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Sea StoriesThe Earliest Days Of Water-travelling
Once upon a time there were no ships. Men did not kn...
The Wreck Of The _royal Caroline_
Our watchful adventurer captain was not blind to these sinister omens.
No sooner did the peculiar atmosphere by which the mysterious image that
he so often examined was suddenly surrounded, catch his eye, than his
voice was raised in the clear, powerful, and exciting notes of warning.
"Stand by," he called aloud, "to in-all-studding-sails! Down with them!"
he added, scarcely giving his former words time to reach the ears of his
subordinates. "Down with every rag of them, fore and aft the ship! Man
the top-gallant clew-lines, Mr. Earing. Clew up, and clew down! In with
every thing, cheerily, men!--In!"
This was a language to which the crew of the _Caroline_ were no
strangers, and it was doubly welcome, since the meanest seaman amongst
them had long thought that his unknown commander had been heedlessly
trifling with the safety of the vessel, by the hardy manner in which he
disregarded the wild symptoms of the weather. But they undervalued the
keen-eyed vigilance of Wilder. He had certainly driven the Bristol
trader through the water at a rate she had never been known to go before;
but, thus far, the facts themselves gave evidence in his favour, since no
injury was the consequence of what they deemed temerity. At the quick
sudden order just given, however, the whole ship was in an uproar. A
dozen seamen called to each other, from different parts of the vessel,
each striving to lift his voice above the roaring ocean; and there was
every appearance of a general and inextricable confusion; but the same
authority which had so unexpectedly aroused them into activity, produced
order from their ill-directed though vigorous efforts.
Wilder had spoken, to awaken the drowsy and to excite the torpid. The
instant he found each man on the alert, he resumed his orders with a
calmness that gave a direction to the powers of all, and yet with an
energy that he well knew was called for by the occasion. The enormous
sheets of duck, which had looked like so many light clouds in the murky
and threatening heavens, were soon seen fluttering wildly, as they
descended from their high places, and, in a few minutes, the ship was
reduced to the action of her more secure and heavier canvas. To effect
this object, every man in the ship exerted his powers to the utmost,
under the guidance of the steady but rapid mandates of their commander.
Then followed a short and apprehensive pause. All eyes were turned
towards the quarter where the ominous signs had been discovered; and each
individual endeavored to read their import, with an intelligence
correspondent to the degree of skill he might have acquired, during his
particular period of service on that treacherous element which was now
The dim tracery of the stranger's form had been swallowed by the flood of
misty light, which, by this time, rolled along the sea like drifting
vapour, semi-pellucid, preternatural, and seemingly tangible. The ocean
itself appeared admonished that a quick and violent change was nigh. The
waves ceased to break in their former foaming and brilliant crests, and
black masses of the water lifted their surly summits against the eastern
horizon, no longer shedding their own peculiar and lucid atmosphere
around them. The breeze which had been so fresh, and which had even
blown with a force that nearly amounted to a gale, was lulling and
becoming uncertain, as it might be awed by the more violent power that
was gathering along the borders of the sea, in the direction of the
neighbouring continent. Each moment, the eastern puffs of air lost their
strength, becoming more and more feeble, until, in an incredibly short
period, the heavy sails were heard flapping against the masts. A
frightful and ominous calm succeeded. At this instant, a gleam flashed
from the fearful obscurity of the ocean, and a roar, like that of a
sudden burst of thunder, bellowed along the waters. The seamen turned
their startled looks on each other, standing aghast, as if a warning of
what was to follow had come out of the heavens themselves. But their
calm and more sagacious commander put a different construction on the
signal. His lip curled, in high professional pride, and he muttered with
"Does he imagine that we sleep? Ay, he has got it himself, and would
open our eyes to what is coming? What does he conjecture we have been
about, since the middle watch was set?"
Wilder made a swift turn or two on the quarter-deck, turning his quick
glances from one quarter of the heavens to another; from the black and
lulling water on which his vessel was rolling, to the sails; and from his
silent and profoundly expectant crew, to the dim lines of spars that were
waving above his head, like so many pencils tracing their curvilinear and
wanton images over the murky volumes of the superincumbent clouds.
"Lay the after-yards square!" he said, in a voice which was heard by
every man on deck, though his words were apparently spoken but little
above his breath. The creaking of the blocks, as the spars came slowly
and heavily round to the indicated position, contributed to the imposing
character of the moment, sounding like notes of fearful preparation.
"Haul up the courses!" resumed Wilder with the same eloquent calmness of
manner. Then, taking another glance at the threatening horizon, he added
slowly but with emphasis, "Furl them--furl them both. Away aloft, and
hand your courses!" he continued in a shout; "roll them up, cheerily; in
with them, boys, cheerily; in!"
The conscious seamen took their impulses from the tones of their
commander. In a moment, twenty dark forms were leaping up the rigging,
with the alacrity of so many quadrupeds. In another minute, the vast and
powerful sheets of canvas were effectually rendered harmless, by securing
them in tight rolls to their respective spars. The men descended as
swiftly as they had mounted to the yards; and then succeeded another
breathing pause. At this appalling moment, a candle would have sent its
flame perpendicularly towards the heavens. The ship, missing the
steadying power of the wind, rolled heavily in the troughs of the seas,
which began to lessen at each instant, as if the startled element was
recalling into the security of its own vast bosom that portion of its
particles which had so lately been permitted to gambol madly over its
surface. The water washed sullenly along the side of the ship, or, as
she labouring rose from one of her frequent falls into the hollows of the
waves, it shot back into the ocean from her decks in glittering cascades.
Every hue of the heavens, every sound of the element, and each dusky and
anxious countenance, helped to proclaim the intense interest of the
moment. In this brief interval of expectation and inactivity, the mates
again approached their commander.
"It is an awful night, Captain Wilder!" said Earing, presuming on his
rank to be the first to speak.
"I have known far less notice given of a shift of wind," was the answer.
"We have had time to gather in our kites, 'tis true, sir; but there are
signs and warnings that come with this change which the oldest seaman
"Yes," continued Knighthead, in a voice that sounded hoarse and powerful,
even amid the fearful accessories of that scene; "yes, it is no trifling
commission that can call people that I shall not name out upon the water
in such a night as this. It was in just such weather that I saw the
_Vesuvius_ ketch go to a place so deep, that her own mortar would not
have been able to have sent a bomb into the open air, had hands and fire
been there fit to let it off!"
"Ay; and it was in such a time that the _Greenlandman_ was cast upon the
Orkneys, in as flat a calm as ever lay on the sea."
"Gentlemen," said Wilder, with a peculiar and perhaps an ironical
emphasis on the word, "what would ye have? There is not a breath of air
stirring and the ship is naked to her topsails!"
It would have been difficult for either of the two malcontents to give a
very satisfactory answer to this question. Both were secretly goaded by
mysterious and superstitious apprehensions, that were powerfully aided by
the more real and intelligible aspect of the night; but neither had so
far forgotten his manhood, and his professional pride, as to lay bare the
full extent of his own weakness, at a moment when he was liable to be
called upon for the exhibition of qualities of a more positive and
determined character. The feeling that was uppermost betrayed itself in
the reply of Earing, though in an indirect and covert manner.
"Yes, the vessel is snug enough now," he said, "though eyesight has shown
us it is no easy matter to drive a freighted ship through the water as
fast as one of those flying craft aboard which no man can say who stands
at the helm, by what compass she steers, or what is her draught!"
"Ay," resumed Knighthead, "I call the _Caroline_ fast for an honest
trader. There are few square-rigged boats who do not wear the pennants
of the king, that can eat her out of the wind on a bowline, or bring her
into their wake with studding-sails set. But this is a time and an hour
to make a seaman think. Look at yon hazy light, here in with the land,
that is coming so fast down upon us, and then tell me whether it comes
from the coast of America, or whether it comes from out of the stranger
who has been so long running under our lee, but who has got, or is fast
getting, the wind of us at last, while none here can say how, or why. I
have just this much, and no more, to say: give me for consort a craft
whose captain I know, or give me none!"
"Such is your taste, Mr. Knighthead," said Wilder, coldly; "mine may, by
some accident, be different."
"Yes, yes," observed the more cautious and prudent Earing, "in time of
war, and with letters of marque aboard, a man may honestly hope the sail
he sees should have a stranger for her master; or otherwise he would
never fall in with an enemy. But, though an Englishman born myself, I
should rather give the ship in that mist a clear sea, seeing that I
neither know her nation nor her cruise. Ah, Captain Wilder, this is an
awful sight for the morning watch! Often and often have I seen the sun
rise in the east, and no harm done; but little good can come of a day
when the light first breaks in the west. Cheerfully would I give the
owners the last month's pay, hard as it has been earned, did I but know
under what flag the stranger sails."
"Frenchman, Don, or Devil, yonder he comes!" cries Wilder. Then, turning
towards the attentive crew, he shouted, in a voice that was appalling by
its vehemence and warning, "Let run the after-halyards! round with the
fore-yard; round with it, men, with a will!"
These were cries that the startled crew but too well understood. Every
nerve and muscle were exerted to execute the orders, to be in readiness
for the tempest. No man spoke; but each expended the utmost of his power
and skill in direct and manly efforts. Nor was there, in verity, a
moment to lose, or a particle of human strength expended here, without a
The lurid and fearful-looking mist, which, for the last quarter of an
hour, had been gathering in the north-west, was driving down upon them
with the speed of a race-horse. The air had already lost the damp and
peculiar feeling of an easterly breeze; and little eddies were beginning
to flutter among the masts--precursors of the coming squall. Then, a
rushing, roaring sound was heard moaning along the ocean, whose surface
was first dimpled, next ruffled, and finally covered with a sheet of
clear, white, and spotless foam. At the next moment, the power of the
wind fell upon the inert and labouring Bristol trader.
While the gust was approaching, Wilder had seized the slight opportunity
afforded by the changeful puffs of air to get the ship as much as
possible before the wind; but the sluggish movement of the vessel met
neither the wishes of his own impatience nor the exigencies of the
moment. Her bows slowly and heavily fell off from the north, leaving her
precisely in a situation to receive the first shock on her broadside.
Happy it was, for all who had life at risk in that defenceless vessel,
that she was not fated to receive the whole weight of the tempest at a
blow. The sails fluttered and trembled on their massive yards, bellying
and collapsing alternately for a minute, and then the rushing wind swept
over them in a hurricane.
The _Caroline_ received the blast like a stout and buoyant ship as she
was, yielding to its impulse until her side lay nearly incumbent on the
element; and then, as if the fearful fabric were conscious of its
jeopardy, it seemed to lift its reclining masts again, struggling to work
its way through the water.
"Keep the helm a-weather! Jam it a-weather, for your life!" shouted
Wilder, amid the roar of the gust.
The veteran seaman at the wheel obeyed the order with steadiness, but in
vain did he keep his eyes on the margin of his head sail, to watch the
manner in which the ship would obey its power. Twice more, in as many
moments, the giddy masts fell towards the horizon, waving as often
gracefully upward, and then they yielded to the mighty pressure of the
wind, until the whole machine lay prostrate on the water.
"Be cool!" said Wilder, seizing the bewildered Earing by the arm, as the
latter rushed madly up the steep of the deck; "it is our duty to be calm;
bring hither an axe."
Quick as the thought which gave the order, the admonished mate complied,
jumping into the mizzen-channels of the ship, to execute with his own
hands the mandate that he knew must follow.
"Shall I cut?" he demanded, with uplifted arms, and in a voice that
atoned for his momentary confusion, by its steadiness and force.
"Hold!--Does the ship mind her helm at all?"
"Not an inch, sir."
"Then cut," Wilder clearly and calmly added.
A single blow sufficed for the discharge of this important duty.
Extended to the utmost powers of endurance, by the vast weight it upheld,
the lanyard struck by Earing no sooner parted, than each of its fellows
snapped in succession, leaving the mast dependent on its wood for the
support of all the ponderous and complicated hamper it upheld. The
cracking of the spar came next; and the whole fell, like a tree that had
been snapped at its foundation.
"Does she fall off?" called Wilder, to the observant seaman at the wheel.
"She yielded a little, sir; but this new squall is bringing her up again."
"Shall I cut?" shouted Earing from the main-rigging, whither he had
leaped, like a tiger who had bounded on his prey.
A louder and more imposing crash succeeded this order, though not before
several heavy blows had been struck into the massive mast itself. As
before, the sea received the tumbling maze of spars, rigging, and sails;
the vessel surging at the same instant, from its recumbent position, and
rolling far and heavily to windward.
"She rights! she rights!" exclaimed twenty voices which had been mute, in
a suspense that involved life and death.
"Keep her dead away!" added the calm but authoritative voice of the young
commander. "Stand by to furl the fore-top-sail--let it hang a moment to
drag the ship clear of the wreck--cut, cut--cheerily, men--hatchets and
knives--cut _with_ all, and cut _off_ all!"
As the men now worked with the vigour of hope, the ropes that still
confined the fallen spars to the vessel were quickly severed; and the
_Caroline_, by this time dead before the gale, appeared barely to touch
the foam that covered the sea. The wind came over the waste in gusts
that rumbled like distant thunder, and with a power that seemed to
threaten to lift the ship from its proper element. As a prudent and
sagacious seaman had let fly the halyards, of the solitary sail that
remained, at the moment the squall approached, the loosened but lowered
topsail was now distended in a manner that threatened to drag after it
the only mast which still stood. Wilder saw the necessity of getting rid
of the sail, and he also saw the utter impossibility of securing it.
Calling Earing to his side, he pointed out the danger, and gave the
"The spar cannot stand such shocks much longer," he concluded; "should it
go over the bows, some fatal blow might be given to the ship at the rate
she is moving. A man or two must be sent aloft to cut the sail from the
"The stick is bending like a willow whip," returned the mate, "and the
lower mast itself is sprung. There would be great danger in trusting a
hand in that top, while these wild squalls are breathing around us."
"You may be right," returned Wilder, with a sudden conviction of the
truth of what the other had said. "Stay you then here; if any thing
befall me, try to get the vessel into port as far north as the Capes of
Virginia, at least;--on no account attempt Hatteras, in the present
"What would you do, Captain Wilder?" interrupted the mate, laying his
hand on the shoulder of his commander, who had already thrown his sea-cap
on the deck, and was preparing to divest himself of some of his outer
"I go aloft to ease the mast of that topsail, without which we lose the
spar, and possibly the ship."
"I see that plain enough; but, shall it be said that another did the duty
of Edward Earing? It is your business to carry the vessel into the Capes
of Virginia, and mine to cut the topsail adrift. If harm comes to me,
why, put it in the log, with a word or two about the manner in which I
played my part. That is the most proper epitaph for a sailor."
Wilder made no resistance. He resumed his watchful and reflecting
attitude, with the simplicity of one who had been too long trained to the
discharge of certain obligations himself, to manifest surprise that
another should acknowledge their imperative character. In the mean time,
Earing proceeded steadily to perform what he had just promised. Passing
into the waist of the ship, he provided himself with a suitable hatchet,
and then, without speaking a syllable to any of the mute but attentive
seamen, he sprang into the fore-rigging, every strand and rope-yarn of
which was tightened by the strain nearly to snapping. The understanding
eyes of his observers comprehended his intention; and with precisely the
same pride of station as had urged him to the dangerous undertaking four
or five of the oldest mariners jumped upon the rattlings, to mount into
an air that apparently teemed with a hundred hurricanes.
"Lie down out of that fore-rigging," shouted Wilder, through a deck
trumpet; "lie down; all, but the mate, lie down!" His words were borne
past the inattentive ears of the excited and mortified followers of
Earing, but for once they failed of their effect. Each man was too
earnestly bent on his purpose to listen to the sounds of recall. In less
than a minute, the whole were scattered along the yards, prepared to obey
the signal of their officer. The mate cast a look about him; perceiving
that the time was comparatively favorable, he struck a blow upon the
large rope that confined one of the lower angles of the distended and
bursting sail to the yard. The effect was much the same as would be
produced by knocking away the key-stone of an ill-cemented arch. The
canvas broke from its fastenings with a loud explosion, and, for an
instant, it was seen sailing in the air ahead of the ship, as if it were
sustained on wings. The vessel rose on a sluggish wave--the lingering
remains of the former breeze--and settled heavily over the rolling surge,
borne down alike by its own weight and the renewed violence of the gusts.
At this critical instant, while the seamen aloft were still gazing in the
direction in which the little cloud of canvas had disappeared, a lanyard
of the lower rigging parted, with a crack that reached the ears of Wilder.
"Lie down!" he shouted wildly through his trumpet; "down by the
backstays; down for your lives; every man of you, down!"
A solitary individual profited by the warning gliding to the deck with
the velocity of the wind. But rope parted after rope, and the fatal
snapping of the wood followed. For a moment, the towering maze tottered,
seeming to wave towards every quarter of the heavens; and then, yielding
to the movements of the hull, the whole fell, with a heavy crash, into
the sea. Cord, lanyard, and stay snapped like thread, as each received
in succession the strain of the ship, leaving the naked and despoiled
hull of the _Caroline_ to drive before the tempest, as if nothing had
occurred to impede its progress.
A mute and eloquent pause succeeded the disaster. It seemed as if the
elements themselves were appeased by their work, and something like a
momentary lull in the awful rushing of the winds might have been fancied.
Wilder sprang to the side of the vessel, and distinctly beheld the
victims, who still clung to their frail support. He even saw Earing
waving his hand in adieu with a seaman's heart, like a man who not only
felt how desperate was his situation, but who knew how to meet it with
resignation. Then the wreck of spars, with all who clung to it, was
swallowed up in the body of the frightful, preternatural-looking mist
which extended on every side of them, from the ocean to the clouds.
"Stand by, to clear away a boat!" shouted Wilder, without pausing to
think of the impossibility of one's swimming, or of effecting the least
good, in so violent a tornado.
But the amazed and confounded seamen who remained needed no instruction
in this matter. Not a man moved, nor was the smallest symptom of
obedience given. The mariners looked wildly around them, each
endeavouring to trace in the dusky countenance of some shipmate his
opinion of the extent of the evil; but not a mouth opened among them all.
"It is too late--it is too late!" murmured Wilder; "human skill and human
efforts could not save them!"
"Sail, ho!" Knighthead shouted in a voice that was teeming with
"Let him come on," returned his young commander, bitterly; "the mischief
is ready done to his hands!"
"Should this be a true ship, it is our duty to the owners and the
passengers to speak her, if a man can make his voice heard in this
tempest," the second mate continued, pointing, through the haze, at the
dim object that was certainly at hand.
"Speak her!--passengers!" muttered Wilder, involuntarily repeating his
words. "No; any thing is better than speaking her. Do you see the
vessel that is driving down upon us so fast?" he sternly demanded of the
watchful seaman who still clung to the wheel of the _Caroline_.
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Give her a berth--sheer away hard to port--perhaps he may pass us in the
gloom, now we are no higher than our decks. Give the ship a broad sheer,
I say, sir."
The usual laconic answer was given; and, for a few moments, the Bristol
trader was seen diverging a little from the line in which the other
approached; but a second glance assured Wilder that the attempt was
useless. The strange ship (every man on board felt certain it was the
same that had so long been seen hanging in the north-western horizon)
came on through the mist, with a swiftness that nearly equalled the
velocity of the tempestuous winds themselves. Not a thread of canvas was
seen on board her. Each line of spars, even to the tapering and delicate
top-gallant masts, was in its place, preserving the beauty and symmetry
of the whole fabric; but nowhere was the smallest fragment of a sail
opened to the gale. Under her bows rolled a volume of foam that was even
discernible amid the universal agitation of the ocean; and, as she came
within sound, the sullen roar of the water might have been likened to the
noise of a cascade. At first, the spectators on the decks of the
_Caroline_ believed they were not seen, and some of the men called madly
for lights, in order that the disasters of the night might not terminate
in an encounter.
"Too many see us there already!" said Wilder.
"No, no," muttered Knighthead; "no fear but we are seen; and by such
eyes, too, as never yet looked out of mortal head!"
The seamen paused. In another instant, the long-seen and mysterious ship
was within a hundred feet of them. The very power of that wind, which
was wont usually to raise the billows, now pressed the element, with the
weight of mountains, into its bed. The sea was every where a sheet of
froth, but the water did not rise above the level of the surface. The
instant a wave lifted itself from the security of the vast depths, the
fluid was borne away before the tornado in glittering spray. Along this
frothy but comparatively motionless surface, then, the stranger came
booming with the steadiness and grandeur with which a cloud is seen
sailing in the hurricane. No sign of life was discovered about her. If
men looked out from their secret places, upon the straitened and
discomfited wreck of the Bristol trader, it was covertly, and as darkly
as the tempest before which they drove. Wilder held his breath, for the
moment the stranger was nighest, in the very excess of suspense, but, as
he saw no signal of recognition, no human form, nor any intention to
arrest, if possible, the furious career of the other, a smile gleamed
across his countenance, and his lips moved rapidly, as if he found
pleasure in being abandoned to his distress. The stranger drove by, like
a dark vision; and, ere another minute, her form was beginning to grow
less distinct, in the body of spray to leeward.
"She is going out of sight in the mist!" exclaimed Wilder, when he drew
his breath, after the fearful suspense of the few last moments.
"Ay, in mist or clouds," responded Knighthead, who now kept obstinately
at his elbow, watching with the most jealous distrust, the smallest
movement of his unknown commander.
"In the heavens, or in the sea, I care not, provided he be gone."
"Most seamen would rejoice to sec a strange sail, from the hull of a
vessel shaved to the deck like this."
"Men often court their destruction, from ignorance of their own
interests. Let him drive on, say I, and pray I! He goes four feet to
our one; and I ask no better favour than that this hurricane may blow
until the sun shall rise."
Knighthead started, and cast an oblique glance, which resembled
denunciation, at his companion. To his superstitious mind, there was
profanity in thus invoking the tempest, at a moment when the winds seemed
already to be pouring out their utmost wrath.
"This is a heavy squall, I will allow," he said, "and such a one as many
mariners pass whole lives without seeing; but he knows little of the sea
who thinks there is not more wind where this comes from."
"Let it blow!" cried the other, striking his hands together a little
wildly; "I pray for wind!"
All the doubts of Knighthead, as to the character of the young stranger
who had so unaccountably got possession of the office of Nicholas
Nichols, if any remained, were now removed. He walked forward among the
silent and thoughtful crew, with the air of a man whose opinion was
settled. Wilder, however, paid no attention to the movements of his
subordinate, but continued pacing the deck for hours; now casting his
eyes at the heavens, and now sending frequent and anxious glances around
the limited horizon, while the _Royal Caroline_ still continued drifting
before the wind, a shorn and naked wreck.
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