The first mad fury of the outburst lasted for about three-quarters of an hour,—it seemed a perfect eternity to us, in our condition of overpowering suspense, but I do not believe it was longer than three- quarters of an hour at the utmost,—and then it subsided into a heavy gale of wind, and the sea began to get up so rapidly that within another hour we were being flung hither and thither with such terrific violence that in a very short time our bodies were covered with bruises, while some of the men actually became sea-sick! And now, too, a new danger threatened us; for as the sea rose it commenced to break, and it was not long ere we had the seas washing, in rapidly increasing volume, over the boat, and pouring down through the opening over the stern-sheets. This kept us baling in good earnest, not only with our solitary bucket but with hats and boots as well, to save the boat from being swamped. And the bitterest hardship of it all was that there was no relief, not a moment's intermission throughout the whole of that dreadful, interminable night. We were in continuous peril of death with every breath that we drew; every second saw us trembling upon the verge of eternity, and escaping destruction as by a constantly recurring succession of miracles. It was a frightful experience, so frightful that language is utterly powerless to describe it; the most eloquent pen could do no more than convey a poor, feeble, and miserably inadequate idea of the terror and suffering of it. No one who has not undergone such an experience can form the remotest conception of its horrors.
All things mundane have an end, however, sooner or later; and at length the welcome light of day once more made its appearance, piercing slowly and with seeming reluctance through the dense canopy of black, storm- torn cloud and flying scud that overhung us. And then we almost wished that it had remained night, so dreary and awe-inspiring was the scene that met our aching gaze. The heavens gave no sign of relenting, the sky looked wild as ever,—although the awful ruddy glow had long since faded out from the clouds,—while the ocean seemed to be lashed and goaded by the furious wind into an endless succession of rushing mountain waves, every one of which, as it swept with hissing, foam-white crest down upon us, seemed mercilessly bent upon our destruction. As I stood up and gazed about me,—for I could do so now, by leaning well forward against the wind,—it seemed a marvellous thing to me that the gig continued to live through it; for, light and buoyant though she was, every sea she met swept her from stem to stern; and it was plain enough to us all now that it was nothing but the canvas covering that saved her. As it was, we shipped so much water that it was as much as three of us could do—that being all who could work in the opening at one time—to keep her from filling. To add still further to our misery, we were one and all by this time dead tired, worn out, in fact, with the terror and anxiety of the past night; yet we dared not yet attempt to seek the comfort and refreshment of sleep, for our critical situation continued to demand our utmost watchfulness and our unremitting exertions; and when at length we sought to renew our strength by means of a meal, the grievous discovery was made that the whole of our small stock of ship's bread was spoiled and rendered uneatable by the salt water. And, as though this misfortune was not in itself sufficiently serious, when we sought to quench our thirst we discovered that the bung of the water-breaker had somehow got out of the bung-hole, allowing so much salt water to mingle with our small stock of fresh that the latter had been rendered almost undrinkable.
Our first gleam of hope and encouragement came to us about half an hour before noon that day, when our anxious watching was rewarded by the appearance of a small, momentary break in the sky, low down toward the horizon to windward; it showed but for a moment, and then was lost again. But presently a wider and more pronounced break appeared which did not vanish; on the contrary, it widened, until presently a fitful gleam of wan and watery sunshine pierced through it and lighted up the bleak, desolate expanse of raging ocean for a few seconds. And almost simultaneously with the welcome appearance of this transient but welcome gleam of pallid sunshine, we became aware of a slight but unmistakable diminution in the fury of the gale; a change productive of such profound relief to us, worn out as we all were by long-protracted toil and anxiety, that we actually greeted it with a feeble cheer! Nor was the hope thus aroused fallacious; for from this moment the sky began to clear, until within a couple of hours the storm-clouds had all swept away to leeward, leaving the sky a clear, pure blue, streaked here and there, it is true, with a tattered, trailing streamer of pinky grey, that, however, soon vanished; and once more we revelled in the glorious warmth and radiance of the unclouded sunlight, while the wind dropped so rapidly that, but for the sea, which still ran with dangerous weight, we might have made sail again by sunset. As it was, we were all so completely worn out that I think we were really thankful for an excuse to leave the boat riding to her sea anchor a few hours longer, while we sought and obtained what was even more necessary to us than food and drink—sleep.
All actual danger was by this time past, so we arranged that each of us should keep a look out for an hour while the rest slept, there being sufficient of us to carry us through the night at this rate; and I undertook to keep the first look out. That hour was, I think, the longest sixty minutes I had ever up to then experienced; for, now that constant watchfulness was no longer necessary to insure our safety, the incentive to watchfulness was gone, and overtaxed nature craved so vehemently for repose that the effort, to remain awake was absolutely painful. I continued, however, to perform the task that I had undertaken, and, when my hour had expired, flung myself down in the stern-sheets, where I instantly sank into a profound and dreamless sleep, having first, of course, aroused young Lindsay, and cautioned him to maintain a bright lookout for passing ships—a caution which I gave orders should be passed on from man to man throughout the night.
When I awoke I found that I had maintained all through the night the precise attitude in which I had flung myself down to sleep some hours before; it appeared to me that I had not stirred by so much as a hair's- breadth all through those hours of unconsciousness. I awoke spontaneously, with the light of the sun shining strongly through my still closed eyelids. The first thing after that of which I became conscious was that the boat was rising and falling easily with a long, steady, swinging motion; then I opened my eyes, and immediately noticed that the sun was some two hours high. A very soft, warm, gentle breeze fanned my cheek, and the only audible sounds were the snores and snorts of many sleepers near me, mingling with the gentle lap of water along the boat's planking. All hands save myself were sound asleep! I was not greatly surprised at this, though naturally a trifle vexed that my orders as to the maintenance of a lookout had not been more strictly observed. But it was not until I had risen to my feet and flung an inquiring glance round the horizon that I realised how miserably unfortunate this negligence had been. For there, away in the western board, distant some fourteen miles, gleamed the sails of a large ship; and a more intent scrutiny revealed the tantalising circumstance that she was steering such a course as had undoubtedly carried her past us about an hour before daybreak at a distance of little more than three miles; and, had a proper watch been maintained, we could have intercepted and boarded her without difficulty. Whether she happened to be a friend or an enemy was a matter of very secondary import just then, in our miserable plight as regarded our stock of provisions and water; our situation was such that even to have fallen into the hands of the enemy would have been better than to be left as we were.
I at once roused all hands, and we forthwith went to work to cut adrift the sails that had served us so well, and to bend them afresh to the yards; while the others hauled aboard our sea anchor, cut its lashings adrift, and took to the oars with the object of going in pursuit of the distant sail. For there was yet a chance for us. If we could keep her in sight long enough there was just a possibility that some one or another of her crew, working aloft, might cast a glance astern and catch sight of our tiny sail, when he would at once recognise it as that of a boat, and report it; when, if the skipper happened to be a humane man, he would assuredly heave-to and wait for us to close. So we all went to work with a will, and soon had the boat all ataunto once more, and in pursuit of the stranger as fast as oars and sails together could put her through the water. But the experience of the first hour sufficed to demonstrate beyond all question the hopelessness of our attempt to overtake the ship; she was leaving us rapidly, and unless someone aloft happened to sight us, our prospects of rescue, so far as she was concerned, were not worth a moment's consideration. The men, partially restored by their night's sound sleep, toiled like tigers at the oars, in their anxiety to prolong the chance of our being sighted to the latest possible moment, frequently relieving each other. But it was all of no avail; strive as they would, the stranger steadily increased her distance from us until, after we had been in pursuit of her for fully three hours, the heads of her royals sank below the western horizon, and we lost her for good and all. Then the men sullenly laid in their oars, declaring that they were worn out and could do no more. Then they began to savagely inquire among themselves who was the individual to whose culpable carelessness we were all indebted for our present disappointment. The culprit was soon discovered in the person of a little Welshman—the man whose watch followed Lindsay's. This man declared that he had remained awake throughout his watch, and had duly called his successor before resuming his slumbers. But there was some reason to doubt this statement; and even if it happened to be true, he was still culpable, according to his own showing, for he was obliged to confess that he had not waited to assure himself that his successor was properly awakened, but had satisfied himself with a single shake of the sleeper's shoulder, accompanied by the curt announcement that it was time to turn out, and had then flung himself down and gone to sleep. As for the man whom the Welshman was supposed to have awakened, he disclaimed all responsibility upon the ground that, if called at all— which he did not believe—he had been called so ineffectively as to be quite unconscious of the circumstance. At the conclusion of the inquiry, his comrades were so furiously incensed with the Welshman for his culpable—almost criminal—neglect, that they seemed strongly disposed to take summary vengeance upon him; and it needed the exertion of all my authority to protect the fellow from their violence, which broke out anew when at noon we went to dinner, and were compelled to make out the best meal we could upon raw salt beef washed down with water so brackish that we could scarcely swallow it. Reduced to such a condition as this, it will scarcely be wondered at that I should be brought to something very nearly approaching despair when my observations that day revealed the disconcerting fact that, thanks to our excessive drift during the gale, we were still fully six hundred miles from our port of destination—a distance which we scarce dared to hope might be covered, even under the most favourable circumstances, in less than five days.
But it soon appeared as though even this protracted period of privation and exposure was to be increased, for, as the afternoon wore on, the wind, still continuing to drop, grew so light that our speed dwindled down to a bare three knots by the hour of sunset; and by midnight it had still further fallen to such an extent that our sails became useless to us, and the oars had once more to be resorted to.
The return of daylight found us in the midst of a stark calm, under a cloudless sky, out of which the sun soon began to dart his scorching beams so pitilessly that the task of pulling shortly became a labour little less than torture to people in our exhausted condition; indeed, so severe did the men find it, that, after persevering until about four bells in the afternoon watch, they gave it up, declaring themselves to be quite incapable of further exertion. And thus, for the remainder of the day, we lay motionless upon that oil-smooth sea, under the blistering rays of the burning sun, with our tongues cleaving to our palates as we began to experience the first fierce torments of unquenchable thirst. For our supply of water—all but undrinkable as it was—was growing so short that it became imperatively necessary to husband it with the most jealous care, and to reduce our allowance to the very smallest quantity upon which life could possibly be sustained. The men sought to forget their sufferings in sleep, disposing themselves in the bottom of the boat, under the shelter of the now useless sails; but I was far too anxious to be able to sleep, for I began to realise that our boat voyage threatened to develop into an adventure that might easily terminate in a ghastly tragedy.
Half an hour before sunset I called the men, and we went to supper; and with the going down of the sun the oars were once more thrown out, and we resumed our weary voyage, all hands of us being equally anxious to avail ourselves to the utmost of the comparatively cool hours of darkness, to shorten, as much as possible, the distance that still intervened between us and deliverance. All through the hot and breathless night we toiled, in an unspeakable agony of thirst, and when morning once more dawned out of a brilliant and cloudless sky, my companions presented so wild and haggard an appearance, with their cheeks sunken with famine and their eyes ablaze with the fever of thirst and starvation, that they were scarcely recognisable. Half an hour after sunrise we partook of our loathsome breakfast of putrid meat and nauseous water, and then composed ourselves to sleep—if we could— through the long hours of the blazing day, maintaining, however, a one- man hourly watch, in order that we might be duly warned of any change in the weather.
And, late that afternoon, a change came—a change of so welcome a character that I believe I may, without exaggeration, say it saved our lives. For, about noon, when I was aroused by the man on watch to get the meridian altitude of the sun for the determination of the latitude, I observed a bank of purple-grey clouds gathering in the south-western quarter, their rounded edges as sharply denned as though they had been cut out of paper. There was no mistaking their character; they portended a thunderstorm. And a thunderstorm we had about four o'clock that afternoon, of truly tropical violence. There was not a breath of wind with it, but it brought us a perfect deluge of rain,—thrice- welcome and blessed rain,—pouring from the overcharged clouds in sheets of warm water, soft and sweet as nectar. We let not a drop escape us that it was possible to save; we saw that it was coming, and prepared for it by spreading the sails across the boat, and caught the welcome stream in the depressions that we had arranged for its reception, drinking out of the hollowed canvas until we could drink no more. Then, as the rain still continued to fall, we did a desperate deed; we threw away every drop of our drinking water, in the hope of being able to refill our breakers with the sweet, fresh rain-water. And we were successful. God in His infinite mercy allowed the floodgates of heaven to remain open until we had filled every available receptacle at our disposal; and then the rain ceased, the storm drifted away to the north- eastward, and the sun disappeared below the horizon in a blaze of cloudless splendour.
But our sufferings were not yet over; for now that the hellish torments of thirst were assuaged, the pangs of hunger assailed us with redoubled fury, hourly growing in intensity, until sometime during the night— while Lindsay and I were asleep, and the boat was in charge of one of the men—they became so utterly unendurable that, in a fit of madness, the famished crew fell upon the slender remainder of our stock of eatables, devouring the whole at one fell swoop, except Lindsay's and my own portion, which, despite their famished condition, they loyally set aside for us!
Another day of breathless calm; another twelve hours of scorching heat under the rays of the pitiless sun; and then, with nightfall, the men once more threw out their oars and resumed the heart-breaking task of shortening by a few miles the still formidable stretch of ocean that lay between us and safety. But nothing that we could say would induce a single one of them to accept ever so small a share of the provisions that they had apportioned as the share belonging to Lindsay and myself; they declared that their last meal had so far satisfied and reinvigorated them, that they were no longer hungry, while one or two of them spoke hopefully of the possibility that they might catch a fish or two on the morrow.
It was somewhere about ten o'clock that night that we detected the first symptoms of another change in the weather, the first subtle indication that the long period of calm which had so nearly destroyed us was about to end. And, best of all, the indication was of such a character as permitted us to indulge the hope that, although the calm was about to give way to a breeze, we were likely to be favoured with weather fine enough to permit of our pursuing our voyage under the most favourable conditions. This symptom of approaching change merely consisted in the gathering in the heavens of a thin veil of mottled, fine-weather cloud, just dense enough to obscure most of the lesser stars and render the night rather dark, while a few of the brighter stars peeped through the openings between the clouds at tolerably frequent intervals, permitting us to steer our course without having recourse to the lantern or compass. The prospect of a coming breeze seemed to cheer the men and endow them with renewed vigour, for they gave way with something like a will, while they occasionally went so far as to exchange a muttered ejaculation of encouragement one with another.
It happened to be my trick at the yoke-lines until midnight, I having relieved young Lindsay at four bells. I was sitting in the stern- sheets, with my eyes intently fixed upon a particularly bright star that gleamed out through the clouds at frequent intervals right over the boat's nose, at an altitude of about thirty degrees above the horizon, and which I had consequently selected as a suitable guide to steer by.
It is a curious fact, well-known to sailors, that an object can be better seen on a dark night at sea by looking at the sky slightly above or to one side of it, rather than directly at it; hence it was that, as I kept my eye intently fixed upon the star immediately ahead, I suddenly became aware of the presence of a small, dark object some three points on our starboard bow. I immediately looked straight at it, but could then see nothing; whereupon I looked into the sky rather above the point where I knew it to be, when I again caught sight of it. To make quite sure, I sheered the boat some four points off her course, when it became quite distinct, although only as a small, black, shapeless shadow against the dark sky immediately ahead.
I held up my hand warningly to the men, and at the same moment gave the order, "Oars!"
The men, somewhat wonderingly, instantly obeyed, staring hard at me inquiringly, while two or three who were lying down in the bottom of the boat, trying unavailingly to sleep, raised themselves upon their elbows, as though to ascertain what was the matter.
"Lads," said I, in low, cautious tones, "not a sound, for your lives! There is a small craft of some sort out there becalmed, and it is my intention to run her alongside. But we cannot of course tell whether she is a friend or an enemy, so I think it will be well for us to get alongside without attracting the attention of her crew, if we can manage it. If she proves to be a friend, well and good; but if she is an enemy, we must take her at all costs; for we are in a starving condition, as you are all aware, while we are still five days distant from Bermuda, and I do not believe we could possibly live to reach the island without provisions. So muffle your oars as well as you can; have your cutlasses ready; and I will put you alongside. H-u-s-h! not a sound! That craft is a good three miles away, but sounds travel far on such a night as this, and we must not allow the crew of her to discover that we are in their neighbourhood. Now muffle your oars, and we will soon find out who and what she is."
Without a moment's hesitation, the men forthwith proceeded to muffle their oars with portions of their clothing; and in another five minutes we were heading for the small, dark blot. When we had been pulling silently for about a quarter of an hour, a small, thin sound came creeping across the water to us, that within another five minutes had resolved itself into the strains of the Marseillaise played upon an accordion and sung by a fairly good tenor voice, to which several others were almost instantly added. That was sufficient; the craft, whatever else she might be, was assuredly French, and we were relieved of the anxiety of approaching a vessel uncertain as to whether she was friend or foe. The song was sung through to the end with great enthusiasm, and then, after a slight pause, another song was started, also French, so far as could be made out. It was cut short, however, before a dozen bars had been reached, by a hoarse, gruff voice loudly demanding, in clear, unmistakable French, "what, in the name of all the saints, the singer meant by arousing all hands at that hour of the night with his miserable braying?" This rendered assurance doubly sure, and we proceeded with increased caution—if that were possible—laying in all but a single pair of oars, with the double object of resting the men as much as possible prior to the attack, and at the same time approaching our quarry slowly enough to allow her crew to coil away about the decks, and go to sleep again if they would.
Paddling slowly and with the utmost circumspection, taking care that the oars entered and left the water without the slightest splash, we were a full hour and more traversing the distance that separated us from the stranger; but long ere we reached her we had made her out to be a schooner of somewhere about one hundred and forty tons, and by her taunt spars, as well as by the fact of her being where she was,—nicely in the track of our homeward-bound West Indiamen,—I judged her to be a privateer. When first discovered she must have been lying nearly broadside-on to us, but the swing of the swell gradually slewed her, as we stealthily approached, until she presented her stern fairly at us, affording us an admirable opportunity to get alongside her undetected. And this we did, gliding up under her starboard quarter and alongside, and actually climbing in on deck over her low bulwarks before the alarm was raised. Then, from the neighbourhood of the wheel, there suddenly arose a muttered execration in French, followed by a sharp inquiry in the same language of, "Who goes there?"
"British," I answered, in the inquirer's own lingo. "Surrender, or we will drive every man of you overboard!"
"The British! ah, sac-r-r-re! Yes, monsieur, oh yes, we surrender," gurgled the man, as I seized him by the throat and threatened him with my cutlass, while Lindsay led the hands forward to the forecastle. There were a few drowsily muttered ejaculations in that direction, quickly succeeded by a volley of execrations, a scuffling of feet, the slamming of the hatch over the fore-scuttle, and Lindsay sang out that the schooner was ours. Even as he did so, two figures in rather scanty clothing, rushed up on deck through the companion; and before I could fully realise what was happening, one of them snapped his pistol at me, while the other aimed a blow at my head with a sword. Fortunately the bullet missed me, finding its billet in the body of the man whose throat I still grasped, while I managed to catch the blow of the other fellow on my own blade; and in a moment we were at it "hammer and tongs"—that is to say, the swordsman and myself, the other fellow making a dash at me now and then, aiming fierce blows at me with the butt-end of his pistol, until, in self-defence, I seized my opportunity and cleft his skull with my cutlass at the same instant that I launched out with my left hand and sent his companion reeling to the deck with a blow planted fairly between the eyes.
At this moment young Lindsay came rushing aft, with half a dozen of our fellows at his heels, to know what was the matter; so, bidding a couple of the men to securely bind the prisoners, I descended the companion ladder, with Lindsay at my heels, to see whether there were any more Frenchmen to be fought. There were not, however; the close, stuffy little cabin was empty; so we went on deck again, and, leaving two men to keep watch and ward at the after end of the ship, went forward, where I personally superintended the operation of effectually securing the crew, who we afterwards passed down into the hold. The cook, however, we left free, and, being ravenously hungry, gave him orders to at once light the galley fire and cook us the best meal the ship could afford, all hands taking the keen edge off our appetites, meanwhile, by munching some excellent biscuits that Lindsay discovered snugly stored away in the pantry. Our next care was to hoist in the gig that had served us so well; and, this done, we settled down to wait for our dinner and the breeze that promised to come ere long.
WE PROCEED IN SEARCH OF THE ALTHEA'S BOATS.
He wind came away about an hour and a half before sunrise, a gentle breeze out from the north-east, coming down to us first of all in the form of a few wandering cats'-paws, that just wrinkled the oil-smooth surface of the ocean and were gone again, and finally settling into a true breeze that fanned us along at a speed of some four knots, the schooner proving to be a fairly speedy little vessel.
Long ere this, however, I had carefully thought out a line of action for myself, in order that when the wind came I might be prepared for it. It will be remembered that before parting company with the launch I had been furnished by the master with a table showing the relative speeds of the various boats, and from that moment I had, with the assistance of the table, carefully calculated the supposed position of each boat at noon; so that I now knew, to within a few miles, where any particular boat ought to be looked for, upon the assumption that all had gone well with them. And somehow I thought it had; I was very strongly impressed with the belief that the gale which we had encountered had not extended far enough to the south-east to reach the launch and the rest of the squadron. Flowers it might have overtaken, but my observations upon the bearings of the centre of the storm and its direction led me to entertain a very strong hope that the rest of the boats had escaped. This being so, I determined to act upon the assumption that they had done so, and to proceed in search of them in the direction where they ought, upon that assumption, to be found. Of course, with their different rates of sailing, they would now be strung out in a fairly long line; and the question that exercised me most strongly was whether I should first seek the leading boat, and, having found her, dodge about in waiting for the others, or whether I should first seek the dinghy, and, having found her, run down the wind in the track of the others. The direction from which the wind might happen to spring up would necessarily influence my decision to a great extent; but when it came away out from the north-east, and I discovered that the schooner could fetch, upon an easy bowline, the spot where the sternmost boat might be expected to be found, I hesitated no longer, but at once made up my mind to first look for the dinghy.
As the morning wore on the breeze freshened somewhat, and the schooner's speed increased to fully seven knots. I employed the early part of the forenoon in satisfying myself that the prisoners were properly secured,—taking the precaution to have them all put in irons, as, in the exhausted condition of my own crew, I could not afford to run any unnecessary risks,—and as soon as I had eased my mind of that anxiety, I personally investigated the condition of the schooner's storeroom. To my great joy I discovered that we possessed an ample supply of provisions and water, together with a liberal quantity of wines, spirits, and other luxuries—enough of everything, in fact, to maintain the whole of the survivors of the Althea upon full allowance for at least a month. The schooner, moreover,—she proved to be the Susanne, privateer, of Saint Malo,—was nearly new, a stout, substantially built little craft of one hundred and thirty-four tons register, as tight as a bottle, well found, and armed with six long six-pounders in her batteries, with a long nine-pounder mounted on a pivot on her forecastle, and her magazine nearly full.
Nothing of any importance happened, either on that day or the next, except that the sky gradually became overspread with those peculiar patches of fleece-like clouds called "trade-clouds"—showing that at length we had hit off the north-east trade winds that seemed to have been evading us for so long. According to my reckoning, and upon the assumption that the wind would now hold fairly steady, we ought to hit off the track of the boats about six bells in the morning watch, on the third morning after the capture of the schooner, which would allow us some eleven hours of daylight in which to prosecute our search; and, to give ourselves the best possible chance of finding the objects of our quest, I took care, on the preceding midnight, to haul the schooner as close to the wind as she would lie, so that there should be no possibility of hitting upon their track to leeward instead of to windward of them, and so running away from instead of after them. And at six bells on that morning I was called, in accordance with previous instructions, in order that I might work up the reckoning to the very last moment, and so make certain of getting as accurately as possible upon the track. My calculations now showed that it would be nearly eight bells instead of six before we should reach the imaginary line for which we were making; and at a quarter to eight—having previously sent a hand aloft to take a careful look round—I gave the order to up helm and bear away upon a west-south-west course, and to pack the studding-sails upon the little hooker. The men—thanks to good feeding and all the rest I could give them consistent with the maintenance of proper discipline—had by this time completely recovered from the effects of our boat voyage, and were one and all as keen as needles on the lookout for the boats from the moment that we squared away, the watch, all but the helmsman, taking to the rigging—without any orders from me—immediately that they had finished breakfast, and disposing themselves upon the royal and topgallant yards in their eagerness to catch the earliest possible glimpse of their shipmates. I calculated that at about five bells in the forenoon watch we ought to overtake the dinghy,—the slowest boat in the fleet,—and as that moment drew near our anxiety reached a most painful pitch, the men on the yards straining their eyes to the utmost as they peered intently into the distance from right ahead to broad on either beam, carefully and slowly scanning the horizon for the little blot of gleaming canvas that should proclaim the success of our quest. But the fateful moment came and went, leaving the horizon a blank. Noon arrived, and I secured an excellent observation for my latitude, by means of which I was enabled to check my previous dead reckoning, which tallied to within less than a mile of what it ought to be; and still there was no sign of the missing boat, although my calculations showed that we had overrun by some fifteen miles the spot where we expected to find her. I hailed the yards, inquiring whether there was any possibility of our having run past the dinghy without observing her; but the men assured me that they had maintained so bright a lookout that had she been anywhere within the boundaries of our horizon they would assuredly have seen her.
This was rather disconcerting, yet I felt that I had no real cause for disappointment; the boats might have met with rather fresher winds than I had estimated for, in which case the likelihood was that they were still many miles ahead of us. My calculations had been based upon the supposition that they had been evenly maintaining the same rate of speed from the moment when we parted with them, and I knew that this was in the last degree improbable. Yet it was the only basis I had upon which to make my calculations; for it was impossible for me to judge by the weather which we had ourselves experienced. Of one thing I felt tolerably well convinced, which was that, keeping so much farther to the southward than we had done in the gig, the other boats would not have met with the calms that had so seriously delayed us; and that consequently—unless they too had been caught in the hurricane that had so nearly proved our destruction—they must be somewhere directly ahead of us as we were then steering. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to keep all on as we were until we found them.
In this condition of anxiety and suspense we continued to run away to the west-south-west until sunset, without sighting anything; and then, fearful of running past one or more of the objects of our quest during the night-time without seeing them, I hove the schooner to under foresail and jib, with the topsail aback, so that we might remain as nearly as possible where we were—excepting for our lee drift—all through the night. I also caused three lanterns to be hoisted, one over the other, from our maintopmast stay, as a fairly conspicuous signal, pretty certain to attract attention in the event of either of the boats coming within sight of us during the hours of darkness, and of course gave the strictest injunctions for the maintenance of a bright lookout all through the night.
The night passed uneventfully, and at daybreak, after having first gone aloft and personally but unavailingly examined the horizon and the entire visible expanse of the ocean through the ship's telescope,—an excellent instrument, by the way,—we made sail again upon the schooner, and resumed our search.
Shortly after breakfast I secured an observation for my longitude, and, having worked out my calculations, found that, if the boats were still afloat, and had continued to steer the course which I had been told they would, we must certainly find them that day. As on the preceding day, the men spent their watch upon the yards, maintaining so keen a lookout that even I, anxious as I was, felt satisfied they would allow nothing to escape them. Yet the day passed, and evening arrived without the discovery of any sign of the missing boats; while my anxiety grew more painfully intense with the lapse of every hour of daylight. And when at length the night closed down upon us, and the stars came winking mistily out from between the driving clouds, the conviction came to me that something had gone lamentably wrong, and that to continue the search any further in the direction that we had been pursuing would be useless.
The question was: What had happened? I could think of but two possible explanations of our failure to find the boats; one of which was that they had been fallen in with and been picked up by a passing ship, while the other was that they had experienced bad weather, which had driven them out of their course. If the first explanation happened to be the correct one, well and good—our missing comrades were safe; but if the second explanation was to account for our non-success, in what direction ought we to continue our search? The question was a very difficult one to answer with any approach to accuracy, but an approximation to the truth might be arrived at. I reasoned thus: The boats were undoubtedly within the limits of the trade wind when we parted with them, and the only disturbing influence that they would be likely to meet with in that region would be that of the hurricane that we had encountered. Reasoning thus, I went below and produced a chart of the North Atlantic,—it was a French one, reckoning its longitude from the meridian of Paris; but that difficulty was to be easily overcome,—and upon it I forthwith proceeded to prick off, as accurately as the data in my possession would permit, first, the spot where we had parted company with the other boats; secondly, our own course and distance up to the moment when the hurricane struck us; and thirdly, the supposititious course and distance of each of the boats up to the moment when the hurricane would probably strike them. The observations I had personally made as to the bearing and course of the centre of the storm had originally led me to the conclusion that the other boats had probably escaped it altogether; and now, as I went over the matter afresh, I could not persuade myself that they had encountered anything worse than a mere fringe of it, a breeze strong enough perhaps to compel them to run before it for a few hours, but nothing more. Assuming, then, this to be the case, I calculated as nearly as I could the probable direction of the wind when the gale struck them, and the number of hours during which they would be likely to be compelled to run before it, pricking off upon the chart their probable whereabouts at the moment when they would be likely to find themselves once more able to head for, say, Saint Thomas or Saint Kitts. From this point I laid off a course for the former island, and then calculated their probable position on that line at the moment, compared this with the position then occupied by the schooner, and thus arrived at the new direction in which I ought to seek for them. Having reached thus far, I went on deck, set the new course, and then, with Lindsay's assistance, went over all my calculations again, verifying every figure of them.
Luckily for our anxiety, the trade wind was now blowing so fresh that, on an easy bowline as we were, a whole mainsail, foresail, and topsail, with royal and topgallant sails stowed, was as much as we could stagger under, the little witch dancing along at a good, clean eleven knots under this canvas; the consequence being that in thirty-eight hours from the moment of bearing up we had reached the spot where I intended that my new search for the missing boats should begin.
This time, however, I intended to adopt a course of procedure exactly opposite to that which I had followed while prosecuting my former search. Then, I had gone to windward of the spot when I expected to find the boats, and had run down to leeward along the course which I thought it probable they had taken; but now my uncertainty as to their precise position necessitated a search over a belt of ocean several miles in width. I therefore determined to get well to leeward of the spot where my calculations indicated that I ought to find them, and from there work to windward on an easy bowline, making stretches of some twenty-six miles in length. I had already ascertained the height of our royal yard above the sea-level, and from that had calculated that a lookout stationed at that elevation would command a circular area having a radius of thirteen miles. If, therefore, I made stretches across a circle of twenty-six miles' diameter, I should practically command a belt of ocean of fifty-two miles in width; and this I deemed sufficient for my purpose.
Accordingly, having reached our cruising-ground at two bells in the forenoon watch, and having one hand on the royal yard as a lookout, with two more on the topsail yard by way of additional precaution, we made our first reach of thirteen miles in a south-easterly direction. Then, nothing being in sight, we tacked and stood to the northward for twenty- six miles. Still nothing in sight; so we hove about again, and this time reached to the southward and eastward for a distance of twenty-six miles, continuing our search thus throughout the entire day, without success. At sunset we hove about again, and, reaching to the northward, until we had arrived at the track which the boats, if still afloat, would probably pass over, we hove-to for the night, hoisting three lanterns, as before, to attract their attention should they happen to arrive within sight of us during the hours of darkness. It was some relief to us that the night was tolerably clear, with a fair sprinkling of stars and a moon well advanced in her first quarter; so that, during the first half of the night, we had a very fair amount of light.
I did not keep the lookout men aloft at night, deeming it useless, as the light, although—as I have said—fairly good, was not bright enough to reveal a small object like a boat at a greater distance than some two or three miles, and up to that distance it was possible to see really better from the level of the deck than from the more lofty elevation of the yards; but I had three men continuously on the lookout at the same time, namely, one on the jib-boom end, and one each to port and starboard in the waist. We were hove-to on the starboard tack. Needless to say, that although we had these three men thus stationed for the express purpose of keeping a lookout and doing nothing else, Lindsay and I also kept our eyes well skinned, going even to the length of blinding the skylight with an old sail in order that our eyes might not be dazzled by even the dim light of the cabin lamp.
It happened to be my eight hours in that night, and I had taken advantage of the circumstance to turn in early, for the anxiety attending upon this dishearteningly fruitless search was beginning to tell upon me, and I had suffered for the last night or two from an inability to sleep. On this particular occasion, however, I felt somewhat drowsy, and therefore went to my bunk in the hope of getting two or three hours' rest; and, as a matter of fact, I did sleep, but my rest was so disturbed by frightful dreams of men enduring unheard-of suffering in open boats, that at length, awaking in a paroxysm of horror, I turned out and went on deck, to find that it was seven bells, and that under any circumstances I should have been called in another half-hour.
The moon was within a very short time of setting when I reached the deck, and I stood watching her half-disc creeping insensibly nearer and nearer to the horizon, lighting up the sky that way with a soft, mysterious, brownish-green light, and casting a long, tremulous wake of ruddy gold athwart the tops of the running surges. Lindsay was standing beside me, yawning the top of his head nearly off, poor lad; for although he too was anxious as to the fate of those who we were seeking, his anxiety had not, thus far, interfered with his rest, and his watch was now so nearly up that he was quite ready for the four hours' sleep that awaited him.
I was in the very act of telling him that, as I should not go below again, he might turn in if he chose,—my eyes being all the while fixed upon the setting moon,—when suddenly, almost immediately under the luminary, I caught a momentary glimpse of a small black object—small as a pin-head—as it were hove-up on the back of a sea against the luminous sky. Stopping short in what I was saying, I sprang to the rail, and from thence into the main rigging, half a dozen ratlines of which I ascended in order to gain a horizon clear of the run of the nearer seas. From this elevation I again looked out, instinctively shading my eyes under my hand, and in another moment I had again caught sight of the object, and not only so, but had also detected an intermittent flashing, as of the moonlight off the wet blades of oars.
"A boat! a boat!" I shouted, in the fulness of my delight. "Hurrah, lads! we have one of them at last! Let draw the jib-sheet! Fill the topsail! Up helm there, my man, and let her go broad off!"
As I rapidly issued these orders I swung myself out of the rigging, and, running to the binnacle, took the bearing of the moon, allowing half a point to the northward of her as the course to steer for the boat.
"Where is the gunner?" I shouted; "pass the word for Mr Robbins!"
"Here I am, sir," answered Robbins—for my words had thrilled through the little craft like an electric shock, and already the watch below were scrambling up through the hatchway, carrying their clothing in their hands, in their eagerness to get a glimpse of the newly discovered boat.
"Mr Robbins," said I, "have the goodness to clap a blank cartridge into one of the guns, and fire it as an encouragement to those poor fellows out there; they will guess, by our firing, that we have seen them."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Robbins, shambling away with alacrity upon his errand; and a few minutes later one of our guns rang out what I hoped would prove a thrice-welcome message to our shipmates. Somehow I never for a moment doubted that it was one of the frigate's boats that I had seen; I felt as sure of it as though we had her already alongside, although of course I could form no sort of surmise as to which of them it would prove to be.
It took us but a very few minutes to run down to the boat, when, judging our distance, we rounded-to and laid the topsail aback, so close to windward of the little craft that one of our people was able to heave a rope's-end into her, and we hauled her alongside. Then, to our supreme disappointment, we discovered that it was not either of the boats that we were looking for, but the long-boat of a merchantman, with eleven people in her, all of whom were in a very wasted and exhausted condition, partly from famine and partly from wounds, most of them being swathed about the head or limbs with bloodstained bandages.
Concealing our disappointment as well as we could, we helped the poor creatures up over the side,—discovering, during the process, that the rescued party were our fellow-countrymen,—and then, having removed everything from the boat that promised to prove of the slightest value, we cast her adrift, having no room on our decks for her. Meanwhile, the unhappy strangers, being too weak to stand, had sunk down upon the deck, pointing to their parched throats and feebly gasping the word "water"; in response to which appeal some of our own people had gone to work, under my supervision, to supply them cautiously with small quantities of water slightly dashed with brandy. This treatment had a wonderfully stimulative and revivifying effect upon them, so much so, indeed, that they managed to stagger to their feet and earnestly beg for food. This, of course, we supplied them with forthwith, in the form of ship's bread broken small and softened by steeping in weak brandy and water. I gave them this pending the preparation of a more substantial and appetising meal by the cook; and it was perhaps well that circumstances obliged me to do so, for I afterwards learned that the administration of a solid, substantial meal to people in their famished condition would probably have had fatal results. Having satisfied to some small extent their first ravenous craving for food and drink, we got them below and provided them with such makeshift sleeping accommodation as the resources of the schooner would permit, that they might seek in sleep such further recuperation as was to be obtained, pending the production of the meal in preparation for them. Having thus disposed of the rescued men, nothing remained for us but to await, with such patience as we could muster, the return of daylight, to enable us to resume the search for the lost frigate's boats.
It was nearly noon next day ere any of the rescued party appeared on deck, the first to do so being a fine, sailorly-looking man of some forty or forty-five years of age, who introduced himself to me as "Captain" Tucker of the late British barque Wyvern, of Bristol, outward-bound to the West Indies with a general cargo of considerable value. He informed me that all had gone well with him until eight days previously, when, about noon, a strange sail was sighted in the south- western board, standing to the northward, close-hauled on the starboard tack.
"You may be sure," said Tucker, "that I kept a sharp eye upon her, for I knew that, for every honest merchantman that I happened to meet down here, I was likely to meet with a dozen rogues, in the shape of picaroons, privateers, or other craft of the enemy, or even our own men- o'-war—no offence meant to you in saying so, Mr Courtenay; but you know, sir, as well as I do, that some of our men-o'-war treat British merchantmen pretty nearly as bad as if they were enemies, boarding them and impressing all their best men, and leaving them with so few hands that if they happen to meet with bad weather it's ten chances to one of their being able to take their ship to her destination. Well, knowing this, I kept both eyes on the stranger, which I soon made out to be an uncommonly smart and heavy brigantine, that, close-hauled as she was, seemed to be travelling three feet to our one. She had a particularly wicked look about her that I didn't half like; and I liked it still less when, having drawn well up on our larboard beam, at a distance of some five miles, I suddenly discovered that she was edging away for us. We were already under stunsails, so I could do no more in the way of making sail; but we mounted eight brass nine-pounders,—very pretty pieces they were, too,—so I had them cleared away and loaded, in readiness for the worst; for I took her to be a French or Spanish privateer, and I had no notion of yielding my ship to any such vermin without making a fight for it; and my own lads were quite of the same mind as myself, not liking the idea of being locked up for years in a French or a Spanish prison.
"Well, sir, that brigantine came bowling along at such a pace that within half an hour of the time when I noticed her to be edging down for us she was within gun-shot; and no sooner was this the case than, yawing broad off for a moment, she pitched a shot—an eighteen-pounder I took it to be—across our fore-foot, as a polite hint to us to heave-to. But I wasn't in the humour for heaving-to just then, so I hoisted my ensign and kept all on as I was going.
"I expected that, seeing this, the brigantine would give us a sight of her bunting, and open fire upon us in good earnest; but she didn't do either. She just kept edging away, until in another five minutes she was broad on our larboard quarter, running the same way that we were, and creeping up with the evident intention of running us alongside. Seeing this, I ordered Mr Thomson, my mate, to ram an extra shot down upon the top of those we had already loaded our guns with, and to depress the muzzles, so that we could fire down upon the brigantine's low deck as she ranged up alongside. But I tell you, sir, that I didn't half like the look of things; for by this time the craft was so close to us that we saw down upon her decks quite distinctly, and she seemed to be full of men—swarthy, greasy, black-bearded cut-throats, every one of them, if looks went for anything. In another minute or so she was within biscuit-toss of us,—so close that we could hear the hissing shear of her sharp stem through the water, and the moan of the wind in the hollows of her canvas,—when up jumps a fellow upon her rail and hailed us in what I took to be Spanish,—it wasn't French, I know, because I can speak a little of that lingo,—at the same time pointing to his gaff-end, up to which another ruffian at once began to hoist a black flag.
"'So ho!' thinks I; 'so it's pirates we have to deal with, eh? Well, that means neck or nothing, so here goes!' And with that I sings out to the mate to throw open the ports—we'd kept them closed until now—and let the rascals have it hot. No sooner said than done. Thomson gave the word, the ports were thrown open, the nine-pounders run out, and the next second four of our shot went smashing through the brigantine's bulwarks, bowling over like ninepins every man that happened to be standing in their way. The man on the rail jumped down off his perch as nimbly as if he was scalded, and I heard him shout 'Car-r-r-r-amba!' or something like it, as he waved his hand to the man at the wheel. At the same moment the brigantine delivered her broadside, and before the smoke had time to clear away I heard and felt the crash of her as she dropped alongside us fair in the waist. The next second—so it seemed to me— our rail was alive with the dirty, garlic-smelling blackguards, who came swarming over upon our decks until it seemed that there was no room for more. Well, I had a pair of pistols and a sword, and each of our lads had his cutlass, and for three or four minutes there was as pretty a fight as you'd wish to see going on aboard the old Wyvern. Then, while I was doing my best to hold my own against four of the rascals who came crowding round me, I got a knock on the head from behind that made me see about a million stars before I dropped senseless to the deck."
WE FIND THE LAUNCH.
How long I remained unconscious I don't know, but it must have been at least half an hour, I should say; for when at length I came round I found myself lying, bound hand and foot, on the deck, along with such of my crew as had not been killed in the defence of the ship, while the Wyvern was hove-to under topsails, with her hatches off, and a regular mob of the dirty, greasy Spaniards swarming round the main hatchway and hoisting out the cargo that another gang was breaking out down below. They had hoisted out all our boats, too, I soon found, and were using them to transfer such goods as they required to the brigantine—all, that is to say, except the long-boat, which, for some reason that I did not then understand, was lying unused in the starboard gangway. They took their time over the job of picking and choosing from among the stuff that we carried, but I noticed that all the while they had a hand aloft on the main-royal yard keeping a lookout. They kept at it until it was too dark to see what they were about, and then they left us, one boat remaining alongside for fully twenty minutes after the rest had gone, while some of her people were busy down below. At length, however, they shoved off as well, leaving me and my people lying on the deck trussed up like so many chickens. Two or three minutes later I heard some orders given, immediately followed by the cheeping of blocks and the creaking of yard parralls, by which I knew that they were filling upon the brigantine and leaving us.
"I could not understand why they had left us all there, alive, but bound hand and foot as we were. I suspected some villainy, however, and my first idea was that they had set the barque on fire. But I could not detect any smell of burning, and then the thought came to me that perhaps they had scuttled her, intending us to go down with the ship. The idea of either fairly made my blood run cold, I can tell you; but it stirred me up too, and I went to work to see if I could work my hands free. I might just as well have tried to fly; the scoundrels had made sure work of me, and no mistake. Then I sang out to the others to try if they could work themselves adrift; and after a bit first one and then another answered that it was no use, they were lashed altogether too securely.
"'Well, lads,' says I, 'if none of us can work ourselves free, I'm afraid it's all up with us; for my notion is that those Spanish devils have scuttled the ship, and if so it won't be so very long before she'll founder, taking us with her.'
"That set the men muttering among themselves, and presently the man that was lying nearest me said—
"'If you can manage to work your way near enough to me, sir, for me to get a feel of your lashings with my fingers, I'll see what I can do towards loosenin' of 'em for yer.'
"'All right, my lad,' says I, 'I will!' No sooner said than done. I worked and wriggled myself up alongside of him somehow, and presently I felt his fingers fumbling about with my lashings. This particular chap, I ought to tell you, was uncommonly clever with his fingers, especially in the matter of handling rope; and sure enough, in about twenty minutes, I'm blessed if he hadn't worked those lashings so loose that I presently managed to slip my hands clear of 'em altogether. The moment that I was free I set to work to chafe my fingers and get the life back into them,—for they had lashed me so tight that I had lost all feeling in my hands,—and as soon as I was able to tell once more that I'd got a complete set of fingers, I whipped a knife out of my pocket and cut the lashings off my feet, after which I went the round of the party, cutting them adrift as quick as I could. Then, while they were getting the benumbed feeling out of their limbs, I swung myself down through the open hatchway to investigate. It was as I had feared; they had scuttled the ship, for already there was something like three feet of water in the hold. You may be sure I didn't waste much time down below after making that discovery; I just scrambled up on deck again as quick as ever I could, and told the men what had happened. The barque was bound to go, of course,—we could do nothing to keep her afloat,—so I jumped to the side to see after the boats. They were gone, all but the long- boat, which, as I told you just now, was lying in the starboard gangway. I crossed the deck to take a look at her, and then saw why the pirates had left her there unused; she was stove in on the starboard side, her planks being crushed and her timbers broken over a space measuring some six feet by two. As she was then she would not float two minutes; she would have filled the moment we dropped her into the water. But when Chips came to overhaul her he had a notion that he could patch her up enough to make her carry us. As a matter of fact, it rested between that and the whole lot of us drowning; for the barque was filling so fast that there was no time for us to put a raft together. So the carpenter fetched his tools and went to work there and then, the rest of us lending a hand and fetching things as Chips sung out for them. First of all, he gently coaxed the broken timbers and planking back into their places, as nearly as he could get them; then he got a couple of strips of canvas big enough to cover the hole, one of which he dressed with tallow on both sides, working the grease well into the fabric. Then, with small, flat-headed tacks, spaced close together, he nailed this first piece of canvas over the hole, allowing it plenty of overlap. Then he took the other piece of canvas,—which was cut an inch larger each way than the first piece,—tarred it well, and strained it tightly over the first piece. Then he cut a third piece of canvas, which he fixed over the hole on the inside of the boat, nailing the bottom and two ends of the canvas so that it formed a sort of pocket. Then he got a lot of oakum, which he first soaked in tar and then stuffed into this pocket arrangement until it was packed as tightly as it was possible to pack it. This was to keep the broken planks and timbers in place. And finally he nailed up the top of the pocket, declaring, as he flung down his tools, that the boat was now ready for hoisting out. And it was high time, too, for by the time that the job was finished the barque had settled to her chain-plates, and was liable to go down under our feet at any moment. Accordingly, we hooked on the tackles, and, watching the roll of the ship, managed to hoist out the boat and get her into the water without accident. Then we hurriedly pitched into her a couple of breakers of water and such provisions as we could lay our hands upon,— and that wasn't much, for by this time the cabin was all afloat and the lazarette under water,—and tumbled over the side into her, I only waiting long enough behind the others to secure the ship's papers and the chronometer. We shoved off in a hurry, I can tell you, for while I was securing those few matters that I've just mentioned the poor old hooker gave an ugly lurch or two that told me her time was up; and, sure enough, we hadn't pulled above fifty fathoms away from her when down she went, stern-first.
"Our first anxiety was, of course, as to the carpenter's repairing job; but we soon found that we needn't greatly trouble ourselves about that. There was just a draining of water that somehow worked its way through, but a few minutes' spell with the baler about once an hour was sufficient to keep the boat fairly dry and comfortable. All the same, I wasn't very keenly anxious for a long boat voyage in such a craft as that, so we shaped a course to the west'ard, hoping to fall in with and be picked up by an outward-bounder of some sort. But not a blessed sail did we see for seven mortal days, until we sighted your upper canvas last night, and pulled so as to cut you off. And if you hadn't picked us up, I believe we should all have been dead by this time, for our provisions soon ran out; and when it was too late, we discovered that both our breakers were full of salt instead of fresh water!"
Such was the tragic story related by the skipper of the ill-fated Wyvern, a story that was replete with every element necessary for the weaving of a thrilling romance; yet it was told baldly and concisely, without the slightest attempt at embellishment; told precisely as though to be attacked by pirates, to have one's ship rifled and scuttled, one's boats stolen, and then to be left, bound hand and foot on deck, to helplessly perish, were one of the most ordinary and commonplace incidents imaginable. Truly, they who go down to the sea in ships, and do business on the great waters, meet with so many extraordinary experiences, and see so many strange and unaccountable sights, that the capacity for wonder is soon lost, and the most astonishing and—to shore-abiding folk—incredible occurrences are accepted as a matter of course.
During the whole of that day we continued to make short tacks to windward as before, with half the watch aloft on the look out; but nothing was sighted, and at nightfall we again hove-to, maintaining our position as nearly as possible in the same spot until the next morning.
With the first sign of daylight I sent aloft the keenest-sighted man we had on board, that he might take a good look round ere we filled upon the schooner to resume our disheartening search. So eager was I, that when the man reached the royal yard, the stars were still blinking overhead and down in the western sky, and it was too dark to see to any great distance. But the dawn was paling the sky to windward, and as the cold, weird, mysterious pallor of the coming day spread upward, and warmed into pinkish grey, and from that into orange, and from orange to clearest primrose, dyeing the weltering undulations of the low-running sea with all the delicate, shifting tints of the opal, I saw the fellow aloft suddenly rise to his feet and stand upon the yard, with one arm round the masthead to steady himself against the quick, jerky plunges of the schooner, while he shielded his eyes with the other hand, as he steadfastly gazed into the distance to windward.
"Royal yard, there, do you see anything?" I hailed eagerly; and the sudden ecstasy of renewed hope which sprang up within my breast now fully revealed to me how nearly I had been driven to the confines of despair by the long-protracted non-success of the search upon which I had so confidently entered.
"I ain't quite sure, sir," was the unsatisfactory reply that came down to me; "it's still a trifle dusky away out there, but I thought just now that—ay, there it is again! There's something out there, sir, about six or seven mile away, but I can't yet tell for certain whether it's a boat or no; it's somewheres about the size of a boat, sir."
"Keep your eye on it," I answered. "I will get the glass and have a look for myself."
So saying, I went hastily to the companion, removed the ship's telescope from the beckets in which it hung there, and quickly made my way aloft.
"Now," said I, as I settled myself upon the yard, "where is the object?"
"D'ye see that long streak of light shootin' up into the sky from behind that bank of cloud, sir?" responded the man. "Well, it's about half a p'int, or maybe nearer a p'int, to the south'ard of that."
"Ah, I see it!" ejaculated I, as I caught sight for a moment of a small, scarcely distinguishable speck that appeared for an instant and then vanished again, apparently in the hollow between two waves. A few seconds later I caught it again, and presently I had it dancing unsteadily athwart the field of the instrument. But even then I was unable to definitely settle whether it was or was not a boat; as the man at my side had remarked, it looked like a boat, it was about the size of a boat, as seen nearly end-on, but there was no indication of life or movement about it; it seemed to be floating idly to the run of the seas. Just at this moment the sun's upper limb flashed into view over the edge of the cloud-bank, darting a long gleam of golden radiance athwart the heaving welter to the schooner, and I looked again, half expecting to catch the answering flash of wet oar-blades; but there was nothing of the kind to be seen. Undoubtedly, however, there was something out there,—something that might prove to be a boat,—and I determined to give it an overhaul without loss of time. So, carefully noting its bearing and distance, and cautioning the lookout not to lose sight of it for an instant, I descended to the deck and straightway gave the necessary orders for making sail and beating up to it.
The object being nearly dead to windward, it was a full hour before we reached it, but little more than half that time sufficed to satisfy us that it really was a boat, and a further quarter of an hour established the fact that it was none other than the Althea's launch; but my heart was full of foreboding as I observed that, although we fired gun after gun to attract attention, there was no answering sign of life to be discovered on board her, although from the moment when she became visible from the deck, either Lindsay or I kept the telescope constantly bearing upon her. Yet the depth at which she floated in the water showed that she was not empty. Lindsay suggested that her crew might have been taken out of her by some craft that had fallen in with her, and that the reason why she floated so deep was that she was half-full of water. But I could not agree with this view; there was a buoyancy of movement about her as she rose and fell upon the surges, which was convincing proof to my mind that she was loaded down with something much more stable than water.
At length, when we had drawn up to within a cable's length of her, the man on the royal yard sang out that there were people in her, but that they were all lying down in the bottom of the boat, and appeared to be dead.
"We shall have to pick her up ourselves," said I to Lindsay. "Let one hand stand by to drop into her from the fore chains with a rope's-end as we bring her alongside. Lay your topsail aback, Mr Lindsay, and let your jib-sheet flow, if you please."
And as I sprang up on the rail to con the schooner alongside, Lindsay gave the necessary orders.
With the topsail aback, and the mainsheet eased well off, the schooner went drifting slowly down toward the launch, that, as we now approached her, looked old, battered, and weather-stained almost out of recognition. We steered so as to shave past her close to windward, and as she came drifting in under our fore chains, the man who was waiting there with a rope's-end dropped neatly into her, and, springing lightly along the thwarts into the eyes of her, deftly made fast the rope to the iron ring bolt in her stem. Then he turned himself, and looked at the ghastly cargo that the boat carried, and as he gazed he whitened to the lips, and a look of unspeakable horror crept into his eyes as he involuntarily thrust out his hands as though to ward off the sight of some dreadful object. And well he might, for as I gazed down into that floating charnel-house I turned deadly sick and faint, as much at what met my sight as at the horrible odour that rose up out of her and filled my nostrils. The boat seemed to be full of dead, lying piled upon one another, as though they had been flung there; yet the first glance assured me that some of those who were on board her, on the night when I parted company in the gig, were now missing. The captain and the doctor were lying side by side in the stern-sheets; the rest of the ill-fated party were lying heaped one upon the other, or doubled up over the thwarts in the other part of the boat. The two masts were standing, but the sails were lowered and lay, unfurled, along the thwarts, on top of the oars and boathook. There was no trace of food of any kind to be seen, and the water-breakers were without bungs, and to all appearance empty.
So ghastly and repulsive was the sight which the boat presented, that our people hung in the wind for a moment or two when I ordered them to jump down into her and pass the bodies up over the side; but they rallied at once and followed me when I led the way. The skipper and the doctor were both lying upon their faces, and as I raised the former and turned him over, it is difficult to say which shocked me most, whether the startling ease with which I lifted his wasted body, or the sight of his withered, drawn, and shrunken features—which were so dreadfully altered that for a moment I was doubtful whether it really was or was not the body of Captain Harrison that I held in my arms. I passed him up out of the boat without difficulty, and then did the same with the doctor. It struck me that the latter was not quite dead, and I sang out to Lindsay to get some very weak brandy and water and moisten the lips of each man as he was passed up on deck; for if life still lingered in any of them, it might be possible to save them even now by judicious and careful treatment. Ten of our inanimate shipmates we singled out as possibly alive, but with the rest the indications of dissolution were so unmistakable that I deemed it best not to interfere with them, but to cover the bodies with a sail, weight it well down with ballast pigs, and then pull the plug out of the boat and cast her adrift, after reading the burial service over the poor relics of humanity that she contained.
That, however, was a duty that might be deferred until we had attended to those who had been passed up out of her as possibly alive; we therefore dropped her under the stern, and allowed her to tow at the full scope of a complete coil of line, while we devoted ourselves to the task of attempting to resuscitate the other ten. As I had suspected, the doctor proved to be alive, for after diligently painting his blue and shrivelled lips for about a quarter of an hour with a feather dipped in weak brandy and water, his eyelids quivered, a fluttering sigh passed his lips, followed by a feeble groan, and his eyes opened, fixing themselves upon Lindsay and myself in a glassy, unrecognising stare.
"Water! water, for the love of God!" he murmured in a thick, dry, husky whisper.
I raised his head gently and rested it against my shoulder, while Lindsay held the pannikin of weak grog to his lips. For a few seconds he seemed to be incapable of swallowing, then, like a corpse galvanised into the semblance of life, he suddenly seized the edge of the pannikin between his clenched teeth as in a vice, and held it until he had drained it to the dregs. Luckily, there were but two or three spoonfuls left in it, or—as he afterwards assured me—that draught would probably have been his last.
"Ah!" he ejaculated, with a sigh of unspeakable relief, "nectar! nectar! Give me more." Adding quickly, "No, no; not yet, not yet! A single teaspoonful every five minutes! Oh, my God, what anguish! Why did I not die? Is that Courtenay, or am I dreaming? Where is the captain?"
I whipped off my jacket and placed it under his head, as I allowed him to sink gently back on the deck, for at this moment Lindsay whispered to me that the captain was coming round, and I turned to render what assistance I could. Captain Harrison's eyes were now open, but it was perfectly plain to us both that his wandering glances were as yet devoid of recognition; and it was not until some ten minutes later that he began to evince some understanding of who we were and what had happened. His first inquiry was after the well-being of those who had been with him in the boat, and to this I felt constrained to give an evasive but encouraging reply, as he was so terribly weak that I feared the effect upon him of a straightforward answer giving the actual state of the matter. We got him and the doctor down below and put them to bed as quickly as possible, and by the time that this was done the other eight poor souls had also been successfully brought round, when they too were conveyed below and made as comfortable as circumstances would permit. This done, we disposed of the dead with all due reverence, and then resumed our search to windward with renewed hope arising out of the happy discovery of the launch.
It was drawing well on toward eight bells in the afternoon watch that day when the man whom. I had stationed in the cabin to keep an eye upon the captain and the doctor came up on deck with the news that both were now awake, and that the captain wished to see me. I at once obeyed the summons, and was greatly rejoiced to find that both of my patients were much stronger, and wonderfully the better in every way for their long sleep. They lost no time in explaining that they were ravenously hungry; whereupon I sent word forward to the galley, and in less than five minutes both were busily engaged in disposing of a bowl of strong broth, prepared from two of the small remaining stock of chickens that we had found on board the schooner when we took her.
The moment that the soup had disappeared the captain began to ask me questions, in reply to which I gave him a succinct account of our adventures from the moment when we parted company from the rest of the boats; and when I had finished he paid me a high compliment upon what he was pleased to term the skill and judgment that I had displayed throughout. He then recounted what had befallen the launch, from which I learned that the entire flotilla of boats had remained together—the faster boats accommodating their pace to the slower craft—until caught in the tail-end of the hurricane,—which with them only reached the strength of a moderate gale,—when they were perforce compelled to separate, from which time the launch had seen none of the others again. It appeared that the launch, deeply loaded as she was, suffered very nearly as much as we in the gig did; the few in her who were capable of doing any work having their hands full in keeping her above water. The sea had broken over them heavily, all but swamping them upon several occasions, and destroying the greater part of their provisions, so that within three days after the cessation of the gale they found themselves without food and face to face with starvation. Then followed a terrible story of protracted suffering, ending in many cases in madness and death, of fruitless effort to work the heavy boat, and finally of utter helplessness, despair, and—oblivion. The captain informed me that he had little hope that any of the other boats had outlived the gale, but believed that if they were still afloat they would be found some forty miles or so to the northward and eastward of where we had fallen in with the launch.
In that direction therefore we continued our search, scouring the whole ocean thereabout over an area of fully one hundred miles square, but we found none of the other boats; and at length, when we had been cruising for a full week, the captain, who by this time was rapidly regaining strength, reluctantly gave the order for us to desist and bear up for Jamaica. And I may as well here mention that none of the other boats were ever again heard of, there being little doubt that they all foundered during the gale.
A DARING ACT OF PIRACY.
The captain, having thus sorrowfully and reluctantly abandoned all hope of finding the missing boats, at once became keenly anxious to reach Port Royal with all possible expedition, in order that the painful business of our trial by court-martial for the loss of the frigate might be got over without delay. We therefore carried on night and day; and so smartly did the little schooner step out, that on the seventh day after bearing up we found ourselves at daybreak within sight of Turk's Island, running in for the Windward Passage before the rather languid trade wind. Most of the people were by this time getting about once more, so that, with our own men and the Wyvern party, our decks looked rather crowded; and as we went below to breakfast the captain remarked upon it, expressing his satisfaction that the time was so near at hand when we could exchange our cramped quarters aboard the schooner for the more roomy ones to be found in the Kingston hotels or the houses of the hospitable Jamaica planters.
We were still dawdling over breakfast in the close, stuffy little cabin of the schooner, when Lindsay, who was looking out for me, poked his head through the open skylight to report that there were two sail ahead—a ship and a brigantine—hove-to in somewhat suspicious proximity; and that Captain Tucker—who had been aloft to get a better view of the strangers—declared his belief that the brigantine was none other than the piratical craft the crew of which had pillaged and destroyed the Wyvern.
"How do they bear, Mr Lindsay?" demanded the captain.
"Straight ahead, sir," answered Lindsay.
"And how far distant?" was the next question.
"About ten miles, sir," replied Lindsay.
"And what are we going at the present moment?" asked the captain.
Lindsay withdrew his head from the skylight to glance over the rail, and then replaced it again to answer, "A bare five, sir, I should say; the wind seems to be growing more scant. Shall I heave the log, sir?"
"No, thank you," answered the captain; "I have no doubt your judgment is nearly enough correct for all practical purposes, Mr Lindsay. Let a hand be sent aloft to keep an eye on the strangers, and tell him to report anything unusual that he may see. I shall be on deck myself in a few minutes."
Excusing myself, I slipped up on deck to have a look at the two craft, the upper canvas of which was visible above the horizon directly ahead of us. As Lindsay had said, the one was a full-rigged ship, while the other was a fine big brigantine; both were hove-to, and in such close proximity that the merest tyro might shrewdly guess at what was going on there just beyond the horizon. But, to make assurance doubly sure, I took the ship's glass, and went up on the topgallant yard, from whence I was able to obtain a full view of them. It was as I had expected; boats were passing rapidly to and fro between the two craft, those which left the ship being heavily laden, while those which left the brigantine were light.
I was still aloft, working away with the telescope, when the captain emerged from the companion-way, and at once catching sight of me, hailed—
"Well, Mr Courtenay, what do you make of them?"
"It is undoubtedly a case of piracy, sir," I replied. "The brigantine is rifling the ship, and the latter has all the appearance of a British West Indiaman."
"Whew!" I heard the skipper whistle, as he walked to the rail and looked thoughtfully down at the foam bubbles that were gliding past our bends. "If she is an Indiaman she will have passengers aboard her," he remarked to the doctor, who at that moment joined him.
The doctor seemed to acquiesce, although he spoke in so low a tone that I could not catch his words. The two stood talking together for a few minutes, and then the captain hailed me again.
"What do you judge our distance from those two craft to be, Mr Courtenay?" he asked.
"A good eight miles, sir, I should say," answered I.
"Thank you, Mr Courtenay; you may come down, sir," returned the skipper, which I took to be a hint that he wanted me. I accordingly slung the glass over my shoulder, swung myself off the yard on to the backstay, and so descended to the deck.
"Did you notice whether they seemed to have more wind than we have?" inquired the captain, as I joined him.
"Pretty much the same, sir, I should think," answered I. "It looks as though it would fall calm before long."
"I am afraid not; no such luck," remarked the skipper, cocking his weather eye skyward and carefully studying the aspect of the heavens. "I fervently wish it would; then we could nab that fellow beautifully with the boats."
"Might we not try, sir, as it is?" inquired I eagerly. "We have enough people—that is, counting the Wyvern's men, who, I have no doubt, would all volunteer," I hastened to add, as my eye fell upon three or four of those whom we had taken out of the launch, and who, what with starvation and their still unhealed wounds, looked more fit for a hospital than for boat duty.
"Thank you, Mr Courtenay," answered the skipper, with a smile, evidently reading my unspoken thoughts. "No, I am afraid it would not do. In the first place, I question whether we really have sufficient men to justify such an attempt; and, in the next place, if we had, it would still be desirable, in my opinion, to defer the attempt until we are much nearer. At present nobody can tell what we are. The schooner is such a small affair that I am in hopes the brigantine will take no notice of us until we are within striking distance of her; while, if I were to send the boats away, she would probably make off at once. No; it is rather trying to the patience to remain idly aboard here, drifting along at this snail's pace, but I am convinced that it is the correct thing to do. Perhaps, if we show only a few men about the decks, the brigantine may be tempted to tackle us."