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Mr. Meeson's Will online

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terrified to speak or cry, stared about him with wide-opened and
frightened eyes. When she lifted it, a few seconds later, a ray from the
rising sun had pierced the mist, and striking full on the sinking ship,
as, her stern well out of the water and her bow well under it, she rolled
sullenly to and fro in the trough of the heavy sea, seemed to wrap her
from hull to truck in wild and stormy light.

"She's going! - by George, she's going!" said the seaman Johnnie; and as
he said it the mighty ship slowly reared herself up on end. Slowly - very
slowly, amidst the hideous and despairing shrieks of the doomed wretches
on board of her, she lifted her stern higher and higher, and plunged her
bows deeper and deeper. They shrieked, they cried to Heaven for help; but
Heaven heeded them not, for man's agony cannot avert man's doom. Now, for
a space, she was standing almost upright upon the water, out of which
about a hundred feet of her vast length towered like some monstrous ocean
growth, whilst men fell from her in showers, like flies benumbed by
frost, down into the churning foam beneath. Then suddenly, with a swift
and awful rush, with a rending sound of breaking spars, a loud explosion
of her boilers, and a smothered boom of bursting bulkheads, she plunged
down into the measureless deeps, and was seen no more forever.

The water closed in over where she had been, boiling and foaming and
sucking down all things in the wake of her last journey, while the steam
and prisoned air came up in huge hissing jets and bubbles that exploded
into spray on the surface.

The men groaned, the child stared stupified, and Augusta cried out, "_Oh!
oh_!" like one in pain.

"Row back!" she gasped, "row back and see if we cannot pick some
of them up."

"No! no!" shouted Meeson; "they will sink the boat!"

"'Taint much use anyway," said Johnnie. "I doubt that precious few of
them will come up again. They have gone too deep!"

However, they got the boat's head round again - slowly enough, Augusta
thought - and as they did so they heard a feeble cry or two. But by the
time that they had reached the spot where the Kangaroo went down, there
was no living creature to be seen; nothing but the wash of the great
waves, over which the mist once more closed thick and heavy as a pall.
They shouted, and once they heard a faint answer, and rowed towards it;
but when they got to the spot whence the sound seemed to proceed, they
could see nothing except some wreckage. They were all dead, their agony
was done, their cries no more ascended to the pitiless heavens; and wind,
and sky, and sea were just as they had been.

"Oh, my God! my God!" wept Augusta, clinging to the thwarts of the
tossing boat.

"One boat got away - where is it?" asked Mr. Meeson, who, a wet and
wretched figure, was huddled up in the stern-sheets, as he rolled his
wild eyes round striving to pierce the curtain of the mist.

"There's something," said Johnnie, pointing through a fog-dog in the
mist, that seemed to grow denser rather than otherwise as the light
increased, at a round, boat-like object that had suddenly appeared to the
starboard of them.

They rowed up to it; it was a boat, but empty and floating bottom
upwards. Closer examination showed that it was the cutter, which, when
full of women and children, had been fastened to the vessel and dragged
down with her as she sank. At a certain depth the pressure of the water
had been too great and had torn the ring in the bow bodily out of her, so
that she returned to the surface. But those in her did not return - at
least, not yet. Once more, two or three days hence, they would arise from
the watery depths and look upon the skies with eyes that could not see,
and then vanish for ever.

Turning from this awful and most moving sight, they rowed slowly through
quantities of floating wreckage - barrels, hencoops (in one of these they
found two drowned fowls, which they secured), and many other articles,
such as oars and wicker deck-chairs - and began to shout vigorously in the
hope of attracting the attention of the survivors in the other boat,
which they imagined could not be far off. Their efforts, however, proved
fruitless, owing to the thickness of the fog; and in the considerable sea
which was running it was impossible to see more than twenty yards or so.
Also, what between the wind, and the wash and turmoil of the water, the
sound of their voices did not travel far. The ocean is a large place, and
a rowing-boat is easily lost sight of upon its furrowed surface;
therefore it is not wonderful that, although the two boats were at the
moment within half a mile of each other, they never met, and each took
its separate course in the hope of escaping the fate of the vessel. The
boat in which were Lady Holmhurst and some twenty other passengers,
together with the second officer and a crew of six men, after seeing the
Kangaroo sink and picking up one survivor, shaped a course for Kerguelen
Land, believing that they, and they alone, remained to tell the tale of
that awful shipwreck. And here it may be convenient to state that before
nightfall they were picked up by a sealing-whaler, that sailed with them
to Albany, on the coast of Australia. Thence an account of the disaster,
which, as the reader will remember, created a deep impression, was
telegraphed home, and thence, in due course, the widowed Lady Holmhurst
and most of the other women who escaped were taken back to England.

To return to our heroine and Mr. Meeson.

The occupants of the little boat sat looking at each other with white
scared faces, till at last the man called Johnnie, who, by-the-way, was
not a tar of a very amiable cast of countenance, possibly owing to the
fact that his nose was knocked almost flat against the side of his face,
swore violently, and said "It was no good stopping there all the
etceteraed day." Thereupon Bill, who was a more jovial-looking man,
remarked "that he, Johnnie, was etceteraed well right, so they had
better hoist the fore-sail."

At this point Augusta interposed, and told them that the captain, just as
the vessel came into collision, had informed her that he was making
Kerguelen Land, which was not more than sixty or seventy miles away. They
had a compass in the boat, and they knew the course the Kangaroo was
steering when she sank. Accordingly, without wasting further time, they
got as much sail up as the little boat could carry in the stiff breeze,
and ran nearly due east before the steady westerly wind. All day long
they ran across the misty ocean, the little boat behaving splendidly,
without sighting any living thing, till, at last, the night closed in
again. There was, fortunately, a bag of biscuits in the boat, and a
breaker of water; also there was, unfortunately, a breaker of rum, from
which the two sailors, Bill and Johnnie, were already taking quite as
much as was good for them. Consequently, though they were cold and wet
with the spray, they had not to face the added horrors of starvation and
thirst. At sundown, they shortened sail considerably, only leaving enough
canvas up to keep the boat ahead of the sea.

Somehow the long night wore away. Augusta scarcely closed her eyes; but
little Dick slept like a top upon her bosom, sheltered by her arms and
the blanket from the cold and penetrating spray. In the bottom of the
boat lay Mr. Meeson, to whom Augusta, pitying his condition - for he was
shivering dreadfully - had given the other blanket, keeping nothing for
herself except the woollen shawl.

At last, however, there came a faint glow in the east, and the daylight
began to break over the stormy sea. Augusta turned her head and stared
through the mist.

"What is that?" she said, in a voice trembling with excitement, to the
sailor Bill, who was taking his turn at the tiller; and she pointed to a
dark mass that loomed up almost over them.

The man looked, and then looked again; and then hallowed out joyfully,
"Land - land ahead!"

Up struggled Mr. Meeson on to his knees - his legs were so stiff that he
could not stand - and began to stare wildly about him.

"Thank God!" he cried. "Where is it? Is it New Zealand? If ever I get
there, I'll stop there. I'll never get on a ship again!"

"New Zealand!" growled the sailor. "Are you a fool? It's Kerguelen Land,
that's what it is - where it rains all day, and nobody lives - not even a
nigger. It's like enough that you'll stop there, though; for I don't
reckon that anybody will come to take you off in a hurry."

Mr. Meeson collapsed with a groan, and a few minutes afterwards the sun
rose, while the mist grew less and less till at last it almost
disappeared, revealing a grand panorama to the occupants of the boat. For
before them was line upon line of jagged and lofty peaks, stretching as
far as the eye could reach, gradually melting in the distance into the
cold white gleam of snow. Bill slightly altered the boat's course to the
southward, and, sailing round a point, she came into comparatively calm
water. Then, due north of them, running into the land, they saw the mouth
of a great fjord, bounded on each side by towering mountain banks, so
steep as to be almost precipitous, around whose lofty sides thousands of
sea fowl wheeled, awaking the echoes with their clamour. Right into this
beautiful fjord they sailed, past a line of flat rocks on which sat huge
fantastic monsters that the sailors said were sea-lions, along the line
of beetling cliff, till they came to a spot where the shore, on which
grew a rank, sodden-looking grass, shelved gently up from the water's
edge to the frowning and precipitous background. And here, to their huge
delight, they discovered two huts roughly built of old ship's timbers,
placed within a score of yards of each other, and a distance of some
fifty paces from the water's edge.

"Well, there's a house, anyway," said the flat-nosed Johnnie, "though it
don't look as though it had paid rates and taxes lately."

"Let us land, and get out of this horrible boat," said Mr. Meeson,
feebly: a proposition that Augusta seconded heartily enough. Accordingly,
the sail was lowered, and, getting out the oars, the two sailors rowed
the boat into a little, natural harbour that opened out of the main
creek, and in ten minutes her occupants were once more stretching their
legs upon dry land; that is, if any land in Kerguelen Island, that region
of perpetual wet, could be said to be dry.

Their first care was to go up to the huts and examine them, with a result
that could scarcely be called encouraging. The huts had been built some
years - whether by the expedition which, in 1874, came thither to observe
the transit of Venus, or by former parties of shipwrecked mariners, they
never discovered - and were now in a state of ruin. Mosses and lichens
grew plentifully upon the beams, and even on the floor; while great holes
in the roof let in the wet, which lay in little slimy puddles beneath.
Still, with all their drawbacks, they were decidedly better than the open
beach; a very short experience of which, in that inclement climate, would
certainly have killed them; and they thankfully decided to make the best
of them. Accordingly, the smaller of the two huts was given up to Augusta
and the boy Dick, while Mr. Meeson and the sailors took possession of the
large one. Their next task was to move up their scanty belongings (the
boat having first been carefully beached), and to clean out the huts and
make them as habitable as possible by stretching the sails of the boat on
the damp floors and covering up the holes in the roof as best they could
with stones and bits of board from the bottom of the boat. The weather
was, fortunately, dry, and as they all (with the exception of Mr. Meeson,
who seemed to be quite prostrated) worked with a will, not excepting
Master Dick - who toddled backwards and forwards after Augusta in high
glee at finding himself on terra firma - and by midday everything that
could be done was done. Then they made a fire of some drift-wood - for,
fortunately, they had a few matches - and Augusta cooked the two fowls
they had got out of the floating hen-coop as well as circumstances would
allow - which, as a matter of fact, was not very well - and they had
dinner, of which they all stood sadly in need.

After dinner they reckoned up their resources. Of water there was an
ample supply, for not far from the huts a stream ran down into the fjord.
For food they had the best part of a bag of biscuits weighing about a
hundred pounds. Also there was the cask of rum, which the men had moved
into their own hut. But that was not all, for there were plenty of
shellfish about if they could find means to cook them, while the rocks
around were covered with hundreds of penguins, including specimens of the
great "King penguin," which only required to be knocked on the head.
There was, therefore, little fear of their perishing of starvation, as
sometimes happens to ship wrecked people. Indeed, immediately after
dinner, the two sailors went out and returned with as many birds'
eggs - mostly penguin - as they could carry in their hats. Scarcely had
they got in, however, when the rain, which is the prevailing
characteristic of these latitudes, set in, in the most pitiless fashion;
and soon the great mountains with which they were surrounded, and those
before them, were wrapped in dense veils of fleecy vapour. Hour after
hour the rain fell without ceasing, penetrating through their miserable
roof, and falling - drop, drip, drop - upon the sodden floor. Augusta sat
by herself in the smaller hut, doing what she could to amuse little Dick
by telling him stories. Nobody knows how hard she found it to have to
invent stories when she was thus overwhelmed with misfortune; but it was
the only way of keeping the poor child from crying, as the sense of cold
and misery forced itself into his little heart. So she told him about
Robinson Crusoe, and then she told him that they were playing at being
Robinson Crusoe, to which the child very sensibly replied that he did not
at all like the game, and wanted his mamma.

And meanwhile it grew darker and colder and damper hour by hour, till at
last the light went out, and left her with nothing to keep her company
but the moaning wind, the falling rain, and the wild cries of the
sea-birds when something disturbed them from their rest. The child was
asleep at last, wrapped up in a blanket and one of the smaller sails;
and Augusta, feeling quite worn out with solitude and the pressure of
heavy thoughts, began to think that the best thing she could do would be
to try to follow his example, when suddenly there came a knock at the
boards which served for a door to the shanty.

"Who is it?" she cried, with a start.

"Me - Mr. Meeson," answered a voice. "Can I come in?"

"Yes; if you like," said Augusta, sharply, though in her heart she was
really glad to see him, or, rather, to hear him, for it was too dark to
see anything. It is wonderful how, under the pressure of a great
calamity, we forget our quarrels and our spites, and are ready to jump at
the prospect of the human companionship of our deadliest enemy. And "the
moral of that is," as the White Queen says, that as we are all night and
day face to face with the last dread calamity - Death - we should
throughout our lives behave as though we saw the present shadow of his
hand. But that will never happen in the world while human nature is human
nature - and when will it become anything else?

"Put up the door again," said Augusta, when, from a rather rawer rush of
air than usual, she gathered that her visitor was within the hut.

Mr. Meeson obeyed, groaning audibly. "Those two brutes are getting
drunk," he said, "swallowing down rum by the gallon. I have come because
I could not stop with them any longer - and I am so ill, Miss Smithers, so
ill! I believe that I am going to die. Sometimes I feel as though all the
marrow in my bones were ice, and - and - at others just as though somebody
were shoving a red-hot wire up them. Can't you do anything for me?"

"I don't see what is to be done," answered Augusta, gently, for the
man's misery touched her in spite of her dislike for him. "You had better
lie down and try to go to sleep."

"To sleep!" he moaned; "how can I sleep? My blanket is wringing wet
and my clothes are damp," and he fairly broke down and began to
groan and sob.

"Try and go to sleep," urged Augusta again.

He made no answer, but by degrees he grew quieter, overwhelmed, perhaps,
by the solemn presence of the darkness. Augusta laid her head against the
biscuit-bag, and at last sank into blissful oblivion; for to the young,
sleep is a constant friend. Once or twice she woke, but only to drop off
again; and when she finally opened her eyes it was quite light and the
rain had ceased.

Her first care was for little Dick, who had slept soundly throughout the
night and appeared to be none the worse. She took him outside the hut and
washed his face and hands in the stream and then sat him down to a
breakfast of biscuit. As she returned she met the two sailors, who,
although they were now fairly sober, bore upon their faces the marks of a
fearful debauch. Evidently they had been drinking heavily. She drew
herself up and looked at them, and they slunk past her in silence.

Then she returned to the hut. Mr. Meeson was sitting up when she entered,
and the bright light from the open door fell full upon his face. His
appearance fairly shocked her. The heavy cheeks had fallen in, there were
great purple rings round his hollow eyes, and his whole aspect was one of
a man in the last stage of illness.

"I have had such a night" he said, "Oh, Heaven! such a night! I don't
believe that I shall live through another."

"Nonsense!" said Augusta, "eat some biscuit and you will feel better."

He took a piece of the biscuit which she gave him, and attempted to
swallow it, but could not.

"It is no use," he said; "I am a dying man. Sitting in those wet clothes
in the boat has finished me."

And Augusta, looking at his face, could not but believe him.




CHAPTER IX.

AUGUSTA TO THE RESCUE.


After breakfast - that is, after Augusta had eaten some biscuit and a wing
that remained from the chickens she had managed to cook upon the previous
day - Bill and Johnnie, the two sailors, set to work, at her suggestion,
to fix up a long fragment of drift-wood on a point of rock, and to bind
it on to a flag that they happened to find in the locker of the boat.
There was not much chance of its being seen by anybody in that mist-laden
atmosphere, even if anybody came there to see it, of which there was
still less chance; still they did it as a sort of duty. By the time this
task was finished it was midday, and, for a wonder, there was little
wind, and the sun shone out brightly. On returning to the huts Augusta
got the blankets out to dry, and set the two sailors to roast some of the
eggs they had found on the previous day. This they did willingly enough,
for they were now quite sober, and very much ashamed of themselves.
Then, after giving Dick some more biscuit and four roasted eggs, which he
took to wonderfully, she went to Mr. Meeson, who was lying groaning in
the hut, and persuaded him to come and sit out in the warmth.

By this time the wretched man's condition was pitiable, for, though his
strength was still whole in him, he was persuaded that he was going to
die, and could touch nothing but some rum-and-water.

"Miss Smithers," he said, as he sat shivering upon the rocks, "I am going
to die in this horrible place, and I am not fit to die! To think of me,"
he went on with a sudden burst of his old fire, "to think of me dying
like a starved dog in the cold, when I have two millions of money waiting
to be spent there in England! And I would give them all - yes, every
farthing of them - to find myself safe at home again! By Jove! I would
change places with any poor devil of a writer in the Hutches! Yes, I
would turn author on twenty pounds a month! - that will give you some idea
of my condition, Miss Smithers! To think that I should ever live to say
that I would care to be a beggarly author, who could not make a thousand
a year if he wrote till his fingers fell off! - oh! oh!" and he fairly
sobbed at the horror and degradation of the thought.

Augusta looked at the poor wretch and then bethought her of the proud
creature she had known, raging terribly through the obsequious ranks of
clerks, and carrying desolation to the Hutches and the many-headed
editorial department. She looked, and was filled with reflections on the
mutability of human affairs.

Alas! how changed that Meeson!

"Yes," he went on, recovering himself a little, "I am going to die in
this horrible place, and all my money will not even give me a decent
funeral. Addison and Roscoe will get it - confound them! - as though they
had not got enough already. It makes me mad when I think of those Addison
girls spending my money, or bribing Peers to marry them with it, or
something of that sort. I disinherited my own nephew, Eustace, and kicked
him out to sink or swim; and now I can't undo it, and I would give
anything to alter it! We quarrelled about you, Miss Smithers, because I
would not give you any more money for that book of yours. I wish I had
given it to you - anything you wanted. I didn't treat you well; but, Miss
Smithers, a bargain is a bargain. It would never have done to give way,
on principle. You must understand that, Miss Smithers. Don't revenge
yourself on me about it, now that I am helpless, because, you see, it was
a matter of principle."

"I am not in the habit of revenging myself, Mr. Meeson," answered
Augusta, with dignity; "but I think that you have done a very wicked
thing to disinherit your nephew in that fashion, and I don't wonder that
you feel uncomfortable about it."

The expression of this vigorous opinion served to disturb Mr. Meeson's
conscience all the more, and he burst out into laments and regrets.

"Well," said Augusta at last, "if you don't like your will you had better
alter it. There are enough of us here to witness a will, and, if anything
happens to you, it will override the other - will it not?"

This was a new idea, and the dying man jumped at it.

"Of course, of course," he said; "I never thought of that before. I will
do it at once, and cut Addison and Roscoe out altogether. Eustace shall
have every farthing. I never thought of that before. Come, give me your
hand; I'll get up and see about it."

"Stop a minute," said Augusta. "How are you going to write a will without
pen or pencil, or paper or ink?"

Mr. Meeson sank back with a groan. This difficulty had not occurred to
him.

"Are you sure nobody has got a pencil and a bit of paper?" he asked. "It
would do, so long as the writing remained legible."

"I don't think so," said Augusta, "but I will inquire." Accordingly she
went and asked Bill and Johnnie: but neither of them had a pencil or a
single scrap of paper, and she returned sadly to communicate the news.

"I have got it, I have got it," said Mr. Meeson, as she approached the
spot where he lay upon the rock. "If there is no paper or pen, we must
write it in blood upon some linen. We can make a pen from the feathers of
a bird. I read somewhere in a book of somebody who did that. It will do
as well as anything else."

Here was an idea, indeed, and one that Augusta jumped at. But in
another moment her enthusiasm received a check. Where was there any
linen to write on?

"Yes," she said, "if you can find some linen. You have got on a
flannel shirt, so have the two sailors, and little Dick is dressed in
flannel, too."

It was a fact. As it happened, not one of the party had a scrap of linen
on them, or anything that would answer the purpose. Indeed, they had only
one pocket-handkerchief between them, and it was a red rag full of holes.
Augusta had had one, but it had blown overboard when they were in the
boat. What would they not have given for that pocket-handkerchief now!

"Yes," said Mr. Meeson, "it seems we have none. I haven't even get a
bank-note, or I might have written in blood upon that; though I have got
a hundred sovereigns in gold - I grabbed them up before I bolted from the
cabin. But I say - excuse me, Miss Smithers, but - um - ah - oh! hang
modesty - haven't you got some linen on, somewhere or other, that you
could spare a bit of? You shan't lose by giving it to me. There, I
promise that I will tear up the agreement if ever I get out of
this - which I shan't - which I shan't - and I will write on the linen that
it is to be torn up. Yes, and that you are to have five thousand pounds


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