"What an old croaker you've become," cried Tom. "I thought you would have been the last person to talk in that way."
Others, joining Tom, made the same sort of remarks.
"I'm not croaking. I only say that never fleet put to sea in a worse condition; but I do hope we shall be blessed with fine weather, and not meet with a heavy gale, or have to encounter an enemy of superior force."
Those watching us from the shore could certainly not have supposed that the fine-looking fleet sailing along the coast of Jamaica was unable to cope with the fiercest gale that it was likely to encounter.
As we got away from land we found that the Jason had not joined us, being employed in completing her water, while during a calm the officers of the Ardent sent a memorial to the admiral stating that she was totally unseaworthy; and they had therefore the good fortune to be ordered back to Jamaica to refit.
For some time the fine weather lasted, and few doubted that we should convoy the merchantmen committed to our charge, and the trophies of our hard-earned victory, in safety to England. We had got about the latitude of the Bermudas, when some of the convoy parted company, on their way to New York, leaving us, including the men-of-war and merchantmen, with only ninety-two sail,—the Ville de Paris, under an experienced navigator, leading the van through the Gulf Stream. The wind and sea, however, shortly after this got up, and two ships, the Caton and Pallas, made signals of distress, each having sprung a leak. The admiral therefore ordered them to bear away for Halifax, then less than a hundred leagues distant. Scarcely were they out of sight than the wind shifted to the south-east, blowing strongly, while a still heavier sea got up. The admiral on this made signals for the whole fleet to collect together, and prepare for a heavy gale. He hove-to on the larboard tack under his mainsail, with topgallant masts struck. We and the other ships followed his example, with all our other canvas furled.
Nettleship, Tom Pim, and I, being in the same watch, were on deck together. We had just got the ship snug, and, our duties for the moment performed, were standing together, watching the fast-rising seas.
"I say, Nettleship, we have got that gale you hoped we should escape, and no mistake about it," said Tom Pim; "but the old barkie rides easily, and the wind must blow a good deal harder than it does yet to hurt her."
"But we can't say that it won't blow harder, youngster," said Nettleship, who was much graver than usual. "To my mind the weather looks as threatening as it well can be, and those in authority would have shown more wisdom had they waited till the equinox was over to send us to sea. Just look round; now did you ever see a wilder sky?"
Nettleship was right. The clouds were rushing madly on overhead, while to the southward and east it had a peculiarly angry appearance. Foam-capped waves were tossing and tumbling, the spoon-drift flying off their heads covering the ocean with a sheet of white, while a lurid light occasionally gleamed forth from the point where the sun was going down, tinging for a moment the crests of the seas and here and there a tossing ship on which it fell. The sea with thundering blows struck our bows and washed along our high sides, the blocks rattled, the wind whistled in the rigging, the masts groaned, the bulkheads creaked. We had to speak at the top of our voices to make each other hear, while the lieutenants had to shout their loudest through their speaking-trumpets as they issued their orders. We were the leewardmost of the men-of-war who were in sight, the merchantmen scattered around, all pitching and rolling together, in a way which threatened to send their masts overboard. The latter we could see had now a yard, now a topmast carried away, but as far as we could make out, no great damage had been done. Each dog-watch the pumps were manned. Their clanking was heard amid the uproar as night closed in. My old shipmates and I had to keep the morning watch, so as soon as the hammocks were piped down, we turned in to get some sleep first. Seldom that I had my head on the pillow many seconds before my eyes closed, but this night the fearful uproar, the violent swinging of my hammock, and the plunges which I felt the ship making, kept me awake. My watch below seemed twice as long as usual. At length I heard eight bells strike. I turned out, and with my two messmates went on deck.
"Things haven't mended since sundown," observed Nettleship, as he, Pim, and I were together on the quarter-deck.
Indeed, the wind was howling more furiously than ever, and the big ship plunged and rolled in a way which made it difficult to keep our feet.
"We've plenty of sea-room, that's one satisfaction, at all events," said Nettleship. "I shouldn't like to be on a lee shore on a night like this."
"Faith, nor should I, unless there was a good harbour to run into," said I.
"It must have a broad entrance, and be well lighted, then," he answered, "or we shouldn't be much better off than we are at present."
Two—four bells struck in the morning watch, and there appeared to be no improvement in the weather. The captain and second and third lieutenants came on deck, and, by the way they stood talking together, I saw that they considered matters growing serious. The pumps were kept going twice as long as usual. Six bells had just struck, when there came a sound like thunder breaking over our heads. Looking up, I saw the mainsail aback.
The captain shouted out, "Man the clew garnets, let fly tacks and sheets;" but the words were scarcely out of his mouth before the ship heeled over, with a suddenness which nearly took us all off our feet.
There was no need for the officers to cry out, "Hold on for your lives." We struggled to windward, grasping whatever we could clutch. More and more the ship heeled over; then there came another loud report, the mainmast went by the board, the fore-topmast fell over the starboard bow, and the next instant the mizzenmast was carried away half up from the deck, while the sound of repeated blows which came from the after-part of the ship, showed us that the rudder had been wrenched from the pintles, and was battering away under the counter. All these accidents happened in such rapid succession that it was impossible to do anything to avert them. The utmost vigilance was required to save ourselves from being crushed by falling yards and blocks, while cries and shrieks arose from many of our poor fellows, some of whom had been struck down, and others carried overboard, vainly endeavouring to regain the ship. Suddenly she righted, with a violence which tore away the guns from their lashings, and jerked the shot out of the lockers. The captain, not for a moment losing his self-possession, shouted to the crew to clear away the wreck of the masts,—himself, axe in hand, setting the example. Before, however, many strokes had been given, the sea came roaring up astern, and, bursting into the captain's cabin, swept everything before it. The doctor, purser, and several other officers who had remained below, came rushing up, some only in their shirts and trousers, others in their shirts alone, believing very naturally that the ship was going down. Tom Pim and I, with the other midshipmen, were exerting ourselves to see that the men obeyed the orders received. I met Larry, axe in hand, chopping away vigorously at the shrouds.
"Ah, then, Mr Terence, things have come to a bad pass, I'm after fearing," he exclaimed. "Will you be letting me keep by you, if you please? If the ship goes down, I'd like to see how we could save ourselves on a boat, or a raft, or one of the masts, if we can't get into a boat."
"If it comes to that, Larry, I'm afraid we shall have little chance of saving our lives," I answered; "at all events, however, I should like to have you near me."
I can scarcely find words to describe the fearful condition of the ship. Gun after gun broke loose, crushing several of the men against whom they were cast; shot, hove out of the lockers, were rolling about between decks, injuring many others. The water from below rushed from side to side, making a clean sweep of everything it encountered, doing almost as much mischief as the seas which broke aboard on the upper deck. The officers who had last come from below were unable to return, and stood shivering in their scanty clothing, no one having even a coat to spare. While some of the crew were clearing away the masts, which were striking with every surge against the ship's side, tearing off the copper, and, as the oakum washed out, increasing the leaks, others, encouraged by their officers, were labouring at the pumps, while a third party was endeavouring to bale out the water with buckets. I didn't expect to see another dawn; but the morning came notwithstanding, and a fearful sight it presented to us. Away to leeward we discovered the Canada, with her main-topmast and mizzenmast gone. The flag-ship, more to windward, seemed in no better condition. The Glorieux had lost her foremast, bowsprit, and main-topmast. The Ville de Paris still proudly rode the waves, as far as we could judge, uninjured, yet ere long she was to share the fate of many others, for after that day she was never again seen, and must have foundered with all her crew. Of the merchantmen several had already gone down, others had lost many of their spars, and some their masts, while out of the whole fleet not twenty remained in sight. Not far off from us lay a large ship on her beam-ends. Nettleship pointed her out to me. "Poor fellows, they're worse off than we are," he said. The crew were attempting to wear her. First they cut away the mizzenmast, then shortly the mainmast went; still she lay helpless.
"See, she's hoisting the ensign, Union downwards," said Nettleship. "It's her last despairing signal for help."
No help could any one give her. We watched her for a few minutes, when her stern rose, the sea rolled up and plunged into it; down she went, the fly of her ensign the last object visible.
She was the Dutton formerly an East Indiaman, and then a storeship. Her fate might soon be ours.
"Some of her poor fellows have escaped," cried Nettleship.
He pointed out to me a boat under sail, not far from where the Dutton had foundered. We watched the boat. Now she was hid from sight in the trough of the sea, now she rose to the summit of a billow. Still it seemed impossible that she could escape being swamped. Yet on she went, driving before the gale.
"That boat is well handled, or she would have been under water before this time," observed my messmate. "What she can do others can do, and some of us may have a chance for our lives if our old ship goes down. Paddy, my boy, if that happens, do you try and get aboard a boat. You're young, with a good chance of promotion. I'm old, and have none; and I should like to have you and Tom Pim save yourselves."
"But I can't go without Larry," I answered; "and you too, Nettleship, if you have any hope of a boat living in this sea, you must try to get off."
He shook his head.
"No, no, Paddy. I have long made up my mind for the worst, and am ready for it. I should be thankful, though, to see you and Pim escape, and your honest fellow, Larry. There are two or three boats still uninjured. It's a pity that the lives of some of us should not be saved, if we can but manage to launch them."
While he was speaking I was watching the progress of the Dutton's boat. First she steered for a ship some way to the eastward, but those on board at length saw that they should have to haul up to reach her, and again she kept away for a large merchantman to leeward. Presently the boat ran alongside the merchantman, from whose deck a number of ropes were hove into her, and the men, clutching them as the boat surged by, were hauled up, and, as far as we could see, none were lost, though the boat herself almost immediately rilled and disappeared. In other directions most melancholy spectacles met our sight. The whole sea was literally covered with pieces of wreck and human beings clinging to them, among whom we observed several women lashed to spars or gratings, probably by brave fellows who themselves had perished after in vain attempting to preserve those they loved. No help could be given to the unfortunate wretches; and even had we been able to haul some who came near us on board our ship, it would only have been to prolong their lives for a few short hours.
Our captain and officers were making all possible efforts to save our ship, but from the first, I suspect, they must have seen they were hopeless. Every possible weight was got rid of. The anchors were cut away; then the upper deck guns were hove overboard, though the operation in itself was a dangerous one, for, after the gun tackles were cut loose, there was the risk of the guns upsetting and crushing those standing near. All this time the pumps were being worked. The captain ordered all hands not otherwise engaged to bale, and we were formed in gangs to pass the buckets up and down and along the deck.
THE WRECK OF THE "CERBERUS."
We were thus employed when the carpenter came to the captain with consternation in his countenance, and told him that the pumps would no longer work, for, the shot-lockers being destroyed, the shot as well as the ballast had got into the well, and completely choked it up.
"Well, my lads," cried the captain, "we must try what baling will do, and lightening the ship by every means in our power."
Those who had been working at the pumps, and some others, were now divided into gangs under different officers, and were employed in getting rid of the heaviest things which could be reached. Some hove the guns overboard, others got up the weightier stores, the boatswain's party being engaged in chopping up the cables and throwing them into the sea.
While my messmates and I were hard at work with the rest, I saw the captain beckon Nettleship to him. They talked for a minute or more. Directly afterwards Nettleship came to where Tom and I were at work with Larry and some of the men. "The captain has given me charge to try and save some of you youngsters," he said. "Life is sweet, and I won't deny that I am glad to have the chance of preserving my own with honour. You tell Tom Pim and your boy Larry. I'll speak to some of our other messmates, and try to pick out a few trusty men who I know are cool hands, and we will try and get a boat into the water. It will be no easy matter,—it may, I warn you, hasten our deaths; but the captain is satisfied that the ship can't float many hours longer. He argued the point, and showed me that if we don't get off as he directed, we shall not escape at all, as numbers will be rushing for the boats when they discover that the ship must go down."
Matters were growing rapidly worse. Even now I don't like to think of that dreadful night which followed. When morning broke, the number of ships in sight had much diminished. The sea raged as furiously as ever, the wind blew with fearful force. All hands had been toiling away. Nearly every one began to see that our efforts had been in vain. A loud noise was heard like that of an explosion coming from far down in the depths of the ship. The carpenter reported that the water in the hold had blown up the orlop deck. It was very evident that the ship was settling down. Many of the men who had been looked upon as the bravest now gave way to despair, and went below, crying out to their messmates to come and lash them into their hammocks. Other stout fellows were in tears as they thought of their country and those dear to them, whom they were never to see again. Some, though they must have known it would be of no use, were lashing themselves to gratings and small rafts, which they had formed of spars. Larry wanted me to do the same.
"Shure, Mr Terence, you and Mr Pim and I will be able to manage a raft between us, and we'll get aboard one of the ships in better plight than we are," he said.
I pointed out to him the distance the ships were from us, and the impossibility of reaching one of them. Some of the poor fellows launched their rafts overboard, but were quickly swallowed up by the sea. Even the lieutenants went below; and, strange as it may seem, few of the men remained on deck. Tom Pim and I, however, kept together, with Larry, who would not leave me. Presently Nettleship came up.
"Now is our time, lads, if we're to save our lives. I have spoken to those whom the captain named, but none of them will come. They shake their heads, and declare it useless."
One of the quarter boats still remained uninjured. We went to her and found six of our men, one of whom was Larry, standing by the falls ready to lower her. Nettleship told us to jump in, there was not a moment to be lost. We found that he had put masts, and sails, and oars, and provisions aboard. Waiting till a sea surged up alongside, he and the men sprang into her.
"Cut, cut!" he cried.
The next instant I found that the boat was some fathoms from the ship. All was done so rapidly, and it seemed only by a miracle we got clear, that I can scarcely explain how it happened. I looked around, when what was my dismay to find that Tom was not with us. Looking up, I saw him on the deck.
"Leap! leap!" shouted Nettleship, though in the uproar his voice could not have been heard so far. Next instant Tom was in the water, striking out towards us.
"We have already as many aboard as the boat will carry," cried some of the men.
What we had been about had been discovered by our unfortunate shipmates, who were now crowding to the side and shouting to us to return. Several in their fear leaped into the sea, but immediately disappeared. I caught sight of one head still above water. It was Tom Pim.
"Oh, take him in—take him in!" I cried out.
The men were getting out the oars. We were still, it must be understood, under the lee of the ship, or we should instantly have been swamped.
"We must have that lad aboard," exclaimed Nettleship sternly. "I'll not try to save you if you desert him."
Tom struck out bravely. Larry and I stretched out our arms, and, catching hold of him, hauled him on board the boat. Several others, now leaping into the water, tried to reach us, but, had we attempted to save them, we should to a certainty have perished together.
Nettleship sprang aft to the helm.
"Now, lads, step the mast and hoist the sail," he shouted. "Get out the starboard oars."
In another instant the boat was before the wind, a cable's length from the ship. We could scarcely believe that we were saved; indeed, every moment it seemed as if the fierce foaming seas would break aboard us and send us to the bottom. I could not resist still looking at the ship, nor could Tom Pim. He presently exclaimed—
"There's another boat being launched."
We both saw her for a moment, but she presently disappeared.
"She's gone," cried Tom.
"No—no, there she is," I exclaimed, as I caught sight of her on the summit of a sea, and again she sank out of view. As far as I could make out, there were several people in her, but she had no sail hoisted, and consequently in those foaming seas rising up between us was scarcely visible.
We ran on, steering to the southward. Most of the hands were employed all the time in baling out the water, while Nettleship's whole attention was engaged in steering the boat, for he well knew that with the slightest want of care she would have filled in an instant. It seemed a wonder, indeed, that she could float in the midst of those foaming seas. Tom and I still kept looking at the ship.
"She is sinking lower and lower," said Tom.
I hoped that he was mistaken, and that she appeared to be so only because we were getting farther from her.
Not many minutes afterwards, as I looked, a huge sea rolled up towards her.
The next instant Tom cried out, "She's gone!" I rubbed my eyes. The foaming waters raged over the spot where the old Cerberus had floated; and I knew too well that every one of our helpless shipmates had perished, unless the other boat had got safely off. Their fate might be ours before long, we all knew, though we did not despair.
Nettleship's first care was to see what provisions we had got. We found that we had but two quart bottles of water, a bag of biscuits, a small ham, a single piece of pork, and three bottles of French cordials. These he had placed in the stern-sheets, that they might be kept dry, and that none of the men might be tempted to take more than their share. We might be days, or even weeks, before we were picked up or reached land. Nettleship pointed out to us the importance of husbanding our stores. The afternoon was far gone before we left the ship, and night was now approaching, while the gale had shown no signs of abating.
Humanly speaking, our lives depended on Nettleship's steering. There was everything to try the skill and nerves of a man; but it was difficult in the darkness to watch the seas coming up so as to avoid those likely to break aboard.
He sat in the stern-sheets like a figure of iron, his countenance fixed, his eyes turned now ahead, now on one, now on the other side. He seldom spoke, for his attention was occupied with the task he had undertaken. Older seamen had given in, while his courage and resolution had remained unshaken.
I had always liked him, ever since I joined the Liffy, but now I admired and respected him above all men, barring my uncle the major, who would, I am sure, have acted in the same way, though he might not have had the nautical skill to steer the boat.
"Stretch yourselves as best you can, youngsters, in the stern-sheets, and go to sleep," said Nettleship; "I intend to steer till daylight, and then let either Hunt or Ray (they were two quartermasters) take the helm."
"But I don't like to leave you without company," I said.
"Don't trouble yourself about that, Paddy," he answered; "the seas are my company, and precious rough company they are too; they'll prevent me nodding."
He laughed at his own remark.
At last Tom and I did as he advised us; indeed, we couldn't keep our eyes open longer, for we had had no sleep, lashed as we had been to the bulwarks on the previous night.
We both of us slept on right through the night. I awoke with a weary heart-sinking feeling. Dawn was already casting a grey light over the still troubled ocean. Clouds hung thickly overhead; the seas seemed to reach them as they rose up on either side.
There sat Nettleship, wide awake, his hand on the tiller, his eyes wearing a pained expression, as well they might, looking round watching the waves as they hissed up, threatening to overwhelm us. No one was speaking. Most of the men sat with their arms folded and their heads bent down, still fast asleep. I believe that Nettleship had been the only one awake among us during the night.
"The wind has fallen, and the sea has gone down considerably, Paddy," he said, looking at me. "Cheer up, lad; we shall save our lives after all, I believe."
Tom, hearing him speak, awoke.
"I wish you would let me take the helm, Nettleship," he said.
"No, no, Tom! The responsibility is too much to impose on you; I'll let Hunt steer presently."
First one man woke up, then another, and another; but they all looked round with lack-lustre eyes and gloomy countenances. After some time, Tom shouted out that there was a break in the clouds to the eastward.
Just then a ray of bright light streamed across the ocean, tinging the foam-topped seas with a ruddy hue.
"It's the harbinger of better weather," I said.
"You're right, sir," observed Hunt. "It will be our own fault if we don't manage to keep the boat afloat."
I saw Nettleship for the first time showing signs of sleepiness. He aroused himself for the moment, and called to Hunt to take the helm. The quartermaster stepped aft, and Nettleship, resigning his seat to him, a moment afterwards was fast asleep.
The men now cried out that they were very hungry, and Pim and I agreed that it would be better to serve out some food without awaking Nettleship. We gave each man a biscuit and a small piece of ham. The neck of a broken bottle was the only measure we had for serving out the water. The quantity was but just sufficient to moisten our lips, but not to quench our thirst. The men asked for more, but Tom told them that until Nettleship awoke he couldn't give them any.
Though the weather was moderating, the wind went down very slowly, and the seas tossed and tumbled with almost as much violence as before. It was noon when Nettleship awoke. He approved of the allowance Tom and I had served out.
"But, my lads," he said, "you see these two bottles of water. We don't know how long we may have to go before we get more, so you must make up your minds to do with the allowance you have already had to-day. I'll take no more."
He then told Tom and me to give him what we had given the rest; and, after eating the biscuit and bit of ham, he drank the bottle-neck full of water. My own sensations made me hope that we should not have many days to live on so small an allowance. Still, though my throat felt like a dust-bin, I determined to support Nettleship, and I knew Tom would do so, in whatever he thought necessary. We ran on all day, the wind going down very slowly. At noon, Ray took the helm. Whether he steered with less care, or, as I think, the seas broke in a different way, two in succession came aboard, and we had to bale as fast as we could, to get the water out of the boat. As it came in, it washed right aft and wetted through our bag of biscuits, which Tom and I in vain tried to save. Nettleship didn't blame Ray, but warned him to be more careful.
"I intend to steer to-night," he said, "so I'll finish out my snooze, and call me at sundown."
Both Hunt and Ray asked him to let them steer during part of the night, but he was firm.
"No," he answered; "your lives are entrusted to me, and it's my duty to keep at the helm while there's most likely to be danger."
Tom and I, however, determined to have our eyes open, so as to make company for him during part of the night, which, it being summer time, was fortunately not long. Had it been in the winter, none of us could have survived. Nettleship appeared to have completely recovered himself. I sat up through part of the night, and Tom through the remainder. We talked cheerfully and hopefully. When I lay down, I slept as soundly as I ever did in my bed. Towards morning, I suppose it was, I dreamed of the various scenes I had gone through since I came to sea, among others of the earthquake at Savannah, and then I was looking out into the barrack-yard, and there was Larry fiddling away, with soldiers and blacks dancing to his music,—everything seemed so vivid that I had no doubt about its reality. Then Mr Talboys and Lucy and Captain Duffy came in and joined in the dance. I thought it very good fun, so I ran down and began to dance, and who should I see but the admiral and captain and old Rough-and-Ready, each with a black partner, and there we were jigging away right merrily, till I awoke, to find myself in the stern-sheet of the boat, and to see Nettleship steering, while the notes of Larry's fiddle sounded in my ears. There, sure enough, he was, seated on the after-thwart, with the fiddle at his chin, working away with right good-will. I sat up and looked at him with amazement.
"Shure, Mr Terence, I wasn't going to leave that behind after it had been saved from fire and water, so I took it into the boat the first thing, and Mr Nettleship gave me leave to play it, just to cheer up he boys a bit."
The music had certainly had that effect, for all the people wore more cheerful countenances than they did the day before. Larry, however, put his fiddle back in its case while breakfast was served out. It consisted only of wet biscuit, a modicum of ham, and a small taste of liquor. The water Nettleship said he should keep till mid-day, to serve out with the pork.
The sea was still rough, though there was much less than on the previous day, and careful steering was necessary to keep the boat free from water. As there was nothing for the men to do, Nettleship advised us to spin yarns and sing songs in the intervals of Larry's playing. He was ready enough to go on moving his bow as long as he had leave.
During the day the clouds cleared away, and the sea went down still more. We were thankful for this, as we could now dry our clothes, and, what was of more importance, our biscuits, and move about in the boat to stretch our limbs. But then, again, with a calm we might be delayed, and, after all, perish from hunger and thirst. Nettleship, I daresay, thought this, but notwithstanding cheered us up with the hopes of reaching land or being taken on board some vessel. Next night passed much as the others had done. The sun rose in a clear sky, and as it got above the horizon the wind dropped, and there appeared every likelihood of a perfect calm. Our scanty provisions were served out, and then Nettleship, as he had done the day before, set us to spinning yarns and singing; but even those who had the best voices could scarcely bring out a note, and several appeared but little inclined to talk. Larry, however, kept his fiddle going, and Tom and I talked, and tried to draw out the men to tell something about themselves. At last my throat felt like a dust-bin, and I suspect the rest were very much in the same condition. There we were, floating out in the Atlantic, hundreds of miles away from help, as far as we could tell, and the calm might continue after the gale for a week or more. At last Nettleship ordered the men to get out the oars.
"We may pull into a breeze, lads, perhaps," he said. "At all events, we shall get so much nearer land."
Tom and I each took an oar to encourage the rest, half of us pulling at a time. We had been at the oars for some five or six hours, when towards evening, Nettleship, who had been standing up shading his eyes, said—
"Lads, there's a sail in sight; she has a light breeze, and is standing to the northward. We shall, I hope, get up to her; but mark you, she may be English, but she may be French, and in that case we shall be made prisoners."
"That won't be much odds," said one of the men; "better be made prisoners than die of hunger and thirst out here."
That was true enough, but I didn't like the thoughts of the alternative. When Nettleship, however, said that he was determined to try and come up with the stranger, the men bent to their oars. Tom and I, at the time, were now pulling, and I was surprised to see the strength the men still possessed.
Gradually the stranger's topgallant-sails, and then the heads of her topsails, rose above the horizon.
"She's a large ship, no doubt about that," said Nettleship. "Cheer up, lads! my belief is she's English, but we shall be better able to judge when we see her courses."
We were now steering west-and-by-north, so as to cut her off. After going some distance, Nettleship called to Tom Pim to stand up in the stern-sheets, and take a look at the stranger.
"What do you think of the cut of her canvas, Tom?" he asked. "Is that English or French?"
"I should say English," answered Tom, "but we must get nearer to be certain."
"Have you made up your minds to a French prison, lads, if we're mistaken?" again said Nettleship.
"Better a French prison with food and water, than out here starving to death," answered the men. "And we'll ask you, Mr Nettleship, for a drink of water apiece. We'll get aboard her before dark, and our throats are terribly dry."
"I warn you, lads, that a breeze may spring up, and that even now we may miss her; and what shall we do if we have no water left?" said Nettleship.
Still the men cried out for water. I could judge how my companions felt by my own sensations. Nettleship reluctantly served out a double allowance, leaving scarcely a quarter of a bottleful,—the other had before been exhausted. The sun was sinking low, and we had not yet seen the hull of the ship. Nettleship looked more anxious than before. The men strained every nerve, for they believed that their lives depended on their getting up to the ship before dark.
Some of them now called out for food, and declared that they could pull no longer without it; others asked for the remainder of the water.
Accordingly, while one half rested, Nettleship served out a portion of our remaining stock of provisions. The other half then took a meal. This, however, only made us all more thirsty, and again the cry rose of—
"Water! water! We must have it, or we shall have to give in!"
Nettleship seemed to think that it would be useless to resist their entreaties, and with a look of desperation he divided the remainder of the water, leaving not a drop at the bottom of the last bottle.
Rapidly the sun sank towards the horizon. In a short time it would be dark, and we should have no chance of being seen from the ship. The men cried out for the remainder of the liquor, saying that they could pull all the better if they could get it. This, also, to my surprise, Nettleship served out to them,—the bottle-neck full to each of us, for we all shared alike,—and again they pulled as lustily as before for a short time; but we all felt our thirst increased. Few of them spoke; but Larry every now and then gave a shout, or made some comic remark to encourage his companions. Nettleship also did his best to keep up our spirits.
Darkness, however, was fast approaching; the wind appeared to be freshening, and, should a strong breeze fill the stranger's sails, all hope of getting alongside her before she passed us would be lost. Not a word was now uttered; but every now and then the men turned their heads to ascertain what progress we were making.
Nettleship now steered the boat rather more to the northward.
Presently a light streamed out towards us across the water. Again our hopes of getting on board increased. The wind once more dropped.
"We shall reach her, lads!" cried Nettleship at length, in a confident tone.
The men cheered, though their voices sounded husky, the ring of a British seaman's voice sadly wanting. They pulled bravely on, however.
The light rose higher above the surface. It was now almost ahead. Then another streamed forth from a port. Presently Nettleship's voice rang out clear and loud—
"Ship ahoy! What ship is it?"
"His Britannic Majesty's ship Hector. What boat is that?" came over the water.
Presently the order sounded out from aboard the ship—
"Raise tacks and sheets! clew up mainsail and foresail! Let fly topgallant-sheets!"
The wind having fallen, the ship soon lost her way, and we pulled up alongside. A light gleamed through the entrance port, and ready hands, coming down, quickly assisted us up on deck, while the boat was secured, for none of us had much strength left to help ourselves.
Nettleship, Tom, and I were at once conducted to the upper deck, where we found the gallant commander of the Hector, Captain Bouchier, to whom Nettleship at once gave a brief account of what had happened.
"We have reason to be thankful that we escaped the gale, Drury," said the captain, turning to an officer in a captain's uniform standing near him. "We should to a certainty have shared the fate of many others."
Captain Bouchier made this remark, I found, in consequence of the unseaworthy condition of his ship. To enable her to perform the voyage, before she sailed from Jamaica she had had twenty-two of her guns taken out of her, and her masts replaced by others of smaller dimensions. Her crew amounted in all to scarcely three hundred men, many of whom were invalids, and others French and American prisoners, who had volunteered to assist in working the ship.
As soon as Nettleship had finished his account, the captain directed that we should be taken below, and hammocks slung for us.
"I would advise you to turn in, young gentlemen, as soon as you have had some food," he said, as we were leaving.
He also ordered that our boat's crew should be well looked after. The surgeon, who was summoned, went to attend to them, and to prevent them from being overfed, or overdosed with grog, which to a certainty they would otherwise have been by the seamen of the ship. As I was going down to the orlop deck, Larry came aft, supported by two men, with his fiddle-case under his arm.
"Och, Mr Terence," he said, "I'm mighty glad to find ourselves safe aboard a big ship again, and to see you all right. It is more than I thought to do since our own went down with all her brave boys, barrin' ourselves."
The doctor, finding that we did not require much of his assistance, attended to Larry and the other men, who appeared far more knocked up than we were, and they were at once sent to their hammocks. We were ushered into the gun-room by the master's mate, who accompanied us. Here we found a number of midshipmen seated at a table, employed in various ways. They greeted us warmly, and were all eager to know our adventures, which we told them while discussing the meal placed before us. Scarcely, however, had I finished eating, when my head dropped on the table, and there I should have sat, had not one of the assistant-surgeons aroused me and advised me to turn in. I slept on, as did Nettleship and Tom, till the hammocks were piped up next morning, and, if left alone, should not have awoke for hours afterwards.
We all three, though still weak, felt pretty well able to get about, and were in reality in a better state than many of the officers and men, who were suffering from the effect of the West Indian climate. I never saw so pale and haggard a crew. We were treated with the greatest kindness by our new messmates, and Nettleship was asked into the ward-room, to give a further account of what had happened to us. We had indeed ample reason to be thankful for our preservation, when so many on board our own and other ships had perished.
In a couple of days we were as well as ever, and, as many of the mates and midshipmen were too ill to do duty, we were directed to take their places. Larry, as usual, made himself at home with his fiddle, and soon set the seamen and French prisoners jigging away, as he had done on board other ships.
We were standing on with all the canvas the battered old Hector could carry, with the wind from the southward, when the look-out aloft announced two sail away to leeward. One of the lieutenants, with his telescope on his back, immediately went to the main-topmast cross-trees to have a look at them.
"As far as I can make out, they are two frigates, sir, coming up before the wind," he said to the captain when he came down.
"Are they English or French?" asked the captain. "According to my judgment, sir, they are French," was the answer.
The captain took a few turns on deck, and then again sent aloft. The lieutenant, on his return, pronounced his opinion more decidedly that they were French, and both large frigates. The captain on this ordered the drum to beat to quarters, and the usual preparations were made for battle. Evening was approaching, and it might be well on in the night before the enemy could be up to us.
Although the Hector was a 74-gun ship, she in reality only carried fifty-two guns, and, from her battered condition, was not fit to cope even with a single frigate. Still our brave captain determined to struggle to the last. She being a heavy sailer, the two frigates came rapidly up with us, and there was no doubt from their appearance that they were enemies, although we could not as yet see their ensigns. All doubt on that score was dissipated, when, in a short time, French flags were run up at their peaks. The prisoners were accordingly ordered below and placed under sentries, while the captain went along the decks encouraging the men. They received him with cheerful countenances as he appeared, promising to do their best to beat the enemy. I asked Nettleship what he thought would be the result of the contest.
"Heaven only knows!" he answered; "but there's one thing, I'm certain that our fellows will fight to the last. I never saw a crew, though so many of them are sick, more resolute or full of pluck."
The leading frigate, now coming up on our starboard quarter, opened fire, and we, luffing up, returned it with our aftermost guns. She then ranged up abeam, while her consort placed herself on our larboard quarter, so that we could not luff up again without being raked by the other. We, however, could fight our starboard broadside, and occasionally could bring some of our larboard guns to bear on the enemy on that side. We could now see that each frigate mounted forty guns, their decks being crowded with men; indeed, they together mustered more than double our complement. These were fearful odds, but Captain Bouchier and his crew seemed in no way daunted. The men ran the guns in and out as fast as they could load them, but the enemy's shot came crashing aboard, committing fearful havoc in all parts of the ship. The French must have known, from our smaller masts and spars, that we were likely to be short-handed, and also soon discovered the small number of guns we carried.
Though I saw numbers struck down around me, I never for one instant thought of myself or expected to be killed. The surgeons below soon had their hands full, as one poor fellow after another was carried down to the cockpit. The dead were left where they fell, for all were too busy to remove them. The enemy generally fired at our hull rather than at our spars.
I was standing near Nettleship, when I heard him exclaim—
"Here comes one of them alongside us."
I looked out of a port, and there saw the frigate on the starboard beam dropping so close that I could distinguish the countenances of the people on her deck.
Presently the voice of the captain sounded loud and clear—
"Boarders! repel boarders!"
Our crew, leaving the guns on the starboard side, seized their weapons; some stood armed with cutlasses and pistols, others with pikes, at the place where the Frenchmen were likely to try and gain a footing on our deck. Our larboard guns were still replying to the fire of the frigate on that quarter; but she now making sail, ranged up alongside, receiving, however, a heavy fire from our guns as she did so. A large body of her men, with the soldiers, stood on the forecastle, ready to leap aboard.
"You must drive those fellows back," cried Nettleship. "Come on, my lads," he shouted to such of the men as were near him, among whom was Larry. Tom also, who saw what we were about, quickly joined us.
Just as the first Frenchman sprang on to our deck, Nettleship's sword cut him down. Others, however, followed, but our men fought desperately. Though the enemy came rushing on board, not an inch of ground did they gain.
Presently, a big fellow—the boatswain, apparently, from his dress— joined his shipmates, and attacked Nettleship. I saw another close behind him, aiming a pistol at his head. I sprang forward and knocked it up just as it exploded, and the next moment dealt the Frenchman a blow on his sword arm, which saved Nettleship's life. The fellow whose pistol I had knocked up, however, had his cutlass uplifted to strike me down, when Larry, who was by my side, parried the blow with his cutlass, and, though he got a severe wound, he brought the man to the deck by a blow which he gave the next moment. Others of our crew now coming to our assistance, we drove back the enemy, who had nearly gained a footing.
The fight all the time was going on fiercely on the starboard side, and we could not tell whether the Frenchmen were getting the best of it.
As we had begun the action with but three hundred men, many of whom had been killed or wounded, and invalids who had scarcely strength to handle their weapons, and the French had upwards of six hundred, it might be seen that our chance of success was very small indeed. Our men, however, fought with the most desperate courage. Captain Bouchier, with Captain Drury—who was a passenger—and several of the lieutenants, headed the men on the starboard side in repelling the enemy; while the master and two of the other lieutenants and the purser encouraged those on our side of the deck.
Directly the Frenchmen had been driven back, the second lieutenant, calling off a portion of the men, hurried to the guns, when their thundering roar, with the crashing sounds which followed, showed us that their shot were creating a dire effect on the bows of our antagonist. All this time a withering fire of musketry had been kept up on us from a body of troops stationed on the forecastles of the French frigates, and many of our poor fellows had been struck down.
Again and again the Frenchmen attempted to gain a footing on our deck, some springing down from the fore-rigging, others clambering up from the forecastle, and all the time the guns roaring, the musketry and pistols rattling, the cutlasses clashing, the men shouting and shrieking, while the ships surged against each other with tremendous crashes,—many of the Frenchmen who were driven overboard being crushed to death between them. This continued, not for the few minutes which it has taken me to describe the scene, but for an hour or more, and it seemed sometimes that all the three ships must go down together.
Our marines were not idle, for some stationed on the forecastle, and others on the poop, kept up a hot fire on the enemy.
At length our ship tore herself from her two antagonists almost at the same moment; and they apparently gave up all hopes of taking us by boarding, as they didn't attempt again to come close alongside, though their fire was even more destructive than at first, for now one passed under our stern and raked us, now the other performed the same manoeuvre; while we, with our braces shot away, our masts and yards injured, and our sails shot through and torn, were unable to move with sufficient swiftness to avoid them.
Already numbers of our men had fallen. I frequently looked round to see how it fared with Larry, Tom Pim, and Nettleship, and was thankful to find them still actively engaged at the guns, at which most of the officers were assisting the men.
OLD ENGLAND AGAIN.
Occasionally, as the French ships were manoeuvring, alternately passing either ahead or astern of us, there was a cessation of firing, but it was only for a short time. Again their shot came crashing aboard.
I observed Captain Bouchier not far from me, when, just as we were receiving a raking broadside, he staggered, and would have fallen to the deck, had not the purser sprang forward and caught him. Directly afterwards, the latter, summoning two men, the captain was carried below.
On this, Captain Drury, shouting, "Keep at it, my lads! We'll beat them off yet!" took his place, and issued the necessary orders.
Again the Frenchmen ranged up as before,—one on our beam and the other on our quarter,—and made another attempt to board. Captain Drury, leading our men on the starboard side, while our first lieutenant commanded those on the other, drove them back, many falling dead on our deck and others overboard. In a few minutes we again separated.
For four hours the action had continued (it appeared to me to be much longer), when, as the smoke from the guns cleared away, I saw that day was breaking.
As it showed the enemy more clearly than before our shattered and weak condition, I could not help fearing that they would again renew the attack, with every prospect of success.
From the numbers of the poor fellows who had been carried below wounded, and the many who lay stretched dead on the deck in all directions, I fancied that we must have lost half of our crew, while it seemed to me that at any moment our shattered spars would come tumbling down on deck. The fore-topmast hung over the bows, the main-yard was nearly cut in two, and not a sail remained whole. Still Captain Drury and the other officers went about encouraging the men to persevere.
When daylight increased, however, and we saw our two antagonists in comparison to our ship but slightly injured, we knew how desperate was our condition, yet our men stood sturdily to their guns, and blazed away as they could be brought to bear.
While watching the two frigates, I observed signals exchanged between them, and almost immediately afterwards, to our astonishment, they hauled their tacks aboard, and stood away from us. Our nearly exhausted crew, on seeing this, cheered again and again.
"We must not be too sure that they don't intend to come back again when they have repaired damages, and renew the fight," said Nettleship to me.
"We will hope for the best, and if they do, try to beat them off again," I answered.
"That's the right spirit, Paddy," said Nettleship. "Please Heaven, we shall do so."
"Hurrah! hurrah! We've licked the Frenchmen," I heard Larry shouting. "Give them another cheer, boys! Hurrah! hurrah!" and the men round him joined in his hurrahs.
The men were still allowed to remain at their quarters, for it was yet difficult to say what the enemy would do next. We watched them anxiously, for even the most fire-eating of our men had no wish for more fighting, as by no possibility could we hope to capture either of the frigates. When some way astern they joined company, and we saw them standing to the westward. They got farther and farther off, and gradually their hulls sank below the horizon. We were now ordered to secure the guns. This done, the dead hove overboard, and the decks washed down, all hands were employed in knotting and securing the running and standing rigging, and strengthening the wounded spars. I asked one of the assistant-surgeons, who came on deck to get a little fresh air, if he knew how the captain was going on.
"He has a desperate wound in the arm, but is likely to do well," he answered.
He told me, besides, that there were six-and-twenty wounded men below, while nineteen had been killed. From the number of shot the Frenchmen fired at us, I supposed that we had lost many more. A large proportion of the shot, however, had flown over our heads, and injured only our sails and rigging. The ship was but partially put to rights when another night closed in. I found it difficult enough even during my watch to keep my eyes open, and the moment I turned in to my hammock I was fast asleep. I suspect that all on board, both officers and men, were equally drowsy. I had not to turn out again till the hammocks were piped up.
When I came on deck I found that the weather had changed. Dark clouds were rushing across the sky, the sea had got up, and the ship was rolling and pitching into it. The wind was from the southward. Two reefs had been taken in the topsails, but from the way the ship heeled over it was evident that she had more canvas on her than she could carry.
Captain Drury had just come on deck.
"We must shorten sail," he said to the first lieutenant.
"Hands aloft," he shouted.
Just at that moment, as the men were about to spring into the rigging, a tremendous blast struck the ship, and over she heeled.
"Up with the helm!" cried Captain Drury.
The ship did not answer it, but heeled over more and more. I thought she was about to share the fate of the Cerberus, The moment afterwards a heavy sea came roaring up, a succession of crashes was heard, the masts went by the board, and she rose on an even keel, the wheel flying round and sending the men at it across the deck. The rudder had been carried away, and the ship lay a helpless wreck on the stormy ocean.
The men looked at each other, with blank dismay in their countenances, but our brave commander did his best to conceal his anxiety, and the officers followed his example.
"Clear away the wreck, lads; the gale won't last long, and when the wind goes down we must try to get up jury-masts and repair the rudder," he cried out.
All hands were now employed in trying to save some of the spars, and to cut the masts clear, for their butts were striking with fearful force on our larboard side, already shattered by the shot of the enemy. While we were thus employed, the carpenter and his mates, who had been below, came on deck, and went up to the captain. I saw by his looks as he passed me that something was the matter. Directly afterwards the order was given to man the pumps, and they were set clanging away as fast as they could be made to work. The quantity of water gushing out showed that the ship must be leaking at a rapid rate. There was so much work to do that but few words were spoken. I happened to meet Larry.
"Cheer up, Mr Terence," he exclaimed. "Things look mighty bad; but though our ship went to the bottom we were saved, and I'm after hoping that we'll be saved again. It would be hard to have beaten the enemy and yet to lose her."
"I don't expect that we shall do that," I answered. "The wind is fair for Nova Scotia, and when we get up jury-masts and rig a new rudder, we may be able to get her along."
Though I said this, I confess that I was not very sure about it. Things didn't improve. The sea increased, the wind blew stronger and stronger, and though the pumps were kept going without cessation, we could not get the water under. It came in faster and faster. The reports from the sick bay were also disheartening. Several of the poor fellows who had left their hammocks to fight had since succumbed, and many others were following them. The wounded, who might have done well under other circumstances, dropped off one by one. The only satisfactory intelligence was the state of the captain, who, though so badly wounded, was progressing favourably. The day after the gale commenced ten men died, and the following a still larger number. It was sad to see them lashed in their hammocks as they were slid overboard. There was no time for any funeral ceremonies. Even the healthiest among us looked pale and broken in spirits. On the fourth or fifth day, I think it was, from that on which the gale commenced, the purser's steward, on getting up provisions, found that the salt water had spoiled all the bread, while many of the casks with fresh water had broken loose and their contents were lost.
To try and stop the leaks, Captain Drury ordered the only spare mainsail to be fothered and drawn under the ship's bottom. To prepare it a quantity of oakum was spread over the sail, and stitched down by the sail-makers, thus forming what seemed like an enormous mat. This was lowered over the bows, and gradually hauled under the ship's bottom, where the leaks were supposed to be the worst. We all looked anxiously for the result. Though, in addition to the pumps, a gang of men were set to bale, the water still continued to gain on us. In spite of this, neither officers nor men appeared to lose heart.
"The gale will come to an end some day," cried Captain Drury, "and we must keep the ship afloat till then. We should be cowards to give in."
He did his best to speak in his usual cheery tone, but even his voice was more husky than usual, and it was easy to see that he didn't say what he thought. At last many of the men were seen to desert the pumps.
"Come, Paddy," said Tom Pim, "we must not let them do that. You and I will take their places and shame them back."
We turned to, and worked away till our arms ached. "Spell ho!" we cried, and, catching hold of two men, we dragged them back to the pumps. Nettleship did the same with others. The lieutenants were constantly going about trying to keep the crew at work. Some of them behaved exactly as those aboard the Cerberus had done before she was lost, and were about to lash themselves into their hammocks. The first lieutenant and the boatswain, going round, quickly routed them out, and they returned to their duty, either to pump or bale.
The carpenter and his mates, assisted by the boatswain, were attempting to get at the leaks, but even they at last abandoned their efforts on finding them hopeless.
Captain Drury, who had been to visit Captain Bouchier, now returned on deck, and ordered the guns to be hove overboard to lighten the ship. All hands not engaged in pumping were employed in this duty. One by one they were sent plunging into the sea, and the big seventy-four was left at the mercy of the smallest privateer afloat. This gave the ship relief, and our hopes rose of saving her. Of late we had been on the smallest possible allowance of water, and now, to our dismay, the purser announced that the last cask was expended. Nor could wine or spirits be got at owing to the quantity of water in the hold. We had beef and pork, but the bread was all spoiled; thus, even should we keep the ship afloat, we ran the risk of dying of hunger and thirst. Of the crew of the Hector, which had consisted of three hundred men when my companions and I got on board, nearly one hundred had been killed in action, or had since died, and still others were dropping off fast.
Day after day went by. We had known when in the boat what it was to suffer from thirst, but I now felt it more severely. Even Nettleship owned to me that he didn't think he could get through another day.
"I don't know whether either of us will survive, Paddy," he said, "but if you do, I want you to write to my mother and sister, who live near Plymouth, to tell them what happened to me, and that I thought of them to the last; and should be thankful if you could just get some one to let the Admiralty know that Jack Nettleship did his duty while life remained."
I tried to cheer him up, at the same time promising to carry out his wishes if I should survive him. I fancy a good many, both of officers and men, were feeling as he did. Still, no one I saw showed any signs of cowardly apprehension. Our chief work was now to keep the men at the pumps and baling. It was only by the constant efforts of the officers that they could be induced to remain at their stations; and when "Spell ho!" was cried, and a fresh gang was ordered to take their places, the people relieved staggered away, and fell down on the deck like drunken men. The others, after labouring away for some time, relaxed in their exertions. Nettleship and I were standing near, occasionally taking a turn to help them. One poor fellow fell down. We ran forward to lift him up, but he was dead. We could only just drag him out of the way and call to another to take his place. Before many minutes were over another fell in the same way, dying at the post of duty, as heroically as if he had been standing at his gun. One of the lieutenants, who just then came up, called the surgeon to examine them. He came at once, but his efforts proved ineffectual to restore the men, and they were soon sent to join a number of their shipmates in their ocean grave. Two or three others, I heard, died in the same manner, when I was not present. The gun-room had become uninhabitable from the water washing through it. We had to move up to the ward-room. The deck below us was fast sinking. The carpenter reported that some of the beams of the orlop deck had fallen into the hold, though they must have done so gradually, for we had heard no sound to account for what had taken place. Indeed, the loud noise of the seas beating against the ship, and the water washing about in the hold, prevented any noises except the loudest from being heard. We all now knew that the ship was sinking. Only by the greatest exertions could she be kept afloat to prolong our lives for a few hours. Still no one talked of giving in.
Captain Bouchier, wounded as he was, got up and went about, encouraging both officers and men. The spirit he and Captain Drury displayed encouraged us all. For three days we had none of us tasted a drop of water or spirits. We could judge by our own sufferings the fearful agonies the sick and wounded must be enduring. Not one would have survived, had not the surgeon discovered a few bottles of claret, which the captain insisted should be reserved for them, and though he required it as much as any one, he would not touch a drop himself.
The third day since the water had been exhausted came to an end, and few of us expected to see another sunrise. That night was a dreadful one. The loud lashing of the sea against the side, the creaking of the bulkheads, the ominous sounds which came from the depths of the ship, the groans and cries of the sick and dying, heard at intervals, the ceaseless clanging of the pumps, rang in our ears as we lay, during our watch below, on our damp beds extended on the ward-room deck. The night, however, did come to an end, and we found ourselves still alive, though the ship had evidently sunk lower since the previous day. I joined Nettleship on deck, for we naturally kept together as much as we could. I found that the wind was still blowing strongly, and the sea running high, although it had lately somewhat gone down. Nothing could be seen around but the leaden-coloured foaming seas rising and sinking between us and the horizon. On comparing notes, my two messmates and I agreed that we didn't suffer nearly so much from thirst as we had done in the boat. Such provisions as could be got at were served out, but none of us cared much for food, though we ate what we could to keep up our strength. We were soon summoned to watch and assist the men at the pumps and buckets, for even now, not for an instant were they allowed to relax in their exertions. Captain Bouchier, weak as he was, went frequently amongst them.
"Keep at it, my lads!" cried Nettleship; "while there's life there's hope. If we can keep the ship afloat for a short time longer, it may make all the difference whether we save our lives or perish. Cheer up, lads, cheer up! Show that you're British seamen to the last!"
The men uttered a faint cheer when the captain, leaning on the purser's arm, returned.
Captain Drury, who had fought the ship so bravely after Captain Bouchier was wounded, was the life and soul of all on board.
Noon had passed, and still the stout ship lay rolling in the trough of the sea. Inch by inch the water was rising, and we knew that if we were to cease pumping and baling, it would gain upon us still more rapidly.
Already despair could be seen on nearly every countenance. Notwithstanding, few, if any, flinched from their work. Those who spoke, talked of home and friends whom they never expected to see again. Some shook hands, believing that at any moment the ship might make the last fatal plunge, and sink beneath the waves.
Larry was now like my shadow, wherever I went, he followed, no one preventing him, except when he had to take his turn at the pumps or buckets.
Some of the officers had written letters addressed to friends or relatives, and were enclosing them in bottles headed up in small casks, so that some record might be preserved of our fate. Nettleship had prepared one.
"Have you anything to say to your friends at Ballinahone, Paddy?" he asked.
"Yes; beg your mother to write to them, and say that I send my love to all, not forgetting my uncle the major, and that I have been thinking much of them to-day," I answered, as well as I could speak with the choking sensation in my throat.
"And please, Mr Nettleship, may I be so bold as to axe you to put in a word about Larry Harrigan, and to say that he stuck to Mr Terence to the last, and that if he couldn't save him, it wasn't the will that was wanting, but the cruel say was too much for us at last."
"And put in a word to my family,—you know their address," said Tom; "just my love, and that I was thinking of them. They'll know that I was likely to have done my duty as far as I could, so I won't trouble you with a longer message."
Just as Nettleship had returned to the gun-room to add the messages to his letter, there came a shout from the poop—
"A sail! a sail!"
Many of the officers rushed up to take a look at her. Tom Pim and I followed them. We could make her out clearly,—a small vessel, right away to windward. The question was whether she would see us.
Captain Drury also had his telescope on her.
Now she was hidden by the seas which rose up between us; now she came clearly into view, her hull almost visible.
"She's standing this way," said Captain Drury, "and I believe has made us out, but of that we can't be certain. However, we must not relax in our efforts to keep the ship afloat, for it may be many hours before we can get aboard her."
I should have said that we had had a spar secured to the stump of the mainmast, to which an ensign with a jack downwards had been nailed from the first, in the hopes of attracting the attention of any passing vessel.
Captain Bouchier, who had been informed that a sail was in sight, now came up to have a look at her, but almost immediately went down again among the men.
"Lads," he said, "your exertions will be rewarded, I hope; but you must not slacken in them, or your labours may be thrown away. We may keep the ship afloat many hours longer if you bale and pump as sturdily as heretofore. By that time the sea may have gone down, and we may manage to get aboard the vessel in her boats, though she probably will not venture alongside."
The men received his address with a faint cheer, and turned to again at the pumps, while those employed in baling passed the buckets to and fro with greater alacrity even than before.
I occasionally ran up on deck to see how near she was getting. I know my heart bounded when I saw the English flag flying out at her peak. She appeared to be a good-sized merchantman, a "snow," and I heard some of the officers who had been looking through their glasses say that she had guns aboard.
On hearing my report when I returned, some of the men burst into tears, others shouted for joy and shook each other by the hand, believing that our deliverance was near.
Night was now coming on. The sea still ran too high to allow of boats laden with men to pass from one vessel to the other. For the same reason it was impossible for the stranger to come near enough to take any of us off. Many would very probably perish in the attempt, even if the snow should escape being hove against us and stove in.
Again I ran up. All those on deck were now stretching out their hands towards her. She came close enough for the voice of her captain—who stood on the poop—to be heard through his speaking-trumpet.
"I'll stay by you during the night," he shouted. "The sea is going down. In the morning I'll take you off,—please God."
The last words reached us as the stranger surged by, close under our lee. She then hove-to at a safe distance. Eager eyes were turned towards her before the light altogether faded away, and many looked as if they were tempted to leap overboard and swim to her. Thirsty, hungry, and weary as we were, we would gladly have knocked off baling; but the captain wisely ordered us to keep at it as long as we remained on board.
"You can't tell, my lads, when the bucketful will leak in that will send her to the bottom," he said, and the men again turned to. He ordered, however, the carpenter to patch up such of the boats as could be made serviceable enough to float even for a short time, so that they might be employed in carrying us aboard the snow. Without the masts the launch could not be got off the deck, but we had three other boats fit to be repaired; all the others had been completely knocked to pieces. No one slept at all events during that night, for we were all kept spell and spell at the pumps and buckets. The certainty that relief was at hand if we kept afloat, inspired us with renewed strength. When morning dawned the snow came as close as she could venture. Three of her boats approached and pulled towards us. The order was now given for the men to prepare for leaving the ship. Sentries were placed at the gangways to prevent any crowding in till they received the order to go down the side, but this was unnecessary. The few survivors of the sick and wounded were first lowered into the boats, with the surgeons to attend them. The boys and midshipmen were then ordered to go down the side, the names of all being called in succession. As soon as the snow's boats were filled and had pulled away, ours were lowered. Tom Pim and I went, with Larry, in one of them, Nettleship having charge of her. I looked up at the old ship. She seemed to be settling fast. The water came out of the scuppers, showing that, according to the captain's orders, the hands were still at the pumps. There was no hurry, yet all was done rapidly. The moment we shoved off our crew gave way, and we were soon aboard the snow. While Nettleship returned for more men, Tom and I stood watching them anxiously. It seemed even now that before they could escape the ship would go down. Though the sea had much decreased, there was no little danger, while the boats were alongside the Hector, of their being swamped. As fast as they could the boats went backwards and forwards, taking their cargoes in through the lower ports. I saw Captain Drury and the first lieutenant pressing Captain Bouchier to leave the ship, but in spite of his wound he insisted on remaining to the last. Our men, as they arrived, stood watching the ship from the deck of the snow, and gave a cheer as they saw him descending, the last man, into the cutter, for they knew that not a soul was left on board the gallant Hector, Scarcely had the captain been helped up the side, than we saw the ship's head begin to sink. Lower and lower it went, then down she plunged, her ensign flying from the spar secured to the stump of her mainmast, streaming upwards, alone showing us the spot where she was sinking into the depths of the ocean. A groan escaped from the breasts of many of those who had long sailed in her. We found that we were on board the Hawk snow, a letter-of-marque belonging to Dartmouth, Captain John Hill, and bound from Lisbon to Saint John's, Newfoundland. When Captain Bouchier expressed his gratitude to the master for receiving him and his people, the reply was—
"Don't talk of it, sir; I'm but doing my duty. I would wish to be treated the same way by others."
Besides his own crew of five-and-twenty men, he had now two hundred of the Hector's on board. We had brought neither provisions nor water, and were still many a long league from our port. The Hawk had fortunately hitherto had a quick passage. We had, therefore, more provisions and water on board than would otherwise have been the case. Still two hundred mouths in addition was a large number to feed, yet neither the captain nor his ship's company grumbled or made the slightest complaint. To stow us all away was the difficulty. To solve it, the captain at once ordered his men to heave overboard the more bulky portion of his cargo. His owners, he said, would not complain, for he himself was the principal one, and he trusted to the justice of his country to replace his loss. We were, of course, put on an allowance, but after the starvation we had endured, it appeared abundance. Even when the cargo had been got rid of it was unpleasantly close stowing for most of us, but we had great reason to be thankful to Heaven for having escaped with our lives. The officers and crew of the Hawk treated us with the greatest kindness; most of our poor fellows, indeed, required help, and were unable to move about the deck by themselves. The wind, however, continued fair, and those who had abundant sleep recovered their spirits. Still several died, worn out by fatigue and sickness. We were safe for the present, and we did not allow ourselves to recollect that another gale might spring up before we could reach Saint John's, to which port we were bound, or that contrary winds might keep us from our port, and that, after all, we might perish from hunger and thirst. I was talking of what we should do when we got ashore.
"Wait till we are there, Paddy," said Nettleship. "I don't say that we shall not reach it, but we may not. That noble fellow, Hill, knows that such may be the case as well as I do; and I admire his calmness, and the care he takes not to show us that he fears he and his people may suffer the fate from which they rescued our ship's company. You see they are all put on the same allowance that we are, yet not one of them complains."
I heartily agreed with him. Shortly afterwards I asked Nettleship what he had done with his letter.
"I left it in the cask aboard, Paddy," he answered. "So in case we're lost, our friends will know our whereabouts, though they'll not hear of our being rescued, and the chance we have had of escaping; but that won't matter much, though I should like to have made Hill's conduct known."
Never, perhaps, did seamen watch the weather more anxiously than we did. Our lives, as far as we could see, depended on the winds. Already the stock of provisions and water was getting low, and it was necessary to diminish the allowance of both. Still the crew of the Hawk would only receive the same quantity that we did. The sun rose and set, and again rose, and we sailed on. Mr Hill met us each morning at breakfast, his honest countenance beaming with kindness, and jocularly apologised for the scantiness of the fare. Even he, however, one morning looked grave; the wind had fallen, and we lay becalmed. He had good reason to be grave, for he knew what we did not, that he had only one cask of water left, and provisions scarcely sufficient for a couple of days.
"I have come away without fish-hooks," he observed. "If I had had them, gentlemen, I might have given you cod for dinner; and I promise you I'll never be without them again, when I make this voyage."
"Then I only hope, captain, that you'll take us up again if we happen to have our ship sinking under us," I said, at which there was a general laugh.
As we had nothing else to do, all hands employed themselves in whistling for a breeze. Just before the sun again rose, a cheering shout was heard from the masthead—
In a short time the rocky coast of Newfoundland rose on the larboard bow, and we stood along to the northward for Saint John's harbour, on the east coast. Before evening we were passing through the Narrows, a passage leading to the harbour, with perpendicular precipices rising to a considerable height on either side. Passing under Fort Amhurst, a voice came off hailing—
"Where are you from? What length of passage?"
The answer announcing, "We have on board the officers and crew of H.M.S. Hector," evidently caused considerable excitement, and signals were made to a post on the top of a lofty hill on the right side, whence the information was conveyed to the town.
Before we dropped our anchor, the last cask of water was emptied, the last particle of food consumed.
The moment we brought up, the vessel was surrounded by boats, the news of our arrival having preceded us. Before landing, all the officers again expressed their thanks to our gallant preserver, who, I hope, received the reward he so well merited, from our Government, we ourselves being unable to offer him any. None of us, indeed, had more than the clothes we wore, and a few articles we had been able to carry off with us from the wreck.
We were received with the greatest kindness and hospitality by the inhabitants of Saint John's. Nettleship, Tom, and I were lodged together in the house of a merchant, whose wife and daughters, pitying our condition, did everything they could to restore us to health. Certainly we were very unlike the gay midshipmen we appeared when we sailed from Jamaica. Both the young ladies were very nice girls; but Tom confided to me that his heart had become hard as adamant since Lucy's cruel treatment of him.
"It will soften by and by, Tom," I answered, laughing, though I could not say that I felt mine inclined to yield to their attractions.
We agreed, however, that Nettleship, as we thought, would knock under. What might have been the case I don't know; but as soon as the men had somewhat recovered from their hardships,—there being no man-o'-war likely to call off the place,—the captain chartered two merchant brigs to convey himself and the survivors of the Hector to Halifax, Nova Scotia, whence he expected to get a passage home for us to England. Nettleship, Tom, and I, accompanied by Larry, had to go on board the Jane, one of the vessels, of which Captain Drury went in charge; while Captain Bouchier, though still not recovered from his wound, went in the other, the John Thomas.
I did not mention it at the time, but Larry had managed to save his riddle uninjured when he left the Hector, and his appearance with it under his arm afforded no small amount of satisfaction to the crew of the Jane.
The John Thomas proved a much faster sailer than the brig, and soon ran ahead of us. We had just lost sight of Cape Race when a sail was made out, standing towards us from the southward.
"I don't like her looks," observed Nettleship to me, as she approached. "I shouldn't be surprised if she proves to be a French privateer."
The captain appeared to be of this opinion, for, after: examining the stranger through his glass, he ordered all the sail we could carry to be set, and stood away right before the wind, to the north-west. The stranger, however, came up with us hand over hand. In a short time the French ensign was seen blowing out at her peak, leaving no doubt as to her character.
"We must not be taken, lads. I trust to you to fight to the last, before we strike our flag," cried the captain.
The crew cheered, and promised to do their best.
The Jane had six nine-pounders, while the enemy carried twice as many guns, evidently of much heavier metal. As a few men only were required to work them, the captain ordered the rest to go under shelter. Tom and I were among those ordered below. In a short time we heard our guns go off, and the shot of the enemy came rattling on board. Presently there came a crash, and we guessed that the privateer had run us alongside.
"On deck, lads!" cried the captain. "Boarders, repel boarders."
At the summons we eagerly rushed up through every hatchway, to see a number of Frenchmen swarming on board; but they didn't get far beyond the bulwarks before they were driven back, we in return boarding them. Tom and I led our men into the fore part of the vessel. More and more of our fellows followed. The Frenchmen gave way, some leaped below, others ran aft, where they encountered Nettleship and his party; in less than five minutes the privateer was ours, and Larry, shouting—
"Wallop-a-hoo-aboo! Erin go bragh!" hauled down her colours.
The enemy had so completely been taken by surprise, that they had offered but a slight resistance, and few, therefore, had lost their lives, while we had only half a dozen wounded. Captain Drury, with two-thirds of our men, went on board the prize, retaining the larger number of our prisoners; while Nettleship, Tom, and I remained in the Jane, with orders to follow close astern.
"We must take care, Paddy, that our prisoners don't play us the same trick yours played you," said Nettleship. "They would like to try it, no doubt."
We had thirty prisoners to look after.
"I'll take remarkably good care that they don't do that," I answered; "and to make sure, it would be as well to keep them in durance vile till we reach Halifax."
The Frenchmen grumbled at finding that they were to have their arms lashed behind them, and be kept below under charge of a couple of sentries. They were somewhat more contented when we fed them carefully, and told them that it was because we considered them brave fellows, and felt sure that if they had the opportunity they would take the brig from us, that we were obliged to treat them so unceremoniously. Fortunately the wind held fair, and we had a quick passage to Halifax, where we arrived before the harbour was frozen up. Of course we gained great credit for our last exploit at that favourite naval station.
We found the Maidstone frigate just about to sail for England, on board of which all who were well enough were ordered home. We were pretty considerably crowded, but we were a merry set, and had plenty to talk about. The midshipmen of the Maidstone, which had been for some time at Halifax, spoke warmly of the kindness they had received, and of the fascinations of the young ladies of the place, except an old mate and an assistant-surgeon, who declared that they had been abominably treated, and jilted by half-a-dozen whose hearts they thought they had won.
Old Grumpus, the master's mate, was especially bitter. "Look here," he said, producing a sketch which he had made. "See these old ladies seated on chairs on the quay, watching their daughters fishing. There are a dozen girls at least, with long rods and hooks, baited with all sorts of odds and ends. And see what sort of fish they're after,—naval officers—marine officers—and of all ranks, from an admiral down to a young midshipman. And there's a stout dame—she can't be called a young lady exactly—casting her hook towards a sturdy boatswain.
"'Look here,' one of them cries out, 'mother, mother, I've got a bite.'
"'Play him, my dear,' cries the mother, 'till you see what he is.'
"'Oh, mother, mother!' she cries out presently, 'I've caught a midshipman.'
"'Throw him in, my dear, he's no good,' answered the old lady.
"Presently another sings out, 'Mother, I've got a bite. I'm sure it's from a lieutenant, from the way he pulls.'
"'Let him hang on a little, my dear,' says the mother; 'may be if you see a commander or a post-captain swimming by, you may cast him off, and hook one of the others instead.'
"Presently a fourth cries out, 'Oh, mother, I've hooked a captain!'
"'Run, Jane, run, and help your sister to land him,' cries Mrs Thingamebob; and just see the way they're doing it, so as not to frighten him, and make him turn tail.
"At last another shouts, 'Mother, I've hooked a master's mate.'
"'Then go and cut the line, Susan. Don't let Nancy land that brute, on any account. He's the worst of the lot.'
"And so it goes on," exclaimed old Grumpus. "However, to my mind they're all alike. Why, while we have been there a dozen officers from different ships have been and got spliced. It's lucky for you fellows that you were not there long, or you would have been and done it, and repented it all your lives afterwards."
During the voyage old Grumpus brought out his sketch a score of times, and repeated his story as often, with numerous variations, which afforded us all much amusement. He had anecdotes of other descriptions without end to tell, most of them hingeing on the bad way the junior officers of the service were treated. He didn't say that most of those junior officers were rough diamonds like himself, who would have been much better off if they had not been placed on the quarter-deck.
We had a somewhat long and stormy passage, and were half frozen to death before it was over, most of us who had been for years in the West Indies being little prepared for cold weather. We should have been much worse off, however, in a line-of-battle ship, but in the midshipmen's berth we managed to keep ourselves tolerably warm when below. At length we sighted the coast of Ireland.
"Hurrah, Mr Terence! There's the old country," said Larry, throwing up his hat in his excitement, and nearly losing it overboard. "If the captain would only put into Cork harbour, we would be at home in two or three days, and shure they'd be mighty pleased to see us at Ballinahone. What lashings of whisky, and pigs, and praties they'd be after eating and drinking in our honour, just come home from the wars. Och! I wish we were there, before a blazing turf fire, with the peat piled up, and every one of them red and burning, instead of being out here with these cold winds almost blowing our teeth down our throats."
The picture Larry drew made me more than ever wish to get home. Not that I was tired of a sea life, though I had found it a pretty hard one in some respects; but I longed to see my father, and mother, and brothers, and sisters again, and my kind uncle the major, as I had not heard from them for many a long day. Letters in those days were conveyed to distant stations very irregularly. I had only received two all the time I had been away. Indeed, friends, knowing the great uncertainty which existed of letters reaching, thought it scarcely worth while to write them. We could just see the land, blue and indistinct, over our larboard bow, when the wind veered to the eastward, and instead of standing for Plymouth, as we expected to do, we were kept knocking about in the Chops of the Channel for three long weeks, till our water was nearly exhausted, and our provisions had run short. There we were, day after day, now standing on one tack, now on another, never gaining an inch of ground. Every morning the same question was put, and the same answer given—
"Blowing as hard as ever, and right in our teeth."
We sighted a number of merchant vessels, and occasionally a man-of-war, homeward-bound from other stations, but all were as badly off as we were.
At last one morning the look-out at the masthead shouted, "A sail to the eastward coming down before the wind." It was just possible she might be an enemy. The drum beat to quarters, and the ship was got ready for action. On getting nearer, however, she showed English colours, and we then made out her number to be that of the Thetis frigate. As soon as we got near each other we both hove-to. Though there was a good deal of sea running, two of our boats were soon alongside her to obtain water, and some casks of bread and beef, for, as far as we could tell to the contrary, we might be another month knocking about where we were. In the meantime, one of her boats brought a lieutenant on board us.
"Peace has been signed between Great Britain and France," were almost the first words he uttered when he stepped on deck. "I can't give particulars, but all I know is, that everything we have been fighting for is to remain much as it was before. We are to give up what we have taken from the French, and the French what they have taken from us, and we are to shake hands and be very good friends. There has been great rejoicing on shore, and bonfires and feasts in honour of the event."
I can't say that the news produced any amount of satisfaction to those on board the Maidstone.
"Then my hope of promotion has gone," groaned Nettleship; "and you, Paddy, will have very little chance of getting yours, for which I'm heartily sorry; for after the creditable way in which you have behaved since you came to sea, I fully expected to see you rise in your profession, and be an honour to it."