Sea Stories

An Escape Through The Cabin-windows

In the year 18--, said Capt. M----, I was bound, in a fine stout ship of about four hundred tons burden, from the port of l'---- to Liverpool. The ship had a valuable cargo on board and about ninety thousand dollars in specie.

I had been prevented, by other urgent business, from giving much of my attention to the vessel while loading and equipping for the voyage, but was very particular in my directions to the chief mate, in whom I had great confidence, he having sailed with me some years, to avoid entering, if possible, any but native American seamen. When we were about to sail, he informed me that he had not been able to comply with my directions entirely in this particular; but had shipped two foreigners as seamen, one a native of Guernsey, and the other a Frenchman from Brittany. I was pleased, however, with the appearance of the crew generally, and particularly with the foreigners. They were both stout and able-bodied men, and were particularly alert and attentive to orders. The passage commenced auspiciously and promised to be a speedy one, as we took a fine steady westerly wind soon after we lost soundings. To my great sorrow and uneasiness, I soon discovered in the foreigners a change of conduct for the worse. They became insolent to the mates and appeared to be frequently under the excitement of liquor, and had evidently acquired an undue influence with the rest of the men. Their intemperance soon became intolerable, and as it was evident that they had brought liquor on board with them, I determined upon searching the forecastle and depriving them of it. An order to this effect was given to the mates, and they were directed to go about its execution mildly and firmly, taking no arms with them as they seemed inclined to do, but to give every chest, birth and locker in the forecastle a thorough examination; and bring aft to the cabin any spirits they might find. It was not without much anxiety that I sent them forward upon this duty. I remained upon the quarter deck myself, ready to go to their aid, should it be necessary. In a few moments, a loud and angry dispute was succeeded by a sharp scuffle around the forecastle companion-way. The steward, at my call, handed my loaded pistols from the cabin, and with them I hastened forward. The Frenchman had grappled the second mate, who was a mere lad, by the throat, thrown him across the heel of the bowsprit, and was apparently determined to strangle him to death. The chief mate was calling for assistance from below, where he was struggling with the Guernsey man. The rest of the crew were indifferent spectators but rather encouraging the foreigners than otherwise. I presented a pistol at the head of the Frenchman, and ordered him to release the second mate, which he instantly did. I then ordered him into the fore top, and the others, who were near, into the maintop, none to come down under pain of death, until ordered. The steward had by this time brought another pair of pistols, with which I armed the second mate, directing him to remain on deck; and went below into the forecastle myself. I found that the chief mate had been slightly wounded in two places by the knife of his antagonist, who, however, ceased to resist as I made my appearance, and we immediately secured him in irons. The search was now made, and a quantity of liquor found and taken to the cabin. The rest of the men were then called down from the tops, and the Frenchman was made the companion of his coadjutor's confinement. I then expostulated, at some length, with the others upon their improper and insubordinate conduct, and upon the readiness with which they had suffered themselves to be drawn into such courses by two rascally foreigners, and expressed hopes that I should have no reason for further complaint during the rest of the voyage. This remonstrance I thought had effect, as they appeared contrite and promised amendment. They were then dismissed, and order was restored. The next day the foreigners strongly solicited pardon, with the most solemn promises of future good conduct; and as the rest of the crew joined in their request, I ordered that their irons should be taken off. For several days the duties of the ship were performed to my entire satisfaction; but I could discover in the countenances of the foreigners, expressions of deep and rancorous animosity to the chief mate, who was a prompt, energetic seaman, requiring from the sailors, at all times, ready and implicit obedience to his orders. A week perhaps had passed over in this way, when one night, in the mid watch, all hands were called to shorten sail. Ordinarily upon occasions of this kind, the duty was conducted by the mate, but I now went upon deck myself and gave orders, sending him upon the forecastle. The night was dark and squally; but the sea was not high, and the ship was running off about nine knots, with the wind upon the starboard quarter. The weather being very unpromising, the second reef was taken in the fore and main topsails, the mizen handed and the fore and mizen top gallant yards sent down. This done, one watch was permitted to go below, and I prepared to betake myself to my birth again, directing the mate, to whom I wished to give some orders, should be sent to me. To my utter astonishment and consternation, word was brought me, after a short time, that he was no where to be found. I hastened upon deck, ordered all hands up again, and questioned every man in the ship upon the subject; but they, with one accord, declared that they had not seen the mate forward. Lanterns were then brought, and every accessible part of the vessel was unavailingly searched. I then, in the hearing of the whole crew, declared my belief that he must have fallen overboard by accident, again dismissed one watch below, and repaired to the cabin, in a state of mental agitation impossible to be described. For notwithstanding the opinion which I had expressed to the contrary, I could not but entertain strong suspicions that the unfortunate man had met a violent death. The second mate was a protegee of mine; and, as I have before observed, was a very young man of not much experience as a seaman. I therefore felt that, under critical circumstances, my main support had fallen from me. It is needless to add, that a deep sense of forlornness and insecurity was the result of these reflections. My first step was to load and deposit in my state room all the fire arms on board, amounting to several muskets and four pairs of pistols. The steward was a faithful mulatto man, who had sailed with me several voyages. To him I communicated my suspicions, and directed him to be constantly on the alert: and should any further difficulty with the crew occur, to repair immediately to my state room and arm himself. His usual birth was in the steerage, but I further directed that he should, on the following morning, clear out and occupy one in the cabin near my own. The second mate occupied a small state room opening into the passage which led from the steerage to the cabin. I called him from the deck, gave him a pair of loaded pistols, with orders to keep them in his birth; and, during his night watches on deck, never to go forward of the mainmast, but to continue as constantly as possible near the cabin companion-way, and call me upon the slightest occasion. After this, I laid down in my bed, ordering that I should be called at four o'clock, for the morning watch. Only a few minutes had elapsed, when I heard three or four knocks under the counter of the ship, which is that part of the stern immediately under the cabin-windows. In a minute or two they were distinctly repeated. I arose--opened the cabin-window and called. The mate answered!--I gave him the end of a rope to assist him up, and never shall I forget the flood of gratitude which my delighted soul poured forth to that Being who had restored him to me uninjured. His story was soon told. He had gone forward upon being ordered by me, after the calling of all hands and had barely reached the forecastle, when he was seized by the two foreigners, and before he could utter more than one cry, which was drowned in the roaring of the winds and waves, was thrown over the bow. He was a powerful man and an excellent swimmer. The top-sails of the ship were clewed down to reef, and her way, of course, considerably lessened--and in an instant, he found the end of a rope, which was accidentally towing overboard, within his grasp, by which he dragged in the dead water or eddy, that is created under the stern of a vessel while sailing, particularly if she is full built and deeply laden, as was the case with this. By a desperate effort, he caught one of the rudder chains, which was very low, and drew himself by it upon the step or jog of the rudder where he had sufficient presence of mind to remain without calling out, until the light had ceased to shine through the cabin-windows, when he concluded that the search for him was over. He then made the signal to me. No being in the ship, but myself, was apprised of his safety, for the gale had increased and completely drowned the sounds of the knocking, opening the window, &c. before they could reach the quarter deck; and there was no one in the cabin but ourselves, the steward having retired to his birth in the steerage. It was at once resolved that the second mate only should be informed of his existence. He immediately betook himself to a large vacant state room, and, for the remainder of the passage, all his wants were attended to by me. Even the steward was allowed to enter the cabin as rarely as possible. Nothing of note occurred during the remainder of the voyage, which was prosperous. It seemed that the foreigners had only been actuated by revenge in the violence they had committed; for nothing further was attempted by them. In due season we took a pilot in the channel, and, in a day or two, entered the port of Liverpool. As soon as the proper arrangements were made, we commenced warping the ship into dock, and while engaged in this operation, the Mate appeared on deck, went forward, and attended to his duties as usual! A scene occurred which is beyond description: every feature of it is as vivid in my recollection as though it occurred but yesterday, and will be to my latest breath. The warp dropped from the paralysed hands of the horror-stricken sailors, and had it not been taken up by some boatmen on board, I should have been compelled to anchor again and procure assistance from the shore. Not a word was uttered; but the two guilty wretches staggered to the mainmast, where they remained petrified with horror, until the officer, who had been sent for, approached to take them into custody. They then seemed in a measure to be recalled to a sense of their appalling predicament, and uttered the most piercing expressions of lamentation and despair. They were soon tried, and upon the testimony of the mate capitally convicted and executed.

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