Early one morning, in the year 18 hundred and something, the greatSouthern Ocean was in one of its calmest moods, insomuch that thecloudlets in the blue vault above were reflected with almost perfectfidelity in the blue hemisphere below, and it was barely possible todiscern the dividing-line between water and sky.
The only objects within the circle of the horizon that presented theappearance of solidity were an albatross sailing in the air, and alittle boat floating on the sea.
The boat rested on its own reflected image, almost motionless, save whena slight undulation of the water caused the lower edge of its reflectionto break off in oily patches; but there was no dip of oars at its sides,no rowers on its thwarts, no guiding hand at the helm.
Evidently the albatross regarded the boat with curiosity not unmixedwith suspicion, for it sailed in wide circles round it, withoutstretched neck, head turned on one side, and an eye bent inquiringlydownward. By slow degrees the circles diminished, until the giant birdfloated almost directly over the boat. Then, apparently, it saw morethan enough to satisfy its curiosity, for, uttering a hoarse cry, itswooped aside, and, with a flap of its mighty wings, made off towardsthe horizon, where it finally disappeared.
The flap and the cry seemed, however, to have put life into the littleboat, for a human head rose slowly above the gunwale. It was that of ayouth, of about twenty years of age, apparently in the last stage ofexhaustion. He looked round slowly, with a dazed expression, like onewho only half awakes from sleep. Drawing his hand across his brow, andgazing wistfully on the calm sea, he rose on his knees with difficulty,and rested his arms on a thwart, while he turned his gaze with a look ofintense anxiety on the countenance of a young girl who lay in the bottomof the boat close beside him, asleep or dead.
"It looks like death," murmured the youth, as he bent over the paleface, his expression betraying sudden alarm; "and it must--it must cometo this soon; yet I cannot bear the thought. O God, spare her!"
It seemed as if the prayer were answered at once, for a fluttering sighescaped from the girl's bloodless lips, but she did not awake.
"Ah! sleep on, dear sister," said the youth, "it is all the comfort thatis left to you now. Oh for food! How often I have wasted it; thoughtlightly of it; grumbled because it was not quite to my taste! Whatwould I not give for a little of it now--a very little!"
He turned his head away from the sleeping girl, and a wolfish glareseemed to shoot from his eyes as they rested on something which lay inthe stern of the boat.
There were other human beings in that boat besides the youth and hissister--some still living, some dead, for they had been many days onshort allowance, and the last four days in a state of absolutestarvation--all, save Pauline Rigonda and her little brother Otto, whosefair curly head rested on his sister's arm.
During the last two nights, when all was still, and the starving sailorswere slumbering, or attempting to slumber, Dominick Rigonda--the youthwhom we have just introduced to the reader--had placed a small quantityof broken biscuit in the hands of his sister and little brother, with astern though whispered command to eat it secretly and in silence.
Obediently they ate, or rather devoured, their small portion, wonderingwhere their brother had found it. Perchance they might have relished itless if they had known that Dominick had saved it off his own too scantallowance, when he saw that the little store in the boat was drawing toan end--saved it in the hope of being able to prolong the lives ofPauline and Otto.
This reserve, however, had been also exhausted, and it seemed as if thelast ray of hope had vanished from Dominick's breast, on the calmmorning on which our tale opens.
As we have said, the youth glared at something lying in the stern of theboat. It was a tarpaulin, which covered a human form. Dominick knewthat it was a dead body--that of the cabin-boy, who had died during thenight with his head resting on Dominick's arm. The two men who laysleeping in the bow knew nothing of his death, and they were so weakfrom exhaustion at the time the boy died that Dominick had thought itunnecessary to rouse them. The poor boy's emaciated frame could lietill morning, he thought, and then the sleepers would assist him to putit gently into the sea.
But when morning came, the pangs of hunger assailed the self-denyingyouth with terrible power, and a horrible thought occurred to him. Heopened a large clasp-knife, and, creeping towards the body, removed thetarpaulin. A faint smile rested on the dead lips--the same smile thathad moved them when Dominick promised to carry the boy's last lovingmessage to his mother if he should survive.
He dropped the knife with a convulsive shudder, and turned his eyes onhis sleeping sister and brother. Then he thought, as he picked up theknife again, how small an amount of food would suffice to keep these twoalive for a few days longer, and surely a sail _must_ come in sight atlast; they had waited for it, expectingly, so long!
Suddenly the youth flung the knife away from him with violence, andendeavoured with all his might to lift the body of the boy. In the daysof his strength he could have raised it with one hand. Now he stroveand energised for many minutes, before he succeeded in raising it to thegunwale. At last, with a mighty effort, he thrust it overboard, and itfell into the sea with a heavy plunge.
The noise aroused the two men in the bow, who raised themselves feebly.It was to them an all too familiar sound. Day by day they had heard it,as one and another of their comrades had been committed to the deep.One of the men managed to stand up, but as he swayed about and gazed atDominick inquiringly, he lost his balance, and, being too weak torecover himself, fell over the side. He reappeared for a moment withoutstretched arms and hands clutching towards the boat. Then he sank,to be seen no more. The other man, who had been his intimate friend andmessmate, made a frantic effort to save him. His failure to do soseemed to be more than the poor fellow could bear, for he sprang up withthe wild laugh and the sudden strength of a maniac, and leaped into thesea.
Dominick could do nothing to prevent this. While staring at the littlepatch of foam where the two men had gone down, he was startled by thesound of his sister's voice.
"Are they _all_ gone, brother?" she asked, in a low, horrified tone.
"All--all, sister. Only you, and Otto, and I left. How soundly thepoor boy sleeps!"
"I wish it might please God to let him die thus," said Pauline, with aweary sigh that told eloquently of hope deferred.
"Your wish may be granted," returned Dominick, "for the dear boy seemsto be sinking. It can scarcely, I think, be natural sleep thatprevented the shout of that poor fellow from arousing him. But lie downagain, Pauline; sleep may do you a little good if you can obtain it, andI will watch."
"And pray," suggested the poor girl, as she lay down again, languidly.
"Yes, I will pray. Surely a sail must appear soon!"
Dominick Rigonda was strong in youthful hope even in that hour of soresttrial, but he was not strong in faith. He prayed, however, and foundhis faith strengthened in the act, for he looked up immediately afterwith a feeling amounting almost to certainty, that the long-expected andwished-for sail would greet his eyes. But no sail was visible in allthe unbroken circle of his horizon. Still the faith which had promptedthe eager gaze did not quite evaporate. After the first shock ofdisappointment at his prayer not being answered according to its tenor,his assurance that God would yet send relief returned in some degree,and he was not altogether disappointed, though the answer came at lastin a way that he did not expect.
After sitting in a half-sleeping condition for some time, he arousedhimself, and crept with considerable difficulty to the bow to procurethe blanket which had covered the two men who had just perished. Acorner of the blanket had caught on the end of one of the floor-planks.In disengaging it Dominick chanced to raise the plank which was loose,and observed something like a bundle lying underneath. Curiosityprompted him to examine it. He found that it was wrapped in canvas, andcarefully tied with cord. Opening it he discovered to his surprise andintense joy that it contained some ship's biscuit, a piece of boiledpork, and a flask of water.
Only those who have been suddenly presented with food and drink, whilestarving can appreciate the feelings that filled the heart of the pooryouth with laughter and thanksgiving; but his joy was not selfish, forthe prospect of immediate personal relief had but a secondary place inhis thoughts.
Hastening with the inestimable treasure to the place where his brotherand sister lay, he carefully spread it out on a piece of sailcloth, andcut a few thin slices of the pork before arousing them.
"Awake, sister, and eat!" he said at last, gently shaking Pauline by theshoulder.
"O Dominick!" she exclaimed, raising herself, and gazing eagerly at thefood. "I was dreaming of this when you awoke me!"
"That's odd, now," said little Otto, who had also been aroused, "for Iwas dreaming of eating! And I am so hung--"
He got no further, for, having clutched a handful of biscuit, hesuddenly stopped the way of utterance.
"How good of you, Dom!" said Pauline, eating with as much relish, thoughnot with such voracity, as her little brother, "Where did you get this?"
"No matter; eat and be thankful," said Dominick curtly, for he washimself eating with wolfish haste by that time. He restrained himself,however, after a few minutes.
"Hold! We must not indulge too freely. It will hurt us after fastingso long. Besides, this supply is very small, and must be made to lastas long as possible. No, my boy, you must eat no more at this time, butyou may drink a little."
About a table-spoonful of water was measured out to each, and then theremainder of the food was carefully wrapped up and put away.
"Do you think that this supply was hidden by one of the poor fellows wholeft us this morning?" asked Pauline.
"I think so; and no doubt his motive was a good one. You know he wasvery fond of his messmate. I should think he saved up his allowance tohelp him; but, whatever the motive, it has proved a blessing to us--"
He ceased speaking, for both sister and little brother had drooped theirweary heads, and were again in a heavy slumber. Dominick himself feltintensely the desire to follow their example, but he resisted it,feeling that it was his duty to watch for the long-expected sail thatnever appeared. At first his efforts were successful, but by degreesthe tendency to sleep became so overpowering that his struggles wereunavailing. Sense of duty and every other motive gave way before it;his head finally dropped forward, and, with a heavy sigh of contentment,he followed his brother and sister to the land of Nod.
Profound, prolonged, and refreshing was that sweet slumber, after thefirst good meal these poor castaways had eaten for many days. Theweather fortunately continued bright and warm, so that they did notsuffer so much from exposure as on previous days, and the gentle rockingof the boat tended to deepen and prolong their repose.
Thus they floated peacefully during the greater part of that day--theone solitary speck on the surface of the great ocean, for the albatrossseemed to have finally forsaken them.
Towards noon a light westerly breeze sprang up. It was not sufficientto raise a sea or disturb the sleepers, but, in conjunction with oceancurrents, it drifted them to the south-east at a considerable rate, sothat in the evening, without the aid of oar or sail, they were far fromthe spot upon the sea where we introduced them to the reader.
At last Dominick awoke with a long-drawn sigh, and, raising his head,looked over the side of the boat. An exclamation of surprise and joybroke from him, for there, like a speck, where something like a heavybank of clouds rested on the horizon, was the long-expected sail.
His first impulse was to awaken the sleepers, but he checked himself.He would look more carefully. His eyes might be deceiving him, and thedisappointment, if he should be mistaken, would be overwhelming. Hewould spare them that. Rising to his feet he shaded his eyes with onehand, and gazed long and earnestly.
The longer he looked, however, and the more he rubbed his eyes, the moreconvinced was he that a vessel was really in sight.
"Pauline," he said at length, with suppressed emotion, as he gentlyshook her arm, "see, God _has_ answered our prayers: a vessel is insight!"
The poor girl raised herself quickly, with an exclamation ofthankfulness, and gazed intently in the direction pointed out.
"It is, surely it is a ship," she said, "but--but--don't you think thereis something curious about its appearance?"
"I have indeed been puzzled during the last few minutes," repliedDominick. "It seems as if there were something strange under her, andher position, too, is rather odd.--Ho! Otto, rouse up, my boy, and lookat the vessel coming to save us. Your eyes are sharp! Say, d'you seeanything strange about her?"
Thus appealed to, Otto, who felt greatly refreshed by his good meal andlong sleep, sat up and also gazed at the vessel in question.
"No, Dom," he said at length; "I don't see much the matter with her,except that she leans over on one side a good deal, and there'ssomething black under and around her."
"Can it be a squall that has struck her?" said Pauline. "Squalls, youknow, make ships lie over very much at times, and cause the sea roundthem to look very dark."
"It may be so," returned Dominick doubtfully. "But we shall soon see,for a squall won't take very long to bring her down to us."
They watched the approaching vessel with intense eagerness, but did notagain speak for a considerable time. Anxiety and doubt kept themsilent. There was the danger that the vessel might fail to observethem, and as their oars had been washed away they had no means ofhoisting a flag of distress. Then there was the unaccountable somethingabout the vessel's appearance, which puzzled and filled them withuncertainty. At last they drew so near that Dominick became all toowell aware of what it was, and a sinking of the heart kept him stillsilent for a time.
"Brother," said Pauline at last in a sad voice, as she turned her darkeyes on Dominick, "I fear it is only a wreck."
"You are right," he replied gloomily; "a wreck on a barren shore, too.Not a scrap of vegetation on it, as far as I can see--a mere sandbank.Currents are carrying us towards it, and have led us to fancy that thevessel was moving."
He spoke with bitterness, for the disappointment was very great, andphysical weakness had rendered him less able to bear it than he mightotherwise have been.
"Don't get grumpy, Dom," said Otto, with a slightly humorous look thatwas peculiar to him--a look which had not lighted up his eyes for manydays past.
"I _won't_ get grumpy," returned Dominick with sudden energy, pattingthe boy's head. "It is quite clear that a good feed and a long restwere all you required to set up your plucky little spirit again."
"Dom," said Pauline, who had been looking intently at the wreck, "isthere not something like a line of white close to the wreck?"
"Ay, there is," replied Dominick, his countenance again becoming grave;"it is a line of breakers, through which it will be very difficult tosteer our little boat."
"Steer, Dom," exclaimed Otto, with a look of surprise; "how can you talkof steering at all, without oar or helm?"
"I must make one of the floor-planks do for both," returned Dominick.
"I say," continued the boy, "I'm horribly hungry. Mayn't I have just abite or two more?"
"Stay, I'm thinking," replied the other.
"Think fast then, please, for the wolf inside of me is howling."
The result of Dominick's thinking was that he resolved to consume asmuch of their stock of provisions as possible in one meal, in order tosecure all the strength that was available by such means, and thus fitthem for the coming struggle with the surf. "For," said he, "if we getcapsized far from the shore, we have no chance of reaching it byswimming in our present weak condition. Our only plan is to get up allthe strength we can by means of food. So here goes!"
He untied the bundle as he spoke, and spread the contents on his knees.Otto--who was, indeed, a plucky little fellow, and either did notrealise or did not fear the danger that lay before him--commenced to eatwith almost jovial avidity. Indeed, all three showed that they hadbenefited greatly by what they had already eaten, and now, for the firsttime during many days, consumed what they considered a full andsatisfactory meal, while they drifted slowly, but steadily, towards theland.
As they neared it, the heavy mass on the horizon, which they had takenfor a bank of clouds, became more distinct. A light haze cleared awayand showed it to be an island, to which the sandbank formed a barrierreef; but any interest that might have been aroused by this discoverywas absorbed by present anxiety, for the white and gleaming surf warnedthem that a serious and critical moment in their lives was fastapproaching. Pauline was awed into silence, and even Otto's countenancebecame gradually solemnised.