James Fenimore Cooper.

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when the command to take in the canvas was given, it was not long before
Mark had her under her three topsails, and these with two reefs in them,
and the ship on an easy bowline, with her head to the southward. When
all this was done the young man felt a good deal of relief, for the
danger he had seen was ahead, and this change of course brought it
nearly abeam. It is true, the breakers were still to leeward, and
insomuch most dangerously situated but the wind did not blow strong
enough to prevent the ship from weathering them, provided time was taken
by the forelock. The Rancocus was a good, weatherly ship, nor was there
sufficient sea on to make it at all difficult for her to claw off a lee
shore. Desperate indeed is the situation of the vessel that has rocks or
sands under her lee, with the gale blowing in her teeth, and heavy seas
sending her bodily, and surely, however slowly, on the very breakers she
is struggling to avoid! Captain Crutchely had not been aloft five
minutes before he hailed the deck, and ordered Mark to send Bob Betts up
to the cross-trees. Bob had the reputation of being the brightest
look-out in the vessel, and was usually employed when land was about to
be approached, or a sail was expected to be made. He went up the
fore-rigging like a squirrel, and was soon at the captain's side, both
looking anxiously to leeward. A few minutes after the ship had hauled by
the wind, both came down, stopping in the top, however, to take one more
look to leeward.

The second-mate stood waiting the further descent of the captain, with a
soft of leering look of contempt on his hard, well-dyed features, which
seemed to anticipate that it would soon be known that Mark's white water
had lost its colour, and become blue water once more. But Captain
Crutchely did not go as far as this, when he got down. He admitted that
he had seen nothing that he could very decidedly say was breakers, but
that, once or twice, when it lighted up a little, there had been a
gleaming along the western horizon which a good deal puzzled him. It
might be white water, or it might be only the last rays of the setting
sun tipping the combs of the regular seas. Bob Betts, too, was as much
at fault as his captain, and a sarcastic remark or two of Hillson, the
second-mate, were fast bringing Mark's breakers into discredit.

"Jest look at the chart, Captain Crutchely," put in Hillson - "a regular
Tower Hill chart as ever was made, and you'll see there _can_ be no
white water hereabouts. If a man is to shorten sail and haul his wind,
at every dead whale he falls in with, in these seas, his owners will
have the balance on the wrong side of the book at the end of the

This told hard against Mark, and considerably in Hillson's favour.

"And could _you_ see nothing of breakers ahead, Bob?" demanded Mark,
with an emphasis on the '_you_' which pretty plainly implied that the
young man was not so much surprised that the captain had not seen them.

"Not a bit of it, Mr. Woolston," answered Bob, hitching up his
trowsers, "and I'd a pretty good look ahead, too."

This made still more against Mark, and Captain Crutchely sent for the
chart. Over this map he and the second-mate pondered with a sort of
muzzy sagacity, when they came to the conclusion that a clear sea _must_
prevail around them, in all directions, for a distance exceeding a
thousand miles. A great deal is determined in any case of a dilemma,
when it is decided that this or that fact _must_ be so. Captain
Crutchely would not have arrived at this positive conclusion so easily,
had not his reasoning powers been so much stimulated by his repeated
draughts of rum and water, that afternoon; all taken, as he said and
believed, not so much out of love for the beverage itself, as out of
love for Mrs. John Crutchely. Nevertheless, our captain was accustomed
to take care of a ship, and he was not yet in a condition to forget all
his duties, in circumstances so critical. As Mark solemnly and steadily
repeated his own belief that there were breakers ahead, he so far
yielded to the opinions of his youthful chief-mate as to order the
deep-sea up, and to prepare to sound.

This operation of casting the deep-sea lead is not done in a moment,
but, on board a merchant vessel, usually occupies from a quarter of an
hour to twenty minutes. The ship must first be hove-to, and her way
ought to be as near lost as possible before the cast is made. Then the
getting along of the line, the stationing of the men, and the sounding
and hauling in again, occupy a good many minutes. By the time it was all
over, on this occasion, it was getting to be night. The misty, drizzling
weather threatened to make the darkness intense, and Mark felt more and
more impressed with the danger in which the ship was placed.

The cast of the lead produced no other result than the certainty that
bottom was not to be found with four hundred fathoms of line out. No
one, however, not even the muzzy Hillson, attached much importance to
this fact, inasmuch as it was known that the coral reefs often rise like
perpendicular walls, in the ocean, having no bottom to be found within a
cable's-length of them. Then Mark did not believe the ship to be within
three leagues of the breakers he had seen, for they had seemed, both to
him and to the seaman who had first reported them, to be several leagues
distant. One on an elevation like that of the top-gallant cross-trees,
could see a long way, and the white water had appeared to Mark to be on
the very verge of the western horizon, even as seen from his lofty

After a further consultation with his officers, during which Hillson had
not spared his hits at his less experienced superior, Captain Crutchely
came to a decision, which might be termed semi-prudent. There is nothing
that a seaman more dislikes than to be suspected of extra-nervousness on
the subject of doubtful dangers of this sort. Seen and acknowledged, he
has no scruples about doing his best to avoid them; but so long as there
is an uncertainty connected with their existence at all, that miserable
feeling of vanity which renders us all so desirous to be more than
nature ever intended us for, inclines most men to appear indifferent
even while they dread. The wisest thing Captain Crutchely could have
done, placed in the circumstances in which he now found himself, would
have been to stand off and on, under easy canvas, until the return of
light, when he might have gone ahead on his course with some confidence,
and a great deal more of safety. But there would have been an air of
concession to the power of an unknown danger that conflicted with his
pride, in such a course, and the old and well-tried ship-master did not
like to give the 'uncertain' this advantage over him. He decided
therefore to stand on, with his topsails reefed, keeping bright
look-outs ahead, and having his courses in the brails, ready for getting
the tacks down to claw off to windward, should it prove to be necessary.
With this plan Mark was compelled to comply, there being no appeal from
the decrees of the autocrat of the quarter deck.

As soon as the decision of Captain Crutchely was made, the helm was put
up, and the ship kept off to her course. It was true, that under
double-reefed topsails, and jib, which was all the canvas set, there was
not half the danger there would have been under their former sail; and,
when Mark took charge of the watch, as he did soon after, or eight
o'clock, he was in hopes, by means of vigilance, still to escape the
danger. The darkness, which was getting to be very intense, was now the
greatest and most immediate source of his apprehensions. Could he only
get a glimpse of the sea a cable's-length ahead, he would have felt vast
relief; but even that small favour was denied him. By the time the
captain and second-mate had turned in, which each did after going below
and taking a stiff glass of rum and water in his turn, it was so dark
our young mate could not discern the combing of the waves a hundred
yards from the ship, in any direction. This obscurity was owing to the
drizzle that filled the atmosphere, as well as to the clouds that
covered the canopy above that lone and wandering ship.

As for Mark, he took his station between the knight-heads, where he
remained most of the watch, nearly straining the eyes out of his head,
in the effort to penetrate the gloom, and listening acutely to ascertain
if he might not catch some warning roar of the breakers, that he felt so
intimately persuaded must be getting nearer and nearer at each instant.
As midnight approached, came the thought of Hillson's taking his place,
drowsy and thick-headed as he knew he must be at that hour. At length
Mark actually fancied he heard the dreaded sounds; the warning, however,
was not ahead, but well on his starboard beam. This he thought an ample
justification for departing from his instructions, and he instantly
issued an order to put the helm hard a-starboard, so as to bring the
vessel up to the wind, on the contrary tack. Unfortunately, as the
result proved, it now became his imperative duty to report to Captain
Crutchely what he had done. For a minute or two the young man thought of
keeping silence, to stand on his present course, to omit calling the
second-mate, and to say nothing about what he had done, keeping the deck
himself until light should return. But reflection induced him to shrink
from the execution of this plan, which would have involved him in a
serious misunderstanding with both his brother officers, who could not
fail to hear all that had occurred in the night, and who must certainly
know, each in his respective sphere, that they themselves had been
slighted. With a slow step, therefore, and a heavy heart, Mark went
into the cabin to make his report, and to give the second-mate the
customary call.

It was not an easy matter to awaken either of those, who slept under the
influence of potations as deep as the night-caps taken by Captain
Crutchely and Mr. Hillson. The latter, in particular, was like a man in
a state of lethargy, and Mark had half a mind to leave him, and make his
condition an excuse for not having persisted in the call. But he
succeeded in arousing the captain, who soon found the means to bring the
second-mate to a state of semi-consciousness.

"Well, sir," cried the captain, as soon as fairly awake himself, "what

"I think I heard breakers abeam, sir, and I have hauled up to the

A grunt succeeded, which Mark scarce knew how to interpret. It might
mean dissatisfaction, or it might mean surprise. As the captain,
however, was thoroughly awake, and was making his preparations to come
out on deck, he thought that he had done all that duty required, and he
returned to his own post. The after-part of the ship was now the best
situation for watching, and Mark went up on the poop, in order to see
and hear the better. No lower sail being in the way, he could look ahead
almost as well from that position as if he were forward; and as for
hearing, it was much the best place of the two, in consequence of there
being no wash of the sea directly beneath him, as was the case when
stationed between the knight-heads. To this post he soon summoned Bob
Betts, who belonged to his watch, and with whom he had ever kept up as
great an intimacy as the difference in their stations would allow.

"Bob, your ears are almost as good as your eyes," said Mark; "have you
heard nothing of breakers?"

"I have, Mr. Woolston, and now own I did see something that may have
been white water, this afternoon, while aloft; but the captain and
second-mate seemed so awarse to believing in sich a thing, out here in
the open Pacific, that I got to be awarse, too."

"It was a great fault in a look-out not to let what he had seen be
known," said Mark, gravely.

"I own it, sir; I own how wrong I was, and have been sorry for it ever
since. But it's going right in the wind's eye, Mr. Woolston, to go ag'in
captain and dickey!"

"But, you now think you have _heard_ breakers - where away?"

"Astarn first; then ahead; and, just as you called me up on the poop,
sir, I fancied they sounded off here, on the weather bow."

"Are you serious, Bob?"

"As I ever was in my life, Mr. Mark. This oversight of the arternoon has
made me somewhat conscientious, if I can be conscientious, and my sight
and hearing are now both wide awake. It's my opinion, sir, that the ship
is in the _midst_ of breakers at this instant, and that we may go on 'em
at any moment!"

"The devil it is!" exclaimed Captain Crutchely, who now appeared on the
poop, and who caught the last part of Bob Betts's speech. "Well, for my
part, I hear nothing out of the way, and I will swear the
keenest-sighted man on earth can see nothing."

These words were scarcely out of the captain's mouth, and had been
backed by a senseless, mocking laugh from Hillson, who was still muzzy,
and quite as much asleep as awake, when the deep and near roar of
breakers was most unequivocally heard. It came from to windward, too and
abeam! This was proof that the ship was actually among the breakers when
Mark hauled up, and that she was now passing a danger to leeward, that
she must have previously gone by, in running down on her course. The
captain, without waiting to consult with his cool and clear-headed young
mate, now shouted for all hands to be called, and to "stand by to ware
ship." These orders came out so fast, and in so peremptory a manner,
that remonstrance was out of the question, and Mark set himself at work
to obey them, in good earnest. _He_ would have tacked in preference to
waring, and it would have been much wiser to do so; but it was clearly
expedient to get the ship on the other tack, and he lent all his present
exertions to the attainment of that object. Waring is much easier done
than tacking, certainly; when it does not blow too fresh, and there is
not a dangerous sea on, no nautical manoeuvre can be more readily
effected, though room is absolutely necessary to its success. This room
was now wanting. Just as the ship had got dead before the wind, and was
flying away to leeward, short as was the sail she was under, the
atmosphere seemed to be suddenly filled with a strange light, the sea
became white all around them, and a roar of tumbling waters arose, that
resembled the sound of a small cataract. The ship was evidently in the
midst of breakers, and the next moment she struck!

The intense darkness of the night added to the horrors of that awful
moment. Nevertheless, the effect was to arouse all that there was of
manliness and seamanship in Captain Crutchely, who from that instant
appeared to be himself again. His orders were issued coolly, clearly and
promptly, and they were obeyed as experienced mariners will work at an
instant like that. The sails were all clewed up, and the heaviest of
them were furled. Hillson was ordered to clear away an anchor, while
Mark was attending to the canvas. In the mean time, the captain watched
the movements of the ship. He had dropped a lead alongside, and by that
he ascertained that they were still beating ahead. The thumps were not
very hard, and the white water was soon left astern, none having washed
on deck. All this was so much proof that the place on which they had
struck must have had nearly water enough to float the vessel, a fact
that the lead itself corroborated. Fifteen feet aft was all the Rancocus
wanted, in her actual trim, and the lead showed a good three fathoms, at
times. It was when the ship settled in the troughs of the sea that she
felt the bottom. Satisfied that his vessel was likely to beat over the
present difficulty, Captain Crutchely now gave all his attention to
getting her anchored as near the reef and to leeward of it, as possible.
The instant she went clear, a result he now expected every moment, he
was determined to drop one of his bower anchors, and wait for daylight,
before he took any further steps to extricate himself from the danger by
which he was surrounded.

On the forecastle, the work went on badly, and thither Captain Crutchely
proceeded. The second-mate scarce knew what he was about, and the
captain took charge of the duty himself. At the same time he issued an
order to Mark to get up tackles, and to clear away the launch,
preparatory to getting that boat into the water. Hillson had bent the
cable wrong, and much of the work had to be done over again. As soon as
men get excited, as is apt to be the case when they find serious
blunders made at critical moments, they are not always discreet. The
precise manner in which Captain Crutchely met with the melancholy fate
that befel him, was never known. It is certain that he jumped down on
the anchor-stock, the anchor being a cock-bill, and that he ordered Mr.
Hillson off of it. While thus employed, and at an instant when the cable
was pronounced bent, and the men were in the act of getting inboard, the
ship made a heavy roll, breakers again appeared all around her, the
white foam rising nearly to the level of her rails. The captain was seen
no more. There is little doubt that he was washed from the anchor stock,
and carried away to leeward, in the midst of the darkness of that
midnight hour.

Mark was soon apprised of the change that had occurred, and of the heavy
responsibility that now rested on his young shoulders. A feeling of
horror and of regret came over him, at first; but understanding the
necessity of self-command, he aroused himself, at once, to his duty, and
gave his orders coolly and with judgment. The first step was to
endeavour to save the captain. The jolly-boat was lowered, and six men
got in it, and passed ahead of the ship, with this benevolent design.
Mark stood on the bowsprit, and saw them shoot past the bows of the
vessel, and then, almost immediately, become lost to view in the gloomy
darkness of the terrible scene. The men never reappeared, a common and
an unknown fate thus sweeping away Captain Crutchely and six of his best
men, and all, as it might be, in a single instant of time!

Notwithstanding these sudden and alarming losses, the work went on.
Hillson seemed suddenly to become conscious of the necessity of
exertion, and by giving his utmost attention to hoisting out the launch,
that boat was got safely into the water. By this time the ship had
beaten so far over the reef, as scarcely to touch at all, and Mark had
everything ready for letting go his anchors, the instant he had reason
to believe she was in water deep enough to float her. The thumps grew
lighter and lighter, and the lead-line showed a considerable drift; so
much so, indeed, as to require its being hauled in and cast anew every
minute. Under all the circumstances, Mark expected each instant, to find
himself in four fathoms' water, and he intended to let go the anchor the
moment he was assured of that fact. In the mean time, he ordered the
carpenter to sound the pumps. This was done, and the ship was reported
with only the customary quantity of water in the well. As yet her bottom
was not injured, materially at least.

While Mark stood with the lead-line in his hand, anxiously watching the
drift of the vessel and the depth of water, Hillson was employed in
placing provisions in the launch. There was a small amount of specie in
the cabin, and this, too, was transferred to the launch; everything of
that sort being done without Mark's knowledge, and by the second-mate's
orders. The former was on the forecastle, waiting the proper moment to
anchor; while all of the after-part of the ship was at the mercy of the
second-mate, and a gang of the people, whom that officer had gathered
around him.

At length Mark found, to his great delight, that there were four good
fathoms of water under the ship's bows, though she still hung abaft. He
ascertained this fact by means of Bob Betts, which true-hearted tar
stood by him, with a lantern, by swinging which low enough, the marks
were seen on the lead-line. Foot by foot the ship now surged ahead, the
seas being so much reduced in size and power, by the manner in which
they had been broken to windward, as not to lift the vessel more than an
inch or two at a time. After waiting patiently a quarter of an hour,
Mark believed that the proper time had come, and he gave the order to
'let run.' The seaman stationed at the stopper obeyed, and down went the
anchor. It happened, opportunely enough, that the anchor was thus
dropped, just as the keel cleared the bottom, and the cable being
secured at a short range, after forging ahead far enough to tighten the
hitter, the vessel tended. In swinging to her anchor, a roller came down
upon her, however; one that had crossed the reef without breaking, and
broke on board her. Mark afterwards believed that the rush and weight
of this sea, which did no serious harm, frightened the men into the
launch, where Hillson was already in person, and that the boat either
struck adrift under the power of the roller, or that the painter was
imprudently cast off in the confusion of the moment. He had got in as
far as the windlass himself, when the sea came aboard; and, as soon as
he recovered his sight after the ducking he received, he caught a dim
view of the launch, driving off to leeward, on the top of a wave.
Hailing was useless, and he stood gazing at the helpless boat until it
became lost, like everything else that was a hundred yards from the
ship, in the gloom of night. Even then Mark was by no means conscious of
the extent of the calamity that had befallen him. It was only when he
had visited cabin, steerage and forecastle, and called the crew over by
name, that he reached the grave fact that there was no one left on board
the Rancocus but Bob Betts and himself!

As Mark did not know what land was to be found to leeward, he naturally
enough hoped and expected that the people in both boats might reach the
shore, and be recovered in the morning; but he had little expectation of
ever seeing Captain Crutchely again. The circumstances, however,
afforded him little time to reflect on these things, and he gave his
whole attention, for the moment, to the preservation of the ship.
Fortunately, the anchor held, and, as the wind, which had never blown
very heavily, sensibly began to lessen, Mark was sanguine in the belief
it would continue to hold. Captain Crutchely had taken the precaution to
have the cable bitted at a short range with a view to keep it, as much
as possible, off the bottom; coral being known to cut the hempen cables
that were altogether in use, in that day, almost as readily as axes. In
consequence of this bit of foresight, the Rancocus lay at a distance of
less than forty fathoms from her anchor, which Mark knew had been
dropped in four fathoms' water. He now sounded abreast of the main-mast,
and ascertained that the ship itself was in nine fathoms. This was
cheering intelligence, and when Bob Betts heard it, he gave it as his
opinion that all might yet go well with them, could they only recover
the six men who had gone to leeward in the jolly-boat. The launch had
carried off nine of their crew, which, previously to this night, had
consisted of nineteen, all told. This suggestion relieved Mark's mind of
a load of care, and he lent himself to the measures necessary to the
continued safety of the vessel, with renewed animation and vigour.

The pump-well was once more sounded, and found to be nearly empty. Owing
to the nature of the bottom on which they had struck, the lightness of
the thumps, or the strength of the ship herself, it was clear that the
vessel had thus far escaped without any material injury. For this
advantage Mark was deeply grateful, and could he only recover four or
five of the people, and find his way out into open water, he might hope
to live again to see America, and to be re-united to his youthful and
charming bride.

The weather continued to grow more and more moderate, and some time
before the day returned the clouds broke away, the drizzle ceased, and a
permanent change was to be expected. Mark now found new ground for
apprehensions, even in these favourable circumstances. He supposed that
the ship must feel the influence of the tides, so near the land, and was
afraid she might tail the other way, and thus be brought again over the
reef. In order to obviate this difficulty, he and Bob set to work to get
another cable bent, and another anchor clear for letting go. As all our
readers may not be familiar with ships, it may be well to say that
vessels, as soon as they quit a coast on a long voyage, unbend their
cables and send them all below, out of the way, while, at the same time,

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Crater → online text (page 4 of 42)