Chapter 5: Shipwreck and Rescue
The blessed daylight came at last. I spied the weak wet gray of it in a corner of the skylight that had been left uncovered by the tarpaulin which was spread over the glass. I looked closely at Grace, and found her asleep. I could not be sure at first, so motionless had she been lying; but when I put my ear close to her mouth the regularity of her respiration convinced me that she was slumbering.
That she should be able to snatch even ten minutes of sleep cheered me. Yet my spirits were very heavy; every bone in me ached with a pain as of rheumatism; though I did not feel sick, my brain seemed to reel, and the sensation of giddiness was hardly less miserable and depressing than nausea itself.
I stood up, and with great difficulty caught the brandy as it flew from side to side on the swinging tray and took a dram, and then clawed my way as before to the companion-steps, and, opening the cover, got into the hatch and stood looking at the picture of my yacht and the sea.
There was no one at the helm; the tiller was lashed to leeward. The shock I received on observing no one aft, finding the helm abandoned, as it seemed to me, I shall never forget. The tiller was the first object I saw as I rose through the hatch, and my instant belief was that all my people had been swept overboard.
On looking forward, however, I spied Caudel and the others of the men at work about the mast. I am no sailor, and cannot tell you what they were doing, beyond saying that they were securing the mast by affixing tackles and so forth to it.
But I had no eyes for them or their work; I could only gazed at my ruined yacht, which at every heave appeared to be pulling herself together as it were for the final plunge. A mass of cordage littered the deck; the head of the mast showed in splinters, whilst the spar itself looked withered, naked, blasted, as though struck by lightning.
The decks were full of water, which was flashed above the rail, where it was instantly swept away by the gale in a smoke of crystals. The black gear wriggled and rose to the wash of the water over the planks like a huddle of eels.
A large space of the bulwarks on the port side, abreast of the mast, was smashed level with the deck. The gray sky seemed to hover within musket-shot of us, and it went down to the sea in a slate-colored weeping body of thickness to within a couple of hundred fathoms, while the dark-green surges, as they came rolling in foam from out of the windward wall of blankness, looked enormous.
Caudel on seeing me came scrambling to the companion. The salt of the flying wet had dried in the hollows of his eyes, and lay in a sort of white powder there, insomuch that he was scarcely recognizable. It was impossible to hear him amidst that roaring commotion, and I descended the ladder by a step or two to enable him to put his head into the hatch.
He tried to look cheerful, but there was a curl in the set of his mouth that neutralized the efforts of his eye. He entered into a nautical explanation of our condition, the terms of which I forget.
"But how is it with the hull, Caudel ?" I inquired. "Surely this wild tossing must be straining the vessel frightfully. Does she continue to take in water ?"
"I must not deceive you, sir," he answered: "she does. But a short spell at the pump serves to chuck it all out again, and so there's no call for your honor to be uneasy."
He returned to the others, whilst I, heart-sickened by the intelligence that the Spitfire had sprung a leak,—for that, I felt, must be the plain English of Caudel's assurance,—-continued standing a few moments longer in the hatch, looking around.
Ugly wings of vapor, patches and fragments of dirty-yellow scud, flew fast, loose, and low under the near gray wet stoop of the sky; they made the only break in that firmament of storm. The smother of the weather was thickened yet by the clouds of spray, which rose like bursts of steam from the sides and heads of the seas, making one think of the fierce gusts and guns of the gale as of wolves tearing mouthfuls with sharp teeth from the flanks and backs of the rushing and roaring chase they pursued.
Grace was awake, sitting upright, but in a listless, lolling, helpless posture. I was thankful, however, to find her ca able of the exertion even of sitting erect. I crept to her side, and held her to me to cherish and comfort her.
"Oh, this weary, weary motion!" she cried, pressing her hand upon her temples.
"It cannot last much longer, my darling," I said: "the gale is fast blowing itself out, and then we shall have blue skies and smooth water again."
"Can we not land, Herbert?" she asked feebly in my ear, with her cheek upon my shoulder.
"Would to God that were possible within the next five minutes!" I answered.
"Whereabouts are we?"
"I cannot tell exactly: but when this weather breaks we shall find the English coast within easy reach."
"Oh, do not let us wait until we get to Mount's Bay!" she cried.
"My pet, the nearest port will be our port now, depend upon it."
The day passed,—-a day of ceaseless storm, and of such tossing as only a smacks man who has fished in the North Sea in winter could know anything about. The spells at the pump grew more frequent as the hours progressed, and the wearisome beat of the plied brake affected my imagination as though it had been the tolling of our funeral hell.
I hardly required Caudel to tell me the condition of the yacht when sometime between eight and nine o'clock that night he put his head into the hatch and motioned me to ascend.
"It's my duty to tell you, Mr. Barclay," he exclaimed, whispering hoarsely into my ear in the comparative shelter of the companion cover, that Grace might not overhear him, "that the leak's a-gaining upon us."
I had guessed as much, yet this confirmation of my conjecture affected me as violently as though I had had no previous suspicion of the state of the yacht. I was thunderstruck; I felt the blood forsake my cheeks, and or some moments I could not find my voice.
"You do not mean to tell me, Caudel, that the yacht is actually sinking ?"
"No, sir. But the pump will have to be kept continually going if she's to remain afloat." I'm afraid when the mast went over the side that a blow from it started a butt, and the leak's growing worse and worse, consequence of the working of the craft."
"Is it still thick ?"
"As mud, sir."
"Why not fire the gun at intervals?" said I, referring to the little brass cannon that stood mounted upon the quarter-deck.
"I'm afraid " He paused, with a melancholy shake of his head. "Of course, Mr. Barclay," he went on, "if it's your wish, sir but it'll do no more, I allow, than frighten the lady." Tis but a pea-shooter, sir, and the gale's like thunder."
"We are in your hands, Caudel," said I, with a feeling of despair ice-cold at my heart, as I reflected upon the size of our little craft, her crippled and sinking condition, our distance from land, as I felt the terrible weight and power of the seas which were tossing us, and as I thought of my sweetheart.
"Mr. Barclay," he answered, "if the weather do but moderate I shall have no fear. Our case ain't hopeless yet, by a long way, sir. The water's to be kept under by continuous pumping, and there are hands enough and to spare for that job. We're not in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but in the mouth of the English Channel, with plenty of shipping knocking about. But the weather's got to moderate. Firing that there gun only be to terrify the young lady and do no good. If a ship came along, no boat could live in this sea. In this here blackness she couldn't keep us company, and our rockets wouldn't be visible half a mile off. No, sir, we've got to stick to the pump and pray for daylight and fine weather."
And, having no more to say to me, or a sudden emotion checking his utterance, he pulled his head out and disappeared in the obscurity.
Grace asked me what Caudel had been talking about, and I answered, with the utmost composure I could muster, that he had come to tell me the yacht was making a noble fight of it and that there was nothing to cause alarm.
I had not the heart to respond otherwise; nor could the bare truth as I understood it have served any other end than to deprive her of her senses. Even now I seemed to find an expression of wildness in her beautiful eyes, as though the tension of her nerves, along with the weary endless hours of delirious pitching and tossing , was beginning to tell upon her brain.
I sought to comfort her; caressed her, I strained her to in heart, whilst I exerted my whole soul to look cheerfully and to speak cheerfully, and thank God! the influence of my true, deep love prevailed; she spoke tranquilly; the brilliant staring look of her eyes was softened: occasionally she would smile as she lay in my arms, whilst I rattled on, struggling, with a resolution that now seems preternatural to me when I look back, to distract her attention from our situation.
At one o'clock in the morning she fell asleep, and I knelt by her sleeping form and prayed for mercy and protection.
It was much about this hour that Caudel's face again showed in the hatch. I crawled along the deck and up the steps to him, and he immediately said to me, in a voice that trembled with agitation,— "Mr. Barclay, good news, sir. The gale's a-taking off."
I clasped my hands, and could have hugged the dripping figure of the man to my breast.
"Yes, sir," he continued, "the breeze is slackening. There's no mistake about it. The horizon's opening, too."
"Heaven be praised! And what of the leak, Caudel ?"
"'It ain't worse than it was, sir; though it's bad enough."
"If the weather should moderate-—-—"
"Well, then, if the leak don't gain we may manage to carry her home. That'll have to be found out, sir. But, seeing the yacht's condition, I shall be for transshipping you and the lady to anything inwards bound that may happen to come along. Us men will take the yacht to port, providing she'll let us."
He paused, and then said, "There might be no harm now, perhaps, in firing off that there gun. If a smack"ud show herself she'd be willing to stand by for the sake of the salvage. We'll also send up a few rockets, sir. But how about the young lady, Mr. Barclay?"
"Everything must be done," I replied, "that is likely to preserve our lives."
There was some gunpowder aboard, but where Caudel had stowed it I did not know. However, five minutes after he had left me, and whilst I was sitting by the side of my sweetheart, who still slept, the gun was discharged It sent a small shock through the little fabric, as though she had gently touched ground, or had run into some floating object, but the report, blending with the commotion of the sea and the bell-like ringing and wolfish howling of the wind, penetrated the deck in a note so dull that Grace never stirred.
Ten or twelve times was this little cannon discharged at intervals of five or ten minutes, and I could hear the occasions rush of a rocket like the sneeze of a giant sounding through the stormy uproar.
From time to time I would creep up into the companion, always in the hope of finding the lights of a ship close to; but nothing came of our rockets, whilst I doubt if the little blast the quarter-deck popgun delivered was audible half a mile away to windward.
But though the night remained a horribly black shadow, the blacker for the phantasmal sheets of foam which defined without illuminating it, the wind about this time—somewhere between four and five o'clock—had greatly moderated. Yet at dawn it was blowing hard still, with an iron-gray freckled sea rolling hollow and confusedly, and a near horizon thick with mist.
There was nothing in sight. The yacht looked deplorably sodden and wrecked as she pitched and wallowed in the cold, desolate, ashen atmosphere of that daybreak. The men, too, wore the air of castaway mariners, fagged, salt-whitened, pinched; and their faces—even the boy's—looked aged with anxiety.
I called to Caudel. He approached me slowly, as a man might walk after a swim that has nearly spent him.
"Here is another day, Caudel. What is to be done?"
"What can be done, sir?" answered the poor fellow, with the irritation of exhaustion and of anxiety but little removed from despair.
"We must go on pumping for our lives, and pray to God that we may be picked up."
"Why not get sail upon the yacht, put her before the wind, and run for the French coast?"
"If you like, sir," he answered, languidly; "but it's a long stretch to the French coast, and if the wind should shift " He paused, and looked as though worry had weakened his mind a little and rendered him incapable of deciding swiftly and for the best.
The boy Bobby was pumping, and I took notice of the glassy clearness of the water as it gushed out to the strokes of the little brake. The others of my small crew were crouching under the lee of the weather bulwark.
Before returning to Grace I looked at our little boat,—she was just a yacht's dinghy,—and thought of the slender chance of saving our lives the tiny ark would provide us with,—seven souls in a boat fit to hold five, and then only in smooth water!
Grace was awake when I had gone on deck at daybreak, though she had slept for two or three hours very soundly, never once moving when the cannon was discharged, frequent as the report had been. On my descending she begged me to take her on deck.
"I shall be able to stand if I hold your arm," she said, "and the air will do me."
But I had not the heart to let her view the sea, nor the wet, broken, ship wrecked figure the yacht made, with water flying over the bow, and water gushing from the pump, and the foam flashing among the rigging that still littered the deck as the brine roared from side to side.
"No, my darling," said I"; "for the present you must keep below.
The wind, thank God, is fast moderating, and the sea will be falling presently. But you cannot imagine, until you attempt to move, how violently the Spitfire rolls and pitches. Besides, the decks are full of water, and a single wild heave might throw us both and send us flying overboard."
She shuddered, and said no more about going on deck.
In spite of her having slept, her eyes seemed languid. Her checks were colorless, and there was an expression of fear and expectation that made my heart mad to behold in her sweet young face, which, when all was well with her, were a most delicate bloom, whilst it was lovely with a sort of light that was like a smile in expressions even of perfect repose. I had brought her to this! Before another day had closed, her love for me might have cost her life! I could not bear to think of it; I could not bear to look at her; and I broke down, burying my face in my hands.
She put her arm round my neck, pressed her cheek to mine, but said nothing until the two or three dry sobs which shock me to my very inmost soul had passed.
"Anxiety and want of sleep have made you ill," she said. "I am sure all will end well, Herbert. The storm, you say, is passing; and then we shall be able to steer for the nearest port. You will not wait now to reach Penzance ?"
I shook my head, unable to speak.
"We have both had enough of the sea," she continued, forcing a smile that vanished in the next breath she drew, "but you could not have foretold this storm. And, even now, would you have me anywhere else but here ?" said she, putting her cheek to mine again. "Rest your head on my shoulder and sleep. I feel better, and will instantly awaken you if there is any occasion to do so."
I was about to make some answer, when I heard a loud and, as it appeared to me, a fearful cry on deck. Before I could spring to my feet someone heavily thumped the companion-hatch, flinging the gliding cover wide open an instant after, and Caudel's voice roared own:
"Mr. Barclay! Mr. Barclay! there's a big ship close aboard us! She's rounding to. Come on deck, for God's sake, sir, that we may have your wishes."
Bidding Grace remain where she was, I sprang to the companion steps, and the first thing I saw on emerging was a large, full-rigged ship, with painted ports, under small canvas, and in the act of rounding to, with her main-top-sail yard slowly swinging aback.
Midway the height of our little mizzen-mast streamed the ensign, which Caudel or another of the men had hoisted, the union down; but our wrecked mast and the fellow laboring at the pump must have told our story to the sight of that ship with an eloquence that could gather but little emphasis from the signal of distress streaming like a square of flame half-mast-high at our stern.
It was broad daylight now, with a lightening in the darkness to windward that opened out twice the distance measured before I went below. The ship, a noble structure, was well within hail, rolling somewhat heavily, but with a majestically slow motion.
There was a crowd of sailors on her forecastle staring at us, and I remember even in that supreme moment noticing—so tricksy is the human intelligence!—how ghastly white the cloths of her top-mast staysail showed by contrast with the red and blue shirts and other colored apparel of the mob of seamen, and against the spread of dusky sky beyond.
There was also a little knot of people on the poop, and a man standing near them, but alone: as I watched him he took what I gathered to be a speaking-trumpet from the hand of the young apprentice or ordinary seaman who had run to him with it.
"Now, Mr. Barclay," cried Caudel, in a voice vibrating with excitement, "there's yours and the lady's opportunity, sir. But what's your instructions? what's your wishes, sir?"
"My wishes? How can you ask? We must leave the Spitfire. She is already half drowned. She will sink when you stop pumping."
"Right, sir," he exclaimed; and without another word he posted himself at the rail in a posture of attention, his eyes upon the ship.
She was apparently a vessel bound to some Indian or Australian port, and seemingly full of passengers, for, even as I stood watching, the people in twos and threes arrived on the poop or got upon the main-deck bulwark-rail to view us. She was a long, iron ship, red beneath the water-line, and the long streak of that color glared out over the foam dissolving at the sides like a flash of crimson sunset as she rolled from us.
Whenever she hove her stern up, gay with what might have passed as gilt quarter badges, I could read her name in long, white letters,——"CARTHUSIAN—LONDON."
"Yacht ahoy !" now came in a hearty tempestuous shout through the speaking-trumpet which the man I had before noticed lifted to his lips.
"Halloo !" shouted Caudel in response.
"What is wrong with you ?"
"Wessel's makin' water fast, and ye can see," shrieked Caudel, pointing at our wrecked and naked mast, "what our state is. The owner and a lady's aboard, and want to leave the yacht. Will you stand by till you can receive"em, sir?"
The man with the speaking-trumpet elevated his hand, in token that he heard, and appeared to consult with another figure that had drawn to his side. He then took a long look round at the weather, and afterwards put the tube again to his mouth.
"Yacht ahoy !"
"We will stand by you; but we cannot launch a boat yet. Does the water gain rapidly upon you ?"
"We can keep her afloat for some hours, sir."
The man again elevated his hand, and crossed to the weather side of his ship, to signify, I presume, that there was nothing more to be said.
"In two or three hours, sir, you and the lady'll be safe aboard," cried Caudel. "The wind's failing fast, and by that time the sea'll be flat enough for one of that craft's fine boats."
I re-entered the cabin, and found Grace standing, supporting herself at the table. Her attitude was full of expectancy and fear.
"What have they been crying out on deck, Herbert?" she exclaimed.
"There is a big ship close by us, darling," I answered. "The weather is fast moderating, and by noon I hope to have you safe on board of her."
"On board of her !" she cried, with her eyes full of wonder and alarm. "Do you mean to leave the yacht ?"
"Yes. I have heart enough to tell you the truth now; she has sprung a leak and is taking in water rapidly, and we must abandon her.
She dropped upon the locker with her hands clasped.
"Do you tell me she is sinking?"
"We must abandon her," I cried. "Put on your hat and jacket, my darling. The deck is comparatively safe now, and I wish the people on board the ship to see you."
She was so overwhelmed, however, by the news that she appeared incapable of motion. I procured her jacket and hat, and presently helped her to put them on, and then, grasping her firmly by the waist, I supported her to the companion-steps and carefully and with difficulty got her on deck, making her sit under the lee of the weather bulwark,—-where she would be visible enough to the people of the ship at every windward roll of the yacht,—-and crouched beside her with my arm linked in hers.