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The Lighthouse

The following is from The Lighthouse by R. M. Ballantyne:

Chapter Twenty Nine--The Wreck

Meantime the French privateer sped onward to her doom.

The force with which the French commander fell when Ruby cast him off, had stunned him so severely that it was a considerable time before he recovered. The rest of the crew were therefore in absolute ignorance of how to steer.

In this dilemma they lay-to for a short time, after getting away to a sufficient distance from the dangerous rock, and consulted what was to be done. Some advised one course, and some another, but it was finally suggested that one of the English prisoners should be brought up and commanded to steer out to sea.

This advice was acted on, and the sailor who was brought up chanced to be one who had a partial knowledge of the surrounding coasts. One of the Frenchmen who could speak a few words of English, did his best to convey his wishes to the sailor, and wound up by producing a pistol, which he cocked significantly.

"All right," said the sailor, "I knows the coast, and can run ye straight out to sea. That's the Bell Rock Light on the weather-bow, I s'pose."

"Oui, dat is de Bell Roke."

"Wery good; our course is due nor'west."

So saying, the man took the wheel and laid the ship's course accordingly.

Now, he knew quite well that this course would carry the vessel towards the harbour of Arbroath, into which he resolved to run at all hazards, trusting to the harbour-lights to guide him when he should draw near. He knew that he ran the strongest possible risk of getting himself shot when the Frenchmen should find out his faithlessness, but he hoped to prevail on them to believe the harbour-lights were only another lighthouse, which they should have to pass on their way out to sea, and then it would be too late to put the vessel about and attempt to escape.

But all his calculations were useless, as it turned out, for in half an hour the men at the bow shouted that there were breakers ahead, and before the helm could be put down, they struck with such force that the topmasts went overboard at once, and the sails, bursting their sheets and tackling, were blown to ribbons.

Just then a gleam of moonlight struggled through the wrack of clouds, and revealed the dark cliffs of the Forfar coast, towering high above them. The vessel had struck on the rocks at the entrance to one of those rugged bays with which that coast is everywhere indented.

At the first glance, the steersman knew that the doom of all on board was fixed, for the bay was one of those which are surrounded by almost perpendicular cliffs; and although, during calm weather, there was a small space between the cliffs and the sea, which might be termed a beach, yet during a storm the waves lashed with terrific fury against the rocks, so that no human being might land there.

It chanced at the time that Captain Ogilvy, who took great delight in visiting the cliffs in stormy weather, had gone out there for a midnight walk with a young friend, and when the privateer struck, he was standing on the top of the cliffs.

He knew at once that the fate of the unfortunate people on board was almost certain, but, with his wonted energy, he did his best to prevent the catastrophe.

"Run, lad, and fetch men, and ropes, and ladders. Alarm the whole town, and use your legs well. Lives depend on your speed," said the captain, in great excitement.

The lad required no second bidding. He turned and fled like a greyhound.

The lieges of Arbroath were not slow to answer the summons. There were neither lifeboats nor mortar-apparatus in those days, but there were the same willing hearts and stout arms then as now, and in a marvellously short space of time, hundreds of the able-bodied men of the town, gentle and semple, were assembled on these wild cliffs, with torches, rope, etcetera; in short, with all the appliances for saving life that the philanthropy of the times had invented or discovered.

But, alas! these appliances were of no avail. The vessel went to pieces on the outer point of rocks, and part of the wreck, with the crew clinging to it, drifted into the bay.

The horrified people on the cliffs looked down into that dreadful abyss of churning water and foam, into which no one could descend. Ropes were thrown again and again, but without avail. Either it was too dark to see, or the wrecked men were paralysed. An occasional shriek was heard above the roar of the tempest, as, one after another, the exhausted men fell into the water, or were wrenched from their hold of the piece of wreck.

At last one man succeeded in catching hold of a rope, and was carefully hauled up to the top of the cliff.

It was found that this was one of the English sailors. He had taken the precaution to tie the rope under his arms, poor fellow, having no strength left to hold on to it; but he was so badly bruised as to be in a dying state when laid on the grass.

"Keep back and give him air," said Captain Ogilvy, who had taken a prominent part in the futile efforts to save the crew, and who now kneeled at the sailor's side, and moistened his lips with a little brandy.

The poor man gave a confused and rambling account of the circumstances of the wreck, but it was sufficiently intelligible to make the captain acquainted with the leading particulars.

"Were there many of your comrades aboard?" he enquired. The dying man looked up with a vacant expression. It was evident that he did not quite understand the question, but he began again to mutter in a partly incoherent manner.

"They're all gone," said he, "every man of 'em but me! All tied together in the hold. They cast us loose, though, after she struck. All gone! all gone!"

After a moment he seemed to try to recollect something.

"No," said he, "we weren't all together. They took Ruby on deck, and I never saw him again. I wonder what they did--"

Here he paused.

"Who, did you say?" enquired the captain with deep anxiety.

"Ruby--Ruby Brand," replied the man.

"What became of him, said you?"

"Don't know."

"Was he drowned?"

"Don't know," repeated the man.

The captain could get no other answer from him, so he was compelled to rest content, for the poor man appeared to be sinking.

A sort of couch had been prepared for him, on which he was carried into the town, but before he reached it he was dead. Nothing more could be done that night, but next day, when the tide was out, men were lowered down the precipitous sides of the fatal bay, and the bodies of the unfortunate seamen were sent up to the top of the cliffs by means of ropes. These ropes cut deep grooves in the turf, as the bodies were hauled up one by one and laid upon the grass, after which they were conveyed to the town, and decently interred.

The spot where this melancholy wreck occurred is now pointed out to the visitor as "The Seamen's Grave", and the young folk of the town have, from the time of the wreck, annually recut the grooves in the turf, above referred to, in commemoration of the event, so that these grooves may be seen there at the present day.

It may easily be imagined that poor Captain Ogilvy returned to Arbroath that night with dark forebodings in his breast.

He could not, however, imagine how Ruby came to be among the men on board of the French prize; and tried to comfort himself with the thought that the dying sailor had perhaps been a comrade of Ruby's at some time or other, and was, in his wandering state of mind, mixing him up with the recent wreck.

As, however, he could come to no certain conclusion on this point, he resolved not to tell what he had heard either to his sister or Minnie, but to confine his anxieties, at least for the present, to his own breast.

Chapter Thirty--Old Friends in New Circumstances


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