscles in his throat and stomach ached from vomiting. His breath was foul. His temper, too. He should have travelled overland with the company carts, he decided. He should have stayed at home instead of meddling abroad. Yet now his ship had found a haven, he sought a haven, too, in sleep, roped to the granite of the quay. His dream was kelp and some young country wife, ensnared and going down, with Aymer drowning in the girl, the girl sucked under by the weed, the weed pitchforked like hay on tines of sea and wind.
Otto, too, was not much use on deck. His berth, at orlop level on The Belle of Wilmington, was not secured. But Otto was. He was the ship's goat by night, its galley donkey during day. His ankle was held by a light chain, six feet in length and fastened to a timber rib. Shipmaster Comstock considered it a safety chain. Men far from home are boldened by the dark, he said. His African might settle scores at night, if he were left untethered. He might do damage to himself or to the Belle or to the crew or to the galley rations and the grog. He might cause mischief amongst the cargo of four hundred cattle which Shipmaster Comstock had taken aboard in Montreal and whose quarters he meant to fill on the return with emigrants to Canada, if he survived the storm. Wherrytown, the first port of call, could only be a few miles down the coast.
Without a porthole or any light, Otto experienced a partial storm. It wasn't wet for him. He couldn't see the waves slap up against the timber. Or feel the wind. His cabin was a tombola. What wasn't fixed - the stool, the water jug, the palliasse, the black man's boots, the bed - fell across thecabin. Otto fell as well. The chain cut into his ankle. But then he caught hold of the chain and pulled himself tight up against the timbers of the Belle so that, indeed, the chain did become a safety chain. He made a buffer from the palliasse so that the cabin's sliding furniture, the unsecured wooden pallet where he slept, would not cause too much bruising to his legs. The cattle - on the orlop level, too - were not so fortunate. They tumbled without benefit of chains. Some were concussed. Some broke their legs. They were too blind and winded to make much noise, except a tuneless carpentry as hoof and horn hit wood. Three cows at least had heart attacks. Another choked on its swallowed tongue. The bulkhead separating Otto from twenty of the cows could not withstand the buffeting of so much beef. It splintered. Then it fell apart. Two animals broke through the boards into Otto's berth and slid across the planking on their sides. They had no time to find their feet. The Belle made reckless angles in the gale. One cow fell against the palliasse and kicked to right itself. A hoof struck Otto on the ear. His head bounced off the wood. He fell six feet and swung like a carcass on a butcher's chain. The sea returned him to his berth, then dropped him on the chain with every ridge and trough of water. His swollen face and ear took splinters from the deck. The anklet etched new wounds. He was unconscious. He didn't feel the pain.
The Captain did his best, according to the book. The foresail on the Belle was lowered, the mainsail double reefed. But still the wind at its stern hurried the boat bitingly forward towards the darkness of the shore. The fore and mizzen topmasts, with spars and rigging too, fell away into the sea. Part of the bulwarks went. And then the mainsail, taking off into thenight like some great canvas albatross. Everything was swept off deck by long black hills of water, thirty, forty feet in height. The hands on board - at least those six of seventeen who weren't sick, and who had managed to hold on by their eyelids to the masts and rigging of the Belle - now waited for the lull following every set of seven waves and sent the anchors down. But the anchors slipped. The Belle heeled landwards. It went in two hundred yards, found some upright purchase on a sandy bar, and stuck. The crew, excepting Otto, took to what rigging had survived. They flew their signals of distress, though it would not take a flag when it was light to signify to those on land that the Belle was almost lost. Comstock fired the ship's double-barrelled cannon. He prayed the wind would take the sound into the bedrooms on the coast and that the people thereabouts had sympathy - and rescue boats.
Nobody came that night. But it wasn't long before the waves and wind abated, and a teasing, ruddy dawn thinned and thickened through the mist. The Belle was eighty yards offshore. The sea was still ill-tempered. Between the sand-bar and a beach, however, the water was calmer. They checked the Belle's four longboats. Two were lost and two were smashed. Would someone swim ashore? There were no volunteers. They were too tired, and fearful. The tide had turned and out-haul waves were rocking the Belle from the landward side. No human swimmer could achieve the shore in seas like that. But Captain Comstock put the ship's bitch, Whip, in the water with an ensign tied on to her collar, the red on white of I Need Help. They wouldn't let her climb back on board. At last, with the good sense and resignation of a dog, Whip headed for the beach. The cattle that hadsurvived the night were not far behind. Comstock opened up the orlop hatches and drove them into the sea. He feared their frenzied restlessness would further destabilize the Belle. Many didn't make the shore. The ones with broken limbs or those too deeply shocked did not survive the swim. Others had no compass sense and headed off for Quebec. But three hundred cattle - maybe more - got to land that day and set to work on sampling the salty foliage of the backshore as if there'd never been a storm.
It was seven on a Saturday, November 1836, on that far angle of the English coast. Only strangers were awake. The Americans clung to rigging out at sea, impatient for a sign of life. Aymer Smith, ready to encounter Wherrytown, packed his careful travel stores by candlelight below decks on the Tar: his tarpaulin coat and leggings, his books and writing implements, some anchovy paste, a Bologna sausage, some chocolate, a great bar of black bread, three dozen cakes of soap, a jack-knife and a leather flask. He wrapped them in a carriage rug which doubled as a bag. Otto bled into his palliasse. The cattle from Quebec moved on from backshore weeds and tested the corky grass of dunes which separated the hamlet of Dry Manston from the sea. The final strings and shreds of cloud stretched and disappeared. The water was as clear as gin. Whip ran along the shore, snapping at the waves and cows. And then she went in search of other dogs. She'd heard them barking, and soon had found the cottage where two large mongrels were secured by ropes to the porch. Whip found discarded bones which she could gnaw, and turnips. At first the mongrels went for her, but couldn't reach. They were too bored to persevere. Whip found a corner of a shed whereshe could sleep, her chin between her feet. The red on white of I Need Help had loosened at her collar. And help was not at hand.
It had gone nine before the mongrels were released. They ran at once towards the hut where Whip was sleeping. There were no men about. Whatever had been making her dogs uneasy, she'd have to handle it on her own. Rosie Bowe took a heavy piece of firewood as a cudgel and followed them. At best she'd find a hedgehog for the pot. At worst? Some thief who'd stolen lodging for the night would still be sleeping there.
She was perplexed when she found Whip, her back bowed and her tail between her legs, sheltering in the hut. Rosie knew the dogs for miles around, and this one wasn't familiar. She pulled the ensign from the collar and put it in her apron front. It was a tough and decent bit of cloth. She let her mongrels stay. Let dog police dog, she thought. It was too cold to kick the bitch herself. But the three dogs were in a playful mood, happy to chase tails. Rosie left them to it. She had work to do. There'd be storm kelp on the beach, easy to collect after such a tide and such a wind. Her cart would soon be full. With her daughter Margaret's help they'd have a dozen loads before the tide was in and (with the agent Howells paying thirty shillings a ton for prepared kelp ash) would earn a welcome three or four shillings for their efforts.
'Miggy! Miggy Bowe!' she shouted at the window of their cottage. 'Get yourself up and out of there. This in't the Sabbath yet.' She put her head round the door and spoke more gently. 'Come on, we'll get ourselves a good penny if we're keen.'
'No, Ma, it's hurtin' damp out there.'
'Warm yourself with work. Let's not be idle. I'll let the dogs inside to get you up. We've three dogs now. Our two have found a bitch to chase around.'
'Whose bitch is that?'
'She's ours, to keep or sell. She's sleeping in our hut, and that's the law. Or ought to be. Get out of there. Miggy! I'm warning you. It won't be dogs'll get you up, but me.'
Rosie stepped inside and showed her daughter the firewood cudgel. 'I can give a decent bruise to idle girls.'
'Oh, Ma! You gonna lay a fire, or what?'
'No fire on Saturdays. Not till it's dark at least. This in't the inn. We'll have a fire down on the beach if you move fast. I'll bet there'll be the wood washed up. Did that wind wake you in the night? Does mutton dance quadrilles?'
'I'd like a bit of mutton though.'
'You'd better press your finery then and find yourself a farmer's son. There'll be no mutton till you do. Here, make yourself a gown from that!' She threw the red-and-white cloth on to her daughter's blanket. 'That should turn some farmboy's head. He'd turn away if he had sense.'
Miggy Bowe didn't mind. She knew enough to guess she was good-looking. 'It's off a ship,' she said. 'A signal flag.'
'The little dog was wearing it for a kerchief,' her mother said.
'What kind of dog is she?'
'A hairy little sharp-toothed bitch. Much like you. Only she's up and dressed for work and running in the yard, while you're still on your back. Come on now, Miggy girl. There's been enough of this. I'll get the cart and you can earn your supper.'
Miggy Bowe tied her hair back in a knot, put on men'sworking breeches and her thickest smock, and wrapped the Belle's cloth call for help round her throat as a scarf. It gave a reckless dash of colour to a face that had no warmth. Her mother was the cheerful kind. Rosie Bowe would sing in rain and mud. But Miggy was young enough at seventeen to be a pessimist. Where would she be at thirty-four, her mother's age? Still carting kelp. At fifty-one? Cold as stone, with any luck, and nothing to her name except a wooden cross. She petted her two dogs and then inspected Whip, her teeth, her paws, her collar, her little beard. With luck they'd get some puppies out of her in spring.
'Come on, you little lady,' she said. 'Let's have a look down on the shore.' Miggy and the dogs ran to catch up with Rosie, who was wheeling the handcart towards the dunes.
They saw the cows from Quebec before they saw the sea. They'd never seen so many cows at once.
'You called for mutton, Miggy. The good Lord sends us beef.'
'Whose cows are they, Ma?'
'That little dog has come with them, that's all I'm certain of.'
'What's stopping us from salting one?'
Her mother didn't answer. She half guessed that there'd be some wreckage and some carnage on the shoreand, if there was, then who could stop them slaughtering one cow before the Excise men got wind of it? There'd be better pickings than the kelp. Bullion, jewels and plate had been beached the other side of Wherrytown a dozen years before. Tobacco, tea and lace would suit them well. There would be sailcloth and timber for the house, at least. Winter beef. Wrecks were a godsend. Rosie almost ran.
Rosie Bowe was the first woman that the sailors had seen since they left Montreal. They watched her, strong and buoyant, pick her way between the cows and descend with her handcart down the backshore to the beach. They saw another figure, too - a smallish boy in breeches and a smock. He had three dogs. The Americans had spent six hours in the rigging but had been warmed and dried a little by the breeze and sun, so managed quite a spirited cheer when the seaman, Parkiss, who had the ship's glass, reported that the smallest dog was their own Whip. The dog, perhaps, had saved their lives.
They'd have to wait another hour. A kelper's handcart couldn't bring them ashore. Rosie sent her daughter running down the coast. The nearest fishermen were beached below the Cradle Rock, a mile away. They'd come out in their boats. She waved back at the sailors but didn't know how she could signify across so wide and watery a gap that help was on its way. She pushed her cart along the tide line and put the morning to good use. As she had expected, the storm had deposited a lot of kelp on the beach. She chose the knobweeds and the bladder wracks because their yields of soda were the best. She kicked aside the sugar wrack. A cartload of that would only give a quarter-bucketful of soda ash. She lifted the weed with her right hand and kept her left hand free to seize the crabs that often sheltered underneath the kelp or the lance eels which could be twitched out of the sand if she were quick enough. When she found timbers from the Belle and broken lengths of rigging she wrapped them up in kelp and hid them on the cart. She watched the water as she worked for bobbing bottles of brandy and liqueur, but all she spotted was the ready-salted carcass of a cow, floating on its side, and masts and planking from the ship tangled in the offshore weed.Quite soon her cart was full. She pulled it back into the dunes where she had built a stone pit for burning kelp. She buried what she'd salvaged from the Belle in a soft dune, and spread the load of kelp to dry over the disturbed sand. She'd gathered three more loads of weed before the seine boats of the fishermen appeared beyond the bar and breathless Miggy, her breeches caked in mud, her pulse quickened by the run and what was promised by the Belle, reappeared amongst the kelp, the wreckage and the cattle on the beach.
One man - Nathaniel Rankin, a seaman from Boston - was dead, concussed by falling timber in the night and drowned. But sixteen had survived. They had been fortunate to end up on the bar. The three seine boats that came to rescue them were secured to the Belle's hull in water hardly deep enough for their keels. The dozen oarsmen helped the Americans to climb into the boats. They wrapped the men in blankets and gave them corn-brandy in water from their flasks. Comstock brought his charts and letters of command. He ought, perhaps, to leave a crew aboard or stay aboard himself. He ought to love his ship more than he loved his own life, but he didn't. The gear was clewed and stowed. The sails were off. The larboard bow was holed, but it wasn't shipping much water. Yet. What else was there to do? He dignified himself and called down from the damaged deck, 'I trust you gentlemen will help us salvage what we can when we are warm and dry.'
There were a dozen cries of 'Yes!' They all were keen to get back on the Belle again. Next time they'd charge a fee.
'There's one more man,' Comstock added. 'I ought to be the last to leave. We've got one injured party, on the orlop. Three men can shift him out.'
He took command and pointed at the nearest three - a boatman called Henry Dolly, his wildly weathered, dark-haired son, Palmer, and one of their casual hands, an old and silent bachelor known locally as Skimmer. They followed Shipmaster Comstock below decks to Otto's berth. When the cattle had been driven into the sea, a crewman had released him from his chain and wrapped him in his palliasse to keep him warm. The cloth, to some extent, had stemmed the blood. The wound and swelling on his forehead were mauve. His ankle was stiff and raw with pus. He was conscious but inert. Only one eye opened. Only one eye could.
'Are you sleeping, Otto?' Comstock said. He was embarrassed by the silence and the stares of the three men. Perhaps they blamed him for the wounds. But they were speechless from surprise. They'd never seen an African before. The darkest they encountered was a youth like Palmer, a ripened russet face with sable hair. They weren't used to this topography. They couldn't tell his age or temperament or judge his character. His hair was like black chimney moss. He seemed to have a woman's lips. He hardly had a nose. They were reluctant to hold him by his arms and legs. They couldn't bring themselves to touch his skin. Instead they lifted Otto in his palliasse. He was a very heavy man, and it took twenty minutes negotiating the carcasses of cows, the timber debris and the companion ladders, before they reached the deck. They put him in the Dolly boat and pushed off for the beach. Already there were forty people and a dozen carts waiting with Rosie and Miggy Bowe. Two wagon-harnessed horses and one horse ridden by the agent, Walter Howells, and made frisky by the irritation of a loosening shoe, stood on the shingle with their backs against the sea. It was too coldto wade in to help the Americans ashore. They had to manage it themselves - except that when one older man, John Peacock, fell into the water, Walter Howells, to some derision mixed with cheers, rode his horse into the breakers and hauled the sailor out by the collar of his cork safety-jacket. 'Save a sailor from the sea,' someone recited, 'And he will prove your enemy. He'll have, once he is out of water, Your life, your money and your daughter!'
Otto was not touched. Comstock threw sea-water in his face to rouse him. Otto found the energy to swing his damaged legs across the bows of the rescue boat and try to find his footing in the shallows. He sank into the water. Its iciness shocked him. The salt was painful on the wounds, but cleansing, too, and healing. He was the last to make his way to shore. They found a bed for him, in seaweed on the half-loaded horse-drawn cart. They gathered round to point and shake their heads and giggle nervously. Miggy was the first to stretch her arm and touch him on the toe, where dry, dark blood had been made pasty by his short walk in the sea. Then everybody touched the toe, in turn. They ran their fingers across the nail and felt the skin, the pink below the toe, the brown above, the blood, and cold.
The beach was never busier, except at pilchard time. The sailors and the locals hugged and shook hands. Three dogs ran wild, experimenting with the sea and crowds. The cattle moved inland. Miggy looked for Palmer Dolly. Perhaps he'd shake her hand. Or they might hug. But he'd gone off in his father's boat. Instead she made do with the attentions of the younger Americans, who now could see, despite her breeches, that she was a girl, a pretty one. She wore their ensign round her throat.
'This Miss is calling out for help,' they joked. 'All hands stand by.'
The sailor, Ralph Parkiss - blond, teasing and boyish - attempted first to take away her ensign scarf. And then, playing the innocent, touched her at her waist. The whole of Miggy flushed. She'd gladly press her lips on any young man there. A fire was lit - in her, and on the beach. They warmed and dried themselves as timbers from the Belle smoked grey. The three seine boats pulled beyond the bar and soon were out at sea. The Belle of Wilmington settled into the wet sand of the bar. It would not break up; the seas were sheltered there, and shallow. On Monday there would be a rising tide of sufficient depth, with luck and wind, to float it free again. Captain Comstock turned his back on his command. He'd have to wait and see what happened to the Belle, and he would rather wait and see in some dry place, on solid land. He was not the hero of the day.
The Americans, with Otto sleeping in the cart, and Whip in tow, embarked upon the six-mile walk to Wherrytown, where there was food and lodging and where, by now, Aymer Smith, that other dreaming voyager by sea, had found the inn. Walter Howells rode ahead on his laming horse to spread the news. The air - scrubbed and quietened by the storm - was now so still that Miggy and her mother could take a lighted piece of wood and carry it the half-mile to Dry Manston to start a celebration fire in their own home. And what was there to celebrate, besides the passage of a storm? Much. Much. Much.
SIGNALS OF DISTRESS. Copyright © 1995 by Jim Crace. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.