IN THE SARGASSO SEA
THOMAS A. JANVIER
AUTHOR OF "THE UNCLE OF AN ANGEL" "THE AZTEC TREASURE-HOUSE" "STORIES OF OLD NEW SPAIN" ETC.
* * * * *
I. I PAY FOR MY PASSAGE TO LOANGO II. HOW I BOARDED THE BRIG GOLDEN HIND III. I HAVE A SCARE, AND GET OVER IT IV. CAPTAIN LUKE MAKES ME AN OFFER V. I GIVE CAPTAIN LUKE MY ANSWER VI. I TIE UP MY BROKEN HEAD, AND TRY TO ATTRACT ATTENTION VII. I ENCOUNTER A GOOD DOCTOR AND A VIOLENT GALE VIII. THE HURST CASTLE IS DONE FOR IX. ON THE EDGE OF THE SARGASSO SEA X. I TAKE A CHEERFUL VIEW OF A BAD SITUATION XI. MY GOOD SPIRITS ARE WRUNG OUT OF ME XII. I HAVE A FEVER AND SEE VISIONS XIII. I HEAR A STRANGE CRY IN THE NIGHT XIV. OF MY MEETING WITH A MURDERED MAN XV. I HAVE SOME TALK WITH A MURDERER XVI. I RID MYSELF OF TWO DEAD MEN XVII. HOW I WALKED MYSELF INTO A MAZE XVIII. I FIND THE KEY TO A SEA MYSTERY XIX. OF A GOOD PLAN THAT WENT WRONG WITH ME XX. HOW I SPENT A NIGHT WEARILY XXI. MY THIRST IS QUENCHED, AND I FIND A COMPASS XXII. I GET SOME FOOD IN ME, AND FORM A CRAZY PLAN XXIII. HOW I STARTED ON A JOURNEY DUE NORTH XXIV. OF WHAT I FOUND ABOARD A SPANISH GALLEON XXV. I AM THE MASTER OF A GREAT TREASURE XXVI. OF A STRANGE SIGHT THAT I SAW IN THE NIGHT-TIME XXVII. I SET MYSELF TO A HEAVY TASK XXVIII. HOW I RUBBED SHOULDERS WITH DESPAIR XXIX. I GET INTO A SEA CHARNEL-HOUSE XXX. I COME TO THE WALL OF MY SEA-PRISON XXXI. HOW HOPE DIED OUT OF MY HEART XXXII. I FALL IN WITH A FELLOW-PRISONER XXXIII. I MAKE A GLAD DISCOVERY XXXIV. I END A GOOD JOB WELL, AND GET A SET-BACK XXXV. I AM READY FOR A FRESH HAZARD OF FORTUNE XXXVI. HOW MY CAT PROMISED ME GOOD LUCK XXXVII. HOW MY CAT STILL FURTHER CHEERED ME XXXVIII. HOW I FOUGHT MY WAY THROUGH THE SARGASSO WEED XXXIX. WHY MY CAT CALLED OUT TO ME
IN THE SARGASSO SEA
I PAY FOR MY PASSAGE TO LOANGO
Captain Luke Chilton counted over the five-dollar notes with a greater care than I thought was necessary, considering that there were only ten of them; and cautiously examined each separate one, as though he feared that I might be trying to pay for my passage in bad money. His show of distrust set my back up, and I came near to damning him right out for his impudence—until I reflected that a West Coast trader must pretty well divide his time between cheating people and seeing to it that he isn't cheated, and so held my tongue.
Having satisfied himself that the tale was correct and that the notes were genuine, he brought out from the inside pocket of his long-tailed shore-going coat a big canvas pocket-book, into which he stowed them lengthwise; and from the glimpse I had of it I fancied that until my money got there it was about bare. As he put away the pocket-book, he said, and pleasantly enough:
"You see, Mr. Stetworth, it's this way: fifty dollars is dirt cheap for a cast across from New York to the Coast, and that's a fact; but you say that it's an object with you to get your passage low, and I say that even at that price I can make money out of you. The Golden Hind has got to call at Loango, anyhow; there's a spare room in her cabin that'll be empty if you don't fill it; and while you're a big man and look to be rather extra hearty, I reckon you won't eat more'n about twenty dollars' worth of victuals—counting 'em at cost—on the whole run. But the main thing is that I want all the spot cash I can get a-holt of before I start. Fifty dollars' worth of trade laid in now means five hundred dollars for me when I get back here in New York with what I've turned it over for on the Coast. So, you see, if you're suited, I'm suited too. Shake! And now we'll have another drink. This time it's on me."
We shook, and Captain Luke gave me an honest enough grip, just as he had spoken in an honest enough tone. I knew, of course, that in a general way he must be a good deal of a rascal—he couldn't well be a West Coast trader and be anything else; but then his rascality in general didn't matter much so long as his dealings with me were square. He called the waiter and ordered arrack again—it was the most wholesome drink in the world, he said—and we touched glasses, and so brought our deal to an end.
That a cheap passage to Loango was an object to me, as Captain Luke had said, was quite true. It was a very important object. After I got across, of course, and my pay from the palm-oil people began, I would be all right; but until I could touch my salary I had to sail mighty close to the wind. For pretty much all of my capital consisted of my headful of knowledge of the theory and practice of mechanical engineering which had brought me out first of my class at the Stevens Institute—and in that way had got me the offer from the palm-oil people—and because of which I thought that there wasn't anybody quite my equal anywhere as a mechanical engineer. And that was only natural, I suppose, since my passing first had swelled my head a bit, and I was only three-and-twenty, and more or less of a promiscuously green young fool.
As I looked over Captain Luke's shoulder, while we supped our arrack together—out through the window across the rush and bustle of South Street—and saw a trim steamer of the Maracaibo line lying at her dock, I could not but be sorry that my voyage to Africa would be made under sails. But, on the other hand, I comforted myself by thinking that if the Golden Hind were half the clipper her captain made her out to be I should not lose much time—taking into account the roundabout way I should have to go if I went under steam. And I comforted myself still more by thinking what a lot of money I had saved by coming on this chance for a cheap cast across; and I blessed my lucky stars for putting into my head the notion of cruising along South Street that October morning and asking every sailor-like man I met if he knew of a craft bound for the West Coast—and especially for having run me up against Captain Luke Chilton before my cruise had lasted an hour.
The captain looked at his glass so sorrowfully when it was empty that I begged him to have it filled again, and he did. But he took down his arrack this time at a single gulp, and then got up briskly and said that he must be off.
"We don't sail till to-morrow afternoon, on the half flood, Mr. Stetworth," he said, "so you'll have lots of time to get your traps aboard if you'll take a boat off from the Battery about noon. I wouldn't come earlier than that, if I were you. Things are bound to be in a mess aboard the brig to-morrow, and the less you have of it the better. We lie well down the anchorage, you know, only a little this side of Robbin's Reef. Your boatmen will know the place, and they'll find the brig for you if you'll tell 'em where to look for her and that she's painted green. Well, so long." And then Captain Luke shook hands with me again, and so was off into the South Street crowd.
I hurried away too. My general outfit was bought and packed; but the things lying around my lodgings had to be got together, and I had to buy a few articles in the way of sea-stock for my voyage in a sailing vessel that I should not have needed had I gone by the regular steam lines. So I got some lunch inside of me, and after that I took a cab—a bit of extravagance that my hurry justified—and bustled about from shop to shop and got what I needed inside of an hour; and then I told the man to drive me to my lodgings up-town.
It was while I was driving up Broadway—the first quiet moment for thinking that had come to me since I had met Captain Luke on South Street, and we had gone into the saloon together to settle about the passage he had offered me—that all of a sudden the thought struck me that perhaps I had made the biggest kind of a fool of myself; and it struck so hard that for a minute or two I fairly was dizzy and faint.
What earthly proof had I, beyond Captain Luke's bare word for it, that there was such a brig as the Golden Hind? What proof had I even—beyond the general look of him and his canvas pocket-book—that Captain Luke was a sailor? And what proof had I, supposing that there was such a brig and that he was a sailor, that the two had anything to do with each other? I simply had accepted for truth all that he told me, and on the strength of his mere assertion that he was a ship-master and was about to sail for the West African coast I had paid him my fifty dollars—and had taken by way of receipt for it no more than a clinking of our glasses and a shake of his hand. I said just now that I was only twenty-three years old, and more or less of a promiscuously green young fool. I suppose that I might as well have left that out. There are some things that tell themselves.
For three or four blocks, as I drove along, I was in such a rage with myself that I could not think clearly. Then I began to cool a little, and to hope that I had gone off the handle too suddenly and too far. After all, there were some chances in my favor the other way. Captain Chilton, I remembered, had told me that he was about to sail for West Coast ports before I asked him for a passage; and had mentioned, also, whereabouts on the anchorage the Golden Hind was lying. Had he made these statements after he knew what I wanted there would have been some reason for doubting them; but being made on general principles, without knowledge of what I was after, it seemed to me that they very well might be true. And if they were true, why then there was no great cause for my sudden fit of alarm. However, I was so rattled by my fright, and still so uncertain as to how things were coming out for me, that the thought of waiting until the next afternoon to know certainly whether I had or had not been cheated was more than I could bear. The only way that I could see to settle the matter was to go right away down to the anchorage, and so satisfy myself that the Golden Hind was a real brig and really was lying there; and it occurred to me that I might kill two birds with one stone, and also have a reason to give for a visit which otherwise might seem unreasonable, if I were to take down my luggage and put it aboard that very afternoon.
HOW I BOARDED THE BRIG GOLDEN HIND
Having come to this conclusion, I acted on it. I kept the cab at the door while I finished my packing with a rush, and then piled my luggage on it and in it—and what with my two trunks, and my kit of fine tools, and all my bundles, this made tight stowing—and then away I went down-town again as fast as the man could drive with such a load.
We got to the Battery in a little more than an hour, and there I transshipped my cargo to a pair-oared boat and started away for the anchorage. The boatmen comforted me a good deal at the outset by saying that they thought they knew just where the Golden Hind was lying, as they were pretty sure they had seen her only that morning while going down the harbor with another fare; and before we were much more than past Bedloe's Island—having pulled well over to get out of the channel and the danger of being run down by one of the swarm of passing craft—they made my mind quite easy by actually pointing her out to me. But almost in the same moment I was startled again by one of them saying to me: "I don't believe you've much time to spare, captain. There's a lighter just shoved off from her, and she's gettin' her tops'ls loose. I guess she means to slide out on this tide. That tug seems to be headin' for her now."
The men laid to their oars at this, and it was a good thing—or a bad thing, some people might think—that they did; for had we lost five minutes on our pull down from the Battery I never should have got aboard of the Golden Hind at all. As it was, the anchor was a-peak, and the lines of the tug made fast, by the time that we rounded under her counter; and the decks were so full of the bustle of starting that it was only a chance that anybody heard our hail. But somebody did hear it, and a man—it was the mate, as I found out afterwards—came to the side.
"Hold on, captain," one of the boatmen sang out, "here's your passenger!"
"Go to hell!" the mate answered, and turned inboard again.
But just then I caught sight of Captain Chilton, coming aft to stand by the wheel, and called out to him by name. He turned in a hurry—and with a look of being scared, I fancied—but it seemed to me a good half-minute before he answered me. In this time the men had shoved the boat alongside and had made fast to the main-chains; and just then the tug began to puff and snort, and the towline lifted, and the brig slowly began to gather way. I could not understand what they were up to; but the boatmen, who were quick fellows, took the matter into their own hands, and began to pass in my boxes over the gunwale—the brig lying very low in the water—as we moved along. This brought the mate to the side again, with a rattle of curses and orders to stand off. And then Captain Chilton came along himself—having finished whatever he had been doing in the way of thinking—and gave matters a more reasonable turn.
"It's all right, George," he said to the mate. "This gentleman is a friend of mine who's going out with us" (the mate gave him a queer look at that), "and he's got here just in time." And then he turned to me and added: "I'd given you up, Mr. Stetworth, and that's a fact—concluding that the man I sent to your lodgings hadn't found you. We had to sail this afternoon, you see, all in a hurry; and the only thing I could do was to rush a man after you to bring you down. He seems to have overhauled you in time, even if it was a close call—so all's well."
While he was talking the boatmen were passing aboard my boxes and bundles, while the brig went ahead slowly; and when they all were shipped, and I had paid the men, he gave me his hand in a friendly way and helped me up the side. What to make of it all I could not tell. Captain Luke told a straight enough story, and the fact that his messenger had not got to me before I started did not prove that he lied. Moreover, he went on to say that if I had not got down to the brig he had meant to leave my fifty dollars with the palm-oil people at Loango, and that sounded square enough too. At any rate, if he were lying to me I had no way of proving it against him, and he was entitled to the benefit of the doubt; and so, when he had finished explaining matters—which was short work, as he had the brig to look after—I did not see my way to refusing his suggestion that we should call it all right and shake hands.
For the next three hours or so—until we were clear of the Hook and had sea-room and the tug had cast us off—I was left to my own devices: except that a couple of men were detailed to carry to my state-room what I needed there, while the rest of my boxes were stowed below. Indeed, nobody had time to spare me a single word—the captain standing by the wheel in charge of the brig, and the two mates having their hands full in driving forward the work of finishing the lading, so that the hatches might be on and things in some sort of order before the crew should be needed to make sail.
The decks everywhere were littered with the stuff put aboard from the lighter that left the brig just before I reached her, and the huddle and confusion showed that the transfer must have been made in a tearing hurry. Many of the boxes gave no hint of what was inside of them; but a good deal of the stuff—as the pigs of lead and cans of powder, the many five-gallon kegs of spirits, the boxes of fixed ammunition, the cases of arms, and so on—evidently was regular West Coast "trade." And all of it was jumbled together just as it had been tumbled aboard.
I was surprised by our starting with the brig in such a mess—until it occurred to me that the captain had no choice in the matter if he wanted to save the tide. Very likely the tide did enter into his calculations; but I was led to believe a little later—and all the more because of his scared look when I hailed him from the boat—that he had run into some tangle on shore that made him want to get away in a hurry before the law-officers should bring him up with a round turn.
What put this notion into my head was a matter that occurred when we were down almost to the Hook, and its conclusion came when we were fairly outside and the tug had cast us off; otherwise my boxes and I assuredly would have gone back on the tug to New York—and I with a flea in my ear, as the saying is, stinging me to more prudence in my dealings with chance-met mariners and their offers of cheap passages on strange craft.
When we were nearly across the lower bay, the nose of a steamer showed in the Narrows; and as she swung out from the land I saw that she flew the revenue flag. Captain Luke, standing aft by the wheel, no doubt made her out before I did; for all of a sudden he let drive a volley of curses at the mates to hurry their stowing below of the stuff with which our decks were cluttered. At first I did not associate the appearance of the cutter with this outbreak; but as she came rattling down the bay in our wake I could not but notice his uneasiness as he kept turning to look at her and then turning forward again to swear at the slowness of the men. But she was a long way astern at first, and by the time that she got close up to us we were fairly outside the Hook and the tug had cast us off—which made a delay in the stowing, as the men had to be called away from it to set enough sail to give us steerage way.
Captain Luke barely gave them time to make fast the sheets before he hurried them back to the hatch again; and by that time the cutter had so walked up to us that we had her close aboard. I could see that he fully expected her to hail us; and I could see also that there seemed to be a feeling of uneasiness among the crew, though they went on briskly with their work of getting what remained of the boxes and barrels below. And then, being close under our stern, the cutter quietly shifted her helm to clear us—and so slid past us, without hailing and with scarcely a look at us, and stood on out to sea.
That the captain and all hands so manifestly should dread being overhauled by a government vessel greatly increased my vague doubts as to the kind of company that I had got into; and at the very moment that the cutter passed us these doubts were so nearly resolved into bad certainties that my thoughts shot around from speculation upon Captain Luke's possible perils into consideration of what seemed to be very real perils of my own.
With the cutter close aboard of us, and with the captain and both the mates swearing at them, I suppose that the men at the hatch—who were swinging the things below with a whip—got rattled a little. At any rate, some of them rigged the sling so carelessly that a box fell out from it, and shot down to the main-deck with such a bang that it burst open. It was a small and strongly made box, that from its shape and evident weight I had fancied might have arms in it. But when it split to bits that way—the noise of the crash drawing me to the hatch to see what had happened—its contents proved to be shackles: and the sight of them, and the flash of thought which made me realize what they must be there for, gave me a sudden sick feeling in my inside!
In my hurried reading about the West Coast—carried on at odd times since my meeting with the palm-oil people—I had learned enough about the trade carried on there to know that slaving still was a part of it; but so small a part that the matter had not much stuck in my mind. But it was a fact then (as it also is a fact now) that the traders who run along the coast—exchanging such stuff as Captain Luke carried for ivory and coffee and hides and whatever offers—do now and then take the chances and run a cargo of slaves from one or another of the lower ports into Mogador: where the Arab dealers pay such prices for live freight in good condition as to make the venture worth the risk that it involves. This traffic is not so barbarous as the old traffic to America used to be—when shippers regularly counted upon the loss of a third or a half of the cargo in transit, and so charged off the death-rate against profit and loss—for the run is a short one, and slaves are so hard to get and so dangerous to deal in nowadays that it is sound business policy to take enough care of them to keep them alive. But I am safe in saying that the men engaged in the Mogador trade are about the worst brutes afloat in our time—not excepting the island traders of the South Pacific—and for an honest man to get afloat in their company opens to him large possibilities of being murdered off-hand, with side chances of sharing in their punishment if he happens to be with them when they are caught. And so it is not to be wondered at that when I saw the shackles come flying out from that broken box, and so realized the sort of men I had for shipmates, that a sweating fright seized me which made my stomach go queer. And then, as I thought how I had tumbled myself into this scrape that the least shred of prudence would have kept me out of, I realized for the second time that day that I was very young and very much of a fool.
I HAVE A SCARE, AND GET OVER IT
I went to the stern of the brig and looked at the tug, far off and almost out of sight in the dusk, and at the loom of the Highlands, above which shone the light-house lamps—and my heart went down into my boots, and for a while stayed there. For a moment the thought came into my head to cut away the buoy lashed to the rail and to take my chances with it overboard—trusting to being picked up by some passing vessel and so set safe ashore. But the night was closing down fast and a lively sea was running, and I had sense enough to perceive that leaving the brig that way would be about the same as getting out of the frying-pan into the fire.
Fortunately, in a little while I began to get wholesomely angry; which always is a good thing, I think, when a man gets into a tight place—if he don't carry it too far—since it rouses the fighting spirit in him and so helps him to pull through. In reason, I ought to have been angry with myself, for the trouble that I was in was all of my own making; but, beyond giving myself a passing kick or two, all my anger was turned upon Captain Luke for taking advantage of my greenness to land me in such a pickle when his gain from it would be so small. I know now that I did Captain Luke injustice. His subsequent conduct showed that he did not want me aboard with him any more than I wanted to be there. Had I not taken matters into my own hands by boarding the brig in such a desperate hurry—just as I had hurried to close with his offer and to clinch it by paying down my passage-money—he would have gone off without me. And very likely he would have thought that the lesson in worldly wisdom he had given me was only fairly paid for by the fifty dollars which had jumped so easily out of my pocket into his.
But that was not the way I looked at the matter then; and in my heart I cursed Captain Luke up hill and down dale for having, as I fancied, lured me aboard the brig and so into peril of my skin. And my anger was so strong that I went by turns hot and cold with it, and itched to get at Captain Luke with my fists and give him a dressing—which I very well could have done, had we come to fighting, for I was a bigger man than he was and a stronger man, too.
It is rather absurd as I look back at it, considering what a taking I was in and how strong was my desire just then to punch Captain Luke's head for him, that while I was at the top of my rage he came aft to where I was leaning against the rail and put his hand on my shoulder as friendly as possible and asked me to come down into the cabin to supper. I suppose I had a queer pale look, because of my anger, for he said not to mind if I did feel sickish, but to eat all the same and I would feel better for it; and he really was so cordial and so pleasant that for a moment or two I could not answer him. It was upsetting, when I was so full of fight, to have him come at me in that friendly way; and I must say that I felt rather sheepish, and wondered whether I had not been working myself up over a mare's-nest as I followed him below.
We had the mate to supper with us, at a square table in the middle of the cabin, and at breakfast the next morning we had the second mate; and so it went turn and turn with them at meals—except that they had some sort of dog-watch way about the Saturday night and Sunday morning that always gave the mate his Sunday dinner with the captain, as was the due of his rank.
The mate was a surly brute, and when Captain Chilton said, in quite a formal way, "Mr. Roger Stetworth, let me make you acquainted with Mr. George Hinds," he only grunted and gave me a sort of a nod. He did not have much to say while the supper went on, speaking only when the captain spoke to him, and then shortly; but from time to time he snatched a mighty sharp look at me—that I pretended not to notice, but saw well enough out of the tail of my eye. It was plain enough that he was taking my measure, and I even fancied that he would have been better pleased had I been six inches or so shorter and with less well-made shoulders and arms. When he did speak it was in a growling rumble of a voice, and he swore naturally.
Captain Luke evidently tried to make up for the mate's surliness; and he really was very pleasant indeed—telling me stories about the Coast, and giving me good advice about guarding against sickness there, and showing such an interest in my prospects with the palm-oil people, and in my welfare generally, that I was still more inclined to think that my scare about the shackles was only foolishness from first to last. He seemed to be really pleased when he found that I was not seasick, and interested when I told him how well I knew the sea and the management of small craft from my sailing in the waters about Nantucket every summer for so many years; and then we got to talking about the Coast again and about my outfit for it, which he said was a very good one; and he especially commended me—instead of laughing at me, as I was afraid he would—for having brought along such a lot of quinine. Indeed, the quinine seemed to make a good deal of an impression on him, for he turned to the mate and said: "Do you hear that, George? Mr. Stetworth has with him a whole case of quinine—enough to serve a ship's company through a cruise." And the mate rumbled out, as he got up from the table and started for the deck, that quinine was a damned good thing.
We waited below until the second mate came down, to whom the captain introduced me with his regular formula: "Mr. Roger Stetworth, let me make you acquainted with Mr. Martin Bowers." He was a young fellow, of no more than my own age, and I took a fancy to him at sight—for he not only shook my hand heartily but he looked me squarely in the eyes, and that is a thing I like a man to do. It seemed to me that my being there was a good deal of a puzzle to him; and he also took my measure, but quite frankly—telling me when he had looked me over that if I knew how to steer I'd be a good man to have at the wheel in a gale.
The captain brought out a bottle of his favorite arrack, and he and I had a glass together—in which, as I thought rather hard, Bowers was not given a chance to join us—and then we went on deck and walked up and down for a while, smoking our pipes and talking about the weather and the prospects for the voyage. And it all went so easily and so pleasantly that I couldn't help laughing a little to myself over my scare.
I turned in early, for I was pretty well tired after so lively a day; but when I got into my bunk I could not get to sleep for a long while—although the bunk was a good one and the easy motion of the brig lulled me—for the excitement I was in because my voyage fairly was begun. I slipped through my mind all that had happened to me that day—from my meeting with Captain Luke in the forenoon until there I was, at nine o'clock at night, fairly out at sea; and I was so pleased with the series of lucky chances which had put me on my way so rapidly that my one mischance—my scare about the shackles—seemed utterly absurd.
It was perfectly reasonable, I reflected, for Captain Luke to carry out a lot of shackles simply as "trade." It was pretty dirty "trade," of course, but so was the vile so-called brandy he was carrying out with him; and so, for that matter, were the arms—which pretty certainly would be used in slaving forays up from the Coast. And even supposing the very worst—that Captain Luke meant to ship a cargo of slaves himself and had these irons ready for them—that worst would come after I was out of the brig and done with her; the captain having told me that Loango, which was my landing-place, would be his first port of call. When I was well quit of the Golden Hind she and her crew and her captain, for all that I cared, might all go to the devil together. It was enough for me that I should be well treated on the voyage over; and from the way that the voyage had begun—unless the surly mate and I might have a bit of a flare-up—it looked as though I were going to be very well treated indeed. And so, having come to this comforting conclusion, I let the soft motion of the brig have its way with me and began to snooze.
A little later I was partly aroused by the sound of steps coming down the companion-way; and then by hearing, in the mate's rumble, these words: "I guess you're right, captain. As you had to run for it to-day before you could buy our quinine, it's a damn good thing he did get aboard, after all!"
I was too nearly asleep to pay much attention to this, but in a drowsy way I felt glad that my stock of quinine had removed the mate's objections to me as a passenger; and I concluded that my purchase of such an absurd lot of it—after getting worked up by my reading about the West Coast fevers—had turned out to be a good thing for me in the long-run.
After that the talk went on in the cabin for a good while, but in such low tones that even had I been wide awake I could not have followed it. But I kept dozing off, catching only a word or two now and then; and the only whole sentence I heard was in the mate's rumble again: "Well, if we can't square things, there's always room for one more in the sea."
It all was very dream-like—and fitted into a dream that came later, in the light sleep of early morning, I suppose, in which the mate wore the uniform of a street-car conductor, and I was giving him doses of quinine, and he was asking the passengers in a car full of salt-water to move up and make room for me, and was telling them and me that in a sea-car there always was room for one more.
CAPTAIN LUKE MAKES ME AN OFFER
During the next fortnight or so my life on board the brig was as pleasant as it well could be. On the first day out we got a slant of wind that held by us until it had carried us fairly into the northeast trades—and then away we went on our course, with everything set and drawing steady, and nothing much to do but man the wheel and eat three square meals a day.
And so everybody was in a good humor, from the captain down. Even the mate rumbled what he meant to be a civil word to me now and then; and Bowers and I—being nearly of an age, and each of us with his foot on the first round of the ladder—struck up a friendship that kept us talking away together by the hour at a time: and very frankly, except that he was shy of saying anything about the brig and her doings, and whenever I tried to draw him on that course got flurried a little and held off. But in all other matters he was open; and especially delighted in running on about ships and seafaring—for the man was a born sailor and loved his profession with all his heart.
It was in one of these talks with Bowers that I got my first knowledge of the Sargasso Sea—about which I shortly was to know a great deal more than he did: that old sea-wonder which puzzled and scared Columbus when he coasted it on his way to discover America; and which continued to puzzle all mariners until modern nautical science revealed its cause—yet still left it a good deal of a mystery—almost in our own times.
The subject came up one day while we were crossing the Gulf Stream, and the sea all around us was pretty well covered with patches of yellow weed—having much the look of mustard-plasters—amidst which a bit of a barnacled spar bobbed along slowly near us, and not far off a new pine plank. The yellow stuff, Bowers said, was gulf-weed, brought up from the Gulf of Mexico where the Stream had its beginning; and that, thick though it was around us, this was nothing to the thickness of it in the part of the ocean where the Stream (so he put it, not knowing any better) had its end. And to that same place, he added, the Stream carried all that was caught in its current—like the spar and the plank floating near us—so that the sea was covered with a thick tangle of the weed in which was held fast fragments of wreckage, and stuff washed overboard, and logs adrift from far-off southern shores, until in its central part the mass was so dense that no ship could sail through it, nor could a steamer traverse it because of the fouling of her screw. And this sort of floating island—which lay in a general way between the Bermudas and the Canaries—covered an area of ocean, he said, half as big as the area of the United States; and to clear it ships had to make a wide detour—for even in its thin outward edges a vessel's way was a good deal retarded and a steamer's wheel would foul sometimes, and there was danger always of collision with derelicts drifting in from the open sea to become a part of the central mass. Our own course, he further said, would be changed because of it; but we would be for a while upon what might be called its coast, and so I would have a chance to see for myself something of its look as we sailed along.
As I know now, Bowers over-estimated the size of this strange island of sea-waifs and sea-weed by nearly one-half; and he was partly wrong as to the making of it: for the Sargasso Sea is not where any current ends, but lies in that currentless region of the ocean that is found to the east of the main Gulf Stream and to the south of the branch which sweeps across the North Atlantic to the Azores; and its floating stuff is matter cast off from the Gulf Stream's edge into the bordering still water—as a river eddies into its pools twigs and dead leaves and such-like small flotsam—and there is compacted by capillary attraction and by the slow strong pressure of the winds.
On the whole, though, Bowers was not very much off in his description—which somehow took a queer deep hold upon me, and especially set me to wondering what strange old waifs and strays of the ocean might not be found in the thick of that tangle if only there were some way of pushing into it and reaching the hidden depths that no man ever yet had seen. But when I put this view of the matter to him I did not get much sympathy. He was a practical young man, without a stitch of romance in his whole make-up, and he only laughed at my suggestion and said that anybody who tried to push into that mess just for the sake of seeing some barnacle-covered logs, or perhaps a rotting hulk or two, would be a good deal of a fool. And so I did not press my fancy on him, and our talks went on about more commonplace things.
It was with Captain Luke that I had most to do, and before long I got to have a very friendly feeling for him because of the trouble that he took to make me comfortable and to help me pass the time. The first day out, seeing that I was interested when he took the sun, he turned the sextant over to me and showed me how to take an observation; and then how to work it out and fix the brig's position on the chart—and was a good deal surprised by my quickness in understanding his explanations (for I suppose that to him, with his rule-of-thumb knowledge of mathematics, the matter seemed complex), and still more surprised when he found, presently, that I really understood the underlying principle of this simple bit of seamanship far better than he did himself. He said that I knew more than most of the captains afloat and that I ought to be a sailor; which he meant, no doubt, to be the greatest compliment that he could pay me. After that I took the sights and worked them with him daily; and as I several times corrected his calculations—for even simple addition and subtraction were more than he could manage with certainty—he became so impressed by my knowledge as to treat me with an odd show of respect.
But in practical matters—knowledge of men and things, and of the many places about the world which he had seen, and of the management of a ship in all weathers—he was one of the best-informed men that ever I came across: being naturally of a hard-headed make, with great acuteness of observation, and with quick and sound reasoning powers. I found his talk always worth listening to; and I liked nothing better than to sit beside him, or to walk the deck with him, while we smoked our pipes together and he told me in his shrewd way about one queer thing and another which he had come upon in various parts of the world—for he had followed the sea from the time that he was a boy, and there did not seem to be a bit of coast country nor any part of all the oceans which he did not know well.
Unlike Bowers, he was very free in talking about the trade that he carried on in the brig upon the African coast, and quite astonished me by his showing of the profits that he made; and he generally ended his discourses on this head by laughingly contrasting the amount of money that even Bowers got every year—the mates being allowed an interest in the brig's earnings—with the salary that the palm-oil people were to pay to me. Indeed, he managed to make me quite discontented with my prospects, although I had thought them very good indeed when I first told him about them; and when he would say jokingly, as he very often did, that I had better drop the palm-oil people and take a berth on the brig instead, I would be half sorry that he was only in fun.
In a serious way, too, he told me that the Coast trade had got very unfairly a bad name that it did not deserve. At one time, he said, a great many hard characters had got into it, and their doings had given it a black reputation that still stuck to it. But in recent years, he explained, it had fallen into the hands of a better class of traders, and its tone had been greatly improved. As a rule, he declared, the West Coast traders were as decent men as would be found anywhere—not saints, perhaps, he said smilingly, but men who played a reasonably square game and who got big money mainly because they took big risks. When I asked him what sort of risks, he answered: "Oh, pretty much all sorts—sometimes your pocket and sometimes your neck," and added that to a man of spirit these risks made half the fun. And then he said that for a man who did not care for that sort of thing it was better to be contented with a safe place and low wages—and asked me how long I expected to stay at Loango, and if I had a better job ahead, when my work there was done.
At first he would shift the subject when I tried to make him talk about the slave traffic. But one day—it was toward the end of our second week out, and I was beginning to think from his constant turning to it that perhaps he really might mean to offer me a berth on the brig, and that his offer might be pretty well worth accepting—he all of a sudden spoke out freely and of his own accord. It was true, he said, that sometimes a few blacks were taken aboard by traders, when no other stuff offered for barter, and were carried up to Mogador and there sold for very high prices indeed—for there was a prejudice against the business, and the naval vessels on the Coast tried so persistently to stop it that the risk of capture was great and the profit from a successful venture correspondingly large. But the prejudice, he continued, was really not well-founded. Slavery, of course, was a very bad thing; but there were degrees of badness in it, and since it could not be broken up there was much to be said in favor of any course that would make it less cruel. The blacks who were the slaves of other blacks, or of Portuguese,—and it was only these that the traders bought—were exposed to such barbarous treatment that it was a charity to rescue them from it on almost any terms. Certainly it was for their good, as they had to be in bondage somewhere, to deliver them from such masters by carrying them away to Northern Africa: where the slavery was of so mild and paternal a sort that cruelty almost was unknown. And then he went on to tell me about the kindly relations which he himself had seen existing between slaves and their masters in those parts, both among Arabs and Moors.
This presentment of the case put so new a face on it that at first I could not get my bearings; which I am the less ashamed to own up to because, as I look at the matter now, I perceive how much trouble Captain Luke took to win me for his own purposes—he being a middle-aged man packed full of shrewd worldly wisdom, and I only a fresh young fool.
My hesitation about making up an answer to him—for, while I was sure that in the main point he was all wrong, I was caught for the moment in his sophisms—made him fancy, I suppose, that he had convinced me; and so was safe to go ahead in the way that he had intended, no doubt, all along. At any rate, without stopping until my slow wits had a chance to get pulled together, he put on a great show of friendly frankness and said that he now knew me well enough to trust me, and so would tell me openly that he himself engaged in the Mogador trade when occasion offered; and that there was more money in it a dozen times over than in all the other trade that he carried on in the Golden Hind.
I confess that this avowal completely staggered me, and with a rush brought back all the fears by which I had been so rattled on the first day of our voyage. In a hazy way I perceived that the captain had been playing a part with me, and that the others had been playing parts too—for I could not hope that among men of that stripe such friendliness should be natural—and what with my surprise, and the fresh fright I was thrown into, I was struck fairly dumb.
But Captain Luke—likely enough deceived by his own hopes, as even shrewd men will be sometimes—either did not notice the fluster I was in, or thought to set matters all right with me in his own way; for when he found that I remained silent he took up the talk himself again, and went on to show in detail the profits of a single venture with a live cargo—and his figures were certainly big enough to fire the fancy of any man who was keen for money-getting and who was willing to get his money by rotten ways. And then, when he had finished with this part of the matter, he came out plumply with the offer to give me a mate's rating on board the brig if I would cast in my fortunes with his. Of the theory of seamanship, he said, I already knew more than he did himself; and so much more than either of his mates that he would feel entirely at ease—as he could not with them—in trusting the navigation of the brig in my hands. As to the practical part of the work, that was a matter that with my quickness I would pick up in no time; and my bigness and strength, he added, would come in mighty handily when there was trouble among the crew, as sometimes happened, and in keeping the blacks in order, and in the little fights that now and then were necessary with folks on shore. And then he came to the real kernel of the matter: which was that Bowers did not like his work and was not fit for it, and was threatening to leave the brig at the first port she made, and so a man who could be trusted was badly needed to take his place.
When he had finished with it all I was dumber than ever; for I was in a rage at him for making me such an offer, and at the same time saw pretty clearly that if I refused it as plumply as he made it we should come to such open enmity that I—being in his power completely—would be in danger of my skin. And so I was glad when he gave me a breathing spell, and the chance to think things over quietly, by telling me that he would not hurry me for answer and that I could take a day or two—or a week or two if I wanted it—in which to make up my mind.
I GIVE CAPTAIN LUKE MY ANSWER
For the rest of that day, and for the two days following, Captain Luke did not in any way refer to his offer; and as he showed himself more than ever friendly, and talked away to me in his usual entertaining fashion, my rage and fright began to go off a little—though at bottom, of course, there was no change in my opinions, nor any doubt as to my giving him a point-blank refusal when the issue should be squarely raised.
All this time the brig was bowling along down the trades; and on the third morning after I had the captain's offer—we being then close upon the thirty-fifth parallel of north latitude—Bowers called my attention to the gulf-weed floating about us, and told me that we were fairly on the outer edge of the Sargasso Sea. We should not get into any thicker part of it, he said, as we should bear up to clear it; and so we actually did, hauling away a good deal to the eastward when the brig's course was set that day at noon. But my interest in the matter had been so checked—all my thought being given to finding some way out of the pickle in which I found myself—that I paid little attention to the patches of yellow weed on the water around us or to the bits of wreckage that we saw now and then; and when Bowers, keeping on with his talk, fell to chaffing me about my desire to make a voyage of discovery into the thick part of this floating mystery I did not rise to his joking, nor did I make him much of a reply.
Indeed, I was in rather a low way that day; which was due in part to my not being able, for all my thinking, to see any sort of a clear course before me; and in part to the fact that the weather was thickening and that my spirits were dulled a good deal by what we call the heaviness of the air. All around the horizon steel-gray clouds were rising, and a soft sort of a haze hung about us and took the life out of the sunshine, and the wind fell away until there was almost nothing of it, and that little fitful—while with the dying out of it the sea began to stir slowly with a long oily swell. Far down to the southeast a line of smoke hung along the horizon, coming from the funnel of some steamer out of sight over the ocean's curve, and the heaviness of the atmosphere was shown by the way that this smoke held close to the surface of the sea.
That Captain Luke did not like the look of things was plain enough from his sharp glances about him and from his frequent examinations of the glass; and he seemed to be all the more bothered—his seaman's instinct that a storm was brewing being at odds with the barometer's prophecy—by the fact that the mercury showed a marked tendency to rise. Had he known as much of the scientific side of navigation as he knew of the practical side he could have reconciled the conduct of the barometer with his own convictions, and so would have been easier in his mind; for it is a fact that the mercury often rises suddenly on the front edge of a storm—that is to say, a little in advance of it—by reason of the air banking up there. But having only his rule-of-thumb knowledge to apply in the premises, the apparent scientific contradiction of his own practical notions as to what was going to happen confused him and made him irritable—the nerve-stirring state of the atmosphere no doubt having also a share in the matter—as was made plain by his sharp quick motions, and by the way in which on the smallest provocation he fell to swearing at the men. And so the day wore itself out to nightfall: with the steel-gray clouds lifting steadily from the horizon toward the zenith, and with the swell of the weed-spattered sea slowly rising, and with a doubting uneasiness among all of us that found its most marked expression in Captain Luke's increasingly savage mood.
Our supper was a glowering one. The captain had little to say, and that little of a sharp sort, while the mate only rumbled out a curse now and then at the boy who served us; and I myself was in a bitter bad humor as I thought how hard it was on me to be shut up at sea in such vile company, and how I had only myself to blame for getting into it—and found my case all the harder because of my nervous uneasiness due to the coming storm. As to the storm, there no longer could be doubt about it, for the barometer had got into line with Captain Luke's convictions and was falling fast.
When the supper was over the captain brought out his arrack-bottle and took off a full tumbler, which was more than double his usual allowance, and then pushed the liquor across to the mate and me. The mate also took a good pull at it, and I took a fair drink myself in the hope that it would quiet my nerves—but it had exactly the opposite effect and made me both excited and cross. And then we all came on deck together, and all in a rough humor, and Bowers went down into the cabin to have his supper by himself.
What happened in the next half-hour happened so quickly that I cannot give a very clear account of it. A part of it, no doubt, was due to mere chance and angry impulse; but not the whole of it, and I think not the worst of it—for the first thing that the captain did was to order the man who was steering to go forward and to tell the mate to take the wheel. That left just the three of us together at the stern of the brig—with Bowers below and so out of sight and hearing, and with all the crew completely cut off from us and put out of sight and hearing by the rise of the cabin above the deck.
Night had settled down on the ocean, but not darkness. Far off to the eastward the full moon was standing well above the horizon and was fighting her way upward through the clouds—now and then getting enough the better of them to send down a dash of brightness on the water, but for the most part making only a faint twilight through their gloom. The wind still was very light and fitful, but broken by strongish puffs which would heel the brig over a little and send her along sharply for half a mile or so before they died away; and the swell had so risen that we had a long sleepy roll. Up to windward I made out a ship's lights—that seemed to be coming down on us rapidly, from their steady brightening—and I concluded that this must be the steamer from which the smoke had come that I had seen trailing along the horizon through the afternoon; and I even fancied, the night being intensely still, that I could hear across the water the soft purring sound made by the steady churning of her wheel. Somehow it deepened the sullen anger that had hold of me to see so close by a ship having honest men aboard of her, and to know at the same time how hopelessly fast I was tied to the brig and her dirty crew. I don't mind saying that the tears came to my eyes, for I was both hurt by my sorrow and heavy with my dull rage.
We all three were silent for a matter of ten minutes or so, or it might even have been longer, and then Captain Luke faced around on me suddenly and asked: "Well, have you made up your mind?"
Had I been cooler I should have tried to fence a little, since my only resource—I being caught like a rat in a trap that way—was to try to gain time; but I was all in a quiver, just as I suppose he was, with the excitement of the situation and with the excitement of the thunderous night, and his short sharp question jostled out of my head what few wits I had there and made me throw away my only chance. And so I answered him, just as shortly and as sharply: "Yes, I have."
"Do you mean to join the brig?" he demanded.
"No, I don't," I answered, and stepped a little closer to him and looked him squarely in the eyes.
"I told you so," the mate broke in with his rumble; and I saw that he was whipping a light lashing on the wheel in a way that would hold it steady in case he wanted to let go.
"Better think a minute," said Captain Luke, speaking coolly enough, but still with an angry undertone in his voice. "I've made you a good offer, and I'm ready to stand by it. But if you won't take what I've offered you you'll take something else that you won't like, my fresh young man. In a friendly way, and for your information, I've told you a lot of things that I can't trust to the keeping of any living man who won't chip in with us and take our chances—the bad ones with the good ones—just as they happen to come along. You know too much, now, for me to part company from you while you have a wagging tongue in your head—and so my offer's still open to you. Only there's this about it: if you won't take it, overboard you go."
I had a little gleam of sense at that; for I knew that he spoke in dead earnest, and that the mate stood ready to back him, and that against the two of them I had not much show. And so I tried to play for time, saying: "Well, let me think it over a bit longer. You said there was no hurry and that I might have a week to consider in. I've had only three days, so far. Do you call that square?"
"Squareness be damned," rumbled the mate, and he gave a look aloft and another to windward—the breeze just then had fallen to a mere whisper—and took his hands off the wheel and stepped away from it so that he and the captain were close in front of me, side by side. I stood off from them a little, and got my back against the cabin—that I might be safe against an attack from behind—and I was so furiously angry that I forgot to be scared.
"Three days is as good as three years," Captain Luke jerked out. "What I want is an answer right now. Will you join the brig—yes or no?"
Somehow I remembered just then seeing our pig killed, when I was a boy—how he ran around the lot with the men after him, and got into a corner and tried to fight them, and was caught in spite of his poor little show of fighting, and was rolled over on his back and had his throat stuck. He was a nice pig, and I had felt sorry for him: thinking that he didn't deserve such treatment, his life having been a respectable one, and he never having done anybody any harm. It all came back to me in a flash, as I settled myself well against the cabin and answered: "No, I won't join you—and you and your brig may go to hell!"
All I remember after that was their rush together upon me, and my hitting out two or three times—getting in one smasher on the mate's jaw that was a comfort to me—and then something hard cracking me on the head, and so stunning me that I knew nothing at all of what happened until I found myself coming up to the surface of the sea, sputtering salt-water and partly tangled in a bunch of gulf-weed, and saw the brig heeling over and sliding fast away from me before a sudden strong draught of wind.
I TIE UP MY BROKEN HEAD, AND TRY TO ATTRACT ATTENTION
My head was tingling with pain, and so buzzy that I had no sense worth speaking of, but just kept myself afloat in an instinctive sort of way by paddling a little with my hands. And I could not see well for what I thought was water in my eyes—until I found that it was blood running down over my forehead from a gash in my scalp that went from the top of my right ear pretty nearly to my crown. Had the blow that made it struck fair it certainly would have finished me; but from the way that the scalp was cut loose the blow must have glanced.
The chill of the water freshened me and brought my senses back a little: for which I was not especially thankful at first, being in such pain and misery that to drown without knowing much about it seemed quite the best thing that I could hope for just then. Indeed, when I began to think again, though not very clearly, I had half a mind to drop my arms to my sides and so go under and have done with it—so despairing was I as I bobbed about on the swell among the patches of gulf-weed which littered the dark ocean, with the brig drawing away from me rapidly, and no chance of a rescue from her even had she been near at hand.
Whether I had or had not hurried the matter, under I certainly should have gone shortly—for the crack on my head and the loss of blood from it had taken most of my strength out of me, and even with my full strength I could not have kept afloat long—had not a break in the clouds let through a dash of moonlight that gave me another chance. It was only for a moment or two that the moonlight lasted, yet long enough for me to make out within a hundred feet of me a biggish piece of wreckage—which but for that flash I should not have noticed, or in the dimness would have taken only for a bunch of weed.
Near though it was, getting to it was almost more than I could manage; and when at last I did reach it I was so nearly used up that I barely had strength to throw my arms about it and one leg over it, and so hang fast for a good many minutes in a half-swoon of weakness and pain.
But the feel of something solid under me, and the certainty that for a little while at least I was safe from drowning, helped me to pull myself together; and before long some of my strength came back, and a little of my spirit with it, and I went about settling myself more securely on my poor sort of a raft. What I had hit upon, I found, was a good part of a ship's mast; with the yards still holding fast by it and steadying it, and all so clean-looking that it evidently had not been in the water long. The main-top, I saw, would give me a back to lean against and also a little shelter; and in that nook I would be still more secure because the futtock-shrouds made a sort of cage about it and gave me something to catch fast to should the swell of the sea roll me off. So I worked along the mast from where I first had caught hold of it until I got myself stowed away under the main-top: where I had my body fairly out of water, and a chance to rest easily by leaning against the upstanding woodwork, and a good grip with my legs to keep me firm. And it is true, though it don't sound so, that I was almost happy at finding myself so snug and safe there—as it seemed after having nothing under me but the sea.
And then I set myself—my head hurting me cruelly, and the flow of blood still bothering me—to see what I could do in the way of binding up my wound; and made a pretty good job of it, having a big silk handkerchief in my pocket that I folded into a smooth bandage and passed over my crown and under my chin—after first dowsing my head in the cold sea water, which set the cut to smarting like fury but helped to keep the blood from flowing after the bandage was made fast. At first, while I was paddling in the water and splashing my way along the mast and while the bandage was flapping about my ears, I had no chance to hear any noises save those little ones close to me which I was making myself. But when I had finished my rough surgery, and leaned back against the top to rest after it—and my heart was beginning to sink with the thought of how utterly desperate my case was, afloat there on the open ocean with a gale coming on—I heard in the deep silence a faint rythmic sound that I recognized instantly as the pulsing of a steamer's engine and the steady churning of her screw. This mere whisper in the darkness was a very little thing to hang a hope upon; but hope did return to me with the conviction that the sound came from the steamer of which I had seen the lights just before I was pitched overboard, and that I had a chance of her passing near enough to me to hear my hail.
I peered eagerly over the waters, trying to make out her lights again and so settle how she was heading; but I could see no lights, though with each passing minute the beating of the screw sounded louder to my straining ears. From that I concluded that she must be coming up behind me and was hid by the top from me; and so, slowly and painfully, I managed to get on my hands and knees on the mast, and then to raise myself until I stood erect and could see over the edge of the top as it rose like a little wall upright—and gave a weak shout of joy as I saw what I was looking for, the three bright points against the blackness, not more than a mile away. And I was all the more hopeful because her red and green lights showed full on each side of the white light on her foremast, and by that I knew that she was heading for me as straight as she could steer.
I gave another little shout—but fainter than the first, for my struggle to get to my feet, and then to hold myself erect as the swell rolled the mast about, made me weak and a little giddy; and I wanted to keep on shouting—but had the sense not to, that I might save my strength for the yells that I should have to give when the steamer got near enough to me for her people to hear my cries. So I stood silent—swaying with the roll of the mast, and with my head throbbing horribly because of my excitement and the strain of holding on there—while I watched her bearing down on me; and making her out so plainly as she got closer that it never occurred to me that I and my bit of mast would not be just as plain to her people as her great bulk was to me.
I don't suppose that she was within a quarter of a mile of me when I began my yelling; but I was too much worked up to wait longer, and the result of my hurry was to make my voice very hoarse and feeble by the time that she really was within hail. She came dashing along so straight for me that I suddenly got into a tremor of fear that she would run me down; and, indeed, she only cleared me by fifty feet or so—her huge black hull, dotted with the bright lights of her cabin ports, sliding past me so close that she seemed to tower right up over me—and I was near to being swamped, so violently was my mast tossed about by the rush and suck of the water from her big screw. And while she hung over me, and until she was gone past me and clear out of all hearing, I yelled and yelled!
At first I could not believe, so sure had I been of my rescue, that she had left me; and it was not until she was a good half mile away from me, with only the sound of her screw ripping the water, and a faint gleam of light from her after ports showing through the darkness, that I realized that she was gone—and then I grew so sick and dizzy that it is a wonder I did not lose my hold altogether and fall off into the sea. Somehow or another I managed to swing myself down and to seat myself upon the mast again, with my head fairly splitting and with my heart altogether gone: and so rested there, shutting my eyes to hide the sight of my hope vanishing, and as desolate as any man ever was.
Presently, in a dull way, I noticed that I no longer heard the swash of her screw, and rather wondered at her getting out of hearing so quickly; but for fear of still seeing her lights, and so having more pain from her, I still kept my eyes tight closed. And then, all of a sudden, I heard quite close by me a hail—and opened my eyes in a hurry to see a light not a hundred feet away from me, and to make out below it the loom of a boat moving slowly over the weed-strewn sea.
The shout that I gave saved me, but before it saved me I came near to being done for. Such a rush of blood went up into my broken head with the sudden burst of joy upon me that a dead faint came upon me and I fell off into the water; and that I was floating when the boat got to me was due to the mere chance that as I dropped away from the mast one of my arms slipped into the tangle of the futtock-shrouds. But I knew nothing about that, nor about anything else that happened, until we were half-way back to the steamer and I came to my senses a little; and very little for a good while longer—except that I was swung up a ship's side and there was a good deal of talking going on around me; and then that my clothes were taken off and I was lifted into a soft delightful berth; and then that somebody with gentle hands was binding up my broken crown.
When this job was finished—which hurt me a good deal, but did not rouse me much—I just fell back upon the soft pillow and went to sleep: with a blessed sense of rest and safety, as I felt the roll of a whole ship under me again after the short jerk of my mast, and knew that I was not back on the brig but aboard an honest steamer by hearing and by feeling the strong steady pulsing of her screw.
I ENCOUNTER A GOOD DOCTOR AND A VIOLENT GALE
I was roused from my sleep by the sharp motion of the vessel; but did not get very wide awake, for I felt donsie and there was a dull ringing in my head along with a great dull pain. I had sense enough, though, to perceive that the storm had come, about which Captain Luke and the barometer had been at odds; and to shake a little with a creepy terror as I thought of the short work it would have made with me had I waited for it on my mast. But I was too much hurt to feel anything very keenly, and so heavy that even with the quick short roll of the ship to rouse me I kept pretty much in a doze.
After a while the door of my state-room was opened a little and a man peeped in; and when he saw my open eyes looking at him he came in altogether, giving me a nod and a smile. He was a tall fellow in a blue uniform, with a face that I liked the looks of; and when he spoke to me I liked the sound of his voice.
"You must be after being own cousin to all the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and the dog too, my big young man," he said, holding fast to the upper berth to steady himself. "You've put in ten solid hours, so far, and you don't seem to be over wide awake yet. Faith, I'd be after backing you to sleep standing, like Father O'Rafferty's old dun cow!"
I did not feel up to answering him, but I managed to grin a little, and he went on: "I'm for thinking that I'd better let that broken head of yours alone till this fool of a ship is sitting still again—instead of trying to teach the porpoises such tricks of rolling and pitching as never entered into their poor brute minds. But you'll do without doctoring for the present, myself having last night sewed up all right and tight for you the bit of your scalp that had fetched away. How does it feel?"
"It hurts," was all that I could answer.
"And small blame to it," said the doctor, and went on: "It's a well-made thick head you have, and it's tough you are, my son, not to be killed entirely by such a whack as you got on your brain-box—to say nothing of your fancy for trying to cure it hydropathically by taking it into the sea with you when you were for crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the fag-end of a mast. It's much indeed that you have to learn, I am thinking, both about surgery and about taking care of yourself. But in the former you'll now do well, being in the competent hands of a graduate of Dublin University; and in regard to your incompetence in the latter good reason have you for being thankful that the Hurst Castle happened to be travelling in these parts last night, and that her third officer is blessed with a pair of extra big ears and so happened to hear you talking to him from out of the depths of the sea.
"But talking isn't now the best thing for you, and some more of the sleep that you're so fond of is—if only the tumbling of the ship will let you have it; so take this powder into that mouth of yours which you opened so wide when you were conversing with us as we went sailing past you, and then stop your present chattering and take all the sleep that you can hold."
With that he put a bitter powder into my mouth, and gave me a drink of water after it—raising me up with a wonderful deftness and gentleness that I might take it, and settling me back again on the pillow in just the way that I wanted to lie. "And now be off again to your friends the Ephesians," he said; "only remember that if you or they—or their dog either, poor beasty—wants anything, it's only needed to touch this electric bell. As to the doggy," he added, with his hand on the door-knob, "tell him to poke at the button with the tip of his foolish nose." And with that he opened the door and went away. All this light friendly talk was such a comfort to me—showing, as it did, along with the good care that I was getting, what kindly people I had fallen among—that in my weak state I cried a little because of my happy thankfulness; and then, my weakness and the powder acting together to lull me, in spite of the ship's sharp motion I went off again to sleep.
But that time my sleep did not last long. In less than an hour, I suppose, the motion became so violent as to shake me awake again—and to give me all that I could do to keep myself from being shot out of my berth upon the floor. Presently the doctor came again, fetching with him one of the cabin stewards to rig the storm-board at the side of my berth and some extra pillows with which to wedge me fast. But though he gave me a lot more of his pleasant chaff to cheer me I could see that his look was anxious, and it seemed to me that the steward was badly scared. Between them they managed to stow me pretty tight in my berth and to make me as comfortable as was possible while everything was in such commotion—with the ship bouncing about like a pea on a hot shovel and all the wood-work grinding and creaking with the sudden lifts and strains.
"It's a baddish gale that's got hold of the old Hurst Castle, and that's a fact," the doctor said, when they had finished with me, in answer to the questioning look that he saw in my eyes. "But it's nothing to worry about," he went on; "except that it's hard on you, with that badly broken head of yours, to be tumbled about worse than Mother O'Donohue's pig when they took it to Limerick fair in a cart. So just lie easy there among your pillows, my son; and pretend that it's exercise that you are taking for the good of your liver—which is a torpid and a sluggish organ in the best of us, and always the better for such a shaking as the sea is giving us now. And be remembering that the Hurst Castle is a Clyde-built boat, with every plate and rivet in her as good as a Scotsman knows how to make it—and in such matters it's the Sandies who know more than any other men alive. In my own ken she's pulled through storms fit to founder the Giant's Causeway and been none the worse for 'em, and so it's herself that's certain to weather this bit of a gale—which has been at its worst no less than two times this same morning, and therefore by all rule and reason must be for breaking soon.
"And be thinking, too," he added as he was leaving me, "that I'll be coming in to look after you now and then when I have a spare minute—for there are some others, I'm sorry to say, who are after needing me; and as soon as the gale goes down a bit I'll overhaul again that cracked head of yours, and likely be singing you at the same time for your amusement a real Irish song." But not much was there of singing, nor of any other show of lightheartedness, aboard the Hurst Castle during the next twelve hours. So far from breaking, the gale—as the doctor had called it, although in reality it was a hurricane—got worse steadily; with only a lull now and then, as though for breath-taking, and then a fiercer rush of wind—before which the ship would reel and shiver, while the grinding of her iron frame and the crunching of her wood-work made a sort of wild chorus of groans and growls. For all my wedging of pillows I was near to flying over the storm-board out of my berth with some of the plunges that she took; and very likely I should have had such a tumble had not the doctor returned again in a little while and with the mattress from the upper berth so covered me as to jam me fast—and how he managed to do this, under the circumstances, I am sure I don't know.
When he had finished my packing he bent down over me—or I could not have heard him—and said: "It's sorry I am for you, my poor boy, for you're getting just now more than your full share of troubles. But we're all in a pickle together, and that's a fact, and the choice between us is small. And I'd be for suggesting that if you know such a thing as a prayer or two you'll never have a finer opportunity for saying them than you have now." And by that, and by the friendly sorrowful look that he gave me, I knew that our peril must be extreme.
I don't like to think of the next few hours; while I lay there packed tight as any mummy, and with no better than a mummy's chances, as it seemed to me, of ever seeing the live world again—terrified by the awful war of the storm and by the confusion of wild noises, and every now and then sharply startled by hearing on the deck above me a fierce crash as something fetched away. It was a bad time, Heaven knows, for everybody; but for me I thought that it was worst of all. For there I was lying in utter helplessness, with the certainty that if the ship foundered there was not a chance for me—since I must drown solitary in my state-room, like a rat drowned in a hole.
THE HURST CASTLE IS DONE FOR
At last, having worn itself out, as sailors say, the storm began to lessen: first showing its weakening by losing its little lulls and fiercer gusts after them, and then dropping from a tempest to a mere gale—that in turn fell slowly to a gentle wind. But even after the wind had fallen, and for a good while after, the ship labored in a tremendous sea.
As I grew easier in my mind and body, and so could think a little, I wondered why my friend the doctor did not come to me; and when at last my door was opened I looked eagerly—my eyes being the only free part of me—to see him come in. But it was the steward who entered, and I had a little sharp pang of disappointment because I missed the face that I wanted to see. However, the man stooped over me, kindly enough, and lifted off the mattress and did his best to make me comfortable; only when I asked him where the doctor was he pretty dismally shook his head.
"It's th' doctor himself is needin' doctorin', poor soul," he answered, "he bein' with his right leg broke, and with his blessed head broke a-most as bad as yours!" And then he told me that when the storm was near ended the doctor had gone on deck to have a look at things, and almost the minute he got there had been knocked over by a falling spar. "For th' old ship's shook a-most to pieces," the man went on; "with th' foremast clean overboard, an' th' mizzen so wobbly that it's dancin' a jig every time she pitches, and everything at rags an' tatters of loose ends."
"But the doctor?" I asked.
"He says himself, sir, that he's not dangerous, and I s'pose he ought to know. Th' captain an' th' purser together, he orderin' 'em, have set his leg for him; and his head, he says, 'll take care of itself, bein' both thick an' hard. But he's worryin' painful because he can't look after you, sir, an' th' four or five others that got hurt in th' storm. And I can tell you, sir," the man went on, "that all th' ship's company, an' th' passengers on top of 'em, are sick with sorrow that this has happened to him; for there's not a soul ever comes near th' doctor but loves him for his goodness, and we'd all be glad to break our own legs this minute if by that we could be mendin' his!"
The steward spoke very feelingly and earnestly, and with what he said I was in thorough sympathy; for the doctor's care of me and his friendliness had won my heart to him, just as it had won to him the hearts of all on board. But there was comfort in knowing that he had got off with only a broken leg and a broken head from a peril that so easily might have been the death of him, and of that consolation I made the most—while the steward, who was a handy fellow and pretty well trained as a surgeon's assistant, freshly bandaged my head for me as the doctor had ordered him to do, and so set me much more at my ease. After that, for the rest of the day, he came every hour or so to look after me; giving me some broth to eat and a biscuit, and some medicine that the doctor sent me with the message that it would put strength enough into a dead pig to set him to dancing—by which I knew that even if his head and leg were broken there was no break in his whimsical fun.
The steward was the only man who came near me; but this did not surprise me when he told me more about the condition that the ship was in, and how all hands—excepting himself, who had been detailed because of his knowledge that way to look after the hurt people under the doctor's direction—were hard at work making repairs, with what men there were among the passengers helping too. The ship was not leaking, he said, and this was the luckier because her frame was so strained that it was doubtful if her water-tight compartments would hold; but the foremast had been carried away, and all the weather-boats had been mashed out of all shape or swept overboard, and the mizzen was so shaky that it seemed likely at any moment to fall. Indeed, the mast was in such a bad way, he said, that the first and second officers were for getting rid of it—and of the danger that there was of its coming down all in a heap anyway—by sending it overboard; but that the captain thought it safe to stand now that the sea was getting smooth again, and was setting up jury-stays to hold it until we made the Azores—for which islands our course was laid.
By the time that night came again the sea had pretty well gone down, and beyond the easy roll that was on her the ship had no motion save the steady vibration of her screw. With this comforting change the pain in my head became only a dull heavy aching, and I had a chance to feel how utterly weary I was after the strain of mind and body that had been put on me by the gale. A little after eight o'clock, as I knew by hearing the ship's bell striking—and mighty pleasant it was to hear regularly that orderly sound again—the steward brought me a bowl of broth and propped me up in my berth while I drank it; and cheered me by telling me that the doctor was swearing at his broken leg like a good fellow, and was getting on very well indeed. And then my weariness had its way with me, and I fell off into that deep sleep which comes to a man only when all his energy has slipped away from him on a dead low tide. How long I slept I do not know. But I do know that I was routed suddenly into wakefulness by a jar that almost pitched me out of my berth, and that an instant later there was a tremendous crash as though the whole deck above me was smashing to pieces, and with this a rattle of light woodwork splintering and the sharp tinkling of breaking glass. For a moment there was silence; and then I heard shouts and screams close by me in the cabin, and a little later a great trampling on deck, and then the screw stopped turning and there was a roar of escaping steam.
I was so heavy with sleep that at first I thought we still were in the storm and that this commotion was a part of it; but as I shook off my drowsiness I got a clearer notion of the situation—remembering what the steward had told me of the condition of the mizzen-mast, and so arriving at the conclusion that it had fetched away bodily and had come crashing through the cabin skylight in its fall. But what the shock was that had sent it flying—unless we had been in collision—I could not understand. And all this while the trampling on deck continued, and out in the cabin the shouts and cries went on.
I thought that the steward would come to me—forgetting that in times of danger men are apt to think only of saving their own skins—and so laid still; being, indeed, so weak and wretched that it did not seem possible to me to do anything else. But he did not come, and at the end of what seemed to me to be a desperately long time—though I doubt if it were more than five minutes—I realized that I must try to do something to help myself; and was the more nerved to action by the fact that there no longer was the sound of voices in the cabin, while the noises on deck a good deal had increased. Indeed, I began to hear up there the puffing and snorting of the donkey-engine, and so felt certain that they were hoisting out the boats.
Somehow or another I managed to get out of my berth, and on my feet, and so to the door; but when I tried to open the door I could not budge it, and in the darkness I struck my head against what seemed to be a bar of wood that stuck in through one of the upper panels and so held it fast. The blow dizzied me, for it took me close to where my cut was and put me into intense pain.
While I stood there, pulling in a weak way at the door-knob and making nothing of it, I heard voices out in the cabin and through my broken door saw a gleam of light. But in the moment that my hope rose it went down again, for I heard some one say quickly and sharply: "It's no good. The way the spar lies we can't get at him—and to cut it through would take an hour."
And then a voice that I recognized for the steward's answered: "But the doctor ordered it. Where's an axe for a try?" To which the other man answered back again: "If it was the doctor himself we couldn't do it, and we'll tell him so. The ship'll be down in five minutes. We've got to run for it or the boats'll be off." And then away they ran together, giving no heed in their fright to my yells after them to come back and not leave me there to drown.
For a little while I was as nearly wild crazy as a man can be and yet have a purpose in his mind. The keen sense of my peril made me strong again. I kicked with my bare feet and pounded with my hands upon the door to break it, I shouted for help to come to me, and I gave out shrill screams of terror such as brutes give in their agony—for I was down to the hard-pan of human nature, and what I felt most strongly was the purely animal longing to keep alive.
But no one answered me, and I could tell by the sounds on deck getting fainter that some of the boats already had put off; and in a little while longer no sound came from the deck of any sort whatever, and by that I knew that all the boats must have got away. And as I realized that I was forsaken, and felt sure from what I had heard that the ship would float for only a few minutes longer, I gave a cry of downright despair—and then I lost track of the whole bad business by tumbling to the floor in the darkness in a dead swoon.
ON THE EDGE OF THE SARGASSO SEA
When I came to myself again, and found my state-room—although the dead-light was set—bright with the light which entered through the broken door, my first feeling was of wonder that I was not yet drowned; for it was evident that the sun must be well up in the heavens to shine so strongly, and therefore that a good many hours must have passed since the smash had happened that had sent everybody flying to the boats believing that the ship was going right down. And my next wonder was caused by the queer way in which the ship was lying—making me fancy at first that I was dizzy again, and my eyes tricking me—with a pitch forward that gave a slope to the floor of my state-room, of not less than twenty degrees.
For a while, in a stupid sort of way, I ruminated over these matters; and at last got hold of the simple explanation of them. Evidently, in spite of the straining of the steamer's frame in the storm, her water-tight compartments—or some of them—had held, leaving her floating with her broken bow well down in the water and her stern canted up into the air. And then the farther comforting thought came to me that if she had kept afloat for so many hours already, and seemed so steady in her new position, there was no reason why she should not keep on floating at least for as long as the fine weather lasted—which gave me a chance of rescue by some passing vessel, and so brought a good deal of hope back into my heart.
I still was very weak and shaky, and how I was to get out of the prison that I was in I did not know. By daylight it was easy to see what held me there: which was the end of a yard, with the reef-block hanging to it, smashed through the upper panel and caught so tight in the splintered wood-work as to anchor the door fast. If the wits of the steward and of the other fellow had not been scared clean out of them they easily might have knocked in the lower part of the door with an axe and so opened a way out for me; but as their only notion had been to cut away the spar—a tough piece of work—I could not in cool blood very greatly blame them for having given up my rescue and run for their own lives.
These thoughts went through my head while I lay there, most uncomfortably, on the sloping floor. Presently I managed to get up, but felt so dizzy that I had to seat myself in a hurry on the edge of the berth until my head got steadier. Fortunately my water-jug was half full, and I had a good drink from it which refreshed me greatly; and then I had the farther good fortune to see some biscuit which the steward had left on a shelf in the corner, and as I caught sight of them I realized that I was very hungry indeed. I ate one, along with some more sups of water, and felt much the better for it; but lay down in my berth that I might save the strength it gave me until I should have thought matters over a little and settled some line of action in my mind.
That I was too weak to break the door down was quite certain, and the only other thing that I could think of was cutting out the lower panels and so making a hole through which I could crawl. As this thought came to me I remembered the big jack-knife that had been in my trousers' pocket when I went overboard from the brig; and in a minute I was on my feet—and without feeling any dizziness, this time—and got to where my clothes were hanging on a hook, and found to my joy that my knife and all the other things which had been in my pockets had been returned to them after the clothes had been dried. The knife was badly rusted and I had a hard time opening it; but the rust did not much dull it, and I seated myself upon the floor and fell to slicing away at the soft pine wood with a will. I had to rest now and then, although I found that my strength held out better than I had hoped for, and that put me back a little; but the wood was so soft that in not much more than half an hour I had the job finished—and then I slipped on my trousers, and out I went through the hole on my hands and knees.