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Chapter 3
Landing.—A friendly Reception, and a bounteous Repast.—Sable Island.—The strange Soil.—The sandy Ridge.—The Lake.—The long Walk.—A wonderful Sight.—The ancient Ship.—The Governor’s Story.—A tremendous Storm and its Effects.—A great Surprise.—Examination and Exhumation.—Disappointment.—Theories.—The Governor rides a Hobby-horse.

WHEN they stepped ashore upon Sable Island they found themselves in the presence of the whole of the population. This population amounted to about eleven souls; namely, the governor, or keeper, or guardian, or regent, or whatever else he may be called, of the island, six of the members of his family of various ages, and four able-bodied men. The governor was a bluff, broad-shouldered, red-faced, bearded personage, with a bright gray eye and a cheery smile. He had a reefing-jacket and “sou’-wester” hat; while his four satellites were dressed, two in reefers, and two in Guernsey jackets. The intercourse of the Sable Islanders with the outside world was very infrequent, and usually very exciting, so that on the present occasion they had turned out in force to greet their extraordinary visitors.

Not far off was a substantial and comfortable-looking house, that seemed well adapted to withstand the Atlantic storms, and shelter its inmates from the severity of the weather. A few small out-houses adjoined it, and in the distance, where the ground rose a little higher than usual, was the signal-staff already mentioned.

Whatever doubts the visitors might have had about the reception which they would meet with were dispelled at once and utterly by the first words of the potentate, whom I will call the “Governor.” Without any remark as to the suddenness of their appearance, and without any question about their errand, he at once shook hands with them all round, and invited them to the house to breakfast, which, he informed them, was all ready, and waiting for them. A long and dreary voyage and monotonous sea life made a meal on shore seem attractive beyond expression to all of them, and the kind invitation was most thankfully accepted. Whereupon the governor led the way to the house above-mentioned, and ushered his visitors into a large but low room, where a long table was spread, and lay invitingly before their eyes. Here they seated themselves, and partook of the governor’s Sable Island hospitality, in the shape of fragrant coffee, and hot rolls, and baked potatoes, and corned beef and tongue, with other articles too numerous to mention; all of which served to efface from the minds of the guests the memory of late hardships, and to diffuse among them a general feeling of peace and calm, of cheerfulness and content.

In the course of this repast the visitors made known to the governor their whole story, and that story was heard by him with an astonishment which he did not attempt to conceal. The fact that they should have been drifting blindly about without finding any place of refuge, and that they had finally been forced to seek for help from him in this place, of all others, was so overwhelming, that at first he seemed unable to believe it; and even after he had been compelled to yield his faith, his reason remained unsatisfied. The thing was true, yet unintelligible, and to his mind simply preposterous. Yet there was the fact, and here were the factors, that went to constitute that fact. The governor was dumfounded. Captain Corbet was clearly beyond him.

At length, like a wise man, he gave up the attempt to fathom what was inscrutable, and devoted himself rather to the practical duties of hospitality. He promised to let Captain Corbet have what he wanted, and also he offered to do the honors of Sable Island, and show the boys all that was worth seeing.

The governor was thus not only hospitable, but also very communicative. He told them all about Sable Island, and gave them much information, in addition to what they had already learned about this singular place.

The little colony was placed here for the purpose of giving aid and comfort to any who might be unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked here. Full supplies of all sorts of stores and provisions were placed on the island under his care. In addition to the buildings at this place there were two other houses of refuge, farther away towards the east, and also two other signal-staffs. In the other houses of refuge no one lived, but supplies of food and fuel were laid up there for the benefit of those who might need them. There was no lighthouse, because it was believed that a light might have a tendency to mislead, and because all seamen sought to keep as far away as possible from the island.

Sable Island, in fact, is nothing more than the ridge of a vast sand-bank, which rises from the ocean depths, and at this place emerges for a few feet above its surface. The sandy ridge is over twenty miles in length, and is curved in its form. The shallows at either extremity also follow this curved line, so that the whole extent of this place of danger, including the shoals as well as the island, is not much less than fifty miles. Its concave side is towards the north-west, and ships on that side in stormy weather are in great peril whenever they come within twenty miles of the place. As a consequence, many wrecks occur, some of which are known, while more are never heard of, and can only be conjectured. Caught, so to speak, between the long-extended arms of this treacherous sand-bank, they are swept helplessly to destruction among the waters that rage over these far-reaching shoals.

Once every three months a vessel comes here from Nova Scotia to bring supplies and to take off any who may have been cast ashore. The landing is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, so that the vessel has to keep away for a long time before daring to venture near.

The governor informed them that life here, on the whole, was not unpleasant, but that in winter there were times when it was impossible to venture forth out of the house. The cold was never excessive, for the surrounding waters made the temperature milder than that of the adjacent main land; but the storms were terrific, and sometimes the sea seemed to make a clean sweep over the island, and all the air was filled with clouds of driving spray. After such storms as these it was always their practice to explore the island in search of shipwrecks. Sometimes they found human beings, who had been cast ashore, huddled for shelter behind hillocks, or in the other houses of refuge and brought them back; but more frequently the only result of their search was the sight of some fragments of a lost ship which the furious waves had washed ashore; or, worse still, the lifeless bodies of those who had perished amid the raging waters. These last were always conveyed to the burial-ground of the island, where they were committed to the grave with solemn ceremony, the governor reading over them the burial service of the church.

This information and much more was communicated at breakfast; and after the repast was over, the governor proceeded to fulfil his promise by taking the boys out to show them Sable Island.

It did not appear as though there could be much to see. On leaving the house there spread away a sandy waste, whereon grew some coarse grass. This grass grew not close enough to form anything like turf, yet in sufficient abundance to afford pasturage to herds of wild ponies which belong to the island. These ponies were put here many years ago, and in successive generations have become developed into a wonderfully intelligent and hardy little animal, ugly, woolly, yet strong, and capable of feeding on anything. They endure the severity of the winter season here without any shelter whatever; and when snow is on the ground they get at the grass underneath with the same ready instinct that is exhibited by the buffaloes on the western prairies.

After walking some distance, they reached the crest of the sand ridge, and from this place they saw a long, narrow sheet of water. This they were informed was a lake, which took up half of the length of the island, being more than ten miles in length; the formation of the island being what may be called a long, irregular oval, enclosing this sheet of water. The eastern half of the island is, however, a solid, continuous sand-bank, and the lake lies rather towards its western end.

It is the eastern end which is most affected by storms. Here the herbage is scanter, and the hillocks more frequent; here, too, the sand shifts and changes with every storm. The governor informed them that after every very great storm, important changes might be seen in this direction, and mentioned that one of a very interesting nature had occurred a few months previously in a tremendous equinoctial gale, which had been by far the wildest that had taken place since his residence on the island. This he promised to show them, and led the way to the place where the object to which he referred might be seen.

They walked about four miles, and at length reached a pond which was about in the middle of the island, and at an equal distance from either side. Here a black object arose, which the boys at first took for some sort of a rock. As they drew nearer, it looked more like a hut; but finally, on coming close, they saw, to their utter amazement, that it was nothing else than the hull of a ship.

That ship had a most singular form. The timbers had been greatly broken, and the decks had vanished long ago; but the outlines were visible by the broken beams, and it seemed to have been about five or six hundred tons burden. But what most impressed them was the quaint and singular appearance of the stern. This part had been less injured than the rest. It rose to a height of over sixteen feet, and much more was still buried in the sand. The uppermost portion was battered and broken; but beneath this there was a second deck and a third. Between this second deck and the third was what might once have been a cabin, and the broken port-holes astern, that once gave light, were still plainly visible. The great height of the stern and its division into successive stories, reminded the boys of the pictures which they had seen of the ships of three centuries back, and filled their minds with intense excitement.

“This ship,” said the governor, “was uncovered by the great gale of last March. Until that time it had been completely covered by the sand, which formed around it the biggest hillock on the island. I never had any idea that inside of that hillock there was anything of this sort. I attributed the formation of the hillock to the accidental concurrence of the winds which had gathered the sand up here. You would scarcely believe how large it was. Why, for hundreds of yards all around here that hill extended, and it was over thirty feet higher than where we now are.

“Well, a few days after the great gale, I came out in this direction, and noticed, to my amazement, that the hill was gone! That didn’t surprise me much, for I had known other such changes to take place in every storm, though I had never known any on such an extensive scale. But when I came nearer, and saw this old hull, you may depend upon it I was astonished enough. Here it was,—all laid bare, all the sand blown away just as you see it now, except the cabin there, which I proceeded to clear out as soon as I could.

“Now, the first glance showed me that this old hull must be at least a couple of hundred years old; and I took it for one of the old French or English ships that had been wrecked here in the early days of American colonization. I accounted for its position so far inland in the easiest manner in the world. The fact is, this whole island is all the time shifting and changing. I don’t believe it is in the least like what it used to be. When this ship got here, I believe this was a shoal where she drove ashore in some tremendous gale, and was soon covered up with sand. Gradually the sand gathered about her more and more, and the island changed its shape, and the shoal rose above the water, till at last this place became the middle of the island. Two or three hundred years from this, I dare say there’ll be miles of land away off there to the north, all along, and this’ll be considered the South Shore.”

“But didn’t you find anything aboard of her?” asked Bart, in eager curiosity.

“Well, that was the very first thing I thought of. This old-fashioned ship reminded me of the Spanish galleons that used to take cargoes of gold and silver across the water, and I was full of the idea that there might be some immense treasure still on board. The sand had preserved the wood from decay, and gold was still more likely to be preserved. So I hurried back at once, and got a shovel, and came here alone. I cleared out the whole cabin there that day, and to my deep disappointment, I found not one single thing. I found it, in fact, just as you see it now—completely cleaned out by the waves. Everything had gone, except the timbers and some of the deck work. Doors had been torn off, and the whole front of the quarterdeck had been forced away. There were no movables of any kind, nothing, in fact, except those beams and planks, that had been strong enough to resist the fury of the waves.

“I went back that day in deep disappointment, and gave up all hope of finding anything. On the following day I called all hands together, and we all came here to examine the hull. We worked for about a week, and dug out most of the sand,—it’s all back again, though, you see,—and in other places we thrust in poles to see if anything was there. We found nothing, however; no gold or silver, no precious stones; nothing, in fact, but a rusty, demoralized, and depraved old cannon, that looked as though it had been cast for the Spanish Armada. The old piece is over there in the house, preserved as a curiosity.”

“And so you didn’t get anything?” said Bruce, in a tone of disappointment.

“Not a thing, except the cannon,” said the governor; “and I leave you to imagine my disappointment. I was at first sure of making my fortune, retiring from the island at once, and going home to live on my wealth. But I’m afraid I shall have to postpone that for a long time.”

“Do you suppose there ever was any treasure on board of her?” asked Arthur.

“Well, yes. I not only suppose so, but I almost feel certain that at one time there was a good deal of gold and silver aboard of this very ship. I’ve examined her, and studied her very attentively. Look at her now for yourselves. Notice how high that stern is. I don’t think those high sterns were used later than the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was in just such ships as this that the Spaniards brought their gold and silver across the water. In fact, boys, I believe that this is neither more nor less than a Spanish galleon. Believe? in fact I know it. For on that old gun that I spoke of, there is a cast that’s precisely the same that you see on the old Spanish dollars—the arms of Spain.

“Now I’ll tell you what the idea is that I’ve formed about this ship. You know that in the days of Elizabeth the Spanish Main swarmed with buccaneers, who seized the treasure ships whenever they could. Among these, English sailors were the worst. You know that well enough. Well, my idea is, that some of these buccaneers seized this very galleon, plundered her of everything, and let her go. I don’t think that a Spanish ship would have been likely to be driven up here from the West Indies, or to drift here. I think it most likely that she was seized and brought here.”

“But perhaps,” said Bart, “the buccaneers were lost in her.”

“It’s possible, certainly,” said the governor, “but I don’t quite think it. I think, if there had been any gold left, some of it would have been left hereabouts in the hull. No. I think it most likely that she has been plundered by the buccaneers, who then let her go,—for a big, clumsy ship, like this, was no good for their purposes. They may have let the Spanish sailors go in her,—not unlikely; and if so, the poor wretches left their bones in these sands.”

“But what would buccaneers come here for?” asked Bart,—“so far to the north. I thought they all lived around the Spanish Main.”

“Ah,” said the governor, “that brings up the very point that proves my whole theory.”


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