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Chapter Twenty Four.
We are chased by a large vessel—Overtaken by a storm—A stern chase—The stranger is dismasted—We are in a dangerous position—Loss of our crew—The gale moderates—The brig gives signs of sinking—We set about building a raft—An unexpected appearance—Jacques and his fiddle—The raft completed and launched—The first night—Dick and I compare notes—Troubled sleep—A dreadful reality—My companions swept overboard—Clinging on for life.

Two days had passed by since we left the frigate. It was my middle watch below, and I fancied that the greater part of it had passed by when I heard Mr Harvey’s voice shouting, “All hands on deck, and make sail.”

I was on my feet in a moment, and looking astern as I came up, I saw through the gloom of night a large vessel to the southward, apparently standing to the eastward, while a smaller one, which I took to be the Flore, had hauled her wind, and was steering west.

“She is taking care of number one,” observed Dick to me, as we together went aloft to loose the topgallant sails, for, like a careful officer, being short-handed, Mr Harvey had furled them at sundown. We then rigged out studden sail booms, hoping, should the stranger not have perceived us, to get a good distance before daylight. Soon after the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky, we saw her alter her course in pursuit of us. We had, however, got a good start, and, unless the wind fell, we might still hope to escape her.

At first it was doubtful whether she would follow us or the Flore. If she should follow her, we should be safe, as she would have little chance of capturing us both. As the day drew on the wind increased, and at length it became evident that the stranger intended to try and take us.

“She may, after all, be an English frigate,” said Dick to me.

“Mr Harvey doesn’t suppose so, or he wouldn’t be so anxious to escape her,” I answered. “He thinks it best to be on the safe side and run no risk in the matter.”

We were all at our stations, including the cook and steward, who were told to stand by and pull and haul as they might be ordered.

I asked the latter whether he thought the ship in chase of us was English or French.

He shrugged his shoulders, observing that he was not much of a sailor, and could not tell one ship from another unless he saw her flag.

Mr Harvey stood with his glass in his hand, every now and then giving a look through it astern. Then he glanced up at the sails. The topgallant masts were bending like willow wands. Every instant the wind was increasing, and the sea was getting up; still he was unwilling to shorten sail while there was a possibility of escaping.

At last, after taking another look through his telescope, he shut it up, observing to me, “She’s French! there’s no doubt about it. We’ll hold on as long as we can, she hasn’t caught us yet.”

Scarcely two minutes after this there came a crash. Away went both our topgallant masts, and as I looked aloft, I was afraid that the top masts would follow. Still the wreck must be cleared. Dick and I sprang up the main rigging, and I hurried aloft to clear the main-topgallant mast, while two others, imitating our example, ascended the fore rigging. The brig was now plunging her bows into the fast-rising seas. It was a difficult and dangerous work we had undertaken, but getting out our knives, we succeeded in cutting away the rigging, and the masts and yards with their canvas fell overboard.

“That’s one way of shortening sail,” said Dick as we came on deck. “To my mind, the sooner we get a couple of reefs in the topsails, the better.”

This was indeed very evident. Mr Harvey taking the helm, the rest of us went aloft and performed the operation. We were too much occupied to look at the frigate. When we came down off the yards, we saw that she had shortened sail, but not before she also had carried away her fore-topgallant mast. We were still going as rapidly as before through the water, but the increase of wind gave the advantage to the larger ship, which kept drawing closer.

I have not spoken of time. The day was passing, and Mr Harvey ordered the steward and cook to bring us some food on deck, for no one could be spared below to obtain it. Already it was some hours past noon. If we could keep ahead until darkness came down, we might still manage to escape by altering our course, as soon as we had lost sight of the frigate. At length, however, we saw her yaw. She had got us within range of her guns. She fired, and two shot came whizzing past us. On this Mr Harvey ordered us to run out two long guns, brass six-pounders, through the stern-ports, and to fire in return.

We blazed away as fast as we could run them in and load, but it was a difficult matter to take aim with the heavy sea on through which we were plunging. We managed, however, to pitch two or three of our shot on board, but what damage we caused we could not tell.

Again the frigate yawed and fired all her foremost guns. One of the shot came crashing into the mainmast, and two others hulled us. I sprang towards the mast to ascertain the extent of damage it had received. It seemed a wonder, with so large a piece cut out of it, that it could stand, and I expected every moment to see it go. Still, should the wind not increase, I thought it might be preserved, and Mr Harvey calling all the hands not engaged at the guns to bring as many spars as could be collected, we began fishing it. We were thus engaged when two more shot pitched on board, carrying away part of the bulwarks and capsizing one of the guns.

Another followed, bringing one of our men to the deck with his head shattered to pieces. Our position was becoming desperate. Presently two more shot struck us between wind and water. Several of the men, who had before shown no lack of courage, cried out that we had better strike before we were sent to the bottom.

“Not while our masts stand,” answered Mr Harvey firmly.

We had had but slight experience in fishing masts, so I had little confidence in its strength. Mr Harvey then called me aft to work one of the guns.

I again pitched a shot into the frigate. My great hope was that I might knock away one of her spars, and give us a better chance of escaping. The wind had been drawing round to the westward of south. We still kept before it. Presently the frigate braced up her yards, intending apparently to fire her whole broadside at us. As she did so, the wind suddenly increased. Over she heeled. She was almost concealed from sight by the clouds of spray and dense masses of rain which came suddenly down like a sheet from the sky.

Even before Mr Harvey could give the word we were letting fly everything. The brig rushed on through the foaming seas. When I looked aft, I could just distinguish the dark hull of the frigate rolling helplessly from side to side, her masts gone by the board.

On we flew, soon losing sight of her altogether. Though our masts were standing, our canvas, except the fore-topsail, was blown to ribbons. The storm showed no signs of abating, for although there was a short lull, the wind again blew as hard as ever. The thunder roared, the lightning flashed from the clouds, and the night became pitchy dark. The seas increased, and, as they came rolling up, threatened to poop us.

How long the gale might last it was impossible to say. Before it had abated we might have run on the Irish coast. It would be wiser to heave the brig to while there was time; but the question wag whether the mainmast would stand. The fore-topsail was closely reefed, the helm was put down; but as the vessel was coming up to the wind, a sea struck us, a tremendous crash followed, the mainmast, as we had feared, went at the place where it had been wounded, and, falling overboard, was dashed with violence against the side, which it threatened every moment to stave in.

Mr Harvey, seizing an axe and calling on us to follow and assist in clearing away the wreck before more damage was done, sprang forward. At any moment the sea, striking the vessel, might sweep us off the deck. With the energy almost of despair, we worked away with axes and knives, and at length saw the mast drop clear of the side. While we were still endeavouring to clear away the wreck of the mast, Mr Harvey had sent one of the crew below to search for some more axes, as we had only three among us. Just at this juncture he came on deck, exclaiming, in a voice of alarm, “The water is rushing in like a mill sluice!”

“Then we must pump it out,” cried Mr Harvey, “or try and stop it if we can. Man the pumps!”

We had two each, worked by a couple of hands, and we began labouring away, knowing that our lives might depend upon our exertions.

The brig lay to more easily than I should have supposed possible, though we were still exposed to the danger of an overwhelming sea breaking on board us. We got the hatches, however, battened down, and kept a look-out, ready to catch hold of the stanchions or stump of the mainmast, to save ourselves, should we see it coming.

As soon as the pumps had been manned, Mr Harvey himself went below, accompanied by Dick and another hand, carrying a lantern to try and ascertain where the water was coming in, with the greatest rapidity.

It appeared to me that he was a long time absent. He said nothing when he at last came up, by which I guessed that he had been unable to discover the leak. “As long as there is life there’s hope, lads,” he said: “we must labour on to the last;” and he took the place of a man who had knocked off at the pumps. He worked away as hard as any man on board. After some time I begged that I might relieve him, and he went and secured himself to a stanchion on the weather side. I at last was obliged to cry “Spell ho!” and let another man take my place.

I had just got up to where Mr Harvey was seated on deck, and having taken hold of the same stanchion, remarked that the brig remained hove-to better than I should have expected.

“Yes,” he observed; “the foremast is stepped much further aft than in English vessels, but I wish that we had been able to get up preventer stays; it would have made the mast more secure.”

Scarcely had he uttered the words than a tremendous sea came rolling up and burst over the vessel.

“Hold on for your lives, lads!” shouted Mr Harvey.

Down came the sea, sweeping over the deck. I thought the brig would never rise again. At the same instant I heard a loud crash. Covered as I was with water, I could, however, see nothing for several seconds; I supposed, indeed, that the brig was sinking. I thought of my wife, my uncle and aunt, and our cosy little home at Southsea, and of many an event in my life. The water roared in my ears, mingled with fearful shrieks. Chaos seemed round me. Minutes, almost hours, seemed to go by, and I continued to hear the roar of the seas, the crashing of timbers, and the cries of my fellow-men.

It must have been only a few seconds when the brig rose once more, and looking along the deck I saw that our remaining mast had gone as had the bowsprit, while, besides Mr Harvey, I could distinguish but one man alone on the deck, holding on to the stump of the mainmast. At first I thought that Mr Harvey might have been killed, but he was only stunned, and speedily recovered. He got on his feet and looked about him, as if considering what was to be done.

“We’re in a bad state, Wetherholm, but, as I before said, while there’s life there’s hope. We must try to keep the brig afloat until the morning and perhaps, as we are in the track of vessels coming in and out of the Channel, we may be seen and taken off. Where are the rest of the men?”

“I am afraid, sir, they are washed overboard, except the man we see there; who he is I can’t make out.”

“Call him,” said Mr Harvey.

“Come aft here!” I shouted.

“Ay, ay!” answered a voice which, to my great satisfaction, I recognised as that of Dick Hagger. He did not, however, move, but I saw that he was engaged in casting himself loose. He at length staggered aft to where we were holding on.

“Did you call me, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, my man. Where are the rest of the people?” said Mr Harvey.

“That’s more than I can tell, sir,” answered Dick. “I saw the sea coming, and was making myself fast, when I got a lick on the head which knocked the senses out of me.” After saying this, he looked forward, and for the first time seemed to be aware that we three, as far as we could tell, were the only persons left on board.

The blast which had carried away the foremast seemed to be the last of the gale. The wind dropped almost immediately, and though the seas came rolling up and tumbled the hapless brig about, no others of the height of the former one broke over us. Our young officer was quickly himself again, and summoned Hagger and me to the pumps.

We all worked away, knowing that our lives might depend upon our exertions. Though we did not gain on the water, still the brig remained buoyant. This encouraged us to hope that we might keep her afloat until we could be taken off. It was heavy work. Dick and I tried to save our officer, who had less physical strength than we had, as much as possible.

Hour after hour we laboured on, the brig rolling fearfully in the trough of the sea, and ever and anon the water rushed over us, while we held fast to save ourselves from being carried away. At length we could judge by the movement of the vessel that the sea was going down, as we had expected it would do since there was no longer any wind to agitate it.

At length daylight broke, but when we looked out over the tumbling, lead-coloured ocean, not a sail could we discern. We sounded the well, and found eight feet of water. Our boats had all been destroyed,—indeed, had one remained, she would even now scarcely have lived.

“We may keep the brig afloat some hours longer, but that is uncertain,” said Mr Harvey, after he had ceased pumping to recover strength. “We must get a raft built without delay, as the only means of saving our lives. At present we could scarcely hold on to it, but as the sea is going down, we will wait to launch it overboard till the brig gives signs of being about to founder.”

We agreed with him. He told us to take off the main hatch, and get up some spars which we knew were stowed below. While we were thus occupied, my head was turned aft. The companion-hatch was drawn back, and, greatly to our surprise, there appeared the head of Jacques Little. He was rubbing his eyes, looking more asleep than awake.

“Ma foi!” he exclaimed, gazing forward with an expression of horror on his countenance, “vat hav happened?”

“Come along here and lend a hand, you skulking fellow!” cried Dick. “Where have you been all this time?”

“Sleep, I suppose, in de cabin,” answered Jacques. “Vere are all de rest?”

“Gone overboard,” said Dick. “Come along, there’s no time for jabbering.”

“Vat an Le Grande?” exclaimed Jacques. “Oh! comme je suis faché! Dat is bad, very bad.”

Jacques had evidently been taking a glass or two of cognac to console himself, and even now was scarcely recovered from its effects. We made him, however, help us, and once aroused, he was active enough. Between whiles, as we worked at the raft, we took a spell at the pumps. At last Mr Harvey told us that our time would be best spent on the raft. We sent Jacques to collect all the rope he could find, as well as to bring up some carpenter’s tools and nails. Having lashed the spars together, we fixed the top of the main hatch to it, and then brought up the doors from the cabin, and such portions of the bulk-heads as could be most easily knocked away. We thus in a short time put together a raft, capable of carrying four persons, provided the sea was not very rough. Most of the bulwarks on the starboard or lee side had been knocked away; it was therefore an easy task to clear a space sufficient to launch the raft overboard. We hauled it along to the side, ready to shove into the water directly the brig should give signs of settling. Still she might float for an hour or two longer.

Dick, while searching for the spars, had found a spare royal, which, after being diminished in size, would serve as a sail should the wind be sufficiently light to enable us to set one. We put aside one of the smaller spars to fit as a mast, with sufficient rope for sheets and halyards.

Mr Harvey gave an anxious look round, but not a sail appeared above the horizon. He then ordered Jacques to go below and bring up all the provisions he could get at, and a couple of beakers of water. Fortunately there were two, both full, kept outside the cabin for the use of the pantry. We soon had these hoisted up, and Jacques speedily returned with a couple of baskets, in which he had stowed some biscuits, several bottles of wine, some preserved fruits, and a few sausages.

“Come, lads, we are not likely to be ill provisioned,” said Mr Harvey, making the remark probably to keep up our spirits.

Once more he sounded the well while we were giving the finishing strokes to our raft. He did not say the depth of water in the hold, but observed, in a calm tone, “Now we’ll get our raft overboard.” We had secured stays with tackles to the outer side, so as to prevent it dipping into the water. By all four working together, and two easing away the tackles, we lowered it without accident. We had found some spare oars, and had secured a couple of long poles to enable us to shove it off from the side. There were also beckets fixed to it, and lashings, with which to secure ourselves as well as the casks and baskets of provisions.

“Be smart, lads, leap on to the raft!” cried Mr Harvey.

Dick and I obeyed, and he lowered us down the baskets, but Jacques, instead of following our example, darted aft and disappeared down the companion-hatchway.

“Comeback, you mad fellow!” exclaimed Mr Harvey, still standing on the deck, wishing to be the last man to leave the brig.

“You had better come, sir,” I could not help saying; for I feared, from the depth the brig already was in the water, that she might at any moment take her last plunge.

We were not kept long in suspense. Again Jacques appeared, carrying his fiddle and fiddlestick in one hand, and a bottle of cognac in the other, and, making a spring, leapt on the raft. Mr Harvey leapt after him.

“Cast off,” he cried, “quick, quick!”

We let go the ropes which held the raft to the brig, and, seizing the poles, shoved away with all our might; then taking the paddles in hand, we exerted ourselves to the utmost to get as far as we could away from the sinking vessel.

We were not a moment too soon, for almost immediately afterwards she settled forward, and her stern lifting, down she glided beneath the ocean, and we were left floating on the still troubled waters. Yet we had cause to be thankful that we had saved our lives. We were far better off than many poor fellows have been under similar circumstances; for we had provisions, the sea was becoming calmer and calmer, and the weather promised to be fine. We could scarcely, we thought, escape being seen by some vessel either outward or homeward-bound. There was too much sea on to permit us, without danger, to set the sail, but we got the mast stepped and stayed up in readiness. The wind was still blowing from the southward, and we hoped it would continue to come from that direction, as we might thus make the Irish coast, or if not, run up Saint George’s Channel, where we should be in the track of numerous vessels.

The day was now drawing to a close, and we prepared to spend our first night on the raft Mr Harvey settled that we should keep watch and watch, he with Jacques in one and Dick and I in the other. The weather did not look altogether satisfactory; but as the sea had gone down, we hoped that we should enjoy a quiet night, and get some sleep, which we all needed.

Jacques seemed in better spirits than the rest of us; he either did not understand our dangerous position, or was too light-hearted to let it trouble him.

“Why should we be dull, Messieurs,” he said, “when we can sing and play!” And he forthwith took his fiddle, which he had stuck up in one of the baskets, and began scraping away a merry air, which, jarring on our feelings, had a different effect to what he had expected. Still he scraped on, every now and then trolling forth snatches of French songs. At last, Mr Harvey told him to put up his fiddle for the present, and to lie down and go to sleep.

“I shall want you to look out by and by, when I keep my watch,” he said; “and meantime you, Wetherholm and Hagger, take charge of the raft, and I hope in a short time to be able to let you lie down.”

Saying this, Mr Harvey laid down on a small platform which we had built for the purpose of enabling two of us at a time to be free of the wash of the water. Dick and I kept our places, lashed to the raft with our paddles in our hands. Our young officer was asleep almost immediately he placed his head upon the piece of timber which ran across the platform and served to support the mast.

“What do you think of matters, Will?” asked Dick, after a long silence. “If it comes on to blow, will this raft hold together?”

“I fear not,” I answered; “at all events, we should find it a hard job to keep alive on it if the sea were to get up, for it would wash over and over us, and although we might hold on, our provisions would be carried away. I hope, however, before another day is over that we shall be picked up by some homeward-bound craft; but don’t let such thoughts trouble you, Dick. Having done our best, all we can do is to pray that we may be preserved.”

“I don’t let them trouble me,” answered Dick, “but still they will come into my head. I’ve fought for my king and country, and have done my duty, and am prepared for the worst.”

“You should trust rather to One who died for sinners,” I felt myself bound to say. “He will save our souls though our bodies perish.”

“I have never been much of a scholar, but I know that,” answered Dick, “and I believe that our officer knows it too. If he didn’t, he would not be as sound asleep as he is now.”

I was very glad to hear Dick say this, for although we were at present much better off than we might have been, I was fully alive to our precarious situation. Even should the weather prove fine, we might not reach the shore for many a day, and our provisions and water would not hold out long, while, should it come on to blow, they might be lost, and we should be starved, even if the raft should hold together and we had strength to cling on to it.

Dick and I occasionally exchanged remarks after this, but still the time went on very slowly. Neither of us had the heart to call up Mr Harvey; but about midnight, as far as I could judge, he started up, and calling Jacques, told Dick and me to lie down. We did so thankfully securing ourselves with lashings one on either side of the mast. Before I closed my eyes, I observed that not a star was twinkling in the sky which seemed overcast down to the horizon. Though there was not much wind, there was rather more than there had been, and there was still too much sea on to allow us to set sail.

I was never much given to dreaming, but on this occasion, though I closed my eyes and was really asleep, I fancied all sorts of dreadful things. Now the raft appeared to be sinking down to the depths of the ocean, now it rose to the top of a tremendous sea, to sink once more amid the tumbling waters. I heard strange cries and shrieks, and then the howling of a gale as if in the rigging of a ship. I thought I was once more on board the brig, and saw the sea which had swept away my shipmates come rolling up towards us. Again the shrieks which I had heard sounded in my ears, and I felt the wild waters rushing over me. I started up to find that it was a dreadful reality. The portion of the raft to which I was clinging was almost submerged. The larger part appeared broken up. I looked round for my companions. The night was pitchy dark, I could see no one. I called to them, there was no reply. I felt across to where Dick had been—he was gone!

“Dick Hagger, Mr Harvey, Jacques, where are you?” I shouted.

Dick’s voice replied, “Heave a rope and haul us in.” I felt about for one, but not a line could I find, except the lashings attached to the raft.

“Where are you?” I again cried out.

“Here, with Mr Harvey; I tried to save him,” was the answer.

Alas, how helpless I felt! With frantic haste I endeavoured to draw out some of the lashings, in the hopes of forming a line long enough to reach Dick, but my efforts were in vain. The raft was tossing wildly about. It was with the greatest difficulty I could cling on to it, pressing my knees round one of the cross timbers. I heard once more the cry:

“Good-bye, Will, God help you!” and then I knew that Dick and the young officer he was trying to save had sunk beneath the waves.

Again and again I shouted, but no voice replied. Though thus left alone, I still desired to live, and continued clinging to the shattered raft, tossed about by the foaming seas. Frequently the water rushed over me; it was difficult to keep my head above it long enough to regain my breath before another wave came rolling in. It seemed to me an age that I was thus clinging on in pitchy darkness, but I believe the catastrophe really occurred only a short time before daylight. In what direction the wind was blowing I could not tell. When the raft rose to the top of a sea I endeavoured to look round. No sail was in sight, nor could I distinguish the land. I felt that I could not hold out many hours longer. One of the baskets still remained lashed to the raft, but its contents had been washed out, and the casks of water had been carried away. Hour after hour passed by. There was less sea running, and the wind had somewhat gone down. The thoughts of my wife still kept me up, and made me resolve to struggle to the last for life, but I was growing weaker and weaker. At length I fell off into a kind of stupor, though I still retained sufficient sense to cling to the rail.


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