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CHAPTER 17
The Lookout over the Sea.—The missing Ship.—Where are the Boys?—Where are the Boys?—Where are the Boys?—Where are the Boys?—Where are the Boys?—Where are the Boys?—An elaborate Calculation.—Dragging the Anchor.—A Chart on the Cabin Table.—Writ in Water.—Hope.—The Antelope sails ‘North by East.—Corbet watches the Horizon.—Midday.—Despair.—Corbet crushed!

Captain Corbet had arrived at the place where he supposed he had left the Petrel, and on looking about saw no signs of her, he was filled with despair. The wind had been blowing all night long, and the sea had been rising to an extent that might have justified the deepest anxiety; he had been upheld only by the thought that he was bringing relief to the boys; and this solitary consolation was taken from him by the first glance that he cast around.

This was the fifth day since he had left them. He had gone, proposing and expecting to be back in two days, or in three at farthest. But he had gone much farther than he had at first intended, and hence had left them longer than he had said.

And where were they now?

In vain he strained his eyes. The only sail on the water was that schooner: possibly some fisherman cruising about in this direction.

Where were the boys?

Where were the boys that had been committed to his care,—the boys who had been intrusted to him,—the boys who had confided in him,—the boys who had placed their young lives in his keeping?

Where were the boys?

Where were the boys whom he had left; whom he had promised to return for so promptly?

He had led them into difficulty, and left them there!

He had led them into starvation—that was his first fault. How they had suffered during those days of calm! He had led them to that waterlogged vessel! He had gone on board with them; he had caused them to put a confidence in that wrecked ship which was not justifiable.

Worst of all, he had left them!

And now that he thought of it, what was that ship? She might have been not water-logged—but sinking! The thought filled him with horror. A sinking ship! and he had left them there!

No; she was not a sinking ship—he knew that.

He remembered the length of time that he had seen her from a distance. He recalled the time he had been on board, and all the observations which he had made. Water-logged she certainly was, but not sinking—no, not sinking. Timber ships never sink. They cannot sink. A timber ship is like a solid wooden ship low down in the water, but absolutely unsinkable.

This thought brought some consolation to him in his despair.

But as he looked out over the sea, as he saw the swelling waves, as he felt the Antelope toss, and leap, and plunge about, and as he recalled the long night that had passed, with its storms and billows, he trembled for the boys in the water-logged ship.

And again the old question came back,—

Where were the boys?

Where were the boys whom he had left in the water-logged ship? He himself had anchored that ship in these waters, hard and fast; but now, as he looked about far over the seas, he saw no sign of any ship, or of any floating thing save that distant fishing schooner. What did this mean?

Again and again he asked this question, and again and again he shrank back from the answer that suggested itself.

He tried to console himself by thinking of the buoyancy of wood in general, and of timber ships in particular. Alas! these efforts were all in vain. For he remembered how rough the sea had been; and he saw all around him even now the swelling waves. That ship had already been torn and shattered by storms. That ship had been forsaken by captain and crew. They had believed that she was about to founder. Was this belief, then, so far wrong as he had supposed? She was like a raft, torn and dislocated, which any fresh movement of the water might shatter to pieces. Perhaps in the storm that had fallen upon her in his absence the waves had wrought their will upon her. Perhaps they had torn her to pieces in their wrath, and scattered all her timbers afar over the surface of the deep. Perhaps the only vestige of the Petrel which his eyes might ever see, might be some floating timbers drifting past, and bearing to him the only message which could ever come to the land of the living from the lost boys.

Where were the boys?

Where, O, where were the boys whom he had led into danger, and then madly deserted?—doubly deserted, in fact; first, when he sailed away, leaving them on board the wrecked ship, and secondly, in that worse desertion, when he had gone away so thoughtlessly, so wickedly, and so madly, from the Magdalen Islands to the Miramichi River? How could he have ever thought of it? What could have so infatuated him as to lead him so far away from those helpless boys in their desperate position?

Where were the boys?

O, where were the boys? And what had they thought of him? What misery had they not suffered! What despair! How often must they have watched for his return! And day had succeeded to day, and night to night, but he had never come! While they were watching for his appearance, he was calmly sailing away, or was loitering in distant ports, leaving them to their terrific fate!

Where were the boys?

What was their fate?

What had become of that ship?

She had been anchored fast. She was gone now. Gone! Gone were those boys, for whom he would have laid down his life; but whom, nevertheless, he had deserted and betrayed. And he—what could he do? Where could he go? Where could he search for them? Over what seas could he sail? With what hope? Was there any hope? Hope! Alas! what hope could he form when he looked out over these foaming waves, and felt the Antelope quiver beneath the force of their assault?

These, or something very much like these, were the thoughts that filled the soul of the unhappy, the despairing Corbet, as he rolled his venerable eyes over the wide waste of waters, and saw that the Petrel was gone. It was a moment full of deeper misery and keener anguish than any which the good captain had ever known in the whole course of his life, though that life had by no means been without its sufferings. Yet among all the sufferings and sorrows of a life full of vicissitudes, it had never fallen to his lot to experience such a misfortune as this,—to reproach himself so keenly, so severely, and yet so justly. Whatever the fate of the boys might have been, he knew perfectly well that he, and he alone, was the cause; nor could he plead, even to his own conscience, the excuse that his motives were right. For his motives were not right, and he knew it. His motives had been nothing better than wild desires for sudden wealth. True, he had only wished that wealth for his “babby;” but that did not in the least mitigate his offence. At the very least, he had been guilty of carelessness so gross that it was hardly inferior to downright, deliberate crime.

So the poor captain’s anguish of soul was extreme, and utter, as well it might be. So keen, indeed, was his suffering, that his hair might have turned white from its severity,—a circumstance not unusual,—but in the captain’s case it was not possible, since, as is well known, his hair was already as gray as it well could be, and therefore the good Captain Corbet could only suffer in secret, and occasionally wipe away the tears that dropped from his eyes with the sleeve of his venerable coat.

At length the thought occurred to him that perhaps he had not come to the right place.

To his mind, the thought was well nigh inconceivable; yet, after all, it was barely possible, and in his despair he caught at this straw. After all, navigation by dead reckoning is not the most accurate way in the world of working one’s way along; and Captain Corbet felt this in an obscure and shadowy sort of way; so it need not be wondered at if he sought relief in the thought that he had possibly gone astray.

So he called upon Wade to take the helm, while he went below to make some elaborate calculations.

He did it in this way.

He first got a mug of water.

Then he seated himself by the cabin table.

Then he dipped the fore finger of his right hand in the water.

Then, with this finger, he traced certain mysterious marks upon the table.

Now, these mysterious marks were designed by this ancient mariner to represent nothing less than the coasts surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence. To an unprejudiced observer, this idea would never have suggested itself; but to the mind of the venerable Corbet, these marks were as plain and as intelligible as the finest outlines of the Admiralty charts engraved in steel, and bristling with names of places. In his mind’s eye he could see everything. He could see Prince Edward’s Island, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Gasp茅, the Bay de Chaleur, Miramichi, and the Magdalen Islands. There, too, full and fair, in the centre of the scene, a big wet spot, made most emphatically with his thumb, showed him the spot where he had left the Petrel.

And this was Captain Corbet’s chart, and this was his mode of navigating, and this was the scientific method which he adopted in order to work his way out of a difficulty. Quadrant, sextant, and other instruments of that character he did not need; he trusted to his own head, and to his finger.

It must be confessed that, on this occasion, these resources rather failed him. The puzzle seemed insoluble. In vain he obliterated the wet spot where he first stationed the Petrel. In vain he made another dab with his thumb in a second place. He could not arrive at any conclusion which was entirely satisfactory. He placed the mug of water on the table, leaned his aged head in both hands, and sat watching his chart in profound thought. A sudden sea struck the Antelope. The good vessel leaped, as was natural, at such rough treatment. As was natural, also, the mug of water leaped. Moreover, it upset. The contents poured forth, and inundated the fable. The chart was all obliterated.

At this casualty Captain Corbet rose. He betrayed no excitement, no passion. He did not swear, as some wrecked sea captains have done. He did not even utter an exclamation. He simply took his aged coat tail and wiped the water off the table very carefully, and then with his other aged coat tail he dried it, and even polished it most elaborately. The table had not been so clean for ever so long. It seemed to be astonished at itself. Captain Corbet, meanwhile, remained mild and patient. Sir Isaac Newton himself, after the burning of his Principia by his immortal little dog Diamond, was not more placid. Without a word, our captain went to the bucket, replenished the mug, returned to the table, resumed his seat, and, holding the mug in his left hand, under the table, to prevent a recurrence of this mishap, he dipped the fore finger of his right hand into the water, and proceeded to retrace upon the table the outline of his chart. In a little while there appeared before his eyes, as plain as before, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with all the surrounding coasts—Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Gasp茅, Newfoundland, the Magdalen Islands, and plain in the middle the dab of his venerable thumb representing the spot where he had left the Petrel.

But the problem remained insoluble. He was certain that he had come back to the right spot. Again and again he traced, in a thin line, made by his wet finger-nail, the course which he had taken; first, from the Petrel to the Magdalen Islands, and, secondly, from the Magdalen Islands to Miramichi, and, thirdly, from Miramichi to the place where he now was. In each case his course had, fortunately, been quite straight. Had there been head winds, it might have been different; but, as it was, the straight course which he had kept made the outlines on the table all the more simple, but at the same time they made the problem all the more complex. The ship was missing. He had left her at anchor. She could not sink. What, then, had become of her?

The first answer was the terrible one that she had gone to pieces in the storm. But this was the very one from which he was seeking to escape, and against which he sought refuge in such facts as her strength and the stiffness of a timber cargo.

But what other conclusion was there?

That he had mistaken his way?

Impossible!

On the table before him the marks that he had made confirmed him in the opinion that he was, if not on the identical spot where he had left the Petrel, at least sufficiently near to be able to see her if she still was here.

Yet here she evidently was not.

What, then, had become of her?

To this only one answer remained, and in this he sought to find comfort.

She might have dragged her anchor, and might have thereby drifted, under the pressure of the storm, far enough away to be out of sight.

But in what direction had she drifted?

The wind had been south by east. He knew that well enough. This one fact, then, showed him what course she would have taken when adrift. .

He wet his finger now for the last time. He planted it down upon the place which he had marked as the position of the Petrel, and then drew a line in the direction which he supposed might indicate the course of her drift. Then he stopped to calculate the possible distance which she might have traversed while dragging her anchor, and made a mark to represent what, under this theory, might be her present position.

Then he drew a long breath.

He then rose to his feet, and surveyed his chart for a few moments with a thoughtful face.

And now the time had come for action. He had at last a theory. His mind was made up. He hurried upon deck, and, seizing the tiller, headed the Antelope north by west, in the direction which he conjectured the drifting ship to have taken.

He had allowed between twenty and thirty miles for her drift. He had calculated that a mile an hour would be a fair allowance for a vessel that was dragging her anchor, and he did not think that the wind had been strong enough to make her drag her anchor for more than twenty hours, and certainly, as he thought, not more than thirty, at the farthest. Upon this principle he acted, and when he headed the Antelope north by west, he hoped to catch sight of the lost ship before noon.

For the Antelope, with a fair wind, could make as much as four or five miles an hour; and, after making every allowance for currents, or for leeway, she ought to do twenty miles between six o’clock in the morning and midday. And so, full of confidence in the ability of the Antelope to do her duty, Captain Corbet took his station at the helm.

Now that a gleam of hope had appeared, he was a different man. The gleam became brighter and brighter, until at last it grew to be positive sunshine. He forgot his recent despair. The more he thought of his theory of the Petrel dragging her anchor, the more convinced he was that it was correct, and the more certain he was that he would ultimately catch sight of her.

And so he kept on his course, with his eyes fixed on the horizon before him, anxiously awaiting the time when he would descry the masts of the lost vessel becoming gradually defined against the sky.

Hour after hour passed.

The Antelope sailed on.

Midday came.

The Antelope had traversed the distance which her commander had allotted for the utmost possible drift of the Petrel.

Yet not the slightest sign of the Petrel had appeared.

The hopes upon which Captain Corbet had been relying gradually sank under him. When midday came, and the masts of the Petrel did not appear, hope sank away, and despondency came, and despondency deepened into despair.

All that he had felt at early dawn, when he first looked abroad upon the seas and found her not, now came back to him,—all the self-reproach, all the remorse, all the anguish of soul.

He stood at the helm, and let the Antelope pass onward, but there was no longer any hope in his mind. He was overwhelmed, and now even the possibility of finding her seemed to be taken away.

All this time the wind had gone on increasing in violence, and the sea had risen more and more. For himself and for the Antelope Captain Corbet did not care; but the lowery sky and the stormy sea seemed terrible to him, for they spoke to him of the lost boys, and told a tale of horror.


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