Sea Stories

The Shipwreck

A few years ago a company of one of the English regiments of infantry, consisting of eleven officers and two hundred soldiers embarked in a large, strongly built ship, to sail from Quebec to Halifax. Besides the troops, there were forty-eight passengers on

board, most of them women and children, and the whole number of persons, including the sailors, amounted to upwards of three hundred. On the evening of the tenth day, when they were clear of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a brisk wind had driven them out many leagues to seaward, the pilot who, for the greater security of the troops had been kept on board, directed the course of the vessel to the westward, hoping on the next day to run her into Halifax. From the windward side of the otherwise clear heavens a dark cloud showed itself on the horizon, and in a short time afterwards the ship was enveloped in one of those dense fogs, which make a voyage along these coasts so perilous, during the greater part of the year. They had now come within that space of the ocean in which it was usual to hold a ship's course in sailing from England to the West Indies; torrents of rain increased the thickness of the fog, and fearful gusts of wind increased the danger, and the officers in charge of the troops, thought it expedient to hold a consultation with the captain, as to what course was best to be pursued in the present circumstances. The result of this conference was a determination to keep on the course deemed expedient by the pilot, but with as little sail set as possible. For their further safety a watch was stationed on the foredeck, with the company's drums which they beat from to time, and taking besides every other precaution against their coming into collision with another vessel. Among the officers, was a lieutenant named Stewart, a young man of uncommon steadiness and bravery, and who in his zeal for the comfort of the soldiers and the discipline necessary to be observed for maintaining order in the ship, had during the whole voyage, limited his own hours of rest to the smallest possible number. One night, completely worn out, he was about to betake himself to his hammock, when the colonel requested in view of the danger that every moment threatened, that he would remain all night upon deck. Stewart rallied his remaining strength, and conquering the importunate demands of sleep, he took his station with ten men on the foredeck, whilst the captain, with eight soldiers, kept watch at the stern. The rain poured down in streams, squalls of wind and angry waves caused the good ship to reel and turn like one drunk, and to add to the horrors of their situation, the night was so dark they could not see half the length of the ship before them, and the fog enshrouded them in its oppressive vapor. At ten o'clock, the watch on the bowsprit called out to the lieutenant on the foredeck, and directed his attention to a clear spot which he declared to proceed from a light. Stewart at once proceeded to the stern where he found the pilot seated on the rudder, apparently watching the same appearance, but when he inquired of him what it meant, he received a very short uncourteous reply, together with a command from the captain who was by, to go back to his post. He did so, and not long after the man on the bowsprit once more called out, that notwithstanding the thick fog he saw a light distinctly; Stewart looked in the direction the sailor pointed out, and plainly saw the glimmer of the friendly beacon, and knew it at once as the signal placed to warn ships from approaching too near the cliffs which lined the shore. Notwithstanding his first repulse, he approached the pilot a second time; but he met with a second repulse;--he was answered--"Sir, I have been royal pilot on this coast for twenty-five years, and I ought to know where I am." The captain too, in a sterner manner then before, commanded Stewart to return to his watch. The lieutenant dared utter no further remonstrance, but with a heart, heavy with sad forebodings, busied himself to keep up the failing spirits of his men who were as apprehensive of the threatened danger as himself. And his sad foreboding was only too soon fulfilled, for whilst the pilot imagined his vessel to be sailing on the open sea, she was already among the rocks that lay but a mile and an half from the coast, but yet were sixty distant from the roadstead by which they were to enter Halifax. By midnight, Stewart felt himself so fairly exhausted by cold and long watching, that he left the quarter deck, and went below to snatch, if possible, a few minutes sleep. He had been in his cabin only long enough to change his damp clothing for dry, when a fearful crash told him the ship had struck upon the rocks. In a moment he was back on the quarter deck. He found that a surging billow had struck the hinder part of the ship, tore off part of the sheathing, and carried away the watch-house in which two women were sleeping--all efforts to rescue them were in vain. Whilst the storm-tossed ocean raged and foamed around the devoted ship, and night shrouded all objects in her veil of impenetrable darkness, wild shrieks and cries arose from the women and children, increasing the horrors of the moment, and filled the stoutest hearted among the mariners and soldiers with dread and despair. Among the soldiers all discipline was at an end, and in many families this hour of terrors had loosed the bonds of affection and dependence, that until now had subsisted for years. The men forsook their wives in the endeavour to save their own lives; their wives and children were entreating the help from strangers denied them by husbands and fathers, and an officer who had heretofore been considered not only as a most courageous soldier, but had showed himself a kind and affectionate husband, now turned a deaf ear to the prayers of his wife, and intent only on his own deliverance, climbed up into the rigging of the mainmast, left her to her fate below, whatever it might be. In the meantime, the captain had ordered the ship to be examined, he found that she had struck upon a hidden rock, and the waves beating over the quarter deck had already filled all the rooms with water. Several men had been washed overboard as they rushed from their hammocks to the deck at the moment of the ship striking, but the greater number had reached the foredeck where they crowded closely together, awaiting in painful anxiety for what the morning would bring. At length the dappling clouds in the east proclaimed the hour of dawning--the day struggled into existence, and showed to the great joy of the shipwrecked, a rock about fifty yards distant, which raising its dark head above the foaming sea, promised present safety if it could be reached, although the white waves broke furiously against it. But how were they to reach it? The only hope--and it was a weak one--was if they could succeed in passing a rope from the ship to the rock, and fastening it there so firmly that by its aid all might be able to leave the wreck. But who was the adventurous one to carry it thither? The most experienced officers on board, declared it impossible for any one to brave those angry breakers successfully, and the best and most resolute of the sailors, who, perhaps, would have ventured encountering such a risk, had broken into the spirit room and were now lying drunk, seeking to drown the bitterness of death which they were so certain of meeting, by steeping their senses in oblivion. In the meantime, Lieutenant Stewart with folded arms and thoughtful mien, stood on the foredeck, measuring with his eyes the distance between the wreck and the rock. After some minutes spent in deep consideration, he threw off his coat, fastened a rope round his body, and plunged into the boiling surf. The soldiers looked on in anxious silence--for the bold swimmer had almost immediately disappeared from their view--a wave had buried him deep in its bosom--but again his head was seen above its foaming crest, and with strong arms he parted the angry waters as he swam boldly forward, like one determined to battle with and conquer fate. His strength would not have sufficed to enable him to accomplish his aim, had not a huge wave borne him onward, and dashing powerfully against the rocky ledge left him behind as it retreated. Stunned by the violence with which he was thrown, he lay for some moments deprived of all consciousness; his senses at length returning, he rose hastily and mustering all his strength, essayed to climb the steep and rugged rock, the difficulty of the assent being increased by the slippery sea-grass with which it was covered. After many toilsome efforts he reached the top, where he succeeded in fastening his rope. But as it was impossible for him to be seen from this height by those on the wreck, on account of the thick fog, he was obliged to descend to the shore, where, as he was nearer the ship, he hoped he might be visible, and thus relieve part of their anxiety. On the side next the ship the breakers dashed so violently that he dreaded making the attempt, and venturing on the other, he fell from the steep and slippery path down into the sea. Benumbed with cold, and sorely wounded by the sharp edges of the rocks, he was at first scarcely able to move, but still he managed to keep his head above the water, and after an half hour spent in a vigorous struggle with death, a rushing wave once more carried him to the shore, where bruised and bleeding he lay on his back like one dead. He felt like giving up the contest, but he saw the sinking ship and his doomed companions--with great effort, therefore, he raised himself, gave the appointed signal to show that he had succeeded in fastening the rope, and a gleam of joy shot through his heart as he heard the loud cheers with which the news was hailed on board. In less than a minute, the only boat belonging to the ship was let down, and manned with but one stout sailor. Slipping along by the rope which Stewart had drawn he guided his frail craft to the rock, to which he fastened a stronger one, brought with him for that purpose: this being done, he returned to the wreck in order to bring off the passengers. It was determined to send away the women and children first, and accordingly two grown females or a mother with several children were bound together and sent off, the little boat which was guided by two sailors being too small to hold any more. Stewart assured that the slippery surface of the rock where he had stood when fastening the rope, would not afford sufficient space for all on board, even to stand upon, was half in despair, but just at the moment however, that the boat containing the colonel's wife, her two children, and the surgeon of the regiment, pushed off from the ship, the fog lifted and parting at the coast, showed another rock of greater height and broader extent a few yards distant from the one on which he stood. The boat almost touched the one first reached--he gave the sailors a sign--it was understood, and they rowed to the second rock where the surf was much less dangerous, and the breakers small in comparison with those that beat against the other. A better landing was to be obtained here, and without the loss of a single life or any untoward occurrence, the women and children reached this place of safety if not of comfort Whilst this was being done, they made a running noose to slip along on the rope that Stewart had fastened to the rock on which he now stood, which rope as we before have said reached to the ship. By this contrivance the officers and most of the soldiers attained the smaller rock, and in the course of two or three hours all on board were safely rescued. By a merciful Providence the ship groaning, creaking, tottering, and gradually sinking, just kept above the water until the last man was taken off; then a surging wave dashed over her, and she was seen no more--a few circling eddies alone showed the spot where she went down. When the men who, as we have said had landed on the smaller rock had assembled, they found it incapable of holding so many--all could not stand in the narrow space its surface afforded, and too closely crowded, they could not resist the pressure of the waves that sometimes broke over it. The higher rock where the women and children were landed showed that there was still room for many more of the shipwrecked; the colonel, therefore, proposed that the officers should be rowed thither in the boat, but to this the soldiers would not listen. With death staring them in the face, they declared all subordination was at an end--that preference on account of rank and birth was not to be thought of--all were now on an equality, life was as dear to the meanest soldier as to the highest in command; no! no preference should be given--it must be decided by lot, who should go, and who remain. All efforts to still the angry tumult that now arose among the excited troops was in vain, and the little island whose rock-covered surface, lifted for ages above that boiling flood, where wave contended with wave, and had never before been pressed by the foot of man, now became a scene of strife and confusion. In the midst of the crowd who could thus strive with each other in the very presence of death, lay Stewart, senseless and covered with the blood that flowed plentifully from his wounds. All believed him to be dying, and only a few cared to trouble themselves about the noble young officer, to whose disinterested daring the whole crew owed their lives. His strong constitution, however, soon triumphed over his temporary exhaustion, and he awoke to consciousness, just when the oaths and outcries of the striving soldiers was at the loudest. Slowly and painfully he arose on his stiffened limbs, and supported on the arm of one of his own men from whom he learned the cause of the tumult, he approached and commanded silence. This in the presence of his superior officers was out of place, but distinction was at an end, and beloved as he was by all the soldiers, the command was obeyed at once. "My friends," he began, "death, inevitable death awaits us all alike, both on the other rock and here where the angry waves beat over us, if we do not soon obtain help. Our only hope for deliverance is by means of the boat, through which we may, perhaps, obtain it from the land, which cannot be very distant. Let the officers and sailors then go over to the other rock, where there is more room than on this, and the surf being less violent and itself nearer to the coast, they can better venture to seek the help, without which we must all perish. We will remain here in peace together, awaiting the issue whatever it be; I will not leave you, but am ready to share every danger, and as I was the first to spring into the foaming sea, to try what could be done for the salvation of all, so I will be the very last to leave this rock." His words were answered by a cheer; the true heroic spirit which breathed from his words--the magnanimity of his whole proceedings since the first moment of the common danger, flashed upon the memories of these rude men, and wrought an instant change. The soldiers calmed and encouraged, no longer objected to the departure of the officers and sailors for the other rock, and the boat at once began to ply between. As it would not carry but two persons at once, it took some time before the specified persons had passed over. At the last voyage there was but one to go. This officer as he took his place on the seat beside the rowers, called out to Stewart to "come along, for the flood was rapidly rising on the rock, and his staying behind would do the soldiers no good." The lieutenant however refused the invitation, with the words that as he had promised the soldiers to remain with them, he was determined to do so, whether the issue was life or death. So, while the officers with the pilot and sailors were borne to a place of comparative safety, Stewart stood with his two hundred soldiers upon that naked rock that gradually grew less from the rising of the encroaching waters. Not without good ground for apprehension, had the last departing officer warned the lieutenant of the danger that threatened from the advancing tide. The rock on which two hundred human beings were now crowded, hoping to escape or gain a respite from death, was one which in nautical phrase is called a sunken reef, that is only above water at ebb tide, while at flood, except when swayed by a sweeping north wind, the sea buries it in a depth of ten or fifteen feet. The pilot knew this well, and having made it known to the colonel, this knowledge was the occasion of his heartless proposition, that the officers should be saved, leaving the soldiers to perish. But when men deal treacherously with the unfortunate, or seek to ruin the unsuspecting, it is then that a kind Providence watches over them--it is then that the hand of the Most High is stretched forth for their protection;--throughout the whole of this day, the only wind that held the flood tide in check, namely the north-east, swept over the still angry ocean and restrained its perilous advance. Soon after the ship went down, the sea became covered with boxes and barrels, together with many other articles of the stores on board which had been floated from the hold; the confined air between the decks had caused an explosion, and burst the vessel in every part. This was providential, if those casks of provisions would only flock toward the rock, they might be able to secure enough to support them until help could be obtained either by a passing vessel, or from the shore. In the meantime, the still rising water had encroached so far upon the rock that but one dry place was left; here the soldiers clustered, standing close to one another, for the confined space admitted but little movement. In order to judge of the rapidity with which the tide was rising, Lieutenant Stewart ordered two large stones to be placed on a rocky projection, whose surface at this time was just even with the water. Leaving the spot and returning after a time, they found them completely hidden. They then placed two others on a spot somewhat higher, and turning away, scarce daring to hope that they should see them again. But what was their joy on returning, to find not only the two last dry, but the first two entirely out of the water; they were thus assured the tide had reached its highest mark. But now another trouble arose which threatened every moment to increase the sufferings of the shipwrecked. As the waves dashed over them for many hours, they had swallowed a large quantity of sea water, this created a burning thirst, that was increased by their clothing being entirely saturated with salt water. Whilst thus suffering, an object was seen floating on the surface of the water, and approaching the shore, which promised help in this moment of due necessity. One of the sergeants was the first to remark it, and hastening to Stewart, remarked that a cask was being washed by the waves to the edge of the rock, and that he was sure it contained rum. The lieutenant, who dreaded the effect of strong drink on the men as the greatest possible evil, bade the sergeant to sink it as soon as it reached the shore. The cask came nearer--a huge wave lifted it high and dry upon the rock. The sergeant could not obey Stewart's order--the soldiers at once clustered around it, and having been slightly broken as it was dashed upon the rugged resting place, to their great delight, discovered that it held--not rum, but pure sweet water, and in such quantity that all could drink to their satisfaction. Thus delivered from dread of being washed away and the torment of thirst, new hope and increased courage sprang up in the breasts of the shipwrecked, and beginning to think over how they might better their condition, their first act was to prepare a comfortable place for their wounded lieutenant, who seemed to be rapidly sinking from loss of blood and the effect of his severe exertions. One corner of the rock, the highest above the sea, presented a smoother surface than the rest; they cleared the slippery sea-grass from the spot, and wrapping a cloak round him, laid him down. Two soldiers, one on the right hand, the other on the left, lay down near to screen him from the cutting sea breeze, some others lay across these, thus forming a pyramid of bodies that secured to the wounded a shelter from wind and rain. The rest of the soldiers threw themselves on the rocky surface, whereon they could find a place, and in a few moments were as sound asleep as if reposing in the most luxurious chamber. The day closed in, but the fog still continued; the rain poured down in torrents on those half naked men, and the piercing north-east wind made them shiver as it swept over them in their thin and sea-soaked garments. At last all desire for sleep was banished, and rising from their uncomfortable lodging places, each one looked out into the darksome night in hopes of discovering a delivering ship. Sometimes the silence that brooded over the little island was interrupted by the joyful cry of "a ship! a ship!" but directly after, some foam-crested billow rising high above the surrounding waves, showed what had caused the delusion. The sufferings of the unhappy men after this one short alleviation again increased, the tide rose higher than before, for the wind had now chopped round to the west, there was no restraining influence from it as at first. The sea, as if claiming the rock as part of his domain, advanced higher and higher, until at last only one dry spot remained upon which the soldiers clustered so closely, that those who stood in the middle could scarcely breathe. All believed that death was approaching--all hope of deliverance had faded from each heart, and every one of the seemingly doomed party who could control his thoughts in that dreadful hour, summoned his last effort to be expended in prayer. As they stood there in silence with hearts darkened by the utter extinction of hope, a red light was seen above the rolling waves--its ruddy glow as it glanced upon the white-capped billows caused those sunken hearts to beat with renewed activity--they gazed far out upon the sea, but no man spoke; in a moment more the form of a ship was seen, dimly but certainly in the enveloping fog. The loud and joyful huzza that burst from the shipwrecked soldiers proved to those on board the vessel sent to their rescue, that the rock was still unsubmerged, and that life was there, and they returned the cheer with great good-will. It appeared afterwards that some of the sailors had attempted to reach the shore in the jolly boat; that they encountered great toil and danger, but were at last so fortunate as to come up with two fishing vessels. One of these had already taken the officers and women from the larger rock and landed them on the coast; the other turned about to look after the soldiers, although the captain of the wrecked vessel declared it was folly to expect to find any of them living, for he was convinced that the "sunken reef" had long ere this been hidden beneath the foaming waters. For fear of the ship being injured by the rocks, they could only approach within a certain distance, and with only one small boat. Stewart called through a speaking trumpet to the sailors, and inquired how many they could take at one time in the boat. They answered, "twelve," at the same time recommending to the shipwrecked to embark quietly, and not rush in such numbers as to peril their own safety. Stewart, exhausted as he was, enforced the necessity there was for this caution, and marshaling his men as well as was possible in the narrow space, he divided off the first twelve, and his command was obeyed with promptness and without confusion. In the meantime, the little boat had reached the rock, and the embarcation began, and without the least disorder. The night came on, but nineteen times the boat made its way through the darkness, from the ship to the now nearly submerged rock, still bearing its living freight in safety, and it was only at the last voyage that they shipped the two last soldiers, and the noble hearted, heroic Stewart, whose soul was full of blissful feelings at the thought that by his courage, obtained through confidence in God, he had saved the lives of three hundred men.

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