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   Chapter 19 THE LIFE-RAFT.

A Jolly Fellowship By Frank R. Stockton Characters: 14408

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


When we came out on deck, we saw in a moment that the fire was thought to be a serious affair. Men were actually at work at the boats, which hung from their davits on each side of the deck, not far from the stern. They were getting them ready to be lowered. I must confess that this seemed frightful to me. Was there really need of it?

I left our party and ran forward for a moment, to see for myself how matters were going. People were hard at work. I could hear the pumps going, and there was a great deal of smoke, which was driven back by the wind. When I reached the pilot-house and looked down on the hatchway, I saw, not only smoke coming up, but every now and then a tongue of flame. The hatch was burning away at the edges. There must be a great fire under it, I thought.

Just then the captain came rushing up from below. I caught hold of him.

"Is there danger?" I said. "What's to be done?"

He stopped for a moment.

"We must all save ourselves," he said, hurriedly. "I am going to the passengers. We can't save the ship. She's all afire below." And then he ran on.

When I got back to our group, I told them what the captain had said, and we all instantly moved toward the boat nearest to us. Rectus told me to put on my life-preserver, and he helped me fasten it. I had forgotten that I had it under my arm. Most of the passengers were at our boat, but the captain took some of them over to the other side of the deck.

When our boat was ready, there was a great scramble and rush for it. Most of the ladies were to get into this boat, and some of the officers held back the men who were crowding forward. Among the others held back were Rectus and I, and as Corny was between us, she was pushed back, too. I do not know how the boat got to the water, nor when she started down. The vessel pitched and tossed; we could not see well, for the smoke came in thick puffs over us, and I did not know that the boat was really afloat until a wave lifted it up by the side of the vessel where we stood, and I heard Mr. Chipperton call for Corny. I could see him in the stern of the boat, which was full of people.

"Here she is!" I yelled.

"Here I am, father!" cried Corny, and she ran from us to the railing.

"RECTUS HELPED ME TO FASTEN THE LIFE-PRESERVER."

"Lower her down," said Mr. Chipperton, from below. He did not seem flurried at all, but I saw that no time was to be lost, for a man was trying to cut or untie a rope which still held the boat to the steamer. Then she would be off. There was a light line on the deck near me-I had caught my foot in it, a minute before. It was strong enough to hold Corny. I got hold of one end of it and tied it around her, under her arms. She had a great shawl, as well as a life-preserver, tied around her, and looked dreadfully bundled up.

She did not say a word, but let Rectus and me do as we chose, and we got her over the railing in no time. I braced myself against the seat that ran around the deck, and lowered. Rectus leaned over and directed, holding on to the line as well. I felt strong enough to hold two of her, with the rope running over the rail. I let her go down pretty fast, for I was afraid the boat would be off; but directly Rectus called to me to stop.

"The boat isn't under her," he cried. "They've pushed off. Haul up a little! A wave nearly took her, just then!"

With that, we hauled her up a little, and almost at the same moment I saw the boat rising on a wave. By that time, it was an oar's length from the ship.

"They say they can't pull back," shouted Mr. Chipperton. "Don't let her down any further."

"All right!" I roared back at him. "We'll bring her in another boat," and I began to pull up with all my might.

Rectus took hold of the rope with me, and we soon had Corny on deck. She ran to the stern and held out her arms to the boat.

"Oh, father!" she cried. "Wait for me!"

I saw Mr. Chipperton violently addressing the men in the boat, but they had put out their oars and were beginning to pull away. I knew they would not come back, especially as they knew, of course, that there were other boats on board. Then Mr. Chipperton stood up again, put his hands to his mouth, and shouted back to us:

"Bring her-right after us. If we get-parted-meet-at Savannah!"

He was certainly one of the coolest men in the world. To think-at such a time-of appointing a place to meet! And yet it was a good idea. I believe he expected the men in his boat to row directly to the Florida coast, where they would find quick dispatch to Savannah.

Poor Corny was disconsolate, and cried bitterly. I think I heard her mother call back to her, but I am not sure about it. There was so much to see and hear. And yet I had been so busy with what I had had to do that I had seen comparatively little of what was going on around me.

One thing, however, I had noticed, and it impressed me deeply even at the time. There was none of the wailing and screaming and praying that I had supposed was always to be seen and heard at such dreadful times as this. People seemed to know that there were certain things that they had to do if they wanted to save themselves, and they went right to work and did them. And the principal thing was to get off that ship without any loss of time. Of course, it was not pleasant to be in a small boat, pitching about on those great waves, but almost anywhere was a better place than a ship on fire. I heard a lady scream once or twice, but I don't think there was much of that sort of thing. However, there might have been more of it than I thought. I was driving away at my own business.

The moment I heard the last word from Mr. Chipperton, I rushed to the other side of the deck, dragging Corny along with me. But the boat was gone from there.

I could see them pulling away some distance from the ship. It was easy to see things now, for the fire was blazing up in front. I think the vessel had been put around, for she rolled a good deal, and the smoke was not coming back over us.

I untied the line from Corny, and stood for a moment looking about me. There seemed to be no one aft but us three. We had missed both boats. Mr. Chipperton had helped his wife into the boat, and had expected to turn round and take Corny. No doubt he had told the men to be perfectly cool, and not to hurry. And while we were shouting to him and lowering Corny, the other boat had put off.

There was a little crowd of men amidships, hard at work at something. We ran there. They were launching the life-raft. The captain was among them.

"Are there no more boats?" I shouted.

He turned his head.

"What! A girl left?" he cried. "No. The fire has cut off the other boats. We must all get on the raft. Stand by with the girl, and I'll see you safe."

The life-raft was a big affair that Rectus and I had often examined. It had two long, air-tight cylinders, of iron, I suppose, kept apart by a wide framework. On this framework, between the cylinders, canvas was stretched, and on this the passengers were to sit. Of course it would be impossible to sink a thing like this.

In a very short time, the raft was lifted to the side of the vessel and

pushed overboard. It was bound to come right side up. And as soon as it was afloat, the men began to drop down on it. The captain had hold of a line that was fastened to it, and I think one of the mates had another line.

"Get down! Get down!" cried the captain to us.

I told Rectus to jump first, as the vessel rolled that way, and he landed all right, and stood up as well as he could to catch Corny. Over she went at the next roll, with a good send from me, and I came right after her. I heard the captain shout:

"All hands aboard the raft!" and then, in a minute, he jumped himself. Some of the men pushed her off with a pole. It was almost like floating right on the surface of the water, but I felt it was perfectly safe. Nothing could make those great cylinders sink. We floated away from the ship, and we were all glad enough of it, for the air was getting hot. The whole front part of the vessel was blazing away like a house on fire. I don't remember whether the engines were still working or not, but at any rate we drifted astern, and were soon at quite a little distance from the steamer.

It was safe enough, perhaps, on the raft, but it was not in the least comfortable. We were all crowded together, crouching on the canvas, and the water just swashed about us as if we were floating boards. We went up and down on the waves with a motion that wouldn't have been so bad had we not thought we might be shuffled off, if a big wave turned us over a little too much. But there were lots of things to hold on to, and we all stuck close together. We three were in the middle. The captain told us to get there. There is no way of telling how glad I was that the captain was with us. I was well satisfied, anyway, to be with the party on the raft. I might have liked it better in a boat, but I think most of the men in the boats were waiters, or stewards, or passengers-fellows who were in a hurry to get off. The officers and sailors who remained behind to do their best for the ship and the passengers were the men on the raft; and these I felt we could trust. I think there were ten of them, besides the captain, making fourteen of us in all.

There we all sat, while the ship blazed and crackled away, before us. She drifted faster than we did, and so got farther and farther away from us. The fire lighted up the sea for a good distance, and every time we rose on the top of a wave, some of us looked about to see if we could see anything of the other boats. But we saw nothing of them. Once I caught sight of a black spot on a high wave at quite a distance, which I thought might be a boat, but no one else saw it, and it was gone in an instant. The captain said it made no real difference to us whether we saw the other boats or not; they could not help us. All the help we had to expect was from some passing ship, which might see us, and pick us up. He was very encouraging, though, about this, for he said we were right in the track of vessels bound North, which all sought the Gulf Stream; and, besides, a burning ship at night would attract the attention of vessels at a great distance, and some of them would be sure to make for us.

"We'll see a sail in the morning," said he; "make up your minds to that. All we've got to do is to stick together on the raft, and we're almost sure to be picked up."

I think he said things like this to give courage to us three, but I don't believe we needed it, particularly. Rectus was very quiet, but I think that if he could have kept himself dry he would have been pretty well satisfied to float until daylight, for he had full faith in the captain, and was sure we should be picked up. I was pretty much of the same mind, but poor Corny was in a sad way. It was no comfort to her to tell her that we should be picked up, unless she could be assured that the same ship would pick up her father and mother. But we could say nothing positive about this, of course, although we did all that we could, in a general way, to make her feel that everything would turn out all right. She sat wrapped up in her shawl, and seldom said a word. But her eyes were wandering all over the waves, looking for a boat.

The ship was now quite a long way off, still burning, and lighting up the tops of the waves and the sky. Just before day-break, her light suddenly went out.

"She's gone down!" said the captain, and then he said no more for a long time. I felt very sorry for him. Even if he should be saved, he had lost his ship,-had seen it burn up and sink before his eyes. Such a thing must be pretty hard on a captain. Even I felt as if I had lost a friend. The old "Tigris" seemed so well known to us.

It was now more dismal than ever. It was darker; and although the burning ship could do us no good, we were sorry to have her leave us. Nobody said much, but we all began to feel pretty badly. Morning came slowly, and we were wet and cold, and getting stiff. Besides, we were all very thirsty, and I, for one, was hungry; but there was no good reason for that, for it was not yet breakfast-time. Fortunately, after a while, Corny went to sleep. We were very glad of it, though how she managed to sleep while the raft was rising and falling and sliding and sloshing from one wave to another, I can't tell. But she didn't have much holding on to do. We did that for her.

At last daylight came, and then we began to look about in good earnest. We saw a top-sail off on the horizon, but it was too far for our raft to be seen from it, and it might be coming our way or it might not. When we were down in the trough of the waves we could see nothing, and no one could have seen us. It was of no use to put up a signal, the captain said, until we saw a vessel near enough to see it.

We waited, and we waited, and waited, until it was well on in the morning, and still we saw no other sail. The one we had seen had disappeared entirely.

We all began to feel miserable now. We were weak and cold and wretched. There wasn't a thing to eat or drink on the raft. The fire had given no time to get anything. Some of the men began to grumble. It would have been better, they said, to have started off as soon as they found out the fire, and have had time to put something to eat and drink on the raft. It was all wasted time to try to save the ship. It did no good, after all. The captain said nothing to this. He knew that he had done his duty in trying to put out the fire, and he just kept his mouth shut, and looked out for a sail. There was one man with us-a red-faced, yellow-haired man-with a curly beard, and little gold rings in his ears. He looked more like a sailor than any other of the men, and Rectus and I always put him down for the sailor who had been longer at sea, and knew more about ships and sailing, than any other of the crew. But this man was the worst grumbler of the lot, now, and we altered our opinion about him.

Corny woke up every now and then, but she soon went to sleep again, when she found there was no boat or sail in sight. At least, I thought she went to sleep, but she might have been thinking and crying. She was so crouched up that we could not see whether she was awake or not.

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