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wanted to our hands. Hunter joined us, having done with his cask, and before the sun had reached the meridian we had fitted the boat with a rudder and tiller, shaped some planks into the likeness of oars, fashioned a yard and bent a sail to it, and knocked the started thwart into its place.
This brought us to the dinner hour, and when we went to the hut to get something to eat, I found that Mrs. Stretton had cooked several pieces of beef, and that Miss Tuke and Carey had, between them, packed the biscuits in the maid's box, and stored all the best of the flour in the tinned-meat cases, which receptacles were compact, and to our purpose. I forgot Norie's share until we had done dinner, when Sir Mordaunt, taking my arm, led me round to the side of the hill, where I saw a rude cross firmly set up over the grave, and upon the cross-piece, in bold letters, Agnes Brookes,' with the date of her death. I put my hand upon the cross, and found it as firm as a tree.
'Norie has done his work very well,' said I.
'He has, and I am deeply obliged to him,' replied Sir Mordaunt. The task has occupied him the whole morning. It was tedious work. He was forced to use a piece of rock for a hammer, as the chopper was constantly in use among you on the beach. I shall quit this island with a very different heart from what I should have left it had we sailed away and left her lying as she was first buried, without a stone to mark her grave.'
He spoke with the tears coursing down his cheeks, and grasping my hand, he thanked me for the sympathy I had shown him, and the readiness with which I had complied with his wishes.
I left him whilst he knelt down to say a short prayer, for the time of our embarkation was close at hand, and I hoped to have put the island out of sight before the sun was gone. I called to Norie and the men, and told them that our next business was to go across the island and fetch the beef-cask. They were ready to accompany me, so arming ourselves with some seizings and a couple of pieces of timber, we marched across the island to the well.
We found the cask standing full of water as Hunter had left it. It was as tight as a shell, and on tasting the water I perceived that Hunter had carefully cleansed the cask of the salt. We lashed the
pieces of timber to it, and the four of us stooping at once, we got the bars upon our shoulders and raised the cask, and away we went with it, keeping step, and presently landed the cask on the beach close to
But after we had put the cask down, and I had looked from it to the boat, I found myself glancing at the sherry-cask under the trees. It was a smaller cask by several gallons, but much stronger, and fitter for the storage of water.
'I doubt,' said I to the others, if there'll be room in the boat for both casks. Yonder cask should hold as much water as we are likely to need.'
"I have been thinking of that, too, sir,' said Tripshore. The little 'un 'll be the better cask for us.'
Both Hunter and Norie were of the same opinion. 'Then,' said I, 'I'll tell you what we'll do.
This rain-water is
not over sweet: we'll leave about a third of the sherry in the cask there, and fill it up with water, and that will make a refreshing drink.'
This was thought a good notion; so we went to work and let run about two-thirds of the sherry, filled up the cask with water, and fitting in the head of it, which had been knocked out, got the cask into the boat, and securely lashed it amidships. We then brought down all the provisions we meant to take with us; fixed the little tell-tale compass to the after-thwart, put the telescope into the boat, took in some cloths of canvas to serve as a spare sail, and all being ready, we hauled the boat round to a point where the women could step aboard.
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon, the sun fiercely hot, and a little breeze blowing from the eastwards. After the women were in, we put the dog aboard, and then the rest of us entered. I had been greatly afraid that all this freight would sink the boat very deep; but when we were all in I was rejoiced to perceive that, in consequence of the boat's beam, the point of immersion was not so high by a streak as I had feared.
I took the tiller, and on either side of me sat Miss Tuke and Mrs. Stretton. Sir Mordaunt sat next his niece, and Norie next the widow. Carey occupied a thwart just abaft the mast. The dog was in the bows, and the men forward, working the paddles to bring us clear of the reef.
In this manner we went along until we had got the westernmost point of the reef under our stern. The men then threw in their paddles and hoisted the sail. There was a pleasant little breeze, as I have said, and the moment the boat felt the pressure, she began to run, making a pretty tinkling sound of water along her sides, and leaving two thin lines of foam and bubbles astern of her, and rolling over the swell very buoyantly.
I had made up my mind at starting to try for the land that was in sight, and accordingly headed the boat for the direction in which it bore, steering by the compass, for the land was invisible from the level of the water. I then asked Norie to lend me his pencil, and being without paper, drew a rude chart upon the after thwart; that is, I made a mark to signify the island we were leaving, and set down N. E. S. and W. around it, according to the indication of the compass.
Miss Tuke asked me what I was doing.
"We shall require to know the bearings of the island we were
wrecked on,' I replied; for unless we get them it will be a thousand to one if ever we shall be able to recover the remains of Lady Brookes.'
Sir Mordaunt instantly pricked up his ears.
'How will that help us, Walton?' he asked eagerly.
'If I mark off our courses,' I replied, then, should we be picked up by a vessel, or make inhabited land, we shall be able to calculate by the latitude and longitude of the vessel, or the land, whereabouts our island is. Of course we cannot hope to be quite accurate, because we shall have to guess our rate of sailing. But we shall be sufficiently near the mark to render the search for the island easy to any vessel you may send for the coffin.'
He was much touched by this proof of my anxiety to help the wish that lay so close to his heart. But Sir Mordaunt Brookes was a man for whom I had a sincere affection, and there was little, indeed, I would not have done to serve him.
After I had made my scrawl on the thwart, we sat all of us for a while in silence, looking at the receding island and the passing water. It was a most perfect tropical day, both sea and sky of a dark, unspeakably pure azure, and wind enough to propel the boat along at about four land-miles an hour. But the sun was terribly fierce, and scarcely endurable. Sir Mordaunt wore Tripshore's hat, and Tripshore had on a woman's straw hat that had come ashore in Carey's box. Norie had twisted a kind of turban cap for himself out of a piece of canvas, and was the best off of us all, as the stuff was white, and kept his head cool. But to sit in that boat without any protection, for the sun was almost directly overhead, was like leaving ourselves to be slowly roasted alive; and unable to stand the heat any longer, I called Hunter and Tripshore aft, to spread the spare sail as an awning, which, after some trouble, they succeeded in doing, by setting up a couple of paddles as stanchions, and making the clews of the sail fast to them.
This shade afforded us indescribable relief, and helped us to pluck up our spirits, which really swooned in us with the heat.
'Look what a little bit of a rock that island is!' exclaimed Miss Tuke, pointing astern. 'What a hard destiny, that with all this wide sea around us, we should have struck upon that tiny spot!'
'Ay,' said Sir Mordaunt, but it would have been a harder destiny had we struck without being able to land upon it.'
'Are you pretty comfortable, Mrs. Stretton?' said I, turning to the poor woman by my side, who sat with her hands on her lap, and her fine eyes fixed upon the sea.
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Walton,' she answered. Will you let me ask, if the island you are aiming for is not inhabited, how you will steer?'
To the southward and eastward,' I said; 'because we were bound to be well to the north when we struck, and by steering south and
east we can hardly fail, even if we miss the populated islands, to drive into the channels where we shall encounter ships.'
'Which channel do you suppose will be the nearest ?' asked Norie.
'I wish I knew. I have the names of three channels in my head -Crooked Island Passage, Mariguana Passage, and the Caicos Passage -but how they bear, and which one is nearest, I have no more idea than that dog.'
'By heading as you propose, Walton,' said Sir Mordaunt, is there not a chance of your missing the land, or drifting out of the track of ships?'
'No,' said I, because by so steering we're bound, if we keep going on long enough, to run down one of the West India islands.'
Foot by foot as we went, the island we were quitting grew smaller and smaller, and its features became indistinguishable in a kind of hazy yellow. The land for which we were trying was visible over our bows, but it was still too far off to make sure of, even with the glass, though my belief was, after a long inspection of it, that it was no more than a cay, similar to the one we had left, but bolder and larger.
Such minute objects as those two specks of land presented heightened rather than impaired our sense of the vast surface of water on which we floated. In such weather as this we were no doubt as safe in that boat as if we had been aboard a thousand-ton ship; and yet it was impossible to cast our eyes upon the water within a few inches of the gunwale, and then follow the mighty space of gleaming blue to where it met the heavens, without a shudder at the nearness of the great deep. I remember saying to Tripshore, who sat forward, I could not imagine that these wide waters were never traversed by vessels.
'But, sir,' said he, 'if, as you have all along reckoned, we're in the thick of the Bahama clusters, there's ne'er a vessel as 'ud have any business here.'
This was true, and very soon after he had made that answer, the reason why this sea was desolate was vigorously brought home to me by an exclamation from Hunter, who had been hanging his head over the side; for looking to see what had made him call out, I found that the boat was at that moment gliding over a reef that might have been one or ten fathoms below us, for aught I could tell, though it seemed to be within arm's length, so exquisitely transparent was the blue water. The reef was white, and gleamed like silver set in dark blue glass. It was evidently very precipitous, and no more than a narrow shelf, for when we had passed it by a boat's length we could see nothing but the fathomless blue under the side. In the course of time that submerged reef would raise its head and become an island, with trees and vegetation. It was wonderful to see land, so to speak, in the very making of it.
The sun was fast approaching the sea by the time we had neared
the island we were heading for; but long since we had discovered with the help of the glass that it was no more than a cay, uninhabited, with a high rise of land, hard upon forty feet tall, at the northernmost point of it. We could see the sandy beach and the flat land stretching from the foot of the rise, covered with brushwood and trees; and what was more, we could perceive the water all round it studded with reefs, upon which the swell broke in flashing floods of foam, that were blood-red in the rich evening sunshine.
There's no use going any nearer,' said I.
'No, sir, we're near enough,' cried Tripshore. Any one of them reefs would rip the bottom of this boat out of her.'
Without another word I eased off the sheet and put the helm up, and presently we had the island on our quarter, and the sun beyond, a great red shield going down without a cloud, and the water beneath it a sheet of molten gold, the extremity of which seemed to touch our boat's side.
Whilst daylight remained we served out supper. We also took down the sail we had used as an awning, and spread it at the bottom of the boat, for the women to lie on when they felt disposed to sleep. Before I ate my allowance of food I gave the tiller to Norie, and stood up against the mast with the glass, with which, taking advantage of the singular brightness and clearness of the atmosphere at this hour of sundown, I carefully swept the water line, but failed to detect any other object than the island astern and a fragment of the island we had quitted quivering on the horizon in the north-east. The others watched me eagerly as I ran the glass round the sea, but nothing was said when I exclaimed that there was no vessel to be seen. Indeed, if I could judge their feelings by mine, they were too deeply glad to be in this boat, and sailing away from the island, to find a cause in the vacant sea-line for worrying their hearts. Only a few hours ago our prospects were horribly dark. We were, so to say, locked up on a desolate rock. In their misery and abandonment my companions had sanctioned Hunter's mad scheme; and now here we were in a brave stout boat, a beautiful heaven above us; we were well stocked with provisions, and in respect of accommodation, not much more inconvenienced than in the hut.
We watched in silence the going down of the sun. It was a noble sight, and full of unspeakable pathos to people in our situation, and to the half-despondent, half-hopeful temper we were then in. The breeze followed us, and the sun was on our right. I wondered when that sun set again where we should be. It had shone that day over our beloved country, it had looked upon dear friends and dear scenes, and now it was going down upon our little boat, a speck, unseen by any eye but God's, upon the golden surface of this glorified western ocean. I believe all our thoughts ran somewhat in this way, for, as I have said, none of us spoke whilst the orb was sinking. Even the two seamen looked towards it in rapt postures, and when the last flashing fragment of it vanished, we all drew a deep breath