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The Wreck of the May Queen by Alice F. Jackson

 

There was something in the air. Something ominous. A whisper of which we heard only the rustle, as it were—nothing of the words; but when one is on the bosom of the deep—hundreds of miles from land—in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—ominous whispers are, to say the least of it, a trifle disconcerting.

“What is it?” whispered Sylvia.

“I don't know,” I said.

“Anything wrong with the ship?”

But I could only shrug my shoulders.

Sylvia said, “Let us ask Dr. Atherton.”

So we did. But Dr. Atherton only smiled.

“There was something behind that smile of his,” said Sylvia, suspiciously. “As if we were babies, either of us,” she added, severely.

Yes, there was something suspicious in that smile. And Dr. Atherton hadn't looked at us full in the face while he talked. Besides, there was a sort of lurking pity in his voice; and—yes, I'm sure his lip had twitched a little nervously.

“Why should he be nervous if there is nothing the matter with the ship?”

“And why should he look as if he felt sorry for us?”

“Let's ask the captain,” I said.

“Just leave the ship in my keeping, young ladies,” said the captain, when we asked him. “Go back to your fancy-work and your books.”

The May Queen was not a regular passenger ship. Sylvia, and I, and Dr. Atherton were the only passengers. She was laden with wool—a cargo boat; but Sylvia and I were accommodated with such a pretty cabin!

We had left Sydney in the captain's charge. Father wanted us to have a year's schooling in England; and we were coming to Devonshire to live with Aunt Sabina, and get a little polishing at a finishing school.

Of course we had chummed up with Dr. Atherton, though we had never met him before. One's obliged to be friendly with every one on board, you know; and then he was the only one there was to be friendly with. He was acting as the ship's surgeon for the voyage home. He was going to practise in England. He was, perhaps, twenty-five—not more than twenty-six, at any rate, and on the strength of that he began to constitute himself a sort of second guardian over us.

We didn't object. He was very nice. And, indeed, he made the time pass very pleasantly for us.

Sylvia was sixteen, and I was fifteen; and the grey-haired captain was the kindest chaperon.

For the first fortnight we had the most delightful weather; and then it began to blow a horrid gale. The May Queen pitched frightfully, and “took in,” as the sailors said, “a deal of water.”

For three days the storm raged violently. We thought the ship would never weather it. I don't know what we should have done without Dr. Atherton. And then quite suddenly the wind died away, and there came a heavenly calm.

The sea was like a mill-pond. It was beautiful! Sylvia and I began to breathe again, when, all at once, we felt that ominous something in the air.

“Thud! thud! thud!” All day long we heard that curious sound—and at dead of night too, if we happened to be awake. “Thud! thud! thud!” unceasingly.

The sailors, too, forgot their jocular sayings, and seemed too busy now to notice us. Some looked flurried, some looked sullen; but all looked anxious, we thought. And they were working, working, always working away at the bottom of the ship. And always that “thud! thud! thud!”

And then we learned by accident what the matter was.

“Five feet of water in the well!” It was the captain's voice.

And Dr. Atherton's murmured something that we did not catch.

We were in the cabin, and the door was just ajar. They thought we girls were up on deck, I suppose. Sylvia flung out her hand and pressed me on the arm; and then she put her finger on her lip.

“All hands are at the pumps,” the captain said. “Their exertions are counteracting the leak. The water in the well is neither more nor less. I've just been sounding it again.”

“Can't the leak be stopped?” asked Dr. Atherton.

“Yes, if we could find it. We've been creeping about her ribs all the better part of the morning, but we cannot discover the leak.”

“And the water's still coming in?”

“Still coming in. They're working like galley-slaves to keep it under, but we make no headway at all. I greatly fear that some of her seams have opened during the gale.”

“And that means——”

“That means the water is coming in through numerous apertures,” said the captain grimly.

“Is the May Queen in danger, captain?” asked Dr. Atherton in a steady voice.

There was a pause. We could hear our own hearts beat. And then:

“I would to Heaven that those girls were not on board!”

“But we are!” It was Sylvia's voice. With a bound she had flung open the door, and stood confronting the astonished pair. “We are here. And as we are here, Captain Maitland, oh! don't, don't keep us in the dark!”

“Good heavens!” ejaculated the doctor.

And the captain said in his severest tones:

“Young lady, you've been eavesdropping, I see. Let me tell you that's a thing I won't allow.”

“Oh! Captain Maitland, is the ship in danger?” I cried.

But the captain only glared at me. He looked excessively annoyed.

Then Sylvia ran up and put her hand upon his arm.

“We could not help hearing,” she said. “If the ship is in danger really, it is better for us to know. Please, don't be vexed with us; but we'd rather be told the truth. We—we——”

“Are not babies,” I put in, with my heart going pit-a-pat.

“Nor cowards,” added Sylvia, with a lip that trembled a little.

It made the captain cough.

“The—the May Queen has sprung a leak?” she said.

“You heard me say so, I suppose.”

“And the ship is in danger, Captain Maitland?”

“Can you trust me, young lady?” was his answer.

Sylvia put her hand in his.

“You know we trust you,” she said.

He caught it in a hearty grasp; and gave me an encouraging smile.

“Thank you for that, my child. The May Queen's got five feet of water in her well, because she got damaged in that gale. So far we're managing to pump the water out as fast as the water comes in. D'you follow me?”

“Yes,” fluttered to her lips.

“So far, so good. Don't worry. Try not to trouble your heads about this thing at all. Just say to yourselves, 'The captain's at the helm.' All that can be done is being done, young ladies. And,” pointing upwards, “the other CAPTAIN'S aloft.”

He was gone. In a dazed way I heard Dr. Atherton saying something to Sylvia. And a few minutes after that he, too, had disappeared. “Gone,” Sylvia said in an awe-struck whisper, “to work in his turn at the pumps.”

No need to wonder now at that unceasing “Thud! thud!” The noise of it not only sounded in our ears, it struck us like blows on our hearts.

We crept up on deck. We could breathe there. We could see. Oh! how awful was the thought of going down, down—drowning in the cabin below!

Air, and light, and God's sky was above. And we prayed to the CAPTAIN aloft.

The sea was so calm that danger, after having weathered that fearful gale, seemed almost impossible to us. The blue water reflected the blue heaven above; and when the setting sun cast a rosy light over the sky, the sea caught the reflection as well.

It was beautiful.

“It doesn't seem so dangerous now, Sylvia,” I whispered, “as it felt during the gale.”

“No,” came through her colourless lips.

“There's not a ripple on the sea,” I said; “and if they keep on pumping the water out, we'll—we'll get to land in time.”

“Yes,” she said, and held my hand a little tighter. After a while, “I wonder if we're very far from land.”

“Nine hundred miles, I think I heard Mr. Wheeler say.” She shuddered.

Mr. Wheeler was the first mate.

I looked across the wild waste of water, and shuddered too. So calm—so endless!

The men were working like galley-slaves down below, pumping turn and turn about, watch and watch. We saw the relieved gang come up bathed in perspiration. They were labouring for their lives, we knew.

Now and again some sailor, passing by, would say:

“Keep a good heart, little leddies,” and look over his shoulder with a cheerful smile.

It made us cheer up too.

We heard one say they were pumping one hundred tons of water every hour out of the ship. It sounded appalling.

In a little while a light breeze began to blow. “From the south-west,” somebody said it was.

And then we heard the captain give an order about “making all sail” in the ship.

Every man that could be spared from the pumps set about it directly; and soon great sails flew up flapping in the breeze, and the May Queen went flying before the wind.

By-and-by Dr. Atherton came, and ordered us down to the saloon, and made us each drink a glass of wine. And then Mr. Wheeler joined us; and we sat down to supper just as we had done many a happy evening before—only that the captain didn't come to the table as usual, but had his supper carried away to him.

We learned that the captain had altered the ship's course, and “put the May Queen right before the wind,” and that he was “steering for the nearest land.”

It comforted us.

“We have gained a little on the leak,” the first mate said. “Three inches!”

“Only three inches!” we cried.

“Three inches is a great victory,” Mr. Wheeler replied. “I think it's the turn of the tide.”

“Thank God!” muttered Dr. Atherton.

We lay down in our narrow berths still comforted, and slept like tops all night. I'm not sure that the doctor hadn't given us something to make us sleep when he gave us a drink, as he innocently said, “to settle and soothe our nerves.”

“Thud! thud! thud!” The ominous sound was in my ears the moment I opened my eyes, and all the terror of the preceding day came crowding into my mind.

“Sara, are you awake?”

“Yes, Sylvia.”

“Did you sleep?”

“Like a top.”

“So did I.”

Yes, we had slept, and while we slept the sailors had worked all night. And all night long, like some poor haunted thing, the May Queen had glided on.

“Mr. Wheeler, has the water lessened in the well?”

“Good-morning, Miss Redding,” was his reply.

His face was pale. Great beads of perspiration were rolling down his cheeks. He began to mop them with a damp handkerchief.

At that moment Dr. Atherton came on the scene. “Good-morning, young ladies,” he said.

Such a slovenly-looking doctor! And we used to think him such a sprucely-got-up man. There was no collar round his neck, and his hair hung in damp strings on his forehead. And he had no coat on, not a waistcoat either, nor did he look a bit abashed.

“Sleep well?” he said.

Mr. Wheeler seized the opportunity to slink away.

You haven't slept!” we cried.

He didn't reply. His haggard face, the red rims round his tired eyes were answer enough.

“You've been up all night?” said Sylvia calmly.

I burst into a whimpering wail.

“No, don't, Miss Sara,” urged the doctor soothingly.

Sylvia said, “Has more water come into the ship?”

“The water has gained on us a trifle,” he said reluctantly.

“But Mr. Wheeler said we'd gained three inches yesterday.”

“Go back into your cabin,” he said. “Some breakfast will be sent to you there directly. We—we are not fit to breakfast with ladies this morning,” he added.

“Oh! not to the cabin. Please let us go on deck.”

“The captain's orders were the cabin,” he said. “Hush, hush! Don't cry any more, Miss Sara,” patting my shoulder, “there's a good girl. It would worry the captain dreadfully to hear you. His chief anxiety is having you on board. You wouldn't make his anxiety greater, would you now? See, Miss Sylvia, I rely on you. Take her to the cabin, and eat your breakfast there. After breakfast,” he added soothingly, “I daresay you will be allowed to go on deck.”

We went back. We sat huddled together. We held each other's hands. Sylvia didn't cry. Her face was white. Her eyes were shining. “Don't, Sara,” she kept on saying, “crying can do no good.”

Breakfast came. Neither of us ate much. How callously we sent the greater part of it away! Afterwards we remembered it. At present we could think of nothing but the leaking ship.

And “Thud! thud! thud!” It was like the heart of the May Queen, beating, beating! How long would it take to burst?

After breakfast we were allowed to go on deck. Oh! how the brilliant sunshine seemed to mock us there! And such a sea! Blue, beautiful, peaceful, smiling! A vast mill-pond. And water, water everywhere!

Sea and sky! Nothing but sea and sky! And not a little, littlest speck of Mother Earth!

“Mr. Wheeler, are we nearer land?”

“A little nearer, Miss Sylvia.”

“How much nearer?”

“She's run two hundred and fifty miles,” he said.

“Two hundred and fifty miles! And yesterday we were nearly a thousand miles from land!”

“Yes, Miss Sara.”

I could have screamed. It was sheer despair that kept me silent—perhaps a little shame. Sylvia stood beside him with her hands clenched tight.

“Isn't there any likelihood of some ship passing by?”

“Every likelihood,” he said.

At that moment the relieved gang came up. They were changed. Not the brave hopeful men we had seen yesterday. They were disheartened. Indeed, we read despair in many faces.

One big burly fellow lighted a pipe. He gave a puff or two. “No use pumping this darned ship,” he said. “She's doomed.”

And as if to corroborate this awful fact a voice sang out:

“Seven feet o' water in the hold!”

This announcement seemed to demoralise the sailors. One burst out crying. Another cursed and swore. Others ran in a flurried way about the ship. For ten minutes or so all was confusion. And then a stentorian voice rose above the din.

“All hands to the boats!” It was the captain's. And immediately every man came scrambling from the pumps, and I felt my hand taken in an iron grasp.

“We're going to abandon the ship. We're going to take to the boats. Come down to your cabin and gather all you value. Be quick about it,” said the doctor, “there isn't much time to spare. They're going to provision the boats before they lower them, so you can pack up all you want.”

He spoke roughly. He pushed me along in front of him. I was so dumfounded that I could not resent it. Down in the cabin he looked at me. His stern eye dared me to faint.

I heard Sylvia say, “Can we take that little box?”

And I heard him answer, “Yes.”

He was gone. I saw Sylvia, through a mist, pushing things into the box. And the doctor was back again.

A fiery something was in my mouth, and trickling down my throat. I tasted brandy.

“That's better,” said the doctor, patting my back. “Make haste and help your sister. Yes, Miss Sylvia, shove it all in.” And then he began to drag the blankets from our berths.

“The leddies ready? Leddies fust!” And down tumbled a sailor for the trunk.

Up the companion-ladder for the last time, the doctor prodding me in the back with his load of blankets. Sylvia, with a white face, carrying a little hand-bag. And the captain coming to meet us in the doorway.

“This one first.” And I was picked up in his arms as if I'd been a baby. “Ready, Wheeler?” And I was lowered into the first mate's arms, and placed on a seat in the cutter.

The next thing I knew was that Sylvia was by my side; and that the doctor was tucking a blanket about our knees. After that four or five sailors jumped into the boat, and the captain shouted in a frantic hurry:

“Shove her off!”

The cutter fell astern. The long-boat then came forward, and all the rest of the sailors crowded in. The captain was left the last.

“Hurry up, sir!” shouted Mr. Wheeler. But the captain had disappeared. He had run down to his cabin for some papers.

“She's full of water!” cried one of the sailors in the long boat. And as he spoke the May Queen stopped dead, and shook.

With a yell one of the men cut the rope that held the long-boat to the ship, and shoved off like lightning from the sinking vessel.

Only in time.

The next moment the May Queen pitched gently forward. Her bows went under water.

“Captain!” shrieked the sailors in a deafening chorus.

Then her stern settled down. The sea parted in a great gulf. The waves rolled over her upper deck. And with her sails all spread the May Queen went down into the abyss.

A hoarse cry burst from every throat; and the boats danced on the bubbling, foaming water. The sailors stood up all ready to save him, crying to each other that he'd come to the surface soon. But he never did.

They rowed all round and round the spot, but not a vestige of the captain did we see.

“Sucked under—by Heaven!” cried the first mate in a tone of horror.

And we were adrift on the Pacific.

 
 
 

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