― 229 ―

Told in the ‘Corona's’ Cabin.

On Three Evenings.

The First Evening.

In the south-east trades, and the big ship moving steadily through the water with every sail full. Not a quiver of the tightly-strained canvas, not the rattle of a reef-point, broke the stillness aloft.

A glorious evening in the South Atlantic, with the sun setting, as is often his wont in those latitudes, in a bed of crimson, gold and amethyst. The passengers, who had been watching the many-hued passing of the day-king, went below as the cool night breeze began to whistle with a shriller note through the top-hamper and the water to swish more loudly along the sides, and fall back with a louder plop. Very comfortable, snug, and home-like the Corona's cabin looked. It was a cabin, remember, not a ‘saloon.’

There was nothing of the modern curse of varnish and veneer about it. Everything was handsome, also substantial, from the dark mahogany casing of

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the mizzen-mast to the highly-polished, solid pannelling of rosewood, relieved with only a narrow gold beading. The cabin might aptly have been termed a study in brown and gold, so predominant was this combination. Even the curtains in front of each berth door were of brown damask, with gold fringe. The general effect, if a little sombre, was good.

Especially good it seemed this evening to the passengers as they came trooping in with talk and laughter; especially snug and home-like, with its three big swinging moderator lamps, its long table covered with odds and ends of female work, books, papers, etc., etc., its piano, and its comfortable couches scattered here and there.

The Corona's great beam had been utilised to some purpose, and, thus, her cabin was not, like the saloons of so many sailing ships, a sort of stage drawing-room, all white paint, gilding, glass, spindle-shanked chairs, and turn-over-at-a-touch tables.

The company suited the cabin. There were only a dozen or so of them, mostly middle-aged married folk, who had left their grown-up families in Australia whilst they took a trip ‘Home,’ and were now returning to their adopted country. Amongst them, however, were two or three single ladies of uncertain ages, bound to the Land of the Golden Fleece in search of fortune, even if it should only come in the shape of a husband. There was, also, Miss Amy Hillier, an Australian heiress in her own right, returning to

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her native land with an uncle and an aunt. This is another man's story; so that I am not going to take up space by a description of Amy Hillier's charms; suffice it to say here that she was young and pretty, and as good as she was young and pretty.

Wonderful to relate, the company of passengers fitted each other. Each seemed to have discovered in another his or her affinity, and, up to this, there had been none of the usual backbitings, heart-burnings, and malicious tittle-tattle usually so inseparable from a sea voyage in a sailing ship.

Miss Hillier had seated herself at the piano, and was playing something from Lohengrin, when a remarkable - looking man, entering the cabin, doffed his gold - banded cap, and made his way to her side.

Strongly, yet gracefully built, upright as the royal pole, active in all his movements, one would have taken him to be scarce arrived at middle-age, but for the fact that his thick, closely-cropped hair shone a dead white under the lamplight. His features were regular and good, albeit they wore, in general, a rather serious expression. Altogether, it was a strong, pleasant face, full of energy, confidence, and the power to command.

As he rested one hand on the corner of the instrument, it might be noticed that, from wrist to finger tips, it was covered by the white cicatrices of long-healed scars. In spite, however, of his grey hair and disfigured hands, Captain Marion, of the Corona,

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Australian liner, was called by many people a handsome man.

‘Sing me my favourite, please,’ asked the Captain presently.

‘On condition,’ was the reply, ‘that you will tell us a story in return.’

‘It's a bargain,’ said the Captain. ‘I'll relate the legend of Vanderdecken, the Flying Dutchman. Thoroughly appropriate it will be, too, as we are just entering his domains.’

‘We don't want to hear about the Flying Dutchman,’ answered the girl promptly.

‘Well, then,’ continued the Captain, ‘what do you say if I tell you how I was cast away in '69, on the coast of—’

‘No, no, Captain Marion,’ interrupted she, smiling shyly up at him, ‘we don't want that either.’

‘Ah, I see!’ exclaimed the Captain, after a pause, ‘a conspiracy! Well,’ he went on, after a still longer hesitation, ‘I don't care much about it. The telling, I mean, of how I got this’ (touching his hair) ‘and these’ (spreading out his hands), ‘for, of course, that is what you wish to hear. It reminds me of a time I would rather not recall.

‘No, Miss Hillier’—for the girl had risen in dismay and almost tears at her thoughtlessness, and was attempting to apologise incoherently enough—‘it doesn't matter a bit. Besides, I somehow feel in the vein for story-telling this evening; and as well that as anything else. With some passengers, I find that I

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have to put a stopper on their curiosity rather abruptly. But' (with a grave smile and a bow to the group) ‘it being a rare thing, indeed, to meet so well-assorted and pleasant a party as we are this trip, I'll spin you the yarn, such as it is. And now, Miss Hillier, my song.’

‘What would you like—the same as usual, I suppose—“The Silent Land?” ’

‘Yes,’ answered the Captain; ‘your rendering puts a new interpretation on Salis’ words for me, and I seem to bear with me more strongly than ever the promise, as I listen, that he

Who in life's battle firm doth stand
Shall bear Hope's tender blossoms
Into the Silent Land!

‘It is,’ commenced Captain Marion, the song finished, and taking his accustomed seat, whilst the others gathered round him—‘It is nearly fourteen years ago that the strange, and what many may deem improbable, adventure happened which I am about to relate. I was then about twenty-two years of age, an able-bodied seaman on board a ship called the Bucephalus, belonging to Liverpool. It was my first voyage before the mast, for, although I had duly served my apprenticeship with the firm who owned her, and also passed my exam. as second mate, there was no vacancy just then open. They, indeed, offered me a post as third; but, knowing that I should be none the worse for a month or two in the fok's'le, I

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preferred to ship as an A.B. The Bucephalus was an Eastern trader, and on this trip was bound for Singapore and China. All went well with us until we entered the Straits of Sunda. Then, one afternoon, the ship lying in a dead calm off one of the many lovely islands which abound in those narrow seas, the passengers, chiefly military officers with their families, asked the captain to let them have a boat and a run ashore.

‘He was a good-natured man, and consented. Luckily for me, as it afterwards proved, the gig, a very old boat, was full of lumber, fruit, fowls, etc., procured at Anjer, and so the life-boat, a stanch, nearly new craft, was put into the water instead.

‘At the last moment some one suggested that a cup of tea might be acceptable on the island. Not tea alone, but provisions for an ample meal were at once handed in, together with a keg of fresh water. This also was, as you will discover presently, another lucky or—ought I not to say?—providential, chance for me.

‘With myself, three more seamen, and eight or nine ladies and gentlemen, we pushed off towards the verdant, cone-shaped island. Landing without any difficulty on a shell-strewn beach which ran up between two lofty and abrupt headlands, all hands, except myself and an elderly seaman known as Tom, jumped ashore and went climbing and scampering about like so many schoolboys out for a holiday. For my part, I had been on scores of similar islands, or imagined I had, and felt no particular wish to explore this one. Neither, apparently, did my companion. So, hauling

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off a little from the shore, we threw the grapnel overboard and prepared to take things easy, each in his own fashion, he with a pipe, and I with a book lent me by one of the cabin passengers.

‘We made a rough sort of awning with the boat's sail, and I lay in the stern-sheets, my companion between the midship thwarts, under its grateful shelter. It was a drowsy afternoon and a very hot one. To our ears the shouts and laughter of those ashore came at intervals, gradually growing fainter as they made their way towards the summit of the mountain, for such one might say the island was.

‘Presently, looking up from my book, I saw that old Tom was fast asleep, his pipe still in his mouth. Very shortly afterwards I dozed, and heard the book drop from my hand on to the grating without making any effort to recover it. I fell asleep in the broad sunlit day, between ship and land, in the motionless boat, with the voices of my kind still in my ears, and awoke in thickest darkness, moving swiftly along in utter silence, save for, at times, an oily gurgle of water under the bows. Not that I realised even so much all at once. It took me some time. I thought I must be still dreaming, and lay there staring into the blackness with unbelieving eyes. Then I pinched myself and struck my hands sharply against the thwarts. But it was of no use. I could not convince myself that I was not the victim of some ghastly nightmare. Then the idea came into my mind that, although awake, I had suddenly become blind; that Tom had gone ashore

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for a stroll, and that the boat, drifting, had been carried out to sea by some current. Under the influence of this notion, I leaped to my feet, only to be at once struck down again, as if by a hand of iron. Although not completely stunned, I was, for a few minutes, quite bewildered. I could feel, too, that my head was bleeding freely. Sitting cautiously up, I called “Tom!’ I listened intently, but nothing was audible save the faint gurgling sound of the water. I called repeatedly, but there was no answer. Suddenly I recollected that in my pocket was a large metal box full of matches—long wax vestas.

‘Striking one, I held it aloft and gazed eagerly about me. I thanked God that I was not blind. But, so far as I could see, I was alone.

‘On each side, and a foot or so above my head, barely visible in the feeble glimmer, were swiftly passing walls of dripping rock, covered, in many places, with hugh clusters of shiny weeds. So amazed was I at my perfectly inexplicable situation that I stared until the match burned my fingers and dropped into the water, whilst I fell back quite overcome by astonishment and fright.

‘Then, after a bit, I struck more matches. But things were just the same. Always the rocky weed-grown sides, sometimes within touch, at others seeming to widen out; always the rocky, dripping roof, sometimes at my head, at others out of sight; always the darkness, the hurrying boat, and the water like liquid pitch.

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‘Unable to see thoroughly over the boat, I presently crawled for'ard, feeling, as I went, under the sail which had fallen over the thwarts. As I feared, I found no one.

‘Groping about, I picked up Tom's pipe. And then I feared the worst for him.

‘The darkness was horrible. It was so thick that one seemed to swallow mouthfuls of it. The atmosphere was close and muggy, with a smell reminding me strongly of a tannery. Although lightly clad, I was bathed in perspiration as I half sat, half crouched, at the boat's stern, straining my eyes ahead, and now and again lighting one of my matches. Time nor distance had any meaning for me, now; and I have no idea how long I had been voyaging in this unnatural fashion, when there fell on my ears the loud threatening roar of many waters. Commending my soul to God, I laid myself in the boat's bottom. The next minute she seemed to stand nearly upright and then shoot downward like a flash, whilst thick spray flew in showers over me, and the imprisoned waters roared and howled with deafening clamour adown the narrow chasm, so narrow that more than once, in her headlong course, I heard splinters fly from the boat's timbers, whilst masses of dank weeds detached by the blows fell upon me.

‘I now,’ continued the Captain, after a pause, during which he glanced from the ‘tell-tale’ compass overhead to the attentive, wondering faces of

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his audience—‘I now gave myself up for lost, or, at least, imagined that I did so. But the love of life is strong indeed within us; so that when after shooting this subterranean cataract, or whatever it might have been, I found my boat once more steadily gliding along, ever with the same dull gurgle of cleft water at her bows, a faint ray of hope took the place of despairing calm. I was young, remember; healthy, too, powerful and agile beyond the common, and I felt it would be hard indeed to die like a rat in that black hole. What accentuated the hope I speak of was the fact that the lessening roar of the torrent I had just passed sounded as if directly overhead. In vain I told myself that it was but a deceptive echo. Hope would have her say, and buoyed me up, though ever so little, with the idea, incredible as it seemed, that this horrible underground river had doubled back beneath itself, and was making for the sea once more. It has well been said that drowning men will clutch at straws! This one, indeed, was soon to fail me; for presently, to my utter despair, the noise of tumultuous waters ahead gave warning of another cataract—another, or the same one, for, what with the din and the darkness, I became quite confused. The passage was a repetition of the last one, only, if anything, rougher; and, crushed in spirit, all courage flown, I sank back, listening to the rush of the falling water dying away overhead again. Was I, I wondered, descending to even

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lower depths of earth's bowels in this fashion, or merely driven to and fro at the caprice of some remorseless current in what was to prove my tomb! I believe that, for a time, under the stress of ideas like this, my mind wandered; for I have a vague remembrance of singing comic songs, of shouting defiance to fate, the darkness, and things generally; behaving, in fact, like the lunatic I must have become. Whether I descended any more rapids or not I cannot say. I have no recollection whatever of the last part of my strange journey. When, however, I came to my sober senses again I was at the end of it. The boat was motionless, and I was standing upright in her.’

At this point in the Captain's story, and while the interest of his hearers was at its height, the chief officer came quietly in, and, catching his superior's eye, as quietly made his way out again.

Now, four bells struck, and the Captain exclaimed, ‘What, ten o'clock already! My yarn has somewhat spun itself out, and I'm afraid the rest must keep for another evening.’

At this there was quite a chorus of remonstrance. ‘It was cruel to have excited their curiosity and leave it unsatisfied,’ was the general verdict.

‘No sleep for me to-night,’ said Miss Hillier; ‘I shall be wandering through that horrid place in my thoughts, and puzzling my brain to discover how you got out, unless I know the sequel.’

‘It grieves me to think of your disturbed rest,’

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replied the Captain, with a bow and a quizzical smile, ‘although honoured by the cause of it. I am afraid, however, I must refuse even you. I saw heavy weather just now in Mr Santley's eye; and the ship, you know, before all.’

Then the sound of ropes thrown heavily on deck was heard, together with tramp of feet and shouting, the ship heeled over, and the Captain went out, and was not again seen that night by his passengers.

The Second Evening.

CLOSE-REEFED top sails, with a wild, high sea, met on ‘rounding the corner,’ did not prevent the Corona's passengers from putting in an appearance the next evening to hear the continuation of the Captain's story.

‘Well,’ he remarked, as he took his seat, ‘this yarn of mine seems to bring us luck, judging by the way we exchanged our trades last night for this rattling westerly breeze that is now taking us round the Cape so nicely. I think I left off my story,’ continued the Captain, ‘as the boat came to a stop in her travels, through the darkness.’

‘I had recovered from my temporary fit of madness, and was standing up. I was trembling violently, and my limbs felt cramped and stiff. I fancy I must have been a long time on the journey, for I was sick and

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faint, principally from want of food. The air, though still heavy and warm, was not so oppressive as it had been. But the former silence was broken by the most unearthly noises imaginable, sobbings, deep cavernous groans, and hoarse whistlings resounded on every side. For a long time I did not stir. I just stood listening with all my ears, and expecting every moment that something awful was going to take place.

‘After a while, slightly reassured, and feeling the boat's bows scraping some hard substance, I crept into them, and putting out my hand, and groping about alongside, felt a mass of smooth honeycombed stone. Striking a match, the possession of which, in my confused state of mind, I had almost forgotten, I got hold of the painter and took a couple of turns around a projecting ledge of rock.

‘Then I scooped up a handful of water and tasted it. It was as bitter as gall, also quite lukewarm. Happily that in the breaker was unspoiled. Rummaging about, I found the case of eatables also intact; and, sitting there in profound darkness, made a meal of cheese and white biscuits, listening between the mouthfuls to the mysterious noises, whose origin, however, I was now enabled pretty well to guess at.

‘It was very warm, and the tannery smell more powerful than ever. A sensation of surrounding vastness and space, however, was with me as opposed to the confined cramped feeling of being in a narrow channel, such as I suppose myself to have emerged from. Now, I could stand upright and thrust an oar

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out and upwards without touching anything; and, shouting aloud, the sound went echoing and thundering away over the surface of the water with reverberations lasting for minutes.

‘I can take you into that place,’ continued the Captain impressively, ‘and tell you about it as far as my poor words will serve. But I cannot tell you my feelings. At times I almost imagined that I was in Hades, and that the ceaseless noises about me were the cries and groans of lost souls therein. At others, a wild, forlorn hope would seize me, that it might all turn out to be only a horrible dream, and that I should presently awake to see God's dear sun shining brightly on the gallant ship and the green island once more. It had all happened with such startling rapidity, the transformation had been so utter and complete, that to this day I wonder I did not become a raving madman, and so perish miserably down there in the depths. But God in His infinite mercy took pity upon me, and brought me at the last out of such a prison as it is given to few men to see, much less escape from.

‘Like the majority of seafarers, I, in those days, seldom troubled my head about what is vaguely called “religion.”

‘The careful and pious teachings of my childhood had been forgotten almost wholly. But, in that awesome place, in solitude and misery, bound with darkness of Scripture, “that might be felt,” many things came back to me; and, kneeling down, I clasped my hands and

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prayed fervently that I might be saved out of the valley of the shadow of death which encompassed me. Feeling better and stronger, I took my sheath-knife, and with it cut away at one of the oars until I had quite a respectable pile of chips. Placing this on the rock alongside, I set it on fire, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing it blaze cheerfully up and, for a few yards, dispel the darkness. I kept adding fuel from the same source, with the addition of a couple of stretchers, until I had a really good-sized fire. By its light I saw that I was on a flat rock some twenty feet in circumference. Round about were other islets, shaped most fantastically. One, close to, resembled a gigantic horseshoe; another towered up, the perfect similitude of a church spire, into the darkness. At their bases were holes, into and through which the water, flowing and ebbing, produced the sounds that at first had so alarmed me. Look as I might, I could not distinguish the way I had come in, although I thought I could hear the steady pouring of a volume of water not far away. Breaking off a lump of the stone on which I sat, I examined it closely, and felt pretty certain that it was lava. I had seen such before at Mauna Loa, in the Sandwich Islands.

‘Was I then in the womb of a volcano, extinct just at present, doubtless; but, perhaps, even now, taking in water preparatory to generating steam and becoming active? Somewhere in my reading I had dropped across an article on seismology, and one of the theories put forward came to mind as above.

‘The idea made my flesh creep!

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‘I seemed to feel the air, the water, and my lump of lava getting hotter and hotter.

‘Hopeless as my case appeared, and almost resigned to face the end as I had become, even so, I did by no means relish a private view of the preliminaries to a volcanic eruption.

‘Strangely inconsistent, you will say, but so it was. When face to face, even with the last scene of all, it seems there can yet be something of which one may be afraid.

‘Meanwhile, my beacon blazed up brightly, and, peering around, I presently made out a pile of stuff apparently floating against the base of one of the nearest islets.

‘Taking a flaring fire-stick, I got into the boat and sculled over to it. It was a heap of driftwood. Lowering my torch to examine the stuff more closely, I nearly pitched overboard, as, out of the reddish-black water within the ragged patch of light, a white, dead face gazed up at me with wide-open, staring eyes. I recognised it at once as that of my old shipmate. Tom, on awaking, had evidently been knocked out of the boat and drowned, as so nearly happened to myself. The current had as evidently carried him here with me.

‘I leaned over the gunwale as if fascinated. What would I not have given for his living companionship now!

‘Lifting, at last, one of the stiff arms, I shook the unresponsive hand in silent farewell, and paddled back

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towards the flame that marked my islet, actually feeling envious of the quiet corpse. Misfortune makes us sadly selfish, and so little had my thoughts ran on the fate of my comrade that the shock of his appearance thus was a heavy one.

‘I took it as a bad omen, and what spirit I had nearly left me.

‘After sitting motionless on my rock for a very long time, with my head bowed on my knees, and nearly letting my fire go out, I shook myself together a little, threw more chips on, and examined my stores.

‘All told, with cheese, biscuits, several tins of potted meat and preserves, I reckoned there was enough, on meagre allowance, to last me for a week. Water about the same.

‘More than once I felt tempted to throw the lot overboard and follow it.

‘But youth and health and strength are indeed wondrous things, and a man possessed of them will do and dare much before giving up entirely, no matter how drear the outlook, how sharp the arrows of fate which transfix him!

‘Feeling weary and fagged, I lay down in the boat and slept, I suppose, for hours very soundly.

‘The awaking was bad—worse even than the first time.

‘One thing comforted me somewhat. I found that by the constant endeavour to use my eyes in the darkness I was becoming able to discern at least the dim outlines of objects.

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‘Renewing the fire with a lot of driftwood I picked up at the further side of my islet, I proceeded to carry out a plan I had formed. Taking the gratings out of the stern-sheets, I arranged them firmly in the bows. Then, breaking off projecting lumps and knobs of lava, I beat them smaller with an iron pin, which I fortunately found in the boat, and spread them thickly over the gratings, thus forming a sort of stage. Upon this I built a substantial fire. I was, you see, bound on a voyage of exploration.

‘There might, possibly, be some avenue to freedom out of this subterranean sea other than the one I had entered it from, exit by which was, of course, hopeless.

‘It was, I argued, useless to stay on the rock. I could not be much worse off, no matter where I got to.

‘How I yearned and hungered for light no tongue could tell. It seemed so hard to wander in the gloom for a brief night of existence. And then, the end! Do you, any of you, wonder at my hair turning grey?

‘As I scraped the last embers off the islet on to the tin dish used as a baler, in order to throw them on the new fire, the light fell full upon the corpse, which, to all appearance, had just floated alongside.

‘My nerves were evidently getting unstrung by what I had gone through, for, letting the dish fall, I shouted with terror, and, jumping into the boat, pushed wildly away from the poor body. To my unutterable dismay

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it followed me, with one arm extended and raised slightly, as if in deprecation of my desertion of it.

‘I have thought at times,’ remarked the Captain parenthetically, ‘of what a picture the scene would make—the boat floating in a patch of crimson water, with the fire flaring into the blackness on her bows, myself standing up grasping an oar, and gazing intently at the nearly nude body as it came closer and closer, and everywhere around the thick darkness.

‘I think that in another moment I should have leapt overboard, so great was my fright, but that I happened to catch sight of a piece of rope leading from the boat to the body.

‘Getting hold of it, I pulled, and the corpse came also. Then I understood. On my leaving it the first time a portion of the sail halliards, which had been towing overhead, had got foul of the body, and, unperceived, I had brought it back to my islet with me.

‘My presence of mind returned, and, not caring to run the risk of more surprises of the sort, I again landed, and pulled the body on to the islet.

‘There must have been some preserving agent in that water, for, despite the heat, there was no sign of decomposition, and the features were as fresh as in life.

‘Sculling gently along, with my fire blazing bravely and comfortingly at the bow, I set off into the unknown.

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‘For a time my attention was thoroughly taken up in trying to avoid the numerous lava islets, whose presence I could scarcely detect until right upon them. Indeed, once or twice we bumped heavily enough to send showers of hot ashes hissing into the water.

‘At last, after a long spell of this kind of blind navigation, I seemed to get clearer of these provoking islets. The noises also, to which I was becoming quite accustomed, nearly ceased.

‘As I sculled warily along, I listened with all my ears for some indication of a return current. It was my one hope, and it kept every sense on the alert.

‘But the water within the radius of my so limited vision was quiet and still as in a covered reservoir— much more so, now, indeed, than at my old resting-place. This fact I accounted for by the emptying near there of the underground, possibly under-sea river, which had brought me into such an awful fix.

‘Presently the boat bumped more violently than ever, and by the flame-light which shot up from the disturbed fire, I saw, rising far aloft, a solid wall of rock. No lava islet this, but the end of all—the boundary, in this direction, of my prison.

‘To right and left stretched the same grim barrier, dropping sheer down into the still black water. With a sinking heart I turned the boat's head along the wall to my right hand, keeping a little distance out, moving very slowly, with just a turn or two of the oar, sufficient only to keep way on her.

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‘It may have been minutes, or it may have been hours, when, straight ahead, over the somewhat feeble light of my fire, which had proved, after all, more help by way of company than use, I imagined the darkness looked thinner. Inspired by the mere idea, I sculled vigorously along, at the risk of complete wreck from some sunken rock, and in a short time the boat shot into an oblong-shaped streak of light —light, that is, comparatively, for it was as dim as starlight; although, so acclimatised, if I may use the term, had my eyes become to the denser medium, that by its aid I could see clearly every article in the boat.

‘I will not trouble you with a description of my feelings, nor of all the extravagancies I committed in the first flush of delighted hope that had visited me. I seemed to be once more in touch with the upper world through that column of dim greyness ascending through the darkness, and so weak as hardly to be able to conquer it.’

Here the Captain paused. He had told his story well; seldom at a loss for a word, and with now and again, but rarely, an appropriate gesture.

So successful had he been in gaining the attention of his listeners, that, when he ceased, they sat quite silent, gazing at him fixedly, and for some minutes no one spoke.

Then four bells, which struck on deck during a lull in the roar of the gale, came with such sudden

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distinctness to their ears, as to make some of the ladies start and utter timid little ejaculations.

The spell broken, a chorus of tongues clamoured out. Miss Hillier alone was silent. Then some dear foolish female affinity said, ‘Why, Amy, love, you've been crying!’ This the girl, with flaming cheeks denied, only the next minute to affirm, quite inconsequently, that if she had wept (which she was certain she had not), was not such a tale enough to make one, with any heart at all, shed tears?

The Third Evening.

East by S−½-South, under fore and main courses and upper and lower top-sails, sped the Corona with the wind on her quarter. Aft, rose great water-hills' darkly green, with white crests, seeming, as each followed each, to hang momentarily suspended over the stern and threaten to overwhelm everything; then, as the good ship rose just in the nick of time, breaking with a long surge in sheets of milky foam away for'ard.

The sun was setting sullenly behind a dense cloud-bank. An albatross or two flew screaming from one wave-crest to another right in the wake. It was a typical evening in the Southern Ocean, the long wash of whose seas reach from the foot of Cape Leuwin to the rugged cliffs of Fuego.

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‘Well,’ continued the Captain, without any preface, as he took his seat facing the waiting and expectant little party.

‘Well, stare as I might aloft, I could not discover to where this Jacob's ladder led. You see, at its best, it was only a column of dusky twilight, and the further end, from where I stood, was lost to view. As I gazed, it appeared to be gradually fading away. I rubbed my eyes; and when I again looked, all around was blacker than the blackest midnight, except where my fire still burned. For a while, I was puzzled to account for the disappearance of the light. Then the thought struck me that it might be caused by the fall of night in the upper world. Was I, I wondered, as I turned sadly to my fire, ever again to look upon the bright day, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the wonders of that fair earth now grown so dear to me? Truly was I one of those unhappy men who, as the Psalmist says, “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron.”

‘Close to the pillar of light, just on its outside edge, I had noticed a long, slender, almost perpendicular pinnacle of lava towering upwards like the spire of a church.

‘At the base of this I securely moored my boat. Then, thinking that a cup of tea would cheer me up a little, I brewed one, and made a good meal. After this, lying down, I pondered many things, gazing always aloft.

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‘Once I imagined I saw a star; but it disappeared before I could make sure.

‘The one question uppermost in my mind was whether or not the glimmer would reappear when the morning broke above, or had it been an illusion? One thing encouraged me to hope for the best. It was perceptibly cooler, a grateful change from the warm mugginess I had encountered everywhere else. I had, by this, contracted a habit of talking aloud, and I presently caught myself saying that I would climb the lava pinnacle in the morning and try to get a better look-out.

‘ “In the morning.”

‘The utter vanity of the so familiar phrase as it fell on my ears struck me with all the force of some terrible shock, whilst the cold deadening thought seized upon me that, for me, in this world, there was to be no more morning. Through darkness was I to make the last journey towards that dread bourne whence no traveller returns? The slow death in the darkness, drifting about on the bitter waters of that secret sea—that was the thought that my soul revolted from. And strange thoughts, horrible thoughts, a man thinks placed as I was. At times his reason leaves him, his whole soul rises in impious revolt, and the devil rages freely therein, as if already his victim's bed were made in hell.

‘But, thanks be to God!’ exclaimed the Captain, fervently, ‘that the recollections of that hideous time —of the fits of doubt and despair and terror and

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madness, of which I have said but little to you— grow dimmer and weaker with the years, leaving only in enduring relief the memory of a great mercy!

‘It pleased me, though, unproved as it was, that notion of being able to distinguish between night and daylight. The very fact, pure conjecture though it might be, of having the power to say, “Night has come,” seemed to bring peace to my wearied eyes; so that I presently lay down and slept dreamlessly, and on awakening found again, to my intense joy, that mild, soft haze falling upon me.

‘Scarcely giving myself time to snatch a mouthful of biscuit and a draught of cold tea, I jumped ashore and commenced the ascent of the tapering mass of rock. It was, as I have said, nearly perpendicular, and there was no lack of foot and hand-holds— projections sharp as razors, formed by the drippings of the once molten lava. Thanks to my trained vision and the help afforded by the close proximity of the light, I could see dimly. Higher up, the projecting spurs and knobs grew scarcer, and the surface more smooth and slippery. It was terrible work. At home I had had some practice as a cragsman, and this stood to me well now. As I climbed, sometimes vertically, at others spirally, wherever I could feel the firmest hold, the atmosphere grew palpably clearer, and this infused new strength into my aching limbs as I crawled upwards, now hanging by one bleeding hand over the abyss beneath me, now with both hands breathlessly embracing some sharp spur that cut into

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my flesh, whilst my feet groped convulsively for precarious support.

‘When just about spent, I unexpectedly came to the top. I found only room enough there to sit down and pant. A wild hope had filled my breast that this rocky ladder would lead me to liberty—a hope growing stronger with every upward step. As I looked around, these hopes fell, and the old leaden weight of despair seemed to settle once more upon my soul. Slanting away from me on every side, stretched the rugged acclivities of a vast amphitheatre, converging again towards its summit, where the blue sky was distinctly visible. Picture to yourselves an hour-glass with a long tunnel-like waist. Place a straw, the end of which rests on the bottom of the lower section of the glass and reaches up through the tunnel until just on a level with the sloping-upward portion of the top section, but touching it nowhere. Now place a minute insect on the very tip of the straw, and you have my situation as nearly as I can explain it to you. And there I crouched on my lava straw, stretching out unavailing hands to those scarred cliffs of liberty, betwixt me and which spread that dark abyss, with the mournful waters of the bitter sea at its foot. The distance between where I sat on the top of the pinnacle and the sloping walls of the crater all round must have been about twenty five feet. I think it was afterwards measured as that. A hundred plans darted swiftly into my mind for crossing this little space, which meant so much to me, only to be as quickly dismissed as impracticable.

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‘Although still very far from day, it was yet light enough to let me see that the sides of the crater, nearly equi-distant around my perch, were cut and ploughed into deep furrows, and that, once there, I should have comparatively little trouble in reaching upper air.

‘Would it be possible, I wondered, to splice what remained of the oars together, and thus make some kind of a bridge along which to creep? But the idea of again facing such a climb with such an unwieldy burden made me shudder. Also, I doubted much if there was length enough to reach across, supposing I ever got them to where I was. This one amongst many other plans. All at once, as I sat gazing alternately at the far, far away patch of blue overhead, and the dark rocks opposite, there flashed across my thoughts the recollection of the boat's grapnel. I had seen nothing of it. But it might still be hanging under her bows. Attached to the stern-post by a short length of chain shackled to a ring-bolt, it would have taken a heavy shock to shift it. If I could but get a line across and, by help of the grapnel, firmly secured to the opposite side, I felt I was saved. Tearing up the light dungaree jumper I was wearing, and which, with the remainder of my clothing, was little else but a rag, I bound pieces around my stiff and wounded hands and feet, and commenced the descent. It was an awful journey, worse than the coming up. Then, my skin was whole, at the start, anyhow; now, the cuts and tears re-opened and bled and stung more than ever. At one

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time, indeed, I felt that I must give up and let go. But the thought of the grapnel appeared to endue me with fresh strength, whilst, in my mind's eye, I kept steadfastly the memory of that dear glimpse of blue sky. At length, looking down and pausing for a moment, I saw a flicker of light. It was from the dying embers of my fire, and, in a few minutes, I was in the boat. Although nearly utterly exhausted, crawling for'ard, I felt for the chain. It was there; and pulling it rapidly in, what was my delight to find the little grapnel still at its end. Replenishing my fire, I made some tea, preparatory to having something to eat, for I knew I should want all my strength presently. In hauling at the chain my hands had got wet, and, to my surprise, the bleeding had ceased, and the pain almost departed. I immediately bathed my feet, and felt wonderfully relieved thereby. Now, I had my tea, and then considered whether it might not be wiser to pass the night where I was, and take a full day for my attempt. God knows how eager I was for the moment of trial to arrive! Still, I chose the prudent side, and sat and watched the hazy column turn first to a dull green, then to ashen grey, then go out suddenly, and so I knew, certainly now, that the day was over on the earth.

‘As the darkness, thick and impenetrable, closed me in, I lay down thinking to sleep a little, but my rest was disturbed and broken. Always, as I dozed off, I was clambering painfully up that terrible rock, with bleeding hands and feet, staggering under huge burdens of rope and iron. Once I dreamt that my shipmate's

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body had floated off the islet, and was, even now, with white clammy fingers, striving to lift itself into the boat, whilst the ghastly face peered at me over the side. This effectually awoke me; but so strong was the impression, that I seized a fire-stick, and, making it blaze up, searched sharply around. I had my trouble for my pains. But further attempt at sleep for me was out of the question.

‘My dawn, such as it was, came at last. I had already detatched the grapnel from its chain, and unrove the halliards from the mast. These last I wound round and round my body, fully thirty feet of line, small “Europe” rope, but tough and strong. The disposal of my precious grapnel, which, luckily, was one of the smallest of its kind, only used, as we had used it, for a temporary holdfast, bothered me a good deal.

‘Finally, I placed my head between two of the flukes, one of which then rested on each shoulder, whilst the stock hung down my back, swinging loosely. To make sure of the flukes not slipping, I passed a piece of line from one to the other, and knotted it securely.

‘It was a most uncomfortable fixture altogether, a tight fit for my neck into the bargain, but I could think of no other way.

‘I'm not going to inflict upon you a detailed description of how I reached the top—I believe it must have been fully five hundred feet—carrying that half-hundred weight of iron, to say nothing of the rope.

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Indeed, I hardly know myself. However, get there I did; but, as you may guess, in a very evil plight.

‘I recollect, when still some thirty feet from the top, unable to bear any longer the horrible chafing of the flukes, which had broken through the skin, and were grinding against the bone, that I rested, or, rather, balanced myself on a sharp ledge, whilst casting the grapnel adrift from my shoulders, and unwinding the rope from my body. Then, making one end of the line fast to the ring in the stock, I fastened the other round my waist, the grapnel all this time resting loosely on the rock.

‘Leaving it there, and paying out the line cautiously into the void below me, away I went again, bracing myself at every step to withstand the awful-jerk should the grapnel slip off, and tighten the rope with the momentum of its fall. If such a thing had happened, and the chances were many, my fate was certain—a few scrambling clutches and annihilation. But where it went I had made up my mind to go also.

‘It was my only and last hope, that bit of crooked four-clawed iron! Death was in every step I took, and I believe that it was in those last few feet that my hair turned its colour, so terrible was the suspense and expectation.

‘But God was very good to me, and I reached the summit with a couple of feet of line to spare. Dragging the grapnel up, I crouched down on the little flat, table-like top, and fairly sobbed with pain and exhaustion.

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‘To my alarm, I felt myself growing weaker instead of stronger from my rest. The fact was that, with the awful cutting about I had received, I had lost a good deal of blood. Many of the deeper cuts on my hands and arms were bleeding still. Evidently there was no time to lose. Standing up, feeling sick and dizzy, I coiled down my line for a fair throw, and, grasping it some three feet or so above the grapnel, swung it to and fro until I thought impetus enough was attained, then hove with all my remaining strength.

‘I shut my eyes, expecting to hear every second the sound of iron clanging far beneath against the sides of the pinnacle. When I opened them again, the line was hanging in a slack bight across the chasm. The little anchor had fallen directly into one of the deep furrows, but perilously close to the edge. With trembling fingers I hauled the line in. Tighter, tighter, tighter still, then with all the force I could command. Would it support the weight of my body, or would it come?

‘Without staying to argue the question, I made it fast afresh to a round nob, the only one on the place. Then, saying a short prayer, and taking a last glance at the blue sky, I let myself slip gently off the rock, hanging with my hands on the thin, hempen line.

‘It sagged terribly. I could plainly hear my heart knocking and thumping against my ribs. It sagged and “gave” still more. Imagining that I heard the noise of the grapnel scraping and dragging, I looked

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upon myself as lost. But I still continued to drag myself across. It was a long, terrible agony, and, more than once, I thought I should have to let go. My hands almost refused to close upon the rope. But I still, almost as in a dream, worked myself along. Once I caught myself wondering if I should fall into or near the boat, and whether the dead man would be there to receive me. Then a horrible fancy seized me that I was making no progress, but that my hands were glued to the rope with blood—ever in the same spot. Then suddenly, in my now mechanical motions, my head hit with great violence against rock. This effectually aroused me. I was at the threshold of liberty—the edge of the crater, where it sloped quickly away below.

‘I hung there whilst one might count twenty, looking up. I was three feet beneath the rim. The rope had given that much.

‘I don't remember in the least pulling myself up and over that overhanging ledge. When my senses returned, I was lying in the furrow alongside the grapnel, and a rush of cold water was sweeping under me. How long I had been there I have no notion. Certainly a great many hours. The rain was pouring down in tropical torrents; thunder pealed above me, and the lightning flashed and darted in vain endeavour to pierce the lower abyss.

‘After many fruitless attempts, I staggered to my feet. I felt so dreadfully weak and faint that I thought I was about to die. But a glance aloft gave me fresh

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heart. The dark clouds of the thunderstorm were passing over, and full upon my nearly naked body fell the warm rays of the glorious sun. I almost at that moment, Parsee-like, worshipped him.

‘Painfully, stumbling at every step, I crawled upwards, with many a rest and draught of the rain water, caught in rocky hollows, until, after a weary time, and feeling as one risen from the tomb, I emerged into the full light of day once more.

‘Naked, bleeding, bruised, but free, I stood on the topmost peak of that fateful island. At first everything swam before my vision. Trees, the ocean, the far horizon, reeled and shook, advanced and receded to my dazzled eyes. The sun was low in the heavens. As things gradually assumed their natural appearance, I became conscious of a great ship lying at anchor, of a cluster of white tents not a hundred yards away from me.

‘But of these things, for a space, I took no heed. Sun, air, water and sky held my regards in ecstasy. I drank the beauty and the newness of them in till my soul was saturated with the tender loveliness of that nature to which I had been for so long a stranger. Then, and not till then, I tottered towards the clump of tents lying just below me.

‘Men were there, carpenters apparently, hammering at a tall wooden structure. Other men—men-o'-war seamen by their rig—were arriving and departing with burdens.

‘I was close upon them before they saw me. Some

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shrank back. One, I recollect, picked up a rifle and brought it to his shoulder. A man with a gold epaulette on his coat struck it up and spoke to the sailor in English.

‘Presently I was taken into a tent, a doctor appeared from somewhere, and, whilst he dressed my wounds, they gave me a cordial, and I told my story with what seemed to me like the voice of a stranger. I don't remember much afterwards until I awoke, swinging in a hammock under a shady tree close to the tents.

‘I was a mass of bandages, but sensible, though terribly weak.

‘ “You've had a narrow escape of brain fever, my lad,” said the doctor. “But we've pulled you through all right. Lucky we happened to be here, though, wasn't it? A nice time you must have had down there. We found your rope; but our men didn't care about venturing any further, as steam was beginning to come up.”

‘ “Four days,” replied the doctor, in answer to my question, “it is since you appeared on the scene and scared the camp.

‘ “The Bucephalus? Yes, curiously enough, we met her just entering Singapore Harbour. That's ten days ago. She spoke us, and asked us to keep a look-out for her boat with two seamen. We have one of them, at all events. I suppose the other poor beggar will be thrown up presently.”

‘I looked at him. “Yes,” he continued, “the old

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volcano is showing every indication of renewed activity. We came here to observe the transit of Venus, but shall have probably to pack up and form another station if those symptoms don't subside. See there!”

‘Looking in the direction of his outstretched finger, I saw several tall puffs of what seemed like white smoke issuing from the depths of the crater.

The observers were loth to shift their quarters; but, when some red-hot cinders from below set one of the tents on fire, they accepted the hint.

‘Still in my hammock, I was presently carried down the mountain and on board H.M.S. Hygeia, where, with careful and skilled attention, I soon recovered.’

The Captain ceased speaking. For a time nothing was heard except the steady blast of the ‘Roaring Forties’ overhead.

Asked a passenger presently,—

‘And did the volcano really explode after all?’

‘It did, indeed,’ replied Captain Marion; ‘but not for a month afterwards, and then so fiercely as to scatter death and destruction throughout those narrow seas, grinding the island of Krakatoa itself into cosmic dust—visible, according to scientists, nearly all over the world.’

Here ends the story proper as compiled from the notes taken by one of the passengers and jotted down in his cabin of a night as the Captain finished each section of his narrative.

Lower down on the last pages of these notes is

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gummed, however, a printed paragraph, cut from a Sydney daily newspaper, which runs as follows:—

MARION—HILLIER.—On the 29th ultimo, at St James's Church of England, Sydney, by the Rev. R. Garnsey, George Wreford Marion, master in the British Mercantile Marine, to Amy Margaret, daughter of the late John Hillier, Esq., of Pevensey, Miller's Point, Sydney, and Eurella and Whydah stations, Riverina, N.S.W.