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   Chapter 14 A WRECK IN THE NORTH SEA.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 11439

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


One December afternoon in the year 1875, just as night was closing in,

the steam-tug Liverpool, which had left Harwich at six o'clock in the

morning, was seen steaming into the harbour with flag half-mast high.

It was quite dark when she reached the quay, but there was light

enough for the crowd collected to see rows of figures laid in the

stern of the little steamer, the faces covered with blankets. These

figures, as it presently was made known, were twelve dead bodies, the

flotsam of the wreck of the Deutschland. When the tug arrived at the

wreck she found her much as she had been left when the survivors had

been brought off the previous day. The two masts and the funnel were

all standing, the sails bellied out with the wind that blustered across

the sandbank. The wind was so high and the sea so rough that Captain

Corrington could not bring his tug alongside; but a boat was launched,

under the charge of the chief mate and Captain Brickerstein, of the

Deutschland. The chief officer and the engineer, with some sailors

from the tug, rowed out and made fast to the wreck. It was low water,

and the deck was dry. There were no bodies lying about the deck or near

the ship; but on going below, in the saloon cabin there were found

floating about eight women, a man, and two children. These were taken

on board the boat, and further search in the fore-cabin led to the

discovery of the dead body of a man, making twelve in all. One of the

bodies was that of a lady who, when the wreck was first boarded, had

been seen lying in her berth. She had since been washed out, and had

she floated out by the companion-way or through the skylight might

have drifted out to sea with others. Like all the bodies found, she

was fully dressed. Indeed, as fuller information showed, there was an

interval between the striking of the ship and her becoming water-logged

sufficiently long to enable all to prepare for what might follow.

According to the captain's narrative, the ill-fated vessel steamed out

of Bremenhaven on Sunday morning with a strong east wind blowing and

snow falling thickly. This continued throughout Sunday. All Sunday night

the lead was thrown every half-hour, the last record showing seventeen

fathoms of water. At four o'clock on Monday morning a light was seen,

which the captain believed to be that of the North Hinderfire ship, a

supposition which tallied with the reckoning. The vessel was forging

slowly ahead, when, at half-past five, a slight shock was felt. This

was immediately succeeded by others, and the captain knew he had run

on a bank. The order was passed to back the engines. This was

immediately done, but before any way could be made the screw broke

and the ship lay at the mercy of wind and waves. She was bumping

heavily, and it was thought if sail were set she might be carried

over the bank. This was tried, but without effect. The captain then

ordered rockets to be sent up and a gun fired.

In the meantime the boats were ordered to be swung out, but the sea was

running so high that it was felt it would be madness to launch them. Two

boats were, however, lowered without orders, one being immediately

swamped, and six people who had got into her swept into the sea.

Life-preservers were served out to each passenger. The women were

ordered to keep below in the saloon, and the men marshalled on deck to

take turns at the pumps. At night, when the tide rose, the women were

brought up out of the cabin; some placed in the wheel-house, some on the

bridge, and some on the rigging, where they remained till they were

taken off by the tug that first came to the rescue of the hopeless folk.

The whole of the mail was saved, the purser bringing it into the cabin,

whence it was fished out and taken on board the tug.

The passengers were all in bed when the ship struck, and were roused

first by the bumping of the hull, and next by the cry that rang fore and

aft for every man and woman to put on life-belts, of which there was a

plentiful store in hand. The women jumped up and swarmed in the

companion-way of the saloon, making for the deck, where they were met by

the stewardess, who stood in the way, and half forced, half persuaded

them to go back, telling them there was no danger. After the screw had

broken, the engines also failed, and the sails proved useless.

The male passengers then cheerfully formed themselves into gangs and

worked at the pumps, but, as one said, they "were pumping at the North

Sea," and as it was obviously impossible to make a clearance of that,

the task was abandoned, and officers, crew, and passengers relapsed into

a state of passive expectancy of succour from without. That this could

not long be coming happily seemed certain. The rockets which had been

sent up had been answered from the shore. The lightship which had helped

to mislead the captain was plainly visible, and at least two ships

sailed by so near that till they began hopelessly to fade away, one to

the northward and the other to the southward, the passengers were sure

those on board had seen the wreck, and were coming to their assistance.

Perhaps it was this certainty of the nearness of succour that kept off

either the shrieking or the stupor of despair. However that be, it is

one of the most notable features about this fearful scene that, with a

few exceptions, after the first shock everybody was throughout the first

day wonderfully cool, patient, and self-possessed. There was no regular

meal on Monday, but there was plen

ty to eat and drink, and the

opportunity seems to have been generally, though moderately, improved.

The women kept below all day, and, while the fires were going, were

served with hot soup, meat, bread, and wine, and seemed to have been

inclined to make the best of a bad job.

Towards night the horror of the situation increased in a measure far

beyond that marked by the darkness. All day long the sea had been

washing over the ship, but by taking refuge in the berths and on the

tables and benches in the saloon it had been possible to keep

comparatively dry. As night fell the tide rose, and at midnight the

water came rushing over the deck in huge volumes, filling the saloon,

and making the cabins floating coffins. The women were ordered up and

instructed to take to the rigging, but many of them, cowed by the

wildness of the sea that now swept the deck fore and aft, and shuddering

before the fury of the pitiless, sleet-laden gale, refused to leave the

saloon.

Then happened horrible scenes which the pen refuses to portray in their

fulness. One woman, driven mad with fear and despair, deliberately hung

herself from the roof of the saloon. A man, taking out his penknife, dug

it into his wrist and worked it about as long as he had strength, dying

where he fell. Another, incoherently calling on the wife and child he

had left in Germany, rushed about with a bottle in his hand frantically

shouting for paper and pencil. Somebody gave him both, and, scribbling a

note, he corked it down in a bottle and threw it overboard, following it

himself a moment later as a great wave came and swept him out of sight.

There were five nuns on board who, by their terror-stricken conduct,

seem to have added greatly to the weirdness of the scene. They were deaf

to all entreaties to leave the saloon, and when, almost by main force,

the stewardess (whose conduct throughout was plucky) managed to get them

on to the companion-ladder, they sank down on the steps and stubbornly

refused to go another step. They seemed to have returned to the saloon

again shortly, for somewhere in the dead of the night, when the greater

part of the crew and passengers were in the rigging, one was seen with

her body half through the skylight, crying aloud in a voice heard above

the storm, "Oh, my God, make it quick! make it quick!" At daylight, when

the tide had ebbed, leaving the deck clear, some one from the rigging

went down, and, looking into the cabin, saw the nuns floating about face

upwards, all dead.

There seems to have been a wonderful amount of unselfishness displayed,

everybody cheering and trying to help every other body. One of the

passengers--a cheery Teuton, named Adolph Herrmann--took a young

American lady under his special charge. He helped her up the rigging

and held her on there all through the night, and says she was as

brave and as self-possessed as if they had been comfortably on shore.

Some time during the night an unknown friend passed down to him a

bottle of whisky. The cork was in the bottle, and as he was holding

on to the rigging with one hand and had the other round the lady,

there was some difficulty in getting at the contents of the bottle.

This he finally solved by knocking the neck off, and then found

himself in the dilemma of not being able to get the bottle to the

lady's mouth.

"You are pouring it down my neck," was her quiet response to his first

essay. In the end he succeeded in aiming the whisky in the right

direction, and after taking some himself, passed it on, feeling much

refreshed.

Just before a terrible accident occurred, which threatened death to

one or both. The purser, who had fixed himself in the rigging some

yards above them, getting numbed, loosed his hold, and falling headlong

struck against the lady and bounded off into the sea. But Herrmann kept

his hold, and the shock was scarcely noticed. On such a night all the

obligations were not, as Herrmann gratefully acknowledges, on the one

side; for when one of his feet got numbed, his companion, following his

direction, stamped on it till circulation was restored.

From their perilous post, with waves occasionally dashing up and

blinding them with spray, they saw some terrible scenes below. A man

tied to the mast nearer the deck had his head cut off by the waves,

as Herrmann says, though probably a rope or a loose spar was the agent.

Not far off, a little boy had his leg broken in the same manner. They

could hear and see one of the nuns shrieking through the skylight, and

when she was silenced the cry was taken up by a woman wailing from

the wheelhouse,--

"My child is drowned, my little one, Adam!"

At daylight a sailor, running nimbly down the rigging, reached the poop,

and, bending over, attempted to seize some of the half-drowned people

who were floating about. Once he caught a little child by the clothes;

but before he could secure it a wave carried it out of his grasp, and

its shrieks were hushed in the roar of the waters. At nine o'clock, on

the second morning of the wreck the tide had so far ebbed that the deck

was clear, and, coming down from the rigging, the battered and shivering

survivors began to think of getting breakfast. A provident sailor had,

whilst it was possible, taken up aloft a couple of loaves of black

bread, a ham, and some cheese. These were now brought out and fairly

distributed.

An hour and a half later all peril was over, and the gallant survivors

were steaming for Harwich in the tug-boat Liverpool.

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