The Jungle Fugitives/An Heroic Woman
AN HEROIC WOMAN.
Every boy and girl should learn to swim. When one recalls how easily the art is acquired, and the many occasions that are liable to arise, we cannot but wonder that the accomplishment is so universally neglected by the other sex. It is pleasant to note, however, that swimming is growing to be popular among women, and the day is not far distant, when the majority of young ladies will become the rivals of their brothers in their ability to keep their heads above water.
Torres Strait separates Australia from Papua or New Guinea; and connects the Arafura Sea on the west, with the Coral Sea on the east. Its current is swift and the waters from time immemorial have been dangerous to navigation. It has been the scene of many shipwrecks, and it is only a few months since that the steamer Quetta was lost in those waters. One hundred and sixteen persons perished on that terrible night in the South Pacific, but among the survivors was Miss Lacy, whose experience was not only among the most interesting and thrilling ever recorded, but emphasizes the statement we have made at the opening of our sketch.
Miss Lacy says she was sitting in the saloon, engaged in writing a letter, the other ladies practicing for a concert which it was intended to give on shipboard. Everything was going along, merrily, and all were in high spirits, when, without the least warning, they were startled by a harsh, grating noise, the steamer rocked violently, and nearly every one was thrown into the wildest panic.
The confusion and shouts above showed that some fearful disaster had occurred. Instantly Miss Lacy made a rush for the deck to learn what it meant. Quick as were her movements, she found the ship was already sinking. Going aft was like climbing a steep hill, but she saw that one portion was high above water, and she struggled bravely to reach it. But, so rapidly did the Quetta go down that she had hardly gone forward, when the steamer was swallowed up in the furious waters.
That which followed is beyond description. In an instant, two hundred human beings were struggling frantically, shrieking in their terror for the help which was nowhere to be found, clutching each other, praying and drowning by the score.
Miss Lacy was caught in this fearful swirl, and was in imminent danger of being dragged down by those around her, who were crazed by the one wild, despairing hope of saving themselves, no matter at what cost. But she was a powerful swimmer, and retaining her self-command, she shook herself free of several who attempted to cling to her. The whirlpool caused by the sinking of the steamer pulled her beneath the water, but, with the same wonderful presence of mind she had shown from the first, she fought her way to the surface, and swam from the dangerous spot.
Finding herself her own mistress, and fully aware that her life now depended on her ability to swim, she removed all her superfluous clothing and moved hither and thither in the darkness, in the hope of coming upon some of the survivors.
It was about midnight, that she heard some one shout. The gloom was too powerful for her to distinguish anything, but she swam toward the point, whence the call issued, and came upon a raft, that had been hastily thrown together by the chief officer of the Quetta. Several persons were clinging to it, and she accepted the invitation to avail herself of the temporary refuge and give her weary limbs a rest.
The dismal hours wore slowly away, and at last the growing light in the eastern sky told that the longed-for day was breaking. As soon as the rays of the sun illumined the wild waste of waters, every eye scanned the ocean in quest of some sail; but on every side was the vast heavy sea, with no sign of life except on the little raft. It was water, water everywhere, with not a drop to drink nor a morsel of food to eat, and with no prospect of escaping a lingering death of the most distressing nature.
The discouraging feature of the situation to Miss Lacy was that their rude support was making no progress at all. They had no means of propelling it, and, had they possessed such means, no one knew what course to follow. It looked as if days and nights must be passed on the raft, until one by one the survivors succumbed or ended their sufferings by plunging into the sea which they had striven so hard to escape.
Far away, however, on the verge of the horizon, an object rose dimly to view, which, after carefully studying for some time, the shipwrecked people agreed was a small island, but, as we have stated, they were powerless to propel their craft thither, and could only gaze and sigh for the refuge that was as much beyond their reach, as though it were a thousand leagues distant.
"I am going to swim to it!" exclaimed Miss Lacy.
"Are you mad?" demanded the astonished chief-officer; "it is utterly impossible."
"I prefer to risk it rather than remain here."
"But it is much further off than it seems to be; these waters are full of sharks and you will never live to swim half the distance. Dismiss the idea at once."
And the brave woman took a header into the sea, and with a long graceful stroke, that compelled the admiration of every one of the amazed survivors, began swimming toward the supposed refuge.
But the chief-officer knew more about the difficulties in her way than she did. She grievously miscalculated the distance, and, though she was a swimmer of amazing skill and endurance, she began to believe she had undertaken a task beyond her power of accomplishment.
She swam directly toward the island, husbanding her strength like a wise person, but making steady progress, until before the afternoon was half gone, she knew she had placed many a long mile behind her. When she looked back she could see nothing of the raft and her friends, but as she rose on the crest of an immense swell, she plainly discerned the island. It still was in the verge of the horizon, and it was hard for her to see that she was apparently no nearer to it than when she started.
Besides this alarming fact, she was threatened by a still greater peril. As the chief-officer had warned her, the waters abounded with sharks, of the man-eating species, who were liable to dart forward and seize her at any moment; but, in recalling her extraordinary experience, Miss Lacy says that at no time did she feel any fear of them. She knew they were liable to discover her at any moment, but they did not, and fortunately indeed she escaped their ferocious jaws.
Her greatest suffering was from the blazing sun, whose rays shot downward upon her head with pitiless power. When she found her brain growing dizzy, she averted the danger of sunstroke by dropping or swimming for some distance below the surface. This always cooled or refreshed her, though she felt her face and neck blistering under the fierce rays.
In striving to recall her experience, Miss Lacy is unable to remember a large portion of the time she spent in the water. She believes she slept for several hours. What an extraordinary situation! Alone in the midst of the vast strait in the southern Pacific, surrounded by sharks, with no friendly sail in sight, and yet slumbering and unconscious.
Of course she was not swimming all this time. When she found herself growing weary, she floated on her back for long periods, then propelled herself first upon one side and then upon the other, and all the time the dim misty object in the distance remained as far away as ever. Finally, when she raised her head and looked for it, she was dismayed at being unable to detect it at all. It had vanished.
Then she knew that it had been an optical delusion from the first. There was no island or land in sight. She was alone on the vast deep. But the heroic woman did not despair. After she had been in the water twenty hours altogether, and was in the last stage of exhaustion, she was picked up by a boat belonging to the search steamer Albatross. For several hours succeeding her rescue she was delirious, but it was not long before she was entirely herself, having given a signal proof of the value of swimming as a lady's accomplishment.