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Frederick A. Ober

The Cave in the Cliffs

I returned to the vessel with a heavy, heavy heart, for I had now the saddest of duties to perform—the putting away forever of my only real friend here, my dear uncle. It. was assuaging to my grief, in a sense, that I could comply with his last request and place him in a grave ashore, rather than consign him to the deep; but even so, what can be more terrible than death, in any form? I know the best of books saith, or intimateth, there is no sting in death, there is no victory in the grave; but I was not then in a state to consider the solaces therein contained. My bereavement was too recent, and the circumstances attending upon my uncle's death too terrible.

Welcomed aboard the "Nancy" as one returning from having encountered dire peril—for my friends had seen the gathering groups of muttering and scowling men as I passed, and feared for my safety ashore—it was indeed a relief to be once more among men of my own laud and those who had known and respected my uncle. With their assistance I enshrouded the dear form in the ship's flag, placed it in a casket we roughly hewed from plank, and then we bore our erstwhile commander ashore in the long boat. We could not but anticipate trouble, seeing that there were those on shore who were friends of the men we had slain; yet none of us was armed, save with the utensils we carried for digging the grave. They were strange men, those Brethren of the Sea. Although fierce in their nature and savage in onslaught, unrestrained in their passions and moved oft by cruel impulse, they seemed soon to forget their injuries and harbored no thoughts of revenge on those who had opposed them valiantly in their defence. So they ventured no opposition to our sad procession, but held aloof; for the which we were very grateful, as may be well believed.

I had selected a spot enclosed by huge rocks, near a projecting point where grew a solitary palm, as the last resting-place of my dear kinsman, and here we dug the grave, near to the murmuring waters of the sea, yet beneath the shadow of the great cliffs. Having placed him therein and recited the prayers for the dead, we left him to his last rest, in this spot so far distant from his kin and the home he loved so well.

But I will dwell no longer upon this grievous situation. Let me now turn to scenes that have in them more the promise of hope. Our little company, now reduced to the forlorn remnant of our crew that survived the pirates' onslaught, took up the burden of daily duties as though life had held out to us the golden promise of release from the slavery into which we were now plunged. A hopeless slavery, it appeared; yet in our hearts was ever the hope that something might offer that would give us that release for which we daily prayed.

The buccaneers were not long to leave us in doubt as to their intentions, for that very eve word came from Mansvelt to get ashore and occupy some huts which the Indians had been ordered to construct for us above the beach at the base-line of the cliffs. These huts were made of palm leaves, in form dome-shaped and about ten feet in diameter, after the manner in vogue amongst the Carib salvages whom the first Spaniards found in possession of these West Indian isles. Owing to the mild and equable climate, ever soft and genial, save in the months of ouragans, when the rains fell in torrents and the winds blew with mighty violence, these huts sufficed us well as dwelling-places. The clean beach sand formed the floors, the bright leaves of the cocoa palms the roofs, and but for our dreadful straits we might have enjoyed their occupancy. One of the huts was assigned as a hospital, in which were gathered our sorely wounded ones—all save the youth I have mentioned, who was permitted to be in my sole charge and to share with me the hut first in the line nearest to the cliffs. This lad had recovered swiftly from his cuts and bruises, and it was not many days ere he could walk about a bit, steadied by my arms around him; but ever after he walked but with a limp, from the cruel gash he had received in one of his legs.

As I have said, it was fortunate that I had him dependent upon me for support—well for me that I had some one in my charge more weakly than myself—for in the care I gave him I was somewhat absorbed, and had less time to brood over my own troubles.

The sharing of another's sorrows is, in the wise dispensation of Almighty God, one of the compensations of life. Let me impress this truth upon thee, oh, reader mine, in whatsoever age or clime thou dwellest, for it is a foundation fact of our brief existence. The dear Lord, in his superlative wisdom, gave to me this youth to care for, to take in a measure the place of my departed relative and my mother; and, sooth, it was with a brother's love that I grew to regard him, and he requited all my care with a deep regard. This love for him and by him was the sweetener of my existence, then, and so long as we lived together. And, what is strange, the rough buccaneers respected our devotion to each other, and, besides some sneering allusion to "David and Jonathan" on the part of Morgan and his like, they threw no jibes at us nor sought to separate us while we dwelt on the isle of blood.

In the coolest corner of our hut I swung a hammock, so placed that he could look out upon the sea while lying there, and where, soothed by the murmur of the waves and the rustling of the broad cocoa leaves o'erhead, he full oft lay and dozed in seeming content. His name was John James Blake, and he came of a good family that owned a property contiguous to our manor near the Dart. He was two years younger than myself, fair as to complexion, slight as to build, and of a loving, gentle disposition. Making no complaint, but rather enduring all without a murmur, he looked upon me as his saviour, and said many a time and oft that he owed his life to me. Whether this were so or no, it gave to me keen sense of pleasure to think that such might be the case; yet I always chided him for the remark, reminding him that we were not yet "out of the woods," and he had better not halloa too soon. At which he would smile faintly, and say that he was sure some good would come of this, since God in his mercy had allowed his life to be spared.

I prepared his meals and mine together, during the day sitting by his side or within call, and at evening time, when the sun drew near to the horizon, I would bring forth my dear mother's Bible and read to him such portions as were most comforting. At such latter times we would seem to be lifted nigh to the very heaven of which the precious Book of books reminded us. Yea, even in despite of our surroundings, for we felt ourselves renewed by those eternal truths therein contained, and dwelt for brief space with the verities of God.

Far be it from me to endeavor to preach to thee, reader, or to dogmatize; but be assured that this be true, for it is founded on the ever-lasting rock of promise: that whosoever layeth hold upon the eternal verities hath naught to fear. This earth and all it containeth shall pass away, but the Word of God remaineth forever. This much only I know: that in our case it was a steadfast anchor to our souls, but for which we should have been swept away to destruction.

It was then that I first appeared to receive the saving glimmer of light from above, coming to me through the Word, and showing me how much there might yet be, even in this world, worth living for and enjoying. While sitting at the hut's entrance, which opened toward the sea and the west, on my knee the sacred Book, and with one hand clasped by the lad's hand hanging over the hammock's side, the sinking sun would oft embrace us in his golden beams.

We would then cease from reading and from converse, and watch the red orb sink beneath the waves, leaving after it most glorious clouds tinged with celestial hues. Sometimes a lane of light, oft pearly and oft golden, would lead away from the coral ledges in front of our beach straight to the horizon's gates, and, iii truth, it would appear to us that we saw before us the entrance-way to heaven. The wind by this time would have died away to merest zephyr, and the only sound—save always the brawlings of the buccaneers at a distance—would be the whisperings of the palm leaves o'erhead, as if in sweet communion together.

How peaceful and even heavenly were those moments, just at the death of day and birth of night! We would gaze at the spectacle without speaking, then turn with sighs to look into each other's faces. We never spake the word, but each knew that in the other's soul was a sense of divine restfulness, and in his heart a. whispering of hope. Thus were our souls knitted together through sweet contemplation of God's glories as made manifest on earth.

We were not long to enjoy this idyllic state unmolested, as may be imagined; but ere I narrate the dread events that were in store for us, let me speak of something else. Being by nature of an exploring turn of mind, I employed my spare time to investigate the isle and our immediate surroundings, always having before me the possible need of a place of retreat in case of emergency. It needs must be that I was super-naturally assisted in this, as will now appear, for one day I found a spot so well equipped by nature for defence (of a few against an army, per-adventure) that I could see ill its discovery but the finger of Providence.

I say I found it, but it was through John's agency, as will now appear. He one day fell from out the hammock to the floor of the hut, which being sand he was not much hurt, but for the sand being a thin layer only above a ledge of rock. When his hip struck this spot he noted, despite the hurt resulting from said fall, that a sound was given forth, like as if he had struck on something hollow. And, in sooth, he had, for when he told me of his experience I at once investigated, and found that the rock beneath the sand was merely a thin slab, which, by exerting all my strength, I could e'en lift from its position.

It happened that this discovery was made about high noon, when all the people of the island, e'enmost, were indulging in that midday sleep which they of the Spanish islands term the "siesta." Fortunate it was for us, as the sequel will prove, that no one observed the lifting of the slab, as I will tow relate. The flat rock covered the entrance or exit to a subterranean passageway, which beneath our hut was about five feet deep. It appeared a mere pit, the which, when I had let myself down into, disclosed an- other opening, about three feet high, which made off nearly horizontally in the direction of the cliffs behind us. I was for exploring the passageway at once, and, encouraged by John, procured a candle and went in alone, while he watched the entrance and concealed the opening by a blanket across the open doorway of the hut.

At first the passage was narrow, being like a fissure between ledges of rocks, with a roof formed by the wedging in of rocks fallen from above. These had ultimately become covered with soil and sand, and what was originally an opening out at the sea-level had also been filled with the washings up of the waves until it was entirely concealed. But who had discovered this exit and had dug the perpendicular pit that gave the concealed entrance into the horizontal passage? That at least was of artificial construction, as shown by the covering slab of rock.

This question bothered me some as I made my way cautiously along the drift, crawling between the natural walls on either side. But I resolved, be the discoverer alive or dead, to find out what lay at the other end of it. Nor did it take me long to reach the end of the passage, which after a short run had taken an upward course, showing that it had penetrated the backbone of the island formed by the mighty cliffs. Scrambling upward, over a series of steps, I at last stepped out, as it were, by a side-door into an immense cavern, so broad and high and altogether spacious that I could not, with my dim light, begin to ascertain its extent. A glimmer of daylight at the western end of the cavern attracted me thither, and I found a natural window in the rock, through. which, though it was covered by a screen of vines, I got a glimpse of the sea, and found by that I was two or three hundred feet above the strand where the hut was situated.