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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 9. Wreck Of The San Fernando
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 9. Wreck Of The San Fernando Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1207

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 9. Wreck Of The San Fernando

CHAPTER NINE. WRECK OF THE SAN FERNANDO

The heart of the bravest man may well sink within him when he hears the cry uttered, in accents of despair, "The ship is sinking, the ship is sinking!" Rogers and Adair looked at each other, and thought that their last moments had really come. All the bright visions of the future which their young imaginations had conjured up, vanished in a moment. Well might they, for the ship lay hopelessly on her side, with more than half her deck under water. There arose from every side shrieks and cries of terror. There were the distorted countenances of the blacks, as they crowded up the hatchway, through which the sea was pouring in torrents, while their own men, intent on preserving their lives to the last, were clambering up the bulwarks or working their way forward, which was the part of the ship the highest out of the water. Hemming, followed by the two midshipmen with axes in hand, endeavoured to gain the same part of the ship. It was no easy task. The howling wind blew with terrific violence around them, and the seething ocean bubbled up, and sent its fierce waves dashing over their heads. "Oh, save me, save me!" cried Adair, as a sea struck him and washed him down the deck; but Hemming and Rogers caught the rope he had happily clutched and hauled him up again. At length they gained the forecastle, where most of their own crew had assembled and some few of the unfortunate blacks. They were the only survivors of the four or five hundred human beings who lately breathed the breath of life on board. Mr Hemming, looking round, saw that there was not a chance of the ship righting herself. He accordingly promptly issued orders for the formation of a raft. Such spars as were loose or could be got at, were hauled up on the forecastle. The topgallant masts and royals had been carried away, and fortunately still floated near; Jack saw them and got them hauled in. Hemming, meantime, was wrenching up the forecastle deck to assist in the formation of a raft. There was not a moment to lose, for it was evident that the ship was fast settling down. Fortunately a hammer and some nails were found forward.

"Here, my lads, lash the ends of these spars together, so as to form a square," cried Hemming, working energetically. "That will do; now this one diagonally--that will strengthen it; now these planks; nail them on as we best can on the top. That will do bravely; next lash these lighter spars above all, they will form a coaming, and prevent us from slipping off the raft." Thus he went on, by his activity and cheerful voice, keeping up the spirits of his men, and encouraging them to exertion.

"Mr Hemming," said Jack, "how are we to live without food? I must try and get some--who'll follow me?"

"I will, with all my heart," cried Dick Needham. Jack and he fastened ropes to their waists, and dashed aft towards the chief cabin, which was already under water. The tornado had passed away as suddenly as it began, so that the water was tolerably smooth, or they could not have attempted this daring feat.

"I know where a cask of biscuits was stowed. If we can get it out, it will be a great thing," cried Jack, preparing to dive into the cabin.

"I saw some beef in one of the starboard lockers," said Needham, accompanying him. Another good swimmer and diver followed them. All three remained under water so long, that those forward thought they were lost. Adair could not restrain himself, and was dashing aft, when Jack came to the surface puffing and blowing like a grampus. He had discovered the cask of biscuits, but no beef was to be found. What, however, was of great consequence, was a breaker of water which Needham found, and both were floated up to the raft forward. Two other attempts were made to get provisions, but in vain. All the rest of the party were engaged with all their might in increasing and strengthening the raft. Then the cry arose, "She is going down, she is going down!" Jack looked about him as he came to the surface out of the submerged cabin, and seeing that not a moment was to be lost, summoning his two followers, sprang forward. Adair, with outstretched hand, was ready to help him on to the raft as he felt the big ship sinking under his feet.

"Shove off, shove off, my lads!" sang out their commander. With spars and oars, the seamen forced the raft away from the foundering hull. Then, as the eddy formed by the huge mass going downwards through the water caught it, the helpless raft was whirled round and round, and then horrible seemed the fate in store for them. One side dipped into the sea, and all believed that it was going to be drawn down amid the vortex. The people held on tightly for their lives. Tossing violently, however, up it again came to the surface, and floated evenly on the water. Still their condition was melancholy in the extreme.

On counting numbers it was found that the fifteen men who formed the prize crew including officers, had escaped, with two Spaniards out of those who had been left on board to assist in working the ship, and twelve negroes. To supply all these people with food, there was only a cask of biscuits and about twelve gallons of water. How long they might have to remain exposed to scorching heat, fierce storms, or chilling fogs, it was impossible to say. Jack looked at Adair, and Adair looked at Jack, to read each other's feelings in their countenances. They felt for each other as brothers, and each trembled for the fate which might overtake his friend.

"How far do you make it out we are from the land?" asked Adair.

"Oh, not more than a hundred miles," answered Hemming. "That is nothing. The sea-breeze would drive us in there in the course of the day."

He did not say this because he thought it; he wanted to keep up the spirits of the people under his charge. Nor did he remind them that they were five or six hundred miles from Freetown, Sierra Leone, and a very considerable distance from Manovia in Liberia. A fore-topgallant studding-sail had been hauled on board the raft, and this set on a spar served them as a sail. As soon as the ship had disappeared, and everything floating out of her had been picked up, Hemming's first care was to arrange the people so as to trim the raft properly. He made them sit in rows back to back, with their faces to the sea. He, with Jack and Terence, sat in the centre by the mast on the cask of biscuits and the water. A spar, with a plank nailed to the outer end, served as a rudder, and two very inefficient oars were manufactured in the same way. For some hours after the tornado they were becalmed, and then a light air from the southward sprang up, which enabled them to steer towards the land. After some consideration, Hemming stood up and addressed the men. Jack and Adair admired the calm and collected, and, indeed, dignified way in which he spoke, so different to his manner when he was a mate. "My men," he said, "we are placed by Providence in a very dangerous position. We must trust to the help of the Almighty, not to our own arm to save us; still we must exert ourselves to the best of our power to take care of our lives; we must husband our resources, we must behave with the utmost order, we must be kind to each other, and we must keep up our spirits and hope for the best. If we pray to God, He will hear us, and if He sees fit, He will save us. Now, my lads, let us pray." On this the lieutenant offered up a sincere prayer for their preservation, and all who could understand him joined in it. Even the benighted blacks comprehended that he was performing some rite by which they were to benefit. After it, Hemming again got up, "I told you, my lads, we must husband our resources. Till we see what progress we make, it will be wise to take only one biscuit a day. That will support life for some days, and if we take more our stock will soon be exhausted." The men replied cheerfully that they would limit themselves to any quantity he thought best. Poor fellows, they were to be sorely tried; the sun went down, and an easterly wind blew, and not only prevented them from approaching the coast, but again drove them slowly off it. When the sun rose the wind fell altogether, and they lay exposed to the full fury of its scorching rays. A thirst, which the small quantity of water served out in a teacup during the day could in no way assuage, now attacked them. Jack and Adair felt their spirits sinking lower than they had ever gone before. They could scarcely eat their small allowance of biscuit. They knew too that in another day the bottom of the cask would be reached. Still they tried to imitate Hemming in keeping up a cheerful countenance. Many of the people complained bitterly of their sufferings. The poor blacks said nothing, but three of them, almost at the same moment, sank back on the raft, and when those near them tried to lift them up, they were found to be dead. They were speedily lowered into the water.

"Adair, what is that?" asked Jack, as a dark fin was seen gliding round the raft.

"A shark," answered Adair. "See, there are two, three, four of them. We must have one of those fellows. They will eat us if we don't eat them, that is very certain. Here, Needham, have a running bowline ready to slip over the head of the first who comes near enough." The idea was taken up eagerly by the men; there being plenty of line on board, several of them sat ready with the bight of a rope in hand, hoping to catch one of those evil-disposed monsters of the deep. But death in the meantime was busy among their companions. One by one the blacks dropped off, till one only remained. He was a fine-looking, intelligent young man, of great muscular strength, and evidently superior to the rest in rank. He sat by himself, slowly eating crumb by crumb his share of biscuit, and gazing with steadfast eyes towards the land of his birth. Once more the wind got up, and sent the water washing over the frail raft, which worked fearfully, as if it would come to pieces.

"Never fear, my lads," said Hemming, "I know of no part which will give way. It will hold together, depend on that." In spite of all the working it did hold together. Hemming's face, though his words were always cheering, looked very grave. "Rogers, Adair, my friends," he said solemnly, "the water is expended, and there are no more biscuits-- how shall I announce it to these poor fellows?" He thought a little. "Come now, lads," he cried out, "be smart about catching some fish; a change of food will do us all good."

No one asked for more biscuits or water; they knew it was all gone. Some gave way under the appalling thought. One of the Spaniards went raving mad, and threw himself into the sea, whence no one had strength to pull him out; the other fell back and died quietly.

"Some of our men won't hold out much longer," observed Jack to Hemming; "can we do nothing for them?"

"Nothing," answered Hemming solemnly. The cool air of the night seemed to revive them; but when the hot sun came out, and shone down on their unprotected heads, they died. Two more went raving mad. They chattered and sang, and then howled and shrieked. It was with difficulty they could be held down. One of them escaped from his companions, and threw himself into the sea. The other was prevented from following his example, but his strength gradually decreased till he also died. Scarcely was his body sent into the deep, than a fair wind sprang up, and the sail being hoisted, the raft went along at the rate of three or four miles an hour. No one had relaxed their efforts to catch a shark. A shout was given (not a loud one, for their voices were already hollow and weak), and several men were seen hauling in the head and shoulders of a large shark. How eager and anxious was the expression of their countenances, for they all dreaded lest their prize should escape them. Their strength too was scarcely adequate to the task. At last he was hauled up on the raft, but so violent were his struggles, that he nearly threw some of the people into the sea as they crawled up to him to despatch him with their axes. At last Jack, not knowing what mischief might be committed, sprang towards him, and aiming a blow at his tail, struck directly on it, and instantly he was quieted. Scarcely was the monster dead than the men's knives were cutting away at him. Some drank his blood, and others eagerly ate the yet almost quivering flesh. The officers, however ravenous they felt, got some thin slices, which they dried in the sun before eating. Food had thus been providentially sent them, but their sufferings from thirst soon became very painful. It was piteous to hear some of the poor fellows crying out for water when there was none to give them. Several more died from the grievous thirst they were suffering. Mr Hemming anxiously looked round the horizon. Not a sail was in sight in any direction. Hour after hour passed away. Their tongues became parched, and clove to the roofs of their mouths.

"This is dreadful," whispered Jack; "I don't think I can stand it much longer."

"I would give a guinea for a bottle of gingerbeer," exclaimed Terence.

"Oh, how delicious! don't talk of such a thing. I would give ten for a pint of the dirtiest ditch-water in which a duck ever waddled," said Jack; "however, we must try and not think about it."

Some hours passed slowly by after this, when Hemming's eye was seen to brighten up.

"Is there a sail in sight?" asked Jack and Adair, who were constantly watching his looks.

"No," he answered, "but there is a cloud in the horizon. It is a small one, but it rises slowly in the north-west, and I trust betokens rain. If it does not bring wind at the same time, our sufferings may be relieved."

How anxiously all on the raft, who had yet consciousness left, watched the progress of that little cloud, at first not bigger than a man's hand. How their hearts sank within them when they thought that it had stopped, or that its course was altered; but it had not stopped, though it advanced but slowly. Still it grew, and grew, and extended wider and wider on either hand, and grew darker and darker till it formed a black canopy over their heads; and then there was a pattering, hissing noise heard over the calm sea, and down came the rain in large drops thick and fast. The men lifted up their grateful faces to heaven to catch the refreshing liquid in their mouths as it fell, but Hemming lowered the sail, and, ordering the men to stretch it wide, caught the rain in it, and let it run off into the breaker till that was full. Then they filled the cask which had held the biscuits, and each man took off his shirt, and let it get wet through and through; and eagerly they sucked the sail, so that not a drop more than could be helped of the precious fluid should be lost. Then when they found that the rain continued, each man took a draught of the pure water from the cask, which they again filled up as before by means of the sail.

"Oh, Terence, how delicious!" exclaimed Jack, drawing a deep breath.

"Nectar," said Adair, draining a last drop in his cup. It was of a doubtful brown hue, and in reality tepid from falling on the not over clean and hot sail.

Jack and Terence learned the lesson, that the value of things can only be ascertained by being compared with others. That shower was the means sent by Providence to preserve the lives of many of those on the raft. Some were already too far gone to benefit by it. They opened their glassy eyes, and allowed their shipmates to pour the water down their parched throats; they seemed to revive for a short time, but soon again sank, and some even died while the water was trickling over their cracked lips. All this time the raft was constantly surrounded by sharks. The flesh of the first caught was almost exhausted, and though dried in the sun had become rather savoury.

"Come, my lads, we must have another of those fellows," cried Hemming, standing up, and supporting himself against the mast. "Can any of you heave the bight of a rope over one of them?"

"I'll try, sir," said Dick Needham, kneeling at the edge of the raft, for he had not strength to stand. How changed he was from the stout seaman he had appeared but a few days before. He made several trials in vain. Jack Shark always kept at too great a distance when the rope was thrown. At last one of the seamen took off his shoes, and, tucking up his trousers, stuck out his leg and moved it slowly backwards and forwards. The voracious shark saw the tempting bait, and made a dash at it. The seaman drew it in, and as the fish, disappointed of his prize, turned round whisking up his tail out of the water, Needham adroitly hove the rope over it. As the shark darted off Dick was very nearly drawn overboard, but the rope tightening brought up the shark; and as he turned round to ascertain what had got hold of his tail another rope was thrown over his head, and he was hauled, in spite of his plunges and struggles, on board. A few blows on the spine near the tail quickly finished him. He was soon cut up, some part of him was eaten fresh, and the rest was hung up to dry. The men would have thrown what they did not want overboard, but their commander reminded them that bad weather might come on, when they could not catch another, and that they should preserve a store for such an event. It was fortunate this forethought was shown, for that very night a strong breeze sprang up, and the frail raft was tossed up and down till there appeared every chance of its upsetting or being knocked to pieces. Happily more rain came down and refreshed them, and the clouds sheltered them from the scorching rays of the sun, or not one of them would have held out.

Sadly were their numbers reduced. Ten Englishmen and the young African chief only now remained alive. Some of them appeared almost at death's door, and they would have slipped from the raft had not their comrades held them on. Darkness again came down on the waters, and the wave-tossed raft drove onwards no one knew in what direction. The stars were hidden--they had no compass--nor, had they possessed one, was there a lantern by which to see it. Great were the horrors of that night and of two succeeding nights; still neither did the gallant Hemming nor his two younger companions allow their courage to desert them. They conversed as much as they could, they talked of their past lives, they even spoke of the future; nor did they forget to pray to Heaven for strength to support whatever might yet be in store for them. Still the wet and cold of the night, and the heat of the day, was telling fearfully on all of them.

"When do you think we shall reach the shore, sir?" asked Jack. "We have been driving for a long time towards it nicely."

"In two days if the wind holds," answered Hemming; "perhaps in less time we may sight it."

But the wind did not hold. Once more they knew that they were being blown off it. Their hearts sank. They wellnigh gave way to despair. Each of the officers took it in turns to stand up to keep a lookout for a sail or for land. Jack was standing on the top of the cask, holding on by the mast, when his eye fell on a white glittering object to the northward.

"Yes, it is! it is!" he exclaimed; "a sail! a sail! she must be standing this way." All but the weakest or most desponding turned their anxious eyes in the direction Jack indicated. The sight of some was already too dim to discern her, but others raised a feeble shout, and declared that she was standing close hauled towards them. How eagerly they watched her, till their anxiety became painful in the extreme. Some shouted, "We shall be saved, we shall be saved;" but others moaned out, "No, no, she'll not see us, she will pass us." Hemming stood up, watching the approaching vessel. He said nothing. He was not certain that she would near them. One hour of intense anxiety passed. There was very little wind. Another hour glided on.

"Yes, my lads, she is undoubtedly standing this way," cried Hemming. "But--" and he stopped. "She may be a slaver, and if so, I know not whether we should be better off than we now are."

"Surely, bad as they may be, they would not leave us," said Jack.

"Don't let us be too sure of that. There is nothing too bad for slavers to do," observed Hemming; "however, let us hope for the best."

The stranger approached. She had very square yards, very white canvas, and a black hull. If she was not a slaver, she looked very like one. Still, even if they had wished it, they could not have avoided her. On she came. Her course would have taken her somewhat wide of the raft. It was not seen apparently. Then suddenly her course was altered. Some one on board had made them out. The brig stood towards them. When she was scarcely more than half a mile off, it fell a dead calm. A boat was lowered.

"Those fellows pull in man-of-war's style," observed Hemming. "Grant she may be an English cruiser: but I fear not."

The almost dying seamen endeavoured to cheer, but their weak voices were scarcely heard over the waters. The boat dashed towards them. They could hear the officer in her speaking to his men. It was in Spanish.

"Then they are slavers, after all," cried Jack, with a sigh.

He had taken a great antipathy to slavers. To an Englishman no class of men are more hateful. The boat came alongside. The people in her regarded them with looks of commiseration. Well they might have done so; for more wretched-looking beings could scarcely have been seen. Two of them stepped on board the raft, to which they secured a rope, and began towing it towards the brig. Neither Hemming nor any of his companions could speak Spanish, so they asked no questions. They were soon alongside the brig, and were handed up on deck. They felt sure that they were going on board a slaver or perhaps a pirate; but what was their surprise to see several officers in uniform on deck, one of whom stepped forward and addressed them in very good English: "You are on board her most Catholic Majesty's brig the _San Fernando_. We will not ask you how you came into this plight. You shall be taken below, and all possible care shall be bestowed on you."

Hemming tried in vain to reply to this very kind and polite speech. He pointed to his mouth and signified that he could not speak. The necessity for exertion being over, he felt himself completely unnerved.

The officers were conveyed to the captain's cabin, the men to a sick-bay on deck; and the surgeon, if not very clever, was kind; and what they chiefly wanted was rest and food. Jack and Terence fell asleep, and slept twenty-four hours without waking: so they said. Several days passed, however, before they were able to sit up in their beds. At last they were able to crawl up on deck. It was wonderful then how soon they picked up their strength. Hemming took longer to come round. Dick Needham was about as soon as they were. Two poor fellows died on board, so that eight only of the prize crew ultimately remained alive. The brig, they found, had come out nominally in search of pirates, and was then bound across to Cuba. The captain was a very gentlemanly man; so were some of the officers, especially the first lieutenant, who spoke English well. One of the sub-lieutenants, or mates, also spoke a little English, so they got on capitally. The captain said he would not go back to Sierra Leone, but would land them at Fernando Po. The brig, they found, had touched, while they were in bed, at several places along the coast: and what with light winds and baffling winds her progress was much delayed.

"I wonder, Paddy, when we shall ever get on shore again," said Jack. "I should like to get back to the frigate, to let them know that we are not all lost; for I'm afraid that they will be writing home not to expect to see us again, and all that sort of thing; and then all our families will be going into mourning for us."

"I'm afraid mine would find it a hard matter just now to pay for the said black garments," said Adair. "They were in a bad way as to money matters when I left home. The famine and the fever killed the people, and rent did not come in; and to say the truth, I don't know that any of them will trouble their heads much about me."

"Oh! don't say that, Paddy," exclaimed Jack; "still I don't know. Sometimes I have wished that the dear ones at home would not be so unhappy when they hear that we are lost; and then again I should be very sorry if they did not love me, I own. I only hope that they may not hear of the loss of the prize."

When they were able to observe the state of things on board they discovered that the brig was in a very bad state of discipline. The crew were a worthless set of vagabonds, the scum of some Spanish port, pirates, slavers, and cut-throats of all descriptions. The officers tried to get obeyed but could not, and at last seemed to give it up as a bad job; some of them, indeed, were very little better than the men. The brig consequently was constantly getting into irons or being taken aback by careless steering, and it was only wonderful that she had got thus far on her voyage without a serious accident. The captain and first lieutenant, though pleasing in their manners, were evidently not much of seamen, and took their observations in a very careless way. Hemming, on questioning them, found that they had not been to sea for a long time, and, had they not been compelled, would not have come now. They seemed fully aware that things were not as they should be; but they shrugged their shoulders, and said that they could not help it. By this time Hemming, as well as the rest of the people, with the exception of two poor fellows, had almost recovered their strength. The weather had hitherto been fine, but it came on very thick one night, and began to blow hard; but the wind was fair, and the captain, who was in a hurry to get over his voyage, continued to carry on a press of sail. Lieutenant Hemming and the two midshipmen, who did not like the look of things, with the rest of the English, continued on deck.

"Are you certain that you know your exact position?" asked Hemming of the first lieutenant.

He was not indignant, but he laughed and said that the master was a good navigator, and that he must be right; Hemming had formed a different opinion. An hour passed. Suddenly, Jack and Adair, who were walking together, were startled by a cry from the lookout forward, which they guessed was, as it proved, "Breakers ahead." They, with Hemming, ran forward to ascertain the state of things, and there they made out through the darkness on the port bow amass of white breakers. No sooner did Hemming see them than he rushed aft to put the helm to port, while the officers on deck were giving different orders. When he got to the wheel he found that it had been put the wrong way, while the yards were being braced up first in one direction, then in another. The next instant the brig struck with a tremendous crash, throwing those on deck off their legs, and those below out of their berths. The following sea lifted the brig nearly her entire length more ahead, jamming her between two rocks, and a third came rushing on board, and made a clean sweep of everything on her decks. Jack and Adair and Needham were together.

"There are those two poor fellows below, sir. Don't let us forget them," said the latter.

"Certainly not," exclaimed Jack and Adair together. They dived below and brought them up, and then followed Hemming and the rest of their shipmates into the main rigging. The authority of the Spanish officers was now completely gone. Not an order was obeyed; indeed, every man seemed to be aware that he must look out for himself, and that there was no one on whom he could depend.

The first sea which came on board washed away several unfortunate wretches; their shrieks and cries for help were heard as they were dashed against the rocks, no one being able to render them the slightest assistance. The greater part of the crew began to collect in the rigging and the tops, and there they seemed to prepare themselves to spend the night. Indeed, dark as it was, it would have been difficult, even with strict discipline, for them to have concerted effectual measures to save themselves. The gale increased, and with it occasionally bright flashes of lightning darted from the black clouds. By their light, as they went zigzagging around them. Jack, whose eyes were the sharpest, thought he discerned close to them a rock, towards which he resolved, should the vessel go to pieces, to endeavour to make his way. He pointed it out to his companions.

"Stick by me, Paddy, you know; as I'm a good swimmer I may be able to lend you a hand," he sang out to his messmate, who knew full well that he could trust to his help.

Terrific, indeed, was that night. Few of those who long to follow a sea life, if they could see pictured out before them all the sufferings and hardships they may be called on to endure, would not hesitate before adopting it. The roar of the waves as they dashed over the rocks, the howling of the wind in the rigging, the groaning of the hull at each successive blow she received from the seas, mingled with the cries and shrieks of those who had remained on deck, or had fallen from the rigging and been washed overboard, together with the oaths and blasphemies of many of the survivors, mingled in one chaotic and terrific uproar, which stunned and bewildered the senses. Some hours thus passed. At last Hemming's voice was heard calling them quickly out of the rigging; without hesitation they obeyed him. The brig had heeled over on her side, and her decks were exposed to the full fury of the sea.

Scarcely had Jack and Terence descended than the mainmast with a crash went by the board, throwing off many who clung to it and crushing others.

"Follow me, my lads, and we'll try to get on the rock close aboard us," shouted Hemming, as he began to clamber, often covered by the seas which roared up over the ship, along the unstable mast, the extreme end of which just touched the wave-washed rock.

"Come along, Paddy, come along," cried Jack, as they also endeavoured to work their way in the direction taken by their commander.

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