Gordon Stables.

Courage, True Hearts: Sailing in Search of Fortune



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BOOK III. IN THE LAND OF THE NUGGET AND DIAMOND

CHAPTER I. – SHIPWRECK ON A LONELY ISLE

This book opens amidst scenery far different indeed from that which I had to describe in my last.

I should like the reader to bear in mind that my youthful heroes were very far indeed from being mercenary, and were just at that age, when wild adventure appeals to the heart of a young fellow who has any spark of manhood in his composition.

Certainly they had sailed in search of fortune, but it was not on their own account they were seeking for wealth, as I have endeavoured to show.

Well, even already, they had been fairly fortunate. They had not buried their talents in the earth, nor in the ocean either, and at the Cape of Good Hope their cargo brought them in so much, that the fortunes of all who had a share in the ship was not only doubled but tripled.

They had, immediately after clearing out, employed a gang of heathens, as Morgan always called people with dark skins, to thoroughly scour and disinfect the ship. They had been employed for days at the work, under the lash of a ganger, the ganger himself being under the watchful eye of Morgan the first mate.

And so the work was perfectly done.

Then fresh and cleanly cargo was laid in, which would doubtless fetch a big price in the London market. This consisted of wool, firmly bound and packed into small compass; ostrich feathers, and wine, to say nothing of curios. They did not quite fill up, however, hoping to make even better bargains up the coast.

And so they did, especially as regards ostrich feathers, gum copal, pepper, nutmegs and arrow-root.

They called at Zanzibar, one of the strangest cities on earth, and here, while the Flora M'Vayne lay quietly at anchor in the beautiful open roadstead, where floated ships bearing the ensigns of at least half a dozen different nations, the boys went on shore, taking Vike with them, and enjoyed most thoroughly not only rambles through the crowded streets, but out in the beautiful bush, where they could revel in the rarest and most delicious fruits the world can grow.

I need but mention mangoes, guavas, and cocoa-nuts, to say nothing of huge pine-apples, with the tropical sun-tints on their rough but shining rinds, and perfume as sweet even as their luscious taste and flavour.

But here were no wild adventures, so that the lads were not sorry when the anchor was once more weighed, and the ship far away on the heaving sea.

It was the captain's intention to be towed through the canal, but lo! and alas! from the very first day of their leaving Zanzibar misfortune attended them.

One of these terrible circular storms, all too common in the Indian Ocean, and called typhoons, came roaring down upon them with scarcely a minute's warning.

The higher sails were blown into ribbons, the topgallant masts carried away, and the gallant ship thrown so much on her beam-ends, that the water came over the lee rails.

She righted again, it is true.

And speedily too; and now like some living frightened creature she literally flew before the fearful storm.

As speedily as possible the sails that were not split were taken in. This was a very dangerous employment, and one poor fellow was blown off the yardarm.

Nicholson was his name, and he was a powerful swimmer, but useful though this art of swimming is, what could it avail him in a sea like that!

For just a moment or two his brave and handsome face was seen among the surf in the wake.

He waved his hand once, as if bidding his comrades all adieu, then sank to rise no more.

As a rule, circular storms do not last for a very long time, and a good sailor like Talbot knows how to manoeuvre his ship so as to get clear as speedily as possible; but this typhoon ended in a gale, which in force was quite a hurricane.

And this kept on for several days.

The last night was the worst. About six o'clock in the evening the sun went down in a brassy haze, behind the foam-crested turmoil of waves; and the wind seemed still on the increase.

Not a star to-night.

It was pitchy dark, for the horizon was close aboard of the storm-tormented ship, and the clouds may have been half a mile in depth. There were two men at the wheel, and those who had to keep watch were fain to lash themselves to rigging or shrouds.

But keeping watch is here but a figure of speech. What watch could be kept in a dark so dark? There was no thunder that could be heard, but the occasional flashes of lightning that dazzled the eyes one moment only rendered the darkness more intense the next.

It must have been about four bells in the first watch, and those in the saloon were trying to obtain a kind of scrambling supper. Old Pen had come aft, and Vike was here too. Both knew that to-night there was danger on the deep.

Suddenly there came a shout from those on deck, this was followed by a crashing sound like the splintering of masts, a loud grating noise, and then all motion ceased.

"We are doomed, boys, but we must still continue to have faith in our heavenly Father."

"Do you think, sir," faltered Frank, "that-that we are wrecked?"

"We are driven on shore, lad, but where, it is impossible to say."

The ship was already battened down, so that, although the seas were making a clean breach over her, there was no immediate danger.

The mate found his way below.

His oil-skins were glittering with water, and his red face dripping too.

He shook the drops from his brown beard and sat down, with a strange uneasy kind of smile on his face.

"Not much to be done, is there, Morgan?"

"Nothing," replied the mate. "Seems to me we've just got to sit here and wait for death."

"Is that the view you take?"

A terrible wave at that moment dashed over the vessel, shaking her from stern to stem.

"Hark, sir! Isn't that the view you take?"

"While there is life there is hope, my friend."

The mate laughed half scornfully.

"There won't be much of either half an hour after this," he said solemnly.

The captain now essayed to go on deck. He ventured forward only a step or two. To have come farther would have been sheer madness.

Morgan was right. They had only to wait for death.

Wait and pray, however.

Ah, yes! for God the Lord is everywhere, on sea as well as on the dry land, and prayer is never denied us.

Morgan's half-hour was past, and another to that; still the sturdy ship gave no signs of breaking up.

On the contrary, the wind had gone down considerably, and the seas as well.

"Mate," said Talbot.

"Yes, sir."

"Are the men below?"

"Three, I think, were washed away; the rest are all in the galley or half-deck."

"It is very dreadful. But we have hope now. An hour ago I should not have ventured to serve out grog, lest in despair some might have broken into the spirit-hold. Come with me now, mate, and we will splice the main-brace. Come, steward, you know what is wanted."

It was very difficult even yet to get forward, so covered was the deck with wreckage. But they succeeded at last.

Sad, indeed, was the sight that dawn revealed.

The mizzen-mast alone was left standing, the fore and main having gone by the board.

The ship herself had been carried by a huge tidal wave, right in between two high volcanic-looking rocks, and there so jammed that at low tide it was perfectly possible to walk under keel.

Jibboom and bowsprit were also smashed, and a single glance at the ship would have told even a landsman that she was doomed.

Nor would it be safe even to remain on board, for at any time she might slide backwards and lie on the shingle beneath, broadside up.

Talbot was no pessimist.

"Thank God, boys," he said, "that our lives have been spared."

"Amen!" was said by all around, and that, too, with both reverence and fervour.

But the wind had fallen almost to a dead calm, and there was not a sound to be heard except the rustle of the shingle as it was hurled upon the beach by each advancing wavelet, and sucked back by the next.

"Now, men," cried the captain, "we'll go to breakfast at once, and then make all speed to land the cargo and stores. This island is evidently uninhabited, and it may be many a long day, indeed, before we are discovered and able to get away."

On the shore side, and between the rocks, was a green bank, and into this the shattered bowsprit had been thrust. So that to make a rough bridge from the fo'c's'le to the shore was a very simple matter.

There were still thirty men left as crew all told of the unfortunate Flora, not to mention Johnnie Shingles, Viking, and Old Pen, neither of whose names were borne on the ship's books.

But with such hearty good-will did the men work that before sunset, not only had they erected a huge marquee with spare spars, the wreck of the masts and sails, but had got a very large quantity of the most valuable stores on shore.

It was a strange island indeed, and evidently of volcanic origin. Not very large, probably not six miles in circumference altogether. It was well wooded, though the trees were by no means high, and in the centre was a beautiful circular lake, in which a lovely little island-grove seemed to float or to hang.

Work was resumed next day, and the men now set themselves to build two strong, substantial, living huts, a big and a smaller, with a rough but dry shed for the stores and cargo, not forgetting the balloon and the varied apparatus for inflating it.

It took them a whole week and a day to get everything snug and comfortable; and all this time it continued calm.

But never a boat nor dhow was to be seen from the outlook. The last was simply a spare spar of considerable height, with rigging thereto. It was, moreover, a flagstaff by day and a beacon by night. But I may state at once that this uninhabited isle being fully two hundred miles from the mainland shore, and quite out of the way of any kind of commerce, licit or illicit, there was but small chance of any signal being seen.

What made the situation more desperate was the fact that not a boat had been left, all were smashed and washed away; three having gone before the vessel struck.

But the greatest misfortune of all was the almost complete destruction of the donkey-engine, so that it would be impossible to distil water.

They managed to save enough, however, to last for fully three weeks with economy, and as Talbot said, there was no saying what might not occur before then.

This water was carefully stored in casks, placed in sheltered corners, and raised on stones to defend them against the ravages of the terrible white ant.

A more terrible scourge than these Termitid?constitute, it would be difficult to conceive. What makes it more serious, is that they work completely concealed-in galleries, that is. And so thin is the outer shell of wood which they leave that their presence is not suspected until the whole of some structure-and this may be of any size, from a wine-box to a building, – suddenly gives way.

These white ants once, to my knowledge, attacked a library of books which had not been used for some time. They were evidently fonder of reading than the townspeople. We talk of devouring a favourite author. Well, in the case in point these terribleTermitid? devoured their authors in a far more literal sense, and fairly ate them up, but they left the bindings all intact, so that when a volume was pulled out one day it turned Dead Sea fruit, and fell to dust in the librarian's hands. Then, and not till then, was the whole extent of the mischief discovered.

Our little shipwrecked colony now settled down to wait and watch.

There was but little else to do.

They lived in hope, however, and day after day many a straining eye was turned seawards, to seek for the sail that never appeared, and the last thing at night which Talbot or the boys did was to walk around the edges of the cliffs, in the expectation of seeing some mast-head light.

A fire was ready at a moment's notice to light as a signal, but alas! it was not required.

They had yet to find out, however, what these ants were capable of.

It was the water they dreaded most to lose. Without this they must soon sink and perish.

Just one fearful accident I must here record, though I have no intention to pile up horrors.

But in the expectation of rain one night a huge piece of waterproof canvas was spread, or rather hung, by the four corners between as many trees, hammock fashion.

The rain did come.

Water from the casks was at this time served out only in small quantities, so that the poor mariners were already suffering greatly from thirst. They were overjoyed, therefore, to find their great hammock almost full next morning.

They drank greedily of the apparently pure liquid, although some averred that it tasted bitter.

Alas! it was poisoned!

For in about half an hour afterwards the men were suffering the most excruciating agony.

Luckily, none of the officers had partaken of this water, which must have been poisoned by the copper or some other chemical, with which the canvas had been treated, to render it waterproof.

Before night, although Talbot gave everyone emetics of strong mustard and water, treating them afterwards with wine and spirits, no fewer than four poor fellows were dead. The others got better, but continued weak and ill for weeks.

CHAPTER II. – A WEARY TIME

Yes, it was indeed a weary time that succeeded the alarming news brought one morning to Captain Talbot. For when the steward went to draw water from a cask, he found the wooden tap leaking, and naturally endeavoured to send it home a little. At the very moment he did so the whole collapsed, and the remains of the ant-eaten staves floated away in dust or little else.

All the other casks were found to be in the same condition, so that the mariners had nothing now to fall back upon except a kind of artificial rain-water well, which they had found on the surface of a rock, and this was most carefully covered over to prevent its evaporation by the rays of the sun.

What a terrible outlook! And no signs were there of further rain, not even the tiniest cloud.

Well might they pray for rain now as did the prophet of old, for if it fell not soon, sad indeed must be the fate of all.

The captain and first mate now held a consultation, and that night it was decided that they should endeavour to build a boat of some kind, and therein sail for the distant mainland.

Pity it was they had not thought of this sooner, for in two hours after the decision had been arrived at, another circular storm arose. Such storms in the Indian Ocean are not infrequent, and terrible they are while they rage.

Rain fell at first and at the latter part of it, otherwise it was a burning hot wind, that caused one to choke and gasp for breath. Nostrils and lips became dry, the mouth parched, and the eyes were like coals of fire beneath their lids.

On this occasion the sea rose higher than it had done before.

A huge ocean bore, that could be seen even in the uncertain light of the stars, came roaring on towards the rocks, and the spray dashed high over the camp.

Next morning not a timber of the unfortunate Flora M'Vayne was to be seen. She had been sucked backwards with that great tidal wave, and was engulfed in the deeper water farther out.

As ill-luck would have it, most of the carpenter's tools had been left on board, for until the storm came on-when they had to rush on shore for dear life's sake-the men had been busy cutting out pieces of plank with which to fashion a boat.

There was not the slightest chance of building such a thing now, and the water grew scarcer and scarcer.

A raft was then thought of, but in the weakened condition of the men for want of water it would take a long time to build.

 
"There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! A weary time!
How glazed each weary eye!"
 

Once more fell rain. Once more the little rocky tank, which was always left exposed at night, was filled, and once again the men's eyes brightened.

During the gale of wind that had resulted in the wreck of the Flora M'Vayne, the poor monkey had been washed overboard, but old Pen was still here, and so, too, was honest Vike.

They had suffered as much from the want of water as anyone, but to the credit of our heroes be it told, they received their daily water ration.

Old Pen used to waltz with joy when he had taken a drink, but Vike was less demonstrative, only he never failed to lick the hand with loving tongue that served the water out.

But hope rose higher now. That water would last for weeks-would last, perhaps, till water came again. Hope rose to a pitch of excitement that no one who has never known shipwreck, or never known what it is to float a mere hulk upon a breezeless sea, can form any conception of, when, just as the sun leapt red and fiery above the main next morning, a steamer was observed but a few miles away in the west. God! how the men rushed to the cliff edge, and how wildly they waved their arms, their coats, and shouted. Shouted and shouted until every tongue

 
"Seemed withered at the root;
And they could not speak, no more than if
They had been choked with soot".
 

But all in vain!

The ship passed on.

"They cannot have seen us! They cannot have seen us! Lower the flag to half-mast. Light the fire; they will see the smoke."

All this was done.

All this was done in vain. There was not breeze enough to float the flag.

The fire, too, was a failure. No smoke arose, for the flames licked it up.

No wonder the men gazed after the retreating vessel with weary, weary eyes.

Oh, cruel, cruel, to desert us so!

This was all anyone could say.

And now Duncan bethought him of the balloon.

Surely there was some hope left in that.

As they sat under the shade of some dwarf and straggling trees, our three younger heroes, with Captain Talbot and Morgan, they seriously reviewed the whole question of their situation. Not only Duncan, but even Conal and Frank had become somewhat more earnest in their manner of late. Their sufferings had sobered them.

"Boats, and even a raft, are denied us," said Duncan, "and ships do not come."

"No," answered Talbot; "and yet some British cruiser, or even an Arab dhow, is bound to come this way before very long."

"It is just that which I greatly doubt, sir," said Morgan. "We seem to be landed at the back of the north wind, and out of the way of everything."

"But the balloon," continued Duncan. "I and Conal-"

"And I," interrupted the Cockney boy.

"Well, and you if the balloon is strong enough."

"It would carry you all, and a horse besides," said the skipper with just the ghost of a smile.

"Well, we should ascend until we found a wind to carry us towards the mainland, where we could descend and find assistance."

"It is a forlorn hope, Duncan."

"Seems to me, though, that it is our last chance," said Morgan. "The water can't last long. What if it rains no more for months. All that could ever be found of us in that case would be our skeletons bleaching in the sun."

"Not so pessimistic, please, Morgan. I still have hope in God. If it be His will to help us we shall be rescued. If not, it is our duty to submit."

Truly a brave man was Talbot.

And the merchant-service has many a thousand such, who, without doubt, will be of infinite service to their country in our day of direst need-when wild war comes,

 
"In a fostering power, while Jack puts his trust
As fortune comes-smiling he'll hail her,
Resign'd still, and manly, since what must be must;
And this is the mind of a sailor."
 

Talbot arose at last.

"I cannot go," he said, almost solemnly, after gazing for over a minute at the blue above and the blue below, the sky without a cloud, the sea without a ripple. "For weal or for woe, boys, I must stay with my men. Now am I resigned. I will pray for you, lads, and so shall we all."

"But," he added, "serve out some water and a modicum of wine. God bless our poor fellows yonder, for their conduct and discipline have been splendid. Many men in their hopeless condition would have broken into the spirit stores and died maudlin drunk, or murderously mad."

The men quickly came to the call of "All hands!" and just as quickly Talbot explained the position, and told them what the three youngsters proposed doing. The cheer that followed his words was not a lusty one, but it was very sincere.

And now, though with no nervous haste, the work of arranging and inflating the balloon was commenced and for some days steadily proceeded with.

On the third day dark clouds came sweeping down, and a thunder-storm broke over the island. What a God-send! Somewhat unusual, too, for the time of year. Not only was the rocky tank filled with water and rapidly-melting hail, but many hollows elsewhere, and every drop was precious.

Compared with Andr?e's great Arctic balloon, theHope, as Talbot's had been named, was quite a baby, but it was strong enough for anything, and could have supported and carried far more than they needed for weeks together.

Long before this, Talbot had instructed his youngsters in the art of managing a balloon, and now there was little more for them to learn on this score.

The inflation was completed at last. The net, a very strong one, was in its place. The car attached, and the splendid ball dragged impatiently at her moorings, as if longing to soar away into freedom.



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