R. M. Ballantyne
The Island Queen
Dethroned by Fire and Water—A Tale of the Southern Hemisphere. The Open Boat
Early one morning, in the year 18 hundred and something, the great Southern Ocean was in one of its calmest moods, insomuch that the cloudlets in the blue vault above were reflected with almost perfect fidelity in the blue hemisphere below, and it was barely possible to discern the dividing-line between water and sky.
The only objects within the circle of the horizon that presented the appearance of solidity were an albatross sailing in the air, and a little boat floating on the sea.
The boat rested on its own reflected image, almost motionless, save when a slight undulation of the water caused the lower edge of its reflection to break off in oily patches; but there was no dip of oars at its sides, no rowers on its thwarts, no guiding hand at the helm.
Evidently the albatross regarded the boat with curiosity not unmixed with suspicion, for it sailed in wide circles round it, with outstretched neck, head turned on one side, and an eye bent inquiringly downward. By slow degrees the circles diminished, until the giant bird floated almost directly over the boat. Then, apparently, it saw more than enough to satisfy its curiosity, for, uttering a hoarse cry, it swooped aside, and, with a flap of its mighty wings, made off towards the horizon, where it finally disappeared.
The flap and the cry seemed, however, to have put life into the little boat, for a human head rose slowly above the gunwale. It was that of a youth, of about twenty years of age, apparently in the last stage of exhaustion. He looked round slowly, with a dazed expression, like one who only half awakes from sleep. Drawing his hand across his brow, and gazing wistfully on the calm sea, he rose on his knees with difficulty, and rested his arms on a thwart, while he turned his gaze with a look of intense anxiety on the countenance of a young girl who lay in the bottom of the boat close beside him, asleep or dead.
“It looks like death,” murmured the youth, as he bent over the pale face, his expression betraying sudden alarm; “and it must—it must come to this soon; yet I cannot bear the thought. O God, spare her!”
It seemed as if the prayer were answered at once, for a fluttering sigh escaped from the girl’s bloodless lips, but she did not awake.
“Ah! sleep on, dear sister,” said the youth, “it is all the comfort that is left to you now. Oh for food! How often I have wasted it; thought lightly of it; grumbled because it was not quite to my taste! What would I not give for a little of it now—a very little!”
He turned his head away from the sleeping girl, and a wolfish glare seemed to shoot from his eyes as they rested on something which lay in the stern of the boat.
There were other human beings in that boat besides the youth and his sister—some still living, some dead, for they had been many days on short allowance, and the last four days in a state of absolute starvation—all, save Pauline Rigonda and her little brother Otto, whose fair curly head rested on his sister’s arm.
During the last two nights, when all was still, and the starving sailors were slumbering, or attempting to slumber, Dominick Rigonda—the youth whom we have just introduced to the reader—had placed a small quantity of broken biscuit in the hands of his sister and little brother, with a stern though whispered command to eat it secretly and in silence.
Obediently they ate, or rather devoured, their small portion, wondering where their brother had found it. Perchance they might have relished it less if they had known that Dominick had saved it off his own too scant allowance when he saw that the little store in the boat was drawing to an end—saved it in the hope of being able to prolong the lives of Pauline and Otto.
This reserve, however, had been also exhausted, and it seemed as if the last ray of hope had vanished from Dominick’s breast, on the calm morning on which our tale opens.
As we have said, the youth glared at something lying in the stern of the boat. It was a tarpaulin, which covered a human form. Dominick knew that it was a dead body—that of the cabin-boy, who had died during the night with his head resting on Dominick’s arm. The two men who lay sleeping in the bow knew nothing of his death, and they were so weak from exhaustion at the time the boy died that Dominick had thought it unnecessary to rouse them. The poor boy’s emaciated frame could lie till morning, he thought, and then the sleepers would assist him to put it gently into the sea.
But when morning came, the pangs of hunger assailed the self-denying youth with terrible power, and a horrible thought occurred to him. He opened a large clasp-knife, and, creeping towards the body, removed the tarpaulin. A faint smile rested on the dead lips—the same smile that had moved them when Dominick promised to carry the boy’s last loving message to his mother if he should survive.
He dropped the knife with a convulsive shudder, and turned his eyes on his sleeping sister and brother. Then he thought, as he picked up the knife again, how small an amount of food would suffice to keep these two alive for a few days longer, and surely a sail must come in sight at last; they had waited for it, expectingly, so long!
Suddenly the youth flung the knife away from him with violence, and endeavoured with all his might to lift the body of the boy. In the days of his strength he could have raised it with one hand. Now he strove and energised for many minutes before he succeeded in raising it to the gunwale. At last, with a mighty effort, he thrust it overboard, and it fell into the sea with a heavy plunge.
The noise aroused the two men in the bow, who raised themselves feebly. It was to them an all too familiar sound. Day by day they had heard it, as one and another of their comrades had been committed to the deep. One of the men managed to stand up, but as he swayed about and gazed at Dominick inquiringly, he lost his balance, and, being too weak to recover himself, fell over the side. He reappeared for a moment with outstretched arms and hands clutching towards the boat. Then he sank, to be seen no more. The other man, who had been his intimate friend and messmate, made a frantic effort to save him. His failure to do so seemed to be more than the poor fellow could bear, for he sprang up with the wild laugh and the sudden strength of a maniac, and leaped into the sea.
Dominick could do nothing to prevent this. While staring at the little patch of foam where the two men had gone down, he was startled by the sound of his sister’s voice.
“Are they all gone, brother?” she asked, in a low, horrified tone.
“All—all, sister. Only you, and Otto, and I left. How soundly the poor boy sleeps!”
“I wish it might please God to let him die thus,” said Pauline, with a weary sigh that told eloquently of hope deferred.
“Your wish may be granted,” returned Dominick, “for the dear boy seems to be sinking. It can scarcely, I think, be natural sleep that prevented the shout of that poor fellow from arousing him. But lie down again, Pauline; sleep may do you a little good if you can obtain it, and I will watch.”
“And pray,” suggested the poor girl, as she lay down again, languidly.
“Yes, I will pray. Surely a sail must appear soon!”
Dominick Rigonda was strong in youthful hope even in that hour of sorest trial, but he was not strong in faith. He prayed, however, and found his faith strengthened in the act, for he looked up immediately after with a feeling amounting almost to certainty, that the long-expected and wished-for sail would greet his eyes. But no sail was visible in all the unbroken circle of his horizon. Still the faith which had prompted the eager gaze did not quite evaporate. After the first shock of disappointment at his prayer not being answered according to its tenor, his assurance that God would yet send relief returned in some degree, and he was not altogether disappointed, though the answer came at last in a way that he did not expect.
After sitting in a half-sleeping condition for some time, he aroused himself, and crept with considerable difficulty to the bow to procure the blanket which had covered the two men who had just perished. A corner of the blanket had caught on the end of one of the floor-planks. In disengaging it Dominick chanced to raise the plank which was loose, and observed something like a bundle lying underneath. Curiosity prompted him to examine it. He found that it was wrapped in canvas, and carefully tied with cord. Opening it he discovered to his surprise and intense joy that it contained some ship’s biscuit, a piece of boiled pork, and a flask of water.
Only those who have been suddenly presented with food and drink while starving can appreciate the feelings that filled the heart of the poor youth with laughter and thanksgiving; but his joy was not selfish, for the prospect of immediate personal relief had but a secondary place in his thoughts.
Hastening with the inestimable treasure to the place where his brother and sister lay, he carefully spread it out on a piece of sailcloth, and cut a few thin slices of the pork before arousing them.
“Awake, sister, and eat!” he said at last, gently shaking Pauline by the shoulder.
“O Dominick!” she exclaimed, raising herself, and gazing eagerly at the food. “I was dreaming of this when you awoke me!”
“That’s odd, now,” said little Otto, who had also been aroused, “for I was dreaming of eating! And I am so hung—”
He got no further, for, having clutched a handful of biscuit, he suddenly stopped the way of utterance.
“How good of you, Dom!” said Pauline, eating with as much relish, though not with such voracity, as her little brother, “Where did you get this?”
“No matter; eat and be thankful,” said Dominick curtly, for he was himself eating with wolfish haste by that time. He restrained himself, however, after a few minutes.
“Hold! We must not indulge too freely. It will hurt us after fasting so long. Besides, this supply is very small, and must be made to last as long as possible. No, my boy, you must eat no more at this time, but you may drink a little.”
About a table-spoonful of water was measured out to each, and then the remainder of the food was carefully wrapped up and put away.
“Do you think that this supply was hidden by one of the poor fellows who left us this morning?” asked Pauline.
“I think so; and no doubt his motive was a good one. You know he was very fond of his messmate. I should think he saved up his allowance to help him; but, whatever the motive, it has proved a blessing to us—”
He ceased speaking, for both sister and little brother had drooped their weary heads, and were again in a heavy slumber. Dominick himself felt intensely the desire to follow their example, but he resisted it, feeling that it was his duty to watch for the long-expected sail that never appeared. At first his efforts were successful, but by degrees the tendency to sleep became so overpowering that his struggles were unavailing. Sense of duty and every other motive gave way before it; his head finally dropped forward, and, with a heavy sigh of contentment, he followed his brother and sister to the land of Nod.
Profound, prolonged, and refreshing was that sweet slumber, after the first good meal these poor castaways had eaten for many days. The weather fortunately continued bright and warm, so that they did not suffer so much from exposure as on previous days, and the gentle rocking of the boat tended to deepen and prolong their repose.
Thus they floated peacefully during the greater part of that day—the one solitary speck on the surface of the great ocean, for the albatross seemed to have finally forsaken them.
Towards noon a light westerly breeze sprang up. It was not sufficient to raise a sea or disturb the sleepers, but, in conjunction with ocean currents, it drifted them to the south-east at a considerable rate, so that in the evening, without the aid of oar or sail, they were far from the spot upon the sea where we introduced them to the reader.
At last Dominick awoke with a long-drawn sigh, and, raising his head, looked over the side of the boat. An exclamation of surprise and joy broke from him, for there, like a speck, where something like a heavy bank of clouds rested on the horizon, was the long-expected sail.
His first impulse was to awaken the sleepers, but he checked himself. He would look more carefully. His eyes might be deceiving him, and the disappointment if he should be mistaken would be overwhelming. He would spare them that. Rising to his feet he shaded his eyes with one hand, and gazed long and earnestly.
The longer he looked, however, and the more he rubbed his eyes, the more convinced was he that a vessel was really in sight.
“Pauline,” he said at length, with suppressed emotion, as he gently shook her arm, “see, God has answered our prayers: a vessel is in sight!”
The poor girl raised herself quickly, with an exclamation of thankfulness, and gazed intently in the direction pointed out.
“It is, surely it is a ship,” she said, “but—but—don’t you think there is something curious about its appearance?”
“I have indeed been puzzled during the last few minutes,” replied Dominick. “It seems as if there were something strange under her, and her position, too, is rather odd.—Ho! Otto, rouse up, my boy, and look at the vessel coming to save us. Your eyes are sharp! Say, d’you see anything strange about her?”
Thus appealed to, Otto, who felt greatly refreshed by his good meal and long sleep, sat up and also gazed at the vessel in question.
“No, Dom,” he said at length; “I don’t see much the matter with her, except that she leans over on one side a good deal, and there’s something black under and around her.”
“Can it be a squall that has struck her?” said Pauline. “Squalls, you know, make ships lie over very much at times, and cause the sea round them to look very dark.”
“It may be so,” returned Dominick doubtfully. “But we shall soon see, for a squall won’t take very long to bring her down to us.”
They watched the approaching vessel with intense eagerness, but did not again speak for a considerable time. Anxiety and doubt kept them silent. There was the danger that the vessel might fail to observe them, and as their oars had been washed away they had no means of hoisting a flag of distress. Then there was the unaccountable something about the vessel’s appearance which puzzled and filled them with uncertainty. At last they drew so near that Dominick became all too well aware of what it was, and a sinking of the heart kept him still silent for a time.
“Brother,” said Pauline at last in a sad voice, as she turned her dark eyes on Dominick, “I fear it is only a wreck.”
“You are right,” he replied gloomily; “a wreck on a barren shore, too. Not a scrap of vegetation on it, as far as I can see—a mere sandbank. Currents are carrying us towards it, and have led us to fancy that the vessel was moving.”
He spoke with bitterness, for the disappointment was very great, and physical weakness had rendered him less able to bear it than he might otherwise have been.
“Don’t get grumpy, Dom,” said Otto, with a slightly humorous look that was peculiar to him—a look which had not lighted up his eyes for many days past.
“I won’t get grumpy,” returned Dominick with sudden energy, patting the boy’s head. “It is quite clear that a good feed and a long rest were all you required to set up your plucky little spirit again.”
“Dom,” said Pauline, who had been looking intently at the wreck, “is there not something like a line of white close to the wreck?”
“Ay, there is,” replied Dominick, his countenance again becoming grave; “it is a line of breakers, through which it will be very difficult to steer our little boat.”
“Steer, Dom,” exclaimed Otto, with a look of surprise; “how can you talk of steering at all, without oar or helm?”
“I must make one of the floor-planks do for both,” returned Dominick.
“I say,” continued the boy, “I’m horribly hungry. Mayn’t I have just a bite or two more?”
“Stay, I’m thinking,” replied the other.
“Think fast then, please, for the wolf inside of me is howling.”
The result of Dominick’s thinking was that he resolved to consume as much of their stock of provisions as possible in one meal, in order to secure all the strength that was available by such means, and thus fit them for the coming struggle with the surf. “For,” said he, “if we get capsized far from the shore, we have no chance of reaching it by swimming in our present weak condition. Our only plan is to get up all the strength we can by means of food. So here goes!”
He untied the bundle as he spoke, and spread the contents on his knees. Otto—who was, indeed, a plucky little fellow, and either did not realise or did not fear the danger that lay before him—commenced to eat with almost jovial avidity. Indeed, all three showed that they had benefited greatly by what they had already eaten, and now, for the first time during many days, consumed what they considered a full and satisfactory meal, while they drifted slowly but steadily towards the land.
As they neared it, the heavy mass on the horizon, which they had taken for a bank of clouds, became more distinct. A light haze cleared away and showed it to be an island, to which the sandbank formed a barrier reef; but any interest that might have been aroused by this discovery was absorbed by present anxiety, for the white and gleaming surf warned them that a serious and critical moment in their lives was fast approaching. Pauline was awed into silence, and even Otto’s countenance became gradually solemnised.