Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

The Firm of Girdlestone

The early part of the voyage of the Black Eagle was extremely fortunate. The wind came round to the eastward, and wafted them steadily down Channel, until on the third day they saw the Isle of Ushant lying low upon the sky-line. No inquisitive gunboat or lurking police launch came within sight of them, though whenever any vessel’s course brought her in their direction the heart of Ezra Girdlestone sank within him. On one occasion a small brig signalled to them, and the wretched fugitives, when they saw the flags run up, thought that all was lost. It proved, however, to be merely some trivial message, and the two owners breathed again.

The wind fell away on the day that they cleared the Channel, and the whole surface of the sea was like a great expanse of quicksilver, which shimmered in the rays of the wintry sun. There was still a considerable swell after the recent gale, and the Black Eagle lay rolling about as though she had learned habits of inebriation from her skipper. The sky was very clear above, but all round the horizon a low haze lay upon the water. So silent was it that the creaking of the boats as they swung at the davits, and the straining of the shrouds as the ship rolled, sounded loud and clear, as did the raucous cries of a couple of gulls which hovered round the poop. Every now and then a rumbling noise ending in a thud down below showed that the swing of the ship had caused something to come down with a run. Underlying all other sounds, however, was a muffled clank, clank, which might almost make one forget that this was a sailing ship, it sounded so like the chipping of a propeller.

“What is that noise, Captain Miggs?” asked John Girdlestone as he stood leaning over the quarter rail, while the old sea-dog, sextant in hand, was taking his midday observations. The captain had been on his good behaviour since the unexpected advent of his employers, and he was now in a wonderful and unprecedented state of sobriety.

“Them’s the pumps a-goin’,” Miggs answered, packing his sextant away in its case.

“The pumps! I thought they were only used when a ship was in danger?”

Ezra came along the deck at this moment, and listened with interest to the conversation.

“This ship is in danger,” Miggs remarked calmly.

“In danger!” cried Ezra, looking round the clear sky and placid sea.
“Where is the danger? I did not think you were such an old woman,

“We will see about that,” the seaman answered angrily. “If a ship’s got no bottom in her she’s bound to be in danger, be the weather fair or foul.”

“Do you mean to tell me this ship has no bottom?”

“I mean to tell you that there are places where you could put your fingers through her seams. It’s only the pumpin’ that keeps her afloat.”

“This is a pretty state of things,” said Girdlestone. “How is it that I have not been informed of it before! It is most dangerous.”

“Informed!” cried Miggs. “Informed of it! Has there been a v’yage yet that I haven’t come to ye, Muster Girdlestone, and told ye I was surprised ever to find myself back in Lunnon? A year agone I told ye how this ship was, and ye laughed at me, ye did. It’s only when ye find yourselves on her in the middle o’ the broad sea that ye understan’ what it is that sailor folk have to put up wi’.”

Girdlestone was about to make some angry reply to this address, but his son put his hand on his arm to restrain him. It would never do to quarrel with Hamilton Miggs before they reached their port of refuge. They were too completely in his power.

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