Chapter XXVI. Out on the Ocean.

We must now go back nearly two years. Five men were floating about in a boat in the Southern ocean. They looked gaunt and famished. For a week they had lived on short allowance, and now for two days they had been entirely without food. There was in their faces that look, well-nigh hopeless, which their wretched situation naturally produced. For one day, also, they had been without water, and the torments of thirst were worse than the cravings of hunger. These men were Captain Rushton and four sailors of the ship Norman, whose burning has already been described.

One of the sailors, Bunsby, was better educated and more intelligent than the rest, and the captain spoke to him as a friend and an equal, for all the distinctions of rank were broken down by the immediate prospect of a terrible death.

"How is all this going to end, Bunsby?" said the captain, in a low voice, turning from a vain search for some sail; in sight, and addressing his subordinate.

"I am afraid there is only one way," answered Bunsby. "There is not much prospect of our meeting a ship."

"And, if we do, it is doubtful if we can attract their attention."

"I should like the chance to try."

"I never knew before how much worse thirst is than hunger."

"Do you know, captain, if this lasts much longer, I shall be tempted to swallow some of this sea water."

"It will only make matters worse."

"I know it, but, at least, it will moisten my throat."

The other sailors sat stupid and silent, apparently incapable of motion,

"I wish I had a plug of tobacco," said one, at last.

"If there were any use in wishing, I'd wish myself on shore," said the second.

"We'll never see land again," said the third, gloomily. "We're bound for Davy Jones' locker."

"I'd like to see my old mother before I go down," said the first.

"I've got a mother, too," said the third. "If I could only have a drop of the warm tea such as she used to make! She's sitting down to dinner now, most likely, little thinking that her Jack is dying of hunger out here."

There was a pause, and the captain spoke again.

"I wish I knew whether that bottle will ever reach shore. When was it we launched it?"

"Four days since."

"I've got something here I wish I could get to my wife." He drew from his pocketbook a small, folded paper.

"What is that, captain?" asked Bunsby.

"It is my wife's fortune."

"How is that, captain?"

"That paper is good for five thousand dollars."

"Five thousand dollars wouldn't do us much good here. It wouldn't buy a pound of bread, or a pint of water."

"No; but it would--I hope it will--save my wife and son from suffering. Just before I sailed on this voyage I took five thousand dollars--nearly all my savings--to a man in our village to keep till I returned, or, if I did not return, to keep in trust for my wife and child. This is the paper he gave me in acknowledgment."

"Is he a man you can trust, captain?"

"I think so. It is the superintendent of the factory in our village--a man rich, or, at any rate, well-to-do. He has a good reputation for integrity."

"Your wife knew you had left the money in his hands?"

"No; I meant it as a surprise to her."

"It is a pity you did not leave that paper in her hands."

"What do you mean, Bunsby?" asked the captain, nervously. "You don't think this man will betray his trust?"

"I can't say, captain, for I don't know the man; but I don't like to trust any man too far."

Captain Rushton was silent for a moment. There was a look of trouble on his face.

"You make me feel anxious, Bunsby. It is hard enough to feel that I shall probably never again see my wife and child--on earth, I mean--but to think that they may possibly suffer want makes it more bitter."

"The man may be honest, captain: Don't trouble yourself too much."

"I see that I made a mistake. I should have left this paper with my wife. Davis can keep this money, and no one will be the wiser. It is a terrible temptation."

"Particularly if the man is pressed for money."

"I don't think that. He is considered a rich man. He ought to be one, and my money would be only a trifle to him."

"Let us hope it is so, captain," said Bunsby, who felt that further discussion would do no good, and only embitter the last moments of his commander. But anxiety did not so readily leave the captain. Added to the pangs of hunger and the cravings of thirst was the haunting fear that by his imprudence his wife and child would suffer.

"Do you think it would do any good, Bunsby," he said, after a pause, "to put this receipt in a bottle, as I did the letter?"

"No, captain, it is too great a risk. There is not more than one chance in a hundred of its reaching its destination. Besides, suppose you should be picked up, and go home without the receipt; he might refuse to pay you."

"He would do so at the peril of his life, then," said the captain, fiercely. "Do you think, if I were alive, I would let any man rob me of the savings of my life?"

"Other men have done so."

"It would not be safe to try it on me, Bunsby."

"Well, captain?"

"It is possible that I may perish, but you may be saved."

"Not much chance of it."

"Yet it is possible. Now, if that happens, I have a favor to ask of you."

"Name it, captain."

"I want you, if I die first, to take this paper, and guard it carefully; and, if you live to get back, to take it to Millville, and see that justice is done to my wife and child."

"I promise that, captain; but I think we shall die together."

Twenty-four hours passed. The little boat still rocked hither and thither on the ocean billows. The five faces looked more haggard, and there was a wild, eager look upon them, as they scanned the horizon, hoping to see a ship. Their lips and throats were dry and parched.

"I can't stand it no longer," said one--it was the sailor I have called Jack--"I shall drink some of the sea water."

"Don't do it, Jack," said Bunsby. "You'll suffer more than ever."

"I can't," said Jack, desperately; and, scooping up some water in the hollow of his hand, he drank it eagerly. Again and again he drank with feverish eagerness.

"How is it?" said the second sailor,

"I feel better," said Jack; "my throat so dry."

"Then I'll take some, too."

The other two sailors, unheeding the remonstrances of Bunsby and the captain, followed the example of Jack. They felt relief for the moment, but soon their torments became unendurable. With parched throats, gasping for breath, they lay back in agony. Suffering themselves, Captain Rushton and Bunsby regarded with pity the greater sufferings of their wretched companions.

"This is horrible," said the captain.

"Yes," said Bunsby, sadly. "It can't last much longer now."

His words were truer than he thought. Unable to endure his suffering, the sailor named Jack suddenly staggered to his feet.

"I can't stand it any longer," he said, wildly; "good-by, boys," and before his companions well knew what he intended to do, he had leaped over the side of the boat, and sunk in the ocean waves.

There was a thrilling silence, as the waters closed over his body.

Then the second sailor also rose to his feet.

"I'm going after Jack," he said, and he, too, plunged into the waves.

The captain rose as if to hinder him, but Bunsby placed his hand upon his arm.

"It's just as well, captain. We must all come to that, and the sooner, the more suffering is saved."

"That's so," said the other sailor, tormented like the other two by thirst, aggravated by his draughts of seawater. "Good-by, Bunsby! Good-by, captain! I'm going!"

He, too, plunged into the sea, and Bunsby and the captain were left alone.

"You won't desert me, Bunsby?" said the captain.

"No, captain. I haven't swallowed seawater like those poor fellows. I can stand it better."

"There is no hope of life," said the captain, quietly; "but I don't like to go unbidden into my Maker's presence."

"Nor I. I'll stand by you, captain"

"This is a fearful thing, Bunsby. If it would only rain."

"That would be some relief."

As if in answer to his wish, the drops began to fall--slowly at first, then more copiously, till at last their clothing was saturated, and the boat partly filled with water. Eagerly they squeezed out the welcome dregs from their clothing, and felt a blessed relief. They filled two bottles they had remaining with the precious fluid.

"If those poor fellows had only waited," said the captain.

"They are out of suffering now," said Bunsby.

The relief was only temporary, and they felt it to be so. They were without food, and the two bottles of water would not last them long. Still, there was a slight return of hope, which survives under the most discouraging circumstances.