CHAPTER X  THE TRAGEDY OF THE BOATS

    When the fog lifted after midnight the people in the long boat saw the quarter-boat half a mile to starboard of them.

    "Can you see the dinghy?" asked Lestrange of the captain, who was standing up searching the horizon.

    "Not a speck," answered Le Farge. "Damn that Irishman! but for him I'd have got the boats away properly victualled and all; as it is I don't know what we've got aboard. You, Jenkins, what have you got forward there?"

    "Two bags of bread and a breaker of water," answered the steward.

    "A breaker of water be sugared!" came another voice; "a breaker half full, you mean."

    Then the steward's voice: "So it is; there's not more than a couple of gallons in her."

    "My God!" said Le Farge. "Damn that Irishman!"

    "There's not more than'll give us two half pannikins apiece all round," said the steward.

    "Maybe," said Le Farge, "the quarter-boat's better stocked; pull for her."

    "She's pulling for us," said the stroke oar.

    "Captain," asked Lestrange, "are you sure there's no sight of the dinghy?" "None," replied Le Farge.

    The unfortunate man's head sank on his breast. He had little time to brood over his troubles, however, for a tragedy was beginning to unfold around him, the most shocking, perhaps, in the annals of the sea--a tragedy to be hinted at rather than spoken of.

    When the boats were within hailing distance, a man in the bow of the long-boat rose up.

   "Quarter-boat ahoy!"

   "Ahoy!"

   "How much water have you?"

   "None!"

    The word came floating over the placid moonlit water. At it the fellows in the long-boat ceased rowing, and you could see the water-drops dripping off their oars like diamonds in the moonlight.

    "Quarter-boat, ahoy!" shouted the fellow in the bow. "Lay on your oars."

    "Here, you scowbanker!" cried Le Farge, "who are you to be giving directions--"

    "Scowbanker yourself!" replied the fellow. "Bullies, put her about!"

    The starboard oars backed water, and the boat came round.

    By chance the worst lot of the *Northumberland*'s crew were in the long-boat veritable--"scowbankers" scum; and how scum clings to life you will never know, until you have been amongst it in an open boat at sea. Le Farge had no more command over this lot than you have who are reading this book.

    "Heave to!" came from the quarter-boat, as she laboured behind.

    "Lay on your oars, bullies!" cried the ruffian at the bow, who was still standing up like an evil genius who had taken momentary command over events.

    "Lay on your oars, bullies; they'd better have it now."

    The quarter-boat in her turn ceased rowing, and lay a cable's length away.

    "How much water have you?" came the mate's voice.

    "Not enough to go round."

    Le Farge made to rise, and the stroke oar struck at him, catching him in the wind and doubling him up in the bottom of the boat.

    "Give us some, for God's sake!" came the mate's voice; "we're parched with rowing, and there's a woman on board!"

    The fellow in the bow of the long-boat, as if someone had suddenly struck him, broke into a tornado of blasphemy.

    "Give us some," came the mate's voice, "or, by God, we'll lay you aboard!"

    Before the words were well spoken the men in the quarter boat carried the threat into action. The conflict was brief: the quarter-boat was too crowded for fighting. The starboard men in the long-boat fought with their oars, whilst the fellows to port steadied the boat.

    The fight did not last long, and presently the quarter-boat sheered off, half of the men in her cut about the head and bleeding--two of them senseless.

*    *    *    *    *    *

    It was sundown on the following day. The long-boat lay adrift. The last drop of water had been served out eight hours before.

    The quarter-boat, like a horrible phantom, had been haunting and pursuing her all day, begging for water when there was none. It was like the prayers one might expect to hear in hell.

    The men in the long-boat, gloomy and morose, weighed down with a sense of crime, tortured by thirst, and tormented by the voices imploring for water, lay on their oars when the other boat tried to approach.

    Now and then, suddenly, and as if moved by a common impulse, they would all shout out together: "We have none." But the quarter-boat would not believe. It was in vain to hold the breaker with the bung out to prove its dryness, the half-delirious creatures had it fixed in their minds that their comrades were withholding from them the water that was not.

    Just as the sun touched the sea, Lestrange, rousing himself from a torpor into which he had sunk, raised himself and looked over the gunwale. He saw the quarter-boat drifting a cable's length away, lit by the full light of sunset, and the spectres in it, seeing him, held out in mute appeal their blackened tongues.

*    *    *    *    *    *

    Of the night that followed it is almost impossible to speak. Thirst was nothing to what the scowbankers suffered from the torture of the whimpering appeal for water that came to them at intervals during the night.

*    *    *    *    *    *

    When at last the *Arago*, a French whale ship, sighted them, the crew of the long-boat were still alive, but three of them were raving madmen. Of the crew of the quarter-boat was saved not one.


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