Read CHAPTER II - THE END OF THE “AGUILA” of At the Point of the Sword , free online book, by Herbert Hayens, on ReadCentral.com.

The drowning of the crazy sailor had a bad effect on the rest of the crew, and it became evident that they had abandoned all hope. They hung about so listlessly that even the captain could not rouse them, and indeed there was nothing they could do.

This utter inability to help ourselves was the worst evil of the case. Even I, though only a boy, wanted to do something, no matter what, if it would help in the struggle for life; but I, like the rest, could only wait wait with throat like a furnace, peeling lips, smarting eyes, and aching head, till death or rain put an end to the misery.

I tried not to think of it, tried to shut out the horrible end so close at hand; but in vain. Jose sat beside me, endeavouring to rouse me. It must rain, he said, or the wind would spring up, and we should meet with a ship; but in his heart I think he had no hope.

The day crawled on, afternoon came, and I fell into a troubled sleep. The pain of my throat directed my wandering thoughts perhaps, and conjured up horrible visions. I was lashed to the wheel of the Aguila, and the schooner went drifting, drifting far away into an unknown sea. All was still around me, though I was not alone. Sailors walked the deck or huddled in the forecastle sailors with skin of wrinkled parchment, with deep-set, burning yet unseeing eyes, with moving lips from which no sound came; and as we sailed away ever further and further into the darkness, the horror of it maddened me. I struggled desperately to free myself, calling aloud to Jose to save me. Then a hand was laid softly on my forehead, and a kind, familiar voice whispered,

“Jack! Jack! Wake up. You are dreaming!” Opening my eyes I saw Jose bending over me, his face stricken with fear. My head burned, but my face and limbs were wet as if I had just come from the sea. “Get up,” said Jose sharply, “and walk about with me. You must not dream again.”

It seems that in my sleep I had screamed aloud; but the sailors took no notice of me either then or afterwards. They had troubles enough of their own, and were totally indifferent to those of others.

The red tinge had now gone from the haze, leaving it cold and gray; the sea was dull and lifeless, no ripple breaking the stillness of its surface.

“Is there any hope, Jose?” I asked in a whisper, and from his face, though not from his speech, learned there was none.

The captain had stored two bottles of liquor in the cabin for his own use. These he shared amongst us; but it was fiery stuff, and even at the first increased rather than allayed our thirst. Most of the crew were lying down now; but one had climbed to the roof of the forecastle, and stood there singing in a weak, quavering voice. Jose spoke to him soothingly; but he only laughed, and continued his weird song. His face haunted me; even when darkness closed like a pall around us I could still see it. He sang on and on in the gloom, and it appeared to me that he was wailing our death-chant. Presently there was silence, followed by a slight shuffling sound as the man moved to another part of the deck; then the song began again, and was followed by a burst of uncanny laughter. Suddenly it seemed as if the poor fellow realized his position, as he broke into a sob and called on God to save him.

Making our way to the other side of the vessel, we found him sitting disconsolately on a coil of rope, and did our best to cheer him. The skipper joined us, but no other man stirred hand or foot. Apparently their terrible suffering had overpowered all feeling of sympathy.

“Don’t give way,” said Jose brightly, laying a hand on his shoulder; “bear up, there’s a good fellow. Rain may fall at any moment now, and then we shall be saved.”

“Ah, senor,” cried the poor fellow huskily, “my throat is parched, parched; my head is like a burning coal! but I will be quiet now and brave if I can.”

“This is terrible,” exclaimed the captain piteously, as after a time we turned away.

“Hope must be our sheet-anchor,” said Jose. “Once cut ourselves adrift from that, and we shall go to ruin headlong.”

He spoke bravely, but his words came from the lips only, and this we all knew. Sitting down on a coil of rope, we waited for the night to pass, longing for yet dreading the appearance of another dawn. It was dreadfully silent, except when some poor fellow broke the stillness with his groans and cries of anguish.

It was, as nearly as I could judge, about one o’clock in the morning, when Jose suddenly sprang to his feet with a cry of joy.

What is it? I asked; and he, clapping his hands, exclaimed,

“Lightning! See, there is another flash. Get up, my hearties; the wind’s rising. There’s a beautiful clap of thunder. We shall have a fine storm presently!”

One by one the men staggered to their feet. They heard the crash of the thunder, and a broad sheet of lightning showed them banks of cloud gathering thick and black overhead. Directed by the captain and helped by Jose, they spread every sail and awning that could be used, collected buckets and a spare cask, and awaited the rain eagerly and expectantly. Would it come? Fiery snakes played about the tops of the masts or leaped from sky to sea; the thunder pealed and pealed again through the air; the wind rose, the sails filled, the schooner moved through the water, but no rain fell.

I cannot tell you a tithe of the hopes and fears which passed through our hearts during the next half-hour. Now we exulted in the certainty of relief; again we were thrown into the abyss of despair. We stood looking at the darkness, hoping, praying that the life-giving rain might fall speedily upon our upturned faces.

Another terrific crash, and then ah, how earnestly we gave thanks to God for His mercy the raindrops came pattering to the deck, lightly at first, lightly and softly, like scouts sent forward to spy out the land, and afterwards the main body in a crowd beating fiercely, heavily upon us. How we laughed as, making cups of our hands, we lapped the welcome water greedily! What cries of delight ascended heavenward as we filled our spare cask and every vessel that would hold water! The rain came down in a steady torrent, soaking us through; but we felt no discomfort, for it fed us with new life.

Presently the captain got some of the men to work, while the others ate the food which had lain all day untasted, and then, doubly refreshed, they relieved their comrades. Jose and I, too, ate sparingly of some food; but even this little, with the water, made new beings of us.

As yet the wind was no more than a fair breeze, but by degrees it became boisterous, and the crew, still weak and now short of three men, could barely manage the schooner. Jose and I knew nothing of seamanship, but we bore a hand here and there, straining at this rope or that as we were bidden, and encouraging the crew to the best of our ability.

As yet we gave little thought to the new danger that menaced us, being full of thanks for our escape from a horrible death; but the fury of the storm increased, the wind battered against the schooner in howling gusts, and presently the topgallant mast fell with a crash to the deck. Fortunately no one was hurt, and we quickly cut the wreckage clear; but misfortune followed misfortune, and at length, with white, scared face, the carpenter announced that water was fast rising in the hold.

Here, at least, Jose and I were of service. Taking our places at the pumps, we toiled with might and main to keep the water down. Thus the remainder of the night passed with every one working at the pumps or assisting the captain to manage the vessel.

Morning brought no abatement of the storm, but the light enabled us to realize more clearly how near we were, a second time, to death. The rain still poured down in torrents, the wind leaped at us with hurricane fury, the schooner tossed, a helpless wreck, in the midst of a mountainous sea. The carpenter reported that, in spite of all our labours, the water was fast gaining on us. The sailors now lost heart, and one of them left his post, saying sullenly they might as well drown first as last. It was a dangerous example, but the skipper checked the mischief. Running forward with loaded pistol, he shouted,

“Go back to the pumps, you coward, or I will shoot you down like a dog! Call yourself a man? Why, that youngster there is worth fifty of you!”

The fellow returned to his work; but as the hours passed we became more and more certain that no amount of pumping would save the ship. Even now she was but a floating wreck, and soon she would be engulfed by the raging sea.

While Jose and I were taking a rest, the captain told us that, even should the storm cease, the Aguila must go down in less than twenty-four hours, and that he knew not whether we were close to the shore or a hundred leagues from it. Jose received the news coolly. He came of a race that does not believe in whimpering, and his only care was on my account.

“I am sorry for your mother, Jack,” said he, “and for you too. We’re in a fair hole, and I don’t see any way of getting out; but for all that we will keep our heads cool. Never go under without a fight for it that’s as good a motto as any other. You heard the skipper say the schooner is bound to go down, and you know we have no boats they wouldn’t be any good if we had, while this storm lasts; but if the sea calms, a plank will keep you afloat a long time, and maybe a ship will come along handy. Anyhow, make a fight for it, my boy. Now we’ll have a snack of something to eat, and then for another spell at the pumps.”

By this time a feeling of despair had seized the crew, and but for fear of the captain’s pistol they would have stopped work in a body. However, he kept them at it, and towards noon the tempest ceased almost as suddenly as it had begun. The gale dropped to a steady breeze, and the surface of the ocean became comparatively calm.

The change cheered us; we looked on it as a good omen, and toiled at the pumps even harder than before. We could not lessen the quantity of water, but for a time we kept it from gaining, and a germ of hope crept back into our hearts. Every hour now was likely to be in our favour, as the captain judged the wind was blowing us to some part of the coast, where we might either fall in with a vessel or effect a landing. Thus, between hope and fear, the afternoon passed, and then we saw that the captain’s judgment was correct.

Straight before us, though far off as yet, appeared the dark line of coast with a barrier of mountains in the background, and in front a broad band of snow-white foam.

Would the schooner cover the distance? If so, would she escape being dashed to pieces in the thundering surf? These were the questions which agitated our minds as, impelled by the breeze, she drove through the water. We of ourselves could do nothing save work at the pumps and wait for what might happen.

Afternoon merged into evening, and evening into night. A few stars peeped forth in the sky, but were soon veiled by grayish clouds. The broad white band along the shore was startlingly distinct, and still the issue was undecided.

The end came with such unexpected suddenness that the men hardly had time to cry out. Jose and I were resting at the moment, when the schooner lurched heavily, tried to right herself and failed, filled with water, and sank like a stone.

I often think of that shipwreck as a horrible dream. Down, down I went, holding my breath till it seemed impossible to stay longer without opening my mouth and swallowing the salt water. By an effort I restrained myself till my head shot above the surface and once more I was free to breathe.

The ship had disappeared entirely, and it was too dark to see such a small object as a man’s head. By great good fortune I managed to seize a floating spar, and, resting on it, called aloud for Jose. The only answer was the anguished cry of a drowning man across the waste of waters. Twice again it came, and then all was silent, though in imagination I still could hear that anguished cry. The sea rolled in long surges, carrying me forward without effort and at a great rate toward the clear white line. Live or die, I could not help myself now, but was entirely at the mercy of the waves. I thought of Jose’s advice to make a fight for it, but there was nothing to be done. Clinging to my spar, I was tossed from crest to depth like a ball bandied about by boys.

And now my ears were filled with a great roaring as I approached nearer to the crested foam; then feeling that the end was very near, I prayed silently yet fervently that God would comfort my mother in this her new trial, and prepared myself to die.

From the top of a high wave I went down into the depths, rose again to the crest of a second huge roller, and then was flung with the velocity of lightning into the midst of the great sea-horses with their snowy manes.

Of this part of the adventure I remember but little, only that for a moment I lay bruised and battered at the foot of a high rock.

Once more Jose’s advice sounded in my ear, and loosing my spar, I clambered, dizzy and half blind, to the top. The ramping white horses raced after as if to drag me back, but finding that impossible, retired sullenly to spring yet once again. Shrieking and hissing, the great white monsters tore along, dashing in fury and breaking in impotence against the immovable rocks. The wild, weird scene, too, frightened me; for I was but a boy, remember, who up to this had never met with a more stirring adventure, perhaps, than a tussle with a high-spirited pony. I was worn out, too, by hard toil, faint from loss of blood, saddened by the loss of my faithful Jose, and by the awful calamity that had overtaken the crew of the schooner. Yet, in spite of all, so strong was the instinct to live, that, almost without thought, I clambered along the rocky ridge which jutted out from the mainland, while the baffled waves raced hungrily on either side of me, as if even now loath to abandon their expected prey.

At length the line of white foam was at my back. I found myself on a boulder-strewn beach, and for the time safe! Although half dead with privation and exposure, I wandered some way along the beach, calling aloud on Jose and the sailors, forgetful that the roar of the surf drowned my voice.

Presently I could go no further, the beach in that direction being walled in by a rocky cliff, steep and high, and but for a narrow fissure upon which I happily came, insurmountable.

I say happily, for at the summit of the cliff I fancied I saw the flash of a lantern. A lantern meant human beings, who on hearing my story would search the shore, and find, perhaps, that others besides myself had escaped from the wreck. With this idea in my head, I began to climb, going very steadily; for, as I have said, the track was little more than a fissure in the rock, and my head was far from clear. I toiled on, cutting my hands and legs with the jagged rocks, but making some progress, till at length I had covered the greater part of the distance; then I could do no more. A tiny crevice gave me foothold, and I was able to rest my arms on a wide ledge, but had no strength to draw myself up to it. Twice I tried and failed; then fearful lest my strength should give way, I strove no more, but, raising my voice, shouted loudly for help. Very mournful the cry sounded in the silent night, as I hung there utterly helpless on the face of the cliff.

Again and again I shouted with all my might, to be answered at first only by the roar of the surf below. Presently, on the summit of the cliff, not far above me, a lantern flashed, then another, and another, and a voice hailed me through the darkness.

“Help!” I cried, “help!” and my voice was full of despair, for my strength was fast ebbing. I must soon lose my hold, and be dashed to pieces at the foot of the cliff.

The lanterns flashed to and fro above me. Would they never come nearer? What was that? A big stone bounding and bouncing from rock to rock whizzed past my head, and disappeared in the gloom below. Collecting all my strength, I shouted again, fearing that it must be for the last time.

But now oh, how sincerely I gave thanks to God! a light had come over the edge of the cliff, and though moving slowly, it certainly advanced in my direction. Yes, I saw a man’s outline. In one hand he carried a lantern, in the other a noosed rope, and he felt his way carefully.

“Help! help!” I exclaimed, faintly enough now; but he heard me, and I knew I was saved. Putting the lantern on the ledge and grasping the collar of my coat, he got the noose round my body under the arms, and those above drew me up.

The lanterns showed a group of men in uniform, who crowded around me as I reached the top; but being uncertain how long my strength would last, I cried,

“A wreck! Search the beach. There may have been others washed ashore.”

Upon this there was much talking, and then two men carried me away, leaving their companions, as I hoped, to search for any chance survivors.