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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHomeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 28
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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 28 Post by :jaydarby Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1443

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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 28

Chapter XXVIII

Speed, gallant bark, the tornado is past;
Staunch and secure thou hast weather'd the blast;
Now spread thy full sails to the wings of the morn,
And soon the glad haven shall greet thy return.

_Park_.


The Montauk now lay close to the inlet, and even a little to windward of its entrance; but the channel was crooked, not a sail was bent, nor was it possible to bend one properly without exposing the men to the muskets of the Arabs, who, from firing loosely, had got to be more wary and deliberate, aiming at the places where a head or an arm was occasionally seen. To prolong this state of things was merely to increase the evil, and Captain Truck determined to make an effort at once to dislodge his enemies.

With this view the gun was loaded in-board, filled nearly to the muzzle with slugs, and then it was raised with care to the top-gallant-forecastle, and cautiously pushed forward near the gunwale. Had the barbarians understood the construction of a vessel, they might have destroyed half the packet's crew while they were thus engaged about the forecastle by firing through the planks; but, ignorant of the weakness of the defences, they aimed altogether at the openings, or over the rails.

By lowering the gaff the spanker was imperfectly bent; that is to say, it was bent on the upper leach. The boom was got in under cover of the hurricane-house, and of the bundle of the sail; the out-hauler was bent, the boom, replaced, the sail being hoisted with a little and a hurried lacing, to the luff. This was not effected without a good deal of hazard, though the nearness of the bows of the vessel to the rocks prevented most of the Arabs from perceiving what passed so far aft. Still, others nearer to the shore caught glimpses of the actors, and several narrow escapes were the consequence. The second mate, in particular, had a shot through his hat within an inch of his head. By a little management, notwithstanding, the luff of the spanker was made to stand tolerably well; and the ship had at least the benefit of this one sail.

The Dane had been a seaman of the old school; and, instead of the more modern spenser, his ship had been fitted with old-fashioned stay-sails. Of these it was possible to bend the main and mizzen stay-sails in tolerable security, provided the ends of the halyards could be got down. As this, however, would be nearly all aftersail, the captain determined to make an effort to overhaul the buntlines and leachlines of the foresail, at the same time that men were sent aloft after the ends of the halyards. He also thought it possible to set a fore-topmast stay-sail flying.

No one was deceived in this matter. The danger and the mode of operating were explained clearly, and then Captain Truck asked for volunteers. These were instantly found; Mr. Leach and the second mate setting the example by stepping forward as the first two. In order that the whole procedure may be understood, however, it shall be explained more fully.

Two men were prepared to run up on the fore-yard at the word. Both of these, one of whom was Mr. Leach, carried three small balls of marline, to the end of each of which was attached a cod-hook, the barb being filed off in order to prevent its being caught. By means of these hooks the balls were fastened to the jackets of the adventurers. Two others stood ready at the foot of the main and mizzen riggings. By the gun lay Paul and three men; while several of the passengers, and a few of the best shots among the crew, were stationed on the forecastle, armed with muskets and fowling-pieces.

"Is everybody ready?" called out the captain from the quarter-deck.

"All ready!" and "Ay! ay, sir!" were answered from the different points of the ship.

"Haul out the spanker!"

As soon as this sail was set, the stern of the ship swung round towards the inlet, so as to turn the bow on which the gun was placed towards the part of the reef where the Arabs were in greatest numbers.

"Be steady, men! and do not hurry yourselves, though active as wild-cats! Up, and away!"

The two fore-yard men, and the two by the after-masts, sprang into the rigging like squirrels, and were running aloft before the captain had done speaking.--At the same instant one of the three by the gun leaped on the bowsprit, and ran out towards the stay. Paul, and the other two, rose and shoved the gun to its berth; and the small-arms men showed themselves at the rails.

So many, all in swift motion, appearing at the same moment in the rigging, distracted the attention of the Arabs for an instant, though scattering shots were fired. Paul knew that the danger would be greatest when the men aloft Were stationary, and he was in no haste. Perhaps for half a minute he was busy in choosing his object, and in levelling the gun, and then it was fired. He had chosen the moment well; for Mr. Leach and his fellow adventurers were already on the fore-yard, and the Arabs had arisen from their covers in the eagerness of taking aim. The small-arms men poured in their volley, and then little more could be done in the way of the offensive, nearly all the powder in the ship having been expended.

It remains to tell the result of this experiment.--Among the Arabs a few fell, and those most exposed to the fire from the ship were staggered, losing near a minute in their confusion; but those more remote maintained hot discharges after the first surprise. The whole time occupied in what we are going to relate was about three minutes; the action of the several parts going on simultaneously.

The adventurer forward, though nearest to the enemy, was least exposed. Partly covered by the bowsprit, he ran nimbly out on that spar till he reached the stay. Here he cut the stop of the fore-topmast halyards, overhauled the running part, and let the block swing in. He then hooked a block that he had carried out with him, and in which the bight of a rope had been rove through the thimble, and ran in as fast as possible. This duty, which had appeared the most hazardous of all the different adventures, on account of the proximity of the bowsprit to the reef, was the first done, and with the least real risk; the man being partly concealed by the smoke of the gun, as well as by the bowsprit. He escaped uninjured.

As the two men aft pursued exactly the same course, the movements of one will explain those of the other. On reaching the yard, the adventurer sprang on it, caught the hook of the halyard-block, and threw himself off without an instant's hesitation, overhauling the halyards by his weight. Men stood in readiness below to check the fall by easing off the other end of the rope, and the hardy fellow reached the deck in safety. This seemed a nervous undertaking to the landsmen; but the seamen who so well understood the machinery of their vessel, made light of it.

On the fore-yard, Mr. Leach passed out on one yard-arm, and his co-adventurer, a common seaman, on the other. Each left a hook in the knot of the inner buntline, as he went out, and dropped the ball of marline on deck. The same was done at the outer buntlines, and at the leachlines. Here the mate returned, according to his orders, leaped upon the rigging, and thence upon a backstay, when he slid on deck with a velocity that set aim at defiance. Notwithstanding the quickness of his motions, Mr. Leach received a trifling hit on the shoulder, and several bullets whizzed near him.

The seaman on the other yard-arm succeeded equally well, escaping the smallest injury, until he had secured the leachline, when, knowing the usefulness of, obtaining it, for he was on the weather side of the ship, he determined to bring in the end of the reef-tackle with him. Calling out to let go the rope on the deck, he ran out to the lift, bent over and secured the desired end, and raised himself erect, with the intention to make a run in, on the top of the yard. Captain Truck and the second mate had both commanded him to desist in vain, for impunity from harm had rendered him fool-hardy. In this perilous position he even paused to give a cheer. The cry was scarcely ended when he sprang off the yard several feet upwards and fell perpendicularly towards the sea, carrying the rope in his hand. At first, most on board believed the man had jumped into the water as the least hazardous means of getting down, depending on the rope, and on swimming, for his security; but Paul pointed out the spot of blood that stained the surface of the sea, at the point where he had fallen. The reef-tackle was rounded cautiously in, and its end rose to the surface without the hand that had so lately grasped it. The man himself never re-appeared.

Captain Truck had now the means of setting three stay-sails, the spanker, and the fore-course; sails sufficient, he thought, to answer his present purposes.--The end of the reef-tackle, that had been so dearly bought, was got in, by means of a light line, which was thrown around it.

The order was now given to brail the spanker, and to clap on and weigh the kedge, which was done by the run. As soon as the ship was free of the bottom, the fore-topmast-stay-sail was set flying, like a jib-top-sail, by hauling out the tack, and swaying upon the halyards. The sheet was hauled to windward, and the helm put down; of course the bows of the ship began to fall off, and, as soon, as her head was sufficiently near her course, the sheet was drawn, and the wheel shifted.

Captain Truck now ordered the foresail, which, by this time was ready, to be set. This important sail was got on the vessel, by bending the buntlines and leachlines to its head, and by hauling out the weather-head-cringle by means of the reef tackle. As soon as this broad spread of canvas was on the ship, her motion was accelerated, and she began to move away from the spot, followed by the furious cries and menaces of the Arabs. To the latter no one paid any heed, but they were audible until drowned in distance. Although aided by all her spars, and the force of the wind on her hull, a body as large as the Montauk required some little time to overcome the _vis inertiae_, and several anxious minutes passed before she was so far from the cover of the Arabs as to prevent their clamour from seeming to be in the very ears of those on board. When this did occur, it brought inexpressible relief, though it perhaps increased the danger, by increasing the chances of the bullets hitting objects on deck.

The course at first was nearly before the wind, when the flat rock, so often named, being reached, the ship was compelled to haul up on an easy bowline, in order to pass to windward of it. Here the stay-sails aft and the spanker were set, which aided in bringing the vessel to the wind, and the fore-tack was brought down. By laying straight out of the pass, a distance of only a hundred yards, the vessel would be again clear of every thing, and beyond all the dangers of the coast, so long as the present breeze stood. But the tide set the vessel bodily towards the rock, and her condition did not admit of pressing hard upon a bowline. Captain Truck was getting to be uneasy, for he soon perceived that they were nearing the danger, though very gradually, and he began to tremble for his copper. Still the vessel drew steadily ahead, and he had hopes of passing the outer edge of the rocks in safety. This outer edge was a broken, ragged, and pointed fragment, that would break in the planks should the vessel rest upon it an instant, while falling in that constant heaving and setting of the ocean, which now began to be very sensibly felt. After all his jeopardy, the old mariner saw that his safety was at a serious hazard, by one of those unforeseen but common risks that environ the seaman's life.

"Luff! luff! you can," cried Captain Truck, glancing his eye from the rock to the sails, and from the sails to the rock. "Luff, sir--you are at the pinch!"

"Luff it is sir!" answered the man at the wheel, who stood abaft the hurricane-house, covered by its roof, over which he was compelled to look, to get a view of the sails. "Luff I may, and luff it is, sir."

Paul stood at the captain's side, the crew being ordered to keep themselves as much covered as possible, on account of the bullets of the Arabs, which were at this time pattering against the vessel, like hail at the close of a storm.

"We shall not weather that point of ragged rock," exclaimed the young man, quickly; "and if we touch it the ship will be lost."

"Let her claw off," returned the old man sternly. "Her cutwater is up with it already. Let her claw off."

The bows of the ship were certainly up with the danger, and the vessel was slowly drawing ahead; but every moment its broadside was set nearer to the rock, which was now within fifty feet of them. The fore-chains were past the point, though little hope remained of clearing it abaft. A ship turns on her centre of gravity as on a pivot, the two ends inclining in opposite directions; and Captain Truck hoped that as the bows were past the danger, it might be possible to throw the after-part of the vessel up to the wind, by keeping away, and thus clear the spot entirely.

"Hard up with your helm!" he shouted, "hard up!--Haul down the mizzen-stay-sail, and give her sheet!"

The sails were attended to, but no answer came from the wheel, nor did the vessel change her course.

"Hard up, I tell you, sir--hard up--hard up, and be d---d to you!"

The usual reply was not made. Paul sprang through the narrow gangway that led to the wheel. All that passed took but a minute, and yet it was the most critical minute that had yet befallen the Montauk; for had she touched that rock but for an instant, human art could hardly have kept her above water an hour.

"Hard up, and be d---d to you!" repeated Captain Truck, in a voice of thunder, as Paul darted round the corner of the hurricane-house.

The seaman stood at the wheel, grasping its spokes firmly, his eyes aloft as usual, but the turns of the tiller rope showed that the order was not obeyed.

"Hard up, man, hard up! are you mad?" Paul uttered these words as he sprang to the wheel, which he made whirl with his own hands in the required direction. As for the seaman, he yielded his hold without resistance, and fell like a log, as the wheel flew round. A ball had entered his back, and passed through his heart, and yet he had stood steadily to the spokes, as the true mariner always clings to the helm while life lasts.

The bows of the ship fell heavily off, and her stern pressed up towards the wind; but the trifling delay so much augmented the risk, that nothing saved the vessel but the formation of the run and counter, which, by receding as usual, allowed room to escape the dangerous point, as the Montauk hove by on a swell.

Paul could not see the nearness of the escape, but the purity of the water permitted Captain Truck and his mates to observe it with a distinctness that almost rendered them breathless. Indeed there was an instant when the sharp rock was hid beneath the counter, and each momentarily expected to hear the grating of the fragment, as it penetrated the vessel's bottom.

"Relieve that man at the wheel, and send him hither this moment," said Captain Truck, in a calm stern voice, that was more ominous than an oath.

The mate called a seaman, and passed aft himself to execute the order. In a minute he and Paul returned, bearing the body of the dead mariner, when all was explained.

"Lord, thy ways are unsearchable!" muttered the old master, uncovering himself, as the corpse was carried past, "and we are but as grains of seed, and as the vain butterflies in thy hand!"

The rock once cleared, an open ocean lay to leeward of the packet, and bringing the wind a little abaft the beam, she moved steadily away from those rocks that had been the witnesses of all her recent dangers. It was not long before she was so distant that all danger from the Arabs ceased. The barbarians, notwithstanding, continued a dropping fire and furious gesticulations, long after their bullets and menaces became matters of indifference to those on board.

The body of the dead man was laid between the masts, and the order was passed to bend the sails. As all was ready, in half an hour the Montauk was standing off the land under her three topsails, the reef now distant nearly a league. The courses came next, when the top-gallant yards were crossed and the sails set; the lighter canvas followed, and some time before the sun disappeared, the ship was under studding-sails, standing to the westward, before the trades.

For the first time since he received the intelligence that the Arabs were the masters of the ship, Captain Truck now felt real relief. He was momentarily happy after the combat, but new cares had pressed upon him so soon, that he could scarcely be said to be tranquil. Matters were now changed. His vessel was in good order, if not equipped for racing, and, as he was in a low latitude, had the trade winds to befriend him, and no longer entertained any apprehension of his old enemy the Foam, he felt as if a mountain had been removed from his breast.

"Thank God," he observed to Paul, "I shall sleep to-night without dreaming of Arabs or rocks, or scowling faces at New York. They may say that another man might have shown more skill in keeping clear of such a scrape, but they will hardly say that another man could have got out of it better. All this handsome outfit, too, will cost the owners nothing--literally nothing; and I question if the poor Dane will ever appear to claim the sails and spars. I do not know that we are in possession of them exactly according to the law of Africa, for of that code I know little; or according to the law of nations, for Vattel, I believe, has nothing on the subject; but we are in possession so effectually, that, barring the nor'-westers on the American coast, I feel pretty certain of keeping them until we make the East River."

"It might be better to bury the dead," said Paul; for he knew Eve would scarcely appear on deck as long as the body remained in sight. "Seamen, you know, are superstitious on the subject of corpses."

"I have thought of this; but hoped to cheat those two rascals of sharks that are following in our wake, as if they scented their food. It is an extraordinary thing, Mr. Blunt, that these fish should know when there is a body in a ship, and that they will follow it a hundred leagues to make sure of their prey."

"It would be extraordinary, if true; but in what manner has the fact been ascertained?"

"You see the two rascally pirates astern?" observed Mr. Leach.

"Very true; but we might also see them were there no dead body about the ship. Sharks abound in this latitude, and I have seen several about the reef since we went in.

"They'll be disappointed as to poor Tom Smith," said the mate, "unless they dive deep for him. I have lashed one of Napoleon's busts to the fine fellow's feet, and he'll not fetch up until he's snugly anchored on the bottom."

"This is a fitting hour for solemn feelings," said the captain, gazing about him at the heavens and the gathering gloom of twilight. "Call all hands to bury the dead, Mr. Leach. I confess I should feel easier myself as to the weather, were the body fairly out of the ship."

While the mate went forward to muster the people, the captain took Paul aside with a request that he would perform the last offices for the deceased.

"I will read a chapter in the Bible myself," he said; "for I should not like the people to see one of the crew go overboard, and the officers have no word to say in the ceremonies; it might beget disrespect, and throw a slur on our knowledge; but you man-of-war's-men are generally more regularly brought up to prayers than us liners, and if you have a proper book by you, I should feel infinitely obliged if you would give us a lift on this melancholy occasion."

Paul proposed that Mr. Effingham should be asked to officiate, as he knew that gentleman read prayers in his cabin, to his own party, night and morning.

"Does he?" said the captain; "then he is my man, for he must have his hand in, and there will be no stammering or boggling. Ay, ay; he will fetch through on one tack. Toast, go below, and present my compliments to Mr. Effingham, and say I should like to speak to him; and, harkee, Toast, desire him to put a prayer-book in his pocket, and then step into my state-room, and bring up the Bible you will find under the pillow. The Arabs had a full chance at the plunder; but there is something about the book that always takes care of it. Few rogues, I've often remarked, care about a Bible. They would sooner steal ten novels than one copy of the sacred writ. This of mine was my mother's, Mr. Blunt, and I should have been a better man had I overhauled it oftener."

We pass over most of the arrangements, and come at once to the service, and to the state of the ship, just as her inmate were assembled on an occasion which no want of formality can render any thing but solemn and admonitory. The courses were hauled up, and the main-topsail had been laid to the mast, a position in which a ship has always an air of stately repose. The body was stretched on a plank that lay across a rail, the leaden bust being enclosed in the hammock that enveloped it. A spot of blood on the cloth alone betrayed the nature of the death. Around the body were grouped the crew, while Captain Truck and his mates stood at the gangway. The passengers were collected on the quarter-deck, with Mr. Effingham, holding a prayer-book, a little in advance.

The sun had just dipped into the ocean, and the whole western horizon was glorious with those soft, pearly, rainbow hues that adorn the evening and the morning of a low latitude, during the soft weather of the autumnal months. To the eastward, the low line of coast was just discernible by the hillocks of sand, leaving the imagination to portray its solitude and wastes. The sea in all other directions was dark and gloomy, and the entire character of the sunset was that of a grand picture of ocean magnificence and extent, relieved by a sky in which the tints came and went like the well-known colours of the dolphin; to this must be added the gathering gloom of twilight.

Eve pressed the arm of John Effingham, and gazed with admiration and awe at the imposing scene.

"This is the seaman's grave!" she whispered.

"And worthy it is to be the tomb of so gallant a fellow. The man died clinging to his post; and Powis tells me that his hand was loosened from the wheel with difficulty."

They were silent, for Captain Truck uncovered himself, as did all around him, placed his spectacles, and opened the sacred volume. The old mariner was far from critical in his selections of readings, and he usually chose some subject that he thought would most interest his hearers, which were ordinarily those that most interested himself. To him Bible was Bible, and he now turned to the passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which the voyage of St. Paul from Judea to Rome is related. This he read with steadiness, some quaintness of pronunciation, and with a sort of breathing elasticity, whenever he came to those verses that touched particularly on the navigation.

Paul maintained his perfect self-command during this extraordinary exhibition, but an unbidden smile lingered around the handsome and chiseled mouth of Mr. Sharp. John Effingham's curved face was sedate and composed, while the females were too much impressed to exhibit any levity. As to the crew, they listened in profound attention, occasionally exchanging glances whenever any of the nautical expedients struck them as being out of role.

As soon as this edifying chapter was ended, Mr. Effingham commenced the solemn rites for the dead. At the first sound of his voice, a calm fell on the vessel as if the spirit of God had alighted from the clouds, and a thrill passed through the frames of the listeners. Those solemn words of the Apostle commencing with "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, he shall never die," could not have been better delivered. The voice, intonation, utterance, and manner, of Mr. Effingham, were eminently those of a gentleman; without pretension, quiet, simple, and mellow, while, on the other hand, they were feeling, dignified, distinct, and measured.

When he pronounced the words "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though, after my skin, worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God," &c. &c. the men stared about them as if a real voice from heaven had made the declaration, and Captain Truck looked aloft like one expecting a trumpet-blast. The tears of Eve began to flow as she listened to the much-loved tones; and the stoutest heart in that much tried ship quailed. John Effingham made the responses of the psalm steadily, and Mr. Sharp and Paul soon joined him. But the profoundest effect was produced when the office reached those consoling but startling words from the Revelations commencing with, "I heard a voice from Heaven saying unto me write, from henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord," &c. Captain Truck afterwards confessed that he thought he heard the very voice, and the men actually pressed together in their alarm. The plunge of the body was also a solemn instant. It went off the end of the plank feet foremost, and, carried rapidly down by the great weight of the lead, the water closed above it, obliterating every trace of the seaman's grave. Eve thought that its exit resembled the few brief hours that draw the veil of oblivion around the mass of mortals when they disappear from earth.

Instead of asking for the benediction at the close of the ceremony, Mr. Effingham devoutly and calmly commenced the psalm of thanksgiving for victory, "If the Lord had not been on our side, now may we say, if the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us, they would have swallowed us up quick, when they were so wrathfully displeased with us." Most of the gentlemen joined in the responses, and the silvery voice of Eve sounded sweet and holy amid the breathings of the ocean. _Te Deum Laudamus, "We praise thee, O God! we acknowledge thee to be the Lord!" "All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting;" closed the offices, when Mr. Effingham dismissed his congregation with the usual layman's request for the benediction.

Captain Truck had never before been so deeply impressed with any religious ceremony, and when it ceased he looked wistfully over the side at the spot where the body had fallen, or where it might be supposed to have fallen--- for the ship had drifted some distance--as one takes a last look at the grave of a friend.

"Shall we fill the main-topsail, sir?" demanded Mr. Leach, after waiting a minute or two in deference to his commander's feelings; "or shall we hook on the yard-tackles, and stow the launch?"

"Not yet, Leach; not yet. It will be unkind to poor Jack to hurry away from his grave so indecently. I have observed that the people about the river always keep in sight till the last sod is stowed, and the rubbish is cleared away. The fine fellow stood to those spokes as a close-reefed topsail in a gale stands the surges of the wind, and we owe him this little respect."

"The boats, sir?"

"Let them tow awhile longer. It will seem like deserting him to be rattling the yard-tackles and stowing boats directly over his head. Your gran'ther was a priest, Leach, and I wonder you don't see the impropriety of hurrying away from a grave. A little reflection will hurt none of us."

The mate admired at a mood so novel for his commander, but he was fain to submit. The day was fast closing notwithstanding, and the skies were losing their brilliancy in hues that were still softer and more melancholy, as if nature delighted, too, in sympathizing with the feelings of these lone mariners!

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