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THE CHIMNEY CORNER., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 265, 10 February 1881
THE CHIMNEY CORNER.
THE LAST MAN ON BOARD. “ Caught at last, Jack. The old craft’s bound to drive ashore in half an hour, and then there’ll be wet jackets for us all.” “ Aye, aye, Bill, my boy ; and it jist sarves us right for shippin’ aboard a ten-gun brig. They always has bad luck, .they has! ” So the two veteran sailors, as th(| staunch little cruiser,..whirled,onward dike ’it feather by wind and sea, drifted nearer and meaner. to the huge black cliffs which, through blinding spray and deepening storm, loomed out plainer and painer upon the lee bow. The Seabird had indeed made her last voyage. All her boats had been stove in,' riiasts and rigging had long since been torn away by the furious gale, or hacked-. Off by the crew themselves, and
the cruel rocks upon which the helpless vessel was'driving headlong would have crushed' the'' timbers ‘of the strongest seventy-four like an egg-shell. Byt, with death gaping for them every moment, not a ; man flinched. The Captain gave his.orders,, and the .crew, obeyed them, as coolly as if running into port on a fine summer morning. But' the end came at last. One mighty shock, which threw every man off his feet,-a terrible crash, a giddy rebound, and then the. doomed brig settled right down upon a sunken reef, with that tearing, grinding noise which) no one who has once heard it can easily forget. “ She’lj move no more now till she breaks up altogether,” said the Captain, quietly, “so we must just think of savin" ourselves. Any chance of a line from the shore Mr. Rogers? You know this coast well.” “ None, sir, I’m afraid,” answered the first officer, who was standing near him.
“ There’s neither rocket nor life-boat within several miles, and no boat could come out in the teeth of the sea.” At that moment a red light blazed up from the cliff overhead, and the whole scene started into view at once. The great wall of black rock, with the sea-birds flapping and shrieking around it, the narrow strip of beach below, crowded with anxious watchers;-the quaint little fishing village, with its rude huts built of driftwood or broken stones; the stranded ship and her crew, every face and every rope standing out distinct in the light of the beacon; and all around, the tossing waves, which, reddened by that..un-
earthly glare, seemed to cast up a spray of fire against the gloomy sky. ; It was plain that the vessel must break up before long. The Captain looked keenly toward the shore for a moment, and then turned to his men. “My lads,” cried he, “ there is some chance for us yet. They can’t get a boat out to us, but we may get a line to them, for the tide’s setting strongly in-shore. Twenty pounds to the man who will swim ashore with a rope !” The offer sounded like a bitter mockery, for to face that sea appeared nothing less than certain death. The words were hardly spoken, however, when a man stepped forward and touched his wet forelock to the Captain, who started as he recognised him. And well he might, for this man was the “ black sheep ” of the whole crew, and had been brought up for punishment (not for the first time) a few days before.
“What, you, Thompson ?" “Aye, it’s me, your honor!” answered the man with a grim smile, as he knotted the rope around his waist. “ Yer honor told, only t’other day, as I was a disgrace to the ship, so mayhap the old craft’ll be well rid of me !” For a moment the Captain’s iron face worked as no one had ever seen it yet; and then, without a word, he held out his hand. The other grasped it for an instant in a grip like a smith’s vice, and then, watching his opportunity, plunged into the roaring sea. 1 hen came a long and terrible pause. Every man on board held his breath, while straining his eyes into the boiling whirl of foam below. Once, a few of the keenest sighted among them thought they caught sight of the sailor’s black head in the midst of the white, seething breakers; but the next moment a mountain wave rolled in and covered all. Had the daring swimmer succeeded, or had he perished in the attempt ? No one could say. There are very few things more difficult, or requiring more skill and judgment, than* to carry a rope ashore in a stormy sea. To a' landsman it may seem merely a question of breasting the waves between one point and another; but such is by no means the case. To avoid a wave, or to take advantage of it j to know when to escape by diving, when to rise on the crest of a billow as it breaks; to husband one’s strength at one moment, and put it forth to the utmost at another —all this must be thought of, in the very crisis of the peril, if the task is to be achieved at all.
Suddenly a cheer comes pealing from the shore, so loud and hearty as to be heard above all the roar of the storm, and it is repeated again and again, till every cranny of the great cliff se§ms alive with echoes. “ He must ha’ done it, sir,” says the boatswain to the first officer, “ for I feel the rope cornin’ taut in my hands,.” Sure enough, in another moment the narrow black line stood clearly ; out against the ghostly white of the sea, for some distance from the wreck, although farther out, it was completely hidden by' the leaping waves. “ Now, my lads,” cried' Captain Hardy, “ off with you, aqd mind you hold fast. If we were boarding an enemy I wouldn’t ask you ro go first ; but this is a different thing ; I don’t take my foot off these planks till every other man has left them ; so the sooner you all get ashore, the less time you’ll keep me waiting.” The concluding joke, grim as it was, touched his hearers in the right place. They answered him with a cheer, and at once began upon their perilous journey. More than once a stifled cry was heard from the depth of the darkness, as a furious wave tore some poor fellow from the slippery, cord, and whirled him away to destruction; but the greater part reached the shore in safety, hailed by the’ lusty cheers of the fishermen. After the turn of the men came that of the officers. Ope by one, thej? cleared the, deadly spaccytiirthe only man left upon the .
wreck was ihe captain himself. All at once a terrible cry was heard, and the first officer, turning hastily, saw the rope tossing loose upon the waves. It had snapped in the middle ! “ God help mun,” muttered an old fisherman, sadly: “itbe a’ over wi’ mun now !”
What ?” shouted Thompson, starting up from the wet shingles, upon which he had been lying exhausted. All over with him, d’ye say? Not while we have hands of our own, anyhow !”
“ Why, Bill, what’s got you ?” cried one of his comrades, jokingly. “ I heerd you say, myself, only last week, as you’d give a year’s pay to see the old man in a scrape as he couldn’t git out of!”
“ And what o’ that ?” retorted the - other, savagely. “ D’ye think Bill Thompson’s the one to remember any sich foolery when there’s a brave man dyih’ right afore his very eyes ?. I tell ye,-he giv’ me his hand afore the whole ship’s company, jist as if him and me warn’t cap’n and A.B. at all, but man and.man ; and.Til-help him somehow, it I die for it!” “ Ee be’st a brave lad,” said one of the fishermen, approvingly.; “ but boat nor line can never reach yon man now. Qod ha’ mercy on mun’s soul!” “ And so we’re all to git ashore, and leave our cap’n behind to drown !” cried a sailor;fiefcely. “ That ’ud be a nice piece for' English blue-jackets to tell, wouldn’t it?”,. Mates are we men ? or arp we a pack o’ skulkers as oughtn’t never to show our faces on blue water again ? Who’ll.help me to take a boat out to him ?” “ I will!” “ And I !” “ And I !”
“ Come along then !” “ Bide ye, bide ye, lads !” said the old fisherman; “ ee’ll do nought o’ good thik’ way. But I’ll tell ’ee what ye need do, if the wind ’ud only shift a p’int to the east’ard, as it do seem to be for doin’.”
“It is shifting; I see it!” exclaimed Thompson eagerly. “ What are we to do, daddy ? tell us quick !” “ ’Ee see yon p’int ?” said the veteran, indicating the rocky headland that closed in the bay to the east. “ When the wind be south-and-by-west, it do raak’ a coorrent across the bay, right down to the rocks where the vessel be lyin’; ’ee must get to mun so.”
The impatient crew barely gave him time to finish. One universal hurrah shook the air, and in an instant these bruised, half-drowned, starving men, who had seemed hardly able to stand a few minutes before, were running like madmen towards the point, where they scarcely waited to let the wind change sufficiently for their purpose, before launching a boat and pulling furiously towards the wreck.
Meanwhile, how fared it with the doomed Captain ? Perhaps even his stout heart may have failed for a moment, at the thought of his young wife far away on the Kentish shore, and the two, little girls who were praying that “ papa might come safe back from sea,” while he stood there alone with death. But, whatever might be the peril that threatened him, there was no “ white feather ” about Captain Richard Hardy ; and the eyes that had faced without flinching the grinning muzzles of French cannon, looked just as fearlessly upon the gnashing wpves. Suddenly a loud hurrah came rolling over the wild sea, and the rising moon, breaking for an instant through the inky masses of clouds, showed him a boat coming straight towards him, in the bow of which sat the scape-grace Thompson, bending to his oar with the strength of a giant. And as they approached, he could hear beneath his feet the rending of the timbers, and the gurgle of the fatal water as it poured in, keeping time to the oar strokes of his deliverers. “ Pull, boys !” roared Thompson ; “ will yer let him drown afore yer eyes?”
At that moment a mountain-wave broke over the wreck, completely burying it for an instant. A terrific crash , was heard, and when the spray had cleared, it was seen that the vessel had parted amidships, and that the whole after-part was clean gone. The bow, however, still held firm, and upon it, shadow-like in the fitful" moonlight, stood the dark figure of the Captain. “ Hold up, your honor,.” shouted Thompson ; “another minute, and you’re saved!”, But it is often that another minute ” which makes all the difference. Just as the boat ran alongside the wreck, another tremendous sea overwhelmed both. There was a second crash louder than the first, and nothing remained of the strong ship but a toss-
ing chaos of broken timbers, But where was the Captain?. Amid the blinding spray and the deafening uproar, no one but the man beside noticed Bill Thompson twist a rope around his left arm, and plunge into the sea. But the next moment his call was heard from, the midst of the mass of floating wreck; and his corarades; hauling in the line, brought with it Capt. Hardy, senseless from the blow of <a falling splinter, and Thompson ihmself, bleedingffreely from a terrible gash in the: forehead. And now came the hardest part of the work. To* return to the point against the current was simply imr possible; their only chance was to head straight for the shore, right through the worst fuiry 6f the breakers. More than
once all seemed over with them; but the old fisherman who steered was as cool'ahd steady as if only on a pleasure Jtrip, heeding the seas that almost filled the boat no more than drops of rain. The moment her keel touched the sand, a score of strong hands were ready to drag them beyond the reach of. the-, waves, while a louder cheer than all burst forth when it was seen that not one man was missing. Years later, when Commodore Sir Richard Hardy retired from,Jthe service with a pension and a baronetcy to console him for the loss of his left arm, he ..was never seen unattended by his confidential servant, a short, thick-set man, with a deep scar across his forehead, whose favorite after-dinner was “ how me and his honor was pretty nigh swamped ’bout 25 years ago, when the old Seabird went ashore in Ridge-' mount Bay.”
THE CHIMNEY CORNER., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 265, 10 February 1881
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