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 Beautiful Belmont, Part 56 -- A Trip to Lake Worth.

by John Salisbury Cochran.

See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 55 -- Indian River, Florida.

The next morning I started on a trip down the Indian River in my two-masted "Sharpie" sail boat, heading for Lake Worth and Palm Beach, 150 miles south, intending to take in at my leisure the different stopping places along the riverbank. I had been living the life of a recluse and knew that my mind was becoming morbid and sick. I longed for something I had not yet found, and imagined a change of scenery and the society of others might bring some relief, no matter how temporary. Mingling with others and constant change of scenery interested me and helped me to partially forget my great sorrow and abject loneliness for the time being.

As one travels south toward Lake Worth the surroundings become more tropical and engaging, and it is surprising to learn there is such scenery within the limits of the United States. My black boatman and I eventually arrived at Jupiter, where we were compelled to pass out through the inlet to get to the ocean, then sail another eight miles on the ocean to get to another inlet into the beautiful waters of Lake Worth. (At that time it was not connected with Indian River by canal as it was later. They were then connected only by the so-called "Celestial Railway," starting at Jupiter, the northern terminus at the lower end of Indian River. Juno, its southern terminus at the northern end of Lake Worth, and Venus, a town between, were spread out along the eight-mile railway.)

The natural grandeur of Lake Worth is almost indescribable. It is a body of sea water 25 miles long and averaging possibly one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide throughout its entire length, with a small island or two placed amid its crystal waters. The inlet is small, thus giving the lake a happy immunity from the storms that agitate the ocean from which it draws its life. Its clear, placid waters reflect the cloudless skies and sparkling stars that shine above and help to form a mirror of reflecting beauty. When the moon, through an ever clear atmosphere, adds to the celestial display, its reflecting waters become a picture of surprising grandeur. Around its shores on a moonlight night are reflected the shadows of the stately palm, the fragrant orange tree, the coconut, the banyan, the rubber tree, the umbrella tree, the mulberry, the cinnamon, the magnolia, and the gorgeous royal poinciana, forming an attractive margin to a delightful picture. Hundreds of tropical and subtropical trees, plants, and flowers complete the picture.

During the day the sun scarcely ever ceases to shine. It may rain, though very seldom in winter, but in an hour the sky is clear, the sun is shining and all nature smiles again. The countryside along either shore of Lake Worth, especially near the Royal Poinciana Hotel, are laid out in the most beautiful flowery walks and gardens of all kinds of plants and flowers, with shady bowers, romantic nooks and retreats, interspersed with sparkling fountains. Vast wealth has been expended on the grounds of the Oil King connected with the Royal Poinciana; its beauty is more than can ever be imagined. The clean shores of Lake Worth, extending down to the water's edge with a gentle slope of green grass, left only little margin of clean, white, sandy beach. The elevation of the land above the water is possibly little over ten feet.

When my boat entered the upper end of Lake Worth I could see gondolas, naphtha launches, and beautiful boats of all kinds putting out from the shores filled with joyous, happy people bent upon pleasure trips and fishing excursions up and down the lake. I was struck by the costliness of these boats; small fortunes must have been spent on many of them. My "Sharpie" was the prettiest boat on the upper river, but here she was definitely outclassed. It was about ten o'clock in the morning of an ideal day, and I stood on the deck of my neat little boat. I could see the walks of these beautiful flowery parks filled with finely dressed men, women, and children, some walking leisurely around, some sitting looking idly out upon the lake, some reading, and others evidently engaged in courtship. As I took in the rapturous scene I thought what a delightful place it was for lovers. It looked to me like a fairyland.

When I arrived at the beach in front of Mrs. Moore's mansion, at the north end of what was then McCormac Park, subsequently added to that of the Royal Poinciana, I tied my boat and went ashore, stopping at the Moore house, a pleasant and entertaining place. It is over a quarter mile from the ocean beach to the Royal Poinciana, the walk skirted with palmetto and palm trees and various shrubs and flowers. After I had enjoyed my noon luncheon and a rest, I took a book that I was reading and sauntered out this avenue to the ocean. Along the beach, up and down for some distance, were little groups of from two to six people gathering shells and whiling away the time. Occasionally a light laugh from one of these happy people was carried to my ears on the breeze, each sounding to me like a hollow mockery of my own sadness.

The Mysterious Tall Lady

After taking in the ocean view and the fresh breeze for a while, although darkness was beginning to descend, I noticed far down the beach a gentleman and two ladies moving away from me. One of the ladies was quite tall and stately and her graceful movement had such a striking familiarity about it that it filled me with a strange feeling. After watching them for a time, I turned and slowly walked back to a seat in the park. Sitting with my back to a tree and the ocean, I resumed reading my book. Many people passed me returning from the beach, but I was so absorbed in my book that I paid little attention to them. Suddenly I heard a voice that startled me; I looked up to see the gentleman and two ladies that I had observed far down the beach. They had passed without observing me, and I had not noticed them until they had gone by some little distanc. They were engaged in animated conversation and it was the voice of the tall lady that had caught my attention.

It was getting too dark to read and I closed my book. I rose to my feet, but found I was trembling from head to foot. What had caused it? It was the voice and words of the tall lady, which seemed like a voice of long ago. The experience kept me awake until late and I got little sleep that night. The next morning, after a short walk through the park, I took a seat on the front veranda of the Royal Poinciana, sitting among the many guests congregated there. The truth is, my experience of the previous afternoon and evening had brought an inexplicable desire to meet the tall lady from the day before. I had seen her only at a distance, and had not seen her face at all. I decided to walk to the beach, where I might have an opportunity of seeing the mysterious woman again.

I slowly sauntered along the avenue and when I came in view of the ocean some distance away, I saw a party of five, in addition to the boatman, in the act of entering a small "cat boat." Two of the passengers were gentlemen and three were ladies. One of the women was the tall lady of the previous evening. It appeared they had persuaded her to accompany them, despite the reluctance she had expressed the day before -- remarks that I had overheard. Before I had reached the beach, the gentle breeze caught the sail of the small craft, which shot out into the water; I had lost another opportunity, and I stood watching them until the boat became a mere speck on the horizon. I could not help observing the decided stillness of the ocean; in certain seasons of the year this is ominous, and it proved so on this occasion.

A gentle breeze had been blowing seaward and made admirable sailing. A "cat boat" is a small sailboat, having the shape of the letter V, with one mast at the bow, which is the acute angle of the boat. They are used extensively by excursion parties for fishing, and are ordinarily regarded as safe boats. No small boat should be on the ocean in a storm, however. The chances are always against it. I decided to take a seat near the beach at the end of the avenue and wait for the boat to return in order to get a closer view of its occupants. I had been reading for over an hour when a sense of extreme heat and oppressiveness came over me and I felt decidedly uncomfortable. I laid aside the book and discovered that the breeze had stopped. There was scarcely a breath of air stirring, and a deathly stillness filled the atmosphere. I knew this meant that a storm was approaching.

Deeply apprehensive, I carefully watched the little boat, still a mere speck in the distance; behind it, far out on the ocean, a black gathering storm was moving towards it. I wondered why the boatman was not making for shore, but in a moment I realized that they were "becalmed." No sailboat can travel without wind, and there was not a breath of it in the air. I shuddered when I thought of the danger for the excursionists in such a situation. I knew that in time a breeze from the approaching storm would drive them toward the shore, but it depended entirely on the velocity of the wind and the skill of the man managing the frail boat, whether they would be swamped or overturned in the mighty waves produced by such a dark and rapidly approaching gale. I also knew if they ever reached the shore their boat was liable to be dashed to pieces upon the beach by the mighty waves. I had already begun to notice a swelling agitation in the water, which was gradually creeping higher up the shore.

Tempest, Capsize, and Rescue

My own experienced boatman, William, had followed me to the beach and I directed him to give warning at the hotel, then go quickly to his boat and bring back a long bow line. A number of strong men were soon on the beach with other ropes to aid in the rescue if the boat was able to reach the shore. They knew that in case it did, the boat would likely be turned over on top of the passengers; the rescuers hoped that those onboard could jump from the boat at the proper time and the unfortunate victims saved before they were sucked back by the fearful and treacherous undertow.

Undertow is a very dangerous thing, and has caused the death of many a victim when they imagined they were safe as they drew nearer to shore. It consists of a current of water below the surface traveling in a different direction from that on the surface, a direction drawing the unsuspecting person back towards the ocean. In a heavy storm its force is all-powerful. After a great wave dashes against the shore, it naturally ebbs back into the sea -- the receding wave beneath exerting a sucking force as it withdraws -- even as the next wave passes over the first to spend its fury against the shore. When a small boat strikes the shore under such conditions, if it is not overturned on its occupants and dashed to pieces, it trembles for a moment like a thing of life upon the beach and then is frequently, although not always, sucked under and engulfed by the combined undertow and oncoming wave.

Offshore, the small boat was now moving towards the beach, running before the storm. Despite the skill of the mariner guiding the craft, the storm was growing ever more terrible; although nearing the shore rapidly, the man had been forced to reduce sail, thereby reducing his speed as well. As the boat came nearer the peril of the occupants became apparent and the strain on those watching it, fearful. I removed my excess clothing, including my shoes, tied one end of the long light bow line around my chest and shoulders, gave the other end to William and others on the beach, and took a position close to where the waves pounded the shore; two other men with bow lines fastened to them stood at short distances from me.

As the boat came on -- riding a last wave before overturning -- I shouted to the occupants to jump in the water. The boatman was clinging to his mast, and threw his bowline towards shore just as the boat struck, but those on the beach failed to catch the rope and it was dragged under by the undertow and went out with the boat which, fortunately, did not capsize or swamp. The woman closest to me had responded to my commands, however; just as the boat struck, she threw herself into the water. I rushed into the wave, caught her in my arms, and we were both carried ashore by the next wave. Our feet struck the beach, but scarcely had they done so than the undertow swept under us and carried us both back toward the ocean. Strong arms at the other end the line around me quickly reversed our direction, and neither the rescued woman nor I suffered any injury.

As I assisted the lady to her feet our eyes met, and reeling with astonishment, I placed my hands over my eyes as if to shut out a horrible nightmare and exclaimed, "Minerva, is this you?" "Yes.... But oh, save them. Please save them!" she cried frantically, pointing to the returning boat. I turned quickly and saw that it was coming back to shore broadside. The heroic boatman was again at the mast, having gathered up the bow line from the sea. The boat struck with a fearful thud and just as it did, one of the ladies and her husband sprang into the water together and were rescued. The other refused to jump and her husband gallantly remained with her. The sailor remained with his boat, though again those on the shore failed to grasp the line. Luckily, the bow of the boat turned toward the sea and met the incoming wave squarely.

The storm was at the height of its fury, and Minerva stood clasping her hands in despair, fearing for the lives of her friends still in the boat. She looked imploringly at me, and I thought I detected a trace of the old-time affection as I stole a quick glance just as I sprang back to the water's edge. The boat struck hard astern, upending and throwing all on board into the sea. Fortunately none of them was thrown under the capsized hull. The two men were quickly rescued by others. The woman fell near me and I caught her just as the undertow was sweeping her away. She grasped me firmly and we were being rapidly pulled ashore when the boat was whirled round on its side and the projecting boom pole, thrasing through the water, struck me hard on the back of the head. I felt my senses leaving me as I was rapidly dragged ashore.

See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 57 -- Scenes of Our Childhood.

For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.

This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.

CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
CO-AUTHOR: Schultheiss, Tom. (Asst. Editor)

DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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