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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 10. Again United
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 10. Again United Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1435

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 10. Again United

CHAPTER TEN. AGAIN UNITED


The lightning flashed brightly, the sea, roaring loudly and wildly, dashed over them, seeming angry at being disappointed of its prey, as the two midshipmen climbed along the mast, till, reaching the very cap of the topmast, they found that it rested on a small rock. Here all the English were collected, including the sick men, who had been helped along the mast by their messmates. They soon found, however, that the sea broke over the greater portion of the rock, and that even the highest part was wet and slippery with the spray. It also was evident that the wreck considerably broke the fury of the seas, and that when she went to pieces the rock would be untenable. No one, however, felt inclined to fold his hands to rest. At length Hemming said that he thought he saw something dark on the opposite side of the rock, and that he observed when the sea washed up it came surging back as it does between two rocks, and that thus he hoped there might be a larger one farther on. They had contrived happily to get hold of the topgallant halyards. Unreeving them, Hemming fastened one end round his waist, and ordered the men to hold the other while he felt his way across the seeming gulf. Jack and Adair strained their eyes eagerly after him as he disappeared in the pitchy darkness among the roaring waters. On he went, they gradually paying out the rope. Suddenly it slackened, and with horror they felt that he was being carried off by the hungry waves. They were about to haul in the rope to try to save his life, when once more it straightened and he seemed to be proceeding as before. At last they felt that the end was being lifted up, and all the slack hauled in. They fancied also that they heard his voice shouting to them; but it came to the teeth of the wind, and they could not understand what was said.

"I will go over and learn what he wants," cried Jack, guessing that he wished them to join him.

Jack, as he spoke, seized the rope, and grasping it tightly worked his way on till he found himself surrounded by the foaming sea as it dashed through a passage which he saw evidently separated two rocks. More than once he was plunged over head and ears, but on he went wading among the rugged rocks, and every instant expecting to be carried off his legs. Often he had to stop to recover his breath. Once he was completely off his legs and had to float on his back, while he worked his way along by the rope. At length he reached the side of a large rock, and by the fact of the lichens growing out of its crevices he knew that he must be above the reach of the waves. In another minute he found himself alongside Mr Hemming, who congratulated him on getting safe across. They shouted to the other people to join them, but their voices were drowned by the noise of the tempest. At last Jack begged that he might go and hurry them over, and argued that as he was the slightest of the two, he should run less risk of being carried away. Jack seized the rope, and in spite of the waves which washed over him, by stopping every now and then and grasping it with all his might, he succeeded in returning to the spot where his shipmates were collected. Some of the Spanish officers and men were also on the rock, though others were on the forecastle of the brig, and a few still clung to the shattered poop. At that moment a tremendous sea knocked the poop to pieces and sent most of the wretches who clung to it to destruction, a few only reaching the rock.

"Come, Adair, now is your time to cross," cried out Jack. "Quick, quick."

Jack, seizing Terence's hand, guided him to the rope. Terence crossed without much difficulty, Dick Needham and the rest following with their sick comrades; Jack brought up the rear, but a sea caught him, and he had to hold on like grim death to save himself. Dick and another man had, just before they left the wreck, snatched up a couple of muskets. They had both once been cast away among savages when they had felt the want of arms to defend themselves. The first faint streaks of daylight were appearing in the sky when the Englishmen found themselves assembled on the top of the rock. No sooner did the Spaniards ascertain where they had got, than they made a rush to follow; their officers and men indiscriminately crowding over, shoving each other aside, and all trying to be first. The consequence was that numbers were washed away and drowned. Hemming's first care was to ascertain the condition of his own people. None were much hurt. The two sick men had been brought over in their blankets. These were spread out in the air, where they quickly dried, and the poor fellows were then wrapped up in them again and placed in the most sheltered spot on the top of the rock. In the meantime the afterpart of the brig had gone to pieces, and the foot of the rock was strewn with a vast number of things sent up by the waves. Among them, unfortunately, was a cask of spirits which had come out of the hold. The Spanish seamen quickly discovered it, and in spite of all their captain and officers could do, they insisted on broaching it. Often British seamen have done the same, but there have been numerous instances where, without uttering a word of complaint, a crew have seen casks of spirits started by their officers that they might not have the opportunity of getting drunk. At first the Spaniards were quiet enough, till they produced some leathern cups and rapidly passed the liquor round. The officers no longer attempted to exert any control, and some even sat down and drank with the men. How desolate was the scene on every side of the barren rock on which the Englishmen stood! Below them were groups of men, many of them already half drunk, sitting round the cask of liquor only just above the wash of the sea. The shore was strewn with fragments of the wreck, with casks, chests, furniture, sails and rigging, and with mangled bodies, many of whom might probably have been saved had their comrades exerted themselves. On the small rock a few wretches were still collected, the sea every instant breaking over them. Now one and now another would be washed away, while scarcely one made an attempt to save himself. The bow of the brig still held together. On it were collected some dozen men or more. Having hitherto found it a place of safety they seemed afraid to quit it, while on the sea around fragments of the wreck and broken spars were floating, a few poor fellows clinging to them and crying for help to those who could afford them none. A dull grey sky was overhead, and far as the eye could reach the ocean seemed a mass of white foam increasing the dreariness of the view, while in the far distance appeared a blue line so faint that many doubted whether or not it was the land. On the rock not a blade of grass nor a drop of water was to be found, so Hemming saw that it would be necessary to use every exertion to provide for his men. Accordingly he sent Jack and Adair with three of them to collect what things they could pick up at the foot of the rock. Fortunately they discovered four small breakers of water, and a couple of casks of salt meat with a bag of bread. These they dragged to the top of the rock, hoping to conceal them from the Spaniards. Unhappily the latter caught sight of the casks of water, and, fancying that they contained brandy, came hurrying up to get them into their power. In spite of all Jack and Adair could do, one was broached and the invaluable contents recklessly spilt on the ground. Still the Spaniards, unconvinced that the others only contained water, advanced with threatening gestures towards the English. Needham grasped his musket, Mr Hemming seized another, and made signs that if they approached nearer they would blow out the brains of a couple of them at all events. This made those in advance of the rest hesitate, for they did not remember that the muskets had been thoroughly wetted and could not go off. The Spanish officers generally sided with the English, and tried to explain that, as there was no water on the rock, all would be suffering from thirst, and that therefore the contents of the casks were more precious than any spirits.

"That may be the case, but then those hated Englishmen shall not boast that they prevented us from doing what we intended," exclaimed one of them, rushing to seize a cask.

Hemming waited till the fellow got within reach of his fist, and he then hit him such a blow on the chest that he sent him rolling back head over heels till he reached the edge of the rock, when down he went among a group of his comrades, who were sitting carousing together below. Each of the Englishmen singled out an opponent, and treated him much in the same way, all this time many of the Spanish officers standing by and not attempting to interfere. The Spanish seamen, finding that nothing was to be obtained but hard knocks, retreated to secure their share of the liquor. Often had Jack and Adair cast their eyes round the horizon in the hopes of discovering a sail by which they might escape from the rock, but none appeared. Meantime hunger was pressing; the head of one of the meat-casks was knocked off, and the biscuits were spread out to dry. In vain they tried to light a fire. There was plenty of driftwood, but it was too wet; so they had to eat the meat raw. Their appetites were thus quickly satisfied. At first the sky gave indications of an improvement in the weather, but by noon it came on to blow as hard as ever. They made all the signals they could devise to induce the people who still remained on the wreck to quit it, but they soon found by the wretches' frantic gestures and maniacal shouts that they also had got hold of a cask of spirits, and were in as bad a condition as their comrades. They were soon indeed seen snapping their fingers, and dancing about the decks as if they were in a place of perfect safety. One poor wretch slipped overboard, but his companions, instead of trying to help him, only laughed and shouted the louder, nor did they appear to comprehend that he was drowning before their eyes. A few remained on the small rock. Every now and then one would carelessly get within the influence of the seas, and several were thus swept away. The larger part of the crew who had been carousing at the foot of the big rock, soon began to dispute with each other; their voices grew higher and higher, their actions more vehement. Knives at last were drawn, and one lay a corpse by the side of his companions. This act of violence, instead of sobering the rest, induced another to take up the quarrel, and another and another joining, in a short time the greater portion were engaged in a deadly hand-to-hand struggle. The officers contented themselves with merely shouting and ordering them to desist, and of course their commands received no attention. In a few minutes several of the combatants lay weltering in their blood, and two of them, locked in a deadly embrace in each other's arms, fell off the rock into the sea, and a huge wave rolling in washed them both away. The gale was increasing, the wreck rocked to and fro, large portions were constantly being detached and hove against the rock. At length a sea heavier than any of the preceding ones came roaring in. It struck the wreck. High over it the foaming waters rushed, the spray from it almost blinding Hemming and his companions, far above it as they stood. A piercing shriek reached their ears, the squall passed by. They looked towards the spot where the brig had been. Not a particle was to be seen hanging together. Not one of those clinging to it escaped. This catastrophe appeared to have no effect on the other Spaniards. Even when a sea came and washed away several of those who had remained on the lower rock, the rest went on quarrelling and shouting and shrieking as before. Sometimes, without any apparent reason, a wretched man would throw himself off the rock, when he was soon swept out of sight by the retiring sea. Some rolled off helplessly drunk into the water, and were washed away. Hemming and his companions would have helped them had they been able, but their own countrymen would not allow the English to interfere, and they were compelled to desist. They felt, indeed, all the time, that those who held their own lives so cheap were not likely to pay any respect to theirs. While watching with painful interest the scenes which have been described, they observed a cask drifting towards the rock. The Spaniards saw it also. Adair, with Needham and three other men, hurried down to secure it. The Spaniards rushed to the spot at the same moment, and two of them, in their eagerness to obtain the coveted prize, for they of course believed it to contain spirits, fell headlong into a surging sea, which, sweeping out again, carried them both far away. Adair meantime got hold of the cask, and was in triumph bearing it up the rock, when the Spaniards surrounded him, and, though Dick and the other men fought most desperately, succeeded in carrying it off. The effect of the fresh supply of fire-water was most disastrous. The Spaniards became almost raving mad, and, excited to fury by the opposition they had encountered from the English, now drawing their knives, advanced once more in a body towards them. Some even of the Spanish officers joined them, others, however, stood surrounding their captain, but seemed inclined to take no part in the fray.

"Are you going to see us murdered before your eyes, gentlemen?" exclaimed Hemming with indignation. "If they murder us they will murder you, depend on that." The appeal had an effect, and, drawing their swords, the Spanish captain and his superior officers sided with the English. On rushed the infuriated Spaniards, uttering the fiercest oaths and threats of vengeance. Fortunately, besides the two muskets many of the English had knives, and all had provided themselves with boats' stretchers, or pieces of spars, which served the purpose of singlesticks. They were thus not ill prepared to meet their assailants. The shock came. Headed by Lieutenant Hemming they stood firm. One of the first victims was a young Spanish officer. He fell pierced to the heart by the knife of one of his countrymen. It showed the Spanish officers that their safety depended on that of the English. Again and again the infuriated wretches rushed at them; but were beaten off by the English quarter-staves. All this time the wind had been howling and the sea dashing fiercely against the rocks; indeed, the elements were in perfect accordance with the mad strife going forward on that isolated spot of earth. Night too came on to add to the horrors of the scene. Then the clouds opened and flashes of the most vivid lightning darting from the sky played like fiery serpents round the rock, while crashing peals of thunder rattled and roared around them. At first the seamen took no notice of the storm; then came a loud, thundering explosion, and two of their number lay blackened corpses on the ground. In an instant, seeing what had occurred, they fled with shrieks of dismay down the rock to the spot whence they had come. Amid wind and rain, the lightning flashing and the thunder roaring, the survivors passed that terrific night.

The day dawned at last. Hemming's first resolve was to try and conciliate the unfortunate wretches by offering them food. Their officers gladly agreed to the proposal. The sun came out, the driftwood dried, and at last a fire was kindled. The Spanish officers were far superior to the English in the art of cooking. They made hot cakes out of the wet biscuit, and in a short time had a number of nice-looking little bits of meat ran upon wooden skewers. Having satisfied their own hunger, they offered the food to the men below, who at first thought that they were mocking them; but when assured that the Englishmen were willing to forget what had passed, one by one came up with a sulky and doubting manner to take what was offered to them.

"I doubt those fellows even now," observed Adair; "the sooner we are away from them the better."

Hemming hearing this, observed that he proposed making a raft, and in spite of all they had undergone, venturing on it to the coast of Africa, which he was confident was visible to the eastward. It was agreed therefore that they would set about building it at once, and should no sail appear in sight, push off as soon as it was completed. On the east side of the rock was a bay sheltered from the view of the other part. Here a number of spars and planks were driven in, as well as rope and canvas. Hemming thus had soon a raft constructed capable of carrying twice as many men as wished to trust themselves on it. He also had a supply of provisions and water carried down to it without being observed by the drunken seamen. When all was ready, he invited the Spanish officers to accompany them, but they declined, saying that they could not leave their men, though from the glances they cast on the raft, it was evident that they did not wish to entrust themselves on it. They, however, did not object to the Englishmen taking the water and provisions, the latter promising that if they got safe to any European settlement they would send them assistance.

"Now, my lads, we'll launch our raft," exclaimed Hemming, when all their arrangements were made.

The Spaniards had not been aware of the nature of their proceedings, but unfortunately two or three of the more sober, who had begun to scramble about the rock, caught sight of them. Believing naturally that they were about to make off with the provisions and water, summoning their comrades, they rushed fiercely towards them.

"Now, my boys, a hearty shove altogether, and we'll have the raft into the water before the scoundrels can come up to us," shouted Hemming, setting an example by putting all his strength to the work. The Spanish seamen, brandishing their knives, were close to them.

"One shove more and the raft will be afloat," cried Jack.

"Hurrah, hurrah, she's afloat," sang out Terence. Their two sick shipmates were speedily placed in the centre of the raft, and the rest leaped on to it. The Spaniards were close to them; one seized a rope which still held the raft to the shore. Quick as thought Hemming took one of the paddles they had prepared, and springing on shore, used it with such good effect that he drove the wretches back before him, then leaping again on to the raft, he shoved it a dozen yards off from the shore. As the Englishmen vigorously plied their paddles they saw the Spaniards making all sorts of frantic gestures at them, shaking their fists and hurling abuse at their heads. When they got from under the lee of the rock, they hoisted sail and found that the raft steered very well, and with the aid of the paddles made good way towards the land. Gradually the rock sank lower and lower in the horizon, till it was almost hid from sight; but when they looked towards the shore, that appeared almost as far off as ever. They had hoped to reach it before sunset, but that hope gradually faded away, as the breeze which had hitherto favoured them grew less and less, and finally sank into a calm. However, that was better than a gale, and they could still paddle on their raft in the direction in which they wished to go. They were also far better off than they had been on their former raft. It was more strongly made, they had better provisions, and the prospect of reaching land in a short time. The sun, however, went down, and they were still far from it. Jack and Terence sat side by side, and endeavoured to keep up each other's spirits during that long, long night. It came at last to an end. The sun rose; they looked round the horizon; no sail was in sight. Some of the seamen began to grumble, as even the best will at times, and to complain at having been enticed off the rock. Hemming overheard them.

"What think you, my lads, would have been our lot had we remained with those madmen?" he said. "I'll tell you; by this time not one of us would have been alive." As the sun rose, the breeze came strongly off the land and drove them once more away from it. "Never fear, my lads; we shall have the sea-breeze soon to send us back again," he cried out cheerfully to keep up their spirits. It did not come as soon as he expected. At last a rock appeared rising out of the water. It rose higher and higher. The raft drifted slowly by at a distance; still the atmosphere was so clear that they could discern figures on the top. They all looked earnestly. There could be no doubt of it; the people were struggling like madmen. Now and then one of them, it appeared, was cast off the cliff into the water, but the distance was so great that it appeared rather like some dreadful dream than a reality. While they were gazing at this spectacle the wind fell; then in a short time the breeze came from the west, and hoisting their sail they once more rapidly approached the shore. For the remainder of the day they made good progress; still they knew that they could not hope to reach it that night, and once more the sun went down and left them in darkness. The night passed as the former had done. No one now expressed a wish that he had remained on the rock. Jack and Terence had kept up their spirits wonderfully. At length, leaning on each other's shoulder, they fell asleep. They were startled with a cry of "A sail ahead!" In an instant every one roused up. As they looked out they saw a large brig on the port tack, standing to the southward across their course. In a few minutes more she would have shot ahead out of hearing. "Now, my lads, shout, shout, till you crack your voices," cried out Hemming; "she is a man-of-war brig; one of the cruisers on the station. I know her by the cut of her canvas." Weak as all on board the raft at this time were, they raised a shout such as Englishmen only know how to give. They listened eagerly. Directly afterwards a cheer came in answer towards them. The rattling of blocks was heard, and the brig's helm being put down, and her maintopsail backed, she came up into the wind. In another instant they were alongside. Cramped and half starved as they all had been, they had great difficulty in getting on board. Hemming was the only man who went up by himself, and his knees trembled so much when he gained the deck that he had to lean against the bulwarks for support. The officer of the watch came forward to receive them. Hemming gave his name as a lieutenant of the _Ranger_.

"Delighted to see you," exclaimed the lieutenant of the brig; "we heard at Sierra Leone that you were lost, for several vessels have been sent to look for you, and not one could gain tidings of you. But come below; you want sleep and food, and dry clothes."

The captain of the brig, hearing what had occurred, turned out, and had berths made up for the two midshipmen in his own cabin, while one of the lieutenants gave up his berth to Hemming in the gun-room. The doctor was soon in attendance on all the party, and sleep, which they all so much required, soon sealed their eyelids. Jack and Terence slept for a long time. When they awoke the sun was shining right down the cabin skylight. At the cabin table was sitting a midshipman reading. They could not see his face, but there was something in his figure and attitude which made them both sit up and exclaim, "Hallo! who are you?" The midshipman sprang from his seat, and in another instant Alick Murray was shaking them warmly by the hand. "This is jolly, this is delightful," exclaimed Jack; "tell us all about it, though." Alick accordingly told them that the brig was the _Archer_, of sixteen guns, that she was commanded by a relation of his, Captain Grant, who had got him appointed to her, and that she had only just come out direct from England. Murray then got his friends to give him an outline of their adventures, which they had to repeat to Captain Grant himself, who shortly after came into the cabin. Meantime the steward had brought them some breakfast; for midshipmen are not heroes of romance, and require feeding before they are fit for much. After breakfast they felt wonderfully recovered, and were able to get up and go on deck. Hemming had before this explained to Captain Grant his promise to bring relief to the Spaniards, and the brig was accordingly beating up towards the rock. As they drew near they looked out for signals, but none were made. They got still nearer. "Where can the people have got to?" exclaimed the captain, looking through his glass. As the brig approached the rock the lead was kept going, but the water was found to be quite deep. She sailed round and round it, but not a human being was seen there alive. Whether some dreadful catastrophe had occurred after the English left the spot, or whether some vessel had visited it and carried off the survivors, was never ascertained. Jack and Terence did their best to banish the dreadful scenes which had occurred from their thoughts, and it was with infinite satisfaction that the three midshipmen found themselves once more together. "This is the station for adventure," exclaimed Jack; "depend on it before long we shall have lots to do."

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