The Ghost Ship
by John Conran Hutcheson ___________ This book intentionally veers in and out of the supernatural, as the title implies. The officers get more and more bewildered as they work out their position, and yet again encounter the same vessel going in an impossible direction.
Having warned you of this, I must say that it is a well-written book about life aboard an ocean-going steamer at about the end of the nineteenth century.
You will find it worth listening to, or reading, and I recommend it. N.H. ___________ THE GHOST SHIP
BY JOHN CONRAN HUTCHESON
THE STAR OF THE NORTH.
The sun sank below the horizon that evening in a blaze of ruby and gold.
It flooded the whole ocean to the westward, right up to the very zenith, with a wealth of opalescent light that transformed sea and sky alike into a living glory, so grand and glorious was the glowing harmony of kaleidoscopic colouring which lit up the arc of heaven and the wide waste of water beneath, stretching out and afar beyond ken. Aye, and a colouring, too, that changed its hue each instant with marvellous rapidity, tint alternating with tint, and tone melting into tone in endless succession and variety!
Throughout the day the weather had looked more than threatening. From an early hour of the morning the wind had been constantly veering and shifting, showing a strong inclination to back; and now the sea was getting up and the white horses of Neptune had already begun to gambol over the crests of the swelling billows, which heaved up and down as they rolled onward with a heavy moaning sound, like one long, deep-drawn sigh!
It looked as if the old monarch below, angered by the teasing of the frolicsome zephyrs, was gradually working himself up into a passion, which would vent itself, most probably, ere long in a much more telling fashion than by this melancholy moan, so different to the sea-god's usual voice of thunder!
Yes, it looked threatening enough in all conscience!
A brisk breeze had been blowing from the nor'-east before breakfast, but this had subsequently shifted to the nor'ard at noon, veering back again, first to the nor'-east and then to due east in the afternoon. The wind freshened as the hours wore on, being now accompanied towards sunset by frequent sharp gusts, a sign betokening plainly enough to a seaman's eye that something stiffer was brewing up for us by-and-by.
Glancing over the side, I noticed that our brave vessel, the Star of the North, was becoming very uneasy.
She was running under her jib and foresail, with fore-topsail and fore- topgallantsail, being only square rigged forwards, like most ocean steamers; but, in order to save coals and ease the engines, the skipper had set the fore and main trysails with gaff-topsails and staysails as well, piling on every rag he could spread.
With this press of canvas topping her unaccustomed hull, the poor old barquey heeled over more and more as the violent gusts caught her broadside-on at intervals, rolling, too, a bit on the wind fetching round aft; while, her stern lifting as some bigger roller than usual passed under her keel, the screw would whiz round aimlessly in mid air, from missing its grip of the water, "racing," as sailors say in their lingo, with a harsh grating jar that set my teeth on edge, and seemed to vibrate through my very spinal marrow as I stood for a moment on the line of deck immediately over the revolving shaft.
At the same time also that the afterpart of the vessel rose up on the breast of one billowy mountain, her forefoot in turn would come down with a resonant "thwack" into the valley intervening between this roller and the next, the buoyant old barquey dipping her bows under and giving the star-crowned maiden with golden ringlets, that did duty for her figurehead, an impromptu shower bath as she parted the indignant waves with her glistening black hull, sending them off on either hand with a contemptuous "swish" on their trying in mad desperation to leap on board, first to port and then to starboard, as the ship listed in her roll.
It was, however, but a vain task for these mad myrmidons of Neptune to attempt, strive as recklessly as they might in their wrath, for the good ship spurned them with her forefoot and the star-crowned maiden bowed mockingly to them from her perch above the bobstay, laughing in her glee as she rode over them triumphantly and sailed along onward; and so the baffled roysterers were forced to fall back discomforted from their rash onslaught, swirling away in circling eddies aft, where, anon, the cruel propeller tossed and tore them anew with its pitiless blades—ever whirling round with painful iteration to the music of their monotonous refrain, "Thump-thump, Thump-thump," and ever churning up the already seething sea into a mass of boiling, brawling, bubbling foam that spread out astern of us in a broad shimmering wake in the shape of a lady's fan, stretching backward on our track as far as the eye could see and flashing out sparks of fire as it glittered away into the dim distance, like an ever-widening belt of diamonds fringed with pearls.
The SS Star of the North was a large schooner-rigged cargo steamer, strongly built of iron in watertight compartments, and of nearly two thousand horsepower, but working up, under pressure, of nearly half as much again on a pinch, having been originally intended for the passenger trade.
She belonged to one of the great ocean lines that run between Liverpool and New York, and was now on her last outward trip for the year and rapidly nearing her western goal—the Fastnet light—and, according to our reckoning when we took the sun at noon, in latitude 42 deg. 35 minutes North, and longitude 50 deg. 10 minutes West, that is, just below the banks of Newfoundland, our course to our American port having been a little more southerly than usual for the season. This was in consequence of Captain Applegarth, our skipper, wishing, as I said before, to take advantage of the varying winds of the northern ocean as much as possible, so as to economise his steam-power and limit our consumption of fuel; for freights "across the herring-pond," as the Yankees call it, are at a very low ebb nowadays, and it is naturally a serious consideration with shipowners how to make a profit out of the carrying trade without landing themselves in the bankruptcy court. So, they have to cut down their working expenses to the lowest point practicable with efficiency, where "full speed" all the way is not a vital necessity—as in the case of the mail steamers and first-class passenger ships of enormous steam-power and corresponding speed, which, of course, run up a heavy coal bill, for they always "carry on" all they can to and fro across the Atlantic, accomplishing the passage now between Queenstown and Sandy Hook, veritable greyhounds of the ocean that they are, within the six days, all told, from land to land. Aye, and even this "record" promises to be beaten in the near future.
Prior to our leaving Liverpool on this voyage, the very day before we sailed, in fact, greatly to my surprise and satisfaction, as may be imagined, I was made fourth officer, the owners having unexpectedly promoted me from the position of "apprentice," which I had filled up to our last run home without any thought of so speedy a "rise." Of course I had to thank my old friend Captain Applegarth for my good fortune, though why the skipper thus spoke up for me I'm sure I cannot say, for I was very young to hold such a subordinate post, having only just turned my seventeenth year, besides being boyish enough in all conscience, and beardless, too, at that! But, be that as it may, fourth officer I was at the time of which I write.
I recollect the evening well enough.
It was on the seventh of November, the anniversary of my birthday, a circumstance which would alone suffice to imprint the date on my memory were I at all disposed to forget it. But that is not very likely.
No, I can assure you.
It would be impossible for me to do that, as you will readily believe when you come to know my story; for, on this eventful evening there happened something which, somehow or other, thenceforth, whether owing to what visionary folk term "Destiny," or from its arising through some curious conjuncture of things beyond the limits of mere chance, appeared to exercise a mysterious influence on my life, affecting the whole tenor and course of my subsequent career.
I had better tell you, however, what occurred, and then you will be able to judge for yourself.
Away forward, I remember, the ship's bell under the break of the forecastle, or "fo'c's'le," as it is pronounced in nautical fashion, was just striking "two bells" in the first day watch.
In other words, more suited to a landsman's comprehension, it was five o'clock in the afternoon when I came on deck from my spell of leisure below, to relieve Mr Spokeshave, the third officer, then on duty, and the sight I caught of the heavens, across the gangway, was so beautiful that I paused a moment or two to look at the sunset before going up on the bridge, where Mr Spokeshave, I had no doubt, was anxiously awaiting me and, equally certainly, grumbling at my detaining him from his "tea!"
This gentleman, however, was not too particular as to time in relieving others when off watch, and I did not concern myself at all about Master "Conky," as all of us called him aboard, on account of a very prominent, and, so to speak, striking feature of his countenance.
Otherwise, he was an insignificant-looking little chap, as thin as threadpaper and barely five feet high; but he was always swelling himself out, and trying to look a bigger personage than he was, with the exception that is, of his nose, which was thoroughly Napoleonic in size and contour. Altogether, what with the airs he gave himself and his selfish disposition and nasty cantankerous temper, Master Spokeshave was not a general favourite on board, although we did not quarrel openly with the little beggar or call him by his nickname when he was present, albeit he was very hard to bear with sometimes!
Well, not thinking of him or his tea or that it was time for me to go on watch, but awed by the majesty of God's handiwork in the wonderful colouring, of the afterglow, which no mortal artist could have painted, no, none but He who limns the rainbow, I stood there so long by the gangway, gazing at the glorious panorama outspread before me, that I declare I clean forgot Spokeshave's very existence, all-important though he considered himself, and I was only recalled to myself by the voice of Mr Fosset, our first officer, who had approached without my seeing him, speaking close beside me.
Ah, he was a very different sort of fellow to little Spokeshave, being a nice, jolly, good-natured chap, chubby and brown-bearded, and liked by every one from the skipper down to the cabin boy. He was a bit obstinate, though, was Mr Fosset; and "as pigheaded as a Scotch barber," as Captain Applegarth would say sometimes when he was arguing with him, for the first mate would always stick to his own opinion, no matter if he were right or wrong, nothing said on the other side ever convincing him to the contrary and making him change his mind.
He had caught sight of me now leaning against the bulwarks and looking over the side amidships, just abaft the engine-room hatch, as he passed along the gangway towards the bridge which he was about to mount to have a look at the standard compass and see what course the helmsman was steering, on his way from the poop, where I had noticed him talking with the skipper as I came up the booby-hatch from below. "Hullo, Haldane!" he cried, shouting almost in my ear, and giving me a playful dig in the ribs at the same time; this nearly knocked all the breath out of my body. "Is that you, my boy?"
"Aye, aye, sir," I replied, hesitating, for I was startled, alike by his rather too demonstrative greeting as well as his unexpected approach. "I—I—mean, yes, sir."
Mr Fosset laughed; a jolly, catching laugh it was—that of a man who had just dined comfortably and enjoyed his dinner, and did not have, apparently, a care in the world. "Why, what's the matter with you, youngster?" said he in his chaffing way. "Been having a caulk on the sly and dreaming of home, I bet?"
"No, sir," I answered gravely; "I've not been to sleep."
"But you look quite dazed, my boy."
I made no reply to this observation, and Mr Fosset then dropped his bantering manner.
"Tell me," said he kindly, "is there anything wrong with you below? Has that cross-grained little shrimp, Spokeshave, hang him! been bullying you again, like he did the other day?"
"Oh no, sir; he's on the bridge now, and I ought to have relieved him before this," I replied, only thinking of poor "Conky" and his tea then for the first time. "I wasn't even dreaming of him; I'm sure I beg his pardon!"
"Well, you were dreaming of some one perhaps 'nearer and dearer' than Spokeshave," rejoined Mr Fosset, with another genial laugh. "You were quite in a brown study when I gave you that dig in the ribs. What's the matter, my boy?"
"I was looking at that, sir," said I simply, in response to his question, pointing upwards to the glory in the heavens. "Isn't it grand? Isn't it glorious?"
This was a poser; for the first mate, though good-natured and good- humoured enough, and probably a thinking man, too, in his way, was too matter-of-fact a person to indulge in "dreamy sentimentalities," as he would have styled my deeper thoughts! A sunset to him was only a sunset, saving in so far as it served to denote any change of weather, which aspect his seaman's eye readily took note of without any pointing out on my part; so he rather chilled my enthusiasm by his reply now to me.
"Oh, yes, it's very fine and all that, youngster," he observed in an off-hand manner that grated on my feelings, making me wish I had not spoken so gushingly. "I think that sky shows signs of a blow before the night is over, which will give you something better to do than star- gazing!"
"I can't very well do that now, sir," said I slily, with a grin at catching him tripping. "Why, the stars aren't out yet."
"That may be, Master Impudence," replied Mr Fosset, all genial again and laughing too; "but they'll soon be popping out overhead."
"But, sir, it is quite light still," I persisted. "See, it is as bright as day all round, just as at noontide!"
"Aye, but it'll be precious dark soon! It grows dusk in less than a jiffey after the sun dips in these latitudes at this time o' year," said he. "Hullo! I say, though, that reminds me, Haldane—"
"Of what, sir?" I asked as he stopped abruptly at this point. "Anything I can do for you, Mr Fosset?"
"No, my boy, nothing," he replied reflectively, and looking for the moment to be in as deep a brown study as he accused me of being just now. "Stop, though, I tell you what you can do. Run forwards and see what that lazy lubber of a lamp-trimmer is about. He's always half an hour or so behind time, and seems to get later every day. Wake him up and make him hoist our masthead lantern and fix the side lights in position, for it'll soon be dark, I bet 'ee, in spite of all that flare- up aloft over there, and we're now getting in the track of the homeward- bounders crossing the Banks, and have to keep a sharp look-out and let 'em know where we are, to avoid any chance of collision."
"Aye, aye, sir," I cried, making my way along the gangway by the side of the deckhouse towards the fo'c's'le, which was still lit up by the afterglow as if on fire. "I'll see to it all right, and get our steam lights rigged up at once, sir."
So saying, in another minute or so, scrambling over a lot of empty coal sacks and other loose gear that littered the deck, besides getting tripped up by the tackle of the ash hoist, which I did not see in time from the glare of the sky coming right in my eyes, I gained the lee side of the cook's galley at the forward end of the deckhouse. Here, as I conjectured, I found old Greazer, our lamp-trimmer. This worthy, who was quite a character in his way, was a superannuated fireman belonging to the line, whom age and long years of toil had unfitted for the rougher and more arduous duties of his vocation in the stoke-hold, and who now, instead of trimming coals in the furnaces below, trimmed wicks and attended to the lamps about the ship, on deck and elsewhere. He managed, I may add, to make his face so dirty in the carrying out of the lighter duties, to which he was now called, probably in fond recollection of his byegone grimy task in the engine-room, that his somewhat personal cognomen was very appropriate, his countenance being oily and smutty to a degree!
He was a very lazy old chap, however; and, in lieu of attending to his work, was generally to be found confabulating with our mulatto cook, Accra Prout, as I discovered him now, more bent on worming out an extra lot of grog from the chef of the galley in exchange for a lump of "hard" tobacco, than thinking of masthead lanterns or the ship's side lights, green and red.
"What are you about, lamp-trimmer?" I called out sharply on catching sight of him palavering there with the mulatto, the artful beggar furtively slipping the tin pannikin out of which he had been drinking into the bosom of his jumper. "Here's two bells struck and no lights up!"
"Two bells, sir?"
"Aye, two bells," I repeated, taking no notice of his affected air of surprise. "There's the ship's bell right over your head where you stand, and you must have heard it strike not five minutes ago."
"Lor', Master Dick, may I die a foul death ashore if I ever heard a stroke," he replied as innocently as you please. "Howsomdever, the lamps is all right, sir. I ain't 'ave forgot 'em."
"That's all right, then, Greazer," I said, not being too hard on him, and excusing the sly wink he gave to Prout as he told his barefaced banger about not hearing the bell, in memory of his past services. "Come along now and rig them up smart, or you'll have Mr Fosset after you."
Making him hoist our masthead light on the foremast, twenty feet above the deck, according to the usual Board of Trade regulations for steamers under way at sea, I then marched him before me along the deck and saw him place our side lights in their proper position, the green one to starboard and the red on our port hand.
Old Greazer then mounted the bridge-ladder, in advance of me, with the binnacle lamp in his hand to put that in its place, and, as I followed slowly in his slow footsteps, for the ex-fireman was not now quick of movement, an accident in the stoke-hold having crippled him years ago, I half-turned round as I ascended the laddering to have a look again at the horizon to leeward over our port quarters, when I fancied, when advancing a foot with the lamp-trimmer, I had seen something to the southward.
In another instant my fancy became a certainty.
Yes, there, in the distance, sailing at an angle to our course, right before the wind, was a large full-rigged ship. Everything, though, was not right with her, as I noted the moment I made her out, with her white canvas all crimson from a last expiring gleam of the afterglow; for I could see that her sails were tattered and torn, with the ragged ends blowing out loose from the boltropes in the most untidy fashion, unkempt, uncared for!
Besides, she was flying a signal of distress, patent to every sailor that has ever crossed the seas.
Her flag was hoisted half-mast high from the peak halliards. Half-mast high!
I did not wait, nor did I want, to see anything further. No, that was enough for me; and, springing on to the bridge with a bound that nearly knocked poor old Greazer down on his marrowbones as he stopped to put the lantern into the binnacle, I shouted out in a ringing voice that echoed fore and aft, startling everybody aboard, even myself, "Sail ho! A ship in distress! Sail ho!"
DID I DREAM IT?
"Where away, Haldane?" cried Mr Fosset, the first to notice my shout, catching up a telescope that lay handy on the top of the wheel-house of the bridge; and, in his hurry, eagerly scanning every portion of the horizon but the right one. "I don't see her!"
"There she is, sir, away to the right!" said I, equally flurried, pointing over the lee rail in the direction where I had observed the ship only a second before as I mounted the bridge-ladder, although I could not actually make her out distinctly at the moment now, on account of the smoke from our funnels, which, just then, came belching forth in a thick, black cloud that streamed away to leeward, athwart our starboard beam, obscuring the outlook.
"There away, sir; out there!"
"Well, I can't see anything!" ejaculated Mr Fosset impatiently, rising to his feet after stooping down to the level of the bridge cloth, trying to get a sight of the strange vessel as best he could under the cloud of smoke, which was now trailing out along the horizon, blown far away to leeward by the strong wind across our beam. "I'm sure I can't see anything over there, youngster; you must have dreamt it!"
"Yes, when you were lolling about in the waist below there, just now," put in my friend, Master Spokeshave, who had been pretending to look-out from his end of the bridge because he thought he ought to do so as Mr Fosset was there, although he really couldn't possibly see anything aft from that position on the port side, on account of the wheel-house and funnel, which were of course abaft the bridge, blocking the view. The cantankerous little beggar sniffed his beak of a nose in the air as if trying to look down on me, though he was half a head shorter, and spoke in that nasty sneering way of his that always made me mad. He did enjoy growling at any one when he had the chance; and so he went on snarling now, like a cat behind an area railing at a dog which couldn't get at it to stop its venomous spitting. "I saw you, my joker, star-gazing down there, instead of coming up here to relieve me at the proper time! I believe you only sang out about the ship to cover your laziness and take a rise out of us!"
"I did nothing of the sort, Mr Spokeshave," I answered indignantly, for the little beast sniggered away and grinned at Mr Fosset as if he had said something uncommonly smart at my expense. I saw, however, where the shoe pinched. He was angry at my having kept him waiting for his tea, and hence his spiteful allusion to my being late coming on watch; so I was just going to give him a sharp rejoinder, referring to his love for his little stomach, a weak point with him and a common joke with us all below at meal-times, when, ere I could get a word out of the scathing rebuke I intended for him, the smoke trail suddenly lifted a bit to leeward and leaving the horizon clear, I caught sight again of the ship I had seen over the rail. This, of course, at once changed the current of my thoughts; and so, without troubling my head any further about "Conky," I sang out as eagerly as before to the first mate, all the more anxious now to prove that I had been right in the first instance, "There she is, Mr Fosset, there she is!"
"Where on earth are you squinting now, boy?" said he, a bit huffy at not making her out and apparently inclined to Spokeshave's opinion that I had not really seen her at all. "Where away?"
"There, sir, away to leeward," cried I, almost jumping over the bridge rail in my excitement. "She's nearly abreast of our mizzen chains and not a mile off. She seems coming up on the port tack, sir!"
For, strangely enough, although we were going ten knots good by the aid of the wind that had worked round more abeam, so that all our fore and aft sail drew, while the ship, which, when I saw her before, seemed to be running with the nor'-easter and sailing at a tangent to our course so that she ought really to have increased her distance from us, now, on the contrary, appeared ever so much nearer, as if she had either altered her helm or drifted closer by the aid of some ocean current in the interim; albeit, barely five minutes at the best, if that, had only elapsed since I first sighted her.
But, stranger still, Mr Fosset could not see her, when there she was as plain as the sun setting in the west awhile ago—at least to my eyes; and, as she approached nearer yet in some unaccountable way, for her bows were pointed from us and the wind, of course, was blowing in the opposite direction, she being on our lee, I declare I could distinctly see a female figure, like that of a young girl with long hair, on the deck aft; and beside her I also noticed a large black dog, jumping up and down!
"I'm sure I can't see any ship, youngster," said Mr Fosset at the moment. Even while he was actually speaking, I observed the sailing vessel to yaw in her course, her ragged canvas flattening against the masts as if she were coming about, although from the way her head veered about, she did not seem to be under any control. "There's nothing in sight, Haldane, I tell you. What you perhaps thought was a ship is that big black cloud rising to the southward. It looks like one of those nasty sea fogs working up, and we'll have to keep a precious sharp look- out to-night, I know."
"There's no ship there," echoed my friend "Conky," tapping his forehead in a very offensive way to intimate that I had "a screw loose in the upper storey," as the saying goes, grinning the while as I could see very well in the dim light and poking his long nose up in the air in supreme contempt. "The boy is either mad, or drunk, or dreaming, as you say, sir. It is all a cock and a bull yarn about his sighting a vessel, and he only wants to brave it out. There's no ship there!"
"Can you see anything, Atkins?" asked Mr Fosset of the man steering. "There away to leeward, I mean."
"No, sir," answered the sailor; "not a speck, sir."
"Do you see anything, lamp-trimmer?"
"No; can't say I does, sir," replied old Greazer, after a long squint over our lee in the direction pointed out, "Not a sight of a sail, nor a light, nor nothink!"
It was curious.
For, at that very moment, when the first mate and Spokeshave and the helmsman and lamp-trimmer, standing on the bridge beside me, one and all said they could see nothing, I declare to you I saw not only the ship and the figures on her deck, but I noticed that the girl on the poop waved a scarf or handkerchief, as if imploring our assistance; and, at the same time, the dog near her bounded up against the bulwarks, and I can solemnly assert from the evidence of my ears that I heard the animal distinctly bark, giving out that joyous sort of bark with which a well- dispositioned dog invariably greets a friend of his master or mistress.
I could not make it out at all.
It was most mysterious.
"Look, look, Mr Fosset!" I cried excitedly. "There she is now! There she is, coming up on our lee quarter! Why, you must be all blind! I can not only see the ship distinctly, but also right down on to her deck!"
"Nonsense, boy; you'd better go below!" said the first mate brusquely, while Spokeshave sniggered and whispered something to the lamp-trimmer and man at the wheel that made them both laugh out right. "There's something wrong with you to-night, Haldane, for you seem quite off your chump, so you'd better go below and sleep it off. There's no ship near us, I tell you! What you imagined to be a sailing vessel is that dark cloud there, coming up from the leeward, which is fast shutting out the horizon from view. It's a sea fog, such as are frequently met with hereabouts below the Banks, as we are now!"
It was true enough about the cloud, or mist, or fog, or whatever it was; for, as Mr Fosset spoke, the darkness closed in around us like a wall and the ship that I swear I had seen the moment before vanished, sky and sea and everything else disappearing also at the same instant, leaving us, as it were, isolated in space, the veil of vapour being impenetrable!
A CONFLICT OF AUTHORITY.
Just then Captain Applegarth appeared on the scene.
He had gone down by the companion-way into the saloon below, after Mr Fosset had left the poop, to look at the barometer in his cabin, and now came along the upper deck and on to the bridge amidships, startling us with his sudden presence.
The skipper had a sharp eye, which was so trained by observation in all sorts of weather that he could see in the dark, like a cat, almost as well as he could by daylight.
Looking round and scanning our faces as well as he could in the prevailing gloom, he soon perceived that something was wrong.
"Huh!" he exclaimed. "What's the row about?"
"There's no row, sir," explained the first mate in an off-hand tone of bravado, which he tried to give a jocular ring to, but could not very successfully. "This youngster Haldane here swears he saw a full-rigged ship on our lee quarter awhile ago, flying a signal of distress; but neither Mr Spokeshave, who was on the watch, nor myself, could make her out where Haldane said he saw her."
"No, sir," continued Mr Fosset; "nor could the helmsman or old Greazer here, who came up with the binnacle lamp at the time. Not one of us could see this wonderful ship of Haldane's, though it was pretty clear all round then, and we all looked in the direction to which he pointed."
"That's strange," said Captain Applegarth, "very strange."
"Quite so, sir, just what we all think, sir," chimed in Master Spokeshave, putting in his oar. "Not a soul here on the bridge, sir, observed anything of any ship of any sort, leastways one flying a signal of distress, such as Dick Haldane said he saw."
"Humph!" ejaculated the skipper, as if turning the matter over in his mind for the moment; and then addressing me point blank he asked me outright, "Do you really believe you saw this ship, Haldane?"
"Yes, sir," I answered as directly as he had questioned me; "I'll swear I did."
"No, I don't want you to do that; I'll take your word for it without any swearing, Haldane," said the skipper to this, speaking to me quietly and as kindly as if he had been my father. "But listen to me, my boy. I do not doubt your good faith for a moment, mind that. Still, are you sure that what you believe you saw might not have been some optical illusion proceeding from the effects of the afterglow at sunset? It was very bright and vivid, you know, and the reflection of a passing cloud above the horizon or its shadow just before the sun dipped might have caused that very appearance which you took to be a ship under sail. I have myself been often mistaken in the same way under similar atmospheric surroundings and that is why I put it to you like this, to learn whether you are quite certain you might not be mistaken?"
"Quite so," shoved in Spokeshave again in his parrot fashion; "quite so, sir."
"I didn't ask your opinion," growled the skipper, shutting him up in a twinkling; and then, turning to me again, he looked at me inquiringly. "Well, Haldane, have you thought it out?"
"Yes, captain, I have," I replied firmly, though respectfully, the ill- timed interference of the objectionable Mr Spokeshave having made me as obstinate as Mr Fosset. "It was no optical illusion or imagination on my part, sir, or anything of that sort, I assure you, sir. I am telling you the truth, sir, and no lie. I saw that ship, sir, to leeward of us just now as clearly as I can see you at this moment; aye, clearer, sir!"
"Then that settles the matter. I've never had occasion to doubt your word before during the years you've sailed with me, my boy, and I am not going to doubt it now."
So saying, Captain Applegarth, putting his arm on my shoulder, faced round towards the first mate and Spokeshave, as if challenging them both to question my veracity after this testimony on his part in my favour.
"This ship, you say, Haldane," then continued the skipper, proceeding to interrogate me as to the facts of the case, now that my credulity had been established, in his sharp, sailor-like way, "was flying a signal of distress, eh?"
"Yes, sir," I answered with zest, all animation and excitement again at his encouragement. "She had her flag, the French tricolour, I think, sir, hoisted half-mast at her peak; and she appeared, sir, a good deal battered about, as if she had been in bad weather and had made the worst of it. Besides, cappen—"
"Besides what, my boy?" he asked, on my pausing here, almost afraid to mention the sight I had noticed on the deck of the ill-fated ship in the presence of two such sceptical listeners as Mr Fosset and my more immediate superior, the third officer, Spokeshave. "You need not be afraid of saying anything you like before me. I'm captain of this ship."
"Well, sir," said I, speaking out, "just before that mass of clouds or fog bank came down on the wind, shutting out the ship from view, she yawed a bit off her course, and I saw somebody on her deck aft."
"What!" cried the skipper, interrupting me. "Was she so close as that?"
"Yes, sir," said I. "She did not seem to be a hundred yards away at the moment, if that."
"And you saw somebody on the deck?"
"Yes, cap'en," I answered; "a woman."
He again interrupted me, all agog at the news.
"Yes, sir," said I. "A woman, or rather, perhaps a girl, for she had a lot of long hair streaming over her shoulders, all flying about in the wind."
"What was she doing?"
"She appeared to be waving a white handkerchief or something like that, as if to attract our attention—asking us to help her, like."
The skipper drew himself up to his full height on my telling this and turned round on Mr Fosset, his face blazing with passion.
"A ship in distress, a woman on board imploring our aid," he exclaimed in keen, cold, cutting tones that pierced one like a knife, "and you passed her by without rendering any assistance,—a foreigner too, of all. We Englishmen, who pride ourselves on our humanity above all other nations. What will they think of us?"
"I tell you, sir, we could not see any ship at all!" retorted the first mate hotly, in reply to this reproach, which he felt as keenly as it was uttered. "And if we couldn't see the ship, how could we know there was a woman or anybody aboard?"
"Quite so," echoed Spokeshave, emphasising Mr Fosset's logical argument in his own defence. "That's exactly what I say, sir."
"I would not have had it happen for worlds. We flying the old Union jack, too, that boasts of never passing either friend or foe when in danger and asking aid."
He spoke still more bitterly, as if he had not heard their excuses.
"But hang it, cap'en," cried Mr Fosset, "I tell you—"
Captain Applegarth waved him aside.
"Where did you last sight the ship, Haldane?" he said, turning round abruptly to me. "How was she heading?"
"She bore about two points off our port quarter," I replied as laconically. "I think, sir, she was running before the wind like ourselves, though steering a little more to the southwards."
The skipper looked at the standard compass in front of the wheel-house on the bridge, and then addressed the helmsman.
"How are we steering now, quartermaster? The same course as I set at noon, eh?"
"Aye, aye, sir," replied Atkins, who still stood by the steam steering gear singlehanded. If it had been the ordinary wheel, unaided by steam- power, it would have required four men to move the rudder and keep the vessel steady in such a sea as was now running. "We've kept her pretty straight, sir, since eight bells on the same course, west by south, sir, half south."
"Very good, quartermaster. Haldane, are you there?"
"Yes, sir," said I, stepping up to him again, having moved away into the shadow under the lee of the wheel-house whilst he was speaking to Atkins. "Here I am, sir."
"Was that vessel dropping us when we passed her, or were we going ahead of her?"
"She was running before the wind, sir, at a tangent to our course, and more to the southwards, moving through the water quicker than we were, until she luffed up just before that mist or fog bank shut her out from view. But—"
"I think, sir," I continued, "that was done merely to speak us; and if she bore away again, as she was probably forced to do, being at the mercy of the gale, she must be scudding even more to the southwards, almost due south, I should fancy, as the wind has backed again more to the nor'ard since this."
"I fancy the same, my boy. I see you have a sailor's eye and have got your wits about you. Quartermaster?"
"Aye, aye, sir?"
"Let her off a point or two gradually until you bring her head about sou'-sou'-west, and keep her so."
"Aye, aye, sir," responded Atkins, easing her off as required. "Sou'- sou'-west it shall be, sir, in a minute."
"That will bring us across her, I think," said the skipper to me. "But we must go a little faster if we want to overtake her. What are we doing now, eh?"
"I don't quite know, sir," I answered to this question. "I was only just coming up on the bridge to relieve Mr Spokeshave when I sighted the ship and have not had time to look at the indicator. I should think, though, we're going eight or nine knots."
This didn't satisfy the skipper, so he turned to the first mate, who had remained moodily aloof with Spokeshave at the end of the bridge.
"Mr Fosset," he sang out abruptly, "what are the engines doing?"
"About thirty revolutions, sir; half speed, as nearly as possible."
"How much are we going altogether?"
"Ten knots, with our sails," replied the other. "The wind is freshening, too."
"So I see," said Captain Applegarth laconically.
"And it'll freshen still more by-and-bye if I'm not mistaken!"
"Yes, it looks as if we're going to have a bit of a blow. The scud is flying all over us now that we are running before the wind. I really think we ought to ease down, sir, for the screw races fearfully as she dips and I'm afraid of the shaft."
"I'm responsible for that, Mr Fosset," answered the skipper as, moving the handle of the gong on the bridge communicating with the engine-room, he directed those in charge below to put on full speed ahead. "I never yet abandoned a ship in distress, and I'm not going to do so now. We're on the right course to overhaul her, now, I think, eh, Haldane?"
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I hope, though, we won't pass her in the fog, sir, or run into her, perhaps."
"No fear of that, my boy: The fog is lifting now and the night will soon be as clear as a bell, for the wind is driving all the mists away. Besides, we'll take precautions against any accident happening. Mr Fosset?"
"Aye, aye, sir?"
"Put a couple of lookouts on the fo'c's'le."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Perhaps, too, we'd better send up a rocket to let 'em know we're about. Mr Spokeshave? Mr Spokeshave?"
No answer came this time, however, from my friend, Master "Conky," though he had been ready enough just now with his aggravating "quite so."
"I think, sir," said I, "Mr Spokeshave has gone below to his tea."
"Very likely," replied the skipper drily; "he's precious fond of his breadbasket, that young gentleman. I don't think he'll ever starve where there's any grub knocking about. Fancy a fellow, calling himself a man, thinking of his belly at such a moment! Go, Haldane, and call him up again and tell him I want him."
I started to obey Captain Applegarth's order, but I had hardly got three steps down the ladder when Spokeshave saved me further trouble by coming up on the bridge again of his own accord, without waiting to be summoned.
The skipper, therefore, gave him instructions to let off, every quarter of an hour, a couple of signal rockets and burn a blue light or two over our port and starboard quarter alternately as we proceeded towards the object of our quest.
"All right, sir; quite so!" said "Conky," as well as he could articulate, his mouth being full of something he had hurriedly snatched from the steward's pantry when he had gone below, and brought up with him to eat on deck, knowing that the skipper would be sure to sing out for him if he remained long away at so critical a juncture. "All right, sir; quite so!"
The skipper laughed as he went down again to get the rockets and blue lights which were kept in a spare cabin aft for safety.
"He's a rum chap, that little beggar," he observed to Mr Fosset, who had been forward to set the look-out men on the forecastle and had returned to the bridge. "I think if you told him he was the laziest loafer that ever ate lobscouse, he couldn't help saying 'Quite so!'"
"You're about right, sir. I think, though, he can't help it; he's got so used to the phrase," replied the other, joining in the skipper's laugh. "But, hullo, here comes old Stokes, panting and puffing along the gangway. I hope nothing's wrong in the engine-room."
"I hope not," said the skipper. "We want to go all we can just now, to overhaul that ship Haldane saw."
"If he saw it," muttered the first officer, under his breath and glowering at me. "A pack of sheer nonsense, I call it, this going out of our course on a wild-goose chase and tearing away full speed on a wild night like this, in a howling sea, with a gale, too, astern; and all because an ass of a youngster fancies he saw the Flying Dutchman!"
I daresay the captain heard him, but the appearance just then of Mr Stokes, our chief engineer, who had now reached the bridge, panting and puffing at every step, as Mr Fosset had said, he being corpulent of habit and short-winded, stopped any further controversy on the point as to whether I had seen, or had not seen, the mysterious ship.
"Cap'en, Cap'en Applegarth!" cried out the chief engineer asthmatically as soon as he got within hail, speaking in a tearful voice and almost crying in his excitement. "Are you there, sir?"
"Aye, here I am, Mr Stokes, as large as life, though not quite so big a man as you," answered the skipper jocularly.
"I am here on the bridge, quite at your service."
Mr Stokes, however, was in no jocular mood.
"Cap'en Applegarth," said he solemnly, "did you really mean to ring us on full speed ahead?"
"I did," replied the skipper promptly. "What of that?"
"What of that?" repeated the old engineer, dumbfounded by this return shot. "Why, sir, the engines can't stand it. That is all, if you must have it!"
"Can't stand what?"
"They can't stand all this driving and racing, with the propeller blades half out of water every second revolution of the shaft. No engines could stand it, with such a heavy sea on and the ship rolling and pitching all the time like a merry-go-round at Barnet Fair. The governor is no good; and, though Grummet or Links have their grip on the throttle valve all the while to check the steam, and I've every stoker and oiler on duty, the bearings are getting that heated that I'm afraid of the shaft breaking at any moment. Full speed, sir? Why, we can't do it, sir, we can't do it!"
"Nonsense, Stokes," said the skipper good-humouredly. "You must do it, old fellow."
"But, I tell you, Cap'en Applegarth, the engines can't stand it without breaking down, and then where will you be, I'd like to know?"
"I'll risk that."
"No, cap'en," snorted the old chief, doggedly. "I'm responsible to the owners for the engines, and if anything happened to the machinery they'd blame me. I can't do it."
The skipper flew up to white heat at this.
"But, Mr Stokes, recollect I am responsible for the ship, engines and all, sir. The greater includes the less, and, as captain of this ship, I intend to have my orders carried out by every man-jack on board. Do you hear that?"
"Yes, sir, I hear," replied Mr Stokes grumblingly as he backed towards the bridge-ladder. "But, sir—"
The skipper would not give him time to get out another word.
"You heard what I said," he roared out in a voice that made the old chief jump down half a dozen steps at once. "I ordered you to go full speed ahead and I mean to go full speed ahead whether the boilers burst, or the propeller races, or the screw shaft carries away; for I won't abandon a ship in distress for all the engineers and half-hearted mollicoddles in the world!"
"A ship in distress?" gasped old Mr Stokes from the bottom rung of the ladder. "I didn't hear about that before."
"Well, you hear it now," snapped out the skipper viciously, storming up and down the bridge in a state of great wrath. "But whether it's a ship in distress or not, I'll have you to know, Mr Stokes, once for all that if I order full speed or half speed or any speed, I intend my orders to be obeyed; and if you don't like it you can lump it. I'm captain of this ship!"
THE GALE FRESHENS.
Presently a cloud of thick black smoke again pouring forth from the funnels showed that Mr Stokes had set the engine-room staff vigorously to work to carry out the skipper's orders; while the vibration of the upper deck below our feet afforded proof, were such needed, that the machinery was being driven to its utmost capacity, the regular throbbing motion caused by the revolving shaft being distinctly perceptible above the rolling of the vessel and the jar of the opposing waves against her bow plates when she pitched more deeply than usual and met the sea full butt-end on.
The surface fog, or mist, which had lately obscured the view, rising from the water immediately after the last gleams of the sunset had disappeared from the western sky, had now cleared away, giving place to the pale spectral light of night, an occasional star twinkling here and there in the dark vault overhead, like a sign-post in the immensity of space, making the wild billowy waste, through which we tore with all the power of wind and steam, seem all the wilder from contrast.
We had carried on like this for about an hour, steering steadily to the southwards, without catching sight again of the strange ship, though Spokeshave and I had continued to let off signal rockets and burn blue lights at intervals, the gale increasing in force each instant, and the waves growing bigger and bigger, so that they rose over the topsail as we raced along, when, all at once, a great green sea broke amidships, coming aboard of us just abaft of the engine-room hatchway, flooding all the waist on either side of the deckhouse and rolling down below in a regular cataract of tumid water, sweeping everything before it.
"That's pretty lively," exclaimed Captain Applegarth, clutching hold of the rail to preserve his balance as he turned to the quartermaster at the wheel. "Steady there, my man! Keep her full and by!"
"Aye, aye, sir," answered Atkins. "But she do yaw so, when she buries her bows. She's got too much sail on her, sir."
"I know that," said the skipper. "But I'm going to carry on as long as I can, all the same, my man."
Even as he spoke, however, a second sea followed the first, nearly washing us all off the bridge, and smashing the glass of the skylight over the engine-room, besides doing other damage.
By Captain Applegarth's directions, a piece of heavy tarpaulin was lashed over the broken skylight, securing the ends to ringbolts in the deck; but hardly had the covering been made fast ere we could see the chief engineer picking his way towards us, struggling through the water that still lay a foot deep in the waist and looking as pale as death.
"Hullo, Mr Stokes," cried the skipper, when the old chief with great difficulty had gained the vantage of the bridge-ladder. "What's the matter now, old fellow?"
He was too much exhausted at first to reply.
"What's the matter?" he echoed ironically when able at last to speak. "Oh, nothing at all worth mentioning; nothing at all. I told you how it would be, sir, if you insisted on going ahead full speed in such weather as we're having! Why, Cap'en Applegarth, the stoke-hold's full of water and the bilgepump's choked, that's all; and the fires, I expect, will be drowned out in another minute or two. That's what's the matter, sir, believe me or not!"
With that the poor old chap, who was quite overcome with the exertions he had gone through and his pent-up emotion, broke down utterly, bursting into a regular boohoo.
"Dear me, Mr Stokes; Mr Stokes, don't give way like that," said the skipper soothingly, patting him on the back to calm him down, being a very good-hearted man at bottom, in spite of his strict discipline and insistence on being "captain of his own ship," as he termed it. "Don't give way like that, old friend! Things will come all right by-and-bye."
"O-o-h, will they?" snivelled the old chap, refusing to be comforted, like a veritable Rachel mourning for her children. "We may possibly get rid of the water below, but the crosshead bearings are working loose, and I'd like to know who's going to give me a new gudgeon pin?"
"Hang your gudgeon pin!" cried the skipper irascibly, not perhaps for the moment attaching the importance it demanded to this small but essential part of the engines, uniting the connecting rod of the crank shaft with the piston which he thus irreverently anathematised; and then, struck by the comic aspect of the situation, with the waves breaking over us and the elements in mad turmoil around us, while the fat old chief was blubbering there like a boy about his gudgeon pin as if bewailing some toy that had been taken from him, that he burst out with a roar of laughter, which was so contagious that, in spite of the gloomy outlook and our perilous surroundings, Mr Fosset and all of us on the bridge joined in, even the quartermaster not being able to prevent a grin from stealing over his crusty weatherbeaten face, though the man at the wheel on board ship, when on duty, is technically supposed to be incapable of expressing any emotion beyond such as may be connected with the compass card and the coursing of the ship. "Wha— wha—what's the matter with that now, old chap? One would think it was a whale and not a gudgeon, you make such a fuss about it."
Of course the captain's joke set us all off cackling again; Mr Spokeshave's "he-he-he" sounding out, high in the treble, above the general cachination.
This exasperated Mr Stokes, making the old fellow quite furious.
"This is no laughing matter, Cap'en Applegarth," said he with great dignity, standing up as erectly as he could and puffing his corpulent figure out to such an extent that I thought he would burst. "I'll have ye to know that, sir. Nor did I come on deck, sir, at the peril of my life almost, to be made a jeer block of, though I'm only the chief engineer of the ship and you're the ca'p'en."
He spoke with so stately an air that I confess I felt sorry I had given away to any merriment at his expense, while the others grew serious in a moment; and as for Atkins, his whilom grinning face seemed now to be carved out of some species of wood of a particularly hard and fibrous nature.
"Now, don't get angry, Stokes, old fellow," cried the skipper shoving out his fist and gripping that of the chief in the very nick of time, for the vessel gave a lurch just then and, still "standing on his dignity," as the poor old chap was, without holding on to anything, he would have been precipitated over the rail to the deck below, but for the skipper's friendly aid. "Don't be angry with me, old chum. I'm sorry I laughed; but you and I have been shipmates too long together for us to fall out now. Why, what the devil has got over you, Stokes? You've never been so huffy since I first sailed with you, and I should have thought you one of the last in the world to take offence at a little bit of harmless chaff."
"Well, well, Cap'en Applegarth, let it bide, let it bide," replied the old chief, coming round at once, his rage calming down as quickly as it had risen. "I don't mind your laughing at me if you have a mind too. I daresay it all seemed very funny to you, my being anxious about my engines, but I'm hanged if I can see the fun myself."
"But it was funny, Stokes; deuced funny, I tell you, 'ho-ho-ho!'" rejoined the skipper, bursting out into a regular roar again at the recollection of the scene, his jolly laugh causing even the cause of it to smile against his will. "However, there's an end of it, gudgeon pin and all. Now, about that stoke-hold of yours. It's flooded, you say?"
"Aye; there's eighteen inches of water there now, right up to the footplates," said the engineer with a grave air. "The bilge-pumps won't act, and all my staff of stokers are so busy keeping up the steam that I can't spare a man to see to clearing out the suctions, though if the water rises any higher, it will soon be up to the furnace bars and put out the fires."
"Humph, that's serious," answered the skipper meditatively. "I'll see what I can do to help you. I say, Fosset?"
"Aye, aye, sir! Want me?"
"Yes," replied the skipper. "Mr Stokes is shorthanded below and says the bilge-pumps are choked. Can you spare him a man or two to help clear the suctions? I daresay there's a lot of stray dunnage washing about under the stoke-hold plates. You might go down and bear a hand yourself, as I won't leave the bridge."
"Certainly, sir; I'll go at once with Mr Stokes and take some of the starboard watch with me. It's close on seven bells and they'd soon have to turn out, anyway, to relieve the men now on deck."
"That'll do very well, Fosset," said the skipper, and, raising his voice, he shouted over the rail forwards—
"Bosun, call the watch!"
Bill Masters, who had been waiting handy on the deck amidships, immediately below the bridge, expecting some such order with the need, as he thought, of the skipper reducing sail, at once stuck his shrill boatswain's pipe to his lips and gave the customary call: Whee-ee-oo- oo—whee-ee-ee.
"Starboard watch, ahoy!"
The men came tumbling out of the fo'c's'le at the sound of the whistle and the old seadog's stentorian hail; whereupon the first mate, selecting six of the lot to accompany him, he followed Mr Stokes towards the engine-room hatchway.
Before disappearing below, however, the engineer made a last appeal to the skipper.
"I say, cap'en," he sang out, stopping half-way as he toddled aft, somewhat disconsolately in spite of the assistance given him, "now won't you ease down, sir, just to oblige me? The engines won't stand it, sir; and it's my duty to tell you so, sir."
"All right, Stokes; you've told me, and may consider that you've done your duty in doing so," replied the skipper, grimly laconic. "But I'm not going to ease down till seven bells, my hearty, unless we run across Dick Haldane's ship before, when we'll go as slow as you like and bear up again on our course to the westwards."
"Very good, sir," answered the old chief as he lifted his podgy legs over the coaming of the hatchway, prior to burying himself in the cimmerian darkness of the opening, wherein Mr Fosset and his men had already vanished.
"I'll make things all snug below, sir, and bank the fires as soon as you give the signal."
With that, he, too, was lost to sight.
The skipper, I could see, was not very easy in his mind when left alone; for he paced jerkily to and fro between the wheel-house and the weather end of the bridge as well as he was able, the vessel being very unsteady, rolling about among the big rollers like a huge grampus and pitching almost bows under water sometimes, though the old barquey was buoyant enough, notwithstanding the lot of deadweight she carried in her bowels, rising up after each plunge as frisky as a cork, when she would shake herself with a movement that made her tremble all over, as if to get rid of the loose spray and spindrift that hung on to her shining black head, and which the wind swept before it like flecks of snow into the rigging, spattering and spattering against the almost red-hot funnels up which the steam blast was rushing mingled with the flare of the funnels below.
After continuing his restless walk for a minute or two, the skipper stopped by the binnacle, looking at the compass card, which moved about as restlessly as the old barquey and himself, oscillating in every direction.
"We ought to have come up with her by now, Haldane," he said, addressing me, as I stood with Spokeshave on the other side of the wheel-house. "Don't you think so from the course she was going when you sighted her?"
"Yes, sir," I answered, "if she hasn't gone down!"
"I hope not, my boy," said he; "but I'm very much afraid she has, or else we've passed ahead of her."
"That's not likely, sir," I replied. "She looked as if crossing our track when I last saw her; and, though we were going slower then, we must be gaining on her now, I should think."
"We ought to be," said he. "We must be going seventeen knots at the least with wind and steam."
"Aye, aye, sir, all that," corroborated old Masters, the boatswain, who had come up on the bridge unnoticed. "Beg pardon, sir, but we can't carry on much longer with all that sail forrad. The fore-topmast is a- complainin' like anythink, I can tell ye, sir. Chirvell, the carpenter, and me's examinin' it and we thinks it's got sprung at the cap, sir."
"If that's the case, my man," said Captain Applegarth to this, "we'd better take in sail at once. It's a pity, too, with such a fine wind. I was just going to spare the engines and ease down for a bit, trusting to our sails alone, but if there's any risk of the spars going, as you say, wrong, we must reduce our canvas instead."
"There's no help for it, sir," returned the boatswain quickly. "Either one or t'other must go! Shall I pass the word, sir, to take in sail?"
"Aye, take in the rags!"
"Fo'c's'le, ahoy there!" yelled Masters instantly, taking advantage of the long-desired permission. "All hands take in sail!"
We had hauled the trysails and other fore and aft canvas, which was comparatively useless to a steamer when running before the wind at the time we had altered course towards the south, in quest of the ship in distress, the Star of the North speeding along with only her fore- topsail and fore-topgallantsail set in addition to her fore-topmast staysail and mizzen staysail and jib.
The gale, however, had increased so much, the wind freshening as it shifted more and more to the north that this sail was too much for her, the canvas bellying out, and the upper spars "buckling" as the vessel laboured in the heavy sea, the stays taut as fiddle-strings and everything at the utmost tension.
The skipper perceived this now, when almost too late.
"Let go your topgallant bowline, and lee sheet and halliards," he roared out, holding on with both hands to the rail and bending over the bridge cloth as he shouted to the men forward who had tumbled out of the forecastle on the boatswain's warning hail. "Stand by your clewlines and by your boat lines!"
The men sprang to the ropes with a will, but ere they had begun to cast them off from the cleats an ominous sound was heard from aloft, and, splitting from clew to earring, our poor topgallantsail blew clean out of the boltropes with a loud crack as if a gun had been fired off, the fragments floating away ahead of us, borne on the wings of the wind like a huge kite, until it disappeared in the dark chiaraoscura of the distant horizon, where heaven and sea met amid the shadows of night.
Just then a most wonderful thing happened to startle us further!
While all of us gazed at the wreck aloft, expecting the topsail to follow suit before it could be pulled, though the hands were racing up rigging for the purpose, the halliards having been at once let go and the yard lowered, a strange light over the topsail made us look aft, when we saw a huge ball of fire pass slowly across the zenith from the east to the west, illuminating not only the northern arc of the sky, but the surface of the water also, immediately beneath its path, and making the faces of the men in the rigging and indeed any object on board, stand out in relief, shining with that corpse-like glare or reflection produced by the electric light, the effect being weird and unearthly in the extreme!
At the same instant one of the lookouts in the bows who had still remained at his post and had probably been awakened from a quiet "caulk" by the awful portent, suddenly shouted out in a ringing voice, that thrilled through every heart on board—
Captain Applegarth and the rest of us on the bridge faced round again at once.
"Where away, where away, my man?" cried the skipper excitedly. "Where away?"
"Right ahead of us, sir," replied the man in an equally eager tone. "And not half a cable's length away!"
"My God!" exclaimed old Masters, the boatswain, whose grey hair seemed to stand on end with terror as we all now looked in the new direction indicated and saw a queer ghost-like craft gliding along mysteriously in the same direction as ourselves, and so close alongside that I could have chucked a biscuit aboard her without any difficulty. "That there be no mortal vessel that ever sailed the seas. Mark my words, Cap'en Applegarth, that there craft be either The Flying Dutchman, as I've often heard tell on, but never seen meself, or a ghost-ship; and—Lord help us—we be all doomed men!"
A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.
"Nonsense, man!" cried Captain Applegarth. "Don't make such an ass of yourself! Flying Dutchman indeed! Why, that cock and bull yarn was exploded years ago, and I didn't think there was a sailor afloat in the present day ass enough to believe in this story!"
"I may be a hass, sir; I know I am sometimes," retorted old Masters, evidently aggrieved by the skipper speaking to him like this before the men. "But, sir, seein' is believin'. There's this ship an' there's that there craft a-sailin' alongside in the teeth o' the gale. Hass or no hass, I sees that, captain!"
"Hang it all, man, can't you see that it is only the mirage or reflection of our own vessel, produced by the light of the meteor throwing her shadow on to the mass of cloud leeward? Look, there are our two old sticks and the funnels between, with the smoke rushing out of them! Aye, and there, too, you can see this very bridge here we're standing on, and all of us, as large as life. Why, bo'sun, you can see your own ugly mug reflected now opposite us, just as it would be in a looking glass. Look, man!"
"Aye, I sees, sir, plain enuff, though I'm a hass," said Masters at length. "But it ain't nat'rel, sir, anyhow; an' I misdoubts sich skeary things. I ain't been to sea forty years for nothin', Captain Applegarth, an' I fears sich a sight as that betokens some danger ahead as 'ill happen to us some time or other this voyage. Even started on a Friday, sir, as you knows on, sir!"
"Rubbish!" cried the skipper, angry at his obstinacy. "See, the mirage has disappeared now that the meteor light has become dispersed. Look smart there, aloft, and furl that topsail! It's just seven bells and I'm going to ease down the engines and bear up on our course again. Up with you, men, and lay out on the yard!"
The hands who had stopped half-way up the fore-rigging, spell-bound at the sight of the mirage, now bestirred themselves, shaking off their superstitious fears; old Masters, in the presence of something to be done, also working, and soon the sail was furled, the bunt stowed, and the gaskets passed.
"It's no use our keeping on any longer after that ship of yours, Haldane," observed the skipper, turning to me when the men had all come in from the topsail yard and scrambled down on deck again after making everything snug aloft. "If she were still afloat we must have overhauled her before this. I really think, youngster, she must have been only a sort of will-o'-the-wisp, like that we saw just now—an optical illusion, as I told you at the time, recollect, caused by some cross light from the afterglow of the sunset thrown upon the white mist which we noticed subsequently rising off the water. Eh, my boy?"
"Ah, no, captain," I replied earnestly. "The ship I saw presented a very different appearance to that reflection of ours! She was full- rigged, I told you, sir, and though her canvas was torn and she looked a bit knocked about in the matter of her tophamper, she was as unlike our old Star of the North as a sailing vessel is unlike a steamer!"
"She might have been a derelict."
"I saw a girl on her deck aft, sir, with a dog beside her, as distinctly as I see you, sir, now!"
"Well, well, be that as it may, my lad, though I'm very sorry for the poor young thing, if she is still in the land of the living, I can't carry on like this for ever! If she were anywhere in sight it would be quite another matter; but, as it is, not knowing whether we're on her right track or not, we might scud on to the Equator without running across her again. No, no; it wouldn't be fair to the owners or to ourselves, indeed, to risk the ship as well as the lives of all on board by continuing any longer on such a wild-goose chase."
"Very good, sir," said I, on his pausing here, as if waiting for me to say something. "We've tried our best to come up with her, at any rate."
"We have that, and I daresay a good many would call us foolhardy for carrying on as we've done so long. However, I'm going to abandon the chase now and bear up again on our proper course, my boy, and the devil of a job that will be, I know, in the teeth of this gale!"
So saying, the skipper, grasping the handle of the engine-room telegraph, which led up through a tube at the end of the bridge, signalled to those in charge below to slow down to half speed.
"Down with the helm, quartermaster!" he cried to the man at the wheel, and, at the same moment holding up his hand to attract the attention of old Masters, who had returned to his station on the fo'c's'le, greatly exercised in his mind by what had recently occurred, he sang out in a voice of thunder that reached the knightheads and made the boatswain skip: "Haul in your jib sheet and flatten those staysails sharp! I want to bring her round to the wind handsomely, to prevent taking in another of those green seas aboard when we get broadside-on. Look smart, bo'sun, and keep your eye on her. Keep your eye on her, d'you hear? It's ticklish work, you know. Look-out sharp or she'll broach to!"
Far as the eye could reach, the storm-tossed surface of the deep was white with foam, white as a snowfield, and boiling with rage and fury.
The bank of blue-black cloud that had rested along the horizon to leeward had now melted away in some mysterious fashion or other, and the sky became as clear as a bell, only some wind-driven scrap of semi- transparent white vapour sweeping occasionally across the face of the pale, sickly-looking moon that looked down on the weird scene in a sort of menacing way; while, in lieu of the two or three odd sentinels that had previously peeped out from the firmament, all the galaxies of heaven were, at this moment, in their myriads above, spangling the empyrean from zenith to pole.
But the gale!
While running before the wind, the wind, although it had ballooned our sails out to bursting point, brushing us along at a wild, mad-cap rate, and buffeting the boisterous billows on either hand, scooping them up from the depths of the ocean and piling them in immense waves of angry water that rolled after us, striving to overwhelm us, we could hardly, even while taking advantage of it, appreciate its awful and tremendous force.
On coming about, however, and facing it, the case was vastly different, the wind increasing tenfold in its intensity.
Where it had sung through the rigging it now shrieked and howled, as if the air were peopled with demons, while the waves, lashed into fury, dashed against our bows like battering rams, rising almost to the level of our masthead where their towering crests met overhead.
Round came the old barquey's head slowly, and more slowly still as she staggered against the heavy sea, until, all at once, she stopped in stays, unable apparently, though struggling all she could, to face her remorseless foe.
"Luff up, quartermaster!" roared the skipper to the top of his voice and dancing up and down the bridge in his excitement. "Luff, you beggar, luff!"
"I can't, sir," yelled the man in desperation—a fresh hand who had come on duty to relieve Atkins at six bells. "The steam steering gear has broken-down, sir, and I can't make her move."
"By Jingo, that's a bad job," cried the skipper, but he was not long at a nonplus. "Run aft, Haldane, and you too, Spokeshave. Loosen the bunt of the mizzen-trysail and haul at the clew. That'll bring her up to the wind fast enough, if the sail only stands it!"
To hear was to obey, and both Spokeshave and I scuttled down the bridge- ladder as quickly as we could and away along the waist of the ship aft, the urgency of our errand hastening our movements if we had needed any spur beyond the skipper's sharp, imperative mandate.
But, speedily as we had hurried, on mounting the poop-ladder and rushing towards the bitts at the foot of the mizzenmast to cast off the bunt- lines and clewlines of the trysail we found we had been already forestalled by an earlier arrival on the scene of action.
This was Mr O'Neil, the second officer, whom I had left below asleep in his cabin when I came up at two bells from the saloon, he having been on duty all the afternoon and his services not being required again until night, when he would have to go on the bridge to take the first watch from eight to midnight.
Feeling the bucketing-about we were having in the trough of the sea when we came about, and probably awakened by the change of motion, just as a miller is supposed to be instantaneously roused by his mill stopping, though he may be able to sleep through all the noise of its grinding when at work, Garry O'Neil had at once shoved himself into his boots and monkey jacket and rushed up on the poop through the companion and booby- hatch that led up directly on deck from the saloon.
Arrived here, he had evidently noted the vessel's insecurity, and, seamanlike, had hit upon the very same way out of the difficulty that had suggested itself to the skipper, having, ere we reached his side, cast off the ropes confining the folds of the trysail and trying singlehanded to haul out the clew.
"Begorrah, me bhoys, ye've come in the very nick o' time!" he exclaimed on seeing us. "Here, Spoke, me darlint, hang on to the end of this sheet and you, Dick, step on to the tail of it, whilst I take a turn of the slack round that bollard! Faith, it's blo'in' like the dievle, and we'll have our work cut out for us, me bhoys, to git a purchase on it anyhow. Now, all together, yo-heave-ho! Pull baker, pull dievle!"
With that, bending our backs to it, we all hauled away at the sheet, succeeding by a great endeavour in stretching the clew of the sail to the end of the boom, which we then secured amidships as best we could, though the spar and sail combined jerked to such an extent that it seemed as if the mizzenmast would be wrenched out of the ship each instant, the heavy fold of the canvas that hung loosely under the jaws of the gaff shaking and banging about with a noise like thunder.
Even the small amount of canvas exposed to the wind, however, was sufficient to supply the additional leverage required aft; and the engines working at half speed, with the headsails flattened, the ship's bows were presently brought up to the wind, when we lay-to under easy steam.
"Well done, my lads!" sang out the skipper from the bridge, when the ship's head was round and the peril of her broaching-to in the heavy seaway been fortunately averted; the wind was blowing aft, of course, and bringing his voice to us as if he stood by, and shouting in our very ears, "Now look sharp and come here under the bridge; I want you to cast off the lashings of the big wheel amidships and see that the yolk lines run clear. We shall have to manhandle the helm and steer from below, as the steam gear up here in the wheel-house is hopelessly jammed and will take a month of Sundays to get right!"
"Aye, aye, sir," we made answer, under his nose, having been scurrying forwards while he was speaking, the Irish mate adding in his native vernacular, "Begorrah, we'll rig up the whole, sir, in the twinkling of a bedpost, sure!"
"Hullo!" exclaimed the skipper, "is that you, O'Neil?"
"Faith, all that's lift of me, sir!"
"How's that?—I was just going to send down to your cabin to rouse you out."
"Begorrah, its moighty little rousin' I want, sor! The ould barquey's that lively that she'd wake a man who'd been d'id for a wake, sure! I've been so rowled about in me burth and banged agin' the bulkheads that my bones fell loike jelly and I'm blue-mouldy all over. But what d'ye want, cap'en? Sure, I'm helping the youngster with this whale here."
"By jingo!" cried the skipper, "you're the right man in the right place!"
"Faith, that's what the gaolor s'id to the burghlor, sor, when he fixed him up noicely on the treadmill!"
The skipper laughed.
"Well, you fix up your job all right, and you'll be as good as your friend the gaoler," he said. "When we have the helm all alaunto again, we can bear up on our course and jog along comfortably. I think we are lucky to have got off so lightly, considering the wind and sea, with this steering gear breaking down at such an awkward moment!"
"Ah, we ain't seed the worse on it yet, and you'd better not holler till ye're out o' the wood!" muttered old Masters under his breath, in reply to this expression of opinion of the skipper, the boatswain having come to our assistance with all the hands he could muster, so as to get the wheel below the bridge in working order as soon as possible. "I knowed that this ghost-ship meant sumkin' and we ain't come to the end o' the log yet!"
Almost as he uttered the words, Mr Fosset came up the engine-room hatchway and made his way hurriedly towards us.
"By jingo, Fosset, here you are at last!" exclaimed the skipper on seeing him. "I thought you were never coming up again, finding it so jolly warm and comfortable below! Are things all right there now, and are the bilge-pumps working?"
Captain Applegarth spoke jocosely enough, everything being pretty easy on deck and the ship breasting the gale like a duck, but Mr Fosset's face, I noticed, looked grave and he answered the other in a more serious fashion than his general wont, his mouth working nervously in the pale moonlight that lent him a more pallid air as the words dropped from his lips, making his countenance, indeed, almost like that of a corpse.
"But what, man!" exclaimed the skipper impatiently, interrupting his slow speech before Mr Fosset could get any further. "Anything wrong, eh?"
"Yes, sir, I'm sorry to say something is very wrong, I fear—very wrong below," replied the other sadly. "There has been a sad accident in the stoke-hole!"
Old Masters, whose ears had been wide open to the conversation, here nudged me with his elbow as I stood beside him, and at the same time giving forth a grunt of deep and heartfelt significance.
"I knowed summet 'ud happen," he whispered in a sepulchral voice that sounded all the more gruesome from the attendant circumstances, the shrieking wind tearing through the riggings, the melancholy wash of the waves alongside, the moaning and groaning of the poor old barquey's timbers as if she were in grievous pain, while at that very moment the bell under the break of the fo'c's'le struck eight bells slowly, as if tolling for a passing soul. "You seed the ghost-ship, Mr Haldane, the same as me, for I saw it, that I did!"
DISASTER ON DISASTER.
"Accident in the stoke-hold!" repeated the skipper, who of course did not overhear the old boatswain's aside to me. "Accident in the stoke- hold!" again repeated the skipper; "anybody hurt?"
"Yes, sir," replied the first mate in the same grave tone of voice. "Mr Stokes and two of the firemen."
"Not all, sir," said the other, glancing round as if looking for some one specially. "The chief engineer has one of his arms broken and a few scratches, but the firemen are both injured, and one so badly hurt that I fear he won't get over it, for his ribs have been crushed in and his lower extremities seem paralysed!"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the skipper. "How did the accident happen?"
"They were searching under the stoke-hold plates to get out some cotton waste that had got entangled about the rosebox of the suctions, which, as we found out, prevented the bilge-pumps from acting, when, all in a moment, just when all the stray dunnage had been cleared out, the ship gave a lurch and the plates buckled up, catching the lot of them, Mr Stokes and all, in a sort of rat trap. Mr Stokes tumbled forwards on his face in the water and was nearly drowned before Stoddart and I could pull him out, the poor old chap was so heavy to lift, and he nearly squashed Blanchard, the stoker, by falling on top of him as we were trying to raise him up, cutting his head open besides, against the fire bars. Poor Jackson, however, the other fireman, was gripped tight between two of the plates and it was all we could do to release him, Stoddart having to use a jack-saw to force the edges of the plates back."
"My God! horrible, horrible!" ejaculated the skipper, terribly upset and concerned. "Poor fellows; Jackson, too, was the best hand Stokes had below!"
"Aye, sir, and as good a mechanic, too, I've heard them say, as any of the engineers," agreed Mr Fosset, with equal feeling. "But, sir, I'm losing time talking like this! I only came up for assistance for the poor fellows and the others who are wounded. Where's Garry O'Neil?"
"Why, he was here under the bridge a moment ago," cried the skipper eagerly. "Hullo, O'Neil? Pass the word up, men, for Mr O'Neil. He's wanted at once! Sharp, look alive!"
Our second officer, it should be explained, was not only a sailor but a surgeon as well. He had run away to sea as a boy, and, after working his way up before the mast until he had acquired sufficient seamanship to obtain a mate's certificate, he had, at his mother's entreaty, she having a holy horror of salt water, abandoned his native element and studied for the medical profession at Trinity College, Dublin. Here, after four years' practice in walking the hospitals, he graduated with full honours, much to his mother's delight. The old lady, however, dying some little time after, he, feeling no longer bound by any tie at home, and having indeed sacrificed his own wishes for her sake, incontinently gave up his newly-fledged dignity of "Doctor" Garry O'Neil, returning to his old love and embracing once more a sea-faring life, which he has stuck to ever since. He had sailed with us in the Star of the North now for over a twelvemonth, in the first instance as third officer and for the last two voyages as second mate, the fact of his being a qualified surgeon standing him in good stead and making him even a more important personage on board than his position warranted, cargo steamers not being in the habit of carrying a medical man like passenger ships, and sailorly qualities and surgical skill interchangeable characteristics!
Hitherto we had been fortunate enough to have no necessity for availing ourselves of his professional services, but now they came in handy enough in good sooth.
"Mr O'Neil?" sang out the men on the lower deck, passing on his name in obedience to the skipper's orders from hand to hand, till the hail reached the after hatchway, down which Spokeshave roared with all the power of his lungs, being anxious on his own account to be heard and so released from his watch so that he could go below. "Mr O'Neil?" he again yelled out.
Spokeshave must have shouted down the Irishman's throat, for the next instant he poked his head up the hatchway.
"Here I am, bedad!" he exclaimed, shoving past Master "Conky," to whom he had a strong dislike, though "Garry," as we all called him, was friendly with every one with whom he was brought in contact, and was, himself, a great favourite with all the hands on board. Now, as he made his way towards the bridge, where some of the men were still singing out his name, he cried out, "Who wants me, sure? Now, don't ye be all spaking at once; one at a time, me darlints, as we all came into the wurrld!"
"Why, where did you get to, man?" said the skipper, somewhat crossly. "We've been hunting all over the ship for you!"
"Sure, I wint down into the stowage to say if the yolklines and chains for the wheel were all clear, and to disconnect the shtame stayrin' gear," replied our friend Garry. "But you'll find it all right now, with the helm amidships, and you can steer her wheriver you like; only you'll want four hands at least to hauld the spokes steady if she breaks off, as I fear she will, in this say!"
"That's all right," cried the skipper, appeased at once, for he evidently thought that Garry had gone back to his cabin and left us in the lurch. "But I've bad news, and sorry to say, O'Neil, we want your services as a doctor now. There's been a bad accident in the stoke-hold and some of the poor fellows are sadly hurt."
"Indade, now!" ejaculated the other, all attention. "What's the matter? Any one scalded by the shtame, sure?"
"No, not that," said Mr Fosset, taking up the tale. "Mr Stokes has had his arm broken and another poor fellow been almost crushed to death. He's now insensible, or was when I came on deck so you'd better take some stimulant as well as splints with you."
"Faith, I understand all right and will follow your advice in a brace of shakes," replied the second mate, as he rushed off towards the saloon. "You'd better go on ahead, Fosset, and say I'm coming!"
With these parting words both he and the first officer disappeared from view, the latter hastening back to the engine-room, while the captain slowly mounted the bridge-ladder again and resumed his post there by the binnacle, after placing four of the best hands at the wheel amidships with old Masters, the boatswain, in charge.
"Ah, what d'ye think o' that now?" observed the latter to me, as I stood there awaiting my orders from the skipper, or to hear anything he might have to say to me. "I said as how summut was sure to happen. That there ship—the ghost-ship—didn't come athwart our hawser for nothink, I knowed!"
Just then there was a call up the voicepipe communicating between the wheel-house on the bridge and the engine-room.
The skipper bent his ear to the pipe, listening to what those below had to say, and then came to the top of the ladder.
"Below there!" he sang out. "Is Mr Spokeshave anywhere about?"
"No, sir," I answered. "He went off duty at eight bells."
"The devil he did, and me in such a plight, too, with that awful accident below!" cried Captain Applegarth angrily. "I suppose he's thinking of his belly again, the gourmandising little beast! He isn't half a sailor or worth a purser's parings! I'll make him pay for his skulking presently, by Jingo! However, I can't waste the time now to send after him, and you'll do as well, Haldane—better, indeed, I think!"
"All right, sir," said I, eager for action. "I'm ready to do anything."
"That's a willing lad," cried the skipper. "Now run down into Garry O'Neil's cabin and get some lint bandages he says he forgot to take with him in his hurry, leaving them on the top of his bunk by the doorway; and tell Weston, the steward, to have a couple of spare bunks ready for the injured men—in one of the state rooms aft will be best."
"All right, sir," said I, adding, as he seemed to hesitate, "anything else, sir?"
"Yes, my boy; take down a loose hammock with you, and some lashings, so as to make a sort of net with which to lift and carry poor Jackson. He's the only chap badly hurt and unable to shift for himself, so O'Neil says. Look sharp, Haldane, there's no time to lose; the poor fellow's in a very ticklish state and they want to get him up on deck in order to examine his injuries better than they can below in the stoke-hold!"
"Aye, aye, sir!" I answered, darting aft immediately, to avoid further debation, towards the saloon door under the poop. "I'm off, sir, at once!"
Here I soon got what the Irishman had asked for out of his cabin, and, giving Weston his order about the state room, unslinging the while my own hammock from its hooks and rolling it up, blankets and all, in a roll, I kicked it before me as I made my way down the engine-room hatchway as quickly as I could.
The machinery, I noticed when passing through the flat to the stoke- hold, which was, of course, on a still lower level, was working away pretty easily, the piston in the cylinder moving steadily up and down, and the eccentric, which always appeared to me as a sort of bandy-legged giant, executing its extraordinary double-shuffle in a more graceful fashion than when we were going at full speed, as it performed its allotted task of curvetting the up-and-down motion of the piston into a circular one, thus making the shaft revolve; while Grummet, the third engineer, who was still watching the throttle valve, hand on lever, had a far easier job than previously, when we were running with full power before wind and sea, and rolling and pitching at every angle every minute.
But even in the fleeting glance I had passing by, the screw still went round in a dangerous way when the stern of the vessel lifted, as some big wave passed under her keel, in spite of all Grummet's precautions in turning off steam and I could not help wondering how long the engines would stand the strain, which was all the more perilous from being intermittent.
On reaching my destination below, however, all thought of the machinery and any possible damage to the ship was instantly banished from my mind by the sight that met my gaze.
In the narrow stoke-hold, lit up by the ruddy glare of the furnace fires, the light from which enabled me to see the brackish bilge water washing about beneath the hole in the flooring and gurgling up through the broken portplates there, I saw that a group of half-naked firemen, and others, were bending over a pile of empty coal sacks heaped up against the further bulkhead, dividing the occupied apartments from the main hold, as far away as possible from the blazing fires, on which one of the stokers on duty pitched occasionally a shovelful of fuel, or smoothed the surface of the glowing embers with a long-toothed rake.
I couldn't distinguish at first any one in particular, the backs of all being towards me as I came down the slippery steel ladder, carrying the hammock, for I had taken the precaution of hoisting it on my shoulders on leaving the engine-flat above, in order to prevent its getting wet, while the noise of the machinery overhead and the roar of the furnaces, coupled with the washing of the water, prevented my hearing any distant sound.
Presently however, I recognised Garry O'Neil's voice above the general din.
"Clear off, ye murthorin' divvles!" he cried, waving his arms above the heads of the crowd of onlookers, as I could now see. "The poor chap wants air, and ye're stayling the viry br'ith out of his nosshrils! Away wid ye all, ye spalpeens! or by the powers, it's a-pizening the howl batch of ye I'll be doin' the next toime ye comes to me for pill or powdher!"
The men clustering round him spread out, moving nearer to me; and they laughed at his comical threat—which sounded all the more humorous from the Irishman's racy brogue, which became all the more prominent when Garry was at all excited. God knows, though, their merriment, untimely as it might have sounded to outside ears, betrayed no want of sympathy with their comrade. They laughed, as sailors will do sometimes, holding their lives in their hands, as is the practice of those who have to brave the manifold dangers of the deep below and aloft on shipboard, even when standing on the brink of eternity.
As they moved away, the fierce light from one of the open furnace doors was beating on their bare bodies and making them look, indeed, the very devils to whom the Irishman had jocularly likened them; the latter looked up quickly, saw me, and beckoned me to approach nearer.
"Arrah, come along, man, with those bandages!" he said. "Sure ye moight have made 'em in the toime since I called up to the skipper. Where are they now, me darlint?"
I produced the roll of lint at once from the pocket of my monkey jacket.
"Hullo!" said he as he took and deftly proceeded to unroll the bundle of bandages, "what's that you've got on your shoulders—a rick?"
"A hammock, sir," I replied. "Cap'en Applegarth told me to bring one down for lifting the poor chap who's so hurt, and so I took my own, which had blankets already in it, thinking it would be warmer for him, sir."
"Begorrah, the skipper's got his head screwed on straight, and you the same, too, Haldane," said he approvingly, with a sagacious nod as he bent over the pile of sacks in the corner. "Come and see the poor fellow, me bhoy. There doesn't seem much loife lift in him, sure, hay?"
There certainly did not; to me he looked already dead.
Stretched out on the pile of dirty sacking, in a half-sitting, half- reclining position, lay the recumbent figure, or rather form, of the unfortunate fireman Jackson, his face as ghastly as that of a corpse, while his rigid limbs and the absence of all appearance of respiration tended to confirm the belief that the spark of life had fled.
Stoddart, the second engineer, was kneeling beside the poor fellow, rubbing his hands and holding every now and then to his nose what seemed to me a bottle of ammonia or some very pungent restorative, the powerful fumes of which overcame the foetid atmosphere of the stoke-hold, Mr Stokes, looking almost as pale as the unconscious man, assisting with his unwounded arm, with which he lifted Jackson's head, his broken one being already set in splints by our doctor-mate.
Blanchard, the other sufferer from the accident, was sitting down on a bench near by, evidently recovering from the shock he had experienced, which really was not so serious as at first anticipated, a rather stiff glass of brandy and water which Garry had given him, having pretty soon brought him to himself.
All our attention, therefore, concentrated on Jackson, who, as yet, made no sign of amendment, in spite of every remedy tried by O'Neil.
"By George!" exclaimed Mr Stokes, a few minutes later when we all began to despair of ever bringing him back to life again. "I'm sure I felt his head move then!"
"Aye, sir," corroborated Stoddart, pressing his hand gently on Jackson's chest, to feel his heart, where a slight convulsive movement became perceptible, at first feeble and uncertain enough, as you may suppose, but then more and more sustained and regular, as if the lungs were getting to work again. "Look alive! he's beginning to breathe again— and—yes—his heart beats, I declare, quite plain!"
"Hurray!" shouted Garry O'Neil, hastily putting to his patient's lips a medicine glass, into which he dropped something out of a small vial, filling up the glass with water. "I've got something here shtrang enough, begorrah, to make a dead man spake!"
The effect of the drug, whatever it was, seemed magical. In an instant the previously motionless figure moved about uneasily, the pulsation of his chest grew more rapid and pronounced, and then, stretching out his clenched hands with a jerk, as if he were suddenly galvanised into life, thereby displaying the magnificent proportions of his torso, he being stripped to the waist, Jackson opened his eyes, drawing a deep breath the while, a breath something between a sob and a sigh!
"Where—where am I?" he said, looking round with a sort of far-away, dreamy stare, but meeting Mr Stokes' sympathetic gaze, he at once seemed to recover his consciousness. "Ah, I know, sir. I found out what was the matter with the suction before that plate buckled and gripped me. I have cleared the rose box, too, sir, and you can connect the bilge-pumps again as soon as you like, sir."
Of course all this took him some time to get out.
"All right, my man," answered the old chief, greatly overcome at the fact of the old sailor, wounded to the death, thinking of his duty in the first moment of his recovery. "Never mind that, man! How do you feel now, my poor fellow—better, I trust?"
"Why, just a little pain here, sir," said Jackson, pressing his hand to his right side. "I'm thankful, though, my legs escaped, sir. I've no pain there."
Garry O'Neil looked grave and shook his head at this, and looking too as he cast down his eyes over the lower part of the unfortunate man's body, I saw that the cruel edges of the iron plates had torn away part of his canvas overalls from the thigh to the knee of one leg, peeling off with the covering, the flesh from the bone; while the foot of the other—boot and all—was crushed into a shapeless bloody mass horrible to behold, the sight making one feel sick.
"It's a bad sign his having no fayling there, Haldane," whispered the Irishman to me very low, so that Jackson could not hear. "It's jost what I thought, sure. God may help him, but I can't. He'll niver recover, do what we moight for him, niver in this worruld. The poor misfortunate fellow has his spoine injured, and he can't live forty- eight hours, if as long as that, sure!"
He did not tell him this, however; nor did he lead any of the others to understand, either, that Jackson's case was hopeless!
On the contrary, when he spoke aloud, as he did immediately afterwards, he seemed in the best of spirits, as if everything was going on as well as possible, though I noticed a tear in his eye and a quiver in his voice that touched me to the heart, making me turn away my head.
"Now you mustn't talk now, old fellow, for we want you to husband all your strength to get up the hatchway to a foine cabin of yer own on the upper deck, where we're goin' to nurse ye, me darlint, till ye're all roight, sure!" he said cheerfully. "Here, now, just dhrink another drop of the craythur, me bhoy, to kape yer spirits up, and you, Master Haldane, jist hand over that hammock ye've got storved away on ye shulder, so that we can fix up Jackson comfortable like for his trip to the upper reggins!"
So saying, the good-hearted Irishman busied himself, with the help of Stoddart, who was equally gentle in handling the poor fellow, getting him ready for removal; and when he had been carefully placed in the hammock and covered with the blanket, the two of them, both being strong and powerful men, they lifted their burden with the utmost tenderness and carried him upward to the main deck, where he was put into a berth in one of the state rooms that the steward had prepared, and every attention paid him.
Mr Fosset and I helped up Blanchard, the other fireman, he, luckily, not requiring to be carried; and we then went down for Mr Stokes, who had refused to leave the stoke-hold until his men had been attended to.
Propping up the stout old chap behind so that he could not slip back down the slippery steel ladder, as he only had the one arm now to hold on by, the three of us reached the level of the engine-room all right, the chief, resting here a moment to give a look round and a word to Grummet, who of course was still in charge, telling him to slow down still further and use all his spare steam for clearing the bilge, as the sluice valves had been opened to prevent the fires being flooded out, and the pumps were in good working order again.
Grummet promised to attend carefully to these directions, and a host of others I cannot now recollect, poor Mr Stokes being as fussy and fidgetty as he was fat, and in the habit of unintentionally worrying his subordinates a good deal in this way, and the three of us again started on our way upwards, the old chief leading, as before, and Mr Fosset and I bringing up the rear very slowly, so as to prevent accident, when all at once there was a fearful crash that echoed through my brain, followed by a violent concussion of the air which nearly threw us all down the engine-room ladder, though Mr Fosset and I were both hanging on to it like grim death and supporting the whole weight of Mr Stokes between us.
At the same instant, too, the crank shaft stopped revolving, all motion of the machinery ceased, and the hatchway, with all the space around us, was filled by a dense cloud of hot steam!
Nor was this the worst, for hardly had we begun to draw breath again in the stifling vapour-bath-like atmosphere surrounding us, ere we could utter a cry, indeed, or exchange a word of speech with reference to what had just occurred, there arose a sudden and violent oscillation of the vessel, which pitched and rolled, and then heeled over suddenly to port, while an avalanche of water came thundering down the hatchway on top of our heads.