Mary Botham Howitt
The Old Man's Story
There was an old and quiet man,
And by the fire sate he,
'And now,' he said, 'to you I'll tell
A dismal thing, which once befell
In a ship upon the sea.
'Tis five-and-fifty years gone by,
Since from the River Plate,
A young man, in a home-bound ship,
I sailed as second mate.
She was a trim, stout-timbered ship,
And built for stormy seas,
A lovely thing on the wave was she,
With her canvass set so gallantly
Before a steady breeze.
For forty days, like a winged thing
She went before the gale,
Nor all that time we slackened speed,
Turned helm, or altered sail.
She was a laden argosy
Of wealth from the Spanish Main,
And the treasure-hoards of a Portuguese
Returning home again.
An old and silent man was he,
And his face was yellow and lean.
In the golden lands of Mexico
A miner he had been.
His body was wasted, bent, and bowed,
And amid his gold he lay-
Amid iron chests that were bound with brass,
And he watched them night and day.
No word he spoke to any on board,
And his step was heavy and slow,
And all men deemed that an evil life
He had led in Mexico.
But list ye me-on the lone high seas,
As the ship went smoothly on,
It chanced, in the silent second watch,
I sate on the deck alone;
And I heard, from among those iron chests,
A sound like a dying groan.
I started to my feet-and lo!
The captain stood by me,
And he bore a body in his arms,
And dropped it in the sea.
I heard it drop into the sea,
With a heavy splashing sound,
And I saw the captain's bloody hands
As he quickly turned him round;
And he drew in his breath when me he saw
Like one convulsed, whom the withering awe
Of a spectre doth astound.
But I saw his white and palsied lips,
And the stare of his ghastly eye,
When he turned in hurried haste away,
Yet he had no power to fly;
He was chained to the deck with his heavy guilt,
And the blood that was not dry.
'Twas a cursed thing,' said I, 'to kill
That old man in his sleep!
And the plagues of the sea will come from him;
Ten thousand fathoms deep!
And the plagues of the storm will follow us,
For Heaven his groans hath heard!'
Still the captain's eye was fixed on me,
But he answered never a word.
And he slowly lifted his bloody hand
His aching eyes to shade,
But the blood that was wet did freeze his soul,
And he shrinked like one afraid.
And even then-that very hour
The wind dropped, and a spell
Was on the ship, was on the sea,
And we lay for weeks, how wearily,
Where the old man's body fell.
I told no one within the ship
That horrid deed of sin;
For I saw the hand of God at work,
And punishment begin.
And when they spoke of the murdered man,
And the El Dorado hoard,
They all surmised he had walked in dreams,
And had fallen overboard.
But I alone, and the murderer-
That dreadful thing did know,
How he lay in his sin, a murdered man,
A thousand fathom low.
And many days, and many more,
Came on, and lagging sped,
And the heavy waves of that sleeping sea
Were dark, like molten lead.
And not a breeze came, east or west,
And burning was the sky,
And stifling was each breath we drew
Of the air so hot and dry.
Oh me! there was a smell of death
Hung round us night and day;
And I dared not look in the sea below
Where the old man's body lay.
In his cabin, alone, the captain kept,
And he bolted fast the door,
And up and down the sailors walked,
And wished that the calm was o'er.
The captain's son was on board with us,
A fair child, seven years old,
With a merry look that all men loved,
And a spirit kind and bold.
I loved the child, and I took his hand,
And made him kneel and pray
That the crime; for which the calm was sent,
Might be purged clean away.
For I thought that God would hear his prayer,
And set the vessel free,-
For a dreadful thing it was to lie
Upon that charnel sea.
Yet I told him not wherefore he prayed,
Nor why the calm was sent
I would not give that knowledge dark
To a soul so innocent.
At length I saw a little cloud
Arise in that sky of flame,
A little cloud-but it grew and grew,
And blackened as it came.
And we saw the sea beneath its track
Grow dark as the frowning sky,
And water-spouts, with a rushing sound,
Like giants, passed us by.
And all around, 'twixt sky and sea,
A hollow wind did blow;
And the waves were heaved from the ocean depths,
And the ship rocked to and fro.
I knew it was that fierce death-calm
Its horrid hold undoing,
And I saw the plagues of wind and storm
Their missioned work pursuing.
There was a yell in the gathering winds,
A groan in the heaving sea,
And the captain rushed from the hold below,
But he durst not look on me.
He seized each rope with a madman's haste,
And he set the helm to go,
And every sail he crowded on
As the furious winds did blow.
And away they went, like autumn leaves
Before the tempest's rout,
And the naked masts with a crash came down,
And the wild ship tossed about.
The men, to spars and splintered boards,
Clung, till their strength was gone,
And I saw them from their feeble hold
Washed over one by one.
And 'mid the creaking timber's din,
And the roaring of the sea,
I heard the dismal, drowning cries
Of their last agony.
There was a curse in the wind that blew,
A curse in the boiling wave;
And the captain knew that vengeance came
From the old man's ocean grave.
And I heard him say, as he sate apart,
In a hollow voice and low,
'Tis a cry of blood doth follow us,
And still doth plague us so!'
And then those heavy iron chests
With desperate strength took he,
And ten of the strongest mariners
Did cast them into the sea.
And out, from the bottom of the sea,
There came a hollow groan;-
The captain by the gunwale stood,
And he looked like icy stone-
And he drew in his breath with a gasping sob,
And a spasm of death came on.
And a furious boiling wave rose up,
With a rushing, thundering roar,-
I saw the captain fall to the deck,
But I never saw him more.
Two days before, when the storm began,
We were forty men and five,
But ere the middle of that night
There were but two alive.
The child and I, we were but two,
And he clung to me in fear;
Oh! it was pitiful to see
That meek child in his misery,
And his little prayers to hear!
At length, as if his prayers were heard,
'Twas calmer, and anon
The clear sun shone, and warm and low
A steady wind from the west did blow,
And drove us gently on.
And on we drove, and on we drove,
That fair young child and I,
But his heart was as a man's in strength,
And he uttered not a cry.
There was no bread within the wreck,
And water we had none,
Yet he murmured not, and cheered me
When my last hopes were gone;
But I saw him waste and waste away,
And his rosy cheek grow wan.
Still on we drove,
I knew not where,
For many nights and days,
We were too weak to raise a sail,
Had there been one to raise.
Still on we went, as the west wind drove,
On, on, o'er the pathless tide;
And I lay in a sleep, 'twixt life and death,
And the child was at my side.
And it chanced as we were drifting on
Amid the great South Sea,
An English vessel passed us by
That was sailing cheerily;
Unheard by me, that vessel hailed
And asked what we might be.
The young child at the cheer rose up,
And gave an answering word,
And they drew him from the drifting wreck
As light as is a bird.
They took him gently in their arms,
And put again to sea:-
'Not yet! not yet!' he feebly cried,
'There was a man with me.'
Again unto the wreck they came,
Where, like one dead, I lay,
And a ship-boy small had strength enough
To carry me away.
Oh, joy it was when sense returned
That fair, warm ship to see.
And to hear the child within his bed
Speak pleasant words to me!
I thought at first that we had died,
And all our pains were o'er,
And in a blessed ship of Heaven
Were sailing to its shore.
But they were human forms that knelt
Beside our bed to pray,
And men, with hearts most merciful,
Did watch us night and day.
'Twas a dismal tale I had to tell
Of wreck and wild distress,
But, even then, I told to none
The captain's wickedness.
For I loved the boy, and I could not cloud
His soul with a sense of shame:-
'Twere an evil thing, thought I, to blast
A sinless orphan's name!
So he grew to be a man of wealth,
And of honourable fame.
And in after years, when he had ships,
I sailed with him the sea,
And in all the sorrow of my life
He was a son to me;
And God hath blessed him every where
With a great prosperity.
Mary Botham Howitt's Other Poems
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