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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XXII. Out Of The Depths

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Two ropes were then hauled on board the vessel, a larger and a smaller. By the flickering firelight and the rarer flashes of lightning (the rain now falling in torrents) they saw a hammock slung to the larger rope; a woman's form was swathed in it; and the smaller rope being made fast to this, they found by pulling that she could be drawn towards the shore. Those on board steadied the hammock as it was lowered from the ship, but the waves seemed maddened by this effort to escape their might, and they leaped up at her again and again. The rope dropped beneath her weight, and all that could be done from shore was to haul her in as fast as possible, to abbreviate the period of buffeting and suffocation. As she neared the rocks she could be kept more safe from the water; faster and faster she was drawn in; sometimes there came some hitch and stoppage, but by steady patience it was overcome.

She was so near the rocks that hands were already stretched to grasp her, when there came one of the great surging waves that sometimes filled the basin. It gave a terrible lurch to the stranded vessel hitherto so erect; the larger rope snapped instantly; the guiding rope was twitched from the hands that held it; and the canvas that held Emilia was caught and swept away like a shred of foam, and lost amid the whiteness of the seething froth below. Fifteen minutes after, the hammock came ashore empty, the lashings having parted.

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The cold daybreak was just opening, though the wind still blew keenly, when they found the body of Emilia. It was swathed in a roll of sea-weed, lying in the edge of the surf, on a broad, flat rock near where the young boatman had come ashore. The face was not disfigured; the clothing was only torn a little, and tangled closely round her; but the life was gone.

It was Philip who first saw her; and he stood beside her for a moment motionless, stunned into an aspect of tranquility. This, then, was the end. All his ready sympathy, his wooing tenderness, his winning compliances, his self-indulgent softness, his perilous amiability, his reluctance to give pain or to see sorrow,--all had ended in this. For once, he must force even his accommodating and evasive nature to meet the plain, blank truth. Now all his characteristics appeared changed by the encounter; it was Harry who was ready, thoughtful, attentive,--while Philip, who usually had all these traits, was paralyzed among his dreams. Could he have fancied such a scene beforehand, he would have vowed that no hand but his should touch the breathless form of Emilia. As it was, he instinctively made way for the quick gathering of the others, as if almost any one else had a better right to be there.

The storm had blown itself out by sunrise; the wind had shifted, beating down the waves; it seemed as if everything in nature were exhausted. The very tide had ebbed away. The light-ship rested between the rocks, helpless, still at the mercy of the returning waves, and yet still upright and with that stately look of unconscious pleading which all shipwrecked vessels wear. it is wonderfully like the look I have seen in the face of some dead soldier, on whom war had done its worst. Every line of a ship is so built for motion, every part, while afloat, seems so full of life and so answering to the human life it bears, that this paralysis of shipwreck touches the imagination as if the motionless thing had once been animated by a soul.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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