The Last Crew
Spring found us early that eventful year,
Seeming to know in her clairvoyant way
The bitterness of hunger and despair
That lay upon the town.
Out of the sheer
Thin altitudes of day
She drifted down
Over the grim blockade
At the harbor mouth,
Trailing her beauty over the decay
That war had made,
Gilding old ruins with her jasmine spray,
Distilling warm moist perfume
From chill winter shade.
Out of the south
She brought the whisperings
Of questing wings.
Then, flame on flame,
The cardinals came,
Blowing like driven brands
Up from the sultry lands
Where Summer's happy fires always burn.
Old silences, that pain
Had held too close and long,
Stirred to the mocker's song,
And hope looked out again
From tired eyes.
Down where the White Point Gardens drank the sun,
And rippled to the lift of springing grass,
The women came;
And after them the aged, and the lame
That war had hurled back at them like a taunt.
And always, as they talked of little things,
How violets were purpling the shade
More early than in all remembered Springs,
And how the tides seemed higher than last year,
Their gaze went drifting out across the bay
Thrusting out of the mists,
Like hostile fists,
Waited the close blockade-
Then, dim to left and right,
The curving islands with their shattered mounds
That had been forts;
Mounds, which in spite
Of four long years of rending agony
Still held against the light;
Faint wraiths of color
For the breeze to lift
And flatten into faded red and white.
These sunny islands were not meant for wars;
See, how they curve away
Before the bay,
Bidding the voyager pause.
Warm with the hoarded suns of centuries,
Young with the garnered youth of many Springs,
They laugh like happy bathers, while the seas
Break in their open arms,
And the slow-moving breeze
Draws languid fingers down their placid brows.
Even the surly ocean knows their charms,
And under the shrill laughter of the surf,
He booms and sings his heavy monotone.
There are rare nights among these waterways
When Spring first treads the meadows of the marsh,
Leaving faint footprints of elusive green
To glimmer as she strays,
Breaking the Winter silence with the harsh
Sharp call of waterfowl;
Rubbing dim shifting pastels in the scene
With white of moon
And blur of scudding cloud,
Until the myrtle thickets
And the sand,
The silent streams,
And the substantial land
Go drifting down the tide of night
On such a night as this
I saw the last crew go
Out of a world too beautiful to leave.
Only a chosen few
Beside the crew
Were gathered on the pier;
And in the ebb and flow
Of dark and moon, we saw them fare
Straight past the row of coffins
Where the fifth crew lay
Waiting their last short voyage
Across the bay.
And, as they went, not one among them swerved,
But eyes went homing swiftly to the West,
Where, faint and very few,
The windows of the town called out to them
Yet held them nerved
And ready for the test.
Young every one, they brought life at its best.
In the taut stillness, not a word
Was uttered, but one heard
The deep slow orchestration of the night
Swell and relapse; as swiftly, one by one,
Cutting a silhouette against the gray,
They rose, then dropped out softly like a dream
Into the rocking shadows of the stream.
A sudden grind of metal scarred the hush;
A marsh-hen threshed the water with her wings,
And, for a breath, the marsh life woke and throbbed.
Then, down beneath our feet, we caught the gleam
Of folded water flaring left and right,
While, with a noiseless rush,
A shadow darker than the rest
Drew from its fellows swarming round the quay,
Took an oncoming breaker,
Shook its shoulders free,
And faced the sea.
Then came an interval that seemed to be
Part of eternity.
Years might have passed, or seconds;
No one knew!
Close in the dark we huddled, each to each,
Too stirred for speech.
Our senses, sharpened to an agony,
Drew out across the water till the ache
Was more than we could bear;
Till eyes could almost see,
Ears almost hear.
And waiting there,
I seemed to feel the beach
Slip from my reach,
While all the stars went blank.
The smell of oil and death enveloped me,
And I could feel
The crouching figures straining at a crank,
Knees under chins, and heads drawn sharply down,
The heave and sag of shoulders,
Sting of sweat;
An eighth braced figure stooping to a wheel,
Body to body in the stifling gloom,
The sob and gasp of breath against an air
Empty and damp and fetid as a tomb.
With them I seemed to reel
Beneath the spin and heel
When combers took them fair,
Bruising their bodies,
Lifting black water where
Their feet clutched desperate at the floor.
And as each body spent out of its ebbing store
Of strength and hope,
I felt the forward thrust,
At first so sure,
Fail in its rhythm,
Hang an endless moment-
Till in a rush came fear-
Fear of the sea, that it might win again,
Gathering one crew more,
Making them pay in vain.
Then through the horror of it, like a clear
Sweet wind among the stars,
I felt the lift
And drive of heart and will
Working their miracles until
Spent muscles tensed again to offer all
In one transcendent gift.
A sudden flood of moonlight drenched the sea,
Pointing the scene in sharp, strong black and white.
Sumter came shouldering through the night,
Battered and grim.
The curve of ships shook off their dim
Vague outlines of a dream;
And stood, patient as death,
So certain in their pride,
The slow inevitableness of Fate.
Close, where the channel
Narrowed to the bay,
The _Housatonic_ lay
Black on the moonlit tide,
High sweep of spars
Flaunting their arrogance among the stars.
Swift-winged and absolute,
Gulping the stars,
Folding the ships and sea,
Holding us waiting, mute.
Then, slowly in the void,
There grew a certainty
That silenced fear.
The very air
Was stirring to the march of Destiny.
One blinding second out of endless time
Fell, sundering the night.
I saw the _Housatonic_ hurled,
A ship of light,
Out of a molten sea,
Hang an unending pulse-beat,
While the hot clouds flung back a sullen roar.
Then all her pride, so confident and sure,
Went reeling down the dark.
Out of the blackness wave on livid wave
Leapt into being- thundered to our feet;
Counting the moments for us, beat by beat,
Until the last and smallest dwindled past,
Trailing its pallor like a winding-sheet
Over the last crew and its chosen grave.
Morning swirled in from the sea,
And down by the low river-wall,
In a long unforgettable row,
Man faces tremulous, old;
Terrible faces of youth,
Broken and seared by the war,
Where swift fire kindled and blazed
From embers hot under the years,
While hands gripped a cane or a crutch;
Patient dumb faces of women,
Mothers, sisters, and wives:
And the vessel hull-down in the sea,
Where the waters, just stirring from sleep,
Lifted bright hands to the sun,
Hiding their lusty young dead,
Holding them jealously close
Down to the cold harbor floor.
There would be eight of them.
Here in the gathering light
Were waiting eight women or more
Who were destined forever to pay,
Who never again would laugh back
Into the eyes of life
In the old glad, confident way.
Each huddled dumbly to each;
But eyes could not lift from the sea,
Only hands touched in the dawn.
_'He would have gone, my man;_
_He was like that. In the night_
_When I awoke with a start,_
_And brought his voice up from my dream:_
_That was goodbye and godspeed._
_I know he is there with the rest.'_
Brave, but with quivering lips,
Each alone in the press of the crowd,
Was saying it over and over.
The day flooded all of the sky;
And the ships of the sullen blockade
Weighed anchor and drew down the wind,
Leaving their wreck to the waves.
Hour heaved slowly on hour,
Yet how could the city rejoice
With the women out there by the wall!
Night grew under the wharves,
And crept through the listening streets,
Until only the red of the tiles
Seemed warm from the breath of the day;
And the faces that waited and watched
Blurred into a wavering line,
Like foam on the curve of the dark,
Down there by the reticent sea.
What if the darkness should bring
The lean blockade-runners across
With food for the hungry and spent....
Who could joy in the sudden release
While the faces, still-smiling, but wan,
Turned slowly to hallow the town?