The Phantom Ship

Chapter Seventeen

Frederick Marryat

BUT their difficulties were not surmounted—the fire now had communicated to the main-deck and burst out of the port-holes amid-ships—and the raft which had been forming alongside was obliged to be drifted astern where it was more exposed to the swell. This retarded their labour, and, in the mean time the fire was making rapid progress; the main-mast which had long been burning, fell over the side with the lurching of the vessel, and the flames out of the main-deck ports soon showed their points above the bulwarks, while volumes of smoke were poured in upon the upper-deck almost suffocating the numbers which were crowded there; for all communication with the fore-part of the ship had been for some time cut off by the flames, and every one had retreated aft. The women and children were now carried on to the poop; not only to remove them farther from the suffocating smoke, but that they might be lowered down to the raft from the stern.

It was about four o’clock in the morning when all was ready, and by the exertions of Philip and the seamen, notwithstanding the swell, the women and children were safely placed on the raft where it was considered that they would be less in the way, as the men could relieve each other in pulling when they were tired.

After the women and children had been lowered down, the troops were next ordered to descend by the ladders; some few were lost in the attempt, falling under the boat’s bottom and not re-appearing; but two-thirds of them were safely put on the berths they were ordered to take by Krantz, who had gone down to superintend this important arrangement. Such had been the vigilance of Philip, who had requested Captain Barentz to stand over the spirit-room hatch, with pistols, until the smoke on the main-deck rendered the precaution unnecessary, that not a single person was intoxicated, and to this might be ascribed the order and regularity which had prevailed during this trying scene. But before one-third of the soldiers had descended by the stern ladder, the fire burst out of the stern windows with a violence that nothing could withstand; spouts of vivid flame extended several feet from the vessel, roaring with the force of a blowpipe; at the same time the flames burst through all the after-ports of the main-deck, and those remaining on board found themselves encircled with fire, and suffocated with smoke and heat. The stern ladders were consumed in a minute and dropped into the sea the boats which had been receiving the men were obliged also to back astern from the intense heat of the flames; even those on the raft shrieked as they found themselves scorched by the ignited fragments which fell on them as they were enveloped in an opaque cloud of smoke, which hid from them those who still remained on the deck of the vessel. Philip attempted to speak to those on board, but he was not heard. A scene of confusion took place which ended in great loss of life. The only object appeared to be who should first escape; though, except by jumping overboard, there was no escape. Had they waited, and (as Philip would have pointed out to them) have one by one thrown themselves into the sea, the men in the boats were fully prepared to pick them up; or had they climbed out to the end of the latteen mizen-yard which was lowered down, they might have descended safely by a rope, but the scorching of the flames which surrounded them, and the suffocation from the smoke was overpowering, and most of the soldiers sprang over the taffrail at once, or as nearly so as possible. The consequence was, that there were thirty or forty in the water at the same time, and the scene was as heart-rending as it was appalling; the sailors in the boats dragging them in as fast as they could—the women on the raft, throwing to them loose garments to haul them in; at one time a wife shrieking as she saw her husband struggling and sinking into eternity; at another, curses and execrations from the swimmer who was grappled with by the drowning man, and dragged with him under the surface. Of eighty men who were left of the troops on board at the time of the bursting out of the flames from the stern windows, but twenty-five were saved. There were but few seamen left on board with Philip, the major part having been employed in making the raft or manning the three boats; those who were on board remained by his side, regulating their motions by his. After allowing full time for the soldiers to be picked up, Philip ordered the men to climb out to the end of the latteen yard which hung on the taffrail, and either to lower themselves down on the raft if it was under, or to give notice to the boats to receive them. The raft had been dropped farther astern by the seamen, that those on board of it might not suffer from the smoke and heat; and the sailors one after another lowered themselves down and were received by the boats. Philip desired Captain Barentz to go before him, but the captain refused. He was too much choked with smoke to say why, but no doubt but that it would have been something in praise of the Vrow Katerina. Philip then climbed out; he was followed by the captain, and they were both received into one of the boats.

The rope, which had hitherto held the raft to the ship, was now cast off, and it was taken in by the boats; and in a short time the Vrow Katerina was borne to leeward of them; and Philip and Krantz now made arrangements for the better disposal of the people. The sailors were almost all put into boats that they might relieve one another in pulling; the remainder were placed on the raft, along with the soldiers, the women, and the children. Notwithstanding that the boats were all as much loaded as they could well bear, the numbers on the raft were so great, that it sunk nearly a foot under water, when the swell of the sea poured upon it; but stanchions and ropes to support those on board had been fixed and the men remained at the sides, while the women and children were crowded together in the middle.

As soon as these arrangements were made, the boats took the raft in tow, and just as the dawn of day appeared, pulled in the direction of the land.

The Vrow Katerina was, by this time, one volume of flame: she had drifted about half a mile to leeward, and Captain Barentz, who was watching as he sat in the boat with Philip, exclaimed—“Well, there goes a lovely ship, a ship that could do everything but speak—I’m sure that not a ship in the fleet would have made such a bonfire as she has—does she not burn beautifully—nobly? My poor Vrow Katerina! perfect to the last, we never shall see such a ship as you again! Well, I’m glad my father did not live to see this sight, for it would have broken his heart, poor man.”

Philip made no reply; he felt a respect even for Captain Barentz’s misplaced regard for the vessel. They made but little way, for the swell was rather against them, and the raft was deep in the water. The day dawned, and the appearance of the weather was not favourable; it promised a return of the gale. Already a breeze ruffled the surface of the water, and the swell appeared to increase rather than go down. The sky was overcast and the horizon thick. Philip looked out for the land, but could not perceive it, for there was a haze on the horizon, so that he could not see more than five miles. He felt that to gain the shore before the coming night was necessary for the preservation of so many individuals of whom more than sixty were women and children, who without any nourishment, were sitting on a frail raft, immersed in the water. No land in sight—a gale coming on, and in all probability, a heavy sea and dark night. The chance was indeed desperate, and Philip was miserable—most miserable—when he reflected that so many innocent beings might, before the next morning, be consigned to a watery tomb,—and why?—yes, there was the feeling—that although Philip could reason against—he never could conquer; for his own life he cared nothing—even the idea of his beloved Amine was nothing in the balance at these moments. The only point which sustained him, was the knowledge that he had his duty to perform, and, in the full exercise of his duty, he recovered himself.

“Land ahead!” was now cried out by Krantz, who was in the headmost boat, and the news was received with a shout of joy from the raft and the boats. The anticipation and the hope the news gave was like manna in the wilderness—and the poor women on the raft, drenched sometimes above the waist by the swell of the sea, clasped the children in their arms still closer, and cried—“My darling, you shall be saved.”

Philip stood upon the stern-sheets to survey the land, and he had the satisfaction of finding that it was not five miles distant and a ray of hope warmed his heart. The breeze now had gradually increased, and rippled the water. The quarter from which the wind came was neither favourable nor adverse, being on the beam. Had they had sails for the boats, it would have been otherwise, but they had been stowed away, and could not be procured. The sight of land naturally rejoiced them all, and the seamen in the boat cheered, and double-banked the oars, to increase their way; but the towing of a large raft sunk under water was no easy task; and they could not, with all their exertions, advance more than half a mile an hour.

Until noon they continued their exertions not without success; they were not three miles from the land; but, as the sun passed the meridian a change took place; the breeze blew strong; the swell of the sea rose rapidly; and the raft was often so deeply immersed in the waves as to alarm them for the safety of those upon her. Their way was proportionably retarded, and by three o’clock they had not gained half a mile from where they had been at noon. The men not having had refreshment of any kind during the labour and excitement of so many hours, began to flag in their exertions. The wish for water was expressed by all—from the child who appealed to its mother, to the seaman who strained at the oar. Philip did all he could to encourage the men but finding themselves so near to the land, and so overcome with fatigue, and that the raft in tow would not allow them to approach their haven they murmured, and talked of the necessity of casting loose the raft and looking out for themselves. A feeling of self prevailed, and they were mutinous; but Philip expostulated with them, and out of respect for him, they continued their exertions for another hour, when a circumstance occurred which decided the question, upon which they had recommenced a debate.

The increased swell and the fresh breeze had so beat about and tossed the raft, that it was with difficulty, for some time, that its occupants could hold themselves on it. A loud shout, mingled with screams, attracted the attention of those in the boats, and Philip looking back, perceived that the lashings of the raft had yielded to the force of the waves, and that it had separated amidship. The scene was agonising; husbands were separated from their wives and children—each floating away from each other—for the part of the raft which was still towed by the boats had already left the other far astern. The women rose up and screamed, and held up their children; some, more frantic, dashed into the water between them, and attempted to gain the floating wreck upon which their husbands stood, and sank before they could be assisted. But the horror increased—one lashing having given way, all the rest soon followed; and, before the boats could turn and give assistance, the sea was strewed with the spars which composed the raft, with men, women, and children clinging to them. Loud were the yells of despair, and the shrieks of the women, as they embraced their offspring, and in attempting to save them were lost themselves. The spars of the raft still close together, were hurled one upon the other by the swell, and many found death by being jammed between them. Although all the boats hastened to their assistance, there was so much difficulty and danger in forcing them between the spars, that but few were saved, and even those few were more than the boats could well take in. The seamen and a few soldiers were picked up, but all the females and the children had sunk beneath the waves.

The effect of this catastrophe may be imagined, but hardly described. The seamen who had debated as to casting them adrift to perish, wept as they pulled towards the shore. Philip was overcome, he covered his face, and remained for some time without giving directions, and heedless of what passed.

It was now five o’clock in the evening; the boats had cast off the tow-lines and vied with each other in their exertions. Before the sun had set, they all had arrived at the beach, and were safely landed in the little sand bay into which they had steered; for the wind was off the shore and there was no surf. The boats were hauled up, and the exhausted men lay down on the sands, till warm with the heat of the sun, and forgetting that they had neither eaten nor drunk for so long a time, they were soon fast asleep. Captain Barentz, Philip, and Krantz; as soon as they had seen the boats secured, held a short consultation, and were then glad to follow the example of the seamen; harassed and worn out with the fatigue of the last twenty-four hours, their senses were soon drowned in oblivion.

For many hours they all slept soundly, dreamt of water, and awoke to the sad reality that they were tormented with thirst, and were on a sandy heath with the salt waves mocking them; but they reflected how many of their late companions had been swallowed up, and felt thankful that they had been spared. It was early dawn when they all rose from the forms which they had impressed on the yielding sand; and by the directions of Philip, they separated in every direction, to look for the means of quenching their agony of thirst. As they proceeded over sand-hills, they found growing in the sand a low spongy-leaf sort of shrub, something like what in our greenhouses is termed the ice-plant; the thick leaves of which were covered with large drops of dew. They sank down on their knees, and proceeded from one to the other licking off the moisture which was abundant, and soon felt a temporary relief. They continued their search till noon without success, and hunger was now added to their thirst; they then returned to the beach to ascertain if their companions had been more successful. They had also quenched their thirst with the dew of heaven but had found no water or means of subsistence; but some of them had eaten the leaves of the plant which had contained the dew in the morning, and had found them, although acid, full of watery sap and grateful to the palate. The plant in question is the one provided by bounteous Providence for the support of the camel and other beasts in the arid desert, only to be found there, and devoured by all ruminating animals with avidity. By the advice of Philip they collected a quantity of this plant and put it into the boats, and then launched.

They were not more than fifty miles from Table Bay; and although they had no sails, the wind was in their favour. Philip pointed out to them how useless it was to remain, when before morning they would, in all probability arrive at where they would obtain all they required. The advice was approved of and acted upon; the boats were shoved off and the oars resumed. So tired and exhausted were the men, that their oars dipped mechanically into the water, for there was no strength left to be applied; it was not until the next morning at daylight, that they had arrived opposite False Bay, and they had still many miles to pull. The wind in their favour had done almost all—the men could do little or nothing.

Encouraged, however, by the sight of land which they knew, they rallied; and about noon they pulled, exhausted, to the beach at the bottom of Table Bay, near to which were the houses, and the fort protecting the settlers, who had for some few years resided there. They landed close to where a broad rivulet at that season (but a torrent in the winter) poured its stream into the bay. At the sight of fresh water, some of the men dropped their oars, threw themselves into the sea when out of their depth—others when the water was above their waists—yet they did not arrive so soon as those who waited till the boat struck the beach and jumped out upon dry land. And then they threw themselves into the rivulet, which coursed over the shingle, about five or six inches in depth allowing the refreshing stream to pour into their mouths till they could receive no more, immersing their hot hands, and rolling in it with delight.

Despots and fanatics have exerted their ingenuity to invent torments for their victims—how useless—the rack, the boot, tire,—all that they have imagined are not to be compared to the torture of extreme thirst. In the extremity of agony the sufferers cry for water, and it is not refused: they might have spared themselves their refined ingenuity of torment, and the disgusting exhibition of it, had they only confined the prisoner in his cell, and refused him water.

As soon as they satisfied the most pressing of all wants, they rose dripping from the stream, and walked up to the houses of the factory; the inhabitants of which, perceiving that boats had landed when there was no vessel in the bay, naturally concluded that some disaster had happened, and were walking down to meet them. Their tragical history was soon told. The thirty-six men that stood before them were all that were left of nearly three hundred souls embarked, and they had been more than two days without food. At this intimation no further questions were asked by the considerate settlers, until the hunger of the sufferers had been appeased when the narrative of their sufferings was fully detailed by Philip and Krantz.

“I have an idea that I have seen you before,” observed one of the settlers. “Did you come on shore when the fleet anchored?”

“I did not,” replied Philip; “but I have been here.”

“I recollect now,” replied the man; “you were the only survivor of the Ter Schilling, which was lost in False Bay.”

“Not the only survivor,” replied Philip; “I thought so myself; but I afterwards met the pilot, a one-eyed man, of the name of Schriften, who was my shipmate: he must have arrived here after me. You saw him, of course?”

“No, I did not. No one belonging to the Ter Schilling ever came here after you; for I have been a settler here ever since, and it is not likely that I should forget such a circumstance.”

“He must, then, have returned to Holland by some other means.”

“I know not how. Our ships never go near the coast after they leave the bay; it is too dangerous.”

“Nevertheless, I saw him,” replied Philip, musing.

“If you saw him, that is sufficient; perhaps some vessel had been blown down to the eastern side, and picked him up; but the natives in that part are not likely to have spared the life of a European. The Caffres are a cruel people.”

The information that Schriften had not been seen at the Cape was a subject of meditation to Philip. He had always had an idea as the reader knows, that there was something supernatural about the man; and this opinion was corroborated by the report of the settler.

We must pass over the space of two months during which the wrecked seamen were treated with kindness by the settlers, and at the expiration of which a small brig arrived at the bay, and took in refreshments: she was homeward bound, with a full cargo, and being chartered by the Company, could not refuse to receive on board the crew of the Vrow Katerina. Philip, Krantz, and the seamen embarked; but Captain Barentz remained behind to settle at the Cape.

“Should I go home,” said he to Philip, who argued with him, “I have nothing in the world to return for. I have no wife—no children. I had but one dear object, my Vrow Katerina, who was my wife, my child, my everything;—she is gone, and I never shall find another vessel like her; and if I could, I should not love it as I did her. No, my affections are buried with her,—are entombed in the deep sea. How beautifully she burnt!—she went out of the world like a phoenix, as she was. No! no! I will be faithful to her—I will send for what little money I have, and live as near to her tomb as I can—I never shall forget her as long as I live. I shall mourn over her, and ‘Vrow Katerina,’ when I die, will be found engraven on my heart.”

Philip could not help wishing that his affections had been fixed upon a more deserving object, as then, probably, the tragical loss had not taken place; but he changed the subject, feeling that, being no sailor, Captain Barentz was much better on shore than in the command of a vessel. They shook hands and parted—Philip promising to execute Barentz’s commission, which was to turn his money into articles most useful to a settler, and have them sent out by the first fleet which should sail from the Zuyder Zee. But this commission it was not Philip’s good fortune to execute. The brig, named the Wilhelmina sailed and soon arrived at St. Helena. After watering she proceeded on her voyage. They had made the Western Isles, and Philip was consoling himself with the anticipation of soon joining his Amine, when to the northward of the islands, they met with a furious gale before which they were obliged to scud for many days, with the vessel’s head to the south-east; and as the wind abated, and they were able to haul to it, they fell in with a Dutch fleet of five vessels, commanded by an admiral, which had left Amsterdam more than two months, and had been buffeted about by contrary gales for the major part of that period. Cold, fatigue, and bad provisions, had brought on the scurvy; and the ships were so weakly manned, that they could hardly navigate them. When the captain of the Wilhelmina reported to the admiral that he had part of the crew of the Vrow Katerina on board, he was ordered to send them immediately to assist in navigating his crippled fleet. Remonstrance was useless. Philip had but time to write to Amine, acquainting her with his misfortunes and disappointment; and, confiding the letter to his wife, as well as his narrative of the loss of the Vrow Katerina for the directors, to the charge of the captain of the Wilhelmina, he hastened to pack up his effects, and repaired on board of the admiral’s ship with Krantz and the crew. To them were added six of the men belonging to to Wilhelmina, whom the admiral insisted on retaining; and the brig, having received the admiral’s despatches, was then permitted to continue her voyage.

Perhaps there is nothing more trying to the seaman’s feelings than being unexpectedly forced to recommence another series of trials, at the very time when they anticipate repose from their former; yet how often does this happen! Philip was melancholy. “It is my destiny,” thought he, using the words of Amine, “and why should I not submit?” Krantz was furious, and the seamen discontented and mutinous; but it was useless. Might is right on the vast ocean, where there is no appeal—no trial or injunction to be obtained.

But hard as their case appeared to them, the admiral was fully justified in his proceeding. His ships were almost unmanageable with the few hands who could still perform their duty; and this small increase of physical power might be the means of saving hundreds who lay helpless in their hammocks. In his own vessel, the Lion which was manned with two hundred and fifty men when she sailed from Amsterdam, there were not more than seventy capable of doing duty; and the other ships had suffered in proportion.

The first captain of the Lion was dead, the second captain in his hammock, and the admiral had no one to assist him but the mates of the vessel, some of whom crawled up to their duty more dead than alive. The ship of the second in command, the Dort, was even in a more deplorable plight. The commodore was dead; the first captain was still doing his duty; but he had but one more officer capable of remaining on deck.

The admiral sent for Philip into his cabin, and having heard his narrative of the loss of the Vrow Katerina, he ordered him to go on board the commodore’s ship as captain, giving the rank of commodore to the captain at present on board of her; Krantz was retained on board his own vessel, as second captain; for by Philip’s narrative, the admiral perceived at once that they were both good officers and brave men.

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