"Well!" exclaimed Henderson, who was standing by me, close abaft the weather main rigging, watching—as I was—the rapid sliding past us of the various objects ashore, "I've heard people speak of a ship as sailin' like a witch, but I'm only now comin' to rightly understand just exactly what that expression means; it means goin' along precisely as if you was shot out of a gun! Why, Mr Delamere, I don't believe as there's anything afloat that can touch us—not, at all events, in moderately smooth water. What we shall do in a heavy sea remains to be seen; and we shall soon find that out, I reckon, for it's all foamin' white away out there in the offing; but I've a notion that she'll go over it all like a duck, provided that we don't drive her too hard. Look at that, sir,"—as the schooner leapt from the crest of a sea into the hollow beyond, and the foam buzzed and boiled to the level of her lee head-rail and then went glancing away dizzily aft—"ain't that just perfectly beautiful? Never shipped a drop, she didn't! And there again! My eyes! but she is a beauty, and no mistake."
"She is certainly behaving wonderfully well," I admitted, my voice all a-quiver with pride. "How does she steer? Is she easy on her helm?" I demanded of the man at the wheel.
"Gripes just the leastest bit in the world, sir, but nothin' worth speakin' about. I could steer her wi' one hand," answered the man; and to prove his words he placed one hand behind him and kept it there for a minute or two while he grasped a spoke of the wheel with the other.
We had by this time brought the Beacon shoal about one point abaft the weather-beam, and I was of opinion that we could weather it on the next tack; I therefore gave the word, "Ready about—Helm's a-lee!" and directed the helmsman to ease down the helm. He let go the wheel for a moment, and the little hooker at once came to the wind with her head-sails slatting and threshing as she spilled the wind out of them; then he began to pull the wheel over toward him, and with one terrific dive into a sea that came rushing at her, and which she split into two showers of diamond spray that leapt half as high as her foremast before it came driving aft in a shower that nearly drenched us to the skin, round she swept like a gun upon its pivot, and was full again upon the other tack almost before we could blink our eyelids. The beauty of a fore-and-after is that she practically works herself, all that is needed being three or four hands on the forecastle to trim over the jib and fore sheets as she comes round. It was simply child's play compared with the complicated manoeuvres that attend the working of a full-rigged ship, and Henderson laughed aloud in his delight at the simplicity of it.
"Why, Mr Delamere," he declared, "it's like sailin' the Europa's launch, only easier. The launch never stayed as smartly as that, not so long as I've knowed her!"
We weathered the Beacon shoal, with room to spare, as I expected we should; and then kept away, with slightly eased sheets, for the passage between Gun and Rackum Cays, after negotiating which we shaped a course for Cow Bay and Yallah Points, off the latter of which we arrived shortly after six bells in the forenoon watch had struck. Still hugging the coast as closely as possible, we arrived off Port Morant about four bells in the afternoon watch, about which time we found the sea-breeze to be merging gradually into the Trade-wind and heading us so badly that at length we were obliged to heave about and head off-shore. Here we soon got into such a boil of a sea that the little hooker threatened to smother herself, and it became necessary for us to haul down a second and a third reef, and to take the jib off her, after which she went along quite comfortably, shipping nothing worse than an occasional sprinkling of spray over her weather-bow. At eight bells of the second dog-watch we handsomely weathered Morant Point on our way out through the Windward Channel, it being my purpose to work out through the Caycos Passage, and then cruise to and fro athwart and to windward of the Windward Passages—that being the cruising-ground which I believed the pirates would be most likely to haunt.
Shortly before daybreak, on the third morning after leaving Port Royal, we found ourselves rapidly drawing into smooth water—so rapidly, indeed, that Pearce, the boatswain, whose watch it was, came down in some alarm and roused me out, fearing that Willoughby, the midshipman who was acting as master, had made a mistake in his reckoning, and that we were about to blunder on to some danger or another. I was able, however, to set the good man's mind at rest by explaining that we were doubtless drawing in under the lee of the Caycos Bank, and that therefore the water might naturally be expected to smoothen. Nevertheless, feeling that I had had a good night's rest, and understanding from Pearce that day would dawn in less than half-an-hour's time, I turned out and, slipping into my trousers and jacket, went up on deck. And very glad I was that I had done so, for I was thus enabled to observe a very curious natural phenomenon, which one might knock about in those seas for years without seeing, for the simple reason that the circumstances must be favourable or the phenomenon is not visible.
The Caycos Bank is a shoal lying some sixty-eight miles off Monte Christi, on the north coast of Hayti. It measures about the same distance from its north-western to its south-eastern extremity, and is about sixty-two miles across from east to west at its widest point; it is consequently of considerable extent, and from the fact that the depth of water over it ranges from six feet to eighteen feet it is not without its dangers, and must be approached with due caution, especially during the hours of darkness. In daylight the danger is not nearly so great, because the north-eastern and north-western edges of the shoal are fringed by a number of cays among which the sea breaks heavily, while the whole surface of the shoal is white water. And it is this same white water which gives rise to the phenomenon above referred to, locally known as "Bank Blink." It is simply the reflection of the phosphorescence of the water in the clouds above; and the darker and more overcast the night, the more distinctly is the reflection seen. The phenomenon is, of course, quite natural and easily to be accounted for, yet its occurrence can scarcely be regarded as less than providential; for there can be no doubt whatever that its appearance in the sky has often been the means of warning navigators that they were approaching this danger, and so causing them to haul off in time to avoid shipwreck.
Upon the night in question, when I first saw it, I found, upon going on deck, that the darkness was profound, the sky being so completely obscured by clouds that not so much as a single star was visible. But away to windward, ranging from about two points on the weather-bow round to square abeam, the clouds from almost overhead to within some fifteen degrees of the horizon were faintly yet quite perceptibly tinged greenish hue, the tinge being strongest about midway between our weather-bow and beam. Pearce had noticed it, it appeared, when I came to question him about it, and had thought that it might possibly portend a change of weather until he had looked at the barometer and found it inclined to rise; then he had become alarmed by the smoothing of the water, which seemed to him far more portentous than the light on the clouds.
I had not been on deck more than a quarter of an hour when the blackness under the lower edge of the bank blink away over our starboard cathead began to pale, first to a cold slaty-grey, and from that, by rapid gradations, to a rich purple, then to crimson, and from crimson to an orange tint so deep as to be almost scarlet, beneath which the horizon loomed out black as ink, the intervening space of water lightening, as it swept toward us, until at the distance of a couple of miles it became a livid bluish-white. This marked the western edge of the shoal, and sufficiently accounted for the smoothing of the deep-water in which we were sailing.
As the orange light spread north and south from the point at which it had originated, at the same time reaching upward from the horizon, the bank blink began to fade, or rather to become merged in and overpowered by it; and the shapes of the heavy, lowering clouds that overhung us began to reveal themselves, their lower edges here and there suddenly flushing into hues of the richest yet most delicate rose that rapidly strengthened first into scarlet and then to burning gold as the rays of the yet unrisen sun smote upon them. Presently, in the midst of the rich orange light that was now flashing up on the eastern and north-eastern horizon, there emerged a shape of indigo, practically flat-topped, but with two small protuberances, one at each end, which, by a stretch of the imagination, might be termed hills, rising to a height of perhaps sixty or seventy feet. This was the island of West Caycos, the most westerly of the cays on the bank, and ten minutes later we were under its lee and within less than a cable's length from the beach.
But what a change had taken place in the aspect of sea and sky during those ten minutes! As we stood, spellbound, watching the gorgeous changes of colour that were taking place along the eastern horizon, a broad ray of white light, the edges slightly tinged with violet, suddenly shot vertically aloft from the horizon, piercing the cloud-masses as though with the thrust of a spear; and as though there had been magic in the touch those cloud-masses at once began to break up and melt away, assuming, ere they vanished, every conceivable tint of the rainbow, from the deepest and richest hue of purple, through crimson and scarlet, to purest molten gold. And while these wonderful changes of colour were taking place, shaft after shaft of living, quivering light flashed into the sky, radiating like the spokes of a wheel against the warm primrose tints of the horizon—merging by imperceptible degrees into the pure, delicate azure of the sky revealed by the breaking up and dissolution of the clouds—to be followed, a few seconds later, by the appearance above the horizon of a great rim of blazing, palpitating golden fire, the level rays from which shot along the tumbling surface of the ocean, splashing it with a million scintillating points of dazzling light, as the crests of the tiny wavelets curled over and broke under the whipping of the freshening breeze. Then, while we still stood watching, a gauzy veil of rain—"the pride of the morning"—swept down upon us, blotting out the glories of the sunrise for a brief minute or two, then driving away to leeward, leaving our sails and deck dark with wet, and revealing the sun, now fully risen, and the sky clear and pure to windward.
With the freshening of the breeze we rapidly brought West Caycos first abeam and then on our weather quarter, while the high land of Providenciales grew upon the weather-bow. Here we were very nearly getting into an exceedingly awkward scrape, for while I went below to prepare for my morning bath under the head-pump, after witnessing the magnificent sunrise that I have endeavoured to describe, the wind suddenly fell light and died away; and then, while I was dressing after my bath, the sea-breeze suddenly sprang up, blowing half a gale; and there were we, not three miles from the land, with as dangerous a stretch of lee-shore as is to be found in all this region abeam of us. Fortunately the schooner's extraordinary weatherliness stood us in good stead, and enabled us to claw off, but for which we should probably have left her bones, if not our own, there. Our mid-afternoon observations showed us to be in latitude 22 degrees 21 minutes North, and longitude 71 degrees 57 minutes West, which position I considered far enough out for our purpose; we therefore hove about and, under short canvas, proceeded to work our way slowly to the southward and eastward, on the lookout for anything that might chance to come our way.
For several days after this nothing of moment occurred. Finally we found ourselves some two hundred miles to the northward and eastward of the Mona Passage, and I was debating within myself whether to bear up and go back over the ground which I had just traversed, or to continue on and have a look at Porto Rico. But while I was thinking over the question, the lookout in the fore crosstrees reported a sail to windward, quickly succeeded by several others, whereupon we made sail and shaped a course that would enable us to get a somewhat clearer view of them, and, if necessary, to intercept them.
The lookout aloft soon reported that the leading ship was under short canvas, while those which immediately followed her were covered to their trucks, and showing studdingsails as well, from which piece of information it was not difficult for me to guess that the strangers to windward consisted of a convoy of merchantmen, with its escort of men-o'-war. This conjecture of mine soon proved to be correct, for within half-an-hour of their first appearance the leading ships were in sight from the deck, and we made out the biggest of them to be a 74-gun ship, the others in sight obviously being merchantmen. As we closed, with ensign and pennant hoisted, the commodore signalled me to come alongside and send a boat aboard, which I did, going in the boat myself to see what news I could pick up. I thus learned that the ship I had boarded was the Goliath, the captain of which was the commodore of the squadron of convoying ships, consisting of—in addition to the Goliath—the frigates Tourmaline and Spartiate, and the gun-brigs Vulcan, Wolverine, Spitfire, and Tortoise; the convoy consisting of three hundred and eighty-seven sail of all sorts, bound to the various West Indian ports. I informed the commodore of the nature of the duty upon which I had been sent out by the Admiral on the station, and inquired whether any suspicious craft had been sighted during the passage; to which he grimly replied in the affirmative, but added that they had all been accounted for, and would be found, with prize-crews aboard them, in the main body of the fleet. I stayed on board the seventy-four for a couple of hours, gathering what news the inmates of the ward-room could give me; during which the Wasp, under boom-foresail and fore-staysail only, easily kept company with the ponderous two-decker, looking in comparison with her "no bigger as my thumb," as the negroes would say. She excited a great deal of curiosity, on account of her very peculiar model, and likewise a very considerable amount of admiration as she swept along lightly and buoyantly as a seagull over the long undulations of the heavy swell that was running. It was the first time that I had ever beheld her under sail, from outside her own bulwarks, and although, looked down upon from the lofty poop of the Goliath, she seemed to be the merest cockle-shell, small enough to be hoisted inboard and stowed upon the two-decker's main hatch, there was still a look of staunchness about her that, coupled with the beauty of her form and the rakish sauciness of her entire appearance, made me feel very proud of the fact that I commanded her, as well as very anxious for an opportunity to show of what she and her crew were capable.
Having extracted all the information I could obtain—which, after all, was not very much—I made my adieux, descended the side, stepped into my boat, and returned to the schooner. Upon rejoining her, we made sail and hauled to the wind, in the hope of finding some picarooning craft hanging on to the skirts of the convoy; but although we hovered in the wake of the latter until the very last of them had disappeared beneath the southern horizon, our hopes were vain; and, finally, I decided to bear up for the Navidad, or Ship Bank, proceed through the Sea of Hayti as far as the entrance of the Windward Channel, and then, if still unsuccessful in my search for traces of the pirate, to work my way back to the Atlantic by the Crooked Island Passage, exploring some of the cays in Austral Bay on the way, they seeming to me to afford considerable facilities for the establishment of a pirate depot.
WHAT THE GUNNER SAW.
Two mornings later—the Wasp being at the time off Ysabelica Point, which is the most northerly point of the island of Hayti—I was awakened by young Dundas, one of the two midshipmen whom I had on board. He entered my cabin, laid his hand lightly on my shoulder, and, as I started up at his touch, said:
"I beg your pardon, Mr Delamere, for entering your cabin, but I knocked twice and you did not seem to hear me. The gunner is sorry to have you disturbed, sir, but he would be very much obliged if you would come on deck for a minute or two."
"Very well," said I; "I will be up in a brace of shakes. Just turn up the lamp, if you please, youngster, and let us have a little more light on the subject. Ah! that's better, thanks. Kindly hand me those unmentionables. I say, Mr Dundas, there doesn't seem to be very much wind. What's the weather like?"
"Stark calm, sir; smooth water, and as dark as the inside of a cow," answered the lad.
"Does the weather look threatening, then; or what does—? But never mind; those shoes, if you please. Thanks. That will do. Now I am ready. Away you go, youngster."
Preceded by the lad, I passed into the fore-cabin and thence up on deck, where, as Dundas had picturesquely intimated, the darkness was profound and the air breathless, save for the small draughts created by the flapping of the great mainsail to the gentle movements of the schooner upon the low undulations of the swell.
As I stepped out on deck I heard Henderson's voice close at my elbow, although the man himself was invisible.
"Sorry to have been obliged to disturb you, Mr Delamere," he said, "but something's happened that I thought you ought to know about."
"Yes?" I remarked interrogatively. "Well, what was it, Henderson?"
"Well, it's like this here, sir," he replied. "We've been becalmed this last hour or more, durin' which the schooner have been boxin' the compass, while it's been that close and muggy that one don't seem to have been able to get air enough to breathe. And the closeness made me feel so drowsy that, to prevent myself from droppin' off to sleep, I've been obliged to keep on my feet, pacing fore and aft atween the main cabin skylight and the main riggin'. The watch have coiled theirselves away somewheres, and I don't doubt but what they're snatchin' a cat-nap—and I haven't troubled to disturb 'em, sir, for the lookout on the fo'c's'le is keepin' his eyes skinned.
"Well, a few minutes ago—it may be five, or it may be ten—I'd just swung round to walk aft from the main riggin' when, as my eyes travelled away out here over the port quarter, I got the notion into my head that there was somethin' goin' on down there, for it seemed to me that I'd got a glimpse—out of the corner of my eye, as it might be—of a small sparkin', like—like—well, hang me if I know what it was like, unless it might be twenty or thirty pistols or muskets all being fired close after one another."
"Ah!" I ejaculated. "And did you hear any sound, Henderson—anything like that of distant firing, for instance?"
"No, Mr Delamere; not a sound, sir," answered the gunner. "But then," he continued, "that ain't very surprisin' when you comes to think of it, for just listen to what's goin' on aboard here—the old hooker ain't so very noisy, I'll allow; still, what with the rustlin' of the canvas overhead, the patter of the reef-points, the creakin' of the jaws o' the mainboom, the clank o' the wheel-chains, and the wash and gurgle of the water alongside with the roll of her, there's not much chance of pickin' up sounds comin' from a distance, is there, sir?"
"No, that is true, there is not," I admitted. "Did you see, or hear, anything else, Henderson?" I asked.
"No, sir; never another thing," answered the gunner. "And I'd like ye to understand, Mr Delamere, that I wouldn't care actually to stand up in court and swear that I really saw what I told ye; for, as I explained, I only caught the thing out o' the tail-end of my eye, as it might be, and then 'twas gone again, and I saw nothin' more. But the impression that I really had seen something was so strong that I felt it was my duty to report it."
"Of course; you did perfectly right," I agreed; "particularly in view of the task that has been given us to do. Did the lookout see anything of this appearance of flashes?"
"No, sir," answered Henderson; "he didn't. Nat'rally he wouldn't, for he was keepin' a lookout ahead and on either bow, while this here flashin' showed—if it really did show at all, and wasn't my imagination—out there over the port quarter."
"Quite so," I concurred. "Under those circumstances he would not be in the least likely to see the appearance. Did it occur to you to take the bearing of the spot where you thought you saw those flashes?"
"Yes, sir, it did," answered Henderson. "I stood, just for a second or two, to see if there was any more comin': and then, not seein' anything, I went straight to the binnacle and took the bearin', which I found to be nor'-west and by west, half west."
With one consent we both walked aft to the binnacle and peered into it. The schooner had swung several points while the gunner had been spinning his somewhat long-winded yarn, for the bearing which he gave now lay about a point over the starboard quarter. I stared into the blackness in that direction, but could see nothing. Then I got the night glass and, setting it to my focus, raised it to my eye, pointing it out over the starboard quarter and sweeping it slowly and carefully to right and left. For a minute or two I saw nothing; then, as I swept the tube along what I judged to be the line of the horizon, a tiny smudge of radiance—so dim as to be scarcely more than a suggestion—seemed to float athwart the lenses and was gone again. There is probably nothing in ordinary life much more difficult than to pick up and retain in the lenses of a telescope, levelled by hand, a spark of light so minute and faint as to be invisible to the unaided eye in the midst of the surrounding darkness, and the difficulty is enhanced when the attempt is made from the deck of a small vessel oscillating though ever so gently on the ridges of a long, low-running swell, and for the life of me I could not again find the feeble glimmer that had seemed to swim athwart the instrument, try as I would.
"It is no good, Henderson," I said at last, abandoning the attempt in despair, and handing the telescope over to him. "I am almost certain that for a single instant I caught a faint blur of light away out there; but I cannot find it now. Take the glass, and see if you can meet with any better success. But verify your bearing before you do so."
The schooner had swung a point or two further round by this time, and the bearing now lay broad over the starboard beam, in which direction Henderson pointed his glass. Meanwhile Dundas, the midshipman who had called me, had slipped down below and brought his own telescope on deck, and was working away with it, but neither he nor the gunner met with any luck; and I was about to try my hand again when a slight lessening of the intensity of the darkness away down in the eastern quarter indicated the approach of dawn. In those low latitudes the transition from night to day, and vice versa, is extraordinarily rapid, occupying but a few minutes; and, even as we stood watching, the pallor strengthened and spread to right and left and upward, suggesting the stealthy but rapid withdrawal of an infinite number of dark gauze curtains from the face of the firmament, until presently the eastern quadrant of the horizon became visible, the pallid sea showing like a surface of molten lead, sluggishly undulating like the coils of a sleeping snake, while overhead stretched an unbroken pall of dark grey cloud that seemed to promise a drenching downpour of rain before long.
The light from the east stole upward among the clouds and westward along the surface of the sea with amazing rapidity, yet to our impatience its progress seemed exasperatingly slow, for away down in the west the darkness was still profound. And yet, even as we gazed, that darkness seemed to become diluted, as it were, with the advancing light that we could almost see sliding along the surface of the water, until suddenly, as though emerging from an invisible mist, a ghostly object appeared, grey and elusive, against the background of darkness, and with one voice we all three shouted:
"There she is?"
Yes, there she was—a large ship, about seven miles away, lying becalmed, like ourselves, with all plain sail set, to her royals and flying-jib. For perhaps half a minute after our first sight of her the light was too weak and uncertain to enable us to discern details; but as we kept our telescopes persistently bearing upon her, first one distinctive feature and then another became revealed.
"She's a full-rigged ship, lying broadside-on to us, Mr Delamere," announced young Dundas.
"So I perceive," I returned somewhat dryly. "And I notice, also, that she has swung with her head to the southward."
"She's a big lump of a craft, not very far short of 900 tons, I should say," commented Henderson, with his eye still glued to the eye-piece of the schooner's glass. "And," he continued, after a slight pause, "I reckon she's a foreigner; that high poop and them deep-curvin' headboards never took shape in a British shipyard, I'm prepared to swear to that. Looks to me like a Dutchman. What do you think, Mr Delamere?"
"I agree with you that she is undoubtedly a foreigner," answered I; "but I don't think she is Dutch—there is too much gilding and gingerbread-work about her quarters for that. There,"—as the sun broke through the clouds and showed his upper rim above the horizon, flashing a long, level beam along the surface of the water, striking the stranger and causing the stern of her to blaze into a sudden flame of glittering radiance—"do you see that, Henderson? Her quarter is a solid mass of painted and gilded carving. The Dutchman is too economical, too fond of the dollars to lavish so much gold-leaf as that on the adornment of his ship; he prefers to put the money into extra bolts and fastenings. No; that fellow is a Spaniard, or I'm greatly mistaken!"
"Spaniard, or Dutch, or French, it don't make much difference to us, Mr Delamere," answered the gunner, as he replaced the telescope in the beckets; "she'll give us a nice little bit o' prize-money as soon as the breeze comes and enables us to run down alongside her."
"Ay, that she will—if she doesn't happen to be a man-o'-war—and I don't believe she is," I answered, as I again levelled my glass at her. "No," I continued, "she is no man-o'-war, although I see she shows a set of teeth; but there are not many of them, they are all small pieces, and half of them may be quakers, for what we can tell to the contrary. She is a Spanish West Indiaman, I believe, bound, no doubt, to Cartagena, or some other port on the Main; and she has probably come in through the Handkerchief, or Turks Islands Passage. Well, there does not seem to be much chance of the wind coming just yet, Henderson, so you had better get your head-pump rigged and muster your scrubbers; meanwhile I will have my bath, as usual, and then get dressed, so as to be all ready by the time that the breeze comes."
When eight o'clock and breakfast-time arrived there was no perceptible change in the aspect of the weather, which remained stark calm; while the heavy pall of cloud that had shrouded the night sky had thinned away to a kind of dense haze in the midst of which the sun throbbed—a great shapeless splotch of misty light that, notwithstanding its partial veiling, still contrived to impart a scorching quality to the breathless atmosphere.
As I ascended to the deck after breakfast I found Pearce, the boatswain, whose watch it now was, apparently waiting for my reappearance. He held the schooner's glass in his hand, and had evidently spent practically the whole time since eight bells in watching the stranger.
"I've been thinkin', Mr Delamere," he began, "how would it be to get the boats out and go after that chap? We could do it quite comfortable—take possession of her, leave a prize-crew aboard her, and get back to the schooner again before dinner."
"No doubt," I agreed. "But why should we trouble to get the boats into the water and fatigue the men by a long pull in this sweltering heat? That ship can't get away from us without wind; and if I am any judge of the looks of a vessel we shall walk up to her as if she were at anchor as soon as the breeze comes. She is a good seven miles away, a pull of an hour and a half at the least in this weather, and at the end of it the men would be too tired to face resistance effectively, if it were offered—as it very possibly might be. No, I really do not see any necessity to dispatch the boats, just yet at least; do you?"
"Well, 'pon my word, Mr Delamere, I don't know," answered Pearce, scratching his head with a puzzled air. "The way you puts it there don't seem to be no sense at all in doin' of it. And yet, I don't know, sir. The fact is, I'm a bit puzzled about that there ship. Here are we, regularly boxin' the compass, our jibboom pointin' first this way, then that, and then t'other, while that ship haven't veered nothin' to speak of all the time that I've been on deck; she've pointed steady to the south'ard ever since I first set eyes on her, and it seems to me that she've altered her bearin's a bit. I suppose it ain't likely that she've got her boats into the water, towin' on t'other side of her, have she?"
"Good gracious, man, no, surely not!" I ejaculated. "What in the world should they do such a mad thing as that for? What effect would two, or even three, boats have on a big heavy ship like that? They could never hope to tow her below the horizon and out of sight of us before the wind comes; and, if not, why should they tire themselves to death by making such an attempt? I admit that it is rather strange that her head should point so steadily in one direction while we are boxing the compass; but she probably draws twice as much water as we do, and that may have something to do with it."
I took the telescope from Pearce's hands and again levelled it at the stranger. She was still lying broadside-on to us, showing us her port side, and her yards were braced sharp up on the starboard tack, as though—assuming her to have come in through one of the passages—she had had a wind from the westward, while the breeze which had brought us where we were had been from the eastward. The peculiarity of this now struck me for the first time, but it carried no particular significance to my mind beyond the suggestion that possibly she might, after all, be homeward instead of outward bound. But as I stood scanning her through the lenses it gradually dawned upon me that her people seemed to be extraordinarily busy, for I could detect indications that quite a large number of men were actively moving about her decks; and presently, to my astonishment, I noticed that she had a tackle at her mainyard-arm; and while I was still wondering what this might be for, I saw a large case rise slowly above the level of her bulwark and then vanish again, apparently over her rail.
Then, in a second, illumination came to me and I understood everything. There was a craft of some sort alongside her, completely hidden from our view by her hull and canvas, braced as sharp up as possible, and undoubtedly there were boats in the water on the other side of her, employed to keep her broadside-on to us and thus keep the other craft hidden from us; moreover, certain portions of her cargo were being hoisted out and transferred to the hidden vessel. The inference was obvious: the hidden craft was a pirate which had somehow managed to sneak up alongside and surprise her in the pitchy darkness of the early hours of the morning—Henderson had actually caught a glimpse of the very act of capture—and now she was being plundered by the audacious scoundrels under our very eyes.
I laid down the glass and looked sharply round the horizon. The atmosphere was distinctly thickening, to such an extent, indeed, that the sun was now almost blotted out, and there was a greasy look about the sky that seemed to portend bad weather. The sea was still glass-smooth, not the faintest suggestion of a catspaw to be seen in any direction; but there was a certain gloomy, lowering appearance over the western horizon that appeared to promise a breeze before long. It might be hours, however, before it came, and we could not wait for it; for robbery, and very possibly violence, ay, even cold-blooded murder, was being perpetrated at that moment, and speedy intervention was imperative. I felt horribly vexed that we should all have allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked so completely; for although the device was undoubtedly quite clever, the conviction would insist upon forcing itself upon me that I had attached altogether too little importance to the gunner's story of those mysterious flashes, seen "out of the corner of his eye." I told myself that that story ought to have aroused my suspicions, ought to have conveyed a distinct suggestion to my mind; and that, if it had, we should have detected the ruse almost with the first appearance of daylight. This, however, was not the moment for reproaches, either of myself or others, it was the moment for action; and I turned sharply upon the boatswain.
"Mr Pearce," I said, "on the starboard side of that ship there is another craft, completely hidden from us by the hull and canvas of the stranger, and cargo is being hoisted out of the one and transferred to the other. That means that an act of piracy is being perpetrated; and we have been commissioned for the express purpose of suppressing piracy. It is as likely as not that the hidden craft is the identical vessel that we have been sent out to capture, but in any case our duty is clear; we must get up within striking distance and interfere without a moment's loss of time. Now, the question in my mind is this: Should we man and arm boats, and send them away; or should we rig out our sweeps and attempt to sweep the schooner up to the scene of action? Under ordinary circumstances I should be for dispatching the boats; but I don't quite know what to make of the weather. There is no sign of a breeze in any direction at the present moment, but that lowering appearance away to the westward may mean wind; and if it does, it may come down very strong. Should it do so, it would bother the boats, and enable the pirates to slip away; on the other hand, the wind may not come away for several hours yet. This is one of those occasions when experience is valuable, and I shall be glad to have your opinion as to which plan is the better."
Pearce, meanwhile, had been peering through the glass again; but when I finished speaking he laid it down and turned to me.
"'Pon my word, Mr Delamere, it's very difficult to say," he answered. "While you've been talkin' I've been lookin' at that ship away yonder, and I believe, sir, as you're right about there bein' another craft alongside of her, although they've so managed things that they might ha' stayed all day as they are without our bein' any the wiser, if we hadn't kept on watchin' 'em. Yes; it's a hact of piracy, right enough, I haven't a doubt; and, as you says—what's the best thing to be done?"
He paused and gazed earnestly toward the increasing appearance of thickness and greasiness in the western quarter, carefully studying its aspect for a full minute or more; then he turned to me again.
"I don't like the look of it at all, Mr Delamere," he said. "There's bad weather brewin' yonder—I'm sure of it—but how long it'll be before it comes no man can say; it may be hours, or it may be on us within the next half-hour or so. What does the barometer say?"
We both stepped to the open skylight and peered down through it at the barometer, which hung in gimbals from the fore transom. The mercury was falling rather rapidly.
"Yes," Pearce continued, "I don't like the look of it, sir, and I shouldn't like to take the responsibility of advisin' of you to send the boats away. For, ye see, Mr—"
"Yes," I interrupted, cutting ruthlessly in upon the man's speech, "I see quite clearly, boatswain, that you and I are of one mind upon that point, therefore there is no need to discuss it further, and we will at once proceed to action. Call all hands if you please, Mr Pearce."
The next moment the shrill chirruping of Pearce's pipe and his gruff bellow of "All hands ahoy!" resounded throughout the little vessel, and our decks at once became a scene of animation. The galley fire was extinguished, although the cook was by this time busy upon the preparation of the men's dinner; screens were fastened up round the hatchways, the magazine was opened, powder and shot were passed up on deck, and the guns were cast loose and loaded, the men dancing about the decks with the glee and activity of schoolboys preparing for a day's amusement. Then, as soon as we were all ready for action, the heavy sweeps were rigged out, four men to each sweep, and the schooner's bows were pointed straight for the stranger. To overcome the inertia of the little vessel, and get way upon her, was laborious work, and the men, stripped to their waists, were soon streaming with perspiration; but after the first five minutes' toil, during which we worked up a speed of about three knots, it proved a comparatively easy matter to keep her going.
It soon became evident that a keen watch upon our movements was being maintained by the pirates; for no sooner had it been made apparent that we intended to close with the strangers than all attempts at further concealment were abandoned, the ship's courses were clewed up, her yards were squared; to facilitate the hoisting out of cargo, additional tackles were got aloft, and all the signs of greatly increased activity on board her at once became manifest. It now also became apparent that some means had been resorted to for the purpose of keeping her broadside presented to us and her hull interposed between us and the pirate vessel, and that these means had now been abandoned as of no further avail; for within the next ten minutes she swung stem-on to us, and we saw that there was indeed another craft alongside her—a slashing big topsail schooner, immensely beamy, with all her canvas clewed up and furled, and her decks cumbered with bales and packages of all sizes and descriptions, which were being hoisted out of the big ship's hold and lowered over the side with feverish activity. As the two craft swung round, revealing the presence of the second vessel, our lads gave a cheer of delight and exultation, and applied themselves with such fierce energy to the toil of working the heavy sweeps that they churned the glassy surface of the ocean into a long double row of miniature whirlpools, that went swirling and frothing away from the blades of the sweeps into the wake of the schooner, to the distance of a full quarter of a mile.
Fortunately, however, they were not compelled to toil very long at this exhausting labour; for when we had progressed about a mile a few catspaws came stealing along the surface of the water from the westward, while a dark line gradually extended along the western horizon and advanced steadily in our direction, the catspaws meanwhile multiplying and spreading until, within a quarter of an hour of their first appearance, the sails of the strange ship were wrinkling and flapping to quite a pleasant little breeze. The moment that this happened the pirate schooner cast off and made sail with the rapidity and precision of a man-o'-war, thus demonstrating that she was manned by an exceptionally strong and efficient crew. As soon as she was clear of the ship she was brought to the wind, under an enormous spread of exquisitely cut canvas, and away she went, close-hauled on the port tack, heading to the northward at a pace which made us gape with astonishment; while the ship, with squared yards, gathered stern-way and first fell broadside-on to us, then gradually paid off until she was before the wind, when down she came driving toward us, yawing so broadly to port and starboard that it was easy to see she had nobody at her helm, which seemed to point pretty clearly toward the presumption of tragedy. A quarter of an hour later the catspaws were ruffling the surface of the water here and there all round us, and stirring our canvas at rapidly decreasing intervals, with the true breeze coming fast and close behind them; we, therefore, laid in our sweeps, put the helm up, trimmed our sheets on the port tack, took a long pull and a strong pull upon the halliards all round, and paid off just in time to receive the first of the true breeze into the hollows of our canvas, when, heeling over to the extent of a strake or so, away we too went, with a merry buzzing and seething of water under our bows and along our bends.
THE WASP FIGHTS THE PIRATE SCHOONER.
The pirate schooner—a craft of apparently two hundred tons or more, very long and low on the water, painted dead black, with immensely tall, wand-like masts, and an enormous spread of canvas—was now slipping along fast through the water, heading to the northward, and some six miles dead to windward of us. It was a long start, and I foresaw that, fast as the little Wasp undoubtedly was, unless something quite unforeseen occurred, a good many things might happen before we could get alongside the enemy. Why such a big powerful vessel—she showed seven ports of a side, and there was something suspiciously like a long 32-pounder on her forecastle—should turn tail so ignominiously and run from a little shrimp of a craft like the Wasp I could not imagine, though I was to receive enlightenment upon that point before long. Our immediate business, however, was not with her, but with the big ship that was coming yawing down the wind toward us.
She was now about five miles distant, and as she came driving along, now stem-on, with her square canvas full, and anon sweeping round until she presented one or the other of her broadsides to us, with only her fore-and-aft canvas drawing, we were enabled to get a very good view of her. She was a big craft, of from nine hundred to a thousand tons, perhaps, and at a distance might very well have been mistaken for a man-o'-war. But she was evidently not that, for she showed only four guns of a side upon her upper-deck, and they were but small, apparently not more than 6-pounders. She was very heavily rigged, with a wide spread to her lower yards, but the heads of her square sails narrowed away to such an extent that her royal-yards looked to be scarcely more than ten feet long. Her hull was painted bright yellowish-brown, with a broad white ribbon round it, and her bottom was painted white, with a black stripe between it and the brown, but below the water-line the white paint was foul with barnacles and sea grass, as we could see when she rolled. She carried, by way of figurehead, the image of a female saint, very elaborately painted and gilded, with a good deal of gilded scroll-work round about it, and her stern and quarters were also elaborately carved and gilded. Her topsides tumbled home enormously, her width on deck being little more than half that at her water-line. Surmounting her stern there was a great poop lantern, almost big enough for a man to stand in. A rough painting of the Crucifixion adorned her fore-topsail. She showed no colours; but she was Spanish, beyond a doubt, and most probably, as I had at first surmised, a West Indiaman.
We manoeuvred the Wasp in such a manner as to close with the stranger, as nearly as possible without incurring the risk of being run into and sunk by her in one of her wild sheers, and at the proper moment the schooner was hove-to, the quarter-boat lowered, and with four hands in her, armed with pistols and cutlasses, I jumped in and pulled away for the other craft.
Carefully watching her movements, we contrived to get alongside and hook on without very much difficulty; and then all hands of us swarmed up her towering side and tumbled in on deck, with our drawn pistols in our hands, for there was never any knowing what ghastly trick a pirate might play, or what fiendish trap he might set—they were capable of anything and everything—therefore it behoved us to be wary; but nothing happened. There was not a soul on deck to interfere with us, or to demand our business; and the first thing we did was to put the helm hard over and lay the mainyard aback as she came to the wind. Then I ascended to the poop and took a comprehensive glance round me.
The circumstance that thrust itself most obtrusively forward, demanding immediate notice, was that the main hatchway was gaping wide-open, with a tackle dangling down it from the main-stay, evidently for the purpose of hoisting cargo out of the hold. All round the hatchway the deck was littered with bales and cases of every description, some of them intact, as they had come up out of the hold, while others had been ripped or wrenched open and their contents scattered hither and thither about the decks. There was a cask lying on its bilge, its head knocked out, and perhaps a gallon or so of port wine still in it, while all round about it the deck was dark, wet, and reeking with the fumes of the spilt wine. But there were other and more sinister stains than those of wine on the planks—there were great splashes of blood here and there on bulwarks and deck, much of which was partially hidden by the scattered cargo; but the scene was not nearly so sanguinary or revolting as I had expected to find it, for there were no ensanguined, mutilated corpses to shock the eye, or harrow the imagination, by the sight of their hurts.
Nor, for that matter, were there any living people on board the ship, either in cabins or forecastle, although there was abundant evidence that both had had their full complement of occupants. The forecastle, for example, was lumbered up with the chests of the seamen, boots, caps, and various other articles of clothing lying scattered about the deck, while oilskins, sou'westers, and more clothing hung from pegs and nails driven into the timber walls; the bedding in the bunks also was disarranged, as though the men had just rolled out of them; and a large copper slush lamp, suspended from a deck beam, still burned, smoking and flaring to the roll of the ship upon the swell. The confusion here was merely normal, and such as is always to be found in a ship's forecastle; but the grand saloon presented a very different and terribly suggestive appearance. The whole place was a scene of dreadful disorder and violence, a carouse seeming to have been succeeded by a life and death struggle. For the massive mahogany table was bare, while the cloth that should have covered it lay upon the carpeted deck in a confused heap in the midst of a medley of smashed decanters, glasses, and viands of various descriptions, while the reek of spilled wine, mingled with the odour of gunpowder and tobacco smoke, filled the air; one or two of the handsome mirrors that adorned the cabin were smashed, the cracks radiating from the point of fracture right out to the frame; two or three discharged pistols and a broken sword lay among the debris on the carpet; some of the rich velvet cushions had been torn off the locker and then kicked under the table; and a number of men's, women's, and children's garments lay scattered about the apartment. Nor was this all. The doors of the staterooms on either side of the saloon stood wide-open, hooked back to the bulkheads; and here again the bedding was all in disorder, as though the occupants had leapt hurriedly from the bunks under the influence of some sudden alarm; trunks and boxes were standing open—some of them overturned—and their contents scattered all over the cabin, as though the receptacles had been rummaged in search of jewellery or money, or both. And the soft white linen sheets that formed part of the bedding in one of the cabins was deeply and horribly smeared with scarcely dry blood, with which also the mattress underneath seemed to be soaked! The captain's cabin—or what I took to be such— had likewise been rifled, the charts having been taken from the racks, the chronometer from its padded well in the book-case, and the sextant had vanished, as well as the ship's papers. But we were able to ascertain her name and port of registry, for it was engraved upon the broad brass rim of her steering wheel, and upon her bell: "Santa Brigitta, Santander."
It was evident that there were no living persons on board this fine but ruthlessly despoiled ship, or if there were, they must be in hiding; and with the view of testing this latter point I now swung myself down through the open hatchway leading to the lazarette, believing that that would be the part of the ship wherein a person might most successfully hide and evade capture. I was no sooner down in this gloomy receptacle, devoted to the stowage of the ship's cabin stores, than I saw that it too had been rummaged, if not actually rifled; but I could detect no sign indicative of the presence of a person, or persons, in hiding; and although I shouted until I was hoarse, no sound save the furtive scurrying of rats reached me by way of reply. But presently, as I stood listening, and my ears became accustomed to the subdued creaking and groaning of the vessel's framework and cargo, another sound came to me— the sound of gurgling, bubbling water; and making my way toward it as best I could down between the casks and cases that cumbered the place, I suddenly dropped down into a void, and found water—salt water, surging and washing to and fro with the movements of the ship, to the height of my knees. I tried to find the source of the inflow, but I was now down in the ship's run, standing upon her steeply sloping side, and I speedily realised that the points of influx were already so far beneath the surface as to be entirely beyond my reach; and the water was coming in fast, too, for even as I stood there I could feel it creeping insidiously up my legs. The scoundrels had evidently followed their usual custom and had scuttled the ship, in order that no tangible evidences of their crime might remain.
Until I made this discovery it had been my intention to put a prize-crew on board her and send her into Port Royal; but with one or more— probably half-a-dozen—bad leaks below the water-level, and utterly beyond our reach, this plan was no longer feasible; and now the only thing to be done was to leave the unfortunate craft to her fate, proceed in chase of the authors of the mischief, and do our utmost to bring them to book. I therefore scrambled up out of the lazarette into the main saloon, made my way out on deck again, and, summoning my boat's crew, descended the deserted ship's side, and pushed off on my way back to the Wasp.
But it was with something akin to shock that I looked back at the Santa Brigitta, as the boat sped across the short space of water that separated her from the schooner. For although we had only been aboard her a short half-hour, she had settled perceptibly during that time; so deeply, indeed, that as I looked at her I felt convinced she must have been scuttled forward as well as aft, and that the water must be pouring into her from at least a dozen auger-holes. At that rate she would sink long before we could get out of sight of her, although the breeze was now perceptibly stronger than it had been when I boarded the ill-fated ship.
By the time that I had regained the deck of the Wasp, and that craft was once more under way, the pirate schooner was hull-down on the north-western horizon, nearly ten miles away. But light breezes and smooth water, such as we had at the moment, constituted absolutely ideal weather for the Wasp; it was under precisely such conditions that her marvellous sailing powers showed to the utmost advantage, and, smart as the other schooner had revealed herself to be, I had very little doubt as to our ability to overhaul her and bring her to account. We therefore piled upon the little hooker every rag that we could find a spar or stay for, brought her to the wind, flattened-in her sheets until her mainboom was almost amidships, and generally made all our preparations for a long chase to windward.
But although the weather was at the moment everything that could be desired, from our point of view, I did not by any means like the look of it; the hazy appearance of the atmosphere, far from clearing, was steadily increasing in density, the sun had by this time vanished altogether, and the appearance of gloom away down to the westward was now deepening and, at the same time, working round into the northern quarter of the heavens. Also, the mercury was dropping quite rapidly.
My chief anxiety now was to overhaul the pirate schooner and bring her to action before nightfall; for, with bad weather threatening, unless we could succeed in doing this, there was every likelihood of her giving us the slip during the hours of darkness. A stern-chase is proverbially a long chase, and a chase to windward is apt to be even longer, while a start of some ten miles, under such circumstances, must necessarily prove a heavy handicap to the pursuing vessel; nevertheless I was not without hope that, difficult as our task threatened to be, we might yet accomplish it. For it still wanted nearly an hour to noon, the Wasp was slipping along through the water like a racer, and was looking up a full point nearer the wind than our antagonist, and, early as it yet was to form such a conclusion, I felt almost certain that we were head-reaching as well as weathering upon the chase.
As soon as it became apparent that some hours would probably elapse before we could go into action, I gave orders for the guns to be secured and the galley fire to be lighted again, in order that the men might not be deprived of their usual dinner; and this meal was just nicely over when, to our utter amazement, the chase suddenly hoisted the black flag, bore up, and with squared yards came running down with the obvious intention of coming to close quarters with us; whereupon we once more made ready for battle, at the same time shortening sail to our ordinary working canvas. At first I was distinctly puzzled to account for or understand this sudden change of tactics upon the part of the pirates; but a remark of Henderson's seemed to offer a tolerably plausible explanation of it.
"Depend upon it, sir," he suggested, "they only hauled off to give themselves time to stow away the plunder that cumbered their decks when they shoved off from the Spaniard. They wouldn't want to go into action with a lot of bales and cases hamperin' their movements; but now that they've got everything snugly stowed under hatches, they're comin' down to try conclusions with us; and if they really mean business we've a very tidy little job afore us."
"Ay," I assented; "that schooner will prove a very tough nut to crack, Henderson; she carries more than twice our weight of metal, even if I am mistaken in supposing that I saw a long gun on her forecastle; and she appears to be very strongly manned. Our only chance will be to engage her at close quarters, lay her aboard, and carry her by boarding."
"D'ye think they'll be such fools as to let us do that, sir?" caustically demanded the gunner, chewing hard upon his quid, in his evident perplexity.
"N-o," I returned dubiously; "I don't suppose they will—if they can help it. But that is our only chance, all the same, and we must bend all our energies to accomplish it. And there is no particular reason why we should not, so far as I can see, unless of course we are unfortunate enough to have a spar or two knocked away. Good shooting is what is going to decide this fight, Henderson; and we must hope that ours will be better than theirs."
"Ay," agreed the gunner, "there's no harm in hopin' that; but—" He shook his head, and spat vigorously over the side by way of expressing the doubts that were worrying him.
As it turned out, his doubts and apprehensions were by no means without foundation, for when our antagonist arrived within range of her long 32—I was not mistaken as to that matter—she hauled her wind, and opened fire upon us with it, making very excellent practice, too; although it was not until she had fired six shots at us that any of them actually came near enough to do us any damage, and then the shot only passed through our foresail, making a neat hole in the canvas, but doing no further mischief. Her previous attempts, however, had come close enough to us to prove that she had at least one excellent gunner on board her, for every one of the shot fell within two or three fathoms of us at the utmost; and when a man shoots so well at long range he is bound to score a few hits, sooner or later. And this was precisely what Henderson and I most feared; for so long as the pirates chose to play the game of long bowls they might blaze away at us at their leisure, and in perfect safety, their 32-pound shot flying over and over us at a distance far beyond the range of our 9-pounders.
What we now had to do was to shorten the distance between ourselves and our antagonist as quickly as possible, and bring her within reach of our guns before we sustained any very serious damage from her long gun, if fortune would so far favour us; and I thought that possibly I might here be able to make one of the Wasp's peculiarities very useful. This peculiarity consisted in the fact—which we had by this time had many opportunities of observing—that, in smooth water, such as then prevailed, the little vessel would, if properly handled, shoot quite an extraordinary distance to windward while in stays; and I had it in my mind to utilise this peculiarity now by making a series of very short boards, getting good way upon her, and then easing her helm very gently down, allowing her to shoot the maximum possible distance to windward every time that we hove about. I mentioned the idea to Henderson, but he had not very much faith in it; his idea being that of most old salts, that the best way to work to windward was to break tacks as seldom as possible; he agreed, however, that it might perhaps be worth while to make the experiment and see what the result would be. We accordingly put my plan into practice, with such good effect that half-an-hour later we had actually succeeded in working up near enough to the pirate to bring her within range of our own guns. But meanwhile she had been most assiduously pegging away at us, in the first instance with her long gun only, but latterly with her 12-pounders—of which she mounted seven in each battery—as well, and we had by no means come off scathless, having been hulled three times, and losing two men killed and five wounded before a single shot of ours had reached her, though our spars had thus far escaped, and our rigging had not suffered to any very serious extent.
With our arrival within range of our own guns, however, matters began to be a little more lively; we were fortunate enough to have some half-a-dozen very excellent shots among us, and these men now began to make play, each man being evidently anxious to win for himself the proud distinction of being the champion shot of the ship, with the result that daylight began to show here and there through the pirate schooner's canvas, severed ropes streamed out from the spars, and the splinters began to fly on board her. Then a particularly lucky shot struck her main-masthead fair, just above the nip of her lower rigging, and the next moment down came her main-topmast, with its huge gaff-topsail, while the peak of her mainsail drooped until the gaff hung almost up and down.
"Hurrah, lads!" I cried exultantly; "now we have her. See how she pays off! She is bound to come to leeward now; she cannot help herself. Down helm, Mr Willoughby, and let her go round. Stand by to give her our starboard broadside as we cross her bows. Slap it right into the eyes of her—Phew! that's a nasty one," as a shot from her 32-pounder came along, smashing right through both our quarter-boats, cutting their keels clean in half, tearing a great gap in the bottom planking of each, filling the air in the immediate neighbourhood with splinters, and whizzing so close past my head that the wind of it whipped my hat off and overboard.
The two craft were now not more than a short half-mile distant, and fast approaching each other, the pirate's loss of after-sail causing her to fall broad off and come foaming down toward us, despite obvious efforts to keep her to the wind, while we on our side were making the most desperate efforts to get to windward and thus secure the advantage of the weather-gage, which, in a sea-fight, often means so much. Conned by Willoughby, who was acting master, the lively little Wasp swept round into the wind, fore-reaching magnificently in stays, and then paying smartly off on the starboard tack; and as she did so our three starboard pop-guns barked out, one after the other, and I saw the splinters fly white as the shot struck, close together, about half-way between her starboard hawse-pipe and her cathead, just at the precise moment when she was dead end-on to us. The shot must have raked her from end to end, and quite a small uproar of yells and shrieks that came floating down from her to us on the wings of the freshening breeze told us that they had wrought a very fair amount of execution on board her. But it was evident that her captain knew his business, for the next moment several hands sprang into her fore-rigging; her topsail, topgallantsail and royal were clewed up and furled with exemplary celerity; her jib was hauled down and stowed, and she was again brought to the wind, while half-a-dozen hands swarmed aloft to her mainmast-head to clear away the wreck of her topmast and to pass strops round the shattered stump, to hook the peak-halliard blocks to, and enable them to sway away the peak of the mainsail again. And all the while that this was doing they maintained their fire upon us with the most ferocious energy, and alas! with very deplorable results to the little Wasp and her crew, for we were by this time so close to each other that it was practically impossible for either side to miss; and now it was that her superior weight of metal began to tell.
Our casualties were by this time becoming serious, for we had already lost nine men killed outright, while every moment more wounded were being taken down into my cabin, where Saunders, the surgeon, was working like a nigger, affording temporary relief—he could do no more just then—to the injured. We were still devoting all our energies to the task of getting to windward of our antagonist, and firing at her as fast as our leaping guns could be loaded, in the endeavour to disable her, when they succeeded in bringing her again to the wind, and as she rounded-to they gave us their whole broadside of seven 12-pounders, with a shot from their long 32-pounder by way of make-weight. The result was absolutely disastrous, for as the iron shower hurtled about our ears there was a crashing, tearing sound aloft, and away went both our masts over the side, the foremast shot away close to the deck, while the mainmast went about half-way up its length. Nor, bad as this was, was it all, for poor Willoughby, who was standing by my side, had the top of his skull literally shot away, and fell dead into my arms. The next moment the carpenter came to me with the report that we had been hit between wind and water by a 32-pound shot, and that the schooner was making water fast.
The pirates cheered with ferocious glee as they saw the plight to which they had reduced us, and their captain—a tall, handsome scoundrel, with a very Spanish-looking cast of countenance—had the impudence to leap up on the rail of his vessel and hail us, demanding to know whether we had struck!
"No!" I shouted back fiercely; "and we never will to such a hang-dog, murderous set of scoundrels as man that schooner. Do your worst, you villains. You have the advantage of us this time, but when next we meet it will be my turn!"
"You crow loudly, young cockerel," retorted the pirate captain scornfully, "but if your men are wise they will leave their guns and go below, for I swear to you that if they fire another shot I will sink you!"
"Sink us, then, and be hanged to you!" I yelled back in reply. Then in my exasperation I whipped a pistol out of my belt, and levelling it at him, pulled the trigger. But he did not mean to be shot if he could help it,—preferring, I suppose, to take the risk of being hanged later on,—and the moment that he saw what I would be at he sprang off his perch so hurriedly that he fell headlong to the deck, while our lads sent up a howl of savage derision.
"Put a charge of grape in on top of your round shot, lads," I ordered, "and blaze away as fast as you can load. The Wasp has lost her wings, but her sting remains, and we'll make those scoundrels feel it yet before we have done with them!"
The men responded to this with a loud, fierce hurrah, and turned to their guns again as cheerfully as though they were still certain of victory, although there was probably not a man there who did not by that time realise that the chances were all against the gallant little schooner ever reaching port again.
The battle now raged with absolutely maniacal fury, the two schooners being by this time within biscuit-toss of each other, the pirate schooner lying on our weather-beam. The guns—so hot that they threatened to leap over the low rail into the sea—were loaded and fired as fast as the men could serve them, and, fighting at such close quarters, the carnage on both sides was frightful, the bulwarks of both vessels being practically shot away, and the guns and those who served them left absolutely defenceless. Our deck was like a shambles—there seemed to be more dead than living upon it—and the scuppers were all spouting blood, while the pirates were in scarcely better case, although it was now apparent that they had originally outnumbered us by something like three to one. How long the matter would have continued in this fashion it is impossible to say, but after we had thus been fighting almost hand to hand for about a quarter of an hour, during which the pirate schooner gradually drew ahead of us, a lucky shot from one of our guns brought down her mainmast, when she fell broad off, passed across our bows, raking us severely as she went, and then drove rapidly away to leeward, her people having apparently at length come to the conclusion that they had had all that they wanted in the way of fighting.
The moment it became certain that the fight was over I sank down upon the breech of the nearest gun, mopped the blood and perspiration from my face, and tried to understand the scene of ruin and carnage that surrounded me; for, with the cessation of the turmoil and excitement of battle, everything seemed suddenly to assume the inconsequence and unreality of a dream. I could not quite realise that the shot-torn, blood-bespattered wreck over which my gaze wandered wonderingly was the erstwhile smart and dainty little schooner of which I had been so proud, or that those maimed and disfigured forms lying broadcast about the deck were really dead men; also, my head ached most consumedly, there was a loud buzzing in my ears, the silence—or rather the comparative silence that succeeded to the continuous, sharp explosions of the guns, the excited shouts of the men, and the cries of the wounded—seemed weird, uncanny, unnatural; for now there were no sounds save the wash of the water alongside, an intermittent groaning—cut into now and then by the sharp cry of a man under the hands of the surgeon—coming up through the smashed skylight, and the low murmur of the men speaking to each other from time to time where they had flung themselves down exhausted between the guns. The fact was that I was suffering from the reaction that was inevitable after so fierce and protracted a fight—the battle having lasted for over an hour—and I felt that I must bestir myself or I should become light-headed, or hysterical, or something equally foolish. I, therefore, rose to my feet, called to the steward to bring me a glass of water—the water-cask which usually stood on deck having been smashed to staves early in the fight—and then gave orders for the men to secure the guns. I also sent young Hinton down below to ascertain and bring me the particulars of our casualties.
Thus far we had all been much too strenuously engaged, and our attention too fully occupied, to take note of the weather; but now, as I glanced round at the lowering heavens and observed their threatening aspect, I bethought me that, fatigued though we all were, there still remained an abundance of work to be done in preparation for the storm that was evidently brewing. For the sky was now completely overcast with a pall of dense, livid, purplish, slate-coloured cloud that clearly portended a gale; the wind was coming in hot, fierce, intermittent puffs that scourged the sea into miniature foam-flecked waves for a few seconds at a time and then dropped almost to a calm again, and upon looking at the barometer I saw that the mercury had fallen almost half-an-inch since I had last looked at it shortly before the commencement of the fight. The Spaniard had vanished, and the pirate schooner was still running away to leeward.
Presently young Hinton, the midshipman whom I had sent below to ascertain the extent of our casualties, came up to me with a list in his hand which he had himself prepared, Saunders, the surgeon, being at that moment far too busy to spare time for the making up of returns; and from this list I learned the appalling news that, of our entire complement of fifty-eight, all told, we had lost no less than seventeen killed, and thirty-two more or less severely wounded, leaving only a poor paltry nine of us untouched, of whom I was one. Fortunately, of the thirty-two wounded only about half of them were hurt severely enough to be rendered totally unfit for duty; but that was bad enough in all conscience, with the ship dismantled and leaking, and something very like a gale threatening.
I had just finished the perusal of young Hinton's list when Henderson and the carpenter came up on deck, the former bringing with him the keys of the magazine, which he had secured, in accordance with an order which I had sent down below to him, while Mills was fresh from his examination of the ship's interior. His report was anything but reassuring, for the news he brought was to the effect that we had been hulled no less than seventeen times, four of the shot that had hulled us being 32-pounders, one of which and two of the pirate's 12-pounders had struck us between wind and water. He added that he had plugged the holes as well as he could, but that there was nearly three feet of water in the hold, that the little ship was very severely strained, and that she was making water at the rate of nearly eight inches an hour!
THE END OF THE WASP.
It was clear that in the face of such a report as that, and the threatening sky that frowned down upon us, it was not a moment in which to indulge in thoughts of rest, however loudly our poor aching bodies might clamour for it. There was much to be done to secure our own safety and that of our injured and helpless comrades, and very little time in which to do it; I therefore directed Pearce, the boatswain, to pipe all hands to splice the main-brace; and when this had been done the little band who were still capable of doing duty were divided into three parties—one of which, under Henderson, was stationed at the pumps, with orders to work at them until they sucked; while a second and much smaller party, under the leadership and guidance of the carpenter, was given the task of temporarily securing the various openings in the deck against the possible influx of water—both the skylight and the companion having been completely wrecked by shot; the third party, under Pearce, the boatswain, devoting itself to the task of clearing away the wreck of the spars, and securing as much as possible of the wreckage in order that we might have the wherewithal to give the schooner a jury rig that would enable us to take her into port. The pirate schooner, meanwhile, had continued to run away to leeward upon a course that would carry her to the northern coast of Hayti in a few hours.
The work went slowly forward—it could not be otherwise with men so utterly exhausted as were the little moiety of the Wasp's crew who survived that desperate fight, many of them smarting with the wounds that they had received—and meanwhile the weather grew ever more threatening, stimulating us all to exertions of which I am confident we should have been utterly incapable under more placable circumstances. Not that there was very much to find fault with at the moment, for it was not exactly blowing hard; but the gusts, which for the last hour or more had been sweeping over us, now from this quarter and anon from that, were steadily growing more frequent and stronger, while the sky had become black as night. But before night actually fell we had made shift to pump the schooner dry, the hatches were battened down, the skylight and companion openings had been protected, after a fashion, and we had cleared away the wreck of the mainmast, saving the spar and all attached; and, having done this, the men declared that they must have a meal and some rest before they could again turn-to. And I felt that their claim was just; for indeed they had done wonders, taking all things into consideration. I had not the heart to spur them to further effort just then, for I had worked with them and, therefore, knew from personal experience how utterly exhausted they must feel, and how impossible it would be to get further useful work out of them until they had rested for an hour or two. Indeed, there did not appear to be any good and sufficient reason why I should call upon them for more hard work just then. It is true that much that I intended to do still remained undone, the most important task of all being the getting up of something in the nature of a jury rig; but, short-handed as we now were, that would prove a very formidable task—much too formidable and too protracted to justify the hope that it could be accomplished before the expected gale came; and as I considered the question, and talked it over with Henderson and the boatswain, it seemed that if it could not be completed beforehand, it would really be better on the whole to defer it until after the gale had blown over; I, therefore, gave the order to knock off work and get supper and a rest. Two minutes later the decks were deserted, save by myself, and I was bracing myself up to keep a lookout as best I might.
I felt bound to acknowledge to myself that our situation was very much the reverse of satisfactory; for there we were, totally dismasted, strained and leaking badly, our crew exhausted, and only nine of us unwounded, the land barely twenty-five miles to leeward of us, and, to crown all, a heavy gale springing up. Fortunately, we had been able to make all the provision that was possible to meet the impending struggle—for the wreck of our mainmast was now inboard, while the lanyards of the fore-rigging had been cut away on both sides; and the wreckage of the foremast was now under the schooner's bows, attached to the hull by the stays only, so that it served as a floating anchor, to which the little vessel was already riding head to wind.
I allowed the men two hours in which to rest and refresh themselves, and then once more summoned them on deck; for upon sounding the well I found that, although the schooner had been pumped dry before we had cried "Spell-ho!" there was now eighteen inches of water in her; and I was determined that this leak should be kept down by frequent spells of pumping. It would never do to have the little hooker waterlogged while battling for life in a gale, as there was little doubt that she would be in the course of the next few hours.
In fact, while the men were still toiling at the pumps we got our first real taste of it. For up to that moment the wind had been coming in a steadily-increasing succession of scuffling gusts, each more fierce than its predecessor, first from this quarter of the compass, and then from that, with quite moderate breezes in between, mostly from a northerly direction, that sometimes moderated almost to a calm. But now, after a somewhat longer spell than usual of the moderate breeze, the wind quite suddenly increased in force to that of a full gale, swooping down upon us in a mad scuffle that twirled the little craft about like a teetotum for a minute or two as it howled and raved around us, lashing the whole surface of the sea into one unbroken sheet of foam and spray, and then it settled down and began to blow great guns from the northward, whipping up a nasty short, choppy sea into which, within ten minutes, the little schooner was plunging to the height of her hawse-holes.
This however, as it turned out, was only the beginning of it; for when once the gale had fairly broken loose it steadily grew more furious, with the result that in about half-an-hour we were plunging bows under, while, to add to our difficulties, the violent motion strained the little vessel and opened her seams to such an extent that, so far from getting the pumps to suck, it needed the utmost exertions of all hands, working in quick relays, to keep the leak from gaining upon us.
Clearly, it would never do to permit such a state of things as that to continue, for the only partially rested men would soon become exhausted by the laborious toil of the pumps; and then what would become of us? I, therefore, summoned a council of war, consisting of the gunner, the carpenter, and the boatswain, to whom I explained my view of the situation, and asked their advice. It was my opinion—founded upon our experiences during the recent fight—that if the pirate schooner was to be tackled successfully, it would have to be by a bigger craft than the Wasp, or, at all events, that if the Wasp was to be again employed against the pirates, she would certainly have to be equipped with a very much heavier armament; her insignificant little array of six 9-pounders could never be expected to cope successfully with the other craft's fourteen 12-pounders and her long 32. Therefore, I argued, since our present armament could never be of further use to us, so far as the pirates were concerned, while at the present moment they were doing much to make the schooner strain herself to pieces, and were indeed actually imperilling her safety and that of all on board her, why not throw them overboard, and so relieve the little vessel of their weight and give her the best possible chance to weather the gale? Henderson and the boatswain were rather opposed to this plan, the gunner suggesting, as an alternative, that we should cut adrift from the wreckage that was holding us head to wind, and endeavour to get before the wind and scud; and to this view they still adhered, even after I had pointed out to them that the island of Hayti constituted a lee-shore only some twenty-five miles distant, upon which we must inevitably be dashed before morning if we adopted their plan. The carpenter, however, took my view that we must lose the guns in any case if the schooner went ashore, and probably the ship and our lives as well; while by making a timely sacrifice of the guns there was at least a possibility of saving the ship. We were thus two to two; and as I was absolutely convinced that the plan advocated by the gunner and the boatswain involved the destruction of the ship and the drowning of at least as many of the poor fellows below as were too seriously injured to be capable of taking care of themselves, I unhesitatingly decided in favour of my own alternative, and at once gave the order to throw the guns overboard without further ado.
Watching our opportunity, therefore, and taking advantage of the roll of the ship, we launched our 9-pounders overboard, one after the other, until all six of them had vanished in the ocean depths; and the increased liveliness of the little vessel at once demonstrated her relief at the loss of so much weight from her deck.
The carpenter had just sounded the well, and had announced the joyous news that at last the pumps were gaining upon the leak—which announcement was greeted with a feeble cheer from the now utterly exhausted men, who had for so long been toiling at the almost hopeless task of clearing the ship of the inflowing water—when a sudden and dreadful change occurred in the weather. The wind, which had been blowing a whole gale a moment before, fell dead in an instant, an appalling darkness overspread the firmament, and the atmosphere suddenly became so rarefied that it seemed impossible for one to draw a full breath; the sea, which a moment earlier had been breaking furiously, ceased to do so, and instead began to leap high into the air, falling back with a splash that, in the sudden stillness, seemed positively terrifying, and the schooner, swinging broadside-on, rolled so furiously that she momentarily threatened to turn bottom-up, while those of us who were on deck had to seize hurriedly the first fixed portion of the vessel's framework that we could lay hands on, to save ourselves from being pitched overboard like a shot out of a catapult. To continue pumping under such circumstances was impossible, for it needed both hands and all one's strength to merely hold on.
"Now what's goin' to happen, I wonder!" growled the gunner, who was clinging with me to a belaying-pin in a part of the rail that still remained intact in the wake of the main rigging. "I can understand a gale o' wind, Mr Delamere, but this here sudden calm don't seem natural to me."
"It is not natural," said I; "the mere look of the sky is sufficient to assure us of that. There is something behind it, you may be certain, though what it is I am sure I cannot say; possibly it may be a fresh outfly from some other point of the compass, or it may end up with a violent thunderstorm, though I do not think it will; that sky—"
"No, no," interrupted Henderson, "there's no thunder there, sir, ye may take my word for it. Listen, Mr Delamere! D'ye hear that?"
I thought for an instant that he was directing my attention to the pitiful cries and moans that were being extorted from the unhappy wounded down below as they were flung hither and thither by the furious lurches of the schooner, and I was about to make some sort of reply when a low moaning smote upon my ear, increasing with appalling rapidity to a fierce medley of sounds, in which the savage roars of maddened beasts and the shrieks and wailings of mortally terrified human beings seemed to be about equally mingled; a long line of phosphorescent white appeared upon the northern horizon, showing up with ghastly distinctness against the background of black scowling sky; a fierce scuffle of hot wet wind swept over us and was gone again, leaving a taste of salt upon our lips, and with a deafening howl, as of concentrated fury, the tempest leapt upon us, filling the air with drenching spindrift and scudwater, while, taking the schooner fair abeam, it heeled her over until the water was up nearly level with the coamings of her hatchways. For nearly a minute she lay thus, and despite the fact that she was dismasted I believed that she was about to turn turtle with us, when gradually, as the drag of the wreckage ahead brought her round head to wind again, she righted to an even keel once more and rode almost as still as though she were in harbour, while the spindrift and scudwater raked her decks fore and aft like a continuous tempest of small shot, which stung our faces and hands so severely that it was literally impossible to face it, and turning our backs to it and dropping upon our hands and knees, we were driven to creep for shelter wherever we could find it.
The sea had gone down as though by magic, for such was the power of the wind that the slightest irregularity of surface, the slightest lift of a wave, was at once torn off and swept away to leeward in the form of spray so dense that it was impossible to see farther than a few yards in any direction. And perhaps the worst and most terrifying feature of the whole experience was that there was nothing to be done—nothing that we could possibly do to abate the peril of our situation; we were as absolutely helpless as though we had been bound hand and foot, and could merely crouch impotently waiting for the end, whatever it might be.
But it was not possible for matters to continue very long as they were; the hurricane endured only for about twenty minutes, and then moderated to the strength of a heavy gale, whereupon the sea began to rise again with frightful rapidity; and half-an-hour after the first stroke of the hurricane the schooner was pitching bows under, and shipping increasing quantities of water at every plunge. And now, as we once more bestirred ourselves, we were confronted with a fresh calamity. For our makeshift protection of the damaged companion and skylight, as well as the fore-scuttle, had been swept away, probably at the first stroke of the hurricane, although not one of us had observed it, and already vast quantities of water were pouring into the little vessel's interior, principally through the fore-scuttle. We had scarcely made this alarming discovery when Saunders, the surgeon, who had remained below through all the hubbub, busily engaged in attending to the wounded, came up on deck and confirmed our worst fears by informing us that the schooner was rapidly filling, the water having already risen to the level of the cabin floor!
It was now obvious that the little ship was doomed; the hurricane, coming so close upon the heels of the fight, and smiting us before we had had time to repair our damages, was proving too much for her; she was strained and battered all to pieces, and nothing that we could do out there, short-handed, and buffeted by that pitiless wind and sea, could avail to save her. She was doomed, and now the utmost that lay in our power to do was to make some sort of provision for our own safety and that of our wounded shipmates.
Yet, when one came to consider the question, what could we do? Our boats, badly damaged by the shot of the pirates in the first place, had been utterly destroyed and swept away by the first furious stroke of the hurricane; while by the same agency our decks had been swept clear and clean of everything not actually bolted down, except the wreckage of the mainmast, which we had lashed firmly to ring bolts in the deck before the gale arose. There was that wreckage, it is true, and also the wreckage of the foremast under the bows; if it could possibly be got alongside, a raft of sorts might perhaps be constructed out of that, and there our resources would end. But there was no time for pondering and consideration, whatever was done would have to be done at once; I therefore called the gunner, the carpenter, and the boatswain to me, hastily explained to them my ideas as to the construction of a raft, and bade them muster all available hands and get to work forthwith, while Millar (the purser) and the cabin steward were instructed to get together as large a quantity of provisions and water as possible, wherewith to stock the structure when finished.
Now that the wind had moderated from hurricane force to that of a heavy gale, the sea rose with really startling rapidity, and was already running so high that when we came to set about the task of cutting adrift the wreckage of the foremast, with the idea of hauling it alongside and utilising it in the construction of a raft, it at once became evident that the time for undertaking such a piece of work was already past; for even alongside the schooner, and partially under her lee, the wreckage would be swept so violently by the breaking seas that it would be impossible for men to go over the side and work upon it without being washed off and drowned; we were, therefore, compelled to abandon that part of our plan and turn our attention to the construction of a raft on deck which would float clear when the battered hull sank from under our feet. But alas I even that was not to be; for we had scarcely got the wreckage of the mainmast cut adrift from its lashings, and were busily engaged in arranging it, with the topmast and the mainboom, in the form of a triangle as a base upon which to construct a platform, when it happened that the schooner, having just surmounted a sea, got pinned down by the head, in consequence of all the water in her rushing forward as she settled down, stem-on, into the succeeding trough. At this critical moment a yell of dismay from the carpenter caused us all to look up from our work, and we beheld him, with his eyes almost starting from their sockets, glaring and pointing ahead. A single glance in that direction sufficed to account for his terror. For there, sweeping down upon us with deadly implacability, towered a perfect mountain of a sea, its front almost as steep as the side of a house, and its foaming, hissing crest reared threateningly aloft as high as our lower-mastheads—had they been standing. It was at once apparent to us all that, pinned down as the schooner was at that moment, by the bulk of the water in her interior having concentrated itself in the fore part of her, she could not possibly lift in time to rise over the summit of that on-sweeping sea, it must inevitably break on board her, sweep her from stem to stern, and send her to the bottom! For a second we all stood, petrified with consternation; then, with a yell of "Hold on everybody for your lives!" I dashed to the companion opening and shouted to those below, "On deck, all hands of you; up you come, men, this instant; you have not a second to lose!"
A dreadful, wailing cry of despair floated upward from below in response to my warning, and was echoed by the people on deck as that awful liquid mountain hovered above us, seeming to pause for an instant, as though in sentient enjoyment of our helplessness and terror. The next moment its crest curled over and the whole mass of water seemed to hurl itself headlong upon the hapless schooner, foaming in over her bows and burying them fathoms deep in its heart. I felt the poor shattered hull quiver and tremble beneath me like a frightened thing as the giant wave smote her, and then I was seized by the on-rushing water, swept off my feet, overwhelmed, whirled helplessly hither and thither in the midst of a medley of whirling wreckage, flying ropes'-ends, and struggling men. Opening my eyes I beheld the hull of the schooner, a short distance away, standing almost perpendicular, and slowly gliding downwards, bows first. Even as I looked she vanished into the dark profundity beneath, and then I directed my glances above me. It seemed that I was fathoms deep, for the phosphorescent foam that boiled overhead looked almost as far aloft as a frigate's lower yard; and by the same ghastly phosphorescent light I could distinguish vaguely a number of swirling objects, some of which appeared to be merely inanimate wreckage, while others looked like struggling human beings. Then, suddenly conscious of the fact that I was within the influence of the downward draught of the sinking schooner, and was being dragged down after her, I instinctively struck upward desperately with hands and feet, fighting to return to the surface. I must have been dragged down to a very considerable depth, for I presently lost sight of the phosphorescent light on the surface caused by the breaking of the seas, and found myself involved in pitchy darkness, struggling madly, and with my lungs almost bursting. How long this awful struggle lasted I have no means of determining; probably it was much less than a minute, but the time seemed to drag itself out first to minutes, then to hours, and finally I lost all idea of time, all sense of my terrible situation, all recollection of the dreadful catastrophe that had just happened, and found myself, as in a vivid dream, re-enacting many a long-forgotten episode of earlier days. Then, in a moment, all these scenes vanished, and I was suddenly—I knew not how—on the surface, gasping for breath, half smothered with the seas that were breaking over my head, and convulsively clutching a rope that had somehow found its way into my grasp. Gradually it dawned upon me that this rope must be fast to something—for it alternately tautened and slackened with the sweep and swirl of the sea—thereupon I proceeded to haul cautiously upon it, with the result that I presently found myself alongside the floating wreckage of the mainmast. With some difficulty I at length managed to drag myself up and get astride this substantial spar; and then, finding that it did not roll over and throw me off, as I more than half feared it would, I gradually worked my way along it until I found myself close up against the crosstrees. And then I thought I perceived the reason why the spar maintained its stability so well. The mainsail had been set when the mast was shot away, and the gaff, with the sail attached, still retained its position on the mast, the main halliards having somehow jammed in the block, and this it evidently was that prevented the spar from capsizing. The rope by which I had hauled myself alongside the spar proved to be the end of the peak-halliards, and I thought that if I made this fast, and so prevented the peak from sagging, I should secure still further the stability of the wreckage; I accordingly did so, knotting the bight round one arm of the crosstrees, and then firmly lashing myself to the same arm with the loose end of the halliard.
I was now much better off than when I first found myself overboard, for I had a stout spar to support me, and might remain afloat until I fell off from exhaustion; moreover, even when my end of the spar was submerged—as of course it very frequently was—I was never buried deeper than my armpits, while there were moments when I was hove up clear out of the water altogether. Besides, the water was quite warm. I was therefore by no means uncomfortable, notwithstanding my situation.
Having made myself secure, I next began to look about me with the view of ascertaining how many of my companions in misfortune had survived the catastrophe; for I had not a doubt that a few at least would be as lucky as myself. But to my horror I found that I was the sole occupant of this particular mass of wreckage; and although I shouted at the full power of my lungs until I was hoarse, in the hope that if there were any more survivors they would hear me and thus be guided to the same refuge that I had gained, the sole response was the howling of the gale and the hissing wash of the breaking seas. True, there was a moment when I fancied that I heard a faint shout in reply to my cries, but I concluded that it was only imaginary, for I did not hear—or fancy that I heard— it again. Then, as opportunity offered, I looked about me in quest of other wreckage, thinking that possibly there might be a few fragments to some of which one or more of my shipmates might be clinging, but the darkness was so intense that I could not see farther than some two or three fathoms in either direction; and indeed it was only the faint phosphorescent light given off by the breaking seas that enabled me to see anything at all, even at that short distance. The thought occurred to me that, as whatever floating wreckage there might be would all drive in the same direction, possibly I might be more fortunate in the morning; and with this reflection I composed myself as well as I could to rest, for I was by this time literally half-dead with fatigue.
So utterly exhausted was I that, despite my desperate plight, I believe I actually did lose consciousness in sleep at brief intervals during that terrible night, for the dawn came very much more speedily than I had dared to hope, and with its appearance the gale broke, the wind perceptibly moderating with the rising of the sun. As soon as it was light enough to permit objects to be distinguished I aroused myself from the lethargy that seemed to have gripped me, and proceeded to search the heaving surface of the ocean as well as my aching eyes would allow.