Chapter VIII. [XXXII]

“That face of his I do remember well;  

Yet, when I saw it last, it was besmeared

 As black as Vulcan, in the smoke of war:”

What you will.

From the moment when the Coquette fired her first gun, to the moment when the retiring boats became invisible, was just twenty minutes. Of this time, less than half had been occupied, by the incidents related, in the ship. Short as it was, in truth, it seemed, to all engaged, but an instant. The alarm was over, the sound of the oars had ceased, and still the survivors stood at their posts, as if expecting the attack to be renewed. Then came those personal thoughts, which had been suspended in the fearful exigency of such a struggle. The wounded began to feel their pain, and to be sensible of the danger of their injuries, while the few, who had escaped unhurt, turned a friendly care on their ship+mates. Ludlow, as often happens with the bravest and most exposed, had escaped without a scratch, but he saw by the drooping forms around him, which were no longer sustained by the excitement of battle, that his triumph was dearly purchased.

“Send, Mr. Trysail, to me;” he said, in a tone that had little of a victor’s exultation. “The land breeze has made, and we will endeavour to improve it, and get inside the cape, lest the morning light give us more of these Frenchmen.”

The order for, ‘Mr. Trysail!’ ‘the captain calls the master!’ passed in a low call, from mouth to mouth, but it was unanswered. A seaman told the expecting young commander, that the surgeon desired his presence, forward. A gleaming of lights and a little groupe at the foot of the foremast, was a beacon not to be mistaken. The weather-beaten master was in the agony, and his medical attendant, had just risen from a fruitless examination of his wounds, as Ludlow approached.

“I hope the hurt is not serious?” hurriedly whispered the alarmed young sailor to the surgeon, who was coolly collecting his implements, in order to administer to some more promising subject. “Neglect nothing that your art can suggest.”

“The case is desperate, Capt. Ludlow,” returned the phlegmatic surgeon; “but if you have a taste for such things, there is as beautiful a case for amputation, promised in the fore-topman, whom I have had sent below, as offers once in a whole life of active practice!”

“Go, go — ” interrupted Ludlow, half pushing the unmoved man of blood, away, as he spoke; “go, then, where your services are needed.”

The other cast a glance around him, reproved his attendant, in a sharp tone, for unnecessarily exposing the blade of some ferocious-looking instrument to the dew, and departed.

“Would to God, that some portion of these injuries had befallen those who are younger and stronger!” murmured the captain, as he leaned over the dying master. “Can I do aught to relieve thy mind, my old and worthy ship-mate?”

“I have had my misgivings, since we have dealt with witchcraft!” returned Trysail, whose voice the rattling of the throat had already nearly silenced. “I have had misgivings — but no matter. Take care of the ship — I have been thinking of our people — you’ll have to cut — they can never lift the anchor — the wind is here at north.”

“All this is ordered. Trouble thyself no further about the vessel; she shall be taken care of, I promise you. Speak of thy wife, and of thy wishes in England.”

“God bless, Mrs. Trysail! She’ll get a pension, and I hope contentment! You must give the reef a good berth in rounding Montauk — and you’ll naturally wish to find the anchors, again, when the coast is clear — if you can find it in your conscience, say a good word of poor old Ben Trysail, in the despatches — “

The voice of the master sunk to a whisper, and became inaudible. Ludlow thought he strove to speak, again, and he bent his ear to his mouth.

“I say — the weather-main-swifter and both back-stays are gone; look to the spars, for — for — there are — sometimes — heavy puffs at night — in the Americas!”

The last heavy respiration succeeded, after which came the long silence of death. The body was removed to the poop, and Ludlow, with a saddened heart, turned to duties that this accident rendered still more imperative.

Notwithstanding the heavy loss, and the originally weakened state of her crew, the sails of the Coquette were soon spread, and the ship moved away in silence, as if sorrowing for those who had fallen at her anchorage. When the vessel was fairly in motion, her captain ascended to the poop, in order to command a clearer view of all around him, as well as to profit by the situation, to arrange his plans for the future. He found he had been anticipated by the free-trader.

“I owe my ship — I may say my life, since in such a conflict they would have gone together, to thy succour!” said the young commander, as he approached the motionless form of the smuggler. “Without it, Queen Anne would have lost a cruiser, and the flag of England a portion of its well earned glory.”

“May thy royal mistress prove as ready to remember her friends, in emergencies, as mine. In good truth, there was little time to lose, and trust me, we well understood the extremity. If we were tardy, it was because whale-boats were to be brought from a distance, for the land lies between my brigantine and the sea.”

“He who came so opportunely, and acted so well, needs no apology.”

“Capt. Ludlow, are we friends?”

“It cannot be otherwise. All minor considerations must be lost in such a service. If it is your intention to push this illegal trade further, on the coast, I must seek another station.”

“Not so. — Remain and do credit to your flag, and the land of your birth. I have long thought that this is the last time, the keel of the Water Witch will ever plough the American seas. Before I quit you, I would have an interview with the merchant. A worse man might have fallen, and just now, even, a better man might be spared. I hope no harm has come to him?”

“He has shown the steadiness of his Holland lineage, to-day. During the boarding he was useful and cool.”

“It is well. Let the Alderman be summoned to the deck, for my time is limited and I have much to say — “

The Skimmer paused, for at that moment, a fierce light glared upon the ocean, the ship, and all in it. The two seamen gazed at each other, in silence, and both recoiled, as men recede before an unexpected and fearful attack. But a bright and wavering light, which rose out of the forward hatch of the vessel, explained all. At the same moment, the deep stillness which, since the bustle of making sail had ceased, pervaded the ship, was broken by the appalling cry of “Fire!”

The alarm which brings the blood, in the swiftest current, to a seaman’s heart, was now heard in the depths of the vessel. The smothered sounds below, the advancing uproar, and the rush on deck, with the awful summons, in the open air, succeeded each other, with the rapidity of lightning. A dozen voices repeated the word ‘the grenade!’ proclaiming in a breath, both the danger and the cause. But an instant, before, the swelling canvass, the dusky spars, and the faint lines of the cordage, were only to be traced by the glimmering light of the stars, and now the whole hamper of the ship was the more conspicuous, from the obsure back-ground against which it was drawn in distinct lines. The sight was fearfully beautiful; beautiful, for it showed the symmetry and fine outlines of the vessel’s rig, resembling the effect of a groupe of statuary seen by torch light, and fearful, since the dark void, beyond, seemed to declare their isolated and helpless state.

There was one, breathless, eloquent, moment, in which all were seen gazing at the grand spectacle, in mute awe, and then a voice rose, clear, distinct and commanding, above the sullen sound of the torrent of fire, which was roaring among the avenues of the ship.

“Call all hands, to extinguish fire! Gentlemen to your stations. Be cool, men; and be silent!”

There was a calmness, and an authority in the tones of the young commander, that curbed the impetuous feelings of the startled crew. Accustomed to obedience, and trained to order, each man broke out of his trance, and eagerly commenced the discharge of his allotted duty. At that instant an erect and unmoved form stood on the combings of the main hatch. A hand was raised in the air, and the call, which came from the deep chest was like that of one used to speak in the tempest.

“Where are my brigantines!” it said — “Come away there, my sea-dogs; wet the light sails, and follow!”

A groupe of grave and submissive mariners gathered about the Skimmer of the Seas, at the sound of his voice. Glancing an eye over them, as if to scan their quality and number, he smiled, with a look in which high daring and practised self-command was blended with a constitutional gaité de coeur.

“One deck or two!” — he added; “what avails a plank, more or less, in an explosion! — Follow!”

The free-trader and his people disappeared in the interior of the ship. An interval of great and resolute exertion succeeded. Blankets, sails, and every thing which offered, and which promised to be of use, were wetted and cast upon the flames. The engine was brought to bear, and the ship was deluged with water. But the confined space, with the heat and smoke, rendered it impossible to penetrate to those parts of the vessel, where the conflagration raged. The ardor of the men abated, as hope lessened, and after half an hour of fruitless exertion, Ludlow saw, with pain, that his assistants began to yield to the inextinguishable principle of nature. The appearance of the Skimmer on deck, followed by all his people, destroyed hope, and every effort ceased, as suddenly as it had commenced.

“Think of your wounded;” whispered the free-trader, with a steadiness, no danger could disturb. “We stand on a raging volcano!”

“I have ordered the gunner to drown the magazine.”

“He was too late. The hold of the ship is a fiery furnace. I heard him fall among the store-rooms, and it surpassed the power of man to give the wretch succour. The grenade has fallen near some combustibles, and painful as it is to part with a ship so loved, Ludlow, thou will meet the loss, like a man! — Think of thy wounded; my boats are still hanging at the stern.”

Ludlow reluctantly, but firmly, gave the order to bear the wounded to the boats. This was an arduous and delicate duty. The smallest boy in the ship knew the whole extent of the danger, and that a moment, by the explosion of the powder, might precipitate them all into eternity. The deck forward, was getting too hot to be endured, and there were places even in which the beams had given symptoms of yielding.

But the poop, elevated still above the fire, offered a momentary refuge. Thither all retired, while the weak and wounded were lowered, with the caution circumstances would permit, into the whale-boats of the smugglers.

Ludlow stood at one ladder and the free+trader at the other, in order to be certain that none proved recreant, in so trying a moment. Near them were Alida, Seadrift, and the Alderman, with the attendants of the former.

It seemed an age, before this humane and tender duty was performed. At length the cry of “all in!” was uttered, in a manner to betray the extent of the self-command that had been necessary to effect it.

“Now, Alida, we may think of thee!” said Ludlow, turning to the spot occupied by the silent heiress.

“And you!” she said, hesitating to move.

“Duty demands that I should be the last — “

A sharp explosion beneath, and fragments of fire flying upwards through a hatch, interrupted his words. Plunges into the sea, and a rush of the people to the boats followed. All order and authority were completely lost, in the instinct of life. In vain, did Ludlow call on his men to be cool, and to await for those who were still above. His words were lost, in the uproar of clamorous voices. For a moment, it seemed however, as if the Skimmer of the Seas would overcome the confusion. Throwing himself on a ladder, he glided into the bows of one of the boats, and holding by the ropes, with a vigorous arm, he resisted the efforts of all the oars and boat+hooks, while he denounced destruction on him who dared to quit the ship. Had not the two crews been mingled, the high authority and determined mien of the free-trader would have prevailed, but while some were disposed to obey, others raised the cry of “throw the dealer in witchcraft into the sea.” — Boat+hooks were already pointed at his breast, and the horrors of the fearful moment were about to be increased by the violence of a mutinous contention, when a second explosion nerved the arms of the rowers to madness. With a common and desperate effort, they overcame all resistance. Swinging off upon the ladder, the furious seaman saw the boat glide from his grasp, and depart. The execration that was uttered, beneath the stern of the Coquette, was deep and powerful; but, in another moment, the Skimmer stood on the poop, calm and undejected, in the centre of the deserted groupe.

“The explosion of a few of the officer’s pistols has frightened the miscreants,” he said, cheerfully. “But hope is not yet lost! — they linger in the distance, and may return!”

The sight of the helpless party on the poop, and the consciousness of being less exposed themselves, had indeed arrested the progress of the fugitives. Still selfishness predominated, and while most regretted their danger, none but the young and unheeded midshipmen, who were neither of an age nor of a rank to wield sufficient authority, proposed to return. There was little argument necessary to show that the perils increased at each moment, and, finding that no other expedient remained, the gallant youths encouraged the men to pull towards the land; intending themselves to return instantly to the assistance of their commander and his friends. The oars dashed into the water, again, and the retiring boats were soon lost to view, in the body of darkness.

While the fire had been raging within, another element, without, had aided to lessen hope for those who were abandoned. The wind from the land had continued to rise, and, during the time lost in useless exertion, the ship had been permitted to run nearly before it. When hope was gone, the helm had been deserted, and as all the lower sails had been hauled up to avoid the flames, the vessel had drifted many minutes, nearly dead to leeward. The mistaken youths who had not attended to these circumstances, were already miles from that beach they hoped to reach so soon, and ere the boats had separated from the ship five minutes, they were hoplessly, asunder. Ludlow had early thought of the expedient of stranding the vessel, as the means of saving her people, but his better knowledge of their position, soon showed him the utter futility of the attempt.

Of the progress of the flames beneath, the mariners could only judge by circumstances. The Skimmer glanced his eye about him, on regaining the poop, and appeared to scan the amount and quality of the physical force that was still at their disposal. He saw that the Alderman, the faithful François, and two of his own seamen, with four of the petty officers of the ship remained. The six latter, even in that moment of desperation, had calmly refused to desert their officers.

“The flames are in the state rooms!” he whispered to Ludlow.

“Not further aft, I think, than the berths of the midshipmen — else we should hear more pistols.”

“True — they are fearful signals to let us know the progress of the fire! — our resource is a raft.”

Ludlow looked as if he despaired of the means, but concealing the discouraging fear, he answered cheerfully in the affirmative. The orders were instantly given, and all on board gave themselves to the task, heart and hand. The danger was one that admitted of no ordinary or half-conceived expedients, but, in such an emergency, it required all the readiness of their art, and, even the greatness of that conception, which is the property of genius. All distinctions of rank and authority had ceased, except as deference was paid to natural qualities and the intelligence of experience. Under such circumstances, the Skimmer of the Seas took the lead, and though Ludlow caught his ideas, with professional quickness, it was the mind of the free-trader that controlled, throughout the succeeding exertions of that fearful night.

The cheek of Alida was blanched to a deadly paleness, but there rested about the bright and wild eyes of Seadrift, an expression of supernatural resolution.

When the crew abandoned the hope of extinguishing the flames, they had closed all the hatches, to retard the crisis as much as possible. Here and there, however, little torch+like lights were beginning to show themselves though the planks, and the whole deck, forward of the main-mast, was already in a critical and sinking state. One or two of the beams had failed, but, as yet, the form of the construction was preserved. Still the seamen distrusted the treacherous footing, and had the heat permitted the experiment, they would have shrunk from a risk, which at any unexpected moment, might commit them to the fiery furnace, beneath.

The smoke ceased, and a clear, powerful light, illuminated the ship to her trucks. In consequence of the care and exertions of her people, the sails and masts were yet untouched, and as the graceful canvass swelled with the breeze, it still urged the blazing hull through the water.

The forms of the Skimmer and his assistants were visible, in the midst of the gallant gear, perched on the giddy yards. Seen by that light, with his peculiar attire, his firm and certain step, and his resolute air, the free-trader resembled some fancied sea- god, who, secure in his immortal immunities, had come to act his part, in that awful but exciting trial of hardihood and skill. Seconded by the common men, he was employed in cutting the canvass from the yards. Sail after sail fell upon the deck, and in an incredibly short space of time, the whole of the foremast was naked, to its spars and rigging.

In the mean time, Ludlow, assisted by the Alderman and François, had not been idle below. Passing forward, between the empty ridge-ropes, lanyard after lanyard parted under the blows of their little boarding axes. The mast now depended on the strength of the wood and the support of a single back-stay.

“Lay down!” shouted Ludlow. “All is gone aft, but this stay!”

The Skimmer leaped upon the firm rope, followed by all aloft, and gliding downwards, he was instantly in the hammock- cloths. A crash followed their descent, and an explosion, which caused the whole of the burning fabric to tremble to its centre, seemed to announce the end of all. Even the free-trader recoiled before the horrible din, but when he stood near Seadrift and the heiress, again, there was cheerfulness in his tones, and a look of high, and even of gay resolution, in his firm countenance.

“The deck has failed forwards,” he said, “and our artillery is beginning to utter fearful signal guns! Be of cheer; — the magazine of a ship lies deep, and many sheathed bulk-heads still protect us.”

Another discharge from a heated gun, however, proclaimed the rapid progress of the flames. The fire broke out of the interior anew, and the foremast-mast kindled.

“There must be an end of this!” said Alida, clasping her hands in a terror that could not be controlled. “Save yourselves if possible, you who have strength and courage, and leave us to the mercy of him whose eye is over all!”

“Go;” added Seadrift, whose sex could no longer be concealed. “Human courage can do no more; leave us to die!”

The looks, that were returned to these sad requests, were melancholy but unmoved. The Skimmer caught a rope, and still holding it in his hand, he descended to the quarter deck, on which he at first trusted his weight, with jealous caution. Then looking up, he smiled encourageingly and said, — “Where a gun still stands, there is no danger for the weight of a man!”

“It is our only resource;” cried Ludlow, imitating his example. “On, my men, while the beams will still hold us.”

In a moment, all were on the quarter deck, though the excessive heat rendered it impossible to remain stationary, an instant. A gun on each side was run in, its tackles loosened, and its muzzle pointed towards the tottering, unsupported, but still upright foremast.

“Aim at the cleets!” said Ludlow to the Skimmer, who pointed one gun, while he did the same office at the other.

“Hold!” cried the latter. “Throw in shot — It is but the chance between a bursting gun. and a lighted magazine!”

Additional balls were introduced into each piece, and then, with steady hands, the gallant mariners applied burning brands to the priming. The discharges were simultaneous, and for an instant, volumes of smoke rolled along the deck and seemed to triumph over the conflagration. The rending of wood was audible. It was followed by a sweeping noise, in the air, and the fall of the foremast, with all its burden of spars, into the sea. The motion of the ship was instantly arrested, and, as the heavy timbers were still attached to the bowsprit by the forward stays, her head came to the wind, when the remaining topsails flapped, shivered, and took aback.

The vessel was now, for the first time during the fire, stationary. The common mariners profited by the circumstance, and darting past the mounting flame, along the bulwarks, they gained the top-gallant-forecastle, which though heated was yet untouched. The Skimmer glanced an eye about him, and seizing Seadrift by the waist, as if the mimic seaman had been a child, he pushed forward between the ridge-ropes. Ludlow followed with Alida, and the others imitated their example, in the best manner they could. All reached the head of the ship in safety; though Ludlow had been driven by the flames into the fore-channels, and, thence nearly into the sea.

The petty officers were already on the floating spars, separating them from each other, cutting away the unnecessary weight of rigging, bringing the several parts of the wood in parallel lines, and lashing them anew. Ever and anon, these rapid movements were quickened, by one of those fearful signals from the officer’s berths, which, by announcing the progress of the flames beneath, betrayed their increasing proximity to the still slumbering volcano. The boats had been gone an hour, and yet it seemed, to all in the ship, but a minute. The conflagration had, for the last ten minutes, advanced with renewed fury, and the whole of the confined flame, which had been so long pent in the depths of the vessel, now glared, high in the open air.

“This heat can no longer be borne,” said Ludlow; “we must to our raft, for breath.”

“To the raft then!” returned the cheerful voice of the free-trader. “Haul in upon your fasts, men, and stand by to receive the precious freight.”

The seamen obeyed. Alida and her companions were lowered safely, to the place prepared for their reception. The foremast had gone over the side, with all its spars aloft; for preparation had been made, before the fire commenced, to carry sail to the utmost, in order to escape the enemy. The skilful and active seamen, directed and aided by Ludlow and the Skimmer, had made a simple but happy disposition of those buoyant materials, on which their all now depended. In settling in the water, the yards, still crossed, had happily fallen uppermost. The booms and all the light spars had been floated near the top, and laid across, reaching from the lower to the top-sail-yard. A few light spars, stowed outboard, had been cut away and added to the number, and the whole were secured, with the readiness and ingenuity of seamen. On the first alarm of fire, some of the crew had seized a few light articles that would float, and rushed to the head, as the place most remote from the magazine, in the blind hope of saving life by swimming. Most of these articles had been deserted, when the people were rallied to exertion by their officers. A couple of empty shot-boxes, and a mess-chest were among them, and on the latter were seated the females, while the former served to keep their feet from the water. As the arrangement of the spars forced the principal mast entirely beneath the element, and the ship was so small as to need little artificial work in her masting, the part around the top, which contained the staging, was scarcely submerged. Although a ton in weight was added to the inherent gravity of the wood, still, as the latter was of the lightest description, and freed as much as possible of every thing that was unnecessary to the safety of those it supported, the spars floated sufficiently buoyant, for the temporary security of the fugitives.

“Cut the fast!” said Ludlow, involuntarily starting at several explosions in the interior, which followed each other in quick succession, and which were succeeded by one, which sent fragments of burning wood, into the air. “Cut, and bear the raft off the ship! — God knows, we have need to be further asunder!”

“Cut not!” cried the half frantic Seadrift — “my brave! — my devoted! — “

“Is safe; — ” calmly said the Skimmer, appearing in the rattlings of the main-rigging, which was still untouched by the fire — “Cut of all! I stay to brace the mizzen-top-sail more firmly aback.”

The duty was done, and for a moment the fine figure of the free-trader was seen standing on the edge of the burning ship, looking with regret at the glowing mass.

“’Tis the end of a lovely craft!” he said, loud enough to be heard by those beneath. Then he appeared in the air, and sunk into the sea — “The last signal was from the ward-room,” added the dauntless and dexterous mariner, as he rose from the water, and, shaking the brine from his head, he took his place on the stage — “Would to God, the wind would blow, for we have need of greater distance!”

The precaution the free-trader had taken, in adjusting the sails, was not without its use. Motion the raft had none, but as the top+sails of the Coquette were still aback, the flaming mass, no longer arrested by the clogs in the water, began slowly to separate from the floating spars, though the tottering and half+burnt masts threatened, at each moment, to fall.

Never did moments seem so long, as those which succeeded. Even the Skimmer and Ludlow watched, in speechless interest, the tardy movements of the ship. By little and little, she receded, and after ten minutes of intense expectation, the seamen, whose anxiety had increased as their exertions ended, began to breathe more freely. They were still fearfully near the dangerous fabric, but destruction from the explosion was no longer inevitable. The flames began to glide upwards, and then the heavens appeared on fire, as one heated sail after another kindled and flared wildly in the breeze.

Still the stern of the vessel was entire. The body of the master was seated against the mizzen-mast, and even the stern visage of the old seaman was distinctly visible, under the broad light of the conflagration. Ludlow gazed at it, in melancholy, and for a time he ceased to think of his ship, while memory dwelt, in sadness, on those scenes of boyish happiness, and of professional pleasures, in which his ancient shipmate had so largely participated. The roar of a gun, whose stream of fire flashed nearly to their faces, and the sullen whistling of its shot, which crossed the raft, failed to awaken him from his trance.

“Stand firm to the mess-chest!” half whispered, the Skimmer, motioning to his companions to place themselves in attitudes to support the weaker of their party, while, with sedulous care, he braced his own athletic person, in a manner to throw all of its weight and strength against the seat. “Stand firm, and be ready!”

Ludlow complied, though his eye scarce changed its direction. He saw the bright flame that was rising above the arm chest, and he fancied that it came from the funeral pile of the young Dumont, whose fate, at that moment, he was almost disposed to envy. Then his look returned to the grim countenance of Trysail. At moments, it seemed as if the dead master spoke, and so strong did the illusion become, that our young sailor more than once bent forward to listen. While under this delusion, the body rose, with the arms stretched upwards. The air was filled with a sheet of streaming fire, while the ocean and the heavens glowed with one glare of intense and fiery red. Notwithstanding the precaution of the Skimmer of the Seas, the chest was driven from its place, and those, by whom it was held, were nearly precipitated into the water. A deep, heavy, detonation proceeded, as it were from the bosom of the sea, which, while it wounded the ear less than the sharp explosion that had just before issued from the gun, was audible at the distant capes of the Delaware. The body of Trysail sailed upward for fifty fathoms, in the centre of a flood of flame, and, describing a short curve, it came towards the raft, and cut the water within reach of the captain’s arm. A sullen plunge of a gun followed, and proclaimed the tremendous power of the explosion, while a ponderous yard fell athwart a part of the raft, sweeping away the four petty officers of Ludlow, as if they had been dust driving before a gale. To increase the wild and fearful grandeur of the dissolution of the royal cruiser, one of the cannon emitted its fiery contents, while sailing in the void.

The burning spars, the falling fragments, the blazing and scatterred canvass and cordage, the glowing shot, and all the torn particles of the ship, were seen descending. Then followed the gurgling of water, as the ocean swallowed all that remained of the cruiser, which had so long been the pride of the American seas. The fiery glow disappeared, and a gloom like that which succeeds the glare of vivid lightning, fell on the scene.