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Blown to Bits; or, The Lonely Man of Rakata

Blown to Bits; or, The Lonely Man of Rakata

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Blown to bits; bits so inconceivably, so ineffably, so "microscopically" small that--but let us not anticipate. About the darkest hour of a very dark night, in the year 1883, a large brig lay becalmed on the Indian Ocean, not far from that region of the Eastern world which is...
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  Blown to bits; bits so inconceivably, so ineffably, so "microscopically"small that--but let us not anticipate.

  About the darkest hour of a very dark night, in the year 1883, a largebrig lay becalmed on the Indian Ocean, not far from that region of theEastern world which is associated in some minds with spices, volcanoes,coffee, and piratical junks, namely, the Malay Archipelago.

  Two men slowly paced the brig's quarter-deck for some time in silence,as if the elemental quietude which prevailed above and below hadinfected them. Both men were broad, and apparently strong. One of themwas tall; the other short. More than this the feeble light of thebinnacle-lamp failed to reveal.

  "Father," said the tall man to the short one, "I do like to hear thegentle pattering of the reef points on the sails; it is so suggestive ofpeace and rest. Doesn't it strike you so?"

  "Can't say it does, lad," replied the short man, in a voice which,naturally mellow and hearty, had been rendered nautically harsh andgruff by years of persistent roaring in the teeth of wind and weather."More suggestive to me of lost time and lee-way."

  The son laughed lightly, a pleasant, kindly, soft laugh, in keeping withthe scene and hour.

  "Why, father," he resumed after a brief pause, "you are so sternlypractical that you drive all the sentiment out of a fellow. I had almostrisen to the regions of poetry just now, under the pleasant influencesof nature."

  "Glad I got hold of 'ee, lad, before you rose," growled the captain ofthe brig--for such the short man was. "When a young fellow like you getsup into the clouds o' poetry, he's like a man in a balloon--scarce knowshow he got there; doesn't know very well how he's to get down, an' hasno more idea where he's goin' to, or what he's drivin' at, than the manin the moon. Take my advice, lad, an' get out o' poetical regions asfast as ye can. It don't suit a young fellow who has got to do duty asfirst mate of his father's brig and push his way in the world as aseaman. When I sent you to school an' made you a far better scholar thanmyself, I had no notion they was goin' to teach you poetry."

  The captain delivered the last word with an emphasis which was meant toconvey the idea of profound but not ill-natured scorn.

  "Why, father," returned the young man, in a tone which plainly told of agleeful laugh within him, which was as yet restrained, "it was notschool that put poetry into me--if indeed there be any in me at all."

  "What was it, then?"

  "It was mother," returned the youth, promptly, "and surely you don'tobject to poetry in _her_."

  "Object!" cried the captain, as though speaking in the teeth of aNor'wester. "Of course not. But then, Nigel, poetry in your mother _is_poetry, an' she can _do_ it, lad--screeds of it--equal to anything thatDibdin, or, or,--that other fellow, you know, I forget his name--everput pen to--why, your mother is herself a poem! neatly made up, roundedoff at the corners, French-polished and all shipshape. Ha! you needn'tgo an' shelter yourself under _her_ wings, wi' your inflated, up in theclouds, reef-point-patterin', balloon-like nonsense."

  "Well, well, father, don't get so hot about it; I won't offend again.Besides, I'm quite content to take a very low place so long as you givemother her right position. We won't disagree about that, but I suspectthat we differ considerably about the other matter you mentioned."

  "What other matter?" demanded the sire.

  "My doing duty as first mate," answered the son. "It must be quiteevident to you by this time, I should think, that I am not cut out for asailor. After all your trouble, and my own efforts during this longvoyage round the Cape, I'm no better than an amateur. I told you that ayouth taken fresh from college, without any previous experience of thesea except in boats, could not be licked into shape in so short a time.It is absurd to call me first mate of the _Sunshine_. That is in realityMr. Moor's position--"

  "No, it isn't, Nigel, my son," interrupted the captain, firmly. "Mr.Moor is _second_ mate. _I_ say so, an' if I, the skipper and owner o'this brig, don't know it, I'd like to know who does! Now, look here,lad. You've always had a bad habit of underratin' yourself an'contradictin' your father. I'm an old salt, you know, an' I tell 'eethat for the time you've bin at sea, an' the opportunities you've had,you're a sort o' walkin' miracle. You're no more an ammytoor than I am,and another voyage or two will make you quite fit to work your way allover the ocean, an' finally to take command o' this here brig, an' letyour old father stay at home wi'--wi'--"

  "With the Poetess," suggested Nigel.

  "Just so--wi' the equal o' Dibdin, not to mention the other fellow. Nowit seems to me--. How's 'er head?"

  The captain suddenly changed the subject here.

  Nigel, who chanced to be standing next the binnacle, stooped to examinethe compass, and the flood of light from its lamp revealed a smooth butmanly and handsome face which seemed quite to harmonise with the cheeryvoice that belonged to it.

  "Nor'-east-and-by-east," he said.

  "Are 'ee sure, lad?"

  "Your doubting me, father, does not correspond with your latelyexpressed opinion of my seamanship; does it?"

  "Let me see," returned the captain, taking no notice of the remark, andstooping to look at the compass with a critical eye.

  The flood of light, in this case, revealed a visage in which good-naturehad evidently struggled for years against the virulent opposition ofwind and weather, and had come off victorious, though not withoutevidences of the conflict. At the same time it revealed features similarto those of the son, though somewhat rugged and red, besides beingsmothered in hair.

  "Vulcan must be concoctin' a new brew," he muttered, as he gazedinquiringly over the bow, "or he's stirring up an old one."

  "What d' you mean, father?"

  "I mean that there's somethin' goin' on there-away--in the neighbourhoodo' Sunda Straits," answered the Captain, directing attention to thatpoint of the compass towards which the ship's head was turned. "Darknesslike this don't happen without a cause. I've had some experience o' themseas before now, an' depend upon it that Vulcan is stirring up some o'the fires that are always blazin' away, more or less, around the StraitsSettlements."

  "By which you mean, I suppose, that one of the numerous volcanoes in theMalay Archipelago has become active," said Nigel; "but are we not somefive or six hundred miles to the sou'-west of Sunda? Surely theinfluence of volcanic action could scarcely reach so far."

  "So far!" repeated the captain, with a sort of humph which was meant toindicate mild contempt; "that shows how little you know, with all yourbook-learnin', about volcanoes."

  "I don't profess to know much, father," retorted Nigel in a tone ofcheery defiance.

  "Why, boy," continued the other, resuming his perambulation of the deck,"explosions have sometimes been heard for hundreds, ay _hundreds_, ofmiles. I thought I heard one just now, but no doubt the unusualdarkness works up my imagination and makes me suspicious, for it'swonderful what fools the imag--. Hallo! D'ee feel _that_?"

  He went smartly towards the binnacle-light, as he spoke, and, holding anarm close to it, found that his sleeve was sprinkled with a thin coatingof fine dust.

  "Didn't I say so?" he exclaimed in some excitement, as he ran to thecabin skylight and glanced earnestly at the barometer. That glancecaused him to shout a sudden order to take in all sail. At the samemoment a sigh of wind swept over the sleeping sea as if the storm-fiendwere expressing regret at having been so promptly discovered and met.

  Seamen are well used to sudden danger--especially in equatorialseas--and to prompt, unquestioning action. Not many minutes elapsedbefore the _Sunshine_ was under the smallest amount of sail she couldcarry. Even before this had been well accomplished a stiff breeze wastearing up the surface of the sea into wild foam, which a furious galesoon raised into raging billows.

  The storm came from the Sunda Straits about which the captain and hisson had just been talking, and was so violent that they could do nothingbut scud before it under almost bare poles. All that night it raged.Towards morning it increased to such a pitch that one of the back-staysof the foremast gave way. The result was that the additional strain thusthrown on the other stays was too much for them. They also parted, andthe fore-top-mast, snapping short off with a report like a cannon-shot,went over the side, carrying the main-topgallant-mast and all its gearalong with it.