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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHomeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 25
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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 25 Post by :kiranb Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :3809

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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 25

Chapter XXV

And when the hours of rest
Come, like a calm upon the mid-sea brine
Hushing its billowy breast--
The quiet of that moment, too, is thine;
It breathes of him who keeps
The vast and helpless city while it sleeps.

BRYANT.


It was chilling to meet with this unexpected and sudden check at so critical a moment. The first impression was, that some one of the hundreds of Arabs, who were known to be near, had laid a hand on the launch; but this fear vanished on examination. No one was visible, and the side of the boat was untouched. The boat-hook could find no impediment in the water, and it was not possible that they could again be aground. Raising the boat-hook over his head, Paul soon detected the obstacle. The line used by the barbarians in their efforts to move the ship was stretched from the forecastle to the reef, and it lay against the boat's mast. It was severed with caution; but the short end slipped from the hand of Mr. Sharp, who cut the rope, and fell into the water. The noise was heard, and the watch on the deck of the ship made a rush towards her side.

No time was to be lost; but Paul, who still held the outer end of the line, pulled on it vigorously, hauling the boat swiftly from the ship, and, at the same time, a little in advance. As soon as this was done, he dropped the line and seized the tiller-ropes, in order to keep the launch's head in a direction between the two dangers--the ship and the reef. This was not done without some little noise; the footfall on the roof, and the plash of the water when it received the line, were audible; and even the element washing under the bows of the boat was heard. The Arabs of the ship called to those on the reef, and the latter answered. They took the alarm, and awoke their comrades, for, knowing as they did, that the party of Captain Truck was still at liberty, they apprehended an attack.

The clamour and uproar that succeeded were terrific. Muskets were discharged at random, and the noises from the camp echoed the cries and tumult from the vessel and the rocks. Those who had been sleeping in the boat were rudely awaked, and Saunders joined in the cries through sheer fright. But the two gentlemen on deck soon caused their companions to understand their situation, and to observe a profound silence.

"They do not appear to see us," whispered Paul to Eve as he bent over, so as to put his head at an open window; "and a return of the breeze may still save us. There is a great alarm among them and no doubt they know we are not distant; but so long as they cannot tell precisely where, we are comparatively safe.--Their cries do us good service as landmarks, and you may be certain I shall not approach the spots were they are heard. Pray Heaven for a wind, dearest Miss Effingham, pray Heaven for a wind!"

Eve silently, but fervently did pray, while the young man gave all his attention again to the boat.--As soon as they were clear of the lee of the ship, the baffling puffs returned, and there were several minutes of a steady little breeze, during which the boat sensibly moved away from the noises of the ship. On the reef, however, the clamour still continued, and the gentlemen were soon satisfied that the Arabs had stationed themselves along the whole line of rocks, wherever the latter were bare at high water, as was now nearly the case, to the northward as well as to the southward of the opening.

"The tide is still entering by the inlet," said Paul, "and we have its current to contend with. It is not strong, but a trifle is important at a moment like this!"

"Would it not be possible to reach the bank inside of us, and to shove the boat ahead by means of these light spars?" asked Mr. Sharp.

The suggestion was a good one; but Paul was afraid the noise in the water might reach the Arabs, and expose the party to their fire, as the utmost distance between the reef and the inner bank at that particular spot did not exceed a hundred fathoms. At length another puff of air from the land pressed upon their sails, and the water once more rippled beneath the bows of the boat. Paul's heart beat hard, and as he managed the tiller-lines, he strained his eyes uselessly in order to penetrate the massive-looking darkness.

"Surely," he said to Mr. Sharp, who stood constantly at his elbow, "these cries are directly ahead of us! We are steering for the Arabs!"

"We have got wrong in the dark then. Lose not a moment to keep the boat away, for here to leeward there are noises."

As all this was self-evident, though confused in his reckoning, Paul put up the helm, and the boat fell off nearly dead before the wind. Her motion being now comparatively rapid, a few minutes produced an obvious change in the direction of the different groups of clamorous Arabs, though they also brought a material lessening in the force of the air.

"I have it!" said Paul, grasping his companion almost convulsively by the arm. "We are at the inlet, and heading, I trust, directly through it! You hear the cries on our right; they come from the end of the northern reef, while these on our left are from the end of the southern. The sounds from the ship, the direction of the land breeze, our distance--all confirm it, and Providence again befriends us!"

"It will be a fearful error should we be mistaken!"

"We cannot be deceived, since nothing else will explain the circumstances. There!--the boat feels the ground-swell--a blessed and certain sign that we are at the inlet! Would that this tide were done, or that we had more wind!"

Fifteen feverish minutes succeeded. At moments the puffs of night-air would force the boat ahead, and then again it was evident by the cries that she fell astern under the influence of an adverse current. Neither was it easy to keep her on the true course, for the slightest variation from the direct line in a tide's way causes a vessel to sheer. To remedy the latter danger, Paul was obliged to watch his helm closely, having no other guide than the noisy and continued vociferations of the Arabs.

"These liftings of the boat are full of hope," resumed Paul; "I think, too, that they increase."

"I perceive but little difference, though I would gladly see all you wish."

"I am certain the swell increases, and that the boat rises and falls more frequently. You will allow there is a swell?"

"Quite obviously: I perceived it before we kept the boat away. This variable air is cruelly tantalizing!"

"Sir George Templemore--Mr. Powis," said a soft voice at a window beneath them.

"Miss Effingham!" said Paul, so eager that he suffered the tiller-line to escape him.

"These are frightful cries!--Shall we never be rid of them!"

"If it depended on me--on either of us--they should distress you no more. The boat is slowly entering the inlet, but has to struggle with a head-tide. The wind baffles, and is light, or in ten minutes we should be out of danger."

"Out of this danger, but only to encounter another!"

"Nay, I do not think much of the risk of the ocean in so stout a boat. At the most, we may be compelled to cut away the roof, which makes our little bark somewhat clumsy in appearance, though it adds infinitely to its comfort. I think we shall soon get the trades, before which our launch, with its house even, will be able to make good weather."

"We are certainly nearer those cries than before!"

Paul felt his cheek glow, and his hand hurriedly sought the tiller-line, for the boat had sensibly sheered towards the northern reef. A puff of air helped to repair his oversight, and all in the launch soon perceived that the cries were gradually but distinctly drawing more aft.

"The current lessens," said Paul, "and it is full time; for it must be near high water. We shall soon feel it in our favour, when all will be safe!"

"This is indeed blessed tidings! and no gratitude can ever repay the debt we owe you, Mr. Powis!"

The puffs of air now required all the attention of Paul, for they again became variable, and at last the wind drew directly ahead in a continued current for half an hour. As soon as this change was felt, the sails were trimmed to it, and the boat began to stir the water under her bows.

"The shift was so sudden, that we cannot be mistaken in its direction," Paul remarked; "besides, those cries still serve as pilots. Never was uproar more agreeable."

"I feel the bottom with this spar!" said Mr. Sharp suddenly.

"Merciful Providence protect and shield the weak and lovely----"

"Nay, I feel it no longer: we are already in deeper water."

"It was the rock on which the seamen stood when we entered!" Paul exclaimed, breathing more freely. "I like those voices settling more under our lee, too. We will keep this tack" (the boat's head was to the northward) "until we hit the reef, unless warned off again by the cries."

The boat now moved at the rate of five miles in the hour, or faster than a man walks, even when in quick motion. Its rising and falling denoted the long heavy swell of the ocean, and the wash of water began to be more and more audible, as she settled into the sluggish swells.

"That sounds like the surf on the reef," continued Paul; "every thing denotes the outside of the rocks."

"God send it prove so!"

"That is clearly a sea breaking on a rock! It is awkwardly near, and to leeward, and yet it is sweet to the ear as music."

The boat stood steadily on, making narrow escapes from jutting rocks, as was evinced by the sounds, and once or twice by the sight even; but the cries shifted gradually, and were soon quite astern. Paul knew that the reef trended east soon after passing the inlet, and he felt the hope that they were fast leaving its western extremity, or the part that ran the farthest into the ocean; after effecting which, there would be more water to leeward, his own course being nearly north, as he supposed.

The cries drew still farther aft, and more distant, and the sullen wash of the surf was no longer so near as to seem fresh and tangible.

"Hand me the lead and line, that lie at the foot of the mast, it you please," said Paul. "Our water seems sensibly to deepen, and the seas have become more regular."

He hove a cast, and found six fathoms of water; a proof, he thought, that they were quite clear of the reef.

"Now, dear Mr. Effingham, Miss Effingham, Mademoiselle," he cried cheerfully, "now I believe we may indeed deem ourselves beyond the reach of the Arabs, unless a gale force us again on their inhospitable shores."

"Is it permitted to speak?" asked Mr. Effingham, who had maintained a steady but almost breathless silence.

"Freely: we are quite beyond the reach of the voice; and this wind, though blowing from a quarter I do not like, is carrying us away from the wretches rapidly."

It was not safe in the darkness, and under the occasional heaves of the boat, for the others to come on the roof; but they opened the shutters, and looked out upon the gloomy water with a sense of security they could not have deemed possible for people in their situation. The worst was over for the moment, and there is a relief in present escape that temporarily conceals future dangers. They could converse without the fear of alarming their enemies, and Paul spoke encouragingly of their prospects. It was his intention to stand to the northward until he reached the wreck, when, failing to get any tidings of their friends, they might make the best of their way to the nearest island to leeward.

With this cheering news the party below again disposed themselves to sleep, while the two young men maintained their posts on the roof.

"We must resemble an ark," said Paul laughing, as he seated himself on a box near the stem of the boat, "and I should think would frighten the Arabs from an attack, had they even the opportunity to make one. This house we carry will prove a troublesome companion, should we encounter a heavy and a head sea."

"You say it may easily be gotten rid of."

"Nothing would be easier, the whole apparatus being made to ship and unship. _Before the wind we might carry it a long time, and it would even help us along; but _on a wind it makes us a little top-heavy, besides giving us a leeward set. In the event of rain, or of bad weather of any sort, it would be a treasure to us all, more especially to the females, and I think we had better keep it as long as possible."

The half hour of breeze already mentioned sufficed to carry the boat some distance to the northward, when it failed, and the puffs from the land returned. Paul supposed they were quite two miles from the inlet, and, trying the lead, he found ten fathoms of water, a proof that they had also gradually receded from the shore. Still nothing but a dense darkness surrounded them, though there could no longer be the smallest doubt of their being in the open ocean.

For near an hour the light baffling air came in puffs, as before, during which time the launch's head was kept, as near as the two gentlemen could judge, to the northward, making but little progress; and then the breeze drew gradually round into one quarter, and commenced blowing with a steadiness that they had not experienced before that night. Paul suspected this change, though he had no certain means of knowing it; for as soon as the wind baffled, his course had got to be conjectural again. As the breeze freshened, the speed of the boat necessarily augmented, though she was kept always on a wind; and after half an hour's progress, the gentlemen became once more uneasy as to the direction.

"It would be a cruel and awkward fate to hit the reef again," said Paul; "and yet I cannot be sure that we are not running directly for it."

"We have compasses: let us strike a light and look into the matter."

"It were better had we done this more early, for a light might now prove dangerous, should we really have altered the course in this intense darkness. There is no remedy, however, and the risk must be taken. I will first try the lead again."

A cast was made, and the result was two and a half fathoms of water.

"Put the helm down!" cried Paul, springing to the sheet: "lose not a moment, but down with the helm!"

The boat did not work freely under her imperfect sail and with the roof she carried, and a moment of painful anxiety succeeded. Paul managed, however, to get a part of the sail aback, and he felt more secure.

"The boat has stern-way: shift the helm, Mr. Sharp."

This was done, the yard was dipped, and the two young men felt a relief almost equal to that they had experienced on clearing the inlet, when they found the launch again drawing ahead, obedient to her rudder.

"We are near something, reef or shore," said Paul, standing with the lead-line in his hand, in readiness to heave. "I think it can hardly be the first, as we hear no Arabs."

Waiting a few minutes, he hove the lead, and, to his infinite joy, got three fathoms fairly.

"That is good news. We are hauling off the danger, whatever it may be," he said, as he felt the mark: "and now for the compass."

Saunders was called, a light was struck, and the compasses were both examined. These faithful but mysterious guides, which have so long served man while they have baffled all his ingenuity to discover the sources of their power, were, as usual, true to their governing principle. The boat was heading north-north-west; the wind was at north-east, and before they tacked they had doubtless been standing directly for the beach, from which they could not have been distant a half quarter of a mile, if so much. A few more minutes would have carried them into the breakers, capsized the boat, and most probably drowned all below the roof, if not those on it.

Paul shuddered as these facts forced themselves on his attention, and he determined to stand on his present course for two hours, when daylight would render his return towards the land without danger.

"This is the trade," he said, "and it will probably stand. We have a current to contend with, as well as a head-wind; but I think we can weather the cape by morning, when we can get a survey of the wreck by means of the glass. If we discover nothing, I shall bear up at once for the Cape de Verds."

The two gentlemen now took the helm in turns, he who slept fastening himself to the mast, as a precaution against being rolled into the sea by the motion of the boat. In fifteen fathoms water they tacked again, and stood to the east-south-east, having made certain, by a fresh examination of the compass, that the wind stood in the same quarter as before. The moon rose soon after, and, although the morning was clouded and lowering, there was then sufficient light to remove all danger from the darkness. At length this long and anxious night terminated in the usual streak of day, which gleamed across the desert.

Paul was at the helm, steering more by instinct than any thing else, and occasionally nodding at his post; for two successive nights of watching and a day of severe toil had overcome his sense of danger, and his care for others. Strange fancies beset men at such moments; and his busy imagination was running over some of the scenes of his early youth, when either his sense or his wandering faculties made him hear the usual brief, spirited hail of,

"Boat ahoy!"

Paul opened his eyes, felt that the tiller was in his hand, and was about to close the first again, when the words were more sternly repeated,

"Boat ahoy!--what craft's that? Answer, or expect a shot!"

This was plain English, and Paul was wide awake in an instant. Rubbing his eyes, he saw a line of boats anchored directly on his weather bow, with a raft of spars riding astern.

"Hurrah!" shouted the young man. "This is Heaven's own tidings! Are these the Montauk's?"

"Ay, ay. Who the devil are you?"

The truth is, Captain Truck did not recognize his own launch in the royal, roof, and jigger. He had never before seen a boat afloat in such a guise; and in the obscurity of the hour, and fresh awakened from a profound sleep, like Paul, his faculties were a little confused. But the latter soon comprehended the whole matter. He clapped his helm down, let fly the sheet, and in a minute the launch of the packet was riding alongside of the launch of the Dane. Heads were out of the shutters, and every boat gave up its sleepers, for the cry was general throughout the little flotilla.

The party just arrived alone felt joy. They found those whom they had believed dead, or captives, alive and free, whereas the others now learned the extent of the misfortune that had befallen them. For a few minutes this contrast in feeling produced an awkward meeting; but the truth soon brought all down to the same sober level. Captain Truck received the congratulations of his friends like one in a stupor; Toast looked amazed as his friend Saunders shook his hand; and the gentlemen who had been to the wreck met the cheerful greetings of those who had just escaped the Arabs like men who fancied the others mad.

We pass over the explanations that followed, as every one will readily understand them. Captain Truck listened to Paul like one in a trance, and it was some time after the young man had done before he spoke. With a wish to cheer him, he was told of the ample provision of stores that had been brought off in the launch, of the trade winds that had now apparently set in, and of the great probability of their all reaching the islands in safety. Still the old man made no reply; he got on the roof of his own launch, and paced backwards and forwards rapidly, heeding nothing. Even Eve spoke to him unnoticed, and the consolations offered by her father were not attended to. At length he stopped suddenly, and called for his mate.

"Mr. Leach?"

"Sir."

"Here is a category for you!"

"Ay, ay, sir; it's bad enough in its way; still we are better off than the Danes."

"You tell me, sir," turning to Paul, "that these foul blackguards were actually on the deck of the ship?"

"Certainly, Captain Truck. They took complete possession; for we had no means of keeping them off."

"And the ship is ashore?"

"Beyond a question."

"Bilged?"

"I think not. There is no swell within the reef, and she lies on sand."

"We might have spared ourselves the trouble, Leach, of culling these cursed spars, as if they had been so many toothpicks."

"That we might, sir; for they will not now serve as oven-wood, for want of the oven."

"A damnable category, Mr. Effingham! I'm glad you are safe, sir; and you, too, my dear young lady--God bless you!--God bless you!--It were better the whole line should be in their power than one like you!"

The old seaman's eyes filled as he shook Eve by the hand, and for a moment he forgot the ship.

"Mr. Leach?"

"Sir."

"Let the people have their breakfasts, and bear a hand about it. We are likely to have a busy morning, sir. Lift the kedge, too, and let us drift down towards these gentry, and take a look at them. We have both wind and current with us now, and shall make quick work of it."

The kedge was raised, the sails were all set, and, with the two launches lashed together, the whole line of boats and spars began to set to the southward at a rate that would bring them up with the inlet in about two hours.

"This is the course for the Cape de Verds, gentlemen," said the captain bitterly. "We shall have to pass before our own door to go and ask hospitality of strangers. But let the people get their breakfasts, Mr. Leach; just let the boys have one comfortable meal before they take to their oars."

Eat himself, however, Mr. Truck would not. He chewed the end of a cigar, and continued walking up and down the roof.

In half an hour the people had ended their meal, the day had fairly opened, and the boats and raft had made good progress.

"Splice the main-brace, Mr. Leach," said the captain, "for we are a littled jammed. And you, gentlemen, do me the favour to step this way for a consultation. This much is due to your situation."

Captain Truck assembled his male passengers in the stern of the Dane's launch, where he commenced the following address:

"Gentlemen," he said, "every thing in this world has its nature and its principles. This truth I hold you all to be too well informed and well educated to deny. The nature of a traveller is to travel, and see curiosities; the nature of old men is to think on the past, of a young man to hope for the future. The nature of a seaman is to stick by his ship, and of a ship to be treated like a vessel, and not to be ransacked like a town taken by storm, or a nunnery that is rifled,--You are but passengers, and doubtless have your own wishes and occupations, as I have mine. Your wishes are, beyond question, to be safe in New York among your friends; and mine are to get the Montauk there too, in as little time and with as little injury as possible. You have a good navigator among you; and I now propose that you take the Montauk's launch, with such stores as are necessary, and fill away at once for the islands, where, I pray God, you may all arrive in safety, and that when you reach America you may find all your relations in good health, and in no manner uneasy at this little delay. Your effects shall be safely delivered to your respective orders, should it please God to put it in the power of the line to honour your drafts."

"You intend to attempt recapturing the ship!" exclaimed Paul,

"I do, sir," returned Mr. Truck, who, having thus far opened his mind, for the first time that morning gave a vigorous hem! and set about lighting a cigar.--"We may do it, gentlemen, or we may not do it. If we do it, you will hear farther from me; if we fail, why, tell them at home that we carried sail as long as a stitch would draw."

The gentlemen looked at each other, the young waiting in respect for the counsel of the old, the old hesitating in deference to the pride and feelings of the young.

"We must join you in this enterprise, captain," said Mr. Sharp quietly, but with the manner of a man of spirit and nerve.

"Certainly, certainly," cried Mr. Monday; "we ought to make a common affair of it; as I dare say Sir George Templemore will agree with me in maintaining; the nobility and gentry are not often backward when their persons are to be risked."

The spurious baronet acquiesced in the proposal as readily as it had been made by him whom he had temporarily deposed; for, though a weak and a vain young man, he was far from being a dastard.

"This is a serious business," observed Paul, "and it ought to be ordered with method and intelligence. If we have a ship to care for, we have those also who are infinitely more precious."

"Very true, Mr. Blunt, very true," interrupted Mr. Dodge, a little eagerly. "It is my maxim to let well alone; and I am certain shipwrecked people can hardly be better off and more comfortable than we are at this very moment. I dare say these gallant sailors, if the question was fairly put to them, would give it by a handsome majority in favour of things as they are. I am a conservative, captain--and I think an appeal ought to be made to the ballot-boxes before we decide on a measure of so much magnitude."

The occasion was too grave for the ordinary pleasantry, and this singular proposition was heard in silence, to Mr. Dodge's great disgust.

"I think it the duty of Captain Truck to endeavour to retake his vessel," continued Paul; "but the affair will be serious, and success is far from certain. The Montauk's launch ought to be left at a safe distance with all the females, and in prudent keeping; for any disaster to the boarding party would probably throw the rest of the boats into the hands of the barbarians, and endanger the safety of those left in the launch.--Mr. Effingham and Mr. John Effingham will of course remain with the ladies."

The father assented with the simplicity of one who did not distrust his own motives, but the eagle-shaped features of his kinsman curled with a cool and sarcastic smile.

"Will _you remain in the launch?" the latter asked pointedly, turning towards Paul.

"Certainly it would be greatly out of character were to think of it. My trade is war; and I trust that Captain Truck means to honour me with the command of one of the boats."

"I thought as much, by Jove!" exclaimed the captain, seizing a hand which he shook with the utmost cordiality. 'I should as soon expect to see the sheet-anchor wink, or the best-bower give a mournful smile, as to see you duck.' Still, gentlemen, I am well aware of the difference in our situations. I ask no man to forget his duties to those on shore on my account; and I fancy that my regular people, aided by Mr. Blunt, who can really serve me by his knowledge, will be as likely to do all that can be done as all of us united. It is not numbers that carry ships as much as spirit, promptitude, and resolution."

"But the question has not yet been put to the people," said Mr. Dodge, who was a little mystified by the word last used, which he had yet to learn was strictly technical as applied to a vessel's crew.

"It shall, sir," returned Captain Truck, "and I beg you to note the majority. My lads," he continued, rising on a thwart, and speaking aloud, "you know the history of the ship. As to the Arabs, now they have got her, they do not know how to sail her, and it is no more than a kindness to take her out of their hands. For this business I want volunteers; those who are for the reef, and an attack, will rise up and cheer; while they who like an offing have only to sit still and stay where they are."

The words were no sooner spoken than Mr. Leach jumped up on the gunwale and waved his hat. The people rose as one man, and taking the signal from the mate, they gave three as hearty cheers as ever rung over the bottle.

"Dead against you, sir!" observed the captain, nodding to the editor; "and I hope you are now satisfied."

"The ballot might have given it the other way," muttered Mr. Dodge; "there can be no freedom of election without the ballot."

No one, however, thought any longer of Mr. Dodge or his scruples; but the whole disposition for the attack was made with promptitude and caution. It was decided that Mr. Effingham and his own servant should remain in the launch; while the captain compelled his two mates to draw lots which of them should stay behind also, a navigator being indispensable. The chance fell on the second mate, who submitted to his luck with an ill grace.

A bust of Napoleon was cut up, and the pieces of lead were beaten as nearly round as possible, so as to form a dozen leaden balls, and a quantity of slugs, or langrage. The latter were put in canvas bags; while the keg of powder was opened, a flannel shirt or two were torn, and cart ridges were filled. Ammunition was also distributed to the people, and Mr. Sharp examined their arms. The gun was got off the roof of the Montauk's launch, and placed on a grating forward in that of the Dane. The sails and rigging were cleared out of the boat and secured on the raft when she was properly manned, and the command of her was given to Paul.

The three other boats received their crews, with John Effingham at the head of one, the captain and his mate commanding the others. Mr. Dodge felt compelled to volunteer to go in the launch of the Dane, where Paul had now taken his station, though he did it with a reluctance that escaped the observation of no one who took the pains to observe him. Mr, Sharp and Mr. Monday were with the captain, and the false Sir George Templemore went with Mr. Leach. These arrangements completed, the whole party waited impatiently for the wind and current to set them down towards the reef, the rocks of which by this time were plainly visible, even from the thwarts of the several boats.

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