Overdue The Story of a Missing Ship
By Harry Collingwood Another very well-written book by Collingwood. As he was a naval architect you can rely upon his descriptions of the deck and sails of a vessel of the mid nineteenth century, the period of which he writes.
Our hero, the 17-year-old midshipman of the Salamis, is suddenly given the job of going aboard and taking command of the Mercury, an emigrant ship that they find drifting in mid-ocean, all her officers having died in various accidents, and the illiterate bosun and the ship's carpenter knowing full well that they had no idea how to navigate. He takes charge and all appears to be going well, when— But I will not spoil a good story for you.
Full of events, and seamen's humour, this books makes a good audiobook, and you will enjoy it. OVERDUE THE STORY OF A MISSING SHIP
BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD
THE "MERCURY" APPEARS.
This is a yarn of the days when the clipper sailing-ship was at the zenith of her glory and renown; when she was the recognised medium for the transport of passengers—ay, and, very frequently, of mails between Great Britain and the Colonies; and when steamers were, comparatively speaking, rare objects on the high seas. True, a few of the great steamship lines, such as the Cunard and the Peninsular and Oriental, were already in existence; but their fleets were only just beginning to compete, and with but a very limited measure of success, against the superb specimens of marine architecture owned by the Black Ball and other famous lines of sailing clippers. For the Suez Canal had not yet been dug, and—apart from the overland journeys to India—travellers bound to the East were compelled to go south-about round the Cape of Good Hope, whether they journeyed by steamer or by sailing-ship; and it was no very uncommon thing for the latter to beat the former on the passage to India, China, or Australia. Moreover, the marine steam engine was, at that period, a very expensive piece of machinery to operate, developing only a very moderate amount of power upon an exceedingly heavy consumption of coal; hence it was only the nabobs who could afford to indulge in the then costly luxury of ocean travel by steam.
The occurrence which I regard as the starting-point of my extraordinary yarn happened on the 27th day of October, in the year of grace 18—; the Salamis—which was the ship in which it originated—being, at noon of that day, in latitude 30 degrees south, and longitude 23 degrees west, or thereabout; thirty days out from London, on a voyage to Melbourne.
The Salamis, I may explain, was a full-rigged clipper ship of 1497 tons register, classed 100 A 1; being one of the crack vessels of the celebrated Gold Star Line, outward bound to Melbourne, as I have said, with a full complement of saloon and steerage passengers, and a general cargo that, while it filled her to the hatches, was so largely composed of light merchandise that it only sank her in the water to her very finest sailing trim; of which circumstance Captain Martin, her commander, was taking the fullest possible advantage, by "carrying on" day and night, in the hope of making a record passage. I, Philip Troubridge, was one of her midshipman-apprentices, of whom she carried six, and I was seventeen years of age on the day when the occurrence happened which I have alluded to above, and which I will now relate.
The Salamis carried three mates: chief, second, and third; and the accident happened in the first watch, when Mr Moore, the second mate, had charge of the deck. The wind was out from about nor'-nor'-west, and had been blowing very fresh all day, notwithstanding which the ship was under all three royals, and fore and main topgallant studdingsails, her course being south-east. There was a heavy and steep sea following the ship on her port quarter, which not only made her motions exceedingly uneasy, but also caused her to yaw wildly from time to time, despite the utmost efforts of two men at the wheel to keep her true to her course.
It was during one of these wild sheers that the main topgallant studdingsail-boom snapped short off by the boom-iron; and there was immediately a tremendous hullabaloo aloft of madly slatting canvas and threshing boom, as the studdingsail flapped furiously in the freshening breeze, momentarily threatening to spring the topgallant yard, if, indeed, it did not whip the topgallant-mast out of the ship. Then something fouled aloft, rendering it impossible to take in the sail; and, the skipper being on deck and manifesting some impatience at what he conceived to be the clumsiness of the men who had gone up on the topsail yard, Mr Moore, the second mate, sprang into the main rigging and went aloft to lend a hand. Just precisely what happened nobody ever knew; one of the men aloft said that the broken boom, in its wild threshing, struck the mate and knocked him off the yard; but, be that as it may, one thing certain is, that the poor fellow suddenly went whirling down, and, without a cry, fell into the boiling smother raised by the bow wave, and was never seen again! I happened to be on the poop at the moment, and, despite the darkness, saw the falling body of the mate just as it flashed down into the water, and guessed what had happened even before the thrilling cry of "Man overboard!" came pealing- down from aloft. I therefore made a dash for one of the lifebuoys that were stopped to the poop rail, cut it adrift, and hove it, as nearly as I could guess, at the spot where the mate had disappeared, while one of the men on the forecastle, anticipating the skipper's order, called all hands to shorten sail. The whole ship was of course instantly in a tremendous commotion, fore and aft. The rest of the studdingsails were taken in as quickly as possible, the royals and topgallantsails were clewed up, a reef was taken in the topsails, and the ship was brought to the wind and worked back, as nearly as could be, to the spot where the accident had happened, and a boat was lowered. Although the skipper had displayed such nice judgment in determining the precise spot where the search should begin, that the crew of the boat dispatched to search for the mate actually found and recovered the lifebuoy that I had thrown, no sign of the lost man was ever discovered. The assumption was that he had been stunned by the blow that had knocked him overboard, and had sunk at once. This occurrence cast a gloom over the ship for several days; for poor Moore was probably the most popular man in the ship, highly esteemed by the passengers, and as nearly beloved by the crew as one of the afterguard can ever reasonably hope to be. The skipper, in particular, took the loss of this very promising officer deeply to heart, not only because of the esteem in which he held him, but also, I fancy, because he was worried by the conviction that the accident was very largely due to his own propensity to "carry on" rather too recklessly.
On the ninth day after this unfortunate occurrence, and on our thirty- ninth day out from London, we found ourselves in the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope, and in latitude 37 degrees 20 minutes south, with a whole gale of wind chasing us, which blew us into latitude 39 degrees south, and longitude 60 degrees east before it left us, ten days later, stark becalmed. The calm, however, lasted but a few hours, and was succeeded by a light northerly breeze, under the impulse of which, with all plain sail set, the Salamis could barely log six knots to the hour. This lasted all night, and all the next day; but before that day had sped, the second incident occurred, that resulted in plumping me into the adventure which is the subject of this yarn.
The heavy sea which had been kicked up by the gale subsided with extraordinary rapidity, and when I went on duty at eight bells (eight o'clock) on this particular morning the weather was everything that the most fastidious person could possibly desire, saving that the sun struck along the weather side of the deck—when he squinted at us past the weather leach of the mainsail as the ship rolled gently to the heave of the swell—with a fierceness that threatened a roasting hot day, what time he should have worked his way a point or two farther round to the nor'ard. The swell which lingered, to remind us of the recent breeze, was subsiding fast, and the ocean presented one vast surface of long, solemn-sweeping undulations of the deepest, purest sapphire, gently ruffled by the breathing of the languid breeze, and ablaze in the wake of the sun with a dazzle that brought tears to the eye that attempted to gaze upon it. The ship's morning toilet had been completed, and the decks, darkened by the sluicing to which they had been lavishly subjected by the acting second mate and his watch, were drying fast and recovering their sand-white colour in the process. The brasswork, freshly scoured and polished, and the glass of the skylights, shot out a thousand flashes of white fire, where the sun's rays searched out the glittering surfaces as the ship rolled. The awning had already been spread upon the poop, in readiness for the advent of those energetic occupants of the cuddy who made a point of promenading for half an hour in order to generate an appetite for breakfast; the running gear had all been bowsed taut and neatly coiled down; and the canvas, from which the dew had already evaporated, soared aloft toward the deep, rich azure of the zenith in great, gleaming, milk-white cloths of so soft, so tender, so ethereal an aspect, that one would scarcely have been surprised to see the skysails dissolve in vapour and go drifting away to leeward upon the languid breeze. The main deck was lively with the coming and going of the steerage passengers as they went to the galley to fetch their breakfast; and there must have been between twenty and thirty children chasing each other fore and aft, and dodging round their elders in their play, filling the rich, sweet, morning air with the music of their voices. There was a soft, seething sound over the side as the ship slid gently along, accompanied by a constant iridescent gleam and flash of the tiny bubbles that slipped along the bends and vanished at last in the smooth, oil-like wake with its tiny whirlpools; and at frequent intervals a shoal of flying-fish would spark out from under the bows and go skimming and glittering away to port or starboard, like a shower of brand-new silver dollars hove broadcast by the hand of old Father Neptune himself. The cuddy breakfast was fairly under way, and a great clattering of cups and saucers, knives and forks, and the hum of lively conversation, accompanied by sundry savoury odours, came floating up through the open skylights, when the chief mate's eye happened to be attracted toward a gasket, streaming loose like an Irish pennant from the fore topgallant yard, and he sang out to one of the ordinary seamen to jump aloft and put it right. The fellow made his way up the ratlines with extreme deliberation—for, indeed, a journey aloft in such scorching heat was no joke—made up the loose gasket, and was in the very act of swinging himself off the yard when, happening to be watching him, I saw him suddenly pause and stiffen into an attitude of attention as, holding on to the jackstay with one hand, he flung the other up to his forehead and peered ahead under the sharp of it. For a full minute he stood thus; then, twisting his body until he faced aft, he hailed:
"On deck there!"
"Hillo!" answered the mate.
"There's a biggish ship away out yonder, sir," reported the man, "under her three taups'ls and fore topmast staysail; and by the way that she comes to and falls off again I'd say that she was hove-to."
"How far off is she?" demanded the mate.
"'Bout a dozen mile, I reckon, sir," answered the man.
"Um!" remarked the mate, as much to himself as to me, it seemed. "She is probably a whaler on the lookout for 'fish'. I believe they sometimes meet with rare streaks of luck just about here. All right," he added, hailing the man aloft; "you can come down."
Shortly afterward we made out the stranger's upper spars from the deck; and from the rapidity with which we raised them it soon became apparent that, if she had really been hove-to when first seen, she had soon filled away, and was now standing in our direction. By five bells she was hull-up; and while the skipper and mate were standing together eyeing her from the break of the poop—the latter with the ship's telescope at his eye—I saw the ensign of the stranger float out over her rail and go creeping up to her gaff-end.
"There goes her ensign, sir," I shouted to the mate, who responded by remarking dryly:
"Yes; I see it." Then, turning to the skipper, he said:
"There's something wrong aboard that craft, sir; they've just hoisted their ensign, jack downward!" This, it may be explained to the uninitiated, is a signal of distress.
"The dickens they have!" exclaimed the skipper. "Just let me have a look at her, Mr Bryce."
The mate handed over the telescope, and the skipper raised it to his eye, adjusting the focus to his sight.
"Ay, you are quite right," he agreed, with his eye still peering through the tube. "The jack's downward, right enough. Wonder what's wrong aboard of her? her hull and spars seem to be all right, and I don't see any water pouring from her scuppers, as there would be if she had sprung a leak and the hands were working at the pumps. Well, we shall soon know, I suppose. Let our own ensign be hoisted in acknowledgment, Mr Bryce."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered the mate. "Troubridge,"—to me—"jump aft and run our ensign up to the peak, will ye?"
I went aft to the flag locker, drew out the big ensign, bent it on to the halyards, and ran it up to the gaff-end, where there was just wind enough to blow it out and make it distinguishable for what it was.
The news that the stranger in sight was flying a signal of distress soon spread among the passengers, and in a few minutes every telescope in the cuddy was upon the poop and being eagerly focused upon the approaching vessel, which had by this time revealed herself as a full-rigged ship of some 800 tons measurement, of wholesome, motherly build, but certainly not a whaler, as could be seen by the model of the boats which she carried, and by the absence of certain characteristics which proclaim the whaler, and are apparent almost from the moment when she heaves into full view. There was, naturally, a vast amount of speculation, not only on the part of the skipper and mate, but also among our passengers, as to the precise character of her distress; but probably not one of us came anywhere near guessing at its extraordinary nature.
Approaching each other, as the two vessels were, it did not take us very long to close with the stranger; and as we drew near to her it became apparent that her people were preparing to lower a boat. At the proper moment, therefore, our mainyard was laid aback, the stranger followed suit, and a minute or two later the two craft came to a stand abreast of each other, the stranger about a hundred fathoms to windward of us, near enough, indeed, for us to read with the unaided eye the name Mercury upon her head-boards. Then one of her two port quarter boats was lowered and hauled to the gangway, and with three men pulling, and one in the stern-sheets grasping the yoke lines, she shoved off and pulled away towards us, the mate hailing them to come to the lee gangway, where a side ladder had been dropped over for their use. Her main deck was crowded with people—men and women—all hanging over the rail and staring at us with that idle curiosity which is so characteristic of the uneducated classes. Mr Bryce at once unhesitatingly pronounced them to be emigrants, an opinion which the skipper as unhesitatingly endorsed.
The men in the approaching boat were all forecastle hands, the one steering having the appearance of being either the boatswain or the carpenter of the ship, and this it was that gave me—and no doubt the skipper and mate also—the first specific hint of what was actually wrong aboard the stranger. Nothing, however, was said; and presently, when the boat came rounding under our stern, Captain Martin and Mr Bryce descended to the main deck and awaited our visitors at the gangway, our own steerage passengers, who had crowded the lee rail to see the strange boat come alongside, respectfully making way for them.
One only of the boat's crew—the man in the stern-sheets—ventured to come on deck, the other three staring up at the heads peering down at them from our rail, without saying a word in reply to the multitude of questions that were fired into them, beyond remarking that "the bo'sun will tell your skipper all about it."
The boatswain of the Mercury—for such the newcomer proved to be— passed through our gangway, pulled off the knitted woollen cap which decorated his head, and at once addressed himself to the skipper.
"Mornin', sir," he remarked. "My name's Polson—James Polson, and I'm bo'sun of the Mercury, which ship you see hove-to yonder,"—with a flourish of his hand in the direction of the vessel named.
"Yes?" said the skipper enquiringly, as the man paused, apparently waiting to be questioned after this introduction of himself. "I see you have a signal of distress flying. What's wrong with you?"
"Well, the fact is, sir, as we've lost our cap'n and both mates—" answered the man, when the skipper struck in amazedly:
"Lost your captain and both mates! How in the name of Fortune did that happen?"
"Well, sir, you see it was this way," was the reply. "When we'd been out about a week—we're from Liverpool, bound to Sydney, New South Wales, with a general cargo and two hundred emigrants—ninety-seven days out—when we'd been out about a week, or thereabouts—I ain't certain to a day or two, but it's all wrote down in the log—Cap'n Somers were found dead in his bunk by the steward what took him in a cup o' coffee every mornin' at six bells; and Mr Townsend—that were our chief mate— he took command o' the ship. Then nothin' partic'lar happened until we was well this side o' the Line, when one day, when all hands of us was shortenin' sail to a heavy squall as had bust upon us, Jim Tarbutt, a hordinary seaman, comin' down off the main tops'l yard by way o' the backstays, lets go his hold and drops slap on top o' Mr Townsend, what happened to be standin' underneath, and, instead of hurtin' of hisself, broke t'other man's neck and killed him dead on the spot! Then," continued Polson, regardless of the ejaculations of astonishment and commiseration evoked by the recital of this extraordinary accident, "then Mr Masterman, what were origin'lly our second mate, he up and took charge, and navigated us to somewheres about where we are now. But four nights ago come last night—yes, that's right, it were four nights ago—'bout three bells in the middle watch, while it were blowin' hard from the west'ard and we were runnin' under single-reefed topsails, with a very heavy sea chasin' of us, the night bein' dark and thick with rain, somebody comes rushin' out of the poop cabin yellin' like mad, and, afore anybody could stop him, sprang on to the lee rail, just the fore side of the main riggin', and takes a header overboard!" More exclamations of astonishment from the listeners, amid which Polson triumphantly concluded his gruesome narrative by adding: "Of course we couldn't do nothin', and so the poor feller were lost. And when Chips and I comed to investigate we found that the unfortunit man were Mr Masterman, he bein' the only one that was missin'!"
"Well!" ejaculated the skipper, addressing himself to Mr Moore, our chief mate; "I've heard a good many queer yarns in my time, of maritime accident and disaster, but this one tops the lot. The captain and both mates lost in the same voyage, and, so far as the two last are concerned, by such queer accidents too! Did you,"—turning to Polson—"find anything in Mr—what's his name!—Masterman's cabin to account for his extraordinary behaviour in rushing out on deck and jumping overboard in the middle of the night?"
"No, sir," answered Polson with much simplicity. "He'd been drinkin' a goodish bit, and there were a half-empty bottle of rum under his piller; but—"
"A-ah!" ejaculated the skipper with a whole world of emphasis; "that may account for a good deal. Well, what happened next?"
"Oh, nothin' else haven't happened, thank God!" exclaimed the boatswain piously. "But ain't that what I've already told ye quite enough, sir? What's made it so terrible awk'ard for all hands of us is that we're now without a navigator, and have lost our reckonin'. So, after Chips and I had confabulated a bit, we comed to the conclusion that, knowin' as we was well in the track of ships bound to the east'ard, the best thing we could do was to heave-to and wait until somethin' comed along that could spare us somebody to navigate the ship for us to Sydney. Chips and I are men enough to take care of her—to know when to make and when to shorten sail—but we don't know nothin' about navigation, ye see, sir."
"Ay, I see," answered the skipper. "Well, I think you acted very wisely, boatswain, in heaving-to; I don't know that you could have done anything better, under the circumstances. But, as to sparing an officer to navigate you—I have had the misfortune to lose one of my own mates this voyage, and,"—here his eye happened to fall on me, and he considered me attentively for several seconds, as though he felt he had seen me before somewhere, and was trying to remember who I was. Then his countenance lit up as an idea seemed to strike him, and he addressed me briskly:
"What d'ye say, Troubridge? You've heard this man's yarn, and understand the fix that they're in aboard the ship yonder. You are a perfectly reliable navigator, and a very fair seaman; moreover, the boatswain says that he and the carpenter are seamen enough to take care of the ship, which I do not for a moment doubt. Do you feel inclined to undertake the job of navigating the Mercury from here to Sydney? It ought to be a very good thing for you, you know. I have no doubt that the owners—"
I did not wait for him to finish; I knew enough to understand perfectly well what a splendid thing it would be for me, from a professional point of view, if I should succeed in safely navigating such a ship as the Mercury to Sydney; and I had no shadow of doubt of my ability to do so; I therefore cut in by eagerly expressing my readiness to undertake the task.
"Then that is all right," remarked the skipper.
Turning to Polson, he said: "This young gentleman is Mr Philip Troubridge, one of my midshipman-apprentices. He has been with me for a matter of three years; and he is, as you just now heard me say, an excellent navigator, and a very good seaman. I have not the least doubt that he will serve your purpose quite as well as anyone else that you are at all likely to pick up; and if you care to have him I shall be pleased to spare him to you. But that is the best that I can do for you; as I told you, a little while ago, I have lost one of my mates—"
"Say no more, sir; say no more," interrupted Polson. "Your recommendation's quite sufficient to satisfy me that Mr—er— Troubridge'll do very well; an' since he's willin' to come with us we'll have him most gratefully, sir, and with many thanks to you for sparin' of him to us."
"Very well, then; that is settled," exclaimed the skipper briskly. Then, turning to me, he said:
"Cut away at once, Troubridge, and get your chest over the side as quickly as possible. If you are smart you may get aboard your new ship in time to take an observation at noon and check your own reckoning by ours." Then, as I rushed off to the after-house, where we apprentices were berthed, he turned to Polson and proceeded to question him further relative to the extraordinary series of fatalities that had occurred on board the Mercury.
THE SHADOW OF COMING EVENTS.
It took me less than ten minutes to bundle my traps into the waiting boat alongside; and then, having already said goodbye to my shipmates in the apprentices' berth, I stepped up to the skipper and chief mate to say the same, and to thank the former for giving me this splendid chance. He was very kind in bidding me farewell; told me I had given him every satisfaction while I had been with him; gave me a few words of caution and advice; and wound up by saying:
"The boatswain, here, tells me that the chronometer aboard the Mercury has unfortunately been allowed to run down; when, therefore, you get aboard, and have taken your meridian altitude, you had better wind the chronometer and then set it to Greenwich time, which I will give you; after which you should experience no difficulty in finding your way to Sydney, to which port I wish you a prosperous and pleasant voyage. Of course I quite reckon upon arriving two or three weeks ahead of you; but unless you have an exceptionally protracted passage you ought to arrive in good time to return home with us. Unless, therefore, the Mercury's agent in Sydney wishes you to return to England in the ship, you had better make your way to Melbourne as soon as you have settled up, and go back with us."
I thanked him for the kindly send-off that he was giving me, and then, after a final shake of the hand, followed Polson down the side, seated myself in the stern-sheets, and—the boatswain pulling stroke while the other three oarsmen shifted one thwart forward—shoved off, the crew and passengers of the Salamis giving me a little cheer to speed me on my way. The cheer was at once vociferously responded to by the people crowding the Mercury's rail. No doubt they were greatly relieved at the thought that there was to be no more aimless drifting about the ocean for them, but that at last they were to find themselves again heading intelligently toward their port of destination.
By the time that I had arrived alongside the Mercury and mounted to her deck it was getting so close toward noon, that I had only barely time enough to get my traps out of the boat before the moment arrived when I must get to work with my sextant to secure the sun's meridian altitude, from which to deduce the ship's latitude. Then there was an even more important job to be done, namely, to start and set the chronometer; therefore, as soon as I had secured my meridian altitude and made it noon aboard the Mercury, we wore ship, and coming up alongside the Salamis—that lay patiently waiting for us with her main topsail aback—obtained the correct Greenwich time and set our chronometer to it. This done, Captain Martin swung his mainyard and made sail, and we followed suit as quickly as we could. Then I worked out my observations, pricked off the ship's position on the chart, wrote up the log, and took possession of the late captain's stateroom, by which time dinner was on the cabin table, and I sat down to my first meal on board the Mercury. The food, of course, was not quite so luxurious as that served up on the cuddy tables aboard the Salamis, but it was a long way better than what I had been accustomed to get in the apprentices' berth, and I appreciated the change accordingly.
At the conclusion of the meal, at which Polson joined me, uninvited, while the carpenter stumped the poop as officer of the watch, I went on deck to have a good look at my first command; and, on the whole, was very pleased with her. She was a big ship for her tonnage, having evidently been constructed with an eye to ample cargo stowage rather than speed; consequently she was inclined to be bluff in the bows and full in the run; yet when I looked ahead and saw that the Salamis had only drawn ahead of us by about a mile during the half-hour or so that I had been below, I was by no means dissatisfied. She was evidently an elderly ship, for everything about her in the way of fittings and equipment was old-fashioned; but she was as strong as oak and iron could make her, her scantling being nearly twice as heavy as that of the Salamis. Her bulwarks were almost as high and solid as those of a frigate, and she was pierced to mount seven guns of a side, but no longer carried any artillery on her decks excepting two brass six- pounders for the purpose of signalling. She was very loftily and solidly rigged, and it did not take me long to ascertain that she had been most liberally maintained, much of her rigging, both standing and running, being new, while her ground tackle was ponderous enough to hold a ship of double her size. "Not much chance," thought I, "of this old barkie dragging her anchors home and driving ashore in anything short of a hurricane!" She carried a full poop, the break of which came so far forward that there was scarcely room to pass comfortably between the foot of the poop ladders and the combing of the after hatch. The poop cabin was a very spacious affair, extending, for the greater part of its length, to the full width of the ship, and it was most comfortably fitted up, although, as might be expected, it lacked the luxurious finish of the Salamis' cuddy. It looked as though it might at one time have been fitted with staterooms on either side for the accommodation of saloon passengers; but, if so, they had all been removed, save two at the fore and two at the after end of the cabin. And even these were now unoccupied, the boatswain and carpenter occupying the staterooms at the fore end of the structure, in which the chief and second mate had originally been berthed.
The captain's cabin was abaft the saloon, in the extreme after end of the ship, and was an unusually commodious and airy apartment, extending the entire width of the ship, and splendidly lighted and ventilated by a whole range of large stern windows. There was a fine, roomy, standing bed-place on the starboard side, with a splendid chest of drawers under it; a washstand and dressing-table at the foot of it; a large and well- stocked bookcase on the port side; a chart rack occupied the whole of the fore bulkhead; the floor or deck of the cabin was covered with a handsome Turkey carpet; and a mahogany table, big enough to accommodate a large chart, stood in the middle of the apartment. This was where I was to sleep, and to spend in privacy as much of my waking time as I chose. "Truly," thought I, "this is an agreeable change from my cramped quarters aboard the Salamis!"
Having completed the establishment of myself in this luxurious cabin, by turning out my chest and hanging up such of my clothes as I was likely to want immediately, and so on, I went on deck again, where the carpenter, who told me that his name was Tudsbery—"Josiah Tudsbery, your honour, sir,"—was on duty, and requested him to conduct me below to the emigrants' quarters, which, I found, occupied the whole of the 'tween-decks. Here again the liberality of the ship's owners became manifest, for the whole fitting up of the place was vastly superior to what was at that time considered good enough accommodation for emigrants; the married quarters consisting of a number of quite comfortable and roomy cabins; while the spaces allotted to the accommodation of the single men and women ensured to their occupants such complete privacy as was deemed quite unnecessary in those days. I found that it was the duty of the emigrants to keep their own quarters clean, and this seemed to have been somewhat neglected of late. I therefore gave orders that all hands should at once turn-to and give the 'tween-decks a thorough cleansing, in readiness for another inspection by myself at eight bells in the afternoon watch.
The emigrants aboard the Mercury numbered two hundred all told; namely thirty-three married couples, twenty-eight unmarried women, forty-two unmarried men, and sixty-four children, of whom one—a sweet, good- tempered baby girl—had been born during the voyage. They, the emigrants, seemed to be a very mixed lot, ranging from clod-hopping, agricultural labourers, whose intelligence seemed insufficient to enable them to appreciate the wonder of a flying-fish or the beauty of a golden, crimson, and purple sunset, to individuals of so refined and intellectual an appearance and so polished a behaviour, that the fact of their being 'tween-deck passengers seemed nothing short of a grotesque incongruity.
When I went below again, at eight bells, to inspect the emigrants' quarters, I found them sweet, clean, and altogether very much more wholesome than they had been upon the occasion of my first visit, and I expressed my gratification at the change, hinting pretty strongly that I should expect the place to be maintained in that condition for the remainder of the voyage; at which remark one of the occupants—a pale, delicate-looking girl—exclaimed:
"Oh, sir, I only hope that you will insist upon that! Some of the people here—especially the men—are shockingly lazy, and would never do a hand's turn of work if they were not made to."
"I am much obliged to you for the hint," said I. "I will find out the identity of those especially lazy ones, and see if I cannot imbue them with a good wholesome hatred of idleness before we arrive in the land, where those who won't work must starve."
By sunset that night the Salamis had slid so far ahead of us that only the heads of her courses were visible above the horizon; and with nightfall we saw the last of her that we were destined to see during that voyage.
I suppose it was only natural that I, a lad of barely seventeen years of age, should be full of business, and importance, and anxiety, for a few hours at least, upon finding myself thus unexpectedly placed in a position of such tremendous responsibility as was involved in the navigation, and therefore, to a large extent, the safety of this fine, wholesome old ship with her two hundred passengers, her crew of thirty, and her valuable cargo. At all events, that was the condition of mind in which I found myself as I paced the spacious poop, hour after hour, sometimes accompanied by Polson, sometimes conversing with Tudsbery, and occasionally alone. As I walked, my glances travelled, with the regularity of clockwork, first to windward, then ahead, then aloft, and finally—as I reached the binnacle—into the compass bowl; then away out to windward again, and so on, ad infinitum, until I was fairly bone- weary, and had completely walked off all my anxiety—to say nothing of my importance—and had convinced myself that I really might venture to leave the ship for a few hours to the care of the boatswain and the carpenter.
I have mentioned that, when bidding me farewell prior to my change over from the Salamis to the Mercury, Captain Martin was kind enough to give me a word or two of caution and advice; and one of the bits of advice which he most forcibly impressed upon me was that I should make a point of sighting either Saint Paul or Amsterdam island on my way to the eastward, and thus verify my reckoning. I recognised this as being a counsel of wisdom, and determined to shape a course that would enable me to sight both, they being only about fifty miles apart, and both standing high. I therefore very carefully laid off the compass course upon the chart, and found it to be south-east by east three-quarters east, the distance being eight hundred and forty miles; and this course I gave to the helmsman as soon as I had pricked it off and very carefully verified it, while he passed it on to his relief, and so on.
But when I turned out at six bells the next morning I found, to my disgust, that the wind had drawn round from the eastward and broken us some four points off our course; while, to add to my vexation, the boatswain and the carpenter—both of them illiterate men—had entered up the log slate in such an extraordinary manner that, so far as the dead reckoning was concerned, the information was not of the slightest use to me. Fortunately for my peace of mind the atmosphere was clear, and I was able to get sights during the forenoon which gave me the ship's longitude; while, a little later on, a meridian altitude of the sun fixed our latitude for us. Then, for nearly thirty hours, we found ourselves enveloped in one of the densest fogs I ever experienced, with light, baffling variable winds that made of our wake a continual zigzag, winding up with three days of thoroughly foul weather—a whole gale of wind from the north-east—during the greater part of which we lay hove- to under close-reefed fore and main topsails, with our head to the south-east. Then the weather cleared and moderated; the wind gradually worked round, first to east, and then to south-east; and at length I found the ship laying up, close-hauled under all plain sail, for the spot where, according to my reckoning, Saint Paul ought to be. I was now especially anxious to make that island, for the weather of the past three or four days had been of such a character as to baffle the most experienced of navigators, and I confess that I was beginning to feel rather more than a trifle nervous. The island, however, hove into view at the precise moment and in the precise quarter that it ought to do if my reckoning happened to be correct; and this test and verification of the accuracy of my working served to completely re-establish my confidence in myself, so that, from that time onward, I never experienced the least anxiety. I felt that so long as I could get tolerably regular sights of the sun, moon, or stars I was not at all likely to go wrong.
But before the island of Saint Paul had climbed up over the horizon that stretched athwart our bows, I had become aware of a certain matter that, while it struck me as being somewhat peculiar, seemed to bear no further significance for me.
One of the first persons among the emigrant passengers aboard the Mercury to attract my attention was a tall, thin, long-haired, sickly- looking man, of about thirty years of age, clad in a suit of rusty black, whose appearance and manner generally suggested to me the idea that he must be by profession a schoolmaster. There was a certain air of exaggerated earnestness of demeanour about him, and a wildness of expression in his flashing coal-black eyes, that caused me to set him down as being somewhat crack-brained. His name, I soon ascertained, was Algernon Marcus Wilde, and he was among the first of the emigrants to speak to me. He came to me, on the morning after I joined the ship, with a complaint as to the quality and quantity of the food served out to the occupants of the 'tween-decks; and I was as much struck by the correctness of his speech, as by the excessive indignation which he infused into his manner, when stating the nature of his alleged grievance. I pointed out to him the fact that, whatever the quality of the food might be, I was certainly not responsible for it, nor, in the event of its proving to be unsuitable, could I remedy the matter away out there in mid-ocean; but I promised to investigate the affair, and to do what might be possible to remove the grievance, should I find such to exist—of which I had my doubts after my brief but highly satisfactory experience of the viands served up in the cabin.
I accordingly requested the steward to produce the dietary list which formed the basis of the agreement between the owners and the emigrants; and, upon going through it, was certainly unable to find any just cause for complaint, so far as quantity was concerned. The question of quality was of course a different matter; but here again, when, a day or two later, I unexpectedly examined the food as it was being served out at the galley, I was quite unable to discover any legitimate cause for complaint. On the contrary, the food, although plain, was as good as it was possible to obtain in those times aboard a ship that had been at sea a hundred days; and it was excellently prepared. When I sent for Wilde, and asked him to state specifically what he found wrong with the food that I had just examined, all he could say was that it was not so good or so varied in character as that which he had seen from time to time carried aft for use in the cabin; and that in his opinion no distinction whatever ought to be made in the treatment of persons occupying different parts of the ship; also that he considered I ought to give instructions for the emigrants to be fed henceforth from the stores provided for cabin use; nor would he be satisfied, although I pointed out that he was getting the food that the owners had undertaken to provide him with in exchange for his passage money. Of course to attempt to argue with so unreasonable an individual was obviously absurd, and I therefore dismissed him and thought nothing more about his complaints.
This, however, was not the matter of which I have spoken as gradually obtruding itself upon my attention, although, had I only been able to guess it, the two were not unconnected. What I noticed, almost from the first moment of boarding the Mercury, without attaching any particular importance to it, was that this man Wilde and a few of the other male emigrants were in the habit of spending practically the whole of the second dogwatch—which, in fine weather at all events, is usually a period of idleness and recreation for a ship's crew—on the forecastle- head, smoking and chatting animatedly with the forecastle hands; while at other times the ex-schoolmaster—as Wilde actually proved to be— seemed eternally engaged in earnest discussion with his fellow emigrants. I often wondered idly what the man could possibly find to talk about so incessantly; but usually found a sufficiently satisfactory explanation in the reflection that, being a man of education, he would naturally take pleasure in extracting the ideas of others, and also probably in correcting them according to his own notions. He was evidently very fond of talking; and I frequently amused myself by watching the impassioned earnestness and the eloquent gestures with which he would hold forth upon the subject—whatever it might be—that happened to be under discussion. I soon found that Polson and Tudsbery, the boatswain and carpenter of the ship, apparently found more pleasure in spending the second dogwatch on the forecastle with their shipmates and the emigrants than they did in promenading the poop with me; but this was not surprising, for not only were they both very illiterate men, but it quickly became apparent that they and I had scarcely a single interest or idea in common, and we were consequently often hard put to it to find a topic of congenial conversation; indeed, in the course of a few days, without the slightest ill-feeling on either side, our communications became almost exclusively restricted to matters connected with the business of the ship.
Looking back, from the summit of a matured experience, as I now can, upon that first fortnight aboard the Mercury, I often feel astonished that I never, for a single instant, caught the faintest premonition of what was looming ahead; for I can recall plenty of hints and suggestions, had I only been keen-sighted enough to observe them and smart enough to read their significance; but I believe the fact to be that at that time I had no room in my mind for any other thought than that of the navigation of the ship. It is true that for more than a year it had been part of my daily duty, as a midshipman-apprentice qualifying for the position of officer, to take observations of the various heavenly bodies simultaneously with those of Captain Martin and the mates, to work them out independently, and to submit my calculations to the skipper—who examined and returned them with such written comments as he deemed called for—with the result that I had long since become proficient in the science of navigation. But this was a very different thing. If on board the Salamis I had chanced to make a mistake, the worst that could have happened would have been a sharp rebuke from the skipper for my carelessness, and an equally sharp injunction to be more careful in future; whereas now, aboard the Mercury, if I happened to make a miscalculation, there was nobody to correct it; and although subsequent observations might reveal the error, and no actual harm arise from its committal so long as the ship was in mid-ocean, a comparatively trivial mistake committed when the ship happened to be in the vicinity of rocks, or shoals, or approaching land, might easily make all the difference between perfect safety and her total loss, together with that of all hands. Hence, during those early days, when the sense of grave responsibility lay heavy upon my young shoulders, I could think of nothing but more or less abstruse astronomical problems.
AN UNPLEASANT SURPRISE.
The revelation came upon me, with the stunning effect of a thunder-clap, on the day upon which we made the island of Saint Paul. The weather during the whole of the preceding day had been brilliantly fine, with a light air of wind that, breathing out from the south-east at daybreak, had gradually hauled round until by noon it had settled at south; so that when I took my meridian altitude of the sun for the determination of our latitude, the Mercury was heading straight for the spot where my calculations declared the island to be, with all plain sail set to her royals, and with the weather bracer slightly checked.
Upon working out my meridian altitude I found the ship's latitude to be 38 degrees 43 minutes south and we were steering true east; consequently if my calculations were accurate, we were at that moment on the exact parallel of Saint Paul, which—also according to my calculations—then lay in line with our jibboom, eighty miles distant. This result was confirmed by a further observation of the sun taken in the course of the afternoon watch; and a very simple calculation then informed me that, if I had made no mistake, and there occurred no change in the direction or strength of the wind, the island ought to be sighted, directly ahead, fourteen miles distant, at dawn of the next day. This anticipation I communicated, in my anxiety, to Polson and Tudsbery, the former of whom remarked:
"Well, Mr Troubridge, we shan't have very long to wait afore we're able to prove the haccuracy of your calculations; but let me tell ye this, sir—if you're able to hit off that there bit of a hiland anywhere near as close as you hopes to, a'ter all the box-haulin' about, breakin' off, heavin'-to, and driftin' to leeward that we've had these here last few days—well, all I can say is that you're a good enough navigator to take a ship anywhere, ay, if 'twas round the world and back."
"Y-e-es," said I, flattered a bit off my balance by the fulsome character of the compliment, "there will not be much fault to find, I fancy, after the traverse that we have been working. By the way, Polson, have you ever sighted Saint Paul? I never have, although this is my fifth trip in these seas."
"Well, no, sir; I can't say as I have," answered the boatswain. "But," he continued, peering through the skylight at the cabin clock, "it's eight bells. I'll call Chips. I fancies I heard him say that he 'ad sighted it once or twice. I'll ask him when he comes on deck."
So saying, Polson walked to the bell, where it hung mounted on the rail that guarded the fore end of the poop, struck "eight bells" upon it, and then descended to call the carpenter, with whom he presently returned to the poop.
"Yes, Mr Troubridge," continued the boatswain, as he preceded the carpenter up the weather poop ladder, "Chips, here, says he've sighted the hiland twice in his time; but only at a distance."
"Ah!" said I. "Do you think you would recognise it again, Tudsbery?"
"Oh, yes, sir; no fear of that," answered the carpenter confidently. "It's a peculiar-lookin' spot, not to be very easily mistook. I remembers that when we last sighted it I heard the mate say to the skipper that it looked pretty much like a dead whale floatin' high out o' the water; and he was right; it did. Oh yes, I'll reckernize it again fast enough, if I claps my eyes upon it, never fear."
"Well," said I, "I expect it to heave in sight to-morrow at dawn, under the jibboom-end, some fourteen or fifteen miles distant, if the wind and weather last as they are now—which I believe will be the case, since the barometer remains steady. It is your morning watch, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir; my eight hours out to-night," answered Chips.
"Then," said I, turning to the boatswain, "when you call the carpenter to-morrow morning, at the end of the middle watch, please give me a call also; for, never yet having sighted the island, I should like to be on deck when it heaves into view, and get a good look at it."
"All right, sir," answered Polson; "I'll rouse ye out, never fear."
The weather held fine all through that night, with the breeze light but steady at south; when, having been duly called by the boatswain at four o'clock the next morning, I turned out and went on deck, the ship, with her spars almost upright, was sliding very gently along over a sea so smooth that her mastheads seemed scarcely to sway at all among the brilliant stars that thickly jewelled the deep indigo vault overhead. The silence of night lay heavy upon the breast of the placid deep, and seemed to be emphasised rather than broken by the faint sigh of the breeze through the maze of spars and rigging that towered aloft, the soft seething and plash of water along the bends, the light creak or cheep of some parral or sheave up in the velvet darkness, and the occasional clank of the tiller chains as the watchful helmsman, with his eye upon some star peering past the weather leach of the main-royal, found it necessary to give the ship a spoke of the wheel one way or the other. The watch had stowed themselves away somewhere about the fore deck, doubtless taking a quiet catnap somewhere out of reach of the heavy dew, and were not to be seen; but the figure of the lookout on the topgallant forecastle could be just made out, momentarily eclipsing first one low-lying star and then another, as he paced monotonously to and fro athwartships to keep himself awake.
As I stood there at the head of the weather poop ladder, abstractedly watching this man's movements, it suddenly struck me that there was one point upon the horizon, straight ahead, where the night gloom seemed to be the merest trifle deeper and more opaque than elsewhere, and I wondered whether it might perchance be the loom of the island, the highest point of which being, according to the chart, eight hundred and twenty feet above the sea level, should now be visible above the horizon if it were only daylight—and my reckoning happened to be correct. I fetched the ship's night-glass and took a good look through it at this spot, but at first could make nothing certain of it. However, while I still looked, a bright star suddenly swam into view above the spot, and my heart gave a great leap, and a heavy sigh escaped me; for I knew, from the sweep of the horizon and the height of other stars about it in the immediate neighbourhood, that the celestial body which had so suddenly sprung into the field of the telescope must have just risen above the topmost ridge of something solid blotting out a small space of sky in that quarter; and the something solid could only be the island of Saint Paul.
"The island is in sight, Tudsbery, as straight ahead as it is possible for a man to aim for it!" I exclaimed exultantly; for my feeling of relief from doubt and anxiety, and the swift conviction that I might henceforward confidently rely upon myself, were so great that I felt impelled to give audible expression to my satisfaction.
"You don't say so, Mr Troubridge!" exclaimed the carpenter, coming to my side. "Whereabouts do she lie, sir?"
"Come and stand where I am, and I will show you," answered I. "There, now, do you see that bright star, low down in the sky, just over the spot where the cathead passes out through the bulwarks?"
"Certainly, sir; I see it quite plainly," answered the carpenter.
"Then look immediately beneath it, and you will see the loom of the land," said I. "You can make it out more clearly with the naked eye than through the telescope. D'ye see it?"
"Well," exclaimed Chips doubtfully, "now that you comes to mention it, I admit that the gloom away down there do look a bit thicker than it do anywheres else; but I should never ha' noticed it if you hadn't drawed my attention to it. And, even now, I don't know as I should care to swear as to it bein' land."
"No," said I; "and neither should I, if I did not know it to be there. But wait until the day breaks, and you will see that I am right."
"I don't doubt it, sir; I don't doubt it at all," answered Chips soothingly; "but it's a wonder to me how you've been able to find your way to it; for it's only a little bit of a rock after all—a hextinc' volcano, I've heard some people say. How far d'ye reckon we are off from it, now, Mr Troubridge?"
"Probably about seventeen or eighteen miles," said I.
"Ah!" observed Chips. "Then we ought to be abreast of it soon a'ter breakfast." And therewith he fell into a reverie.
It was about an hour later that, preceded by a slight chilling of the air, the first faint pallor of dawn came filtering through the velvet darkness ahead, stealing imperceptibly higher and higher into the eastern sky, and causing the stars thereaway to dwindle and grow dim until, one after another, they vanished in the cold, colourless light that now stretched along the horizon beneath our jibboom-end, spreading right and left, even as one stood and watched it. Then a faint flush of palest primrose stole into the pallor, against which the horizon line ran black as ebony, with here and there a suspicion of a gleam coming and going between it and the ship, as the growing light fell upon the gently heaving swell. A moment later a great shaft of white light shot perpendicularly from the horizon far ahead toward the zenith, where the indigo was swiftly paling to purest ultramarine, the primrose hue became more pronounced, and there, in the very midst of it, where the colour was strongest, rose a hummock of softest, most delicate and ethereal amethyst, clean-cut as a cameo, and shaped—as the carpenter had said— like the back of a gigantic whale, with three well-marked protuberances growing out of it, while others showed just clear of the water, toward what might be supposed to be the tail end.
"There you are, Chips," I exclaimed in a fever of exultation; "there is the island—"
"Land ho! straight ahead," shouted the lookout at this moment, as he faced aft, pointing with his right hand over the bows.
"Ay, ay, Jimmy, my hearty, we sees it, plain enough," answered the carpenter. Then he turned to me and continued:
"Yes, sir; there it is, as you says. Ay, and it's Saint Paul, too; ne'er a doubt of it. I reckernizes them there hummicks a-stickin' up out of the back of it. And I reckon that it's just about fourteen mile away—which brings your calcilations right to a hapigraphy. Well, well, hedication's a most wonderful thing, and no mistake. The bosun and I might ha' searched for that there rock till all was blue, and never ha' found it; but you comes along and gets aboard of us eight hunderd mile away, and—says you—'we'll sight Saint Paul as we runs down our eastin''; and, although we've been headin' all round the compass since then, there's the hiland, right enough, and just where you said it would be, ay, to the very hinch."
I was vastly tickled at the man's enthusiastic admiration of my little twopenny-halfpenny feat of navigation, and—secretly—very proud of it myself; but, of course, in reality it was an exceedingly commonplace exploit, which any other navigator worthy of being so-called could have accomplished without the slightest difficulty, the only essentials to success being good instruments, clear skies, and correct arithmetic, all of which I fortunately possessed. But I was nevertheless highly elated at my success, chiefly, I think, because, it being my first independent attempt to navigate a ship, I had demonstrated to myself my ability to do so.
The day now grew fast in the east; the primrose hue softened away, right and left, into a tint of warm grey with a faint suggestion of rose in it; the stars had all vanished save one solitary gem that hung low in the western sky like a silver lamp; the zenith was a rich, pure ultramarine, that was fast spreading toward the western horizon and chasing the last lingering shadow of night before it. Great spokes of radiant light were darting aloft from behind the island and touching into gold a few small, scattered flakes of fleecy cloud that floated high over our mastheads. Then, all in a moment, the small, faintly- gleaming bit of land ahead became transformed, as it might be with a magician's wand, into a block of deepest, richest purple, bristling with rays of burning gold, a throbbing rim of molten gold swept into view from behind it, and in an instant it vanished amid a blinding blaze of sunlight that flashed across the ocean toward us, transfiguring its erstwhile surface of ebony into a tremble of turquoise and gold, outlining every spar and sail and rope in the ship with thin, golden wires, and causing every bit of glass and polished metal-work to blaze and scintillate with golden fire. The watch appeared, yawning and stretching as they emerged from their hiding places, blinking like owls as they stared over the bows endeavouring to pick out from the dazzle ahead the shape of land that the lookout was pointing to; and the carpenter emerged from his reverie to shout:
"Rig the head-pump there, for'ard, and lay along with your buckets and brushes!"
At two bells in the forenoon watch, when I mounted the poop after breakfast, we were square abreast and within a mile of the island, I having instructed the boatswain to pass as close to it as was prudent; for I had heard of shipwrecked people having found refuge there and on the neighbouring island of Amsterdam, and was desirous to see whether perchance there might be anyone there at the moment. But there was no one to be seen, at which I was not surprised, for our approach had been slow, affording ample opportunity to anyone on the island to observe it and make his presence known; yet no signal or sign of any kind indicating human occupation had been descried. True, as we drew nearer, a faint wreath of smoke here and there was occasionally seen; but our telescopes showed us that these issued from the soil itself, and not from fires kindled by human agency, being, no doubt, the result of volcanic action; also there were a few goats dotted about, browsing in groups of two or three; and their perfect placidity of demeanour was convincing evidence of the absence of man on the island. Having satisfied ourselves of the non-existence of human beings upon Saint Paul, I gave the order to bear away for Amsterdam, which lies due north and fifty miles distant from the smaller island, intending to subject it also to a similar inquisition. Five minutes later we were running off square before the flagging breeze, with the elusive, filmy shadow which was as much as we could see of the island at that distance, and under the existing atmospheric conditions hovering on the horizon over our figurehead.
I had just completed the making of a sketch of, and the jotting down of a few notes concerning, Saint Paul, which I thought might possibly be useful to me some time later on in life, when, somewhat to my surprise, the man Wilde, of whom I have already spoken, came up on to the poop and informed me that he had somewhat to say to me if I could spare the time to listen to him. Imagining that he might have some fresh complaint to make regarding the food supplied to the emigrants, I closed my notebook, returned it to my pocket, and requested him to say on.
"Thank you!" he said. "The fact is, Mr Troubridge, that I come to you this morning as the representative and spokesman of all on board this ship, crew as well as passengers; and it will perhaps simplify matters a great deal if I tell you at the outset that we are all absolutely of one mind regarding the matter which I have been deputed to lay before you."
"I understand," said I. "Pray proceed, Mr Wilde," for the man had paused, as though to afford me an opportunity to speak.
He bowed slightly in acknowledgment of my permission to continue, and resumed:
"When Polson, the boatswain of this ship, boarded the Salamis, he informed your captain that the Mercury was bound from Liverpool to Sydney, New South Wales, and in a sense the statement was true, inasmuch as that when the ship sailed from Liverpool her captain had instructions to navigate her to Australia. But since then many things have happened, as you are aware. One very important happening, however, of which as yet you know nothing, is this: After most carefully weighing every point, for and against, we have arrived, with absolute unanimity, at the determination that, instead of continuing our voyage to Australia, we will proceed to the Pacific Ocean, where, on some suitable island—for which we will search until we find it—we will establish ourselves as a little community, to be governed upon the simple, old-fashioned, patriarchal system of perfect equality. And my object in explaining this scheme of ours to you is to request that you will have the goodness to change the course of the ship accordingly."
This extraordinary statement, with its concluding request, was made in so perfectly calm and matter-of-fact a manner, and in a tone of such absolute finality, that for a space of several seconds I was rendered literally speechless with amazement. The colossal impudence and audacity of the proposal took my breath away. But I soon collected my scattered faculties, and forthwith proceeded vigorously to remonstrate with the visionary enthusiast who, I instantly recognised, must be the originator of the scheme.
"Sit down, Mr Wilde," said I, seating myself upon a hencoop, and signing to him to place himself beside me. "You have sprung upon me a matter that is not to be dealt with and dismissed in a breath; indeed, it involves so many momentous questions that I scarcely know where to begin. But, by way of a starter, let me ask you whether you are aware that you have no right whatever to make use of this ship for such a purpose as that which you have outlined to me? The contract of the owners was to convey you to Sydney, and land you there, and you can claim no more from them. In the next place—"
"Pardon me for interrupting you," broke in my companion with an indulgent smile and uplifted, protesting hand; "but I believe I know and could repeat to you every one of the somewhat musty arguments which are crowding each other upon the tip of your tongue; and it will perhaps save time—and possibly a certain amount of unpleasant friction—if I inform you at once—as indeed I have hinted to you already—that we have given them all our most careful and exhaustive consideration, and have quite settled among ourselves that none of them is anything like weighty enough to divert us from our purpose. We know, for example, that the appropriation of this ship and her cargo, in the carrying out of our plans, will involve a certain amount of hardship and loss to the owners; but no revolutionary scheme of any sort, great or small, was ever yet carried into effect without inflicting loss and hardship upon somebody. It would pass the wit of man to devise one that did not, and we are therefore prepared to regard that phase of the question with perfect complacency."
"I wonder whether you understand that what you contemplate is called piracy, and is punishable with death?" said I.
"Of course we do, my dear young friend," answered Wilde with a smile. "But perhaps I ought to have explained to you that the very root and foundation of our plan is to escape from man-made laws, which are compounded of tyranny and injustice of the grossest kind, and to revert to the old, simple, patriarchal, family idea—the idea of holding all things in common, of abolishing individualism and inequality of every description, and of submitting only to such simple laws as are manifestly for the benefit and advantage of all. Besides, who will there be to punish us for our so-called act of piracy?"
"You may rest assured," said I, "that there is no spot on this globe so remote, so hidden away, that a British cruiser will not find it sooner or later; and when she happens to visit your island—if ever you reach it—her captain will insist upon an explanation of how you come to be there, and, in short, of having your whole story told to him. And then, Mr Wilde, the days of the originator of this mad scheme will be numbered."
"My dear boy," said Wilde, laying his hand soothingly upon my arm, "'the originator of this mad scheme', as you are pleased to put it, is more than willing to take his chance of such a happening as you suggest; so we need not discuss that point any farther, but may pass on to the next. The question now is: Will you, or will you not, help us to find the sort of island that we have in mind? No, no,"—as he saw that I was about to refuse hotly—"do not decide in the negative too hurriedly; take time to consider the matter, because it is a rather important one, both to you and to us. It is important to us, because, if you should decide in the negative, it will put us to all the trouble and inconvenience of finding another navigator; and it is important to you, because, if you should refuse, it will mean that, being opposed to us, you must be got rid of, for we will have no enemies, secret or open, among us; and I think that the best way to get rid of you, and at the same time to guard against the possibility of your doing us a bad turn in the future, will be to tie your hands and heels together, attach a good heavy weight to your neck, and drop you overboard sometime in the small hours when all the women and children are asleep, and cannot be shocked or distressed at the sight.
"You see, we have considered this matter so thoroughly, and have so completely made up our minds what we intend to do, that we cannot dream of allowing the qualms of conscience of a mere lad like yourself to stand in our way. If you had not been an expert navigator it would have been a different affair altogether. We should have said nothing to you, but should have put you ashore on one of these islands, had we chanced to find them, or have exchanged you with some ship for a better navigator; but you have proved your ability, and now you must either throw in your lot with us, or—accept the alternative. Think it over, my dear boy, and let me know your decision when you have fully made up your mind. You will be able to do this all the more easily since, as 'the originator of this mad scheme', and the accepted leader of all on board, it is my intention to take up my quarters in the cabin for the remainder of our voyage."
So saying, Wilde rose and, bestowing upon me a friendly smile, made his way down the poop ladder to the main deck; and a few minutes later I saw the stewards helping him to transfer his belongings from the steerage to the cabin.
The boatswain, whose watch it now was, and who had been making a pretence of superintending some job on the forecastle while Wilde was talking to me, presently slouched along the deck and came up on to the poop. Arrived at the head of the weather poop ladder, he paused and, facing forward, appeared to be regarding the set of the canvas attentively. Then, with a very sheepish air, he joined me and took the seat which Wilde had not long vacated. I saw that the fellow was dying of curiosity to learn what had passed between the ex-schoolmaster and myself, but was determined not to help him by opening the conversation; the result being a long—and apparently on the part of the boatswain an embarrassing pause. However, at length he broke ground by remarking with a conciliating smile:
"So I sees you've been havin' a yarn with Mr Wilde, eh, Mr Troubridge? Have he told ye, sir, of the plan that we've made up among us for startin' a new country?"
"He has told me—to my intense astonishment—that I have become shipmates with a round hundred or so of consummate idiots—leaving the women and children out of the question," I answered sharply.
"A-ah!" returned the boatswain, with a sorrowful shake of the head. "I felt, somehow, as you wouldn't see the thing as we sees it. All the same, sir, I hopes—yes, I most fervently hopes—as he've been able to persuade ye to jine in with us."
"He tells me that if I refuse to do so I am to be lashed up, neck and heels, and hove overboard with a sinker attached to my neck some fine night when the women and children are all below. Do you approve of that arrangement, Polson?" I demanded.
"Well—no—I can't say as I do; not altogether," answered the boatswain, fidgeting uneasily where he sat. "But I hopes it won't come to that, Mr Troubridge. I don't hold with forcin' anybody to do what they don't want to do; but I don't see as it'd do you no very serious harm for to agree to navigate this here ship to the spot where we wants her took to; and that's all as you're to be asked to do."
"And if I should choose to refuse, I suppose you would stand by and see me drowned, if indeed you did not lend a hand to lash me up?" I asked, infusing all the sarcasm I could into the question.
"No, no, Mr Troubridge!" exclaimed Polson, justly indignant that I should bring such a monstrous charge against him. "I wouldn't lift a finger to hurt ye, sir—I shouldn't have no need to, for there's lots o' chaps among them emigrants ready enough to do any mortal thing that Mr Wilde tells 'em to. I should just go below and have nothin' to do with the job."
"By which simple means you would secure the acquittal of the thing you call your conscience against the charge of murdering me!" I ejaculated scornfully. "Do you know, Polson, that the man who consents to a murder is every whit as guilty as he who actually does the deed?"
"Well, I dunno," answered Polson; "I don't see how that can be, Mr Troubridge. If another man chooses to murder ye, what's that got to do wi' me? Besides, what can we do? All hands of us has already signed a paper agreein' to obey Mr Wilde's orders."
"Tut!" I exclaimed impatiently. "Do you seriously wish me to believe, Polson, that you are such an utter fool that you are unable to discriminate between right and wrong? With one breath you give me to understand that you would have no conscientious objection to permitting a man to murder me; and with the next you intimate that having, as I understand it, blindly pledged yourself to obey all Wilde's orders— whatever their nature may be—your conscience will not permit you to break your pledge! Let me tell you, man, that such a pledge as that is in nowise binding, and the law will hold you blameless if you choose to break it."
"Ay—yes—the law!" retorted the boatswain, spitting over the rail, the more strongly to mark his contempt of that system which was once tersely denounced as being "a hass". "I don't take no account of the law, Mr Troubridge. Mr Wilde have showed us that the law ain't justice. It have been made by rich men to grind down the poor, and keep 'em down; and there ain't goin' to be no law in this here new country what we're goin' to make. Everybody's goin' to be just as good as everybody else, and is goin' to do just what he jolly well likes."
"Just so!" I said. "I have heard that yarn before, and if I knew of a country where such a state of things existed I would take precious good care to steer clear of it. Can't you picture to yourself the joy of living in a place where, if a stronger man than you happened to take a fancy to your clothes, or your house, or anything else that belonged to you, he could compel you to give them up, and nobody would interfere to say him nay. That is the kind of thing that is to be expected in a country where there are no laws, and where everybody is at liberty to do 'just what he jolly well likes'. I am astonished to hear you talking such utter tomfoolery; I set you down as having more common sense!"
The poor man stared at me in silence, agape with perplexity.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" he exclaimed at last, thumping the hencoop with his fist in his bewilderment; "what's a man to do? Here's that chap Wilde—a man of eddication, mind ye, Mr Troubridge—comes along and spins us a yarn of how we poor sailormen are ill-treated and kep' down, overworked and underpaid by rich owners; and of how the law won't do nothin' for us; and he shows us a plan how we can live in peace and happiness and enj'yment all the rest of our lives; and then you turns up and knocks the whole bag o' tricks into a cocked hat! Which of ye is right? If you're right, I stays as I am all my life, a poor, miserable shellback, endin' my days by sellin' matches in the streets, when I'm too old and too stiff wi' the rheumatics to go to sea any longer. That bein' the case, I'll give Mr Wilde's plan a trial for a spell; right or wrong."
"Very well," said I, "go your own way, if you will; but you will most certainly regret it some day when it is too late to retrace your steps. And let me tell you this, Polson, you are attributing your position and its accompanying hardships to the wrong cause altogether. The true state of the case is that you are an ignorant and unintelligent man through lack of education. Did you ever go to school?"
"No, never, Mr Troubridge," answered my companion. "What little I knows I larned myself. My father, who was supposed to be a wharfinger, was too fond of the drink ever to be able to hold a job, the consekence bein' that my poor mother had to keep things goin' by takin' in washin'; and, since there was seven of us young 'uns, it took her all her time to find us in grub and clo'es. She hadn't no money to spare for eddication. Consekence was I didn't have none. And when I was 'bout 'leven year old things got to such a pitch at home that I cut and run, goin' to sea as cabin-boy in a Geordie to start with, and gradually workin' my way up to bein' a bosun, as I am now."
"Ah!" said I. "Well, you have done a good deal better, Polson, than many others in like circumstances. But—and this is my point—if your father, instead of stupefying his brains with drink, had been a sober, steady, hard-working man, and had done his duty by you to the extent of sending you to school, you would have gained a vast amount of valuable knowledge. You would have cultivated your intellect; you would have learned to discriminate between right and wrong; you would have been able to reason, and to perceive that certain causes invariably produce certain effects. You would have discovered that knowledge is power, and that the more knowledge a man possesses the higher he is able to rise in the world. Instead of stopping at being a boatswain, you would have risen to be, first a mate, and then a master—and possibly an owner some day, as other men have done. Now, put that in your pipe and smoke it!"
And I jumped up and went below to fetch my sextant up on deck; for by this time it was drawing well on toward noon.
As the day wore on, the wind fell lighter, until by sunset the ship scarcely had steerage-way; consequently it was not until the next morning that we found ourselves off the island of Amsterdam, past which we drifted so slowly that, had there been anyone on the island, they would have had ample time to make their presence known. But we saw no one, nor anything in the least resembling a signal. After skirting the western side of the island to its northern extremity, I gave the order to bring the ship to the wind, and gave the officer of the watch a compass course of east-south-east for Cape Otway. I was not going to yield to Wilde at the first demand; and not at all, if I could possibly help it; although my talk with the boatswain was of anything but an encouraging character. There was still the carpenter, however; and I thought I would sound him as to his views on this visionary scheme of Wilde's, the very first step toward the realisation of which involved an act of piracy. But when I came to talk to him I soon found that he was even worse to deal with than the boatswain; for although perhaps not quite so ignorant as the latter, he was still ignorant enough to be convinced by the specious arguments of the Socialist, to readily accept the doctrine of perfect equality between all men, and—like most of those whose labour is of an arduous character, and whose life is one of almost constant hardship and privation—to be dazzled by the alluring prospect of being able to live out the rest of his days on an island where—according to Wilde—Nature would do all the work, and man would only need to stretch forth his hand to gather in her bounties.
I will do Wilde the justice to say that he manifested no impatience while awaiting the announcement of my decision relative to the proposal which he had made to me; on the contrary, when I met him at the cabin table at meal-times he was very chatty and friendly, with a certain subtle suggestion of patronage in his tone, however, that rather went against the grain with me; but he asked me no questions until I had set the course for Cape Otway, and the island of Amsterdam was melting into the haze astern of us. Then, being on the poop at the moment when I gave the course to the helmsman, and hearing its direction, he came up to me and said:
"Are you aiming for any point in particular in directing the helmsman to steer east-south-east, Mr Troubridge?"
"Yes," said I. "If the wind will permit us to steer that course long enough it will eventually bring us within sight of Cape Otway."
"Cape Otway!" he repeated. "Um! the name seems not altogether unfamiliar to me, and as a man who has been for some years a schoolmaster I suppose I ought to be able to say, offhand, exactly where it is. But my memory upon such matters is a trifle weak, I am afraid. Perhaps you will kindly tell me where Cape Otway is?"
"Cape Otway lies some sixty miles—more or less—south-west of Port Philip Heads," said I, "and, excepting Wilson Promontory, is the most southerly headland of Australia."
"Of course, of course," he exclaimed with a little air of vexation. "Dear me! how marvellously easy it seems to forget such details. I am afraid our system of education does not attach nearly as much importance as it ought to the study of geography. Ah, well; what matters it? I have done with such trifles, I hope, for the remainder of my days. Does Cape Otway happen to be on our road to the Pacific, Mr Troubridge?"
"Yes," I said; "that is to say, if one elects to go south-about. But the Pacific is a big sheet of water, and there are two or three ways of getting to it from here. All depends, of course, upon the particular part of the Pacific to which one is bound."
"Yes, of course," agreed Wilde. Then he turned suddenly, and, looking me keenly in the face, remarked: "Really, you know, Troubridge, you impress me very favourably—very favourably indeed! I shall be profoundly sorry if we are obliged to part with you, for you seem to me to be a lad of considerably more than average intelligence. That remark of yours touching 'the particular part of the Pacific to which one is bound'—by the way, have you a tolerably intimate knowledge of the Pacific?"
"No," said I; "I know nothing whatever of it except the part which lies between Australia and Cape Horn."
"Which, I take it, comprises a very small portion of the whole?" questioned he.
"A very small portion indeed," I agreed.
"Ah!" he commented. "Can you tell me whether there happens to be a map of the Pacific on board this ship?"
"It is quite possible," I said. "She is pretty well-stocked with charts; and, now that you come to mention it, I believe there is a chart of the Pacific in the rack."
"Let us go down and ascertain, shall we?" said he. And, placing his hand within my arm, he gently but firmly led me off the poop. It may, of course, have been pure imagination on my part, but his manner seemed to say as distinctly as words—"Don't mistake my politeness and geniality for weakness. I believe in putting things pleasantly, but when I make a suggestion I intend it to be accepted as a command."
We descended together to the captain's cabin—which I now occupied—and he entered it with me, laughingly explaining that he was sure I would excuse the liberty he was taking in doing so, and at once fell to examining the labels of the charts in the rack.
"Ah! here we are," he exclaimed, laying his hand upon a roll labelled "Pacific Ocean". "Let us take it into the main cabin and study it together."
He laid it out flat upon the cabin table and placed four weights at the corners to hold them down. Then he bent over the sheet and studied it with extraordinary interest.
"So this is what you call a chart, is it?" he exclaimed. "I see that it varies very materially from an ordinary map, in that it gives a great deal of information about the sea, and not much about the land, beyond its outline." And he began his study of it by asking the meaning of certain mysterious lines and markings upon it. Then he asked a number of questions respecting the various small islands dotted about, more or less in patches, upon it, to answer which I had to hunt for a Pacific Directory, which I fortunately found in the bookcase; and finally, after we had thus been engaged for an hour or more, he said:
"It is perfectly clear to me that it would be idle for us to determine, at this distance, in what particular part of the Pacific we will search for our future home. That search must be conducted methodically; and after studying this chart very carefully, I have come to the conclusion that our best course will be to begin our search here,"—indicating with his finger a point about midway between the north-western extremity of New Guinea and the Pelew Islands—"and work our way in an easterly direction."
"Have you read those notes?" I asked, drawing his attention to certain notes on the chart explaining that: "the Caroline, Marshall, and Solomon groups are almost entirely unknown, and are believed to have many dangers in their neighbourhood not marked upon the charts; navigators are therefore cautioned to exercise the most extreme vigilance when approaching or sailing among them."
"Certainly I have, my boy," he answered; "and it is to them that my choice of that part of the ocean is chiefly due. Those islands, you see, are 'almost entirely unknown'; which means that if we can find one among them of a suitable character for our new settlement, we are not likely to be disturbed by the intrusion of curious and inquisitive visitors. Therefore, kindly take measures to navigate the ship to the spot that I have indicated."
It was on the tip of my tongue flatly to refuse to have anything whatever to do with him or his scheme, and to defy him to do his worst, when the germ of an idea came floating into my mind, and I said instead: