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On the 13th of October, 1811, we were cruising in the Endymion, off the north of Ireland, in a fine clear day succeeding one in which it had almost blown a hurricane. The master had just taken his meridian observation, the officer of the watch had reported the latitude, the captain had ordered it to be made twelve o'clock, and the boatswain, catching a word from the lieutenant, was in the full swing of his "Pipe to dinner!" when the captain called out--
"Stop! stop! I meant to go about first."
"Pipe belay! Mr. King," smartly ejaculated the officer of the watch, addressing the boatswain; which words, being heard over the decks, caused a sudden cessation of the sounds peculiar to that hungry season. The cook stood with a huge six-pound piece of pork uplifted on his tormentors, his mate ceased to bale out the pea-soup, and the whole ship seemed paralysed. The boatswain, having checked himself in the middle of his long-winded dinner-tune, drew a fresh inspiration, and dashed off into the opposite sharp, abrupt, cutting sound of the "Pipe belay!" the essence of which peculiar note is that its sounds should be understood and acted on with the utmost degree of promptitude.
There was now a dead pause of perfect silence all over the ship, in expectation of what was to come next. All eyes were turned to the chief.
"No; never mind; we'll wait," cried the good-natured captain, unwilling to interfere with the comforts of the men; "let them go to dinner; we shall tack at one o'clock, it will do just as well."
The boatswain, at a nod from the lieutenant of the watch, at once recommenced his merry "Pipe to dinner" notes; upon which a loud, joyous laugh rang from one end of the ship to the other. This hearty burst was not in the slightest degree disrespectful; on the contrary, it sounded like a grateful expression of glee at the prospect of the approaching good things which, by this time, were finding their speedy course down the hatchways.
Nothing was now heard but the cheerful chuckle of a well-fed company, the clatter of plates and knives, and the chit-chat of light hearts under the influence of temperate excitement.
When one o'clock came, the hands were called "About ship!" But as the helm was in the very act of going down, the look-out-man at the fore-topmast head called out--
"I see something a little on the lee-bow, sir!"
"Something! What do you mean by 'something'?" cried the first lieutenant, making a motion to the quarter-master at the con to right the helm again.
"I don't know what it is, sir," cried the man; "it is black, however."
"Black! Is it like a whale?" asked the officer, playing a little with his duty.
"Yes, sir," cried the look-out-man, unconscious that Shakespeare had been before him, "very like a whale!"
The captain and the officer exchanged glances at the poor fellow aloft having fallen into the trap laid for him, and the temptation must have been great to have inquired whether it were not "like a weasel"; but this might have been stretching the jest too far; so the lieutenant merely called to the signal midshipman, and desired him to skull up to the mast-head with his glass, to see what he made of the look-out-man's whale.
"It looks like a small rock," cried young "Skylark" as soon as he reached the top-gallant-yard and had taken the glass from his shoulders, across which he had slung it with a three-yarn fox.
"Stuff and nonsense!" replied the officers, "there are no rocks hereabouts; we can but just see the top of Muckish, behind Tory Island. Take another spy at your object, youngster; the mast-head-man and you will make it out to be something by-and-by, between you, I dare say."
"It's a boat, sir!" roared out the boy. "It's a boat adrift, two or three points on the lee-bow."
"Oh-ho!" said the officer, "that may be, sir," turning with an interrogative air to the captain, who gave orders to keep the frigate away a little that this strange-looking affair might be investigated. Meanwhile, as the ship was not to be tacked, the watch was called, and one half only of the people remained on deck. The rest strolled, sleepy, below; or disposed themselves in the sun on the lee gangway, mending their clothes, or telling long yarns.
A couple of fathoms of the fore and main sheets, and a slight touch of the weather topsail and top-gallant braces, with a check on the bow-lines, made the swift-footed Endymion spring forward, like a greyhound slipped from the leash. In a short time we made out that the object we were in chase of was, in fact, a boat. On approaching a little nearer, some heads of people became visible, and then several figures stood up, waving their hats to us. We brought to, just to windward of them, and sent a boat to see what was the matter.
It turned out as we supposed; they had belonged to a ship which had foundered in the recent gale. Although their vessel had become water-logged, they had contrived to hoist their long-boat out, and to stow in her twenty-one persons, some of them seamen and some passengers; of these, two were women, and three children. Their vessel, it appeared, had sprung a leak in middle of the gale, and, in spite of all their pumping, the water gained so fast upon them that they took to baling as a more effectual method. After a time, when this resource failed, the men, totally worn out and quite dispirited, gave it up as a bad job, abandoned their pumps, and actually lay down to sleep. In the morning the gale broke; but the ship had filled in the meantime, and was falling fast over her broadside. With some difficulty they disentangled the long-boat from the wreck, and thought themselves fortunate in being able to catch hold of a couple of small oars, with a studding-sail-boom for a mast, on which they hoisted a fragment of their main-hatchway tarpaulin for a sail. One ham and three gallons of water were all the provisions they were able to secure; and in this fashion they were set adrift on the wide sea. The master of the ship, with two gentlemen who were passengers, preferred to stick by the vessel while there was any part of her above water.
This, at least, was the story told us by the people we picked up.
The wind had been fair for the shore when the long-boat left the wreck, and though their ragged sail scarcely drove them along, their oars were only just sufficient to keep the boat's head the right way. Of course they made but slow progress; so that when they rose on the top of a swell, which was still very long and high in consequence of the gale, they could only just discover the distant land, Muckish, a remarkable flat-topped mountain on the northwest coast of Ireland, not very far from the promontory called the Bloody Foreland.
There appeared to have been little discipline among this forlorn crew, even when the breeze was in their favour; but when the wind chopped round, and blew off shore, they gave themselves up to despair, laid in their oars, let the sail flap to pieces, gobbled up all their provisions, and drank out their whole stock of water. Meanwhile the boat, which had been partially stove, in the confusion of clearing the ship, began to fill with water; and, as they all admitted afterwards, if it had not been for the courage and patience of the women under this sharp trial, they must have gone to the bottom.
As it was both cold and rainy, the poor children, who were too young to understand the nature of their situation, or the inutility of complaining, incessantly cried out for water, and begged that more clothes might be wrapped round them. Even after they came to us the little things were still crying, "Oh! do give us some water"--words which long sounded in our ears. None of these women were by any means strong--on the contrary, one of them seemed to be very delicate; yet they managed to rouse the men to a sense of their duty by a mixture of reproaches and entreaties, combined with the example of that singular fortitude which often gives more than masculine vigour to female minds in seasons of danger. How long this might have lasted I cannot say; but probably the strength of the men, however stimulated, must have given way before night, especially as the wind freshened, and the boat was driving further to sea. Had it not been for the accident of the officer of the forenoon watch on board the Endymion being unaware of the captain's intention to tack before dinner, these poor people, most probably, would all have perished.
The women, dripping wet, and scarcely capable of moving hand or foot, were lifted up the side, in a state almost of stupor; for they were confused by the hurry of the scene, and their fortitude had given way the moment all high motive to exertion was over. One of them, on reaching the quarterdeck, slipped through our hands, and falling on her knees, wept violently as she returned thanks for such a wonderful deliverance; but her thoughts were bewildered, and, fancying that her child was lost, she struck her hands together, and leaping again on her feet, screamed out, "Oh! where's my bairn--my wee bairn?"
At this instant a huge quarter-master, whose real name or nickname (I forget which) was Billy Magnus, appeared over the gangway hammocks, holding the missing urchin in his immense paw, where it squealed and twisted itself about, like Gulliver between the finger and thumb of the Brobdingnag farmer. The mother had just strength enough left to snatch her offspring from Billy, when she sank down flat on the deck, completely exhausted.
By means of a fine blazing fire, and plenty of hot tea, toast, and eggs, it was easy to remedy one class of these poor people's wants; but how to rig them out in dry clothes was a puzzle, till the captain thought of a resource which answered very well. He sent to several of the officers for their dressing-gowns; and these, together with supplies from his own wardrobe, made capital gowns and petticoats--at least, till the more fitting drapery of the ladies was dried. The children were tumbled into bed in the same compartment, close to the fire; and it would have done anyone's heart good to have witnessed the style in which the provisions vanished from the board, while the women wept, prayed, and laughed, by turns.
The rugged seamen, when taken out of the boat, showed none of these symptoms of emotion, but running instinctively to the scuttle-butt, asked eagerly for a drop of water. As the most expeditious method of feeding and dressing them, they were distributed among the different messes, one to each, as far as they went. Thus they were all soon provided with dry clothing, and with as much to eat as they could stow away; for the doctor, when consulted, said they had not fasted so long as to make it dangerous to give them as much food as they were disposed to swallow. With the exception of the ham devoured in the boat, and which, after all, was but a mouthful apiece, they had tasted nothing for more than thirty hours; so that, I suppose, better justice was never done to his Majesty's beef, pork, bread, and other good things, with which our fellows insisted on stuffing the newcomers, till they fairly cried out for mercy and begged to be allowed a little sleep.
Possibly some of us were more disposed to sympathize with the distress of these people when adrift in their open boat on the wide sea, from having ourselves, about a month before, been pretty much in the same predicament. It always adds, as any one knows, greatly to our consideration for the difficulties and dangers of others, to have recently felt some touch of similar distress in our own persons. This maxim, though it is familiar enough, makes so little impression on our ordinary thoughts, that when circumstances occur to fix our attention closely upon it we are apt to arrive as suddenly at the perception of its truth as if it were a new discovery.
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