"What do you think of the look of the weather, Mr Tasker; is there anything unusual about it, in your opinion?"
Tasker rose to his feet and cast a prolonged glance at the sky before replying. Then he said slowly:
"I can't say as I sees anything much out of the common about it, so far, Mr Fortescue. The wind's dropped a bit more than's quite usual, certainly; but I don't know as there's very mich in that. And then there's this here thickness o' the hatmosphere—well, that may or may not mean somethin', but I don't see anything alarmin' about it just yet. Why d'ye ask the question, sir? Is the glass droppin' at all?"
"It has dropped nearly an inch since it was set last night," I answered.
"Phew! Nearly an inch since eight bells last night!" ejaculated the old salt, with an air of concern. "That means, sir, that it have fallen that little lot since midnight; for I looked at it then, when Mr Keene relieved me, and it hadn't dropped nothin' then."
"Then what is going to happen?" I demanded. "Are we going to have a hurricane?"
"I should say yes, Mr Fortescue, most decidedly," answered Tasker. "And yet," he continued, again carefully scanning the sky, "I must confess I don't see nothin' very alarmin' up there at present. I s'pose the mercury bag haven't sprung a leak, by no chance, have it? This here sudden drop reminds me of a yarn a shipmate of mine once told me about a scare he had when he was in the sloop Pyramus in the Indian Ocean, outward bound to the China station. The scare started with a sudden fall of the barometer, just as it might be in this here present case, and it went on droppin' until the skipper began to think he was booked for the biggest blow as ever come away out o' the 'eavens. He started by sendin' down royal and t'gallan' yards and housin' the t'gallan' masts. Then, as the mercury still went on droppin', he shortened sail to close-reefed fore and main taups'ls, sent the t'gallan' masts down on deck, and housed the topmasts. While this work was goin' on the mercury kept fallin' until it sank out o' sight altogether; and the skipper had actually given the order to furl the taups'ls and send the yards and masts down when the cabin steward happened to make the discovery that the mercury bag had busted and the mercury from the barometer was rollin' in little balls all over the cabin floor! My mate told me that the time in which they got that there Pyramus ataunto again, that day, and the royals upon her, was never a'terwards beaten!"
I could not avoid a good hearty laugh at this quaint story of a phenomenal fall of the mercury in a barometer; for it was easy to conjure up a picture of the rapidly growing alarm and dismay of the captain as he watched the steady and speedy shrinkage of the metallic column, and of the feverish anxiety and haste with which he would proceed with his preparations to meet the swoop of the supposedly approaching typhoon, as also of his disgust at the discovery that all his alarm and anxiety had been brought about by the unsuspected leakage of a leather bag! But the story served as a hint to me; what had happened once might happen again; and I forthwith retired to the cabin and carefully examined our own instrument to discover whether, haply, such an accident had occurred in our case. But no, the bag into which the base of the glass tube was plunged was perfectly sound and intact; and, meanwhile, during my brief colloquy with Tasker a further fall of a full tenth had occurred. I lost no time in returning to the deck.
"The scare is quite genuine this time, Mr Tasker," I said; "there is no leakage in our mercury bag to account for the heavy drop; moreover, the drop has increased by a full tenth. Therefore, although the present aspect of the weather may not be precisely alarming, we will proceed to snug down at once, if you please, in view of the fact that the crew we carry is not precisely what might be called efficient, and will probably take an unconscionably long time over the work."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Tasker. "I expect the mercury ain't droppin' exactly for nothin', therefore, as you says, we'd better be makin' ready for what's in store for us." Then, facing forward, he gave the order:
"Clew up your royal and t'garns'l, furl 'em, and then get the yards down on deck. Hurry, you scallywags; the more work you does now, the more time for play will you have a'ter breakfast."
The "snugging down" process occupied us until nearly four bells of the forenoon watch; but when at length it was completed we felt that we were prepared to face anything, our royal and topgallant-mast and all our yards being down on deck, the fore and main-topmasts and the jib-boom housed, the great mainsail snugly stowed and the heavy boom securely supported in a strong crutch, and the ship under fore and main storm staysails only.
THE END OF THE DOLPHIN.
By the time that all this had been accomplished, the wind had fallen away to a dead calm, and the only sounds audible were the creaking and groaning of the ship's timbers, the loud rattle of the cabin doors below upon their hooks, the wash of the sea alongside and under the counter, the constant irritating jerk-jerk of the tiller chains, and the violent rustle and slatting of the staysails, as the Dolphin rolled her channels under in the long, oily swell that was now running. But, so far as the aspect of the sky was concerned, there was no more sign of the threatened storm than there had been when I first went on deck that morning—except that, maybe, the haze had thickened somewhat, rendering our horizon still more circumscribed, and the heat had increased to such an extent that, as Keene had remarked, one would gladly have gone overboard to escape it but for the sharks, several of which were cruising round us, while three monsters persistently hung under our counter in the shadow of the ship's hull, hungrily ogling those of us who chanced to lean over the taffrail to get a glimpse of them. Yet, when, for want of something better to do, Jack Keene and I got a shark hook and, baiting it with a highly flavoured piece of pork out of the harness cask, sought to inveigle one of the monsters into swallowing it, they disdained to even so much as look at it, merely glancing upward at us, when we deftly dropped the bait upon one of their broad, shovel noses, as though to say:
"No, no, my hearties! No rancid pork for us, thank you, when, by exercising a little patience, we may, with luck, get a chance to learn what one of you jokers tastes like." The enervating effect of the heat seemed to be as strongly revealed in them as it was in ourselves.
The sun still flamed in the heavens when, shortly before noon, Jack and I brought our sextants on deck with the object of measuring his meridian altitude above the horizon; but we were only able to obtain a very approximate and wholly useless result, for, when we came to try, we found that the sun appeared in our instruments merely as a shapeless glare of light, while the horizon was wholly indistinguishable. Then, by imperceptible degrees, the sun, like the horizon, became obliterated, and the atmosphere stealthily darkened, as though a continuous succession of curtains of grey gauze were being interposed between us and the sky. Meanwhile the barometer was still persistently declining, although not quite so rapidly as during the early hours of the morning.
It was about six bells in the afternoon watch when, with a sudden darkening of the sky, that came upon us like the gloom of night, it began to rain—a regular tropical deluge, sluicing down upon us in sheets, as though the bottom of a cloud had dropped out; and within less than a minute our decks were more than ankle-deep in warm fresh water, and our scuppers were running full. The downpour lasted for perhaps a minute and a half, and then ceased as abruptly as though a tap had been turned off, and we heard the shower passing away to the northward of us, leaving us with streaming decks and dripping canvas and rigging. But, although the rain had come and gone again in the space of a couple of minutes, the darkness intensified rather than otherwise, and presently we heard a muttering of distant thunder away down in the southern quarter, followed, after a while, by a further dash of rain, lasting for a few seconds only.
Then, all in a moment, and without any further warning, the blackness overhead was riven by the most appallingly vivid flash of lightning that I had ever seen, accompanied—not followed—by a crash of thunder that temporarily deafened all hands of us and caused the ship to quiver and tremble from stem to stern. Then, while we were all standing agape, our ears deafened by the thunder and our eyes blinded by the glare of the lightning, a fierce gust of hot wind swept over us, filling our two staysails with a report like that of a cannon and laying the ship over to her sheer-strake. Tasker, who was again officer of the watch, at once sprang to the wheel and assisted the helmsman to put it hard up; but almost before the ship had begun to gather way the first fierceness of the gust had passed, leaving us little more than a fresh breeze. I therefore went aft and shouted to them—for they were as deaf as I was— to bring the vessel up to her course again, when we began to move through the water at a speed of some five knots.
That first terrible flash of lightning and crash of thunder was, however, only the beginning of the most awful electric storm that it has ever been my fate to witness, the sky, now black as night, being rent in half a dozen different directions at once by fierce, baleful flashes, green, blue, crimson, and sun-bright, while the bombarding of the thunder was absolutely terrifying, even to us who were by this time growing quite accustomed to tropical storms. With it there came frequent short, sharp, intermittent bursts of rain that swept across our decks, stinging the exposed skin like shot, and enshrouding everything beyond a couple of fathoms away in impenetrable obscurity. Now, too, there came, at irregular but quickly recurring intervals, savage gusts of wind that smote the ship as though she had been but a child's toy, heeling her down until her lee rail was awash, and holding her thus for two or three minutes at a time, then easing up for a short space, the "easing up" intervals, however, steadily growing more abbreviated, while the gusts that invariably followed them rapidly grew in intensity and fury, until after the passage of one that had pinned us down for three or four minutes, with our lee sheer-poles buried in the smother, I thought that the time had arrived to heave-to, and gave the order to do so. Nor was I any too soon; for the sea was rapidly rising, and a quarter of an hour later we probably could not have accomplished the feat without having had our decks swept. The gale now rapidly increased in intensity, the gusts of wind ever growing stronger and more furious, and succeeding each other more rapidly, until at length the intervals between them became so brief as to be practically imperceptible, the strength of the wind now being equal to that of a heavy gale, and momentarily growing stronger as gust after gust swooped down upon us. The blinding, drenching showers that occasionally swept us were no longer composed of fresh water only, for there was a strong mingling of salt-water in them that was none other than the tops of the waves, torn off by the terrific blasts of wind and hurled along horizontally in the form of vast sheets of spray. The sea, meanwhile, was rising with astounding rapidity, taking into consideration the fact that, as just stated, the height of the combers was greatly reduced by the enormous volumes of water that were scooped up from the ocean's surface by the fury of the wind; moreover the sea was short, steep, and irregular, much more nearly resembling the breakers on a coast in shallow water, than the long, regular, majestically moving seas of the open ocean. The Dolphin, therefore, despite her beautiful model and the reduction of her tophamper, was beginning to make exceedingly bad weather of it, frequently burying herself to her foremast, and careening so heavily that during some of her lee rolls it was impossible to maintain one's footing on deck except by holding on to something.
At length, about four bells in the first watch, the lightning, which had hitherto almost continuously illuminated the atmosphere, suddenly ceased altogether, and the night grew intensely dark, the only objects remaining visible being the faintly phosphorescent heads of the seas, flashing into view and gleaming ghostly for a moment before they were torn into spray by the violence of the wind and whirled away through the air to leeward. Then, with almost equal suddenness, there came a positively startling lull in the strength of the wind, and the ship— which had for some hours been laying over to it so steeply that movement about her decks was only to be achieved with great circumspection and by patiently awaiting the arrival of one's opportunity—suddenly rose almost to an even keel. I seized the chance thus afforded me to claw my way to the skylight and glance through it at the barometer, illuminated by the wildly swaying lamp which the steward had lighted when darkness fell, but, to my intense disappointment, the mercury, which had steadily been shrinking all day, exhibited a further drop since the index had been set at eight o'clock that evening.
"We have not yet seen the worst of it," I shouted to Tasker, who, although it was now his watch below, had elected to remain on deck and bear me company. "The glass is still going down."
"I'm very sorry to hear it, Mr Fortescue," he answered. "I don't like the look of things at all. The ship has been most terrible uneasy for several hours now, and I'm afraid we shall find that she's been strainin' badly. It might not be amiss to sound the well; and if, as I fear, we find that she's been takin' water in through her seams, I'd advise—"
His further speech was cut short by a terrific blast of wind that swooped down upon us like a howling, screaming fiend, without a moment's warning. So violent was it that Tasker and I were both swept off our feet and dashed to the deck, where I brought up against the cabin companion with a crash that all but knocked the senses out of me, while the gunner's mate disappeared in the direction of the lee scuppers. The yelling and screaming of the wind was absolutely appalling, the volume of sound being such that nothing else could be heard above it; and in the midst of the din I became vaguely conscious that the ship was going over until she lay upon her beam ends, with her deck almost perpendicular, and the water up to the level of her hatchways.
For a few seconds I lay where I was, on the upturned side of the companion, listening to the water pouring into the cabin with every lee roll of the ship, and endeavouring to pull together my scattered faculties; then, dimly realising that something must be done to relieve the ship if we would not have her founder beneath us, I scrambled to my feet and, seizing a rope's end that came lashing about me, dragged myself up to the weather rail, clinging to which I slowly and painfully worked my way forward, shouting for the carpenter as I did so. At length, arrived at the fore rigging, I came upon a small group of men who had somehow contrived to climb up to windward and out upon the ship's upturned side, where they were now desperately hacking away with their knives at the lanyards of the weather fore rigging.
"That's right, lads!" I exclaimed, whipping out my own knife and lending a hand; "we must cut away the masts and get the ship upright again, or she will go down under us. Where is the carpenter? Let him bring along his axe. He will do more good in one minute than we can in ten."
"I'm afraid, sir, as Chips has gone overboard with some more when the ship was hove down. But I'll see if I can get into the fo'c's'le and lay my hand upon his axe," answered one of the men.
"Do so by all means," I returned; "and be quick about it. I would go myself, but you will know better than I where to find the axe; and even moments are precious just now."
They were, indeed; for it was easy to tell, by the feel of the ship, that she was becoming waterlogged, and every gallon of water that now poured into her seriously decreased our chances of saving her. But it was bad news to learn that the carpenter, "with some more" men, had been lost overboard when the ship was thrown upon her beam-ends; yet, when I came to recall the suddenness of the event, the surprising thing was that any of us had survived it. This reminded me of Tasker, and set me wondering whether he had been as fortunate as myself, or whether that last awful lurch had been as fatal to him as it had been to some others among us.
Meanwhile we continued to hack away with our knives at the lanyards, and presently, after what appeared to have been a terribly protracted interval, but which was probably not more than a couple of minutes, the last lanyard parted with a twang, and the next instant, with a crash heard even through the terrific hubbub of the gale, the foremast snapped close off by the deck and plunged, with all attached, into the boil to leeward. Then we breathlessly waited, hoping that, thus relieved, the ship would recover herself, and for a moment it almost seemed that she would do so; but just at the critical moment the gale swooped down heavier than ever, and at the same instant an extra heavy sea struck her, and down she lay again, as though too tired to struggle further.
"It is no good, men," I cried, "she won't rise. Lay aft, and cut away the mainmast also. It is our only chance!" And, therewith, we all crawled along the ship's side—escaping being washed off or blown overboard only by a series of miracles, as it seemed to me—until we arrived at the main chains, where we had something to cling to, and where the channel-piece partially sheltered us. Here we at once got to work with all our energy upon the weather main lanyards, and, the man with the axe presently joining us, in a few minutes the mainmast also went over the side.
"Now, inboard with you, men, as smart as you like," I cried. "If she is going to rise at all she may do so quite suddenly, in which case we run the risk of being hove overboard if we remain here."
We all scrambled in on deck, steadying ourselves by such of the running rigging as we could lay hold of; and we had scarcely done so when the hull partially recovered its upright position, not quite so suddenly as I had expected, yet with a quick righting movement that left our decks knee-deep in water. I sprang to the companion and strove to close the burst-open doors and so prevent any further influx of water to the cabin; but the heavy washing sounds that came up from below told me that my efforts were already too late to be of any service, for the cabin seemed to be flooded to almost half the height of the companion ladder, and the sluggish motions of the ship told me eloquently enough that she was perilously near to a foundering condition. I therefore rallied the men and bade them get to work at the pumps forthwith; and it was then that I discovered, to my horror, that, of our complement of sixty, we had lost no fewer than fourteen, including my messmate, poor Jack Keene, and Tasker, the gunner's mate, all of whom must have gone overboard when the vessel was thrown down on her beam-ends! It was a most deplorable affair, and I was especially grieved at the loss of my light-hearted chum; but that was not the moment for indulgence in useless lamentation, and I busied myself in doing what might be possible to provide for the safety of the ship.
First of all I got a strong gang to work at the pumps in two relays, each taking a spell of ten minutes pumping, followed by an equal length of time for rest. When I had fairly started these, and saw the water gushing in a clear stream from the spouts of both pumps, I set the rest to work cutting away all the rigging which still held the wreckage of the masts attached to the hull, leaving the fore and fore-topmast stays untouched, my intention being that the drift of the hull should bring the wreckage under the bows, where, being held fast by the stays, it should form a sort of floating anchor to which the ship should ride head to wind and sea. Thus we might hope that she would no longer ship water in such quantities as to threaten her safety. After nearly an hour's hard labour we succeeded, during which it appeared to me that the men were making little or no impression upon the amount of water in the hold. But, as I had hoped, when once we had brought the hull head to wind she no longer shipped water in any very alarming quantities; and after watching her carefully for some minutes I came to the conclusion that we might safely venture to open the after hatchway and supplement the efforts of those at the pumps by baling with buckets.
Before starting the pumps I had taken the precaution of having the well sounded, with the result that we had discovered the depth of water in the ship's interior to be three feet ten inches, as nearly as could be ascertained; but the violent motions of the hull had rendered anything like really accurate sounding an impossibility, and the same cause now precluded us from ascertaining with certainty whether the leak was gaining upon the pumps or vice-versa. One thing was perfectly certain, and that was that if the pumps were gaining upon the leak at all, it was but slowly. If that should prove to be the case, it would mean that there was something the matter more serious than the mere straining of the ship; possibly a butt or a hood-end had been started.
It was by this time close upon midnight, and there were times when I almost succeeded in persuading myself that it was not blowing quite so hard as it had been, although the difference—if difference there were— was certainly not very strongly marked; the sea, however, still continued to rise, and was now running higher than I had ever before seen it. Yet the poor, sorely battered Dolphin rode it reasonably well, all things considered; although there were times when the water in her interior, happening to become concentrated in the fore part of her just as she should be rising to a sea, pinned her down by the head to a dangerous extent, causing the sea to come in, green, unbroken, and like a miniature mountain, over her bows. When this threatened to occur it became necessary to watch her narrowly, and if the danger seemed to be imminent we hurriedly replaced the after hatches, otherwise we should very quickly have been swamped.
When the pumping gangs had been at work for about an hour they complained of exhaustion, and I accordingly relieved them to the extent of setting them to work with the buckets and putting two fresh gangs at the pumps; yet, although these men worked pretty energetically, it soon became evident that we were not gaining anything upon the leak, and as time passed on it became exceedingly doubtful whether the leak were not rather gaining upon us. Moreover, as the sea continued to rise the vessel's movements became more laboured, and she again began to take the water aboard in such dangerous quantities that at length we were reluctantly compelled to abandon our baling operations, and close the hatches to prevent the heavy seas from reaching her interior.
In this fashion the seemingly endless night at length wore itself away and the lowering dawn came, disclosing to us the true seriousness of our condition. There we were, aweary, hollow-eyed, haggard-looking little band, sodden to the very bones of us with long hours of exposure to the pitiless buffeting of rain and sea, our flesh salt-encrusted, our eyes bloodshot, our hands raw and bleeding with the severe and protracted work at the pumps, adrift in mid-ocean upon a mastless, sorely battered, and badly leaking hulk, with her ballast shifted and a heavy list, tossed helplessly upon a furiously raging sea that seemed instinct with a relentless determination to overwhelm us, toiling and fighting doggedly against the untiring elements, in the hope that, perchance, if our strength held out, we might keep the now crazy, straining, and complaining fabric beneath us afloat long enough to afford us some chance of saving our lives. Yet the hope was, after all, but a slender one; for with the coming of daylight we were able to see that our plight was very considerably worse than we had dreamed it to be during the hours of darkness; for then we had believed that the loss of our masts and the springing of a somewhat serious leak represented the sum total of our misfortunes; while now we saw, to our unspeakable dismay, that, with the solitary exception of the longboat, the whole of our boats were so badly damaged as to be altogether beyond our ability to repair; of two of them, indeed, nothing save the stem and stern remained dangling forlornly from the davit tackles. But that, bad though it was, was not the worst; for it was no longer possible for us to blind ourselves to the fact that the leak was gaining upon us inexorably, and that, even though we should continue to toil with unabated energy, we could not keep the ship afloat longer than a few hours more, at the utmost.
And then what were we to do? The longboat, fine boat though she was, when stocked with even a meagre supply of provisions and water, would not accommodate more than twenty-five men, and I gravely doubted whether she would live ten minutes in such a sea as was then running, with half that number in her. Still, with the exception of such a raft as we might be able to put together, she was all that we had, and half an hour of daylight sufficed to show me that no time must be lost in making preparations to quit the slowly foundering ship. Yet it would not do for us to leave the pumps for a moment; one gang must, at all costs, be kept hard at work pumping out as much as possible of the water that was pouring in through the open seams, otherwise the leak would gain upon us so rapidly that the ship would settle from under us long before we were ready to face such a catastrophe. I therefore at once set about the formulating of my plans and carrying them into effect. First of all, while one gang kept the pump-brakes clanking and the clear water spouting out upon our streaming deck, I got another gang to work at launching the guns overboard as the roll of the ship permitted—and this, I was glad to see, eased the poor labouring craft quite perceptibly. This done, all hands, except those at the pumps, went to breakfast, the meal consisting of hot coffee sweetened with molasses, and ship's biscuit, more or less sodden with salt-water—for with the coming of daylight and the preparation of breakfast the unwelcome discovery had been made that the salt-water had got at the provisions and gone far toward spoiling them. Then, as soon as the first gang had finished breakfast, they relieved those at the pumps, who in their turn took breakfast and next proceeded to clear away the longboat and prepare her for launching, by providing her with a proper supply of oars and thole-pins, her rudder and tiller, masts and sails, and then carefully stowing her stock of water and provisions. But when all this was done it was still blowing too hard—although the worst of the gale seemed to be over—and the sea was altogether too rough to allow of our attempting to launch her. We therefore next got to work upon a raft, first of all lashing all our spare spars together as a sort of foundation, and then, upon the top of this, lashing the hen-coops, gratings, a few planks that the carpenter had stowed away down below, and, finally, some lengths of bulwark that we cut away for the purpose. This raft, when completed, was a fairly roomy affair, affording space enough to stow away some thirty people, together with a good supply of provisions and water, which we now proceeded to get up from below and stow; the cook, meanwhile, industriously boiling as much beef and pork as he could crowd into his coppers. Then we knocked off and piped to dinner; and while we were getting this—probably the last meal of which we should ever partake aboard the poor old Dolphin—our hearts were gladdened by a sudden burst of sunshine breaking through the clouds, and half an hour later the sky to windward was clear, the sun was shining brilliantly and pouring his welcome warmth upon our chilled bodies and saturated clothing, while the gale had broken and was fast moderating, having already declined to the strength of a double-reefed topsail breeze. The sea, too, was no longer raging like a boiling cauldron; yet, even so, it was still too heavy to justify us in attempting to launch either the longboat or the raft.
And now, at the very moment when it was most necessary that the crew should preserve an orderly and obedient disposition, they suddenly broke into open mutiny, flatly refusing to work any longer at the pumps; declaring that the ship was good for at least another hour, and that before that had passed we should all be safely away from her; that there was no sense in wanting to keep the ship afloat longer than there was any absolute need for; and that the time had now arrived when they must begin to think of saving their own personal belongings. When I attempted to remonstrate with them and point out the folly of their behaviour they became virulently abusive, and declared that if I wanted the pumps kept going I might keep them going myself—and this although I had already done considerably more than my fair share of that back- breaking labour. Therewith they abandoned the pumps and betook themselves forward to the forecastle, from which there shortly afterward came floating to my horrified ears loud peals of maudlin laughter, mingled with snatches of ribald songs and coarse jests, whereby I came to know, all too late, that, while getting up the provisions from below, some of them must have broken into the spirit-room and possessed themselves of a very considerable supply of rum, upon which they were now fast drinking themselves into a condition of reckless indifference to the awful danger that threatened them. Anything, I thought, was better than this; therefore, having first gone down below and brought up the chronometer, my sextant, and a chart of the Atlantic, and stowed the whole carefully in the stern-sheets of the longboat, loaded my pistols, and girded my sword to my side, I went forward to the fore-scuttle and, putting my head into it, shouted in as cheery a tone as I could summon:
"Now then, lads, tumble up on deck, all hands of you. We have still a great deal to do, and very little time to do it in; therefore let us see about getting the longboat into the water, and the raft over the side. There will be time enough to rest when we are safe away from the wreck."
"All ri', schipper, don' you worry," bawled a great hulking Dutchman in reply. "Dere's blendy of dime yet; and ve're nod going do move undil ve've vinished dhis grog."
Then another—an American this time—took up the tale, shouting, "Go 'way, little man, go 'way! Wha' d'you mean, anyway, by comin' here and disturbin' gen'lemen when they're busy? Come in and have a drink with us, youngster, just to show that you're not stuck up. I guess we're all equals in this dandy little barkie; yes, sirree! I'm a free-born 'Murican, I am, an' just as good as you or any other blamed Britisher, and don' you forget it. So, if you won' come in an' have a drink, take your ugly-lookin' mug out o' the daylight, d'ye hear?"
To emphasise this polite request the man seized a heavy sea boot from the forecastle deck and hove it at me, with so poor an aim that instead of hitting me he dashed it into the face of an Englishman who happened at the moment to be drinking rum out of a pannikin. The blow dashed the pannikin out of the man's hand, and splashed the fiery spirit all over his face and into his eyes; and the next instant, with a low, fierce growl of concentrated ferocity, he sprang to his feet and struck the free-born 'Murican a smashing blow under the chin that sent him sprawling.
"You have no time to waste in fighting, lads," I cried, for I felt that the ship was fast settling under our feet. But my voice was completely drowned in the babel of angry yells that instantly arose, for it appeared that the men were, after their own fashion, rivals for leadership in the forecastle, and each man had his own partisans, every one of whom instantly took up the quarrel of his own favourite, and in another moment the whole of them were at each others' throats, like so many quarrelsome dogs.
"Let the drunken, mutinous brutes fight it out among themselves," I muttered disgustedly as I turned and walked away. "They will get a sobering-up before very long that will astonish them, or I am greatly mistaken!"
As I walked aft I could tell, by the feel of the ship, that her race was nearly run—although I did not at that moment dream how very near to her end she was—and I paused abreast of the longboat to satisfy myself that she was quite ready for launching out through the wide gap that we had made in the bulwarks when cutting them away to provide material for the construction of the raft. The gripes, I saw, had been cast off, and the boat was supported solely by her chocks, upon which she stood upright on the main hatchway. Suddenly, stooping down, a small spot of bright light in the deep shadow under the boat caught my eye, and looking closer I saw that some careless rascal had omitted to put in the plug, and that the bright spot of light was caused by the sun shining down through the unplugged hole in the boat's bottom. With a muttered objurgation of the fellow's carelessness, I climbed into the boat and, stooping down, sought for the plug. I was seeking for perhaps two or three minutes before I found it, but as I was about to abandon the search, and hunt for a suitable cork out of which to cut another, my eye fell upon the missing plug, and I at once inserted it and proceeded to drive it tightly home. I had just completed the job to my satisfaction when I felt the ship lurch heavily. There was a sudden, violent rush and wash of water, and I sprang to my feet barely in time to see the boat caught up on the crest of a sea that came sweeping, green and solid, through the gap in the starboard bulwarks, and carried clear and clean out through the corresponding gap in the port side! The longboat had launched herself; and before I could collect my senses, or lift a hand, I found myself adrift alone, some twenty fathoms to leeward of the doomed ship, and driving farther away from her every moment.
ALONE IN THE LONGBOAT.
To seize one of the long, heavy ash oars that formed part of the boat's equipment, fling the blade over the stern, and jerk the oar into the sculling notch, with the idea of sculling the boat back to the wreck was, with me, the work of but a second or two; but although I contrived, with some labour, to get the boat's head round toward the Dolphin, and to keep it pointed in that direction, I soon discovered—as I might have had the sense to know—that to scull a big heavy boat like the longboat to windward against such a strong wind and so heavy a sea was a task altogether beyond the power of a single man, however strong he might be; for every sea that swept down upon the boat sent her surging away a good half-dozen fathoms to leeward.
Finding this attempt useless, I at once hauled the oar inboard again, and proceeded to ship the rudder, which task I at length accomplished, with some difficulty owing to the violent motion of the boat; then I shipped the tiller; and next proceeded to loose the boat's canvas, with the idea of beating back to the ship. But here again I found myself seriously hampered and delayed by the circumstance that, when equipping the boat, the men had only half done their work. The boat was rigged as a fore and aft schooner, setting a main trysail, fore trysail, and a staysail secured to the head of the stem; and while the masts had been stepped and the shrouds set up hand-taut, I found, upon casting loose the sails, that they had omitted to obey my instructions to close-reef them, and since the wind was still blowing altogether too hard for the boat to carry anything more than close-reefed canvas I lost quite ten minutes in reefing and setting the mainsail and staysail—I dared not attempt to set the foresail also, for I did not believe that the boat could carry it. And when at length I had got the canvas set and the boat fairly under way, I found, to my consternation, that I had driven a good half-mile to leeward of the ship, by which time, their quarrel, I suppose, being over, the men had left the forecastle and, finding that I had gone adrift in the longboat, were making frantic signs to me to return.
But I soon discovered that, even now, with the boat under canvas, to beat back to the ship was an impossibility; for the boat had not been built for sailing to windward in a strong breeze; she was the ordinary type of ship's longboat, constructed to carry a heavy load in proportion to her dimensions, with a long, flat floor, bluff bows, and with only some three inches of exposed keel; and while she might possibly, with skilful management, have been made to work to windward in very moderate weather, she now, with so strong a wind and so heavy a sea to battle with, drove to leeward almost as rapidly as she forged ahead. Nor did I dare to press her with any more canvas, for she was already showing more than was at all prudent, the stronger puffs careening her to her gunwale and taxing my seamanship to the utmost to prevent her from filling. Under such circumstances, with the boat demanding my utmost vigilance to keep her afloat, it will be readily understood that I was only able at intervals to cast a momentary glance toward the ship to see how she was faring, and even then it was not always possible for me to catch a glimpse of her because of the mountainous seas that interposed themselves between her and me. At length, however, when I had been adrift about half an hour, I got a chance to take a fairly long look to windward at a moment when the longboat was hove up on the crest of an unusually lofty wave; but the ship was nowhere to be seen; nor did I again catch sight of her, or even of the raft; and the only conclusion at which I could arrive was that she had gone down and taken all hands with her.
But, in such a mountainous sea as was then running, the horizon of a person in a boat is naturally very restricted, and I knew that, although I had failed to catch a glimpse of either the wreck or the raft, the latter at least might be afloat, and my plain duty was to remain in the neighbourhood so long as there was any chance of falling in with it; I therefore watched my opportunity and, seizing a favourable moment, wore the boat round on the other tack and, again bringing her to the wind, went back as nearly over the ground I had already traversed as was possible. But although I kept a sharp look-out, and wore round every half-hour, I saw nothing, no, not even so much as a fragment of floating wreckage, to indicate what had actually happened; nor did I ever hear of any of my late crew being picked up.
It was about four bells—two o'clock—in the afternoon watch when I last saw the wreck; and I beat about, remaining as near the spot as I could, until sunset. Then, having failed to fall in with or sight either the wreck or the raft, I came to the conclusion that I had seen the last of my mutinous crew, and that the time had arrived when I was quite justified in abandoning any further effort to find them, and might look after my own safety.
The weather, by this time, had improved very considerably; the wind had been slowly but steadily moderating, and the sea, although still tremendously high, was not now breaking dangerously; the sky also had cleared and was without a cloud; there was therefore every prospect of a fine night, with a further steady improvement of the weather; the boat was no longer dangerously pressed by the amount of canvas that she was carrying, and I felt that I need be under no immediate apprehension regarding the future. Moreover my clothes had by this time dried upon my body, and I felt quite warm and comfortable. But I was both hungry and thirsty, for the so-called dinner that I had snatched aboard the Dolphin had been a very hasty and meagre meal. I therefore hove the boat to, by lashing the tiller hard down and hauling the staysail sheet to windward, and then, finding that she rode quite comfortably and was taking care of herself, I proceeded to rummage among my stock of provisions, and soon had a hearty meal set out before me on the after thwart.
By the time that I had finished my supper night had fallen, the stars were shining with the brilliance that they only display in the tropics, and I was beginning to feel the need of sleep; I therefore took a final look round, satisfied myself that all was right and that nothing was in sight, and then, heartily commending myself to the care of my Maker, I stretched myself out on the bottom-boards, and was almost instantly asleep.
To say that I slept soundly that night would scarcely be speaking the truth; for, although I had pretty well satisfied myself before I lay down, that the weather was improving and that therefore I had little or no cause for immediate apprehension, a sailor quickly acquires the trick of maintaining a certain alertness, even in the midst of his slumbers, since he knows that the weather is his most formidable and treacherous enemy, against which he has always to be on his guard; and this faculty of alertness is of course especially active when, as in my own case, he has only himself to depend upon. Consequently I never completely lost consciousness throughout that night, the rush of the wind, the hiss of the sea, the occasional sprinkling of spray were all mechanically noted, and whenever the heel of the boat appreciably exceeded its normal angle I at once became momentarily awake; yet, notwithstanding this, when on the following morning—the first rays of the newly risen sun smote upon my closed eyelids, informing me of the arrival of a new day, I at once arose, refreshed and vigorous, and ready to face any emergency that the day might bring.
My first act was to kneel down and return thanks for my preservation through the night and seek the protection and guidance of God throughout the day; after which I leaned over the boat's gunwale and freely laved my head, face, and hands in the clear salt-water. Then I set about preparing for myself the most appetising breakfast that my resources would permit; and while I was doing this and discussing the meal I carefully reviewed the entire situation, with a view to my arrival at an immediate decision as to my future proceedings.
The chart which I had with me showed the position of the Dolphin at the moment when my last observations were taken; and from this information I was able to deduce the approximate position of the spot where the vessel had foundered. This spot, I found, was, in round figures, one thousand miles from Sierra Leone, and fourteen hundred miles from the island of Barbadoes; but whereas Sierra Leone was almost dead to windward, Barbadoes was as directly dead to leeward; and a little calculation convinced me that while it would take me about thirty-six days to beat to windward the shorter distance, I might cover the longer, running pleasantly before the wind, in about twenty-four days, allowing, in both cases, for the boat being hove-to throughout the night to enable me to obtain necessary rest. Fortunately, I had with me not only the chart of the North Atlantic, but also a chronometer, sextant, nautical almanac, and boat compass; I was therefore equipped with every requisite for the efficient navigation of the boat, and had no fear of losing my way. I could consequently without hesitation choose what I considered to be the most desirable course, and it did not need any very profound reflection to convince me that this was to make the best of my way back to Barbadoes. I accordingly put up my helm, kept away before the wind, shook out all my reefs, and went sliding away to the westward, easily and comfortably, at a speed of some six knots per hour.
The weather had by this time reverted to quite its normal condition; the trade-wind was blowing steadily, the sea had gone down, and I had nothing worse than a somewhat heavy swell to contend with; I therefore felt that, unless I should be so unfortunate as to fall in with another gale, there was no reason at all why I should not reach my destination safely, and without very much discomfort. My only trouble was that, running, as the boat now was, with the wind so far over the starboard quarter, I dared not release my hold upon the tiller for an instant, lest she should broach-to and, possibly, capsize. Whenever, therefore, it became necessary for me to quit the helm for the purpose of taking an astronomical observation, or otherwise, I had to heave-to, and, occasionally, to shorten sail while doing so, which kept me pretty actively employed, off and on, all day. Thus, about nine o'clock in the morning, I had to heave-to and leave the boat to take care of herself while I secured observations of the sun for the determination of the longitude; the same procedure had to be adopted again at noon when I took the sun's altitude for the determination of the latitude; and the preparation of a meal involved a further repetition of the manoeuvre. Thus I had no time to feel lonely, at least during the hours of daylight; but after nightfall, surrounded and hemmed in by the gloom and mystery of the darkness, with no companionship save that of the multitudinous stars—which, to my mind, never betray their immeasurable distance so clearly as when one is in mid-ocean—with the sough and moan of the night wind and the soft, seething hiss of the sea whispering in one's ears, the feeling of loneliness becomes almost an obsession, the sense of all-pervading mystery persistently obtrudes itself, and one quickly falls into a condition of readiness to believe the most incredible of the countless weird stories that sailors love to relate to each other, especially when this condition of credulity is helped, as it sometimes is, by the sudden irruption of some strange, unaccountable sound, or succession of sounds, upon the peaceful quietude and serenity of the night. These sounds are occasionally of the weirdest and most hair-raising quality; and while the startled listener may possibly have heard it asserted, time and again, by superior persons, that they emanate from sea birds, or from fish, he is perfectly satisfied that neither sea birds nor fish have ever been known to emit such sounds in the daytime, and the strain of superstition within him awakes and whispers all sorts of uncanny suggestions, the sea bird and fish theory being rejected with scorn. Moreover, those harrowingly mysterious sounds seem never to make themselves audible save when the accompanying circumstances are such as to conduce to the most startling and thrilling effect; thus, although I had now been knocking about at sea for more than three years, and had met with many queer experiences, I had never, thus far, heard a sound that I could not reasonably account for and attribute to some known source; yet on this particular night—my second night alone in the longboat—I was sitting comfortably enough in the stern-sheets, steering by a star—for I had no lantern wherewith to illuminate my compass—and thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly a most unearthly cry came pealing out of the darkness on the starboard beam, seemingly not half a dozen yards away, and was twice repeated.
I felt the hair of my scalp bristle, and a violent shudder thrilled through me as those dreadful cries smote upon my ear, for they seemed to be the utterance of some human being in the very last extremity of both physical and mental anguish, the protest of a lost soul being wrenched violently out of its sinful human tenement, cries of such utter, unimaginable despair as the finite mind of man is unable to find a cause for. Yet, despite the agony of horror that froze my blood, I instinctively thrust my helm hard down and flattened in the sheets fore and aft; for the thought came to me that, perchance, a few fathoms out there, veiled from sight in the soft, velvet blackness of the night, some poor wretch—a victim, like myself, to the fury of the late gale— clinging desperately to a fragment of wreckage, might have caught a glimpse of the longboat's sails, sliding blackly along against the stars, and have emitted those terrible cries as a last despairing appeal for help and succour. Accordingly, as the boat swept round and came to the wind, careening gunwale-to as she felt the full strength of the night breeze in her dew-sodden canvas, I sprang to my feet and, clapping both hands funnel-wise to my mouth, sent forth a hail:
"Ahoy, there! where are you? Keep up your courage, for help is at hand. Where are you, I say? Let me but know where to look for you and I'll soon be alongside. Shout again; for I can see no sign of you. Ahoy, there! Ahoy!! Ahoy!!!"
The sound of my own voice, coming immediately after that terrible thrice-repeated cry, seemed somehow comforting and reassuring, and I now awaited a reply to my hail with a feeling in which there was more of curiosity than horror. But no reply came; and I once more lifted up my voice in tones of appeal and encouragement. Then, since I failed to evoke any response, I put the boat's helm down, and tacked, the conviction being strong within me that I could hit off, to an inch, the exact spot from which those dreadful sounds had come. So firmly convinced, indeed, was I of my ability to do this that when the boat came round I left the staysail sheet fast to windward, eased off the fore sheet, and stood by, leaning over the lee gunwale, in readiness to seize and haul inboard the drowning wretch who, I was fully persuaded, must be now almost under the boat's bilge. But, although the starlight was sufficiently brilliant to have betrayed, at a distance of seven or eight yards, the presence of such an object as a man clinging to a piece of floating wreckage, I could see nothing, no, not even so much as a scrap of floating weed. That I was bitterly disappointed—and also somewhat frightened—I freely admit; for I had somehow succeeded in convincing myself that those terrifying sounds had issued from the throat of a human being so close at hand that I could not possibly fail to find him; yet I had not found him; had failed, indeed, to find the slightest suggestion of his presence; and if those sounds had not a human origin, whence came they? It was the mystery of the thing, as well as the weird, unearthly character of the cries, that sent a thrill of horror through the marrow, and made me almost madly anxious to find an explanation. I worked the boat to and fro athwart those few square yards of ocean for a full hour or more, and shouted myself hoarse, until I at length most unwillingly abandoned the search, and squared away to place as many miles as possible between myself and that unhallowed spot ere I attempted to sleep.
It must have been past midnight before I had so far thrown off the feeling of horror induced by the uncanny experience that I have related as to admit of my contemplating seriously the idea of securing some rest; and even when at length I did so, and had completed all my preparations, such as shortening sail and heaving-to, it was still some time before oblivion came to me. But when it did, it was complete, for the weather was fine and had a settled appearance, the boat lay-to most admirably and took perfect care of herself, and altogether I felt so absolutely safe that there seemed to be no need at all for that peculiar attitude of alertness during sleep to which I have already alluded; my need of sound, refreshing slumber was great, and I lay down, determined to satisfy that need while the opportunity presented itself, and let myself go completely.
Yet, although I had surrendered myself to sleep with the settled conviction of my absolute safety, and the feeling that my repose would continue until broken by the first rays of the morrow's sun, I awakened suddenly while it was yet quite dark and when, as it seemed to me, I had only been asleep a very few minutes. And my awakening was not that of a person who gradually passes from sleep to wakefulness because he has enjoyed a sufficiency of rest; it was an abrupt, instant transition from complete oblivion to a state of wide-awake, startled consciousness that caused me to leap to my feet and gaze wildly about me as my eyes snapped open to the star-lit heavens. And as I did so I became aware of a rapidly growing sound of leaping, splashing, gurgling water, and a humming as of wind sweeping through tightly strained cordage, close to leeward. There was no need for me to pause and consider what was the origin of these sounds; I recognised them instantly as those given forth by a sailing ship sweeping at a high speed through the water, and I sprang forward clear of the mainmast to where the stowed foresail permitted me a clear and uninterrupted view to leeward. The next instant three dreadful cries in quick succession—exactly reproducing, tone for tone, those terrifying sounds that had so startled and unnerved me only a few hours earlier—burst from my lips; for there, almost within reach of my hand, was the black, towering mass of the hull and canvas of a large ship bearing straight down upon the longboat, and aiming accurately to strike her fair amidships. So close was she that her long slender jib-boom, with the swelling jibs soaring high among the stars, was already over my head, the phosphorescent boil and smother from the plunge of her keen bows already foamed to the gunwale of the longboat. A startled shout rang out upon the heavy night air from somebody upon her forecastle in response to those weird cries of mine, and above the hissing wash and gurgle of the water under her bows I caught the sound of naked feet padding upon her deck-planking, as the rudely awakened look-out sprang to peer over the topgallant rail. But before the man could reach the spot for which he sprang the ship was upon me, and as her cutwater crashed into the frail hull of the boat, rending it asunder and flinging the two halves violently apart to roll bottom upward on either side of the swelling bows, I leapt desperately upward at the chain bobstay, caught it, shinned nimbly up it to the bowsprit, and made my breathless way inboard, to the terror and astonishment of some twenty forecastle hands who had evidently been startled out of a sound sleep by the sudden outcries and commotion under the bows, and into the midst of whom I unceremoniously tumbled.
The excited jabber which instantly arose among my new shipmates at once apprised me that I was aboard a vessel manned by Frenchmen. A single quick glance aloft sufficed to inform me that she was barque-rigged, and probably of about three hundred and fifty tons measurement. The excited and astonished watch crowded round me, regarding me curiously—and, methought, with looks not wholly devoid of suspicion. They were, one and all, beginning to deluge me with questions, when an authoritative voice from the poop broke in with a demand to be informed what all the disturbance on the forecastle was about. Whereupon an individual among the crowd who surrounded me, and who might have been, and indeed proved to be, the boatswain, took me by the arm, and bluntly suggested that I had better accompany him aft to Monsieur Leroy, the chief mate, and explain my uninvited presence aboard the barque.
It was, of course, the only thing to be done, and I accordingly turned and walked aft, with my arm still firmly grasped by the individual who had made the suggestion, and who seemed to regard me as his prisoner, until we reached the poop ladder, up which I was somewhat unceremoniously hustled, to find myself in the presence of a broad, sturdily built man of about middle height, who stood at the head of the ladder, with his feet wide apart, lightly balancing himself to the roll and plunge of the ship. There was a lighted lamp hanging in the skylight some two or three fathoms away, and as this man stood between me and the light, which somewhat feebly gleamed out through the skylight on to the deck, I was unable to see his features or the details of his dress; but as he stepped back and somewhat to one side to make way for me the light fell full upon me, and, feeble as it was, it sufficed to show him my uniform.
"Ah!" he exclaimed sharply, "a British naval officer, if I am not very greatly mistaken. Pray, monsieur, where did you come from; and are there any more of you?"
"I came in over the bows, a minute ago, out of a boat that—thanks to the blind look-out that your people seem to keep—you ran down and cut in two. And there are no more of us; I was the only occupant of the boat," I answered.
"The only occupant of the boat!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "You amaze me, monsieur. Is it permissible to inquire how you, a British officer, come to be adrift, quite alone, in a boat, in the middle of the Atlantic?"
Whereupon I told him briefly the story of the loss of the Dolphin, very imprudently adding the information that she was a unit of the Slave Squadron, and that I was her commander.
"Ah!" he commented, incisively, when I had finished. "An exceedingly interesting story. Captain Tourville will be pleased that we have picked you up when he hears the news to-morrow. Meanwhile, by lucky chance we happen to have an unoccupied state-room into which I will put you for the remainder of the night. Thoreau,"—to the man who had conducted me aft—"take this gentleman below to the cabin; then turn out the steward and tell him to put some bedding into the spare state-room, but to be silent about it lest he disturb the captain. And now, monsieur, permit me to bid you good-night. I trust you will rest well."
The man Thoreau, who seemed to be an individual of exceedingly glum and taciturn disposition, thereupon signed to me to follow him, and led the way down the poop ladder and through an open door in the front of the poop which gave access to a narrow passage, some eight feet long, at the end of which was another open door giving access to the ship's main cabin. This was a fairly roomy and comfortable apartment, plainly but tastefully fitted up, with a mahogany table running lengthwise down the middle, through the centre of which the mizenmast passed down to the depths below. A row of seats upholstered in red Utrecht velvet, and with swinging backs, was secured, on each side of the table, to the deck, between which and the sides of the cabin ran narrow strips of carpet. The sides and ends of the cabin were formed of bulkheads, the fore bulkhead being occupied by a sort of sideboard on each side of the entrance door, while against the after bulkhead stood a very handsome pianoforte, open, with a quantity of music in a stand beside it. There was a door to the right of the piano, which, I conjectured, led to the captain's state-room, right abaft; and the side bulkheads, which like the rest of the woodwork of the cabin were painted in white enamel, were each pierced by two doors, close together, which, I had no doubt, gave access to state-rooms. My surmise as to this arrangement was proved true, a few minutes later, by the steward, an ugly, shock-headed, taciturn individual, who, still more than half asleep, presently came stumbling into the cabin with a bundle of bedding, which, having with silent care opened the aftermost door on the port side, he flung into the dark state-room and then motioned me to enter; it appeared that he intended me to make up my own bed. Well, that was no very great hardship; but I should have liked a light to enable me to see what I was about, and I turned to ask my surly friend for one, but he had already turned his back upon me and was in full retreat to the forecastle to finish his interrupted night's rest. I therefore opened out the bundle and found that it consisted of a straw mattress, a flock pillow, and a pair of blankets, all of which I at once proceeded to arrange in the bunk, as best I could, by the dim light which entered the open door from the main cabin. Then I most thankfully removed my clothes—for the first time since the springing up of the gale—tumbled into the bunk, and at once fell fast asleep.
IN THE POWER OF A MADMAN.
The sounds of water being freely sluiced along the deck overhead, and of the vigorous use of holystones and scrubbing-brushes immediately following thereupon, awoke me on the following morning, and I opened my eyes to find the rays of the newly risen sun flashing off the heaving surface of the ocean through the open scuttle of the state-room which I occupied. Although I could not have been asleep more than three or four hours at most, I awoke wonderfully refreshed, and the memory of what had happened to me during the night instantly returning, I at once sprang out of the berth, determined to avail myself forthwith of the renewed opportunity of starting the day by taking a salt-water bath under the head pump. It took me but a few seconds to make my way out on deck, where I found the watch, under the supervision of the second mate, as I presumed, busily engaged in the operation of washing decks, while the fresh, invigorating trade-wind, sweeping in over the port cat-head, hummed and drummed with an exhilarating note through the taut weather rigging and into the hollows of the straining canvas overhead. The weather was brilliantly fine, the clear, deep azure of the sky merely flecked here and there with a few solemnly drifting puff-balls of trade- cloud, and the ocean of deepest blue sweeping in long, regular, sparkling, snow-capped surges diagonally athwart our bows, from beneath which the flying-fish continually sprang into the air and went flashing away on either hand, like handfuls of bright silver dollars new from the Mint. Merely to breathe such an exhilarating atmosphere, and to feel the buoyant, life-like lift and plunge of the straining, hurrying ship, were joys unspeakable, and I felt in positively hilarious spirits as I danced up the poop ladder to greet the officer of the watch, and prefer my modest request for a minute's use of the head pump.
The individual whom I assumed to be the officer of the watch was a young fellow apparently not very much older than myself, attired in a somewhat dandified style of semi-uniform, bare-footed, and with his trousers rolled up above his knees. It was he who was sluicing the water about the poop so freely, while half-a-dozen of the crew vigorously plied the holystone and scrubber under his directions, and my first quick glance round the decks sufficed to show that the holystoning process was confined to the poop only, the cleansing of the main-deck seemed to be accomplished sufficiently by the application of the scrubber only. The exuberant buoyancy of my spirits suffered a sudden and distinct check as I glanced at the faces of those about me, which, without exception, seemed to belong to the lowest and most depraved class of seamen— sullen, brutal, reckless, resembling, more than anything else, in air and expression, an assemblage of wild beasts, whose natural ferocity has not been eradicated but is held in check, subdued, and daunted by the constant exercise of a ferocity even greater than their own. The aspect of the young man whom I conceived to be the officer of the watch was even more repellent than that of his subordinates; and it was in distinctly subdued tones that I bade him good-morning and preferred my request to be allowed to take a bath under the head pump.
He did not respond to my salutation, but, carefully placing upon the deck the bucket which he had just emptied, stood intently regarding me, with his feet wide apart and both hands upon his hips. He remained silent for so long a time that the men about him suspended their operations, regarding him with dull curiosity, while I felt my patience rapidly oozing away and my temper rising at the gratuitous insolence of his demeanour, and I was on the point of making some rather pungent remarks when he suddenly seemed to bethink himself, and said, in accents that were apparently intended to convey some suggestion of an attempt at civility:
"So you are the British naval officer that Monsieur Leroy told me about when I relieved him, are you? And you want a bath, do you? Very well; go and take one, by all means. And, hark ye, Monsieur Englishman, a word in your ear. Take my advice, and after you have had your bath get back to your cabin, and stay there until the captain has been informed of your presence in the ship; for if he were to come on deck, and unexpectedly see you, the chances are that he would blow your brains out without thinking twice about it. He is not quite an angel in the matter of temper, and I may tell you that he is not too well disposed toward Englishmen in general, and English naval officers in particular. Now be off, get your bath, and scuttle back to your cabin as quickly as may be."
"I am much obliged to you for your warning, monsieur," said I, "and I will act upon it. Do you care to increase my obligation to you by stating why your captain has such a—prejudice, shall we call it, against British naval officers?"
"Well," replied my new acquaintance—whose name I subsequently learned was Gaston Marcel—"for one thing, this ship, which is his own property, is employed in the slave-trade, and Captain Tourville has already suffered much loss and damage through the meddlesome interference of your pestilent cruisers. But I believe he has other and more private reasons for his hatred of your nation and comrades."
So that was it. After having suffered shipwreck, I had been run down and narrowly escaped with my life, only to fall into the hands of a Frenchman—and a slaver at that! Now, most slavers were little if anything better than pirates; they were outlaws whose crimes were punishable with death; trusting for their safety, for the most part, to the speed of their ships, but fighting with the desperation of cornered rats when there was no other way of escape; neither giving nor asking quarter; and, in many cases, guilty of the most unspeakable atrocities toward those hapless individuals serving in the Slave Squadron who were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. This was especially true in the case of those who carried on their nefarious traffic under the French flag; for they were, almost without exception, West Indian Creoles, most of whom bore a dash of negro blood in their veins, therefore adding the inherited ferocity of the West African savage to the natural depravity of those to whose unbridled passions they owed their being. If, as was more than likely, I had fallen into the power of one of these fiends, my plight was like to be desperate indeed. I came to the conclusion that I could not do better than act upon the advice of the second mate, and abide the issue of events with as much equanimity as I could muster. Accordingly, as soon as I had taken my bath I returned to the state-room which had been assigned to me by the mate, and there remained perdu, awaiting the moment when that somewhat formidable individual the captain should be pleased to send for me.
The approach to my state-room was, it will be remembered, through the main cabin; and as I passed through the latter the ugly, shock-headed steward, more ugly and more shock-headed now, in the garish light of day, than he had been when he presented himself fresh from his hammock on the night before—was down on his hands and knees busily engaged in scrubbing the cabin floor, while the strips of carpet and the table- cloth were rolled up and placed upon the table, the beautifully polished surface of which was partially protected by a large square of green baize. I bade the fellow good-morning; but he took no more notice of me than if I had never spoken; so I passed on and entered my sleeping apartment, closing the door behind me. I then proceeded to dress leisurely and perform my toilet as well as the means at my disposal would permit, but when it is remembered that I had no change of linen, and owned only the clothes which I happened to be wearing when I was washed off the wreck, it will be readily understood that when I had done all that was possible to render myself presentable the result still left much to be desired.
The steward finished the washing and swabbing of the cabin deck, and then retired, returning about half an hour later—by which time the planks were dry—to relay the strips of carpet, replace the table-cloth, and arrange the table for breakfast, producing, somewhat to my surprise, a very elegant table-equipage of what, seen through the slats which formed the upper panel of my cabin door, appeared to be solid silver and quite valuable china.
He had barely finished his task when seven bells struck on deck, and prompt upon the last stroke the door in the after bulkhead was thrown open and a man issued from it, and, passing rapidly through the cabin, with just a momentary pause to glance at the tell-tale barometer swinging in the skylight, made his way out on deck.
I caught a glimpse of him, through the slats in the top panel of my door, as he passed, and judged him to be about thirty years of age. He was rather tall, standing about five feet ten inches in his morocco slippers; very dark—so much so that I strongly suspected the presence of negro blood in his veins—with a thick crop of jet-black hair, a luxuriantly bushy beard, and a heavy thick moustache, all very carefully trimmed, and so exceedingly glossy that I thought it probable that the gloss was due to artificial means. The man was decidedly good-looking, in a Frenchified fashion, and was a sea dandy of the first water, as was evidenced by the massive gold earrings in his ears, the jewelled studs in the immaculate front of his shirt of pleated cambric, his nattily cut suit of white drill, and the diamond on the little finger of his right hand, the flash of which I caught as he raised his hand to shield his eyes from the dazzle of the sun when glancing at the barometer.
I heard his voice—a rather rich, full baritone—addressing the second mate, but could not distinguish what was said, at that distance and among the multitudinous noises of the straining ship; and a few minutes later the door opposite my own, on the other side of the cabin, opened, and Monsieur Leroy, the chief mate of the ship—to whose slackness of discipline I was chiefly indebted for being run down during the previous night—emerged and followed his chief out on deck. I recognised him in part by his figure, and in part by the fact that he was evidently an occupant of one of the state-rooms adjoining the main cabin, which would only be assigned to an officer of rank and consideration. As I now gained a momentary glimpse of him he appeared to be about thirty-seven years of age, broadly built, his features almost hidden by the thickly growing beard, whiskers, and moustache that adorned them, and out of which gleamed and flashed a pair of resolute but good-natured eyes as black as the bushy eyebrows that overshadowed them. He was dressed in a coat and pair of trousers of fine, dark-blue cloth, and, like the captain, wore no waistcoat. His shirt, thus exposed, however, unlike that of his superior, was made of coarse linen woven with a narrow blue stripe in it. Also, like his captain, he wore no stockings on his slippered feet.
While I was speculating what the captain's behaviour toward me would probably be, the steward unceremoniously flung open my cabin door, and in surly tones curtly informed me that the captain desired to see me at once upon the poop. He stood aside to permit me to pass, waved a directing hand toward the passage leading out on deck, and then busied himself in putting a few finishing touches to the arrangement of the table.
When, in obedience to this summons, I stepped out on deck, the washing down had been completed and the planks were already practically dry; the running gear had been carefully coiled down; the brasswork polished; mops, swabs, and scrubbing-brushes stowed away; and the crew were mustered on the forecastle, partaking of breakfast. They glanced curiously at me as I emerged on to the quarter-deck, and one of them said something that excited a burst of sardonic laughter from the rest, disregarding which I sprang lightly up the poop ladder and found myself in the presence of a group consisting of the captain and the two mates. The countenances of the latter expressed much annoyance and some perturbation, particularly that of Leroy, the chief mate; but the look of savage ferocity on the captain's face was positively fiendish, and enough to strike terror into the heart of even the boldest who might find himself in the power of such an individual. My hopes of considerate, or even of ordinarily merciful, treatment from one of so vindictively ferocious a character as this man seemed to be at once sunk to zero; yet I was not minded that any Frenchman should enjoy the satisfaction of saying that he had frightened me. I therefore assumed a boldness of demeanour that I was very far from feeling, and bowed with all the ease and grace that I could muster. Then addressing the captain I said:
"Good-morning, Captain Tourville. I am afraid that the hard necessities of misfortune compel me to claim from you that succour and hospitality which the shipwrecked seaman has the right to ask—"
"Stop!" shouted Tourville, as, with clenched fist, he stood seeming about to spring upon me; "I admit no such right, especially of an Englishman. The English have ever been my most implacable enemies. Because, forsooth, I choose to earn my living by following a vocation of which some of them disapprove, they must needs do their utmost to ruin me, and by heaven they have very nearly succeeded, too! Who are they that they should presume to thrust their opinions down the throats of other people? If their own countrymen choose to be led by the nose and are willing to submit to their dictation, well and good, it is nothing to me; it is their own affair, not mine. But what right have they to dictate to other nations, to say you shall do this, and shall not do that? I tell you that it is nothing short of monstrous, and I am ashamed of France that she has submitted to be thus dictated to. But if my country is so weak as to tolerate interference from a foreign Power, I am not. I claim to judge for myself what is right or wrong, and to be governed by my own conscience. I am a slaver, and I care not who knows it! And I will continue to be a slaver as long as I please, despite the disapproval of a few English fanatics. But let those beware who dare to interfere with me, and especially those Englishmen who have done their utmost to ruin me! You, monsieur, are one of them; by your own confession you belong to an English man-o'-war engaged in the suppression of that trade by which I am striving to make a living; and do you suppose that because you happen to have suffered shipwreck you are entitled to claim from me succour and hospitality, and ultimate restoration to your own people in order that you and others like you may do your utmost to ruin me? I tell you no! I do not admit the claim; you are an enemy—an implacable enemy—and you shall be treated as such. The fact of your shipwreck is merely an accident that has placed you in my power, and you shall die! I will revenge upon you some few of the countless injuries that I have suffered at the hands of your accursed countrymen!"
"Shame upon you, monsieur!" I cried. "Are you coward enough to revenge yourself upon a mere lad like myself? I will not ask you what your crew will think of you, but what will you think of yourself, in your calmer moments, when you come to reflect—"
"Silence, boy!" he thundered; "silence, you English dog! How dare you speak—" Then, suddenly interrupting himself, he turned to the chief mate and exclaimed:
"Leroy, have that insolent young puppy confined below in irons until I can make up my mind how to dispose of him."
The chief mate approached and took me by the arm. "Come with me, Monsieur John Bulldogue," said he, not unkindly, as he led me away; "and do not allow yourself to be more anxious as to your fate than you can help. I tell you candidly that I cannot form the slightest idea what that fate will eventually be; many men, knowing the skipper as well as I do, would no doubt say that you will be thrown to the sharks before you are an hour older—and it may be; yes, it certainly may be; for you are the first who has ever dared to assume a defiant attitude toward him and he is an inordinately vain man, as well as a man of unbridled temper. But, somehow, I am inclined to think that your defiance, which some people would say must seal your fate, will be more likely to tell in your favour than against you. Yes; although you have the misfortune to be an Englishman, I really think I may venture to encourage you to hope for the best. Now, here we are; and here comes Moulineux with the irons. I must obey orders and see that they are put on you; but make yourself as comfortable as you can; and I will send you down some breakfast presently. And, monsieur, you may rely upon my goodwill; I admire courage wherever I see it, whether in friend or in enemy, and you have proved that you possess it. If I find it in my power to do anything to help you, I will."
The place in which I now found myself confined was a small apartment that was apparently used upon occasion as an auxiliary store-room, for there were a number of barrels and cases of various sizes in it, as well as what had the appearance of being spare sails. As the place was constructed in the depths of the ship, and considerably below the level of the water-line, there was no window to give light to it, the only light which reached it being as much as could find its way down through the partially open hatchway, some ten feet above. I was therefore able to observe my surroundings only very indistinctly even after I had been some time in the place and my eyes had become accustomed to the gloom of it. The mate was as good as his word in the matter of breakfast, a man bringing down to me a most excellent and substantial meal after I had been incarcerated for nearly an hour. I discussed the food with relish, for I was hungry, and then sat impatiently awaiting the moment when my fate should be made known to me. But hour after hour passed without word or sign from the man who held my destiny in the hollow of his hand; and it was not until late in the afternoon that the carpenter appeared and, removing my irons, requested me to follow him. He conducted me up the steep ladder leading to the main-deck and into the main cabin, where Captain Tourville was sitting alone. There was silence for a full minute after the carpenter had ushered me into the cabin and closed the door behind me. Tourville remained seated at the end of the table, with one hand clenched on the cloth before him, while with the other he plucked quickly and impatiently at his thick beard and then combed it through with his fingers, "glowering" moodily at me meanwhile, in an absent-minded fashion, as though he scarcely realised my presence. At length he pulled himself together with an effort, and, pointing to the lockers, said:
"Be seated, monsieur, and have the kindness to tell me who and what you are; and how you come to be on board my ship. I have only heard my chief mate's story as yet."
Whereupon I proceeded to give him the required information, as briefly as possible, not omitting to mention the fact of my being an officer of the Slave Squadron; for I had already stated this to the chief mate, and from what had transpired earlier in the day I knew that he, in turn, had communicated the information to his captain. That what I told him did not appear greatly to increase his state of irritation seemed proof enough that he had already learned all the material facts, and I congratulated myself upon having shown him that I was not to be frightened into the suppression of any portion of my history, no matter how damaging its effect might be expected to be upon my interests. When I had told him everything he remained silent for quite two or three minutes, drumming the table meditatively with his fingers.
At length he looked up from the table, at which he had been moodily glowering, and said:
"Monsieur Fortescue, I thank you for the evident frankness with which you have told your story; and, in return, feel that you are entitled to some explanation of what you must doubtless have deemed my very extraordinary conduct of this morning. It is unnecessary for me to enter into details, but I may inform you that I have suffered irreparable loss and injury at the hands of the English. They have chosen to regard the method by which I earn my living as unlawful, and on no less than four occasions have brought me to the verge of ruin at the moment when I was upon the point of realising a handsome competence. They have persecuted me relentlessly, confiscated my property, slain my two brothers in action, and would have hanged me ignominiously, had I not been fortunate enough to effect my escape from them; and it was an Englishman who—well, that is a story into which I need not enter with you; let it suffice to say that the injuries which I have suffered at the hands of your countrymen have been such, that the mere name of Englishman excites me to a very frenzy of anger and hate, in which I am really not responsible for my actions. Now, the question is: What is to be done with you? I tell you candidly that your life is not safe for a moment while you remain on board this ship. Even as you sit there the memory of all that I have suffered at the hands of your countrymen so strongly moves me that I find it exceedingly difficult to refrain from blowing your brains out—"
"But, monsieur," I interrupted, "pardon me for suggesting such a thing, but are you not surrendering yourself to a very childish weakness? Is it possible that you, a man in the very prime of life and apparently in perfect bodily and mental health, can be so utterly devoid of self- control that because you have suffered injury, real or imagined, from—"
"Sacre!" he interrupted, starting savagely to his feet; "there is no question, monsieur, as to the reality of the injuries that I have suffered at the hands of your hateful countrymen—"
"Very well, monsieur," I cut in, speaking very quietly, "for argument's sake I will admit, if you like, that your injuries are both real and deep. Still, does it not seem to you absurdly illogical that because certain persons have injured you, you must yield to this insane craving to wreak your revenge upon somebody else who has had no hand in the infliction of those injuries?"
"Quite possibly; I cannot tell," answered Tourville. "It may be that I am mad on this one particular point. But I do not admit the soundness of your argument, monsieur. You contend that you personally have not injured me. That may be perfectly true. But you admit that you belong to the Slave Squadron; and it is at the hands of that same squadron that I have suffered much of the injury of which I complain. Now it is impossible for me to discriminate between the individuals in that squadron who have injured me, and those who have not; and I therefore contend that I am perfectly justified in wreaking my vengeance upon any of them who chance to fall into my power. And, in any case, if I should blow out your brains I shall at least have rid myself of one potential enemy. Therefore—"
And to my immeasurable surprise the man calmly drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it across the table straight at my head. I sprang to my feet with the idea of flinging myself upon and disarming him, for I could no longer doubt the fellow was stark, staring mad upon this one particular point; but before I could get at him the weapon exploded, and the ball, passing so close to my head that I felt it stir my hair, buried itself in the panelling of the cabin behind me. With a savage snarl he raised his hand, and would have dashed the heavy pistol-butt in my face; but by that time I was upon him, and, seizing his throat with one hand, while I wrenched the weapon from his grasp with the other, I bore him to the deck, and planted my right knee square in the middle of his chest, pinning him securely down.
"You treacherous, murderous scoundrel!" I cried. "How shall I deal with you? You are as dangerous as a wild beast! If I were to beat your brains out with the butt of this pistol I should only be treating you as you deserve! And I will do it too as sure as you are lying there at my mercy, unless you will swear by all you hold sacred that you will never again attempt my life, and that you will set me ashore, free, at the first port at which we touch. Will you swear that, or will you die?"
"I swear it, monsieur," he gasped. "Release my throat and let me rise, and I swear to you by the Blessed Virgin that I will declare a truce in your favour, and that you shall leave this ship as soon as a suitable opportunity offers."
I relaxed my grasp upon his throat, and permitted him to regain his feet, whereupon he looked at me for some moments with an expression of surprise, not altogether unmingled, methought, with fear. Then, bowing profoundly, he said:
"Leave me, monsieur, I beg of you. I will send for you again, a little later."
I passed out of the cabin, and made my way up on to the poop, where I found Monsieur Leroy, the chief mate, in charge of the watch. He nodded to me as I ascended the poop ladder, and when I joined him in his fore- and-aft promenade of the weather side of the deck, jerked his head knowingly toward the skylight and remarked:
"In his tantrums again? Ah! quite as I expected. It is rather unfortunate for you, monsieur, that you happen to be an Englishman, for the mere mention of the word to him has the same effect as exhibiting a red rag to a bull: it drives him perfectly frantic with rage."
"So it appears," remarked I dryly. "What is the cause of it? Have you any idea?"
"No," answered the mate. "I doubt whether anybody knows; perhaps he does not even know himself. Of course I have heard him speak of the losses which he has sustained through the interference of the ships of the Slave Squadron; but we who elect to make our living by following a vocation which civilised nations have agreed to declare unlawful must be prepared to be interfered with. For my own part I have no particular fault to find with those who have undertaken to suppress the slave- trade. We go into the business with our eyes open; we know the penalties attaching to it; and if we are foolish or unskilful enough to permit ourselves to be caught we must not grumble if those penalties are exacted from us. I like the life; I enjoy it; it is full of excitement and adventure; and when we succeed in outwitting you gentlemen the profits are handsome enough to amply repay us for all our risk and trouble. It is like playing a game of skill for a heavy wager; and I contend that no man who is not sportsman enough to bear his losses philosophically should engage in the game. But that is not precisely what ails the skipper; he takes his ill-luck grievously to heart it is true, but he insists that he has other grievances against the English as well; and, whatever they may be, they seem to have partially turned his brain."
"Partially!" I objected. "Why, the man is as mad as a March hare. He absolutely loses all control of himself when he allows his temper to master him, and becomes more like a savage beast than a man!"
"Ay, that is true, he does," agreed Leroy. "But, hark ye, monsieur, let me give you a friendly hint—you have escaped unharmed thus far, therefore I believe you may consider yourself reasonably safe; but in case of any further outbreaks on the captain's part, take especial care that you give him no reason to suppose that you are afraid of him; that is the surest road to safety with him."
"Upon my word I believe you are right," said I. "At all events that is the road which I took with him just now, for I pinned him down to the cabin deck, and threatened to beat his brains out. Yet here I am, alive, to speak of it."
"Good!" ejaculated the mate. "If you did that you are all right; I believe that if there is one thing he admires more than another it is absolute fearlessness. Show him that you do not care the snap of a finger for him and he will forgive you anything, even the fact that you are an Englishman."
I walked the poop with Monsieur Leroy for a full hour, chatting with him and learning many things very well worth knowing; and while I was chatting with him I kept my eyes about me, carefully noting all the particulars and peculiarities of the barque, with a view to future contingencies. Among other things I learned that she was named La Mouette; that she was of three hundred and sixty-four tons register; that she mounted fourteen twenty-eight pound carronades on her main-deck and four six-pounders on her poop; that she carried a complement of one hundred and seventy men; and that she was then bound into the river Kwara for a cargo of slaves to be conveyed to Martinique, or Cuba, as circumstances might decide.
At the end of about an hour I was once more summoned to the cabin, where I found Tourville sitting at the table. The man had now completely regained his self-control; he was perfectly calm, and waved me courteously to a seat on the cabin sofa, which I took.
"Monsieur Fortescue," said he, "I shall not mock you or myself by pretending to excuse or apologise for my recent outbreak of violence, for it is due to a weakness which I am wholly unable to conquer, and which may, quite possibly, get the better of me again. If it should, I must ask you to kindly be patient and forbearing with me, and to keep out of my way until the fit has passed. What I particularly wish to say to you now is that you are from this moment perfectly safe so long as it may be necessary for you to honour my ship with your presence. But, since you will naturally desire to rejoin your own ship as speedily as possible, I propose to tranship you into the first vessel bearing the British flag which we may chance to fall in with—provided, of course, that she is not a ship of war. Should we happen to fall in with a British man-o'-war, my course of action will be guided by circumstances; I shall not feel myself justified in trusting to her captain's magnanimity to let us go free after delivering you safe on board her; but should the weather be fine enough to allow of such a proceeding without risk to you, I will give you a boat in which you may make your own way on board her. Meanwhile, I beg that you will regard yourself as my guest, free to come and go in this cabin as you please, and to take your meals at my table; and I have also made arrangements for your greater comfort in the state-room which Leroy assigned to you when you came aboard last night. I trust that these plans of mine will be agreeable to you."
I replied that they were not only perfectly agreeable to me, but that I regarded them as exceedingly generous—taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration; that I regretted his violent antipathy to Englishmen, as I feared that, in consequence of it, my presence could never be otherwise than exceedingly disagreeable to him, but that during my enforced sojourn aboard La Mouette I would strive to render my nationality as little obtrusive as possible, and that I trusted we might very soon be fortunate enough to fall in with a craft of some sort into which he could transfer me. To which he replied that he fervently hoped so too, for both our sakes; then directing my attention to a case of books attached to the after bulkhead, on the opposite side to that occupied by the piano, he rose, bowed, and retired to his own cabin. As for me, I went out on deck and resumed my conversation with Leroy, telling him what had passed, and begging him to keep a sharp look-out for vessels; for that since Captain Tourville made no attempt to disguise his uneasiness at my presence on board his ship I was quite determined to tranship into the first craft that we might happen to fall in with, provided, of course, that she did not happen to be of questionable character—for I had no inclination to jump out of the frying-pan into the fire by going aboard another slaver.
The mate fully agreed with me as to the wisdom of leaving the ship as soon as possible; indeed I soon discovered that, even after what had passed between Tourville and myself, he was still very far from satisfied that there might not be further trouble ahead. "If such should unfortunately come," said he, "you must maintain a bold front, and show him that you are not to be so easily frightened. When his fits are upon him he very strongly reminds me of a wild beast which hesitates to attack so long as one faces it boldly, but springs the instant that one's back is turned."
I considered this very excellent advice, singularly applicable to the circumstances, and determined to act upon it. At eight bells I was summoned below to supper, and found the cabin brilliantly lit, and the table a picture of dainty elegance in the matter of equipage and of choice fare. Captain Tourville was evidently no ascetic in the matter of eating and drinking, and the meal to which we immediately sat down was quite as good as many that I have partaken of ashore in so-called first-class hotels.
Tourville seemed at first to be in imminent danger of relapsing into one of his black moods, for he was distrait and inclined to be silent; but I was determined not to permit this if I could help it. I therefore persisted in talking to him, trying him with subject after subject, until I discovered him to be an enthusiast upon the arts of painting and music—in both of which I also dabbled, in an amateurish way. As soon as I spoke of these his brow cleared, he threw off his gloom, and spoke fluently and with evident knowledge of his subject, with the result that the meal which had begun so inauspiciously ended quite pleasantly. Nay, more than that, as soon as the cloth was drawn this extraordinary man opened the piano and, sitting down to it, played piece after piece, sang several songs, and finally invited me to sing, the result being that, on the whole, the evening passed with far less constraint than I had anticipated.
The next morning, while Tourville was engaged in taking his sights for the longitude and working them out, he suddenly complained of feeling ill, sent for Leroy, gave him certain instructions, and then took to his bed. By noon it became evident that he was in for a smart attack of malarial fever, to which it appeared he was very subject; and when I turned in that night the mate volunteered the information that he feared the skipper was going to be very ill.
Tourville's condition on the following morning amply justified Leroy's foreboding; he grew steadily worse, became delirious, and at length grew so violent that about mid-day the mate considered it necessary to remain with him constantly, lest in his madness he should rise from his bed and fling himself through the stern windows into the sea. One result of this was that I offered to take Leroy's watch, from eight o'clock to midnight, an offer which was gratefully accepted; but as we were running down before a fair wind there was nothing for me to do beyond maintaining a good look-out, and I thus found it unnecessary to give the crew any orders or to interfere with them in any way. For the next three days Tourville's condition was such that the constant presence of some one in his cabin, night and day, to watch over him and guard against the possibility of his doing himself an injury, became an absolute necessity, and Leroy, the chief mate, and Thoreau, the boatswain, shared this duty between them. I volunteered to assume nursing duty in the place of Leroy, but my offer was declined, the chief mate rather drily remarking that the presence of an Englishman by the captain's bedside was scarcely likely to accelerate the patient's recovery, while some of his ravings were of such a character that it was better for all concerned that I should not hear them. But, he added, if I would be complaisant enough to keep his watch for him, he would esteem it a very great favour. Of course I could do no less than accede to this suggestion with a good grace.
I had been on duty as Leroy's deputy for two whole days when it fell to my turn to keep the middle watch, that is to say, the watch which extends from midnight to four o'clock in the morning.
When, upon being called by Marcel, the second mate, I went on deck to relieve him, he informed me that the wind had been steadily dropping all through the first watch, and expressed a fear that we were about to lose it altogether. This did not in the least surprise me, for we were now at about our lowest parallel, and on the border at least of, if not actually within, the belt of practically perpetual calms that exists about the Line, which are the sources of so much delay, vexation, and hard work to the mariner. That the wind had dropped very considerably since I had turned in was evident to me even before I reached the deck, for, upon turning out of my bunk to dress after being called, I had immediately noticed that the ship was almost upon an even keel, while the inert "sloppy" sound of the water alongside that reached my ears through the open port of my cabin told me that we were sailing but slowly.