The Wreck of the Nancy Bell; or, Cast Away on Kerguelen Land
By John Conroy Hutcheson ___________
A well-written nautical novel by J.C. Hutcheson. The "Nancy Bell" appears to be a well-found ship, on its way out from the United Kingdom to New Zealand, but she is beset early on by a severe storm which leaves her rudderless and mastless. One of the passengers was an ex Royal Navy Commander who, for some reason, was travelling incognito. He had offered the Captain advice which was rejected as the Captain thought it came from a landsman. Very possibly, had he heeded that advice, the whole train of disasters might not have occurred.
Hutcheson has a habit of introducing characters who speak in their own form of English. In this case he has a Jamaican, an Irishman, and a Yankee, all speaking with their own native versions of the language. For good measure there is also a Norwegian, who has to make himself understood in a mixture of German and English. All this makes for a rather difficult book to transcribe, but I hope we have got it right.
Eventually the vessel is wrecked just off Kerguelen Island, where the crew and passengers land and build themselves a shelter to take them through the winter. There had been a mutiny just before the wreck, and some of the crew had landed elsewhere, but eventually one or two men who had not been the actual mutineers, but who had got caught up in events, make their way back to the main party.
When spring arrives they make their way to the other side of Kerguelen Island, by a route which includes an overland traverse by boat, portaging where necessary. Eventually a vessel comes in, and they are saved.
Hutcheson is very good at getting his characters to appear quite real, and for this reason he is a good author to follow.
THE WRECK OF THE NANCY BELL; OR, CAST AWAY ON KERGUELEN LAND
by JOHN CONROY HUTCHESON
"How's her head?" exclaimed Captain Dinks, the moment his genial, rosy, weather-beaten face appeared looming above the top-rail of the companion way that led up to the poop from the saloon below, the bright mellow light of the morning sun reflecting from his deep-tanned visage as if from a mirror, and making it as radiant almost as the orb of day.
"West-sou'-west, sorr," came the answer, ere the questioner could set foot on the deck, in accents short, sharp, prompt, and decisive, albeit with a strong Milesian flavour, from the chief mate. He was the officer of the watch, and was standing alongside the man at the wheel on the weather-side of the ship, with a telescope under his arm and a keen look of attention in his merry, twinkling grey eyes.
"Ha-hum!" muttered the captain to himself reflectively. "I wish the wind would shift over more to the nor'ard, and we'd then be able to shape a better course; we're going far too much to the west to please me! I suppose," he added in a louder tone, addressing the mate again, "she isn't making any great way yet since daylight, McCarthy, eh?"
"No, sorr, leastways, Captain Dinks," replied that worthy, a genuine thorough-going Irishman, "from the crown of his head to the sole of his fut," as he would have said himself, and with a shaggy head of hair and beard as red as that of the wildest Celt in Connemara, besides being blessed with a "brogue" as pronounced as his turned-up nose—on which one might have hung a tea-kettle on an emergency, in the hope that its surroundings would supply the requisite fire and fuel for boiling purposes. "No, sorr, no way at all at all, sure! Not more'n five knots, cap'en honey, by the same token, the last time we hove the log at six bells, bad cess to it!"
"Everything drawing, too, slow and aloft!" said the captain, with just a shade of discontent in his cheery voice, as he took in with a quick, sailor-like glance the position of the ship and every detail of the swelling pyramids of canvas that towered up on each mast from deck to sky—the yards braced round sharp, almost fore and aft, the huge square sails flattened like boards, the tremulous fluttering of the flying jib, and occasional gybing of the spanker, showing how close up to the wind the vessel was being steered. "You couldn't luff her a bit more, McCarthy, could you?" he added, after another glance at the compass and a murmured "steady!" to the steersman.
"Not a ha'porth, sorr," replied the mate sorrowfully, as if it went to his heart to make the announcement. "I had the watch up only jist a minit ago; an' if you'll belave me, Cap'en Dinks, we've braced up the yards to the last inch the sheets will run, bad cess to thim!"
"Well, well, I suppose we'll have to put up with it; though it's rather disheartening to have this sou'-wester right in one's teeth before we have cleared the Chops of the Channel, after all our good luck in having so fair a wind down with us from the Nore!"
The captain still spoke somewhat disconsolately; but, his temperament was of too bright and elastic a nature to allow him long to look merely on the dark side of things. Soon, he saw something to be cheerful over, in spite of the adverse influence of Aeolus; and this was, as it appeared to him, the wonderful progress the ship was making, although sailing, close-hauled as she was, with the wind right before the beam.
"Now, isn't she a beauty, though, McCarthy," he said presently, with a sort of triumphant ring in his speech, after gazing for a few moments in silence over the taffrail astern at the long foaming wake the vessel was leaving behind her, spread out like a glittering silver fan across the illimitable expanse of greenish-tinged water. "Isn't she a beauty to behave as she does under the circumstances! There are not many ships laden like her that would make five knots out of a foul wind, as she is now doing, eh?"
"That there ain't, sorr," promptly returned the other with hearty emphasis, only too glad to have the opportunity of agreeing with his skipper. "An' jist you wait, sorr, till we get into the nor'-east trades; an' by the powers we'll say the crathur walk away from us, like one of thim race-horses on the Skibbereen coorse whin you're a standin' still and a watchin' thim right foreninst you."
"Aye, that we will, McCarthy," chimed in Captain Dinks, now all good humour again, chuckling with anticipated pleasure and rubbing his hands together gleefully. "I wouldn't wish for a better ship under me in fair wind or foul than the Nancy Bell. Bless her old timbers, she's staunch and sound from truck to keelson, and the smartest clipper that ever sailed out of the London Docks—when she has anything like decent weather!"
"That she is, sorr, plaze the pigs!" chorused the Irishman to this paean of praise, which might have run on to an interminable length if it had not been just then interrupted by the mate's suddenly raising his gilt- banded cap in nautical salute to a new-comer, who now appeared on the scene.
Captain Dinks, at once "cutting short" any further rhapsodical encomiums he may have contemplated anent the merits of the Nancy Bell, turned round.
"Ah, good morning, Mr Meldrum," said he in cordial tones, raising his cap politely like his chief officer. "You are early on deck: an old sailor, I presume!"
"Good morning, Captain Dinks," smilingly replied the gentleman addressed, one of the few saloon passengers who patronised the cuddy of the New Zealand clipper on her present voyage. He had only just that moment come up from below, tempted to turn out by the genial brightness of the lovely June morning; and, as he emerged from the companion hatchway, he bent his steps along the poop towards the binnacle, by which the captain and his aide-de-camp were standing. "Yes," he continued, in answer to the former's question, "I have had a voyage or two in my time, and one is accustomed to keep early hours at sea."
"Begorrah, ye're right, sorr!" ejaculated the Irish mate, with an empressment that showed his earnestness. "An' a dale too airly for some ov us sometimes. Sure, an' a sailor's loife is a dog's loife entirely!"
"Shut up, you old humbug!" said the captain with a laugh, turning to the passenger; "Why, to hear him you would think McCarthy to be one of those lazy lubbers who are never content unless they are caulking below, snoozing their wits away whilst the sun is scorching their eyes out; whereas, he's the most active and energetic seaman I ever met with in all my experience at sea, man and boy, for the last thirty years. Look you, Mr Meldrum, he never waits to be roused out by any chance when it's his watch on deck; while, should the weather be at all nasty, you really can't get him to go below and turn in—it is 'spell ho' with him with a vengeance, night and day alike!"
"Don't you belave his blarney, sorr," put in the mate eagerly, bursting into a roar of merriment, although blushing purple with delight the while at the skipper's compliment. "Why, sorr, whin I go to slape sometimes, the divil himself couldn't wake me!"
"Ah!" rejoined Captain Dinks, "that may be when you're ashore, Tim, but I know what you are when you're aboard ship and duty calls! I don't forget, old man, how, under Providence," and this the captain added reverently, taking off his cap and looking up to heaven as he spoke, "you saved the Nancy Bell on our last voyage home—no, Tim, I don't forget!"
"Aye, aye, Cap'en Dinks," replied the other, not to be beaten, "true for you, sorr; but, where was yoursilf the whilst, I'd like to know, and what could I have done without your hilp sure, wid all your blatheration?"
"Nonsense, Tim," returned the captain, giving the mate a slap on the back which must have taken his breath away for the moment, as it made him reel again, and then holding out his hand, which the other grasped with a vice-like grip, in a paw that resembled more in size and shape a leg of mutton than anything else—"Tip us your fist, my hearty, and let us say no more about it!"
It would have done anyone's heart good to see the way in which these two brave men—sailors both every inch of them—then looked each other straight in the eyes, a smile of satisfaction illumining their faces, as if each had reason to be proud of the other, their hands locked in a friendly clasp that was true to the death!
As for Mr Meldrum, the passenger, who was a delighted observer of the good feeling existing between the captain and second in command of the vessel in which, like Caesar, he had "embarked himself and all his fortunes," and was now journeying across the surface of the deep—a good feeling that was fairly indicative of everything going well on the voyage—he was so carried away by the spirit of the moment that he felt inclined to ask that the general hand-shaking might be "passed round for the good of the crowd." What is more, he immediately put his "happy thought" into execution; whereupon, much fist-squeezing ensued between the trio, the steersman looking on with a grin of complacency at the fraternal exhibition, and gripping the spokes of the wheel more firmly, as it were, out of a sort of fellow-sympathy, as he kept the ship "full and by!"
"Tim McCarthy and I are old shipmates," said Captain Dinks presently, as if apologising for the little ebullition of sentiment that had just taken place, "and we've seen some rough times together."
"Pray don't mention it," said Mr Meldrum; "your friendly feelings do you both honour! But, how are we getting on, captain," he added, to change the subject, "the ship seems to be slipping along through the water?"
"Pretty well, but not so well as I could wish. We've got an obstinate head-wind against us, and cannot quite lay on our proper course; so I don't think we'll be able to log much of a run when we take the sun at noon. The wind looks like shifting now, however, so the next twenty- four hours may tell a different tale."
As the captain spoke, the sails flapped ominously against the masts; and, in obedience to a motion of the mate's hand, the steersman had to let the vessel's head fall off a little more to the westward, in order to fill the canvas again and make it draw.
"I think, cap'en, we'd better thry her on the other tack," said the Irishman after a pause. "The wind's headin' us sure!"
"All right, McCarthy," answered the captain, "go forwards and call the watch, and we'll see about getting her about."
Handing the captain the telescope, which he had retained until now under his left arm, apparently regarding it as the badge of his authority as officer of the watch—an authority which he now relinquished to his chief—the mate was down the poop ladder and on the deck below in "a brace of shakes;" and, in another moment, his voice was heard in stentorian tones ringing through the ship fore and aft. "Hands 'bout ship!"
The cry was like the wave of an enchanter's wand in the realms of Fairy- land; for, where all had been previously quiet and easy-going, with only the helmsman apparently doing anything on board so far as the vessel's progress was concerned, there was now a scene of bustle, noise, and motion,—men darting forwards to flatten the headsails and aft to ease off the boom sheets, and others to their allotted stations, waiting for the well-known orders from the captain, who stood in the centre of the poop, with the passenger beside him, looking on with a critical eye at the way in which the manoeuvre should be executed.
"All ready forward?" shouted the captain, as soon as he saw the crew at their several posts.
"Aye, aye, sorr," replied Mr McCarthy.
"Ready, aye ready," repeated the captain—it was a sort of catch-word of warning to prepare the men for the next word of command, like the "'Tention!" of the drill sergeant to his squad of recruits—and he then waved his hand to the man at the wheel to put up the helm.
"Helm's a lee!" was the next cry; and, instantly, the jib and foresail began to shiver and shake as the ship's bows came up to the wind, and the square sails flattened against the masts, while the boom of the mizzen swung to and fro until the vessel should get out of stays and pay off on the port tack.
"Raise tacks and sheets!" came in rotation, and the topgallant-bowlines were let go, ready for the next move.
"Mainsail haul!"—and the ponderous mainyard was swung round, bringing with it the maintopsail and topgallant yards with all their acreage of canvas: the foreyards followed suit, when the captain shouted, "Haul of all;"—and, after the final order, "Brace sharp!" the Nancy Bell might have been seen heading a sou'-south-east course in lieu of her former direction to the westwards, and gaining more southing by the change.
The mate had just returned to the poop, after seeing the watch trim the forward sails and curl down the slack of the ropes, while Captain Dinks was wondering why the steward had not yet summoned them down to breakfast, considering that it was past eight bells. He was just indeed asking Mr Meldrum whether he felt hungry or not, when suddenly a great commotion was heard down the companion hatch, as of voices in altercation, a crash of crockery following in rapid sequence.
"I'd like to know what that stupid lubber is up to now," ejaculated the captain. "He's an ignorant ass, and as slow as a mute at a funeral. I'm sorry I had to ship him; but I had no alternative, for my old steward was taken suddenly ill, and I had to put up with this substitute whom he sent me just as we were leaving Plymouth."
"Perhaps," began the passenger, as if he were about to offer some good- natured excuse for the man's awkwardness, but his observations were drowned by a louder clatter below than ever; and, ere the captain could descend to ascertain the cause, the new steward rushed up the companion ladder, with his eyes half-starting from his head, his hair standing on end, and his face pale with terror.
"Howly Moses!" exclaimed the mate. "Be aisy, can't ye. What's the matter wid ye, you spalpeen, to be rooshin' on deck like a bull in a china shop? Spake, you blissid omahdawn, or I'll shake the loife out of ye!"
And the Irishman, putting his brawny hands on the terrified man's shoulders, appeared about to carry out his threat, when the unfortunate wight stuttered out in stammering accents, "Lor-ord, sir, do-oo-oo come below. The-eer's a ghost in the cabin; an-an-and he wants to m-m-murder me!" the man looking the while as if he was going to faint.
"A ghost in the cabin?" said the passenger, laughing; "and in daylight to? Why, Captain Dinks, he must be a sort of rara avis—not in terris, however, in this instance."
"A ghost in the cabin?" repeated the captain, in a serious tone of voice, with a frown on his forehead that somewhat disturbed the usual good-humoured expression of his countenance; "we must see about this. I don't allow any ghosts aboard my ship!"
And, with these words he dived down the companion, followed closely by the mate and passenger; the panic-stricken steward contenting himself with remaining at the top of the hatchway at a safe distance from the object that had alarmed him, although he could not help peering down below and listening with bated breath as to what might ensue in the cabin—heedless of the entreaties of the man at the wheel, in whom curiosity had overpowered the sense of duty for the nonce and made to speak in defiance of discipline, to "tell him all about it!"
When the "party of observation" under the leadership of the captain arrived at the foot of the companion way, nothing very alarming was presented to their notices as there were no signs of disturbance to be seen in the steward's pantry, which was close to hand on their right; although, judging by the crashing sounds they had heard when on deck, one and all would have almost sworn that a "free fight" had taken place in that sanctum, causing its complement of crockeryware to come to irretrievable grief.
Nor was anything wrong to be perceived, at first sight, on entering within the cuddy.
On the contrary, everything there seemed in due order. The doors of the cabins on either side, as well as those of the state-rooms at the further end of the saloon, were closed in their ordinary way—with the exception of one, which was opened for an instant, to allow of a night- capped head, evidently of female ownership, peering forth for a momentary peep round, and then immediately slammed to again; and, the long table, which ran fore and aft the vessel the entire length of the apartment from the foot of the mizzen mast, was neatly spread over with a snow-white cloth, on which knives and forks were laid equi-distantly with trim regularity, as well as other prandial paraphernalia, in preparation for breakfast; while to complete the category, the swinging trays above, that oscillated to and fro as the ship gave an occasional lurch and roll to port or starboard, betrayed no lack of their proper quota of wine-glasses, decanters, and tumblers. No, there was no trace of any disorder here, nothing to account for that noise of a struggle and of breakages below that had preceded the sudden uprush of the steward to the poop. What could possibly have caused all that clatter and commotion?
Evidently so thinking, the captain, mate, and passenger looked at each other in a bewildered fashion, as if each were endeavouring to solve some knotty conundrum, and had ultimately come to the conclusion to "give it up!"
They had not long to wait, however, for an explanation to the mystery.
All at once, a deep, sepulchral groan came from abaft the mizzenmast, as if some one was being smothered in the hold below; and, almost at the same instant, there echoed from the adjacent cabin—that whence the night-capped head before mentioned had popped out—a shrill scream, as of a female in distress, succeeded by the exclamation, "Gracious goodness, help us and save us! We shall all be murdered in our beds!"
"Be jabers," ejaculated the mate, following up the captain, who had immediately rushed aft to the spot whence the groan had proceeded; "sure and that's the Meejor's swate voice! I'd know it onywheres, aven in the Bog of Allen!"
On the captain reaching the end of the cuddy table, which had, of course, interfered with his view, the crash of crockery which they had heard, and which had been hitherto inexplicable, became at once clear; for, there on the floor of the deck was the debris of a pile of plates and scattered fragments of cups and saucers which had been suddenly dropped by the steward in his fright and were smashed to atoms; while, in the centre of the scene of devastation, was the dungeon-like cavity of the after-hatchway, the cover of which had been shifted from its coamings by the man, in order for him to get up some of the cabin provisions from the hold, whose gloomy depths were only faintly illumined by the feeble rays of a lantern, which as it lay on its side rolling on the deck, participated in the general upset.
Captain Dinks promptly took up the lantern, holding it over the open hatchway; and, as he did so, a second groan came from below, more hollow and sepulchral than before.
"Who's there?" shouted the captain down the hatchway.
There was no reply, save a fainter moan, apparently further away in the distance, followed by a sort of gurgling sound, and then the fall of some heavy object was heard in the hold.
"Who's there below?" repeated the captain, endeavouring to pierce the cimmerian darkness by waving the lighted lantern about and holding it as far down the hatchway as his arm could reach. "Speak or I'll fire!"
This was an empty threat of the skipper's, as he held no weapon in his hand save the lantern; but it had the necessary effect all the same.
"It's only me, massa," said a thick guttural voice from below; "only me," repeated the voice pleadingly. "Goramighty, massa, don't shoot!"
"And who's me?" interrogated the captain sternly, as the mate and the passenger looked at each other inquiringly, a smile creeping over Mr Meldrum's face, while the Irishman screwed up his left eye into a palpable wink.
"Me, Snowball, sah—a 'spectable collud genleman from Jamaikey, massa," replied the voice in the hold.
"And what the dickens are you doing aboard my ship?" asked Captain Dinks in an angry tone; but the others could see that he was half-laughing as he spoke.
"Me want passage, sah, back home. Very bad peoples, sah, in Plymouth; tieve all poah niggah's money and make him drunk. Snowball starbing; so um see lubly fine ship goin' way and get aboard in shore boat wid um last shillun: eb'ryting scramble and jumble when come on deck; so Snowball go get in cabin, and den down in hold, where he see steward stow um grub, and lie quiet till ship sail. When hold open, he try get out, but can't; box fall on um foot, and Snowball holler wid pain; steward tink um de Debbel and knock down tings. Snowball done no harm; um bery bad wid um leg!"
"Sure, an' it's an impedent schoundrel he is, the spalpeen!" said the mate. "Of all the cheeky stowaways I ever came across, he bates the lot entirely. Shall I rouse him up with a rope's end, cap'en?"
"No, wait a bit, McCarthy," said the captain; "we'll try a little persuasion first. Here, 'Snowball,' or whatever else you call yourself, just sling your hook out of that, and come up here. I fancy I shall be able to accommodate you with something, besides a free passage at my owner's expense!"
"Can't, massa," replied the stowaway, after making a movement, as they could hear, below, succeeded by a suppressed cry of pain; "um leg jammed 'tween box and cask: Snowball feel bery bad—tink leg go squash: can't move um nohow."
"Be jabers!" exclaimed the good-natured Irishman, "sure an' the poor baste's hurt, and, by your lave, cap'en, I'll go down and say what's the matther."
"Do," said Captain Dinks; but ere he could get out the word, the mate, taking his consent for granted, had caught hold of the hatchway coamings with his powerful hands and swung himself down on to the lower deck; reaching up afterwards for the lantern, which the captain handed him, and then disappearing from view as he dived amongst the heterogeneous mass of boxes and casks, and bales of goods, mingled with articles of all sorts, with which the place was crammed.
After a moment's absence, he came back beneath the hatchway.
"Plaze, git a blanket or two out of one of the cabins, cap'en, to hoist him up," said he; "the unlucky beggar sames to be injured badly, and I think his ribs are stove in, besides a heavy box having fallen on his leg. He hasn't got such a chape passage this toime as he expected; for he has been more'n half suffocated in the flour hogshead where he first stowed himself away; and, begorrah, to look at him now, with his black face all whitened, like a duchess powthered for a ball, and his woolly hid, and the blood all over him, as if he had been basted wid a shillelagh at Donnybrook Fair, why, his own mother wouldn't know him. It's small blame to that fool of a steward to be afther taking him for somethin' onnatural, sure!"
While the mate had been giving this explanation of the stowaway's condition Captain Dinks had not been idle.
With an agility of which none would have thought him capable, looking at his thick-set and rather stout figure, he had rushed in a second to his own cabin, which was near aft; and, dragging out a couple of railway rugs and a coil of rope had pitched them below to the Irishman, concluding his operations by jumping down alongside him, to aid in releasing the injured man from his perilous position—telling the passenger as he quitted him to "sing out" for assistance.
"Steward!" shouted Mr Meldrum up the companion, in obedience to the captain's injunction; but never a bit did that worthy stir in response, nor did the ringing of a hand-bell, which the passenger saw in one of the swing-trays above the cuddy table expedite the recalcitrant functionary's movements, albeit it brought others to Mr Meldrum's aid.
"What is the matter, papa dear?" said a tall, graceful, nice-looking girl, of some eighteen summers, as she emerged from the state-room on the starboard side of the saloon and came towards Mr Meldrum. "Florry and I heard a heavy crash which woke us up, and then a cry of alarm, and a rush of feet along the deck which frightened us, for we could not tell what had happened. I dressed as fast as I could, but I wouldn't have come out if I had not heard your voice. As for poor Florry, she says she won't get up, and is now hiding her head under the clothes, as she thinks there's a mutiny going on or something dreadful!" and the girl laughed merrily as she spoke, disclosing the while a set of pearly teeth that were beautifully regular, and coral lips that would have put a rosebud to the blush; but, when she came up beside her father, who looked very young to be her parent, for he barely seemed forty years of age, she placed her hand on his arm in a caressing way, looking up into his face with a more serious expression, as if she had merely assumed the laugh to disguise a fear that she really felt.
"Oh, there's nothing very dreadful happening, Kate," replied Mr Meldrum; "only a stowaway in the hold whom the steward took for a ghost, to the serious detriment of the breakfast things which you heard being smashed; so, pray go back to your cabin, my dear, and soothe 'poor Florry's' alarms. We are just getting our unexpected guest up from his temporary quarters under the saloon, and I'll call you when the coast is clear." This he said that she might not be shocked at the sight of the wounded man; and he felt far more comfortable when she had retired into her state-room and shut the door of communication that opened from it into the cuddy.
His comfort, however, was not of very long duration.
"I'd like to know what all this terrible hullabaloo is about?" exclaimed a gaunt and elderly female with sharp features and a saffron-hued complexion, coming out from the cabin on the opposite side of the deck, where she had previously appeared for an instant when in deshabille, as her night-capped head had evidenced. "It is positively scandalous, disturbing first-class passengers like this in the middle of the night and frightening them out of their wits!"
"My dear madam," said Mr Meldrum blandly; "why, it is just on the stroke of eight o'clock, and we'll be soon having breakfast."
"Don't 'my dear madam' me, sir," returned the lady indignantly; "my name is Mrs Major Negus, and I insist on being treated with proper respect. Where is the captain of the vessel, sir?"
"Down there," said Mr Meldrum laconically, pointing to the open hatchway.
"And why is he not at his post, looking after the welfare of his passengers?" demanded the lady sternly, with the voice of a merciless judge.
"Really I think you had better ask him," replied Mr Meldrum laughing; "it strikes me he is now looking after the welfare of one of his passengers, unexpected though the sable gentleman may be!"
What Mrs Major Negus might have rejoined to this, cannot unfortunately be told, for at that moment, just as she had drawn herself up to her full height of some five feet ten inches, or thereabouts, and appeared prepared to demolish Mr Meldrum for his temerity in laughing at her—in laughing at her, forsooth; the wife of the deputy assistant comptroller- general of Waikatoo, New Zealand—the captain called out to him to bear a hand to raise the wounded darkey from out of his self-selected prison. Mr Adams, the second mate, turning out of his cabin at the same time to take his watch, the two managed to raise "Snowball"—the captain and the Irishman easing the burden by lifting him from below. As for the grand Mrs Major Negus, she had to content herself with looking on with an undisguised contempt at the whole proceeding, wondering all the while that they should dare to introduce a negro into the saloon in that manner without having first asked her permission!
Help generally comes when it is not specially wanted; so, by the time the stowaway had been lifted and placed on a berth in one of the vacant cabins, having his wounds, which were somewhat serious, seen to and bound up, some others of the passengers appeared on the scene.
Notably amongst these was Mr Zachariah Lathrope, of Providence, Rhode Island, an American gentleman of a particularly inquisitive nature, but who, professing some knowledge of medical craft, was really of some use in this instance, as there was no regular ship surgeon on board; and, secondly, young Master Negus, a "born imp of mischief," whose acquaintance will be further improved as the voyage proceeds; while, Llewellyn, the steward, summoned courage at last to descend the companion, in company with his wife the stewardess, who had been forward to the cook's galley in search of some early tea for the lady passengers. Seeing her husband on the poop she had brought him below, being, as Mr McCarthy observed, "twice the man" that her presumptive "lord and master" could possibly have been supposed, even by his warmest admirer.
The mystery being thus satisfactorily explained, and the stowaway made comfortable for the while in a much more sumptuous lodging than he ever expected—Captain Dinks waiting to call him to account until he should have recovered from his injuries—the debris of broken crockeryware was cleared away, and the saloon party piped to breakfast, throughout which meal, it need hardly be added, Llewellyn got chaffed immeasurably anent his supernatural visitor, never having a moment's peace about his discovery of the "ghost in the cabin" and subsequent terrific fight therewith.
And, all this while, the ship was tacking every now and then to make the most out of the wind, which was shifting from the west to the south, and veering occasionally from the east to the north; rising as it shifted and blowing with an ever-increasing force, till the vessel was running under reefed topsails and foresail, with her spanker half brailed up, her spread of canvas having been reduced by degrees, in preparation for the threatening gale that seemed coming from the south-west, that is, if the appearances of the sea and sky were to be trusted.
A NARROW SQUEAK.
During the forenoon watch, the deck was in charge of Mr Adams, the second mate—a plain, steady-going, matter-of-fact sort of man, with none of that buoyant spirit and keen sense of humour which characterised hid senior shipmate McCarthy, although he was a thorough sailor to the backbone, and believed the human race to be divided into two classes, those who were seamen and those who weren't. The wind now took a more favourable turn, settling itself in the south-east quarter as if it meant to remain there, thus enabling the ship to steer a better course; and, meanwhile, the sky clearing up a bit, the threatening clouds drifted to leeward and the sun shone out again just as it did when the captain first came on deck in the early morning.
Taking advantage of the change, the reefs were shaken out of the topsails, the courses let fall again, the jib and flying-jib hoisted, and the topgallants set; and soon, with her head steering south-west and a half south, the Nancy Bell was bounding over the waves under all plain sail, as if anxious to make up for the time she had lost in tacking about against the head-wind that had barred her southward progress ever since she took her departure from the Lizard Point on the previous day when she hauled out from the Channel.
The breeze was freshening, and there was a nasty sort of chopping sea, when the captain came on the poop at noon to take the sun, in order to ascertain his longitude—an operation which would have been much more difficult in the hazy weather that had prevailed some few hours previous, with the zenith every now and then overcast by the fleecy storm wrack and flying scud that came drifting across the sky as the wind veered; but the ship was making good running, and everything bade fair for her soon crossing the boisterous Bay of Biscay, on whose troubled waters she had now entered.
"She's slipping along!" said Captain Dinks to Adams, rubbing his hands together gleefully, as he put down his sextant on the top of the saloon skylight for a moment and gave a glance aloft and then over the side to windward.
"Yes, sir," replied the second mate. "Going fine—eleven knots last heave of the lead."
"Ah, nothing can beat her on a bowline!" said the captain triumphantly. "She's a clipper and no mistake when she has the wind abeam: bears her canvas well, too, for a little un!" he added, with another glance aloft, where the sails could be seen distended to their utmost extent and tugging at the bolt-ropes, while the topgallant-masts were bent almost into a curve with the strain upon them and the stays aft were stretched as tight as fiddle-strings.
"Yes, sir; she does," agreed Adams; "but, don't you think, sir, she's carrying on too much now that the wind has got up? I was just going to call the hands to take in sail when you came on deck."
"Certainly not," replied Captain Dinks, struck aghast by the very suggestion of such a thing. "I won't have a stitch off her! Why, man alive, you wouldn't want me to lose this breeze with such a lot of leeway as we have to make up?"
"No, sir; but—"
"Hang your 'buts'!" interrupted the captain with some heat. "You are a bit too cautious, Adams. When you have sailed the Nancy Bell as long as I have you'll know what she's able to carry and what she isn't!"
With these pregnant words of wisdom, the captain resumed possession of his sextant and proceeded to take the altitude of the sun, shouting out occasional unintelligible directions the while through the skylight to Mr McCarthy, who was in his cabin below, so that he might compare the position of the solar orb with Greenwich time as marked by the chronometer. Then telling Adams at the end of the operation to "make it eight bells," whereupon the tinkling sounds denoting twelve o'clock were heard through the ship, he himself also hurried below, to "work out his reckoning."
On Captain Dinks coming up again, he reported that the Nancy Bell had done better than he expected for her "first day out," considering the adverse circumstances she had had to contend with, for she had logged more than a hundred and fifty miles; but he did not look quite so jubilant as he had done before going below, nor did McCarthy, who now accompanied him on deck to relieve the second mate, whose watch had expired.
"What's the matter, captain?" asked Mr Meldrum, with a smile, "are you not satisfied; or, did you expect the ship to have done more?"
The passenger was patrolling the poop, in company with his two daughters, Kate and Florry—the latter a rompish little girl, some twelve years old, with long golden-brown hair which the wind was making wild havoc of, dashing it across her face as she turned, and streaming it out to leeward behind her in picturesque confusion. The girls had some little difficulty in walking along the deck, as it was inclined to a considerable angle from the vessel's heeling over; but, by dint of clutching hold of their father, which they did with much joking and merriment and silvery laughter, each taking an arm on either side, they managed to preserve their equilibrium, keeping pace in regular quarter- deck fashion.
"No," replied Captain Dinks to Mr Meldrum's chaffing question, "I can't say that I am satisfied, for I'm sorry to tell you that the barometer is going down."
"Indeed!" said the other, "and with the wind from the south-east! I'd advise you, captain, to take in sail at once."
"Why, you're as bad as Adams," returned Captain Dinks rather huffily; "I suppose you'd like me to strip the ship just when we're getting the first fair breeze we've had since leaving Plymouth! Excuse me, Mr Meldrum, I know my business; and, I presume, you'll allow a sailor to be better acquainted with his duties than any landsman can possibly be."
"Oh, certainly, Captain Dinks," said Mr Meldrum with a bow, "and I'm sure I beg your pardon for interfering! Of course, as you say, a landsman has no knowledge of these things and has no right to speak."
"Oh, papa!" exclaimed Kate Meldrum reproachfully, "how could you say that?" while Florry pinched his arm and seemed convulsed with laughter, which she endeavoured to choke down in vain, at some secret joke or other; but Captain Dinks, quite restored to his usual good-humour and politeness by Mr Meldrum's apology, did not notice the girls, and presently all were chatting together with the utmost cordiality, the captain enlarging on the excellent run he hoped to make to New Zealand, and promising the young ladies that they should see Madeira ere the week was out, for he anticipated that the south-easterly breeze they now had would carry them well past the Spanish coast and into the north-east trades, when their voyage would be all plain sailing down to the Equator.
How true, however, is the old adage, "Man proposes and God disposes!"
While the captain was chatting gaily with his passengers, another change was taking place in the appearance of the heavens. The heavy, threatening clouds, which had risen up after breakfast and been swept away to leeward by the south-east wind as it got up, were now slowly being banked up along the horizon to the northward and westward, the haze extending down to the south right ahead of the vessel's track, while a lot of scud began to be seen flying aloft at a very considerable rate—not from but towards the point from which the breeze was blowing, a sign that betokened not merely another shift of the wind, but a squall, and one not to be trifled with either!
The obscuring of the sun by the drift was the first thing that called the captain's attention to the altered state of the weather, and he at once gave the order—"All hands shorten sail!" the mate rushing forwards to see the details properly carried out.
The order did not come an instant too soon.
All at once, in a moment, the wind, which had previously been blowing strongly from the south-east, died away and it was dead calm; while the sea—already rough enough with the short chopping waves of the morning— began to run with those huge billows that seem to get up almost without preparation on the advent of a gale, every second growing more mountainous.
At the captain's word of command, re-echoed by Mr McCarthy, the crew had sprung aloft immediately; and, working with a will, had furled the topgallant-sails, taken in the flying-jib, hauled up the mainsail and mizzen-trysail and squared the after yards, when the ship resembled a gladiator, entering the arena of the prize-ring stripped for a fight, as she thus awaited the approach of the storm.
In the south-east the sky was clear and cloudless, but in the opposite direction dark heavy purple masses of vapour rolled over each other, more unnatural in appearance owing to a lighter cloud covering the curling, wreathing fluid as if with a veil. Shooting from this dark pile of clouds, some few were detached and became separated, rising to a higher region of the air, in which they were dissipated and blown out like mares'-tails that passed rapidly across the zenith; whilst on the water, and about a mile or so from the vessel, the sea appeared covered with a thick white mist, before which ran a dark line of black.
Mr Meldrum had sent the girls below the moment Captain Dinks had given his orders to shorten sail, in spite of their entreaties to be allowed to remain on deck with him and "see the storm;" so, being now alone, he stationed himself near the binnacle close to the captain.
As he stood watching the lull before the break of the squall, he felt a hand touching his shoulder; and looking round he found his fellow passenger, Mr Zachariah Lathrope, by his side.
"Jee-hosophat! mister," said the American; "I guess we're goin' to have a blizzard, and no mistake!"
"What's a blizzard?" said Mr Meldrum, smiling at the other's nasal intonation, which was more marked than usual, even for a citizen of the land of the setting sun.
"Why, darn my moccasins, deon't yew know what a blizzard is?"
Mr Meldrum shook his head in the negative: he felt that he should laugh outright in the other's face if he opened his mouth to speak, and he did not wish to appear wanting in politeness.
"Waal," said the American, drawing himself up, as if proud of his superior knowledge and ability in being able to enlighten a backward Britisher. "A blizzard's a hurricane and a tornader and a cyclone, all biled inter one all fired smash and let loose to sweep creation. We have 'em to rights out Minnesota way; and let me tell you, mister, when you've ten through the mill in one, you wouldn't kinder like to hev a share in another. Snakes and alligators! Why, a blizzard will shave you as clean as the best barber in Boston, and then friz the marrow in your bones an' blow you to Jericho. It's sarten death to be caught out on the prairie in one of 'em: your friends won't find your body till the snow melts in the spring. I guess you wouldn't like to try one, streenger!"
"No, I think not," said Mr Meldrum, shivering at the description, for he had heard before of these "Northers" of the Far West; but, the next moment, the thoughts of blizzards and all belonging to them were banished from his mind by what he saw, for the storm was upon them.
It came with a blast that shook the ship from truck to keelson and almost turned her over, the wind being accompanied by a shower of hail and rain that pelted those on deck like grape-shot and completely took their breath away.
"Let go everything!" shouted the captain. Fortunately, the halliards being cast off in time, the ship was not taken aback; and the steersman putting the helm down, she paid off from the wind and ran off for sometime directly before it, tearing through the water at the rate of twenty knots an hour, with everything flying by the run.
"Thank God!" exclaimed Mr Meldrum, in heartfelt thanksgiving to Him who controls the winds and storms, as he sprang to aid the man at the wheel, seeing that he had a hard task to keep the helm over.
"Ya-as, I guess that were a narrow squeak," said the American; "and I kalkerlate I'll make tracks down south fore another of them snorters come!" So saying, Mr Lathrope dived down the companion-way, his departure being accelerated by a heavy sea which washed over the quarter and floated him below.
"Way aloft there!" shouted the captain; and, although his words could not be heard from the howling of the wind, which shrieked and raved like pandemonium broken loose as it tore through the rigging, the men knew what was wanted and scrambled up the shrouds as well as they could, sometimes stopping for breath as a stronger blast than usual pinned them to the ratlines, where they stuck as if spread-eagled for sport.
After a good half-hour's hard work, the courses were clewed up and furled, the jib hauled down, and the topsails close-reefed, a staysail being set to steady her, when the men came down from aloft pretty well worn out with their exertions.
Hardly had they got below, however, than the captain, seeing a second squall coming, ordered them up again, to strip the ship of her remaining sail.
But, he was too late this time.
Before the men could ascend the shrouds the wind struck the vessel, like an avalanche, on her starboard broadside, heeling her over to port as if she had been canted by the caulkers in dock. Then, another following sea pooped her and cleared the decks fore and aft, sweeping everything loose overboard, the maintopsail being split to pieces at the same time; while the foretop-mast stay-sail was blown clean away to leeward, floating in the air like a white kite against the dark background of the sky. Finally, the foretop-gallant mast was carried by the board to complete the ruin, leaving the ship rolling like a wreck upon the waters, though, happily, no lives as yet were lost.
While all this turmoil and confusion was going on above on deck—with the ship labouring and straining through the heavy seas that raced after her as she ran before the wind, one every now and then outstripping its fellows and breaking over her quarter or stern-rail with a force that made her quiver from end to end, and "stagger like a drunken man," as the Psalmist has so aptly described it, the thud of the heavy waves playing a sort of deep bass accompaniment to the shrieking treble of the wind as it whistled and wailed through the shrouds and cordage, and the ragged remnants of the torn topsail flapping against the yard, with the sound of a stock-driver's whip, in a series of short, sharp reports— those below in the cuddy were far from having a pleasant time of it; for, they were almost in the dark, the captain having caused the companion-hatch to be battened down, and a heavy tarpaulin thrown across the skylight to prevent the tons of water that came over the poop at intervals from flooding the saloon as the waves swept forward in a cascade of foam.
This was just after Mr Zachariah Lathrope, the American passenger, had so well illustrated Virgil's line, facilus descensus averni, in coming down the stairway by the run, on the top of a "comber;" and, although the steward had lit one of the swinging lamps over the cuddy table, it only served, with its feeble flickering light, to "make the darkness visible" and render the scene more sombre.
The Nancy Bell was a wooden ship, clipper built and designed for the passenger trade; but, being only of some nine hundred tons or so burthen, she had not that wealth of accommodation below that some of the first-class liners running to Australia and New Zealand possess, especially in these days of high-pressure steamers and auxiliary screws, which make the passage in half the time that the old-fashioned sailing vessels used to occupy.
She was, however, as well fitted up as her size permitted; and, as her list of passengers was by no means filled, there was plenty of space for those who now had possession of the main saloon, most of whom have been already introduced to notice. If she had had, indeed, as proportionate an amount of cargo as she had passengers it might have been all the better for her seaworthiness. Instead of this, however, she was, by far, too deep in the water, having a lot of deadweight amid-ships, in the shape of agricultural implements and other hardware, which she was taking out to Otago, that seriously interfered with her buoyancy, making her dip to the waves instead of rising over them, and depriving her of that spring and elasticity which a good ship should always have.
Now, she was groaning and creaking at every timber, as if in the last throes of mortal agony; and the manner in which she rolled when she got into the trough of the sea, between the intervals of the following billows, would have dispelled any idea one might have possessed as to her proper angle of stability, and made the observer feel inclined to treat it as "a vanishing point."
Added to this, she pitched every now and then as if she were going to dive into the depths of the ocean; and, when she rose again in recovering herself, it seemed as if she were going down bodily by the stern, the surge of the sea along the line of ports in the cabin bearing out the illusion as it swelled up above her freeboard.
With the glass and crockeryware in the steward's cabin rattling, as if in an earthquake, and trunks and portmanteaus banging from side to side of the saloon, or floating up and down in the water that had accumulated from the heavy sea that had washed down the companion when Mr Zachariah Lathrope so gracefully made his rapid descent below, the place was a picture of discomfort and disorder such as a painter would have been powerless to depict and words would utterly fail to describe.
Kate and Florry Meldrum had retired to their berths, having experienced a slight suspicion of squeamishness which the unwonted movements of the vessel had brought about. They thought in such case that "discretion was the better part of valour," especially as they felt no alarm as to the safety of the ship, having perfect confidence that their father would look after them if there was any danger; but Mrs Major Negus, on the contrary, was firmly convinced that the Nancy Bell was going to the bottom. She sat in the captain's seat at the head of the cuddy table, tightly clutching on to the sides to preserve her equilibrium at each roll of the ship, loudly bewailing her untimely fate; and between the paroxysms of her grief she found time now and again to scold her son Maurice, who was enjoying himself most delightfully amongst the floating baggage, narrowly escaping destruction every moment from the wreck of the debris on the cabin floor, as it banged to and fro with the swish of the water and the roll of the ship.
During one of the lulls in the series of squalls that swept over the vessel in rapid sequence, Mr McCarthy came below by the direction of the captain—who, of course, could not leave the deck—to see how the passengers were getting on, as well as to have the dead-lights put up in the state-rooms, in case of the stern-ports being battered in by the waves; for these had now swollen to an enormous size, and seemed veritably mountains high, rising up far above the cross-jack yard sometimes.
"And how are we getting on now, Mrs Meejor?" said he, good-humouredly addressing the lady at the head of the table, as he made his way to the aftermost end of the saloon, followed by a couple of sailors, who had accompanied him to aid him in his task of barricading the ports.
"Sir," replied she, endeavouring to speak with as much dignity as her insecure position and her qualmishness would allow, "I am surprised at your asking me such a question and displaying levity when I feel as if I am dying, and we are all going down to the bottom—stee-ured!"
"Yes, mum," said that worthy from the pantry door, to which he was holding on, surveying the scene of desolation before him with the air of a connoisseur.
"Bring a basin, please—oh, my!"
"Yes, mum; coming, mum."
"Get up out of that mess there, and come to me at once!"
"Come to me here, im-mediately!"
"I'll—oh, Lord; oh, dear! Steward, send the stewardess to me, and help me into my cabin. I'm dying, I know I am! Oh, gracious goodness, why did I ever come to sea?"
"Faix, the ould lady has had to give in," said the mate to one of the sailors with him. "I thought she wouldn't hould out much longer!" whereat, of course, there was a general laugh from the men.
"The Major"—as everybody on board spoke of the lady, almost after a day's acquaintance with her peculiarities and haughty airs—was just then endeavouring to rise from the captain's chair, when the vessel, after a deeper pitch forward than usual, settled down suddenly by the stern, accompanying the movement by a lurch to starboard that carried away the lashings of the chair; and, in an instant she and the steward and stewardess, along with Master Negus, were rolling to leeward on the floor amongst the dunnage, the whole quartette sputtering and splashing in the sea-water, and vainly endeavouring for some time to rise, for the "Major," first clutching one and then the other as they were scrambling to their legs, hampered their efforts without improving her own position in the least.
At last, by the aid of Mr McCarthy and the sailors, the good lady was pulled up on to her feet and assisted into her cabin, where lying back in her berth, she loudly inveighed against the conduct of everyone, particularly selecting the Captain, in her outpour of indignation, for putting to sea when he must have known, as she held, that a storm was coming on; he had only done it, she was certain, in order to annoy her and put her life in peril!
In the midst of her diatribe—which was listened to by no one, for the mate and sailors had returned on deck after completing the job that had brought them down in thorough ship-shape fashion, and the steward and stewardess, now that they had got my lady to her bunk, were trying to make matters more comfortable in the saloon—Mrs Major Negus suddenly bethought herself of her young hopeful, of whose existence she had been awhile oblivious while attending to her own woes.
"Maurice!" cried she, in accents whose shrillness rose above the roar of the waves and the groaning of the ship's timbers, "Maurice, come here at once, sir, I order you!"
But, lo and behold! no Maurice made his, appearance; nor did he respond to his mother's heart-rending appeal. The young scamp had sneaked up the companion, unperceived by the mate, and was now on deck in high glee at his freedom from maternal thraldom, watching the battle of the elements and the struggle of the ship against the supremacy of the wind and waves, that were vying with each other to overwhelm her.
The boy stood on the lee side of the poop, and was looking over the side at the wreck of the fore-topgallant mast, which was still attached to the ship by the stay and braces of the yard, the men not yet having time to cut it adrift—all hands being busy in doing what was possible to save the main-topgallant mast, that had begun to show signs of giving way.
Nobody knew he was there, or that he was on deck at all, till Mr Meldrum happened suddenly to cast his eye in his direction, when he at once motioned him to come away.
But, "the imp" took no notice of the warning, and Mr Meldrum was hesitating whether he should leave his station by the binnacle, where he had been doing yeoman's service in aiding the helmsman ever since the first squall burst over the ship, when a heavy wave came over the quarter to windward, and, dashing violently against the port bulwarks, carried a large portion away into the sea; and, along with the broken timber-work, away went young Master Negus!
Mr Meldrum hesitated no longer as to crossing the deck; but another was sooner at the scene of action.
Frank Harness, the "third mate," as he was euphemistically called—a dashing young fellow of nineteen, and just completing his sea-time as midshipman before passing the Trinity House examination for his certificate in seamanship—who had been aloft bearing a hand in making the mizzen-topsail snug, the leech of the sail having blown out through the violence of the gale, was just on his way down the rigging again to see where he could be of use elsewhere, when he noticed the boy's peril as quickly as the passenger; and, with one bound, he alighted on the deck.
In a rapid eye-glance he took in the situation.
Raised on the top of a curling wave, the fragments of the broken bulwarks and stanchions had got entangled with the wreck of the fore- topgallant mast, some twenty yards or so to leeward of the ship; and, clinging to the mass, Frank could see the boy holding on with a grip of desperation and terror, drenched with his ducking and the surf that washed over him, and with his mouth wide open as if yelling for assistance—although never a sound reached those on board for the roar of a giant could not have been heard against the wind.
Taking a turn of the signal halliards round his wrist, Frank Harness at once leaped into the sea and struck out gallantly for the boy; those on the poop cheering him as he cleaved through the foaming billows and quickly neared the wreckage, forgetful for a moment of their own immediate peril in the exciting scene before them, and waiting anxiously for their turn to assist the rescuer and the rescued on board again.
In the meantime, Mrs Major Negus—alarmed at the disappearance of her young hopeful from below, neither the steward or stewardess being able to give any account of him after searching the cabins in vain—had managed to scramble up the companion-way, nerved to desperation by the divine power of a mother's love; and by some means or other she contrived to slide back the hatch and step out on to the poop-deck, where, holding on by the rail, she eagerly looked to the right and left in quest of Maurice.
Seeing the group on the lee-side gazing steadfastly at the scene in the water, she staggered towards them, clutching hold of the tarpaulin over the skylight to steady herself.
"My boy! my boy!" she exclaimed frantically. "Where is he? Oh, he's lost," she added with a piercing scream,—"fiends, monsters, are you going to let him drown before your eyes?"—and she made an effort as if to plunge overboard to where she could see the curly head of her darling rising just above the waves.
"Hold!" cried Captain Dinks kindly, grasping her arm firmly and drawing her back. "He's being saved, and we'll have him on board again in a minute. There, don't you see, some one has plunged in after him and is just gripping him; we'll have them up together as soon as he has made fast!"
"Bless him, the brave fellow!" exclaimed the poor lady, whose peculiarities and bad temper were now forgotten by all in sympathy with her natural alarm and anxiety, for she spoke in a voice broken with sobs and tears. "Who is he? I'll fall down on my knees and thank him for saving my boy!"
"Frank Harness," said the captain; "but I'm sure the gallant fellow will not want any thanks for doing a brave action! Look alive forward there!" he called out to the men in the waist, "and ease off those topgallant braces a bit and let the wreck drift alongside. So—easy there—belay! Another minute, and we'll have them."
Frank had reached the wreckage while Maurice's mother had been speaking, and without an instant's delay had looped the end of the signal halliards round the boy's waist as he held on himself to the end of the topgallant yard, to which the lee braces were attached. A quick motion of his arm had then apprised Captain Dinks what to do, and in another minute or two the wreckage had been floated in under the ship's quarter, and a dozen hands were helping the brave lad and the boy whom he had rescued up the side—Maurice, indeed, being hauled up by the bight of the signal halliards first.
His mother almost went into hysterics when he was restored to her, as if from the very gates of death; but her joy did not allow her to forget to thank his rescuer, which she did far more enthusiastically than Frank liked, with all the men looking on!
The gale continued raging with unabated force all that evening; but towards midnight it lulled sufficiently for some sail to be set on the ship, which was then kept more on her proper course.
It was a lovely dawn the morning after the storm in the Bay of Biscay.
Even Mr Adams, plain, matter-of-fact, simple, and unsympathetic sailor as he was, without a particle of poetry or imagination about him, could not but gaze with admiration at the glory of God's handiwork, as he noticed the grand panorama of change that marked the progress from darkness to light, from night to day!
Soon after his watch began, the twinkling stars had gone to rest, putting out their tiny lanterns, as they had arisen, one be one; and now, the violet blue of the firmament paled gradually into sea-green and grey, soft neutral tints mixed on the great palette of Nature to receive the roseate hue that presently illumined the whole eastern sky, heralding the approach of the glorious orb of day. Next, streaks of light salmon-coloured clouds shot across the horizon, their edges decorated with a fringe of gold that gleamed brighter and more intense each moment, the water glowing beneath the reflection as if wakening into life: and then, the majestic sun stepping up from his ocean bed— all radiant—"like a bridegroom out of his chamber," and moving with giant strides higher and higher up the heavens, as if "anxious to run his course," and make up for the lost time of the night—shone through the transparent purple mist of the morning like a blush rose behind a glittering veil of dewdrops!
By the time the breakfast hour arrived—"eight bells"—the blue sea was dancing merrily in the sunshine, the waves calming down to only a crisping curl of their foam-flecked summits, and the Nancy Bell was speeding along under a pile of canvas fore and aft from deck to truck, Mr Adams having made good use of his time while others were sleeping to get up the spare topgallant-mast forward and set all the upper sail he could; so the passengers, roused up to new life by the cheery influence of the bright summer day, coming after all the gloom and misery and storm and tempest of the past, mustered round the cuddy table in full force.
Mr Meldrum and the American were there as a matter of course; but, by the side of her father, on the right of the skipper, appeared now for the first time at the table since the ship had left port, the graceful form of Kate Meldrum accompanied by the slighter figure of Florry, supported on the other side of the table by Mrs Major Negus and her young hopeful; while Mr Adams faced Captain Dinks—it being the chief mate's turn of duty on deck—having brave Frank Harness close alongside.
They formed a very joyous coterie altogether, and enjoyed themselves all the more from their natural revulsion of spirits after all the discomfort and misery they had passed through, Captain Dinks himself setting an example and provoking the merry laughter of the girls with his absurd jokes, although the young ladies seemed brimful of fun, especially Miss Florry, who the skipper said might make a good match for mischievousness with Master Negus—whereat a grim smile was seen to steal across the face of "the Major," lightening up her sallow countenance and making her "come out in new colours."
As for Mr Zachariah Lathrope, he was too busy with the ham and eggs to do much talking; although, like the monkeys, he probably thought the more, for ever and anon he would pass encomiums on the viands and pass up his plate for a fresh helping, the steward having enough to do in supplying his wants quickly enough.
After breakfast, a visit was paid to "Snowball," the darkey Stowaway, who was found much better and progressing so favourably that the captain ordered his removal to the "fokesail," to complete his convalescence; which it may be here added he satisfactorily accomplished in a few days, when he was installed in the galley as cook, in the place of a Maltese sailor who was glad to get forward again before the mast. The negro had slept continually from the time he had been released from durance vile in the after-hold, neither the racket below nor the turmoil on deck during the storm having disturbed his slumbers. This, no doubt, had hastened his recovery, for Mr McCarthy was positive that three of his ribs at least had been broken.
"Why is Snowball like a worm, Miss Meldrum?" said Captain Dinks to Kate, after telling her that he intended installing the darkey in the galley as cook; "do you know, eh!"
"Oh, if that's a conundrum, captain," replied she with a piquant laugh that lit up her whole face, making it quite beautiful, Frank Harness thought, "I give it up at once. I'm a bad hand at guessing riddles."
"Well, you see," said Captain Dinks, with that cheery "ho, ho!" of a laugh of his, which always preceded any of his good things, "the worm or grub develops into the butterfly; but Snowball made the butter fly when he tumbled over that cask in the steerage, and now he is going to develop into the grub line and turn cook!"
"That's too bad!" said Kate laughing. "I never heard a worse sort of pun in my life."
"Then it's all the better, my dear," replied he; and as everybody else laughed too, they possibly shared the captain's opinion.
After this, there was a move on deck—not before it was needed perhaps!
At noon, Captain Dinks, after manipulating his sextant and adjusting the sights, seemed to be much longer taking his observation than usual; and when he went below to his cabin to work out the reckoning he certainly remained a most unconscionable time.
By and by, however, he came up the companion again, his face beaming with delight.
"What do you think, Mr Meldrum?" said he, somewhat excitedly, to that gentleman, who, along with the remainder of the saloon party, was standing on the poop leaning over the taffrail to windward, looking over the apparently limit less expanse of water, that stretched away to the horizon, and basking in the sunshine, which was tempered by a mellow breeze that seemed just sufficient to keep the sails of the Nancy Bell full—and that was all.
"I'm sure I can't say," replied Mr Meldrum good-humouredly. "Found another ghost in the cabin, eh?"
"No, no; couldn't have two in one voyage," said the skipper.
"Made another conundrum?" again inquired the other slily, poking fun at the captain's previous attempt in the riddle line.
"Oh, no," said Captain Dinks, laughing out at this. "That was too good to be repeated: I've got better news than that, Mr Meldrum—something really to surprise you!"
"I'm all attention," said Mr Meldrum, "but pray do not keep us long in suspense. Don't you see we're all anxious!"
"Why," exclaimed Captain Dinks triumphantly, "the Nancy Bell has made nearly five degrees of latitude since I last took the sun, there!"
"Oh dear!" said Florry ruefully; "I thought you were going to tell us something funny!" and she looked so disappointed that Kate laughed at her and Master Maurice Negus grinned; whereupon Florry, in a pet, smacked the young gentleman's face, for which she was reproved by her father and ordered below, although the sentence of banishment was remitted later on at Mrs Major Negus's especial request.
This little interlude over, the captain proceeded with his explanation.
"Yes," said he, "we're now in latitude 44 degrees 56 minutes north, and longitude 9 degrees 42 minutes west; so that we've run pretty close on four hundred miles since yesterday at noon. Just think of that, now!"
"A pretty good distance," said Mr Meldrum; "but, you must recollect we had the gale to drive us on."
"Aye, sorr," said Mr McCarthy, joining in the conversation, "and didn't it droive us too! Begorrah, there was some times that the wind tuck the ship clane out of the wather and carried us along in the air like one of them flying-fish you'll say when we gits down to the line!"
"It was fortunate it was in our favour," observed the captain reflectively. "We couldn't have tried to beat against it; and, heavily- laden as we are, it would have been madness to have tried to lay-to!"
"You're right," said Mr Meldrum, "and it was equally fortunate that the gale carried us so far and no further! Another twelve hours of it and we would have been high and dry ashore on the Spanish coast."
"I think you're not far out," replied the captain, scratching his head and pondering over the matter, "for we'll only just shave past Cape Finisterre now keeping our course; and if we hadn't made so much westing when we got out of the Channel I don't know where we should have been!"
"Faix and it was grumbling at it you were all the toime, cap'en!" said McCarthy with a knowing wink; "though you do now say it was all for the best, as the man said when they buried his wife's grandmother!"
"Aye, you're right," said Captain Dinks more seriously, "all is for the best, if we could only know it at the time!"
Thenceforward, the weather kept fine; and the fates seemed favourable to the Nancy Bell in her pilgrimage across the sea.
There was no lack of incident in the voyage, however.
One day, about a week after they had bidden farewell to the Bay of Biscay with all its terrors and troubled waters, as the ship was approaching that region of calms which lies adjacent to the Tropic of Cancer, her rate of progression had grown so "small by degrees and beautifully less," that she barely drifted southward with the current, until at length she came to a dead stop, so far as those on board could judge, lying motionless on the surface of the water "like a painted ship upon a painted ocean," as the situation is described in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.
Round about the vessel, dolphins disported themselves, and "Portuguese men-of-war" floated over the sea with their gelatinous sails unfurled, and everything seemed lazy and enjoyable to the passengers—although the captain and crew did not evidently relish the state of inaction which the calm brought about, for they were looking out in all quarters for the wished-for wind.
Not a ship was in sight—nothing happening to break the peaceful repose of the deep for hours.
The captain was "having a stretch" below; the men snoozing away on the deck forwards in all sorts of odd corners; the officer of the watch blinking as he squinted aloft to see if the dog-vane stirred with any passing breath of air; even the steersman was nodding over the helm, as the wheel rotated round to port or starboard as it listed, according as the ship rose or fell on the long heavy rolling swell that undulated over the bosom of the deep; and most of the passengers were in the same somnolent state—when all at once an event occurred that soon broke the monotony of the afternoon, waking up the sleepy ones to fresh vitality, for an object of interest had at last arisen in the uneventful day sufficient for the moment to enchain their attention.
The listless lotus eaters had to thank Master Negus for the excitement, in the first instance.
That young gentleman was possessed of a keen desire for knowledge, which his more prosaic seniors were in the habit of misconstruing, deeming it to arise, as they said, from an insatiable and impertinent curiosity combined with an inherent love of mischief. Be that as it may, this desire for knowledge on Master Maurice's part frequently led him into places where, to put it delicately, his presence was undesirable in many ways; his love for investigation taking him especially to certain dangerous localities whither he was peremptorily forbidden to go both by his mother and the captain.
Among such tabooed spots in the ship was the forecastle; and here, consequently, as a matter of course, Master Maurice most delighted to steal away when neither the maternal eye of Mrs Major Negus was upon him nor any of the other people aft were watching him. He did not mind the sailors, for they made a point of encouraging him forward and took much pleasure in developing his propensities for mischief.
This afternoon, he was enjoying himself after the desire of his heart- climbing about the rigging in a way that would have made his mother faint, when, in one of his scrambles up to the foretop, he saw something in the water which was hidden from the sight of the others on board, through the head-sails of the ship shutting out their line of view.
"Oh, crickey," shouted out Master Negus at the top of his voice, at once betraying his whereabouts in his excitement, "there's a fight going on in the water, and two whales are leathering each other like fun!"
THE BLACK FISH AND THE THRESHER.
"Good gracious me!" exclaimed Mrs Major Negus, jumping up in a fright from the comfortable nap which she had been taking in a lean-back chair on the poop; "where is that unhappy boy? He'll be the death of me some day!"
"I'm here, ma!" shouted out Maurice from the forecastle. "Do come, everybody. It's such fun! Ah, there, the big one has just got such a whack and is in a terrible wax. He's hunting about for the little one, who has dived away from him out of reach!"
"Fokesall, ahoy!" hailed Mr Adams, who had charge of the deck; "what's the matter forward!"
"Only a fight, sir, between a black-fish and a thresher," answered Ben Boltrope, the carpenter, an old man-o'-war's man, and one of the most efficient hands of the Nancy Bell's crew.
"A fit!" exclaimed Mr Zachariah Lathrope, drawing his long telescopic legs together and rising into a sitting posture on the top of the cabin skylight, where he had been taking his usual afternoon siesta instead of putting himself to the trouble of going below and turning into his bunk, as was his usual wont after luncheon. "A fit! Wa-al I guess I'm on. I allers likes to hitch in with a muss!" and, so saying, the lanky American was soon scrambling down the poop-ladder and making his way forward, followed by all the remainder of the passengers—Mrs Major Negus, of course, going to look after her darling boy, while Frank Harness accompanied Kate Meldrum, as he said, to "take care of her," although, as her father was not far distant, it might have been supposed that his protecting arm was not so absolutely necessary as he thought!
A very strange spectacle was seen, when the party, after diving beneath the slackened sheets of the mainsail, that flapped about an inert mess of canvas above their heads, and picking their way past the galley and windlass, at last climbed up into the bows of the ship, where the majority of the crew had already assembled and taken up vantage points in the rigging, half-way up which was Master Maurice, waving his hat wildly in a great state of excitement, and the master as it were of the situation.
"There they are!" said he pointing to where the water was lashed up and broken into foam, about half a mile ahead of the ship, amidst which a couple of dark bodies could be seen tumbling about—one occasionally jumping up high in the air and coming down on the other with a thud, and a smack that sounded like the crack of a whip, or report of a rifle. "There they are, Miss Meldrum, I saw them first!"
"Come down out of that, sir, at once!" screamed out his mother, with a pant and a puff between each word, her breath having been almost taken away by her unusually quick movements in getting forwards. "Have I not ordered you never to go up those ropes?"
"Oh, bother, ma!" exclaimed the young hopeful, paying not the slightest attention to his mother's command. He had been so spoilt, petted at one time and scolded another, that all her authority over him was lost save in name. "There! bravo, little one—oh, my, wasn't that a good one, now?"
And so, Mrs Major Negus—abandoning any expectation of making Maurice descend from his perch in the shrouds, where, however, she could see that he was in no imminent danger, for he had one of the sailors on either side of him who would catch him should he slip—was obliged perforce to do as all the rest were doing and gaze at the thrilling marine drama that was being acted out with such tragic earnestness on the surface of the deep before their eyes.
A black-fish—which, it may be mentioned here, for the benefit of the uninitiated, is a species of cachalot, although differing from the true spermaceti family of whales in having the spout-holes placed on the top of the head, in place of on the snout, and the pectoral fins shorter— was being assailed by its bitter enemy the thresher or "fox shark." This latter is one of the most peculiar fishes to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the ocean, that world of living wonders; for it has a most extraordinary face, or head, which is more like that of an ape than of one of the piscine tribe; while its tail is divided into two lobes or blades, one of which is small and insignificant, and the other larger than the body of the animal, curling up at the end like the tail- feather of a bird of paradise.
There could be no comparison between the two combatants, in respect to size at least; for, while the whale was some fifty feet long—nearly a third of the length of the Nancy Bell—the thresher could not have exceeded thirteen feet; and as for girth, the former was in proportion like a portly, Daniel-Lambert sort of man put by the side of a starving street urchin of seven. The only advantage the thresher apparently possessed was in its eyes, which, when one could get a glimpse of them, looked like those of a hawk; while the unwieldy cetacean had little tiny optics, not much bigger than those of a common haddock, which were placed in an unwieldy lump of a head, that seemed ever so much bigger than its body, with a tremendous lower jaw containing a row of teeth, each one of which was nearly a foot long.
The thresher, seemingly, had only the advantage of his antagonist in the proportionate size of his eyes; but, "just wait till you have seen him use his long feather-like tail!" as Maurice Negus said, and you will arrive at the conclusion that the combatants were not so very unequally matched after all.
The very size of the black-fish militated against his chances for, while it took him more than his own length to turn in the water, the thresher darted, here, there and everywhere, like an eel—just getting out of his reach when the other thought he had got him and had opened his ponderous jaws to crush him. It was at this moment that his agile tormentor, seizing his opportunity, would leap out of the water and give the whale a "whack" on his side behind the fin, one of his tenderest spots, the blow resounding far and wide over the water and probably leaving a weal if not an indentation in the animal's side.
Mr Zachariah Lathrope got quite interested, bobbing from one side of the topgallant-forecastle to the other, and trying to obtain the best view he could of the contest.
"Bully for the little scorpion, marm!" he exclaimed to "the Major," as he shoved his hands down into his trouser pockets and seemed to lift himself up in his eagerness. "I'll bet my bottom dollar he'll fix that air whale to rights! By gosh, that wer a sockdolager; I guess the big varmint is kinder gettin' riled!"
The whale here spouted and fluked his tail, diving down for a moment beneath the surface; but, he did not long disappear, and when he came up shortly afterwards nearer the ship, the spectators could see that the water around him was dyed with blood.
As the black-fish rose, the thresher, who evidently had been waiting for him and knew the precise spot where he would reappear, threw himself up in the air, turning a sort of summersault; and, "whack!" came his whip- like tail round his victim's body, the whale seeming to writhe under the blow as if driven half mad with pain.
"Look, look!" exclaimed Florry Meldrum, "the thresher isn't alone; what are those long-nosed fishes swimming about under the whale? They seem to be helping the other one!"
"You're right, Florry," said her father, "they are swordfish. What you think are their noses are long projecting saw-like blades, and they are the whale's deadliest enemy. I never saw them, however, attacking one in company with a thresher before: they must have formed an alliance for the express purpose, as they have really nothing in common."
"It reminds me, mister," said the American, putting a chew of tobacco in his mouth pensively, "of a bull fit I once see in Carthagena when I was to Spain some years ago. That air thresher is jist like the feller all fixed up with lace and fallals called the Piccador, who used to stir up the animile with squibs and crackers and make him fly round like a dawg when he's kinder tickled with a flea under his tail; and the sword-fish, as you calls them outlandish things, are sunthen' like the Matador that gives the bull his quietus with his wepping. That air power of blood that you see, I guess, is from them, and not from t'other's cow-hide of a tail!"
"Golly, massa, you speaks for true," said Snowball, who formed one of the party of lookers-on, abandoning his coppers in the galley in order to see the fun. "Bress de Lord! see how dat long snout chap dere gib him goss now!"
It really seemed an organised attack.
As soon as the back of the black-fish appeared above the surface, the thresher, springing several yards out of the water, descended with great violence on the object of its rancour and inflicted what sounded like a hearty slap with its tail, the sword-fishes in their turn striking the whale from below; so that, try how he might, the unhappy monster of the deep could not escape his persevering foes.
"Sure and be jabers it bates Donnybrook Fair entirely!" said Mr McCarthy, who had also come up from below, the news having also reached him of what was taking place. "The poor baste will soon be bate into a cocked hat with all them ragamuffins on to him at once! It's liking to help him I'd be if I saw the chance!"
But the doom of the black-fish was evidently by this time sealed and human aid was powerless to assist him: all could see for themselves that the last act in the drama was close at hand!
Suddenly, the thresher gave another violent bound upwards into the air from the surface of the ensanguined water, leaping almost over the whale; and, as he fell back again into the sea, his tail, which was bent like a bow, delivered a terrible lash, surpassing any of its previous attempts. At the same time, as if by a concerted movement, those on board could see—for the combatants were now so close alongside the ship that the bight of a rope could have been easily hove over them—one of the sword-fish made a dart at the exposed flank of the whale, burying its ugly saw-like weapon almost up to the head and inflicting a wound that must have been mortal.