I was on my way from San Francisco to Yokohama, when in a very desultory and gradual manner I became acquainted with Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine. The steamer, on which I was making a moderately rapid passage toward the land of the legended fan and the lacquered box, carried a fair complement of passengers, most of whom were Americans; and, among these, my attention was attracted from the very first day of the voyage to two middle-aged women who appeared to me very unlike the ordinary traveler or tourist. At first sight they might have been taken for farmers’ wives who, for some unusual reason, had determined to make a voyage across the Pacific; but, on closer observation, one would have been more apt to suppose that they belonged to the families of prosperous tradesmen in some little country town, where, besides the arts of rural housewifery, there would be opportunities of becoming acquainted in some degree with the ways and manners of the outside world. They were not of that order of persons who generally take first-class passages on steamships, but the stateroom occupied by Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine was one of the best in the vessel; and although they kept very much to themselves, and showed no desire for the company or notice of the other passengers, they evidently considered themselves quite as good as any one else, and with as much right to voyage to any part of the world in any manner or style which pleased them.
Mrs. Lecks was a rather tall woman, large-boned and muscular, and her well-browned countenance gave indications of that conviction of superiority which gradually grows up in the minds of those who for a long time have had absolute control of the destinies of a state, or the multifarious affairs of a country household. Mrs. Aleshine was somewhat younger than her friend, somewhat shorter, and a great deal fatter. She had the same air of reliance upon her individual worth that characterized Mrs. Lecks, but there was a certain geniality about her which indicated that she would have a good deal of forbearance for those who never had had the opportunity or the ability of becoming the thoroughly good housewife which she was herself.
These two worthy dames spent the greater part of their time on deck, where they always sat together in a place at the stern of the vessel which was well sheltered from wind and weather. As they sat thus they were generally employed in knitting, although this occupation did not prevent them from keeping up what seemed to me, as I passed them in my walks about the deck, a continuous conversation. From a question which Mrs. Lecks once asked me about a distant sail, our acquaintance began. There was no one on board for whose society I particularly cared, and as there was something quaint and odd about these countrywomen on the ocean which interested me, I was glad to vary my solitary promenades by an occasional chat with them. They were not at all backward in giving me information about themselves. They were both widows, and Mrs. Aleshine was going out to Japan to visit a son who had a position there in a mercantile house. Mrs. Lecks had no children, and was accompanying her friend because, as she said, she would not allow Mrs. Aleshine to make such a voyage as that by herself, and because, being quite able to do so, she did not know why she should not see the world as well as other people.
These two friends were not educated women. They made frequent mistakes in their grammar, and a good deal of Middle States provincialism showed itself in their pronunciation and expressions. But although they brought many of their rural ideas to sea with them, they possessed a large share of that common sense which is available anywhere, and they frequently made use of it in a manner which was very amusing to me. I think, also, that they found in me a quarry of information concerning nautical matters, foreign countries, and my own affairs, the working of which helped to make us very good ship friends.
Our steamer touched at the Sandwich Islands; and it was a little more than two days after we left Honolulu that, about nine o’clock in the evening, we had the misfortune to come into collision with an eastern-bound vessel. The fault was entirely due to the other ship, the lookout on which, although the night was rather dark and foggy, could easily have seen our lights in time to avoid collision, if he had not been asleep or absent from his post. Be this as it may, this vessel, which appeared to be a small steamer, struck us with great force near our bows, and then, backing, disappeared into the fog, and we never saw or heard of her again. The general opinion was that she was injured very much more than we were, and that she probably sank not very long after the accident; for when the fog cleared away, about an hour afterward, nothing could be seen of her lights.
As it usually happens on occasions of accidents at sea, the damage to our vessel was at first reported to be slight; but it was soon discovered that our injuries were serious and, indeed, disastrous. The hull of our steamer had been badly shattered on the port bow, and the water came in at a most alarming rate. For nearly two hours the crew and many of the passengers worked at the pumps, and everything possible was done to stop the enormous leak; but all labor to save the vessel was found to be utterly unavailing, and a little before midnight the captain announced that it was impossible to keep the steamer afloat, and that we must all take to the boats. The night was now clear, the stars were bright, and, as there was but little wind, the sea was comparatively smooth. With all these advantages, the captain assured us that there was no reason to apprehend danger, and he thought that by noon of the following day we could easily make a small inhabited island, where we could be sheltered and cared for until we should be taken off by some passing vessel.
There was plenty of time for all necessary preparations, and these were made with much order and subordination. Some of the ladies among the cabin passengers were greatly frightened, and inclined to be hysterical. There were pale faces also among the gentlemen. But everybody obeyed the captain’s orders, and all prepared themselves for the transfer to the boats. The first officer came among us, and told each of us what boats we were to take, and where we were to place ourselves on deck. I was assigned to a large boat which was to be principally occupied by steerage passengers; and as I came up from my stateroom, where I had gone to secure my money and some portable valuables, I met on the companionway Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, who expressed considerable dissatisfaction when they found that I was not going in the boat with them. They, however, hurried below, and I went on deck, where in about ten minutes I was joined by Mrs. Lecks, who apparently had been looking for me. She told me she had something very particular to say to me, and conducted me toward the stern of the vessel, where, behind one of the deck-houses, we found Mrs. Aleshine.
“Look here,” said Mrs. Lecks, leading me to the rail, and pointing downward; “do you see that boat there? It has been let down, and there is nobody in it. The boat on the other side has just gone off, full to the brim. I never saw so many people crowded into a boat. The other ones will be just as packed, I expect. I don’t see why we shouldn’t take this empty boat, now we’ve got a chance, instead of squeezin’ ourselves into those crowded ones. If any of the other people come afterward, why, we shall have our choice of seats, and that’s considerable of a p’int, I should say, in a time like this.”
“That’s so,” said Mrs. Aleshine; “and me and Mrs. Lecks would ‘a’ got right in when we saw the boat was empty, if we hadn’t been afraid to be there without any man, for it might have floated off, and neither of us don’t know nothin’ about rowin’. And then Mrs. Lecks she thought of you, supposin’ a young man who knew so much about the sea would know how to row.”
“Oh, yes,” said I; “but I cannot imagine why this boat should have been left empty. I see a keg of water in it, and the oars, and some tin cans, and so I suppose it has been made ready for somebody. Will you wait here a minute until I run forward and see how things are going on there?”
Amidships and forward I saw that there was some confusion among the people who were not yet in their boats, and I found that there was to be rather more crowding than at first was expected. People who had supposed that they were to go in a certain boat found there no place, and were hurrying to other boats. It now became plain to me that no time should be lost in getting into the small boat which Mrs. Lecks had pointed out, and which was probably reserved for some favored persons, as the officers were keeping the people forward and amidships, the other stern-boat having already departed. But as I acknowledged no reason why any one should be regarded with more favor than myself and the two women who were waiting for me, I slipped quietly aft, and joined Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine.
“We must get in as soon as we can,” said I, in a low voice, “for this boat may be discovered, and then there will be a rush for it. I suspect it may have been reserved for the captain and some of the officers, but we have as much right in it as they.”
“And more too,” replied Mrs. Lecks; “for we had nothin’ to do with the steerin’ and smashin’.”
“But how are we goin’ to get down there?” said Mrs. Aleshine. “There’s no steps.”
“That is true,” said I. “I shouldn’t wonder if this boat is to be taken forward when the others are filled. We must scramble down as well as we can by the tackle at the bow and stern. I’ll get in first and keep her close to the ship’s side.”
“That’s goin’ to be a scratchy business,” said Mrs. Lecks, “and I’m of the opinion we ought to wait till the ship has sunk a little more, so we’ll be nearer to the boat.”
“It won’t do to wait,” said I, “or we shall not get in it at all.”
“And goodness gracious!” exclaimed Mrs. Aleshine, “I can’t stand here and feel the ship sinkin’ cold-blooded under me, till we’ve got where we can make an easy jump!”
“Very well, then,” said Mrs. Lecks, “we won’t wait. But the first thing to be done is for each one of us to put on one of these life-preservers. Two of them I brought from Mrs. Aleshine’s and my cabin, and the other one I got next door, where the people had gone off and left it on the floor. I thought if anythin’ happened on the way to the island, these would give us a chance to look about us; but it seems to me we’ll need ’em more gettin’ down them ropes than anywhere else. I did intend puttin’ on two myself to make up for Mrs. Aleshine’s fat; but you must wear one of ’em, sir, now that you are goin’ to join the party.”
As I knew that two life-preservers would not be needed by Mrs. Lecks, and would greatly inconvenience her, I accepted the one offered me, but declined to put it on until it should be necessary, as it would interfere with my movements.
“Very well,” said Mrs. Lecks, “if you think you are safe in gettin’ down without it. But Mrs. Aleshine and me will put ours on before we begin sailor-scramblin’. We know how to do it, for we tried ’em on soon after we started from San Francisco. And now, Barb’ry Aleshine, are you sure you’ve got everythin’ you want? for it’ll be no use thinkin’ about anythin’ you’ve forgot after the ship has sunk out of sight.”
“There’s nothin’ else I can think of,” said Mrs. Aleshine; “at least, nothin’ I can carry; and so I suppose we may as well begin, for your talk of the ship sinkin’ under our feet gives me a sort o’ feelin’ like an oyster creepin’ up and down my back.”
Mrs. Lecks looked over the side at the boat, into which I had already descended. “I’ll go first, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said she, “and show you how.”
The sea was quiet, and the steamer had already sunk so much that Mrs. Lecks’s voice sounded frightfully near me, although she spoke in a low tone.
So saying, she stepped on a bench by the rail; then, with one foot on the rail itself, she seized the ropes which hung from one of the davits to the bow of the boat. She looked down for a moment, and then she drew back.
“It’s no use,” she said. “We must wait until she sinks more, and I can get in easier.”
This remark made me feel nervous. I did not know at what moment there might be a rush for this boat, nor when, indeed, the steamer might go down. The boat amidships on our side had rowed away some minutes before, and through the darkness I could distinguish another boat, near the bows, pushing off. It would be too late now for us to try to get into any other boat, and I did not feel that there was time enough for me to take this one to a place where the two women could more easily descend to her. Standing upright, I urged them not to delay.
“You see,” said I, “I can reach you as soon as you swing yourself off the ropes, and I’ll help you down.”
“If you’re sure you can keep us from comin’ down too sudden, we’ll try it,” said Mrs. Lecks; “but I’d as soon be drowned as to get to an island with a broken leg. And as to Mrs. Aleshine, if she was to slip she’d go slam through that boat to the bottom of the sea. Now, then, be ready! I’m comin’ down.”
So saying, she swung herself off, and she was then so near me that I was able to seize her and make the rest of her descent comparatively easy. Mrs. Aleshine proved to be a more difficult subject. Even after I had a firm grasp of her capacious waist she refused to let go the ropes, for fear that she might drop into the ocean instead of the boat. But the reproaches of Mrs. Lecks and the downward weight of myself made her loosen her nervous grip; and, although we came very near going overboard together, I safely placed her on one of the thwarts.
I now unhooked the tackle from the stern; but before casting off at the bow I hesitated, for I did not wish to desert any of those who might be expecting to embark in this boat. But I could hear not approaching footsteps, and from my position, close to the side of the steamer, I could see nothing. Therefore I cast off, and, taking the oars, I pushed away and rowed to a little distance, where I could get whatever view was possible of the deck of the steamer. Seeing no forms moving about, I called out, and, receiving no answer, I shouted again at the top of my voice. I waited for nearly a minute, and, hearing nothing and seeing nothing, I became convinced that no one was left on the vessel.
“They are all gone,” said I, “and we will pull after them as fast as we can.”
And I began to row toward the bow of the steamer, in the direction which the other boats had taken.
“It’s a good thing you can row,” said Mrs. Lecks, settling herself comfortably in the stern-sheets, “for what Mrs. Aleshine and me would ha’ done with them oars I am sure I don’t know.”
“I’d never have got into this boat,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “if Mr. Craig hadn’t been here.”
“No, indeed,” replied her friend. “You’d ha’ gone to the bottom, hangin’ for dear life to them ropes.”
When I had rounded the bow of the steamer, which appeared to me to be rapidly settling in the water, I perceived at no great distance several lights, which of course belonged to the other boats, and I rowed as hard as I could, hoping to catch up with them, or at least to keep sufficiently near. It might be my duty to take off some of the people who had crowded into the other boats, probably supposing that this one had been loaded and gone. How such a mistake could have taken place I could not divine, and it was not my business to do so. Quite certain that no one was left on the sinking steamer, all I had to do was to row after the other boats, and to overtake them as soon as possible. I thought it would not take me very long to do this, but after rowing for half an hour, Mrs. Aleshine remarked that the lights seemed as far off, if not farther, than when we first started after them. Turning, I saw that this was the case, and was greatly surprised. With only two passengers I ought soon to have come up with those heavily laden boats. But after I had thought over it a little, I considered that as each of them was probably pulled by half a dozen stout sailors, it was not so very strange that they should make as good or better headway than I did.
It was not very long after this that Mrs. Lecks said that she thought that the lights on the other boats must be going out, and that this, most probably, was due to the fact that the sailors had forgotten to fill their lanterns before they started. “That sort of thing often happens,” she said, “when people leave a place in a hurry.”
But when I turned around, and peered over the dark waters, it was quite plain to me that it was not want of oil, but increased distance, which made those lights so dim. I could now perceive but three of them, and as the surface was agitated only by a gentle swell, I could not suppose that any of them were hidden from our view by waves. We were being left behind, that was certain, and all I could do was to row on as long and as well as I could in the direction which the other boats had taken. I had been used to rowing, and thought I pulled a good oar, and I certainly did not expect to be left behind in this way.
“I don’t believe this boat has been emptied out since the last rain,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “for my feet are wet, though I didn’t notice it before.”
At this I shipped my oars, and began to examine the boat. The bottom was covered with a movable floor of slats, and as I put my hand down I could feel the water welling up between the slats. The flooring was in sections, and lifting the one beneath me, I felt under it, and put my hand into six or eight inches of water.
The exact state of the case was now as plain to me as if it had been posted up on a bulletin-board. This boat had been found to be unseaworthy, and its use had been forbidden, all the people having been crowded into the others. This had caused confusion at the last moment, and, of course, we were supposed to be on some one of the other boats.
And now here was I, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in a leaky boat, with two middle-aged women!
“Anythin’ the matter with the floor!” asked Mrs. Lecks.
I let the section fall back into its place, and looked aft. By the starlight I could see that my two companions had each fixed upon me a steadfast gaze. They evidently felt that something was the matter, and wanted to know what it was. I did not hesitate for a moment to inform them. They appeared to me to be women whom it would be neither advisable nor possible to deceive in a case like this.
“This boat has a leak in it,” I said. “There is a lot of water in her already, and that is the reason we have got along so slowly.”
“And that is why,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “it was left empty. We ought to have known better than to expect to have a whole boat just for three of us. It would have been much more sensible, I think, if we had tried to squeeze into one of the others.”
“Now, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, “don’t you begin findin’ fault with good fortune, when it comes to you. Here we’ve got a comfortable boat, with room enough to set easy and stretch out if we want to. If the water is comin’ in, what we’ve got to do is to get it out again just as fast as we can. What’s the best way to do that, Mr. Craig?”
“We must bail her out, and lose no time about it,” said I. “If I can find the leak I may be able to stop it.”
I now looked about for something to bail with, and the two women aided actively in the search. I found one leather scoop in the bow; but as it was well that we should all go to work, I took two tin cans that had been put in by some one who had begun to provision the boat, and proceeded to cut the tops from them with my jack-knife.
I hastily passed the cans to Mrs. Lecks, and I saw her empty the contents of one into the sea, and those of the other on a newspaper which she took from her pocket and placed in the stern.
I pulled up the movable floor and threw it overboard, and then began to bail.
“I thought,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “that they always had pumps for leaks.”
“Now, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, “just gether yourself up on one of them seats, and go to work. The less talkin’ we do, and the more scoopin’, the better it’ll be for us.”
I soon perceived that it would have been difficult to find two more valuable assistants in the bailing of a boat than Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine. They were evidently used to work, and were able to accommodate themselves to the unusual circumstances in which they were placed. We threw out the water very rapidly, and every little while I stopped bailing and felt about to see if I could discover where it came in. As these attempts met with no success, I gave them up after a time, and set about bailing with new vigor, believing that if we could get the boat nearly dry I should surely be able to find the leak.
But, after working half an hour more, I found that the job would be a long one; and if we all worked at once we would all be tired out at once, and that might be disastrous. Therefore I proposed that we should take turns in resting, and Mrs. Aleshine wasordered to stop work for a time. After this Mrs. Lecks took a rest, and when she went to work I stopped bailing and began again to search for the leak.
For about two hours we worked in this way, and then I concluded it was useless to continue any longer this vain exertion. With three of us bailing we were able to keep the water at the level we first found it; but with only two at work, it slightly gained upon us, so that now there was more water in the boat than when we first discovered it. The boat was an iron one, and the leak in it I could neither find nor remedy. It had probably been caused by the warping of the metal under a hot sun, an accident which, I am told, frequently occurs to iron boats. The little craft, which would have been a life-boat had its air-boxes remained intact, was now probably leaking from stem to stern; and in searching for the leak without the protection of the flooring, my weight had doubtless assisted in opening the seams, for it was quite plain that the water was now coming in more rapidly than it did at first. We were very tired, and even Mrs. Lecks, who had all along counseled us to keep at work, and not to waste one breath in talking, now admitted that it was of no use to try to get the water out of that boat.
It had been some hours since I had used the oars, but whether we had drifted, or remained where we were when I stopped rowing, of course I could not know; but this mattered very little; our boat was slowly sinking beneath us, and it could make no difference whether we went down in one spot or an other. I sat and racked my brain to think what could be done in this fearful emergency. To bail any longer was useless labor, and what else was there that we could do?
“When will it be time,” asked Mrs. Lecks, “for us to put on the life-preservers? When the water gets nearly to the seats?”
I answered that we should not wait any longer than that, but in my own mind I could not see any advantage in putting them on at all. Why should we wish to lengthen our lives by a few hours of helpless floating upon the ocean?
“Very good,” said Mrs. Lecks; “I’ll keep a watch on the water. One of them cans was filled with lobster, which would be more than likely to disagree with us, and I’ve throwed it out; but the other had baked beans in it, and the best thing we can do is to eat some of these right away. They are mighty nourishin’, and will keep up strength as well as anythin’, and then, as you said there’s a keg of water in the boat, we can all take a drink of that, and it’ll make us feel like new cre’tur’s. You’ll have to take the beans in your hands, for we’ve got no spoons nor forks.”
Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine were each curled up out of reach of the water, the first in the stern, and the other on the aft thwart. The day was now beginning to break, and we could see about us very distinctly. Before reaching out her hands to receive her beans, Mrs. Aleshine washed them in the water in the boat, remarking at the same time that she might as well make use of it since it was there. Having then wiped her hands on some part of her apparel, they were filled with beans from the newspaper held by Mrs. Lecks, and these were passed over to me. I was very hungry, and when I had finished my beans I agreed with my companions that although they would have been a great deal better if heated up with butter, pepper, and salt, they were very comforting as they were. One of the empty cans was now passed to me, and after having been asked by Mrs. Lecks to rinse it out very carefully, we all satisfied our taste from the water in the keg.
“Cold baked beans and lukewarm water ain’t exactly company vittles,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “but there’s many a poor wretch would be glad to get ’em.”
I could not imagine any poor wretch who would be glad of the food together with the attending circumstances; but I did not say so.
“The water is just one finger from the bottom of the seat,” said Mrs. Lecks, who had been stooping over to measure, “and it’s time to put on the life-preservers.”
“Very good,” said Mrs. Aleshine; “hand me mine.”
Each of us now buckled on a life-preserver, and as I did so I stood up upon a thwart and looked about me. It was quite light now, and I could see for a long distance over the surface of the ocean, which was gently rolling in wide, smooth swells. As we rose upon the summit of one of these I saw a dark spot upon the water, just on the edge of our near horizon, “Is that the steamer?” I thought; “and has she not yet sunk?”
At this there came to me a glimmering of courageous hope. If the steamer had remained afloat so long, it was probable that on account of water-tight compartments, or for some other reason, her sinking had reached its limit, and that if we could get back to her we might be saved. But, alas, how were we to get back to her? This boat would sink long, long before I could row that distance.
However, I soon proclaimed the news to my companions, whereupon Mrs. Aleshine prepared to stand upon a thwart and see for herself. But Mrs. Lecks restrained her.
“Don’t make things worse, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said she, “by tumblin’ overboard. If we’ve got to go into the water, let us do it decently and in order. If that’s the ship, Mr. Craig, don’t you suppose we can float ourselves to it in some way?”
I replied that by the help of a life-preserver a person who could swim might reach the ship.
“But neither of us can swim,” said Mrs. Lecks, “for we’ve lived where the water was never more’n a foot deep, except in time of freshets, when there’s no swimmin’ for man or beast. But if we see you swim, perhaps we can follow, after a fashion. At any rate, we must do the best we can, and that’s all there is to be done.”
“The water now,” remarked Mrs. Aleshine, “is so near to the bottom of my seat that I’ve got to stand up, tumble overboard or no.”
“Goodness gracious me!” exclaimed Mrs. Aleshine. “You set the oysters creepin’ over me again! First you talk of the ship sinkin’ under us, and now it’s the boat goin’ to the bottom under our feet. Before any sinkin’ ‘s to be done I’d ruther get out.”
“Now, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, “stand up straight, and don’t talk so much. It’ll be a great deal better to be let down gradual than to flop into the water all of a bunch.”
“Very well,” said Mrs. Aleshine; “it may be best to get used to it by degrees; but I must say I wish I was home.”
As for me, I would have much preferred to jump overboard at once, instead of waiting in this cold-blooded manner; but as my companions had so far preserved their presence of mind, I did not wish to do anything which might throw them into a panic. I believed there would be no danger from the suction caused by the sinking of a small boat like this, and if we took care not to entangle ourselves with it in any way, we might as well follow Mrs. Lecks’s advice as not. So we all stood up, Mrs. Lecks in the stern, I in the bow, and Mrs. Aleshine on a thwart between us. The last did not appear to have quite room enough for a steady footing, but, as she remarked, it did not matter very much, as the footing, broad or narrow, would not be there very long.
I am used to swimming, and have never hesitated to take a plunge into river or ocean, but I must admit that it was very trying to my nerves to stand up this way and wait for a boat to sink beneath me. How the two women were affected I do not know. Theysaid nothing, but their faces indicated that something disagreeable was about to happen, and that the less that was said about it the better.
The boat had now sunk so much that the water was around Mrs. Aleshine’s feet, her standing-place being rather lower than ours. I made myself certain that there were no ropes nor any other means of entanglement near my companions or myself, and then I waited. There seemed to be a good deal of buoyancy in the bow and stern of the boat, and it was a frightfully long time in sinking. The suspense became so utterly unendurable that I was tempted to put one foot on the edge of the boat, and, by tipping it, put an end to this nerve-rack; but I refrained, for I probably would throw the women off their balance, when they might fall against some part of the boat, and do themselves a hurt. I had just relinquished this intention, when two little waves seemed to rise one on each side of Mrs. Aleshine, and gently flowing over the side of the boat, they flooded her feet with water.
“Hold your breaths!” I shouted. And now I experienced a sensation which must have been very like that which comes to a condemned criminal at the first indication of the pulling of the drop. Then there was a horrible sinking, a gurgle, and a swash, and the ocean over which I had been gazing appeared to rise up and envelop me.
In a moment, however, my head was out of the water, and, looking hastily about me, I saw, close by, the heads and shoulders of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine. The latter was vigorously winking her eyes and blowing from her mouth some sea-water that had got into it; but as soon as her eyes fell upon me she exclaimed: “That was ever so much more suddint than I thought it was goin’ to be!”
“Are you both all right?”
“I suppose I am,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “but I never thought that a person with a life-preserver on would go clean under the water.”
“But since you’ve come up again, you ought to be satisfied,” said Mrs. Lecks. “And now,” she added, turning her face toward me, “which way ought we to try to swim? and have we got everythin’ we want to take with us?”
“What we haven’t got we can’t get,” remarked Mrs. Aleshine; “and as for swimmin’, I expect I’m goin’ to make a poor hand at it.”
I had a hope, which was not quite strong enough to be a belief, that, supported by their life-preservers, the two women might paddle themselves along; and that, by giving them in turn a helping hand, I might eventually get them to the steamer. There was a strong probability that I would not succeed, but I did not care to think of that.
I now swam in front of my companions, and endeavored to instruct them in the best method of propelling themselves with their arms and their hands. If they succeeded in this, I thought I would give them some further lessons in striking out with their feet. After watching me attentively, Mrs. Lecks did manage to move herself slowly through the smooth water, but poor Mrs. Aleshine could do nothing but splash.
“If there was anythin’ to take hold of,” she said to me, “I might get along; but I can’t get any grip on the water, though you seem to do it well enough. Look there!” she added in a higher voice. “Isn’t that an oar floatin’ over there? If you can get that for me, I believe I can row myself much better than I can swim.”
This seemed an odd idea, but I swam over to the floating oar, and brought it her. I was about to show her how she could best use it, but she declined my advice.
“If I do it at all,” she said, “I must do it in my own way.” And taking the oar in her strong hands, she began to ply it on the water very much in the way in which she would handle a broom. At first she dipped the blade too deeply, but, correcting this error, she soon began to paddle herself along at a slow but steady rate.
“Capital!” I cried. “You do that admirably!”
“Anybody who’s swept as many rooms as I have,” she said, “ought to be able to handle anythin’ that can be used like a broom.”
“Isn’t there another oar?” cried Mrs. Lecks, who had now been left a little distance behind us. “If there is, I want one.”
Looking about me, I soon discovered another floating oar, and brought it to Mrs. Lecks, who, after holding it in various positions, so as to get “the hang of it,” as she said, soon began to use it with as much skill as that shown by her friend. If either of them had been obliged to use an oar in the ordinary way, I fear they would have had a bad time of it; but, considering the implement in the light of a broom, its use immediately became familiar to them, and they got on remarkably well.
I now took a position a little in advance of my companions, and as I swam slowly they were easily able to keep up with me. Mrs. Aleshine, being so stout, floated much higher out of the water than either Mrs. Lecks or I, and this permitted her to use her oar with a great deal of freedom. Sometimes she would give such a vigorous brush to the water that she would turn herself almost entirely around, but after a little practice she learned to avoid undue efforts of this kind.
I was not positively sure that we were going in the right direction, for my position did not allow me to see very far over the water; but I remembered that when I was standing up in the boat, and made my discovery, the sun was just about to rise in front of me, while the dark spot on the ocean lay to my left. Judging, therefore, from the present position of the sun, which was not very high, I concluded that we were moving toward the north, and therefore in the right direction. How far off the steamer might be I had no idea, for I was not accustomed to judging distances at sea; but I believed that if we were careful of our strength, and if the ocean continued as smooth as it now was, we might eventually reach the vessel, provided she were yet afloat.
“After you are fairly in the water,” said Mrs. Aleshine, as she swept along, although without the velocity which that phrase usually implies, “it isn’t half so bad as I thought it would be. For one thing, it don’t feel a bit salt, although I must say it tasted horribly that way when I first went into it.”
“And as to bein’ cold,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “the part of me that’s in is actually more comfortable than that which is out.”
“There’s one thing I would have been afraid of,” said Mrs. Lecks, “if we hadn’t made preparations for it, and that’s sharks.”
“Preparations!” I exclaimed. “How in the world did you prepare for sharks?”
“Easy enough,” said Mrs. Lecks. “When we went down into our room to get ready to go away in the boats we both put on black stockin’s. I’ve read that sharks never bite colored people, although if they see a white man in the water they’ll snap him up as quick as lightnin’; and black stockin’s was the nearest we could come to it. You see, I thought as like as not we’d have some sort of an upset before we got through.”
“It’s a great comfort,” remarked Mrs. Aleshine, “and I’m very glad you thought of it, Mrs. Lecks. After this I shall make it a rule: Black stockin’s for sharks.”
“I suppose in your case,” said Mrs. Lecks, addressing me, “dark trousers will do as well.”
To which I answered that I sincerely hoped they would.
“Another thing I’m thankful for,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “is that I thought to put on a flannel skeert.”
“And what’s the good of it,” said Mrs. Lecks, “when it’s soppin’ wet?”
To this Mrs. Lecks replied with a sniff, and asked me how soon I thought we would get sight of the ship; for if we were going the wrong way, and had to turn round and go back, it would certainly be very provoking.
I should have been happy indeed to be able to give a satisfactory answer to this question. Every time that we rose upon a swell I threw a rapid glance around the whole circle of the horizon; and at last, not a quarter of an hour after Mrs. Lecks’s question, I was rejoiced to see, almost in the direction in which I supposed it ought to be, the dark spot which I had before discovered. I shouted the glad news, and as we rose again my companions strained their eyes in the direction to which I pointed. They both saw it, and were greatly satisfied.
“Now, then,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “it seems as if there was somethin’ to work for”; and she began to sweep her oar with great vigor.
“If you want to tire yourself out before you get there, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, “you’d better go on in that way. Now what I advise is that we stop rowin’ altogether, and have somethin’ to eat; for I’m sure we need it to keep up our strength.”
“Eat!” I cried. “What are you going to eat? Do you expect to catch fish?”
“And eat ’em raw?” said Mrs. Lecks. “I should think not. But do you suppose, Mr. Craig, that Mrs. Aleshine and me would go off and leave that ship without takin’ somethin’ to eat by the way? Let’s all gether here in a bunch, and see what sort of a meal we can make. And now, Barb’ry Aleshine, if you lay your oar down there on the water, I recommend you to tie it to one of your bonnet-strings, or it’ll be floatin’ away, and you won’t get it again.”
As she said this, Mrs. Lecks put her right hand down into the water, and fumbled about, apparently in search of a pocket. I could not but smile as I thought of the condition of food when, for an hour or more, it had been a couple of feet under the surface of the ocean; but my ideas on the subject were entirely changed when I saw Mrs. Lecks hold up in the air two German sausages, and shake the briny drops from their smooth and glittering surfaces.
“There’s nothin’,” she said, “like sausages for shipwreck and that kind o’ thing. They’re very sustainin’, and bein’ covered with a tight skin, water can’t get at ’em, no matter how you carry ’em. I wouldn’t bring these out in the boat, because, havin’ the beans, we might as well eat them. Have you a knife about you, Mr. Craig?”
I produced a dripping jack-knife, and after the open blade had been waved in the air to dry it a little, Mrs. Lecks proceeded to divide one of the sausages, handing the other to me to hold meanwhile.
“Now don’t go eatin’ sausages without bread, if you don’t want ’em to give you dyspepsy,” said Mrs. Aleshine, who was tugging at a submarine pocket.
“I’m very much afraid your bread is all soaked,” said Mrs. Lecks.
To which her friend replied that that remained to be seen, and forthwith produced, with a splash, a glass preserve-jar with a metal top.
“I saw this nearly empty, as I looked into the ship’s pantry, and I stuffed into it all the soft biscuits it would hold. There was some sort of jam left at the bottom, so that the one who gets the last biscuit will have somethin’ of a little spread on it. And now, Mrs. Lecks,” she continued triumphantly, as she unscrewed the top, “that rubber ring has kept ’em as dry as chips. I’m mighty glad of it, for I had trouble enough gettin’ this jar into my pocket, and gettin’ it out, too, for that matter.”
Floating thus, with our hands and shoulders above the water, we made a very good meal from the sausages and soft biscuit.
“Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, as her friend proceeded to cut the second sausage, “don’t you lay that knife down, when you’ve done with it, as if ‘t was an oar; for if you do it’ll sink, as like as not, about six miles. I’ve read that the ocean is as deep as that in some places.”
“Goodness gracious me!” exclaimed Mrs. Aleshine, “I hope we are not over one of them deep spots.”
“There’s no knowin’,” said Mrs. Lecks, “but if it’s more comfortin’ to think it’s shallerer, we’ll make up our minds that way. Now, then,” she continued, “we’ll finish off this meal with a little somethin’ to drink. I’m not given to takin’ spirits, but I never travel without a little whisky, ready mixed with water, to take if it should be needed.”
So saying, she produced from one of her pockets a whisky-flask tightly corked, and of its contents we each took a sip, Mrs. Aleshine remarking that, leaving out being chilled or colicky, we were never likely to need it more than now.
Thus refreshed and strengthened, Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine took up their oars, while I swam slightly in advance, as before. When, with occasional intermissions of rest, and a good deal of desultory conversation, we had swept and swam for about an hour, Mrs. Lecks suddenly exclaimed: “I can see that thing ever so much plainer now, and I don’t believe it’s a ship at all. To me it looks like bushes.”
“You’re mighty long-sighted without your specs,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “and I’m not sure but what you’re right.”
For ten minutes or more I had been puzzling over the shape of the dark spot, which was now nearly all the time in sight. Its peculiar form had filled me with a dreadful fear that it was the steamer, bottom upward, although I knew enough about nautical matters to have no good reason to suppose that this could be the case. I am not far-sighted, but when Mrs. Lecks suggested bushes, I gazed at the distant object with totally different ideas, and soon began to believe that it was not a ship, either right side up or wrong side up, but that it might be an island. This belief I proclaimed to my companions, and for some time we all worked with increased energy in the desire to get near enough to make ourselves certain in regard to this point.
“As true as I’m standin’ here,” said Mrs. Lecks, who, although she could not read without spectacles, had remarkably good sight at long range, “them is trees and bushes that I see before me, though they do seem to be growin’ right out of the water.”
“There’s an island under them; you may be sure of that!” I cried. “Isn’t this ever so much better than a sinking ship!”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Mrs. Aleshine. “I’m used to the ship, and as long as it didn’t sink I’d prefer it. There’s plenty to eat on board of it, and good beds to sleep on, which is more than can be expected on a little bushy place like that ahead of us. But then, the ship might sink all of a suddint, beds, vittles, and all.”
“Do you suppose that is the island the other boats went to?” asked Mrs. Lecks.
This question I had already asked of myself. I had been told that the island to which the captain intended to take his boats lay about thirty miles south of the point where we left the steamer. Now I knew very well that we had not come thirty miles, and had reason to believe, moreover, that the greater part of the progress we had made had been toward the north. It was not at all probable that the position of this island was unknown to our captain; and it must, therefore, have been considered by him as an unsuitable place for the landing of his passengers. There might be many reasons for this unsuitableness: the island might be totally barren and desolate; it might be the abode of unpleasant natives; and, more important than anything else, it was, in all probability, a spot where steamers never touched.
But, whatever its disadvantages, I was most wildly desirous to reach it; more so, I believe, than either of my companions. I do not mean that they were not sensible of their danger, and desirous to be freed from it; but they were women who had probably had a rough time of it during a great part of their lives, and on emerging from their little circle of rural experiences, accepted with equanimity, and almost as a matter of course, the rough times which come to people in the great outside world.
“I do not believe,” I said, in answer to Mrs. Lecks, “that that is the island to which the captain would have taken us; but, whatever it is, it is dry land, and we must get there as soon as we can.”
“That’s true,” said Mrs. Aleshine, “for I’d like to have ground nearer to my feet than six miles; and if we don’t find anything to eat and any place to sleep when we get there, it’s no more than can be said of the place where we are now.”
“You’re too particular, Barb’ry Aleshine,” said Mrs. Lecks, “about your comforts. If you find the ground too hard to sleep on, when you get there, you can put on your life-preserver, and go to bed in the water.”
“Very good,” said Mrs. Aleshine; “and if these islands are made of coral, as I’ve heard they are, and if they’re as full of small p’ints as some coral I’ve got at home, you’ll be glad to take a berth by me, Mrs. Lecks.”
I counseled my companions to follow me as rapidly as possible, and we all pushed vigorously forward. When we had approached near enough to the island to see what sort of place it really was, we perceived that it was a low-lying spot, apparently covered with verdure, and surrounded, as far as we could see as we rose on the swells, by a rocky reef, against which a tolerably high surf was running.
I knew enough of the formation of these coral islands to suppose that within this reef was a lagoon of smooth water, into which there were openings through the rocky barrier. It was necessary to try to find one of these, for it would be difficult and perhaps dangerous to attempt to land through the surf.
Before us we could see a continuous line of white-capped breakers, and so I led my little party to the right, hoping that we would soon see signs of an opening in the reef.
We swam and paddled, however, for a long time, and still the surf rolled menacingly on the rocks before us. We were now as close to the island as we could approach with safety, and I determined to circumnavigate it, if necessary, before I would attempt, with these two women, to land upon that jagged reef. At last we perceived, at no great distance before us, a spot where there seemed to be no breakers; and when we reached it we found, to our unutterable delight, that here was smooth water flowing through a wide opening in the reef. The rocks were piled up quite high, and the reef, at this point at least, was a wide one, but as we neared the opening we found that it narrowed very soon, and made a turn to the left, so that from the outside we could not see into the lagoon.
I swam into this smooth water, followed closely by Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, who, however, soon became unable to use their oars, owing to the proximity of the rocks. Dropping these useful implements, they managed to paddle after me with their hands, and they were as much astonished as I was when, just after making the slight turn, we found stretched across the narrow passage a great iron bar about eight or ten inches above the water. A little farther on, and two or three feet above the water, another iron bar extended from one rocky wall to the other. Without uttering a word I examined the lower bar, and found one end of it fastened by means of a huge padlock to a great staple driven into the rock. The lock was securely wrapped in what appeared to be tarred canvas. A staple through an eyehole in the bar secured the other end of it to the rocks.
“They won’t keep us out,” said Mrs. Lecks, “for we can duck under. I suppose whoever put ’em here didn’t expect anybody to arrive on life-preservers.”
Categories: English Literature