Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

The ship was settling down in the water so fast that it was no difficult matter to let the boats down. They only hung a few feet above the surface. The majority of the crew got safely into the long boat, and the Girdlestones, with Miggs and four seamen, occupied the gig. It was no easy thing to prevent the boats from being stove, as the waves alternately drove them from the ship’s side or brought the two together with a force which seemed irresistible. By skilful management, however, they both succeeded in casting off and getting clear without accident.

It was only when they emerged from under the shelter of the vessel that they felt the full power of the sea. If it had appeared stupendous when they trod the deck of the barque, how much more so now, when, by leaning the arm over the side, they could touch the surface. The great glassy green billows hurled them up and down, and tossed them and buffeted them as though the two boats were their playthings, and they were trying what antics they could perform with them without destroying them. Girdlestone sat very grim and pale, with Ezra at his side. The young fellow’s expression was that of a daring man who realizes his danger, but is determined to throw no chance of safety away. His mouth was set firm and hard, and his dark eyebrows were drawn down over his keen eyes, which glanced swiftly to right and left, like a rat in a trap. Miggs held the tiller, and laughed from time to time in a drunken fashion, while the four seamen, quiet and subdued, steadied the boat as long as they could with their oars, and looked occasionally over their shoulders at the breakers behind them. The sun was shining on the rugged precipices, showing out the green turf upon their summit and a little dark group of peasants, who were watching the scene from above, but making no effort to assist the castaways. There was no alternative but to row straight in for the nearest point of land, for the boats were filling, and might go down at any moment.

“The ship’s gone!” Ezra said, as they rose on the summit of a wave. When they came up again all looked round, but there was no sign of the ill-fated Black Eagle.

“We’ll all be gone when we get among the breakers,” shouted Captain Hamilton Miggs. “Pull, ye devils, pull! Beat the mate’s boat. It’s a race, my lads, and the winnin’ post is hell.”

Ezra glanced at his father, and saw that his lips were moving tremulously as they pattered forth prayers.

“Still at it!” he said, with a sneer.

“Making my peace,” the old man said solemnly. “My faith is now indeed a staff and a comfort. I look back at my long life, and though I humbly confess that I have erred, and erred grievously, still in the main I have walked straight. From my youth I have been frugal and industrious. Oh, my boy, look with candid eyes into your own heart, and see if you are fit to be called away.”

“Look to your own beam,” Ezra answered, keeping his eye upon the line of boiling surf, which came nearer and nearer every moment. “How about John Harston’s daughter, eh?” Even at that awful hour Ezra felt a sinister pleasure at observing the spasm which shot across his father’s face at the mention of his ward.

“If I sinned I sinned for a worthy purpose,” he answered. “It was to preserve my business. Its fall was a blow to righteousness and a triumph to evil. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit!”

As he spoke a great wave hurled the boat in upon its broad bosom, and flung it down upon the cruel jagged rocks, which bristled from the base of the cliff. There was a horrible rending crash, and the stout keel snapped asunder, while a second wave swept over it, tearing out the struggling occupants and bearing them on, only to hurl them upon a second ridge beyond. The peasants upon the cliff gave piteous cries of grief and pity, which blended with the agonized groans and screams of drowning men and the thunder of the pitiless surge. Looking down they could see the black dots, which indicated the heads of the poor wretches below, diminishing one by one as they were hurled upon the rocks or dragged down by the under-current.

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