Perhaps no one ever realizes so completely the immensity of the world and the littleness of man as he who is alone on the face of the waters. The deep becomes indeed vasty when seen from a small boat in the center of an unbroken horizon. It is a question whether the loneliness of the desert is greater than the loneliness of the sea. Perhaps it depends upon the thinker and his temperament. There is, of course, life in the sea in that it is usually quick, in motion, and there is sound that accompanies it.
The desert is still, but in the desert you can get somewhere. You know that beyond the horizon is some place. Not even the flattest land but suggests change as it is traversed. Somewhere within reaching distance hills rise, mountains lift themselves in the air, oases beckon attractively. In the sea you may go for days and days and days, each day like the other, and still find only the waste of waters and the unbroken horizon.
Beekman had sailed every one of the seven seas, but in some luxurious yacht or some mighty ocean liner. This was the first time in his life he had ever been alone in a small boat. Even the Susquehanna had long since faded out of his view. The lights from her stern windows had been lost during the night, and when day broke, although he eagerly searched the northwest, there was no sign of her. Not even when he rose high on some uptossed wave could he catch a glimpse of a to'gall'nts'l or a royal against the blue line of the horizon.
He was glad and he was sorry to be alone. The gladness manifested itself presently, but at first he was overwhelmed by the sense of loneliness. The crew of the Susquehannahad not mutinied openly, but they had taken matters in their own hands and had done the best they could for the man who had relieved them, whether righteously or unrighteously they did not stop to speculate, from a tyranny that had become unsupportable; because, in his animosity to Beekman, Woywod had been harder than ever before on the rest.
They had deliberately, if surreptitiously, provisioned the whaleboat which hung from the davits astern. They had filled her water breakers, had added a compass, had overhauled her mast and sail, had thrown in a couple of blankets, a tarpaulin, an axe and some tools and whatever else they could come at, including a little bag of silver dollars from their own scanty store, which might prove valuable in the end. They had done this very quietly in the darkness, under the leadership of Templin on the night following the death of the mate.
They had chosen Mr. Gersey's watch for their operations and he had been conveniently blind. Possessing themselves of the carpenter's tools, they had bored holes around the lock of the boatswain's room and had freed Beekman. With cold chisels and hammers they had struck the fetters from his wrists and ankles, grievously cutting him and bruising him in the process.
"Mr. Gersey told us," said Templin to the astonished prisoner, "that he heard the old man an' Salver plottin' the ship's position at noon today. There are islands with white people on 'em about a hundred leagues to the west'ard. The course'll be about sou'west-by-west. We've pervisioned the whaleboat. She's unsinkable, with her airtight tanks for'ard an' aft an' a good sailer. I follered you aft, pertendin' to overhaul the gear on the mizzen mast last night. Through the skylight I seen the mate threatenin' you with a pistol in the cabin. We all believes you done perfectly right. Wramm's dead. Died tonight, without never regainin' consciousness. Woywod was a murderer, if ever there was one, an' he got his jest desarts. We don't want to mutiny an' git hung for it. Some of us has families. But we don't mean you to suffer. The only way to save you is to git you out of the ship afore we lands at Vladivostok. It seemed to us that a good sailor like you could easily make them islands, an' then you can shift for yourself. It's a big world. They'll never find you again. Here," he added, "is a little bag o' dollars." He passed a bulging little bag into the hands of the astonished Beekman. "'Tain't much, but it's all we got. I guess that's all."
"But I don't want to leave the ship."
"You'll be hung at the end of the v'yage if you don't," said Templin, inexorably. "Them Russians ain't more'n half civilized, anyway, an' they'll do pretty much as the cap'n says. This is your only chance."
"Does Gersey know?"
"Of course. He's the one that made the whole plan, only the officers ain't to know that."
"You don't expect to be able to lower that boat and cast it adrift without attracting attention, do you?"
"In course not, but it's a dark night an' we're goin' to git you down an' afloat, whatever happens."
"But the captain will immediately come after me."
"He can't brace the yards hisself an' work the ship alone with only Salver an' the bo's'n, can he?"
"I see, but I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Every man on the ship 'ceptin' the steward is with you, an' we're simply not goin' to let him hang you."
"Templin, I want you to remember two names and an address."
"What are they?"
"Harnash and Beekman, 33 Broadway, New York."
"That's easy," said Templin, repeating the words. "Why?"
"That's my address when I'm home. If I ever get home and any of you men want a friend, come there. I want you to pass that around among the crew, every one of them. You fellows didn't believe me, but now that I'm going I want to tell you for the last time my story is true, and if you want to be fixed for life, just come and see me there."
"Well, I hopes you gits there, Smith, or-"
"And I, and I, and I," was heard from the various members of the watch gathered about and speaking in low tones.
"Now, come aft," said Templin, "an' tread soft. There's no use arousin' the old man if we can help it. Only needs four of us to overhaul the gear an' lower away," continued the ringleader, picking out three associates. "The rest of you git down in the shadder of the rail on the lee side of the waist near the bridge. Mr. Gersey is keepin' a bright lookout to windward. If you hear any noise, come aft on the run."
Without making a sound, Beekman and his four devoted friends passed under the bridge, crouching down in the shadow of the lee rail until they were well aft and sheltered from observation by the broad canvas of the spanker. Mr. Gersey was on the other side of the bridge, staring hard forward and up to windward in the most approved fashion.
"You'll find everything ready for steppin' the mast an' spreadin' sail," whispered Templin. "The sea's fairly smooth, the wind's blowin' from the east'ard. You'd better git the canvas on her soon's you can. You hadn't ought to be in sight of us at daybreak."
"What time is it now?"
Three bells were struck forward at the moment, a couplet and then a single bell.
"Three bells, you hears," answered Templin. "You'll have three hours, and with you goin' one way an' us another, we'll be out of sight before daybreak. Remember, your course is sou'west-by-west."
"I shan't forget that or anything. When you have a chance bid Gersey good-bye for me and tell him not to forget the cable. God only knows where I'll turn up or when I'll get back, but when I do-well, remember what I said, Harnash and Beekman, 33 Broadway, New York."
He shook Templin's hand and nodded to the other three and stepped into the boat.
"Lower away," whispered Templin.
Now the night was quiet. The breeze was not strong. The creaking of the falls, since the sailors had taken precaution to grease them, was reduced to a minimum; still, some sound was made. Gersey had kept his eyes steadily forward, although he knew, of course, everything that was happening. He glanced around just as the whaleboat disappeared below the rail.
As luck would have it, Captain Fish, who slept, of course, in the stern cabin, happened to be wakeful. With an ear trained and accustomed to all the ordinary noises of the ship, anything out of common raised his suspicions. He heard the slight creaking. He sat up in his berth and listened. The noise came from aft, overhead. He ran to the stern window and peered through the open transom just at the moment that the keel of the descending whaleboat came on a level with the window. Fish slept with a revolver under his pillow. He leaped back, grabbed the pistol, jumped to the transom again to find himself staring into the face of Beekman.
"Keep fast those falls," he roared, presenting his pistol.
Beekman was standing up in the boat, fending her off from the stern with a boathook. Fish had turned on the electric light-the Susquehanna was provided with a dynamo-and he was clearly visible. Beekman struck his arm with the boathook, knocking the pistol into the sea. The next instant there was a sudden roar on the deck above from Gersey, who judged that it was now safe to give the alarm. This outcry was followed by the trampling of many feet and a swift rush of the falls through the blocks. There was no necessity for concealment now. Templin and his men lowered the boat with a run.
Beekman worked smartly. As soon as the boat was water-borne he cast off the tackles and began tugging frantically at the mast. With seamanlike care, it had been so arranged that what had been almost an impossible task for one man in a hurry he could easily accomplish. The Susquehannawas sailing at a smart rate and she had drawn some distance ahead before Captain Fish reached the deck. He was in a towering rage.
"Mr. Gersey," he roared, "what does this mean, sir? The prisoner has escaped, an' in your watch?"
"I know it, sir," answered Gersey. "The men have got out of hand, sir."
"They have," exclaimed Fish. He had mounted half-way up the accommodation ladder of the bridge. Although he was unarmed and clad only in his pajamas, he did not hesitate on that account.
"I'll see about that," he roared. "I'll have no mutiny on my ship." He ran toward the group seen blackly against the white rail aft, shouting, "The man that did this will swing for it."
"Scatter," cried a voice.
The group instantly dissolved in the darkness of the deck. Fish made a grab at the nearest one, but a man behind him ran violently into him. He lost his hold. In a moment the quarter deck was deserted. The Susquehanna on her present course had the wind broad abeam.
"Mr. Gersey," roared the captain, "call all hands and stand by to wear ship. We must pick up that boat with that murdering mutineer aboard."
"Aye, aye, sir. For'ard there. Call the other watch."
Now the other watch was awake and waiting. Some of them, indeed, had participated in the affair of the night. Scarcely had the boatswain's mate sounded the call, when the watch below came tumbling up from the forecastle. Mr. Salver also joined the group on the bridge, rubbing his eyes sleepily. The captain took charge himself.
"Hands to the weather braces," he cried, "ease off the spanker sheet. Flatten in the head sails for'ard. Hard up with the helm."
Not a man on the deck stirred. No one ran to the weather braces. No one cast off the lee braces. The helmsman remained immobile. The spanker sheet was not eased off. The sheets of the head sails were not hauled aft. The captain stared a moment in astonishment.
"Wear ship," he cried, "don't you hear me?"
"We heerd you," answered a voice out of the darkness, "but we're not goin' to wear the ship."
"You refuse to obey orders?"
"We'll obey all other orders, same as we have allus done, but we don't propose to pick up that there whaleboat."
"Who spoke?" roared the captain.
There was a movement in the groups of men in the darkness. Templin's voice, well disguised, came first from one side of the deck to the other, as he moved about while he spoke.
"You might as well make up your mind to it, Cap'n Fish. We're determined that no harm is to come to Smith. He's gone. For the rest, we'll work the ship to Vladisvostok, which we signed on for. You'll find us obeyin' orders same as ever in the mornin'."
Captain Fish was black with rage.
"Mr. Gersey," he roared, "do you know anything about this?"
"Not a thing, sir."
"We done it ourselves," came up from the waist.
"Keep fast the braces," said the captain at last; "keep her on her course."
Inasmuch as she had never been off her course and the braces had not been touched, the commands were useless. They were simply given to save the captain's face a little.
"Mr. Salver," he continued, "it's your watch below. I want to speak to you in the cabin. Pipe down the watch off, Mr. Gersey. We'll settle this matter in the morning."
But the captain knew and the men knew that the matter was already settled. If the men hung together there was no way by which the captain could discover the ringleader. And he could not imprison the whole ship's company. They had beaten him. The flight had been carefully planned and carried out in a bold and seamanlike way.
"You've beat me," said the captain the next morning to the crew as the watches were changed, "but there's a standin' offer of five hundred dollars for any one who'll gimme the details an' the names of the ringleaders. Meanwhile, if any one of you gives me the least cause I'll shoot him like a dog. Mr. Salver an' Mr. Gersey are both armed like me," he tapped the heavy revolver hanging at his waist, "so look out for yourselves. I've no doubt some of you'll squeal. I'll find out yet. God help the men that did it when I do."
The captain's bribe was a large one. There were men in the forecastle who would have jumped at it, but a very clear realization of what would be meted out to them by their fellows if they turned traitor, kept them quiet. The loyal men among the mutineers knew pretty well who were to be suspected and kept close watch on them.
Beekman knew nothing of all that, of course, the next morning as he made his meager breakfast. He did not know how long it would take him to reach those islands, the very name of which he was ignorant, and it behooved him to husband his resources. After his breakfast he laid his course by the compass. The breeze held steady. All he had to do was to steer the boat. At nightfall he decided to furl sail and drift. For one thing he needed the sleep.
The next day, however, the breeze came stronger. It gradually shifted from the southeast toward the north. He reefed the sail down until it barely showed a scrap of canvas and drove ahead of it. There was no sleep for him through the night. He did not dare to leave the boat to her own devices in that wind and sea. The wind rose with every hour. The next morning it was blowing a howling gale from the northeast. He could no longer keep sail on the boat. He could not row against it. Fortunately, he had foreseen the situation. He unstepped the mast and unshipped the yard with which he pried up some of the seats and with these and spare oars he made himself a serviceable sea anchor, which he attached to the boat's painter forward, cast overboard, and by this means drifted with the storm being at the same time wet, cold, lonely, and very miserable. He knew the boat was a lifeboat; its air tanks would keep it from sinking, but if it ever fell into the trough of the sea it would be rolled over and over like a cork. It would fill with water and refill in spite of his constant bailing. He could only trust to his sea anchor to keep the boat's head to the huge seas by which it was alternately uplifted and cast down in vast, prodigious motion. Had it not been provided with those air tanks the boat would have been swamped inevitably.
His provisions got thoroughly wetted. One of the water breakers was torn from its lashing and the same wave that worked that damage dashed it against the other, staving it in. His boat compass and tools were swept away. Only what was in the lockers forward and aft remained. The boat was swept clean. He had bailed as long as he had strength, but even the bailing tin finally disappeared. At last he sank down exhausted. The waves beat over him. The seas rolled him from side to side. He had strength enough to lash himself to the aftermost thwart before he fell into a state of complete collapse.
So he drifted on through the night. Toward morning the gale blew itself out. The next day the sun rose in a cloudless sky. The breeze subsided. The seas still rose mightily, but he knew that if no more wind came they would presently subside. He swallowed some of the sodden, hard bread in the forward locker for breakfast and then with the top of an empty biscuit tin from the same place he made shift to free the boat of water, at least sufficiently so for her to rise on the waves of the still rough and tumbling seas. He was too exhausted to get in his sea anchor. Indeed, so many things had carried away that he could not have stepped the mast or spread the sail. The canvas itself was gone with his blankets and tarpaulin. He could not use the oars. He could only drift.
How many days he sat in that boat under that burning sun he could not tell. Where he drifted as it fell dead calm he did not know. If he had been less crazed by the awful heat of the unshaded sun and the more awful thirst which made him forget his hunger-he simply could not swallow the hard, dry bread and the salt meat after a time-he might have kept a sort of dead reckoning. He was too weak even to take bearings by sun or stars. Not a sail, not the smoke of a steamer, met his burning stare-his eyes were hot, blazing in their sockets like the sun overhead, he fancied-around him as day after day he surveyed that ever unbroken horizon, himself a dot in the center of a vast periphery of emptiness.
He lost track of the days, of course. As he thought of it afterward it seemed to him that he went mad. The only concrete fact that finally came to him was at the darkest hour of a certain night that closed what he had felt must be his last day. He was conscious of a violent shock. It seemed to him that the boat had struck something. There was a swift motion of rebound, a splashing of water over him, another heavy forward surge, another shock, a crash as of splintering timber, and then all the motion ceased. All around him was a strange roaring. He was too feeble to speculate as to what had happened. He could only wait for the dawn.
The first gray of morning brought him a faint hope of life. The light of day showed him the whaleboat, her bottom hopelessly shattered, caught firmly on a rocky reef. Around him, once in a while over him, great waves were breaking; the whole mighty Pacific sweeping down from the line falling in crashing assault upon this barrier of jagged stones. Back of him was the sea-unbroken to the horizon-over which he had come. In front of him stretched a space of still water. On the other side of this lagoon rose huge, precipitous rocks, bare, gaunt, forbidding. As he stood up tremblingly and peered beneath his hand he thought he could detect at the foot of these mighty cliffs a stretch of golden sand.
Even with the inspiration of land at last and probable food and drink it was difficult in his lack of strength to wrench loose a shattered plank. Still, by desperate effort he accomplished that at last. With that to buoy him up he stumbled across the reef and launched into the smooth waters of the lagoon. The swim would have been nothing under ordinary circumstances, but in his terrible prostration, even with the aid of the plank, it was a long, difficult passage. Half a dozen times he was on the point of throwing up his hands and going under, but something-love of life, hope indestructible, eternal, remains of determination, instinctive unwillingness to acknowledge himself beaten-kept him up. He pressed on through the smooth waters of the lagoon. Finally his feet touched the strand. Standing trembling but triumphant a few moments to recover himself, he staggered across it.
He discovered as he did so an opening in the rock concealed previously from him by an overlap of the cliff. The rift in the cliff wall was perhaps thirty yards wide. It could only be seen from one direction. The waters of the lagoon ran inward through it. The sand narrowed and stopped at the opening. From, that beach he could not see within. Climbing a little distance up the edge of the cliff and peering around it, he saw at the end of the inlet a deep bay, a harbor roughly circular, perhaps half a mile in diameter. He surveyed it long and carefully in the half light which made it impossible to see clearly.
As nearly as he could guess the height of the cliffs ranged from three hundred to five hundred feet. In niches and shelves here and there a few bits of green appeared. The tops of the cliffs seemed as bare as the sides. No way to surmount them appeared. Sometimes they ran straight down into the deep, dark water. At the base of the walls here and there were little stretches of sand. The place was still dark and gloomy, and somehow terrible. The sunlight had not penetrated into it yet; would not, he judged, for some time, or until the sun got into exactly the right position to shine through that narrow opening.
An unusual mental alertness had taken the place of his lethargy. Hope had made the change. He must, first of all, find water, then food, and then he must reach the top of the cliffs. On the other side of the shoulder of wall where he stood ran one of the stretches of sand. How could he get around that shoulder and pass through that opening? He did not dare to attempt to swim around it yet. He must climb over it. Painfully, with ebbing strength but with growing hope, he managed at the imminent risk of his life to climb around the point and finally set foot upon that narrow strip of sand. He looked back only to find the wall behind him rising sheer above his head, just as the walls opposite had. It was like being imprisoned in a vast tower, one side of which had been riven from top to bottom. And the dark, forbidding gloom oppressed him still more. The morning was still, there was no breeze in that enclosed place, but he shivered nevertheless and would have given anything for human companionship. He even tried to cry aloud to break the appalling stillness, but no sound came from cracked lips and parched, constricted throat. Was he to fail, having come so far?
In frantic terror he broke into a feeble run aimlessly forward. Rounding another jut of the wall, he saw that which meant life-a slender stream of water falling in long, broken leaps from the top to the bottom of the wall. It had cut a channel through the sand and was lost in the bay. At the sight, strange to say, his strength left him. Fear had drawn him on and now fear and everything else were forgot. He fell to his knees, but still had strength and determination to crawl on. At last he reached it, fell on his face, and drank. It needed all his resolution, all his courage, all his mental and physical power not to drink and die. He knew he must drink sparingly and he did so.
When he had satisfied his thirst by slow degrees, he sat down on the sand to consider his situation. The cool, sweet water put new life into him. He was suddenly conscious of a terrible, gripping hunger, but the first and greatest of his needs had been satisfied. There must be some way to the top of those cliffs. Where there was fresh water there must be life. No island in the south seas could be so lonely, so sequestered, so unvisited as not to have a life and vegetation of its own. Wherever there was water and earth, especially in those latitudes, were to be found the kindly fruits thereof.
He decided that he would go back to the whaleboat, that he would get what crumbs that were left of the hard bread that he had been unable to eat and the remaining scraps of the salt meat that had choked him. He could swallow them now. Then he would come back and after he had been strengthened by his meal he would examine every foot of the cliffs to find a way upward. Meanwhile, he would rest a little. He threw himself down on the sand on his back and stared upward. As he did so he noticed the sun had reached such a position that it shone full through the entrance, suddenly illuminating the whole gloomy tower with light and changing the entire aspect of it.
He put his hand behind him to raise himself, intending to take advantage of the flood of light, which he saw would be there but for a short time, for a further inspection of the place. But his eyes were still cast upward. In the center of his vision the top of the cliff cut the brightening sky. Suddenly, as if formed instantly out of thin air, over the edge appeared a human figure. This figure was poised upon the very highest point of the towerlike wall, and was staring seaward through the great rift.
In the clear air and the bright sunlight he had not the slightest difficulty in discerning details. Perhaps his sight was sharpened by his anxiety and desire.
The figure was that of a woman and her skin was whiter than his own!