James Murphy.

Convict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet online

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Don't tell them the reason why."

" Very v/ell," assented the mate. " It would look strange
if no storm were to come."

" It would," said the captain, " though I fear that will
not be the case. Look at that sky yonder."

The mate did look at the sky. So also did Kevin, who
had been listening to the conversation — he could not avoid
hearing it where he stood ; and, at the significant words
with which the captain concluded his suggestions, he could
not help lifting his eyes to that portion of the sky indicated.
As he did so he was completely surprised to see what
a change in so short a time had come over it !

The western portion of the sky, where the sun was, had
turned into a reddish colour — not quite so much red as a
sort of foggy yellow purple. Further away, but lower down,
and scarcely more than lifting itself up the horizon, along
which for some short distance it formed a sort of boundary,


moved slowly upwards a cloud of intense blackness.
Whether it was by contrast with the brightness of the sky
and the purple yellow surrounding the sun, or because of
its own inherent blackness, it certainly did look ominously
dark — the blackest-looking rim to a surface of bright sky
that Kevin thought he had ever seen.

*' That's it ! " said the mate laconically, with a significant
nod of his head, as he looked earnestly and anxiously in the
direction of the sky where it appeared.

After a short pause he left the captain, to carry out his

" How long has this man being seeing these visions ? "
said the captain, as he seated himself beside Kevin, where
he was engaged at his work.

"A long time, I believe," said the latter.

" Did they ever reveal occurrences to him before ? "

" I believe not — I don't know," said Kevin. " He did
not tell me."

" How long have you known him ? ''

" About four or five weeks."

" Do you think him trustworthy?"

Kevin thought he did, and said so. Further he told very
briefly what he had done for himself, as proof of his unselfish

** His visitor has told him the truth this time, I fear," said
the captain, " The glass has been falling unaccountably for
the past two or three hours, and that rising cloud yonder
tells the reason why. We are in a very dangerous place —
for all yon placid sea — to be caught in a storm."

Saying which, he walked to the companion ladder, and
descended to his cabin.

172 ''CONVICT No. 25."

Kevin had always read of sailors being superstitious, and,
glancing at the sea around him, so calm and sparkling,
thought to himself that there was very little danger of a
storm thereon.

He opined that Clareman's brooding fancies had raised
unnecessary alarm in his mind. Kevin was but little
acquainted with barometers ; they were not then — nor even
now — usual or occasional adjuncts in a farmer's household.
And its falling or rising, rapidly or slowly, impressed him
very little.

As the sailors came up, clambering to the deck after one
another in a body, Kevin noticed that each and all, as soon
as his face lifted itself above deck, took sudden and quick
survey of the sun and sky, and fastened their eyes, with a
peculiar gleam of knowledge on their faces, on that small
black cloud that was slowly lifting itself — growing more inky
as it did so — above the horizon.

The calm surface of the shining sea, which he would him-
self have judged by, they took no heed of whatever as scarce
worth their attention. Some few rushed to look at the glass,
but even these were in a second of time climbing up the
ladder-ropes after their companions.

In less time than Kevin thought was possible they had
spread themselves out on the topsails ; were holding on to
the mainsails ; were hanging from the yardarm : reefing,
furling, and tying the sails.

At the same time, the warders in charge of the prisoners
below had ranged them in line, and had re-fettered them.
There was no danger to the ship from their violence, there-
fore, if a storm arose.

Neither was there danger from the sails, which were soon


carefully furled up ; and the ship standing, a skeleton of her
late self, on the mirroring surface of the sea, awaited the
development of the storm — if storm there should be. And
that a storm was sure to come, the curiously coloured sky
that surrounded the sun as he descended made manifest.
It was what is generally known in these countries as an
angry sky. But its wrathful appearance was heightened by
the border of intense redness that tinged the black cloud,
where the sun's rays touched it, and showed its inky features
in such marked and striking contrast.

"That's a threatening sky," remarked the mate to the
captain, as they both came on deck again to supervise the
work that had been done.

" It is a threatening sky," said the other in answer, " and
the glass is still falling ! "



The sombre clouds in the "West did not belie their indica-
tions, although the sun, as he dipped below the horizon,
flung his golden beams across a sea tranquil and unruffled
as a sheet of ice.

" I never saw in my experience such a sudden fall in the
barometer as during the past two hours," said the captain,
as he leant over the taffrail, and looked in the direction of
the setting sun.

174 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" Yes ; it has been an alarming fall," remarked the mate,
who looked in that direction also, after he had glanced
upwards at the bare masts and furled sails. "I wish we
were a degree or two lower down."

" Why ? "

" We should be in a much safer position. I know this
place well."

" So do I."

" It's the worst place in the whole Bay of Biscay."

" I should say it is," assented the captain. " Does it not
strike you that there is a suffocating feel in the air ? "

" I feel it."

" It has increased l^itely."

" Yes ; it's positively choking."

" It's something curious and unusual in the air \ "

" I fancy it's electricity. It is not the heat."

" No, we have not got South enough yet for the simoom."

" Most extraordinary," said the mate, walking over to the
glass, and again taking note of it, " there is a still further
fall. What does it mean ? "

" Look here, Travers — look ! "

The captain's voice ringing out sharply drew the mate
quietly to his side.

" Do you see anything strange before you ? "

" No," said the mate, glancing skywards, and then sea-
wards. " Nothing but what I have seen before."

" Look again ! "

" I see nothing unusual."

"Not there?"

The captain indicated with his finger the surface of the
sea in the direction of the red sun-setted sky.


"Not there?"

Kevin who had been by permission of the captain, allowed
to remain on the deck, was likewise standing some distance
off, looking over the sea in the same direction.

Hearing the captain's words, he fixed his attention more
earnestly on it. But all he could see was in the distance a
slight ruffling and darkening of the silver surface of the
water, as a slight breeze apparently came travelling at a
gentle pace towards them.

" Ah ! "

The mate said no more ; as his eye fell on the advancing
breeze ; but in a frightened way fastened his gaze thereon.

"That's it," said the captain quietly.

" Yes, I fear so," said the mate.

" That's the forerunner."

The mate nodded his head, as he watched still the onward
but slow advance of the rippled surface of the water.

" And look !— look up ! What a sky ! "

*' How quickly it has grown black."

" And what a black ! "

" And what a contrast with the rest."

As Kevin lifted his eyes to where the sky was rapidly be-
coming hidden in a gathering cloud of inky blackness, and
marvelling much at its curious and unusual appearance, he
started as a hand was lightly laid on his shoulder.

" It's I, Kevin— don't start ! "

"Oh, so it is," said Kevin, looking around.

"They've let me free!"


" Yes ; free to come to you."

*' That was very kind of them."

176 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" All the others are chained, as if they were going on a

" I'm glad youVe come up."

** So am I. Do you know what, Kevin ? " said he in a
whisper, drawing close to the other.

"What ? " said Kevin, taking his eyes off the ruffling sea
and blackening sky to glance at the other's face. When he
did, he noticed that the same expression of fear and rest-
lessness was again in his eyes, the same yellow look of pallor
in his face, and the old expression of being awfully frightened
and hunted was about him !

" What ? " said Kevin again in a whisper, although he
knew well enough the cause.

" He has been here again ? "

« Here ? "

•' Ay — before they took off the irons."

" In presence of the men ? "

" Yes."

" What did he say ? "

" The same words. But he looked so angry ! Oh, so
angry ! "

Kevin was silent for a time.

" PheHm ! " said he at last.

''Yes," said the other.

" Do you see that sky ? "

"Yes," said Phelim briskly, shaking off the haunting
remembrances of his visitor, and looking up.

" You never saw such a sky as that in Clare ? "

" No, not so black as that at this hour. It's very black."

*' It is very black," said Kevin.

" What does it mean ? "


" It means that your visitor spoke the truth ! " said Kevin
putting his mouth to the other's ear, and whispering him
the words.

"That we'll be drowned?" said No. 37, without much

" It means there is a storm coming. So the mate and
captain say. And they expect it to be an awful one."

"And they've prepared for it," said No. 37, glancing up
at the tightly-furled sails and bare poles. " I've often seen
'em runnin' past the shores of Clare that way when there
was a gale on."

Kevin's attention was directed from his partner by the
captain's exclamation —

" Here it comes ! "

Slowly as it seemed to come, travelling over the countless
miles of sea surface, it burst against the ship with great
force, making the watchers hold on to the bulwarks, and
causing the furled sails to flap against the side of the masts
with great force.

The ship swayed unsteadily as the gale struck her.

" That's only the fringe ; the body of the gale lies beyond,"
said the captain ; and as Kevin looked at the latter when
he spoke he noticed that his face had grown deadly pale —
nearly as pale, in fact, as that of the haunted man beside
him. But, for all that, there was no lack of quiet courage
and self-possession visible thereon.

As the captain said, the burst of wind that had struck them
was but the forerunner or advancing fringe of the hurricane.

The inky cloud that had gathered and blackened over
the sunset, spread over the entire sky with marvellous
rapidity. The surface of the smiling sea, now reflecting the


178 ''CONVICT No. 25."

darkened sky above, grew likewise black. Whilst, heaping
up its hitherto quiet waters into mountain waves, burst after
burst of wind came along, striking the ship and hurling over
her bare decks clouds of spray.

" It was well we took the precaution we did," said the
captain. " We should be able to do very little with that
sudden onrush of storm."

" I should never have thought of doing so from the mere
falling of the glass," said the mate.

" I had another reason for it," said the captain gravely,
"to which I attach even more importance."

" What was that ? " asked the mate with curiosity.

" I shall tell you when the hurricane is over," said the
captain ; " you will say it's very remarkable. Look ! did
you ever see such lightning as that ? "

As he spoke a flash of lightning shot out from the West,
and, extending in a second all over the sky in a zig-zag
direction, seemed to strike and cleave through the heavy
cloud of darkness, and, fading suddenly away, left a streak
of burnt-up purple-red behind it in the sky.

They had scarcely time to express, their astonishment
and admiration of this, when, following on its course,
another line of fire streaked the sky, and another, and
another, until a net-work of fiery tracks stood out against
its black background.

As these zig-zag flashes of red light were in like manner
reflected from the darkened surface of the sea, now rolling
under the influence of the growing storm in great waves, it
formed a most extraordinary and weird appearance.

The vessel herself, as she began to plunge with the rising
waves, seemed almost to cower and tremble at the approach


of the unusual storm. The sea-birds came in small groups
and in clusters, as if for mutual support, and took their
places on the masts and in the furled-up rigging.

"The sooner we batten down the hatches the better,"'
said the captain. " Call the men. Oh ! you here ! " said
he, as Kevin moved from his post of observation. '* I am
afraid your informant was right. Is he with you ? I desired
him to be set free I "

" He is. He is here," whispered Kevin in return.

" You had better take your place in my cabin. You can
do no good here. You would be in the way of the men
during the storm."

" We seem to be in for a bad night," said Kevin, as his
eye fell again on the sea and sky, lit up by the lightning.

"I never saw greater indications," said the captain,
moving away.

" Come, Phelim, come ! " said Kevin to his companion ;
•' come below ! Thank God ! we are not to be left during
the storm with the others. Come on ! "

They both descended the companion-ladder, and selecting
a small cabin off the captain's, took their places there ; and
whilst the hammering overhead indicating the battening
down of the hatches, and other preparations to enable the
ship to ride out the hurricane went on, Kevin watched from
the little window the lightning as it shot through the sky or
reflected redly in the water, whilst his companion, who had
been getting very little rest of late, lay down on the sofa and
went to sleep.

The storm came on apace. Gust succeeded gust, and
wave succeeded wave, until the vessel rolled helplessly in
the trough of the sea ! And as each body of water struck

iSo ''CONVICT No. 25."

against her with the force of hundreds of tons, the timbers
of the cabin creaked and strained, and the vessel staggered
and moaned, as if it were a living thing, cruelly beaten by
some heavy instrument !

At other times the reeling vessel plunged downwards, or
some on-coming wave rolled over her, and in the darkness
of the cabin and the dim light of the rushing mass of water
outside, Kevin started to his feet, as a sense of suffocation
came over him, and thought he was drowning.

A flash of lightning gleaming through the receding waters
as the labouring vessel lifted her head again from beneath
them, let the startled blood once more flow through his
veins, thereby relieving the terrible feeling at his heart.

" I wonder what is Norah thinking of now ? " was the
question that arose in his mind. " I wonder does it ever
occur to Maury that I'm so near drowning ? "

But the succession of startling surprises, as the vessel
pitched forward, fell back on her beam-ends, or lay help-
lessly on her side, gave permission but seldom for these

A sudden and alarming roll of the vessel on her side,
causing him to slip from his hold and fall, for the first time
made him aware that there was water under his feet, and
that for some time he had been standing in several inches
of it.

'' If she leaks like this everywhere she won't float much
longer," thought Kevin, as his heart leaped into his mouth
at the sudden discovery.

" Phelim, are you awake ? Phelim ! " cried he to his
companion, who, with his arm through the leather fastening,
had slept soundly through all the storm.


" Who's that ? " said the sleeper.

" It's I— Kevin."

" Oh, so it is. Where are we ? Oh, yes, now I remem-
ber. It is very stormy."

" It is. It's awful. I wonder how you could sleep so

" I didn't sleep so well since I came aboard."

"Not disturbed?"

" No, What's amiss with the ship ? "

"There's an awful storm amiss with her," said Kevin.
"The hatches are battened down, and the ship is leaking."

" You are right there ! " said the captain from behind.
They turned round. He was standing at the entrance of
the little cabin, his sou- wester and oil-cloth covering glisten-
ing with spray and wet.

" You are quite right there. Can you both work ? Work
at the pumps ? "

" If we can stand," answered Kevin, who had difficulty in
retaining his feet, even with the assistance of his hands,
holding on to the window ; " we can work."

"Come along then. We can lash you to the pumps.
The men are nearly exhausted already. The water is gain-
ing fast."

It would be hard for it to fail in gaining, Kevin thought,
as a huge wave, lifting itself sheerly up, struck against the
poop of the vessel, making it quiver and tremble through its
whole length. A succession of these would sever its fasten-
ings though they were made of triple steel.

" Any sign of the storm going down ? " asked Kevin as
they ascended the companion-ladder.

" None," said the captain.

i82 ''CONVICT No, 25."

That there was none the most unskilful eye might see
from the deck.

The storm roared and howled with shrieking force among
the ropes and cordage ; and its increasing pressure upon the
sides of the ship was making her run with great speed even
under bare poles. And whenever a wave, rushing past,
bore her, broadside, clumsily on its summit, the sheer force
of the continuous pressure of the hurricane against her
threw her immediately on her side, so that her tall masts lay
nearly prone on the water.

One of these occasions occurred just as they had taken
their positions at the pump, and had been safely lashed
thereto, to prevent their being swept away by the wind or

As the vessel lay thus, a following wave, striking against
her keel, nearly turned her over and capsized her.

"She'll never right herself!" said one of the sailors at
work with them, as they suspended operations, the horizontal
position of the pumps preventing them from working.

It would, indeed, seem as if she would not, for the suction
of the water on her furled sails and on her masts, as well as
the pressure of the hurricane, prevented her from righting.

A wave passing over, however, freed her from the grasp
of the water, and, with a rapid twist, or turn, she righted

The rapidity of the motion, however, produced an unex-
pected shock.

*' What's that?" said Kevin to one of his fellow- workers
as the floor of the deck trembled beneath them.

" The mast has gone — that's what it is," said the sailor.

Looking round, Kevin saw that the mast had broken


across a few feet above the deck, and now, in a vast
entanglement of ropes, was lying over the side of the vessel,
the top dipping in the water, and pulling down visibly the
deck of the ship in that direction.

The piping of the whistle of the mate, however, brought
some of the sailors with hatchets to the rescue ; and after
some rapid and energetic working the broken mast, with its
entourage of ropes and furled sails, was cut adrift. They
could see it, when the lightning gleamed, lying an unwieldy
monster on the top of the wave ; its broken end occasionally
lifting higher in the air, and its long lines of severed cordage
blown streaming about with the resistless force of the

The workers at the pump laboured unceasingly. The
strained planks of the ship freely admitted the water \ and
it required all their vigour and untiring energies to keep it
from gaining too much on them. Only a few hands could
aid; but those who had been assisting for the past few
hours being relieved, the fresh hands worked with ceaseless
vigour and activity. At times, indeed, they were obliged to
suspend work, as the plunging ship rolled in the water, or as
a breaking wave swept with mighty force across the deck, or
the tremendous force of the wind made exertion or breathing
almost impossible. But, whenever these circumstances did
not interfere, they worked with right good-will and careless-
ness of fatigue — as men only do when they are striving foot
to foot with the gaining sea for their lives.

As the storm continued, and the shaken vessel leaked
more and more, the water gained on them, and sometimes
they found it almost impossible to work the pumps or to
make the piston move, so great was the pressure on the rod.

i84 ''CONVICT No. 25."

From time to time the captain came to see how they
were doing. From time to time came also the mate.

But the last time the pumps had got fast with the suction
and force of the water below, and they could not work

" We can do no more," said one of the sailors, in reply
to his inquiry.

" Are the pumps stopped ? " asked the mate, coming up
at the moment.

" They are drowned out," said the captain, with a face full
of seriousness and gravity, but free from any manifestation
of timidity. " It would be useless to work them further.
There is too much water below."

" What shall be done ? She cannot long tumble about
with this load of water in her. She will sink any moment."

" She may," said the captain. " The first thing to do is,
strike off all the fetters off the convicts, and bring them on
deck. Let them get a chance for their lives."

*' And the boats?"

•' You could not launch a boat in this storm. It would
be smashed against the vessel or swamped immediately.
Cut them loose."

" Cut them loose ! "

"Yes. They may save some one later on. But first
bring the convicts on deck. They must not drown like rats
in the hold. Let them die battling for their lives, with the
air and the sky around them."

" And be quick 1 " added he, as the mate paused to
examine the pumps ; " the vessel is sinking deeper and
tumbling about more helplessly. She will go down with a
run any moment I "


** Well, Phelim, what do you think of this ? " asked Kevin
in a breathless whisper.

" I don't know," said Phelim. The storm and the un-
wonted exercise had lent a freshness of spirit to him that
was surprising to see. " I suppose we must do what the
others do."

" Can you swim ? "

" I could, years ago "

" So can I," said Kevin interrupting.

" But I don't know that I can now. It's ten years you
know. Ten long years."

" One never forgets to swim, I think."

" Maybe not."

" No ; we must try and save ourselves j stick close to me,
Phelim. The deck will be crowded in a few minutes. There
go the boats."

The boats had been cut adrift and hove over the sides
of the vessel. Some of them were capsized and sank imme-
diately ! some were staved in against the side of the vessel,
and some they could see floating away on the crest of the
receding waves.

Simultaneously with the cutting loose of the boats, the
released convicts rushed on deck. Many of them had been
badly hurt and bruised in the incessant rollings and pitchings
of the vessel, and most of them had grown faint with the con-
fined air below; but all of them hailed their temporary release
with shouts of acclamation, and rushed with loud cries on
deck, tumbling and falling over one another as they did so.

All attempts to save the vessel were now at an end. The
men working at the pumps untied themselves from their
fastenings, and held on with their hands.

1 86 ''CONVICT No. 25."

All at once a cry of " She's sinking ! " arose from three
hundred mouths as a passing wave bore down her stern,
and, breaking with great force over the deck, rushed along !

Catching in its rapid swoop the workers at the pumps it
swept them off their feet ; and as a flash of lightning burst
over the deck and over the crowded faces thereon, showing
the blackness of the sky and the white crests of the gleaming
waves in greater force, they were borne out to sea, and the
rushing water closed over them !

For a moment only, however, for, with a rapid movement
of his hands, Kevin lifted his head above the surface.

And as he did so, a hand clutched his arm.

Turning his head round he found it was his fellow-convict.

" Let go, Phelim I " screamed he in the other's ears.

" Let go ; or you'll drown us both ! Let me hold you ! "

Phelim let go his hold, and Kevin catching hold of his
arm with one hand, and with the other battling with the
waves, managed to hold him up, and kept his head above
the surface.

In one of those frantic efforts, and just when his strength
was beginning to fail, his up-thrown hand struck against
something. In a second more he had clutched a rope, and,

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Online LibraryJames MurphyConvict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet → online text (page 12 of 28)