There was but a light breeze, and they were some time in reaching us. One was a large boat with barked canvas, going well and weatherly, but the other, plainly a ship's lifeboat, hung heavy in the wind, and presently her crew lowered sail and came at us under oars. The big boat reached us first, her steersman taking every inch out of the fickle breeze. Plainly these were no deep-water sailor-men, by the way they handled their boat. Smart, wiry men, they had no look of castaways, and their light cotton clothes were cleanly and in order. As they sheered alongside they hailed us in clear, pleasant English: one shouted, in face of our line of wondering seamen, a strange sea salutation:
"God bless you, Captain Leish! Are you long out?"
"Blimy," said the bo'sun, "th' young 'un wos right after all. 'Oly Joes they be!"
"Mebbe 'oly Joes, but them ain't sailormen," muttered Martin sullenly; "them's Kanakas!"
Neither was quite right, for the boatmen were Pitcairn Islanders, and they were soon on deck greeting us in the friendly way of men from afar. Their leader went aft to the Old Man, and the rest remained to tell us of the wreck, in exchange for what scant knowledge we had of affairs.
The island was called Oeno. The ship was the Bowden, of Liverpool. She had gone ashore, six weeks back, in a northerly wind, with all sail on her: chronometer was twenty miles out: a bad case, the whole bottom was ripped out of her, and her ruined cargo of grain smelt abominably; two of their men were already sick. Ugh! ... The crew of the ship had made for Pitcairn, ninety miles to the southward; they might be there now. They (the Islanders) had now been three weeks on the reef, salving what they could. There was not much: they were all pretty sick of the job, and wanted to get back to Pitcairn. Perhaps the Captain would give them a passage; it was on the way?
As we stood about, the Old Man and the leader of the Islanders came out of the cabin, and talked with the others. All wanted to get back to Pitcairn, and, the Old Man agreeing to give them a passage, we hoisted the smaller boat on our davits, towed the other astern, and were soon on our way towards Pitcairn.
When we got the ship in fair sailing trim, we had a rare opportunity of learning something of the Island and its people. Discipline was, for the time, relaxed, and but for working ship, in which the Islanders joined us, we had the time to ourselves. In the shade of the great sails, we stood or sat about, and our decks showed an unusual animation in the groups of men colloguing earnestly—strangers met by the way.
In stature the Islanders were perhaps above the average height, lithe and wiry, and but few were darker-skinned than a Spaniard or Italian. They spoke excellent English (though, among themselves, they had a few odd words), and their speech had no unnecessary adjectives. They had a gentle manner, and no ill language; sometimes our rough ship talk raised a slight protest; a raised hand, or a mild, "Oh, Sir!" Their leader, who was Governor of the Island, was a man in the prime of life, and, though dressed in dungarees and a worn cotton shirt, barefooted like the rest, had a quiet dignity in his manner and address that caused even our truculent Old Martin to call him Sir. There was one outlander among them, a wiry old man, an American whaleman, who had been settled on the Island for many years; he it was who steered the boat, and he knew a little of navigation.
Their talk was mostly of ships that had visited the Island, and they asked us to run over the names of the ships that were at 'Frisco when we left; when we mentioned a ship that they knew, they were eager to know how it fared with her people. They had fine memories. They could name the Captain and Mates of each ship; of the whalers they had the particulars even down to the bulk of oil aboard. They seemed to take a pleasure in learning our names, and, these known, they let pass no opportunity of using them, slipping them into sentences in the oddest manner. They themselves had few surnames—Adams, Fletcher, Christian, and Hobbs (the names of their forefathers, the stark mutineers of the Bounty)—but their Christian names were many and curious, sometimes days of the week or even dates. They told us that there was a child named after our Old Man, who had called off the Island the day after it was born, five years ago; a weird name for a lassie! In one way the Islanders had a want. They had no sense of humour. True, they laughed with us at some merry jest of our Irish cook, but it was the laugh of children, seeing their elders amused, and though they were ever cheery-faced and smiling, they were strangely serious in their outlook.
We had light winds, and made slow progress, and it was the afternoon of the second day when we saw Pitcairn, rising bold and solitary, on the lee bow. The sun had gone down before we drew nigh, and the Island stood sharp outlined against the scarlet and gold of a radiant western sky. Slowly the light failed, and the dark moonless night found us lifting lazily to the swell off the north point. The Islanders manned their boats and made off to the landing place. It was clock calm, and we heard the steady creak of their oars long after the dark had taken them. We drifted close to the land, and the scent of trees, lime and orange, was sweetly strange.
The boats were a long time gone, and the Old Man was growing impatient, when we heard voices on the water, and saw, afar off, the gleam of phosphorescence on the dripping oars. We heard the cheery hail, "The Florence, ahoy!" and burned a blue light to lead them on.
There were many new men in the boats, and they brought a cargo of fruit and vegetables to barter with us. The Old Man heaved a sigh of relief when he learned that the Bowden's crew were disposed of; they had taken passage in a whaler that had called, nine days before, on her way across to Valparaiso—a 'full' ship.
In odd corners the bartering began. Cotton clothes were in most demand; they had little use for anything heavier. A basket of a hundred or more luscious oranges could be had for an old duck suit, and a branch of ripening bananas was counted worth a cotton shirt in a reasonable state of repair. Hansen had red cotton curtains to his bunk, full lengths, and there was keen bidding before they were taken down, destined to grace some island beauty. After the trade in clothing had become exhausted, there were odd items, luxuries to the Islanders, soap, matches, needles, thread. There was a demand for parts of old clocks—Martin it was who had a collection; they told us that there was a man on the island who was a famous hand at putting up and repairing such battered timepieces as we had to offer. They had some curios; rudely carved or painted bamboos, and sea-shells cunningly fashioned into pin-cushions, with Pitcairn in bold black letters, just as one might see "A Present from Largs." These were the work of the women-folk, and showed considerable ingenuity in the way the shells were jointed.
Although they seemed to have a good idea of the value of the trifles we offered, there was no 'haggling,' and latterly, when trade slackened, it came to be, "Sir! if you like this, I will give it to you, and you will give me something."
There was no cheating. Those of our crew who would glory in 'bilking' a runner or a Dutchman were strangely decent, even generous, in their dealings. When we were called away to brace the yards round, stock was taken on both sides; the Islanders had their boats well laden, and our once trim deck was strewn with a litter of fruit and vegetables, like the top of Bell Street on a busy morning.
Light was breaking into the east when we laid the yards to a gentle breeze, and shortly the Islanders, with a great shaking of hands and "God bless you," got aboard their boats and sheered off. We were now to leeward of the Island, and the light showed us the bold wooded heights, high cliffs, steep to the water's edge, and the small houses scattered apart among the trees. Astern the boats had hoisted sail, and were standing inshore, leaning gently to the scented land breeze. The ''oly Joes' were singing together as they sailed; the tune was an old familiar one that minded us of quiet Sabbath days in the homeland, of kirk and kent faces, and, somehow, we felt that it was we who were the 'bloomin' 'eathens,' for their song was 'Rock of Ages,' and it had a new sound, mellowed by distance and the water.
EAST, HALF SOUTH
On a day of high action in sea and sky we fled, hot-foot, before the fury of a nor'-west gale. We had run her overlong. Old Jock, for once at any rate, had had his weather eye bedimmed. He was expecting a quick shift into the sou'-west, a moderate gale, and a chance to make his 'easting' round Cape Horn, but the wind hung stubbornly in the nor'-west; there was no break in the sky, no cessation in the black bursts of rain and sleet that swept upon us. A huge sea set up, and we were past the time when we could, in safety, heave her to the wind. There was nothing for it but to run—run she did.
We had tops'ls and a reefed foresail on her while daylight lasted, but on threat of darkness we stowed all but the foretops'l; wings enough for the weight of a hurricane wind. Under that narrow band of straining canvas she sped on into the murk of advancing night, while behind the lurid western sky showed threat of a mightier blast in bank upon bank of ragged storm-cloud. It was a wild night, never a wilder!
In the darkness the uncanny green shimmer of breaking seas gave an added terror to the scene of storm. Rain and stinging sleet swept constantly over us, thundering seas towered and curled at our stern, lapping viciously at the fleeting quarter, or, parting, crashed aboard at the waist, filling the decks man high with a power of destruction. Part of the bulwarks were torn from the side. That was, perhaps, the saving of us, for the seas swept off as fast as they thundered aboard, and the barque rode buoyant, when, with bulwarks standing, the weight of compassed water would have held her at mercy of the next towering greybeard. A boat on the forward skids was smashed to atoms and the wreck swept overboard, and every moment we looked to see our crazy half-deck go tottering to ruin. The fo'ca'sle was awash through a shattered door, and all hands were gathered on the poop for such safety as it held. There was nowhere else where man could stand on the reeling hull, and crouching at the rails, wet and chilled to the marrow, we spent the night a-watching.
The bo'sun and Martin and Hans took turns of the steering; that was work beyond the rest of us, and the most we could do was to stand by a-lee and bear on the spokes with the helmsman. Dutchy was the best steersman, and his steering was no truer than the stout heart of him. Once she pooped, and the crest of a huge following sea came crashing on top of us. But for our hold-fasts, all would have been swept away. That was the time of trial. A falter at the helm—she would have 'broached-to'—to utter destruction!
Amid the furious rush of broken water, 'Dutchy' stood fast at his post, though there was a gash on his forehead and blood running in his eyes—the work of the wrenching wheel.
We showed no lights; no lamps would stand to the weather. There was only the flickering binnacle, tended as never was temple fire, to show the compass card. By turns we kept a look-out from the tops'l yard, but of what use was that when we could steer but to one point. We were a ship of chance, and God help us and the outward-bounder, 'hove-to' in the trough, that had come between us and the east that night!
How we looked for daylight! How it was long a-coming! How the mountain seas raced up and hove our barque, reeling from the blow, from towering crest to hollow of the trough! How every day of the twenty-five years of her cried out in creak of block, in clatter of chain sheet, in the 'harping' of the backstays, the straining groan of the burdened masts!
From time to time through the night the Mate and some of us would go forward to see to the gear; there was no need to touch a brace, for the wind blew ominously true. When we got back again, battered and breathless, it was something to know that the foretops'l still stood the strain. It was a famous sail, a web of '00 storm,' stitched and fortified at seam and roping for such a wind as this. Good luck to the hands that stitched it, to the dingy sail loft in the Govan Road that turned it out, for it stood us in stead that night!
Once an ill-stowed clew of the mains'l blew out with a sounding crack, and thrashed a 'devil's tattoo' on the yard. We thought it the tops'l gone—but no! Macallison's best stood bravely spread to the shrieking gale, and we soon had the ribbons of the main clew fast to the yard.
There was no broad dawn, no glow in the east to mark its breaking; the light grew out of the darkness. The masts and spars shaped themselves out of the gloom, till they stood outlined against the dull grey clouds. We could see the great seas, white-streaked by lash of driven spray, running up into the lowering sky. When day came, and the heaving, wind-swept face of the waters became plain to us, we saw the stormy path round the Horn in its wildest, grandest mood. Stretching far to the black murky curtain—the rear of the last shrieking rain squall—the great Cape Horn greybeards swept on with terrific force and grandeur, their mile-long crests hurtling skyward in blinding foam. The old barque ran well, reeling through the long, stormy slopes with buoyant spring, driving wildly to the trough, smashing the foam far aside. At times she poised with sickening uncertitude on the crest of a greater wave, then steadied, and leapt with the breaking water to the smoother hollow.
The Old Man stood by the helmsman, 'conning' her on. All night he had stood there, ordering, to the shock of following seas, a steady voiced command. Never a gainly man—short-legged, broad, uncouth—his was yet a figure in keeping with the scene; unkempt and haggard, blue-lipped, drenched by sea and rain, he was never less than a Master of the Sea. At daybreak we heard a hail from the tops'l yard, and saw the 'look-out' pointing ahead. Peering down the wind, we made out the loom of a ship rising and falling in the trough of the sea. A big 'four-master' she proved, lying 'hove-to' the wind. We shuddered to think of what would have been if daylight had been further delayed!
Out of the mist and spray we bore down on her and flew by, close to her stern. We could see figures on her poop staring and pointing, a man with glasses at his eyes. Only a fleeting glimpse—for she was soon swallowed up by the murk astern, and we were driving on. The shift of wind came suddenly. Nearly at noon there was a heavier fall of rain, a shrieking squall that blew as it had never blown. The Old Man marked the signs—the scud of the upper clouds, a brightening low down in the south.
"Stan' by ... head ... yards," he yelled, shouting hoarsely to be heard. "Quick ... the word!"
All hands struggled to the braces, battling through the wash of icy water that swept over the decks.
The squall passed, followed by a lull that served us to cant the yards; then, sharp as a knife-thrust, the wind came howling out of the sou'-west. The rain ceased and the sky cleared as by a miracle. Still it blew and the seas, turned by the shift of wind, broke and shattered in a whirl of confusion. For a time we laboured through the treacherous cross sea—the barque fretting and turning to windward, calling for all of 'Dutchy's' cunning at the helm, but it was none so ill with the sun in sight and a clearing overhead.
"Blast ye," said the Old Man, shaking his benumbed arms towards the sou'-west. "Blast ye—but ye've been a long time comin'!"
The wind was now to his liking, it was the weather he had looked for, and sure enough, as quick succeeding squalls rolled up on us, the sea grew less and ran truer, and the barque sailed easier. The wind fell to a moderate gale, and by four in the afternoon we had a reefed foresail and the tops'ls set, and were staggering along at a great speed.
The decks were yet awash, there was no comfort on deck or below; but through it all we had one consoling thought: East, half south, we were covering the leagues that lay between us and our journey's end!
Car-conducting may be a work of niceness and despatch, but it is ill training for working on the spars of a rolling ship. John Cutler was mousing clew-blocks on the main-yardarm, the ship lurched heavily, the foot-ropes were wet and slippery, and John, ill-balanced and unready, was cast into the sea. Instant, there was the cry "Man overboard"; the Old Man ordered the helm down, and, springing to the rack, threw a lifebuoy from the starboard quarter; the Second Mate, not seeing him throw it, threw another from the port.
We were below at the time, just after dinner, about to turn in, when we heard the call. All hands ran on deck. The watch were swinging the head yards; some were unlashing the lee boat. We joined them, tore the cover off, hooked the tackles, and swung her out. There was confusion; the Old Man and the Mate shouting cross orders, the boat swinging wildly on the tackles, men crowding about the rail.
"Another hand in the boat," yelled the Second Mate, as he sprang into the stern-sheets, "lower away, you!"
There was a whirr of block sheaves, the falls smoking on the pins, a splash, a rush of water on the rusty side. "Bow off, there! Bow off, you!" and I found myself in the bow of the boat, tugging frantically at the heft of a long oar.
There was that in the steady clack—clack-a of oar on rowlock to soothe the tremors of our moment of excited haste. Astern was the barque, her mainyards aback, rolling heavily athwart the swell; we were leaving her slowly, for, though the breeze was light, we had to climb the long steep slopes of a Cape Horn swell. Old Martin's broad back was bent to the oar in front of me, Houston beyond, and the bo'sun at the stroke. The Second Mate was standing up at the tiller, listening for a hail, gazing anxiously ahead for gleam of a painted life-buoy. Clack—clack-a, clack—clack-a; the bo'sun was setting us a feverish stroke; it couldn't last. Clack—clack-a, clack—clack-a; we were already breathing heavily. Up and down the heaving swell we went; crawling laboured to the crown—the shudder, and the quick, sickening descent! Clack—clack-a! Would it ever end? Now I was pulling out of stroke—a feeble paddle. My neck! I had the pain there! ... "Bow, there! Lay in, an' keep yer eyes about. He must be here somewhere!"
I laid in my oar, and faced about. We could not see far, the swell was too great. When the boat rose we had a hasty glimpse of the face of the water, but in the hollow, the great glassy walls rose ahead and astern. We thought we had overrun the distance, and lay-to for a time. Then on again, shouting as we went. The Second Mate saw something on the crest of a roller, just a glimpse, and we pulled to it. It was Cutler's round cap; we had steered a good course. Near by we found him with his arm twisted round the grab rope of the lifebuoy. He was dazed and quiet when we dragged him over the stern.
"Oh, Chris'! Oh, Chris'!" was all he said.
We were about to return when Mr. M'Kellar thought of the second lifebuoy.
"Bow, there! D'ye see the other buoy; it'll be somewhere t' th' norrard!"
I stood up, unsteadily. There was something white in the hollow of a farther roller. We edged over; it was but a fleck of foam. Farther over, up and down the swell we climbed until we found it. We turned to row back. "Back starboard! Pull port, you!" the boat's head swung round, and we rose quickly on the following swell.
There was a startled cry from the stern-sheets, "O Dhia! O Dhia!"
Well might M'Kellar cry out, for, unobserved of any, the mist had closed in on us. There was no ship in sight, no point to steer for—nothing to guide; there was only the great glassy walls rising and falling, moving up into the thickening mist.
A panic seized us; furiously we rowed, driving the boat into it with no thought of course or distance. She was awash underfoot before we exhausted ourselves, and lay, breathing heavily, over the oars.
The bo'sun was the first to regain a state of sanity. "Vast rowin'," he cried; "vast rowin'! We cawn't do no good like this. Liy 'er to, Mister! Liy-to; it's the ownly thing!"
M'Kellar put the tiller over, and we brought her head to swell again.
We stood up, all eyes a-watching; we shouted together, listened intent; there was no friendly sail looming in the mist, no answer to our cries. We rowed aimlessly. Sometimes we fancied we could hear a hail or a creak of blocks. We would lash blindly at the oars till the foam flew, then lie-to again. There was no compass in the boat, no food; only a small barreca of water. Sometimes it is thick weather off the Horn for days! If the mist held?
Cutler, crouching, shivering in the stern-sheets, began to cry like a child. Cold, wet, unnerved, he was feeling it worst of us all. "Shut up," said the Second Mate, dragging off his jacket and throwing it over the shivering lad. Old Martin was strangely quiet; he, too, was shivering. He had been just about to turn in when he heard the call, and was ill-clad for boat service. Only once did he show a bit of his old gallant truculence. "All right, Mister! If we loses track o' th' ship, we've got plenty o' prewisions! We can eat them lifebuoys, wot ye was so keen a-gettin'!"
"Oh, quit yer chinnin', ye old croak! 'Oo's talkin' abaht losin' track o' th' ship!" The bo'sun didn't like to think! Cutler became light-headed, and began to talk wildly; he would stand up, pointing and shouting out, "There she is, there!" Then he began to make queer noises, and became very quiet. There was the canvas boat cover lying in the bottom of the boat. The bo'sun put this round him, and I was ordered aft to rub him down.
The cold became intense. When the heat of our mad spurt had passed, depression came on us and we cowered, chilled to the marrow by the mist, on the gratings of the heaving boat. Long we lay thus, Houston and the bo'sun pulling a listless stroke to keep her head to the swell. We had no count of time. Hours must have passed, we thought.
"The Dago 'll hae ma trick at th' wheel, noo," said Houston strangely. "It wis ma turn at fower bells!"
No one heeded him.
"They'll hae tae shift some o' th' hauns i' th' watches, eh? ... wi' you, an' Martin, an' th' young fla' no' there!" he continued.
"Oh, shut up, damn ye! Shut up, an' listen. O Dhia! can ye hear nocht?" M'Kellar, standing up on the stern-sheets, was casting wild glances into the pall that enshrouded us. "Here! All together, men—a shout!"
A weakly chorus went out over the water.
Suddenly Houston stood up. "Maister, did ye hear that—a cheep!" We thought that he was going off like Cutler; we could hear nothing. "A cheep, Ah telt ye, Maister; a cheep, as shair's daith!" Houston was positive. "The jerk o' a rudder, or" ... Almost on top of us there was a flash of blinding fire, the roar of a gun followed!
We sprang to the oars, shouting madly—shaping out of the mist was the loom of a square sail, there was sound of a bell struck. No need now to talk of eating lifebuoys; Houston would be in time for his trick at the wheel!
* * * * *
"What th' blazes kept ye, Mister? We saw ye pickin' th' man up! What made ye turn t' th' norrard?" The Old Man had a note of anger in his voice.
"Well, Sir, we couldn't see th' other buoy, an' I thought it a peety if we didn't pick it up; an' while we were lookin' for it, we lost track o' th' ship," said Mister M'Kellar, ashamed and miserable.
The Mate broke in, "Ye damn fool! D'ye mean t' tell us ye risked a whole boat's crew for a tuppence-ha'penny lifebuoy? B'gad, it would serve ye right if ye had t' go seekin' like th' Flying Dutchman!" The Mate continued to curse such stupidity, but the Old Man, though permitting the Mate to rail, was wonderfully silent. After all, M'Kellar, like himself, was a Scotchman, and much may be forgiven to a Scotchman—looking after his owners' property!
"——AFTER FORTY YEAR!"
"Martin?" ... "Huh!" "Lewis?" ... "Iss!" "Granger?" ... "'Ere!" "Ulricks?" ... "Ya!" "Dago Joe?" ... "Ser!" "'Ansen?" ... "Yep!" "Bunn?" ... "Yes!" "Munro?" ... "Here!" "Eccles?—ECCLES!—ECC—Damn your eyes, lay 'long 'ere! You goin' t' keep awl 'ans waitin'?" Eccles joined us fumbling with the buttons of his jacket. (Eccles, for the time limit!) "Awl 'ere," continued the bo'sun; then reported to the Mate, "Watch is aft, Sir!"
A surly growl that might have been, "Relieve the wheel and look-out," came from the poop, and we were dismissed muster; the starboard watch to their rest; we of the port to take our turn on deck.
It was a cold, raw morning that fell to our lot. A light wind, blowing from north of west in fitful puffs, scarcely slanted the downpour of thin, insistent rain; rain that by the keenness of it ought to have been snow or sleet. The sea around was shrouded in mist, and breaking day, coming in with a cold, treacherous half-light, added to the illusion that made the horizon seem scarcely a length away. The barque was labouring unsteadily, with a long westerly swell—the ghost of the Cape Horn 'greybeards '—running under her in oily ridges.
It needed but a bite of freshening wind to rouse the sea; at the lash of a sudden gale the 'greybeards' would be at us again—whelming and sweeping. Even in quiet mood they were loath to let us go north, and we jarred and rattled, rolled, lurched, and wallowed as they hove at us. Heave as they did, we were still able to make way on our course, standing with yards in to the quartering wind and all plain sail on her.
Thick weather! The horizon closed to us at a length or so ahead. But she was moving slowly, four knots at the most, and we were well out of the track of ships! Oh, it was all right—all right; and aft there the Mate leaned over the poop rail with his arms squared and his head nodding—now and then!
As the light grew, it seemed to bring intenser cold. Jackets were not enough; we donned coats and oilskins and stamped and stamped on the foredeck, yawning and muttering and wishing it was five o'clock and the 'doctor' ready with the blessed coffee: the coffee that would make men of us; vile 'hogwash' that a convict would turn his face at, but what seemed nectar to us at daybreak, down there in fifty-five!
By one bell the mist had grown denser, and the Mate sung out sudden and angrily for the foghorn to be sounded.
"Three blasts, d'ye 'ear," said the bo'sun, passing the horn up to Dago, the look-out. "Uno! ... Doo! ... Tray!" (Three fingers held up.) ... "Tray, ye burnt scorpion! ... An' see that ye sounds 'em proper, or I'll come up there an' hide th' soul-case out o' ye! ... (Cow-punchin' hoodlum! Good job I knows 'is bloomin' lingo!)"
Now we had a tune to our early rising, a doleful tune, a tune set to the deepening mist, the heaving sea, at dismal break of day. R-r-ah! ... R-r-ah! Ra! was the way it ran; a mournful bar, with windy gasps here and there, for Dago Joe was more accustomed to a cowhorn.
"A horn," said Welsh John suddenly. "Did 'oo hear it?"
No one had heard. We were gathered round the galley door, all talking, all telling the 'doctor' the best way to light a fire quickly.
"Iss! A horn, I tell 'oo! ... Listen! ... Just after ours is sounded!"
R-r-ah! ... R-r-ah! ... R-ah! Joe was improving.
We listened intently.... "There now," said John!
Yes! Sure enough! Faint rasps answering ours. Ulrichs said three; two, I thought!
"Don't ye 'ear that 'orn, ye dago fiddler," shouted the bo'sun.... "'Ere! Hup there, one of ye, an' blow a proper blast! That damn hoodlum! Ye couldn't 'ear 'is trumpetin' at th' back of an area railin's!"
John went on the head; the bo'sun aft to report.
A proper blast! The Welshman had the trick of the wheezing 'gad jet.' ... Ah! There again! ... Three blasts, right enough! ... She would be a square rigger, running, like ourselves! ... Perhaps we were making on her! ... The sound seemed louder.... It came from ahead!
R-R-R-R-R-AH! ... R-R-R-R-R-AH! ... R-R-R-R-R-AH!
... R-r-r-r-eh! ... R-r-r-r-eh! ... R-r-r-r-eh!
The Mate was now on the alert, peering and listening. At the plain answer to our horn, he rapped out orders. "Lower away main an' fore-to'gal'ns'ls ... let 'em hang, an' lay aft and haul th' mains'l up! Come aft here, one of you boys, and call th' Captain! Tell him it's come down thick! Sharp, now!"
I went below and roused the Old Man.
"Aye ... all right," he said, feeling for his sea-boots. (South'ard of the 'forties' Old Jock slept 'all standing,' as we say.) .... "Thick, eh? ... Tell th' Mate t' keep th' horn goin'! ... A ship, ye say? ... Running, eh? ... Aye! All right ... I'll be up...."
I had scarcely reached the poop again before the Old Man was at my back. "Thick, b'Goad," he said, rubbing his eyes. "Man, man! Why was I not called before?"
The Mate muttered something about the mist having just closed in.... "Clear enough t' be goin' on before that," he said.
"Aye, aye! Where d'ye mak' this ship? Ye would see her before the mist cam' doon, eh?"
"Sound that horn, forrard there!" shouted the Mate, moving off to the gangway. "Keep that horn going, there!"
John pumped a stirring blast.... R-R-R-R-R-AH! ... R-R-R-R-R-AH! ... R-R-R-R-R-AH!
We bent forward with ears strained to catch the distant note.
... R-r-r-r-eh! ... At the first answering blast Old Jock raised his head, glancing fearfully round.... R-r-r-r-eh! ... R-r-r-r—— "Down hellum! DOWN HELLUM! DOWN," he yelled, running aft to the wheel! "Haul yards forrard! Le'go port braces! Let 'm rip! Le'go an' haul! ... Quick, Mist'r! Christ! What ye standin' at? ... Ice! Ice, ye bluidy eedi't! Ice! Th' echo! Let go! LE'GO AN' HAUL! LE'GO!"
Ice! The Mate stood stupid for an instant—then jumped to the waist—to the brace pins—roaring hoarse orders. "All hands on deck! Haul away, there! All hands! On deck, men—for your lives!"
Ice! At the dread cry we ran to the ropes and tailed on with desperate energy! Ice! The watch below, part dressed, swarmed from house and fo'cas'le and hauled with us—a light of terror in their eyes—the terror that comes with stark reason—when the brain reels from restful stupor at a trumpet of alarms!
Ice! The decks, that so late had been quiet as the air about us, resounded to the din of sudden action! Yards swinging forward with a crash—blocks whirring—ropes hurtling from the pins—sails lifting and thrashing to the masts—shouts and cries from the swaying haulers at the ropes—hurried orders—and, loud over all, the raucous bellow of the fog-horn when Dago Joe, dismayed at the confusion, pumped furiously, Ra! Ra! Ra! Ra! Ra!
... Reh! Reh! Reh! Reh! Reh! ... Note for note—the echo—out of the mist!
"Belay, all! Well, mainyards!" The order steadied us. We had time now to look! ... There was nothing in sight! ... No towering monster looming in our path—no breakers—no sea—no sky; nothing! Nothing but the misty wall that veiled our danger! The Unknown! The Unseen!
She was swinging slowly against the scend of the running swell—laying up to the wind. Martin had the wheel and was holding the helm down, his keen eyes watching for the lift that would mark the limit of steering-way. The Old Man stood by the compass, bending, peering, smiling—nosing at the keen air—his quick eyes searching the mist—ahead—abeam—astern.... Martin eased the helm; she lay quietly with sails edged to the wind, the long swell heaving at her—broadside on.
Suddenly a light grew out of the mist and spread out on both bows—a luminous sheen, low down on the narrowed sea-line! The 'ice-blink'! Cold! White!
At the first glow the Old Man started—his lips framed to roar an order! ... No order came!
Quickly he saw the hopelessness of it; what was to happen was plain, inevitable! Broad along the beam, stretching out to leeward, the great dazzling 'ice-blink' warned him of a solid barrier, miles long, perhaps! The barque lay to the wind, at mercy of the swell, drifting dead to leeward at every heave! ... On the other tack, perhaps? There was a misty gap to the south of us; no 'ice-blink' there! ... If she could be put about? ... No, there was no chance! ... To gather speed to put her about he would have to bear off towards the brightening sheen! Already the roar of the swell, lashing at the base, was loud in our ears! ... There was no room! No sea-room to wear or stay!
"Embayed!" he said bitterly, turning his palms up! ... "All hands aft and swing th' port boat out!"
The port boat? The big boat? Had it come, so soon, to that? More than one of us cast an anxious look at the broad figure of our Master as we ran aft. He stood quite still, glaring out at the ice ring.
"This is it, eh!" he muttered, unheeding the stir and cries of us. "This is it—after forty year!"
Madly we tore and knifed at the lashings, working to clear the big boat. She was turned down on the skids (the fashion of thrifty 'limejuicers'), bound and bolted to stand the heavy weather. We were handless, unnerved by the suddenness of it all, faulty at the task. The roar of breaking water spurred us on.... A heave together! .... Righted, we hooked the falls and swayed her up. The Mate looked aft for the word. "Aye," said the Old Man. "Oot wi' her, an' try tae tow th' heid roun'! On th' ither tack we micht——" He left the words unfinished! Well he knew we could never drag three thousand tons against that swell!
A wild outcry turns our eyes forward. Dago Joe (forgotten on the lookout) is running aft, his precious horn still slung from his shoulders. "Arretto! Arretto! Arretto!" He yells as he runs. "Arretto, Capitan!" waving his arms and signing to the Old Man to stop the ship! Behind him, over the bows, we see the clear outline of a small berg—an outflung 'calf' of the main ice! There is no time! Nothing can be done! Small as the berg is—not the height of our lower yards—it has weight enough to sink us, when aided by the heaving swell!
"Quick with th' boat, there," yells the Old Man! He runs over to the companion-way and dives below, jostling the Second Mate, who is staggering up under a weight of biscuit bags.
In a moment we have closed with the ice and are hammering and grinding at the sheer glistening wall. At the first impact the boom goes with a crash! Then fore-to'gallant mast—yards—sails—rigging—all hurtling to the head, driving the decks in! A shelf of solid ice, tons weight of it, crashes aboard and shatters the fore-hatch! Now there is a grind and scream of buckling iron, as the beams give to the strain—ring of stays and guy-ropes, parting at high tension—crash of splintering wood! The heaving monster draws off, reels, and comes at us again! Another blow and——
"'Vast lowering! Hold on! Hold on the boat there!" The Old Man, come on deck with his treasured papers, has seen more than the wreck of the head! He runs to the compass—a look—then casts his eyes aloft. "Square mainyards!" His voice has the old confident ring: the ring we know. "Square main yards! ... A hand t' th' wheel!"
Doubting, we hang around the boat. She swings clear, all ready! The jar of a further blow sets us staggering for foothold! What chance? ... "A hand t' th' wheel, here," roars the Old Man. Martin looks up ... goes back to his post.
A man at the wheel again! No longer the fearful sight of the main post deserted; no longer the jar and rattle of a handless helm! Martin's action steadies us. What dread, when the oldest of us all stands there grasping the spokes, waiting the order? ... We leave the swinging boat and hurry to the braces!
A 'chance' has come! The power of gales long since blown out is working a way for us: the ghostly descendants of towering Cape Horn 'greybeards' have come to our aid!
As we struck, sidling on the bows, the swell has swept our stern round the berg. Now we are head to wind and the big foresail is flat against the mast, straining sternward!
It is broad day, and we see the 'calf' plainly as we drift under stern-way apart. The gap widens! A foot—a yard—an oar's-length! Now the wind stirs the canvas on the main—a clew lifts—the tops'ls rustle and blow out, drawing finely! Her head still swings!
"Foreyards! Le'go an' haul!" roars the Old Man. We are stern on to the main ice. Already the swell—recurving from the sheer base—is hissing and breaking about us. There is little room for sternboard. "Le'go an' haul!" We roar a heartening chorus as we drag the standing head yards in.
Slowly she brings up ... gathers way ... moves ahead! The 'calf' is dead to windward, the loom of the main ice astern and a-lee. The wind has strengthened: in parts the mist has cleared. Out to the south'ard a lift shows clear water. We are broad to the swell now, but sailing free as Martin keeps her off! From under the bows the broken boom (still tethered to us by stout guy-ropes) thunders and jars as we move through the water.
"Cut and clear away!" roars Old Jock. "Let her go!"
Aye, let her go! ... We are off ... crippled an' all ... out for open sea again!
IN LITTLE 'SCOTLAND'
It was to no purpose that Lloyds' agent pointed out the convenience and advantage of the inner port: it was as useless for the local pilot to look grave and recall dire happenings to Captains who had elected to effect their repairs in the outer harbour—just here, at Port William. Old Jock's square jaw was set firm, his eyes were narrowed to a crafty leer; he looked on everyone with unconcealed suspicion and distrust. He was a shipmaster of the old school, 'looking after his Owners' interest.' He had put in 'in distress' to effect repairs.... He was being called upon to spend money!
"No, no!" he said to all their reasoning. "My anchor's doon, an' here I stoap! I've conseedered a' that ye've pit furrit! 'Convenience tae th' toon, if supplies are needit'? (I'll no' need that mony!) ... 'Nae distance tae bring th' workin' gang'? (I've a wheen men here mysel'!) ... 'Nae dues tae pay'? (We're jist as cheap here!) ... No, no, Maister Fordyce! Ye can jist mak' up yeer mind on that! We'll dae a' th' repairs oot here! I'm no' comin' in!"
"Oh weel! Jist as ye like, Captain! Jist as ye like! ... But—as th' pilot here 'll tell ye—ye're in a verra bad poseetion if it comes on tae blow f'ae the south-east! An' south-east 's a hard win', I'm tellin' ye!"
"Aye, aye! Jist that! ... Weel, if it comes tae blow frae th' south-east (I'm no much feart o' that at this time o' th' year) we're in a guid berth tae slip anchor an' run her in tae Port Stanley. It'll be time enough then! But I'm no' goin' in there if I can help it! ... If I brocht her in therr"—pointing to the narrows that led to the inner harbour—"I micht hae tae wait for a fair win' tae bring her oot, when oor bit damage is sortit.... No, no! We'll dae fine oot here. Smooth watter! Guid holdin' ground!"
"Oh, the holding ground is all right," said the pilot. "Eight fathom ... mud and stones! Good enough for anything but south or southeast."
"Oh, aye!" continued the Old Man. "We'll dae fine here.... If it wisna' for that bowsprit bein' steeved up and th' rivets stertit in th' bows o' her, I widna' be here at a'.... Spars? ... We can mak' a' th' spars oorsel's; tho' I'm no' sayin' but that I'd be glad o' a spar or twa—at a moderate cost. A moderate cost, mind ye!"
The agent laughed. "Oh weel, Captain! We're no' exactly Jews doon here, though they say an Aberdonian (I'm fa'e Aberdeen mysel') is th' next thing! We can gi'e ye yeer spaurs—at a moderate cost! ... But I'll tell ye again, Captain, ye'll lose time by stoappin' oot here. A' this traffiking back an' furrit tae Port Stanley! Bringin' th' workmen aff in th' mornin', an' takin' them hame at e'en! Ye'll no' get th' smiths tae stey oan th' ship. It'll be, 'Hey, Jimmy! Whaur's ma lang drift?' or, 'Jock, did ye bring oot th' big "Monday?"' ... an' then naethin' 'll dae but they maun be awa' back tae th' Port, tae look for theer tools in th' bar o' th' Stanley Airms!"
"Oh, aye!" said the Old Man. "I ken them! They'll be as keen for a dram doon here as onywhere! But we'll attend tae that. As for th' traffiking, I've a big boat an' a wheen idle lauds therr that'll be nane the waur o' a lang pull! ... Onyway, I'm no' goin' t' risk bein' held up for a fair win' when th' time comes ... an' ye may tak' it that we're no' goin' t' lose time owre th' joab! A wheen smiths, an' mebbe a carpenter or twa, is a' I want ... an' if we can arrange wi' th' Captain o' this schooner—ye were speakin' aboot—t' tak' a hunner' or a hunner' an' fifty ton o' cargo ... for th' time bein'.... No! Jist twa beams tae be cut an' strappit.... A screw-jack an' a forge or twa! We can ... straighten them oot in their place! ... Naethin' wrang below th' sheer strake! ... Jist plain rivettin'...."
Talking of the repairs and their relation to the great god of Economy, Old Jock led the way to the gangway and watched his visitors depart.
In all he said the Old Man spoke his 'braidest' Scotch. This was right! We had reached the Falkland Islands in safety, and what more natural than that he should speak the language of the country? Even the German saloon-keepers who had boarded us on arrival—to proffer assistance in our distress—said 'aye' for yes, and 'Ach! Awa' wi' ye'—a jocular negative! Nor did the resemblance to our 'ain countree' end there. Port William was typical of a misty Scotch countryside: the land about us was as bleak and home-like as a muirland in the Stewartry.
A bare hill-side sloping to the sea, with here and there straggling acres of cultivated land. A few wooden houses nestling in the bends and gullies, where small streamlets ran. Uplands, bare of trees and hedge growth, stretching away inland in a smooth coat of waving grass. Grass, grass, grass—a sheep fank—a patch of stony hill-side—a solitary hut, with blue smoke curling above—a misty sky-line—lowering clouds, and the setting sun breaking through in fleeting patches. Port William! A quiet place for anchorage after our stormy times! No ships riding with us under the lee of the land! No sign of human life or movement in the lonely bay! No noise! Quiet! Only the plaintive cries of sea-birds that circled and wheeled about us, and the distant baa-ing of sheep on the green hill-side!
* * * * *
'No time was to be lost,' as the Old Man had said. Soon the quiet of our lonely anchorage was broken by a din of strenuous work. The sea-birds flew affrighted from the clang of fore-hammers and the roar of forge fires.
Our damage was all on the bows. The to'gallan'mast, in its fall, had wrecked the starboard side of the fo'cas'le; the decks were smashed in; some beams were broken, others were twisted and bent. The hull plating had not escaped, and a big rent showed where the grinding ice had forced the stout cat-head from its solid bed. These were minor affairs—something might have been done to put them right without coming to port—but the bowsprit! Ah! It was the bowsprit that had brought us in!
"It's no use talking," the Old Man had said when he and the Mate were considering the damage. "That bowsprit! ... Spars? ... We could make th' spars good; ... an' we could do a fair joab wi' th' ironwork! ... But th' bowsprit! ... No, no! We can't sail th' ship unless we're sure o' th' head-gear! ... No use! No use talking, Mister! We'll have t' bear up for th' Falklands, and get that put to rights!"
If further cause were needed to justify the serious course of 'putting in,' they had it when the carpenter reported water in the forepeak; and it was discovered that the broken jibboom had not hammered at the bows for nothing. No hesitation then! No talk! The course was set!
Although the Falklands are famed as a refuge for vessels 'in distress,' there was then no great facilities for repair. It is enough if the ships stagger into port in time to save the lives of their crews. Port Stanley had many such sheer hulks lying to rust and decay in the landlocked harbour. Good ships that had cleared from the Channel in seaworthiness; crossed the Line with a boastful "All well!" to a homeward-bounder; steered south into the 'roaring forties'—to meet disaster in fire, or wind, or sea, and falter into the Falklands with the boats swung out!
There was then no firm of ship repairers on the Islands. The most Mr. Fordyce could do for us was to find workmen, and a schooner to take part of our cargo and lighten us sufficiently to get at the leaky rivets. Old Jock had to set up as a master shipwright and superintend the repairs himself. And who better? Had he not set Houston's leg as straight as a Gilmorehill Professor could? He was the man; and there was no sign of hesitation when he got out his piece of chalk and made marks (as many and as mysterious as a Clydeside gaffer's) on the damaged ironwork! Such skilled labour as he could get—'smiths' from the sheep camps (handy men, who were by turns stonemasons or woolpackers or ironworkers)—were no great hands at ship-work; but the Old Man, with his rough, chalked sketches, could make things plain; he had, too, the great advantage of knowing the Islanders' language and its proper application to the ordering of 'wis'like' men! What might have been put elsewhere as, "What th' hell sort of work do you call this?" he translated to, "Man, man, Jock Steel! Could ye no' pit a fairer bend oan that knee?" ... Jock (who would have thrown down his tools, and "on with his jacket" at the first) would perhaps turn red at the kindlier reproof, mutter "Well, well," and have another try at the stubborn knee.
It was slow work, for all the din and clatter. Forge fires are devilish in the hands of an unskilled blower; rivets break and twist and get chilled when the striking is squint and irregular; iron is tough and stubborn when leverage is misapplied. There were difficulties. (Difficulties that wee Jonny Docherty, a Partick rivet 'b'ye,' would have laughed at!) The difficulty of strapping cut beams to make them span their former length; the difficulty of small rivets and big holes, of small holes and big rivets ... the sheer despair when sworn measurements go unaccountably and mysteriously wrong in practice.
All difficulties! Difficulties to be met and overcome!
Every one of us had a turn at the ironwork. There was odd work that we could do while the 'smiths' were heating and hammering at the more important sections. We made a feeble show, most of us; but Joe Granger gained honour in suggesting ways and showing how things were done. It was the time of Granger's life. He was not even a good sailorman. His steering was pitiful. Didn't Jones have to show him how the royal buntlines led? What did Martin say about the way he passed a head-earring? A poor sailorman! ... Yet here he was: bossing us around; Able Seamen carrying tools to him; Old Man listening quite decently to his suggestions—even the hard-case Mate (who knew Granger, if anyone did) not above passing a word now and then! ... And all because Granger had worked in the Union Ironworks at 'Frisco. At first I am sure it was a holder-on he told us he had been, but before our job had gone far it was a whilom foreman shipwright who told us what was to be done! ... If Armstrong, the carpenter, had not taken up a firm stand when it came to putting in the deck, there would have been hints that we had a former under-manager among us! It was the time of Joe's life, and the bo'sun could only chuckle and grin and wag his head in anticipation of 'proper sailor-work' on the mast and spars.
It was good for us brassbounders to lie at Port William, where there was little but the work in progress to interest us. In the half-deck we were full of ship repairs. Little else was talked about when we were below. Each of us carried a small piece of chalk, all ready to make rough drawings to explain our ideas. We chalked on the walls, the table, the deck, the sea-chests, lines and cross-lines, and bends and knees—no matter what, so long as there were plenty of round "O's" to show where the rivets were to go. We explained to one another the mysteries of ship construction, talked loftily of breasthooks and sheer strakes, and stringers and scantlings ... and were as wise after the telling! That was while the ironwork repairs were in progress. In a week or more we were spar-makers. Jock Steel and his mates put down their drifts and hammers, and took up adzes and jack-planes. We were getting on! We had no time for anyone who drew sketches of riveting. It was 'striking cambers' and 'fairing' and 'tapering' now, and Joe Granger got a cool reception when he came along to the half-deck after work was over for the day. Poor Joe had fallen from his high place! With the bowsprit hove down and securely strapped and riveted, and the last caulking blow dealt at the leaky doubling, his services became of small account. No one in the fo'cas'le would listen any longer to his tales of structural efficiency. There was no spar-making in the Union Ironworks at 'Frisco. Joe had to shut up, and let Martin and the bo'sun instruct the ship's company in the art of masting and rigging—illustrated by match-sticks and pipe-stems!
There were pleasant intervals to our work on board—days when we rowed the big boat through the Narrows to Port Stanley and idled about the 'town,' while the Old Man and Mr. Fordyce were transacting business (under good conditions) in the bar-parlour of the Stanley Arms. We made many friends on these excursions. The Falklanders have warm hearts, and down there the Doric is the famous passport. We were welcome everywhere, though Munro and I had to do most of the talking. It was something for the Islanders to learn how the northern Scottish crops had fared (eighteen months ago), or 'whatna'' catch of herrings fell to the Loch Fyne boats (last season but one).
There was no great commercial activity in the 'town.' The 'Great Britian' hulk, storehouse for the wool, was light and high in the water. The sawmill hulks were idle for want of lumber to be dressed. It was the slack time, they told us; the slack time before the rush of the wool-shearing. In a week, or a month at the most, the sheep would be ready for the shears. Then—ah, then!—Wully Ramsey (who had a head for figures) would be brought forward, and, while his wind held out, would hurl figures and figures at us, all proving that 'Little Scotland,' for its size, was a 'ferr wunner' at wool production.
The work of the moment was mostly at breaking up the wreck of the Glenisla, a fine four-masted barque that had come in 'with the flames as high as th' foreyard,' and had been abandoned as a total wreck. Her burnt-out shell lay beached in the harbour, and the plates were being drifted out, piece by piece, to make sheep tanks and bridge work. It was here that the Old Man—'at a moderate cost, mind ye'—picked up a shell-plate and knees and boom irons to make good our wants. A spar, too (charred, but sound), that we tested by all the canons of carpentry—tasting, smelling, twanging a steel at one end and listening for the true, sound note at the other. It was ours, after hard bargaining, and Mason, the foreman wrecker, looked ill-pleased with his price when we rolled the timber down to tide mark, launched, and towed it away.
Pleasant times! But with the setting up of the new boom the Old Man was anxious to get under weigh. The to'gallant mast could wait till the fine weather of the 'trades.' We were sound and seaworthy again! Outside the winds were fair and southerly. We had no excuse to lie swinging at single anchor. Jock Steel and his mates got their blessing, our 'lawin'' was paid and acquitted, and on a clear November morning we shook out the topsails and left Port William to the circling sea-birds.
UNDER THE FLAG
A black, threatening sky, with heavy banks of indigo-tinted clouds massed about the sea-line. A sickly, greenish light high up in the zenith. Elsewhere the gloom of warring elements broken only by flashes of sheet lightning, vivid but noiseless. The sea, rolling up from the sou'-west in a long glassy swell, was ruffled here and there by the checks of a fitful breeze. It needed not a deadly low barometer to tell us of a coming storm; we saw it in the tiers of hard-edged fearsome clouds, breaking up and re-forming, bank upon bank, in endless figurations. Some opposing force was keeping the wind in check; there was conflict up there, for, though masses of detached cloud were breaking away and racing o'er the zenith, we held but a fitful gusty breeze, and our barque, under low sail, was lurching uneasily for want of a steadying wind.
It was a morning of ill-omen, and the darkling sky but reflected the gloom of our faces; our thoughts were in keeping with the day, for we had lost a shipmate, one among us was gone, Old Martin was dead.
He died sometime in the middle watch, no one knew when. He was awake when the watch came below at midnight, for Welsh John had given him matches for his pipe before turning in. That was the last, for when they were called at four, Martin was cold and quiet. There was no trouble on his face, no sign of pain or suffering. Belike the old man had put his pipe aside, and finding no shipmate awake to 'pass the word,' had gently claimed his Pilot.
There was no great show of grief when it was known. Perhaps a bit catch in the voice when speaking of it, an unusual gentleness in our manner towards one another, but no resemblance of mourning, no shadow of woe. His was no young life untimely ended, there was no accident to be discussed, no blame to be apportioned. It was just that old lamp had flickered out at last. Ours was a sense of loss, we had lost a shipmate. There would be another empty bunk in the fo'cas'le, a hand less at the halyards, a name passed over at muster; we would miss the voice of experience that carried so much weight in our affairs—an influence was gone.
At daybreak we stood around to have a last look at the strong old face we had known so long. The sailmaker was sewing him up in the clew of an old topsail, a sailorly shroud that Martin would have chosen. The office was done gently and soberly, as a shipmate has a right to expect. A few pieces of old chain were put in to weight him down, all ship-shape and sailor-fashion, and when it was done we laid him out on the main hatch with the Flag he had served cast over him.
"There goes a good sailorman," said one of the crowd; "'e knowed 'is work," said another.
"A good sailorman—'e knowed 'is work!" That was Martin's epitaph—more, he would not want.
His was no long illness. A chill had settled into bronchitis. Martin had ever a fine disregard for weatherly precautions; he had to live up to the name of a 'hard case.' Fits of coughing and a high temperature came on him, and he was ordered below. At first he was taken aft to a spare room, but the unaccustomed luxury of the cabin so told on him that when he begged to be put in the fo'cas'le again, the Old Man let him go. There he seemed to get better. He had his shipmates to talk to; he was even in a position to rebuke the voice of youth and inexperience when occasion required, though with but a shadow of his former vehemence. Though he knew it would hurt him, he would smoke his pipe; it seemed to afford him a measure of relief. The Old Man did what he could for him, and spent more time in the fo'cas'le than most masters would have done. Not much could be done, for a ship is ill-fitted for an ailing man. At times there were relapses; times when his breathing would become laboured. Sometimes he became delirious and raved of old ships, and storms, and sails, then he would recover, and even seemed to get better. Then came the end. The tough old frame could no longer stand the strain, and he passed off quietly in the silence of middle night.
He was an old man, none knew how old. The kindly clerks in the shipping office had copied from one discharge note to the other when 'signing him on,' and he stood at fifty-eight on our articles; at sixty, he would never have got a 'sight.' He talked of old ships long since vanished from the face of the waters; if he had served on these he must have been over seventy years. Sometimes, but only to favoured shipmates, he would tell of his service aboard a Yankee cruiser when Fort Sumter fell, but he took greater pride in having been bo'sun of the famous Sovereign of the Seas.
"Three hundred an' seventy miles," he would say; "that wos 'er day's travellin'! That's wot Ah calls sailin' a ship. None o' yer damn 'clew up an' clew down,' but give 'er th' ruddy canvas an'—let 'er go, boys!"
He was of the old type, bred in a hard sea-school. One of his boasts was that he had sailed for five years in packet ships, 'an' never saw th' pay table.' He would 'sign on' at Liverpool, giving his boarding-master a month's advance note for quittance. At New York he would desert, and after a bout ashore would sail for Liverpool in a new ship. There was a reason for this seeming foolish way of doing.
"None o' yer slavin' at harbour jobs an' cargo work; not fer me, me sons! Ah wos a sailorman an' did only sailorin' jobs. Them wos th' days w'en sailormen wos men, an' no ruddy cargo-wrastlin', coal-diggin' scallywags, wot they be now!"
A great upholder of the rights of the fo'cas'le, he looked on the Mates as his natural enemies, and though he did his work, and did it well, he never let pass an opportunity of trying a Mate's temper by outspoken criticism of the Officers' way of handling ship or sail. Apprentices he bore with, though he was always suspicious of a cabin influence.
That was Martin, our gallantly truculent, overbearing Old Martin; and, as we looked on the motionless figure outlined by folds of the Flag, we thought with regret of the time we took a pleasure in rousing him to a burst of sailorly invective. Whistling about the decks, or flying past him in the rigging with a great shaking of the shrouds when the 'crowd' was laying aloft to hand sail. "Come on, old 'has-been'!" Jones once shouted to him as he clambered over the futtock shrouds. Martin was furious.
"Has-been," he shouted in reply. "Aye, mebbe a 'has-been,' but w'en ye comes to my time o' life, young cock, ye can call yerself a 'never-bloody-wos'!"
Well! His watch was up, and when the black, ragged clouds broke away from the sou'-west and roused the sea against us, we would be one less to face it, and he would have rest till the great call of 'all hands'; rest below the heaving water that had borne him so long.
* * * * *
Surely there is nothing more solemn than a burial at sea. Ashore there are familiar landmarks, the nearness of the haunts of men, the neighbourly headstones, the great company of the dead, to take from the loneliness of the grave. Here was nothing but a heaving ship on the immensity of mid-ocean, an open gangway, a figure shrouded in folds of a Flag, and a small knot of bare-headed men, bent and swaying to meet the lurches of the vessel, grouped about the simple bier. The wind had increased and there was an ominous harping among the backstays. The ship was heaving unsteadily, and it was with difficulty we could keep a balance on the wet, sloping deck. Overhead the sky was black with the wrack of hurrying clouds, and the sullen grey water around us was already white-topped by the bite of freshening wind.
"I am th' Resurrection an' the Life, saith th' Loard"—Martin, laid on a slanted hatch, was ready for the road, and we were mustered around the open gangway. The Old Man was reading the service in his homely Doric, and it lost nothing of beauty or dignity in the translation—"an' whosoever liveth an' believeth in me sall never die." He paused and glanced anxiously to windward. There was a deadly check in the wind, and rain had commenced to fall in large, heavy drops. "A hand t' th' tops'l halyards, Mister," quietly, then continuing, "I know that my Redeemer liveth, an' that He sail stand at th' latter day upon th' airth. An' though ... yet in my flesh sail I see Goad...." Overhead, the sails were thrashing back and fore, for want of the breeze—still fell the rain, lashing heavily now on us and on the shrouded figure, face up, that heeded it not.
Hurriedly the Old Man continued the service—"Foreasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty Goad of his gre—at merrcy t' take unto Himself th' so-al of oor de-ar brother, here departed, we therefore commit he's boady t' th' deep ... when th' sea sall give up her daid, an' th' life of th' worl-d t' come, through oor Loard, Jesus Christ."
At a sign, the Second Mate tilted the hatch, the two youngest boys held the Flag, and Martin, slipping from its folds, took the water feet first in a sullen, almost noiseless, plunge.
"Oor Father which airt in heaven"—with bent head the Old Man finished the service. He was plainly ill at ease. He felt that the weather was 'making' on him, that the absence from the post of command (the narrow space between wheel and binnacle) was ill-timed. Still, his sense of duty made him read the service to a finish, and it was with evident relief he closed the book, saying, "Amen! Haul th' mains'l up, Mister, an' stand by t' square mainyards! ... Keep th' watch on deck; it's 'all hands'—thon," pointing to the black murk spreading swiftly over the weather sky.
We dragged the wet and heavy mains'l to the yard and stood by, waiting for the wind. Fitful gusts came, driving the rain in savage, searching bursts; then would come a deadly lull, and the rain beating on us, straight from above—a pitiless downpour. It was bitter cold, we were drenched and depressed as we stood shivering at the braces, and we wished for the wind to come, to get it over; anything would be better than this inaction.
A gust came out of the sou'-west, and we had but squared the yards when we heard the sound of a master wind on the water.
Shrieking with fury long withheld, the squall was upon us. We felt the ship stagger to the first of the blast; a furious plunge and she was off—smoking through the white-lashed sea, feather-driven before the gale. It could not last; no fabric would stand to such a race. "Lower away tops'l halyards!" yelled the Old Man, his voice scarce audible in the shrilling of the squall. The bo'sun, at the halyards, had but started the yard when the sheet parted; instant, the sail was in ribbons, thrashing savagely adown the wind. It was the test for the weakest link, and the squall had found it, but our spars were safe to us, and, eased of the press, we ran still swiftly on. We set about securing the gear, and in action we gave little thought to the event that had marked our day; but there was that in the shriek of wind in the rigging, in the crash of sundered seas under the bows, in the cries of men at the downhauls and the thundering of the torn canvas that sang fitting Requiem for the passing of our aged mariner.
Mister M'Kellar stepped from the poop and cast off the brace coils with an air of impatience. It wanted but half an hour of 'knocking off time'—and that half-hour would be time enough, for his watch to finish the scraping of the deck-house—but the wind waits on no man, and already the weather clew of the mainsail was lifting lazily to a shift. It was hard to give up the prospect of having the house all finished and ship-shape before the Mate came on deck (and then trimming yards and sail after the work was done); but here was the wind working light into the eastward, and the sails nearly aback, and any minute might bring the Old Man on deck to inquire, with vehemence, "What the —— somebody was doing with the ship?" There was nothing else for it; the house would have to stand.
"T—'tt, lee-fore-brace, the watch there!" Buckets and scrapers were thrown aside, the watch mustered at the braces, and the yards were swung slowly forward, the sails lifting to a faint head air.
This was the last of the south-east trades, a clean-running breeze that had carried us up from 20 deg. S., and brace and sheet blocks, rudely awakened from their three weeks' rest, creaked a long-drawn protest to the failing wind; ropes, dry with disuse, ran stiffly over the sheaves, and the cries of the men at the braces added the human note to a chorus of ship sounds that marked the end of steady sailing weather.
"He—o—ro, round 'm in, me sons; ho—io—io—lay-back-an'-get-yer-muscle-up-fer ghostin' through th' doldrums!" Roused by the song (broad hints and deep-sea pleasantries) of the chanteyman, the Old Man came on deck, and paced slowly up and down the poop, whistling softly for wind, and glancing expectantly around the horizon. Whistle as he might, there was no wisp of stirring cloud, no ruffling of the water, to meet his gaze, and already the sea was glassing over, deserted by the wind. Soon what airs there were died away, leaving us flat becalmed, all signs of movement vanished from the face of the ocean, and we lay, mirrored sharply in the windless, silent sea, under the broad glare of an equatorial sun.
For a space of time we were condemned to a seaman's purgatory; we had entered the 'doldrums,' that strip of baffling weather that lies between the trade winds. We would have some days of calm and heavy rains, sudden squalls and shifting winds, and a fierce overhead sun; and through it all there would be hard labour for our crew (weak and short-handed as we were), incessant hauling of the heavy yards, and trimming of sail. Night or day, every faint breath of wind a-stirring, every shadow on the water, must find our sail in trim for but a flutter of the canvas that would move us on; any course with north in it would serve. "Drive her or drift her," by hard work only could we hope to win into the steady trade winds again, into the gallant sailing weather when you touch neither brace nor sheet from sunset to sunrise.
Overhead the sails hung straight from the head-ropes, with not even a flutter to send a welcome draught to the sweltering deck below. Everywhere was a smell of blistering paint and molten pitch, for the sun, all day blazing on our iron sides, had heated the hull like a furnace wall. Time and again we sluiced the decks, but still pitch oozed from the gaping seams to blister our naked feet, and the moisture dried from the scorched planking almost as quickly as we could draw the water. We waited for relief at sundown, and hoped for a tropical downpour to put us to rights.
Far to the horizon the sea spread out in a glassy stillness, broken only by an occasional movement among the fish. A widening ring would mark a rise—followed by the quick, affrighted flutter of a shoal of flying fish; then the dolphin, darting in eager pursuit, the sun's rays striking on their glistening sides at each leap and flurry. A few sharp seconds of glorious action, then silence, and the level sea stretching out unbroken to the track of the westing sun.
Gasping for a breath of cooler air, we watched the sun go down, but there was no sign of wind, no promise of movement in the faint, vapoury cirrhus that attended his setting.
* * * * *
Ten days of calms (blazing sun or a torrent of rain) and a few faint airs in the night time—and we had gained but a hundred miles. 'Our smart passage,' that we had hoped for when winds were fair and fresh, was out of question; but deep-sea philosophy has a counter for every occasion, and when the wind headed us or failed, someone among us would surely say, "Well, wot's th' odds, anyway? More bloomin' days, more bloomin' dollars, ain't it?" Small comfort this to the Old Man, who was now in the vilest of tempers, and spent his days in cursing the idle steersman, and his nights in quarrelling with the Mates about the trim. If the yards were sharp up, it would be, "What are ye thinkin' about, Mister? Get these yards braced in, an' look damn smart about it!" If they were squared, nothing would do but they must be braced forward, where the sails hung straight down, motionless, as before. Everything and everybody was wrong, and the empty grog bottles went 'plomp' out of the stern ports with unusual frequency. When we were outward bound, the baffling winds that we met off Cape Horn found him calm enough; they were to be expected in that quarter, and in the stir and action of working the ship in high winds, he could forget any vexation he might have felt; but this was different, there was the delay at the Falklands, and here was a further check to the passage—a hundred miles in ten days—provisions running short, grass a foot long on the counter, and still no sign of wind. There would be no congratulatory letter from the owners at the end of this voyage, no kindly commending phrase that means so much to a shipmaster. Instead it would be, "We are at a loss to understand why you have not made a more expeditious passage, considering that the Elsinora, which sailed," etc., etc. It is always a fair wind in Bothwell Street! It was maddening to think of. "Ten miles a day!" Old Jock stamped up and down the poop, snarling at all and sundry. To the steersman it was, "Blast ye, what are ye lookin' round for? Keep yer eye on th' royals, you!" The Mates fared but little better. "Here, Mister," he would shout; "what's th' crowd idlin' about for? Can't ye find no work t' do? D'ye want me t' come and roust them around? It isn't much use o' me keepin' a dog, an' havin' t' bark myself!"
It was a trying time. If the Old Man 'roughed' the Mates, the Mates 'roughed' us, and rough it was. All hands were 'on the raw,' and matters looked ugly between the men and Officers, and who knows what would have happened, had not the eleventh day brought the wind.
It came in the middle watch, a gentle air, that lifted the canvas and set the reef points drumming and dancing at each welcome flutter, and all our truculence and ill-temper vanished with the foam bubbles that rose under our moving fore-foot.
The night had fallen dark and windless as any, and the first watch held a record for hauling yards and changing sheets. "'Ere ye are, boys," was the call at eight bells. "Out ye comes, an' swigs them b——y yards round; windmill tatties, an' th' Old Man 'owlin' like a dancin' —— dervish on th' lid!" The Old Man had been at the bottle, and was more than usually quarrelsome; two men were sent from the wheel for daring to spit over the quarter, and M'Kellar was on a verge of tears at some coarse-worded aspersion on his seamanship. The middle watch began ill. When the wind came we thought it the usual fluke that would last but a minute or two, and then, "mains'l up, an' square mainyards, ye idle hounds!" But no, three bells, four bells, five, the wind still held, the water was ruffling up to windward, the ship leaning handsomely; there was the welcome heave of a swell running under.
So the watch passed. There were no more angry words from the poop. Instead, the Old Man paced to and fro, rubbing his hands, in high good humour, and calling the steersman "m' lad" when he had occasion to con the vessel. After seeing that every foot of canvas was drawing, he went below, and the Second Mate took his place on the weather side, thought things over, and concluded that Old Jock wasn't such a bad sort, after all. We lay about the decks, awaiting further orders. None came, and we could talk of winds and passages, or lie flat on our backs staring up at the gently swaying trucks, watching the soft clouds racing over the zenith; there would be a spanking breeze by daylight. A bell was struck forward in the darkness, and the 'look-out' chanted a long "Awl—'s well!"
All was, indeed, well; we had picked up the north-east trades.
Sunday is the day when ships are sailed in fine style. On week days, when the round of work goes on, a baggy topsail or an ill-trimmed yard may stand till sundown, till the work be done, but Sunday is sacred to keen sailing; a day of grace, when every rope must be a-taut-o, and the lifts tended, and the Mates strut the weather poop, thinking at every turn of suitable manoeuvres and sail drill that will keep the sailormen from wearying on this, their Day of Rest.
On a fine Sunday afternoon we lay at ease awaiting the Mate's next discovery in the field of progress. She was doing well, six knots or seven, every stitch of sail set and drawing to a steady wind. From under the bows came the pleasing thrussh of the broken water, from aloft the creak of block and cordage and the sound of wind against the canvas. For over an hour we had been sweating at sheets and halyards, the customary Sunday afternoon service, and if the Florence, of Glasgow, wasn't doing her best it was no fault of ours.
Now it was, "That'll do, the watch!" and we were each following our Sunday beat.
Spectacled and serious, 'Sails' was spelling out the advertisements on a back page of an old Home Notes; the two Dutchmen were following his words with attentive interest. The Dagos, after the manner of their kind, were polishing up their knives, and the 'white men' were brushing and airing their 'longshore togs,' in readiness for a day that the gallant breeze was bringing nearer. A scene of peaceful idling.
"As shair's daith, he's gotten his e'e on that fore-tops'l sheet. Ah telt ye; Ah telt ye!" Houston was looking aft. "Spit oan yer hauns, lauds! He's seen it. We're gaun tae ha'e anither bit prayer for th' owners!"
The Mate had come off the poop, and was standing amidships staring steadily aloft.
"Keep 'oor eyes off that tops'l sheet, I tell 'oo," said Welsh John angrily. "He can't see it unless he comes forra'd; if he sees 'oo lookin', it's forra'd he'll be, soon, indeed!"
There were perhaps a couple of links of slack in the tops'l sheet, a small matter, but quite enough to call for the watch tackle—on a Sunday. The crisis passed; it was a small matter on the main that had called him down, and soon a 'prentice boy was mounting the rigging with ropeyarns in his hand, to tell the buntlines what he thought of them—and of the Mate.
Bo'sun Hicks was finishing off a pair of 'shackles,' sailor handles for Munro's sea-chest—a simple bit of recreation for a Sunday afternoon. They were elaborate affairs of four stranded 'turks-heads' and double rose knots, and showed several distinct varieties of 'coach whipping.' One that was finished was being passed round an admiring circle of shipmates, and Hicks, working at the other, was feigning a great indifference to their criticisms of his work.
"Di—zy, Di—zy, gimme yer awnswer, do," he sang with feeling, as he twisted the pliant yarns.
"Mind ye, 'm not sayin' as them ain't fine shackles"—Granger was ever the one to strike a jarring note—"As fine a shackles as ever I see; but there was a Dutchman, wot I was shipmates with in th' Ruddy-mantus, o' London, as could turn 'em out! Wire 'earts, 'e made 'em, an' stuffin', an' made up o' round sinnet an' dimon' 'itchin'! Prime! W'y! Look a here! If ye was t' see one ov 'is shackles on th' hend ov a chest—all painted up an' smooth like—ye couldn't 'elp a liftin' ov it, jest t' try th' grip; an' it 'ud come nat'ral t' th' 'and, jes' like a good knife. Them wos shackles as 'e made, an'——"
"Ho, yus! Shackles, wos they? An' them ain't no shackles wot 'm a-finishin' of? No bloomin' fear! Them's garters f'r bally dancers, ain't they? Or nose rings for Sullimans, or ——, or ——. 'Ere!" Hicks threw aside the unfinished shackle and advanced threateningly on his critic.
"'Ere! 'Oo th' 'ell are ye gettin' at, anywye? D'ye siy as I cawn't make as good a shackles as any bloomin' Dutchman wot ever said yaw f'r yes? An' yer Ruddy-mantus, o' London? I knows yer Ruddy-bloomin-mantus, o' London! Never 'ad a sailorman acrost 'er fo'cas'le door! Men wot knowed their work wouldn't sail in 'er, anyhow, an' w'en she tided out at Gravesen', all th' stiffs out o' th' 'ard-up boardin'-'ouses wos windin' 'er bloomin' keeleg up! Ruddymantus? 'Er wot 'ad a bow like the side o' 'n 'ouse—comin' up th' Mersey Channel a-shovin' th' sea afore 'er, an' makin' 'igh water at Liverpool two hours afore th' Halmanack! That's yer Ruddy-mantus! An' wot th' 'ell d'you know 'bout sailorizin', anywye? Yer never wos in a proper ship till ye come 'ere, on a dead 'un's discharge, an' ye couldn't put dimon' 'itchin' on a broom 'andle, if it wos t' get ye a pension!"
Here was a break to our peaceful Sunday afternoon; nothing short of a round or two could set matters fair after such an insult to a man's last ship!
Someone tried to pacify the indignant bo'sun.
"'Ere, bo'sun! Wot's about it if 'e did know a blanky Dutchman wot made shackles? Them o' yourn's good enough. I don't see nuthin' th' matter wi' them!"
"No—no! A-course ye don't, 'cos ye'r like that b——y Granger there, ye knows damn all 'bout sailorizin' anywye! Didn't ye 'ear 'im say as I couldn't make shackles?"
A chorus of denials, a babel of confused explanation.
"A-course 'e did," shouted the maker of shackles. "'E sed as I didn't know 'ow t' work round sennit an' dimon' 'itchin', as I wos never in a proper ship afore, as 'e knowed a bloomin' Dutchman wot could make better shackles nor me; sed as 'ow my shackles worn't fit f'r a grip——"
"'Ere! 'Ere!! bo'sun—I never sed nuthin' ov th' kind!" The unfortunate Granger was bowing to the blast. "Wot I sed wos, 'ow them was good shackles; as fine a shackles as ever I see—an' I wos only tellin' my mates 'ere 'bout a Dutchman wot was in th' Ruddymanthus along o' me as could make 'em as smooth to the 'and——"
"An' wot's the matter wi' them?" Hicks picked up the discarded shackle and threw it at Granger, striking him smartly on the chest. "Ain't them smooth enough for yer lubberly 'an's, ye long-eared son of a——"
"Fore-tops'l sheet, the watch there!!"
The Mate had seen the slack links and the row in progress at the same moment. The order came in time; strife was averted.
Three sulky pulls at a tackle on the sheets, a tightening of the braces, then: "That'll do, the watch there! Coil down and put away the tackle!" Again the gathering at the fore-hatch. Hicks picked up his work and resumed the twisting of the yarns.
A great knocking out and refilling of pipes.
"'Bout that 'ere Dutchman, Granger? 'Im wot ye wos shipmates with."
Granger glanced covertly at the bo'sun. There was no sign of further hostilities; he was working the yarns with a great show of industry, and was whistling dolefully the while.
"Well, 'e worn't a proper Dutchman, neither," he began pleasantly; "'im bein' married on a white woman in Cardiff, wot 'ad a shop in Bute Road. See? Th' Ole Man o' th' Ruddymanthus, 'e wos a terror on sailorizin'——" Granger paused.
Again a squint at the bo'sun. There was no sign, save that the whistling had ceased, and the lips had taken a scornful turn. "'E wos a terror on sailorizin', an' w'en we left Sydney f'r London, 'e said as 'ow 'e'd give two pun' fer th' best pair o' shackles wot 'is men could make. There worn't many o' us as wor 'ands at shackles, an' there wor only th' Dutchman an' a white man in it—a Cockney 'e wos, name o' Linnet——"
The bo'sun was staring steadily at the speaker, who added hastily, "'an a damn good feller 'e wos, too, one o' th' best I ever wos shipmates with; 'e wos a prime sailorman—there worn't many as could teach 'im anythin'——"
Bo'sun had resumed work, and was again whistling.
"It lay a-tween 'im an' this 'ere Dutchman. All the w'yage they wos at it. They wos in diff'rent watches, an' th' other fellers wos allus a-settin' 'em up. It would be, ''Ere, Dutchy, you min' yer eye. Linnet, 'e's got a new turn o' threads jes' below th' rose knots'; or, 'Look-a-here, Linnet, me son, that Dutchman's puttin' in glossy beads, an' 'e's waxin' 'is ends wi' stuff wot th' stooard giv' 'im.' The watches wos takin' sides. 'Linnet's th' man,' says th' Mate's watch. 'Dutchy, he's th' fine 'and at sailorizin',' says th' starbowlines. Worn't takin' no sides meself"—a side glance at the bo'sun—"me bein' 'andy man along o' th' carpenter, an' workin' all day."
The bo'sun put away his unfinished work, and, lighting his pipe—a sign of satisfaction—drew nearer to the group.
"Off th' Western Islands they finished their jobs," continued Granger (confidently, now that the bo'sun had lit a pipe and was listening as a shipmate ought). "They painted 'em, an' 'ung 'em up t' dry. Fine they looked, dark green, an' th' rose knots all w'ite. Dutchy's shackles wos werry narrer; worn't made f'r a sailorman's 'and at all, but 'e knowed wot e' wos a-doin' of, for th' Ole Man wos one o' them dandy blokes wot sails out o' London; 'an's like a lidye's 'e 'ad, an' w'en they takes their shackles aft, 'e cottons t' Dutchy's at onest. 'Now, them's wot I calls shackles, Johnson, me man,' sez 'e. 'Jest fits me 'and like a glove,' 'e sez, 'oldin' ov 'em up, an' lettin' 'em fall back an' forrard acrost 'is wrist. 'Linnet's is too broad,' 'e sez. 'Good work, hexellint work,' 'e sez, 'but too broad for th' 'ands.' Linnet, 'e sed as 'ow 'e made shackles for sailormen's 'ands; sed 'e didn't 'old wi' Captains 'andlin' their own sea-chests, but it worn't no use—Dutchy got th' two quid, an' th' stooard got cramp ov 'is 'ands hevery time 'e took out th' Ole Man's chest ov a mornin'. An' th' Mate giv' Linnet five bob an' an ole pair o' sea-boots f'r 'is pair, an' cheap they wos, for Linnet, 'e wos a man wot knowed 'is work."
"A Mate's th' best judge ov a sailorman's work, anywye," said the bo'sun pleasantly.
"'Im? 'E wor a good judge, too," said the wily Granger. "'E said as 'ow Linnet's wos out-an-out th' best pair. I knowed they wos, for them Dutchmen ain't so 'andy at double rose knots as a white man!"
"No! Sure they ain't!"
In the dark of the morning a dense fog had closed around us, shutting in our horizon when we had most need of a clear outlook. We had expected to sight the Lizard before dawn to pick up a Falmouth pilot at noon, to be anchored in the Roads by nightfall—we had it all planned out, even to the man who was to stand the first anchor-watch—and now, before the friendly gleam of the Lizard Lights had reached us, was fog—damp, chilling, dispiriting, a pall of white, clammy vapour that no cunning of seamanship could avail against.
Denser it grew, that deep, terrifying wall that shut us off, shipmate from shipmate. Overhead, only the black shadow of the lower sails loomed up; forward, the ship was shrouded ghostly, unreal. Trailing wreaths of vapour passed before and about the side-lamps, throwing back their glare in mockery of the useless rays. All sense of distance was taken from us: familiar deck fittings assumed huge, grotesque proportions; the blurred and shadowy outlines of listening men about the decks seemed magnified and unreal. Sound, too, was distorted by the inconstant sea-fog; a whisper might carry far, a whole-voiced hail be but dimly heard.
Lifting lazily over the long swell, under easy canvas, we sailed, unseeing and unseen. Now and on, the hand fog-trumpet rasped out a signal of our sailing, a faint, half-stifled note to pit against the deep reverberation of a liner's siren that seemed, at every blast, to be drawing nearer and nearer.
The Old Man was on the poop, anxiously peering into the void, though keenest eyes could serve no purpose. Bare-headed, that he might the better hear, he stepped from rail to rail—listening, sniffing, striving, with every other sense acute, to work through the fog-banks that had robbed him of his sight. We were in evil case. A dense fog in Channel, full in the track of shipping—a weak wind for working ship. Small wonder that every whisper, every creak of block or parrel, caused him to jump to the compass—a steering order all but spoken.
"Where d'ye mark that, now?" he cried, as again the liner's siren sounded out.
"Where d'ye mark ... d'ye mark ... mark?" The word was passed forward from mouth to mouth, in voices faint and muffled.
"About four points on th' port bow, Sir!" The cry sounded far and distant, like a hail from a passing ship, though the Mate was but shouting from the bows.
"Aye, aye! Stan' by t' hand that foresheet! Keep the foghorn goin'!"
"... Foresheet ... 'sheet ... th' fog'orn ... goin'!" The invisible choir on the main-deck repeated the orders.
Again the deep bellow from the steamer, now perilously close—the futile rasp of our horn in answer.
Suddenly an alarmed cry: "O Chris'! She's into us! ... The bell, you! The bell! ..." A loud clanging of the forward bell, a united shout from our crew, patter of feet as they run aft, the Mate shouting: "Down hellum, Sir—down hellum, f'r God's sake!"
"Hard down helm! Le' go foresheet!" answered to the Mate's cry, the Old Man himself wrenching desperately at the spokes of the wheel. Sharp ring of a metal sheave, hiss of a running rope, clank and throb of engines, thrashing of sails coming hard to the mast, shouts!
Out of the mist a huge shadowy hull ranges alongside, the wash from her sheering cutwater hissing and spluttering on our broadside.
Three quick, furious blasts of a siren, unintelligible shouts from the steamer's bridge, a churning of propellers; foam; a waft of black smoke—then silence, the white, clammy veil again about us, and only the muffled throb of the liner's reversed engines and the uneasy lurch of our barque, now all aback, to tell of a tragedy averted.
"Oh! The murderin' ruffians! The b——y sojers!" The crisis over, the Old Man was beside himself with rage and indignation. "Full speed through weather like this! Blast ye!" he yelled, hollowing his hands. "What—ship—is—that?"
No answer came out of the fog. The throb of engines died away in a steady rhythm; they would be on their course again, 'slowed down,' perhaps, to twelve knots, now that the nerves of the officer of the watch had been shaken.
Slowly our barque was turned on heel, the yards trimmed to her former course, and we moved on, piercing the clammy barrier that lay between us and a landfall.
"Well, young fellers? Wha' d'ye think o' that now?" Bo'sun was the first of us to regain composure. "Goin' dead slow, worn't 'e? 'Bout fifteen, I sh'd siy! That's the wye wi' them mail-boat fellers: Monday, five 'undred mile; Toosd'y, four-ninety-nine; We'n'sd'y, four-ninety-height 'n 'arf—'slowed on haccount o' fog'—that's wot they puts it in 'er bloomin' log, blarst 'em!"
"Silence, there—main-deck!" The Old Man was pacing across the break of the poop, pausing to listen for sound of moving craft.
Bo'sun Hicks, though silenced, had yet a further lesson for us youngsters, who might one day be handling twenty-knot liners in such a fog. In the ghostly light of fog and breaking day he performed an uncanny pantomime, presenting a liner's officer, resplendent in collar and cuff, strutting, mincing, on a steamer's bridge. (Sailormen walk fore and aft; steamboat men, athwart.)
"Haw!" he seemed to say, though never a word passed his lips. "Haw! Them wind-jammers—ain't got no proper fog'orns. Couldn't 'ear 'em at th' back o' a moskiter-net! An' if we cawn't 'ear 'em, 'ow do we know they're there, haw! So we bumps 'em, an' serve 'em dem well right, haw!"
It was extraordinary! Here was a man who, a few minutes before, might, with all of us, have been struggling for his life!
Dawn broke and lightened the mist about us, but the pall hung thick as ever over the water. At times we could hear the distant note of a steamer's whistle; once we marked a sailing vessel, by sound of her horn, as she worked slowly across our bows, giving the three mournful wails of a running ship. Now and again we cast the lead, and it was something to see the Channel bottom—grains of sand, broken shell-pebbles—brought up on the arming. Fog or no fog, we were, at least, dunting the 'blue pigeon' on English ground, and we felt, as day wore on and the fog thinned and turned to mist and rain, that a landfall was not yet beyond hope.
A change of weather was coming, a change that neither the Old Man nor the Mate liked, to judge by their frequent visits to the barometers. At noon the wind hauled into the sou'-west and freshened, white tops curled out of the mist and broke in a splutter of foam under the quarter, Channel gulls came screaming and circling high o'er our heads—a sure sign of windy weather. A gale was in the making; a rushing westerly gale, to clear the Channel and blow the fog-rack inland.
"I don't like the looks o' this, Mister." The Old Man was growing anxious; we had seen nothing, had heard nothing to make us confident of our reckoning. "That aneroid's dropped a tenth since I tapped it last, an' th' mercurial's like it had no bottom! There's wind behind this, sure; and if we see naught before 'four bells,' I'm goin' out t' look for sea-room. Channel fogs, an' sou'-westers, an' fifteen-knot liners in charge o' b——y lunatics! Gad! there's no room in th' English Channel now for square sail, an' when ye——"
"Sail O! On the port bow, Sir!" Keen, homeward-bound eyes had sighted a smudge on the near horizon.
"Looks like a fisherman," said the Mate, screwing at his glasses. "He's standing out."
"Well, we'll haul up t' him, anyway," answered the Old Man. "Starboard a point—mebbe he can give us the bearin' o' th' Lizard."
Bearing up, we were soon within hailing distance. She was a Cardiff pilot cutter; C.F. and a number, painted black on her mains'l, showed us that. As we drew on she hoisted the red and white of a pilot on station.
"The barque—ahoy! Where—are—'oo—bound?" A cheering hail that brought all hands to the rails, to stare with interest at the oilskin-clad figures of the pilot's crew.
"Ah!"—a disappointed note—"'oo are standin' too far t' th' west'ard, Capt'in. I saw the Falmouth cutter under th' land, indeed, before the fog came down. Nor'-by-east—that'll fetch 'm!"
"Thank 'ee! How does the Lizard bear?"
"'Bout nor'-nor'-west, nine mile, I sh'd say. Stand in—as—far—as—thirty-five—fathoms—no less!" The pilot's Channel voice carried far.
"Thank Heaven! That's definite, anyway," said the Old Man, turning to wave a hand towards the cutter, now fast merging into the mist astern. "Nor'-nor'-west, nine mile," he said. "That last sight of ours was a long way out. A good job I held by th' lead. Keep 'er as she's goin', Mister; I'll away down an' lay her off on th' chart—nor'-nor'-west, nine mile," he kept repeating as he went below, fearing a momentary forgetfulness.
In streaks and patches the mist was clearing before the westering wind. To seaward we saw our neighbours of the fog setting on their ways. Few were standing out to sea, and that, and the sight of a fleet of fishermen running in to their ports, showed that no ordinary weather lay behind the fast-driving fog-wreaths. North of us heavy masses of vapour, banked by the breeze, showed where the land lay, but no land-mark, no feature of coast or headland, stood clear of the mist to guide us. Cautiously, bringing up to cast the lead at frequent intervals, we stood inshore, and darkness, falling early, found us a-lee of the land with the misty glare of the Lizard lights broad on our beam. Here we 'hove-to' to await a pilot—"Thirty-five fathoms, no less," the Welshman had advised—and the frequent glare of our blue-light signals showed the Old Man's impatience to be on his way again to Falmouth and shelter.
Eight we burnt, guttering to their sockets, before we saw an answering flare, and held away to meet the pilot. A league or so steady running, and then—to the wind again, the lights of a big cutter rising and falling in the sea-way, close a-lee.
"What—ship?" Not Stentor himself could have bettered the speaker's hail.
"The Florence, of Glasgow: 'Frisco t' Channel. Have ye got my orders?"
A moment of suspense. Hull, it might be, or the Continent: the answer might set us off to sea again.
"No—not now! (We're right—for Falmouth.) We had 'm a fortnight agone, but they'm called in since. A long passage, surely, Captain?"
"Aye! A hundred an' thirty-two days—not countin' three week at th' Falklan's, under repair. ... Collision with ice in fifty-five, south! ... No proper trades either; an' 'doldrums'! ... A long passage, Pilot!"
"Well, well! You'm be goin' on t' Falmouth, I reckon—stan' by t' put a line in my boat!" A dinghy put off from the cutter; a frail cockle-shell, lurching and diving in the short Channel sea, and soon our pilot was astride the rail, greeting us, as one sure of a welcome.
"You'm jest in time, Capten. It's goin' t' blow, I tell 'ee—(Mainyard forrard, Mister Mate!)—an' a West-countryman's allowance, for sure!" He rubbed his sea-scarred hands together, beamed jovially, as though a 'West-countryman's allowance' were pleasant fare.... "Th' glass started fallin' here about two—(Well—the mainyard!—a bit more o' th' lower tawps'l-brace, Mister!)—two o'clock yesterday afternoon—(How's the compass, Capten? Half a point! Keep 'er nor'-east b' nor', when she comes to it, m' lad!)—an' it's been droppin' steady ever since. Lot o' craft put in for shelter sin'—(Check in th' foreyards now, will 'ee?)—since th' marnin', an' the Carrick Roads 'll be like West India Dock on a wet Friday. A good job the fog's lifted. Gad! we had it thick this marnin'. We boarded a barque off th' Dodman.... Thought he was south o' th' Lizard, he did, an' was steerin' nor'-east t' make Falmouth! A good job we sighted 'im, or he'd a bin—(Well—th' foreyard, Mister!)—hard upon th' Bizzie's Shoal, I reckon."