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Chapter XX A GREAT CATASTROPHE
THE next few days were spent in making final preparations for the "Fortuna's" passage to the open sea. By the removal of her ballast, and partial emptying of the water-tanks, her draught was reduced to 8 feet 6 inches.

Fenders and some stout trunks of palm-trees were lashed alongside and underneath her bilges to prevent damage in the event of the yacht touching bottom, and hawsers were prepared to warp her through the narrow opening in the reef.

Meanwhile a party of men under Uncle Herbert's directions had bored and prepared a chamber in the rock to receive nearly the whole of the remaining blasting powder, a small quantity being retained to form a "necklace"—to use the professional term—to assist in the complete dismemberment of the rock.

The work of placing the charge into the receptacle was performed by my uncle, as he preferred to take the risk alone. At dead low water springs the lagoon still remaining tidal, he took the gig, with its dangerous freight, and rowed close to the low cliff that formed the barrier between the lagoon and the open sea. Working quickly, yet cautiously, he transferred the blasting powder to the chamber, and placed a double necklace in two parallel lines in grooves over the tongue of rock. The charge was to be fired by means of a time fuse, the length of the period between the lighting of the fuse and the explosion being timed at twenty minutes. A quarter of a mile off lay the whaler, well equipped with sounding lines and rods to take the depths of the newly formed channel, and the crew anxiously awaited the appearance of the gig.

Three hours after low water the fuse was lit, and my uncle rowed back to the whaler. All eyes were fixed on the spot where the explosion was to take place, and every one who possessed a watch consulted it with feverish attention.

The twenty minutes passed, yet no explosion occurred. Five more minutes, and still no result. We began to get anxious, and my father and his brother exchanged grave looks. At the expiration of half an hour they came to the conclusion that the fuse, by some means or the other, had been extinguished, and Uncle Herbert proposed to row back and find out the cause.

"No, no," replied my father. "Give it an hour at the very least," and reluctantly my uncle agreed to defer his visit to the scene of his failure.

Directly the hour was up he rowed towards the little channel, taking two more fuses with him, but hardly had he completed half the distance when a column of smoke and dust rose into the air, followed by a deep roar. Masses of rock flew in all directions, some falling close to the gig.

"Give way, lads!" shouted the bos'n excitedly, and, bending to their oars with a will, the men urged the whaler through the water at a great pace, the heavy boat overtaking the gig before Uncle Herbert had reached the opening of the little creek, much to his chagrin.

At the head of this creek, where formerly the tongue of hard rock had been, a channel twenty feet in width communicated with the sea, and already the flood tide was swirling through. With a loud cheer, the men pulled towards the gap.

"Easy now," said the bos'n; "there might still be shallow water"; and with the blades of the oars almost touching the walls of rock on either side, the whaler breasted the tide and gained the deep water beyond.

Here we anchored, and, paying out a long grass warp, the boat was allowed to drift back into the channel, where, by careful soundings, a depth of not less than one fathom was found throughout its entire length. The action of the explosive had not only blown away the rock, but had excavated a trench with an almost even bottom.

"Two hours more to slack water," said the bos'n, consulting his watch. "We shan't get her out this tide, sir. Do you propose to try tonight?"

"No, I prefer to see what we are up to, unless it is absolutely necessary. How long will it be before the springs begin to slacken, do you think?"

"Two days at the most, sir."

"Very well; we'll make an attempt to-morrow."

Shortly after low water on the following day, the "Fortuna" weighed anchor, and with a man at the masthead to look out for shoals, and the motor softly humming, she forged slowly ahead through the calm waters of the lagoon, rolling sluggishly with the lessened draught.

On approaching the gully, two warps were laid out from the bows, one on either side, and held ashore by a party of men, and, the motor having stopped running, the yacht was slowly and carefully warped into the natural channel. Directly she was safely inside, two more warps were led from her quarters, so that those on shore had her in perfect control, only the bos'n and four seamen remaining on board.

At a snail's pace the "Fortuna" was headed for the cut that had recently been blasted, and here the yacht was made fast to await high water.

The flood now made slowly through the cutting, but, held securely by the warps, the "Fortuna" breasted the current without yawing in the eddies that swirled on either side, while my father, giving frequent glances to a rough tide-gauge, awaited the critical moment in which to make the attempt.

Gradually the current slackened, till it was barely perceptible, and the signal was given to continue warping. With a cheery "Yo-ho!" all the hands ashore, including the doctor and myself, bent to their task, and the "Fortuna" started on her final bid for freedom.

Suddenly there was a slight jar, and the yacht, trembling like a live creature, brought up. With feverish anxiety, my father jumped into the gig, which had already been brought through the gap, and examined the water around the yacht's bows. A rough sounding gave him five fathoms, while aft, where she had taken ground, there was not one and a half fathoms.

"We must move her," he shouted. "If she's caught on a falling tide on the ledge, she'll break her back."

"Tide's ebbing already, sir," exclaimed the bos'n. "Send every man aboard and start the motor. 'Tis a last chance."

With the utmost haste we jumped into the boats and boarded the "Fortuna," and, leaving one man as boat-keeper, every available member of the crew, gathered on the fo'c'sle, all jumping in time to help to free the yacht from the tenacious ledge.

The motor was set running, at full speed, and the bos'n alone remained aft at the wheel.

"Altogether; shake her up!" was the cry, and we all jumped with renewed energy. There was a dull grating sound, and the "Fortuna," slipping off the rock, glided into deep water and headed with increasing speed towards the open sea.

In obedience to an order the men rushed aft, for the propeller was almost out of the water, while Mr. Wilkins had the greatest difficulty in keeping the yacht on her course; nor did she bring up till she had passed without the natural breakwaters and over the patch of deep water.

As she passed the whaler and the gig, the boat-keeper had dexterously thrown a line on board, and both boats were safely in tow of the yacht.

A sounding gave five fathoms, and the anchors were let go, and the "Fortuna" was safely moored well clear of the dangerous reef.

"There's no time to be lost, sir," said the bos'n. "We are in an exposed berth, and a gale might spring up at an hour's notice."

"That's true," replied my father. "And though the glass is steady, I prefer to take no risks. It's a pity, though, that we are so far from shore."

"It's as near as we can lie in safety, sir. There's foul ground close to the reef, and the deep water between it and the bank on which we've brought up is far too deep to anchor in. There's no bottom at a hundred fathoms.

"Another freak of nature, I suppose. However, we must make the best of things. Pipe away both boats, if you please, Mr. Wilkins, and we'll start loading up at once."

Delighted with their success, the crew worked with a will, and both boats put off for the lagoon to load up the silver pigs and money-chests, only my father, Dr. Conolly, Yadillah, and myself remaining on the yacht.

In a little over two hours' time we saw them returning through the cutting. The whaler, deeply laden with its precious cargo, was leading, the gig, also carrying some of the specie, being towed astern, with only one man to steer.

"I don't like the look of that boat," remarked the doctor, pointing to the whaler. "She's far too deep in the water."

"Oh, it's safe enough," replied my father. "The sea's calm, and, besides, Wilkins knows what he's about."

We continued watching the progress of the boats as they slowly approached the "Fortuna." They had cleared the seaward arms of the natural breakwaters, and were entering the dark-blue patch that indicated the deep water, when about a hundred or two hundred yards off a column of water flew up in the air, and amidst the descending spray a huge black shape appeared above the surface. "A whale!" exclaimed my father and the doctor simultaneously.

"I hope it won't attack the boats," added Dr. Conolly.

"I think not. I've never known or heard of a whale attacking a boat unless when struck by a harpoon."

"You haven't? Begorra!" exclaimed the doctor excitedly, bursting into a Hibernian expression for the first time during his stay on the yacht. "Then ye'll see it now."

As he spoke the whale made directly for the boats as if it recognized in the whaler the shape of an enemy.

With a furious exclamation, my father sprang towards the Q.-F., which happened to be uncovered, and, wrenching open the breech-block, thrust a cartridge into the chamber; then, placing his shoulder against the shoulder-piece, he swung the gun round towards the advancing monster, but before his finger could touch the trigger the doctor grasped his arm and forcibly dragged him away.

"We can do nothing," he muttered grimly. "See, the boats are already in the line of fire." My father, realizing that the discharge of the gun would result in the destruction of the boats in addition to the annihilation of the whale, rushed to the side and awaited the inevitable onslaught.

With great rapidity the huge monster made straight for its prey, and from the boats shouts and cries of terror arose when the men became aware of their peril. Some of the crew stood up, brandishing their oars, to offer a puny resistance to the oncoming mass of animal energy, others jumped overboard, and swam in all directions, while the bos'n, with admirable presence of mind, drew his knife and cut the painter that led from the stern of the whaler to the gig.

The next instant the whale seemed to lift its ponderous carcass clear of the water; then, diving deeply beneath the downed boat, it struck it an irresistible blow with its massive tail.

A shower of splinters and spray rose in the air, and amidst a veritable maelstrom, the whaler, with its priceless freight, disappeared beneath the waves, and the troubled water was dotted with the heads of the swimmers and a jumble of floating oars and pieces of broken wood.

The bulk of the treasure of the "San Philipo" was irrecoverably lost.

Satisfied with the mischief it had wrought, the whale had disappeared. The crew of the lost boat swam towards the gig, and several began climbing over the low sides of the deeply laden little craft.

"Why, if they are not careful, they'll sink her, too," exclaimed my father in blank despair, but, fortunately, the swimmers realised the risk, for, taking hold of the gunwales and lightly supporting themselves, they allowed the men who had already clambered on board to take the oars, and the gig made slowly for the "Fortuna."

Happening to look towards Dr. Conolly, I noticed he had his eyes fixed on the boat and was counting in an audible voice "... eight, nine, ten, eleven," and simultaneously the awful truth flashed in our minds—there was one man missing.

"Surely not!" exclaimed my father in a horrified voice. "Surely not! Count again, Conolly. Perhaps we cannot see every one. Isn't that a man's head just showing above the boat's quarter?"

"... nine, ten, eleven."

There was no mistake in the numbers. Another man had gone to his last account, and who was it? Not my uncle; he was in the water, holding on to the side of the boat; nor the bos'n, nor Lord, the quartermaster. Dailey, Stainer, and Mills were in the boat. Hinks, Money, Lewis, Burbidge, and Alec Johnston, they were safe. Then only Joe Dirham remained to be accounted for.

"Where's Dirham?" shouted my father as the boat crept alongside and was made fast.

"Gone, sir," replied the survivors in a chorus. "Dragged down by the whaler as she sank."

The men came in over the side, and the gig, with four of the boxes of specie, was hauled up in the davits, and despondently, the crew went for'ard to change their saturated garments.

For a while my father remained lost in thought, gazing blankly at the spot where the whaler had sunk, the blue now peaceful and unruffled. At length, overcome by the bitterness of his emotion, he turned on his heel and sought the solitude of his cabin.

But pressing work had to be done. The whole of the iron ballast, including the quantity which we had hoped would be supplanted by the pigs of silver, had to be replaced with the utmost dispatch; the water tanks had to be refilled, and stores procured from the island. Working day and night in relays, the crew accomplished their task within forty hours, and the "Fortuna" was ready for her long homeward voyage.


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