The homeward passage from New Zealand is made via Cape Horn, and as westerly winds prevail all over the South Pacific, the craft bound back to the States has everything in her favor. Five weeks had elapsed since the thousand-ton bark Western Belle sailed from Auckland and Wellington for Boston, and on this June morning she was in the South Atlantic, steering a north-easterly course.
It was evidently mid-day, for the captain and mate were squinting at the sun through their sextants; while a young lady stood near, wondering, as she had often done before, how it was possible for such queer-looking instruments to aid in determining their exact position upon so vast an expanse of water.
She was slightly above the medium height, and decidedly pretty, with a fine color in her cheeks. The sun’s rays and ocean’s breezes had tanned her fair skin until, as she expressed it, “her dearest friends couldn’t have told her from a South Sea Islander.” A heavy blue flannel dress, sailor blouse, jaunty cap kept in place by a long pin, and rubber-soled tennis shoes—the finest things in the world to keep one’s footing in a heavy, sea—completed the picture; and there you have Miss Laura Blake.
“What would become of us, Captain, if you and Mr. Bohlman were to fall overboard, or otherwise disappear from the scene? It never occurred to me before, but there would be no one left to bring us into port. Mr. Freeman knows nothing about taking sights.”
Miss Blake said this half in jest, half in earnest. The captain regarded it as a good joke.
“No, the second mate has never used a sextant, I believe, though he could doubtless navigate the bark for some time by dead reckoning. Meanwhile, my dear young lady, you and Mrs. Evans could study my Epitome, and learn to take the sun yourselves.”
The idea of her aunt “taking the sun” caused a quick smile to overspread Miss Laura’s features.
“I’m afraid the Western Belle would soon run ashore, or go to the bottom, if we women undertook to sail her,” she replied. “As the widow of a sea-captain, Aunt Sarah believes she knows all about ships, but I fear it would require even more than her nautical knowledge to bring us into port.”
Captain Maxwell shared this opinion, but he was far too gallant a man to say so.
“Mrs. Evans certainly learned a great deal during the few voyages she made with her husband, and with your assistance, Miss Blake, there is no telling what you might not be able to accomplish. However, both Mr. Bohlman and I are not liable to fall overboard, so you will probably have no chance to distinguish yourselves as navigators.”
Though considerably past sixty, and with a head of snowy white hair, no one ever thought of Captain Maxwell as elderly. His dark eyes still shown with the fire of thirty, and every motion of the erect, military figure was surprisingly quick and agile. In ordinary conversation, his words were spoken with an effective deliberation that is none too common now-a-days, while a fine courtly air—“old fashioned” some people called it—lent additional dignity to his presence.
Mrs. Evans appeared at this moment emerging from the companionway, and Captain Maxwell hastened to place a chair for the widow of his old friend.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day, Captain?” the lady exclaimed. “I cannot recall a more delightful morning.”
“I agree with you, madam; it certainly is a fine day, although, as your niece says, a trifle cool perhaps.”
“Possibly. But we are approaching the Line, Laura, and it will become warmer as the bark sails north. For my part, I think this bracing air delightful, and have not regretted returning to Boston in this manner rather than by steamer to San Francisco. It reminds me of the two voyages I made with the late Captain Evans.”
The widow’s good-natured face beamed with amiability and placid content. She was a comely matron, and though not endowed with a great amount of intellect, its absence was in a measure supplied by the charms of a thoroughly feminine and womanly nature.
The ladies had been visiting relatives in Sydney, and had expected to return to America by the Oceanic Liner Monowai. Happening to meet Captain Maxwell on the street one day, he had jokingly proposed that they take passage with him to Boston. Mrs. Evans had known him well in past years, and she instantly regarded the plan with favor. Her niece, however, knew no more of sailing vessels than does the average landsman, who judges all craft of this description by the coasting schooners which he has casually noticed, and had a vague idea that it was flying in the face of Providence to go anywhere in one. Yielding to the joint entreaties of her aunt and Captain Maxwell, and considerably reassured by a view of the Western Belle, she at length consented, and had so far enjoyed the novelty of the trip exceedingly.
“Neither do I regret it, Aunt,” she said, “although it would be agreeable to know about what time we may expect to reach Boston. That is the one drawback to going anywhere on a sailing vessel—you can’t tell how long the voyage may last.”
“The time required to go from New Zealand back to the States does not vary much,” the captain answered, “and I think I can promise you, Miss Blake, that the trip will not greatly exceed ninety days. We have made a good run nearly every day so far, and ought to pick up the southeast trades next week.”
“Even if the voyage should require four months, it would be nothing dreadful, Laura. We seamen do not mind a few days more or less, do we, Captain?” said the widow.
Carl Bohlman, the portly mate, seemed a little surprised at this reckless disregard of time, while Captain Maxwell stroked his beard and looked rather doubtful.
“Perhaps not, madam. Your wide experience enables you to judge of such matters. I remember one time, though, when your late husband had the Davy Crockett, and I commanded the Sunrise, we were racing from Hong Kong to New York; and I can assure you that every minute and every hour were of the utmost importance. We both passed St. Helena on the fifty-eighth day out, but the Sunrise was beaten on the home stretch by twenty-four hours.”
“How exciting!” exclaimed Mrs. Evans. “Think of it—racing clear around the world! That was before I met my husband, but I have often heard him mention the affair.”
“It must be dangerous, Aunt. We have the pretty Cape pigeons to race with, which satisfies me perfectly. How sorry I shall be when we see the last of them.”
“You are timid, Laura, which is excusable in one of your limited experience. You have crossed the Atlantic twice, but running over from New York to Liverpool is a mere bagatelle. Crossing the Pacific is something, to be sure; but when you have doubled both Capes, and crossed the Line six times—well, then you can lay claim to being a sailor, and will not be easily alarmed.”
The widow glanced from one to the other and settled back in her chair with pardonable pride, after giving this account of her achievements. She was rewarded with a bow from Captain Maxwell, who then said:
“To change the subject, Mrs. Evans, you must have been very busy this morning. Unless I am mistaken, we have been deprived of your society since breakfast.”
“That is true, Captain. I have been putting the finishing touches on that rug, which I consider quite an addition to the cabin furniture. After that, I wrote for some time—and ah! that reminds me. I feel certain that the fresh-water tank in the bathroom has again been filled with salt water. While endeavoring to remove an ink-stain from my fingers, I found that the soap made no impression. That careless boy seems unable to remember which tank is for fresh water, and which for salt.”
The captain frowned.
“This is the second time since leaving port that Dick has made the same mistake. When I have worked out my sights, the matter shall be attended to.”
“That Dick Lewis needs a rope’s end,” observed the mate, as soon as Captain Maxwell had gone below, “and if the captain would let me, I’d give it to him.”
“There is something peculiar about that boy,” said Miss Blake. “Sometimes I think his mind is not quite right. You know what a mania he seems to have for fire-works, Aunt. We were not a week out before he was found to have matches and fire-crackers concealed in the forecastle. Then one afternoon not long ago he was discovered in the lazarette, although no one had sent him there.”
“That’s so, miss; and the captain thought Dick might have been fooling with the signal-lights and rockets. I hardly think that, though. Most likely he was after the eatables.”
“You can see, Laura, what sort of sailors the future generation of captains will have to contend with. Do you suppose such things ever happened on my husband’s ship? Fresh and salt water mixed together, matches and fire-works in the fo’k’sl, rockets and signals in the lazarette? Why, it is awful to think of!” And the widow shook her head, as she reflected on this extraordinary state of affairs.
“That boy in the second mate’s watch is worth a dozen of this one of mine,” Bohlman observed. “Freeman predicted he would be the day we divided up the watches, and he was about right. Don’t tell him I think so, though.”
The second mate had just come on deck, and Miss Blake said mischievously: “I shall tell Mr. Freeman what you said unless you promise to rig up a bo’s’un’s chair this afternoon, and hoist me up one of the masts.”
“I’ll do it, miss, if you say so,” replied Bohlman, “though you got scared the other time before you were a quarter of the way up.”
“Laura, I will not allow such a thing again. What would you think if I were to go aloft and haul over a buntline?”
“I should laugh, Aunt; I know I should,” and Miss Laura did laugh aloud, while the mate turned away to avoid showing his merriment at the comical idea of the widow overhauling buntlines.
“But really, Aunt, there is no danger in it, and Mrs. Brassey, in ‘Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam,’ speaks of being drawn clear up to the mast-head in a bo’s’un’s chair. It is said, also, that Bernhardt climbed the rigging of a steamer one day when on her way to Australia.”
“Genius is always eccentric, my dear, and may do anything with impunity. But there—dinner is served. Let us go.”
One could not pass through the bark’s comfortable cabin without knowing that women were on board. The very arrangement of the chairs showed it. No matter how neat and tasteful a man may be—and Captain Maxwell was both—he can seldom give to a room or dwelling that indescribable air of home-like comfort and domesticity that a clever woman finds it so easy to impart. There was something cheerful in the appearance of the widow’s open work-box, with its pretty blue lining, and an anchor worked on the inside cover,—for Mrs. Evans affected everything nautical,—while a large rug or mat made of spun-yarn and sennit bore witness to her skill. The vessel’s name was neatly worked in the center. Several water-color paintings by Miss Laura ornamented the walls, and a globe of goldfish swung from the ceiling. An upright piano occupied the space between two doors. There was nothing especially elegant or luxurious, as the bark had never been intended for a passenger vessel, but everything was very pleasant and comfortable. The ladies had separate state-rooms, each of which contained but one berth, and was considerably larger than the average state-room on a passenger steamer.
After dinner, Captain Maxwell sent for Dick Lewis to come to the quarter-deck. This boy belonged to the mate’s watch, which was now off duty. He had not turned in, however, but could be seen with two others of the crew, washing his clothes in the lee scuppers.
It had rained hard the night before, and many of the hands availed themselves of the chance to catch the water for laundry purposes. Two lines were stretched from a starboard backstay to one on the port side, on which were hung shirts of various colors and patterns, patched overalls, towels, socks that had never been mates, and various other articles of apparel.
Dick came aft presently, and stood before the captain; a lanky, unprepossessing youth of sixteen or seventeen. A carroty head of hair, low forehead, white eyebrows and lashes, very pale complexion, and keen blue eyes which constantly shifted about—these were the most noticeable points of his appearance.
“Dick,” said Captain Maxwell, “for the second time within two weeks, you have put salt water in the fresh water tank. This must not happen again.”
“I must have put the funnel in the wrong hole, sir,” said Dick, not appearing much abashed.
“That is evident. Get a marline-spike from the second mate and then go out on the end of the jib-boom. Stay there and pound the rust off the chains until three bells strike. That may help you to remember. Go forward.”
The captain told Mr. Freeman what Dick was to do, and then went below for his nap. Out on the jib-boom, Dick performed his allotted task. What was passing in the boy’s mind, it would be hard to tell from the expression of his face. Resentment against Captain Maxwell? Scarcely. He seemed rather to be studying over some project. Now his lips moved, as though talking to himself. Then would follow a low chuckle, as of satisfaction at solving some intricate problem. At such moments, his knitted brows became smooth, and the chains were pounded with a vigor that seemed to give a kind of pleasure to the worker. Once or twice his revery was disturbed by a fancied footstep, and he furtively glanced around to see if anyone was watching.
Three bells had struck some little time before a hail from the deck attracted Dick’s attention.
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Time’s up, Dick. You must like to pound chains.” It was the second mate who spoke.
Dick felt for the foot-ropes, and remembering Mr. Freeman’s injunction not to let the marline-spike go overboard, he slung it round his neck, and made his way to the deck.
“Where are your ears, Dick?”
“On my head, sir.”
“No impudence, you lubber! Next time I’ll let you work till we make port. Hand over that marline-spike.”
“Yes, sir. Will you please tell me something, Mr. Freeman?”
“Maybe so, if I can. The mate says I don’t know anything.”
“I want to know, sir, how you send off those signal-lights, what I was forbid to touch. Are they like Roman candles?”
Freeman took hold of the youth’s arm, and said sternly, “Dick Lewis, don’t you ever think of those things. Why, d— it, you’re as crazy as a loon about fire-works! If you’ve got any more stowed away in the fo’k’sl, it’ll go hard with you. I’ve got nothing against you, Dick, but if I hear any more talk like this, it’s my duty to report to the captain. You’ll soon be in irons, at this rate.”
“I was only fooling, sir. Please don’t give me away.”
“’Vast talking, and go below. The watch is half over now.”
Dick disappeared into the forecastle, and Freeman meditated for some time over the possible meaning of the boy’s peculiar talk.
“He’ll bear watching,” he mused. “I’d better tell Bohlman not to send him into the lazarette, on any account. No, I won’t, either; the Dutchman’s too d—d arrogant, and thinks he knows it all. I’d only be told to mind my own business.”
Freeman had just reached this decision in regard to Dick, when a Greek sailor called Asso approached, and asked for more bath-brick.
The officer went to see how his watch were getting on with their job of cleaning the paint-work on the deck-houses, and found that buckets of water, swabs, and bath-bricks, were being used to such purpose that the white paint was rapidly assuming the appearance of new-fallen snow. Then there was a section of wire cable to be spliced, and other work to be seen to. Thus the afternoon passed, and Dick’s talk about the signals was banished from the second mate’s mind by the various duties of the hour.
It was a fine evening. The full moon had risen out of the ocean in matchless splendor, and was rapidly changing its blood-red hues for more silvery tints, as it soared into the cloudless sky.
The captain and passengers were on the quarter-deck, while Mr. Freeman hung over the rail with the comfortable assurance that the bark was making a better run in the second dog-watch than she had in the first, when the mate had been in charge.
“I told you, Miss Blake, I should get a good breeze in my watch, and you see I’m as good as my word.”
“So I perceive; and now that you have it, see that it doesn’t fail us before morning. Otherwise I shall think your fine breeze all the result of luck. How pleasant it is to hear the water gurgling around the ship.”
Eight bells struck, and the dog-watch was over. The wheel and lookout were relieved, and Freeman went below, while Carl Bohlman came on duty to stand the first watch, which lasted until midnight.
“What are you thinking of, Aunt? For ten minutes you have not spoken a word.”
“The beauty of the night has cast a spell over me, Laura, and I was thinking of a favorite poem of mine. I never realized the significance of the first stanza more than on this evening, when we are out on the great ocean with every object bathed in white light.
“‘The dews of summer night did fall, The moon, sweet regent of the sky, Silvered the walls of Cumnor Hall, And many an oak that grew thereby.’”
“Excellent, my dear madam,” said Captain Maxwell. “You have a fine poetic instinct.”
“The oaks that grew around Amy Robsart’s luxurious prison are replaced here by the bark’s masts and sails, captain, but the effect is not less beautiful.”
“A fine conception, Mrs. Evans, but we must remember that it is not summer in these latitudes, even though the dew is gathering, and you may take cold sitting there. Will you take my arm?”
“With pleasure, captain.”
They had paced the deck for some minutes, and the widow was relating some story that seemed greatly to amuse the captain, when the latter stopped suddenly, dropped on one knee, and stared at one of the deadlights’ near his feet.
“Good heavens! How you startled me, captain. Robinson Crusoe couldn’t have been more astonished when he saw the footprint in the sand, than you seem to be. What is it?”
“Worse than a footprint, Mrs. Evans. The moonlight prevented our noticing it sooner. Stand here—where your shadow falls on this deadlight.  Now what do you see?”
“A light reflected from below. Oh, Laura, the lazarette is on fire!”
Captain Maxwell was already disappearing through the hatchway, while the mate and Miss Blake ran up at the widow’s exclamation. Even the silent figure at the wheel started at the mention of the word fire.
It was but a moment before the master of the bark reappeared, bearing a lighted lantern in one hand.
“The cause for alarm is removed, ladies,” he said quietly. “There is no fire in the lazarette, though nothing short of a miracle prevented it. This lantern was standing on the floor beneath the deadlight and caused the reflection to appear. Mr. Bohlman, have you any idea how it came there?”
He spoke with apparent calmness, which Miss Blake readily saw was more feigned than real.
The mate hesitated a moment before answering: “Dick must have left it there, sir.”
“Dick must have left it there! So that bright boy of yours has been in the lazarette again without permission? If I don’t have him triced up to the spanker-boom in irons early to-morrow morning, my name’s not John Maxwell.”
“He was in the lazarette, sir, but not without permission. I sent him there just before supper to bring up a coil of old rope that was to be ravelled out. He wasn’t there ten minutes.”
Both ladies glanced at the mate in surprise at these words, and Captain Maxwell looked at his chief officer in a way that was anything but complimentary to the latter. The captain had a temper of his own, which was under excellent control, but he found it necessary to cross the quarter-deck twice before trusting himself to speak.
“After that occasion a week ago, when this boy was discovered in the lazarette doing God knows what, I should have thought your own judgment would have prevented your sending him there again. There are plenty of men in your watch, and if none of them knew where this old rope was, you should have gone yourself, rather than let that fool of a boy take a light into such a place.”
Bohlman smarted under this speech, though he maintained a discreet silence, knowing it would be useless to attempt to justify himself in the captain’s present humor. Inwardly, however, he cursed Dick Lewis for having forgotten the lantern, and thus bringing his superior’s censure upon himself.
Orders were given for Dick to come aft, and the youth shortly appeared on the quarter-deck for the second time that day in the role of culprit. He quailed before the captain’s glance, and nervously shifted his old felt hat from one hand to the other.
“Do you know why you have been sent for?”
Dick pointed to the accusing lantern, and said in a frightened tone: “Yes, sir. I—I remember now I forgot to bring up the lantern when—when I fetched the rope.”
This was a lie. He had turned the wick low and then left it in the lazarette purposely, knowing well that no one would enter the place after the day’s work was done. But for the accidental circumstance of its having been placed too near one of the deadlights, the presence of the lantern would never have been suspected.
“Do you know what I ought to do with you?”
The captain’s tones were so stern that Dick was hardly able to articulate “No, sir.”
“I ought to take a rope’s end and beat you within an inch of your life. That’s what any captain would have done twenty years ago, and what some would do now. You left this light down there among bales of oakum, sennit, old sails, rockets, signal-lights, and other inflammable stuff, and if there had been enough sea running to heel the bark over a trifle more, the lantern would have upset, setting the whole place on fire—and we out in the South Atlantic, a good week’s sail from the nearest port!”
The captain’s passion mastered him, and he shook Dick until the boy’s teeth chattered. Suddenly releasing him, he turned to Mrs. Evans and her niece.
“I ought to apologize, ladies, for this outburst; but I lost one ship by fire years ago, and this boy has tried me beyond endurance.”
“I do not blame you in the least, captain,” said the alarmed widow; “I feel sure my husband would have inflicted a severe punishment for such an offense. It is as bad as Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot.”
“You see, madam, we officers have to put up with a good deal from sailors now-a-days,” said Captain Maxwell, sarcastically. “If I punished that boy as he deserved, he would have me arrested the moment we reached port. Then, aided by some unscrupulous lawyer and the testimony of various members of the crew, I should be convicted of ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ and fined heavily, or imprisoned. The evidence of yourself and niece might clear me in this case, but all the papers would print articles about the barbarity of captains and mates in general, and the lot of the poor, abused merchant-sailor,—forgetting to mention the fact that a vessel, her cargo, and all hands, had narrowly escaped a terrible disaster at the hands of one of these persecuted saints!
“Dick, you were warned a week ago that if you entered the lazarette again without permission you would be put in irons. But it seems you had permission,” with a glance at the mate,—“and so we shall have to let you off easier. Go up on the fore royal yard and sit there until the watch ends at midnight.”
Dick was unable to repress a sigh of relief as he turned away, but his sharp ears heard Captain Maxwell say to the mate: “As soon as it is light enough to-morrow morning to see objects in the lazarette without a lantern, bring up that canister of powder and those four boxes of rockets and signal-lights. They shall be kept in a locker in the cabin during the rest of the voyage. Another thing—never again let that boy go anywhere with a light.”
The cause of this trouble went forward, muttering to himself: “Powder! the captain said powder! I might have found it to-night if they hadn’t caught onto the lantern. How did they know it was there, I wonder?”
He climbed the fore rigging, unmindful of the taunts of the crew at his second punishment that day, and the captain’s words kept ringing in his ears.
“To-morrow morning they’ll all be put where I can’t get at ’em,” he muttered, “and if only they hadn’t found the lantern, I could have got away with some of them rockets to-night. And the powder! I can’t do nothing without a lantern, though, and I ain’t even got a match.”
He perched himself upon the royal yard, with a lunatic’s cunning, inventing various schemes for getting at those fire-works. That was his mania. Although as sane as anyone on other subjects, he was an absolute monomaniac in everything relating to such matters; and since the day when he had overheard a remark relating to the signal-lights and rockets, his fingers had itched to investigate them and see what they were like. Not even the certainty of punishment could stand in his way.
Some people, when they ascend to the roof of a high building, have an almost irresistable desire to leap from it. It is not that they wish to do so, but some strange power seems urging them to it in spite of themselves. Others have a similar feeling when in close proximity to a swiftly-moving railroad train, and require all their will power to keep from casting themselves before the locomotive. So it was with Dick Lewis. He could no more keep his mind off the lazarette and its contents, than steel can resist the influence of a magnet. He sat there as the hours passed, looking ahead into vacancy; thinking and thinking; and imagining just how the rockets must look, as they lay side by side in their boxes down in the midnight darkness of the lazarette. How quiet and silent they were! And yet the touch of a match—
He put up a hand before his eyes and turned his head to one side, as though to ward off a blow.
“Aunt, we really must go below. It cannot be far from twelve o’clock, and we have staid on deck nearly two hours past the usual time.”
“That is true, Laura; and yet I feel strangely wakeful. But, as you say, it is very late, and high time that we turned in. So good night, captain, and pleasant dreams. Good night, Mr. Bohlman.”
Mrs. Evans paused as she reached the companion-way.
“How beautiful the moonlight is,” she said, so low that no one heard; “and from what an awful peril have we this night been delivered.”
She slowly followed her niece to the cabin.
Captain Maxwell did not linger long on deck after his passengers had turned in. He, too, usually retired early, and arose at daylight. But the incident of the lighted lantern disturbed him. To the master who has once experienced fire at sea, the mere possibility of another visitation conveys a dread that the worst hurricane cannot inspire. He paced the deck for some time, and then, after a glance aloft, went below.
Midnight came; and the mate was relieved by Frank Freeman, who found his superior in no very pleasant frame of mind.
“You’ve still got a fair wind,” Freeman observed; “she’s slipping through it in good shape.”
“I suppose you expected to come on deck and find a dead calm, with me and my watch ahead in the long-boat, towing the bark.”
Bohlman left the quarter-deck with this good-natured rejoinder, while the second mate smothered a laugh as he lit his pipe.
Dick climbed down the fore rigging with alacrity, and entered the forecastle with the rest of the port watch. His plans were matured. There was a triumphant light in the boy’s eyes, and a furtive smile on his ill-favored features as he crept into his bunk and feigned sleep.
A lantern swung from the dingy ceiling, casting a flickering light upon the tiers of bunks, and upon various other objects in the forecastle. There were oilers and rubber boots thrown about here and there, old books without covers, and sea-chests of various patterns. The numerous initials, names, and dates, cut into the walls indicated that the Western Belle had sailed the seas for many years. On one side some one with a talent for drawing had recently executed a chalk picture of the whale swallowing Jonah, which was a marvel of realism. Near this artistic production was tacked a printed card setting forth what rules the crew were expected to obey, what compensation they were to receive, and other matters of like import.
Sea air and insomnia are deadly enemies, and before one bell struck, a chorus of snores assured Dick that his companions were asleep. He suffered a few minutes over the half hour to elapse, and then slipped noiselessly from his bunk. Gliding to the open door, he looked stealthily out. That side of the deck was thrown into shadow by the forecastle, and no one was to be seen but two of the watch on duty slowly walking up and down the main deck, as they conversed in low tones. The others were doubtless on the opposite side of the forward-house.
Dick turned from the door, waited a moment to be sure that all were asleep in the bunks around him, and then produced a towel. Next he took down the lantern from its hook overhead, and wrapped the towel about it so that the light was invisible. That done, he made for the door,—stepped out on deck,—and crept forward in the shadow of the building.
Upon reaching the corner, he stopped and listened The distant murmur of voices was heard on the opposite side of the house, but the moonlit stretch of deck ahead was untenanted. Apparently no one was about the extreme forward part of the vessel except the lookout. The boy’s unshod feet made no sound as he darted across the strip of moonlight that fell between the forward-house and the forecastle deck. Now he was standing by the open fore hatch.
In large sailing vessels that stand well out of water, it is customary to leave the fore hatch off at all times unless some very severe gale is threatened. The forecastle deck overhead prevents rain or salt water from entering, and as it is often necessary to go down to the fore peak half a dozen times a day, it would be a useless trouble to move the hatch-cover each time. This was the case with the Western Belle.
Dick well knew he could not enter the lazarette at the customary place without being seen by the man at the wheel and the officer on duty, and had conceived the laborious, but perfectly feasible plan, of descending through the fore hatch to the ’tween-decks, and then crawling aft over the cargo the whole length of the vessel to accomplish his purpose.
Without losing time, he placed his foot upon the first step of the flight of stairs that led down to the fore peak, and then rapidly descended. It was black as Erebus when he reached the bottom, and before taking another step he uncovered the lantern and stuffed the towel in his pocket. Cautiously walking over old sails, ropes, barrels, casks, etc., the boy was soon out of the fore peak proper, and at that part of the ’tween-decks where the cargo began to be stowed.
The foremast looming up ahead gave him quite a start, and a sort of dread possessed him at thought of the long distance to be traversed in that profound darkness. Dick had not realized until now the magnitude of the task before him, but he only wavered a second, and pushed on.
It soon became impossible to walk, and he dropped on his hands and knees, creeping along on all fours; at the same time holding the handle of the lantern between his teeth. Its rays illumined but a short space in front, though they served to make the gaunt deck-beams assume all sorts of strange and fantastic shapes that he could not help noticing. Thus he crawled along over bales of flax and tow, boxes of Kauri gum and sacks of horns; picking his way carefully, and impatiently wondering how far he had progressed. This was at length made plain, though in an unexpected manner.
In attempting to accelerate his speed, the boy had grown a little careless, when he suddenly felt his left hand go off into space, and barely saved himself from plunging headlong downward. The shock was a severe one, and he drew a deep breath of relief when he had backed away from the yawning aperture.
“Fool!” he muttered; “I clean forgot the main hatch. I like to have fell all the way down to the lower hold and broke my neck. Well, Dick, you’re half way, anyhow.”
He crawled around the square opening and proceeded. In a few minutes the way was blocked by a great object that the youth could not account for, but which was really the iron tank containing drinking water. He avoided it and continued to advance, having stopped a moment to stretch his cramped limbs. Next he came to the after hatch, but was on the lookout for it and pushed on steadily, though he began to ache all over from crawling so long. Once a startled rat scurried across his stockinged foot in its haste to escape, causing another momentary scare. Had it not been for the increasing excitement under which he labored, the boy must have been chilled, for a draft of cold air like that in a cellar swept through the ’tween-decks from one end of the bark to the other.
The mizzen mast told Dick his journey was nearing its end, and he stopped a few seconds to take breath. His heart beat so quick and fast that he felt stifled, and his limbs trembled in a way that he could not account for. But the thought of the fire-works nerved him, and cans of powder danced before his disordered imagination.
There was not much further to go, so after shoving back the hair from his damp forehead, he crept on until the peculiar formation of the vessel’s timbers proved that he was in the stern.
He looked up. Directly overhead was a small opening.
“That must be it!” he whispered.
There were no stairs nor any ladder, but standing erect, his head was just on a level with the aperture. First arranging the towel about the top of the lantern so that the light should not be cast upward, he reached up and set it down on the floor above. Then, panting with excitement and bathed in cold perspiration, Dick placed both hands on the edge of the hatch.
One agile spring, and he was in the lazarette.
So quiet was the night, that Freeman’s measured footsteps, as he trod the quarter-deck, sounded with strange distinctness to the guilty occupant of the space beneath. No other sound disturbed the silence but the gentle swish and gurgle of the water alongside, and an occasional creak from some block or pulley.
The piles of swelling canvas; the mast-heads nodding against the stars; the white paint-work of the poop; the delicate shadows cast upon the deck by the ropes and shrouds; the motionless figure of the man at the wheel;—all were beautified and softened by the white flood of moonlight. Drops of dew glittered everywhere, and when Freeman laid his hand upon the main brace, it was wet as though from rain.
He had been reading odd items in an old copy of the Sydney Herald, and put it down just as two great rats that had come up from the hold scampered across the deck. This was nothing unusual, and after stamping with his foot to scare the bold creatures, he glanced at the binnacle.
“Keep her at N. N. E., Matt; you’ve let her go off a point. Watch the card, man.”
“Keep her at N. N. E., sir,” the fellow repeated, shifting his quid to starboard as Freeman walked away.
“I’ll see how the lookout does,” the officer thought, “though if every night was like this, there’d be little need of any.”
He went forward along the port side. Happening to cast a glance through the open forecastle door, he noticed that the light was out.
“That’s queer,” he soliloquized; “it burned brightly enough when I passed by a couple of hours ago.”
He entered the door to see if the wick was out of order, or whether all the oil had been consumed. Neither—the lantern was gone!
He had just made this discovery, and was leaving the building to ask his men whether any of them had removed the light, when a curious jarring sensation rooted him to the deck. The idea of a submarine earthquake flashed through his brain, but within a second’s time there was a deafening report,—a blinding flash,—a staggering of the bark,—and then flying timbers and bales of merchandise were hurled skyward with awful power. The whole after part of the vessel seemed going up in the air piecemeal!
“Great God!” breathed Freeman, grasping the ladder on the forward house.
His self-possession soon returned. Already some of the crew had begun to act like lunatics.
“Call all hands, and behave like men. The bark’s still afloat, and now three of you come aft with me.”
His cool decision inspired confidence, and half a dozen of the crew followed.
The canvas began to flap—the bark was badly off her course. Freeman bounded on as he noticed this fact.
“That cowardly Matt’s deserted the wheel,” he thought—“or else the poor devil’s been killed.”
But the officer stood motionless when he reached the place where the quarter-deck had been—the spot where he had been standing not five minutes since. The whole deck was gone, and in its place was a great cavity that reached from one side of the vessel to the other, and seemed to go down to the very keelson.
It was a time for action, and he crept along on the starboard side, walking on a few jagged splinters, and holding to the main brace with his hands. The wheel had been shattered and was useless, while Matt lay against the rail where the force of the explosion had hurled him.
“Men, sheet everything home, and move d—d quick! The wheel’s smashed and we can’t steer the bark. Let go all the halyards and sheets, and get her stripped. Work for your lives!”
Had the wind been stronger, a serious accident would probably have resulted before the unmanageable vessel could have been relieved of her canvas, but although she careened badly, it was but a few minutes before enough sails had been taken in to avert the threatened danger.
The unaccountable disaster that had befallen was sufficiently appalling to those who were on deck at the time it occurred; but imagine the feelings of the others—roused from a sound sleep at three in the morning by a shock as of an earthquake. The mate’s watch were asleep in the forecastle, a considerable distance from the lazarette, but to the captain, passengers, mate and steward, who occupied the after house, the sensation was indeed awful. What wonder that the screams of Mrs. Evans and Miss Blake rent the air? Or that Captain Maxwell, experienced seaman that he was, found himself utterly stunned and bewildered? But he was on deck in no time, issuing orders with the confidence of one who has long been accustomed to command.
Nothing so quickly restores our presence of mind in great crises as the knowledge that others look to us for advice and help. When the terrified Miss Blake rushed into her aunt’s cabin, it must be said to the widow’s credit that she left off screaming, and endeavored to pacify her niece. She tried to think what Captain Evans would have done in such an emergency, although having no clear idea as to what manner of evil had befallen the vessel; and after hastily assuming her dressing gown and slippers she issued forth with a boldness that surprised even herself.
The sight that presented itself utterly confounded the good woman, and it was only after passing her hand across her eyes several times, that she could believe the evidence of her senses. The cabin partition towards the stern was blown entirely out, together with the companion-way, and skylight above. The roof of the cabin had been splintered in places and lifted up, until Mrs. Evans could see a patch of sky here and there, while the floor under her feet was so uneven she could hardly walk upon it. She stood holding to the center table, blankly wondering what could have happened, when the steward came from Captain Maxwell’s room.
“Oh, steward, in the name of heaven, what has happened? Are we sinking? Have we been pooped? Is the bark stove to pieces on a rock?”
“It’s not that bad, Madam Evans. There’s no rock in this part of the ocean, and if we’re sinking it’s very slowly. Are you hurt?”
“No; only badly frightened. I cannot realize yet what is the matter. Is anyone killed?”
“We can’t tell yet, ma’am. But I must not stop here talking. The after wall of the captain’s room is blown out and the head of his bed torn off. The room was set afire, too, and in putting it out he burned his hands badly. Will you hold this lamp while I get some linseed oil and batting?”
Captain Maxwell’s injuries were more painful than dangerous, and considerable relief was afforded as soon as Mrs. Evans’ deft fingers had applied the dressing. He then returned to the deck. It still lacked over two hours of dawn, and the moon was low in the west. Total darkness would soon descend, and there was much to be done. Already the carpenter was at work on a new wheel, and the moment it was in position the captain resolved to steer for Rio de Janeiro, where repairs could be made.
The strong smell of powder, and the shattered timbers, left no doubt in the captain’s mind that an explosion of some sort had caused the catastrophe. Fortunately, its greatest force had been upward; otherwise the vessel’s bottom might have been blown out, thus ending her career and those of all on board in short order. The signals in the lazarette were the only explosives on board the bark, but how they could have become ignited was not easily seen, unless a fire had started. Everyone was on deck but the ladies; there was no more sleep that night.
“Mr. Bohlman, you will muster all hands amidships, and you and Mr. Freeman will then call the names of those in your respective watches. Some one may have been killed. Whose wheel was it at the time of the accident?”
“Matt’s, sir,” answered Freeman. “He was badly hurt by being blown against the bulwarks. We’ve put him in his bunk, and two hands are rubbing him.”
While the crew were assembling, the captain questioned his second mate closely as to whether he had noticed any signs of fire about the after part of the vessel, or seen any person enter the lazarette. Freeman was certain, however, that he should have smelled smoke had there been any fire, while as for anyone entering the place without being seen by himself or the man at the wheel,—it was impossible. It will be remembered that he had gone below just before Captain Maxwell discovered the lighted lantern, and therefore knew nothing of that circumstance.
“About how long was it after you left the quarter-deck until the explosion took place?”
“It wasn’t five minutes, sir. I was going forward to the fo’k’sl deck to see that everything was all right, when, happening to look in the port door of the fo’k’sl, I noticed the light was out. I stepped in to see whether the lantern was empty or not, but found it gone. Then—”
“You found the lantern gone!” exclaimed the captain, an idea striking him. “Did you notice whether Dick Lewis was gone, too?”
“Dick Lewis? No, sir; why should I? It was his watch below, and he was probably in his bunk.”
“We shall see. Come with me to the main deck.”
All hands were assembled around the capstan in various degrees of astonishment. Several of that motley crew had probably been shipwrecked during various stages of their careers, but it may be doubted whether any had ever witnessed an accident similar to that which had just taken place.
“Dick Lewis, step forward!”
The captain’s stern command produced a sensation, and all hands wondered what was coming next.
“Dick Lewis, step forward!”
The words were repeated, but no response came from among the crowd of men standing about in the raw morning air.
“That settles it,” said the captain, decisively. “Let the fo’k’sl be searched, and every other part of the bark. If that boy is not to be found, he has paid the penalty of his rashness. He may be dead in the hold, or he may have been blown through the quarter-deck and into the ocean.”
Freeman remembered the conversation of the previous afternoon, when Dick had betrayed his curiosity regarding the signals. Yes, the captain’s theory must be correct, and he shuddered to think how long the boy might have been at work in the lazarette while he walked the deck above. But how had he entered the place? Matt was not so badly hurt but that he was able to swear no one had passed through the hatch, and he, Freeman, had left the quarter-deck but twice during the watch, and then only for a few minutes. The true solution of the problem passed through the minds of Captain Maxwell, his mate and second mate, at almost the same moment, but the two former at first dismissed it as too improbable. Freeman, however, insisted that Dick must have gotten into the lazarette, if at all, by crawling all the way aft through the hold; and as Matt insisted that no one had gone below by the usual way, this view of the matter was the only possible one left.
“God only knows what ailed that boy,” Captain Maxwell said, as Dick’s devilish ingenuity became apparent, “but he’s found out by this time how those signals work, and what twenty-five pounds of powder can do.”