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The Crater - Or, Vulcan's Peak

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"Thus arise
Races of living things, glorious in strength,
And perish, as the quickening breath of God
Fills them, or is withdrawn."

In this motto, from a poem. by William Cullen Bryant, we have the idea, and possibly the suggestion, of this story, in which is narrated the birth, life, and death of a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. The exact latitude and longitude of this island, in the more remote solitudes of the ocean, is not given, and its name will be sought in vain in the charts and geographies. The date of the story is about 1793, and the opening scenes are laid on the shores of the lower Delaware.

MARK WOOLSTON, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, son of a well-educated physician, was a student at Nassau Hall, Princeton, in 1793, when he first saw a full-rigged ship. His father yielded to his importunities to permit him to go to sea, and Mark left college in his third year and shipped on the Rancocus, a Canton packet, under command of Captain Crutchely. The young man proved so clever and handy that he attracted the attention of the officers, and long before the vessel reached the Capes he knew her from truck to keelson, and Captain Crutchely remarked that young Mark Woolston was likely to turn up a trump.

Though Mark was desirous to go to sea, he did not leave home without regrets, for, besides his love for his brothers and sisters, he had a strong affection for a schoolmate and friend of his sister Anne, Bridget Yardley, only child of Dr. Yardley, his father's chief professional competitor. Both parents of the youthful lovers were ignorant of the attraction each had for the other, and both would have frowned upon it if they had known of it, for the two were almost at swords' points and no longer met even in consultations.

The voyage of the Rancocus to China lasted about a twelve-month, and when Mark Woolston returned he was the envy of all the lads and the admiration of all the girls. A second voyage was made to Amsterdam, London, Cadiz, and other ports, before sailing again for Canton, so that the young sailor had opportunities of seeing much of the world and of rubbing off some of his provincial rust. The practise of nearly two years had made him a very tolerable sailor, and his college training made the study of navigation easy. Before sailing for Canton he was transferred from the forecastle to the cabin, and so became second mate of the Rancocus before he had completed his eighteenth year.

On Mark's return from his second voyage, he found Bridget fairly budded into womanhood. She was, however, in black, having lost her mother in the mean time. Though Mark did not know it, Bridget was an heiress in right of her mother, and Dr. Yardley, who could not bear the thought that a son of his competitor should profit by his daughter's good fortune, quarreled with Mark and forbade him the house. Dr. Woolston soon heard of this and, angry at the indignity, forbade all inter-course between the girls. Bridget, thus cut off from both her friends, began to pine, and her father, troubled at her changed appearance, sent her to Philadelphia, to the care of his sister, hoping that a change of scene would divert her mind. Now the doctor either forgot that Mark's ship lay there, or expected his sister to keep a sharp lookout on her niece's movements; but everything turned out as he did not anticipate but ought to have expected. Mark, now first officer of the Rancocus, speedily found Bridget, and the latter consented to a marriage, which should be kept a secret until Mark came of age.

The ceremony took place one morning in the cabin of the Rancocus, the officiating clergyman being a classmate of Mark's who had entered the ministry. The witnesses were Mary Bromley, a friend of Bridget's, and a seaman named Betts, or Bob Betts, as he was commonly called, who was living on the vessel as shipkeeper. Duplicate certificates were given to the young couple; Mark placed his in his writing-desk and Bridget hers in her bosom, and five minutes after the ceremony the parties separated, and Bridget returned to her aunt's house. Several days later Bridget told her husband that she would come into possession of about thirty thousand dollars on the attainment of the age of eighteen or on her marriage, and pro-posed that he should quit the sea and remain with her for life. Mark at length yielded to Bridget's tears, and went home and told his father. Dr. Woolston, angry at first, soon became reconciled, and communicated the news to Dr. Yardley in a very civil note. Dr. Yardley had a fit which nearly ended in apoplexy, but finally consented to meet Dr. Woolston. The two parents talked the matter over in a reasonable temper, but decided, as medical men, that it would be better that the young couple should not live together for two or three years; so it was decided that Mark was to remain aboard the Rancocus for another voyage. This was to be a long one, the ship going first to some islands in the Pacific in quest of sandalwood and beche-de-mer, and thence to China. Mark would be of age when the vessel returned, and fit to command a ship himself if he saw fit to remain in the profession. And so the young couple separated with bitter tears and Mark set out on his fourth voyage.

The Rancocus touched at Rio for supplies, then rounded the Horn, and a fortnight later touched at Valparaiso. After leaving this port, Captain Crutchely sailed on nearly two months across the Pacific in search of the islands he had been directed to find. The Captain was a good officer, but he had one failing —he was too fond of his grog. His eating too was on a level with his drinking, and he always sailed with a remarkable collection of pigs, poultry, and vegetables that would keep at sea. One day—it happened to be Mrs. Crutchely's birthday—the Captain had taken a little more grog than usual. Mark, who seldom drank rum, saw the condition of his superior with regret, especially as it was reported that white water had been seen, during a clear moment, by a man who had just come from aloft. He reported this to the Captain, suggesting that it might be well to shorten sail, round-to, and sound. But Captain Crutchely treated the report with no respect, and the second mate, Hillson, an old sea-dog, who owed his then inferior condition to a still greater familiarity with grog, supported the Captain in his contempt for the rumors of the crew.

The result was that during the night, which was intensely dark, the ship found herself amid breakers, and the next moment she struck. The Captain, who appeared to be himself again, ordered the sails clewed up and the heaviest furled. Hillson was ordered to clear away an anchor, while Mark attended to the canvas. The ship was thumping only occasionally, and, satisfied that she would beat over the obstruction, he determined to drop one of his bow anchors and wait for day-light. Hillson, still half intoxicated, had bent the cable wrong, and Crutchely went forward to investigate. He ordered Hill-son off, as he jumped down on the anchor-stock, when the ship made a heavy roll, with breakers appearing all around her, and the Captain was seen no more. Mark felt horror and regret at the responsibility thus thrust upon him, but at once asserted himself and gave his orders coolly. In hope of saving the Captain, the jolly-boat was lowered and six men got into it. Mark saw it shoot past the bows and disappear in the darkness; the men never reappeared. Hillson meanwhile had got the launch safely into the water, and while Mark was busy with the lead-line, had put provisions and a small amount of specie from the cabin into her. As soon as the ship was clear and in four fathoms of water, Mark gave the order to "let run," and down went the anchor. In swinging to her anchor a roller which had crossed the reef without breaking broke on board. How it happened he never knew, but as soon as he recovered his sight after the ducking he received, he caught a dim view of the launch drifting to leeward on the top of a wave. The next moment it was lost in the darkness. Even then Mark was unconscious of the calamity that had befallen him. It was only when he had visited cabin, steerage, and forecastle, that he reached the grave fact that there was no one left on board the Rancocus but Bob Betts and himself.

When these two lone men discussed the realities of their situation, they came to the conclusion that, though the ship was apparently unharmed, it would be impossible for them to navigate her, even if she could be got out of the reefs which enclosed her on all sides.

"I see no hope for us, Mr. Mark," said Bob, "but to Robinson Crusoe it a while, until our times come; or till the Lord, in His marcy, shall see fit to have us picked up."

"Robinson Crusoe it!" repeated Mark, "where are we to find even an uninhabited island on which to dwell like Robinson Crusoe?"

"There's a bit of a reef to leeward, where I dare say a man might pick up a living, arter a fashion," answered Bob; "then, here's the ship."

"No, no, Bob, the ship cannot long remain where she is, depend on that. We must try to pass down to leeward, if we cannot beat through to windward."

"Well, my notion is to get out the dingey, put some grub in her, and pull down to that bit of a reef and survey it and look for our shipmates. I'll take the sculls and you can heave the lead, and we can see if there be a channel in that direction."

The dingey was got out and glided along so fast with a light sail that the reef was soon reached. It was but a few feet above the surface of the water excepting near its center, where rose an elevation of sixty to eighty feet, making a regular circular mound that occupied no small part of the widest portion of the island. The reef was possibly a mile long, its greatest length east and west, while its breadth varied from half a mile to less than an eighth. Nothing like tree, shrub, or grass was visible, and no Iiving beings but aquatic birds, of which there were many. Nor was there any evidence that either of the boats had ever touched there. On reaching the foot of the mound or elevation they at once tried to ascend it in hope of getting a better lookout. Though difficult to climb, they succeeded in reaching the summit, and were surprised to find a circular cavity within, which Mark recognized as the crater of an extinct volcano. The mound or barrier of lava and scoriae was almost mathematically circular, enclosing an area of about a hundred acres. On the leeward side was an opening or passage, on a level with the bottom of the crater, undoubtedly formed by the exit of lava. The height of this opening, arched above, was about twenty feet and its width thirty feet. That water had formerly flowed through it was shown by a deposit of salt, which had probably prevented vegetation.

Mark recognized at once that this mound was the topmost pinnacle of a submarine mountain of volcanic origin, and that the reefs surrounding it and rising near the surface in fifty places were due to the same great upheaval which had formed the mountain. As far as he could judge, these reefs extended east and west at least twelve marine leagues, and north and south but little less. Concluding that he and his companion would have to make the place their home, possibly for many years, he began to speculate on the means of doing so to the best advantage. First, he saw the necessity of getting the ship nearer the crater and in a safer anchorage; and, after sounding and buoying a channel, she was brought in and anchored close to the wall of the sunken reef just in time to escape a gale which would probably have wrecked her in her old position. She was finally secured so near the precipitous wall that a plank bridge was built to her, rendering her easy of access. All the live stock, consisting of fowls, ducks, pigs, and one goat, was set ashore, and preparations made to form a soil on the bare rock in which to plant seeds and induce vegetation. As the Rancocus had been fitted out to trade with the natives of the islands, she was supplied not only with beads and trinkets, but with many kinds of common tools, coarse cloths, iron and earthern ware, and a hundred other things in ordinary domestic use. She had also a goodly assortment of seeds and roots for planting. While the ship and her cargo were preserved, the two had a dwelling, clothes, food, fuel, and water, with the means of labor. The reef was utterly bare, without either wood or water; but they caught rain-water, filled extra casks with it and stored them for future use. They found also large de-posits of guano and of loam made by the decomposition of sea-weed, which, by mixing with the volcanic ash of the crater, made excellent soil. They thus made a fine kitchen-garden in the crater which produced vegetables and melons in profusion, and saved them from the fears of scurvy.

After many months of hard labor in their little kingdom, they began to think of building a boat to enable them to reach some of the islands. They found in the ship the frame and planking of a ten-ton vessel of twenty-four-feet keel, which they transported to the reef and set up in a place convenient for launching. They stepped the mast, rigged her, and bent the sails before launching and, at Bob's suggestion, stowed in her provisions and water, so that the pinnace was ready to go to sea at once. That night they slept in the ship in the expectation that it would be their last one there, but they were waked early by the sound of a gale so violent as to threaten the ship's safety. Both hastened ashore, and while Mark looked after the live stock, which he drove into the crater, and to the security of a tent containing books and furniture, which had been left there, Bob ran to the pinnace. When Mark sought to join him, he saw Bob gesticulating from the deck of the pinnace which was apparently moving on her ways. He bounded down the hill, intending to swim off to Betts's aid; but a moment later the pinnace was lifted on a sea and washed clear of the land. Mark saw Betts in the stern-sheets acting with the utmost coolness; he put the helm hard down, which caused the bow of the vessel, which still had stern-way on her, to fall off, and she soon began to draw ahead as the wind caught her broadside. Mark hardly breathed as he watched her driving furiously onward like a frantic steed into the raging seas until she disappeared in the mists.

Thus was a sudden and most unexpected change brought about in the situation of Mark Woolston. Not only had he lost the means of getting off the island, but he had lost his friend and companion. He watched day after day from the crosstrees of the ship hoping to see the Neshamony, as the pinnace had been named, but at last gave her up for lost. Shortly after-ward he was taken ill of a fever and lay many weeks almost unconscious in the cabin of the Rancocus, how long he never knew; but when he came to himself and was enabled to visit the crater again, he found that all his plantations had prospered, that rich grass was growing in the crater, and that one of the sows was followed by a litter of ten pigs, and a hen by a brood of chickens. These furnished him with fresh meat, which was very gratifying after the coarse food of the ship, especially as he had now a ravenous appetite. He had, too, plenty of fresh eggs; but it took him at least two months to recover his strength.

The next summer he built and rigged another boat from material found in the ship, and greatly enjoyed sailing among the reefs. He had formed plans to remain out all night and to extend his voyage, when he noticed that the sea-birds showed great uneasiness and the sun went down in a fiery bank. With these warnings he returned to the Rancocus and secured his boat, named the Bridget Yardley, for the night. When he awoke from sleep he felt a sense of suffocation, and a lurid light shone in the cabin door. He sprang up, fearful that the ship had caught fire, and went out on the poop. As he reached the deck, the ship trembled from truck to keel, hissing sounds were heard, and streams of fire and gleams of light filled the air. He knew at once that he had felt the shock of an earthquake, and believed that the old volcano had again become active; but when he looked at the crater everything there was tranquil. Yet smoke and ashes certainly filled the air, and murky vapor rendered breathing difficult. A shift of wind soon cleared away the sulphurous and offensive odors, and the coming of light enabled him to look abroad. The earthquake had thrust up-ward a vast surface of the surrounding reefs, and the crater reef, which previously lay only about six feet above the sea, was now fully twenty feet high, so that the bridge connecting it with the ship, and which had formed a descent, was now level. Still the ship floated, enough water remaining to keep her keel clear of the bottom.

As soon as daylight came Mark set out to explore his new domain. He found that he could now travel dry-shod over leagues of rocks that had lately been reefs under the sea. In one place he found a long stretch of sandy beach, with springs of cold and limpid water. The old crater was apparently about the center of the new creation, though the land seemed to stretch indefinitely southward, where a vast, dun-looking cloud veiled the surface. Mark found that Crater Island, as he called it, was separated from the next land by a channel about twenty feet wide and twice as deep. He bridged this with planks from the ship, and finding plenty of fresh water there, led all his live stock over, his pigs in particular taking great delight in their new range. Some two or three leagues from the crater he came to a rock about a hundred feet high, from the top of which he had a long view southward, and he saw distinctly a high, rugged mountain rising out of the sea, and not far from it a column of smoke curling toward a huge low-hanging cloud above it.

Several days later he fitted out the Bridget with provisions and set out to visit this mountain, which he named Vulcan's Peak. Instead of twenty-five or thirty miles from Crater Island, as he had calculated, he found it nearer sixty miles distant. Entering through a narrow inlet he found himself nearly becalmed in a beautiful basin a hundred yards in diameter surrounded by a sandy beach. Following a ravine, down which tumbled a foaming, roaring stream, he began the ascent of the mountain. After walking about two miles, the appearance of things changed. The rocks looked older than those below, and he saw clearly that this part could not have emerged from the sea during the late eruption. Everything indicated that the top of the Peak had been a low-lying island, invisible from Crater Island, which had been elevated into a mountain. This was made certain when he reached a plain near the summit and found it covered with wood, cocoanut, bread-fruit, and other tropical trees, and verdant with grasses. Mark rested an hour in this delicious grove, in which were birds of brilliant plumage, and numerous small ones that resembled the reed-birds he was familiar with at home. He shot some of these, built a fire with the assistance of the pan of his gun, and spitted and roasted them, with a couple of plantains, thus making a regal dinner. With Bridget for his Eve, he thought, he would be willing to spend the rest of his days in such a paradise.

Mark now ascended the Peak itself, on which he found a deposit of ancient guano, the washings of which had doubtless contributed to the fertility of the plain. Looking northward through his glass, he could see the group around the Crater, though the ship was not visible; and westward, at a distance of possibly a hundred miles, he could descry other mountainous land, and beyond it the haze of more land. After he had gazed a long time at this, which gave a promise of deliverance, he turned his eyes nearer the Peak and saw something that nearly caused him to leap into the air. It was but a speck on the blue waves, but it was most decidedly a vessel beating up to get under the lee of the island. A moment later he recognized it as the Neshamony, in which Bob Betts had gone off. He fired his gun to attract attention, his signal was answered, and two hours later his old shipmate, who was accompanied by a black man, rejoined him.

Betts's story was soon told. When driven off by the gale, he had no choice but to let the Neshamony drive to leeward. He tried for a week to beat back, but without success. At the end of a week he found himself near a large uninhabited island, which he named Rancocus after the ship, and which proved to be the land seen by Mark from the Peak. From the highest point of this he could see other land, where later he found natives and a Spanish brig trading with them. Leaving the Neshamony in care of the native chief, he sailed on the brig to Panama, whence he made his way to Philadelphia. As soon as Bridget heard of Mark's situation, she determined to go to his aid. Accompanied by Dr. Heaton and his wife, who was Mark's sister Anne, and others, attended by several servants, she sailed from New York for Panama, and took passage thence for the islands in the same Spanish brig that Betts had come in. The party carried stores and some live stock, including horses, cows, and goats, intending, if necessary, to make a long stay. Betts had left them at Rancocus Island, and had set out in the Neshamony, which he found safe on his return to the islands, to find Mark.

It is unnecessary to say that the reunion of Mark and Bridget was a joyful one, and that the party at Rancocus Island gave the rescued mariner an enthusiastic welcome. A week was spent on the island, where tents had been pitched and all had recuperated after the long voyage; but, as the location was known to the natives of the neighboring islands, it was deemed best to remove the little colony to the Peak. This was accomplished with considerable difficulty, as only one of the larger animals could be carried at a time on the Neshamony. Finally all were settled in the grove half-way up Vulcan's Peak, which Mark determined to make his future residence, though still retaining his interest in Crater Reef. Bridget soon accompanied Mark to the ship, which had for her so many pleasing recollections, and spent a week there, visiting the scenes connected with her husband's solitary life. She would gladly have remained longer, but the Governor, as Dr. Heaton had styled Mark, felt that it would be more prudent to return to the Peak, as he no longer felt the sense of security that he enjoyed before he knew of the proximity of peopled islands.

Time will not permit a full history of the life of the little colony during the several years following, in which it received many accessions, until it finally numbered several hundred souls. A town was built at the Peak with good dwellings and substantial government buildings of stone, sawmills and brick-kilns were erected and a shipyard, where a schooner and other vessels were constructed. Means of defense were found in the guns of the Rancocus, some of which were brought to the Peak and mounted so as to command the narrow entrance and the road to the grove. This was fortunate, for with them the colonists were enabled to defend themselves successfully against attacks both by savages and by pirates.

The colonists built large vessels and engaged in the whale-fishery and in trade with neighboring islands, sending sandal-wood to China and oil to Panama. The old Rancocus was finally got out of her berth and Mark took her personally to Canton, where he exchanged her cargo of sandalwood for teas and sailed for Philadelphia. The owners of the ship were dead, and the insurers, after deducting the sum paid to the firm, gave her and the balance of the proceeds of sales to Captain Woolston, as a reward for his integrity. He thus received, besides the ship, nearly eleven thousand dollars in gold. Dr. Yardley now relented and gave his son-in-law his hand. He also turned over to him money belonging to Bridget, so that Mark had more than twenty thousand dollars at his disposal. This enabled him to take back a cargo of things needed by his colony, including more live stock, and some carefully selected colonists, especially mechanics. He also carried field-guns, ship's guns, two hundred muskets and fifty brace of pistols, and much ammunition. One half the profits were set aside for himself as owner of the Rancocus, and the remainder was given to the State for the benefit of all.

After many years in this Utopia, during which Captain Woolston had become wealthy, the colonists, who owed all their prosperity to him, came under the influence of a demagogue and, forgetful of their obligations, elected one Pennock Governor of the colony in his stead. Dr. Heaton, who felt their ingratitude keenly, determined to return to America; and Bridget having expressed a desire to see her old home once more, the two families, together with the Bettses, sailed for Philadelphia on the Rancocus. Captain Woolston, having the good of the colony at heart, notwithstanding its treatment of him, determined to take out one more cargo to the islands. The Rancocus was therefore laden with suitable goods and he and Betts returned in her, leaving their families in Philadelphia. From Valparaiso they ran by a more southerly route than usual to near the latitude and longitude of the Peak, but no land was in sight. At last a solitary rock was descried, rising about three hundred feet above the sea. Captain Woolston went to this in a small boat, and as he neared it he saw that it was no other than the summit of Vulcan's Peak! A cry escaped him as he recognized the dreadful truth—all the rest of his paradise had sunk beneath the ocean!

Swash got headway, while the Captain was hesitating, and thus Jack Tier was left behind. The breeze was freshening, and by the great skill of the master and zeal on the part of all hands, but not without several very narrow escapes in threading the tortuous channel of Hell Gate, the smart little ship finally reached smoother water. Anxious to reconnoiter—for, if he was indeed watched by the government cruisers and officials, his neck was in danger—Captain Spike now resorted to a variety of maneuvers to avoid or thwart suspicion. While engaged in this extremely difficult task, he had the dubious pleasure of seeing Jack Tier come off in a small skiff, being evidently deter-mined, as if by premonition, to go this voyage with his old Captain. Spike alleged that he had heard Jack Tier had died with yellow fever in New Orleans, and his reappearance now under such circumstances was of a nature to arouse superstitious dread in the heart of a sailor.



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