The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XLIX.

A Voyage in a Coffin Ship.

Arthur Conan Doyle

THE early part of the voyage of the Black Eagle was extremely fortunate. The wind came round to the eastward, and wafted them steadily down Channel, until on the third day they saw the Isle of Ushant lying low upon the sky-line. No inquisitive gunboat or lurking police launch came within sight of them, though whenever any vessel’s course brought her in their direction the heart of Ezra Girdlestone sank within him. On one occasion a small brig signalled to them, and the wretched fugitives, when they saw the flags run up, thought that all was lost. It proved, however, to be merely some trivial message, and the two owners breathed again.

The wind fell away on the day that they cleared the Channel, and the whole surface of the sea was like a great expanse of quicksilver, which shimmered in the rays of the wintry sun. There was still a considerable swell after the recent gale, and the Black Eagle lay rolling about as though she had learned habits of inebriation from her skipper. The sky was very clear above, but all round the horizon a low haze lay upon the water. So silent was it that the creaking of the boats as they swung at the davits, and the straining of the shrouds as the ship rolled, sounded loud and clear, as did the raucous cries of a couple of gulls which hovered round the poop. Every now and then a rumbling noise ending in a thud down below showed that the swing of the ship had caused something to come down with a run. Underlying all other sounds, however, was a muffled clank, clank, which might almost make one forget that this was a sailing ship, it sounded so like the chipping of a propeller.

“What is that noise, Captain Miggs?” asked John Girdlestone as he stood leaning over the quarter rail, while the old sea-dog, sextant in hand, was taking his midday observations. The captain had been on his good behaviour since the unexpected advent of his employers, and he was now in a wonderful and unprecedented state of sobriety.

“Them’s the pumps a-goin’,” Miggs answered, packing his sextant away in its case.

“The pumps! I thought they were only used when a ship was in danger?”

Ezra came along the deck at this moment, and listened with interest to the conversation.

“This ship is in danger,” Miggs remarked calmly.

“In danger!” cried Ezra, looking round the clear sky and placid sea. “Where is the danger? I did not think you were such an old woman, Miggs.”

“We will see about that,” the seaman answered angrily. “If a ship’s got no bottom in her she’s bound to be in danger, be the weather fair or foul.”

“Do you mean to tell me this ship has no bottom?”

“I mean to tell you that there are places where you could put your fingers through her seams. It’s only the pumpin’ that keeps her afloat.”

“This is a pretty state of things,” said Girdlestone. “How is it that I have not been informed of it before! It is most dangerous.”

“Informed!” cried Miggs. “Informed of it! Has there been a v’yage yet that I haven’t come to ye, Muster Girdlestone, and told ye I was surprised ever to find myself back in Lunnon? A year agone I told ye how this ship was, and ye laughed at me, ye did. It’s only when ye find yourselves on her in the middle o’ the broad sea that ye understan’ what it is that sailor folk have to put up wi’.”

Girdlestone was about to make some angry reply to this address, but his son put his hand on his arm to restrain him. It would never do to quarrel with Hamilton Miggs before they reached their port of refuge. They were too completely in his power.

“What the captain says has a great deal of truth in it,” he remarked, with a laugh. “You don’t realize a thing until you’ve had to experience it. The Black Eagle shall certainly have an overhauling next time, and we’ll see if we can’t give her captain an increase at the same time.”

Miggs gave a grunt which might be taken as expressing thanks or as signifying doubt. Perhaps there was a mixture of both in his mind.

“I presume,” Girdlestone said, in a conciliatory voice, “that there would be no real danger as long as the weather was fine?”

“It won’t be fine long,” the captain answered gruffly. “The glass was well under thirty when I come up, and it is fallin’ fast. I’ve been about here before at this time o’ year in a calm, with a ground swell and a sinkin’ glass. No good ever came of it. Look there at the norrard. What d’ye make o’ that, Sandy?”

“In conjunction wi’ the descending glass, it has an ominous appairance,” the Scotchman answered, with much stress on the first syllable of the adjective.

The phenomenon which had attracted their professional attention did not appear to either of the Girdlestones to be a very important one. The haze on the horizon to the north was rather thicker than elsewhere, and a few thin streaky clouds straggled upwards across the clear cold heaven, like the feelers of some giant octopus which lay behind the fog bank. At the same time the sea changed in places from the appearance of quicksilver to that of grained glass.

“There’s the wind,” Miggs said confidently. “I’d furl the top-gallant sails and get her stay-sails down, Mr. McPherson.” Whenever he gave an order he was careful to give the mate his full title, though at other times he called him indiscriminately Sandy or Mac.

The mate gave the necessary commands, while Miggs dived down into the cabin. He came up again looking even graver than when he left the deck.

“The glass is nearly down to twenty-eight,” he said. “I never seed it as low since I’ve been at sea. Take in the mains’l, Mr. McPherson, and have the topsails reefed down!”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

There was no lack of noise now as the men hauled at the halliards with their shrill strange cries, which sounded like the piping of innumerable sea-birds. Half a dozen lay out on the yard above, tucking away the great sail and making all snug.

“Take a reef in the fores’l!” the mate roared, “and look alive about it!”

“Hurry up, ye swabs!” Miggs bellowed. “You’ll be blown away, every mother’s son of ye, if you don’t stir yourselves!”

Even the two landsmen could see now that the danger was no imaginary one, and that a storm was about to burst over them. The long black lines of vapour had lengthened and coalesced, until now the whole northern heaven was one great rolling black cloud, with an angry, ragged fringe which bespoke the violence of the wind that drove it. Here and there against the deep black background a small whitish or sulphur-coloured wreath stood clearly out, looking livid and dangerous. The whole great mass was sweeping onwards with prodigious and majestic rapidity, darkening the ocean beneath it, and emitting a dull, moaning, muttering sound, which was indescribably menacing and mournful.

“This may be the same gale as was on some days ago,” Miggs remarked. “They travel in circles very often, and come back to where they start from.”

“We are all snug aloft, but this ship won’t stand much knocking about, an’ that’s a fact,” observed the mate gloomily.

It was blowing now in short frequent puffs, which ruffled the surface of the water, and caused the Black Eagle to surge slowly forward over the rollers. A few drops of rain came pattering down upon the deck. The great bank of cloud was above the ship, still hurrying wildly across the heavens.

“Look out!” cried an old quartermaster. “Here she comes!”

As he spoke the storm burst with a shriek, as though all the demons of the air had been suddenly unchained and were rejoicing in their freedom. The force of the blast was so great that Girdlestone could almost have believed that he had been struck by some solid object. The barque heeled over until her lee rail touched the water, and lay so for a minute or more in a smother of foam. Her deck was at such an angle that it seemed as though she never could right herself. Gradually, however, she rose a little, staggered and trembled like a living thing, and then plunged away through the storm, as a piece of paper is whirled before the wind.

By evening the gale was at its height. The Black Eagle was running under maintopsail and foretopmast staysail. The sea had risen very quickly, as it will when wind comes upon a swell. As far as the eye could see from the summit of a wave there was a vista of dark towering ridges with their threatening crests of foam. When the barque sank in the hollow these gleaming summits rose as high as her mainyard, and the two fugitives, clinging to the weather-shrouds, looked up in terror and amazement at the masses of water which hung above them. Once or twice waves actually broke over the vessel, crashing and roaring down the deck, and washing hither and thither until gradually absorbed between the planks or drained away through the scupper-holes. On each of these occasions the poor rotten vessel would lurch and shiver in every plank, as if with a foreknowledge of her fate.

It was a dreary night for all on board. As long as there was light they could at least see what danger was to be faced, but now the barque was plunging and tossing through an inky obscurity. With a wild scooping motion she was hurled up on the summit of a great wave, and thence she shot down into the black gulf beyond with such force that when checked by meeting the next billow her whole fabric jarred from truck to keelson. There were two seamen at the wheel and two at the relieving tackles, yet it was all that they could do among the wild commotion to keep her steady.

No one thought of going below. It was better to see and know the worst than to be shut up in a coffin where one could not stretch out a hand to help one’s self. Once Captain Hamilton Miggs clawed his way along the rail to where the Girdlestones were standing.

“Look there!” he roared, pointing to windward.

It was difficult to turn one’s face straight to the wild rush of wind and spray and hail. Shading their eyes, they peered into the storm. Right in the heart of it, and apparently not more than a couple of hundred yards from the barque, was a lurid glare of ruddy light, rising and falling with the sea, but advancing rapidly through it. There was a bright central glowing spot, with smaller lights glimmering above and beside it. The effect of the single glare of light against the inky darkness of the sea and sky would have made a study for a Turner.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a steamer,” the captain shouted. It was only by great exertions that he could make himself audible above the shrieking of the wind and the dash of the waves.

“What do you think of it all?” Ezra asked.

“Very bad,” Miggs answered. “Couldn’t be worse;” and with that he clawed his way aft again, grasping every stanchion or shroud on his way, like a parroquet in a cage.

The clouds above broke somewhat towards morning, but there was no sign of abatement in the tempest. Here and there through the rifts the glimmer of the stars might be seen, and once the pale moon gleamed through the storm wreath. The dawn broke cheerless and dreary, disclosing the great turmoil of endless slate-coloured waves and the solitary little barque, with her rag of canvas, like a broken-winged seabird, staggering to the south.

Even the Girdlestones had noticed that, whereas towards the commencement of the storm it had been a rare occurrence for a wave to break over the ship, the decks were now continually knee-deep in water, and there was a constant splashing and crashing as the seas curled over the weather bulwark. Miggs had already observed it, and conferred gravely with his mate on the point.

“I don’t like the looks of her, Mac,” he shouted. “She don’t rise to them.”

“She’s near water-logged, I’m thinkin’,” the mate responded gravely.

He knew the danger, and his thoughts were wandering away to a little slate-tiled cottage near Peterhead. It is true that there was not much in it save a wife, who was said to give Sandy the rough side of her tongue, and occasionally something rougher still. Affection is a capricious emotion, however, and will cling to the most unlikely objects; so the big Scotchman’s eyes were damp with something else beside the sea spray as he realized that he might never look upon cottage or occupant again.

“No wonder,” said Miggs, “when she’s takin’ in water above and below too. The men are weary wi’ pumpin’, and it still gains.”

“I doot it’s our last v’yage thgither,” the mate remarked, his Scottish accent waxing broader under the influence of emotion.

“What d’ye say to heavin’ her to?”

“I’d let her run on. She would na rise tae the waves, I’m fearin’. We canna be vera fa’ frae the Spanish coast, accordin’ to my surmisation. That wud gie us a chance o’ savin’ oorsels, though I’m a feared na boat would live in siccan a sea.”

“You’re right. We have a better chance so than if we let her ride. She’d founder as sure as eggs are eggs. Damn it, Mac, I could almost be glad this has happened now we’ve got them two aboard. We’ll teach ’em what coffin ships is like in a gale o’ wind.” The rough seaman laughed hoarsely as he spoke.

The carpenter came aft at this moment, balancing himself as best he could, for the deck was only a few degrees off the perpendicular.

“The leak is gaining fast,” he said. “The hands are clean done up. There’s land on the port bow.”

The mate and the captain peered out through the dense wrack and haze. A great dark cliff loomed out upon the left, jagged, inhospitable, and menacing.

“We’d best run towards it,” the mate said. “We’ve na chance o’ saving the ship, but we might run her ashore.”

“The ship will go down before you reach it,” the carpenter remarked gloomily.

“Keep your heart up!” Miggs shouted, and then crawled along to the Girdlestones. “There is no hope for the ship but we may save ourselves,” he said. “You’ll have to take your turn at the pumps.”

They followed him forward without a word. The crew, listless and weary, were grouped about the pumps. The feeble clanking sounded like the ticking of a watch amid the horrible uproar which filled the air.

“Buckle to again, boys!” cried Miggs. “These two will help you and the carpenter and mate.”

Ezra and his father, the old man’s grizzled locks flying wildly from his head, seized the rope and worked with the crew, hardly able to retain their foothold upon the slippery sloping decks. Miggs went down into the cabin. His behaviour during the gale had been most exemplary, but he recognized now that there was nothing more to be done, and, having thrown off his public responsibilities, he renewed his private peculiarities. He filled out nearly a tumblerful of raw rum and took it off at a gulp. Then he began to sing and made his way on deck in a very hilarious and reckless mood.

The vessel was still flying towards the rugged line of cliffs, which were now visible along the whole horizon, the great projection on the left being their culminating point. She was obviously sinking lower in the water, and she plunged in a heavy, sulky manner through the waves, instead of rising to them as she did before. The water was steadily gaining in her interior, and it was clear that she would not float long. The straining of the gale had increased the long-neglected rifts between her timbers, and no amount of pumping could save her. On the other hand, the sky had broken above them, and the wind was by no means so violent as before. The sun broke through between two great hurrying clouds, and turned all the waves to the brightest emerald green, with sparkling snow-white crests of foam. This sudden change and the brightness of the scene made their fate seem all the harder to the seamen aboard the sinking vessel.

“The gale is clearin’,” remarked McPherson. “If we’d had a ship that wasna rotten to the hairt, like her owners, we’d ha pu’ed through.”

“Right you are, old Sandy! But we’re all goin’ together, captain and owners and the whole bilin’,” yelled Miggs recklessly.

The mate looked at him half in surprise and half in contempt. “You’ve been at the bottle,” he said. “Eh mun, mun, if we are a’ drooned, as seems likely, it’s an awfu’ thing to appear before your Maker wi’ your meeserable soul a’ steeped in drink.”

“You go down and have a drink yourself,” Miggs cried huskily.

“Na, na. If I am to dee, I’ll dee sober.”

“You’ll die a fool,” the skipper shouted wrathfully.

“Well, old preacher, you’ve brought us into a nice hole with your damned insurance cheating, cheese-paring business. What d’ye think of it now, when the ship’s settlin’ down under our feet, eh? Would you repair her if you had her back in the Albert Dock, eh?”

This speech was addressed to the old merchant, who had ceased pumping, and was leaning against the cuddy and looking up hopelessly at the long line of brown cliffs which were now only half a mile away. They could hear the roar of the surf, and saw the white breakers where the Atlantic stormed in all its fury against nature’s break-water.

“He’s not fit to command,” said Ezra to the mate. “What would you advise?”

“We’ll bring her round and lower the boats on the lee side. They may live or no, but it’s the only chance for us. Them twa boats will hold us a’ easy.”

The ship was settling down in the water so fast that it was no difficult matter to let the boats down. They only hung a few feet above the surface. The majority of the crew got safely into the long boat, and the Girdlestones, with Miggs and four seamen, occupied the gig. It was no easy thing to prevent the boats from being stove, as the waves alternately drove them from the ship’s side or brought the two together with a force which seemed irresistible. By skilful management, however, they both succeeded in casting off and getting clear without accident.

It was only when they emerged from under the shelter of the vessel that they felt the full power of the sea. If it had appeared stupendous when they trod the deck of the barque, how much more so now, when, by leaning the arm over the side, they could touch the surface. The great glassy green billows hurled them up and down, and tossed them and buffeted them as though the two boats were their playthings, and they were trying what antics they could perform with them without destroying them. Girdlestone sat very grim and pale, with Ezra at his side. The young fellow’s expression was that of a daring man who realizes his danger, but is determined to throw no chance of safety away. His mouth was set firm and hard, and his dark eyebrows were drawn down over his keen eyes, which glanced swiftly to right and left, like a rat in a trap. Miggs held the tiller, and laughed from time to time in a drunken fashion, while the four seamen, quiet and subdued, steadied the boat as long as they could with their oars, and looked occasionally over their shoulders at the breakers behind them. The sun was shining on the rugged precipices, showing out the green turf upon their summit and a little dark group of peasants, who were watching the scene from above, but making no effort to assist the castaways. There was no alternative but to row straight in for the nearest point of land, for the boats were filling, and might go down at any moment.

“The ship’s gone!” Ezra said, as they rose on the summit of a wave. When they came up again all looked round, but there was no sign of the ill-fated Black Eagle.

“We’ll all be gone when we get among the breakers,” shouted Captain Hamilton Miggs. “Pull, ye devils, pull! Beat the mate’s boat. It’s a race, my lads, and the winnin’ post is hell.”

Ezra glanced at his father, and saw that his lips were moving tremulously as they pattered forth prayers.

“Still at it!” he said, with a sneer.

“Making my peace,” the old man said solemnly. “My faith is now indeed a staff and a comfort. I look back at my long life, and though I humbly confess that I have erred, and erred grievously, still in the main I have walked straight. From my youth I have been frugal and industrious. Oh, my boy, look with candid eyes into your own heart, and see if you are fit to be called away.”

“Look to your own beam,” Ezra answered, keeping his eye upon the line of boiling surf, which came nearer and nearer every moment. “How about John Harston’s daughter, eh?” Even at that awful hour Ezra felt a sinister pleasure at observing the spasm which shot across his father’s face at the mention of his ward.

“If I sinned I sinned for a worthy purpose,” he answered. “It was to preserve my business. Its fall was a blow to righteousness and a triumph to evil. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit!”

As he spoke a great wave hurled the boat in upon its broad bosom, and flung it down upon the cruel jagged rocks, which bristled from the base of the cliff. There was a horrible rending crash, and the stout keel snapped asunder, while a second wave swept over it, tearing out the struggling occupants and bearing them on, only to hurl them upon a second ridge beyond. The peasants upon the cliff gave piteous cries of grief and pity, which blended with the agonized groans and screams of drowning men and the thunder of the pitiless surge. Looking down they could see the black dots, which indicated the heads of the poor wretches below, diminishing one by one as they were hurled upon the rocks or dragged down by the under-current.

Ezra was a strong swimmer, but when he had shaken himself free of the boat, and kicked away a seaman who clung to him, he made no attempt to strike out. He knew that the waves would bear him quickly enough on to the rocks, and he reserved himself for the struggle with them. A great roller came surging over the outlying reef. It carried him in like a feather and hurled him up against the face of the cliff. As he struggled upon its crest, he mechanically put out his hands and seized a projecting portion of the rock. The shock of the contact was tremendous, but he retained his grasp and found himself, when the wave receded, standing battered and breathless upon a small niche in the front of the rock which just gave him foothold. It was a marvellous escape, for looking on either side he could not see any break in the sheer declivity.

He was by no means safe as yet. If a wave had landed him there another might come as high and drag him away. Looking down he saw one or two smaller ones break into spray far below him, and then a second great green billow came rolling majestically towards him. He eyed it as it came foaming in, and calculated that it would come at least as high as his knees. Would it drag him back with it, or could he hold his own? He braced himself as firmly as he could, placing his feet apart, and digging his nails into the inequalities of the rock until the blood gushed from them. The water surged up upon him, and he felt it tugging like some murderous demon at his legs, but he held on bravely until the pressure decreased. Looking below the saw the wave sinking down the face of the cliff. Another wave overtook it and welled it up again, and then from the depths of the green waters Ezra saw a long white arm shoot up, and grasp the edge of the ledge upon which he stood.

Even before the face appeared the young man knew that the hand was his father’s. A second followed the first, and then the old merchant’s face was uplifted from the waves. He was cruelly bruised and battered, and his clothes had been partly torn away. He recognized his son, however, and looked up at him beseechingly, while he held on with all his strength to the ledge of rock. So small was the space that his clinging fingers touched Ezra’s toes.

“There’s no room here,” the young man said brutally.

“For God’s sake!”

“Hardly room for one.”

The merchant was hanging with the lower portion of his body in the water. It was but a few instants, but the old man had time to think of many an incident in his past life. Once more he saw the darkened sick-room, and his own form standing by the bed of the dying man. What are these words which ring in his ears above the crash of the surf? “May your flesh and blood treat you as you treat her.” He looked up appealing at his son. Ezra saw that the next wave would lift him right up on to the ledge. In that case he might be hustled off.

“Leave go!” he cried.

“Help me, Ezra.”

His son brought down his heavy heel upon the bloodless hands. The old African trader gave a wild shriek and fell back into the sea. Looking down, Ezra saw his despairing face gazing at him through the water. Slowly it sank until it was but a flickering white patch far down in the green depths. At the same instant a thick rope came dangling down the face of the cliff, and the young man knew that he was saved.

The Firm of Girdlestone - Contents    |     Chapter L

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