Before the woman had time to speak a thunderous step was heard on the
companion stairs, and Le Farge broke into the saloon. The man's face was
injected with blood, his eyes were fixed and glassy like the eyes of a drunkard,
and the veins stood on his temples like twisted cords.
"Get those children ready!" he shouted, as he rushed into his own cabin.
"Get you all ready--boats are being swung out and victualled. Ho! where are those
They heard him furiously searching and collecting things in his cabin the
ship's papers, accounts, things the master mariner clings to as he clings to his
life; and as he searched, and found, and packed, he kept bellowing orders for
the children to be got on deck. Half mad he seemed, and half mad he was with the
knowledge of the terrible thing that was stowed amidst the cargo.
Up on deck the crew, under the direction of the first mate, were working in
an orderly manner, and with a will, utterly unconscious of there being anything
beneath their feet but an ordinary cargo on fire. The covers had been stripped
from the boats, kegs of water and bags of biscuit placed in them. The dinghy,
smallest of the boats and most easily got away, was hanging at the port
quarterboat davits flush with the bulwarks; and Paddy Button was in the act of
stowing a keg of water in her, when Le Farge broke on to the deck, followed by
the stewardess carrying Emmeline, and Mr. Lestrange leading Dick. The dinghy was
rather a larger boat than the ordinary ships' dinghy, and possessed a small mast
and long sail. Two sailors stood ready to man the falls, and Paddy Button was
just turning to trundle forward again when the captain seized him.
"Into the dinghy with you," he cried, "and row these children and the
passenger out a mile from the ship--two miles, three miles, make an offing."
"Sure, Captain dear, I've left me fiddle in the--"
Le Farge dropped the bundle of things he was holding under his left arm,
seized the old sailor and rushed him against the bulwarks, as if he meant to
fling him into the sea through the bulwarks.
Next moment Mr. Button was in the boat. Emmeline was handed to him, pale of
face and wide-eyed, and clasping something wrapped in a little shawl; then Dick,
and then Mr. Lestrange was helped over.
"No room for more!" cried Le Farge. "Your place will be in the long-boat,
Mrs. Stannard, if we have to leave the ship. Lower away, lower away!"
The boat sank towards the smooth blue sea, kissed it and was afloat.
Now Mr. Button, before joining the ship at Boston, had spent a good while
lingering by the quay, having no money wherewith to enjoy himself in a tavern.
He had seen something of the lading of the *Northumberland*, and heard more from
a stevedore. No sooner had he cast off the falls and seized the oars, than his
knowledge awoke in his mind, living and lurid. He gave a whoop that brought the
two sailors leaning over the side.
"Run for your lives I've just rimimbered--there's two bar'ls of blastin'
powther in the houldt."
Then he bent to his oars, as no man ever bent before. Lestrange, sitting in
the stern-sheets clasping Emmeline and Dick, saw nothing for a moment after
hearing these words. The children, who knew nothing of blasting powder or its
effects, though half frightened by all the bustle and excitement, were still
amused and pleased at finding themselves in the little boat so close to the blue
Dick put his finger over the side, so that it made a ripple in the water (the
most delightful experience of childhood). Emmeline, with one hand clasped in her
uncle's, watched Mr. Button with a grave sort of half pleasure.
He certainly was a sight worth watching. His soul was filled with tragedy and
terror. His Celtic imagination heard the ship blowing up, saw himself and the
little dinghy blown to pieces--nay, saw himself in hell, being toasted by
But tragedy and terror could find no room for expression on his fortunate or
unfortunate face. He puffed and he blew, bulging his cheeks out at the sky as he
tugged at the oars, making a hundred and one grimaces--all the outcome of agony
of mind, but none expressing it. Behind lay the ship, a picture not without its
lighter side. The long-boat and the quarter-boat, lowered with a rush and
seaborne by the mercy of Providence, were floating by the side of the
From the ship men were casting themselves overboard like water-rats, swimming
in the water like ducks, scrambling on board the boats anyhow.
From the half-opened main-hatch the black smoke, mixed now with sparks, rose
steadily and swiftly and spitefulIy, as if driven through the half-closed teeth
of a dragon.
A mile away beyond the *Northumberland* stood the fog bank. It looked solid,
like a vast country that had suddenly and strangely built itself on the sea--a
country where no birds sang and no trees grew. A country with white, precipitous
cliffs, solid to look at as the cliffs of Dover.
"I'm spint!" suddenly gasped the oarsman, resting the oar handles under the
crook of his knees, and bending down as if he was preparing to butt at the
passengers in the stern-sheets. "Blow up or blow down, I'm spint, don't ax me,
Mr. Lestrange, white as a ghost, but recovered somewhat from his first
horror, gave the Spent One time to recover himself and turned to look at the
ship. She seemed a great distance off, and the boats, well away from her, were
making at a furious pace towards the dinghy. Dick was still playing with the
water, but Emmeline's eyes were entirely occupied with Paddy Button. New things
were always of vast interest to her contemplative mind, and these evolutions of
her old friend were eminently new.
She had seen him swilling the decks, she had seen him dancing a jig, she had
seen him going round the main deck on all fours with Dick on his back, but she
had never seen him going on like this before.
She perceived now that he was exhausted, and in trouble about something, and,
putting her hand in the pocket of her dress, she searched for something that she
knew was there. She produced a Tangerine orange, and leaning forward she touched
the Spent One's head with it.
Mr. Button raised his head, stared vacantly for a second, saw the proffered
orange, and at the sight of it the thought of "the childer" and their innocence, himself and the blasting powder, cleared
his dazzled wits, and he took to the sculls again.
"Daddy," said Dick, who had been looking astern, "there's clouds near the ship."
In an incredibly short space of time the solid cliffs of fog had broken.
The faint wind that had banked it had pierced it, and was now making pictures and
devices of it, most wonderful and weird to see. Horsemen of the mist rode on the
water, and were dissolved; billows rolled on the sea, yet were not of the sea;
blankets and spirals of vapour ascended to high heaven. And all with a terrible
languor of movement. Vast and lazy and sinister, yet steadfast of purpose as
Fate or Death, the fog advanced, taking the world for its own.
Against this grey and indescribably sombre background stood the smouldering
ship with the breeze already shivering in her sails, and the smoke from her
main-hatch blowing and beckoning as if to the retreating boats.
"Why's the ship smoking like that?" asked Dick. "And look at those boats
coming--when are we going back, daddy?"
"Uncle," said Emmeline, putting her hand in his, as she gazed towards the
ship and beyond it, "I'm 'fraid."
"What frightens you, Emmy? "he asked, drawing her to him.
"Shapes," replied Emmeline, nestling up to his side.
"Oh, Glory be to God!" gasped the old sailor, suddenly resting on his oars.
"Will yiz look at the fog that's comin'--"
"I think we had better wait here for the boats," said Mr. Lestrange; "we are
far enough now to be safe if anything happens."
"Ay, ay," replied the oarsman, whose wits had returned. "Blow up or blow
down, she won't hit us from here."
"Daddy," said Dick, "when are we going back? I want my tea."
"We aren't going back, my child," replied his father. "The ship's on fire; we
are waiting for another ship."
"Where's the other ship?" asked the child, looking round at the horizon that
"We can't see it yet," replied the unhappy man, "but it will come."
The long-boat and the quarter-boat were slowly approaching. They looked like
beetles crawling over the water, and after them across the glittering surface
came a dullness that took the sparkle from the sea--a dullness that swept and
spread like an eclipse shadow.
Now the wind struck the dinghy. It was like a wind from fairyland, almost
imperceptible, chill, and dimming the sun. A wind from Lilliput. As it struck
the dinghy, the fog took the distant ship.
It was a most extraordinary sight, for in less than thirty seconds the ship
of wood became a ship of gauze, a tracery flickered, and was gone forever from
the sight of man.