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Sea StoriesThe Loss Of The Vixen
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We had never yet had the leisure to inspect the stores with which the
mutineers had furnished the quarter-boat, and we now found, in spite
of their having shifted a lot of provisions out of her into the
long-boat before starting in pursuit of us, that there was still an
abundance left: four kegs of water, several tins of cuddy bread,
preserved meats and fruits, sugar, flour, and other things, not to
mention such items as boxes of lucifer matches, fishing-tackle, a
burning glass, a quantity of tools and nails; in a word, everything
which men in the condition they had hoped to find themselves in might
stand in need of to support life. Indeed, the foresight illustrated by
the provisioning of this boat was truly remarkable, the only things
they had omitted being a mast and sail, it having been their intention
to keep this boat in tow of the other. I even found that they had
furnished the boat with the oars belonging to the disabled
quarter-boat in addition to her own.
However, the boat was not yet stocked to my satisfaction. I therefore
repaired to my cabin and procured the boat's compass, some charts, a
sextant, and other necessary articles such as the "Nautical Almanac,"
and pencils and paper wherewith to work out my observations, which I
placed very carefully in the locker in the stern-sheets of the boat.
I allowed Mary to help me, that the occupation might divert her mind
from the overwhelming thoughts which the gradual settling of the ship
on which we stood must have excited in the strongest and bravest mind;
and, indeed, I worked busily and eagerly to guard myself against any
terror that might come upon me. She it was who suggested that we
should provide ourselves with lamps and oil; and I shipped a lantern
to hoist at our masthead when the darkness came, and the bull's-eye
lamp to enable me to work out observations of the stars, which I
intended to make when the night fell. To all these things, which sound
numerous, but in reality occupied but little space, I added a can of
oil, meshes for the lamps, top coats, oil-skins, and rugs to protect
us at night, so that the afternoon was well advanced before we had
ended our preparations. Meanwhile, the boatswain had stepped a
topgallant-stun'-sail boom to serve us for a mast, well stayed, with a
block and halyards at the masthead to serve for hoisting a flag or
lantern, and a spare topgallant-stun'-sail to act as a sail.
By this time the wind had completely died away; a peaceful deep-blue
sky stretched from horizon to horizon; and the agitation of the sea
had subsided into a long and silent swell, which washed up against the
ship's sides, scarcely causing her to roll, so deep had she sunk in
I now thought it high time to lower the boat and bring her alongside,
as our calculation of the length of time to be occupied by the ship in
sinking might be falsified to our destruction by her suddenly going
stern down with us on board.
We therefore lowered the boat and got the gangway-ladder over the
The boatswain got into the boat first to help Mary into her. I then
took the steward by the arms and brought him along smartly, as there
was danger in keeping the boat washing against the ship's side. He
resisted at first, and only smiled vacantly when I threatened to leave
him; but on the boatswain crying out that his wife was waiting for
him, the poor idiot got himself together with a scramble, and went so
hastily over the gangway that he narrowly escaped a ducking.
I paused a moment at the gangway and looked around, striving to
remember if there was anything we had forgotten which would be of some
use to us. Mary watched me anxiously, and called to me by my Christian
name, at the same time extending her arms. I would not keep her in
suspense a moment, and at once dropped into the boat. She grasped and
fondled my hand, and drew me close beside her.
"I should have gone on board again had you delayed coming," she
The boatswain shoved the boat's head off, and we each shipped an oar
and pulled the boat about a quarter of a mile away from the ship; and
then, from a strange and wild curiosity to behold the ship sink, and
still in our hearts clinging to her, not only as the home where we had
found shelter for many days past, but as the only visible object in
all the stupendous reach of waters, we threw in the oars and sat
She had now sunk as deep as her main-chains, and was but a little
higher out of the water than the hull from which we had rescued Mary
and her father. It was strange to behold her even from a short
distance and notice her littleness in comparison with the immensity of
the deep on which she rested, and recall the terrible seas she had
braved and triumphed over.
Few sailors can behold the ship in which they have sailed sinking
before their eyes without the same emotion of distress and pity,
almost, which the spectacle of a drowning man excites in them. She has
grown a familiar name, a familiar object; thus far she has borne them
in safety; she has been rudely beaten, and yet has done her duty; but
the tempest has broken her down at last; all the beauty is shorn from
her; she is weary with the long and dreadful struggles with the vast
forces that nature arrayed against her; she sinks, a desolate,
abandoned thing, in mid-ocean, carrying with her a thousand memories
which surge up in the heart with the pain of a strong man's tears.
I looked from the ship to realize our own position. Perhaps not yet
could it be keenly felt, for the ship was still a visible object for
us to hold on by; and yet, turning my eyes away to the far reaches of
the horizon at one moment borne high on the summit of the ocean swell,
which appeared mountainous when felt in and viewed from the boat, then
sinking deep in the hollow, so that the near ship was hidden from
us--the supreme loneliness of our situation, our helplessness, and the
fragility and diminutiveness of the structure on which our lives
depended, came home to me with the pain and wonder of a shock.
Our boat, however, was new this voyage, with a good beam, and showing
a tolerably bold side, considering her dimensions and freight. Of the
two quarter-boats with which the Grosvenor had been furnished, this
was the larger and the stronger built, and for this reason had been
chosen by Stevens. I could not hope, indeed, that she would live a
moment in anything of a sea; but she was certainly stout enough to
carry us to the Bermudas, providing that the weather remained
It was now six o'clock. I said to the boatswain:
"Every hour of this weather is valuable to us. There is no reason why
we should stay here."
"I should like to see her sink, Mr. Royle; I should like to know that
poor Jim found a regular coffin in her," he answered. "We can't make
no headway with the sail, and I don't recommend rowin' for the two or
three mile we can fetch with the oars. It 'ud be wurse nor pumpin'."
He was right. When I reflected, I was quite sure I should not, in my
exhausted state, be able to handle one of the big oars for even five
minutes at a stretch; and, admitting that I had been strong enough
to row for a couple of hours, yet the result to have been obtained
could not have been important enough to justify the serious labor.
The steward all this time sat perfectly quiet in the bottom of the
boat, with his back against the mast. He paid no attention to us when
we spoke, nor looked around him, though sometimes he would fix his
eyes vacantly on the sky as if his shattered mind found relief in
contemplating the void. I was heartily glad to find him quiet, though
I took care to watch him, for it was difficult to tell whether his
imbecility was not counterfeited, by his madness, to throw us off our
guard, and furnish him with an opportunity to play us and himself some
As some hours had elapsed since we had tasted food, I opened a tin of
meat and prepared a meal. The boatswain ate heartily, and so did the
steward: but I could not prevail upon Mary to take more than a biscuit
and sherry and water.
Indeed, as the evening approached, our position affected her more
deeply, and often, after she had cast her eyes toward the horizon, I
could see her lips whispering a prayer, and feel her hand tightening
The ship still floated, but she was so low in the water that I every
minute expected to see her vanish. The water was above her
main-chains, and I could only attribute her obstinacy in not sinking
to the great quantity of wood--both in cases and goods--which composed
The sun was now quite close to the horizon, branding the ocean with a
purple glare, but itself descending in a cloudless sky. I cannot
express how majestic and wonderful the great orb looked to us who were
almost level with the water. Its disk seemed vaster than I had ever
before seen it, and there was something sublimely solemn in the
loneliness of its descent. All the sky about it, and far to the south
and north, was changed into the color of gold by its lustre; and over
our heads the heavens were an exquisite tender green, which melted in
the east into a dark blue.
I was telling Mary that ere the sun sunk again we might be on board a
ship, and whispering any words of encouragement and hope to her, when
I was startled by the boatswain, crying, "Now she's gone! Look at
I turned my eyes toward the ship, and could scarcely credit my senses
when I found that her hull had vanished, and that nothing was to be
seen of her but her spars, which were all aslant sternward.
I held my breath as I saw the masts sink lower and lower. First the
cross-jack yard was submerged, the gaff with the ensign hanging dead
at the peak, then the main-yard; presently only the main-topmast
cross-trees were visible, a dark cross upon the water; they vanished.
At the same moment the sun disappeared behind the horizon; and now we
were alone on the great, breathing deep, with all the eastern sky
growing dark as we watched.
"It's all over!" said the boatswain, breaking the silence, and
speaking in a hollow tone. "No livin' man'll ever see the Grosvenor
Mary shivered and leaned against me. I took up a rug and folded it
round her, and kissed her forehead.
The boatswain had turned his back upon us, and sat with his hands
folded, I believe in prayer. I am sure he was thinking of Jim Cornish,
and I would not have interrupted that honest heart's communion with
its Maker for the value of the ship that had sunk.
Darkness came down very quickly, and, that we might lose no chance of
being seen by any distant vessel, I lighted the ship's lantern and
hoisted it at the masthead. I also lighted the bull's-eye lamp and set
it in the stern-sheets.
"Mary," I whispered, "I will make you up a bed in the bottom of the
boat. While this weather lasts, dearest, we have no cause to be
alarmed by our position. It will make me happy to see you sleeping,
and be sure that while you sleep there will be watchful eyes near
"I will sleep as I am here, by your side; I shall rest better so," she
answered. "I could not sleep lying down."
It was too sweet a privilege to forego; I passed my arm around her and
held her close to me; and she closed her eyes like a child, to please
Worn out as I was, enfeebled both intellectually and physically by the
heavy strain that had been put upon me ever since that day when I had
been ironed by Captain Coxon's orders, I say--and I solemnly believe in
the truth of what I am about to write--that had it not been for the
living reality of this girl, encircled by my arm, with her head
supported by my shoulder; had it not been for the deep love I felt for
her, which localized my thoughts, and, so to say, humanized them down
to the level of our situation, forbidding them to trespass beyond the
prosaic limits of our danger, of the precautions to be taken by us, of
our chances of rescue, of the course to be steered when the wind
should fill our sail--I should have gone mad when the night came down
upon the sea and enveloped our boat (a lonely speck on the gigantic
world of water) in the mystery and fear of the darkness. I know this
by recalling the fancy that for a few moments possessed me in looking
along the water, when I clearly beheld the outline of a coast, with
innumerable lights winking upon it; by the whirling, dizzy sensation
in my head which followed the extinction of the vision; by the emotion
of wild horror and unutterable disappointment which overcame me when I
detected the cheat. I pressed my darling to me, and looked upon her
sweet face, revealed by the light shed by the lantern at the masthead,
and all my misery left me; and the delight which the knowledge that
she was my own love, and that I held her in my arms, gave me, fell
like an exorcism upon the demons of my stricken imagination.
She smiled when I pressed her to my side, and when she saw my face
close to hers, looking at her; but she did not know that she had saved
me from a fate more dreadful than death, and that I--so strong as I
seemed, so earnest as I had shown myself in my conflicts with fate, so
resolutely as I had striven to comfort her--had been rescued from
madness by her whom I had a thousand times pitied for her
She fell asleep at last, and I sat for nearly two hours motionless,
that I should not awaken her. The steward slept with his head in his
arms, kneeling--a strange, mad posture. The boatswain sat forward, with
his face turned aft and his arms folded. I addressed him once, but he
did not answer. Probably I spoke too low for him to hear, being
fearful of waking Mary; but there was little we had to say. Doubtless
he found his thoughts too engrossing to suffer him to talk.
Being anxious, to "take a star," as we say at sea, and not knowing how
the time went, I gently drew out my watch and found the hour a quarter
to eleven. In replacing the watch I aroused Mary, who raised her head
and looked round her with eyes that flashed in the lantern light.
"Where are we?" she exclaimed, and bent her head to gaze at me, on
which she recollected herself. "Poor boy!" she said, taking my hand,
"I have kept you supporting my weight. You were more tired than I. But
it is your turn now. Rest your head on my shoulder."
"No, it is still your turn," I answered, "and you shall sleep again
presently. But since you are awake, I will try to find out where we
are. You shall hold the lamp for me while I make my calculations, and
examine the chart."
Saying which, I drew out my sextant and got across the thwarts to the
mast, which I stood up alongside of to lean on; for the swell, though
moderate enough to pass without notice on a big vessel, lifted and
sank the boat in such a way as to make it difficult to stand steady.
I was in the act of raising the sextant to my eye, when the boatswain
suddenly cried, "Mr. Royle, listen!"
"What do you hear?" I asked.
"Hush! listen now!" he answered, in a breathless voice.
I strained my ear, but nothing was audible to me but the wash of the
water against the boat's side.
"Don't you hear it, Mr. Royle?" he cried, in a kind of agony, holding
up his finger. "Miss Robertson, don't you hear something?"
There was another interval of silence, and Mary answered: "I hear a
kind of throbbing."
"It is so!" I exclaimed. "I hear it now! it is the engines of a
"A steamer? Yes! I hear it! where is she?" shouted the boatswain, and
he jumped on to the thwart on which I stood.
We strained our ears again.
That throbbing sound, as Mary had accurately described it, closely
resembling the rhythmical running of a locomotive-engine heard in the
country on a silent night at a long distance, was now distinctly
audible; but so smooth was the water, so breathless the night, that it
was impossible to tell how far away the vessel might be; for so fine
and delicate a vehicle of sound is the ocean in a calm, that, though
the hull of a steamship might be below the horizon, yet the thumping
of her engines would be heard.
Once more we inclined our ears, holding our breath as we listened.
"It grows louder!" cried the boatswain. "Mr. Royle, bend your
bull's-eye lamp to the end o' one o' the oars and swing it about,
while I dip this masthead lantern."
Very different was his manner now from what it had been that morning
when the Russian hove in sight.
I lashed the lamp by the ring of it to an oar and waved it to and fro.
Meanwhile the boatswain had got hold of the masthead halyards, and was
running the big ship's lantern up and down the mast.
"Mary," I exclaimed, "lift up the seat behind you, and in the
left-hand corner you will find a pistol."
"I have it," she answered, in a few moments.
"Point it over the stern and fire!" I cried.
She levelled the little weapon and pulled the trigger; the white flame
leaped, and a smart report followed.
"Listen now!" I said.
I held the oar steady, and the boatswain ceased to dance the lantern.
For the first few seconds I heard nothing, then my ear caught the
"I see her!" cried the boatswain; and, following his finger (my sight
being keener than my hearing), I saw not only the shadow of a vessel
down in the south-west, but the smoke from her funnel pouring along
"Mary," I cried, "fire again!"
She drew the trigger.
The clear report whizzed like a bullet past my ear.
Simultaneously with the second report a ball of blue fire shot up into
the sky. Another followed, and another.
A moment after a red light shone clear upon the sea.
"She sees us!" I cried, "God be praised! Mary, darling, she sees us!"
I waved the lamp furiously. But there was no need to wave it any
longer. The red light drew nearer and nearer; the throbbing of the
engines louder and louder, and the revolutions of the propeller
sounded like a pulse heating through the water. The shadow broadened
and loomed larger. I could hear the water spouting out of her side and
the blowing off of the safety-valve.
Soon the vessel grew a defined shape against the stars, and then a
voice, thinned by the distance, shouted, "What light is that?"
I cried to the boatswain: "Answer, for God's sake! My voice is weak."
He hollowed his hands and roared back: "We're shipwrecked seamen
adrift in a quarter-boat!"
Nearer and nearer came the shadow, and now it was a long, black hull,
a funnel pouring forth a dense volume of smoke, spotted with
fire-sparks, and tapering masts and fragile rigging, with the stars
running through them.
The sound of the throbbing grew more measured. We could hear the water
as it was churned up by the screw.
The sounds ceased, and the vessel came looming up slowly, more slowly,
until she stopped.
"What is that?--a boat?" exclaimed a strong bass voice.
"Yes!" answered the boatswain. "We've been shipwrecked; we're adrift
in a quarter-boat."
"Can you bring her alongside?"
"Ay, ay, sir!"
I threw out an oar, but trembled so violently that it was as much as I
could do to work it. We headed the boat for the steamer and rowed
toward her. As we approached, I perceived that she was very long,
bark-rigged, and raking, manifestly a powerful, iron-built ocean
steamer. They hung a red light on the forestay and a white light over
her port quarter, and lights flitted about her gangway.
A voice sung out: "How many are there of you?"
The boatswain answered: "Three men and a lady."
On this the same voice called, "If you want help to bring that boat
alongside, we'll send to you."
"We'll be alongside in a few minutes," returned the boatswain.
But the fact was, the vessel had stopped her engines when further off
from us than we had imagined; being deceived by the magnitude of her
looming hull, which seemed to stand not a hundred fathoms away from
us, and by the wonderful distinctness of the voice that had spoken us.
I did not know how feeble I had become until I took the oar; and the
violent emotions excited in me by our rescue, now to be effected after
our long and heavy trials, diminished still the little strength that
was left in me; so that the boat moved very slowly through the water,
and it was full twenty minutes starting from the time when we had
shipped oars, before we came up with her.
"We'll fling you a rope's end," said a voice; "look out for it."
A line fell into the boat. The boatswain caught it, and sung out, "All
I looked up the high side of the steamer: there was a crowd of men
assembled round the gangway, their faces visible in the light shed not
only by our own masthead lantern (which was on a level with the
steamer's bulwarks), but by other lanterns which some of them held. In
all this light we, the occupants of the boat, were to be clearly
viewed from the deck; and the voice that had first addressed us said:
"Are you strong enough to get up the ladder? If not, we'll sling you
I answered that if a couple of hands would come down into the boat so
as to help the lady and a man (who had fallen imbecile) over the
ship's side, the other two would manage to get on board without
On this a short gangway-ladder was lowered, and two men descended and
got into the boat.
"Take that lady first," I said, pointing to Mary, but holding on, as I
spoke, to the boat's mast, for I felt horribly sick and faint, and
knew not, indeed, what was going to happen to me; and I had to exert
all my power to steady my voice.
They took her by the arms, and watching the moment when the wash of
the swell brought the boat against the ship's side, landed her
cleverly on the ladder and helped her on to the deck.
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