Chapter XIX. The Message from the Sea.
 

It was not often that Mrs. Rushton received a letter. Neither she nor her husband had possessed many relatives, and such as either had were occupied with their own families, and little communication passed between them and Captain Rushton's family. Robert, therefore, seldom called at the post office. One day, however, as he stepped in by a neighbor's request to inquire for letters for the latter, the postmaster said, "There's a letter for your mother, Robert."

"Is there?" said our hero, surprised, "When did it come?"

"Yesterday. I was going to ask some one to carry it round to her, as you don't often call here."

He handed the letter to Robert, who surveyed it with curiosity. It was postmarked "Boston," and addressed in a bold business hand to "Mrs. Captain Rushton, Millville."

"Who can be writing to mother from Boston?" thought Robert.

The size of the letter also excited his curiosity. There were two stamps upon it, and it appeared bulky. Robert hurried home, and rushed into the kitchen where his mother was at work.

"Here's a letter for you, mother," he said.

"A letter for me!" repeated Mrs. Rushton.

"From Boston."

"I don't know who would be likely to write me from there. Open it for me, Robert."

He tore open the envelope. It contained two inclosures--one a letter in the same handwriting as the address; the other a large sheet of foolscap rumpled up, and appearing once to have been rolled up, was written in pencil. Mrs. Rushton had no sooner looked at the latter than she exclaimed, in agitation: "Robert, it is your father's handwriting. Read it to me, I am too agitated to make it out."

Robert was equally excited. Was his father still alive, or was this letter a communication from the dead?

"First let me read the other," he said. "It will explain about this."

His mother sank back into a chair too weak with agitation to stand, while her son rapidly read the following letter:

"BOSTON, August 15, 1853.

MRS. RUSHTON, DEAR MADAM: The fate of our ship Norman, which left this port now more than two years since, under the command of your husband, has until now been veiled in uncertainty. We had given up all hopes of obtaining any light upon the circumstances of its loss, when by a singular chance information was brought us yesterday. The ship Argo, while in the South Pacific, picked up a bottle floating upon the surface of the water. On opening it, it was found to contain two communications, one addressed to us, the other to you, the latter to be forwarded to you by us. Ours contains the particulars of the loss of the Norman, and doubtless your own letter also contains the same particulars. There is a bare possibility that your husband is still alive, but as so long a period has passed since the letters were written it would not be well to place too much confidence in such a hope. But even if Captain Rushton is dead, it will be a sad satisfaction to you to receive from him this last communication, and learn the particulars of his loss. We lose no time in forwarding to you the letter referred to, and remain, with much sympathy, yours respectfully,

WINSLOW & CO."

Mrs. Rushton listened to this letter with eager and painful interest, her hands clasped, and her eyes fixed upon Robert.

"Now read your father's letter," she said, in a low tone.

Robert unfolded the sheet, and his eyes filled with tears as he gazed upon the well-known handwriting of the father whose loss he had so long lamented. This letter, too, we transcribe:

"November 7, 1851.

MY DEAR WIFE AND SON: Whether these lines will ever meet your eyes I know not. Whether I will be permitted again to look upon your dear faces, I also am ignorant. The good ship Norman, in which I sailed from Boston not quite three months ago, is burned to the water's edge, and I find myself, with five of the sailors, afloat on the vast sea at the mercy of the elements, and with a limited supply of food. The chances are against our ever seeing land. Hundreds of miles away from any known shores, our only hope of safety is in attracting the attention of some vessel. In the broad pathways of the ocean such a chance is doubtful. Fortunately I have a few sheets of paper and a pencil with me, and I write these lines, knowing well how improbable it is that you will ever read them. Yet it is a satisfaction to do what I can to let you know the position in which I stand.

But for the revengeful and malignant disposition of one man I should still be walking the deck of the Norman as its captain. But to my story: My first mate was a man named Haley--Benjamin Haley--whose name you will perhaps remember. He was born in our neighborhood, or, at all events, once lived there, being the nephew of old Paul Nichols. He was a wild young man, and bore a bad reputation. Finally he disappeared, and, as it seems, embraced the profession of a sailor. I was not prepossessed in his favor, and was not very well pleased to find him my second in command. However, he was regularly engaged, and it was of no use for me to say anything against him. I think, however, that he suspected the state of my feelings, as, while studiously polite, I did not make an effort to be cordial. At any rate, he must have taken a dislike to me early in the voyage, though whether at that time he meditated evil, I cannot say.

After a time I found that he was disposed to encroach upon my prerogatives as captain of the vessel, and issue commands which he knew to be in defiance of my wishes. You can imagine that I would not pass over such conduct unnoticed. I summoned him to an interview, and informed him in decided terms that I must be master in my own ship. He said little, but I saw from his expression that there could thereafter be no amicable relations between us.

I pass over the days that succeeded--days in which Haley went to the furthest verge of insolence that he felt would be safe. At length, carried away by impatience, I reprimanded him publicly. He grew pale with passion, turned on his heel, and strode away. That night I was roused from my sleep by the cry of 'Fire!' I sprang to my feet and took immediate measures to extinguish the flames. But the incendiary had taken care to do his work so well that it was already impossible.

I did not at first miss Haley, until, inquiring for him, I learned that he was missing, and one of the ship's boats. It was evident that he had deliberately fired the ship in order to revenge himself upon me. His hatred must have been extreme, or he would not have been willing to incur so great a risk. Though he escaped from the ship, his position in an open boat must be extremely perilous.

When all hope of saving the ship was abandoned, we manned the remaining boats hastily, putting in each such a stock of provisions as we could carry without overloading the boats. Twenty-four hours have now passed, and we are still tossing about on the ocean. A storm would be our destruction. At this solemn time, my dear wife, my thoughts turn to you and my dear son, whom I am likely never to see again. There is one thing most of all which I wish you to know, but can hardly hope that these few lines will reach you. Just before I left home, on my present voyage, I deposited five thousand dollars with Mr. Davis, the superintendent of the factory, in trust for you, in case I should not return. You will be surprised to learn that I have so much money. It has been the accumulation of years, and was intended as a provision for you and Robert. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Mr. Davis, yet I wish I had acquainted you with the fact of this deposit, and placed his written acknowledgment in your hands. My reason for concealment was, that I might surprise you at the end of this voyage.

When this letter comes to hand (if it ever should come to hand), in case the superintendent has not accounted to you for the money placed in his hands, let Robert go to him and claim the money in my name. But I can hardly believe this to be necessary. Should I never return, I am persuaded that Mr. Davis will be true to the trust I have reposed in him, and come forward like an honest man to your relief.

And now, my dear wife and son, farewell! My hope is weak that I shall ever again see you, yet it is possible. May Heaven bless you, and permit us to meet again in another world, if not in this!

I shall inclose this letter, and one to my owners, in a bottle, which I have by me, and commit it to the sea, trusting that the merciful waves may waft it to the shore."

Here Captain Rushton signed his name.

The feelings with which Robert read and his mother listened to this letter, were varied. Love and pity for the husband and father, now doubtless long dead, were blended with surprise at the revelation of the deposit made in the hands of the superintendent of the mill.

"Mother," said Robert, "did you know anything of this money father speaks of?"

"No," said Mrs. Rushton, "he never told me. It is strange that Mr. Davis has never informed us of it. Two years have passed, and we have long given him up as lost."

"Mother," said Robert, "it is my opinion that he never intends to let us know."

"I cannot believe he would be so dishonorable."

"But why should he keep back the knowledge? He knows that we are poor and need the money."

"But he has the reputation of an honorable man."

"Many have had that reputation who do not deserve it," said Robert. "The temptation must have proved too strong for him."

"What shall we do?"

"I know what I am going to do," said Robert, resolutely. "I am going to his house, and shall claim restitution of the money which father intrusted to him. He has had it two years, and, with the interest, it will amount to nearer six than five thousand dollars. It will be a fortune, mother."

"Don't be hasty or impetuous, Robert," said his mother. "Speak to him respectfully."

"I shall be civil if he is," said Robert.

He took his cap, and putting it on, left the cottage and walked with a quick pace to the house of the superintendent.