In the meanwhile the two boats made straight for the red column that uprose like a gigantic torch over the silent sea.
As Blunt had said, the burning ship lay a good twelve miles from the Malabar, and the pull was a long and a weary one. Once fairly away from the protecting sides of the vessel that had borne them thus far on their dismal journey, the adventurers seemed to have come into a new atmosphere. The immensity of the ocean over which they slowly moved revealed itself for the first time. On board the prison ship, surrounded with all the memories if not with the comforts of the shore they had quitted, they had not realized how far they were from that civilization which had given them birth. The well-lighted, well-furnished cuddy, the homely mirth of the forecastle, the setting of sentries and the changing of guards, even the gloom and terror of the closely-locked prison, combined to make the voyagers feel secure against the unknown dangers of the sea. That defiance of Nature which is born of contact with humanity, had hitherto sustained them, and they felt that, though alone on the vast expanse of waters, they were in companionship with others of their kind, and that the perils one man had passed might be successfully dared by another. But now--with one ship growing smaller behind them, and the other, containing they knew not what horror of human agony and human helplessness, lying a burning wreck in the black distance ahead of them--they began to feel their own littleness. The Malabar, that huge sea monster, in whose capacious belly so many human creatures lived and suffered, had dwindled to a walnut-shell, and yet beside her bulk how infinitely small had their own frail cockboat appeared as they shot out from under her towering stern! Then the black hull rising above them, had seemed a tower of strength, built to defy the utmost violence of wind and wave; now it was but a slip of wood floating--on an unknown depth of black, fathomless water. The blue light, which, at its first flashing over the ocean, had made the very stars pale their lustre, and lighted up with ghastly radiance the enormous vault of heaven, was now only a point, brilliant and distinct it is true, but which by its very brilliance dwarfed the ship into insignificance. The Malabar lay on the water like a glow-worm on a floating leaf, and the glare of the signal-fire made no more impression on the darkness than the candle carried by a solitary miner would have made on the abyss of a coal-pit.
And yet the Malabar held two hundred creatures like themselves!
The water over which the boats glided was black and smooth, rising into huge foamless billows, the more terrible because they were silent. When the sea hisses, it speaks, and speech breaks the spell of terror; when it is inert, heaving noiselessly, it is dumb, and seems to brood over mischief. The ocean in a calm is like a sulky giant; one dreads that it may be meditating evil. Moreover, an angry sea looks less vast in extent than a calm one. Its mounting waves bring the horizon nearer, and one does not discern how for many leagues the pitiless billows repeat themselves. To appreciate the hideous vastness of the ocean one must see it when it sleeps.
The great sky uprose from this silent sea without a cloud. The stars hung low in its expanse, burning in a violent mist of lower ether. The heavens were emptied of sound, and each dip of the oars was re-echoed in space by a succession of subtle harmonies. As the blades struck the dark water, it flashed fire, and the tracks of the boats resembled two sea-snakes writhing with silent undulations through a lake of quicksilver.
It had been a sort of race hitherto, and the rowers, with set teeth and compressed lips, had pulled stroke for stroke. At last the foremost boat came to a sudden pause. Best gave a cheery shout and passed her, steering straight into the broad track of crimson that already reeked on the sea ahead.
"What is it?" he cried.
But he heard only a smothered curse from Frere, and then his consort pulled hard to overtake him.
It was, in fact, nothing of consequence--only a prisoner "giving in".
"Curse it!" says Frere, "What's the matter with you? Oh, you, is it?--Dawes! Of course, Dawes. I never expected anything better from such a skulking hound. Come, this sort of nonsense won't do with me. It isn't as nice as lolloping about the hatchways, I dare say, but you'll have to go on, my fine fellow."
"He seems sick, sir," said compassionate bow.
"Sick! Not he. Shamming. Come, give way now! Put your backs into it!" and the convict having picked up his oar, the boat shot forward again.
But, for all Mr. Frere's urging, he could not recover the way he had lost, and Best was the first to run in under the black cloud that hung over the crimsoned water.
At his signal, the second boat came alongside.
"Keep wide," he said. "If there are many fellows yet aboard, they'll swamp us; and I think there must be, as we haven't met the boats," and then raising his voice, as the exhausted crew lay on their oars, he hailed the burning ship.
She was a huge, clumsily-built vessel, with great breadth of beam, and a lofty poop-deck. Strangely enough, though they had so lately seen the fire, she was already a wreck, and appeared to be completely deserted. The chief hold of the fire was amidships, and the lower deck was one mass of flame. Here and there were great charred rifts and gaps in her sides, and the red-hot fire glowed through these as through the bars of a grate. The main-mast had fallen on the starboard side, and trailed a blackened wreck in the water, causing the unwieldy vessel to lean over heavily. The fire roared like a cataract, and huge volumes of flame-flecked smoke poured up out of the hold, and rolled away in a low-lying black cloud over the sea.
As Frere's boat pulled slowly round her stern, he hailed the deck again and again.
Still there was no answer, and though the flood of light that dyed the water blood-red struck out every rope and spar distinct and clear, his straining eyes could see no living soul aboard. As they came nearer, they could distinguish the gilded letters of her name.
"What is it, men?" cried Frere, his voice almost drowned amid the roar of the flames. "Can you see?"
Rufus Dawes, impelled, it would seem, by some strong impulse of curiosity, stood erect, and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"Well--can't you speak? What is it?"
The Hydaspes! The ship in which his cousin Richard Devine had sailed! The ship for which those in England might now look in vain! The Hydaspes which--something he had heard during the speculations as to this missing cousin flashed across him.
"Back water, men! Round with her! Pull for your lives!"
Best's boat glided alongside.
"Can you see her name?"
Frere, white with terror, shouted a reply.
"The Hydaspes! I know her. She is bound for Calcutta, and she has five tons of powder aboard!"
There was no need for more words. The single sentence explained the whole mystery of her desertion. The crew had taken to the boats on the first alarm, and had left their death-fraught vessel to her fate. They were miles off by this time, and unluckily for themselves, perhaps, had steered away from the side where rescue lay.
The boats tore through the water. Eager as the men had been to come, they were more eager to depart. The flames had even now reached the poop; in a few minutes it would be too late. For ten minutes or more not a word was spoken. With straining arms and labouring chests, the rowers tugged at the oars, their eyes fixed on the lurid mass they were leaving. Frere and Best, with their faces turned back to the terror they fled from, urged the men to greater efforts. Already the flames had lapped the flag, already the outlines of the stern carvings were blurred by the fire.
Another moment, and all would be over. Ah! it had come at last. A dull rumbling sound; the burning ship parted asunder; a pillar of fire, flecked with black masses that were beams and planks, rose up out of the ocean; there was a terrific crash, as though sea and sky were coming together; and then a mighty mountain of water rose, advanced, caught, and passed them, and they were alone--deafened, stunned, and breathless, in a sudden horror of thickest darkness, and a silence like that of the tomb.
The splashing of the falling fragments awoke them from their stupor, and then the blue light of the Malabar struck out a bright pathway across the sea, and they knew that they were safe.
* * * * * *
On board the Malabar two men paced the deck, waiting for dawn.
It came at last. The sky lightened, the mist melted away, and then a long, low, far-off streak of pale yellow light floated on the eastern horizon. By and by the water sparkled, and the sea changed colour, turning from black to yellow, and from yellow to lucid green. The man at the masthead hailed the deck. The boats were in sight, and as they came towards the ship, the bright water flashing from the labouring oars, a crowd of spectators hanging over the bulwarks cheered and waved their hats.
"Not a soul!" cried Blunt. "No one but themselves. Well, I'm glad they're safe anyway."
The boats drew alongside, and in a few seconds Frere was upon deck.
"Well, Mr. Frere?"
"No use," cried Frere, shivering. "We only just had time to get away. The nearest thing in the world, sir."
"Didn't you see anyone?"
"Not a soul. They must have taken to the boats."
"Then they can't be far off," cried Blunt, sweeping the horizon with his glass. "They must have pulled all the way, for there hasn't been enough wind to fill a hollow tooth with." "Perhaps they pulled in the wrong direction," said Frere. "They had a good four hours' start of us, you know."
Then Best came up, and told the story to a crowd of eager listeners. The sailors having hoisted and secured the boats, were hurried off to the forecastle, there to eat, and relate their experience between mouthfuls, and the four convicts were taken in charge and locked below again.
"You had better go and turn in, Frere," said Pine gruffly. "It's no use whistling for a wind here all day."
Frere laughed--in his heartiest manner. "I think I will," he said. "I'm dog tired, and as sleepy as an owl," and he descended the poop ladder. Pine took a couple of turns up and down the deck, and then catching Blunt's eye, stopped in front of Vickers.
"You may think it a hard thing to say, Captain Vickers, but it's just as well if we don't find these poor devils. We have quite enough on our hands as it is."
"What do you mean, Mr. Pine?" says Vickers, his humane feelings getting the better of his pomposity. "You would not surely leave the unhappy men to their fate."
"Perhaps," returned the other, "they would not thank us for taking them aboard."
"I don't understand you."
"The fever has broken out."
Vickers raised his brows. He had no experience of such things; and though the intelligence was startling, the crowded condition of the prison rendered it easy to be understood, and he apprehended no danger to himself.
"It is a great misfortune; but, of course, you will take such steps--"
"It is only in the prison, as yet," says Pine, with a grim emphasis on the word; "but there is no saying how long it may stop there. I have got three men down as it is." "Well, sir, all authority in the matter is in your hands. Any suggestions you make, I will, of course, do my best to carry out."
"Thank ye. I must have more room in the hospital to begin with. The soldiers must lie a little closer."
"I will see what can be done."
"And you had better keep your wife and the little girl as much on deck as possible."
Vickers turned pale at the mention of his child. "Good Heaven! do you think there is any danger?"
"There is, of course, danger to all of us; but with care we may escape it. There's that maid, too. Tell her to keep to herself a little more. She has a trick of roaming about the ship I don't like. Infection is easily spread, and children always sicken sooner than grown-up people."
Vickers pressed his lips together. This old man, with his harsh, dissonant voice, and hideous practicality, seemed like a bird of ill omen.
Blunt, hitherto silently listening, put in a word for defence of the absent woman. "The wench is right enough, Pine," said he. "What's the matter with her?"
"Yes, she's all right, I've no doubt. She's less likely to take it than any of us. You can see her vitality in her face--as many lives as a cat. But she'd bring infection quicker than anybody."
"I'll--I'll go at once," cried poor Vickers, turning round. The woman of whom they were speaking met him on the ladder. Her face was paler than usual, and dark circles round her eyes gave evidence of a sleepless night. She opened her red lips to speak, and then, seeing Vickers, stopped abruptly.
"Well, what is it?"
She looked from one to the other. "I came for Dr. Pine."
Vickers, with the quick intelligence of affection, guessed her errand. "Someone is ill?"
"Miss Sylvia, sir. It is nothing to signify, I think. A little feverish and hot, and my mistress--"
Vickers was down the ladder in an instant, with scared face.
Pine caught the girl's round firm arm. "Where have you been?" Two great flakes of red came out in her white cheeks, and she shot an indignant glance at Blunt.
"Come, Pine, let the wench alone!"
"Were you with the child last night?" went on Pine, without turning his head.
"No; I have not been in the cabin since dinner yesterday. Mrs. Vickers only called me in just now. Let go my arm, sir, you hurt me."
Pine loosed his hold as if satisfied at the reply. "I beg your pardon," he said gruffly. "I did not mean to hurt you. But the fever has broken out in the prison, and I think the child has caught it. You must be careful where you go." And then, with an anxious face, he went in pursuit of Vickers.
Sarah Purfoy stood motionless for an instant, in deadly terror. Her lips parted, her eyes glittered, and she made a movement as though to retrace her steps.
"Poor soul!" thought honest Blunt, "how she feels for the child! D---- that lubberly surgeon, he's hurt her!--Never mind, my lass," he said aloud. It was broad daylight, and he had not as much courage in love-making as at night. "Don't be afraid. I've been in ships with fever before now."
Awaking, as it were, at the sound of his voice, she came closer to him. "But ship fever! I have heard of it! Men have died like rotten sheep in crowded vessels like this."
"Tush! Not they. Don't be frightened; Miss Sylvia won't die, nor you neither." He took her hand. "It may knock off a few dozen prisoners or so. They are pretty close packed down there--"
She drew her hand away; and then, remembering herself, gave it him again.
"What is the matter?"
"Nothing--a pain. I did not sleep last night."
"There, there; you are upset, I dare say. Go and lie down."
She was staring away past him over the sea, as if in thought. So intently did she look that he involuntarily turned his head, and the action recalled her to herself. She brought her fine straight brows together for a moment, and then raised them with the action of a thinker who has decided on his course of conduct.
"I have a toothache," said she, putting her hand to her face.
"Take some laudanum," says Blunt, with dim recollections of his mother's treatment of such ailments. "Old Pine'll give you some."
To his astonishment she burst into tears.
"There--there! Don't cry, my dear. Hang it, don't cry. What are you crying about?"
She dashed away the bright drops, and raised her face with a rainy smile of trusting affection. "Nothing! I am lonely. So far from home; and--and Dr. Pine hurt my arm. Look!"
She bared that shapely member as she spoke, and sure enough there were three red marks on the white and shining flesh.
"The ruffian!" cried Blunt, "it's too bad." And after a hasty look around him, the infatuated fellow kissed the bruise. "I'll get the laudanum for you," he said. "You shan't ask that bear for it. Come into my cabin."
Blunt's cabin was in the starboard side of the ship, just under the poop awning, and possessed three windows--one looking out over the side, and two upon deck. The corresponding cabin on the other side was occupied by Mr. Maurice Frere. He closed the door, and took down a small medicine chest, cleated above the hooks where hung his signal-pictured telescope.
"Here," said he, opening it. "I've carried this little box for years, but it ain't often I want to use it, thank God. Now, then, put some o' this into your mouth, and hold it there."
"Good gracious, Captain Blunt, you'll poison me! Give me the bottle; I'll help myself."
"Don't take too much," says Blunt. "It's dangerous stuff, you know."
"You need not fear. I've used it before."
The door was shut, and as she put the bottle in her pocket, the amorous captain caught her in his arms.
"What do you say? Come, I think I deserve a kiss for that."
Her tears were all dry long ago, and had only given increased colour to her face. This agreeable woman never wept long enough to make herself distasteful. She raised her dark eyes to his for a moment, with a saucy smile. "By and by," said she, and escaping, gained her cabin. It was next to that of her mistress, and she could hear the sick child feebly moaning. Her eyes filled with tears--real ones this time.
"Poor little thing," she said; "I hope she won't die."
And then she threw herself on her bed, and buried her hot head in the pillow. The intelligence of the fever seemed to have terrified her. Had the news disarranged some well-concocted plan of hers? Being near the accomplishment of some cherished scheme long kept in view, had the sudden and unexpected presence of disease falsified her carefully-made calculations, and cast an almost insurmountable obstacle in her path?
"She die! and through me? How did I know that he had the fever? Perhaps I have taken it myself--I feel ill." She turned over on the bed, as if in pain, and then started to a sitting position, stung by a sudden thought. "Perhaps he might die! The fever spreads quickly, and if so, all this plotting will have been useless. It must be done at once. It will never do to break down now," and taking the phial from her pocket, she held it up, to see how much it contained. It was three parts full. "Enough for both," she said, between her set teeth. The action of holding up the bottle reminded her of the amorous Blunt, and she smiled. "A strange way to show affection for a man," she said to herself, "and yet he doesn't care, and I suppose I shouldn't by this time. I'll go through with it, and, if the worst comes to the worst, I can fall back on Maurice." She loosened the cork of the phial, so that it would come out with as little noise as possible, and then placed it carefully in her bosom. "I will get a little sleep if I can," she said. "They have got the note, and it shall be done to-night."