The Blue Peter/The Captain of the Ullswater
THE CAPTAIN OF THE ULLSWATER
There were enemies of Captain Amos Brown who said that he was a liar. He certainly had a vivid imagination, or a memory for a more romantic career than falls to the lot of most at sea or ashore.
"By the time we make Callao, Mr. Wardle," said the skipper to his new mate, as they lay in Prince's Dock, Liverpool, "I expect to be able to tell you something of my life, which has been a very remarkable one."
"You don't say so, sir," said Mr. Wardle, who, as it happened, had heard nothing about the skipper, and was innocently prepared to swallow quite a deal. "You don't say so, sir."
"I do say so," replied the skipper. "It has been a most remarkable career from first to last. Wonders happen to me, Mr. Wardle, so that when I am at sea I just know that something will occur that is strange. I have a collection of binoculars, with inscriptions on them for saving lives at sea that would surprise you. They have been given me by almost every Government of any importance under the sun."
"That must be very gratifying sir," said the mate.
"It gets monotonous," said the skipper with a yawn. "At times I wish foreign Governments had more imagination. They never seem to think two pair of glasses enough for any man. And the silver-mounted sextants I possess are difficult to stow away in my house. If you don't mind the inscription to me on it, I'll give you a sextant presented to me by France, Mr. Wardle, if I can remember to bring it with me from home next time."
Mr. Wardle said he should be delighted to own it, and said, further, that the inscription would naturally give it an added interest. At this the skipper yawned again, and said that he was tired of inscriptions.
"The next lot I pick up I'll request not to give my name," he said. "My wife, Mr. Wardle, gets tired of keeping a servant specially to polish 'to Captain Brown,' with a lot of complimentary jaw to follow that makes her tired. She knows what I am, Mr. Wardle, and doesn't require to be reminded of it by falling over a gold-mounted sextant every time she turns round. A woman, even of a greedy mind, can easily get palled with sextants, and a woman sees no particular use in them when they take up room that she wants to devote to heirlooms in her family. Before we get to Callao I'll tell you all about my wife, and how I came to marry her. It is a romantic story. She belongs to a noble family. She is the most beautiful woman that you ever set eyes on. I'll tell you all about it before we get to Callao. I've always been a very attractive man to the other sex, Mr. Wardle. She's rather jealous, too, though she belongs to a noble family. I understand in noble families it isn't good taste to be jealous, but she is. However, I must write to her now, or I shall have a letter from her at Callao that would surprise you, if by that time I know you well enough to show it to you. And now, what were you saying about those three cases marked P. D., and consigned to Manuel Garcia?"
Mr. Wardle told him what he had been saying about the cases marked P. D. and consigned to Manuel Garcia, and it was settled what was to be done with them. The skipper said that he wished they were full of his binoculars and diamond-mounted sextants, and also his gold watches with fulsome inscriptions on them, and that they were consigned to Davy Jones.
"And this is a letter for you, sir," said the mate. The skipper opened it.
"From my wife," he said, and then he swore.
"Another pair of binoculars from the Swedish Government," he groaned. "I shall write and say that I would rather have a suit of clothes, and that if there must be an inscription on them will they put it where it can't be seen. The German Government once did that for me, but they put the inscription in good English on the collar, and I found it very inconvenient, for strangers would come and breathe in my neck while they read it."
Mr. Wardle went away to ask the second mate what he thought of the skipper. He sighed, and the second mate laughed. The second mate was an unbelieving dog and a merry one. When it came six o'clock they had a wash, and put on clean clothes, and went up town together, and had a friendly drink at a known public-house which was a great resort for mates and second mates, though a skipper rarely put his nose inside it.
"I wonder what kind of a chap the skipper is, after all," said Humphries, the second mate. "It seems to me, sir, that he is a holy terror of a liar, and no mistake."
"Oh, I shouldn't like to say that," replied Wardle. "I do, however, think he exaggerates and puts it on a bit thick. That isn't bein' a liar. I daresay he has saved life at sea. He wouldn't have offered me a silver-mounted sextant if he hadn't several."
"I shall believe you will get it when I see you with it," said Jack Humphries. "In my opinion Captain Amos Brown is a first-class liar."
Perhaps he spoke a little too loudly for a public place, though that public place was a billiard-room with four secondplaying a four-handed game, and making as much row over it as if they were picking up the bunt of the foresail in a gale of wind. He was overheard by the only old man in the room.
"Did I hear you mention someone called Amos Brown?" asked the old chap sitting next to him.
"I did, sir," said the second mate of the UUswater. "Do you know him?"
"I had an Amos Brown as an apprentice with me when I commanded the Samuel Plimsoll." replied the old gentleman, "and he was a very remarkable lad. I think I heard you say that this one was a liar?"
"I did," said Humphries; "though perhaps I shouldn't have done so, as I'm second mate with him now, sir."
The old boy shook his head.
"I won't tell him. But it surely must be the same. The Brown I knew was an awful liar, and I've seen many in my time, gentlemen."
He asked them to drink with him, and they did it willingly. To know the one-time skipper of the old Samuel Plimsoll was something worth while, seeing that she had once held the record for a day's run. And if his Brown was theirs it was a chance not to be missed. They took their drinks, and asked him to tell them all about Amos Brown.
"He went overboard in a gale of wind and saved another boy who couldn't swim," said the stranger, "and when we got them back on board, and he could speak, the very first thing he said was that he had seventeen medals from the Royal Humane Society for saving other lives. Does that sound like your man?"
Wardle told him about the binoculars and gold watches and silver-mounted sextants.
"Ah, he's the man," said the old skipper. "Don't you think because he gasses that he hasn't pluck. I'd not be surprised to hear that there is some truth in what he says. I've known one man with four pairs of inscribed binoculars. I daresay Captain Brown has a pair or two. When you see him, tell him that you met Captain Gleeson, who used to command the Samuel Plimsoll. And as I'm goin' now, I don't mind owning that I'm the man that has the four pairs of binoculars, gentlemen."
He bade them good-night, and Humphries said when he had gone that he was probably as big a liar as the skipper, and had never seen the Samuel Plimsoll.
"And as for Brown bein' a hero," added the second mate, "I simply don't believe it. A liar can't be brave."
This was a large and youthful saying, and Wardle, who was not so young as his subordinate had his doubts of it.
"I rather think the captain is all right," he said. "I'll ask him to-morrow if he was ever in the Samuel Plimsoll."
They were at sea before he got a chance to do so.
"The Samuel Plimsoll? well, I should say so!" said the skipper. "And you actually met dear old Gleeson! Why, Mr. Wardle, he was the man that set me on makin' this collection of inscribed articles. Bar myself he is the one man in the whole merchant service with more than he can do with. His native town has a department in its museum especially devoted to what he has given them in that way. His wife refused to give them house-room, and I don't blame her. I saved most of the crew in that dear old hooker at one time or another, went overboard after them in gales of wind. They got to rely on me and grew very careless. I often told them that I wouldn't go after any more, but when you see a poor chap drownin' it is difficult to stay in the dry and let him."
"Ah," said Wardle, "he did speak about your savin' one."
The skipper cast a quick look at him, and then laughed.
"One, indeed," he said contemptuously. "Why, I saved the whole of the mate's watch, the mate included; and on three other occasions I was hauled out of my bunk to go after one of the starboard watch. The only thing I have against old Gleeson is that he was jealous when he saw I was likely to knock his collection of medals and binoculars into a cocked-hat. One, indeed! I've saved seventy men, boys, and women, by goin' in after 'em myself; and somethin' like forty-five crews by skilful seamanship in the face of unparalleled difficulties. I wish I could have a talk with Gleeson."
"He said you were one of the bravest lads he ever met, sir," said Wardle.
The skipper's face softened.
"Did he now? Well, that was nice of him, but I think he might have told you about more than one I saved."
"And he said he had only four pairs of binoculars given him by foreign Governments," added Wardle.
"That is his false modesty," said Captain Brown. "He has an idea that if he told the truth he would not be believed. I don't care who doesn't believe me, Mr. Wardle. If surprising things occur to a man why should he not relate them? There's my wife, for instance, one of the nobility, a knight's daughter! I know men that wouldn't mention it for fear of not bein' believed they had married so far above them. She is the most beautiful woman in the three kingdoms, to say nothin' of Europe. I know men that it would seem like braggin' in to say that, but when you get to know me, and know that speakin' the truth isn't out of gear with my natural modesty, you will see why I mention it so freely."
In the course of the next few days Captain Amos Brown mentioned a good many things freely that redounded to the credit of himself and his family, and he did it so nicely, with such an engaging air of innocent and delightful candour, that poor Wardle did not know whether he was shipmates with the most wonderful man on earth or the most magnificent liar.
"I don't know where I am," he confided in his junior.
"I know where I am," said the graceless second greaser. "I am with a skipper with as much jaw as a sheep's head, and if he said it was raining I should take off my oilskins. He's the biggest braggart and liar I ever met, sir."
"I cannot listen to you sayin' such things," said the mate.
"I beg your pardon for doin' so," replied Humphries, "but the 'old man' is a scorcher, and I can*t help seein' it."
To a less prejudiced observer it must have been obvious that there were many fine qualities in Captain Amos Brown. He inspected the cooking of the men's food at intervals which annoyed the cook and kept him up to his work. When he went his rounds he saw that things were shipshape even in the deckhouse. The men forward said he might be a notorious liar, as they heard from the steward, but they said he looked like a man and a seaman. Mr. Wardle found him as smart a navigator as he had ever sailed with, and before long was learning mathematics from him.
"No officer need be ashamed of takin' a wrinkle from me, Mr. Wardle," said the skipper, after giving him a lesson in star observations that made the mate sit up. "The Astronomer Royal himself owned to me that I could give him pounds and a beating at a great deal of mathematics. I love it, there is something so fine and free about it. I go sailin' over the sea of the calculus with both sheets aft. He is goin' to publish some observations of mine about the imperfections of the sextant. They were brought to my notice by my series of silver-mounted ones. I'm inventin' a new one compensated for all different temperatures."
And yet it was quite true that, as far as Wardle went with him, a better and clearer-headed teacher could not be found.
"I shall end in believing every word he says," thought the mate.
And if the mate found him his master in navigation, Humphries found that there wasn't a trick of practical seamanship that wasn't at his finger-ends, from cutting out a jib to a double Matthew Walker on a four-stranded rope, which the skipper could almost do with his eyes shut.
"Everything is all the same to me, Mr. Humphries," said the skipper calmly. "I'm a born pilot, and I can handle every rig as easy as if I'd been born in 'em. I can sail a scow or a schooner, and every kind of sailing-boat from a catamaran to an Arab dhow. And at steam I'm just as good."
Humphries did not believe a word of it, and used to read up old-fashioned seamanship in order to pose him. He never did, and the most out-of-date sea-riddle was to the skipper as easy as slinging a nim-buoy.
"He beats me, I own," said the second mate. "He's the best at all-round sailorizin' that I ever sailed with."
The men for'ard said the same. And the bo'son, who was a very crusty beast from Newcastle, was of opinion that what the 'old man' did not know about ships was not worth knowing.
"I'm goin' to believe 'im hif so be 'e says 'e's bin to the moon," said one cockney. "But for hall we knows the 'old man' may not show hup and shine as 'e does now w'en it's 'ard weather. I was shipmet wiv a skipper once that was wonderful gassy so long's it was topmast stuns'l weather, but when it blew a gale 'e crawled into 'is bunk like a sick stooard, and there 'e stayed till the sun shone."
They soon had a chance of seeing whether the skipper was a fair-weather sailor or not. They had taken an almighty time to get to the south'ard of the Bay of Biscay, for it had been almost as calm as a pond all the way from the Tuscar. Now the barometer began to fall in a steady, business-like way that looked as if it meant work, while a heavy swell came rolling up from the south. The dawn next morning was what ladies would have called beautiful, for it was full of wonderful colour, and reached in a strange glory right to the zenith. It afforded no joy, artistic or otherwise, to anyone on board the Ullswater, as she rolled in the swell with too little wind to steady her. The watch below came out before breakfast, and looked at the scarlet and gold uneasily. There was a tremendously dark cloud on the horizon, and the high dawn above it was alone a threat of wind. The clouds, that were lighted by the hidden sun, were hard and oily; they had no loose edges, the colour was brilliant but opaque. To anyone who could read the book of the sky the signs were as easy as the south cone. They meant 'very heavy weather from the south and west.' The skipper looked a deal more happy than he had done before. His eyes were clear and bright; there was a ring in his voice which encouraged everybody; he walked the poop rubbing his hands as if he was enjoying himself, as he undoubtedly was. He shortened the Ullswater down in good time, but set his three t'gallan's'ls over the reefed topsails, and hung on to them until squalls began to come out of the south which threatened to save all trouble of furling them. By noon the sun was out of sight under a heavy grey pall, and the sea got up rapidly as the wind veered into the west of south. An hour later it was blowing enough to make it hard to hear anyone speak, and he roared the most dreadful and awe-inspiring lies into the ear of his mate.
"This is goin' to be quite a breeze, Mr. Wardle," he shouted joyously, "but I don't think the weather nowadays is ever what it was when I was young. I've been hove to in the Bay for three weeks at a time. And once we were on our beam ends for a fortnight, and all we ate all that time was one biscuit each. I was so thin at the finish that I had to carry weights in my pocket to keep myself from bein' blown overboard. Oh, this is nothin'! We can hang on to this till the wind is sou'-west, and then maybe we'll heave to."
By the middle of the afternoon watch the Ullswater was hanging on to a gale on the port-tack with her main hatch awash, and the crowd for'ard had come to the conclusion that for carrying sail the 'old man' beat any American Scotchman they had ever heard of. When he at last condescended to heave her to, all hands, after wearing her, had a job with the fore and mizzen-topsails that almost knocked the stuffing out of them, as they phrased it. The skipper, however, told them that they had done very well, and told the steward to serve out grog. As the owners of the Ullswater were teetotallers, and about as economical as owners are made, this grog was at the skipper's own expense. When they had got it down, the entire crowd said that they would believe anything the skipper said henceforth. They went for'ard and enjoyed themselves, while the old hooker lay to with a grummet on her wheel, and the great south-wester howled across the Bay. If the main-topsail hadn't been as strong as the grog and the skipper's yarns, it would have been blown out of the bolt-ropes before dark, for the way the wind blew then made the 'old man' own at supper-time that it reminded him of the days of his youth.
"But you never will catch me heavin' to under anythin' so measly as a tarpaulin' in the rigging," said Captain Amos Brown, with his mouth full of beef and his leg round the leg of the table, as the Ullswater climbed the rising seas and dived again like a swooping frigate-bird. "I like to have my ship under some kind of command however it blows. One can never tell, Mr. Humphries, when one may need to make sail to save some of our fellow-creatures. As yet neither of you two gentlemen have got as much as the cheapest pair of binoculars out of our own Board of Trade or a foreign Government. With me you'll have your chance to go home to your girl and chuck somethin' of that sort into her lap, and make her cry with joy. I saved my own wife, who is the most beautiful woman in the world, and weighs eleven stone, and has for years, and I got a sextant and a nobleman's daughter at one fell swoop. Oh, I've been a lucky man."
"How did you save your wife, sir?" asked Humphries, who was almost beginning to believe what the skipper said.
"You may well ask, and I can't tell," replied the skipper proudly. "I hardly remember how it was, for when I get excited I do things which kind friends of mine say are heroic, and I can't remember 'em. But so far as I can recall it, I swam near a mile in a sea like this, and took command of a dismasted barque with most of the crew disabled through havin' their left legs broke, a most remarkable fact. There wasn't a sound left leg in the whole crowd except my wife's, and the only thing out of order was that the captain's left leg was broke in two places. I took charge of her, and put splints on their legs, and we were picked up by a tug from Queenstown and towed in there, and the doctors all said I was the neatest hand with splints they had ever seen. And I married my wife then and there with a special license, and I've never regretted it from that day to this. By Jove, though, doesn't it blow!"
How the "nobleman's" daughter came to be on board the dismasted barque he did not explain, and he shortly afterwards turned in, leaving orders to be called if it blew much harder.
"And when I say much harder, Mr. Wardle, I mean much harder. Please don't disturb me for a potty squall."
As a result of these orders he was not called till the early dawn, when it was blowing nearly hard enough to unship the main capstan. Even then Wardle would not have ventured to rouse him if he had not fancied that he saw some dismasted vessel far to leeward in the mirk and smother of the storm.
"I think I saw a vessel just now down to loo'ard," screamed the mate as the skipper made a bolt for him under the weather cloth on the mizzen rigging. "Dismasted I think, sir."
He saw the 'old man's' eye brighten and snap.
"Where did you say?" he roared; and before he could hear they had to wait till a singing squall went over.
"To loo'ard," said the mate again; and the next moment the skipper saw what he looked for.
"Not dismasted, on her beam ends," he shouted. And in a few more minutes, as the dawn poured across the waste of howling seas, Wardle saw that the 'old man' was right.
"Poor devils," he said, "it's all over with them."
The word that there was a vessel in difficulties soon brought out the watch on deck, who were taking shelter in the deckhouse. As it was close on four o'clock the watch below soon joined them, and presently Humphries came up on the poop.
"Ah!" said the second mate, "they are done for, poor chaps."
This the skipper heard, and he turned round sharply and roared, "What, with me here? Oh, not much!"
He turned to Wardle.
"Here's your chance for a pair of inscribed binoculars," he said. "I believe she's French, and the French government have generous minds in the way of fittings and inscriptions, Mr. Wardle."
"But in this sea, sir?" stammered the mate. "Why, a boat couldn't live in it for a second, even if we launched one safe, sir."
"I've launched boats in seas to which this was a mere calm," said the skipper ardently. "And if I can't get you or Humphries to go I shall go myself."
"You don't mean it, sir," said the mate; and then the skipper swore many powerful oaths that he did mean it.
"In the meantime we're driftin' down to her," said Captain Brown, "for she is light and high out of the water and we are as deep as we can be."
It soon got all over the ship that the 'old man' meant to attempt a rescue of those in distress, and there was a furious argument for'ard as to whether it could be done, and whether any captain was justified in asking his crew to man a boat in such a sea. The unanimous opinion of all the older men was that it couldn't be done. The equally unanimous opinion of all the younger ones was that if the skipper said it could be done he would go in the first boat himself rather than be beaten.
"Well, it will be a case for volunteers," said one old fo'c'sle man, "and when I volunteer to drown my wife's husband I'll let all you chaps know."
And that was very much the opinion of Wardle, who was a married man too. As for Humphries, he was naturally reckless, and was now ready to do almost anything the skipper asked.
"He may be a liar," said the second mate, "but I think he's all right, and I like him."
Now it was broad daylight, and the vessel was within a mile of them. Sometimes she was quite hidden, and sometimes she was flung up high on the crest of a wave. Heavy green seas broke over her as she lay with her starboard yardarms dipping. She had been running under a heavy press of canvas when she broached to, and went over on her beam ends, for even yet the sheets of the upper main-topsail were out to the lower yardarm, and though the starboard half of the sail had blown out of the bolt ropes, the upper or port yardarm still was sound and as tight as a drum with the wind.
"If she hasn't sunk yet she'll swim a while longer," said the skipper of the Ullswater as the day grew lighter and lighter still. "Show the British ensign, Mr. Humphries, and cheer them up if they're alive. I wish I could tell them that I am here. I'll bet they know me. I'm famous with the French from Dunkirk to Toulon. At Marseilles they call me Mounseer Binoculaire, and stand in rows to see me pass."
The lies that he told now no one had any ears for. Wardle owned afterwards that he was afraid that the 'old man' would ask him to go in command of a boat, and, like the old fo'c'sle man, he was thinking a good deal of his wife's husband. But all the while Captain Amos Brown was telling whackers that would have done credit to Baron Munchausen, he was really thinking of how he was to save those whose passage to a port not named in any bills of lading looked almost certain. By this time the foreigner was not far to leeward of them.
"No one could blame us if we let 'em go," shrieked the 'old man' in his mate's ear as the wind lulled for one brief moment. "But I never think of what other men would do, Mr. Wardle. I remember once in a cyclone in the Formosa Channel——"
What dreadful deed of inspired heroism he had performed in a cyclone in the Formosa Channel Wardle never knew, for the wind cut the words from the skipper's lips and sent them in a howling shower of spray far to loo'ard. But his last words became audible.
"I was insensible for the best part of a month after it," screamed Amos Brown. "The usual … silver-mounted … sickened … wife as I said."
Then he caught the mate by the arm.
"We'll stand by 'em, Mr. Wardle. If I get another sextant, as I suspect, I must put up with it. Get the lifeboat ready, Mr. Wardle, and get all the empty small casks and oil-drums that you can and lash them under the thwarts fore and aft. Make her so that she can't sink and I'll go in her myself."
This fetched the blood into Wardle's face.
"That's my job, sir," he said shortly, for he forgot all about his wife's husband at that moment.
"I know it," said the skipper, "but with your permission I'll take it on myself, as I've had so much experience in this sort of thing and you've had none. And I tell you you'll have to handle the Ullswater so as to pick us up as we go to loo'ard, and it will be a job for a seaman and no fatal error."
The mate swore softly and went away and did as he was told. The men hung back a little when he told them to get the boat ready for launching, though they followed him when they saw him begin to cast off the gear by which she was made fast. But the old fo'c'sle man had something to say.
"The captain ain't goin' to put a boat over the side in a sea like this, is he, sir?"
"You had better ask him," he replied savagely, and then there was no more talk. He went back to the poop and reported that the boat was ready. He also reported that the men were very unlikely to volunteer.
"They'll volunteer fast enough when they know I'm goin' to ask nothin' of them that I don't ask of myself," said the captain. "I really think the wind is takin' off a little, Mr. Wardle."
Perhaps it was, but if so the sea was a trifle worse. But it seemed to the skipper and the two mates that the French vessel was lower in the water than she had been. She was getting a pounding that nothing built by human hands could stand for long.
"There's not much time to lose," said the skipper.
Captain Amos Brown apparently knew his business, and knew it, as far as boats were concerned, in a way to make half the merchant skippers at sea blush for their ignorance of one of the finest points of seamanship. The skipper had the crew aft under the break of the poop, and came down to them himself. They huddled in the space between the two poop-ladders and looked very uneasy.
"Do any of you volunteer to try and save those poor fellows to loo'ard of us?" asked the 'old man.' And no one said a word. They looked at the sea and at each other with shifty eyes, but not at him.
"Why, sir, 'tis our opinion that no boat can't live in this sea," said the bo'son.
"I think it can," said the captain, "and I'm goin' to try. Do any of you volunteer to come with your captain? I ask no man to do what I won't do myself."
There was something very fine about the liar of the Ullswater as he spoke, and everyone knew that now at least he was telling no lies.
"I'm wiv you, sir," said a young cockney, who was the foulest mouthed young ruffian in the ship, and had been talked to very severely by his mates on that very point. It is not good form for a youngster to use worse language than his elders at sea. Some of the others looked at him angrily, as if they felt that they had to go now. A red-headed Irishman followed the cockney, just as he had followed him into horrid dens down by Tiger Bay.
"I'm with ye, too, sorr," said Mike.
"I'm only askin' for six," said the skipper. Then the old fo'c'sle man, who had been so anxious about his wife's husband, hooked a black quid out of his back teeth and threw it overboard.
"I'll come, sir."
But now all the other young men spoke together. The skipper had his choice, and he took the unmarried ones.
He gave his orders now to the mate without a touch of braggadocio.
"We'll run her off before the wind, Mr. Wardle, and then quarter the sea and lower away on the lee quarter. See that there is a man on the weather quarter with oil, so as to give us all the smooth you can. When we are safe afloat give us your lee to work in all you can, and hang her up in the wind to windward of the wreck all you know. While you are there don't spare oil; let it come down to her and us. It is possible that we may not be able to get a line to the wreck, but we'll go under her stern and try. With all her yards and gear in the sea it won't be possible to get right in her lee, so we may have to call to them to jump. My reckonin' is that we may pick up some that way before we get too far to loo'ard. When we get down close to her, fire the signal-gun to rouse them up to try and help us. When you see us well to loo'ard of the wreck, put your helm up, and run down and give us your lee again. If we miss her and have to try again, we must beat to windward once more. But that's anticipating ain't it? You can put your helm up now, Mr. Wardle. Shake hands."
And they shook hands. Then the skipper and his men took to the boat, which was ready to lower in patent gear, with Humphries in charge of it, and the Ullswater went off before the wind. Then at a nod from the captain she came up a little, till she quartered the sea with very little way on her.
"Now, Mr. Humphries," said the skipper. In ten seconds they hit the water fair and the hooks disengaged. The oil that was being poured over on the weather quarter helped them for a moment, and even when they got beyond its immediate influence they kept some of the lee of the ship. They drifted down upon the wreck, and rode the seas by pulling ahead or giving her sternway till they were within half a cable's length of the doomed vessel. At that moment they fired the signal-gun on board the Ullswater, and they saw some of the poor chaps to loo'ard of them show their heads above the rail. Then the full sweep of the storm struck them. But the liar of the Ullswater, who had saved more crews in worse circumstances than he could count, actually whistled as he sat in the stern-sheets with a steering oar in his hands.
To handle a boat in a heavy sea, with the wind blowing a real gale, is a thing that mighty few deepwater seamen are good at. But the skipper of the Ullswater knew his business even then as if he had been a Deal puntman, a North Sea trawler, or a Grand Bank fisherman all his life. The boat in which he made his desperate and humane venture was double-ended like a whale-boat, and she rode the seas for the most part like a cork. In such a situation the great thing is to avoid a sea breaking inboard, and sometimes they pulled ahead, and sometimes backed astern, so that when a heavy sea did break it did so to windward or to loo'ard of them. And yet a hundred times in the dreadful full minutes that it took them to get down to the wreck there were moments when those in the boat and those in the Ullswater thought that it was all over with them. Once a sea that no one could have avoided broke over them, and it was desperate work to bale her out. And the roar of the wind deafened them; the seas raced and hissed; they pulled or backed water with their teeth clenched. Some of them thought of nothing; others were sorry they had volunteered, and looked at the captain furiously while he whistled through his clenched teeth. One cockney swore at him horribly in a thin piping scream, and called him horrid names. For this is the strange nature of man. But he pulled as well as the others, and the skipper smiled at him as his blasphemies cut the wind. For the skipper saw a head over the rail of the wreck, and he knew that there was work to be done and that he was doing it, and that the brave fool that cursed him was a man and was doing his best. The words he spoke were such as come out of a desperate mind, and out of a man that can do things. They towed an oil-bag to windward, but there was no oil to calm the movements of the soul at such a time.
"Oh, damn you, pull!" said Amos Brown. He ceased to whistle, and cursed with a sudden and tremendous frenzy that was appalling. The cursing cockney looked up at him with open mouth.
By the 'old man's' side in the stern-sheets there was a coil of rope attached to a little grapnel. If the men still alive on board the French barque were capable of motion they might be able to make a rope fast, but after hours of such a storm, while they were lashed under the weather bulwarks, it was possible that they were almost numb and helpless. Now the boat came sweeping down by the stern of the barque; they saw her smashed rudder beating to and fro, and heard the battering-ram of the southwest seas strike on her weather side.
"Back water!" roared the skipper, for astern of them a big sea roared and began to lift a dreadful lip. They held the boat, and the 'old man' kept it straight on the roaring crest, and at that moment they were lifted high, and saw beyond the hull of the barque the white waste of driven seas. Then they went down, down, down; and when they were flung up again the skipper screamed to those on board, and as he screamed he threw the grapnel at the gear of the spanker, and as they surged past her stern the hooks caught in the bight of her loosened vangs. For all her gear was in a coil and tangle, and the topping lifts of the gaff had parted. The men backed water hard, and the boat hung half in the lee of the wreck, but dangerously near the wreck of the mizzen-topmast, which had gone at the cap and swayed in the swash of the seas. Now they saw the seamen whom they had come to save, and no man on the boat's crew could hereafter agree as to what happened or the order of events. The skipper called to the poor wretches, and one cut himself adrift and slid down the sloping deck and struck the lower rail with horrible force. They heard him squeal, and then a sea washed him over to them. He was insensible, and that was lucky, for his leg was broken. Then they made out that one of the survivors was the captain, and they saw that he was speaking, though they heard nothing. There were, it seemed, no more than ten of the crew left, for they counted ten with the one man that they had. But it seemed that they moved slow, and the sea was worse than ever. It boiled over the weather-rail and then came over green, and all the men in the boats yelled filthy oaths at the poor numb wretches, and called them horrible names. The Irishman prayed aloud to heaven and to all the saints and to the Virgin, and then cursed so awfully that the others fell into silence.
"Jump, jump!" screamed the skipper, and another man slid down the deck and came overboard for them. He went under, and got his head cut open on a swaying block, and knew nothing of it till he was dragged on board. Then he wiped the blood from his eyes and fell to weeping, whereon the swearing cockney, who had been oddly silent since his eyes had met the skipper's, cuffed him hard on the side of the head, and said, "’Old your bloody row, you bleedin' 'owler!" And then three of his mates laughed as they watched their boat and fended it off the wreck of the mizzen-mast with deadly and preoccupied energy. The cockney took out a foul handkerchief and dabbed it on the bleeding man's head, and then threw the rag at him with an oath, saying that a little blood was nothing, and that he was a blasted Dago, and, further, he'd feel sorry for him when he was on board the Ullswater. Then another man jumped and was swept under and past them, and just as he was going the skipper reached over and, grabbing him by the hair, got him on board in a state of unconsciousness. Then three of the poor fellows jumped at once, two being saved and the third never showing above the water again.
"As well now as wiv the rest of hus," said the cockney, who had give the Dago his 'wipe,' and he snivelled a little. "Hif I gets hout of this I'm for stayin' in Rovver'ive all the rest of my life."
Then they got another, and there were only the French skipper and one more man left. It was probably his mate, but he had a broken arm and moved slow. The French captain got a rope round him and slid him down to loo'ard. But when he was half-way down the old chap (he was at anyrate white-haired) lost his own hold, and came down into the swash of the lee scuppers with a run. He fell overboard, and the Irishman got him by the collar. He was lugged on board with difficulty, and lay down on the bottom boards absolutely done for. The other man didn't show up, and the men said that he must be dead. They began talking all at once, and the skipper, who was now up at the bows of the boat, turned suddenly and cuffed the Irishman hard, whereupon Mike drew his sheath-knife, saying in a squeal, "You swine, I'll kill you!" But the bo'son struck him with the loom of his oar under the jaw, and nearly broke it. He snatched his knife from him and threw it overboard.
Now they saw the Ullswater right to windward of the sinking barque, and some oil that they poured into the sea came down to them, so that the hiss of the sea was so much less that it seemed as if silence fell on them. They heard the Irishman say with difficulty as he held his jaw—
"All right, my puggy, I'll have your blood."
He had lost his oar, and the other men were wild with him. What they might have said no one knows, but the skipper turned to them, saying that he would go on board after the last man. They all said at once that he shouldn't. They gave him orders not to do it, and their eyes were wild and fierce, for they were strained and tired, and fear got hold of them, making them feel chilly in the fierce wind. They clung to the captain in their minds. If he did not come back they would never be saved, for now the boat was heavily laden. They opened their mouths and said 'Oh, please, sir,' and then he jumped overboard and went hand over hand along the grapnel line and the tangle of the vangs. They groaned, and the Irishman wagged his head savagely, though no one knew what he meant, least of all himself. They saw the 'old man' clamber on board as a big sea broke over her, and they lost sight of him in the smother of it. They sat in the heaving boat as if they were turned into stone, and then the Irishman saw something in the sea and grabbed for it. He hauled hard, and they cried out that the skipper mustn't try it again. But as the drowning man came to the surface they saw that it was not the skipper after all, but the French mate, and they said 'Oh, hell!' being of half a mind to let him go. But the bo'son screamed out something, and they hung on to a dead man's legs, for to the dead man's hands the skipper was clinging. They got him on board not quite insensible, and the Irishman fell to weeping over him.
"Oh, it's the brave bhoy you are," he said; and then the skipper came to and vomited some water.
"Hold on, what are you doin'?" he asked, as he saw the two cockneys trying to heave the dead man back in the sea. They said that he was dead. The bo'son said that the deader had only half a head, and couldn't be alive in that condition. So they let the body go, and the skipper woke right up and was a man again. They hauled up to the grapnel or near it, for they were strained enough to do foolish things. Then they saw it was silly and cut the line. They drifted to loo'ard fast, and got out into the full force of the gale, which howled horribly. They saw the Ullswater lying to under her sturdy old maintopsail, and as soon as they saw her they were seen by the second mate, who was up aloft with his coat half torn off him. To get her off before the wind quick they showed the head of the foretopmast-staysail, which was promptly blown out of the bolt ropes with a report they heard in the boat like the dull sound of a far-off gun. She squared away and came to the nor'-east, and presently was to windward of them, and in her lee they felt very warm and almost safe, though they went up to the sky like a lark and then down as if into a grave. And then they saw their shipmates' faces, and the skipper laughed oddly. The strain had told on him, as it had on all of them, not least perhaps on some of those who had not faced the greater risks. And it seemed to the skipper that there was something very absurd in Wardle's whiskers as the wind caught them and wrapped them in a kind of hairy smear across one weather-beaten cheek. All those in the boat were now quite calm; the excitement was on board the Ullswater, and when the gale let them catch a word of what the mate said, as he stood on the rail with his arm about a backstay, they caught the quality of strain.
"Ould Wardle is as fidgety as a fool," said Mike the Irishman, as he still held on to his jaw. "He'll be givin' someone the oncivil word for knockin' the oar out o' me hand."
He sat with one hand to his face, with the other, as he had turned round, he helped the bo'son.
"What about your pullin' your knife on the captain?" asked the bo'son.
Then Micky shook his head.
"Did I now? And he struck me, and he's a brave lad," he said simply. But the hook of the davit tackle dangled overhead as they were flung skyward on a sea. There were davit ropes fitted, and one slapped the Irishman across the face.
"It's in the wars I am," he said; and then there was a wind flurry that bore the Ullswater almost over on them. The way was nearly off her, and in another minute she would be drifting and coming down on them.
"Now!" screamed the skipper, and they hooked on and were hauled up and up.
"Holy Mother," said Mike, "and I'm not drowned this trip!"
The boat was hauled on board, and when the skipper's foot touched the deck he reeled. Humphries caught him.
"Oh, steady, sir," said Humphries, as Mike came up to them.
The captain stared at him, for he did not remember striking him.
"It's the brrave man you are," said Mike simply; "and you're the firrst man that I've tuk a blow from since I was the length of my arm. Oh, bhoys, it's the brrave man the skipper is."
The second mate pushed him away, and he went like a child and lent a hand to help the poor 'divils of Dagoes,' as he called those who had been saved. The mate came and shook hands with the captain. The tears ran down Wardle's hairy face, and he could not speak.
"I shall have another pair of binoculars over this," said Captain Amos Brown with quivering lips.
"You are a hero," bawled the mate as the wind roared again in a blinding squall with rain in it. The skipper flushed.
"Oh, it's nothin' this," he said. "Now in the Bay of Bengal——"
The wind took that story to loo'ard, and no one heard it. But they heard him wind up with 'gold-mounted binoculars.'
A year later he got a pair from the great French Republic. They were the first he ever got.