A Night in the Dreadnought

by Talbot Baines Reed

 

Chapter One. Stowaways.

We were spending the winter of 185—, my young brother Jack and I, with our grandfather at Kingstairs, a quiet little seaside village not a hundred miles from the Nore.

I am not quite clear to this day as to why we were there—whether we were sent for a treat, or for a punishment, or whether I was sent to take care of Jack, or Jack was sent to take care of me. I can’t remember that we had committed any unusually heinous offence at home. Indeed, since our attempt a week or two previously to emulate history by smothering the twins, after the manner of the princes in the Tower, we had been particularly quiet, not to say dull, at home. For the little accident of the squib that went off in the night nursery in the middle of the night counted for nothing, nobody being hurt, and only the head nurse and our aunt having hysterics.

So that when, the day after we had broken up for the holidays, our father told us we were going to spend Christmas at grandfather’s, there was nothing in our past conduct to suggest that the step was to be regarded in the light of a punishment.

All the same, it was no great treat. At least it would have been far more of a treat to spend Christmas at home, and carry out our long-cherished design of digging at the bottom of the garden till we reached the fire in the middle of the earth, an operation which we reckoned would occupy at least a week; to say nothing of the usual Christmas parties, which we did not see the fun of missing, and the visits to the Tower and the Monument, which always seemed to be part of every Christmas holiday.

However, as it was all settled for us, and everybody seemed to think it a great treat for us, and further, as Jack had a boat which wanted sailing, we yielded to the general wish, and reminding everybody that the presents could be sent down in a trunk a day or two before the 25th, we took our leave and repaired to Kingstairs.

Our father came with us, just to see us settled down, and then returned to town. And it was not till after he had gone that we began to think it rather slow to be left alone down there with only grandfather and Jack’s boat for company.

Grandfather was very old. We always used to put him down at a round hundred years, but I believe he was only seventy-five really. However, he was not as young as we were, and being rather infirm and subject to rheumatism, he preferred staying indoors near the fire to coming with us over the rocks and sailing Jack’s boat in mid-December.

He little knew the pleasure he missed, of course! Happily, he did not insist on our staying indoors with him, and the consequence was we managed to do pretty much as we liked, and indeed rather more so than he or any one else interested in our welfare supposed.

Kingstairs, as any one who has been there knows, is not a very exciting place at the best of times. In summer, however, it is a pleasant enough retreat, where family parties come down from town for a week or so, and spend their days boating in the pretty bay, or else basking on the sands under the chalk cliffs, where the children construct fearful and wonderful pits and castles, and arm-chairs for their mothers to sit in, or canals and ponds in which to sail their craft. In fine weather nothing is so enjoyable as a day on the rocks, hunting for crabs and groping for “pungars,” or else strolling about on the jetty to watch the packet-boat go out to meet the steamer, or see the luggers coming in after a week’s fishing cruise in the German Ocean.

All this is pleasant enough. But Kingstairs in July and Kingstairs in December are two different places.

The lodging-houses were all desolate and deserted. The boats were all drawn high and dry up on the jetty. The bathing-machines stood dismally in the field behind the town. Not a soul sat in an arm-chair on the sands from morning to night. No one walked along the cliffs except the coastguardsmen. The London steamer had given up running, and no one was to be seen on the jetty but an occasional sailor, pipe in mouth and hands in pockets, looking the picture of dismalness.

You may fancy Jack and I, under these depressing circumstances, soon got tired of sailing the boat. And when one day, after we had waited a week for the water to calm down, we started it, with all sail crowded, before half a gale of wind, from the jetty steps, and watched it heel over on to one side and next moment disappear under the foam of a great wave which nearly carried us off our feet where we stood, we decided there was not much fun to be had out of Kingstairs in December.

It was often so rough and stormy that it was impossible to get to the end of the jetty; and on these occasions we were well enough pleased to take shelter in the “look-out,” a big room over the net-house, reached by a ladder, where there was generally a fire burning, and in which the sailors and boatmen of the place always congregated when they had nothing else to do.

We struck up acquaintance with one or two of these rough tars, who, seeing perhaps that we were in rather a dismal way, or else glad of anything in the way of a variety, used to invite us up to warm ourselves at the fire. We very soon got to feel at home in the “look-out,” and found plenty of entertainment in the yarns and songs with which the men whiled away the time.

A great deal of what we heard, now I remember it, was not very improving; the songs, many of them, were coarse, and as for the yarns, though we swallowed them all at the time, I fancy they were spun mostly out of the fancy of the narrators. Wonderful stories they were, of shipwreck, and battle, and peril, over which we got so excited that we lay awake at night and shuddered, or else dreamed about them, which was even worse.

One man, I remember, told us how he fought with a shark under water in the South Seas, and stabbed it with the knife in his right hand, just as the monster’s teeth were closing on his other arm. And to make his story more vivid he bared his great shaggy arm, and showed us an ugly white scar among the tattoo marks above the elbow. Another man told us how he had stood beside Nelson on the “Victory,” just as the admiral received his death-wound; and it never occurred to us to wonder how a man of not more than thirty-five could have been present at that famous battle, which took place fifty years ago! But the yarn that pleased us most was the one about the wreck of the “Wolf King,” when the Kingstairs lifeboat, the “Dreadnought,” put out in a tremendous gale, and reached her just as she was going down, and rescued sixteen of her crew. This story we called for over and over again, till we knew it by heart. And many a time, as we lay awake at night, and heard the wind whistling round the house, we wondered if it was a storm like this when the “Wolf King” went down, or whether any ship would be getting on to the Sands to-night.

It was Christmas Eve—a wild, blustering night. It had been blowing up hard for several days now, and we were used to the howling of the wind and the roar of the waves on the beach. We had gone to bed tired and excited, for the promised hamper had arrived that afternoon, and we had been unpacking it. What a wonderful hamper it was! A turkey to begin with, and a Swiss Family Robinson, and a tool-box, and a telescope, and a pair of home-made socks for grandfather. We were fain to take possession of our treasures at once, but the old gentleman forbade it, and made us put them all back in the hamper and wait till the morning.

So we went to bed early, hoping thereby, I suppose, to hasten the morning. But instead of that, the hours dragged past as though the night would never go. We heard nine o’clock strike, and ten, and eleven. We weren’t in the humour for sleeping, and told one another all the stories we knew—finishing up, of course, with the wreck of the “Wolf King.” Then we lay for a long time listening to the storm outside, which seemed to get wilder and wilder as the night dragged on. The tide, which had been only just turned when we went to bed, sounded now close under the house, and the thunder of the great waves as they broke on the sand seemed to make the very earth vibrate.

Surely it must have been a night like this when the “Wolf King”—

“Tom!”

“What?”

“Are you awake?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a storm, isn’t it?”

There was a silence for some time, and I supposed Jack had dozed off, but he began again presently. “Tom!”

“What?”

“Hadn’t we better go on the jetty?”

“Why?”

“There might be a wreck, you know.”

“So there might.”

Next moment we were out of bed and dressing quietly.

We need not have minded about the noise, for the roar of the storm outside would have prevented any one from hearing sounds twenty times louder than those we made, as we crept into our clothes and pulled on our boots.

“All ready, Jack?”

“Yes; mind how you go down.”

We crept downstairs, past grandfather’s room, where a light was burning, down into the hall, and through the passage to the back door. We pulled the bolts and opened it carefully. Fortunately, it was on the sheltered side of the house. Had it been the front, the blast that would have rushed in would certainly have discovered our retreat.

We stepped cautiously out and closed the door behind us. We were surprised to find how still it seemed at first, compared with what we had imagined. But next moment, as we got past the back of the house and came suddenly into the full force of the wind, we knew that the storm was even fiercer than we supposed. At first we could barely stand, as with heads down and knees bent we struggled forward. But we got more used to it in a little while, and once in Harbour Street we were again in shelter.

Harbour Street was empty. No one saw us as we glided down it towards the jetty. We heard the church clock strike half-past eleven, the chimes being swept past us on the wind.

As we turned out of Harbour Street on to the jetty the force of the gale once more staggered us, and we had almost to crawl forward. There were lights and the cheery glow of a fire in the “look-out,” and we knew there must be plenty of sailors there. But somehow at this time of night we did not care to be discovered even by our friends the sailors. So we kept on, holding on to the chains, towards where the red light burned at the jetty-head.

We were too excited to be afraid. One of those strange spirits of adventure had seized upon us which make boys ready for anything, and the thought of standing alone at midnight at the pier-head in a storm like that did not even dismay us.

But before we were half-way along we found that it was not the easy thing we imagined. A huge wave struck the jetty behind the wall under which we crept, and next moment a deluge of spray and foam shot up and fell, drenching us to the skin. And almost before we knew what had happened another and another followed.

We turned instinctively towards the “look-out,” but as we did so a fourth wave, huger than all the rest, swept the jetty from end to end, and but for the chain, on to which we clung, we should have been washed off.

Our only chance was to run for the nearest shelter, and that was the lee of the tarpaulin-covered lifeboat, which lay up on its stocks, out of the reach of the spray, and seeming to us to offer as much protection ashore as it could do afloat.

Half a dozen staggering steps brought us to it. But even in this short space another wave had drenched us. We were thankful to creep under its friendly shelter, and once there we wondered for the first time how we were ever to get back. Our hearts were beginning to fail us at last. We were cold and shivering, and wet through, and now the rain came in gusts, to add to our misery.

“Couldn’t we get inside?” said Jack, with chattering teeth.

As he spoke a shower of salt spray leapt over the boat and deluged us. Yes; why not get inside under the tarpaulin, where we could shelter at once from the cold, and the wet, and the wind? Nobody could see us, and if any one came we could jump out, and presently, perhaps, the storm might quiet down, and we could get back to bed.

Jack had already clambered up the side, and lifted a corner of the tarpaulin. I followed, and in a minute we were snugly stowed away, in almost as good shelter as if we had never left our bedroom.

Then we sat and listened drowsily to the wind raging all round, and heard the spray falling with heavy thuds on the tarpaulin above us.

“It must be past twelve, Jack,” said I; “a Merry Christmas to you.”

But Jack was fast asleep.

Chapter Two. The Rescue.

How long Jack and I had lain there, curled up under the bows of the “Dreadnought” that stormy Christmas morning, I never knew. For I, like him, had succumbed to the drowsy influence of the cold and wet, and fallen asleep.

I remember, just before dropping off, thinking the storm must be increasing rather than otherwise, and vaguely wondering whether the wind could possibly capsize the boat up here in the top of its runners. However, my sleepiness was evidently greater than my fears on this point, and I dropped off, leaving the question to decide itself.

The next thing I was conscious of was a strange noise overhead, and a sudden dash of water on to the floor of the boat just beside me. Then, before I could rub my eyes, or recollect where I was, the “Dreadnought” seemed suddenly alive with people, some shouting, some cheering, while the loud bell at the pierhead close by mingled its harsh voice with the roar of the storm.

“Stand by—cut away there!” shouted a hoarse voice from the boat. Then it flashed across me! The “Dreadnought” was putting out in this fearful storm to some wreck, and—horrors!—Jack and I were in her!

“Wait, I say, wait! Jack and I are here. Let us out!” I cried.

In the noise, and darkness, and confusion, not even the nearest man noticed me as I sprang up with this terrified shout.

I shook Jack wildly and shouted again, trying at the same time to make my way to the stern of the boat.

But before I had crossed the first bench, before the two men seated there with oars up, ready for the launch, perceived us, there was a cheer from the jetty, the great boat gave a little jolt and then began to slide, slowly at first, but gaining speed as she went on, and I knew she was off.

That short, swift descent seemed to me like an eternity. The lights on the jetty went out, the cheers were drowned, and—

A rough hand caught me where I stood half across the bench and drove me back down beside Jack, who was yet too dazed to stir. Next instant with a rush and a roar we plunged into the tempest, and all was blackness!

It seemed to me as if that first plunge was to be the last for the gallant boat and all in her. The bows under which we crouched, clinging for dear life to a ring on the floor, were completely submerged. The water rushed over us and around us, nearly stunning us with its violence and deafening us with its noise.

But presently we rose suddenly, and the boat shot up till it seemed to stand on end, so that, where we sat, we could see every inch of it from stem to stern, and the dim outline of Kingstairs jetty behind. At the same moment the ten oars dropped into their rowlocks, the coxswain, with his sou’-wester pulled down tight on his head, and a hand raised to screen his eyes from the sleet, shouted something—the boat soared wildly up the wave, and once again all was darkness for us.

How the brave boat ever got through that first half-mile of surf is a mystery to me. Every wave seemed as though it would pitch it like a plaything across to the next. Now we shot up till we looked down on the coxswain below us as from the top of a mast, and next instant we looked up at him till it seemed a marvel how he held to his place, and did not drop on to us. All the while the men tugged doggedly at the oars, heeding neither the waves that broke over them and flooded the boat, nor the surf that often nearly knocked the oars from their hands.

And what of Jack and me? We crouched there, close together, clutching fast at the friendly ring, looking out in mute terror on to this fearful scene, too stupefied to speak, or move, or almost to think. Had any one seen us? or had the hand which drove me down at the launch saved me from my danger by accident? I began to think this must be so, when the man nearest us, whom even in his cork jacket and sou’-wester I recognised as the hero of the shark story in the “look-out,” turned towards us.

He was not one of the rowers, but had been busily drawing in and coiling a line close beside us during those first terrific plunges of the boat after she had taken the water. But now he turned hurriedly to where we sat, and without a word seized me roughly by the arm and drew me to my feet. I made sure I was to be cast overboard like Jonah into that fearful sea. But no. All he did was to throw a cork jacket round me, and then thrust me down again to my old place, just as a great wave broke over the prows and seemed almost to fill the boat. As soon as this had passed and the water swirled out from the boat, he seized Jack and equipped him in the same way. Then throwing a tarpaulin coat over us, he left us to ourselves, while he mounted his watch in the bows and kept a look-out ahead.

The cork jackets, if of no other use, helped to warm us a bit, as also did the coat, and thankful for the comfort, however small, we settled down to see the end of our adventure and hope for the best.

Settled down, did I say? How could any one settle down in an open boat on a sea like that, with every wave breaking over our heads and half drowning us, and each moment finding the boat standing nearly perpendicular either on its stem or its stern? How the rowers kept their seats and, still more, held on to their oars and pulled through the waves, I can still scarcely imagine. But for the friendly ring on to which Jack and I held like grim death, I am certain we should have been pitched out of the boat at her first lurch.

The “Dreadnought” ploughed on. Not a word was spoken save an occasional shout between the coxswain and our friend in the bows as to our course. I could see by the receding lights of Kingstairs, which came into sight every time we mounted to the top of a wave, that we were not taking a straight course out, but bearing north, right in the teeth of the wind; and I knew enough of boats, I remember, to wonder with a shudder what would happen if we should chance to get broadside on to one of these waves. Presently the man by us shouted—“You’re right now. Bill!”

The coxswain gave some word of command, and we seemed to come suddenly into less broken water. The men shipped their oars, and springing to their feet, as if by one motion, hoisted a mast and unfurled a triangular sail.

For a moment the flapping of the canvas half deafened us. Then suddenly it steadied, and next minute the boat heeled over, gunwale down on the water, and began to hiss through the waves at a tremendous speed.

“Pass them younkers down here!” shouted Bill, when this manoeuvre had been executed.

Jack and I were accordingly sent crawling down to the stern under the benches, and presented ourselves in a pitiable condition before the coxswain.

He was not a man of many words at the best of times, and just now, when everything depended on the steering, he had not one to waste.

“Stow ’em away, Ben,” he said, not looking at us, but keeping his eyes straight ahead.

Ben, another of our acquaintance, dragged us up beside him on the weather bulwarks, and here we had to stand, holding on to a rail, while the boat, with her sail lying almost on the water, rushed through the waves.

We were no longer among the breaking surf through which we had had to straggle at starting, although the sea still rolled mountains high, and threatened to turn us over every moment as we sailed across it. But the gallant boat, thanks to the skilful eye and hand of the coxswain, kept her head up, and presently even we got used to the situation, and were able to do the same.

Where was the wreck? I summoned up courage to ask Ben, who, no longer having to row, was standing composedly against the bulwarks by our side.

“Not far now. Straight ahead.”

We strained our eyes eagerly forward. For a long time nothing was visible in the darkness, but presently a bright flash of light shot upward, followed almost immediately by a blaze on the surface of the water and a dull report.

“They’re firing again!” said Ben; “we’ll be up to them in a jiffey!”

“What are we to do?” asked Jack dismally.

“Hold on where you are,” said Ben; “and if we upset stay quiet in the water till you’re picked up.”

With which consoling piece of advice Jack and I subsided, and asked no more questions.

The sight of a column of lurid flame and smoke made us wonder for a moment whether the vessel in distress was not on fire as well as wrecked. But I recollected that the “Wolf King” had burned tar-barrels all night long as a signal of distress, and this we rightly concluded was what was taking place on board “our” wreck.

Ben’s “jiffey” seemed a good while coming to an end, and long before it did we passed once more into broken water, and the perils of the start were repeated, with the aggravation that we were now across the wind instead of being head on. Wave after wave burst over us, and time after time, as we hung suspended on the crest of some great billow, it seemed as if we never could right ourselves. But we did.

“Stand by!” cried the coxswain, when at last a great dim black outline appeared on our starboard.

Instantly the men were in their seats; oars were put out; the mast and sail came down, and the clank of the anchor being got ready for use fell on our ears from the bows.

The wreck was now right between us and the shore, we being some distance to the windward of it. My knowledge of the story of the wreck of the “Wolf King” gave me a pretty good notion of what was going on, and even in the midst of our peril I found myself whispering to Jack—

“They’re going to drop the anchor, you know, and blow down on to her—”

“Hope they’ve got rope enough,” said Jack. For in the case of the “Wolf King” it took three attempts to get within the right distance. The coxswain of the “Dreadnought” was evidently determined not to fall into his old error this time, and, with her head to the wind and the oars holding the water, he allowed her to drift to within about eighty yards of the wreck. Then he shouted—

“Pay away, there!” and instantly we heard the cable grinding over the gunwale.

Would it hold? Even to inexperienced boys like Jack and me the suspense was dreadful as the cable ran out, and the rowers kept the boat’s head carefully up.

The grinding ceased. There was a moment’s pause, then came a welcome “Ay, ay!” from the bows, and we knew it was all right.

It didn’t take the wind long to drive us back on our cable, stern foremost, on to the wreck, which now loomed out huge and ghostly on the wild water. As we drifted down under her stern we were conscious, amidst the smoke of the burning tar-barrels and the spray of the waves which broke over her, of a crowd of faces looking over her sides, and fancied we heard a faint cheer too. Our men still kept their oars out, and when, always holding on to our cable, we had drifted some twenty yards or so on to the lee side of the wreck, the order was given to pull alongside.

It was no easy task in the face of the wind; but the men who had taken the “Dreadnought” through the surf off Kingstairs jetty were not likely to fail now. A few powerful strokes brought us close under the lee of the wreck, ropes were thrown out fore and aft, and in a few minutes we lay tossing and kicking, but safely moored within a yard or two of the ill-starred vessel.

Half a dozen of our men were up her sides and on board in a moment, and we could hear the cheers with which they were greeted as they sprang on deck. No time was to be lost. The wreck was creaking in every timber, and each wave that burst over her, deluging us on the other side, threatened to break her in pieces. One mast already was broken short, and hung helplessly down, held only by her rigging to the deck. The other looked as though it might go any moment, and perhaps carry the wreck with it.

If she were to capsize now, what would become of us?

It seemed ages before our men reappeared.

One of them shouted down—

“There’s twenty. Germans.”

“Any women?”

“Two.”

“Look sharp with them.”

We could see a cloaked figure lifted on to the bulwarks of the wreck and held there. A wave had just passed. As the next came and lifted us up with a lurch towards her, some one cried “Jump!” and she obeyed wildly—almost too wildly, for she nearly overleaped us. Mercifully there were stout arms to catch her and place her in safety. The other woman followed; and then one after another the crew, until, with thankful hearts, we counted twenty on board.

Our work was done. No! There was a report like a crack of thunder over our heads, a shout, a shriek, as the mainmast of the wreck gave way with a crash, and swayed towards us.

“Jump!” shouted the coxswain to our men, who were waiting for the next wave to bring the boat to them. “Cut away for’ard, there!”

Another moment and the mast would be on us and overwhelm us! They jumped, although we were down in the trough of the wave, yards below them. At the same moment the rope in the stern was cut loose, and the boat swung round wildly, just in time to clear the mast as it fell with a terrific crash overboard. But our men? Four of them landed safely in our midst; but the others? Oh! how our hearts turned cold as we saw that two were missing, and knew that they mast be in that boiling, furious water! We sprang wildly to the side, in the mad hope of seeing them, or perhaps even reaching them a hand but a stern order from the coxswain sent us back to our places.

A minute of awful suspense followed. The oars were put up, and, still held by her stern cable, the boat was brought up again alongside. In a minute a shout from the prow proclaimed that one at least of the missing ones was discovered, and presently a dripping form clambered over the side of the boat close to us and coolly sat down to his oar, as if nothing had happened.

Another shout—this time not from the boat, but from the water. Our other man had been carried the wrong side of us by the wave, and could not reach us. But a rope dexterously pitched reached him where he floated, and we had the unspeakable joy of seeing him at last hauled safely on board, exhausted, but as unconcerned as if drowning were an ordinary occurrence with him.

How thankfully we saw the last cable which held us to the wreck cast loose, and found ourselves at length, with our twenty rescued souls on board, heading once more for Kingstairs! Little was said on that short voyage home. Sail and oar carried us rapidly through the storm. The waves that broke over us from behind were as nothing to those that had broken over us from in front. And as if in recognition of the gallant exploit of the tough old “Dreadnought,” the very surf off Kingstairs beach had moderated when we reached it.

As we sighted the jetty we could see lights moving and hear a distant shout, which was answered by a ringing cheer from our men, in which Jack and I and the eighteen Germans and the two women joined. What a cheer it was! At the jetty-head we could see a large crowd waiting to receive us, and as we passed a stentorian voice shouted, “Ahoy! Have you got them two boys on board?”

“Ay, ay!” cried the coxswain; “safe and sound—the rascals!”

Rascals, indeed! As we clambered up the ladder, scarcely believing that we touched terra firma once more, and found our poor old grandfather almost beside himself with joy and excitement at the top, we considered we deserved the title.

“Thank God you’re safe!” he cried, when at last he had us before a blazing fire and a hot breakfast in his dining-room. “Thank God, you rascals!”

We had done so long ago, and did it again and again, and thanked Him, not only for ourselves, but for the brave old “Dreadnought” too, so true to her name and the work she had done that night.

Before we went to bed Jack said, “Same to you, Tom.” I knew what he meant. I had wished him a “Merry Christmas” at five minutes past twelve that morning, and this was his answer six hours after. What a lot may happen in six hours!