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CHAPTER 4
The third Day.—A strange Sail.—Below the Horizon.—Making Signals.—No Answer.—Weary Waiting.—Starvation stares them in the Face.—A long Day.—Hope dying out.—A long Discussion upon the Situation.—The last Meal.—Bruce and Bart come to a desperate Determination.—The secret Resolve.

THE third day came.

The boys slept soundly during the night, and were up early. As they took their first look all around, their feelings were those of deep despondency; for far and wide, as before, there was nothing visible but the smooth sea and the cloudless sky. The calm continued, and all the east was glowing with the fiery rays of the rising sun.

Suddenly there was a cry from Phil.

“A ship! A ship!”

“Where? Where?” asked all the others.

“There! There!” cried Phil, in intense excitement, pointing towards the east, where the fiery sky rose over the glowing water. Looking in the direction where he pointed, they all saw it plainly. It was indeed as he said. It was a ship, and it was now plainly visible, though at first, on account of the glare, none of them had noticed it but Phil. As they stood and looked at it, every one of them was filled with such deep emotions of joy and gratitude that not a word was said. Captain Corbet was the first to break the solemn silence.

“Wal, I declar,” said he, “it’s ben so dim all along that I didn’t notice her; and then it kine o’ got so bright that the glare dazzled my eyes; but there she is, sure enough; and now all we’ve got to do is to manage to get into communication with her.”

The boys made no answer, but stood looking in silence. Every minute the glare lessened; then the sun rose, and as it ascended above the horizon, the form of the strange ship became fully revealed.

It was a ship apparently of considerable size; but her hull was low down in the water, and only her masts were visible. She seemed to lie below the horizon, yet was as plain to the eye as though she had been only five miles away.

“Well, boys,” said Bruce, at length, “I don’t know how you feel, but for my part I feel like taking the boat and going off to her at once. I’m sick of this fare, and should like to get a good breakfast. What do you think, captain?”

Captain Corbet shook his head.

“Wal,” said he, “I don’t exactly seem to see my way clear to approvin of you takin a row for such a matter as twenty mile or so. We’d never see you again.”

“Twenty miles!” exclaimed Bruce. “Why, it doesn’t look like more than two.”

The captain smiled.

“Why, you can’t see more of her than her masts,” replied Captain Corbet; “and a ship that’s down below the horizon far enough to hide her hull is a pooty good distance off—twenty mile, at least.”

At this Bruce was silent. Captain Corbet’s remarks were unanswerable, and he did not yet feel prepared to row so great a distance as twenty miles.

At length Bart went to the cabin, and returned with a spy-glass. This instrument did not belong to Captain Corbet, for the venerable navigator was strongly prejudiced against any such instruments, and the dimmer his eyes grew, the stronger grew those prejudices. It belonged, in fact, to Bruce, who had provided himself with it before leaving home. Armed with this, Bart took a long look at the stranger. Then he passed the glass to Bruce, and then all the boys, in turn, took a look.

The strange ship already appeared surprisingly distinct for a vessel that lay below the horizon; and on looking at her through the glass, this distinctness became more startling. Most of her sails were furled, or rather, there appeared to be no sails at all, except the jib. The fore and main-top gallant masts were gone. She appeared, indeed, to have encountered a storm, in which she had lost her spars, and the present calm seemed very little in accordance with her appearance.

The comments which the boys made upon the appearance of the stranger excited Captain Corbet’s curiosity to such a degree that he surmounted his prejudices, and condescended to look through the glass. His astonishment at the result was due rather to his own ignorance of glasses than to anything in the strange ship; but after he had become somewhat more familiar with the instrument, he began to pay attention to the object of his scrutiny.

“The fact is,” said he, after a long and careful search, “it doos railly look jest for all the world as if that thar craft has been in a storm, and lost her spars and sails. Perhaps he’s in distress. Perhaps they’re watching us more anxiously than we’re watching them.”

“I wonder if they can see us?” said Bruce.

“I’m afraid not,” said Bart, “we’re so small.”

“But they’ve got a glass.”

“Yes, and they’d be sweeping the horizon for help.”

“I wish we could get nearer.”

“If they’re hard up, they might row to us.”

“Is it any use to signalize, captain?” asked Tom.

“Not a mite,” said Captain Corbet. “You can’t signalize to a vessel so far away; at least I never heard of such a thing.”

“O, well, captain,” objected Bruce, “you see they have glasses. We could see any signals if they were to hoist them, and they can see us as well as we can see them, of course.”

“Wal,” said Captain Corbet, thoughtfully, “perhaps they can; and if so, I’m sure I don’t see why we mayn’t try. So you may as well hist that thar flag o’ yourn, boys. It can’t do any harm, at any rate.”

This proposal was at once acted upon. Several of the boys sprang aft, and seizing the lines, began to lower and elevate, incessantly, the proud, yet somewhat battered banner of the B. O. W. C.—the banner whose pictured face had so often grinned at them through many an adventure, in storm and in calm. It gave them an occupation; it also served to excite hope; and so, for several hours, the flag never ceased to rise and fall,—the boys taking turns at it, and one relieving the other, so as to keep a fresh hand always at the work. This continued till midday; but at length they gave it up in disgust.

They gave it up because it had not produced the slightest result, nor excited the smallest attention; nor had the circumstances of their situation changed in any respect whatever. Far away lay the ship, and no more of her was visible. Nothing but her masts appeared to their eyes; not a particle of her hull could be seen. She seemed somewhat longer now, and some of them accounted for this on the ground that she had changed her position somewhat, and presented her broadside more than she had done in the morning.

The weather had not changed, nor were there any signs whatever of a change. The sky was still as cloudless as ever, and not the faintest fleck disturbed the expanse of blue that hung above them. The sea was unruffled, nor was there any puff of wind to agitate its surface.

Early in the morning, when that strange ship first appeared, they had hoped that a wind might arise before long to bring them together; or, if a wind did not come, that at least the currents of the sea might drift them into closer proximity; but now there began to arise a dark fear that, instead of drifting nearer together, they might be carried farther asunder, and that this strange ship, which had thus been borne so mysteriously to their sight during the darkness, might, on the advent of another day, be borne as mysteriously out of their sight. With anxious eyes they watched her form, testing it in every possible way, to discover whether the intervening space had increased or lessened. Some of the more desponding ones were convinced that they were drifting asunder; others, more hopeful, maintained that they were nearer; while others, again, asserted that their respective positions had not changed. And, in fact, it was evident from the very dispute itself, that the position of the two vessels had not very greatly altered.

Half of the day had passed. Another half remained; and after that, what? Night and darkness, and then how easily could they drift away from this stranger, on which they had been placing such hopes! How could they expect that the rest of the day would be any different from the beginning?

Midday had come, and this was the time for their single daily meal. Moreover, this meal was the last,—the last of the three portions which they had set aside for the consumption of three days.

Here arose a solemn question.

Should they eat up all of this last portion? or should they divide it into two parts, reserving something for the possible emergency of the next day? The moment that this was proposed, they all decided at once to reserve something, and not to devour at once all that was left. They determined to deny themselves for this day for the security of the morrow; and, hungry though they were, they preferred to have a meagre repast with hope, rather than a fuller repast with despair. And so their dinner was divided, and one portion set aside for the next day. Meagre indeed and inadequate was this repast for these long-fasting and ravenous boys; but there was no help for it; and as yet they had not quite reached the worst. They, therefore, all tried most strenuously to look on the bright side, make the best of their situation, and cheer one another with remarks of a hopeful and encouraging character.

Dinner was prolonged as far as possible. Then came the long hours of the afternoon. Gradually the efforts of the boys to keep up their own spirits and encourage one another grew feebler and feebler. From time to time they made faint efforts to find occupation for themselves, by resorting to the flag, and actively lowering and hoisting it. But the greater part of the time was spent in silently and sadly staring at the strange ship, sometimes through the glass, whenever they could get the chance, but generally without it. The remarks grew more and more infrequent. The hoplessness of their situation began to weigh down more and more the spirits of each, and at length they, one and all, relapsed into silence. Solomon kept out of sight. Wade sat, as usual, stolid and passive. Captain Corbet stood at the helm, looking in all directions, at sea and sky, with an unchanged expression of heart-broken melancholy. So the time passed.

The afternoon was far worse than the morning: in every respect. The moral tone of the whole party had declined, and the whole scene around presented no encouraging feature. In the morning they had been inspired by the hope of making communications with the ship, but now this hope died out more and more with every passing moment.

At length the sun went down, and then the shadows of the gloomy night followed slowly and steadily. One by one the shades passed over the distant ship, until at last they stood staring at the place where they had seen her, but where now they could see nothing but darkness. This completed their despondency, and the gloom around was commensurate with that which now fell darkly and desparingly over the soul of each.

For a long time they wandered up and down the deck. No one spoke. Each one was involved in his own gloomy thoughts. At length, one by one, they retired to their beds, with the hope of forgetting their cares in sleep.

Bruce and Bart were left on the deck alone. All the rest had gone below. Around all was dark. Both the boys were pacing up and down restlessly on opposite sides of the deck.

At length Bruce stopped. “Bart,” said he, in a low voice, “is that you?”

“Yes,” said Bart. “Look here. I’ve got something I want to tell you.”

At this Bart came up to him in silence.

“I don’t like this style of thing,” said Bruce.

“Why, what can we do?”

“O, never mind. I’ve got a plan. Do you think we couldn’t have been doing better all this day than staying here, moping our lives out?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, I mean the very thing that I proposed this morning.”

“What, to row to the ship?”

“Yes. Why not?”

“How can you row twenty miles?”

“Stuff and nonsense. She can’t be so far. Captain Corbet’s utterly mistaken.”

“Why, she’s below the horizon.”

“I don’t care. I judge from the looks of her. Do you believe you can see so plainly a ship that’s twenty miles away? Why, man alive, if she had a flag up you could almost make it out. For my part, I feel sure that she isn’t over five miles away at the very farthest. I haven’t the slightest doubt about it. Why, Bart, you and I are both accustomed enough to look at ships out on the water, and you can see for yourself that it’s simply impossible that this one can be so far away as twenty miles, or farther away than I say. All the morning I couldn’t help feeling puzzled, and concluded that it might be something in the atmosphere that magnified the ship, and made her seem so near,—like the mirage, you know; but, afterwards, I gave that up.”

“Well,” said Bart, after some thought, “I don’t know but what you’re about right, Bruce; but what are you going to do?”

“Well, we’ve got this night before us, and if the wind comes, why, of course we are all right. But suppose that the wind doesn’t come, and we find ourselves to-morrow morning as we did this morning, with that ship so near. Do you feel able to stand here all day, and watch, and wait, and then sit down to our last dinner? I don’t. Or suppose that we find ourselves gradually drifting away from her. No—I can’t stand it. I’ve made up my mind to row out to her. What do you say? Will you come with me?”

“I will,” said Bart, firmly. “I’ll go, even if it is twenty miles. I’d go forty, rather than live this day over again. But when do you propose to start?”

“I’ve been thinking it all over,” said Bruce. “My plan is this: We’ll get all ready to-night; that is, have the oars in the boat, and put in a couple of bottles of fresh water; besides, we can take with us about our share of the food that remains. Well, to-morrow morning, if the calm continues, the moment that we see the ship, we’ll start, and row for her. Why, if we had only done that this morning, by this time we’d have been on board of her, with a boat from the ship back here with provisions. Mind you, don’t think of twenty miles; it isn’t more than five at the very furthest—perhaps not over three or four.”

“All right. I’ll go. Do you intend to tell anybody?”

“No; not a soul. The rest of the fellows would insist on going; and it will be better for us two only to go; it will prevent confusion, and be the best for all concerned.”

“But how can we get away without their knowing it?”

“O, my idea is to push off from the schooner before any one is up, and then watch for the appearance of the ship by daylight. The moment we see her we can pull for her.”

“That seems pretty good,” said Bart, thoughtfully; “but it is a puzzle to me how that ship can be below the horizon, and yet not be farther off than five miles. She certainly did not look farther away than that. For my part, I don’t see how she could be less than ten miles at the least, so as to be so completely hidden. I forget the rule for the disappearance of a ship below the horizon; but there is something in this one that I can’t understand. Yet, as you say, judging by the appearance of her masts, one might imagine her to be not more than three or four miles off. After all, it must be mirage.”

“O, no; mirage doesn’t last all day long, without the slightest change.”

“You don’t know. It may in this case.”

“Well, of course I don’t pretend to understand all the freaks of the atmosphere; but all that I’ve ever read about the mirage shows that it is incessantly shifting and changing, and never lasts over an hour or so, at the furthest. Besides, in our latitudes, these peculiar appearances only take place in the morning.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Bart. “At any rate, I shall be prepared for a row of at least ten miles.”

“All right. Make up your mind to that, and then you won’t be disappointed.”

“Shall you go to bed to-night, Bruce?”

“Of course.”

“But how can you wake?”

“O, I can wake whenever I like. I’ll wake you.”

“All right. About what time?”

“O, about an hour before daybreak; but come, let’s get things ready now.”

The boys then went about completing their preparations for their adventurous journey. These were but slight. They consisted in simply putting on board the boat, which was floating astern, two bottles of fresh water and a little of the provision which had been put aside for the next day.

After this they both retired.

On the following morning, at about three o’clock? Bruce laid his hand on Bart’s forehead. Bart awoke instantly. The two then went as softly as possible on deck. No one was there. All were below, sound asleep.

Silently, yet quickly, the two boys got into the boat, and then pushed off. There were two oars in the boat. Each took one, and then began to row. But, after a few strokes, Bruce took the oar from Bart, for the boat was too small for two oarsmen. So Bruce pulled very silently out into the darkness over the water, in the direction which they supposed would lead towards the strange ship. After rowing about a hundred yards Bruce stopped. Both boys now waited patiently till it should become light enough for them to see the ship.


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