Storys of The bewitched fiddler (1)/A Perilous Situation

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I sat in the cuddy, watching the storm, till past eight o’clock, when a flash which illuminated the whole hemisphere, and was accompanied with loud cracking, and a tremendous noise, struck the ship, and killed, upon the spot, two of the seamen on the forecastle. I ran to the door to ascertain the effects of the stroke, and heard the seccond mate, who was between decks, cry out, 'Fire in the hold! fire below!' The cargo had taken fire from the electric fluid. The scene which followed exceeds all description; it was one that can never be forgotten by any who witnessed it.

In a moment all hands were on deck ; buckets were supplied in abundance; the pumps were manned and leaked, that the water might be discharged on the burning cargo; passengers and crew were all on the alert: I threw off my boatcloak, which I had procured by rushing below through the smoke into my cabin, and assisted at the pumps. When the hatches were taken off, to allow of water being poured into the hold, flames and clouds of smoke issued forth as from a furnace, increasing every instant in heat and density. It was soon found that all exertion was in vain—the vessel must perish!

From the pumps we ran to the boats; the gig hung over the larboard quarter, so as to be lowered in a moment; but we should have lost its valuable services, had not a gentleman threatened to send a bullet through the head of the carpenter, who, insane with terror had brought a hatchet to cut the ropes and drop it at once into the sea. The yawl, a larger boat, was our great difficulty; it was turned, keel upwards, over the long boat, to serve as a roof to the live stock kept in the latter. Many attempts were made, in vain, to raise it from its situation; the long boat was already on fire, by the flames bursting from the main hold. I climbed into it (without feeling that, in doing so I broke my shins severely) to give my assistance; and when we were just ready to despair, the yawl eased and rose, no one knew how, and was over the side and in the water, more quickly, the sailors said, than they had ever before seen it done.

Captain Dacre had already affirmed, in answer to my inquires, that the two boats could not carry all the ship’s company, passengers and crew: and under other circumstances, we should not have dared to try them; but the trial must now be made. The two ladies, one of whom had to be hurried from her bed, where she had retired for the night, were first put safely into the yawl; some other passengers and myself, with part of the crew, followed, and our weight sank it nearly to the water’s edge; the captain and others entered the smaller boat and sufficiently filled it, leaving the vessel with honourable reluctance; while the first mate, Mr Ibbetson, gallantly remained on board to the last, suggesting the best arrangements, and assisting to hand to us any article that could be got at the moment, that might be useful to us in the extreme perils we were about to encounter.

Many of the party having retired to their hammocks before the electric fluid struck the vessel, were half naked; but were supplied with trowsers and jackets, by those seamen who had been on the watch; who, in consequence of the heavy rain, had eased themselves in double or treble their usual quantity of clothing. My own dress was merely a nankeen jacket and trowsers, a shirt and neckcloth. I had lost my hat in assisting to get out the boat.

We happily succeeded in bringing away two compasses from the binnacle, and a few candels from the cuddy table, one of them lighted; one bottle of wine and another of porter were handed to us, with the table-cloth and a knife, which proved very useful; but the fire raged so fiercely in the body of the vessel, that neither bread nor water could be come at.

It was now about nine o’clock: the rain poured in torrents : the lightning continued to stream from one side of the heavens to the other, one moment dazzling us by its glare, and the next leaving us in darkness, relieved only by the red flames of the conflagration, from which we were trying to escape.

Our first object was to get clear of the vessel, lest she should explode and overwhelm us. But to our great distress we discovered that the yawl had no rudder, and that in the two boats we had only three oars, all exertions to obtain more from the ship having proved unsuccessful. From the gig, which had a rudder, they gave us a rope’s end to keep us in tow; and by means of a few spars, found at the bottom of the boat, we assisted in moving ourselves slowly through the water. Providentially the sea was very still, or our boats would have swamped and we must have perished. There was also very little wind, but it sometimes changed, and assisted by the prevailing current, urged forward the burning ship; for the sails, being drenched with rain, did not easily take fire. Our situation, therefore, was for some time exceedingly perilous. The vessel neared us more than once, and seemed to threaten to involve us in its own destruction. The cargo, consisting chiefly of hams, cheeses, ale, porter, spirits, and other things equally combustible, burned with violence and rapidity, and the flames rose to an amazing height.

We succeeded in encreasing the distance between us and the vessel; directing our course towards land, by help of the compasses, which we could see by the light of the candles we had with us. About ten o’clock, we saw the masts go overboard, and the sides of the vessel seemed to be burnt down to the water’s edge. The spectacle was awfully grand, even contemplated abstractedly from a recollection of our own circumstances. The destruction, by fire, of the animals on board, dogs, sheep, &c., at another time would have excited our deepest commisseration, but, at present, the total loss of property, the awfully sudden death of the seamen, our own narrow escape, and the great probabilities, even yet, that we should never again see the light of day, or set our feet on solid ground, seemed to absord our faculties and feelings: for some time the silence was scarcely broken, and I doubt not, that many, like myself, were engaged in thoughts most suitable to immortal beings on the brink of eternity in thankfulness and in prayer.

The number of persons in the two boats was forty-eight; and all, with the exception of the two ladies, who, I must observe, bore these awful circumstances with extraordinary fortitude, took it in turns to work at the oars and paddles. After some time, to our great relief, the rain ceased; the labour of bailing water from the boats was considerably diminished; we hailed each other frequently, during the night, and the honest tars, true 'hearts of oak,' occasionally give a simultaneous 'hurra,' to cheer each other, and to keep up our spirits.

The Tanjore must have risen in the water, as it gradually consumed; we saw it burning the whole night, and at daybreak could distinguish a column of smoke arising from it, which, however, soon ceased, and we saw and heard no more of our favourite ship. When the sun rose, we could clearly discern land a-head; the sight of it filled us with grateful joy and nerved us with fresh vigour.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.