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?