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The Battle and the Breeze

The Battle and the Breeze

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Bill Bowls was the most amiable, gentle, kindly, and modest fellow that ever trod the deck of a man-of-war. He was also one of the most lion-hearted men in the Navy...
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  Bill Bowls was the most amiable, gentle, kindly, and modest fellow thatever trod the deck of a man-of-war. He was also one of the mostlion-hearted men in the Navy.

  When Bill was a baby--a round-faced, large-eyed, fat-legged baby, asunlike to the bronzed, whiskered, strapping seaman who went by the nameof "Fighting Bill" as a jackdaw is to a marlinespike--when Bill was ababy, his father used to say he was just cut out for a sailor; and hewas right, for the urchin was overflowing with vigour and muscularenergy. He was utterly reckless, and very earnest--we might almost say_desperately_ earnest. Whatever he undertook to do he did "with awill." He spoke with a will, listened with a will, laughed, yelled,ate, slept, wrought, and fought with a will. In short, he was asplendid little fellow, and therefore, as his father wisely said, wasjust cut out for a sailor.

  Bill seemed to hold the same opinion, for he took to the water quitenaturally from the very commencement of life. He laughed with glee whenhis mother used to put him into the washtub, and howled with rage whenshe took him out. Dancing bareheaded under heavy rain was his delight,wading in ponds and rivers was his common practice, and tumbling intodeep pools was his most ordinary mishap. No wonder, then, that Billlearned at an early age to swim, and also to fear nothing whatever,except a blowing-up from his father. He feared that, but he did notoften get it, because, although full of mischief as an egg is full ofmeat, he was good-humoured and bidable, and, like all lion-heartedfellows, he had little or no malice in him.

  He began his professional career very early in life. When in afteryears he talked to his comrades on this subject, he used to say--

  "Yes, mates, I did begin to study navigation w'en I was about two foothigh--more or less--an' I tell 'e what it is, there's nothin' liketakin' old Father Time by the forelock. I was about four year old whenI took my first start in the nautical way; and p'r'aps ye won't believeit, but it's a fact, I launched my first ship myself; owned her;commanded and navigated her, and was wrecked on my first voyage. Ithappened this way; my father was a mill-wright, he was, and lived near asmall lake, where I used to splutter about a good deal. One day I gothold of a big plank, launched it after half an hour o' the hardest workI ever had, got on it with a bit of broken palm for an oar, an' shovedoff into deep water. It was a splendid burst! Away I went with myheart in my mouth and my feet in the water tryin' to steady myself, butas ill luck would have it, just as I had got my ship on an even keel an'was beginnin' to dip my oar with great caution, a squall came down thelake, caught me on the starboard quarter, and threw me on my beam-ends.Of coorse I went sowse into the water, and had only time to give out oneawful yell when the water shut me up. Fortnitly my father heard me;jumped in and pulled me out, but instead of kicking me or blowin' me up,he told me that I should have kept my weather-eye open an' met thesquall head to wind. Then he got hold of the plank and made me try itagain, and didn't leave me till I was able to paddle about on that plankalmost as well as any Eskimo in his skin canoe. My good old dadfinished the lesson by tellin' me to keep always _in shoal water till Icould swim_, and to look out for squalls in future! It was lucky for methat I had learned to obey him, for many a time I was capsized afterthat, when nobody was near me, but bein' always in shoal water, Imanaged to scramble ashore."

  As Bill Bowls began life so he continued it. He went to sea in goodearnest when quite a boy and spent his first years in the coastingtrade, in which rough service he became a thorough seaman, and waswrecked several times on various parts of our stormy shores. Onreaching man's estate he turned a longing eye to foreign lands, and incourse of time visited some of the most distant parts of the globe, sothat he may be said to have been a great traveller before his whiskerswere darker than a lady's eyebrows.

  During these voyages, as a matter of course, he experienced greatvariety of fortune. He had faced the wildest of storms, and bathed inthe beams of the brightest sunshine. He was as familiar with wreck aswith rations; every species of nautical disaster had befallen him;typhoons, cyclones, and simooms had done their worst to him, but theycould not kill him, for Bill bore a sort of charmed life, and invariablyturned up again, no matter how many of his shipmates went down. Despitethe rough experiences of his career he was as fresh and good-looking ayoung fellow as one would wish to see.

  Before proceeding with the narrative of his life, we shall give just onespecimen of his experiences while he was in the merchant service.

  Having joined a ship bound for China, he set sail with the proverbiallight heart and light pair of breeches, to which we may add lightpockets. His heart soon became somewhat heavier when he discovered thathis captain was a tyrant, whose chief joy appeared to consist in makingother people miserable. Bill Bowls's nature, however was adaptable, sothat although his spirits were a little subdued, they were not crushed.He was wont to console himself, and his comrades, with the remark thatthis state of things couldn't last for ever, that the voyage would cometo an end some time or other, and that men should never say die as longas there remained a shot in the locker!

  That voyage did come to an end much sooner than he or the tyrannicalcaptain expected!

  One evening our hero stood near the binnacle talking to the steersman, asturdy middle-aged sailor, whose breadth appeared to be nearly equal tohis length.

  "Tom Riggles," said Bill, somewhat abruptly, "we're goin' to have dirtyweather."

  "That's so, lad, I'm not goin' to deny it," replied Tom, as he turnedthe wheel a little to windward:

  Most landsmen would have supposed that Bill's remark should have been,"We _have_ got dirty weather," for at the time he spoke the good shipwas bending down before a stiff breeze, which caused the dark sea todash over her bulwarks and sweep the decks continually, while thickclouds, the colour of pea-soup, were scudding across the sky; butseafaring men spoke of it as a "capful of wind," and Bill's remark wasfounded on the fact that, for an hour past, the gale had beenincreasing, and the appearance of sea and sky was becoming morethreatening.

  That night the captain stood for hours holding on to the weather-shroudsof the mizzen-mast without uttering a word to any one, except that nowand then, at long intervals, he asked the steersman how the ship's headlay. Dark although the sky was, it did not seem so threatening as didthe countenance of the man who commanded the vessel.

  Already the ship was scudding before the wind, with only the smallestrag of canvas hoisted, yet she rose on the great waves and plunged madlyinto the hollows between with a violence that almost tore the masts outof her. The chief-mate stood by the wheel assisting the steersman; thecrew clustered on the starboard side of the forecastle, casting uneasyglances now at the chaos of foaming water ahead, and then at the face oftheir captain, which was occasionally seen in the pale light of a straymoonbeam. In ordinary circumstances these men would have smiled at thestorm, but they had unusual cause for anxiety at that time, for theyknew that the captain was a drunkard, and, from the short experiencethey had already had of him, they feared that he was not capable ofmanaging the ship.

  "Had we not better keep her a point more to the south'ard, sir?" saidthe mate to the captain, respectfully touching his cap; "reefs are saidto be numerous here about."

  "No, Mister Wilson," answered the captain, with the gruff air of a manwho assumes and asserts that he knows what he is about, and does notwant advice.

  "Keep her a point to the west," he added, turning to the steersman.

  There was a cry at that moment--a cry such as might have chilled theblood in the stoutest heart--

  "Rocks ahead!"

  "Port! port! hard-a-port!" shouted the men. Their hoarse voices roseabove the gale, but not above the terrible roar of the surf, which nowmingled with the din of the storm.

  The order was repeated by the mate, who sprang to the wheel and assistedin obeying it. Round came the gallant ship with a magnificent sweep,and in another moment she would have been head to wind, when a suddensquall burst upon her broadside and threw her on her beam-ends.

  When this happened the mate sprang to the companion-hatch to get an axe,intending to cut the weather-shrouds so that the masts might gooverboard and allow the ship to right herself, for, as she then lay, thewater was pouring into her. Tom Riggles was, when she heeled over,thrown violently against the mate, and both men rolled to leeward. Thisaccident was the means of saving them for the time, for just then themizzen rigging gave way, the mast snapped across, and the captain andsome of the men who had been hastening aft were swept with the wreckinto the sea.

  A few minutes elapsed ere Tom and the mate gained a place of partialsecurity on the poop. The scene that met their gaze there was terriblebeyond description. Not far ahead the sea roared in irresistible furyon a reef of rocks, towards which the ship was slowly drifting. Thelight of the moon was just sufficient to show that a few of the men werestill clinging to the rail of the forecastle, and that the rigging ofthe main and foremasts still held fast.

  "Have you got the hatchet yet?" asked Tom of the mate, who clung to abelaying-pin close behind him.

  "Ay, but what matters it whether we strike the rocks on our beam-ends oran even keel?"

  The mate spoke in the tones of a man who desperately dares the fatewhich he cannot avoid.

  "Here! let me have it!" cried Tom.

  He seized the hatchet as he spoke and clambered to the gangway. A fewstrokes sufficed to cut the overstrained ropes, and the mainmast snappedoff with a loud report, and the ship slowly righted.

  "Hold on!" shouted Tom to a man who appeared to be slipping off thebulwarks into the sea.

  As no reply was given, the sailor boldly leapt forward, caught the manby the collar, and dragged him into a position of safety.

  "Why, Bill, my boy, is't you?" exclaimed the worthy man in a tone ofsurprise, as he looked at the face of our hero, who lay on the deck athis feet; but poor Bill made no reply, and it was not until a glass ofrum had been poured down his throat by his deliverer that he began torecover.

  Several of the crew who had clung to different parts of the wreck nowcame aft one by one, until most of the survivors were grouped togethernear the wheel, awaiting in silence the shock which they knew mustinevitably take place in the course of a few minutes, for the ship,having righted, now drifted with greater rapidity to her doom.

  It was an awful moment for these miserable men! If they could have onlyvented their feelings in vigorous action it would have been some relief,but this was impossible, for wave after wave washed over the stern andswept the decks, obliging them to hold on for their lives.

  At last the shock came. With a terrible crash the good ship struck andrecoiled, quivering in every plank. On the back of another wave she waslifted up, and again cast on the cruel rocks. There was a sound ofrending wood and snapping cordage, and next moment the foremast was inthe sea, tossing violently, and beating against the ship's side, towhich it was still attached by part of the rigging. Three of the menwho had clung to the shrouds of the foremast were swept overboard anddrowned. Once more the wreck recoiled, rose again on a towering billow,and was launched on the rocks with such violence that she was forcedforward and upwards several yards, and remained fixed.

  Slight although this change was for the better, it sufficed to infusehope into the hearts of the hitherto despairing sailors. The dread ofbeing instantly dashed to pieces was removed, and with one consent theyscrambled to the bow to see if there was any chance of reaching theshore.

  Clinging to the fore-part of the ship they found the cook, a negro,whose right arm supported the insensible form of a woman--the only womanon board that ship. She was the wife of the carpenter. Her husband hadbeen among the first of those who were swept overboard and drowned.

  "Hold on to her, massa," exclaimed the cook; "my arm a'most brok."

  The mate, to whom he appealed, at once grasped the woman, and was aboutto attempt to drag her under the lee of the caboose, when the vesselslipped off the rocks into the sea, parted amidships, and was instantlyoverwhelmed.

  For some minutes Bill Bowls struggled powerfully to gain the shore, butthe force of the boiling water was such that he was as helpless as if hehad been a mere infant; his strength, great though it was, began tofail; several severe blows that he received from portions of the wrecknearly stunned him, and he felt the stupor that preceded deathoverpowering him, when he was providentially cast upon a ledge of rock.Against the same ledge most of his shipmates were dashed by the wavesand killed, but he was thrown upon it softly. Retaining sufficientreason to realise his position, he clambered further up the rocks, anduttered an earnest "Thank God!" as he fell down exhausted beyond thereach of the angry waves.

  Soon, however, his energies began to revive, and his first impulse, whenthought and strength returned, was to rise and stagger down to therocks, to assist if possible, any of his shipmates who might have beencast ashore. He found only one, who was lying in a state ofinsensibility on a little strip of sand. The waves had just cast himthere, and another towering billow approached, which would infalliblyhave washed him away, had not Bill rushed forward and dragged him out ofdanger.

  It proved to be his friend Tom Riggles. Finding that he was not quitedead, Bill set to work with all his energy to revive him, and was sosuccessful that in half-an-hour the sturdy seaman was enabled to sit upand gaze round him with the stupid expression of a tipsy man.

  "Come, cheer up," said Bill, clapping him on the back; "you'll be allright in a short while."

  "Wot's to do?" said Tom, staring at his rescuer.

  "You're all right," repeated Bill. "One good turn deserves another,Tom. You saved my life a few minutes ago, and now I've hauled you outo' the water, old boy."

  The sailor's faculties seemed to return quickly on hearing this. Heendeavoured to rise, exclaiming--

  "Any more saved?"

  "I fear not," answered Bill sadly, shaking his head.

  "Let's go see," cried Tom, staggering along the beach in search of hisshipmates; but none were found; all had perished, and their bodies wereswept away far from the spot where the ship had met her doom.

  At daybreak it was discovered that the ship had struck on a low rockyislet on which there was little or no vegetation. Here for three weeksthe two shipwrecked sailors lived in great privation, exposed to theinclemency of the weather, and subsisting chiefly on shell-fish. Theyhad almost given way to despair, when a passing vessel observed them,took them off, and conveyed them in safety to their native land.

  Such was one of the incidents in our hero's career.