Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

The clouds above broke somewhat towards morning, but there was no sign of abatement in the tempest. Here and there through the rifts the glimmer of the stars might be seen, and once the pale moon gleamed through the storm wreath. The dawn broke cheerless and dreary, disclosing the great turmoil of endless slate-coloured waves and the solitary little barque, with her rag of canvas, like a broken-winged seabird, staggering to the south.

Even the Girdlestones had noticed that, whereas towards the commencement of the storm it had been a rare occurrence for a wave to break over the ship, the decks were now continually knee-deep in water, and there was a constant splashing and crashing as the seas curled over the weather bulwark. Miggs had already observed it, and conferred gravely with his mate on the point.

“I don’t like the looks of her, Mac,” he shouted. “She don’t rise to them.”

“She’s near water-logged, I’m thinkin’,” the mate responded gravely.

He knew the danger, and his thoughts were wandering away to a little slate-tiled cottage near Peterhead. It is true that there was not much in it save a wife, who was said to give Sandy the rough side of her tongue, and occasionally something rougher still. Affection is a capricious emotion, however, and will cling to the most unlikely objects; so the big Scotchman’s eyes were damp with something else beside the sea spray as he realized that he might never look upon cottage or occupant again.

“No wonder,” said Miggs, “when she’s takin’ in water above and below too. The men are weary wi’ pumpin’, and it still gains.”

“I doot it’s our last v’yage thgither,” the mate remarked, his Scottish accent waxing broader under the influence of emotion.

“What d’ye say to heavin’ her to?”

“I’d let her run on. She would na rise tae the waves, I’m fearin’. We canna be vera fa’ frae the Spanish coast, accordin’ to my surmisation. That wud gie us a chance o’ savin’ oorsels, though I’m a feared na boat would live in siccan a sea.”

“You’re right. We have a better chance so than if we let her ride. She’d founder as sure as eggs are eggs. Damn it, Mac, I could almost be glad this has happened now we’ve got them two aboard. We’ll teach ’em what coffin ships is like in a gale o’ wind.” The rough seaman laughed hoarsely as he spoke.

The carpenter came aft at this moment, balancing himself as best he could, for the deck was only a few degrees off the perpendicular.

“The leak is gaining fast,” he said. “The hands are clean done up.
There’s land on the port bow.”

The mate and the captain peered out through the dense wrack and haze. A great dark cliff loomed out upon the left, jagged, inhospitable, and menacing.

“We’d best run towards it,” the mate said. “We’ve na chance o’ saving the ship, but we might run her ashore.”

“The ship will go down before you reach it,” the carpenter remarked gloomily.

“Keep your heart up!” Miggs shouted, and then crawled along to the Girdlestones. “There is no hope for the ship but we may save ourselves,” he said. “You’ll have to take your turn at the pumps.”

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