CHARLIE THE COX

A LIFE POEM

BY HALL CAINE

 

Charlie was the cox of our Peel lifeboat. A braver spirit never sailed the sea.

Years ago, in a terrific gale, a ship from Norway, the St. George, came dead on for the wildest part of our coast, the fierce headland that lies back of the old Castle rock. The sound signal was fired, and Charlie and his brave comrades went out to her. She was reeling on the top of a tremendous sea, and there was no coming near to her side.

It was an awful task to get the crew aboard the lifeboat, but Charlie saved every soul, and lost not a hand of his own. When the "traveller" was rigged and the "breeches" were ready, and the crew of the doomed ship were at the bulwarks waiting to leave her, Charlie sang out over the clamour of the sea:

"How many are you?"

"Twenty-four," came back as answer.

Then Charlie cried, "I can see only twenty-three."

"The other man is hurt. He's dying. No use saving him," the Norseman shouted.

"You'll bring the dying man on deck before a soul of you leaves the ship," cried Charlie.

There was a woman among them, and when the carpenter came scudding down the rope he had a canvas bag on his back.

"No tools here," shouted Charlie.

"It's the child," said the man.

The captain came next. He had left everything else behind him—his money, his instruments, his clothes, his ship—but out of his pocket there peeped the head of a baby's doll.

It was a thrilling rescue, but to see it in all its splendour you must have a drop of our Manx blood in you. Our forefathers were from Norway, our first Norse king was named Gorry. He landed on this island, not far from this spot. And on that day of the wreck of the St. George his children's children rescued from the sea the children's children of the kinsmen he had left at home.

Most of our men had Norse names. One of them was a Gorry, lineal descendant beyond doubt of the old sea king. The Norwegian Government felt the touch of great things in this incident. It was not merely that the bravery of the rescue fired their gratitude. Something called to them from that deep place where blood answers to the cry of blood. They sent medals for Charlie and his crew, and the Governor of the island distributed them inside the roofless walls of the old castle of the "Black Dog." It was like grasping hands with the past across the space of a thousand years.

The other day we had another great wind and another brave rescue. The sun had gone down overnight in a sullen red, very fierce and angry in his setting, and out of the black north-east the storm had come up while we slept. In the heavy grey of the dawn the sound-signal fired its double shot over our little town. A Welsh schooner, which had run in for shelter during the dark hours, was riding to an anchor in the bay and flying her ensign for help.

The sea was terrific—a slaty grey, streaked with white foam, like quartz veins. It was coming over the breakwater in sheets that hid it. Sometimes it was flying in clouds to the top of the round tower of the castle. The white sea-fowl were like dark specks darting through it, but no human ear could hear the cry of their thousand throats in the thunderous quake of the breakers on the cavernous rocks.

A crowd of men answered the call, and there was no shortness of hands to man the lifeboat. The big, slow-legged fellows who had been idling on the quay the day before when the sea was calm were struggling, chafing, and quarrelling to go out on it now that it was in storm, for the blood of the old Vikings is in our Manxmen still.

It was a splendid rescue. The crew of the Welshman were brought ashore. Then the abandoned schooner rode three hours longer in the gale, and a hundred men stood and watched her, talking of other winds and other wrecks, and of Peel boys who were out on the sea. At last the ship parted her cables and went rolling like a blinded porpoise dead on for the jagged coast.

Seven men took an open fishing-boat and went after her, and we climbed the Head to look at them. The wind smote us there like an invisible wing, sometimes swirling us out of our course, often bringing us to our knees, and whipping our ears with our hair like rods. Sheets of spray were coming up to us from below and running along the cliffs like driven rain. The sun, which had broken in fierce brilliance from a green rent in the sky, made rainbows in the flying foam.

From the heights we watched the seven men and the open boat. They rose and fell, appeared and disappeared, but they overtook the Welshman before she had drifted on to the coast, boarded her with difficulty, let go another anchor and made her tight. There was nothing else to do, for she was disabled, and her sails were torn to shreds. The new anchor held the ship an hour longer, and then there was no help left for her. She was within a hundred feet of the rocks, and she fell on them with the groan of a living creature.

The instant her head was down the white lions of the sea leapt over her, the water swirled through her bulwarks and plunged down her hatch; her helm was unshipped, her sails were torn from their gaskets, and the floating home wherein men had sailed and sung and slept and laughed and jested was a broken wreck in the heavy wallowings of the waves.

When it was over and we were coming back, drenched through and green with the drift of the sea foam caked thick on our faces, some of us began to think of Charlie. He had not been there that day. A year or more ago, in the prime of a splendid manhood, he was stricken by heart disease. He kept a good heart, nevertheless, and by indomitable will held on for some time. First a little work, then no work at all, only a sail now and then if the sea was calm, but of late hardly ever well enough to take the open air. The old hulk of his poor body had been anchored deep, but she was parting her cables at last.

Charlie lay dying while this second rescue was being made. He had not answered the signal for the lifeboat, but he had heard it in the fierce light of morning, and they could not keep him in bed. The soul of the old sea dog leapt to the call, but his ailing body held him down. He wanted to go out. Wasn't he cox? Had the boat ever gone out without him?

His house is one of the little places like children's Noah's arks which dot the line of this hungry shore. He could hear everything and see a good deal. Often he could hardly keep himself from crying and shouting aloud. In spirit he was out on the boiling surf, dipping, rising, stooping, going over, righting again, clambering back, exulting, glorying, getting nearer the ship, standing off her, rigging the "traveller," and fetching men aboard in the "breeches." And then away from the rolling hulk, and sing ho, my lads, and haul through the white waves for home. But his poor dying body was down on the bed and his face was sickly scarlet.

Charlie's volcanic soul did not go off to the deep of deeps on the big breakers and through the wild noises of the storm. He died later. After the great wind there came a great calm. The air was quiet and full of the odour of seaweed; banks of seaweed were on the shore, and the broken schooner was covered with brown wrack, like any rock of the coast; the sky was round as the inside of a shell, and pale pink like the shadow of flame; the water was smooth, and land and sea lay like a sleeping child. In this broad and steady weather our little town was startled by the double shot again. We went to the windows in surprise, and saw the red flag over the rocket house, which is the signal for the lifeboat.

Charlie was dead. He had just breathed his last, and his rugged comrades, who know nothing of poetry, but are poets nevertheless to the deepest grain of them, had run up the flag mast-high (not half-mast) as signal to the Great Cox of all that here was a soul in the troubled waters of death waiting for the everlasting lifeboat to bear him to the eternal shore.

The sea takes some of our bravest and best. Charlie it did not take. Not so sure is it that he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword, as that he who baulks the sea the sea will surely have for its prey. Charlie had battled with the giant time and again, but he has gone to sleep on the land.

We buried him to-day in the little cemetery looking on to the grey water that was more than half his element. The funeral was beautiful in its old simplicity. First a hymn at the door of the house in the little alley by the beach, "Safe in the arms of Jesus," with the coffin on the ground and all standing round; the sea quiet, hardly a breeze as soft as human breath moving its tranquil surface; the deadly rival in its everlasting coming and going making no triumphant clamour now the sea-warrior was down. Then the companions of his dangers, the crew of his boat, a group of stalwart fellows who have never known what it is to be afraid, carrying him up the hill, shoulder high, each in his red stocking cap and his life-belt, emblems of how they had fought the sea and beaten it.

There were some of us whose eyes were wet, but if these brave boys wept at all, it was only for the helpless little ones left behind. For Charlie they did not weep. His spirit is not dead for them—it cannot die. When brave deeds have to be done, they will see its light, like a beacon that does not fail, over the mountains of the fiercest storm; they will hear its voice above the thunder of the loudest waves.

A full moon is shining to-night on the place of Charlie's rest, and if the old Norse story is true, that while the body lies in sight of the sea the spirit lives in the winds above it, Charlie is not done with his old enemy yet. He will come back to this sea-bound land in warning whispers of the mighty and mysterious power that lures men to itself.