I. The Altar of Liberty, or 1776
The well-sweep of the old house on the hill was relieved
dark and clear, against the reddening sky, as the early winter sun was
going down in the west.
It was a brisk, clear, metallic evening; the long drifts of snow blushed lilac in the hollows; and the old wintry wind brushed shrewdly along the plain,
tingling people's noses, blowing open their cloaks, puffing in the back of their necks, and showing other unmistakable indications that he was getting
up steam for a real roistering night.
"Hurrah! How it blows!" said little Dick Ward, from the
top of the mossy wood-pile.
Now Dick had been sent to said wood-pile, in company with his little sister Grace, to pick up chips, which, everybody knows, was in the olden time
considered a wholesome and gracious employment, and the peculiar duty of the rising generation. But said Dick, being a boy, had mounted the wood-pile,
and erected there a flagstaff, on which he was busily tying a little red pocket-handkerchief, occasionally exhorting Grace "to be sure and pick up fast."
"Oh, yes, I will," said Grace; "but you see the chips have got ice on 'em, and make my hands so cold!"
"Oh, don't stop to suck your thumbs! Who cares for ice? Pick away, I say, while I set up the flag of liberty."
So Grace picked away as fast as she could, nothing
doubting but that her cold thumbs were in some mysterious sense an
offering on the shrine of liberty;
while soon the red handkerchief, duly secured, fluttered and snapped in the brisk evening wind ....
[The following story was told me as one actually related by a sailor. I wrote it, not because I believed it for a moment, but because I supposed it was one of the numerous traditions among sea-faring people; and I thought it a fine specimen of that wild and terrible grandeur of imagination naturally excited by the solitude and dangers of the ocean. I have since learned that the same story, or a similar one, had been previously written for an English periodical; but never having seen that story, I cannot be accused of plagiarism, or imitation.]
We were on board a slave-ship, bound to the coast of Africa. I had my misgivings about the business; and I believe other had them too. We had passed the Straits of Gibraltar, and were lying off Barbary,one clear, bright evening, when it came to my turn to take the helm. The ship was becalme, and every thing around was as silent as the day after the deluge. The wide monotony of water, varied only by the glancings of the moon on the crest of of the waves, made me thing the old fables of Neptune were true; and that Amphitrite and her Naids were sporting on the surface of the ocean, with diamonds in their hair. Those fancies were followed by thoughts of my wife, my children and my home; and all were oddly enough jumbled together in a delicious state of approaching slumber. Suddenly I heard, high above my head, a loud, deep terrible voice, call out, "Stand from under!" I started to my feet--it was the customary signal when anything was to be thrown from the shrouds, and mechanically sung out the usual answer, "Let go!" But nothing came -- I looked up in the shrouds--there was nothing there. I searched the deck,--and found that I was alone! I tried to think it was a dream, -- but that sound, so deep, so stern, so dreadful, run in my ears, like the bursting of a cannon!
In the morning, I told the crew what I had heard. -- They laughed at me; and were all day long full of their jokes about "Dreaming Tom." One fellow among them was most unmerciful in his raillery. He was a swarthy, malignant looking Spaniard; who carried murder in his eye, and curses on his tongue; a daring and lordly man, who boasted of crime, as if it gave him pre-eminance among his fellows. He laughed longest and loudest at my story. "A most uncivil ghost, Tom," said he; "when such chaps come to see me, I'll make 'em show themselves. I'll not be satisfied without seeing and feeling, as well as hearing."
The sailors all joined with him; and , ashamed of my alarm, was glad to be silent. The next night, Dick Burton took the helm. Dick had nerves like an ox, and sines like a whale: it was little he feared on on the earth, or beneath it. The clock struck one-- Dick was leaning his head on the helm, as he said, thinking nothing of me, or my story,--when that awful voice again called from the shrouds, "Stand from under!" Dick darted forward like an Indian arrow, which they say goes through and through a buffalo, and wings on its way, as if it had not left death in the rear. It was an instant, or more, before he found presence of mind to call out "Let go!" Again nothing was seen,--nothing heard. Ten nights in succession, at one o'clock, the same unearthly sound rung through the air, making our stoutest sailors quail, as if a bullet-shot had gone through their brians. At last the crew grew pale when it was spoken of; and the worst of us never went to sleep without saying our prayers. For myself, I would have been chained to the oar all my life, to have got out of that vessel. But there were in the the vast solitude of ocean; and this invisible being was with us. No one put a bold face on the matter, but Antonio, the Spaniard. He laughed at our fears, and defied Satan himself to terrify *him*. However, when it came his turn at the helm, he refused to go. Several times, under the pretense of illness, he was excused from a duty, which all on board dreaded. But at last, the Captain ordered Antonio to receive a round dozen lashes every night, until he should consent to perform his share of the unwelcome office. For a while this was borne patiently; but at length he called out, "I may as well die one way as another--Give me over to the ghost!"
That night Antonio kept watch on deck. Few of the crew slept; for expectation and alarm had stretched our nerves upon the rack. At one o'clock, the voice called "Stand from under!" "Let go!" screamed the Spaniard. This was answered with a shriek of laughter -- and *such* laughter!--It seemed as if the fiends answered each other from pole to pole, and the bass was howled in hell! Then came a sudden crash upon the deck, as if our masts and spars had fallen. We all rushed to the spot -- and there was a cold, stiff, gigantic corpse. The Spaniard said it was thrown from the shrouds, and when he looked on the ground his teeth like a madman. "I know him," exclaimed he; "I stabbed him within an hour's sail of Cuba, and drank his blood for breakfast."
We all stood aghast at the monster. In fearful whispers we asked what should be done with the body. Finally we agreed that the terrible sight must be removed from us, and hidden in the depth of the sea. Four of us attempted to raise it; but human strength was of no avail--we might as well have tugged at Atlas. There it law, stiff, rigid, heavy, and as immovable as if it formed a part of the vessel. The Spaniard was furious; "let me lift him," said he, "I lifted him once, and can do it again. I'll teach him what it is to come and trouble me." He took the body round the waist, and attempted to move it. Slowly and heavily the corpse raided itself up; its rayless eyes opened; its rigid arm stretched out,and clasped its victim in a close death-grapple-- and rolling over to the side of the ship, they tottered an instant over the waters -- then with a loud plunge sunk together. Again that laugh, -- that wild, shrieking laugh, was hear on the wind. The sailors bowed their heads, and put up their hands throughout the appalling sound.
I took the helm more than once after, but we never again heard in the shrouds that thundering sound, "Stand from under."