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Adrift on the Pacific by Alice F. Jackson

I.

The captain was drowned, and the May Queen was wrecked, and we were adrift on the ocean. Adrift in a cockle-shell of an open boat more than six hundred miles from land! No—no! It's some horrible nightmare!

For the first few moments everybody sat benumbed, staring awe-struck into each other's faces.

Then—“Christ have mercy on his soul!” somebody said.

And, “Amen!” came the answer in a deep whisper.

Then Mr. Wheeler gave some order in a voice that shook, and we rowed from the fatal spot.

Sylvia sat with one hand covering her face. Her other arm crept round my waist. I was so dazed I could hardly think—too bewildered to grasp what had happened.

“Poor child!” said Dr. Atherton.

“Sara, Dr. Atherton is speaking to you ... Sara!”

I raised my head.

“Poor child!” I heard again. “Sit up and drink this,” said the doctor's voice, and I felt him chafing my hand.

“Miss Sara, won't you try to be brave? Look at Miss Sylvia,” he said.

“She be a rare plucked 'un, she be. Cheer up, you poor little 'un!”

“While there is life, there's 'ope, little miss. Thank the Lord, we're not all on us drowned.”

I burst into tears, I was ashamed that I did; but it was oh! such a relief to cry.

When I came to myself they were talking together. I heard in a stupefied way.

“No immediate peril, thank God.”

“Not in calm weather like this.”

“Two chances for life—she must either make land, or be picked up by some vessel at sea.”

“... Beautifully still it is, Miss Sylvia. Might have been shipwrecked in a storm, you know.”

It came to my confused senses that they were very good—these men; for they, too, were in peril of their lives; yet the chief anxiety of one and all was to calm mine and Sylvia's fears.

Another blanket was passed up for us to sit upon. And then they started an earnest consultation among themselves.

There were four sailors in our boat. Gilliland—the big, burly fellow who had lighted his pipe—and Evans, and Hookway, and Davis. Dr. Atherton and the first mate made six; and Sylvia and I made eight.

The long-boat was a good deal bigger than the cutter; and she held eighteen to twenty men.

We gathered from their talk that the May Queen, after Captain Maitland had altered her course, had run two hundred and fifty miles out of what they termed “the track of trade”; and that unless we got back to the old track again, there was small chance of our being picked up by another vessel.

On the other hand, to make for the nearest land, we would have to traverse the ocean for some six hundred miles, and Mr. Wheeler, it seemed, was hesitating as to which course to take.

The men in the long-boat bawled to the men in the cutter, and the men in the cutter shouted their answers back, the upshot of which was that Mr. Wheeler decided to get back into the track of trade.

“Make all sail,” he shouted to the men in the long-boat, “and keep her head nor' east.”

And, “Ay, ay, sir,” came the answer over the water.

The men in the cutter ran up the sails too, and soon we were sailing after the long-boat. The longboat, however, sailed much faster than the cutter. Sometimes she lowered her sails on purpose to wait for us.

The weather was perfect. The sea was beautiful. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and hardly a ripple on the waves!

“We could hold out for weeks in weather like this!” cried the doctor cheerfully. And then to Gilliland:

“The boats are well provisioned, you say?”

“A month's provisions on board, sir. That was the captain's orders. Me and Hookway had the doing of it.”

“And water?” asked the doctor anxiously.

“Plenty of water, and rum likewise,” replied the sailor, with an affectionate glance at one of the little barrels.

“I see only two small casks here,” said the doctor sharply.

“Plenty more on board the long-boat. Ain't there, Hookway?”

“Plenty more, sir. The long-boat can stow away a deal more than the cutter. When we've got through this keg of spirit,” putting his hand on one of the little casks, “and drunk up that there barrel of water, we've only got to signal the long-boat, and get another barrel out of her.”

“The food is on the long-boat, too, I suppose?”

“Right you are, sir. And here's a lump o' corned beef. And here's a loaf o' bread. And likewise a bag o' biscuit for present requirements.”

“Humph!” said the doctor, “I'm glad of that. Hand me up that loaf, Davis, if you please. Mr. Wheeler, the spirits, of course, are in your charge. May I ask you to mix a small mug of rum and water for these ladies?”

“Oh! I couldn't drink rum, doctor,” objected Sylvia.

“Oh! yes, you can. And you're going to eat this sandwich of corned beef and bread. Excuse fingers, Miss Sara,” he added, handing me a sandwich between his finger and thumb. “Fingers were made before knives and forks. And now you're to share this mug of rum and water.”

“It's very weak, I assure you,” said Mr. Wheeler, smiling. “Drink up every drop of it,” he added kindly. “It will do you both good.”

We thanked him and obeyed. And while we ate our sandwiches the men ate biscuit and beef; and then Mr. Wheeler poured them out a small allowance of rum.

The cutter sailed smoothly. And the men told yarns. But every eye was on the look-out for the smoke of some passing ship.

We saw none. Not a speck on the ocean, save the long-boat ahead. And by-and-by the sun set, and a little fog crept up. And the night came on as black as pitch and very drear.

Sylvia and I huddled close in the blanket that Dr. Atherton had tied about our shoulders; and whispered our prayers together.

“To-morrow will be Sunday, Sylvia,” I said.

And she whispered back: “They will pray for those that travel by water in the Litany.”

II.

I couldn't sleep. Every time I began to lose consciousness I started up in a fright, and saw the May Queen going down into the sea again; and fancied I saw the captain struggling in the cabin. It was terrible.

I could hear the men snoring peacefully in the boat. They were all asleep except the helmsman.

At midnight he roused up another man to take his place; and after that I remembered no more till I started up in the grey dawn with a loud “Ahoy!” quivering in my ears.

“Ahoy! A-hoy!”

Everybody was wide awake. Everybody wanted to know what the matter was. And everybody was looking at the helmsman who was peering out at sea.

It was Gilliland. He turned a strange, scared face to the others in the cutter, and:—“The long-boat's not in sight!” said he.

Somebody let out an oath. And every eye stared wildly over the sea. It was quite true. Not a speck, not a streak we saw upon the ocean—the long-boat had disappeared!

“God in heaven!” ejaculated the first mate. “She must have capsized in the night!”

“And if we don't capsize, we'll starve,” said the doctor, “for she had all our provisions on board!”

There was an awful silence for just three minutes. Then the man who had sworn before shot out another oath. Hookway began to rave like a madman. Evans burst into sobs. Davis began to swear horribly, and cursed Gilliland for putting the provisions in the other boat.

It was terrible.

Suddenly Sylvia's voice rose trembling above the babel, quaveringly she struck up the refrain of the sailor's hymn:

    “O hear us when we cry to Thee
    
For those in peril on the sea.”

“God bless you, miss!” cried Gilliland. And taking up the tune, he dashed into the first verse:

    “Eternal Father, strong to save,
    Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.
    Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
    
Its own appointed limits keep:”

The doctor and the first mate joined in the refrain. And Hookway ceased to rave. They sang the hymn right through. The last verse was sung by every one. The “Amen” went up like a prayer at the end. And the sailors, with their caps in their hands, some of them with tears in their eyes, looked gratefully at Sylvia and murmured, “Thank you, miss.”

Oh! the days that followed, and the long, hungry nights! Even now I dream of them, and start up trembling in my sleep.

Sylvia and I have very tender hearts when we hear of the starving poor.

To be hungry—oh! it is terrible. But to be thirsty too! And to feel that one is dying of thirst—and water everywhere!

For those first dreadful days Mr. Wheeler dealt out half a biscuit to each—half a biscuit with a morsel of beef that had to be breakfast, and dinner, and tea! And just a little half mug of water tinctured with a drop of rum!

And on that we lived, eight people in the cutter, for something like eleven days! Eleven days in a scorching sun! Eleven calm, horrible nights!

We wanted a breeze. And no breeze came, though we prayed for it night and day. The remorseless ocean was like a sheet of glass. The sun shone fiercely in the heavens. It made the sides of the cutter so hot that it hurt our poor hands to touch it.

And all those days no sign of a sail! Not a vestige of a passing ship!

Evans and Davis grumbled and swore. And so did Hookway sometimes. Gilliland was the most patient of the sailors; and tried to cheer up every one else with stories of other people's escapes.

On the May Queen Sylvia and I had thought Mr. Wheeler rather a commonplace sort of man. We knew him for a hero in the cutter. Often he used to break off pieces of his biscuit, I know, to add to Sylvia's and mine.

“Friends,” he said on the eleventh day, “the biscuit is all gone.” His face was ghastly. His eyes were hollow. His lips were cracked and sore.

“And the water?” asked the doctor faintly.

“Barely a teaspoon apiece.”

“Keep it for the women then,” suggested Dr. Atherton.

“No!” shouted Davis with an oath.

And, “We're all in the same boat,” muttered Evans.

Gilliland lifted his bloodshot eyes. “Hold your jaw!” he said.

Hookway groaned feebly.

They looked more like wild beasts than men, with their ghastly faces, and their glaring eyes—especially Davis.

He looked at me desperately. He thought I was going to have all the water.

“I won't take more than my share, Mr. Wheeler,” I said. And I looked at Sylvia. She was lying in the stern muttering feebly to herself. She didn't hear.

“God bless you, miss!” said Davis, and burst into an agony of sobs.

The last spoonful of water was handed round, the doctor forcing Sylvia's portion into her mouth.

And we wafted on, only just moving along, for there was no breeze. And the sun beat on us. And the sea glared. And Davis cursed. And Hookway writhed and moaned.

“Take down the sails,” said the first mate. “They are useless without any wind. Rig them up as an awning instead.”

The men obeyed.

Then the doctor seized a vessel, and filling it with sea-water poured it over Sylvia as she lay, soaking her, clothes and all.

“Oh, doctor!” I expostulated, wonderingly.

“I'm going to drench you too, Miss Sara. It will relieve the thirst,” he said.

Sylvia opened her eyes. “Oh! it's bliss!” she said.

Dr. Atherton then poured some salt water over me, and then over Mr. Wheeler and himself, and told the sailors to drench themselves as well.

It was a little relief—only a very little; and the heat gradually dried us up again.

“Here, give me the baler!” cried Davis in a little while, and he caught it out of Gilliland's hand. “D'ye think I'm going to die o' thirst with all this water about?” And dipping it over the side of the cutter, he lifted it to his mouth.

“Stop him!” shouted the doctor in a frenzy. “The salt water'll make him mad!”

And Gilliland, with a desperate thrust, tipped it over his clothes instead.

Davis howled. He tried to fight; but Gilliland was too strong for him, and soon he was huddled up in the fore part of the boat, cursing and swearing dreadfully.

After a time he quieted down, and then he became so queer.

“Roast beef!” he murmured, smacking his lips. “An' taters! An' cabbage! An' gravy! An' Yorkshire pudden'! My eye! It's prime! And so's the beer, my hearties!”

He smiled. The anguish died out of his face. He thought he was eating it all. And then he began to finish off his dinner with apple pie.

“Stow your gab!” snarled Evans. “Wot a fool he is!”

And, indeed, it was maddening to hear him.

An hour later he struggled into a sitting posture and turned a rapturous face upon the sea. “Water!” he shouted. “Water! Water!” And before any of the sailors could raise a hand to stop him he had rolled over the side of the boat.

The first mate shouted. The men, feeble though they were, sprang to do his bidding. They were not in time. With a gurgling cry Davis was jerked under the water suddenly. Next moment the water bubbled, and before it grew calm again the surface was stained with blood.

“A shark's got him!” shrieked Hookway. And as he cried the great black fin of some awful thing came gliding after the cutter.

“He's had his dinner,” said Gilliland grimly; “and he's waiting for his supper now!”

III.

Oh! that terrible night, with the full moon shining down upon the quiet water! So still! So calm! Not a ripple on the wave! And that awful black something silently following us!

Sylvia lay with her head upon the doctor's knee—one poor thin arm, half bared, across my lap. And so the morning found us.

There was something the matter with Evans—something desperate. He was beginning to look like Davis—only worse. Something horrible in his ghastly face. It was wolfish. And his eyes—they were not like human eyes at all—they were the eyes of some fierce, wild beast. And they were fastened with a wolfish glare on Sylvia's half-bared arm. He wanted to eat it!

Stealthily he had got his clasp knife out. And stealthily he was crouching as if to make a spring. And I couldn't speak!

My tongue, as the Bible expresses it, clave to the roof of my mouth. I was powerless to make a sound. And none of the others happened to be looking at him.

I put my hand on Mr. Wheeler's knee and gave him a feeble push. I pointed dumbly at Evans.

“Put down that knife!” cried Mr. Wheeler in a voice of command. “Evans!”

With a cry so hideous—I can hear it now—the man lunged forward. Mr. Wheeler tried to seize the knife; but Evans suddenly plunged it into his shoulder; and the first mate fell with a groan.

Then there was an awful struggle.

Gilliland and Hookway fighting with Evans. And the doctor trying to protect Sylvia and me; and dragging the first mate away from the scuffling feet. And I praying out loud in my agony that death might come to our relief.

He was down at last. Lying in the bottom of the boat, with Gilliland sitting astride him, and Hookway getting a rope to tie him up! The doctor leaning over Mr. Wheeler and trying to staunch the blood, and the first mate fainting away!

And then—Oh! heavens! with a cry—Gilliland sprang to his feet, shouting! gesticulating! waving his cap! Had he, too, now, suddenly gone mad?

“Ship ahoy! ahoy!” he shrieked, and we followed his pointing hand.

And there, on the bosom of the endless sea, we saw a ship becalmed.

I suppose I swooned.

When I recovered my senses, the cutter was creeping under her lee, and the crew were throwing us a rope.

“The women first,” said somebody in a cheerful voice. “And after them send up the wounded man.”

And soon kind, pitying faces were bending over us. And very tender hands were feeding Sylvia and me.

“They've had a pooty consid'able squeak, I guess,” said the cheerful voice.

And somebody answered, “That's so.”

We had been picked up by an American schooner.

 
 
 

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