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Who Goes There?
Jarl's oar showed sixteen notches on the loom, when one evening, as
the expanded sun touched the horizon's rim, a ship's uppermost spars
were observed, traced like a spider's web against its crimson disk.
It looked like a far-off craft on fire.
In bright weather at sea, a sail, invisible in the full flood of
noon, becomes perceptible toward sunset. It is the reverse in the
morning. In sight at gray dawn, the distant vessel, though in reality
approaching, recedes from view, as the sun rises higher and higher.
This holds true, till its vicinity makes it readily fall within the
ordinary scope of vision. And thus, too, here and there, with other
distant things: the more light you throw on them, the more you
obscure. Some revelations show best in a twilight.
The sight of the stranger not a little surprised us. But brightening
up, as if the encounter were welcome, Jarl looked happy and
expectant. He quickly changed his demeanor, however, upon perceiving
that I was bent upon shunning a meeting.
Instantly our sails were struck; and calling upon Jarl, who was
somewhat backward to obey, I shipped the oars; and, both rowing, we
stood away obliquely from our former course.
I divined that the vessel was a whaler; and hence, that by help of
the glass, with which her look-outs must be momentarily sweeping the
horizon, they might possibly have descried us; especially, as we were
due east from the ship; a direction, which at sunset is the
one most favorable for perceiving a far-off object at sea.
Furthermore, our canvas was snow-white and conspicuous. To be sure,
we could not be certain what kind of a vessel it was; but whatever it
might be, I, for one, had no mind to risk an encounter; for it was
quite plain, that if the stranger came within hailing distance, there
would be no resource but to link our fortunes with hers; whereas I
desired to pursue none but the Chamois'. As for the Skyeman, he kept
looking wistfully over his shoulder; doubtless, praying Heaven, that
we might not escape what I sought to avoid.
Now, upon a closer scrutiny, being pretty well convinced that the
stranger, after all, was steering a nearly westerly course--right
away from us--we reset our sail; and as night fell, my Viking's
entreaties, seconded by my own curiosity, induced me to resume our
original course; and so follow after the vessel, with a view of
obtaining a nearer glimpse, without danger of detection. So, boldly
we steered for the sail.
But not gaining much upon her, spite of the lightness of the breeze
(a circumstance in our favor: the chase being a ship, and we but a
boat), at my comrade's instigation, we added oars to sails, readily
guiding our way by the former, though the helm was left to itself.
As we came nearer, it was plain that the vessel was no whaler; but a
small, two-masted craft; in short, a brigantine. Her sails were in a
state of unaccountable disarray; .only the foresail, mainsail, and
jib being set. The first was much tattered; and the jib was hoisted
but half way up the stay, where it idly flapped, the breeze coming
from over the taffrail. She continually yawed in her course; now
almost presenting her broadside, then showing her stern.
Striking our sails once more, we lay on our oars, and watched her in
the starlight. Still she swung from side to side, and still sailed on.
Not a little terrified at the sight, superstitious Jarl more than
insinuated that the craft must be a gold-huntress, haunted. But I
told him, that if such were the case, we must board her, come gold or
goblins. In reality, however, I began to think that she must have
been abandoned by her crew; or else, that from sickness, those on
board were incapable of managing her.
After a long and anxious reconnoiter, we came still nearer, using our
oars, but very reluctantly on Jarl's part; who, while rowing, kept
his eyes over his shoulder, as if about to beach the little Chamois
on the back of a whale as of yore. Indeed, he seemed full as
impatient to quit the vicinity of the vessel, as before he had been
anxiously courting it.
Now, as the silent brigantine again swung round her broadside, I
hailed her loudly. No return. Again. But all was silent. With a few
vigorous strokes, we closed with her, giving yet another unanswered
hail; when, laying the Chamois right alongside, I clutched at the
main-chains. Instantly we felt her dragging us along. Securing our
craft by its painter, I sprang over the rail, followed by Jarl, who
had snatched his harpoon, his favorite arms. Long used with that
weapon to overcome the monsters of the deep, he doubted not it would
prove equally serviceable in any other encounter.
The deck was a complete litter. Tossed about were pearl oyster
shells, husks of cocoa-nuts, empty casks, and cases. The deserted
tiller was lashed; which accounted for the vessel's yawing. But we
could not conceive, how going large before the wind; the craft could,
for any considerable time, at least, have guided herself without the
help of a hand. Still, the breeze was light and steady.
Now, seeing the helm thus lashed, I could not but distrust the
silence that prevailed. It conjured up the idea of miscreants
concealed below, and meditating treachery; unscrupulous mutineers--
Lascars, or Manilla-men; who, having murdered the Europeans of
the crew, might not be willing to let strangers depart unmolested. Or
yet worse, the entire ship's company might have been swept away by a
fever, its infection still lurking in the poisoned hull. And though
the first conceit, as the last, was a mere surmise, it was
nevertheless deemed prudent to secure the hatches, which for the
present we accordingly barred down with the oars of our boat. This
done, we went about the deck in search of water. And finding some in
a clumsy cask, drank long and freely, and to our thirsty souls'
The wind now freshening, and the rent sails like to blow from the
yards, we brought the brigantine to the wind, and brailed up the
canvas. This left us at liberty to examine the craft, though,
unfortunately, the night was growing hazy.
All this while our boat was still towing alongside; and I was about
to drop it astern, when Jarl, ever cautious, declared it safer where
it was; since, if there were people on board, they would most likely
be down in the cabin, from the dead-lights of which, mischief might
be done to the Chamois.
It was then, that my comrade observed, that the brigantine had no
boats, a circumstance most unusual in any sort of a vessel at sea.
But marking this, I was exceedingly gratified. It seemed to indicate,
as I had opined, that from some cause or other, she must have been
abandoned of her crew. And in a good measure this dispelled my fears
of foul play, and the apprehension of contagion. Encouraged by these
reflections, I now resolved to descend, and explore the cabin, though
sorely against Jarl's counsel. To be sure, as he earnestly said, this
step might have been deferred till daylight; but it seemed too
wearisome to wait. So bethinking me of our tinder-box and candles, I
sent him into the boat for them. Presently, two candles were lit; one
of which the Skyeman tied up and down the barbed end of his harpoon;
so that upon going below, the keen steel might not be far off,
should the light be blown out by a dastard.
Unfastening the cabin scuttle, we stepped downward into the smallest
and murkiest den in the world. The altar-like transom, surmounted by
the closed dead-lights in the stem, together with the dim little sky-
light overhead, and the somber aspect of every thing around, gave the
place the air of some subterranean oratory, say a Prayer Room of
Peter the Hermit. But coils of rigging, bolts of canvas, articles of
clothing, and disorderly heaps of rubbish, harmonized not with this
impression. Two doors, one on each side, led into wee little state-
rooms, the berths of which also were littered. Among other things,
was a large box, sheathed with iron and stoutly clamped, containing a
keg partly filled with powder, the half of an old cutlass, a pouch of
bullets, and a case for a sextant--a brass plate on the lid, with the
maker's name. London. The broken blade of the cutlass was very rusty
and stained; and the iron hilt bent in. It looked so tragical that I
thrust it out of sight.
Removing a small trap-door, opening into the space beneath, called
the "run," we lighted upon sundry cutlasses and muskets, lying
together at sixes and sevens, as if pitched down in a hurry.
Casting round a hasty glance, and satisfying ourselves, that through
the bulkhead of the cabin, there was no passage to the forward part
of the hold, we caught up the muskets and cutlasses, the powder keg
and the pouch of bullets, and bundling them on deck, prepared to
visit the other end of the vessel. Previous to so doing, however, I
loaded a musket, and belted a cutlass to my side. But my Viking
preferred his harpoon.
In the forecastle reigned similar confusion. But there was a snug
little lair, cleared away in one corner, and furnished with a grass
mat and bolster, like those used among the Islanders of these seas.
This little lair looked to us as if some leopard had crouched there.
And as it turned out, we were not far from right. Forming one
side of this retreat, was a sailor's chest, stoutly secured by a
lock, and monstrous heavy withal. Regardless of Jarl's entreaties, I
managed to burst the lid; thereby revealing a motley assemblage of
millinery, and outlandish knick-knacks of all sorts; together with
sundry rude Calico contrivances, which though of unaccountable cut,
nevertheless possessed a certain petticoatish air, and latitude of
skirt, betokening them the habiliments of some feminine creature;
most probably of the human species.
In this strong box, also, was a canvas bag, jingling with rusty old
bell-buttons, gangrened copper bolts, and sheathing nails; damp,
greenish Carolus dollars (true coin all), besides divers iron screws,
and battered, chisels, and belaying-pins. Sounded on the chest lid,
the dollars rang clear as convent bells. These were put aside by Jarl
the sight of substantial dollars doing away, for the nonce, with his
superstitious Misgivings. True to his kingship, he loved true coin;
though abroad on the sea, and no land but dollarless dominions
ground, all this silver was worthless as charcoal or diamonds. Nearly
one and the same thing, say the chemists; but tell that to the
marines, say the illiterate Jews and the jewelers. Go, buy a house,
or a ship, if you can, with your charcoal! Yea, all the woods in
Canada charred down to cinders would not be worth the one famed
Brazilian diamond, though no bigger than the egg of a carrier pigeon.
Ah! but these chemists are liars, and Sir Humphrey Davy a cheat.
Many's the poor devil they've deluded into the charcoal business, who
otherwise might have made his fortune with a mattock.
Groping again into the chest, we brought to light a queer little hair
trunk, very bald and rickety. At every corner was a mighty clamp, the
weight of which had no doubt debilitated the box. It was jealously
secured with a padlock, almost as big as itself; so that it was
almost a question, which was meant to be security to the other.
Prying at it hard, we at length effected an entrance; but saw
no golden moidores, no ruddy doubloons; nothing under heaven but
three pewter mugs, such as are used in a ship's cabin, several brass
screws, and brass plates, which must have belonged to a quadrant;
together with a famous lot of glass beads, and brass rings; while,
pasted on the inside of the cover, was a little colored print,
representing the harlots, the shameless hussies, having a fine time
with the Prodigal Son.
It should have been mentioned ere now, that while we were busy in the
forecastle, we were several times startled by strange sounds aloft.
And just after, crashing into the little hair trunk, down came a
great top-block, right through the scuttle, narrowly missing my
Viking's crown; a much stronger article, by the way, than your
goldsmiths turn out in these days. This startled us much;
particularly Jarl, as one might suppose; but accustomed to the
strange creakings and wheezings of the masts and yards of old vessels
at sea, and having many a time dodged stray blocks accidentally
falling from aloft, I thought little more of the matter; though my
comrade seemed to think the noises somewhat different from any thing
of that kind he had even heard before.
After a little more turning over of the rubbish in the forecastle,
and much marveling thereat, we ascended to the deck; where we found
every thing so silent, that, as we moved toward the taffrail, the
Skyeman unconsciously addressed me in a whisper.
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