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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Treasure of the 'San Philipo' » Chapter VIII A RESCUE AT SEA
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Chapter VIII A RESCUE AT SEA
"THERE'S a power o' wind behind that mirk, sir," exclaimed Wilkins, the bos'n, jerking his thumb in the direction of the dark, ill-defined clouds that had shut out the sight of land.

"Yes, we are in for a good dusting," replied my father. "The glass is rising far too rapidly. Make everything secure on deck, and put extra lashings on the boats. And also," he added, as the bos'n saluted and began to make his way for'ard, "have the jibs changed before it gets too thick."

We were sufficiently far from land to prevent its affording much shelter, and with the increasing wind, huge waves began to curl viciously under our counter, threatening every moment to break over our quarter. But the staunch little yacht rose splendidly to each white crest, and, beyond a shower of spray that darkened our canvas almost to the peak, hardly a drop of solid water reached our decks. Astern, the trailing line of the Walker "Cherub" log was stretched to almost the rigidity of an iron bar, and the indicator bell, sounding at every quarter-knot with less than two minutes' interval, showed our speed to be well over seven knots.

Suddenly, accompanied by a blinding downpour of hail that rolled on our decks and clustered in white patches in our lee scuppers, a furious squall struck us, making the "Fortuna" heel till I thought she would never recover herself. But with a few rapid turns of the wheel the helm was put hard up, till, relieved of the enormous pressure on her canvas, the yacht shook herself free like a great mastiff emerging from the water.

"Pay her head off a point now," shouted the bos'n to the seaman at the wheel, and, without losing way, the yacht resumed her course, churning the sea over her bows in swishing columns of spray.

While the squall lasted, I was dimly aware that I was gripping a belaying-pin like grim death, swallowing mouthfuls of salt-laden air, till it seemed that I was actually enveloped in water, while each wave, as it flung itself against our quarter, shook the bulwarks till it threatened to tear them bodily away.

In obedience to an order that was inaudible to me, several of the crew came rushing along the deck, in spite of the terrific heel and jerky motion of the vessel, and in a few moments the halliards of the mainsail were paid out, and a dozen strong hands were struggling with the cringles and reef-points of the mainsail. Directly the reef was "knocked down," the "Fortuna" took things easier, yet with apparently undiminished speed she threshed her way through the foam-crested waves.

"Sail on the port bow, sir," repeated the bos'n, taking up the cry from a seaman on the look-out for'ard; and through the driving rain we could see a large topsail schooner, her close-reefed mainsail streaming in ribbons, and only her foresail and inner jib set, pounding heavily on the port-tack, the waves sweeping clean over her sides, as, high in ballast, she listed dangerously, till one could almost fancy that her weather bilges were showing.

"There's an old coffin!" shouted Uncle Herbert in my ear. "Four times our size and nothing like so seaworthy."

"It's an absolute scandal to allow a ship to put to sea so high in ballast," bawled my father, who overheard the remark. "If they insist on a Plimsoll line to prevent overloading, why not a similar mark to stop vessels putting to sea too light?"

"I don't know," replied my uncle, shaking the water from his sou'-wester. "But yonder craft will be lucky if ever she makes port in safety. Look at her now."

An extra vicious blast had come, sweeping down, making even the "Fortuna," with her double-reefed canvas, reel; but the schooner staggered as if struck by a solid substance, and heeled over till her topsail yards almost touched the water, and I thought she had actually capsized.

At length she slowly righted, and, staggering and plunging, she was soon lost to sight in the rain-laden atmosphere.

Shortly afterwards two torpedo-boat destroyers came thrashing along within a cable's length of our stern, their four squat funnels, caked white with salt, belching out volumes of black smoke, through which gleamed dark red flames, the indications of steaming under forced draught. There was no attempt on the part of these dogs of war to ride the waves: their sharp bows simply cut through the heaving water, which fell in cascades from their turtle-back decks. On either bridge could be discerned the glistening sou'-westers of the officers on duty, as, to avoid the blinding spray, they crouched behind the storm-dodgers, while, as the destroyers tore past, we had a momentary glimpse of their weather-worn white ensigns, and both craft were hidden in a chaos of spray and smoke.

"You had better get below and have something to eat," shouted my father; but I shook my head.

"A bit queer, eh?"

"No," I replied, conscious at the same time that I did feel a trifle uneasy.

"Then cut off down below," he repeated, "and keep out of the wet for a time. Tell Johnston to make you some tea; you look pinched with cold."

I obeyed, and, staggering across the slippery deck, I gained the companion and reached the shelter of the saloon. The place was in semi-darkness, for dead-lights had been placed over the scuttles and the skylight covered over with tarpaulins, and the only illumination was the dim daylight that filtered through the half-closed companion hatch. Coming from the open air, the atmosphere of the saloon seemed close and oppressive, and I would have willingly preferred to remain on deck during the storm (which Uncle Herbert insisted on terming a strong breeze) rather than be cooped up 'tween decks.

However, I lay down on one of the sofa-bunks on the lee side, battling with a dizzy sensation that made me lose all interest in life; but I could remember watching the antics of the swing table as it oscillated, in spite of its construction, with the pitching of the vessel, and wondering whether, a soda-water siphon, that was continually sliding from one side of the table to the other, would overbalance and explode.

How long I remained thus I have no idea, though it may have been hours; but suddenly there was a hurried trampling of feet on deck, a succession of orders, and the "Fortuna" went about on the other tack, sending me flying from the berth (which was now on the weather side) on to the floor, where I lay, covered with cushions, books, and half-a-dozen wooden boxes which had been disgorged from a cupboard through the lock being insecurely fastened.

In an instant my scattered senses returned, and, realizing that something unusual must have happened for the yacht to be put on the other tack when she was sailing free on her proper course, I sprang to my feet and scrambled up the companion.

On gaining the deck I found the crew clustered along the lee bulwarks, gazing intently upon a small craft barely a hundred yards away. It was a yacht, apparently, of about three or four tons, with a large rent in her mainsail, her storm-jib in ribbons, and only her foresail intact.

As she fell into the trough of the huge seas she lost the wind, but the moment she rose on the crest of a wave she was caught by the furious gusts and heeled till we could almost see her keel and as she heeled a long dark line showed on her white side close to her chain plates.

"She's done for!" shouted the bos'n. "That last squall has burst one of her seams." Crouched in her cockpit was a man whose white face was drawn with the peril of the situation. With one hand he grasped the tiller, and with the other he appeared to be trying to pump out the water that was pouring into the doomed craft, occasionally desisting to wave a frantic appeal for assistance.

Snatching a lifebuoy, my uncle rapidly bent a stout grass line to it, and held it up for the unfortunate yachtsman to see, for shouting was useless. In another moment the "Fortuna," which was tearing through the water like a racehorse, had left the disabled craft far astern.

"Lee ho!" shouted the bos'n, and with a loud flapping of canvas the "Fortuna" ran up into the wind, and, drawing on the other tack, ran back on her errand of mercy. In spite of the sheets being slacked well off, our stout little craft rushed towards the unfortunate yacht, our intention being to pass as close to windward of her and as slowly as possible, and to try and pick up the stranger with the lifebelt, for any attempt at luffing would entail great risks to us should the "Fortuna" drift or fall foul of the almost waterlogged craft.

It seemed but a few seconds before we were again abreast of the disabled yacht. My uncle, springing on to the lee bulwarks and steadying himself with his left hand round the shrouds, poised the lifebelt with his right, and prepared to make a cast.

"Jump for it! We'll pick you up!" shouted the men in a chorus, for we were passing within a few yards of the stranger.

The man stood upright, and made ready to spring, but at the crucial moment he hesitated, and the opportunity had passed. Even as he returned to his former position in the cockpit, the little craft flung her stern high out of the water, and with a splash and a turmoil of escaping air she disappeared beneath the waves.

There was a general groan of dismay from the crew; then suddenly I heard my father shout, "What's that man doing? Stop him, you fellows!" But, before any one could raise a hand, one of the crew had torn off his oilskins, flung a lifebelt overboard, and had plunged in after it.

Instantly there was a rush towards the whaler. The crew stood by the falls and waited for the order; but my father, glancing at the mountainous waves, bade them desist.

"They must take their chance," he shouted. "The boat could never live in such a sea. Up aloft one of you and keep a bright look-out. Lee, ho! Hard down with your helm!"

The "Fortuna" flung about on the other tack, and with the ropes coiled ready to throw to their comrade and the unfortunate yachtsman, our crew anxiously awaited their opportunity.

One man with the agility of a monkey had swung himself aloft, and was perched on the crosstrees. He shouted, but his voice was inaudible, though by his gestures we knew that one at least of the men had been sighted.

"Bear away a bit! Steady!"

Following the direction indicated by the look-out, I saw a dark object on the crest of a wave. The next moment it was lost to sight in the trough, but on the summit of the next roller I could make out the head and shoulders of the yachtsman encircled by the lifebelt, and our brave seaman steadying himself with one hand on the belt and keeping afloat as unconcernedly as if in a swimming bath.

"Bear away a bit more! Stand by there, men!" shouted my father. "Be sharp with those bowlines and haul them up roundly directly they catch them!"

"Let's hope the poor fellow has strength to hold on," he added to his brother. "I am afraid we are carrying too much way; yet if we luff her, she will roll over on top of them and crush their skulls like egg-shells."

"We must risk it. It's their only chance," replied my uncle.

"Very well, then, I will," said my father, and, raising his voice, he gave the order: "Luff her up!"

Quivering like a wounded animal, the "Fortuna" ran up into the wind, with sufficient way to bring, her up to the two well-nigh exhausted men. One of the crew stationed at the main chains threw a bowline. It missed, but the second was more successful, for it fell over the shoulders of the stranger, and as the man paid out the line handsomely a wave swept the unfortunate man against the ship's side, raising him to within reach of half-a-dozen willing hands on deck. At the same instant his rescuer grasped the bowline, and, with great presence of mind, thrust his feet through the loop, and amid the cheers of the crew both men were hauled over the side.

"Take both of them down to the saloon," said my father, "and tell Johnston to get some hot water ready as soon as possible."

"Fire's out, sir," replied one of the crew. "We had to unship the galley funnel."

"Then re-ship the funnel, and rig preventer stays to it. Should it be carried away it can't be helped; if not, so much the better."

"Very good, sir."

"And what's this man's name?" asked my parent, indicating the gallant rescuer, who was being assisted down the companion.

"Lewis, sir; Bill Lewis."

"Capital fellow! Capital fellow!" exclaimed my father; and, having seen that the "Fortuna" once more lay on her proper course, he went down into the saloon, I following him.

The excitement of the last half-hour had driven away all feelings of sea-sickness, and, strangely enough, I felt no discomfort at being in the cabin. The rescued yachtsman was lying motionless on one of the berths, his body enveloped in blankets. I noticed that there was a clean cut on his cheek, extending from the right ear nearly to the chin, which had bled freely; and I also remarked that his hands, though hardened by manual labour, were well cared for. Apparently he had not swallowed much sea water, for he was sleeping soundly as if tired out with sheer exhaustion.

His rescuer, Lewis, was little the worse for his gallant efforts, and was sitting awkwardly in a deck chair as if out of place in the saloon of a yacht. He rose as my father entered the cabin, and shuffled with his feet in his embarrassment.

"I am proud of you, Lewis!" exclaimed my father, shaking him by the hand.

"'Twas nothing, sir."

"It was a gallant deed."

"May be, sir; but I didn't stop to think. If I did I mightn't have gone overboard."

"I'll not forget it, Lewis. I hope to send a report of your bravery to the proper quarter at the first opportunity. Is there anything I can do for you now?"

"No, sir, not as I knows of. Leastways, I'd like to go for'ard and have a pipe. I'm just longing for a draw."

"Certainly, Lewis; but how did you get that bruise?" added the pater, noticing the man's eye, which was considerably damaged and rapidly turning a greenish black.

"While I was in the water, sir. Directly I saw the gent yonder I swam for him, pushing the lifebelt afore me. Then I bore in mind the instructions for saving drowning persons, to assure him with a loud and firm voice that he was safe, though I'll allow my voice didn't strike me as being particularly loud and firm, and neither did I feel so very sure that he was safe. However, I did as was directed, and, getting up behind him, I tugged at his hair to turn him on his back. It's all very fine a-laying down regulations for saving a man, but I reckon the fellow as wrote 'em never had to do the trick hisself, for directly I laid hold of the young gent he twists round somehow and plugs me in the eye. So I had to let go, and down he went again. The next time he came up I pitched the belt over his head, and he grabbed at it like grim death.

"After a bit he quieted down somewhat, and I took hold of the lifebelt too, as I began to feel done up. There was no sign of the ship, and I thought she had missed us and that I had lost the number of my mess; but soon afterwards I saw her bearing down, and we were taken aboard."

"Well, let's be thankful it's no worse," remarked my father, smiling. "Now cut away for'ard and enjoy your smoke, and tell the bos'n that it's your watch below to-night."

"Thank'ee, sir," said Lewis, saluting and backing out of the saloon as if thankful for his release.

In obedience to an order, three of the seamen carried the still sleeping yachtsman into my cabin and placed him in bed.

"He'll be comfortable there, Reggie," remarked the pater. "And you can sleep on the spare bunk in my cabin to-night. To-morrow we may no doubt hear an interesting story of his adventures. Now, tell Johnston to hurry up with the dinner."


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