CHAPTER VIII. RIVER PLATE TO SANDY POINT, STRAITS OF MAGELLAN.
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have riv'd the knotty oaks; and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threat'ning clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Thursday, September 28th, - A fine bright morning, with a strong, fair wind. The order to stop firing was given at noon, and we ceased steaming shortly after. There had evidently been a gale from the southward during the last few days, for the swell was tremendous, and not only made us all feel very uncomfortable after our long stay in harbour, but considerably diminished our speed. Still, we managed to go twenty-seven knots in two hours and a half.
I was lying down, below, after breakfast, feeling very stupid, when Mabelle rushed into the cabin, saying, 'Papa says you are to come up on deck at once, to see the ship on fire.' I rushed up quickly, hardly knowing whether she referred to our own or some other vessel, and on reaching the deck I found everybody looking at a large barque, under full sail, flying the red union-jack upside down, and with signals in her rigging, which our signal-man read as 'Ship on fire.' These were lowered shortly afterwards, and the signals, 'Come on board at once,' hoisted in their place. Still we could see no appearance of smoke or flames, but we nevertheless hauled to the wind, tacked, hove to, and sent off a boat's crew, well armed, thinking it not impossible that a mutiny had taken place on board and that the captain or officers, mistaking the yacht for a gunboat, had appealed to us for assistance. We were now near enough to the barque to make out her name through a glass - the 'Monkshaven,' of Whitby - and we observed a puff of smoke issue from her deck simultaneously with the arrival of our boat alongside. In the course of a few minutes, the boat returned, bringing the mate of the 'Monkshaven,' a fine-looking Norwegian, who spoke English perfectly, and who reported his ship to be sixty-eight days out from Swansea, bound for Valparaiso, with a cargo of smelting coal. The fire had first been discovered on the previous Sunday, and by 6 a.m. on Monday the crew had got up their clothes and provisions on deck, thrown overboard all articles of a combustible character, such as tar, oil, paint, spare spars and sails, planks, and rope, and battened down the hatches. Ever since then they had all been living on deck, with no protection from the wind and sea but a canvas screen. Tom and Captain Brown proceeded on board at once. They found the deck more than a foot deep in water, and all a-wash; when the hatches were opened for a moment dense clouds of hot suffocating yellow smoke immediately poured forth, driving back all who stood near. From the captain's cabin came volumes of poisonous gas, which had found its way in through the crevices, and one man, who tried to enter, was rendered insensible.
It was perfectly evident that it would be impossible to save the ship, and the captain therefore determined, after consultation with Tom and Captain Brown, to abandon her. Some of the crew were accordingly at once brought on board the 'Sunbeam,' in our boat, which was then sent back to assist in removing the remainder, a portion of whom came in their own boat. The poor fellows were almost wild with joy at getting alongside another ship, after all the hardships they had gone through, and in their excitement they threw overboard many things which they might as well have kept, as they had taken the trouble to bring them. Our boat made three trips altogether, and by half-past six we had them all safe on board, with most of their effects, and the ship's chronometers, charts, and papers.
The poor little dingy, belonging to the 'Monkshaven,' had been cast away as soon as the men had disembarked from her, and there was something melancholy in seeing her slowly drift away to leeward, followed by her oars and various small articles, as if to rejoin the noble ship she had so lately quitted. The latter was now hove-to, under full sail, an occasional puff of smoke alone betraying the presence of the demon of destruction within. The sky was dark and lowering, the sunset red and lurid in its grandeur, the clouds numerous and threatening, the sea high and dark, with occasional streaks of white foam. Not a breath of wind was stirring. Everything portended a gale. As we lay slowly rolling from side to side, both ship and boat were sometimes plainly visible, and then again both would disappear, for what seemed an age, in the deep trough of the South Atlantic rollers.