To the Water's Edge
It was not the new panic amidships that froze my marrow; it was not that the pinnace hung perpendicularly by the fore-tackle, and had shot out those who had swarmed aboard her before she was lowered, as a cart shoots a load of bricks. It was bad enough to see the whole boat-load struggling, floundering, sinking in the sea; for selfish eyes (and which of us is all unselfish at such a time?) there was a worse sight yet; for I saw all this across an impassable gulf of fire.
The quarter-deck had caught: it was in flames to port and starboard of the flaming hatch; only fore and aft of it was the deck sound to the lips of that hideous mouth, with the hundred tongues shooting out and up.
Could I jump it there? I sprang down and looked. It was only a few feet across; but to leap through that living fire was to leap into eternity. I drew back instantly, less because my heart failed me, I may truly say, than because my common sense did not.
Some were watching me, it seemed, across this hell. "The bulwarks!" they screamed. "Walk along the bulwarks!" I held up my hand in token that I heard and understood and meant to act. And as I did their bidding I noticed what indeed had long been apparent to idler eyes: the wind was not; we had lost our southeast trades; the doomed ship was rolling in a dead calm.
Rolling, rolling, rolling so that it seemed minutes before I dared to move an inch. Then I tried it on my hands and knees, but the scorched bulwarks burned me to the bone. And then I leapt up, desperate with the pain; and, with my tortured hands spread wide to balance me, I walked those few yards, between rising sea and falling fire, and falling sea and rising fire, as an acrobat walks a rope, and by God's grace without mishap.
There was no time to think twice about my feat, or, indeed, about anything else that befell upon a night when each moment was more pregnant than the last. And yet I did think that those who had encouraged me to attempt so perilous a trick might have welcomed me alive among them; they were looking at something else already; and this was what it was.
One of the cabin stewards had presented himself on the poop; he had a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other; in the red glare we saw him dancing in front of the captain like an unruly marionette. Harris appeared to threaten him. What he said we could not hear for the deep-drawn blast and the high staccato crackle of the blazing hold. But we saw the staggering steward offering him a drink; saw the glass flung next instant in the captain's face, the blood running, a pistol drawn, fired without effect, and snatched away by the drunken mutineer. Next instant a smooth black cane was raining blow after blow on the man's head. He dropped; the blows fell thick and heavy as before. He lay wriggling; the Portuguese struck and struck until he lay quite still; then we saw Joaquin Santos kneel, and rub his stick carefully on the still thing's clothes, as a man might wipe his boots.
Curses burst from our throats; yet the fellow deserved to die. Nor, as I say, had we time to waste two thoughts upon any one incident. This last had begun and ended in the same minute; in another we were at the starboard gangway, tumbling helter-skelter aboard the lowered long-boat.
She lay safely on the water: how we thanked our gods for that! Lower and lower sank her gunwale as we dropped aboard her, with no more care than the Gadarene swine whose fate we courted. Discipline, order, method, common care, we brought none of these things with us from our floating furnace; but we fought to be first over the bulwarks, and in the bottom of the long-boat we fought again.
And yet she held us all! All, that is, but a terror-stricken few, who lay along the jibboom like flies upon a stick: all but two or three more whom we left fatally hesitating in the forechains: all but the selfish savages who had been the first to perish in the pinnace, and one distracted couple who had thrown their children into the kindly ocean, and jumped in after them out of their torment, locked for ever in each other's arms.
Yes! I saw more things on that starry night, by that blood-red glare, than I have told you in their order, and more things than I shall tell you now. Blind would I gladly be for my few remaining years, if that night's horrors could be washed from these eyes for ever. I have said so much, however, that in common candor I must say one thing more. I have spoken of selfish savages. God help me and forgive me! For by this time I was one myself.
In the long-boat we cannot have been less than thirty; the exact number no man will ever know. But we shoved off without mischance; the chief mate had the tiller; the third mate the boat-hook; and six or eight oars were at work, in a fashion, as we plunged among the great smooth sickening mounds and valleys of fathomless ink.
Scarcely were we clear when the foremast dropped down on the fastenings, dashing the jib-boom into the water with its load of demented human beings. The mainmast followed by the board before we had doubled our distance from the wreck. Both trailed to port, where we could not see them; and now the mizzen stood alone in sad and solitary grandeur, her flapping idle sails lighted up by the spreading conflagration, so that they were stamped very sharply upon the black add starry sky. But the whole scene from the long-boat was one of startling brilliancy and horror. The fire now filled the entire waist of the vessel, and the noise of it was as the rumble and roar of a volcano. As for the light, I declare that it put many a star clean out, and dimmed the radiance of all the rest, as it flooded the sea for miles around, and a sea of molten glass reflected it. My gorge rose at the long, low billows-sleek as black satin - lifting and dipping in this ghastly glare. I preferred to keep my eyes upon the little ship burning like a tar barrel as the picture grew. But presently I thanked God aloud: there was the gig swimming like a beetle over the bloodshot rollers in our wake.
In our unspeakable gladness at being quit of the ship, some minutes passed before we discovered that the long-boat was slowly filling. The water was at our ankles before a man of us cried out, so fast were our eyes to the poor lost Lady Jermyn. Then all at once the ghastly fact dawned upon us; and I think it was the mate himself who burst out crying like a child. I never ascertained, however, for I had kicked off my shoes and was busy baling with them. Others were hunting for the leak. But the mischief was as subtle as it was mortal - as though a plank had started from end to end. Within and without the waters rose equally - then lay an instant level with our gunwales - then swamped us, oh! so slowly, that I thought we were never going to sink. It was like getting inch by inch into your tub; I can feel it now, creeping, crawling up my back. "It's coming! 0 Christ!" muttered one as it came; to me it was a downright relief to be carried under at last.
But then, thank God, I have always been a strong swimmer. The water was warm and buoyant, and I came up like a cork, as I knew I should. I shook the drops from my face, and there were the sweet stars once more; for many an eye they had gone Out for ever; and there the burning wreck.
A man floundered near me, in a splutter of phosphorescence. I tried to help him, and in an instant he had me wildly round the neck. In the end I shook him off, poor devil, to his death. And he was the last I tried to aid: have I not said already what I was become?
In a little an oar floated my way: I threw my arms across it and gripped it with my chin as I swam. It relieved me greatly. Up and down I rode among the oily black hillocks; I was down when there was a sudden flare as though the sun had risen, and I saw still a few heads bobbing and a few arms waving frantically around me. At the same instant a terrific detonation split the ears; and when I rose on the next bald billow, where the ship lay burning a few seconds before, there remained but a red-hot spine that hissed and dwindled for another minute, and then left a blackness through which every star shone with redoubled brilliance.
And now right and left splashed falling missiles; a new source of danger or of temporary respite; to me, by a merciful Providence, it proved the latter.
Some heavy thing fell with a mighty splash right in front of me. A few more yards, and my brains had floated with the spume. As it was, the oar was dashed from under my armpits; in another moment they had found a more solid resting-place.
It was a hen-coop, and it floated bars upwards like a boat. In this calm it might float for days. I climbed upon the bars-and the whole cage rolled over on top of me.
Coming to the surface, I found to my joy that the hen-coop had righted itself; so now I climbed up again, but this time very slowly and gingerly; the balance was undisturbed, and I stretched myself cautiously along the bars on my stomach. A good idea immediately occurred to me. I had jumped as a matter of course into the flannels which one naturally wears in the tropics. To their lightness I already owed my life, but the common cricket-belt which was part of the costume was the thing to which I owe it most of all. Loosening this belt a little, as I tucked my toes tenaciously under the endmost bar, I undid and passed the two ends under one of the middle bars, fastening the clasp upon the other side. If I capsized now, well, we might go to the bottom together; otherwise the hen-coop and I should not part company in a hurry; and I thought, I felt, that she would float.
Worn out as I was, and comparatively secure for the moment, I will not say that I slept; but my eyes closed, and every fibre rested, as I rose and slid with the smooth, long swell. Whether I did indeed hear voices, curses, cries, I cannot say positively to this day. I only know that I raised my head and looked sharply all ways but the way I durst not look for fear of an upset. And, again, I thought I saw first a tiny flame, and then a tinier glow; and as my head drooped, and my eyes closed again, I say I thought I smelt tobacco; but this, of course, was my imagination supplying all the links from one.Next