Shortly after my first entry into her Majesty’s service on board the … , I was placed under the tutelage of on old quartermaster to learn the arts of knotting, splicing, platting, &c, then deemed of the first importance both to the tyro himself and the service at large.
This hard-featured, weather-beaten veteran of the ocean was of the true school whence Britain draws her choicest hearts of oak — the North Sea trade. With a thorough knowledge of his duty as a seaman, he had an abundant fund of credulity and superstition, which he brought out when favourable opportunities offered. His predilection for and faith in the marvellous, so far from being corrected by the experience of a long life of observation, had increased and strengthened with his years.
I have mentioned this old tar because I met with him again, some years after I had left the navy, under circumstances unusually dramatic. Urgent affairs drew me home from foreign service, and an old family friend, in command of one of the finest frigates in the Royal Navy, offered me a cast over the Atlantic. I accepted his kindly offer, and on ascending the decks of the frigate, the first man I encountered was the old quartermaster.
My friend Captain was a tall, sparetopmast looking man, rather brusque in his appearance, but most gentlemanlike in his manners, and a thorough seaman. He rather shunned than courted society, and his retiring habits obtained for him the character of being haughty; but those who were best acquainted with his merits declared him to be a very pleasant unassuming companion, with a mind richly stored and well cultivated.
The first lieutenant was a very promising young man, quick in perception, and possessing an eye that would ferret out a truant ashore when invisible to every one else. The second lieutenant was a harem-scarem blade, whose head was literally cracked by a severe cut he had received from a monster Malay pirate; indeed, but for the impenetrability of his skull, it must have been shattered to pieces — its thickness saved him. He was a rigid disciplinarian, at times a complete tartar, though of a generous nature. The other officers were rather commonplace characters — gentlemen and well-tutored seamen, but all within the average.
The land disappeared; the expanse of ocean, with its ever-rolling waves, surrounded us; the breeze was fresh and fair, cresting the billows with a feathery foam; and onward we sped, parting the waters hither and thither, and dashing along through the white and hissing spray, as if the majestic ship felt that she was throned upon her own dominions.
But there were some who looked doubtingly upon the swelling sails, for their light frames were unequal to bear the cold chill of the keen northern blast, and they sighed for the warm and sunny climes in which they had first drawn the breath of life.
To them England was the land of the stranger; and the heaven to which they hoped to have access, when called hence by the angel of death, was of a far different description to that of the British islander. He was returning after years of absence from his native home, which he had left at the bidding of high and chivalrous enterprise — the prospects of fame and fortune which had urged so many to abandon the delights of friendship and the sweets of love, to serve in that empire of the East, where life and death, luxury and privation, soft repose and severe duties are constantly moving hand in hand, holding mysterious brotherhood.
Away we went, bowling down the high latitudes with every sail set and an increasing breeze. It was in November. The whole afternoon the wind had been steadily strengthening. It was now blowing fresh, and some sail was taken in. The evening approached, when the second lieutenant observed to me, that if the wind increased at this rate we should soon be scudding under double reefed topsails.
From some pencil-marks on the ship’s chart, it appeared that we were in the neighbourhood of one of those vigia, or mysterious rocks, that are said to be situated in different parts of the ocean, but whose position and existence is uncertain, and their precise situation unmarked. They are assumed to be of volcanic origin, to be reefs just above or below the surface of the ocean, to appear or disappear, and leave no sign. These unknown dangers, if they exist, are far more appalling, even to the stoutest hearts, than all the real and visible horrors of death by flood and field.
Here was a fine opportunity for the display of the superstition and knowledge of the old quartermaster. He was the first to discover that we were in the neighbourhood of the mysterious rock; and he soon communicated the information to the crew, who quickly manifested their appreciation of the unknown danger by a subdued and serious tone of stealthy talk.
A strong anxiety was visible in their countenances, and plainly showed that they had a strong feeling among them of their awful position. This feeling, however, did not paralyse their energies; on the contrary, they moved to the performance of every duty, noiselessly indeed, but with a zeal and alacrity that almost anticipated the orders of their officers.
The old quartermaster, an especial favourite of the captain, ventured to address the latter on the quarter-deck, in the strong hope that a suggestion he wished to make would receive favour, and release the ship from the impending danger.
“It will be best to get as far to the north and eastward as we can, sir,” he said; “for then we shall have the breeze more southerly, and be well to wind’ard of some nasty reefs laid down about here.”
“We must hold on as we are, quartermaster; steer as you say, and we shall get into the vortex of the hurricane, which, I think is blowing great guns somewhere in the direction you indicate.”
The old salt retired discomfited. The evening was rapidly approaching, and the heaving, rising swell was becoming more and more agitated, as if lashing itself into fury to resist the strength of the coming gale. The breeze continued freshening. Gallantly did the noble craft climb the snow-white tops of the billows, and then slide gracefully down the glacis of waters into the valley below: it is true we occasionally shipped some wild seas, but that was owing to the excitement of Neptune, who was possibly jealous at seeing a bark more lovely than the fairest shell in his ocean-bed, breasting his foaming surge.
After dinner and grog, both of which ceremonies were interlarded with varied speculations on the existence of the mysterious reef we were said to be near, and which few believed in, I ascended to the deck to take one more look on the scene before turning in. The moon was but three or four days’ old. It was one of those nights when, setting early, she, at intervals, peeped out through dark black scud, that swiftly swept along, and told of the coming gale, which already whistled in hollow sounds through the trembling rigging, the immense strings of that mighty AEolian harp, a British first class frigate. As I listened the cry of “All’s well!” resounded through the ship.
One lone star of the first magnitude near the horizon twinkled like a beacon over the bosom of the troubled waters, when down came the gale curling up the waves and sweeping away their foam in sheets of misty whiteness, through which the sea-bird darted in exultation, uttering his wild and piercing cry. But the moon. Ah, the moon! Never shall I forget the heavy debt of gratitude I owe to her soft and cheering light, as her hope-inspiring face guided and nerved us through the danger that was to come! We were scudding before a strong sea, and whilst I watched the raging billows break and tear after us, nearly two hours passed away.
As I looked on, I fancied the style of sea changed every now and then; that there were, in fitful moments, unusually white waves ahead, and that the dark water assumed a thicker tinge. I spoke of it to the second lieutenant, who had just come up. He, however, probably from not having been long on deck, and the change in these appearances having taken place gradually, did not perceive at first what was so obvious to my eyes.
Upon this I went forward upon the forecastle, and called the attention of the boatswain to what I observed: he was instantly struck with the same appearances, and. went aft and pointed them out to the lieutenant, who seemed now suddenly to awake all at once from his apathy. Just as I was turning round, a snow-white wave that could not be mistaken, suddenly flashed upon my eyes, and in a moment the cry of “Breakers ahead!” flew through the ship.
In an instant every soul rushed on deck, and it was easy to see by their expressive features that all chance of deliverance was gone. All eyes were turned towards the captain, who had ascended from his state-room the moment the alarm was given. He rushed forward to peer into the darkness, and there he saw, at about two cables’ length distant, of a horse-shoe shape, a low, long line of reef, not only ahead of us, but on both sides, almost abeam.
The survey took but a second; and whilst he, coolly and unmoved, regarded awful and inevitable destruction to all on board, and saw not the faintest glimmer of hope for escape, the officers and men looked to their commander as to one with whose abilities they were long acquainted, and whose thorough seamanship and resources would be sure to extricate them, if human skill could do so.
For a moment the thought struck us all, that by putting her helm down and bringing her close to the wind, ‘we might work out of the semicircle of rock by which we were environed. But neither time nor space would allow of such a course. We were in the very middle of the danger — the foaming water on every side. But this was not all. The mysterious rock anchored in the midst of a vast ocean, bearing a name, too, that at such a moment struck dismay into all hearts — the very uncertain and unknown character of the peril, the fearful unknown grave,—all conspired to strike down the hardihood of the stoutest heart on board.
The brave ship flew towards the rock as if she had been invited there. The dark, frothy line of reef appeared in awful proximity, and each moment we expected to feel the keel grinding in sure destruction on its rugged surface. We rushed on, and in the heavy darkness no opening appeared. Just then an enormous sea, whose dark and ominous bulk was crowned with foam, that shone and glistened like the light which sometimes presages the mountain’s disruption, rolled in swift and menacing convolutions toward the ship, and breaking upon her stern with a terrific crash, lifted her high up upon its bosom.
Just then the moon — blessed moon! — unveiling herself from the scudding clouds, threw her light upon the scene. The quick eye of the captain in a moment saw an opening in the line of reef, though so far off, on our port bow, that it appeared doubtful whether we could fetch it. In a second the order went forth: “Down with the helm. Starboard. Hard a-starboard.”
The yards were hauled round, and she flew towards the wind, with the rebound of the dashing spray from the reef almost washing the ship. As she was thus luffing-up, a gigantic sea struck her abeam. For a moment the ship, yielding to the mighty pressure, lay almost broadside to the sea, stunned and writhing, as it were, beneath the blow. Our revived agony lasted but a few seconds: the vessel quickly recovered, shook herself, righted, and flew up to the wind. The opening in the reef now appeared well on our lee bow.
Every seaman was stationed to some special duty; steady hands were at the wheel; and away we flew under sail so wholly disproportioncd to the strength of the gale and the point on which we were sailing, that she was inclined at a fearful angle towards the lee. The waves were fierce and terrible in their assaults, running to an enormous height, and broken and boiling. When within two cables’ length of the channel, the old quartermaster, who was at my elbow, pointed out to me two pieces of floating wreck, to which some hapless wretch was still clinging with desperate grasp, whilst the wild sea-birds skimmed round his head, and uttered their tempest screams in his ears.
The cries for help were heard amid the bowlings of the gale — for the wise Creator has given to man, in his perilous distress, a voice that is easily distinguishable from all other sounds,— but no help could be afforded, and doubtless hundreds there had been hurled into one common grave. In making for the opening, we had diagonally neared the reef so fast, that the rebound from the surface of the rock meeting the rolling billows as they advanced, so completely enveloped us in its wreath of spray and dashing waters, that our main top sail was almost becalmed, and hung down the mast.
Again we mounted on the billows’ crest, and the distended sails seemed ready to burst from the bolt-ropes. Again we descended the deep abyss, and the men stood mute in breathless silence, watching the rising wave, almost abeam, which had it broke would have engulphed us there for ever. The conflict was awful I The advancing sea struggling with the recoil, threw up its monstrous head, and dashed and foamed in wild impetuosity. The crested billow curled its white top, and a shuddering instinct went from heart to heart: though all stood silent, yet every man was firm in purpose. The decisive moment had arrived. We had weathered the opening!
“Heave up the helm!”
“Square the after yards!”
The ship flew before the wind, and we entered a narrow channel, not half a cable’s length in width. The surging, raging sea completely enveloped us in a mass of ponderous spray and flying water, above our heads and around us; and the roll of the sea being now astern, we were alternately lifted up to a frightful height and sunk down till we expected to hear the ship’s bottom grate on the rocks.
There was scarce a breath of wind in these fearful chasms, yet we could see the feathery foam flying with amazing velocity over out mastheads as it drifted on the wings of the storm. Again we were lifted on the raging element, and received a fresh impulse from the gale, again we rushed down the descent, and the brilliant frigate, in her headlong course, often yawed and deviated so much from the track as nearly to bring her broadside to the sea. But she was promptly met by the helm, and when she caught the flying wind it had its full effect, and we were saved.
Several times were we in a threatening grave, which yawned to receive us, but the gallant ship of war held on her way, and passed through a passage between whole sheets of broken water that poured upon our decks — so narrow was the channel, and so impetuous were the breakers. As we passed the last margin of rock, and were under the lee of the reef, a wild British cheer burst from every breast. We were clear of the foaming mist and spray of the angry waters; the moon shining her last shine before dipping into the horizon, unfolded to us at one view the splendid panorama of a vast ocean swelled and tormented to a tempest.
Not a man left the deck that night; terrors, jests, thankfulness to Providence, speculations
upon the horrors of the Devil’s Horse-shoe were adopted in turn, according to the taste of individuals. No man present will forget the thrilling danger of that awful night. To the writer the frightful adventure clings to him with fearful remembrances,
The captain took some rough note of the position of the reef, which we watched in glad yet nervous suspense till it disappeared in the dark waters near the horizon. It appeared to stretch over a distance of about three miles in a northwest and south-westerly direction, with its concave side and wings facing the east. The line of this fearful reef was easily traceable as far as the eye could see by a margin of white foam.
The day dawned, and the gale bowed its might before the glories of the rising sun, as if in homage to its resplendent brightness; but the fatal reef had revelled in the darkness of the night, smiting its victims with destruction and dismay. Death rode upon the winged blast, and his prey was buried in the great charnel house of the deep. Our own escape from the horrors of the Devil’s Horse-shoe was doubtless unprecedented.