« PreviousContinue »
From "Byrd's Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs.” 1588.
MY mind to me a kingdom is,
Such perfect joy therein I find,
Which God or Nature hath assign'd:
THE DOOMED MAN.
THE only passenger besides myself on board the Susannah, was a Miss Maria B- "" of Port Glasgow, who, on the recent loss of her only parent, was going out to her sister, the wife of a wealthy planter, in Barbadoes. She was a good looking girl, and enjoyed a great flow of animal spirits, which made her at times very amusing; but, having been much spoiled with over-indulgence, she was somewhat pettish and self-willed. Captain Gilkison, (the master of the vessel,) was a quiet, unobtrusive man, mild in his manners and address, with a singularly melancholy expression of countenance, altogether unusual in a sailor: he seemed to have been much in foreign countries, and was the best informed and most intelligent seaman I ever happened to meet with in the merchant service. To the monotony and confinement of a voyage every thing affords an agreeable diversity. Miss Bwhose musical attainments were of a very superior order, sang charmingly, and accompanied herself on the guitar with great taste and sweetness. The captain also played the flute with more skill than is the wont of nautical people in general, so that with these resources, and the aid of books and conversation, we made the time pass pleasantly away, when the weather would not admit of our being on deck.
On the eighteenth day after our ship had left the tail of the bank, and had got into the warmer latitudes, it came to blow pretty fresh at nine P.M. with a long stretch of a swell from the SW.-I had gone to bed and had fallen into a sound sleep, when I was awakened about midnight with the noise of feet traversing the deck, the violent beating with a handspike at the steerage hatchway, and the rough voice of the boatswain turning out the middle watch, with, " All hands ho! tumble up, tumble up, ye lubbers!" I immediately sprang out of bed, hurried on my clothes, and made the best of my way up the companion-ladder, knowing there was something more than usual to do when the whole crew were called up at once. A good deal of bustle prevailed on deck. It had turned out what sailors call a coarse dirty night, blowing very hard, and dark and dismal all round, except when a flash of lightning shewed us the billows boiling and tumbling about us. The ship was labouring hard in a heavy sea-way, sending bows in over head and ears, and washing the forecastle at every pitch. The captain was standing a-breast of the binnacle, and through a speaking trumpet was issuing his orders to take canvas off the foremast and ease the vessel by the head. I walked up to his side, and observed by the binnacle-light that his countenance was much agitated. Aware of the dislike seamen have, in cases of peril, to be interrogated and obstructed in their movements by passengers, I passed without accosting him; and, to be as much as possible out of the men's way, retreated to the hen-coops
at the stern, and, with considerable anxiety, observed his motions. More than half an hour elapsed, but still he kept his station; occasionally walking a few paces to an fro, then examining the compass, to give directions to the man at the wheel, and now and then throwing a glance over the lee-quarter. A shrill, whistling sound through the rigging the clattering of blocks and slackened ropes-the creaking at the doubling of the masts, and the yards at the slings, now warned us that another squall was coming.
The captain hastily stepped to the light and examined his time-piece; I glanced my eyes over it also, and could distinguish that the hands pointed to one o'clock. I saw his lips slightly quiver, and heard him mutter as he put it up" The hour is come now!" I felt a chillness strike to my heart at these words-I thought our last hour was comethat the captain, conscious of the vessel's inability to hold together through the squall, had given us up for lost. I fancied even that the violence of the ship's motion had increased fearfully. My heart beat with a convulsive fluttering, as if I was in the act of flying, each time the vessel, left by an exhausted wave, paused-rose straining and quivering on the ridge of the succeeding one, and again with the rapidity of an arrow made a tremendous plunge into the hollow beneath. I tried to rush forward and learn the worst at once, but my limbs refused to do their office. I endeavoured to make myself heard, but my voice had forsaken me, and my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth. I could not have moved had we been going to the bottom, and my only chance of escape lying in my own exertions. The squall had now reached us in all its wrath, and was hurrying us on with inconceivable velocity, when a flash of lightning, or rather a succession of flashes, like a sheet of fire, illumined the whole waste of waters around us. The captain was now standing within a few feet of me by the gallery-railings, gazing intently to leeward; when all at once he clasped his hands forcibly together, and with a groan of despair, and in a suppressed voice of agony, exclaimed, "My God! there he is again for the last time!" He remained a few seconds, as if regarding something possessed of horrible interest, then struck his open palms over his eyes, and wildly rushed down the companion-way. In vain I had followed the direction of his look, nothing met my sight but long lines of white waves, pursuing us with their deafening roar, and threatening every instant to break on board and engulph the vessel. Having got the better of my own fears, I waited for some time in expectation of his re-appearance, trying to conjecture the cause of such strange conduct, till, at length, unable to endure longer suspense, I got a lantern lighted at the binnacle, and descended to the cabin. I found him on the after-lockers, with his face hidden in his hands: he raised it at my entrance, and I saw it was exceedingly wan, and that a slight shivering ran through his frame. "In the name of Heaven, captain," said I, "what is the matter that you shake so, are you taken suddenly ill?" "Thank you, thank you, sir," he answered, "I am well-in perfect health-but I have a feeling here," and he pressed his hand to his heart," which you cannot understand, and the cause of which you would only laugh at, were I to tell it you." "I do not think I should," returned I: "this is no time for merriment: if the ship is in hazard, our danger is mutual,
and I see nothing laughable in the idea of our going to the bottom." "No," he replied, 66 you mistake me; there is no fear of that, and if there were a risk, our danger is not mutual. The gale will now take off; and as far as timber and iron goes, we have as staunch a sea-boat under us as ever stemmed salt water; she will make better weather in a gale of wind than any seventy-four in the navy; she is well found above and below, and my crew are every one of them as true bred seamen as ever rove reef points through grimits. We are as safe as hearts of oak, in every sense of the phrase, can make us. No, sir, that is not what troubles me. I now know but too well that I am a doomed man -I feel that my fate is sealed, and it is that fearful certainty which, with a weight like our best bower-anchor, presses on my soul, paralyzes all my faculties, and renders existence a curse instead of a blessing. I see that you think me raving under the influence of a distempered imagination. At one period of my life I was as incredulous as you, but woeful experience has since taught me otherwise. I will explain myself more at large; but I must now go on deck till these squalls blow over, for nothing encourages seamen so much as seeing their commander vigilant in his duty; besides, were I known to be a doomed man, not a single hand would trust himself in the ship with me. I must, therefore, beware of giving them further cause to conjecture the reason of my abrupt retreat."
So saying he left me: and, finding all desire for sleep completely banished, I sat ruminating on the perversity of human nature-on the various means man falls on to embitter the brief tenure of his life, bringing imaginary evils and miseries in aid of those which we all too truly experience as the concomitants of our existence.
After a while the captain came below again; the gale had abated, and there was no immediate necessity for his remaining on deck. "And now, sir," said he, "if you feel no inclination for bed, and are willing to lend me your attention, I will recount a few of the leading incidents of my life, which will show you that a mariner's superstition has nought to do with the affair."
I was sent to sea at an early age, and bound cabin-boy to a barque belonging to S, a small sea-port village in Ayrshire. I had for my fellow-apprentice a boy nearly of my own age, and my most intimate companion, called George Cuthbertson. Our parents were next door neighbours, and in habits of great friendship. We had been at school together-shared in the same amusements-had fought each others battles and now felt happy that we were to acquire our nautical knowledge unseparated. We served our time faithfully; and when it expired, made several voyages to different ports of America and the West-Indies. I was shortly afterwards made mate of the vessel, and we were on our passage to Smyrna, when we were captured by a French privateer off the Land's end, and carried into Port Louis. Unfortunately for us, this happened at the period when Buonaparté permitted no exchange of prisoners between the two nations: we were, therefore,
marched far into the interior along with several ships' companies, and confined in the fortress of Breal. I will not take up your attention by a recital of the hardships we endured during the five years of our imprisonment. Our treatment was more like that of brutes than of one Christian nation towards another; but Cuthbertson and I weathered through it, and that was more than hundreds of our fellow-captives did. Twice we made our escape, but were recaptured both times, treated with additional rigour, and threatened with instant death if we made the attempt again. Nevertheless, we tried it once more, with the resolution either to regain our freedom or perish. After months of cautious and unremitting labour, we succeeded in undermining the corner of our stone floor, and bored a passage through the wall at the bottom of the building. This outlet took us clear of the centinels, but still we had a descent of more than twenty feet over the face of the rock to overcome. There were eleven of us confined in the same dungeon, and most part of these were our own crew. We set all hands to work; soon cut up our blankets into stripes, and formed a sort of rope by which we were to lower ourselves down. We all landed safe except our captain, who was a heavy man, and on that account agreed to be the last; he was not so fortunate. He had hardly descended half way, when his weight proved too great for the frail tackling; it broke, and he was precipitated to the bottom. No time was now to be lost the noise of his fall would probably alarm the soldier on duty, and the guard would be down on us in the turning of a capstan-bar. We all, therefore, separated; each taking a different course, the better to elude pursuit, and every one shifting for himself the best way he could. George and I were just darting off, when the faint voice of Green the captain arrested our steps. " Jack," said he," and you Cuthbertson, will ye both sheer of like land-lubbers, and leave your old master and townsman aground here, without ever lending a hand to tow him off a leeshore ?" We were not proof against this appeal. Both of us esteemed him; and though we were in a manner giving up our only chance for escape, we had not the heart to leave him to die, without contributing what we could to his assistance. We tried to raise him on his feet, but in vain he had broken his right leg below the knee, and could not move a step. What was now to be done ?-every moment was precious there was nothing for it but to get him on my back, which we did, and I fled as fast as the weight of my burden would allow me. Taking spell and spell about, we travelled till day-breaking warned us to seek some place of concealment. We accordingly lay down in the middle of a large turnip field, and covered ourselves with the leaves as much as possible. When twilight came on, we again took up our charge, marched all night, and in the morning, found ourselves in a lonely little dell, over arched with trees and bushes, and with a small stream of water flowing through the midst.
I now found that our poor captain had not much longer to endure his sufferings his limb had swelled to a fearful size, with the bone protruding several inches; it was prodigiously inflamed, and mortification had already taken place. God bless you both, my good lads!" he murmured, as we laid him in a sort of recess under the bank, "God in heaven bless you! you have acted the part of sons to