Charles Dickens.

A message from the sea : The extra Christmas number of All the year round online

. (page 9 of 12)
Online LibraryCharles DickensA message from the sea : The extra Christmas number of All the year round → online text (page 9 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of his eyes and the sides of his mouth, if he could
have had a pound apiece in his pocket for every
one of them, he might have retired from busi-
ness from that time forth. Judging by certain
signs in his face, and by a suspicious morning-
tremble in his hands, I set him down, in my
own mind (rightly enough, as it afterwards
turned out), for a drinker. In one word, I didn't
like the looks of the new supercargo and, on
the first day when I got on deck, I found that
he had reasons of his own for paying me back
in my own coin, and not liking my looks, either.

"I've been asking the captain about you,"
were his first words to me in return for my
civilly wishing him good morning. "Your
name's Raybrock, I hear. Are you any relation
to the late Hugh Raybrock, of Barnstaple,
Devonshire ?"

"Rather a near relation," I made answer.
" I am the late Hugh Raybrock's eldest son."

There was no telling how his eyes looked,
because they were hidden by his blue spectacles
but I saw him wince at the mouth, when I
gave him that reply.

" Your father ended by failing in business,
didn't he?" was the next question the super-
cargo put to me.

" Who told you he failed ?" I asked, sharply

" Oh ! I heard it," says Mr. Lawrence Clis-
sold, both looking and speaking as if he was
glad to have heard it, and he hoped it was true.

" Whoever told you my father failed in busi-
ness, told you a lie," I said. " His business
fell off towards the last years of his life I don't
deny it. But every creditor he had was honestly
paid at his death, without so much as touching
the provision left for his widow and children.
Please to mention that, next lime you hear it
reported that my father tailed in business."

Mr. Clissold grinned to himself and I lost
my temper.

" I'll tell you what," I said to him, "I don't
like your laughing to yourself, when I ask you
to do justice to my father's memory and, what
is more, I didn't like the way you mentioned
that report of his failing in business, just now.
You looked as if you hoped it was true."

" Perhaps I did," says Mr. Clissold, coolly.
" Shall I tell you why ? When I was a young
man, I was unlucky enough to owe your father
some money. He was a merciless creditor;

and he threatened me with a prison, if the debt
remained unpaid on the day when it was due.
I have never forgotten that circumstance ; and
I should certainly not have been sorry if your
father's creditors had given him a lesson in for-
bearance, by treating him as harshly as he once
treated me."

" My father had a right to ask for his own,"
I broke out. "If you owed him the money and
didn't pay it "

" I never told you I didn't pay it," says Mr.
Clissold, as coolly as ever.

" Well, if you did pay it," I put in, " then,
you didn't go to prison and you have no cause
of complaint now. My father wronged nobody ;
and I won't believe he ever wronged you. He
was a just man in all his dealings ; and whoever
tells me to the contrary !"

"That will do," says Mr. Clissold, backing
away to the cabin stairs. " You seem to have
not quite got over your fever yet. '11 leave
you to air yourself in the sea-breezes, Mr.
Second Mate; and I'll receive your excuses
when you are cool enough to make them."

" It is a son's business to defend his father's
character," I answered ; " and, cool or hot, I'll
leave the ship sooner than ask your pardon for
doing my duty !"

"You will leave the ship," says the super-
cargo, quietly going down into the cabin. " You
will leave at the next port, if I have any interest
with the captain."

That was how Mr. Clissold and I scraped
acquaintance on the first day when we met to-
gether ! And as we began, so we went on to
the end. But, though he persecuted me in
almost every other way, he did not anger me
again about father's affairs : he seemed to have
dropped talking of them at once and for ever.
On my side I nevertheless bore in mind what
he had said to me, and determined, if I got
home safe, to go to the lawyer at Barnstaple
who keeps father's old books and letters for us,
and see what information they might give on
the subject of Mr. Lawrence Clissold. I, my-
self, had never heard his name mentioned at
home father (as you know, Alfred) being al-
ways close about business-matters, and mother
never troubling him with idle questions about
his affairs. But it was likely enough that he
and Mr. Clissold might have been concerned
in money-matters, in past years, and that Mr.
Clissold might have tried to cheat him, and
failed. I rather hoped it might prove to be
so -for the truth is, the supercargo provoked
me past all endurance; and I hated him as
heartily as he hated me.

All this while the ship was making such a
speedy voyage down the coast, that we began
to think we were carrying back with us the fine
weather we had brought out. But, on nearing
Cape Horn, the signs and tokens appeared
which told us that our run of lack was at an
end. Down went the barometer, lower and
lower ; and up got the wind, in the northerly
quarter, higher and higher. This happened to-
wards nightfall and at daybreak next day, we

36 [December 13, 1*60.]


[Conducted by

found ourselves forced to lay-to. It blew all
that day and all that night ; towards noon the
next day, it lulled a little, and we made sail
again. But at sunset, the heavens grew blacker
than ever ; and the wind returned upon us with
double and treble fury. The Peruvian was a
fine stout roomy ship, but the unhandiest vessel
at laying-to I ever sailed in. After taking tons
of water on board and losing our best boat, we
had nothing left for it but to turn tail, and scud
for our lives. For the next three days and
nights \ve ran before the wind. The gale mo-
derated more than once in that time ; but there
was such a sea on, that we durstn't heave the
ship to. From the beginning of the gale none
of us officers had a chance of taking any ob-
servations. We only knew that the wind was
driving us as hard as we could go in a southerly
direction, and that we were by this time hun-
dreds of miles out of the ordinary course of
ships in doubling the Cape.

On the third night or rather, I should say,
early on the fourth morning I went below,
dead beat, to get a little rest, leaving the vessel
in charge of " the captain and the first mate.
The night was then pitch-black it was raining,
hailing, and sleeting, all at once and the Pe-
ruvian was wallowing in the frightful seas, as if
she meant to roll tne masts out of her. I
tumbled into bed the instant my wet oilskins
were off my back, and slept as only a man can
who lays himself down dead boat.

I was woke how long afterwards I don't
know by being pitched clean out of my berth
on to the cabin floor ; and, at the same moment,
I heard the crash of the ship's timbers, forward,
which told me it was all over with us.

Though bruised and shaken by my fall, I was
on deck directly. Before I had taken two steps
forward, the Peruvian forged ahead on the send
of the sea, swung round a little, and struck
heavily at the bows for the second time. The
shrouds of the foremast cracked one after
another, like pistol-shots ; and the mast went
overboard. I next felt our people go tearing
past me, in the black darkness, to the lee-side
of the vessel ; and I knew that, in their last
extremity, they were taking to the boats. I say
I felt them go past me, because the roaring of
the sea and the howling of the wind deafened
me, on deck, as completely as the darkness
blinded me. I myself no more believed the
boats would live in the sea, than I believed the
ship would hold together on the reef but, as
the rest were running the risk, I made up my
miud to run it with them.

But before I followed the crew to leeward, I
went below again for a minute not to save
money or clothes, for, with death staring me in
the face, neither were of any account, now
but to get my little writing-case which mother
had given me at parting. A curl of Margaret's
hair was in the pocket inside it, with all the
letters she had sent me when I had been away
on other voyages. If I saved anything I was
resolved to save this and if I died, 1 woulc
die with it about me.

My locker was jammed with the wrenching
f the ship, and had to be broken open. I was,
maybe, longer over this job than I myself sup-
posed. At any rate, when I got on deck again
with my case in my breast, it was useless calling,
and useless groping about. The largest of the
;wo boats, when I felt for it, was gone ; and
every soul on board was beyond a doubt gone
with her.

Before I had time to think, I was thrown off
my feet, by another sea coming on board, and a
p'eat heave of the vessel, which drove her
'arther over the reef, and canted the after-part
of her up like the roof of a house. In that
position the stern stuck, wedged fast into the
rocks beneath, while the fore-part of the ship
was all to pieces and down under water. If the
after-part kept the place it was now jammed in,
till daylight, there might be a chance but if
the sea wrenched it out from between the rocks,
there was an end of me. After straining my
eyes to discover if there was land beyond the
reef, and seeing nothing but the flash of the
breakers, like white fire in the darkness, I crawled
below again to the shelter of the cabin stairs,
and waited for death or daylight.

As the morning hours wore on, the weather
moderated again ; and the after-part of the
vessel, though shaken often, was not shaken
out of its place. A little before dawn, the
winds and the waves, though fierce enough still,
allowed me, at last, to hear something besides
themselves. What I did hear, crouched up in
my dark corner, was a heavy thumping and
grinding, every now and then, against the side
of the ship to windward. Day broke soon
afterwards ; and, when I climbed to the deck,
I clawed my way up to windward first, to see
what the noise was caused by.

My first look over the bulwark showed me
that it was caused by the boat which my un-
fortunate brother-officers and the crew had
launched and gone away in when the ship
struck. The boat was bottom upwards, thump-
ing against the ship's side on the lift of the sea.
I wanted no second look at it to tell me that
every mother's son of them was drowned.

The main and mizen masts still stood. I got
into the mizen rigging, to look out next to
leeward and there, in the blessed daylight, I
saw a low, green, rocky little island, lying away
beyond the reef, barely a mile distant from the
ship ! My life began to look of some small
value to me again, when I saw land. I got
higher up in the rigging to note how the cur-
rent set, and where there might be a passage
through the reef. The ship had driven over the
rocks through the worst of the surf, and the sea
between myself and the island, though angry
and broken in places, was not too high for a
lost man like me to venture on provided I
could launch the last, and smallest, boat still
left in the vessel. I noted carefully the like-
liest-looking channel for trying the experiment,
and then got down on deck again to see what I
could do, first of all, with the boat.

At the moment when my feet touched the

Charleg Dickens.]


{December 13, I860.] 37

deck, I heard a dull knocking and ba&gingjust

under them, in the region of the cabin. When
the sound first reached my ears, I got such a
shock of surprise that I could neither move nor
speak. It had never yet crossed my mind that
a single soul was left in the vessel besides
myself but now, there was something in the
knocking noise which started the horje in me
that I was not alone. I shook myself up, and
got down below directly.

The noise came from inside one of the sleep-
ing berths, on the far side of the main cabin;
the door of which was jammed, no doubt, just
as my locker had been jammed, by the wrench-
ing of the ship. " Who's there ?" I called out.
A faint, muffled kind of voice answered some-
thing through the air-grating in the upper part
of the door. I got up on the overthrown cabin
furniture; and, looking in through the trellis-
work of the grating, found myself face to face
with the blue spectacles of Mr. Lawrence Clis-
sold, looking out !

God forgive me for thinking it but there
was not a man in the vessel I wouldn't sooner
have found alive in her than Mr. Clissold ! Of
all that ship's company, we two, who were least
friendly together, were the only two saved.

I had a better chance of breaking out the
jammed door from the main cabin, than he had
from the berth inside ; and in less than five
minutes he was set free. I had smelt spirits
already through the air-grating and now, when
he and I stood face to face, I saw what the
smell meant. There was an open case of spirits
by the bedside two of the bottles out of it
were lyin^ broken on the floor and Mr. Clis-
sold was drunk.

" What's the matter with the ship ?" says he,
looking fierce, and speaking thick.

" You shall see for yourself," says I. With
which words I took hold of him, and pulled him
after me up the cabin stairs. I reckoned on the
sight that would meet him, when he first looked
over the deck, to sober his drunken brains and
I reckoned right : he fell on his knees, stock-
still and speechless as if he was turned to

1 lashed him up safe to the cabin rail, and
left it to the air to bring him round. He had,
likely enough, been drinking in the sleeping
berth for days together for none of us, as I
now remembered, had seen him since the gale
set in and even if he had had sense enough to
try to get out, or to call for help, when the ship
struck, he would not have made himself heard
in the noise and confusion of that awful time.
But for the lull in the weather, I should not
have heard him myself, when he attempted to
get free in the morning. Enemy of mine as he
was, he had a pair of arms and he was worth
untold gold, in my situation, for that reason.
With the help I could make him give me, there
was no doubt now about launching the boat.
In half an hour I had the means ready for
trying the experiment; and Mr. Clissold was
sober enough to see that his life depended on his
doing what I told him.

The sky looked angry still there was no
opening anywhere and the clouds were slowly
banking up again to windward. The supercargo
knew what I meant when I pointed that way,
and worked with a will when I gave him the
word. I had previously stowed away in tho
boat such stores of meat, biscuit, and fresh water
as I could readily lay hands on ; together with a
compass, a lantern, a few candles, and some
boxes of matches in my pocket, to kindle light
and fire with. At the last moment, I thought
of a gun and some powder and shot. The
powder and shot I found, and an old flint
pocket-pistol in the captain's cabin with
which, for fear of wasting precious time, I was
forced to be content. 'The pistol lay on the top
of the medicine-chest and I took that also,
finding it handy, and not knowing but what it
might be of use. Having made these prepara-
tions, we launched the boat, down the steep of
the deck, into the water over the forward part
of the ship which was sunk. I took the oars,
ordering Mr. Clissold to sit still in the stern-
sheets and pulled for the island.

It was neck or nothing with us more than
once, before we were two hundred yards from
the ship. Luckilv, the supercargo was used to
boats ; and muddled as he still was, he had
sense enough to sit quiet. We found our way
into the smooth channel which I hati noted from,
the mizen rigging after which, it was easy
enough to get ashore.

We landed on a little sandy creek. From the
time of our leaving the ship, the supercargo had
not spoken a word to me, nor I to him. I now
told him to lend a hand in getting the stores out
of the boat, and in helping me to carry them to
the first sheltered place we could find in shore
on the island. He shook himself up with a
sulky look at me, and did as I had bidden him.
We found a little dip or dell in the ground, after
getting up the low sides of the island, whicli
was sheltered to windward and here I left him.
to stow away the stores, while I walked farther
on, to survey the place.

According to the hasty judgment I formed at
the time, the island was not a mile across, and
not much more than three miles round. I noted
nothing in the way of food but a few wild roots
and vegetables, growing in ragged patches amidst
the thick scrub which covered the place. There
was not a tree on it anywhere ; nor any living
creatures ; nor any signs of fresh water that I
could see. Standing on the highest ground, I
looked about anxiously for other islands that
might be inhabited ; there were none visible
at least none in the hazy state of the heavens
that morning. When I fairly discovered what
a desert the place was ; when I remembered
how far it lay out of the track of ships; and
when I thought of the small store of provisions
which we had brought with us, the doubt lest
we might only have changed the chance of death
by drowning for the chance of death by starva-
tion was so strong in me, that I determined to
go back to the boat, with the desperate notion
of making another trip to the vessel for water

38 [December 13, I860.]


[Conducted by

and food. I say desperate, because the clouds
to windward were banking up blacker and higher
every minute, the wind was freshening already,
and there was every sign of the storm coming
on again wilder and fiercer than ever.

Mr. Clissold, when I passed him on my way
back to the beach, had got the stores pretty
tidy, covered with the tarpaulin which I had
thrown over them in the bottom of the boat.
Just as I looked down at him in the hollow, I
saw him take a bottle of spirits out of the pocket
of his pilot-coat. He must have stowed the
bottle away there, as I suppose, while I was
breaking open the door of his berth. " You'll
be drowned, and I shall have double allowance
to live upon here," was all he said to me, when
he heard I was going back to the ship. " Yes !
and die, in your turn, when you've got through
it," says I, going away to the boat. It's shock-
ing to think of now but we couldn't be civil to
each other, even on the first day when we were
wrecked together !

Having previously stripped to my trousers, in
case of accident, I now pulled out. On getting
from the channel into the broken water again, I
looked over my shoulder to windward, and saw
that I was too late. It was coming ! the ship
was hidden already in the horrible haze of it. I
got the boat's head round to pull back and I
did pull back, just inside the opening in the reef
which made the mouth of the channel when
the storm came down on me like death and
judgment. The boat filled in an instant ; and I
was tossed head over heels into the water. The
sea, which burst into raging surf upon the rocks
on either side, rushed in one great roller up the
deep channel between them, and took me with
it. If the undertow, afterwards, had lasted for
half a minute, I should have been carried into
the white water, and lost. But a second roller
followed the first, almost on the instant, and
swept me right up on the beach. I had just
strength enough to dig my arms and legs well
into the wet sand ; and though I was taken back
with the backward shift of it, I was not taken
into deep water again. Before the third roller
came, I was out of its reach, and was down in a
sort of swoon, on the dry sand.

When I got back to the hollow, in shore, where
I had left my clothes under shelter with the
stores, I found Mr. Clissold snugly crouched
up, in the driest place, with the tarpaulin to
cover him. " Oh !" says he, in a state of great
surprise, "you're not drowned?" "No," says
I; "you won't get your double allowance, after
all." " How much shall I get ?" says he, rousing
up and looking anxious. " Your fair half share
oi what is here," I answered him. " And how
long will that last me ?" says he. " The food,
if you have sense enough to eke it out with what
you may find in this miserable place, barely three
weeks," says I ; " and the water (if you ever
drink any) about a fortnight." At hearing that,
he took the bottle out of his pocket again, and
put it to his lips. "I'm cold to the bones,"
says I, frowning at him for a drop. " And I'm
warm to the marrow," says he, chuckling, and

handing me the bottle empty. I pitched it
away at onceor the temptation to break it
over his head might have been too much for me
I pitched it away, and looked into the medi-
cine-chest, to see if there was a drop of pepper-
mint, or anything comforting of that sort, inside.
Only three physic bottles were left in it, all
three being neatly tied over with oilskin. One
of them held a strong white liquor, smelling like
hartshorn. The other two were filled with stuff
in powder, having the names in printed gib-
berish, pasted outside. On looking a little closer,
I found, under some broken divisions of the
chest, a small flask covered with wicker-work.
" Ginger-Brandy " was written with pen and
ink on the wicker-work, and the flask was full !
I think that blessed discovery saved me from
shivering myself to pieces. After a pull at the
flask which made a new man of me, I put it
away in my inside breast-pocket ; Mr. Clissold
watching me with greedy eyes, but saying

All this while, the rain was rushing, the wind
roaring, and the sea crashing, as if Noah's Elood
had come again. I sat close against the super-
cargo, because he was in the driest place ; and
pulled my fair share of the tarpaulin away from
him, whether he liked it or not. He by no
means liked it; being in that sort of half-
drunken, half-sober state (after finishing his
bottle), in which a man's temper is most easily
upset by trifles. The upset of his temper showed
itself in the way of small aggravations of which
I took no notice, till he suddenly bethought him-
self of angering me by going back again to that
dispute about father, which had bred ill-blood
between us, on the day when we first saw each
other. If he had been a younger man, I am
afraid I should have stopped him by a punch on
the head. As it was, considering his age and
the shame of this quarrelling betwixt us when
we were both cast away together, I only warned
him that I might punch his head, if he went on.
It did just as well and I'm glad now to think
that it did.

We were huddled so close together, that when
he coiled himself up to sleep (with a growl),
and when he did go to sleep (with a grunt), he
growled and grunted into my ear. His rest,
like the rest of all the regular drunkards I have
ever met with, was broken. He ground his
teeth, and talked in his sleep. Among the words
he mumbled to himself, I heard as plain as could
be father's name. This vexed, but did not sur-
prise me, seeing that he had been talking of
lather before he dropped off. But when I made
out next, among his mutterings and mumblings,
the words " five hundred pound," spoken over
and over again, with father's name, now before,
now after, now mixed in along with them, I got
curious, and listened for more. My listening
(and, serve me right, you will say) came to no-
thing : he certainly talked on, but I couldn't
make out a word more that he said.

When he woke up, I told him plainly he had
been talking in his sleep and mightily taken
aback he looked when he first heard it. " What

Charlea Dickens.]


[December 13, I860.] 39

about?" says he. I made answer, "My father,
and five hundred pound ; and how do you come
to couple them together, I should like to know ?"
" I couldn't have coupled them," says he, in a
great hurry "what do I know about it? I
don't believe a man like your father ever had
such a sum of money as that, in all his life."
" Don't you ?" says I, feeling the aggravation of
him, in spite of myself ; " I can just tell you my
father had such a sum when he was no older a
man than I am and saved it and left it for a
provision, in his will, to my mother, who has
got it, now and, I say again, how came a
stranger like you to be talking of it in your
sleep ?" At hearing this, he went about on the
other tack directly. " Was that all your father
left, after his debts were paid ?" says he. " Are
you very curious to know ?" says I. He took
no notice he only persisted with his question.
" Was it just five hundred pound, no more and
no less ?" says he. " Suppose it was," says I ;
"what then?" "Oh, nothing?" says he, and
turns sharp round from me, and chuckles to

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12

Online LibraryCharles DickensA message from the sea : The extra Christmas number of All the year round → online text (page 9 of 12)