THE SECOND NIGHT OFF PAPEETEE
TOWARD sunset, the mate came off, singing merrily, in the stern of his boat; and in attempting to climb up the side, succeeded in going plump into the water. He was rescued by the steward, and carried across the deck with many moving expressions of love for his bearer. Tumbled into the quarter-boat, he soon fell asleep, and waking about midnight, somewhat sobered, went forward among the men. Here, to prepare for what follows, we must leave him for a moment.
It was now plain enough that Jermin was by no means unwilling to take the Julia to sea; indeed, there was nothing he so much desired; though what his reasons were, seeing our situation, we could only conjecture. Nevertheless, so it was; and having counted much upon his rough popularity with the men to reconcile them to a short cruise under him, he had consequently been disappointed in their behaviour. Still, thinking that they would take a different view of the matter, when they came to know what fine times he had in store for them, he resolved upon trying a little persuasion.
So on going forward, he put his head down the forecastle scuttle, and hailed us quite cordially, inviting us down into the cabin; where, he said, he had something to make merry withal. Nothing loth, we went; and throwing ourselves along the transom, waited for the steward to serve us.
As the can circulated, Jermin, leaning on the table and occupying the captain's arm-chair secured to the deck, opened his mind as bluntly and freely as ever. He was by no means yet sober.
He told us we were acting very foolishly; that if we only stuck to the ship, he would lead us all a jovial life of it; enumerating the casks still remaining untapped in the Julia's wooden cellar. It was even hinted vaguely that such a thing might happen as our not coming back for the captain; whom he spoke of but lightly; asserting, what he had often said before, that he was no sailor.
Moreover, and perhaps with special reference to Doctor Long Ghost and myself, he assured us generally that, if there were any among us studiously inclined, he would take great pleasure in teaching such the whole art and mystery of navigation, including the gratuitous use of his quadrant.
I should have mentioned that, previous to this, he had taken the doctor aside, and said something about reinstating him in the cabin with augmented dignity; beside throwing out a hint that I myself was in some way or other to be promoted. But it was all to no purpose; bent the men were upon going ashore, and there was no moving them.
At last he flew into a rage—much increased by the frequency of his potations—and with many imprecations, concluded by driving everybody out of the cabin. We tumbled up the gangway in high good-humour.
Upon deck everything looked so quiet that some of the most pugnacious spirits actually lamented that there was so little prospect of an exhilarating disturbance before morning. It was not five minutes, however, ere these fellows were gratified.
Sydney Ben—said to be a runaway Ticket-of-Leave-Man, and for reasons of his own, one of the few who still remained on duty—had, for the sake of the fun, gone down with the rest into the cabin; where Bembo, who meanwhile was left in charge of the deck, had frequently called out for him. At first, Ben pretended not to hear; but on being sung out for again and again, bluntly refused; at the same time, casting some illiberal reflections on the Mowree's maternal origin, which the latter had been long enough among the sailors to understand as in the highest degree offensive. So just after the men came up from below, Bembo singled him out, and gave him such a cursing in his broken lingo that it was enough to frighten one. The convict was the worse for liquor; indeed the Mowree had been tippling also, and before we knew it, a blow was struck by Ben, and the two men came together like magnets.
The Ticket-of-Leave-Man was a practised bruiser; but the savage knew nothing of the art pugilistic: and so they were even. It was clear hugging and wrenching till both came to the deck. Here they rolled over and over in the middle of a ring which seemed to form of itself. At last the white man's head fell back, and his face grew purple. Bembo's teeth were at his throat. Rushing in all round, they hauled the savage off, but not until repeatedly struck on the head would he let go.
His rage was now absolutely demoniac; he lay glaring and writhing on the deck, without attempting to rise. Cowed, as they supposed he was, from his attitude, the men, rejoiced at seeing him thus humbled, left him; after rating him, in sailor style, for a cannibal and a coward.
Ben was attended to, and led below.
Soon after this, the rest also, with but few exceptions, retired into the forecastle; and having been up nearly all the previous night, they quickly dropped about the chests and rolled into the hammocks. In an hour's time, not a sound could be heard in that part of the ship.
Before Bembo was dragged away, the mate had in vain endeavoured to separate the combatants, repeatedly striking the Mowree; but the seamen interposing, at last kept him off.
And intoxicated as he was, when they dispersed, he knew enough to charge the steward—a steady seaman be it remembered—with the present safety of the ship; and then went below, when he fell directly into another drunken sleep.
Having remained upon deck with the doctor some time after the rest had gone below, I was just on the point of following him down, when I saw the Mowree rise, draw a bucket of water, and holding it high above his head, pour its contents right over him. This he repeated several times. There was nothing very peculiar in the act, but something else about him struck me. However, I thought no more of it, but descended the scuttle.
After a restless nap, I found the atmosphere of the forecastle so close, from nearly all the men being down at the same time, that I hunted up an old pea-jacket and went on deck; intending to sleep it out there till morning. Here I found the cook and steward, Wymontoo, Hope Yarn, and the Dane; who, being all quiet, manageable fellows, and holding aloof from the rest since the captain's departure, had been ordered by the mate not to go below until sunrise. They were lying under the lee of the bulwarks; two or three fast asleep, and the others smoking their pipes, and conversing.
To my surprise, Bembo was at the helm; but there being so few to stand there now, they told me, he had offered to take his turn with the rest, at the same time heading the watch; and to this, of course, they made no objection.
It was a fine, bright night; all moon and stars, and white crests of waves. The breeze was light, but freshening; and close-hauled, poor little Jule, as if nothing had happened, was heading in for the land, which rose high and hazy in the distance.
After the day's uproar, the tranquillity of the scene was soothing, and I leaned over the side to enjoy it.
More than ever did I now lament my situation—but it was useless to repine, and I could not upbraid myself. So at last, becoming drowsy, I made a bed with my jacket under the windlass, and tried to forget myself.
How long I lay there, I cannot tell; but as I rose, the first object that met my eye was Bembo at the helm; his dark figure slowly rising and falling with the ship's motion against the spangled heavens behind. He seemed all impatience and expectation; standing at arm's length from the spokes, with one foot advanced, and his bare head thrust forward. Where I was, the watch were out of sight; and no one else was stirring; the deserted decks and broad white sails were gleaming in the moonlight.
Presently, a swelling, dashing sound came upon my ear, and I had a sort of vague consciousness that I had been hearing it before. The next instant I was broad awake and on my feet. Eight ahead, and so near that my heart stood still, was a long line of breakers, heaving and frothing. It was the coral reef girdling the island. Behind it, and almost casting their shadows upon the deck, were the sleeping mountains, about whose hazy peaks the gray dawn was just breaking. The breeze had freshened, and with a steady, gliding motion, we were running straight for the reef.
All was taken in at a glance; the fell purpose of Bembo was obvious, and with a frenzied shout to wake the watch, I rushed aft. They sprang to their feet bewildered; and after a short, but desperate scuffle, we tore him from the helm. In wrestling with him, the wheel—left for a moment unguarded—flew to leeward, thus, fortunately, bringing the ship's head to the wind, and so retarding her progress. Previous to this, she had been kept three or four points free, so as to close with the breakers. Her headway now shortened, I steadied the helm, keeping the sails just lifting, while we glided obliquely toward the land. To have run off before the wind—an easy thing—would have been almost instant destruction, owing to a curve of the reef in that direction. At this time, the Dane and the steward were still struggling with the furious Mowree, and the others were running about irresolute and shouting.
But darting forward the instant I had the helm, the old cook thundered on the forecastle with a handspike, "Breakers! breakers close aboard!—'bout ship! 'bout ship!"
Up came the sailors, staring about them in stupid horror.
"Haul back the head-yards!" "Let go the lee fore-brace!" "Beady about! about!" were now shouted on all sides; while distracted by a thousand orders, they ran hither and thither, fairly panic-stricken.
It seemed all over with us; and I was just upon the point of throwing the ship full into the wind (a step, which, saving us for the instant, would have sealed our fate in the end), when a sharp cry shot by my ear like the flight of an arrow.
It was Salem: "All ready for'ard; hard down!"
Round and round went the spokes—the Julia, with her short keel, spinning to windward like a top. Soon, the jib-sheets lashed the stays, and the men, more self-possessed, flew to the braces.
"Main-sail haul!" was now heard, as the fresh breeze streamed fore and aft the deck; and directly the after-yards were whirled round.
In a half-a-minute more, we were sailing away from the land on the other tack, with every sail distended.
Turning on her heel within little more than a biscuit's toss of the reef, no earthly power could have saved us, were it not that, up to the very brink of the coral rampart, there are no soundings.