Elsie's Children by Martha Finley
"Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never Remember to have heard." --SHAKESPEARE.
Early in the morning of a perfect June day, our numerous party arrived at the wharf where lay the steamer that was to carry them to Philadelphia.
The embarkation was made without accident. Molly had had a nervous dread of her share in it, but under her uncle's careful supervision, was conveyed safely on board.
The weather was very warm, the sea perfectly calm, but as they steamed out of the harbor a pleasant breeze sprang up, and the voyage began most prosperously.
There were a hundred lady passengers, and not more than a dozen gentlemen; but to Virginia's delight, one of these last was a gay dashing young army officer, with whom she had a slight acquaintance.
He caught sight of her directly, hastened to greet her, and they were soon promenading the deck together, engaged in an evident flirtation.
Mr. Dinsmore, seated at some little distance with his daughter and her children about him, watched his niece's proceedings with a deepening frown. He was not pleased with either her conduct or her companion.
At length, rising and approaching his sister, "Do you know that young man, Louise?" he asked.
"Not intimately," she returned, bridling. "He is Captain Brice of the army."
"Do you know his character?"
"I have heard that he belongs to a good family, and I can see that he is a gentleman. I hope you are satisfied."
"No, I am not, Louise. He is a wild, reckless fellow, fond of drink, gambles----"
"And what of it?" she interrupted. "I don't suppose he's going to teach Virginia to do either."
"He is no fit associate for her or for any lady. Will you interpose your authority----"
"No, I won't; I'm not going to insult a gentleman, and I'm satisfied that Virginia has sense enough to take care of herself."
"Waving the question whether a man of his character is a gentleman, let me remark that it is not necessary to insult him in order to put a stop to this. You can call your daughter to your side, keep her with you, take an early opportunity to inform her of the man's reputation, and bid her discourage his attentions. If you do not interfere," he added in his determined way, "I shall take the matter into my own hands."
"Isadore," said Mrs. Conly, "go and tell your sister I wish to speak to her."
Virginia was extremely vexed at the summons, but obeyed it promptly.
"What can mamma want? I was having such a splendid time," she said pettishly to her sister, when they were out of the captain's hearing.
"It is more Uncle Horace than mamma."
Virginia reddened. She knew her uncle's opinions, and she was not entirely ignorant of the reputation borne by Captain Brice.
She feigned ignorance however, listened with apparent surprise to her uncle's account of him and promised sweetly to treat him with the most distant politeness in future.
Mr. Dinsmore saw through her, but what more could he do, except keep a strict watch over both.
The captain, forsaken by Virginia, sauntered about the deck and presently approaching an elderly lady who sat somewhat apart from the rest, lifted his cap with a smiling "How do you do, Mrs. Noyes?" and taking an empty chair by her side entered into a desultory conversation.
"By the by," he said, "what an attractive family group is that over yonder," with a slight motion of the head in the direction of the Travillas. "The mother is my beau-ideal of a lovely matron, in appearance at least--I have not the happiness of her acquaintance--and the daughters are models of beauty and grace. They are from your neighborhood, I believe?"
"Yes; I have a calling acquaintance with Mrs. Travilla. She was a great heiress; has peculiar notions, rather puritanical; but is extremely agreeable for all that."
"Could you give me an introduction?"
She shook her head. "I must beg you to excuse me."
"Ah, captain, do you not know that you have the reputation of being a naughty man? not very; but then, as I have told you, the mother is very strict and puritanical in her ideas; the father is the same, and I should only offend them without doing you any good; the girls would not dare, or even so much as wish to look at or speak to you."
Growing red and angry, the captain stammered out something about being no worse than ninetenths of the rest of the world.
"Very true, no doubt," she said; "and please understand that you are not tabooed by me. I'm not so strict. But perhaps," she added laughing, "it may be because I've no daughters to be endangered by young fellows who are as handsome and fascinating as they are naughty." He bowed his acknowledgments, then, as a noble looking young man was seen to approach the group with the manner of one on a familiar footing inquired, "Who is that fellow that seems so much at home with them?"
"His name is Leland; Lester Leland. He's a nephew of the Leland who bought Fairview from the Fosters some years ago. He's an artist and poor--the nephew--he had to work his own way in the world; has to yet for that matter. I should wonder at the notice the Travillas take of him, only that I've heard he's one of the good sort. Then besides you know he may make a great reputation some day."
"A pious fortune-hunter, I presume," sneered Brice, rising to give his seat to a lady; then with a bow he turned and walked away.
Mr. Dinsmore was taking his grandsons over the vessel, showing them the engine and explaining its complicated machinery.
Edward, who had quite a mechanical turn, seemed to understand it nearly as well as his grandfather, and Harold and Herbert, bright, intelligent boys of ten and twelve, looked and examined with much interest, asking sensible questions and listening attentively to the replies.
They were active, manly little fellows, not fool-hardy or inclined to mischief; nor was their mother of the over-anxious kind; she could trust them, and when the tour of inspection with their grandpa was finished, they were allowed to roam about by themselves.
Captain Brice took advantage of this to make acquaintance with them, and win their hearts by thrilling stories of buffalo hunts and encounters with wolves, grizzly bears and Indians, in which he invariably figured as conquering hero.
He thought to make them stepping stones to an acquaintance with their sisters, and congratulated himself on his success when, on being summoned to return to their mother, they asked eagerly if he would not tell them more to-morrow.
"Just try me, my fine fellows," he answered, laughing.
"Mamma, what do you want with us?" they asked, running up to her. "A gentleman was telling us such nice stories."
"I think the call to supper will come very soon," she said, "and I want you to smooth your hair and wash your hands. Dinah will take you to your state-room and see that you have what you need."
"I'm afraid we're going to have a gust," remarked Isadore as the lads hurried away to do their mother's bidding; "see how the clouds are gathering yonder in the northwest."
"A thunder-storm at sea; how romantic!" said Virginia; "'twill be something to talk about all our lives."
"Silly child!" said her mother, "to hear you talk, one would think there was no such thing as danger."
"Pshaw, mamma! we're hardly out of sight of land--our own shores," she retorted.
"That would but increase our danger if the storm were coming from the opposite direction," said her uncle; "but fortunately, it is from a quarter to drive us out to sea."
"Do you think it will be a gust, grandpa?" asked Violet, a little anxiously.
"I fear so; the heat has become so oppressive, the breeze has entirely died down, and the clouds look threatening; but, my child, do not fear; our Father, God, rules upon the sea as well as the land; the stormy wind fulfilling his word."
The storm came up rapidly, bursting on them in its fury before they had left the tea-table; the lightning's flash and the crash and roll of the thunder followed in quick succession; the stentorian voices of the officers of the vessel, shouting their orders to the crew, the heavy hasty tramp of the men's feet, the whistling of the wind through the rigging, the creaking of the cordage, the booming of the sea, mingling with the terrific thunder claps and the down-pouring of the rain, combined in an uproar fit to cause the stoutest heart to quake.
Faces grew pale with fear; the women and children huddled together in frightened groups; the men looked anxiously at each other, and between the thunder peals, spoke in low tones of the danger of being driven out to sea, and asked each other of the captain's skill, on what part of the coast they were, and whether the vessel were strong enough to outride the tempest, should it continue long.
"Oh, this is dreadful! I'm afraid we shall all go to the bottom, if it keeps on much longer," Mrs. Conly was saying to her niece, when there came a crash as if the very sky were falling; as if it had come down upon them; a shock that threw some from their seats, while others caught at the furniture to save themselves; the vessel shivered from stem to stern, seemed to stand still for an instant, then rushed on again.
"It struck! we're lost!" cried a number of voices, while many women and children screamed, and some fainted.
"Courage, my friends!" cried Mr. Dinsmore in loud clear tones, that could be distinctly heard by all, above the storm. "All is not lost that is in danger; and the 'Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy that it cannot hear.'"
"Yes, it is time to pray," said an excited, answering voice; "the lightning has struck and shivered the mast; and look how it has run along over our heads and down yon mirror; as you may see by the melting of the glass. It has doubtless continued on to the hold, and set fire to the cotton stored there," the speaker--a thin, nervous looking man, who was pushing his way through the throng--added in a whisper close to Mr. Dinsmore's ear.
"Be quiet, will you!" said the latter sternly; "these helpless women and children are sufficiently frightened already."
"Yes, yes and I don't want to scare 'em unnecessarily; but we'd better be prepared for the worst."
Elsie had overheard the whispers and her cheek paled, a look of keen distress coming into her face as she glanced from one to another of her loved ones, dearer far than her own life.
But she showed no other sign of agitation; her heart sent up one swift cry to him to whom "all power is given in heaven and in earth," and faith and love triumphed over fear. His love to her was infinite nor was there any limit to his power. She would trust him that all would be well whether in life or death.
"'Even the wind and the sea obey him,'" she whispered to Violet, who was asking with pale trembling lips, "Mamma, mamma, what will become of us?"
"But mamma they say the vessel is loaded with cotton, and that the lightning has probably set it on fire."
"Still, my darling, he is able to take care of us; 'it is nothing with him to help whether with many or with them that have no power;' he is the Lord our God."
Her father had come to her side. "Daughter, my dear, dear daughter!" he said with emotion, taking her in his arms as was his wont in her early years.
"O grandpa, take care of mamma, whatever becomes of us!" exclaimed Elsie and Vi together.
"No, no!" she said, "save my children and never mind me."
"Mamma, you must be our first care!" said Eddie hoarsely.
"Your sisters, my son, and your brothers. Leave me to the last," she answered firmly.
"We will hope to save you all," Mr. Dinsmore said, trying to speak cheerfully; "but, my child, if you perish, I perish with you."
"Horace, is it true? is it true that the vessel is on fire?" gasped Mrs. Conly, clutching his arm and staring him in the face with eyes wild with terror.
"Try to calm yourself, Louise," he said kindly. "We do not know certainly yet, though there is reason to fear it may be so."
"Horrible!" she cried, wringing her hands. "I can't die! I've never made any preparations for death. Oh save me, Horace, if you can! No, no save my girls, my poor dear girls, and never mind me."
"Louise, my poor sister," he said, deeply moved, "we will not despair yet of all being saved; but try to prepare for the worst, turn now to him who has said, Look unto me and be ye saved all ye ends of the earth."
Virginia had thrown herself upon a sofa, in strong hysterics, and Isadore stood over her with smelling salts and fan.
Mrs. Conly hurried back to them with tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Oh what is to be done?" she sighed, taking the fan from Isa's hand. "If Cal and Art were but here to look after us! Your uncle has his hands full with his daughter and her children."
"Mamma let us ask God for help; he and he only can give it," whispered Isadore.
"Yes, yes, ask him! you know how and he will hear you. Virgy, my child, try to calm yourself."
Isa knelt by her sister's side; there were many on their knees crying for succor in this hour of terrible danger.
The storm was abating, the rain had nearly ceased to fall, and the wind to lash the waves into fury; the flashes of lightning were fewer and fainter and the heavy claps of thunder had given place to distant mutterings; they would not be wrecked by the fury of the tempest, yet alas, there still remained the more fearful danger of devouring fire.
It was a night of terror; no one thought of retiring, and few but young children closed an eye.
Every preparation was made for taking to the water at a moment's warning; those who had life preservers--and all our party were supplied with them--brought them out and secured them to their persons; boats were made ready to launch, and those who retained sufficient presence of mind and forethought, selected, and kept close at hand, such valuables as it seemed possible they might be able to carry about them.
The Travillas kept together, Mr. Dinsmore with them, and young Leland also.
He was to them only an ordinary friend, but one of them he would have died to save, and almost he would have done it for the others for her sake.
Poor Molly had never felt her helplessness more than now; fastened to her chair as with bands of steel, there was less hope of escape for her than for others.
Her thoughts flew to Dick in that first moment of terror, to Dick who loved her better than any other earthly thing. Alas, he was far away; but there was One near, her Elder Brother, who would never leave nor forsake her. With that thought she grew calm and strong to wait and to endure.
But her uncle did not forget her; with his own hands he fastened a life preserver about her.
"My poor helpless child," he said low and tenderly, "do not fear that you will be forgotten should there be any chance for rescue."
"Thank you, dear, kind uncle," she said with tears in her eyes, "but leave me to the last, my life is worth so much less than theirs," glancing toward her cousins; "there would be only Dick to mourn its loss----"
"No, no, Molly, we all love you!" he interrupted.
She smiled a little sadly, but went on, "and it would be more difficult to save me than two others."
"Still, do not despair," he said, "I will not leave you to perish alone; and I have hope that in the good providence of God, we shall all be saved."
Gradually the screaming, sobbing, fainting, gave place to a dull despairing waiting, waiting, with a trembling, sickening dread, for the confirmation of their worst fears.
Rosie had fallen asleep upon a sofa with her head in her eldest sister's lap, Vi on an ottoman beside them, tightly clasping a hand of each.
Elsie had her babe in her arms; he was sleeping sweetly, and laying her head back, she closed her eyes while her thoughts flew to Ion, to the husband and father who would perhaps learn to-morrow of the loss of all his treasures.
Her heart bled for him, as she seemed to see him bowed down with heart-breaking sorrow.
Then arose the question "what should the end bring to them--herself and her beloved children?"
For herself she could say, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for thou art with me." Elsie, Vi and Eddie she had good reasons to hope were true Christians; but Harold and Herbert?--A pang shot through her heart. Good, obedient children though they were, she yet knew not that they had ever experienced that new birth without which none can enter heaven.
Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
"Mamma, what is it?" Eddie asked, seeing her glance anxiously from side to side.
"Your brothers! I do not see them. Where are they?"
"They went into their state-room a moment since;--right here, you know. Shall I call them?"
"Yes, yes; I must speak to them."
They came hand in hand, in answer to Eddie's summons.
Herbert's eyes were full of tears, not of terror or grief; there seemed a new happy light in each boyish face.
"Mamma," whispered Harold, putting his arm round her neck, his lips to her ear, "we went away to be alone, Herbie and I; we knew what made you look so sorry at us;--because you were afraid we didn't love Jesus; but we do, mamma, and we went away to give ourselves to him; and we mean to be his always, whether we live or die."
Glad tears rolled down her cheeks as she silently embraced first one, then the other.
And so slowly the night wore away, a reign of terror for hours, while every moment they were watching with despairing hearts for the smell of fire or the bursting out of flames from the hold; their fears gave way to a faint hope as time passed on and the catastrophe was still delayed; a hope that grew gradually stronger and brighter, till at last it was lost in glad certainty.
The electricity, it appeared, had scattered over the iron of the machinery, instead of running on down into the hold.
Some said, "What a lucky escape!" others, "What a kind providence."