A Ship on Fire at Sea by Jean Ingelow

“What is it?” I exclaimed; “what can it be?”

She pointed with her finger, and as the yacht swung round she said, “Look there, ma’am, look!”

As she spoke two strange objects came into my view. One was a great pale moon, sickly and white, hanging and seeming to brood over the horizon; the other, which looked about the same size, was red and seemed to lie close at her side. It was not round, but looked blotted and blurred in the mist. Could it be a meteor? a lighthouse? Whatever it was, it was the cause of the commotion which had been so intense, and which now seemed to be already subsiding. I had heard the men called up not three minutes before, and now two boats were already lowered, and Tom was in command of the foremost. I heard his voice coming from the water, and no one prevented me now from rushing to the side to look over, turning my back on the moon and her lurid companion. Though the night was not dark I could not discern the boats; and after straining my eyes into the mist, I observed that it was rapidly melting away, and rolling on as well as rolling together, so that spaces of water here and there were clear, and moonlight glittered on them. The binnacle light glared in my uncle’s face as he stooped over it. I heard Brand whisper to his wife that he had taken charge of the yacht, and I did not dare to speak to him, though what it might be that alarmed them I could not tell.

It was as it seemed but a moment that I had stared out into the mist, looking for the boats with still sleepy eyes; then, as the sailors that were left tramped back to the fore part of the yacht, I turned again. The mist had shaken itself and rolled on before a light air that was coming. I saw two great pathways now lying along the waters; one was silver white, the pathway of the wan moon, the other was blood-red and angry, and a burning vessel lay at her head.

Oh, that sight! can I ever forget it? The fire was spurting from every crevice of the black hull, her great main-mast was gone, the mizzen-mast lay with several great white sails surging about in the water, and she was dragging it along with her. The foremast only stood, and its rigging and sails had not yet caught. A dead silence had succeeded now to the commotion in the vessel; men were standing stock-still, perhaps waiting for their orders, and my uncle’s were the only eyes that were not strained to follow the leaping and dazzling spires.

Every moment we approached. Now the first waft of the smoke came in our faces, now we could hear the crackling and rending, the creak and shiver, and the peculiar roaring noise made by a mastering fire.

“A full-rigged ship,” I heard Brand whisper to his wife. “Eleven hundred tons at the least.”

“Merciful heaven,” she whispered in reply. “I hope she won’t blow up. Anyhow, I thank the Lord we’ve got Master in command himself.”

I never saw anything like the horrible beauty of that red light. It added tenfold to the terror of the scene to see her coming on so majestically, dragging with her broken spars and great yards and sprawling sails. She looked like some splendid live creature in distress, and rocked now a good deal in the water, for every moment the wind seemed to rise, bringing up a long swell with it.

The moon went down, and in a few minutes the majestic ship supplied all the light to the dark sky and black water. I saw the two little dark boats nearing her; knew that my brother was in the foremost, and shook with fear, and cried to God to take care of him; but while I and all gazed in awful silence on the sailing ship, the flames, bursting through the deck in a new place, climbed up the fore-rigging, and in one single leap, as if they had been living things, they were licking the sails off the ropes, and, shooting higher than her topsails, they spread themselves out like quivering fans. I saw every sail that was left in an instant bathed in flames; a second burst came raging up from below, blackening and shrivelling everything before it; then I saw the weltering fire run down again, and still the wreck, plunging her bows in the water, came rocking on and on.

“How near does our old man mean to go?” whispered Mrs. Brand; and almost at that instant I observed that he had given some order to the man at the helm, and I could distinctly hear a murmur of satisfaction; then almost directly a cry of horror rose—we were very near her, and while the water hissed with strange distinctness, and steamed in her wake, her blazing foremast fell over the side, plunging with a tremendous crash into the sea, sending up dangerous showers of sparks and burning bits of sail-cloth, and covering our decks with falling tinder.

The black water took in and quenched all that blazing top-hamper, and still the awful hissing was audible, till suddenly, as we seemed to be sheering off from her, there was a thunderous roll that sounded like the breaking of her mighty heart, and still glorious in beauty she plunged head foremost, and went down blazing into the desolate sea.

In one instant that raging glow and all the fierce illumination of the fire were gone; darkness had settled on the face of the deep. I saw a few lighted spars floating about, that was all, and I smelt the fire and felt the hot smoke rushing past my face as the only evidence that this was not a dream. Oh! the misery of the next half-hour! The boats, when that ill-fated ship went down, must, I knew, have been very near her. Had they been sucked in? Had they been overturned, or had they been so blessed as to be saved, and to save some of the wretched passengers and crew? Of all persons in the yacht then, perhaps I suffered most. I was the most ignorant; I had no one to speak to; for Mrs. Brand, perhaps lest I should question her, had retreated, and I could not think of addressing my uncle; he had plenty on his mind and on his hands. I could only observe the activity of others by the light of the many lanterns which were now hung out from various parts of the rigging, and hope that we should soon find the boats, though every light hung up seemed to increase the darkness, and make us more unable to see anything beyond the bounds of the yacht.

At last, Brand standing near me again, I said, “O Brand! cannot we go nearer the place where that ship sunk? Perhaps some poor creatures may be floating on the waters still.”

“Ma’am,” he replied, “we are sailing now as nigh as may be over the very spot where she went down; but you have no call to be frightened; everything has been done that can be done. We hove to directly we sighted her.”

“Yes,” I said; “but what good could that do?”

“Why, ma’am,” he replied, “we could not have lowered the boats without that; and then, you know, when they were off we filled, and stood in as nigh as we dared.”

“Then where are the boats?” I inquired.

“God knows, ma’am.”

“And what are these lights for? Every one you put up makes it harder to see anything. How are we to find them?”

“We have no call to find them,” he replied; “we want them to find us. Most likely there are other boats about, besides our own, boats from the ship—we want to make ourselves as conspicuous as we can. At least, I reckon that is why Master has ordered all these lights out.”

“And why cannot we pick up any of the poor creatures that may have been on board? Surely we could have heard their cries, and could now—we are not half a quarter of a mile from her.”

“No, ma’am; nothing like that distance—not half that distance; that’s why our people think she may have been deserted.”

The steward passed on, and I covered my face with my hands and moaned in the misery of my heart. Oh! my only brother! had I really lost him so?

I listened. The silence about me was so intense that I knew there was much anxiety felt; every face as it passed under a lantern had a restless and yet awestruck look; my uncle’s, when he bent over the illuminated compass, did not at all reassure me.

But such a misfortune as I had dreaded, such a terrible blow, we were to be spared. I got up again, gazed out over the dark water and longed for the dawn. Something better than dawn was destined to meet my eyes; between us and a spar that still glowed, two dark objects stood suddenly—a boat and black figures and moving oars, another behind her.

I shall never forget with what a thrill of joy I heard our people cheer. In ten minutes we could hear the stroke of their oars, and directly after Tom was on deck and his crew with him.

“God bless you!” said my uncle to Tom; “anybody saved?”

“One,” said Tom; “only one, sir.”