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Sea StoriesAn Account Of Four Russian Sailors Abandoned On The Island Of East Spitzbergen
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A Ship On Fire At Sea
"What is it?" I exclaimed; "what can it be?"
She pointed with her finger, and as the yacht swung round she said,
"Look there, ma'am, look!"
As she spoke two strange objects came into my view. One was a great
pale moon, sickly and white, hanging and seeming to brood over the
horizon; the other, which looked about the same size, was red and
seemed to lie close at her side. It was not round, but looked blotted
and blurred in the mist. Could it be a meteor? a lighthouse? Whatever
it was, it was the cause of the commotion which had been so intense,
and which now seemed to be already subsiding. I had heard the men
called up not three minutes before, and now two boats were already
lowered, and Tom was in command of the foremost. I heard his voice
coming from the water, and no one prevented me now from rushing to the
side to look over, turning my back on the moon and her lurid
companion. Though the night was not dark I could not discern the
boats; and after straining my eyes into the mist, I observed that it
was rapidly melting away, and rolling on as well as rolling together,
so that spaces of water here and there were clear, and moonlight
glittered on them. The binnacle light glared in my uncle's face as he
stooped over it. I heard Brand whisper to his wife that he had taken
charge of the yacht, and I did not dare to speak to him, though what
it might be that alarmed them I could not tell.
It was as it seemed but a moment that I had stared out into the mist,
looking for the boats with still sleepy eyes; then, as the sailors
that were left tramped back to the fore part of the yacht, I turned
again. The mist had shaken itself and rolled on before a light air
that was coming. I saw two great pathways now lying along the waters;
one was silver white, the pathway of the wan moon, the other was
blood-red and angry, and a burning vessel lay at her head.
Oh, that sight! can I ever forget it? The fire was spurting from every
crevice of the black hull, her great main-mast was gone, the
mizzen-mast lay with several great white sails surging about in the
water, and she was dragging it along with her. The foremast only
stood, and its rigging and sails had not yet caught. A dead silence
had succeeded now to the commotion in the vessel; men were standing
stock-still, perhaps waiting for their orders, and my uncle's were the
only eyes that were not strained to follow the leaping and dazzling
Every moment we approached. Now the first waft of the smoke came in
our faces, now we could hear the crackling and rending, the creak and
shiver, and the peculiar roaring noise made by a mastering fire.
"A full-rigged ship," I heard Brand whisper to his wife. "Eleven
hundred tons at the least."
"Merciful heaven," she whispered in reply. "I hope she won't blow up.
Anyhow, I thank the Lord we've got Master in command himself."
I never saw anything like the horrible beauty of that red light. It
added tenfold to the terror of the scene to see her coming on so
majestically, dragging with her broken spars and great yards and
sprawling sails. She looked like some splendid live creature in
distress, and rocked now a good deal in the water, for every moment
the wind seemed to rise, bringing up a long swell with it.
The moon went down, and in a few minutes the majestic ship supplied
all the light to the dark sky and black water. I saw the two little
dark boats nearing her; knew that my brother was in the foremost, and
shook with fear, and cried to God to take care of him; but while I and
all gazed in awful silence on the sailing ship, the flames, bursting
through the deck in a new place, climbed up the fore-rigging, and in
one single leap, as if they had been living things, they were licking
the sails off the ropes, and, shooting higher than her topsails, they
spread themselves out like quivering fans. I saw every sail that was
left in an instant bathed in flames; a second burst came raging up
from below, blackening and shrivelling everything before it; then I
saw the weltering fire run down again, and still the wreck, plunging
her bows in the water, came rocking on and on.
"How near does our old man mean to go?" whispered Mrs. Brand; and
almost at that instant I observed that he had given some order to the
man at the helm, and I could distinctly hear a murmur of satisfaction;
then almost directly a cry of horror rose--we were very near her, and
while the water hissed with strange distinctness, and steamed in her
wake, her blazing foremast fell over the side, plunging with a
tremendous crash into the sea, sending up dangerous showers of sparks
and burning bits of sail-cloth, and covering our decks with falling
The black water took in and quenched all that blazing top-hamper, and
still the awful hissing was audible, till suddenly, as we seemed to be
sheering off from her, there was a thunderous roll that sounded like
the breaking of her mighty heart, and still glorious in beauty she
plunged head foremost, and went down blazing into the desolate sea.
In one instant that raging glow and all the fierce illumination of the
fire were gone; darkness had settled on the face of the deep. I saw a
few lighted spars floating about, that was all, and I smelt the fire
and felt the hot smoke rushing past my face as the only evidence that
this was not a dream. Oh! the misery of the next half-hour! The boats,
when that ill-fated ship went down, must, I knew, have been very near
her. Had they been sucked in? Had they been overturned, or had they
been so blessed as to be saved, and to save some of the wretched
passengers and crew? Of all persons in the yacht then, perhaps I
suffered most. I was the most ignorant; I had no one to speak to; for
Mrs. Brand, perhaps lest I should question her, had retreated, and I
could not think of addressing my uncle; he had plenty on his mind and
on his hands. I could only observe the activity of others by the light
of the many lanterns which were now hung out from various parts of the
rigging, and hope that we should soon find the boats, though every
light hung up seemed to increase the darkness, and make us more unable
to see anything beyond the bounds of the yacht.
At last, Brand standing near me again, I said, "O Brand! cannot we go
nearer the place where that ship sunk? Perhaps some poor creatures may
be floating on the waters still."
"Ma'am," he replied, "we are sailing now as nigh as may be over the
very spot where she went down; but you have no call to be frightened;
everything has been done that can be done. We hove to directly we
"Yes," I said; "but what good could that do?"
"Why, ma'am," he replied, "we could not have lowered the boats without
that; and then, you know, when they were off we filled, and stood in
as nigh as we dared."
"Then where are the boats?" I inquired.
"God knows, ma'am."
"And what are these lights for? Every one you put up makes it harder
to see anything. How are we to find them?"
"We have no call to find them," he replied; "we want them to find us.
Most likely there are other boats about, besides our own, boats from
the ship--we want to make ourselves as conspicuous as we can. At least,
I reckon that is why Master has ordered all these lights out."
"And why cannot we pick up any of the poor creatures that may have
been on board? Surely we could have heard their cries, and could
now--we are not half a quarter of a mile from her."
"No, ma'am; nothing like that distance--not half that distance; that's
why our people think she may have been deserted."
The steward passed on, and I covered my face with my hands and moaned
in the misery of my heart. Oh! my only brother! had I really lost him
I listened. The silence about me was so intense that I knew there was
much anxiety felt; every face as it passed under a lantern had a
restless and yet awestruck look; my uncle's, when he bent over the
illuminated compass, did not at all reassure me.
But such a misfortune as I had dreaded, such a terrible blow, we were
to be spared. I got up again, gazed out over the dark water and longed
for the dawn. Something better than dawn was destined to meet my eyes;
between us and a spar that still glowed, two dark objects stood
suddenly--a boat and black figures and moving oars, another behind her.
I shall never forget with what a thrill of joy I heard our people
cheer. In ten minutes we could hear the stroke of their oars, and
directly after Tom was on deck and his crew with him.
"God bless you!" said my uncle to Tom; "anybody saved?"
"One," said Tom; "only one, sir."
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