Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

oppressive wonder as to what project the crew had in mind in making me head for Cuba, a thing that gnawed in the secret recesses of my mind like some sulky throbbing ache of a nerve.

Before my watch was out, however, there happened an incident which gave me to know very plainly that the sailors' resolution was fixed in one direction, at all events. The breeze had freshened—it was a little before ten o'clock in the morning—clouds rounded and of silken texture, like growing puffs of powder smoke from great ordnance tired below the horizon, were sailing up into the blue hollow which the sunshine so filled that it was all azure dazzle over our mastheads; the brig was sliding along at some five knots, cradling her form from one dark blue brow to another, with the whipped water merrily sparkling into billows and melting into cream all along her as she ran. Suddenly a man, who was standing on the forecastle-head, bawled out, " Sail ho 1 " to which cry I noticed that the others, who lounged or lay sprawling about the deck near the galley, immediately started to their feet and ran to the rail to look.

"Where away?" I sang out.

"Broad on the weather-bow," came back the answer.

I looked, and at once descried a sail leaning like a white shaft in the quarter the man had indicated, and, as I might judge by the heel of her, by which one saw that she must be hugging the wind, heading directly for us. I went to the companion for the glass, and, bringing the tubes to bear, made the stranger out to be a small brigantine. The hands forward over the rail watched her steadfastly. I waited and had another look at her, and found her growing rapidly. Indeed, that was to be expected, for our united pace would probably be closing us at the rate of some ten or twelve knots in the hour. I hailed the forecastle, and desired that Mr. Mole should be roused up and sent aft to me. He sprang through the hatch within a minute after he had been called, blink

ing with sleep and the darkness in his eyes against the splendour on deck, but laying aft nevertheless as briskly as if he had the scent of danger in his nostrils.

"What's the matter now, sir 1" he cried out, as he approached.

"I simply want to be advised," said I; and pointing to the little brigantine that was coming along with her washstreak down in the smother, and the weather-leeches of her topsail and topgallant-sail and royal shivering like the fly of a flag in a breeze to the grip of the helmsman's luff, I said, "You see that fellow out there?"

He shaded his eyes and answered, "Plain enough, sir."

"Take that glass," I exclaimed, "and look at her, and tell me what you observe."

He worked away with the telescope, and then suddenly exclaimed, " 'Taint English colours, is it? No, it's Norwegian—Jack down—flying halfmasted."

"Exactly," said I; "it is a distresssignal, and she wants to speak us. Now, I don't mean to accept any responsibility in a business of this kind. There may be people yonder perishing from some want which it is in our power to supply"

"Can't help it if there are, sir," he cried, vehemently. "We're bound to shove on: there's nothen that must stop us!" and a dark look came into his face, as though he supposed I was going to argue, and was angry by anticipation.

"Be it so," I exclaimed. "We'll keep straight on, as you say." He sent a look full of significance at the man who had relieved Charles at the wheel, and then went forward and leant upon the rail alongside the others, staring his hardest, as they were, at the approaching vessel.

What they had suspected in her appearance I don't know, but I gathered he had told them of the distresssignal and of the nationality of it— scarce yet visible to the naked eye— by the lapsing of most of them from their intent, strained, eager posture into a half-lonnging, careless attitude. I waited a little, and then viewing her again through the glass, I was not a little surprised to remark that she appeared to be full of people. I examined her carefully, and was sure I could not be mistaken. If the swarm of glimmering dots along the whole length of her rail were not human faces, it would puzzle a man to guess what else they could be. Presently the men noticed this too, for I saw some of them give their breeches an uneasy hitch as they brought their eyes away from her to our own canvas with sharp starings aft, as though they feared I might play them some ugly trick if I were not closely watched. The size of the brigantine scarcely exceeded a hundred and fifty tons, and I never remember seeing a prettier model. She had a true piratical sheer forwards, a run of bow into a knifelike cut-water, sheathing green with usage, that flickered with a sort of emerald sheen to the light of the snow that boiled about her forefoot as she rose to the fine-weather surge. The swells of her well-cut canvas leaned to us sunwards with milk-white softnessin the shine of them ; nothing afloat could look more saucy, taut, and sea-worthy, and one almost suspected some sinister device in the dumb appeal of the speck of crimson bunting with its blue cross, white margined, and inverted Jack, only that the crowd of heads, now distinctly visible, made such a puzzlement of the sight as effectually checked speculation. I watched her intently through the glass, and noticed much motioning of arms and brandishing of caps and other headgear amongst her people. It needed no specially clear eye for human distress to interpret those gesticulations into an earnest entreaty to us to bring the brig to the wind. I stood at the rail watching her, and Miss Grant came to my side.

"There are women aboard, and children too," I cried; "at least a hundred people, I should say. They

No. 355.—Vol. Lx.

will think us demons for not attending to their signal."

"What do you imagine they need?" she inquired.

"They may have run short of provisions, or worse still, of water," I answered, steadfastly examining the length of her black sides for any bright spout from the scuppers that might tell me her pumps were going.

The men along the line of bulwarks watched her with faces as hard as figureheads, whilst at intervals a fellow would drop from his akimbo arms upon the rail to light his pipe at the galley fire, returning promptly however, and resuming his place, where he would stand quietly with a wooden-headed look, but nevertheless with sooty pipe in mouth, blowing out clouds that told of some inward perturbation. On a sudden the brigantine put her helm up, slackened away her sheets fore and aft along with the lee-braces, and headed direct for us. Her manoeuvre startled me, for I thought she meant to run us aboard. The clipper-hull of her, now that she was making a free wind of it, swept like the shadow of a cloud over the water. Mole sprang aft to the quarter-deck in a few bounds.

"What's she up to, Mr. Musgrave?" he shouted. "Does she mean to board us, think ye 1"

"No, no; to speak us, man—to speak us," I answered, for already her intention was made manifest to me by a subtle shifting of her helm, that would enable her presently to range within speaking distance of us, heading as we were. In another ten minutes she was within a biscuit-toss, almost directly abreast to windward, but they had to let go their royal and topgallanthalliards and scandalize their mainsail, as it is termed, to keep their position; for though the brig was under every stitch of canvas that would draw, with studding-sails swelling cloud-like one on top of another far beyond her weather-side, the clipper to windward with all her canvas aboard would have forged ahead like a steamer, and been out of hail in five minutes. There were twenty or thirty women amongst the crowd, some of them with babies in their arms, and forty or fifty men, and at least a score of children. The vessel, being small and somewhat deep in the water, showed her decks to us with every floating slide to leeward. The picture, for strangeness, wildness, and I may add for beauty, was in its way incomparable. The flash of the low black hull through the milk-white boiling along her bends, the ivory gleam of her canvas melting into soft shadowing beyond the central curves of the cloths, the crowd upon her decks so variously and oddly apparelled that nothing short of the paint-brush would put the scene before you—red and green handkerchiefs round the head, caps like inverted flower-pots falling with a tassel to the shoulders, coats of frieze with great metal buttons, yellow half-boots, red petticoats, the gleam of gold or silver earrings— such a huddle of bright colours defies the pen; one thought of an operatroupe, with its choruses and orchestra to boot, as having taken ship for a pleasure cruise, and fallen into some dreadful condition of incommunicable distress. The Norwegian flag, as I have said, flew Jack down half-masted from the main - topmast - head; but though she might have been a Norwegian ship, with a Norwegian crew in her, I cannot persuade myself that the women, the children, and most of the men were of that nation. Yet it was impossible to understand a word of what they said. Perhaps they would have been as unintelligible had they yelled in English, for every throat in the craft was strained at the same moment, and the wind brought the hubbub along to fall in a blind, dead way upon the ear like a fog upon the eye.

A man, presumably the skipper, an old patriarchal-looking fellow, with a long white goat-like beard, and a white fur cap, as it seemed, coming close down to his shaggy eye-brows, got into the main-rigging, with a speaking-trumpet in one hand, through which he roared

a sentence that was as Hebrew, 'afterwards pointing with his trumpet to his flag. I said to Mole, "Shall we hail them 1"

He answered with a stamp of his

foot, "No, by , not if they was

on fire! What do the dogs mean by sticking their craft alongside of us 1"

Besides continuously shouting, the queer kaleidoscopic crowd convulsed themselves with every imaginable kind of gesture. Some pointed into their wide-open mouths; others clasped their hands upon their stomachs, with grimaces inimitably expressive of suffering; many motioned as if in the act of drinking; one man held a bottle aloft upside down, tapping it with his finger, and shaking his head most dolefully. There was indeed no need for them to tell in words what was the matter with them.

I cried, "Mr. Mole, you see how it is; those people want water—water!" I repeated, emphasizing the words, for if there's a human need that thrills to the heart of the sailor on the high seas, it is that. "It is in our power to relieve them to a small extent at least. Look at those children I No possible harm can come, man, from our allowing them to send a boat to us."

He turned upon me savagely. "Mr. Musgrave," he exclaimed, in a voice like a snarl, so hard did his passion make it for him to speak, "if ye have an atom of consarn in your safety—in the lady's safety—you'll hold your jaw."

"I took Miss Grant's hand, and walked with her right aft, and seated myself by her side on the grating.

"You must let them have their way," she exclaimed; "they are devils, not men."

I was too sick at heart, too enraged by the man's insolence, too shocked by the picture of the gaping crowd to windward, to be able to answer her.

Presently there fell a silence upon the little brigantine, and you heard nothing but the seething of the water past her as her sharp stem sheared through it with a hissing as of redhot iron. The hush was broken by the old white-bearded man bellowing again to us through his speakingtrumpet. Mole, with folded arms, stood looking on without a stir in the scowl of his face. Not a voice disturbed the stillness forward, where the men hanging over the rail were gazing with an air of mere idle curiosity. Twice the old man hailed us; he then got out of the rigging, and on reaching the deck fluDg his trumpet down with a furious gesture, sank upon his knees, and lifting up his hands to God, seemed to invoke a curse upon us, varying his dreadful tragic posture of denunciation by pointing at our brig with his eyes upturned. At the sight of this the rest of the people fell to menacing us with brandished lists, shouting and yelling at us till their voices blended into one long howl of execration. Yet had our crew been statues they could not have surveyed the dreadful scene move impassively. Presently the old man rose from his knees, and motioned to the fellow at the wheel to put it over; the topgallant and royal yards were hoisted afresh, the peak - halliards manned, and in a few moments the swift and beautiful little vessel was hauling away from us, buzzing round to the brilliant breeze with a wake following her white as the shining of the sun on the polished surface of a scythe.

I thought by her ranging to starboard that she meant to round into the wind, and so get her port tacks aboard for the ratch that she was upon when first sighted. Instead, when she had stood away far enough to come round to the wind under her starboard helm without chance of striking us, over went her wheel; she spun on her heel like some saucy, frisky woman in a waltz, and flattening in and bracing up fore and aft, sweep ! she came for us again, passing close under our quarter, from no other motive that I could see than to furnish her people with another opportunity of uniting their voices in

a long, raging and shrieking curse upon us. Then like an arrow she was away astern crossing our wake; but whilst it was possible for the naked eye to hold her, one saw as it were the throbbing of the crowd along her as they shook their maledictions at us with flourished arms and fists.

When she had fairly settled away into toy-like dimensions, Mole, who had been watching her from his position near the main-rigging, came up to me, and said with the civil air of his former behaviour: "Sorry to have lost my temper, sir; but you know that all hands is resolved not to speak anything, from a scow to a line-of-battle ship. That's our resolution, and it 'ud make things easier if you was to be so good as to keep as dear an eye upon it as you're fixing upon the course to Cuba."

Miss Grant said quickly, as though, fearing an indiscretion of temper in me, she wished to interfere between myself and the man: "Hunger and thirst are dreadful things, Mr. Mole. Those people made their necessities very plain to us. It was the sight of the women and children that moved Mr. Musgrave."

"That's right enough, miss," he answered; "but who's to know what ailed them 1 Supposing it to have been thirst, what amount of fresh water calculated to be of any use to such a army of folks have we got to spare out of our stock 1 There's all the way to Cuba before us, with the sun pretty nigh overhead every day, and we've got a right to think of ourselves first, I allow. 'Sides," he continued, putting the sharp of his hand to his forehead to gaze at the now distant sail, and frowning to the brassy glare that came in folds from the running waters off each head of sea, " who's going to 'leviate people there's no onderstanding ] Human they was, I dessay; but the likes of such a lump on a little vessel's deck, swearing, motioning, patting their guts, making pretend to drink, and then apparently falling down and cussing of us, ain't altogether the sort of stroke you'd look for in natural things, 'specially when the whole biling is rigged up as if a body of organgrinders had turned pirates—stole some blooming Dutchman's vessel, and then missed their road."

He talked as if he wished me to find something humorous in his fancies. Bitterly indignant and resentful as I secretly felt, I was not such a fool as to despise an attitude of conciliation in the one man in whom I had now had time to observe the others had confidence, who indeed headed, and no doubt influenced, the crew; so I returned him a few civil, commonplace words, after which he went forward, where he stood talking awhile.

CHAPTER XXI.

A FESTIVE DOG-WATCH.

At sea so much which is strange happens, that no man who has knowledge of the life will trouble himself to hunt about for solutions. I remember a sailor once telling me that, his ship being blown to the westwards off the Chilian coast, deep in the heart of the Pacific waters they fell in with a Chinese junk, with three men and a couple of women on board. The wonder of this junk lay not in her sides gray with barnacles and green with weeds, nor in the queer, weather-befouled aspect of her faded Asiatic sails, nor in the ragged look of the bluegowned, be-tailed, mustard-coloured creatures that were on deck; but in her being where she was. How came she ia the South Pacific 1 It was like the fly in the amber. The Chinamen made passionate efforts to represent their condition, but to no purpose. Not a motion of a hand of theirs was interpretable, and the captain of the ship growing wearied, filled on his vessel and proceeded on his course.

There are confrontments, I say, in the sea-life, which, being unintelligible on the face of them, no man who has his reason will attempt to explain. It was as likely as not that the brigantine

was a Norwegian that had fallen in with an emigrant vessel in distress, had taken off all or most of the people, and then run short of provisions and water. But there was so much to keep me thoughtful in other ways, that, though tragically strange as it was, it was not an incident to constrain my attention to it as though all had been well with us, and the thing no more than a brief break in the monotony of a sunny voyage. The reflection that grew out of it was—what sort of treatment were Miss Grant and I to expect from men in whom selfish fear could so work as to render them insensible to the most piteous of all the demands which the stern usage of the sea can force from human distress 1 It was the same selfish fear that kept them quiet. One might guess there would be no mad broaching of rum-puncheons with them. They were too much alarmed with their situation to risk anything for the want of unclouded brains. Indeed, their sobriety was as good as a hint of their distrust of me. They very well knew that my one consuming desire must be to escape with Miss Grant from the brig; also that I was sailor enough to perceive there was no chance for me in that way outside the speaking of a ship that would be willing to take us off. They treated me with a sort of negative civility indeed; that is to say, they kept away from our end of the brig, and jumped to my orders; but then my knowledge of navigation rendered me so important to them that they could not do without me ; though what haunted my mind as I stood with Miss Grant, watching the dim flicker of the brigantine's canvas on the edge of the wide blue sweep of sea, was, that a day must presently come when the high land of Cuba would be heaving into view, and what then would happen? There was something, too, inexpressibly malignant to my fancy in the request of the men that I should let them know when we were within a day's sail of the island; and the mere inability to gauge the meaning of this desire was

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »