« AnteriorContinuar »
She, too, was very pale, but her lips were red and healthy, and her eyes clear and shining.
Of the women, indeed, Carey endured these trials the worst. She had been a plump, piquante little woman aboard the 'Lady Maud;' but now her cheeks were fallen in, her eyes sunk and the hollows dark, her lips pale and dry and tremulous, and the expression of her face was haggard, like that of a sick person. I should have supposed that a woman in her station of life would have borne hardship very much more stubbornly than Miss Tuke. But the truth is, and most men's experience confirms it, the more thoroughbred a woman is, the more effectually can she cope with and support trouble. I would rather any day be in peril with a lady, with no experience whatever of hardships, than with a woman of mean extraction, who has had to rough it, who has had to work, and who therefore you. might imagine would be a great help in time of danger, or when hearty activity or the negative virtue of fortitude was wanted.1
Carey's box, that had already done service as a baler, was now used as a washbasin. I filled it with salt water, and the women refreshed themselves by bathing their hands and faces. We men cooled ourselves by splashing up the water over the side. This done, I served out some salt beef and biscuit.
I had taken Hunter's place, and was steering the boat, eating with one hand and balancing the tiller with the other. The seamen were forward, Hunter feeding the dog. I was pointing to the figures I had scribbled upon the thwart, and Sir Mordaunt was calculating with me the distance we had traversed, when I was startled by a vehement cry from Tripshore, and, raising my eyes, I saw him standing with his arm around the mast, and pointing to the sea over our bows.
'Sail ho!' he yelled.
At this magic sound the whole of us sprang to our feet as one person. The sun being well on the left of us, the horizon ahead was beautifully clear and the sea a soft violet, and upon it, quite visible to the naked eye, was a speck of white.
I snatched up the glass and pointed it.
'Yes,' I cried, it is a sail!"
Miss Tuke clapped her hands, and gave a loud hysterical laugh. Which way is she standing, sir?' shouted Tripshore.
'I can't tell you yet,' I replied. She will be a square-rigged vessel, I believe, for what is showing of her canvas is square.'
'Let me look at her,' exclaimed Sir Mordaunt, in a voice quivering with excitement.
I gave him the glass. He crossed over to the mast, to rest the telescope against it, and took a long, long look, but could make no more of the object than I.
1 Lady Brookes' behaviour may be quoted against me, but it will be remembered that she was an invalid.
'But it is a sail, uncle?' cried Miss Tuke.
Certainly it is,' he replied; but it is impossible to tell which way she is going.'
The glass was passed from hand to hand.
Let us finish our breakfast,' said I, sitting down again. Though that vessel should pass without noticing us, it is enough that we have seen her to prove that we are in navigable waters at last. There will be other vessels about, though we should miss yonder one: be sure of that.'
They all seated themselves except Tripshore, who had the glass, and kept it fixed on that small white spot; but though Sir Mordaunt and Miss Tuke pretended to eat, I saw that the sight of that sail had taken away their appetite. They could not remove their eyes from the horizon where that gleaming speck was.
I dare say my own emotions were not less strong than theirs, but I perceived the need of assuming an unconcerned demeanour, so that, if the vessel passed away from us, I should be able with a good face to say that her disappearance signified no more than another spell of patience for us, and that other sails would be showing before sundown. Nevertheless, I was looking, too, all the time, at that distant sail, and every moment growing more and more puzzled by its steadiness and appearance.
'If yonder is a ship,' I exclaimed at last, she is bound to be coming or going our way. We are heading a steady course, and should have noticed by this time if she is crossing our hawse. But she's mighty slow if she's coming our way, and if she is steering as we are, what manner of vessel must she be to let a boat like this overhaul her?'
'What do you make of her, Tripshore?' called out Sir Mordaunt. Why, sir,' he answered, 'it looks to me as though that bit of white is the main-royal or topgallant-s❜l of a ship heading south.’ 'But do we rise it?' I asked.
'No, sir. All that it does is to grow bigger, without rising,' he answered.
I told him to pass me the glass, and I took another steady look. The object was unquestionably a ship's sail-apparently, as Tripshore had said, the main-royal of a ship; it was square, and white as silver; it was certainly bigger too than it was when I had first looked at it, which struck me as most extraordinary, for the enlargement of the sail proved that we were approaching it, and I could not conceive how it was that other portions of the vessel did not show themselves. 'No use speculating,' said I; we must wait and see.'
There was a light swell rolling up from the westward, that made the water look like a waving sheet of dark blue shot-silk; the sea was crisped with little foamy ripples, which ran along with us; but the sun had gathered its fires fast, and was pouring them fiercely down upon our unsheltered bodies; whilst the atmosphere seemed almost breezeless, in consequence of our being dead before the wind.
At intervals a number of flying fish would spark out of the melting glass-like blue of the water, and scatter in prismatic flashes. A frigate-bird came up out of the north, and hovered at a height of about thirty feet over the boat, balancing itself on its exquisitely graceful wings for a minute or so, and then fled and vanished like a beam of light. But we took no notice of these things, nor of the stinging heat of the sun, our thoughts being chained to that sail ahead, that was slowing enlarging its form, but never rising, so as to exhibit other sails beneath it.
• That's no ship, sir,' said Hunter, breaking a long silence.
It looks like a small lugger-rigged boat, exclaimed Sir Mordaunt.
• It certainly is not a ship,' said I.
We waited and watched. The sail was a most clear object now, and with the naked eye we could see that it was well on this side the horizon-indeed, the blue water-line rose beyond it.
On a sudden Tripshore let drop the glass to his side, and, looking around, motioned to me with his head. I quitted the helm, and clambered over to where he stood.
"Look !' said he, in a low voice, with a note of horror in it. • You may see what it is now.'
His manner startled me. I took the glass hurriedly, and levelled it.
• My God!' I cried, what a meeting !'
It was the raft we had sent adrift on the preceding day! The sail was full, the strange machine was swarming along steadily, at the masthead was the piece of inscribed plank, forming a cross upon the water, and with his back to the mast sat the dead messenger.
My blood ran cold. It was a dreadful object to encounter upon that lonely sea. And now that it was come, the disappointment stung me like the very fang of death. I looked round upon my companions, with a hopeless face.
• What is it?' cried Miss Tuke, instantly remarking my looks. • The raft we sent afloat yesterday, I answered.
She hid her face in her hands. Sir Mordaunt sat looking at the thing, with stony eyes, but neither he nor Mrs. Stretton nor Carey made any observation. The raft was right ahead, and in a short time we should be up with it. To us, who knew what its freight was, it was bad enough to have even the sail of it in sight; but to come within eyeshot of the corpse, that would by this time be a most loathsome object, was a thing that would have been unendurable to our shaken and agitated and weary hearts. Interpreting my companions' thoughts by my own, I returned to the helm, and headed the boat into the west. This brought the wind abeam; the little craft felt the increased pressure and buzzed along sharply, riding over the swell, that was now dead ahead, like a cork.
I whispered to the baronet that the corpse would have been too shocking an object for the women to see.
'Yes,' he answered, under his breath; and for us too. I could not have borne it. But I hope, now that the raft can no longer serve our purpose, it may speedily go to pieces. The inscription will set people hunting for us.'
"If we are rescued, the news will soon get about,' I answered.
We drew rapidly away from the forlorn and dismal fabric, yet it excited a fascination that constrained me to keep on stealing glances at it. The condition of mind to which our shipwreck had reduced me was well qualified to furnish a wild and ghastly significance to that dead seaman sailing along out there. I could not dispossess my imagination of the idea that he was following me with his eyes, and I figured a kind of blind upbraiding in them for leaving him in that mocking, unconsecrated plight. I had the face before me as I had seen it when we sent the raft adrift. It was a dreadful memory to come into my mind at such a time, and a foolish disposition to shed tears assured me of what I had not before suspected, that our hardships and anxieties had lamentably reduced my strength, and that, if we continued in this state much longer, those weakly women there would be able to boast of much more physical stamina than I.
I believe this very thought was in my head when I was aroused from the miserable reverie into which I had sunk by Hunter shouting, 'Sail ho!' at the very top of his voice. I started up savagely, maddened for the moment by the fear of another disappointment. The man was pointing into the north-west, and Mrs. Stretton and Miss Tuke, clinging to each other, looked wildly in that direction, whilst Sir Mordaunt and Norie stood peering, with their hands shading their
'Do you see her, sir?' shouted Hunter. 'It's no raft this time! See how she rises!'
I looked, and saw a sail—this time no raft indeed, as Hunter had said, but a vessel swiftly rearing her white canvas above the blue, inch by inch, foot by foot, so that, watching her with the glass, I saw her fore course come up until the arching foot of it was exposed, and then the glimmering top of the black hull quivered in the refractive light upon the water-line.
She was heading dead for us. Until we were sure of this, no one spoke; but when I cried out the news, Tripshore and Hunter and Norie uttered a loud hurrah! Miss Tuke clasped her hands above her head, and gave a long, mad laugh; Mrs. Stretton sobbed as if her heart would break; Carey fell a-dancing in the bottom of the boat; and Sir Mordaunt threw his arms round my neck, and, with his head lying on my shoulder, breathed like a dying man.
I broke away from my poor friend, and bawled to Hunter to lower the sail and stop the boat's way; and, whipping a handkerchief out of Norie's pocket, I fastened it to one of the paddles, and bade Tripshore stand up in the bows of the boat and wave the signal.
The vessel came down upon us fast. What her rig was I could not yet see. She had a main skysail set, and a coil of foam sparkled
No. 634 (NO. CLIV. N.S.)
at her glossy sides, and ran up the sea behind her in a flashing white line. We had cheered, and given way to the passion of excitement and rapture that the sight of her had kindled in us; but we grew silent very soon, and watched her coming, breathlessly. I knew her people could not fail to see us. But would they heave-to? Would they attempt our rescue? We had to find that out, and the waiting was such mental agony as there are no words to convey any idea of.
One of the most moving memories which my heart carries of our shipwreck, is the faces of my companions turned towards the approaching vessel. Expectation had so wrought upon their lineaments, as to harden them into the severity and immobility of marble; they looked to have been petrified at the very moment when their staring eyes, their parted lips, the forward posture of their heads, showed that the hope and the fear in them were at their greatest height.
Suddenly Tripshore turned his gaping face aft, and cried, in a hoarse voice of triumph, 'She'll heave-to, sir!' And, as he said this, the vessel, with her mainsail hanging in the leech-lines and her skysail halliards let go, slightly shifted her helm, and went past us at a distance of about five times her own length, drawing out as she passed into a small handsome barque of about three hundred and fifty tons, with a clipper bow and elliptical stern, a low freeboard, and a white netting round her short raised after-deck. From this point, that was apparently the roof of a deck-cabin, several men were watching us, and forward a small crowd of heads overhung the bulwarks. As soon as she was to leeward of us, she put her helm down, swung her foreyards, and lay hove-to.
'Out with your paddles, men!' I shouted; and, in a fury of impatience, Tripshore and Hunter threw over the rude oars, and the boat went slowly towards the barque. As we approached, we were hailed by one of the men on the poop.
'Boat ahoy! What boat is that?'
I was overjoyed to be addressed in English, for I had feared from the appearance of the vessel that she was a foreigner. I put my hand to the side of my mouth, and shouted back
'We are the survivors of the passengers and crew of the schooner yacht "Lady Maud," that was lost four days since on a cay about sixty miles distant from here. We have been adrift since yesterday.
Will you take us on board?'
He waved his hand, and answered, Yes, yes; come alongside. But is that another boat out there?' pointing in the direction where we had last seen the raft.
'No,' I cried. 'I will explain what that is when we get aboard.' A rope was flung to us, the gangway unshipped, and some steps thrown over. All hands had assembled to see us arrive. The first to be handed up was Miss Tuke; she was followed by Mrs. Stretton and Carey; then went Sir Mordaunt and Norie, the rest of us following with the dog. On gaining the deck a giddiness seized me, and