Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

They followed him forward without a word. The crew, listless and weary, were grouped about the pumps. The feeble clanking sounded like the ticking of a watch amid the horrible uproar which filled the air.

“Buckle to again, boys!” cried Miggs. “These two will help you and the carpenter and mate.”

Ezra and his father, the old man’s grizzled locks flying wildly from his head, seized the rope and worked with the crew, hardly able to retain their foothold upon the slippery sloping decks. Miggs went down into the cabin. His behaviour during the gale had been most exemplary, but he recognized now that there was nothing more to be done, and, having thrown off his public responsibilities, he renewed his private peculiarities. He filled out nearly a tumblerful of raw rum and took it off at a gulp. Then he began to sing and made his way on deck in a very hilarious and reckless mood.

The vessel was still flying towards the rugged line of cliffs, which were now visible along the whole horizon, the great projection on the left being their culminating point. She was obviously sinking lower in the water, and she plunged in a heavy, sulky manner through the waves, instead of rising to them as she did before. The water was steadily gaining in her interior, and it was clear that she would not float long. The straining of the gale had increased the long-neglected rifts between her timbers, and no amount of pumping could save her. On the other hand, the sky had broken above them, and the wind was by no means so violent as before. The sun broke through between two great hurrying clouds, and turned all the waves to the brightest emerald green, with sparkling snow-white crests of foam. This sudden change and the brightness of the scene made their fate seem all the harder to the seamen aboard the sinking vessel.

“The gale is clearin’,” remarked McPherson. “If we’d had a ship that wasna rotten to the hairt, like her owners, we’d ha pu’ed through.”

“Right you are, old Sandy! But we’re all goin’ together, captain and owners and the whole bilin’,” yelled Miggs recklessly.

The mate looked at him half in surprise and half in contempt.
“You’ve been at the bottle,” he said. “Eh mun, mun, if we are a’
drooned, as seems likely, it’s an awfu’ thing to appear before your
Maker wi’ your meeserable soul a’ steeped in drink.”

“You go down and have a drink yourself,” Miggs cried huskily.

“Na, na. If I am to dee, I’ll dee sober.”

“You’ll die a fool,” the skipper shouted wrathfully.

“Well, old preacher, you’ve brought us into a nice hole with your damned insurance cheating, cheese-paring business. What d’ye think of it now, when the ship’s settlin’ down under our feet, eh? Would you repair her if you had her back in the Albert Dock, eh?”

This speech was addressed to the old merchant, who had ceased pumping, and was leaning against the cuddy and looking up hopelessly at the long line of brown cliffs which were now only half a mile away. They could hear the roar of the surf, and saw the white breakers where the Atlantic stormed in all its fury against nature’s break-water.

“He’s not fit to command,” said Ezra to the mate. “What would you advise?”

“We’ll bring her round and lower the boats on the lee side. They may live or no, but it’s the only chance for us. Them twa boats will hold us a’ easy.”

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