The word was passed; and Chips, who was on the forecastle smoking his pipe, at once came shambling aft. At the head of the companion-way he encountered the steward, who went up to Mr Bowles, said a word or two to him in a low tone of voice, and then returned below again.
Mr Bowles nodded; stepped quietly down to the main dock, and put his head inside the door of the deck-house wherein Mr Dashwood was lodged; and in another moment the second mate came out, followed the chief up to the poop, and took charge of the deck; Mr Bowles immediately proceeding below.
No one but Lance appeared to take any particular notice of these movements, so quietly were they executed; and if he suspected that anything was wrong he took care not to show it, but went on chatting with Blanche upon the same subject as before. It may be, however, that his thoughts wandered a little from the matter in hand, for once or twice he halted and hesitated somewhat in his speech, and seemed to forget what he was talking about.
A quarter of an hour passed away; and then Captain Staunton, followed by the chief mate, came on deck. They walked as far as the break of the poop together, and then Mr Bowles gave the word to "pipe all hands aft!"
("There is something amiss," thought Lance.)
In less than a minute the men were all mustered in the waist of the ship, waiting wonderingly to hear what the skipper had to say, for it was perfectly evident that Captain Staunton was about to address them. When the men were all assembled the captain turned to the passengers on the poop, and said—
"Ladies and gentlemen, have the goodness to come a little nearer me, if you please; what I have to say concerns all hands alike—those in the saloon as well as those in the forecastle."
The passengers moved forward as requested, Lance taking Blanche's hand upon his arm and giving it a little reassuring squeeze as he did so.
Captain Staunton then turned himself so that he could be heard by all, and began—
"My friends, I have called you round me in order to communicate to you all a piece of very momentous intelligence. It is of a somewhat trying nature; and therefore, before I go further, I must ask you to listen to me patiently, to obey orders implicitly, and above all, to preserve coolness and presence of mind. With these, I have not a doubt that we can successfully battle with the difficulty; without them it will be impossible for us to work effectively, and the consequences must necessarily be proportionately grave."
He paused a moment; and then, seeing that every one appeared to be perfectly cool and steady, he added—
"I greatly regret to say I have some cause for suspicion that fire has broken out somewhere below—steady, now! steady, lads; wait and hear all I have to say—I repeat I have a suspicion that fire may have broken out on board; the temperature of the saloon is unaccountably hot, and there is a strange smell below which may or may not be caused by fire. It is necessary that the matter should be looked into at once; and I ask every one here to lend me their best assistance. In case of my surmise proving correct keep cool and work your hardest, every man of you, and then there is no reason whatever why we should not come easily out of the scrape. Mr Bowles and Mr Dashwood will each take charge of his own watch. Mr Dashwood, get the fire-engine rigged and under weigh. Mr Bowles, rig the force-pump, get the deck-tubs filled, and arrange your watch in a line along the deck with all the buckets you can muster. Gentlemen," turning to the passengers, "be so good as to keep out of the men's way, and hold yourselves in readiness to assist in whatever manner may be required. Now lads, go quietly to your posts, and do your duty like Englishmen."
A FIERY ORDEAL.
The chief and second mates had, when named by Captain Staunton, gone down upon the main deck; and upon the conclusion of the skipper's address they at once marshalled their watches and led them to their proper stations. The third mate, boatswain, sailmaker, cook, steward, and apprentices were embodied with the chief mate's gang, part of whom were told off to work the force-pump which was to feed the tank of the fire-engine, while the remainder were formed into line along the deck to pass buckets to the seat of the fire. The fire-engine, which had luckily been frequently in use at fire-drill, was in perfect order, and the men knowing exactly what to do, it was rigged and ready for action, with tank filled, the hose screwed on and laid along the deck, in a remarkably short time.
Captain Staunton, on seeing that the men were cool and thoroughly under control, had immediately gone below again to rejoin the carpenter, whom he had left busily engaged in seeking the locality of the fire, of the actual existence of which he had no manner of doubt; indeed one had need only to go to the companion and breathe the heated and pungent atmosphere which ascended thence to have resolved any doubt he might have entertained upon the subject.
"Oh, how dreadful!" exclaimed Blanche, turning with white quivering lips to Evelin, as the skipper disappeared below; "do you think there really is fire, Mr Evelin?"
"It is quite impossible to say," answered Evelin calmly, keeping to himself his own convictions; "but if there is, it cannot have yet gained much hold, and I daresay a half an hour or so of vigorous work with the fire-engine will effectually drown it out. And if it does not; if, looking at the matter in its worst possible light, the fire should after all get the upper hand and drive us out of the ship, the night is fine, and the water smooth enough to enable us easily and comfortably to take to the boats. Then the boats themselves are amply sufficient to take everybody without crowding; they are in perfect order and the best equipped boats I have ever seen; so that let what will happen, I think we need not alarm ourselves in the least.
"I think, however," he added, the other passengers having gathered round him, "that it could do no possible harm, and might be of advantage, supposing that the worst happens, if you ladies were to go to your berths and make up a package of your warmest clothing, together with any valuables you may have with you, so as to be in perfect readiness to leave the ship, if need be. But take matters quietly, I entreat you; for I sincerely hope it will prove that there is no necessity for any such decided step."
The two girls turned away, and went together to the cabin which they jointly occupied. Mrs Staunton had already followed her husband below; and Dale also hurried away, loudly bewailing his ill-luck in ever having embarked on board such an unfortunate vessel.
"For heaven's sake follow him, Fortescue, and stop his clamour!" exclaimed Lance; "he is enough to demoralise an entire regiment, let alone a small ship's company like this."
Rex nodded, and followed his partner; seizing him by the arm and leading him aft, instead of allowing him to go below as he evidently intended:
Just then the carpenter came on deck, and advancing to the break of the poop, shouted—
"Pass along the hose, boys, and start the engine. There is a spark or two of something smouldering down below, but we'll soon have it out."
The men stationed at the engine gave a ringing cheer and, one of them starting an inspiriting shanty, began at once to work away at the handles.
"Well, this here's a pretty go, ain't it?" observed Brook, addressing himself to Evelin as the two stood together at the break of the poop, watching the men at work.
"A most unfortunate circumstance," replied Lance. "Luckily there are no signs whatever of anything approaching to panic; and if all keep as cool as they are at present, we may hope to get out of this difficulty one way or the other without mishap. You seem tolerably collected, Mr Brook; so perhaps there may be no harm in telling you that I fear matters are much more serious than they at present appear to be. All day to-day the saloon has appeared to me to be extraordinarily hot; and the presence of fire in the ship now sufficiently accounts for it. And if it has been burning for some time, it may prove to have obtained so strong a hold as to defy mastery. In such a case it behoves each one of us to set an example of quiet self-possession to all the rest. You behaved so nobly the other day during the gale that I think we may depend on you not to fail in that respect."
"Oh, I'm all right," returned Brook. "I don't believe in being put out about any think; I'm ready to help anywheres; and I'd begin at once if I knowed where I could do any good. And if the 'governor' (referring presumably to Mr Dale) makes any fuss, I shall roll 'im up in a blanket like a parcel and take care of 'im myself."
A thin vapour of smoke was by this time rising from the companion, accompanied by a strong and quite unmistakable smell of fire; and in a minute or two more Captain Staunton, in his shirt sleeves, appeared on deck and called forward for more water.
"There is rather more of it than we at first thought, lads," he said; "but stick steadily to your work and we'll conquer it yet."
The gang at the fire-engine was rapidly relieved; a fresh shanty was struck up; the chain of men with buckets got to work; and the quickened clank clank of the engine handles showed that the crew were still confident and determined.
"Now is our time," exclaimed Lance to Brook; "cut in here," as a rather wide gap in the chain of bucket-men revealed itself just at the head of the saloon staircase; and in another moment both were hard at work, with their coats off, passing buckets.
Another twenty minutes might have elapsed when Captain Staunton and the carpenter staggered together up the saloon staircase to the deck, gasping for breath, their clothes and skin grimy with smoke, and the perspiration streaming down their faces.
"Send two fresh hands below, if you please, Mr Bowles," shouted the skipper; "and you, lads, drop your buckets, and lend a hand here to cut some holes in the deck; the fire is spreading forward, and we must keep it to this end of the ship if possible."
Two of the most determined of the crew at once stepped forward and volunteered to go below; Captain Staunton nodded his permission, and led them to the scene of their labours; while the chain of men who had been passing buckets along the deck dropped them, and, under the carpenter's supervision, at once commenced the task of cutting through the deck. The smoke was by this time pouring in volumes up the companion and through the skylight. Lance had been too busy to take much notice of this whilst engaged in passing the buckets; but now that a respite came he had time to look about him. He saw the great dun cloud of smoke surging out of the companion and streaming away to leeward; and he saw indistinctly through it at intervals a small group gathered together aft by the weather taffrail. He thought he would join this group for a moment, if only to ascertain whether the girls had succeeded in securing such things as they were most anxious to save; and he sauntered toward them in his usual easy and deliberate manner. As he drew near Violet rose and said—
"Oh, Mr Evelin! I am so glad you are come; I was beginning to feel quite anxious about Blanche—but where is she; I do not see her with you?"
"She is not with me, Miss Dudley," answered Lance; "what led you to suppose she would be?"
"Not with you! Oh, Mr Evelin, where is she, then? If she is not with you she must still be in her cabin. I stayed there until the smoke was too thick to see or breathe any longer, and then I came on deck. I spoke to her, urging her to come also, and receiving no reply thought she had left without my noticing it; but she is not here anywhere."
The latter part of this speech never reached Lance's ears, for, upon fully realising that Blanche—"his own sweet darling," as he had called her in his inmost thoughts a thousand times—was missing, he darted to the companion-way and plunged down the stairs, three or four at a time, into the blinding pungent suffocating smoke which rushed momentarily in more and more dense volumes up through the opening.
On reaching the foot of the staircase, he found that several of the planks had been pulled up to allow the men tending the hose to get below the saloon floor and approach as near as possible to the seat of the fire. So dense was the smoke just here that it was only by the merest chance he escaped falling headlong into the abyss. Catching sight, however, of the aperture just in time to spring across it, he did so; and glancing back for an instant on reaching the other side, he saw a broad expanse of glowing white-hot bales of wool, and, dimly through the acrid smoke and steam, the forms of the men who were plying the engine hose.
Groping his way into the saloon, which was by this time so full of smoke that he could barely distinguish through it a feeble glimmer from the cabin lamp, he made his way in the direction of the state-room appropriated to Blanche and Violet. The smoke got into his eyes and made them water; into his throat and made him cough violently; into his lungs, producing an overpowering sense of suffocation, and impressing unmistakably upon him the necessity for rapidity and decision of movement. Blind, giddy, breathless, he staggered onward, groping for the handle of the state-room door. At length he found it, wrenched the door open, and rapidly felt with hands and feet about the floor and in each berth. No one there. Where then could Blanche be? She was not on deck, and it was hardly probable she could have fallen overboard. Then as he hastily began the search anew his foot kicked against something on the floor, which he at once picked up. It was a boot—a man's boot unmistakably, from its size and weight. This at once satisfied him that in the obscurity he had groped his way into the wrong state-room; and he must prosecute his search further.
But he was suffocating. Already his brain began to reel; there was a loud humming in his ears; his eyes ached and felt as though they would burst out of their sockets; and he found his strength ebbing away like water. Should he at once prosecute his search further? That seemed physically impossible. But if Blanche were in that fatal atmosphere she must soon die, if not dead already. And if he left the cabin to obtain a breath of fresh air was he not likely to go astray again, and lose still more precious time? No; the search must be proceeded with at once; and, reeling like a drunken man, Lance felt for the state-room door, staggered into the saloon, and felt along the bulkhead for the handle of the next door. Oh, heavens! what a search that was. His head felt as though it would burst; he gasped for breath, and inhaled nothing but hot pungent smoke; the saloon seemed to be miles instead of yards in length. Thank God! at last; the handle is found and turned, and the door flung open. Lance, with the conviction that unless he can escape in a very few seconds he will die, gropes wildly round and into the berths. Ah! what is this? Something coiled-up at the foot of the bottom berth. A human body! A woman! Lance grasps it tightly in his arms; stumbles out through the door with it, along the saloon, through the passage. A roaring as of a thousand thunders is in his ears; stars innumerable dance before his eyes; he sees as in a dream the yawning gulf in the floor; a broad glare of fierce white light reels madly to and fro before him; a confused sound of hoarse voices strikes upon his ear; he feels that the end is come—that he is dying; but with a last supreme effort he staggers up the saloon staircase to the deck, turns instinctively to windward out of the smoke, and with his precious burden still tightly clasped in his arms, falls prostrate and senseless to the deck.
Rex Fortescue, who had been present when Violet spoke to Lance of Blanche's absence, and who had witnessed the hasty departure of his friend upon his perilous search, was at the head of the companion, on his way below, having grown anxious at Lance's prolonged absence, when the latter reappeared on deck; and assistance having been hastily summoned, the pair who had so nearly met their deaths from suffocation were, with some little difficulty, at length restored to consciousness.
Meanwhile, it had become apparent to Captain Staunton that the fire was of a much more serious character than he had anticipated, and that it was every minute assuming more formidable proportions. He therefore at length decided, as a precautionary measure, to get the boats into the water without further delay. He was anxious more particularly about the launch and pinnace, as these boats were stowed over the main hatch and would have to be hoisted out by means of yard-tackles. This would be a long and difficult operation, the ship being under jury-rig; and should the fire attack the heel of the main-mast before these craft were in the water, the two largest and safest boats in the ship might be seriously damaged, if not destroyed, in the process of launching, or perhaps might defy the unaided efforts of the crew to launch them at all. There would be no difficulty about the other boats, as they could be lowered from the davits.
The mates were busy superintending and directing the efforts of their respective gangs towards the extinguishing of the fire; Captain Staunton, therefore, after a moment or two of anxious deliberation, confided to Bob the important duty of provisioning and launching the boats, giving him as assistants the cook, steward, and two able seamen, and soliciting also the aid of the male passengers.
Now it happened that the Galatea's boats were somewhat different in character from the boats usually to be found on board ship. Captain Staunton had, when quite a lad, been compelled, with the rest of the ship's company of which he was then a junior and very unimportant member, to abandon the ship and take to the boats in mid-ocean; and he then learnt a lesson which he never forgot, and formed ideas with respect to the fitting of boats which his nautical friends had been wont to rather sneer at and stigmatise as "queer." But when the Galatea was in process of fitting out he had, with some difficulty, succeeded in persuading his owners to allow him to carry out these ideas, and the boats were fitted up almost under his own eye.
The chief peculiarity of the boats lay in their keels. These were made a trifle stouter than usual, and of ordinary depth. But they were so shaped and finished that a false keel some eight or nine inches deep could be securely fastened on below in a very few minutes. This was managed by having the true keel bored in some half a dozen places along its length, and the holes "bushed" with copper. The copper bushes projected a quarter of an inch above the upper edge of the keel, and were so finished as to allow of copper caps screwing on over them, thus effectually preventing the flow of water up through the bolt-holes into the interior of the boat. The false keel was made to accurately fit the true keel, and was provided with stout copper bolts coinciding in number and position with the bolt-holes in the true keel. To fix the false keel all that was necessary was to unscrew the caps from the top of the "bushes," apply the false to the true keel, pushing the bolts up through their respective holes, and set them up tight by means of thumb-screws. The whole operation could be performed in a couple of minutes, and the boats were then fit to beat to windward to any extent.
As far as the gigs were concerned (with the exception of the whaleboat gig, which was an exquisitely modelled boat, fitted with air-chambers so as to render her self-righting and unsinkable), beyond greater attention than usual to the model of the craft, this was the only difference which Captain Staunton had thought it necessary to make between the boats of the Galatea and those of other ships; but in the cases of the launch and pinnace he had gone a step further, by fitting them with movable decks in sections, which covered in the boats forward and aft and for about a foot wide right along each side. These decks were bolted down and secured with thumb-screws to beams which fitted into sockets under the gunwale; and when the whole was once fixed each section contributed to keep all immovably in place. The decking being but light it was not difficult to fix, and in an hour after the order was given to launch the boats, the launch and pinnace were in the water alongside, and the gigs hanging at the davits ready to lower away at a moment's notice.
Thanks also to Captain Staunton's never-ceasing care with regard to the boats, they were all in perfect condition, and not leaky as baskets, as are too many boats when required to be lowered upon an unexpected emergency. The gigs and the launch were regularly half-filled with water every morning before the decks were washed down, and emptied at the conclusion of that ceremony; while the pinnace, which was stowed bottom-up in the launch, was liberally soused with water at the same time. In addition to this the proper complement of oars and rowlocks, the stretchers, boat-hook, mop, baler, anchor, rudder, yoke, and tiller, together with the compass, masts, and sails, were always stowed in the boat to which they belonged, and were carefully overhauled once every week under the skipper's own eye.
Thus, on the present occasion, there was none of that bewildered running about and searching high and low for the boats' gear; it was all at hand and ready for use whenever it might be wanted; there was nothing therefore to do but to make sure that each boat was amply provisioned. This, the launch and pinnace being safely in the water, was Bob's next task, to which he devoted himself coolly but with all alacrity.
The boats' water-breakers, which were slung, ready filled, between the fore and after gallows, under two of the gigs (each breaker bearing painted upon it the name of the boat to which it belonged), were cast adrift and passed into their proper boats as they were lowered, and then followed as large a quantity of provisions as could possibly be stowed away without too much encumbering the movements of the occupants.
Meanwhile the scuppers had all been carefully plugged up, the decks pierced, and all hands set to work with buckets, etcetera, to flood them, and still the fire increased in volume. It was 11:30 p.m. by the time that the boats were veered astern, fully equipped, and ready to receive their human freight; and at midnight the main-mast fell, flames at the same time bursting up through the saloon-companion and skylight. Upon perceiving this it became evident to Captain Staunton that it was quite hopeless to further prolong the fight; the crew had been for four hours exerting themselves to their utmost capacity, with the fire gaining steadily upon them the whole time; they were now completely exhausted, and the fire was blazing furiously almost throughout the devoted ship; he therefore considered he had done his full duty and was now quite justified in abandoning the unfortunate Galatea to her fiery doom. He accordingly gave orders for the crew to desist from their efforts, to collect their effects, and to muster again upon the quarter- deck with all possible expedition.
The men needed no second bidding, they saw that the moments of the good ship were numbered; and, throwing down whatever they happened to have in their hands, they made a rush for the forecastle, and there, in the midst of the already blinding and stifling smoke, proceeded hurriedly to gather together their few belongings.
In less than five minutes all hands were collected in the waist, waiting the order to pass over the side.
The boats had meanwhile been hauled alongside, and the ladies, with little May, carefully handed into the launch. This, when the attempt came to be made, proved a task of no little difficulty, for the ship's sides were found to be so hot that it was impossible to touch them. However, by the exercise of great caution it was accomplished without mishap; and then the male passengers were ordered down over the side, Rex and Lance going into the launch with the ladies, while Dale and Brook were told off to the pinnace. The crew were then sent down; each man as he passed over the rail being told what boat he was to go into. Mr Bowles was appointed to the command of the pinnace, and Mr Dashwood was ordered to take charge of the whaleboat gig, with six hands as his crew.
The passengers and crew of the Galatea were distributed thus:—
The launch, under the command of Captain Staunton, carried Mrs Staunton, her little daughter May, Violet Dudley, Blanche Lascelles, the bosom friends Rex and Lance, Bob and his three fellow apprentices, and the steward—twelve in all.
The pinnace, commanded by Mr Bowles, had on board Mr Forester Dale, Brook, the carpenter, the sailmaker, and two of the seamen, numbering seven all told.
The whaleboat gig, the smartest boat of the fleet, was manned, as already stated, by Mr Dashwood and six picked hands; she was to act as tender to the launch.
The second gig, of which the boatswain was given charge, carried the remainder of the crew, five in number, or six including the boatswain.
Captain Staunton was of course the last man to leave the ship, and it was not until the moment had actually arrived for him to do so that the full force of the calamity appeared to burst upon him. Up to that moment he had been working harder than any other man on board; and whilst his body had been actively engaged, his mind was no less busy devising expedients for the preservation of the noble ship with the lives and cargo which she carried, and for the safety of all of which he was responsible. But now all that was done with; the ship and cargo were hopelessly lost, and the time had come when they must be abandoned to their fate. It was true that many precious lives were still, as it were, held in his hands; that upon his skill and courage depended to a very large extent their preservation; but that was a matter for the future—the immediate future, no doubt, but at that supreme moment Captain Staunton seemed unable to think of anything but the present— that terrible present in which he must abandon to the devouring flames the beautiful fabric which had borne them all so gallantly over so many thousand leagues of the pathless ocean, through light and darkness, through sunshine and tempest, battling successfully with the wind and the wave in their most unbridled fury, to succumb helplessly at last under the insidious attack of that terrible enemy fire.
The last of the crew had passed down over the side and had been received into the boat to which he was appointed; the boats had all (excepting the launch) shoved off from the ship's side and retired to a distance at which the fierce heat of the victorious flames were no longer a discomfort, and it was now high time that the skipper himself should also leave. The flames were roaring and leaping below, above, and around him; the scorching air was surging about him, torrents of sparks were whirling around him, yet he seemed unable to tear himself away. There he stood in the gangway, his head bare, with his cap in his hand, and his eyes roving lingeringly and lovingly fore and aft, and then aloft to the blazing spars and sails. At length the fore-mast was seen to tremble and totter, it wavered for a moment, and then with a crash and in a cloud of fiery sparks plunged hissing over the side, the opposite side, fortunately, to that on which the launch lay. This aroused Captain Staunton; he gazed about him a single moment longer in a dazed bewildered way, and then, as the ship rolled and the launch rose upon a sea, sprang lightly down into the boat, and in a voice stern with emotion, gave the order to shove off.
"Oh, papa," cried little May, "I's so glad you's come; I sought you weren't coming;" and the sweet little creature threw her arms lovingly about her father's neck.
Do not deem him unmanly that he hid his eyes for a moment on his child's shoulder, perchance to pray for her safety in the trials, the troubles, and the dangers which now lay before them. Then handing the little one back to her mother, he hailed in a cheery voice the rest of the boats to close round the launch as soon as she had withdrawn to a safe distance.
In a few minutes the little fleet lay on their oars close together, at a distance of about a hundred yards from the blazing ship. Captain Staunton then in a few well-chosen words first thanked all hands for the strenuous efforts they had made to save the ship; and then explained to them his plans for the future. He proposed in the first place, he said, to remain near the Galatea as long as she floated; because if any other craft happened to be in their neighbourhood, her crew would be certain to notice the light of the fire and bear down to see what it meant, in which case they would be spared the necessity for a long voyage in the boats. But if no friendly sail appeared within an hour or two of the destruction of their own ship, it was his intention to continue in the boats the course to Valparaiso which they had been steering when the fire broke out. By his reckoning they were a trifle over eighteen hundred miles from this port—a long distance, no doubt; but he reminded them that they were in the Pacific, and might reasonably hope for moderately fine weather; their boats were all in perfect order, well supplied, and in good sailing trim, instead of being loaded down to the gunwale, as was too often the case when a crew were compelled to abandon their ship; and he believed that, unless some unforeseen circumstance occurred to delay them, they could make the passage in a fortnight. And finally he expressed a hope that all hands would maintain strict discipline and cheerfully obey the orders of their officers, as upon this would to a very great extent depend their ultimate safety.
His address was responded to with a ringing cheer; after which the occupants of the various boats subsided into silence and sat watching the burning ship.
The Galatea was by this time a mass of flame fore and aft. Her masts were gone, her decks had fallen in, and her hull above water was in several places red-hot; while as she rolled heavily on the long swell, burying her heated sides gunwale-deep in the water, great clouds of steam rose up like the smoke of a broadside, and hid her momentarily from view.
The fire continued to blaze more and more fiercely as it spread among the cargo, until about a couple of hours after the boats had left the ship, when the intense and long-continued heat appeared to cause some rivets to give way, or to destroy some of the iron plates; for a great gap suddenly appeared in the Galatea's side, a long strip of plating curling up and shrivelling away like a sheet of paper, and momentarily revealing the white-hot contents of the glowing told; then the water poured in through the orifice; there was a sudden upbursting of a vast cloud of steam accompanied by a mighty hissing sound; the hull appeared to writhe like a living thing in mortal agony; and then—darkness upon the face of the waters. The scorched and distorted shell of iron which had once been as gallant a ship as ever rode the foam was gone from sight for ever.
AT THE MERCY OF WIND AND WAVE.
The silence which followed the disappearance of the Galatea was broken by a plaintive wail from little May, who sobbed out that she was "Oh! so sorry that poor papa's beautiful ship was all burned up."
Her sorrows, however, were speedily charmed away by the representation made to her by her mother that if the ship had not been burnt they would probably never have thought of going for a delightful sail in the boats, as they now were; and soon afterwards the poor overtired child fell into a deep dreamless sleep in her mother's arms.
As everything had been made ready in the launch before she left the ship's side, the ladies had now nothing to do but make themselves thoroughly comfortable for the night on and among the blankets and skin rugs which had been arranged for them in the stern-sheets.
A cosy enough little cabin, of necessarily very limited dimensions, was also arranged in the bows of the boat for the gentlemen; and to this, upon Captain Staunton's assurance that their services would certainly not be needed for at least some hours, Rex and Lance betook themselves, accompanied by Bob and young Neville, the former of whom was to keep watch alternately with the skipper.
The night now being so far advanced, Captain Staunton announced to the occupants of the other boats his intention to wait for daylight before making sail; and, the tired crews at once composing themselves to slumber, silence soon fell upon the little fleet of boats which lay there riding lightly over the majestic slowly-heaving swell of the Pacific under the solemn starlight.
The hours of night passed peacefully away; and the watchers on board the several boats at length saw the velvety darkness in the eastern quarter paling before the approaching day. The stars, which but a short time before had risen into view over the dark rim of the horizon, dwindled into lustreless insignificance and finally disappeared; the sky grew momentarily paler and bluer in tint, the light sweeping imperceptibly higher and wider over the ethereal vault; then suddenly above the eastern horizon appeared a faint delicate rosy flush, followed by a brilliant golden pencilling of the lower edges of a few flecks of cloud invisible before: long shafts of golden light sprang radiating upward from a point below the horizon; and in another moment the upper edge of a great golden disc rose into view, flooding the laughing waves with shimmering radiance, and transforming in a moment the hitherto silent and sombre scene into one of joyousness and life. Sea birds hovered screaming high in the air, on the look-out for breakfast; flying-fish sparkled like glittering gems out of the bosom of the heaving deep; dolphins leaped and darted here and there; a school of porpoises rotated lazily past, heading to the westward; and away upon the very verge of the horizon a large school of whales appeared spouting and playing.
It was day again.
Bob at once, in accordance with his instructions, called Captain Staunton, who had lain down an hour or two before to snatch a little rest. The skipper, who had turned-in "all standing," that is to say, without undressing, soon made his appearance; and, first glancing keenly all round the horizon in the vain hope of discovering a sail, at once hailed the other boats, ordering them to make sail and to proceed upon a north-easterly course, extending themselves in line to the right and left, and to maintain as great a distance apart during the day as would be compatible with an easy interchange of communication by signal; to keep a sharp look-out all day; and to close in again upon the launch at nightfall.
The order was promptly obeyed, and in five minutes afterwards the little fleet were dancing gaily along over the low liquid hills of the Pacific swell, tossing tiny showers of spray out on each side from their bows, and leaving a long glistening wake of miniature whirlpools behind them.
The slight bustle of making sail on the boats, combined with the novelty of their situation, was sufficient to rouse all hands; and a few minutes after the boats were fairly under weigh, the ladies and little May emerged from their quarters in the stern-sheets of the launch. The excitement of the previous night had been completely overcome by the fatigue of preparation to desert the ship, and the lateness of the hour of retirement had secured for these, our heroines, a few hours of sound repose, so that when they made their appearance aft, refreshed by sleep and exhilarated by the pure bracing morning breeze, they looked and felt as little like castaways as one can well imagine. Indeed, they appeared more disposed to regard the adventure as a pleasantly exciting escapade than anything else—a state of feeling which the gentlemen of the party were careful to foster and encourage by every means in their power, judging it highly probable that there would be enough and more than enough to damp their high spirits before this singular boat-voyage, just commenced, should be over.
On board the launch, the fortunes of which we propose to follow for the present, all was pleasant activity. Even the skipper, whose reflections must necessarily have been of a somewhat sombre character, glad to observe such a prevalence of good spirits among his fellow voyagers, resolutely put all disagreeable thoughts behind him, and chimed in with the others, feeling the importance of prolonging to its utmost extent so favourable and pleasant a state of affairs.
Lance, whose experiences in the Australian bush had evidently made him fertile of resource, now rummaged out from among his baggage a diminutive but effective cooking apparatus, the fuel for which was supplied from a goodly jar of spirit stowed away in the eyes of the boat; and, initiating the steward into the peculiarities of its management and explaining to him its capabilities, an appetising breakfast of coffee and fried chops, cut from the carcass of a sheep hastily slaughtered the previous night, was soon served out to the occupants of the boat. Fishing-lines were afterwards produced, and, if the sport was meagre and the amount of fish captured but small, the expedient had at least the good effect of providing occupation and amusement for the ladies during the greater part of the day. As the weather continued fine, and there was absolutely nothing to do but to steer the boat upon a given course and keep a bright look-out, Captain Staunton seized the opportunity to take a good long spell of sleep, not only to make up for that lost on the previous night, but also to lay in a stock, as it were, against the time when probably many long and weary hours would have to be passed without it. Lance and Rex took the helm in turns throughout the day, while the ladies tended the fishing-lines, chatted with their male companions, or played with little May, as the humour took them. About an hour before sunset a small red flag was hoisted on board the launch as a signal for the other boats to close, the signal being repeated by each boat as soon as it was observed and kept flying until the most distant craft had answered it by bearing up or hauling to the wind as the case might be; and by the time that the stars were fairly out the little fleet was once more sailing along in a close and compact body.
So ended the first day in the boats.
This pleasant and satisfactory state of affairs lasted for five days, and then came a change. On the afternoon of the fifth day light fleecy vapours began to gather in the sky, growing thicker as the afternoon waned, until by sunset the entire canopy of heaven was veiled by huge masses of dense slate-coloured cloud, which swept heavily across the firmament from the eastward. The aneroid which Captain Staunton had ordered to be put oh board the launch indicated a considerable decrease of atmospheric pressure, which, coupled with the appearance of the sky, led the skipper to believe that bad weather was at hand; accordingly, when the other boats closed in upon the launch at sundown, word was passed along the line to keep a sharp look-out and to be prepared for any change which might occur.
About nine p.m. the wind died almost completely away; and shortly afterwards a few heavy drops of rain fell, speedily followed by a drenching shower. This killed the remaining light air of wind, and the boats lay idly upon the water, their saturated canvas flapping heavily against the masts. But not for long; the sails were speedily lowered down and spread across from gunwale to gunwale to catch the precious moisture, and so heavy was the downpour that in the quarter of an hour during which the shower lasted the voyagers were enabled to almost entirely refill their breakers, the contents of which had by this time very materially diminished.
The rain ceased suddenly, and a few minutes afterwards a puff of wind, hot as the breath of a furnace, swept over the boats from the north- east, and passed away, leaving a breathless calm as before. This was repeated twice or thrice; and then with a heavier puff than before a stiff breeze set in from the north-east, breaking off the boats from their course, and necessitating their hauling close upon a wind on the port tack.
By midnight the wind had increased so much that it became necessary to reef; the launch and pinnace double-reefing their canvas in order that they might not run away from the other boats. The sea now began to rise rapidly, and when day at length broke it revealed a dismal picture of dark tempestuous sky, leaden-grey ocean, its surface broken up into high, racing, foam-capped seas, and the little fleet of boats tossing wildly upon the angry surges, the launch leading, the pinnace next, and the others so far astern that it took Captain Staunton quite ten minutes to satisfy himself that they were all still in sight.
It was by this time blowing a moderate gale, and appearances seemed to indicate that downright bad weather was not far off; the captain decided, therefore, to heave-to at once, as it would be quite impossible in any other way to keep the little fleet together. The canvas on board the launch was accordingly still further reduced, the jib-sheet hauled over to windward, and the boat left to fight it out as best she could. The pinnace soon afterwards joined company and followed suit, the remainder of the boats doing the same as they came up.
As the day wore on the gale increased in strength, the sea rising proportionally and flinging the boats about like corks upon its angry surface. So violent was the motion that it was only with the utmost difficulty the steward succeeded in preparing a hot meal at mid-day, and when evening came our adventurers were obliged to content themselves with what Lance laughingly called "a cold collation." The day was indeed a wretched one; there was no temptation whatever to leave such slight shelter as the tiny cabins afforded, for the launch, and indeed all the other boats as well, were constantly enveloped in spray blown from the caps of the seas by the wind, while, cooped up below, it was unpleasantly warm, and the motion of the boat was so violent that her occupants were compelled to wedge themselves firmly in one position to avoid being dashed against their companions.
If the day was one of discomfort, the night which followed was infinitely worse. The gale continued steadily to increase; the sea rose to a tremendous height, breaking heavily; the spray flew continuously over the launch in drenching showers; the little craft, under the merest shred of canvas, was careened gunwale-to by the force of the wind every time she rose upon the crest of a sea, and the most watchful care of the skipper, who had stationed himself at the helm, was sometimes insufficient to prevent a more than ordinarily heavy sea from breaking on board. The increasing frequency of these occurrences at length necessitated the maintenance of one hand continually at the baler in order to keep the boat free of water, and in spite of all the ladies were unable to escape a thorough wetting. Nor was this the worst mishap. The water rose so high in the interior of the boat on one or two occasions that it got at the provisions, so seriously damaging some of them that there was little hope of their being rendered again fit for consumption. It was a most fortunate circumstance for those in the launch that, thanks to the captain's foresight, she had been fitted with a partial deck, otherwise she must inevitably have been swamped. How it fared with the other boats it was impossible to say; the darkness was too profound to permit of their being seen, if they still remained afloat; but the manner in which the launch suffered caused the skipper to entertain the gravest apprehensions for the rest of the fleet, and he almost dreaded the return of daylight lest it should reveal to him the realisation of his worst fears.
It seemed to the occupants of the launch as though that miserable night would never end. The tardy dawn, however, made its appearance at last, reluctantly, as it seemed to those drenched and weary watchers, and the moment that there was light enough to enable him to see distinctly Captain Staunton staggered to his feet, and steadying himself by grasping the boat's main-mast, took a long anxious look all round the horizon. At first he could distinguish nothing save the wildly rushing foam-capped seas, and the scurrying shreds of cloud which swept rapidly athwart the black and stormy sky; but after some minutes of painfully anxious scrutiny he descried, about three miles away to leeward, a tiny dark object, appearing at intervals against the leaden-grey of the horizon, which his seaman's eye told him was the pinnace.
The remainder of the fleet had disappeared.
It was no more than a realisation of his forebodings; but Captain Staunton possessed far too feeling a heart not to be powerfully affected by the loss of the two boats and the thirteen brave fellows who manned them. He ran over their names mentally, and recalled that no less than nine of the thirteen had arranged for half their pay to be handed over to their families at home; and he pictured to himself the bitter grief and distress there would be in those nine families when it came to be known that the husband, the father, the bread-winner was gone, overwhelmed and swallowed up by the remorseless ocean which knows no pity, not even for the wife and the helpless children.
With a powerful effort the captain dismissed these painful reflections from his mind, and turned his attention to matters nearer home. He had already searchingly scrutinised the aspect of the weather with most unsatisfactory results. As far as his experience went there was every prospect of a continuance—nay more, an increase—of the gale. The sky to windward looked wilder and more threatening than ever; while that the sea was still rising was a fact about which there could be no mistake. He dived into the little cabin or shelter aft, and took a long look at the aneroid, to find that it still manifested a downward tendency. It was evidently hopeless to expect a favourable change in the weather for some hours at least, and to attempt any longer to maintain the boat's position, in the face of an increasing gale, was to expose her and those in her to imminent risk of destruction; he therefore decided to watch his opportunity and seize the first favourable moment for bearing up and running before it.
Bob and his fellow apprentices, together with Lance and Rex, were soon summoned, and preparations made for bearing up. It was an anxious moment, for should the boat be caught broadside-on by a breaking sea she would to a dead certainty be turned bottom-up, when nothing could save her occupants.
Captain Staunton stood at the tiller, intently watching the onward rush of the mountainous seas as they came swooping down with upreared threatening crests upon the launch. Presently, as the boat fell off a trifle from the wind and the main-sail filled, he gave the order to "let draw the jib-sheet." The weather sheet was let go and the lee one hauled in like lightning, and the boat began to forge ahead. A sea came swooping down upon the little craft, but it was not a dangerous one; the skipper sent the boat manfully at it, and with a wild bound she rose over the crest and plunged into the liquid valley beyond. The next sea was a much more formidable one, but by luffing the boat just in the nick of time she went through and over it, with no worse consequences than the shipping of a dozen or so buckets of water, a mishap to which they were by this time growing quite accustomed, and then there occurred a very decided "smooth."
"Brail up the main-sail, boys," shouted the skipper cheerily, and in a second it was done; the helm was put up, the boat's head fell off, and away she went with a rush, broadside-on to the sea. With a sickening heave she rose into the air as the next sea lifted her, and this time too a little water came on board, but nothing to speak of; and by the time the next wave caught her, her quarter was fairly turned to it, and she was rushing away before the wind. The fore-sail was then set and the main-sail stowed, and everybody sat down to watch the result.
The change was certainly for the better; for though a sea still occasionally broke on board it did so with less violence than before, and most of it now flowed off the deck and overboard again, instead of falling into the body of the boat as before.
As soon as the fore-sail was set, Captain Staunton steered for the pinnace, with the intention of ordering her also to bear up, as well as to inquire whether they had seen either of the other boats.
Suddenly, Bob, who was watching the little speck in the distance which showed against the horizon when both launch and pinnace happened to be on the summit of a wave together, caught sight for a single instant of what appeared to him to be an attempt at a signal made on board the latter.
"Hillo!" he exclaimed, "What's wrong with the pinnace? They're waving to us, sir."
"Indeed!" said the skipper in a tone of concern. "Are you sure, Bob? Here, take the tiller for a moment and let me have a look. Keep her dead before it."
"Ay, ay, sir," responded Bob, as he changed places with his superior; the latter going forward and steadying himself by the fore-mast as he watched for the reappearance of the pinnace.
Presently he caught sight of her, and caught sight too, most unmistakably, of a flag—or something doing duty therefor—being very energetically waved on board.
"You are right, Bob," he sharply exclaimed, "they are signalling us. I fervently hope there is nothing wrong with them. Starboard a little; there, steady so. Keep her at that as long as you can, and only run her off when it is absolutely necessary in order to avoid a breaking sea."
In about twenty minutes the launch had reached the pinnace. As the two boats closed, it was seen that all hands on board her were busy baling; and she appeared to be low in the water. When the launch was near enough for a hail to be heard, Mr Bowles stood up and, placing his two hands together at his mouth, so as to form an impromptu speaking trumpet, shouted—
"Can you make room for us on board the launch, Captain Staunton? We are stove and sinking."
"Ay, ay," responded the skipper. "We'll round-to and come alongside."
He then sprang aft to the tiller, which he seized, shouting at the same time, "To your stations, lads! In with the fore-sail, smartly now."
The sail was speedily taken in; the close-reefed main-sail was set; and the moment that the sheet was hauled aft the helm was jammed hard down and the boat brought to the wind, without wasting a moment to watch for a favourable opportunity. The launch was flying swiftly away from the pinnace, and the latter was sinking; there was therefore no time for watching for opportunities; by the frantic way in which Mr Bowles resumed his task of baling the instant that he had communicated his momentous tidings Captain Staunton saw that the danger on board the pinnace was imminent; and the boat was at once rounded-to, shipping in the operation a sea which half-filled her.
"Man the buckets, every man of you," shouted the skipper as the launch, now close-hauled, began slowly to forge ahead in the direction of the devoted pinnace. The seas broke heavily against the bows of the boat as they swept furiously down upon her; but Bob and his comrades baled like madmen, while the skipper handled the little craft like the consummate seaman he was; and between them all, they managed to keep her above water.
"Drop your bucket, Bob, and stand by to heave them a line," presently shouted the captain. Bob sprang forward, and seized the end of the long painter which was neatly coiled-up and stopped with a ropeyarn or two. Whipping open his knife he quickly severed the stops, and was just arranging the coil in his hand when Captain Staunton cried sharply—
"Heave with a will, Bob. There she goes!"
Bob glanced at the pinnace, now some twenty feet distant, just in time to see a heavy sea break fairly on board the water-logged boat and literally bury her. There was a wild cry from her occupants, as they felt the boat sinking under them, and in another instant they were left struggling for their lives in the furious sea.
Bob hove the line with all his strength, and with unerring aim into the midst of the little crowd of drowning human beings, and then called for assistance. Some of them he saw had seized it; and he at once began to haul in. The other apprentices with Lance and Rex sprang to his aid, and presently hauled on board Brook and one of the seamen.
By this time the launch had crept up to the spot where the pinnace had disappeared; and by reaching out their hands those on board were able to seize and drag inboard three more of the drowning men.
Mr Bowles' body, however, was seen floating face downwards some five- and-twenty feet away; and, close to it, Mr Forester Dale struggling desperately, and uttering wild screams which were every moment changed to choking sobs as the pitiless sea broke relentlessly over his head.
It was Bob who first caught sight of these two; and without an instant's pause or hesitation he sprang headlong from the launch's gunwale, and with a few powerful strokes reached the struggler. Mr Dale promptly flung both arms and legs round his would-be deliverer, clasping Bob like a vice, and pinioning him so completely that he was unable to move hand or foot. The result was that both instantly sank beneath the surface. Poor Bob thought for a second or two that his last hour was come; and there, in the depths of that wildly-raging sea, he lifted up his whole heart to God in a momentary but earnest prayer for mercy and forgiveness. Doubtless that swift prayer was heard, for as it flashed from his heart he felt his companion's grip relaxing, and in another instant he had wrenched himself free and was striking strongly upward, with one hand firmly grasping Mr Forester Dale by the collar of his coat.
Bob rose to the surface within a few feet of Mr Bowles' still floating body; and with a violent effort he soon succeeded in reaching it, knowing that, encumbered as he was, he would have to trust the launch to come to him, he could never reach her. As he seized his staunch friend and superior officer by the hair and twisted him over on his back he heard a wild cheer, instantly followed by a cheery shout of "Look out for the line, Bob!"
As the sound reached him the rope came flying over him, striking him sharply in the face. He seized it with his teeth; and then heard the skipper's voice say—
"Haul in handsomely now, and take care you don't jerk; he has gripped it with his teeth."
A very few seconds afterwards, which, however appeared an age to Bob, and he found himself floating alongside the launch, where he was speedily relieved of his two inanimate charges, and finally dragged on board himself, half-drowned, with about ten feet of water in his hold as he expressed it, but full of pluck as ever.
The first business claiming attention was of course that of endeavouring to restore consciousness to the inanimate bodies of Mr Dale and the chief mate; and this was at length achieved. Mr Dale was the first to come round; and as soon as he was so far recovered as to be able to speak he was stowed away in the men's sleeping berth forward, and made as comfortable as circumstances would permit. He lay there, warmly wrapped up, bemoaning for a time his hard fate in ever having come to sea, but at length the spirits which had been liberally poured down his throat took effect, and he dropped off to sleep.
Mr Bowles' case was somewhat more serious, he having received a violent blow on the head from some of the floating wreckage, just after the foundering of the pinnace. The blow had inflicted a long scalp-wound from which the blood flowed freely; and when he at length revived he seemed quite dazed and light-headed, so that it was impossible to get a coherent reply to any of the questions put to him. He too was at last stowed away forward; and Bob, who was somewhat exhausted by his exertions in the water, and scarcely fit for other work, was detailed to watch by and attend to the two invalids.
The launch had in the meantime been once more got before the wind, and was again flying to leeward under jib and fore-sail, the mountain-seas pursuing her and necessitating the utmost watchfulness on the part of the helmsman to prevent her from being broached-to.
As soon as the two invalids had been satisfactorily disposed of, the order for breakfast was given; and after a vast amount of trouble the meal, consisting of biscuits, fried rashers of bacon, and hot coffee, was served. The company were indebted to the efforts of Rex and Lance for the cooking; they having taken counsel together and come to the conclusion that after a night of such great discomfort it was absolutely necessary that the females at least should be served with a good substantial hot meal; and they had accordingly joined forces in the preparation of the same, Lance seating himself coolly in the bottom of the boat, with the water washing all round him, and balancing the cooking apparatus carefully on his knees while Rex knelt before him enacting the part of chief cook.
This meal, unromantic as it may sound to say so, was inexpressibly comforting to those weak women and poor little May, all of them having passed a wretched sleepless night, cooped up in the close confined covered-in space in the stern of the launch, which, for want of a more appropriate name has been termed a cabin, with the water in the bottom of the boat surging up round them and wetting them to the skin as the boat tossed on the angry surges, while the continuous breaking of the seas on board filled their souls with dread that the boat could not possibly outlive the gale much longer.
When all hands were fairly settled down to the discussion of breakfast, Captain Staunton turned to the carpenter, who had established himself close beside the skipper, and said—
"Now, Chips, let us hear how the mishap came about whereby you lost the pinnace this morning;—but, before you answer me that question, tell me do you know anything about the other boats?"
"Well, sir," responded Chips, "I can't say as I do, rightly. But when day broke this mornin' an' we first missed 'em, Mister Bowles, he jumped up and took a good look round, and the first thing he made out were the launch away to wind'ard, hove-to. Then he had another good look all round, and presently I see him put his hand up to his eyes and stand looking away down to leeward. 'Do you see anythink, sir?' says I. And he says—still with his hand up shadin' his eyes—'I don't know, Chips,' says he, 'but I'm most certain,' says he, 'that one of them boats is thereaway,' pointin' with his finger away down to leeward. 'It's too dark and thick down there to see werry distinctly,' he says, 'but every now and then I keeps fancyin' I can see a small dark spot like a boat's sail showin' up in the middle of the haze,' says he. And I don't doubt, sir," continued Chips, "but what he did see one of them boats; Mr Bowles has a eye, as we all knows, sir, what ain't very often deceived."
"In which case," remarks the skipper, thinking aloud rather than addressing the carpenter, "there can be no doubt that the officer in charge, finding it impossible to face the gale any longer in safety, bore up like ourselves, only a little earlier. And if one of the boats did so, why not the other? And why should they not both be safely scudding before it at this moment, some ten miles or so ahead of us?"
"Very true, sir; I don't doubt but it's just as you say, sir," responded the carpenter, who was in some uncertainty as to whether he was expected to reply to the skipper's remark or not.
"We will hope so at all events, Chips," cheerily returned the skipper. "And now tell me how you managed to get the pinnace stove?"
"Well, sir, the fact is, it were just the doin' of that miserable creatur, Mister Dale. Our water were gettin' low; and yesterday Mr Bowles ups and puts us on 'lowance—a pint a day for each man. Well, I s'pose it weren't enough for this here Mister Dale; he got thirsty durin' the night, and made his way to the water-breakers to get a drink on the quiet. And he was that sly over it that nobody noticed him. Hows'ever, like the lubber he is—axing your pardon humbly, sir, for speakin' disrespectable of one of your passengers, sir—he lets the dipper slip in between the breakers; and in tryin' to get it out again he managed to cast off the lashin's; two of the breakers struck adrift; and before we could do anything with 'em they had started three of the planks, makin' the boat leak that bad that, as you saw yourself, sir, it were all we could do to keep her above water until you reached us."
Captain Staunton made no comment upon this communication, though it is probable that he thought all the more. The loss of the pinnace was, particularly at this juncture, a most serious misfortune. For at the very time when, in consequence of the bad weather with which she had to contend, it was of the utmost importance that the launch should be in the best possible trim, she was suddenly encumbered with the additional weight of seven extra men, which, with the twelve persons previously on board, raised her complement to nineteen, and caused her to be inconveniently crowded. Then these additional seven men had to be fed out of the rapidly diminishing stores belonging to the launch, for not an ounce of anything had been saved from the pinnace. This rendered it imperatively necessary that all hands should at once be put upon a very short allowance of food and water; a hardship trying enough to the men of the party, but doubly so to the women and poor little May. However, no one murmured or offered the slightest objection to the arrangement, when at mid-day Captain Staunton explained the state of affairs and laid before the party his proposal. Except Mr Dale. That individual, on hearing the proposition, promptly crawled out of his snug shelter, and hastened to remind the skipper that he, the speaker, was an invalid; that his health, already undermined by the privations and exposure which he had been lately called upon to suffer, had been completely broken up, and his nervous system shattered by his recent immersion; that what might be perfectly right and proper treatment for people in a state of robust health—as everybody in the boat, excepting himself, appeared to be—would be followed by the most disastrous consequences if applied to himself; and that, finally, he begged to remind Captain Staunton that he had duly paid his passage-money, and, ill or well, should expect to be fully supplied with everything necessary for his comfort. Captain Staunton looked at the objector for some moments in dead silence, being positively stricken dumb with amazement. Then in accents of the bitterest scorn he burst out with—
"You despicable wretch! Is it actually possible, sir, that you have no sense whatever of shame?—that you are so full of selfishness that there is no room in you for any other feeling? Are you forgetful of the fact, Mr Dale, that it is to your greed and clumsiness we are indebted for the greatly increased hardships of our situation? But for you, sir, the pinnace would probably have been still afloat; yet you are the one who presumes to murmur at the privations of which you are the direct cause. I wish to Heaven I had never seen your face; you positively make me feel ashamed of my sex and of my species."
"That's all very well," sneeringly retorted this contemptible creature, "but I didn't come to sea to be bullied by you, so I shall withdraw from your exceedingly objectionable neighbourhood; and if ever we reach England I'll make you smart for your barbarous treatment of me, my good fellow."
Saying which, he slunk away back in no very dignified fashion to the most comfortable spot he could find in the bows of the boat, and rolled himself snugly up once more in the shawls and blankets which the women had eagerly given up for his benefit when he was first fished out of the water.
All that day the launch continued to scud before the gale; getting pooped so often that it was the work of two men to keep her free of water.
Toward evening Mr Bowles came aft, reporting himself "all ataunto" once more, and ready to resume duty. He still looked pale and haggard, but was as keen and determined as ever; and he demurred so vehemently to Captain Staunton's suggestion that he would be all the better for a whole night between the blankets that the skipper was at last compelled to give in, which he did with—it must be confessed—a feeling of the greatest relief that he now had so trusty a coadjutor to share the watches with him; for since the springing up of the gale the poor fellow had scarcely closed his eyes.
The night shut down "as dark as a wolf's mouth,"—to use the skipper's own metaphor; and the chief mate took the first watch, with Bob on the look-out.
It must have been somewhere about six bells, or 11 p.m., when the latter was startled by seeing the crest of the sea ahead of him breaking in a cloud of phosphoric foam over some object directly in line with the launch's bow.
"Keep her away, sir!" he yelled. "Starboard, for your life, starboard hard!"
Up went the boat's helm in an instant; and as she dragged heavily on the steep incline of the wave which had just swept under her, Bob saw floating close past a large mass of tangled wreckage, consisting of a ship's lower-mast with the heel of the topmast still in its place, and yards, stays, shrouds, braces, etcetera, attached. Dark as was the night there was no difficulty whatever in identifying the character of the wreckage, for it floated in a regular swirl of lambent greenish phosphorescent light.
"Stand by with the boat-hook, there forward," shouted Mr Bowles, "and see if you can get hold of a rope's-end. If you can, we will anchor to the wreck; and we shall ride to leeward of it as snug as if we were in the London Dock—almost."
As he spoke, he skilfully luffed the boat up under the lee of the mass; and Bob, with a vigorous sweep or two of the boat-hook, managed to fish up the standing part of the main brace with the block still attached. Through this block he rove the end of the launch's painter, and belayed it on board, thus causing her to ride to the wreckage by a sort of slip- line. The other apprentices meanwhile lost no time in taking in and stowing the canvas; and in a few minutes the launch was riding at her floating anchor in perfect safety and in comparative comfort; still tossing wildly, it is true, but no longer shipping a drop of water excepting the spray which blew over her from the seas as they broke on the wreckage.
Toward noon on the following day the gale broke; and by sunset it had moderated to a strong breeze. On that evening they were blessed with a glimpse of the sun once more, for just before the moment of his setting the canopy of cloud which had hung overhead for so long broke up, leaving great gaps through which the blue sky could be seen, and revealing the glorious luminary upon the verge of the western horizon, surrounded by a magnificent framework of jagged and tattered clouds, the larger masses of which were of a dull purplish hue, with blotches of crimson here and there, and with edges of the purest gold; while the smaller fragments streamed athwart the sky, lavishly painted with the richest tints of the rainbow.
They hung on to the wreckage all that night, the wind being still against them; and the next morning Lance, suspecting that there might be a few fish congregated about the mass of broken spars, as is frequently the case, roused out the lines and managed to hook over a dozen gaudily marked and curiously shaped fish of decent size, the whole of which were devoured with the greatest gusto that day at dinner, notwithstanding the rather repulsive aspect which some of them presented.
That night the wind, which had dwindled away to a gentle breeze, changed, and blew once more from the westward; and the sea having also gone down to a great extent, our adventurers cast off from the wreckage which had so opportunely provided them with a shelter from the fury of the gale, and with whole canvas and flowing sheets stood away once more on a north-easterly course.
In addition to the delay which the gale had occasioned them, Captain Staunton estimated that they had been driven fully five hundred miles directly out of their course; after a very careful inspection therefore of their stock of provisions the skipper was reluctantly compelled to order a further reduction in the daily allowance of food and water served out.
And now the sufferings of those on board the launch commenced in grim earnest. The women, especially, as might be expected, soon began to feel their privations acutely. Buffeted as they had been by the gale, they were completely exhausted, and needed rest and an abundance of nourishing food rather than to be placed on short commons. They bore their privations, however, with a quiet fortitude which ought to have silenced in shame the querulous complaints and murmurings of Mr Dale; though it did not. The most distressing part of it all was to hear poor little May Staunton piteously crying for water, "'cause I'm so veddy thirsty mama," as the dear child explained. She was not old enough to understand the possibility of a state of things wherein food and drink were scarcities; and her reproachful looks at her father when he was obliged to refuse her request almost broke his heart. Not, it must be understood, that she was limited to the same quantity of water as the others. The men—always excepting Mr Dale—preferred to suffer in a heightened degree the fiery torture of thirst themselves, rather than to see the child suffer; and they quietly arranged among themselves to contribute each as much as he felt he could possibly spare of the now precious liquid, as it was daily served out to them, and to store it up in a bottle which was to be May's exclusive property. And the same in the matter of food. It was wholly in vain that the child's father protested against this sacrifice; they were one and all firm as adamant upon this point; and he, poor man, notwithstanding his anxiety that all should be treated with equal fairness, could not contest their determination with any great strength of will. Was she not his own and only child, for whom he would cheerfully have laid down his life; and how could he urge with any strength a point which would have resulted in a dreadful deprivation and a terrible increase of suffering to the winning and helpless little creature? Therefore he at last contented himself with pouring the whole of his daily allowance of water into May's bottle, and cheerfully submitted for her innocent sake to endure the tortures of the damned.
Reader, have you ever experienced the torment of thirst while exposed in an open boat to the blazing rays of the pitiless sun? You have not? Then thank God for it, and earnestly pray that you never may; for none can realise or even faintly imagine the intensity of the suffering but those who have borne it.
The women, from whom it was of course impossible to conceal the circumstance that May was receiving more than her own share of food and water, were anxious to follow the example of their male companions by also setting apart a portion of their own allowance for the use of the child, but this was at once decidedly vetoed; yet they were not so easily to be deterred from their generous disposition, and many a sip and many a morsel which could ill be spared did the poor little child receive from their sympathetic and loving hands.
"After the storm comes the calm," says the proverb, and its truth was fully borne out in the present instance.
On the fourth day after casting off from the wreckage the wind began to drop, and by sunset it had fallen so light that the launch had barely steerage-way. This was still another misfortune, for if the calm continued it would seriously delay their progress and thereby protract their sufferings. Next to a gale of wind, indeed, a calm and its consequent delay was what they had most to dread, for they were in a part of the ocean little frequented by craft of any description, except a stray whaler now and then, and their only reasonable hope of salvation rested upon the possibility of their being able to reach land before starvation and thirst overcame them.
Mr Bowles had the first watch, and Bob was posted at the now all but useless helm. The wind had subsided until it was faint as the breath of a sleeping infant, and the boat's sails flapped gently against the masts as she rode with a scarcely perceptible swinging motion over the long stately slow-moving swell which followed her. The vast blue-black dome of the heavens above was devoid of the faintest trace of cloud, and the countless stars which spangled the immeasurable vault beamed down upon the tiny waif with a soft and mellow splendour which was repeated in the dark bosom of the scarcely ruffled ocean, where the reflected starbeams mingled, far down in its mysterious depths, with occasional faint gleams and flashes of pale greenish phosphorescent light. The thin golden crescent of the young moon hung low down in the velvety darkness of the western sky, and a long thin thread of amber radiance streamed from the horizon beneath her toward the boat, becoming more and more wavering and broken up as it neared her, until within some twenty fathoms of the launch it dwindled away to a mere occasional fluttering gleam. A great and solemn silence prevailed, upon which such slight sounds as the flap of the sails, the pattering of the reef-points, the creak of the rudder, or the stir of some uneasy sleeper broke with almost painful distinctness.
Mr Bowles drew out his watch, and holding it close to his face, discovered that it was a few minutes past midnight. For the previous half-hour he had been sitting on the deck near Bob, with his legs dangling into the little cockpit abaft the stern-sheets, and staring in an abstracted fashion astern. As he replaced the watch in his pocket he glanced once more in that direction, but now his look suddenly grew intense and eager. For a full minute he remained thus, then he withdrew from its beckets beneath the seat a long and powerful telescope, which he adjusted and levelled. For another full minute he gazed anxiously through the tube, and then, handing it to Bob to hold, he crept silently forward, so as not to disturb the sleeping women, and quietly called the relief watch.
"Well, Mr Bowles," said the captain, as he rose to his feet, "what weather have you had? Is there any wind at all?"
"Very little, sir," answered the chief mate, replying to the last question first; "just a cat's-paw from the west'ard bow and then, but nothing worth speaking about; and it's been the same all through the watch. I want you to take a squint through the glass before I turn-in, sir, and to tell me whether I've been dreaming with my eyes open or no."
"Why, what is it, Bowles? Do you think you've seen anything?"
"Well, yes, I do, sir," answered the mate, "but it's so very indistinct in this starlight that I don't care to trust to my own eyes alone."
Without another word the pair moved aft, and when they were fairly settled in the cockpit Mr Bowles took the glass from Bob and put it into the skipper's hand. He then looked intently astern for perhaps half a minute, when he laid his hand on the skipper's arm and said—
"D'ye see them two stars, sir, about a couple of hand's breadths to the south'ard of the moon? They're about six degrees above the horizon, and the lower one is the southernmost of the two; it has a reddish gleam almost like a ship's port light."
"Yes," replied the skipper, "I see them. You mean those, do you not?" pointing to them.
"Ay, ay, sir; them's the two. Now look at the horizon, just half-way between 'em, and tell me if you can see anything."
The skipper looked long and steadfastly in the desired direction, and at length raised the telescope to his eye.
"By Jove, Bowles, I believe you are right," he at length exclaimed eagerly. "There certainly is a something away there on the horizon, but it is so small and indistinct that I cannot clearly make it out. Do you think it is either of the other boats?"
"No, sir, I don't," answered Bowles. "If it's anything it's a ship's royals. If 'twas one of the boats, she'd be within some five miles of us for us to be able to see her at all, and at that distance her sail would show out sharp and distinct through the glass. This shows, as you say, so indistinctly that it must be much more than that distance away, and therefore I say that if it's anything it's a ship's royals."
The skipper took another long steady look through the telescope, and then closing it sharply, said—
"There is undoubtedly something astern of us, Bowles, and under the circumstances I think we shall be fully justified in hauling our wind for an hour or two in order to satisfy ourselves as to what it really is."
Mr Bowles fully concurred in this opinion, and the boat was accordingly at once brought to the wind, what little there was of it, on the starboard tack, which brought the object about two points on her weather bow.
"If it is indeed a ship, Bowles," observed Captain Staunton when the boat's course had been changed and the mate was preparing to "go below," as he phrased it, "we have dropped in for a rare piece of luck, for, to tell you the plain truth, I had no hope whatever of falling in with a craft of any description about here. She will be a whaler, of course, but she is a long way north of the usual fishing-grounds, isn't she?"
"Well," returned Bowles meditatively, "you can never tell where you may fall in with one of them chaps. They follows the fish, you see; sometimes here, sometimes there; just where they think they'll have the best chance. Then, I have heard say that sometimes, if they happen to hit upon a particularly likely spot, such as a small uninhabited island, where there's a chance of good sport, they'll put a boat's crew ashore there with boat, harpoons, lines, a stock of provisions, and two or three hundred empty barrels, just to try their luck, like, for a month or so, and go away on a cruise, coming back for 'em in due time, and often finding 'em with every barrel full. Perhaps yon craft is up to something of that sort."
"It may be so," returned Captain Staunton. "Indeed in all probability it is so if our eyes have not deceived us. At all events, whatever she is, we are pretty sure of a hearty welcome, and even a not over clean whaler will be a welcome change for all hands, and especially for the ladies, from this boat, particularly now that the provisions are getting low. And I have no doubt I shall be able to make arrangements with the captain to carry us to Valparaiso with as little delay as possible."
"Ay, ay," returned Bowles, "I don't expect there'll be much trouble about that. I only hope we shall be able to get alongside her. I wouldn't stand on too long on this tack if I was you, sir. My opinion is that she's coming this way, and if so we ought to tack in good time so as not to let her slip past us to windward or across our bows. Good- night, sir!"
The night being so fine, and with so little wind, Captain Staunton took the tiller himself, and ordered the rest of the watch to lie down again; there was nothing to do, he said, and if he required their assistance he would call them. Accordingly, in a very short time, he was the only waking individual in the launch, the others were only too glad of the opportunity to forget, as far as possible, their miseries in sleep.
It is, of course, scarcely necessary to say that the skipper, as he sat there keeping his lonely watch, fixed his gaze, with scarcely a moment's intermission, on that part of the horizon where the mysterious object had been seen. He allowed a full hour to pass, and then drawing out the glass, applied it to his eye, sweeping the horizon carefully from dead ahead round to windward. He had not to seek far, for when the tube of the telescope pointed to within about three points of the starboard bow a small dark blot swept into the field of view. Yes, there it was, quite unmistakably this time, and a single moment's observation of it satisfied the anxious watcher that he saw before him the royals and topgallant-sails of a vessel apparently of no very great size.
The fact that the stranger's topgallant-sails had risen above the horizon within the hour since he had last looked at her was conclusive proof to his mind that the craft was standing toward them; that, in fact, they were approaching each other, though at a very low rate of speed, in consequence of the exceedingly light air of wind that was blowing. Fully satisfied upon this point he at once put the boat's helm down, and she came slowly and heavily about, the captain easily working the sheets himself.
By four bells Captain Staunton was able to discern with the naked eye the shadowy patch of darkness which the stranger's canvas made on the dusky line of the horizon, and when he called Mr Bowles at eight bells, or four o'clock in the morning, the patch had become darker, larger, and more clearly defined, and it lay about one point before the weather beam of the launch. The telescope was once more called into requisition, and it now showed not only the royals and topgallant-sails, but also the topsails of the stranger fairly above the horizon.
"Thank God for that welcome sight!" exclaimed the chief mate, laying down the telescope and reverently lifting his hat from his head. He remained silent a minute or two, and then raising his eyes, allowed his glance to travel all round the horizon and overhead until he had swept the entire expanse of the star-spangled heavens. Then, with a sigh of intense relief, he said—
"We're all right, I do verily believe, sir. There's the craft, plain as mud in a wine-glass, bearing right down upon us, or very nearly so. We've only to stand on as we're going and we shall cross her track. There's very little wind, it's true, but the trifle that there is is drawing us together; we're nearing each other every minute, and there's no sign of any change of weather, unless it may happen to be that the present light air will die away altogether with sunrise. I fancy I know what you're thinking of sir; you're half inclined to say, 'Out oars, and let's get alongside her as soon as possible.' And that's just what I should say if there was any sign of a breeze springing up, but there ain't; she can't run away from us, and therefore what I say is this: the launch is a heavy boat, and we're all hands of us as weak as cats; she's about six miles off now, and it would knock us all up to pull even that short distance, whereas if we go on as we are we shall drop alongside without any trouble by eight bells, or maybe a trifle earlier; and if the wind should die away altogether, it'll be time enough then to see what we can do with the oars."
"That's exactly the way I have been arguing with myself ever since you called me, Bowles," returned the skipper. "It is true that we are all suffering horribly from thirst, and in that way every moment is of value to us; but on the other hand, everybody except our two selves is now asleep and oblivious, for the time being, of their sufferings: let them sleep on, say I; the toil of tugging at heavy oars, and the excitement of knowing that a sail is at hand would only increase tenfold their sufferings, without helping us forward a very great deal; so I think, with you, that we had better let things remain as they are for another hour or two; we can rouse all hands at any moment, should it seem desirable to do so. Now, if you will take the tiller, I will just stretch myself out on the planks here, close at hand; I could not sleep now if the whole world were offered me to do so."
Saying which, the skipper suited the action to the word; he and the mate continuing their chat, but carefully pitching their voices in so low a tone that the ladies, close at hand, should not be disturbed in their slumbers.
By and by the sky began to pale in the eastern quarter; the stars quietly twinkled out, one by one; a bright rosy flush appeared, and then up rolled the glorious sun above the horizon.
The wind, light all night, had been imperceptibly dying away; and when the sun rose his bright beams flashed upon a sea whose surface was smooth as oil. The launch lost way altogether, and refused any longer to answer her helm.
As for the stranger, there she was, just hull-down; her snowy canvas gleaming in the brilliant morning sunshine, and so clearly defined that every rippling fold in the sails was distinctly visible as they flapped against the mast to the lazy roll of the vessel over the long sleepy swell.
"Now," said Captain Staunton, "we'll rouse the steward, make him prepare and serve out a first-rate breakfast to all hands; and then 'Hey! for a pull to the ship.'"
This was accordingly done. The breakfast was prepared, no great matter of a meal was it after all, though the last scrap of provisions and the last drop of water went in its composition; and when it was ready the cramped and hungry voyagers were roused with the good news that a sail was in sight, and the meal placed before them.
Frugal as it was, it was a sumptuous banquet compared with their late fare; and the poor famished creatures devoured it ravenously, feeling, when it was finished, that they could have disposed of thrice as much. Perhaps it was just as well that there was no more; in their condition a moderately full meal even would have proved injurious to them if administered without great caution; but while there was not sufficient to provoke hurtful results there was just enough to put new life into them, and to temporarily endow them with vigour and strength enough for an hour or two's toil at the oars.
The meal over, the oars were eagerly manned; and the men dividing themselves into two gangs, and working in short spells of a quarter of an hour each, the launch was headed straight for the stranger, which having now lost steerage-way had swung broadside-on, and showed herself to be a small brig.
"I tell you what it is, Bowles," said the captain as he sat at the tiller steering during one of his spells of rest from the oars, "we are a great deal further to the westward than I imagined we were. We must be not very far from the outlying islands of that vast archipelago which spreads itself over so many hundreds of leagues of the South Pacific. That fellow is no whaler; look at his canvas, no smoke stains from the try-works there: he is a sandal-wood trader, or is after beche-de-mer. I am very glad it is so; it will be much more pleasant for the ladies; and if she is a Yankee, as a good many of these little traders are, the skipper will probably be glad enough to earn a few dollars by running us all across to the mainland."
"To my mind," remarked Bowles, "the craft looks rather too trim and neat aloft for a trader. And look at the hoist of her topsails; don't you think there is a man-o'-war-ish appearance about the cut and set of them sails, sir?"
"She certainly does look rather taunt in her spars for a merchantman," returned Captain Staunton. "We shall soon see what she really is, however; for she will be hull-up in another five minutes; and in another half-hour we shall be on board her. Ah! they have made us out; there go her colours. Take the glass, and see what you can make of them, Bowles."
The chief mate took the telescope and levelled it at the brig, taking a long and steady look at her.
"A ten-gun brig, by the look of her," he presently remarked, with the telescope still at his eye. "Anyhow, her bulwarks are pierced; and I can see the muzzles of five bull-dogs grinning through her starboard port-holes. That's the stars and stripes hanging at her peak, as far as I can make out; but it's drooping so dead that I can see nothing but a mingling of red and white, with a small patch of blue next the halliard- block. She's a pretty-looking little thing enough, and her skipper's a thorough seaman, whoever he is. Ay, she's a man-o'-war sure enough—Up go the courses and down comes the jib, all at once, man-o'-war fashion. And there's clue up royals and t'gallan's'ls—to prevent 'em from beating themselves to pieces against the spars and rigging, that is, for all the canvas she could set wouldn't give her steerage-way, much less cause her to run away from us. She hasn't a pennant aloft, though—wonder how that is? And the hands on board seem to be a rum- looking lot of chaps as ever I set eyes on; no more like man-o'-war's men than we are—not a single jersey or man-o'-war collar among 'em; nor nothing like a uniform aft there. I s'pose they're economical, and want to save their regular rig for harbour service."