[Upon my arrival only] two short months had gone, since a man,
living on the nearest hill-top overlooking the sea, being blown out
of bed at about daybreak by the wind that had begun to strip his
roof off, and getting upon a ladder with his nearest neighbour to
construct some temporary device for keeping his house over his
head, saw from the ladder's elevation as he looked down by chance
towards the shore, some dark troubled object close in with the
And he and the other, descending to the beach, and finding the
sea mercilessly beating over a great broken ship, had clambered up
the stony ways, like staircases without stairs, on which the wild
village hangs in little clusters, as fruit hangs on boughs, and had
given the alarm. . . .
It was the clergyman himself from whom I heard this, while I
stood on the shore, looking in his kind wholesome face as it turned
to the spot where the boat had been. . . .
A certain clergyman
I had heard of that clergyman, as having buried many scores of
the shipwrecked people; of his having opened his house and heart to
their agonised friends; of his having used a most sweet and patient
diligence for weeks and weeks, in the performance of the forlornest
offices that Man can render to his kind; of his having most
tenderly and thoroughly devoted himself to the dead, and to those
who were sorrowing for the dead. I had said to myself, "In the
Christmas season of the year, I should like to see that man!"
And he had swung the gate of his little garden in coming out
to meet me, not half an hour ago. . . .
climbed towards the little church, at a cheery pace, among the
loose stones, the deep mud, the wet coarse grass, the outlying
water, and other obstructions from which frost and snow had lately
thawed. It was a mistake (my friend was glad to tell me, on the
way) to suppose that the peasantry had shown any superstitious
avoidance of the drowned; on the whole, they had done very well,
and had assisted readily.
Caring for the dead
Ten shillings had been paid for the bringing of each body up to
the church, but the way was steep, anda horse and cart (in which it
was wrapped in a sheet) were necessary, and three or four men, and,
all things considered, it was not a great price. The people were
none the richer for the wreck, for it was the season of the
herring-shoal--and who could cast nets for fish, and find dead men
and women in the draught?
He had the church keys in his hand, and opened the churchyard
gate, and opened the church door; and we went in.
Church of the drowned
It is a little church of great antiquity; there is reason to
believe that some church has occupied the spot, these thousand
years or more. The pulpit was gone, and other things usually
belonging to the church were gone, owing to its living congregation
having deserted it for the neighbouring school-room, and yielded it
up to the dead.
The very Commandments had been shouldered out of their places,
in the bringing in of the dead; the black wooden tables on which
they were painted, were askew, and on the stone pavement below
them, and on the stone pavement all over the church, were the marks
and stains where the drowned had been laid down. . . .
How to identify them?
Forty-four shipwrecked men and women lay here at one time,
awaiting burial. Here, with weeping and wailing in every room of
his house, my companion worked alone for hours, solemnly surrounded
by eyes that could not see him, and by lips that could not speak to
him, patiently examining the tattered clothing, cutting off
buttons, hair, marks from linen, anything that might lead to
subsequent identification, studying faces, looking for a scar, a
bent finger, a crooked toe, comparing letters sent to him with the
ruin about him.
'My dearest brother had bright grey eyes and a pleasant smile,'
one sister wrote. O poor sister! Well for you to be far from here,
and keep that as your last remembrance of him!
Too many graves
From the church, we passed out into the churchyard. Here, there
lay, at that time, 145 bodies that had come ashore from the wreck.
He had buried them, when not identified, in graves containing four
each. . . . So much of the scanty space was already devoted to the
wrecked people, that the villagers had begun to express uneasy
doubts whether they themselves could lie in their own ground, with
their forefathers and descendants, by-and-by.
The churchyard being but a step from the clergyman's
dwelling-house, we crossed to the latter; the white surplice was
hanging up near the door ready to be put on at any time, for a
funeral service. . . .
From death to resurrection
The cheerful earnestness of this good Christian minister was as
consolatory, as the circumstances out of which it shone were sad. I
never have seen anything more delightfully genuine than the calm
dismissal by himself and his household of all they had undergone,
as a simple duty that was quietly done and ended. . . .
In this noble modesty, in this beautiful simplicity, in this
serene avoidance of the least attempt to 'improve' an occasion
which might be supposed to have sunk of its own weight into my
heart, I seemed to have happily come, in a few steps, from the
churchyard with its open grave, which was the type of Death, to the
Christian dwelling side by side with it, which was the type of
Resurrection. I never shall think of the former, without the
latter. The two will always rest side by side in my memory.
If I had lost any one dear to me in this unfortunate ship, if I
had made a voyage from Australia to look at the grave in the
churchyard, I should go away, thankful to GOD that that house was
so close to it, and that its shadow by day and its domestic lights
by night fell upon the earth in which its Master had so tenderly
laid my dear one's head.