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Chapter Four. The Cry of the Dugong.
Until the day on which the ninth sailor had died of starvation, and the tenth had been struck dead by the sea-bird, the castaways had taken an occasional spell at the oars. They now no longer touched, nor thought of them. Weakness prevented them, as well as despondency. For there was no object in continuing the toil; no land in sight, and no knowledge of any being near. Should a ship chance to come their way, they were as likely to be in her track lying at rest, as if engaged in laboriously rowing. They permitted the oars, therefore, to remain motionless between the thole pins, themselves sitting listlessly on the seats, most of them with their heads bent despairingly downward. The Malay alone kept his shining black eyes on the alert, as if despair had not yet prostrated him.

The long sultry day that saw the last of their two sailor comrades, at length came to a close, without any change in their melancholy situation. The fierce hot sun went down into the bosom of the sea, and was followed by the short tropic twilight. As the shades of night closed over them, the father, kneeling beside his children, sent up a prayer to Him who still held their lives in His hand; while Murtagh said the Amen; and the dark-skinned Malay, who was a Mohammedan, muttered a similar petition to Allah. It had been their custom every night and morning, since parting from the foundered ship, and during all their long-protracted perils in the pinnace.

Perhaps that evening’s vesper was more fervent than those preceding it; for they felt they could not last much longer, and that all of them were slowly, surely dying.

This night, a thing something unusual, the sky became obscured by clouds. It might be a good omen, or a bad one. If a storm, their frail boat would run a terrible risk of being swamped; but if rain should accompany it, there might be a chance of collecting a little water upon a tarpaulin that lay at the bottom.

As it turned out, no rain fell, though there arose what might be called a storm. The breeze, springing up at an early hour of the day, commenced increasing after sunset.

It was the first of any consequence they had encountered since taking to the boat; and it blew right in the direction whither they intended steering.

With the freshening of the wind, as it came cool upon his brow, the castaway captain seemed to become inspired with a slight hope. It was the same with Murtagh and the Malay.

“If we only had a sail,” muttered the captain, with a sigh.

“Sail, cappen—lookee talpolin!” said Saloo, speaking in “pigeon English,” and pointing to the tarpaulin in the bottom of the boat. “Why no him makee sail?”

“Yis, indade; why not?” questioned the Irishman.

“Comee, Multa! you help me; we step one oal—it makee mass—we lig him up little time.”

“All roight, Sloo,” responded Murtagh, leaning over and seizing one of the oars, while the Malay lifted the tarpaulin from where it lay folded up, and commenced shaking the creases out of it.

With the dexterity of a practised sailor, Murtagh soon had the oar upright, and its end “stepped,” between two ribs of the boat, and firmly lashed to one of the strong planks that served as seats. Assisted by the captain himself, the tarpaulin was bent on, and with a “sheet” attached to one corner rigged sail-fashion. In an instant it caught the stiff breeze, and bellied out; when the pinnace feeling the impulse, began to move rapidly through the water, leaving in her wake a stream of sparkling phosphorescence that looked like liquid fire.

They had no compass, and therefore could not tell the exact direction in which they were being carried. But a yellowish streak on the horizon, showing where the sun had set, was still lingering when the wind began to freshen, and as it was one of those steady, regular winds, that endure for hours without change, they could by this means guess at the direction—which was toward that part of the horizon where the yellowish spot had but lately faded out; in short, toward the west.

Westward from the place where the cyclone had struck the ship, lay the great island of Borneo. They knew it to be the nearest land, and for this had they been directing the boat’s course ever since their disaster. The tarpaulin now promised to bring them nearer to it in one night, than their oars had done with days of hopeless exertion.

It was a long twelve-hour night; for under the “Line”—and they were less than three degrees from it—the days and nights are equal. But throughout all its hours, the wind continued to blow steadily from the same quarter; and the spread tarpaulin, thick and strong, caught every puff of it acting admirably. It was, in fact, as much canvas as the pinnace could well have carried on such a rough sea-breeze, and served as a storm-try sail to run her before the wind.

Captain Redwood himself held charge of the tiller; and all were cheered with the fine speed they were making—their spirits rising in proportion to the distance passed over. Before daylight came to add to their cheerfulness, they must have made nearly a hundred miles; but ere the day broke, a sound fell upon their ears that caused a commotion among them—to all giving joy. It came swelling over the dark surface of the deep, louder than the rush of the water or the whistling of the wind. It resembled a human voice; and although like one speaking in agony, they heard it with joy. There was hope in the proximity of human beings, for though these might be in trouble like themselves, they could not be in so bad a state. They might be in danger from the storm; but they would be strong and healthy—not thirsting skeletons like the occupants of the pinnace.

“What do you think it is, captin?” asked the Irishman. “Moight it be some ship in disthriss?”

Before the captain could reply, the sound came a second time over the waters, with a prolonged wail, like the cry of a suffering sinner on his death-bed.

“The dugong!” exclaimed Saloo, this time recognising the melancholy note, so like to the voice of a human being.

“It is,” rejoined Captain Redwood. “It’s that, and nothing more.”

He said this in a despairing tone, for the dugong, which is the manatee, or sea-cow of the Eastern seas, could be of no service to them; on the contrary, its loud wailings spoke of danger—these being the sure precursors of a storm. (Note 1.)

To him and Murtagh, the presence of this strange cetaceous animal gave no relief; and, after hearing its call, they sank back to their seats, relapsing into the state of half despondency, half hopefulness, from which it had startled them.

Not so with Saloo, who better understood its habits. He knew they were amphibious, and that, where the dugong was found, land could not be a long way off. He said this, once more arousing his companions by his words to renewed expectancy.

The morning soon after broke, and they beheld boldly outlined against the fast-clearing sky the blue mountains of Borneo.

“Land!” was the cry that came simultaneously from their lips.

“Land—thank the Lord!” continued the American skipper, in a tone of pious gratitude; and as his pinnace, still obedient to the breeze and spread tarpaulin, forged on toward it, he once more knelt down in the bottom of the boat, caused his children to do the same, and offered up a prayer—a fervent thanksgiving to the God alike of land and sea, who was about to deliver him and his from the “dangers of the deep.”

Note 1. We are unwilling to interrupt the course of our narrative by disquisitions on subjects of natural history, and, therefore, relegate to a note the following particulars about the dugong. This strange mammal belongs to a genus of the family Manatidae, or Herbivorous Cetacea. The species of which a member was discovered by our castaways, is the Halicore Indicus, or dugong of the Indian Archipelago; and, as we have said, is never found very far from land. Its dentition resembles, in some respects, that of the elephant; and from the structure of its digestible organs it can eat only vegetable food; that is, the algae, or weeds, growing on submarine rocks in shallow water. When it comes to the surface to breathe, it utters a peculiar cry, like the lowing of a cow. Its length, when full-grown, is said to be twenty feet, but few individuals seem to exceed twelve feet. In its general appearance it is very much like the manatee, or manatus, which haunts the mouths of the great South American rivers.


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