Missing

by


Missing is an seafaring adventure story published in McRoberts' collection, Rounding Cape Horn and Other Sea Stories (1895).
An illustration for the story Missing by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Missing by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Missing by the author Walter McRoberts

The trades of the Indian Ocean usually blow with great regularity except at the semi-annual change of the monsoons, and the bark Harvester was slipping easily along at a six-knot rate on her voyage from Singapore to New York.

It was the second dog-watch; that time at sea when, the day’s work being over, decks swept up, and supper eaten, all hands bring out their pipes and gather in groups to discuss passing events, or to while away the twilight hour in telling stories.

Job, the negro cook, sat in the galley door singing one of the plaintive melodies of his race. An old banjo, played as only a darky can play that instrument, furnished the accompaniment. The singer’s voice was rich and mellow, and the simple notes floated out on the still evening air with a soothing charm that went straight to the heart, and struck many a forgotten chord in the breasts of the four rough seamen who comprised his audience. Near the booby hatch were gathered the mate, the bo’s’un and the steward; each relating in turn some reminiscence or bit of adventure connected with his past life. Many of these provoked roars of laughter, while the conclusion of a few was followed by a period of silence rendered more eloquent by a shake of the head or a sigh. That was the way these hardy men received the narration of some half-forgotten ocean tragedy.

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, Missing, clear over“Yes, Mr. Morgan,” the steward was saying, “I recollect hearing of those two gales off Cape Flattery, now you speak of it. About ’87, wasn’t it?”

The mate thought a moment before he answered: “It was in the spring of ’87, in the first of those gales, that the ship St. Lawrence went to the bottom. If I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget it; but if I should happen to, here’s something that’ll make me remember.”

He pushed back the thick hair from his forehead and revealed an ugly-looking scar of a peculiar reddish-brown color. “Now you know why I wear my hair long even in the tropics,” he said. “I’ve not got much beauty to boast of, maybe, but I’m a little sensitive about that cursed mark all the same. I hate to think of it!”

The steward seemed astonished. “The St. Lawrence! You were on that ship, Mr. Morgan?” he exclaimed, in accents that betrayed his incredulity.

“I was mate of her on her last four voyages.”

“We were in Antwerp at the time, but I always understood that all hands were lost with her.”

“All but the carpenter and me.”

He rose, emptied his pipe, and appeared anxious to drop the subject, but the curiosity of the steward led him to ask how those two had managed to escape. The bo’s’un seconded the request, so Morgan again seated himself, and after a short silence related the affair in these words:

The St. Lawrence was a neat little ship—you may have seen her,—and Captain Fairley was one of the finest men I ever met,—quiet, and a man of few words, but when he said a thing he meant it. I didn’t like his wife so well, but his daughter, Miss Marion,—oh, she was a lovely girl. She’d never lived on shore much, and had that shy, retiring disposition that you often see in such cases, where the captain’s children always go with him and have nobody of their own age to associate with. She never hankered after shore life though, and seemed perfectly happy to be always at sea.

Miss Marion had quite a liking for me, and many and many an evening would she pace the deck in my watch, telling me the names of the different stars and how far off some of them were, and all such things. That was her favorite study—astronomy. Then she read a great deal and used to tell me about her books. All the tidies for the cabin chairs were made by her hands. You remember that silk handkerchief I showed you,—that one with the M embroidered on it? She worked that letter and gave me the handkerchief on my birthday. It was the first birthday present I ever got, and I guess it’ll be the last. Poor girl! she wasn’t quite seventeen when the accident happened.

We came across from Hong Kong to San Francisco and found that the ship had been chartered to load coal on Puget Sound. We arrived at Nanaimo near the end of March. In those days there were no stevedores at most of the coal ports on the Sound, and it was the captain’s or mate’s business to superintend the work of the crew in loading the vessel. Captain Fairley had to go to Tacoma on some business matter, and as ill-luck would have it, I was taken sick the day after we got to Nanaimo, and the doctor made me turn in. I wasn’t able to get out of that bunk for ten days, with the result that the second mate had charge of loading the ship.

I won’t say anything here against Ike Summers,—all of us have our failings,—but what I do say is this: his being drunk while she was loading caused one of the worst accidents on record, and the loss of one of the finest ships I ever saw. Half of the crew were drunk of course, and twenty-six hundred tons of coal were pitched in at random. I’ll swear she wasn’t half trimmed, though I was just able to get about the morning we sailed. Captain Fairley, his wife and Miss Marion got back from Tacoma the afternoon before, and I told him that night it was my opinion that the second mate had been drinking a good deal. He looked serious, but Ike swore everything was all right,—he’d got pretty well sobered up that afternoon,—and as the clearance papers had been taken out, the captain concluded to sail next day. He wanted to get to San Francisco as quickly as possible, for we’d been chartered to load from there to New York. If it hadn’t been for that, I’ve always thought the captain would have looked into the way the cargo had been stowed. He must have suspected something was wrong, for he wanted Mrs. Fairley and Miss Marion to go back by rail, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

So we were towed to sea one fine April morning, having for company a crazy old bark named the Lizzie Williams. The St. Lawrence was rated A-1 at Lloyd’s, and that bark probably had no rating at all, but the old hulk was a good deal more fit to go to sea that morning than we were, as it soon turned out. Her cargo was stowed right, even if she did have to be pumped out three times a day.

Ike Summers had the afternoon watch, and when I turned in after dinner the tug had just cast us off, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. I heard Captain Fairley tell his wife that we must be going to have a blow on account of the falling glass, but he thought it wouldn’t amount to much. Miss Marion was doing some fancy work, I remember, and Ike had just ordered some of his men to spread an old cro’-jack out on deck to be mended. It was a warm, pleasant day, and the sun shone on the sails of the Lizzie Williams as she slumped along like an old canal boat a few miles to leeward. She was the last thing I saw before I went to my room and turned in. I soon dropped off, being dead tired and not very strong yet after my sickness.

How long my sleep lasted don’t matter,—it seemed about ten minutes, but must have been several hours,—when I was roused by the steward shaking me and yelling “Come on deck, Mr. Morgan, for God’s sake!” That brought me to my senses in an instant, and only stopping to throw on my shoes, I ran out.

What a change! A heavy squall was bearing down, and all hands were working like demons to get the ship stripped. Some were aloft cutting away the earings so as to let the sails go overboard, while others were letting go halyards, sheets and tacks. A kind of fog or mist was settling down, and the sails slatting against the masts and shrouds made a horrible din, to say nothing of the hoarse orders that the captain and Ike were bawling out.

I ran up the shrouds to help Summers cut away the mains’il.

“Good G—, Ike, you must have been mad to let that squall catch the ship with all sail on. Where was the captain?” I cried.

“He was below. I just called him. It came faster than I reckoned on.”

“You’ve done it this time! If we ar’n’t dismasted it won’t be your fault.”

We got the mains’il loose, and I had just slid down the backstay to the deck when Miss Marion came running up with face as white as a sheet, but perfectly cool.

“Tell me what I can do to help,” she implored.

“Close the lazarette hatchway,” I answered, “and see all the cabin windows and skylights shut. Then stay below.”

Mrs. Fairley was a very nervous woman, and the suddenness of the affair had upset her completely. There she stood at the break of the poop clinging to a tops’il brace, and literally paralyzed with terror. Miss Marion went to her mother’s assistance, and at the same moment the captain ordered me to take my watch and haul up the fores’il. They were the last words I ever heard him speak.

All this had happened within two or three minutes of my coming on deck, and but few of the light sails had been cut away when I got some of my watch at work on the fores’il. The first thing I knew, an extra heavy gust struck the ship and heeled her over about twenty-five degrees. That wasn’t much, but I tell you a lump came in my throat the next second when I heard a dull roar in the hold beneath. All of us knew what that muffled sound meant—the cargo had shifted!

Of course the ship went clear over on her side then, and the squall broke on us in earnest right after. Everybody grasped whatever he could lay his hands on to keep from sliding down the deck. There was no sea running to speak of, and the chances of saving the ship were fair provided the squall soon passed over; but as the thought of Ike Summers having caused all this came over me, I was in such a fury that if he’d been near by then, I could have pitched him overboard, and not been sorry.

I won’t speak of what we all felt as we clung there on different parts of the ship,—it had all been so sudden, but before anything could be done to right her, the main mast broke off underneath the deck, ripping her all open amidships. The water poured in at an awful rate, and all hands knew the ship was doomed.

“The boats! Cut the lashings before she founders!” I yelled.

Myself and two or three more sprang up on the forward house, where three of the life-boats were made fast, and as we whipped out our knives I happened to look aft and saw the captain and steward on the poop trying to get the gig free before the ship went down. Miss Marion and her mother were holding to the spanker boom, both bearing up nobly in this awful crisis. I knew they would be safe in the gig along with the captain, which was a great load off my mind.

“How shall we get water and stores for the boats?” someone cried.

How, indeed? It was impossible.

We had just got one boat free when the ship gave a plunge, and we felt her going. Everyone was tugging at the boats; a few were yelling and screaming; and then all hands were in the water. I had hardly come to the surface when I felt a terrible blow on the head, and dimly realized that a piece of wreckage had struck me. There was a gurgling sound in my ears,—that was the last thing I recollect.

I was lying on my back with my eyes open looking up at the sky. The new moon was shining, and a large bright star twinkled not far away. I vaguely felt that one of my hands was in the water, and knew that my limbs were being chafed by some person. A kind of dreamy stupor was on me, and though these ideas passed slowly through my brain, they seemed to make no impression, and I didn’t even wonder where I was, or how I came there. Some one spoke to me.

“Mr. Morgan, try and brace up a bit. You know Simms, the carpenter—”

The voice sounded strange and unnatural.

“Yes, I know Simms, the carpenter,” I muttered; but the words meant no more to me than does some senseless phrase to the parrot that mechanically repeats it.

“Them’s the first words you’ve spoke, sir. Now let me pour a little whiskey down your throat.”

The whiskey must have done me good, for I began to get my senses back after a while and became conscious of a terrible throbbing in my head. Putting my hand to my forehead where the pain was, my fingers came in contact with blood. That brought me round more than anything else, and I shut my eyes and tried hard to remember where I was.

“Mr. Morgan, it won’t do to give up like this. We can’t be over sixty miles from the coast, and right in the track of the coal fleet at that.”

The voice sounded familiar now, and I knew it was the carpenter speaking.

“How did we come here, and where are the rest? Where is the ship?” I asked, still a good deal bewildered.

There was a groan and a short pause before the answer came.

“No mortal man will ever set eyes on the St. Lawrence again, Mr. Morgan, nor on any of her crew but you and me.”

It took me some minutes to realize those awful words.

“But Captain Fairley and his family—they escaped?”

“All gone, sir; all but us two.”

“How were we saved?” I asked, as soon as my mind had grasped the fact that out of two dozen lives, ours alone had been spared.

“Everything was sucked down in the vortex—boats and all. I held my breath till I nearly burst before I came to the surface, and there you was close beside me. You was just going down again, I judged, when I grabbed you. A good ways off was Jim Parsons, but not another soul was to be seen. Two capstan bars floated near by, but I struck out for this big piece of the poop-deck that we’re on now, which was half a ship’s length off. It must have been wrenched loose when she went down. I made shift to get on it after a hard fight, for I daren’t leave go of you for fear you’d sink. You was so limp I allowed you must be dead, and your head was bloody besides. Then I looked for Jim, but the poor fellow was nowhere to be seen.”

I owed my life to the carpenter, that was certain.

“Don’t thank me any more,” said the brave fellow. “You’d have done as much for me.”

“How long have we been here?” I said. “Is this the first night after the accident?”

“Yes, sir; this time yesterday the ship was at Nanaimo.”

It seemed incredible. A mere squall had wrecked that fine ship—a blow not one twentieth part as strong as she had weathered hundreds of times before—and all on account of a shifted cargo.

“Is there any water to drink?” I knew very well there couldn’t be, yet I asked the question.

“No, Mr. Morgan. I happened to have this flask and an apple in my pocket, which is all we’ve got. If we were in mid-ocean now, our logs would soon be wrote up, but I make no doubt we’ll be picked up in a day or so at the most. There’s no sea on, so our chance is good.”

We didn’t talk much for a long time, but just before daylight the carpenter, who had been standing up, said: “Don’t be excited, sir, but there’s a vessel bearing down.”

“Where away? Point her out!” I struggled up, though it made my head swim.

None but a sailor would have recognized a vessel in that dark blotch away in the north. My heart thumped pretty loud when I sighted it, and realized that the craft was coming our way. We prayed for daylight,—or I did, anyway,—and it was the first prayer I’d said for years.

Well, the sun came up, and there was a large Englishman not four miles off. She couldn’t help seeing us, but we never stopped waving the carpenter’s coat—I had none—till they signalled us. No need to tell how we got picked up, or how glad we were to have a ship’s deck under our feet again. She proved to be the Scottish Glens, bound from Tacoma to Hamburg, and all hands were mightily interested in our story, several having seen the St. Lawrence sail the morning before.

There we were not a hundred miles from shore, but of course the captain wouldn’t put back, so there was nothing for it but to start on an eighteen-thousand-mile voyage. We worked our passage, and an awful one it was as far as length goes.

While entering the harbor of Hamburg, one hundred and ninety days later, a small boat came alongside with mail for the officers and crew. There was a large assortment of letters and papers bearing postmarks from all parts of the world; but the carpenter and I got nothing, nor did we expect anything, for our relatives must have long since given us up. One of the officers handed me a late copy of the Marine Register, and in the department of Disasters I found this item, which sounded like my obituary:

MISSING.

St. Lawrence (ship), Fairley, which sailed from Puget Sound April 7 for San Francisco, has never been heard of since, and is supposed to have foundered with all hands. Posted at Lloyd’s as missing.


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