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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHomeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 16
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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 16 Post by :kiranb Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :3109

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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 16

Chapter XVI

And there he went ashore without delay,
Having no custom-house or quarantine,--
To ask him awkward questions on the way
About the time and place where he had been.

BYRON.

Captain Truck was in a sound sleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. With the exception of the ladies, the others soon followed his example; and as the people were excessively wearied, and the night was so tranquil, ere long only a single pair of eyes were open on deck: those of the man at the wheel. The wind died away, and even this worthy was not innocent of nodding at his post.

Under such circumstances, it will occasion no great surprise that the cabin was aroused next morning with the sudden and startling information that the land was close aboard the ship. Every one hurried on deck, where, sure enough, the dreaded coast of Africa was seen, with a palpable distinctness, within two miles of the vessel. It presented a long broken line of sand-hills, unrelieved by a tree, or by so few as almost to merit this description, and with a hazy background of remote mountains to the north-east. The margin of the actual coast nearest to the ship was indented with bays; and even rocks appeared in places; but the general character of the scene was that of a fierce and burning sterility. On this picture of desolation all stood gazing in awe and admiration for some minutes, as the day gradually brightened, until a cry arose from forward, of "a ship!"

"Whereaway?" sternly demanded Captain Truck; for the sudden and unexpected appearance of this dangerous coast had awakened all that was forbidding and severe in the temperament of the old master; "whereaway, sir?"

"On the larboard quarter, sir, and at anchor."

"She is ashore!" exclaimed half-a-dozen voices at the same instant, just as the words came from the last speaker. The glass soon settled this important point. At the distance of about a league astern of them were, indeed, to be seen the spars of a ship, with the hull looming on the sands, in a way to leave no doubt of her being a wreck. It was the first impression of all, that this, at last, was the Foam; but Captain Truck soon announced the contrary.

"It is a Swede, or a Dane," he said, "by his rig and his model. A stout, solid, compact sea-boat, that is high and dry on the sands, looking as if he had been built there. He does not appear even to have bilged, and most of his sails, and all of his yards, are in their places. Not a living soul is to be seen about her! Ha! there are signs of tents made of sails on shore, and broken bales of goods! Her people have been seized and carried into the desert, as usual, and this is a fearful hint that we must keep the Montauk off the bottom. Turn-to the people, Mr. Leach, and get up your sheers that we may step our jury-masts at once; the smallest breeze on the land would drive us ashore, without any after-sail."

While the mates and the crew set about completing the work they had prepared the previous day, Captain Truck and his passengers passed the time in ascertaining all they could concerning the wreck, and the reasons of their being themselves in a position so very different from what they had previously believed.

As respects the first, little more could be ascertained; she lay absolutely high and dry on a hard sandy beach, where she had probably been cast during the late gale, and sufficient signs were made out by the captain, to prove to him that she had been partly plundered. More than this could not be discovered at that distance, and the work of the Montauk was too urgent to send a boat manned with her own people to examine. Mr. Blunt, Mr. Sharp, Mr. Monday, and the servants of the two former, however, volunteering to pull the cutter, it was finally decided to look more closely into the facts, Captain Truck himself taking charge of the expedition.--While the latter is getting ready, a word of explanation will suffice to tell the reader the reason why the Montauk had fallen so much to leeward.

The ship being so near the coast, it became now very obvious she was driven by a current that set along the land, but which, it was probable, had set towards it more in the offing. The imperceptible drift between the observation of the previous day and the discovery of the coast, had sufficed to carry the vessel a great distance; and to this simple cause, coupled perhaps with some neglect in the steerage during the past night, was her present situation to be solely attributed. Just at this moment, the little air there was came from the land, and by keeping her head off-shore, Captain Truck entertained no doubt of his being able to escape the calamity that had befallen the other ship in the fury of the gale. A wreck is always a matter of so much interest with mariners, therefore, that taking all these things into view, he had come to the determination we have mentioned, of examining into the history of the one in sight, so far as circumstances permitted.

The Montauk carried three boats; the launch, a large, safe, and well-constructed craft, which stood in the usual chucks between the foremast and mainmast; a jolly-boat, and a cutter. It was next to impossible to get the first into the water, deprived as the ship was of its mainmast; but the other hanging at davits, one on each quarter, were easily lowered. The packets seldom carry any arms beyond a light gun to fire signals with, the pistols of the master, and perhaps a fowling-piece or two. Luckily the passengers were better provided: all the gentlemen had pistols, Mr. Monday and Mr. Dodge excepted, if indeed they properly belonged to this category, as Captain Truck would say, and most of them had also fowling-pieces. Although a careful examination of the coast with the glasses offered no signs of the presence of any danger from enemies, these arms were carefully collected, loaded, and deposited in the boats, in order to be prepared for the worst. Provisions and water were also provided, and the party were about to proceed.

Captain Truck and one or two of the adventurers were still on the deck, when Eve, with that strange love of excitement and adventure that often visits the most delicate spirits, expressed an idle regret that she could not make one in the expedition.

"There is something so strange and wild in landing on an African desert," she said; "and I think a near view of the wreck would repay us, Mademoiselle, for the hazard."

The young men hesitated between their desire to have such a companion, and their doubts of the prudence of the step; but Captain Truck declared there could be no risk, and Mr. Effingham consenting, the whole plan was altered so as to include the ladies; for there was so much pleasure in varying the monotony of a calm, and escaping the confinement of ship, that everybody entered into the new arrangement with zeal and spirit.

A single whip was rigged on the fore-yard, a chair was slung, and in ten minutes both ladies were floating on the ocean in the cutter. This boat pulled six oars, which were manned by the servants of the two Messrs. Effinghams, Mr. Blunt, and Mr. Sharp, together with the two latter gentlemen in person. Mr. Effingham steered. Captain Truck had the jolly-boat, of which he pulled an oar himself, aided by Saunders, Mr. Monday, and Sir George Templemore; the mates and the regular crew being actively engaged in rigging their jury-mast. Mr. Dodge declined being of the party, feeding himself with the hope that the present would be a favourable occasion to peep into the state-rooms, to run his eye over forgotten letters and papers, and otherwise to increase the general stock of information of the editor of the Active Inquirer.

"Look to your chains, and see all clear for a run of the anchors, Mr. Leach, should you set within a mile of the shore," called out the captain, as they pulled off from the vessel's side. "The ship is drifting along the land, but the wind you have will hardly do more than meet the send of the sea, which is on shore: should any thing go wrong show an ensign at the head of the jury-stick forward."

The mate waved his hand, and the adventurers passed without the sound of the voice. It was a strange sensation to most of those in the boats, to find themselves in their present situation. Eve and Mademoiselle Viefville, in particular, could scarcely credit their senses, when they found the egg-shells that held them heaving and setting like bubbles on those long sluggish swells, which had seemed of so little consequence while in the ship, but which now resembled the heavy respirations of a leviathan. The boats, indeed, though always gliding onward, impelled by the oars, appeared at moments to be sent helplessly back and forth, like playthings of the mighty deep, and it was some minutes before either obtained a sufficient sense of security to enjoy her situation. As they receded fast from the Montauk, too, their situation seemed still more critical; and with all her sex's love of excitement, Eve heartily repented of her undertaking before they had gone a mile. The gentlemen, however, were all in good spirits, and as the boats kept near each other, Captain Truck enlivening their way with his peculiar wit, and Mr. Effingham, who was influenced by a motive of humanity in consenting to come, being earnest and interested, Eve soon began to entertain other ideas.

As they drew near the end of their little expedition, entirely new feelings got the mastery of the whole party. The solitary and gloomy grandeur of the coasts, the sublime sterility,--for even naked sands may become sublime by their vastness,--the heavy moanings of the ocean on the beach, and the entire spectacle of the solitude, blended as it was with the associations of Africa, time, and the changes of history, united to produce sensations of a pleasing melancholy. The spectacle of the ship, bringing with it the images of European civilization, as it lay helpless and deserted on the sands, too, heightened all.

This vessel, beyond a question, had been driven up on a sea during the late gale, at a point where the water was of sufficient depth to float her, until within a few yards of the very spot where she now lay; Captain Truck giving the following probable history of the affair:

"On all sandy coasts," he said, "the return waves that are cast on the beach form a bar, by washing back with them a portion of the particles. This bar is usually within thirty or forty fathoms of the shore, and there is frequently sufficient water within it to float a ship. As this bar, however, prevents the return of all the water, on what is called the under-tow, narrow channels make from point to point, through which this excess of the element escapes. These channels are known by the appearance of the water over them, the seas breaking less at those particular places than in the spots where the bottom lies nearer to the surface, and all experienced mariners are aware of the fact. No doubt, the unfortunate master of this ship, finding himself reduced to the necessity of running ashore to save the lives of his crew, has chosen such a place, and has consequently forced his vessel up to a spot where she has remained dry as soon as the sea fell. So worthy a fellow deserved a better fate; for this wreck is not three days old, and yet no signs are to be seen of any who were in that stout ship."

These remarks were made as the crew of the two boats lay on their oars, at a short distance without the line on the water, where the breaking of the sea pointed out the position of the bar. The channel, also, was plainly visible directly astern of the ship, the sea merely rising and falling in it without combing. A short distance to the southward, a few bold black rocks thrust themselves forward, and formed a sort of bay, in which it was practicable to land without risk; for they had come on the coast in a region where the monotony of the sands, as it appeared when close in, was little relieved by the presence of anything else.

"If you will keep the cutter just without the breakers, Mr. Effingham," Captain Truck continued, after standing up a while and examining the shore, "I will pull into the channel, and land in yonder bay. If you feel disposed to follow, you may do so by giving the tiller to Mr. Blunt, on receiving a signal to that effect from me. Be steady, gentlemen, at your oars, and look well to the arms on landing, for we are in a knavish part of the world. Should any of the monkeys or ouran-outangs claim kindred with Mr. Saunders, we may find it no easy matter to persuade them to leave us the pleasure of his society."

The captain made a sign, and the jolly-boat entered the channel. Inclining south, it was seen rising and falling just within the breakers, and then it was hid by the rocks. In another minute, Mr. Truck, followed by all but Mr. Monday, who stood sentinel at the boat, was on the rocks, making his way towards the wreck. On reaching the latter, he ascended swiftly even to the main cross-trees. Here a long examination of the plain, beyond the bank that hid it from the view of all beneath, succeeded, and then the signal to come on was made to those who were still in the boat.

"Shall we venture?" cried Paul Blunt, soliciting an assent by the very manner in which he put the question.

"What say you, dear father?"

"I hope we may not yet be too late to succour some Christian in distress, my child. Take the tiller, Mr. Blunt, and in Heaven's good name, and for humanity's sake, let us proceed!"

The boat advanced, Paul Blunt standing erect to steer, his ardour to proceed corrected by apprehensions on account of her precious freight. There was an instant when the ladies trembled, for it seemed as if the light boat was about to be cast upon the shore, like the froth of the sea that shot past them; but the steady hand of him who steered averted the danger, and in another minute they were floating at the side of the jolly-boat. The ladies got ashore without much difficulty, and stood on the summit of the rocks.

"Nous voici donc, en Afrique," exclaimed Mademoiselle Viefville, with that sensation of singularity that comes over all when they first find themselves in situations of extraordinary novelty.

"The wreck--the wreck," murmured Eve; "let us go to the wreck. There may be yet a hope of saving some wretched sufferer."

Toward the wreck they all proceeded, after leaving two of the servants to relieve Mr. Monday on his watch.

It was an impressive thing to stand at the side of a ship on the sands of Africa, a scene in which the desolation of an abandoned vessel was heightened by the desolation of a desert. The position of the vessel, which stood nearly erect, imbedded in the sands, rendered it less difficult than might be supposed for the ladies to ascend to, and to walk her decks, a rude staging having been made already to facilitate the passage. Here the scene became thrice exciting, for it was the very type of a hastily deserted and cherished dwelling.

Before Eve and Mademoiselle Viefville gained the deck, the other party had ascertained that no living soul remained. The trunks, chests, furniture, and other appliances of the cabin, had been rummaged, and many boxes had been raised from the hold, and plundered, a part of their contents still lying scattered on the decks. The ship, however, had been lightly freighted, and the bulk of her cargo, which was salt, was apparently untouched. A Danish ensign was found bent to the halyards, a proof that Captain Truck's original conjecture concerning the character of the vessel was accurate, her name, too, was ascertained to be the Carrier, as translated into English, and she belonged to Copenhagen. More than this it was not easy to ascertain. No papers were found, and her cargo, or as much of it as remained, was so mixed, and miscellaneous, as Saunders called it, that no plausible guess could be given as to the port where it had been taken in, if indeed it had all been received on board at the same place.

Several of the light sails had evidently been carried off, but all the heavy canvas was left on the yards which remained in their places. The vessel was large, exceedingly strong, as was proved by the fact that she had not bilged in beaching, and apparently well found. Nothing was wanting to launch her into the ocean but machinery and force, and a crew to sail her, when she might have proceeded on her voyage as if nothing unusual had occurred. But such a restoration was hopeless, and this admirable machine, like a man cut off in his youth and vigour, had been cast upon the shores of this inhospitable region, to moulder where it lay, unless broken up for the wood and iron by the wanderers of the desert.

There was no object more likely to awaken melancholy ideas in a mind resembling that of Captain Truck's, than a spectacle of this nature. A fine ship, complete in nearly all her parts, virtually uninjured, and yet beyond the chance of further usefulness, in his eyes was a picture of the most cruel loss. He cared less for the money it had cost than for the qualities and properties that were thus destroyed.

He examined the bottom, which he pronounced capital for stowing, and excellent as that of a sea-boat; he admired the fastenings: applied his knife to try the quality of the wood, and pronounced the Norway pine of the spars to be almost equal to anything that could be found in our own southern woods. The rigging, too, he regarded as one loves to linger over the regretted qualities of a deceased friend.

The tracks of camels and horses were abundant on the sand around the ship, and especially at the bottom of the rude staging by which the party had ascended, and which had evidently been hastily made in order to carry articles from the vessel to the backs of the animals that were to bear them into the desert. The foot-prints of men were also to be seen, and there was a startling and mournful certainty in distinguishing the marks of shoes, as well as those of the naked foot.

Judging from all these signs, Captain Truck was of opinion the wreck must have taken place but two or three days before, and that the plunderers had not left the spot many hours.

"They probably went off with what they could carry at sunset last evening, and there can be no doubt that before many days, they, or others in their places, will be back again. God protect the poor fellows who have fallen into this miserable bondage! What an occasion would there now be to rescue one of them, should he happen to be hid near this spot!"

The idea seized the whole party at once, and all eagerly turned to examine the high bank, which rose nearly to the summit of the masts, in the hope of discovering some concealed fugitive. The gentlemen went below again, and Mr. Sharp and Mr. Blunt called out in German, and English, and French, to invite any one who might be secreted to come forth. No sound answered these friendly calls. Again Captain Truck went aloft to look into the interior, but he beheld nothing more than the broad and unpeopled desert.

A place where the camels had descended to the beach was at no great distance, and thither most of the party proceeded, mounting to the level of the plain beyond. In this little expedition, Paul Blunt led the advance, and as he rose over the brow of the bank, he cocked both barrels of his fowling-piece, uncertain what might be encountered. They found, however, a silent waste, almost without vegetation, and nearly as trackless as the ocean that lay behind them. At the distance of a hundred rods, an object was just discernible, lying on the plain half-buried in sand, and thither the young men expressed a wish to go, first calling to those in the ship to send a man aloft to give the alarm, in the event of any party of the Mussulmans being seen. Mr. Effingham, too, on being told their intention, had the precaution to cause Eve and Mademoiselle Viefville to get into the cutter, which he manned, and caused to pull out over the bar, where she lay waiting the issue.

A camel's path, of which the tracks were nearly obliterated by the sands, led to the object; and after toiling along it, the adventurers soon reached the desired spot. It proved to be the body of a man who had died by violence. His dress and person denoted that of a passenger rather than that of a seaman, and he had evidently been dead but a very few hours, probably not twelve. The cut of a sabre had cleft his skull. Agreeing not to acquaint the ladies with this horrible discovery, the body was hastily covered with the sand, the pockets of the dead man having been first examined; for, contrary to usage, his person had not been stripped. A letter was found, written by a wife to her husband, and nothing more. It was in German, and its expressions and contents, though simple, were endearing and natural. It spoke of the traveller's return; for she who wrote it little thought of the miserable fate that awaited her beloved in this remote desert.

As nothing else was visible, the party returned hastily to the beach, where they found that Captain Truck had ended his investigation, and was impatient to return. In the interest of the scene the Montauk had disappeared behind a headland, towards which she had been drifting when they left her. Her absence created a general sense of loneliness, and the whole party hastened into the jolly-boat, as if fearful of being left. When without the bar again, the cutter took in her proper crew, and the boats pulled away, leaving the Dane standing on the beach in his solitary desolation--a monument of his own disaster.

As they got further from the land the Montauk came in sight again, and Captain Truck announced the agreeable intelligence that the jury mainmast was up, and that the ship had after-sail set, diminutive and defective as it might be. Instead of heading to the southward, however, as heretofore, Mr. Leach was apparently endeavouring to get back again to the northward of the headland that had shut in the ship, or was trying to retrace his steps. Mr. Truck rightly judged that this was proof his mate disliked the appearance of the coast astern of him, and that he was anxious to get an offing. The captain in consequence urged his men to row, and in little more than an hour the whole party were on the deck of the Montauk again, and the boats were hanging at the davits.

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