It was half-past one by the clock in the office of the Registrar of Woes. The room was empty, for it was Wednesday, and the Registrar always went home early on Wednesday afternoons. He had made that arrangement when he accepted the office. He was willing to serve his fellow-citizens in any suitable position to which he might be called, but he had private interests which could not be neglected. He belonged to his country, but there was a house in the country which belonged to him; and there were a great many things appertaining to that house which needed attention, especially in pleasant summer weather. It is true he was often absent on afternoons which did not fall on the Wednesday, but the fact of his having appointed a particular time for the furtherance of his outside interests so emphasized their importance that his associates in the office had no difficulty in understanding that affairs of such moment could not always be attended to in a single afternoon of the week.
But although the large room devoted to the especial use of the Registrar was unoccupied, there were other rooms connected with it which were not in that condition. With the suite of offices to the left we have nothing to do, but will confine our attention to a moderate-sized room to the right of the Registrar’s office, and connected by a door, now closed, with that large and handsomely furnished chamber. This was the office of the Clerk of Shipwrecks, and it was at present occupied by five persons. One of these was the clerk himself, a man of goodly appearance, somewhere between twenty-five and forty-five years of age, and of a demeanor such as might be supposed to belong to one who had occupied a high position in state affairs, but who, by the cabals of his enemies, had been forced to resign the great operations of statesmanship which he had been directing, and who now stood, with a quite resigned air, pointing out to the populace the futile and disastrous efforts of the incompetent one who was endeavoring to fill his place. The Clerk of Shipwrecks had never fallen from such a position, having never occupied one, but he had acquired the demeanor referred to without going through the preliminary exercises.
Another occupant was a very young man, the personal clerk of the Registrar of Woes, who always closed all the doors of the office of that functionary on Wednesday afternoons, and at other times when outside interests demanded his principal’s absence, after which he betook himself to the room of his friend the Shipwreck Clerk.
Then there was a middle-aged man named Mathers, also a friend of the clerk, and who was one of the eight who had made application for a subposition in this department, which was now filled by a man who was expected to resign when a friend of his, a gentleman of influence in an interior county, should succeed in procuring the nomination as congressional Representative of his district of an influential politician, whose election was considered assured in case certain expected action on the part of the administration should bring his party into power. The person now occupying the subposition hoped then to get something better, and Mathers, consequently, was very willing, while waiting for the place, to visit the offices of the department and acquaint himself with its duties.
A fourth person was J. George Watts, a juryman by profession, who had brought with him his brother-in-law, a stranger in the city. The Shipwreck Clerk had taken off his good coat, which he had worn to luncheon, and had replaced it by a lighter garment of linen, much bespattered with ink; and he now produced a cigar-box, containing six cigars.
“Gents,” said he, “here is the fag end of a box of cigars. It’s not like having the pick of a box, but they are all I have left.” Mr. Mathers, J. George Watts, and the brother-in-law each took a cigar with that careless yet deferential manner which always distinguishes the treatee from the treator; and then the box was protruded in an offhand way toward Harry Covare, the personal clerk of the Registrar; but this young man declined, saying that he preferred cigarettes, a package of which he drew from his pocket. He had very often seen that cigar-box with a Havana brand, which he himself had brought from the other room after the Registrar had emptied it, passed around with six cigars, no more nor less, and he was wise enough to know that the Shipwreck Clerk did not expect to supply him with smoking-material. If that gentleman had offered to the friends who generally dropped in on him on Wednesday afternoon the paper bag of cigars sold at five cents each when bought singly, but half a dozen for a quarter of a dollar, they would have been quite as thankfully received; but it better pleased his deprecative soul to put them in an empty cigar-box, and thus throw around them the halo of the presumption that ninety-four of their imported companions had been smoked.
The Shipwreck Clerk, having lighted a cigar for himself, sat down in his revolving chair, turned his back to his desk, and threw himself into an easy cross-legged attitude, which showed that he was perfectly at home in that office. Harry Covare mounted a high stool, while the visitors seated themselves in three wooden arm-chairs. But few words had been said, and each man had scarcely tossed his first tobacco-ashes on the floor, when some one wearing heavy boots was heard opening an outside door and entering the Registrar’s room. Harry Covare jumped down from his stool, laid his half-smoked cigarette thereon, and bounced into the next room, closing the door after him. In about a minute he returned, and the Shipwreck Clerk looked at him inquiringly.
“An old cock in a pea-jacket,” said Mr. Covare, taking up his cigarette and mounting his stool. “I told him the Registrar would be here in the morning. He said he had something to report about a shipwreck, and I told him the Registrar would be here in the morning. Had to tell him that three times, and then he went.”
“School don’t keep Wednesday afternoons,” said Mr. J. George Watts, with a knowing smile.
“No, sir,” said the Shipwreck Clerk, emphatically, changing the crossing of his legs. “A man can’t keep grinding on day in and out without breaking down. Outsiders may say what they please about it, but it can’t be done. We’ve got to let up sometimes. People who do the work need the rest just as much as those who do the looking on.”
“And more too, I should say,” observed Mr. Mathers.
“Our little let-up on Wednesday afternoons,” modestly observed Harry Covare, “is like death—it is sure to come; while the let-ups we get other days are more like the diseases which prevail in certain areas—you can’t be sure whether you’re going to get them or not.” The Shipwreck Clerk smiled benignantly at this remark, and the rest laughed. Mr. Mathers had heard it before, but he would not impair the pleasantness of his relations with a future colleague by hinting that he remembered it.
“He gets such ideas from his beastly statistics,” said the Shipwreck Clerk.
“Which come pretty heavy on him sometimes, I expect,” observed Mr. Mathers.
“They needn’t,” said the Shipwreck Clerk, “if things were managed here as they ought to be. If John J. Laylor”—meaning thereby the Registrar—“was the right kind of a man you’d see things very different here from what they are now. There’d be a larger force.”
“That’s so,” said Mr. Mathers.
“And not only that, but there’d be better buildings and more accommodations. Were any of you ever up to Anster? Well, take a run up there some day, and see what sort of buildings the department has there. William Q. Green is a very different man from John J. Laylor. You don’t see him sitting in his chair and picking his teeth the whole winter, while the Representative from his district never says a word about his department from one end of a session of Congress to the other. Now if I had charge of things here, I’d make such changes that you wouldn’t know the place. I’d throw two rooms off here, and a corridor and entrance-door at that end of the building. I’d close up this door”—pointing toward the Registrar’s room—“and if John J. Laylor wanted to come in here he might go round to the end door like other people.”
The thought struck Harry Covare that in that case there would be no John J. Laylor, but he would not interrupt.
“And what is more,” continued the Shipwreck Clerk, “I’d close up this whole department at twelve o’clock on Saturdays. The way things are managed now, a man has no time to attend to his own private business. Suppose I think of buying a piece of land, and want to go out and look at it, or suppose any one of you gentlemen were here and thought of buying a piece of land and wanted to go out and look at it, what are you going to do about it? You don’t want to go on Sunday, and when are you going to go?”
Not one of the other gentlemen had ever thought of buying a piece of land, nor had they any reason to suppose that they ever would purchase an inch of soil unless they bought it in a flower-pot; but they all agreed that the way things were managed now there was no time for a man to attend to his own business.
“But you can’t expect John J. Laylor to do anything,” said the Shipwreck Clerk.
However, there was one thing which that gentleman always expected John J. Laylor to do. When the clerk was surrounded by a number of persons in hours of business, and when he had succeeded in impressing them with the importance of his functions and the necessity of paying deferential attention to himself if they wished their business attended to, John J. Laylor would be sure to walk into the office and address the Shipwreck Clerk in such a manner as to let the people present know that he was a clerk and nothing else, and that he, the Registrar, was the head of that department. These humiliations the Shipwreck Clerk never forgot.
There was a little pause here, and then Mr. Mathers remarked: “I should think you’d be awfully bored with the long stories of shipwrecks that the people come and tell you.”
He hoped to change the conversation, because, although he wished to remain on good terms with the subordinate officers, it was not desirable that he should be led to say much against John J. Laylor.
“No, sir,” said the Shipwreck Clerk, “I am not bored. I did not come here to be bored, and as long as I have charge of this office I don’t intend to be. The long-winded old salts who come here to report their wrecks never spin out their prosy yarns to me. The first thing I do is to let them know just what I want of them; and not an inch beyond that does a man of them go, at least while I am managing the business. There are times when John J. Laylor comes in, and puts in his oar, and wants to hear the whole story; which is pure stuff and nonsense, for John J. Laylor doesn’t know anything more about a shipwreck than he does about—”
“The endemies in the Lake George area,” suggested Harry Covare.
“Yes; or any other part of his business,” said the Shipwreck Clerk; “and when he takes it into his head to interfere, all business stops till some second mate of a coal-schooner has told his whole story from his sighting land on the morning of one day to his getting ashore on it on the afternoon of the next. Now I don’t put up with any such nonsense. There’s no man living that can tell me anything about shipwrecks. I’ve never been to sea myself, but that’s not necessary; and if I had gone, it’s not likely I’d been wrecked. But I’ve read about every kind of shipwreck that ever happened. When I first came here I took care to post myself upon these matters, because I knew it would save trouble. I have read ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘The Wreck of the “Grosvenor,”’ ‘The Sinking of the “Royal George,”’ and wrecks by water-spouts, tidal waves, and every other thing which would knock a ship into a cocked hat, and I’ve classified every sort of wreck under its proper head; and when I’ve found out to what class a wreck belongs, I know all about it. Now, when a man comes here to report a wreck, the first thing he has to do is just to shut down on his story, and to stand up square and answer a few questions that I put to him. In two minutes I know just what kind of shipwreck he’s had; and then, when he gives me the name of his vessel, and one or two other points, he may go. I know all about that wreck, and I make a much better report of the business than he could have done if he’d stood here talking three days and three nights. The amount of money that’s been saved to our taxpayers by the way I’ve systematized the business of this office is not to be calculated in figures.”
The brother-in-law of J. George Watts knocked the ashes from the remnant of his cigar, looked contemplatively at the coal for a moment, and then remarked: “I think you said there’s no kind of shipwreck you don’t know about?”
“That’s what I said,” replied the Shipwreck Clerk.
“I think,” said the other, “I could tell you of a shipwreck, in which I was concerned, that wouldn’t go into any of your classes.”
The Shipwreck Clerk threw away the end of his cigar, put both his hands into his trousers pockets, stretched out his legs, and looked steadfastly at the man who had made this unwarrantable remark. Then a pitying smile stole over his countenance, and he said: “Well, sir, I’d like to hear your account of it; and before you get a quarter through I can stop you just where you are, and go ahead and tell the rest of the story myself.”
“That’s so,” said Harry Covare. “You’ll see him do it just as sure pop as a spread rail bounces the engine.”
“Well, then,” said the brother-in-law of J. George Watts, “I’ll tell it.” And he began: “It was just two years ago the 1st of this month that I sailed for South America in the ‘Thomas Hyke.’”
At this point the Shipwreck Clerk turned and opened a large book at the letter T. “That wreck wasn’t reported here,” said the other, “and you won’t find it in your book.”
“At Anster, perhaps?” said the Shipwreck Clerk, closing the volume and turning round again.
“Can’t say about that,” replied the other. “I’ve never been to Anster, and haven’t looked over their books.”
“Well, you needn’t want to,” said the clerk. “They’ve got good accommodations at Anster, and the Registrar has some ideas of the duties of his post, but they have no such system of wreck reports as we have here.”
“Very like,” said the brother-in-law. And he went on with his story. “The ‘Thomas Hyke’ was a small iron steamer of six hundred tons, and she sailed from Ulford for Valparaiso with a cargo principally of pig-iron.”
“Pig-iron for Valparaiso?” remarked the Shipwreck Clerk. And then he knitted his brows thoughtfully, and said, “Go on.”
“She was a new vessel,” continued the narrator, “and built with water-tight compartments; rather uncommon for a vessel of her class, but so she was. I am not a sailor, and don’t know anything about ships. I went as passenger, and there was another one named William Anderson, and his son Sam, a boy about fifteen years old. We were all going to Valparaiso on business. I don’t remember just how many days we were out, nor do I know just where we were, but it was somewhere off the coast of South America, when, one dark night—with a fog besides, for aught I know, for I was asleep—we ran into a steamer coming north. How we managed to do this, with room enough on both sides for all the ships in the world to pass, I don’t know; but so it was. When I got on deck the other vessel had gone on, and we never saw anything more of her. Whether she sunk or got home is something I can’t tell. But we pretty soon found that the ‘Thomas Hyke’ had some of the plates in her bow badly smashed, and she took in water like a thirsty dog. The captain had the forward water-tight bulkhead shut tight, and the pumps set to work, but it was no use. That forward compartment just filled up with water, and the ‘Thomas Hyke’ settled down with her bow clean under.
Her deck was slanting forward like the side of a hill, and the propeller was lifted up so that it wouldn’t have worked even if the engine had been kept going. The captain had the masts cut away, thinking this might bring her up some, but it didn’t help much. There was a pretty heavy sea on, and the waves came rolling up the slant of the deck like the surf on the sea-shore. The captain gave orders to have all the hatches battened down so that water couldn’t get in, and the only way by which anybody could go below was by the cabin door, which was far aft. This work of stopping up all openings in the deck was a dangerous business, for the decks sloped right down into the water, and if anybody had slipped, away he’d have gone into the ocean, with nothing to stop him; but the men made a line fast to themselves, and worked away with a good will, and soon got the deck and the house over the engine as tight as a bottle. The smoke-stack, which was well forward, had been broken down by a spar when the masts had been cut, and as the waves washed into the hole that it left, the captain had this plugged up with old sails, well fastened down. It was a dreadful thing to see the ship a-lying with her bows clean under water and her stern sticking up.
If it hadn’t been for her water-tight compartments that were left uninjured, she would have gone down to the bottom as slick as a whistle. On the afternoon of the day after the collision the wind fell, and the sea soon became pretty smooth. The captain was quite sure that there would be no trouble about keeping afloat until some ship came along and took us off. Our flag was flying, upside down, from a pole in the stern; and if anybody saw a ship making such a guy of herself as the ‘Thomas Hyke’ was then doing, they’d be sure to come to see what was the matter with her, even if she had no flag of distress flying. We tried to make ourselves as comfortable as we could, but this wasn’t easy with everything on such a dreadful slant. But that night we heard a rumbling and grinding noise down in the hold, and the slant seemed to get worse. Pretty soon the captain roused all hands and told us that the cargo of pig-iron was shifting and sliding down to the bow, and that it wouldn’t be long before it would break through all the bulkheads, and then we’d fill and go to the bottom like a shot. He said we must all take to the boats and get away as quick as we could. It was an easy matter launching the boats. They didn’t lower them outside from the davits, but they just let ’em down on deck and slid ’em along forward into the water, and then held ’em there with a rope till everything was ready to start. They launched three boats, put plenty of provisions and water in ’em, and then everybody began to get aboard. But William Anderson and me and his son Sam couldn’t make up our minds to get into those boats and row out on the dark, wide ocean.
They were the biggest boats we had, but still they were little things enough. The ship seemed to us to be a good deal safer, and more likely to be seen when day broke, than those three boats, which might be blown off, if the wind rose, nobody knew where. It seemed to us that the cargo had done all the shifting it intended to, for the noise below had stopped; and, altogether, we agreed that we’d rather stick to the ship than go off in those boats. The captain he tried to make us go, but we wouldn’t do it; and he told us if we chose to stay behind and be drowned it was our affair and he couldn’t help it; and then he said there was a small boat aft, and we’d better launch her, and have her ready in case things should get worse and we should make up our minds to leave the vessel. He and the rest then rowed off so as not to be caught in the vortex if the steamer went down, and we three stayed aboard. We launched the small boat in the way we’d seen the others launched, being careful to have ropes tied to us while we were doing it; and we put things aboard that we thought we should want.
Then we went into the cabin and waited for morning. It was a queer kind of a cabin, with a floor inclined like the roof of a house; but we sat down in the corners, and were glad to be there. The swinging lamp was burning, and it was a good deal more cheerful in there than it was outside. But, about daybreak, the grinding and rumbling down below began again, and the bow of the ‘Thomas Hyke’ kept going down more and more; and it wasn’t long before the forward bulkhead of the cabin, which was what you might call its front wall when everything was all right, was under our feet, as level as a floor, and the lamp was lying close against the ceiling that it was hanging from. You may be sure that we thought it was time to get out of that. There were benches with arms to them fastened to the floor, and by these we climbed up to the foot of the cabin stairs, which, being turned bottom upward, we went down in order to get out. When we reached the cabin door we saw part of the deck below us, standing up like the side of a house that is built in the water, as they say the houses in Venice are.
We had made our boat fast to the cabin door by a long line, and now we saw her floating quietly on the water, which was very smooth and about twenty feet below us. We drew her up as close under us as we could, and then we let the boy Sam down by a rope, and after some kicking and swinging he got into her; and then he took the oars and kept her right under us while we scrambled down by the ropes which we had used in getting her ready. As soon as we were in the boat we cut her rope and pulled away as hard as we could; and when we got to what we thought was a safe distance we stopped to look at the ‘Thomas Hyke.’ You never saw such a ship in all your born days. Two thirds of the hull was sunk in the water, and she was standing straight up and down with the stern in the air, her rudder up as high as the topsail ought to be, and the screw propeller looking like the wheel on the top of one of these windmills that they have in the country for pumping up water.
Her cargo had shifted so far forward that it had turned her right upon end, but she couldn’t sink, owing to the air in the compartments that the water hadn’t got into; and on the top of the whole thing was the distress flag flying from the pole which stuck out over the stern. It was broad daylight, but not a thing did we see of the other boats. We’d supposed that they wouldn’t row very far, but would lay off at a safe distance until daylight; but they must have been scared and rowed farther than they intended. Well, sir, we stayed in that boat all day and watched the ‘Thomas Hyke’; but she just kept as she was and didn’t seem to sink an inch. There was no use of rowing away, for we had no
place to row to; and besides, we thought that passing ships would be much more likely to see that stern sticking high in the air than our little boat. We had enough to eat, and at night two of us slept while the other watched, dividing off the time and taking turns to this. In the morning there was the ‘Thomas Hyke’ standing stern up just as before. There was a long swell on the ocean now, and she’d rise and lean over a little on each wave, but she’d come up again just as straight as before. That night passed as the last one had, and in the morning we found we’d drifted a good deal farther from the ‘Thomas Hyke’; but she was floating just as she had been, like a big buoy that’s moored over a sandbar. We couldn’t see a sign of the boats, and we about gave them up. We had our breakfast, which was a pretty poor meal, being nothing but hardtack and what was left of a piece of boiled beef. After we’d sat for a while doing nothing, but feeling mighty uncomfortable, William Anderson said, ‘Look here, do you know that I think we would be three fools to keep on shivering all night, and living on hardtack in the daytime, when there’s plenty on that vessel for us to eat and to keep us warm. If she’s floated that way for two days and two nights, there’s no knowing how much longer she’ll float, and we might as well go on board and get the things we want as not.’ ‘All right,’ said I, for I was tired doing nothing; and Sam was as willing as anybody. So we rowed up to the steamer, and stopped close to the deck, which, as I said before, was standing straight up out of the water like the wall of a house.
The cabin door, which was the only opening into her, was about twenty feet above us, and the ropes which we had tied to the rails of the stairs inside were still hanging down. Sam was an active youngster, and he managed to climb up one of these ropes; but when he got to the door he drew it up and tied knots in it about a foot apart, and then he let it down to us, for neither William Anderson nor me could go up a rope hand over hand without knots or something to hold on to. As it was, we had a lot of bother getting up, but we did it at last; and then we walked up the stairs, treading on the front part of each step instead of the top of it, as we would have done if the stairs had been in their proper position. When we got to the floor of the cabin, which was now perpendicular like a wall, we had to clamber down by means of the furniture, which was screwed fast, until we reached the bulkhead, which was now the floor of the cabin. Close to this bulkhead was a small room which was the steward’s pantry, and here we found lots of things to eat, but all jumbled up in a way that made us laugh. The boxes of biscuits and the tin cans and a lot of bottles in wicker covers were piled up on one end of the room, and everything in the lockers and drawers was jumbled together. William Anderson and me set to work to get out what we thought we’d want, and we told Sam to climb up into some of the state-rooms—of which there were four on each side of the cabin—and get some blankets to keep us warm, as well as a few sheets, which we thought we could rig up for an awning to the boat; for the days were just as hot as the nights were cool.
When we’d collected what we wanted, William Anderson and me climbed into our own rooms, thinking we’d each pack a valise with what we most wanted to save of our clothes and things; and while we were doing this Sam called out to us that it was raining. He was sitting at the cabin door looking out. I first thought to tell him to shut the door so’s to keep the rain from coming in; but when I thought how things really were, I laughed at the idea. There was a sort of little house built over the entrance to the cabin, and in one end of it was the door; and in the way the ship now was the open doorway was underneath the little house, and of course no rain could come in. Pretty soon we heard the rain pouring down, beating on the stern of the vessel like hail. We got to the stairs and looked out. The rain was falling in perfect sheets, in a way you never see except round about the tropics. ‘It’s a good thing we’re inside,’ said William Anderson, ‘for if we’d been out in this rain we’d been drowned in the boat.’ I agreed with him, and we made up our minds to stay where we were until the rain was over. Well, it rained about four hours; and when it stopped, and we looked out, we saw our little boat nearly full of water, and sunk so deep that if one of us had stepped on her she’d have gone down, sure. ‘Here’s a pretty kittle of fish,’ said William Anderson; ‘there’s nothing for us to do now but to stay where we are.’ I believe in his heart he was glad of that, for if ever a man was tired of a little boat, William Anderson was tired of that one we’d been in for two days and two nights.
At any rate, there was no use talking about it, and we set to work to make ourselves comfortable. We got some mattresses and pillows out of the state-rooms, and when it began to get dark we lighted the lamp—which we had filled with sweet-oil from a flask in the pantry, not finding any other kind—and we hung it from the railing of the stairs. We had a good night’s rest, and the only thing that disturbed me was William Anderson lifting up his head every time he turned over and saying how much better this was than that blasted little boat. The next morning we had a good breakfast, even making some tea with a spirit-lamp we found, using brandy instead of alcohol. William Anderson and I wanted to get into the captain’s room—which was near the stern and pretty high up—so as to see if there was anything there that we ought to get ready to save when a vessel should come along and pick us up; but we were not good at climbing, like Sam, and we didn’t see how we could get up there. Sam said he was sure he had once seen a ladder in the compartment just forward of the bulkhead, and as William was very anxious to get up to the captain’s room, we let the boy go and look for it. There was a sliding door in the bulkhead under our feet, and we opened this far enough to let Sam get through; and he scrambled down like a monkey into the next compartment, which was light enough, although the lower half of it, which was next to the engine-room, was under the water-line.
Sam actually found a ladder with hooks at one end of it, and while he was handing it up to us—which was very hard to do, for he had to climb up on all sorts of things—he let it topple over, and the end with the iron hooks fell against the round glass of one of the port-holes. The glass was very thick and strong, but the ladder came down very heavy and shivered it. As bad luck would have it, this window was below the water-line, and the water came rushing in in a big spout. We chucked blankets down to Sam for him to stop up the hole, but ‘twas of no use; for it was hard for him to get at the window, and when he did the water came in with such force that he couldn’t get a blanket into the hole. We were afraid he’d be drowned down there, and told him to come out as quick as he could. He put up the ladder again, and hooked it on to the door in the bulkhead, and we held it while he climbed up.
Looking down through the doorway, we saw, by the way the water was pouring in at the opening, that it wouldn’t be long before that compartment was filled up; so we shoved the door to and made it all tight, and then said William Anderson, ‘The ship’ll sink deeper and deeper as that fills up, and the water may get up to the cabin door, and we must go and make that as tight as we can.’ Sam had pulled the ladder up after him, and this we found of great use in getting to the foot of the cabin stairs. We shut the cabin door, and locked and bolted it; and as it fitted pretty tight, we didn’t think it would let in much water if the ship sunk that far. But over the top of the cabin stairs were a couple of folding doors, which shut down horizontally when the ship was in its proper position, and which were only used in very bad, cold weather. These we pulled to and fastened tight, thus having a double protection against the water.
Well, we didn’t get this done any too soon, for the water did come up to the cabin door, and a little trickled in from the outside door and through the cracks in the inner one. But we went to work and stopped these up with strips from the sheets, which we crammed well in with our pocket-knives. Then we sat down on the steps and waited to see what would happen next. The doors of all the state-rooms were open, and we could see through the thick plate-glass windows in them, which were all shut tight, that the ship was sinking more and more as the water came in. Sam climbed up into one of the after state-rooms, and said the outside water was nearly up to the stern; and pretty soon we looked up to the two portholes in the stern, and saw that they were covered with water; and as more and more water could be seen there, and as the light came through less easily, we knew that we were sinking under the surface of the ocean. ‘It’s a mighty good thing,’ said William Anderson, ‘that no water can get in here.’ William had a hopeful kind of mind, and always looked on the bright side of things; but I must say that I was dreadfully scared when I looked through those stern windows and saw water instead of sky.
It began to get duskier and duskier as we sank lower and lower; but still we could see pretty well, for it’s astonishing how much light comes down through water. After a little while we noticed that the light remained about the same; and then William Anderson he sings out, ‘Hooray, we’ve stopped sinking!’ ‘What difference does that make?’ says I. ‘We must be thirty or forty feet under water, and more yet, for aught I know.’ ‘Yes, that may be,’ said he; ‘but it is clear that all the water has got into that compartment that can get in, and we have sunk just as far down as we are going.’ ‘But that don’t help matters,’ said I; ‘thirty or forty feet under water is just as bad as a thousand as to drowning a man.’ ‘Drowning!’ said William; ‘how are you going to be drowned? No water can get in here.’ ‘Nor no air, either,’ said I; ‘and people are drowned for want of air, as I take it.’ ‘It would be a queer sort of thing,’ said William, ‘to be drowned in the ocean and yet stay as dry as a chip. But it’s no use being worried about air. We’ve got air enough here to last us for ever so long. This stern compartment is the biggest in the ship, and it’s got lots of air in it. Just think of that hold! It must be nearly full of air. The stern compartment of the hold has got nothing in it but sewing-machines. I saw ’em loading her. The pig-iron was mostly amidships, or at least forward of this compartment. Now, there’s no kind of a cargo that’ll accommodate as much air as sewing-machines.
They’re packed in wooden frames, not boxes, and don’t fill up half the room they take. There’s air all through and around ’em. It’s a very comforting thing to think the hold isn’t filled up solid with bales of cotton or wheat in bulk.’ It might be comforting, but I couldn’t get much good out of it. And now Sam, who’d been scrambling all over the cabin to see how things were going on, sung out that the water was leaking in a little again at the cabin door and around some of the iron frames of the windows. ‘It’s a lucky thing,’ said William Anderson, ‘that we didn’t sink any deeper, or the pressure of the water would have burst in those heavy glasses. And what we’ve got to do now is to stop up all the cracks. The more we work the livelier we’ll feel.’ We tore off more strips of sheets and went all round, stopping up cracks wherever we found them. ‘It’s fortunate,’ said William Anderson, ‘that Sam found that ladder, for we would have had hard work getting to the windows of the stern state-rooms without it; but by resting it on the bottom step of the stairs, which now happens to be the top one, we can get to any part of the cabin.’ I couldn’t help thinking that if Sam hadn’t found the ladder it would have been a good deal better for us; but I didn’t want to damp William’s spirits, and I said nothing.
“And now I beg your pardon, sir,” said the narrator, addressing the Shipwreck Clerk, “but I forgot that you said you’d finish this story yourself. Perhaps you’d like to take it up just here?”
The Shipwreck Clerk seemed surprised, and had apparently forgotten his previous offer. “Oh no,” said he, “tell your own story. This is not a matter of business.”
“Very well, then,” said the brother-in-law of J. George Watts, “I’ll go on. We made everything as tight as we could, and then we got our supper, having forgotten all about dinner, and being very hungry. We didn’t make any tea and we didn’t light the lamp, for we knew that would use up air; but we made a better meal than three people sunk out of sight in the ocean had a right to expect. ‘What troubles me most,’ said William Anderson, as he turned in, ‘is the fact that if we are forty feet under water our flagpole must be covered up. Now, if the flag was sticking out, upside down, a ship sailing by would see it and would know there was something wrong.’ ‘If that’s all that troubles you,’ said I, ‘I guess you’ll sleep easy.
And if a ship was to see the flag, I wonder how they’d know we were down here, and how they’d get us out if they did!’ ‘Oh, they’d manage it,’ said William Anderson; ‘trust those sea-captains for that.’ And then he went to sleep. The next morning the air began to get mighty disagreeable in the part of the cabin where we were, and then William Anderson he says, ‘What we’ve got to do is to climb up into the stern state-rooms, where the air is purer. We can come down here to get our meals, and then go up again to breathe comfortable.’ ‘And what are we going to do when the air up there gets foul?’ says I to William, who seemed to be making arrangements for spending the summer in our present quarters. ‘Oh, that’ll be all right,’ said he. ‘It don’t do to be extravagant with air any more than with anything else. When we’ve used up all there is in this cabin, we can bore holes through the floor into the hold and let in air from there. If we’re economical, there’ll be enough to last for dear knows how long.’ We passed the night each in a state-room, sleeping on the end wall instead of the berth, and it wasn’t till the afternoon of the next day that the air of the cabin got so bad we thought we’d have some fresh; so we went down on the bulkhead, and with an auger that we found in the pantry we bored three holes, about a yard apart, in the cabin floor, which was now one of the walls of the room, just as the bulkhead was the floor, and the stern end, where the two round windows were, was the ceiling or roof. We each took a hole, and I tell you it was pleasant to breathe the air which came in from the hold. ‘Isn’t this jolly?’ said William Anderson. ‘And we ought to be mighty glad that that hold wasn’t loaded with codfish or soap. But there’s nothing that smells better than new sewing-machines that haven’t ever been used, and this air is pleasant enough for anybody.’
By William’s advice we made three plugs, by which we stopped up the holes when we thought we’d had air enough for the present. ‘And now,’ says he, ‘we needn’t climb up into those awkward state-rooms any more. We can just stay down here and be comfortable, and let in air when we want it.’ ‘And how long do you suppose that air in the hold is going to last?’ said I. ‘Oh, ever so long,’ said he, ‘using it so economically as we do; and when it stops coming out lively through these little holes, as I suppose it will after a while, we can saw a big hole in this flooring and go into the hold and do our breathing, if we want to.’ That evening we did saw a hole about a foot square, so as to have plenty of air while we were asleep; but we didn’t go into the hold, it being pretty well filled up with machines; though the next day Sam and I sometimes stuck our heads in for a good sniff of air, though William Anderson was opposed to this, being of the opinion that we ought to put ourselves on short rations of breathing so as to make the supply of air hold out as long as possible. ‘But what’s the good,’ said I to William, ‘of trying to make the air hold out if we’ve got to be suffocated in this place after all?’ ‘What’s the good?’ says he. ‘Haven’t you enough biscuits and canned meats and plenty of other things to eat, and a barrel of water in that room opposite the pantry, not to speak of wine and brandy if you want to cheer yourself up a bit, and haven’t we good mattresses to sleep on, and why shouldn’t we try to live and be comfortable as long as we can?’ ‘What I want,’ said I, ‘is to get out of this box. The idea of being shut up in here down under the water is more than I can stand. I’d rather take my chances going up to the surface and swimming about till I found a piece of the wreck, or something to float on.’ ‘You needn’t think of anything of that sort,’ said William, ‘for if we were to open a door or a window to get out, the water’d rush in and drive us back and fill up this place in no time; and then the whole concern would go to the bottom.
And what would you do if you did get to the top of the water? It’s not likely you’d find anything there to get on, and if you did you wouldn’t live very long floating about with nothing to eat. No, sir,’ says he, ‘what we’ve got to do is to be content with the comforts we have around us, and something will turn up to get us out of this; you see if it don’t.’ There was no use talking against William Anderson, and I didn’t say any more about getting out. As for Sam, he spent his time at the windows of the state-rooms a-looking out. We could see a good way into the water—farther than you would think—and we sometimes saw fishes, especially porpoises, swimming about, most likely trying to find out what a ship was doing hanging bows down under the water. What troubled Sam was that a swordfish might come along and jab his sword through one of the windows. In that case it would be all up, or rather down, with us. Every now and then he’d sing out, ‘Here comes one!’ And then, just as I’d give a jump, he’d say, ‘No, it isn’t; it’s a porpoise.’ I thought from the first, and I think now, that it would have been a great deal better for us if that boy hadn’t been along.
That night there was a good deal of motion to the ship, and she swung about and rose up and down more than she had done since we’d been left in her. ‘There must be a big sea running on top,’ said William Anderson, ‘and if we were up there we’d be tossed about dreadful. Now the motion down here is just as easy as a cradle; and, what’s more, we can’t be sunk very deep, for if we were there wouldn’t be any motion at all.’ About noon the next day we felt a sudden tremble and shake run through the whole ship, and far down under us we heard a rumbling and grinding that nearly scared me out of my wits. I first thought we’d struck bottom; but William he said that couldn’t be, for it was just as light in the cabin as it had been, and if we’d gone down it would have grown much darker, of course. The rumbling stopped after a little while, and then it seemed to grow lighter instead of darker; and Sam, who was looking up at the stern windows over our heads, he sung out, ‘Sky!’ And, sure enough, we could see the blue sky, as clear as daylight, through those windows!
And then the ship she turned herself on the slant, pretty much as she had been when her forward compartment first took in water, and we found ourselves standing on the cabin floor instead of the bulkhead. I was near one of the open state-rooms, and as I looked in there was the sunlight coming through the wet glass in the window, and more cheerful than anything I ever saw before in this world. William Anderson he just made one jump, and, unscrewing one of the state-room windows, he jerked it open. We had thought the air inside was good enough to last some time longer; but when that window was open and the fresh air came rushing in, it was a different sort of thing, I can tell you. William put his head out and looked up and down and all around. ‘She’s nearly all out of water,’ he shouted, ‘and we can open the cabin door!’ Then we all three rushed at those stairs, which were nearly right side up now, and we had the cabin doors open in no time.
When we looked out we saw that the ship was truly floating pretty much as she had been when the captain and crew left her, though we all agreed that her deck didn’t slant as much forward as it did then. ‘Do you know what’s happened?’ sung out William Anderson, after he’d stood still for a minute to look around and think. ‘That bobbing up and down that the vessel got last night shook up and settled down the pig-iron inside of her, and the iron plates in the bow, that were smashed and loosened by the collision, have given way under the weight, and the whole cargo of pig-iron has burst through and gone to the bottom. Then, of course, up we came. Didn’t I tell you something would happen to make us all right?’
“Well, I won’t make this story any longer than I can help. The next day after that we were taken off by a sugar-ship bound north, and we were carried safe back to Ulford, where we found our captain and the crew, who had been picked up by a ship after they’d been three or four days in their boats. This ship had sailed our way to find us, which, of course, she couldn’t do, as at that time we were under water and out of sight.
“And now, sir,” said the brother-in-law of J. George Watts to the Shipwreck Clerk, “to which of your classes does this wreck of mine belong?”
“Gents,” said the Shipwreck Clerk, rising from his seat, “it’s four o’clock, and at that hour this office closes.”
The Remarkable Wreck of the ‘Thomas Hyke’ – A Chosen Few by Frank R. Stockton
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