The Phantom Ship

Chapter Sixteen

Frederick Marryat

WE must leave Amine to her solitude, and follow the fortunes of Philip. The fleet had sailed with a flowing sheet, and bore gallantly down the Zuyder Zee; but they had not been under way an hour before the Vrow Katerina was left a mile or two astern. Mynheer Barentz found fault with the setting and trimming of the sails, and with the man at the helm, who was repeatedly changed; in short, with everything but his dear Vrow Katerina: but all would not do; she still dropped astern, and proved to be the worst-sailing vessel in the fleet.

“Mynheer Vanderdecken,” said he, at last, “the Vrow, as my father used to say, is not so very fast before the wind. Vessels that are good on a wind seldom are; but this I will say, that, in every other point of sailing, there is no other vessel in the fleet equal to the Vrow Katerina.”

“Besides,” observed Philip, who perceived how anxious how captain was on the subject, “we are heavily laden, and have so many troops on deck.”

The fleet cleared the sands and were then close-hauled, when the Vrow Katerina proved to sail even more slowly than before. “When we are so very close-hauled,” observed Mynheer Barentz, “the Vrow does not do so well; but a point free, and then you will see how she will show her stern to the whole fleet. She is a fine vessel, Mynheer Vanderdecken, is she not?”

“A very fine, roomy vessel,” replied Philip, which was all that in conscience, he could say.

The fleet sailed on, sometimes on a wind, sometimes free, but let the point of sailing be what it might, the Vrow Katerina was invariably astern, and the fleet had to heave-to at sunset to enable her to keep company; still, the captain continued to declare that the point of sailing on which they happened to be, was the only point in which the Vrow Katerina was deficient. Unfortunately, the vessel had other points quite as bad as her sailing; she was crank, leaky, and did not answer the helm well, but Mynheer Barentz was not to be convinced. He adored his ship and like all men desperately in love he could see no fault in his mistress. But others were not so blind, and the admiral, finding the voyage so much delayed by the bad sailing of one vessel, determined to leave her to find her way by herself so soon as they had passed the Cape. He was, however, spared the cruelty of deserting her, for a heavy gale came on which dispersed the whole fleet, and on the second day the good ship Vrow Katerina found herself alone, labouring heavily in the trough of the sea, leaking so much as to require hands constantly at the pumps, and drifting before the gale as fast to leeward almost as she usually sailed. For a week the gale continued, and each day did her situation become more alarming. Crowded with troops, encumbered with heavy stores she groaned and laboured, while whole seas washed over her, and the men could hardly stand at the pumps. Philip was active, and exerted himself to the utmost, encouraging the worn-out men, securing where aught had given way, and little interfered with by the captain, who was himself no sailor.

“Well,” observed the captain to Philip, as they held on by the belaying-pins, “you’ll acknowledge that she is a fine weatherly vessel in a gale—is she not? Softly, my beauty, softly,” continued he, speaking to the vessel, as she plunged heavily into the waves, and every timber groaned. “Softly, my dear, softly. How those poor devils in the other ships must be knocking about now. Heh! Mynheer Vanderdecken, we have the start of them this time: they must be a terrible long way down to leeward. Don’t you think so?”

“I really cannot pretend to say,” replied Philip, smiling.

“Why, there’s not one of them in sight. Yes! by Heavens, there is! Look on our lee-beam. I see one now. Well, she must be a capital sailer, at all events: look there, a point abaft the beam. Mercy on me! how stiff she must be to carry such a press of canvass!”

Philip had already seen her. It was a large ship on a wind, and on the same tack as they were. In a gale, in which no vessel could carry the topsails, the Vrow Katerina being under close-reefed foresails and staysails, the ship seen to leeward was standing under a press of sail—topgallant-sail, royals, flying jib, and every stitch of canvass which could be set in a light breeze. The waves were running mountains high, bearing each minute the Vrow Katerina down to the gunwale: and the ship seen appeared not to be affected by the tumultuous waters, but sailed steadily and smoothly on an even keel. At once Philip knew it must be the Phantom Ship, in which his father’s doom was being fulfilled.

“Very odd, is it not?” observed Mynheer Barentz.

Philip felt such an oppression on his chest that he could not reply. As he held on with one hand, he covered up his eyes with the other.

But the seamen had now seen the vessel, and the legend was too well known. Many of the troops had climbed on deck when the report was circulated, and all eyes were now fixed upon the supernatural vessel; when a heavy squall burst over the Vrow Katerina, accompanied with peals of thunder and heavy rain, rendering it so thick that nothing could be seen. In a quarter of an hour it cleared away, and, when they looked to leeward the stranger was no longer in sight.

“Merciful Heaven! she must have been upset, and has gone down in the squall,” said Mynheer Barentz. “I thought as much, carrying such a press of sail. There never was a ship that could carry more than the Vrow Katerina. It was madness on the part of the captain of that vessel; but I suppose he wished to keep up with us. Heh, Mynheer Vanderdecken?”

Philip did not reply to these remarks, which fully proved the madness of his captain. He felt that his ship was doomed, and when he thought of the numbers on board who might be sacrificed, he shuddered. After a pause, he said—

“Mynheer Barentz, this gale is likely to continue, and the best ship that ever was built cannot, in my opinion, stand such weather. I should advise that we bear up, and run back to Table Bay to refit. Depend upon it, we shall find the whole fleet there before us.”

“Never fear for the good ship, Vrow Katerina,” replied the captain; “see what weather she makes of it.”

“Cursed bad,” observed one of the seamen, for the seamen had gathered near to Philip to hear what his advice might be. “If I had known that she was such an old, crazy beast, I never would have trusted myself on board. Mynheer Vanderdecken is right; we must back to Table Bay ere worse befall us. That ship to leeward has given us warning—she is not seen for nothing,—ask Mr Vanderdecken, captain; he knows that well, for he is a sailor.”

This appeal to Philip made him start; it was, however, made without any knowledge of Philip’s interest in the Phantom Ship.

“I must say,” replied Philip, “that, whenever I have fallen in with that vessel, mischief has ever followed.”

“Vessel! why, what was there in that vessel to frighten you? She carried too much sail, and she has gone down.”

“She never goes down,” replied one of the seamen.

“No! no!” exclaimed many voices; “but we shall, if we do not run back.”

“Pooh! nonsense! Mynheer Vanderdecken, what say you?”

“I have already stated my opinion,” replied Philip, who was anxious, if possible, to see the ship once more in port, “that the best thing we can do, is to bear up for Table Bay.”

“And, captain,” continued the old seaman who had just spoken, “we are all determined that it shall be so, whether you like it or not; so up with the helm, my hearty, and Mynheer Vanderdecken will trim the sails.”

“Why! what is this?” cried Captain Barentz. “A mutiny on board of the Vrow Katerina? impossible! The Vrow Katerina! the best ship, the fastest in the whole fleet!”

“The dullest old rotten tub,” cried one of the seamen.

“What!” cried the captain, “what do I hear? Mynheer Vanderdecken, confine that lying rascal for mutiny.”

“Pooh! nonsense! he’s mad,” replied the old seaman. “Never mind him; come, Mynheer Vanderdecken, we will obey you; but the helm must be up immediately.”

The captain stormed, but Philip, by acknowledging the superiority of his vessel, at the same time that he blamed the seamen for their panic, pointed out to him the necessity of compliance, and Mynheer Barentz at last consented. The helm was put up, the sails trimmed, and the Vrow Katerina rolled heavily before the gale. Towards the evening the weather moderated, and the sky cleared up; both sea and wind subsided fast; the leaking decreased, and Philip was in hopes that in a day or two they would arrive safely in the Bay.

As they steered their course, so did the wind gradually decrease, until at last it fell calm; nothing remained of the tempest but a long heavy swell which set to the westward, and before which the Vrow Katerina was gradually drifting. This was respite to the worn-out seamen, and also to the troops and passengers, who had been cooped below or drenched on the main-deck.

The upper deck was crowded; mothers basked in the warm sun with their children in their arms; the rigging was filled with the wet clothes, which were hung up to dry on every part of the shrouds; and the seamen were busily employed in repairing the injuries of the gale. By their reckoning, they were not more than fifty miles from Table Bay, and each moment they expected to see the land to the southward of it. All was again mirth, and every one on board, except Philip, considered that danger was no more to be apprehended.

The second mate, whose name was Krantz, was an active, good seaman, and a great favourite with Philip, who knew that he could trust to him, and it was on the afternoon of this day that he and Philip were walking together on the deck.

“What think you, Vanderdecken, of that strange vessel we saw?”

“I have seen her before, Krantz; and—“

“And what?”

“Whatever vessel I have been in when I have seen her, that vessel has never returned into port—others tell the same tale.”

“Is she, then, the ghost of a vessel?”

“I am told so; and there are various stories afloat concerning her: but of this, I assure you—that I am fully persuaded that some accident will happen before we reach port, although everything at this moment appears so calm, and our port is so near at hand.”

“You are superstitious,” replied Krantz; “and yet, I must say, that, to me, the appearance was not like a reality. No vessel could carry such sail in the gale; but yet, there are madmen afloat who will sometimes attempt the most absurd things. If it was a vessel, she must have gone down, for when it cleared up she was not to be seen. I am not very credulous, and nothing but the occurrence of the consequences which you anticipate will make me believe that there was anything supernatural in the affair.”

“Well! I shall not be sorry if the event proves me wrong,” replied Philip; “but I have my forebodings—we are not in port yet.”

“No! but we are but a trifling distance from it, and there is every prospect of a continuance of fine weather.”

“There is no saying from what quarter the danger may come,” replied Philip; “we have other things to fear than the violence of the gale.”

“True,” replied Krantz; “but, nevertheless, don’t let us croak. Notwithstanding all you say, I prophesy that in two days, at the farthest, we are safely anchored in Table Bay.”

The conversation here dropped, and Philip was glad to be left alone. A melancholy had seized him—a depression of spirits, even greater than he had ever felt before. He leant over the gangway and watched the heaving of the sea.

“Merciful Heaven!” ejaculated he, “be pleased to spare this vessel; let not the wail of women, the shrieks of the poor children, now embarked, be heard; the numerous body of men, trusting to her planks,—let not them be sacrificed for my father’s crimes.” And Philip mused. “The ways of Heaven are indeed mysterious,” thought he. “Why should others suffer because my father has sinned? And yet, is it not so everywhere? How many thousands fall on the field of battle in a war occasioned by the ambition of a king, or the influence of a woman! How many millions have been destroyed for holding a different creed of faith! He works in his own way, leaving us to wonder and to doubt!”

The sun had set before Philip had quitted the gangway and gone down below. Commending himself, and those embarked with him, to the care of Providence, he at last fell asleep; but, before the bell was struck eight times, to announce midnight, he was awakened by a rude shove of the shoulder, and perceived Krantz, who had the first watch, standing by him.

“By the Heaven above us! Vanderdecken, you have prophesied right. Up—quick! The ship’s on fire!”

“On fire!” exclaimed Vanderdecken, jumping out of his berth—“where?”

“The main-hold.”

“I will up immediately, Krantz. In the mean time, keep the hatches on and rig the pumps.”

In less than a minute Philip was on deck, where he found Captain Barentz, who had also been informed of the case by the second mate. In a few words all was explained by Krantz: there was a strong smell of fire proceeding from the main-hold; and, on removing one of the hatches, which he had done without calling for any assistance, from a knowledge of the panic it would create, he found that the hold was full of smoke; he had put it on again immediately, and had only made it known to Philip and the captain.

“Thanks for your presence of mind,” replied Philip; “we have now time to reflect quietly on what is to be done. If the troops and the poor women and children knew their danger, their alarm would have much impeded us: but how could she have taken fire in the main-hold?”

“I never heard of the Vrow Katerina talking fire before,” observed the captain; “I think it is impossible. It must be some mistake—she is—“

“I now recollect that we have in our cargo several cases of vitriol in bottles,” interrupted Philip. “In the gale, they must have been disturbed and broken. I kept them above all, in case of accident: this rolling, gunwale under, for so long a time must have occasioned one of them to fetch way.”

“That’s it, depend upon it,” observed Krantz.

“I did object to receive them, stating that they ought to go out in some vessel which was not so encumbered with troops, so that they might remain on the main-deck; but they replied, that the invoices were made out and could not be altered. But now to act. My idea is, to keep the hatches on, so as to smother it if possible.”

“Yes,” replied Krantz; “and, at the same time, cut a hole in the deck just large enough to admit the hose, and pump as much water as we can down into the hold.”

“You are right, Krantz; send for the carpenter, and set him to work. I will turn the hands up, and speak to the men. I smell the fire now very strong; there is no time to lose. If we can only keep the troops and the women quiet we may do something.”

The hands were turned up, and soon made their appearance on deck, wondering why they were summoned. The men had not perceived the state of the vessel, for, the hatches having been kept on, the little smoke that issued ascended the hatchway, and did not fill the lower deck.

“My lads,” said Philip, “I am sorry to say that we have reason to suspect that there is some danger of fire in the main-hold.”

“I smell it!” cried one of the seamen.

“So do I,” cried several others, with every show of alarm, and moving away as if to go below.

“Silence, and remain where you are, my men. Listen to what I say: if you frighten the troops and passengers we shall do nothing; we must trust to ourselves; there is no time to be lost. Mr Krantz and the carpenter are doing all that can be done at present; and now, my men, do me the favour to sit down on the deck, every one of you, while I tell you what we must do.”

This order of Philip’s was obeyed, and the effect was excellent: it gave the men time to compose themselves after the first shock; for, perhaps, of all shocks to the human frame, there is none which creates a greater panic than the first intimation of fire on board of a vessel—a situation, indeed, pitiable, when it is considered that you have to choose between the two elements seeking your destruction. Philip did not speak for a minute or two. He then pointed out to the men the danger of their situation, what were the measures which he and Krantz had decided upon taking; and how necessary it was that all should be cool and collected. He also reminded them that they had but little powder in the magazine, which was far from the site of the fire, and could easily be removed and thrown overboard; and that, if the fire could not be extinguished, they had a quantity of spars on deck to form a raft, which, with the boats, would receive all on board, and that they were but a short distance from land.

Philip’s address had the most beneficial effects; the men rose up when he ordered them; one portion went down to the magazine, and handed up the powder, which was passed along and thrown overboard; another went to the pumps; and Krantz, coming up, reported the hole to have been cut in the planking of the deck above the main-hold: the hoses were fixed, and a quantity of water soon poured down, but it was impossible that the danger could be kept secret. The troops were sleeping on the deck and the very employment of the seamen pointed out what had occurred, even if the smoke, which now increased very much, and filled the lower deck, had not betrayed it. In a few minutes the alarm of Fire! was heard throughout the vessel, and men, women, and children, were seen, some hurrying on their clothes, some running frightened about the decks, some shrieking, some praying, and the confusion and terror were hardly to be described.

The judicious conduct of Philip was then made evident: had the sailors been awakened by the appalling cry, they would have been equally incapable of acting as were the troops and passengers. All subordination would have ceased: some would have seized the boats, and left the majority to perish: others would have hastened to the spirit-room, and, by their drunkenness added to the confusion and horror of the scene: nothing would have been effected, and almost all would in all probability have perished miserably. But this had been prevented by the presence of mind shown by Philip and the second-mate, for the Captain was a cipher:—not wanting in courage certainly, but without conduct or a knowledge of his profession. The seamen continued steady to their duty, pushing the soldiers out of the way as they performed their allotted tasks: and Philip perceiving this, went down below, leaving Krantz in charge; and by reasoning with the most collected, by degrees he brought the majority of the troops to a state of comparative coolness.

The powder had been thrown overboard, and another hole having been cut in the deck on the other side, the other pump was rigged, and double the quantity of water poured into the hold; but it was evident to Philip that the combustion increased. The smoke and steam now burst through the interstices of the hatchways and the holes cut in the deck with a violence that proved the extent of the fire which raged below, and Philip thought it advisable to remove all the women and children to the poop and quarter-deck of the ship, desiring the husbands of the women to stay with them. It was a melancholy sight, and the tears stood in Philip’s eyes as he looked upon the group of females—some weeping and straining their children to their bosoms; some more quiet and more collected than the men: the elder children mute or crying because their mothers cried, and the younger ones, unconscious of danger playing with the first object which attracted their attention, or smiling at their parents. The officers commanding the troops were two ensigns newly entered, and very young men, ignorant of their duty and without any authority—for men in cases of extreme danger will not obey those who are more ignorant than themselves—and, at Philip’s request, they remained with and superintended the women and children.

So soon as Philip had given his orders that the women and children should be properly clothed (which many of them were not), he went again forward to superintend the labour of the seamen, who already began to show symptoms of fatigue, from the excess of their exertions; but many of the soldiers now offered to work at the pumps, and their services were willingly accepted. Their efforts were in vain. In about half an hour more, the hatches were blown up with a loud noise, and a column of intense and searching flame darted up perpendicularly from the hold, high as the lower mast-head. Then was heard the loud shriek of the women, who pressed their children in agony to their breasts, as the seamen and soldiers who had been working the pumps, in their precipitate retreat from the scorching flames, rushed aft, and fell among the huddled crowd.

“Be steady, my lads—steady, my good fellows,” exclaimed Philip; “there is no danger yet. Recollect we have our boats and raft, and although we cannot subdue the fire, and save the vessel, still we may, if you are cool and collected, not only save ourselves, but every one—even the poor infants who now appeal to you as men to exert yourselves in their behalf. Come, come, my lads, let us do our duty—we have the means of escape in our power if we lose no time. Carpenter, get your axes, and cut away the boom-lashings. Now, my men, let us get our boats out, and make a raft fur these poor women and children; we are not ten miles from the land. Krantz, see to the boats with the starboard watch: larboard watch with me, to launch over the booms. Gunners, take any of the cordage you can, ready for lashing. Come, my lads, there is no want of light—we can work without lanterns.”

The men obeyed: as Philip, to encourage them, had almost jocularly remarked (for a joke is often well-timed, when apparently on the threshold of eternity) there was no want of light. The column of fire now ascended above the main-top—licking with its forky tongue the top-mast rigging—and embracing the main-mast in its folds: and the loud roar with which it ascended proved the violence and rapidity of the combustion below and how little time there was to be lost. The lower and main decks were now so filled with smoke that no one could remain there: some few poor fellows sick in their cots had long been smothered, for they had been forgotten. The swell had much subsided, and there was not a breath of wind: the smoke which rose from the hatchways ascended straight up in the air, which, as the vessel had lost all steerage way, was fortunate. The boats were soon in the water, and trusty men placed in them: the spars were launched over, arranged by the men in the boats and lashed together. All the gratings were then collected and firmly fixed upon the spars for the people to sit upon; and Philip’s heart was glad at the prospect which he now had of saving the numbers which were embarked.

The Phantom Ship - Contents    |     Chapter Seventeen

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