Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Steer Nor'-West

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I HAVE seen a water-colour drawing made by a great-aunt of mine, Miss Marianne Snow, of Belmont, near Exeter, of Torquay before it was "invented" and turned into a fashionable winter residence and watering-place. It was a quiet fishing-village, consisting of a few cottages, under richly wooded hills.

In one of these cottages, at the close of the eighteenth century, at the time when this water-colour was made, lived a sailor named Robert Bruce.

Bruce is not a Devonshire name, and we may shrewdly suspect that he was a Browse, and that his shipmates called him by the better-known Scottish name, which sounds almost identical with Browse. The Browses formed a considerable clan about Torquay and Teignmouth. But whether of Scotch origin or not, he was a native of Torquay. When he reached the age of thirty he became first mate of a ship sailing between Liverpool and St. John, New Brunswick. On one of these periodical voyages westwards, after having been at sea six weeks, and being near the Banks of Newfoundland, the captain and mate, after having taken an observation, went below into the cabin to calculate their day's work.

The mate, Robert Bruce, absorbed in his reckonings, which did not answer his expectations, had not noticed that the captain had risen and left the cabin as soon as he had completed his calculations. Without raising his head, he called out, "I say, cap'n, I make the latitude and the longitude to be so-and-so. Not what it ought to be. What is your reckoning?"

As he received no reply, he repeated the question, and glancing over his shoulder and seeing, as he supposed, the captain figuring on his slate, he asked a third time, and again without eliciting a reply. Surprised and vexed, he stood up, and to his inexpressible astonishment saw that the seated man, engaged on the slate, was not the captain, but an entire stranger. He noted his features and his garments, both wholly different from those of his superior officer. At the same moment the stranger raised his head and looked him full in the eyes. The face was that of a man he had never seen before in his life. Much disturbed, he slipped up the ladder, and seeing the captain, went to him, and in an agitated voice told him that there was a total stranger in the cabin, at the captain's desk, engaged in writing.

"A stranger!" exclaimed the captain. "Impossible! You must have been dreaming. The steward or second mate may have gone down for aught I know."

"No, sir; it was neither. I saw the man occupying your arm-chair. He looked me full in the face, and I saw him as plainly as I see you now."

"Impossible!" said the captain. "Do you know who he is?"

"Never saw the man in my life before—an utter stranger."

"You must be gone daft, Mr. Bruce. Why, we have been six weeks at sea, and you know every man Jack who is on board."

"I know that, sir; but a stranger is there, I assure you."

"Go down again, Mr. Bruce, and ask his name."

The mate hesitated. "I'm not a superstitious man," said he; "but, hang it, I don't relish the idea of facing him again alone."

"Well, well," said the captain, laughing, "I don't mind accompanying you. This is not like you, Bruce, not like you at all—you're not in liquor. It is a mere delusion."

The captain descended the stairs accompanied by the mate; and, sure enough, the cabin was empty.

"There you are, convicted of dreaming," said the former. "Did not I tell you as much?"

"I can't say how it was, sir," replied Bruce, "but I could take my oath on the Gospels that I saw a man writing on your slate."

"If he wrote, there must be something to show for it," said the captain, as he took up the slate, and at once exclaimed, "Why—good God! there is something here. Is this your fist, Mr. Bruce?"

The mate examined the slate, and there in plain, legible characters stood the words "Steer to the Nor'-West."

"You have been playing tricks," said the captain impatiently.

"On my word as a man and a sailor, sir," replied Bruce, "I know no more about this matter than just what I told you."

The captain mused, seated himself, and handing over the slate to the mate, said, "You write on the back of this slate, Steer to the Nor’-West."

Bruce did as required, and the captain narrowly compared the two writings; they differed entirely.

"Send down the second mate," he ordered.

Bruce did as required. On entering the cabin, the captain bade him write the same words, and he did so. The handwriting was again different. Next, the steward was sent for, as also every one of the crew who could write, and the result was the same. At length the captain said, "There must be a stowaway. Have the ship searched. Pipe all hands on deck." Every corner of the vessel was explored, but all in vain. The captain was more perplexed than ever. Summoning the mate to attend him in the cabin, and holding the slate before him, he asked Bruce what he considered this might mean.

"That is more than I can say, sir," replied Bruce, "I saw the man write, and there you see the writing. There must be something in it we don't understand."

"Well," said the captain, "It does look like it. We have the wind fine, "and I have a good mind to keep her away and see what comes of it all."

"If I were in your place, sir, that is what I would do. It's only a few hours lost, at the worst."

"It shall be so. Go and give the course Nor’-west, and, Mr. Bruce, have a good look-out aloft; and let it be a hand you can depend upon."

The mate gave the required orders; and about 3 p.m. the look-out reported an iceberg nearly ahead, and shortly after, that he observed a vessel of some sort close to it. As they approached, by aid of his telescope, the captain discerned a dismantled ship, apparently wedged into and frozen to the ice, and he was able to distinguish a good many human beings on it. Shortly after, he hove to, and sent out boats to the relief of the sufferers.

The vessel proved to be one from Quebec, bound to Liverpool, with passengers on board. She had become entangled in the ice, and finally frozen fast, and had been in this condition for several weeks. She was stove in, her decks swept, and was, in fact, a mere wreck. All her provisions and almost all her water had been consumed, and crew and passengers had despaired of being saved, and looked out for a watery grave. Their gratitude for this unexpected deliverance was proportionately great.

As one of the men, who had been brought away in the third boat that had reached the wreck, was ascending the ship's side, the mate, catching a glimpse of his face, started back in astonishment. He recognized the identical face that he had seen in the cabin, three or four hours before, looking up at him from the captain's desk. When the man stood on the deck, Bruce examined him closely. Not only was the face the same, but in person and dress he corresponded exactly with his vision.

So soon as the exhausted crew and passengers had been fed and cared for, and the bark was on her course again, the mate called the captain aside, and said, "That was no ghost, sir, that I saw this morning. The man is here, alive, and on board our boat."

"What do you mean?"

"Sir," said Bruce very gravely. "One of the passengers we have just saved is the very same person that I saw writing on your slate at noon. I would swear to the identity in any court of justice."

"This is becoming more strange and inexplicable every minute," said the captain; "let us go and have a look at the man."

They found him in conversation with the captain of the derelict vessel, when both expressed their warmest gratitude for deliverance from a terrible fate, either starvation and exposure, or drowning should the iceberg capsize.

The captain replied that he had done no more than was his duty, and that he was quite sure that they would have done the same for him under similar circumstances; and then he requested both to step down with him into his cabin.

When that was done, turning to the passenger he said: "Will you excuse the liberty I am taking with you, if I desire you to write a few words on the slate?"

"Certainly I will do so," said the passenger. "What shall I write?"

"Nothing more than this: Steer to the Nor’-West."

The passenger looked amazed and puzzled; however, he held out his hand for the slate. This the captain extended to him, with that side uppermost on which Bruce and the crew had written, and which writing he had effaced with a sponge. The man wrote the required words. The captain took back the slate, stepping aside whilst the passenger was not observing, turned the slate over, and presented it to him, with the side uppermost on which was the mysterious inscription.

Tendering the slate again to him, he said: "You are ready to swear, sir, that this is your handwriting?"

"Of course it is; you saw me write."

"Look at it attentively and make sure that it is the same."

"I have no doubt about it. I make my s in the midst of a sentence in the old-fashioned way, long. And there it is, attached to the t at steer and west."

"And this also?" asked the captain, turning the slate over.

The passenger looked first at one writing, then at the other, quite confounded. "I don't understand what this can mean," said he; "I wrote the words once only. Who wrote the other?"

"That, sir, is more than I can say. My mate informs me that you wrote it, sitting at my desk at noon to-day."

"That is impossible. I was on the wreck miles away."

"I saw you there writing it, as distinctly as I see you now," put in Bruce.

The captain of the wreck turned to the passenger, and said: "Did you dream that you wrote on a slate?"

"Not that I can recall," replied he.

"Now you speak of dreaming," said the skipper, "may I inquire what the gentleman was about at noon to-day?"

"Captain," said the other, "he had become greatly exhausted, and fell into a heavy sleep, some time before noon, and remained in that condition for over an hour. When he awoke he said to me, 'Captain, I am confident that we shall be relieved this very day. When I asked him his reason for so saying, he replied that he had dreamt that he was on board a vessel, and that he was convinced she was coming to our rescue. He described her appearance and outward rig, and, to our astonishment, when your vessel hove in sight, she corresponded exactly to his description. We had not, I must admit, much confidence in his assurance. As it has happened, it looks uncommon like as if Providence had interfered to save us in a very mysterious manner."

"There can be no doubt about that," replied the other captain. "It is due to that writing on the slate, however it came about, that all your lives are saved. I was steering at the time considerably south of west, and I altered my course to nor'-west, on account of the writing on the slate." Then, turning to the passenger, he inquired, "Did you dream of writing on a slate?"

"Not that I am aware of. I have no recollection of that; but I may say that everything here on board seems to me familiar; yet I am certain that I was never in your vessel before. It is very perplexing, May I ask what your mate saw?"

Thereupon Bruce related the circumstances already detailed.

The above extraordinary account was related to Mr. Robert Owen, formerly American Minister at Naples, by Captain J. S. Clarke, of the Julia Hallock, a schooner trading in 1859 between New York and Cuba, who had received it directly from Robert Bruce himself. They sailed together for nearly two years, in 1836 and 1837; so that Captain Clarke had the story from the mate about eight years after the occurrence. Bruce after that became master of the brig Comet, trading to New Brunswick, and she was eventually lost at sea, and Bruce is believed to have perished in her.

In reply to a question as to the character which Bruce bore for uprightness, Captain Clarke replied: "As truthful and straightforward a man as ever I met in my life. We were as intimate as brothers; and two men can't be together, shut up for nearly two years in the same ship, without getting to know whether they can trust one another's word or not. He always spoke of the circumstance in terms of reverence, as of an incident that seemed to bring him nearer to God and to another world than anything that had ever happened to him in his life before. I'd stake my life upon it that he was speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in the very extraordinary account which I have related to you just as he delivered it to me."

Such is the story, and it is much to be regretted that there is no confirmation or other testimony from the two captains, or from any others who were in the vessel.

It is given by the Rev. Bourchier Wrey Savile, in his Apparitions: a Narrative of Facts. London, 1874.