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THROUGH the hot paths of pleasure's flowery maze
To him their treasures: when he found 'twas vain,
WITH a favourable breeze, the Hercules quitted the Madras roads to complete her voyage from Europe to Calcutta.
The shadows of evening had given place to the deep gloom of a tropical night; and the spacious decks, deserted by their late numerous and joyous occupants, were tenanted only by the wakeful officers of the watch, and groups of weary and slumbering seamen, A solemn stillness prevailed throughout the ship; the monsoon blew in one continued current of gentleness, scarcely creating a ripple on the bosom of the ocean; and the deep blue sky above, gemmed with innumerable stars, with their cold and sparkling lustre, shed over the face of nature that uncertain and mysterious twilight which imparts so soothing a calm to the wearied and troubled spirit.
It was such a night, the third after our departure from Madras, and yet that balmy breeze bore on its wings destruction and death; and the deceitful sea only awaited the call of the infuriate winds to wreak upon our devoted ship, and her hapless crew, its blind and frantic vengeance!
A harsh grating-proceeding, as it seemed to me, from the deck beneath, accompanied by a quivering running throughout the shipawoke me. A feeling I cannot explain, though I felt no clear idea of danger, induced me to quit my hammock, and to spring up the main-hatchway to the quarter-deck. It was pitchy-dark, and the waves were hurrying wildly and confusedly past the ship's sides. As yet a mere novice in nautical matters, I found my way to the forecastle, among a group who were anxiously gazing at the sea a-head. All I could distinguish was the sullen boom of the waves, and a long streak of snow-white foam on the otherwise dark sea. The experienced eyes of those around me beheld in that white foam the maddened breakers dashing on an extensive reef!
I know not how it was, and I have since thought of it with wonder, that, with imminent danger thus staring them in the face, the energy, the very spirit, of the people seemed frozen up! As yet, the vessel had only struck faintly, and had again got into deep water; but she still journeyed on her career of destruction, while those on board stood gazing on the danger in stupid dismay, or hurried confusedly about the decks, impeding each other in their vain attempts. One recommended this, another suggested that; and, in the very multitude of counsel, nothing of advantage was adopted. The alarm had not as yet spread throughout the ship; and the second mate, who had the watch, seemed anxious only to avoid arousing the Captain,
All this, though it takes me some time to relate, occupied but the space of a minute. Presently the ship shot suddenly a head, and as suddenly became arrested in her career, with a violence that shook her frightfully in every timber. Now then ensued a scene which baffles description. The cabins of the passengers, the births of the seamen and soldiers, were simultaneously quitted by their occupants; and, naked as they had arisen, they crowded up either hatchway, dismayed and terror-struck. Our commander, a man remarkable for his energy and decision of character, was the first on deck. One silent glance he threw a-head; one aloft, at the shaking sails and creaking masts; a third over the side; then muttering to himself, in a strange tone of levity and pain, ' A pretty night's work!' he endeavoured to recal the people to a sense of their duty. Alas! in that hour, even he had lost his influence. In vain he commanded, threatened, and appealed; in vain himself and a courageous few exerted themselves: their weak efforts availed not; and, when again the ship struck, and with the furious concussion started the rudder, which as it rose broke up the gun and upper decks, and the impetuous swell fairly made a breach over them and their affrighted occupants, there broke forth a scream so soul-harrowing and unnatural-its thrilling intensity yet rings in my ears! And a cry, 'The boats, the boats,' became general; and numbers gathered about the captain, who leant against the capstern in silent anguish, watching the work of destruction he could not avert. The chief mate had rendered himself at once an object of fear and respect to the crew and passengers, from his extreme and even morose reserve, and the harsh, imperative tone of his manners. He was a man in the decline of life; and to a tall, fleshless, though sinewy, figure, were united an ashy and withered cheek, eyes stiff and glaring, and thin black lips, curled into an habitual and sullen sneer. He had shown himself on all occasions an admirable seaman; but he studiously avoided all communion with his shipmates, and repulsed, with haughty abruptness, any attempt to elicit his confidence. He had been of the few who fruitlessly attempted to heave the ship aback on the first alarm, and he now stood on the quarter-deck, his long lean arms folded across his broad chest; and savage scorn glowered in his wasted and wrinkled features, as he gazed on the recreant crowd that pressed around the captain. Back, back,' he exclaimed, in an authoritative tone, 'your base cowardice has lost the ship; perish then, like dogs as
Startled by the bitter disdain expressed in his deep, sepulchral tones, the men drew back; and the mate, turning to the Captain, went on in a voice, a fearful contrast to his former impetuosity by its absolute and calm coldness, Is nothing to be done? Are the ladies, are we all, to perish without one struggle?'
I was standing near the man at the time.
His fearless, and
even lofty, carriage; the fiery spirit that appeared to shine out through his worn and shattered frame; our very situation, perhaps, by heightening the effect of his singular bearing-together conspired to give him an air of almost resistless authority; and numbers followed his directions, as under the influence of some master spell. An anchor was let go under the bows, in the hopes of staying her progress forward; and preparations were made to hoist out the long-boat, that, by carrying out an anchor astern, an attempt might be made to heave the ship off the reef. By the lead, too, we found that she had struck in comparatively deep water, and on a sandy bottom. The spirit of the mate seemed to have extended to all on board; and passengers, soldiers, and seamen emulated each other in their exertions.
Woman is at best but a forlorn creature at sea; and, in such a season, the conviction of her utter helplessness aggravates the horrors of her situation. I will not attempt to describe the sufferings of those on board, for with shame I confess, that, during the panic that prevailed, they had remained unheeded and uncared for; but now that innate and sacred feeling which prompts man, in the hour of peril, to protect the weak and defenceless of the softer sex, had again assumed its sway in our bosoms, and anxiously did we turn our attention to these unfortunates. Paralysed with terror, they clung with instinctive eagerness to the bosoms of the seamen, who carried them below to the half-deck, whither the water had not yet penetrated. Man is a mysterious being. It seemed scarcely possible that those men whose rugged features now glistened with the divine feelings which warmed their bosoms, as they compassionately tended these drooping creatures, and in nature's homely and eloquent language whispered the accents of comfort and safety, were the same in whom, not an hour since, all sense of manhood and courage was swallowed up in the overwhelming emotions of apathetic terror which encompassed their spirits.
But the wind gradually freshened into a hard gale, and the long heavy surf, momentarily breaking over the wreck, much retarded our efforts to launch the long-boat. Cold, wet, surrounded by darkness and a tremendous sea, deafened by its harsh roar and the fiend-like howlings of the gale, as it whistled among the rigging, or shook and clashed the loose sails with the noise of thunder, the spirits of the men again gradually sunk beneath their discouraging influence.
Still we toiled on, until it seemed as if the powers of darkness and the storm had unitedly poured forth their wrath for our destruction. A momentary lull had given a little impetus to our exertions: the boat, suspended over the side, was gradually being lowered into the water, and two men in her steadied her in her descent. Foremost in the operation. was the singular being who had played so important a part in the events of the night. Suddenly dropping
the rope he grasped, he listened in an attitude of deep attention. The pause was momentary: Let every one,' he exclaimed in hasty alarm, as he values life, hold on.'
The words had scarcely passed from his lips, when a whirlwind blast swept across the ship, in its fury tearing every sail which had hung disregarded to the yards, with a deafening clash, from its bolt ropes, and carrying away the fore-mast and main-top-mast. Lightning, too, and rain came with it; and the sea, lashed into added fury, dashed over the starboard quarter; in which direction the squall had come, tearing up bulwarks and stanchions; and hencoops and guns, water casks and living men, floated in wild confusion from side to side.
I had instinctively clasped a gun, near which I stood; and, as the sea rushed on board, bearing down the vessel on her larboard side, I just distinguished the rapid clattering of blocks, and the dash of something heavy among the breakers: it was the long boat! Startled at the man's emphatic warning, succeeded as it instantly was by the squall, each had immediately quitted the falls to seek his own safety, and the long-boat, with the two men, precipitately descended into the water. Poor wretches! while yet a similar fate seemed inevitably mine, I felt a mingled feeling of pity and horror at its dreadful consummation. Encumbered by the ropes attached to it and the ship, the long-boat, after dashing for a space among the impetuous surf, furiously rebounded against the main chains, and instantly swamped. But, the men! I heard withering cries, and a quick plashing among the boiling waters, and then gurgling groans; for the violence of the blast had passed away, and given place to a sad and ominous calmness. But this was nought to the fearful spectacle on deck. The fore-mast had fallen over the larboard-side, and two wretches writhed beneath it in helpless agony. On the quarter-deck, too, there was blood and contention ; for every one had crowded thither-women, and seamen, and soldiers.
Irritated by the anguish of the injuries they had sustained, rendered reckless by their desperate situation, inflamed, too, by the ardent spirts either party had liberally indulged in, the angry and bitter feelings of man's nature had become aroused; and querulous complainings, and smothered curses, and the scowl of malice, heightened into open and passionate revilings, till at length blow succeeded blow, and the headlong and mortal combat became general; as though the wrath of the elements were not already too much, but that man must seek his enemy in his fellow-sufferer! dispute had broken out between the seamen and soldiers: bayonets and belaying pins, handspikes and crow-bars, were their formidable weapons. In vain did the more temperate, and, perhaps, the more numerous, portion interfere, to put a stop to the unnatural encounter : the infuriate men dealt their blows blindly and indiscriminately on friend and mediator.