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Chapter XVI TOUCH AND GO
"I DON'T like the look of it," remarked my father, lightly tapping the barometer with his little finger. "A rapid rise, then up and down like a see-saw, followed by a still more rapid fall."

"Twenty-eight point four five—a drop of one point five, two inches in fifteen hours," observed Dr. Conolly. "It certainly looks as if something is in the air, though everything appears favourable at present."

"We'll be on the safe side and take every possible precaution," rejoined my father. "We are protected by the reef, so it will be as well to remain here, rather than get to sea and meet a cyclone in the open."

This conversation occurred about a fortnight after the arrival of the figurehead of the "San Philipo." The figurehead, or idol, we found too large conveniently to stow away on board, so it was cut through just below the shoulders, and, relieved of its accumulated coats of paint, the art of the Spanish wood-carver stood revealed once more to the light of day.

The actual head and bust of the great figurehead we took on board, lashing it securely in the main saloon, although even its present bulk, being four feet in height and three feet across the widest part, seriously interfered with the space we had at our disposal. As for the natives, they were now quiet enough. The heavy losses they had sustained had for the time being, at least, crushed their spirits, and we were able, with due precautions, to land whenever we wished.

Although on this particular morning everything seemed peaceful and quiet, the erratic behaviour of the mercury gave us ample warning that some great atmospheric disturbance was about to take place. Work on the wreck was in consequence suspended, the boats were hoisted in and secured all deck fittings lashed down, and an additional anchor with the longest possible scope was laid out.

About eight bells (4 p.m.) a heavy swell set in from seaward, although there was no wind to cause it, and all along the reef the dull round waves broke into great masses of foam with a noise like thunder, while the "Fortuna" rolled sluggishly in the undulations within the lagoon.

The sun, surrounded by a misty halo, sank behind a cluster of high-banked clouds, giving out strange copper-coloured rays, while from seaward came a constant string of birds, intent upon gaining the shelter of the land; and all the while a strange brooding silence appeared to have taken possession of the air, save for the roar of the breakers on the reef and the lesser noise of the water tumbling on the beach.

Hardly had the sun set than a heavy rain beat straight down, rattling on the decks (for we had taken in the awnings) and making a strange phosphorescent light on the water; but still there was no sign of wind.
"When the rain's before the wind,
Halliards, sheets, and braces bind."

"I wonder if that rhyme applies to this part of the globe?" remarked my uncle, as, clad in oilskins and sou'-westers, we stood' on deck, glad of the opportunity of being cooled by the downpour after weeks of tropic heat.

"We'll have it before long," said my father, looking towards the reef and trying to pierce the inky blackness. "And, in spite of the reef, we are on a lee shore.

"But not entirely open to the sea."

"No, but there'll be trouble if the anchors come home. By the by, did you stow away those blasting charges carefully?"

"I had them sent ashore and buried near the cave."

"That's good. I don't like the idea of having highly charged explosives on board in heavy electrical storms."

"Neither did I. Ha! What's that?"

Looking up, we saw a pale blue light flickering on our main-mast head, and for the moment I thought the vessel had taken fire.

"The air is full of electricity," said my father. "St. Elmo's Fires I think the sailors term the phenomenon. Reggie, run below out of the way. If you turn in before I see you again, turn in all standing, for you might be wanted on deck in a hurry."

I turned to obey, but just as I gained the companion the whole sky seemed one blaze of bluish light pierced by vivid flashes of lightning, which was immediately succeeded by a deafening peal of thunder that shook the yacht like a dried leaf in an October gale.

Even as I gained the cabin a furious blast struck the ship broadside on, and, staggering and pitching, she slewed round head to wind. The storm had broken.

Rolling, heaving, jumping short to her tautened cables, the "Fortuna" was fairly caught, and, down below, the sensation of being thrown about like a cork was almost worse than taking one's chances on deck. Reading was an utter impossibility, and all I could do was to wedge myself into my bunk, holding on when an extra heavy lurch threatened to hurl me across the cabin.

Just before midnight my father came below to swallow a hasty meal. The direction of the storm was, he told me, rapidly veering, for in these regions north of the Equator the gyration of these cyclones invariably takes place in one direction—from right to left, against the hands of a watch; while in the Southern Hemisphere the direction is reversed.

"We are on a weather shore at present," he added; "but before long we shall find ourselves on a lee shore, and the motion will be worse."

It was rather cold comfort, for already the pitching was more than I cared about.

At sunrise the wind was blowing dead on shore, and the mountainous breakers, sweeping over the reef, rolled with but slightly diminished force towards the land. The "Fortuna" was naturally head to wind, and riding in a totally opposite direction from that of the previous night, though, thanks to a massive swivel, she was free from the disadvantage of a "foul hawse."

To ease the strain on the cables the motor was started, and, alternately racing and biting as the propeller was lifted clear of the water or else submerged feet below the normal depth, the powerful little engine added its quota of noise to the howling of the elements.

For'ard everything was battened down, but the main companion hatch was left slightly open to admit fresh air to the cabin, and as sea after sea swept over our decks I could hear the ponderous blows of the masses of solid water as they flung themselves against the stout framework of the hatchway, on the lee side of which the watch on deck sheltered themselves as much as possible from the fury of the storm.

Slowly the hours passed; yet, although long after sunrise, the thick black clouds made the atmosphere so dark that it was impossible to see much farther than the length of the yacht, while flash after flash of lightning momentarily pierced the sombre gloom.

At the height of the storm the dreadful cry arose, "The anchors are coming home!" And this proved only too true, for our ground tackle was slowly dragging over the sandy bottom of the lagoon, and four hundred yards astern was the coral beach, on which the breakers would smash the "Fortuna" into matchwood in less than five minutes.

At the first alarm I rushed on deck, and, holding on like grim death to a belaying pin, I remained, washed by several successive seas, most of the crew doing likewise and grimly awaiting the end.

Suddenly there was a tremendous shock, as if the vessel had struck, and in the glare of a vivid flash we perceived that bearing down on us was a huge wave the like of which I had never seen before, and want never to see again. Fifty feet in height, the steep, unbroken mass rushed towards the "Fortuna," and, expecting her to be wrenched from her cables and buried beneath tons of green seas, we tightened our grip and gazed with feelings akin to panic on the approaching wave.

Above the roar of the oncoming water I heard my father shout, "Down below, all of you! It's our only chance!" and I was conscious of being dragged to the shelter of the companion, down which a scurrying stampede took place to gain a doubtful shelter.

The next instant the "Fortuna" seemed to literally stand upon end; we were all hurled, a struggling mass of humanity, against the after bulkhead, which to all intents and purposes became the floor. Then, after hours, as it seemed, of sickening suspense, during which we were in doubt as to whether the vessel still floated or was being borne down to the bottom of the lagoon, the "Fortuna" pitched forward till we were in danger of being thrown to the other end of the saloon, while on deck we could hear the ominous crash of broken wood and the sound of water pouring through the scuppers. Then, except for a slight roll, the yacht became as steady as if at anchor in a landlocked harbour.

With an exclamation of astonishment the bos'n dashed up the companion, and, without waiting to slide back the hatch, eeled himself through the narrow opening and gained the deck, the rest of us following closely.

A scene of confusion met our eyes. The mizzen-mast, broken off close to the deck, lay over our starboard quarter; part of the rail on the port bow was torn away, and the gig, wrenched from its strong lashings, was wedged against the fore side of the companion, with several of its planks stove in. But the cause of the bos'n's astonishment was the fact that right ahead of the "Fortuna," and less than two hundred yards away, was an enormous ledge of rock, some twenty to forty feet in height, stretching in front of us like a stone wall, its extremities lost in the semi-gloom, forming a natural breakwater.

Although the storm still raged furiously, and the showers of spray rose beyond the rock and fell like hissing rain right over us, the yacht lay under the lee of the newly formed barrier, fretting at her cables, which were now rubbing under her fore-foot.

"Stop the engine and have that wreckage cleared away," said my father. "We are safe enough for the present" and, with a sailor's instinct, the work of making things ship-shape was first taken in hand, before attempting to find out what act of Providence was responsible for our marvellous escape from being dashed to pieces on a lee shore.

The men set to work with a will. The broken mizzen-mast was cut clear and allowed to float at the end of a strong rope at a safe distance from our counter; the gig was secured, and things made ship-shape between decks, where the damage, though the confusion was indescribable, was confined to a few breakages of glass and china ware. Barely had the work of clearing up been completed than the storm ceased, almost as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun shone forth in a cloudless sky. We could now form some idea of what had occurred to turn the heaving waters of the lagoon into a sheltered harbour. Where but a few hours before had been a low coral reef, a long, irregular ledge of rock had been thrown up from the bed of the sea, and although its upper surface was composed of weed-covered stone and fragments of corals, its landward face was as fresh and clear as if cut by a gigantic chisel, and the highest part was where the entrance to the lagoon had been.

But the greatest surprise of all was that, wedged in an almost upright position, the weed-covered wreck of the "San Philipo" lay exposed to the light of day, after resting for nearly two centuries at the bottom of the sea. In spite of the clinging masses of weed the line of her double row of ports could be distinctly traced, while, owing to her slight list, we could see her sloping decks, built like a succession of broad steps rising from her waist. Her lofty stern, with its projecting galleries, was practically intact, and the only part that destroyed the graceful symmetry of her hull was for'ard, where the bows, torn by a long-standing injury, terminated in a tangle of broken planks and jagged timbers.

The crew looked with awestruck astonishment at this relic of the deep. It was as if they had been transported back to the beginning of the eighteenth century to see this antiquated object of naval architecture suddenly placed before their eyes; but my father looked upon the spectacle from a practical point of view. "It's saved us an awkward task," he remarked.

"What has?" I inquired.

"Reggie, my boy, you have seen what few of the inhabitants of the globe have seen before—the birth of an island. There has been a violent volcanic disturbance, and a portion of the submarine bed has been forced upwards, forming the mass of rock that you can see before you. Such instances are rare, but by no means unknown. That huge wave that all but overwhelmed the 'Fortuna' was caused by the sudden distortion of the earth's crust, which, generally speaking, is weakest along the western shore of the Pacific Ocean, though 'tis evident that the island is situated immediately above a centre of volcanic activity. It has been extremely fortunate for us, although, had the upheaval occurred but a few yards this way, it would have meant the death of us all."

"Do you think we shall have another shock?

"More than likely, though hardly so powerful. These seismic disturbances often occur in series, and it may be that the island will disappear as quickly as it came. However, we must take our chance, explore the wreck, and remove the treasure if it is to be found. Well, Mr. Wilkins?"

"Would you mind stepping for'ard, sir?"

The bos'n led the way to the fo'c'sle, and, looking over the bow, he showed us the cable, to which the yacht was riding easily.

"Well, what's wrong?" asked my father.

"Can you see below the swivel, sir?"

A further examination showed that one of the cables, composed of 3/4-in. galvanized chain, had parted just below the swivel, while the yacht now only rode to the second anchor.

"We'll send a diver after it directly the swell has gone down," said the bos'n. "And look astern, sir; it's been touch and go."

Within a cable's length a ridge of jagged, teeth-like rocks showed in the trough of each gentle undulation. A mass of rock had been recently fired up from the bed of the lagoon, for previously its floor was remarkably free from obstructions, so that, had the remaining cable parted, the "Fortuna" would have been dashed to pieces on this new danger, and her crew, even had they escaped from this peril, would have teen ground by the remorseless breakers against the shore of the island.

Some idea of the violence of the cyclone could be gathered from the fact that the huge tidal wave had swept the beach and broken against the grove of coco-nut palms, for the trunks of the trees, some of which had been uprooted, were covered with trailing masses of seaweed and the remains of the islanders' canoes.

As I looked on the scene of desolation, the strewn beach and the rocky pinnacles astern of us, and thence on the protecting masses of our newly formed island, I realized more fully to what extent we owed our safety to Providence, arid, like the bos'n, I could express the situation in no other words than that "it's been touch and go with all of us."


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