In which I am shipwrecked and lose my way and my memory; am privileged to witness a miraculous healing; find myself in some sort a prisoner, and resist the temptation to escape.
How wretched and grim is the sight of a seashore when a ship has been wrecked upon it! All across the flat white sand are strewn ragged portions of woodwork, wrenched and smashed by the waves, with splinters and pegs protruding like broken fingers; snapped masts and torn sails lie tossed here and there, barrels and chests bob in the rolling surf; all the careful craft and handiwork that go to build and furnish a vessel have been spoiled and destroyed with a fearful speed, perhaps even as quickly as I can write these words.
Such were my thoughts while I dragged myself, wet and shivering, up the slope of some strand—I knew not whether French or Spanish, for our hooker had been blown far to the east from its intended port of San Sebastian, which lies close to the frontier. A wild January gale, severe even for the Bay of Biscay, had swept down upon us with hail and thunder, breaking our mainmast like a daffodil stalk, and while the crew were struggling to make good this damage, wind and tides had carried the helpless vessel to an unsheltered stretch of coast where rocky reefs, lying some half-mile from the shore, had broken up the hull, and the furious pounding waves had soon reduced our ship to fragments. The crew and passengers were lucky that the in-rolling tide had carried them, clinging to spars, casks, and pieces of wreckage, into shallow water whence they could scramble ashore, I among them. Now the sailors were attempting to rescue what they could of the ship’s cargo.
For myself, I had no more than I stood up in, woolen breeches, buckled shoes, shirt, and a striped fustian jacket with steel buttons. My thick boat-cloak I had cast off when the ship struck rock and I was hurled into the waves; now I much regretted its loss, for the winter wind blew keen as a razor, and there was no shelter in the wide open bay where we had been flung. Inland lay a series of ragged sand dunes, crested with rough grass; about a mile off, at the northern end of the bay, the land rose to a low cliff and broke off abruptly, to reappear in the form of an island some quarter-mile out to sea; on this island I thought I could detect buildings, though at such a distance, and in the flying rain and spume, it was hard to be sure. Otherwise there were no houses at all to be seen in this cheerless landscape, which seemed hardly more welcoming than the sea from which we had escaped.
“You, there—you, boy!” bawled the captain. “Come here and lend a hand hauling on the rope!”
Evidently, although I had paid good money for my passage from England to Spain, he considered that, due to my lack of years, he had a right, in the present emergency, to order me about. Indeed I was very willing to help the men with their task of salvage; hauling on the rope was a vigorous and warming activity and gave me the feeling, at least, that we were doing something to remedy our dismal state.
By and by, I supposed, some natives of the nearest town or village would arrive to claim their share of the cargo and furnish us with beds, fires, food, and information as to where we had been cast up.
So far none had appeared; glancing to and fro, between tugs on the rope, I could see that steep wooded slopes ran up at the southern end of the bay, and steeper mountains rose behind them, one great triangular peak shrouded in snow and cloud. Nowhere could I descry any dwellings, but any number of houses might be concealed behind those tree-covered ridges. They were some considerable distance away, though; indeed, as I later discovered, behind the bay stretched a wide, marshy, uninhabited region, which was why nobody had yet appeared to give us succor.
An hour’s work sufficed to drag ashore a fair portion of the cargo, which consisted of woolen goods, and some of the ship’s furnishings; though most of these were thrown up by the waves themselves which came surging and pounding onto the beach like white mountains of water. Among such raging seas it seemed a miracle that we had all escaped with our lives. And, this thought coming into my mind, I found within me, all of a sudden, a most powerful and irresistible wish to kneel and thank God for allowing me to escape the fury of the ocean.
At this juncture a large bale of woolen stuff had just been successfully hauled up above tide level; and, seizing a moment when the crew were taking breath and looking for some new object to salvage, I left them and walked swiftly away toward the rear of the beach, passing between two of the sand dunes which formed a rampart there. Nobody hindered my going; perhaps nobody noticed.
Behind the dunes I discovered a belt of thickety woodland, sandy underfoot, formed of some dense and twisted bushes, or rather small trees, which were covered in evergreen leaves, and grew so close and tangled together that I had much ado to force my way between them. There was no path at all. The farther in I penetrated, the thicker grew the bushes, and I was beginning to believe that I must return to the beach and find some other way, when I came forth into a kind of glade, or chamber, in the very heart of the grove. That was a most mysterious place! About the size of a large room, or small chapel, walled and roofed with close-packed leaves—for the branches met and arched overhead—it seemed like a woodland crypt or shrine, even to the dim, holy light, for all that filtered through the foliage was very faint and green in color. A more suitable spot for such a purpose as mine could not have been imagined, and my first care was to kneel down on the damp peaty sward and offer up a prayer of heartfelt gratitude to God for my deliverance from peril (also by no means the first peril from which He had delivered me, and I mentioned that I was well aware of this continuing care, and humbly obliged for it, and hoped and trusted that it would also continue to support me in future hazards).
Sheltered in such a close thicket, with the line of dunes between me and the beach, I could still hear the ocean roar, but reduced now to a deep uninterrupted moaning sigh. Clear and quiet above the sigh came, inside my head, the voice of God: Felix, if I have preserved you, it is because there are still tasks for you to perform in this world. Be of good courage always, do not forget in danger that love is a powerful weapon and laughter a strong shield. Remember, too, that you and I have had a few jokes together in the past; it may be that in the future we shall have more. I was overjoyed to discover that God still held the same opinions as myself in this regard, and sent him a warm thought of friendship, as a son might to a father who shares and understands his feelings and pursuits.
Then I rose, brushed the sand from my knees, unbuttoned my sodden jacket, and made sure of the safety of a money belt and its golden contents which I wore beneath my salt-stained cambric shirt.
After that I began to take a careful survey of the glade, hoping to find some way out other than that through which I had made my difficult entrance. Dusk had commenced falling, the light failed fast, and, had I not snapped off two or three branches in pushing through, which hung down showing the pale inner wood, I would hardly have been able to discover even the way by which I had come. There seemed no other exit, and wondering still more whether this strange spot was made by human agency or not, I was about to retreat when I heard a new sound—a voice that turned my blood to ice water and raised the hair, tingling, on my scalp.
“Oh!” it sighed in mournful, heartrending tones, barely above the sound of the