Monday, 17 October 2011
The Sole Survivor
I had thought that all of the fiction of Verrill was already posted, baring a few 'pulps' that may or may not have survived into the 21st century, but again Alan has found a new story and a new magazine for us.
The Sole Survivor
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Drawings by Will Crawford
The Youth's Companion; pg. 661 Oct 9, 1924; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle October 2011.
With every stitch of canvas set the whaling bark Alice Knowles surged steadily northward along the edge of the Gulf Stream. The wind was fair, the sea was calm, and every one of the thirty-six men who formed her company was in high spirits; for the bark was homeward bound and was a "full ship." Long months before she had set sail from New Bedford to scour the Atlantic for sperm whales, for the war had caused the price of oil and spermaceti to soar, and once again the long-idle whaleships were cruising far and wide. But now all the dreary months of toil, the thrilling chase and capture, the perils from wounded whales, the dangers from thrashing flukes and shearing jaws, the back-breaking cutting in and filthy boiling were over, and ahead lay home and ready cash. The Alice Knowles had had marvellous luck. Not a man had been lost, and every available inch of space was filled to overflowing with the precious oil and still more valuable spermaceti. Her cavernous hold, her steerage and her 'tween-decks were packed with the stout oak casks of oil; even her decks bore scores of casks lashed into place.
In order to make room for the thousands of filled casks the try-works had been thrown overboard and a large part of the stone ballast had been cast into the sea. It was a bit risky to do it, and the first mate, who was something of a pessimist and a croaker, had left the bark at Barbados declaring that he for one would not sail home in a ship without ballast. But the weather was pleasant; it was summer when fair winds and smooth seas could be expected, and the captain thought that his ship, once out of the West Indian waters and the hurricane belt, was safe even without ballast.
Cape Hatteras had been safely passed and New Bedford was but a few days ahead when the captain's son, who had taken the mate's place, emerging from the companionway, noticed a peculiar brassy haze that caused him instantly to summon his father. Captain Parker gave one quick glance and bawled rapid orders to shorten sail.
"Put her under reefed lower topsails, foresail and a rag of spanker," he ordered the second mate. "There's a blow coming."
The other smiled and hurried off to see that the skipper's orders were carried out; he could not resist speaking his mind to the third officer. "Old man must be getting nervous," he remarked. "Thinks there's a blow coming on and looking for trouble."
The third officer gazed round for a moment, sniffed the wind and spat over the rail. "Reckon he ain't far off neither," he replied. "That yeller haze is nasty-looking, and there's a weight to the swell that ain't got no business to be there with this wind. And seems to me this breeze smells dusty. Guess the old man knows what he's doing."
The colored Cape Verde islander, who was going aft to take the wheel, had overheard the conversation. With the free and easy ways of the whaleman he now spoke. "Me, I myself t'ink he come blow," he declared. "Me, I myself t'ink we get one what you call him hur'cane."
"Shut up, you," ordered the second mate. "Hurricane nothing. Where do you think you are, De Grasse? We ain't down in the tropics, and there ain't no hurricanes in these latitudes. Get aft there."
De Grasse, who was something of a favorite because of his excellence as a seaman and his invariable willingness to work, grinned and went on his way.
"What do you think of it?" asked young Parker as the Portuguese mulatto grasped the spokes.
"Me, I myself t'ink we get one hur'cane, see," replied De Grasse.
"H'm," muttered the captain, who was standing near. "Looks that way to me too, Quintin. Hope we don't; she'd make bad weather of it."
For the next forty-eight hours the captain's fears were more than justified. With a suddenness as alarming as it was unexpected the wind came screeching across the sea. The oily rollers were transformed as if by magic into tossing, tempestuous, foam-crested billows, and with a report like that of a gun the maintopsail was split and torn from the bolt ropes. Fortunately the first blast was from astern, and before the gale the bark went plunging and tearing through the seas. But not for long. Within a few hours the gale shifted, and only the quick action of the helmsman and the splendid seamanship of Captain Parker saved the vessel. From south, west, east and north it blew, and, reeling, rolling, buffeted about, the bark was driven here, there and everywhere at the mercy of the West Indian hurricane that had come raging up the coast.
Long hours before, the deck load of oil casks had been washed from their lashings into the sea. Rails had been swept away, boats stove at davits, and the decks, when visible between the deluges of water that swept them, seemed a wreck. Each great green comber broke over bulwarks or bows; everything movable had been carried away; the sails were mere ribbons. For nearly eight hours De Grasse and four others had been straining at the wheel, drenched, cold and numbed and saved from being washed overboard only by the lashings round their bodies. De Grasse, who had been longest at the helm, was almost exhausted, and the captain, noticing his haggard face, ordered him to go below and rest. Clinging to the rigging, watching his chances between seas, the mulatto crept forward across the wildly heaving decks and at last gained the forecastle scuttle and dodged within.
Below in the dark, ill-smelling quarters of the crew the water was knee deep; the men had been forced into their bunks, where they lay awaiting whatever call might be given—the call to duty, the order to abandon ship or the call of death. De Grasse waded towards his bunk and, placing a bare foot upon the edge of the bunk below, started to clamber in. As he did so he was hurled across the narrow chamber and brought up with a thud against the mast.
"She's gone over!" yelled a seaman, as the whalemen floundered in the water or struggled in the darkness—for the light had been extinguished—to extricate themselves from their bunks.
"I t'ink so myself, yes," shouted De Grasse who with a fellow Portuguese had grasped the mast, which was now horizontal. "Dis de end, mates. The ship, he capsize."
Clawing away towards the scuttle, De Grasse reached the stairs only to find them carried away and a torrent of water pouring through the jammed opening to the forecastle. Grasping his countryman's hand, he braced himself, heedless of the cries of the struggling men, and calmly prepared to meet his death. At that instant something swept across his face, and he clutched a rope end. With wild hope he called to his friend to follow and pulled himself hand over hand up the line.
It was the foresail halyard and luckily for the two men was fast to a belaying pin on the starboard rail. Pulling themselves through the narrow aperture, half drowned and with the inrushing water tearing the clothes from their bodies, the two by almost superhuman efforts gained the rail. Still holding to their life line, they slid down the great copper-sheathed bilge of the capsized ship until at last they stood on the broad keel, which as De Grasse says, "was as level as the road."
For an instant they stood there in the black chaos of the storm-lashed night peering at the huge onrushing billows, shouting to learn whether any others were near. As a faint hail came from farther aft the two worked their way along the keel to where the captain and his son were striving to push a whaleboat free of the tangled ropes and rigging. It was one of the spare boats that had been stowed upside down on its skids above the deckhouse and that fortunately had been washed free. Into it De Grasse and his companion clambered, and then by their united efforts the four worked the craft clear. Had it been a regular whaleboat, they might not have succeeded, for a thirty-foot whale-boat is a huge thing for four half-drowned men to handle in a raging tempest; but, as Fate would have it, the craft had been made over into a light giglike boat after having been stove by a whale.
Shouting and yelling to attract the attention of any others who might be swimming, the four paddled round the ship. So intent were they on saving others that they gave no heed to their own peril until a hoarse cry from young Parker warned them. But the warning came too late. A monstrous wave lifted the tiny craft high and with a sickening crash dropped it upon the massive keel. With a splintering of planks and timbers the boat smashed into matchwood, and De Grasse and his fellow islander found themselves struggling for life alone in the water. Whether the captain and his son were killed by the blow or destroyed by the jagged planks and timbers hurled thither and thither by the waves or drawn under and drowned no one will ever know. De Grasse himself was struck by a broken plank, and his left forearm was nearly severed, but at the time he was unconscious of the injury. All his energies and those of his comrade were bent on saving their lives.
Suddenly De Grasse's hand touched something solid—a remnant of the bow of the boat. Seizing the bit of wreckage, he drew his friend to him. So small was the fragment of a splintered wood that it would hardly support their weight, but by locking their legs and arms and clinging to it they managed to float with only their heads and shoulders above the sea. Thus throughout the long night the two men drifted, and when day dawned they still lived to look upon a sea as smooth as oil, for the hurricane, having wrought its fury and taken its toll of life, had gone hurtling on its way. The two were the only living things that broke the surface of the vast blue expanse. De Grasse's keen eyes spied three tiny bits of pork—the remnants of some ill-fated shipmate's meal—and he secured them. One tiny bit was all the food that passed the lips of the two men on that first day, and from dawn until night they remained locked in each other's arms, fearing to move lest their frail support should go to pieces. And to add to their fears and their peril huge sharks swam constantly round, gazing with unwinking, baleful eyes at the two men, opening their huge jaws and evidently half-minded to rush at them. Why they did not attack is a mystery.
As the sun sank and the thirst-mad, water-soaked, benumbed men saw darkness descend De Grasse's comrade lost all hope. "We're bound to die," he whispered through salt-cracked lips. "I shall leave the wreckage and die quickly rather than suffer torture another day."
As he spoke he moved as if to throw himself from the tiny fragment of the boat. But De Grasse restrained him. "No, we're alive together; if we die, we die together," he said. "Let us wait through the night and see where the sun rises."
"It will rise in the east," whispered the other.
"If so, then we are still sane," retorted De Grasse. "But if not, we will know we are delirious."
The illogical argument seemed to satisfy the other man, who was far less robust and strong than De Grasse, and he agreed. The men were now so water-soaked and numb that it was impossible for them to move, and De Grasse's hand, still holding the two remaining bits of pork, was so closely locked that he was forced to pry the fingers open with his teeth when on the following morning they ate their second bit of meat.
All through that second fearful day the two remained floating, suffering inconceivable agonies, and throughout the day De Grasse managed to inspire courage and hope in his comrade. The third night passed, and a third day dawned, and still the two lived. They had eaten the last morsel of pork and also a few venturesome crabs that had crawled upon their shoulders, but not a drop of water had passed their swollen lips.
When the fourth awful night was over and the men had agreed to end their tortures as soon as the sun rose De Grasse peered with bloodshot eyes round the rim of the sea in a last faint hope of sighting some passing ship. At first no flicker of sail, no smudge of smoke broke the horizon, and then as the two were borne upward on a long oily roller he could hardly believe his eyes, for, sharply defined on the western horizon, was a tiny speck of white gleaming in the early morning light, a sail!
Very faint and far away it was, and had it not been that the captain was anxiously searching the sea for possible German U-boats De Grasse and his companion would never have been seen. Even when the lookout shouted down that two men were floating on the sea the captain was suspicious.
Perhaps, he thought, it was a new ruse of the Germans, and for long he studied the specks of black before he decided to bear down on them.
To De Grasse and his comrade that was a time of fearful, indescribable suspense. But at last they saw that the vessel was approaching, and as it drew nearer they saw that it was a deeply laden four-masted schooner. Then their hearts sank. The schooner was passing them, sweeping by within a few miles. Of all their sufferings, being passed by a ship almost within reach when they were helpless to wave a hand was the worst. Then to their unspeakable joy the schooner tacked and came racing towards them. They were seen, they were saved!
Close to the two the schooner came into the wind, with her great sails slapping and her sheet blocks rattling and clashing, and through a megaphone the captain hailed them:
"Can you swim to the ship? I have only one boat, and it'll take an hour to lower her.
De Grasse, unable to speak above a whisper, shook his head. The next instant a man balanced himself on the schooner's rail and, plunging into the sea, came swimming to them with powerful strokes. He was the steward and had volunteered to perform the deed—a deed really heroic, with sharks fins everywhere in sight!
A few moments later the almost lifeless men were on the schooner's decks. So stiff were they that they were as immobile as if carved from stone, and like inanimate objects they were carried to the captain's cabin and there tenderly cared for.
For eight days they were delirious, but at last reason returned, and De Grasse, who alone could speak English, related his story. The schooner was bound from New York to Brazil with coal, and by the time they reached port the two were on the rapid road to recovery.
A most kindly, humane man was that schooner's skipper, a man such as you seldom find, for not only did he present each of the two men with a hundred and sixty dollars, to enable them to buy clothing and necessaries, but he insisted that they return to New York as his guests and passengers, and that neither should be allowed to work. But at that they demurred. To the whaleman idleness is disgraceful, and rather than be idlers while other men were working they declared they would remain in Brazil. At last as a compromise the captain agreed to let them serve as quartermasters, and with a nauseating dread of another sea voyage, as De Grasse admits, they once more sailed northward.
By a strange whim of fate, after having endured so much, De Grasse's companion died of influenza in his home soon after he reached New Bedford. But De Grasse regained perfect health and strength, though never again will he go to sea. The mere sight of the sea sickens him; to set foot upon the deck of a ship, even if it is moored to a dock fills him with terror. He earns a safe and comfortable livelihood in the humble occupation of bootblack. Clad in neat blue dungaree, the sole survivor of the Alice Knowles plies his trade and as he wields his brushes entertains his customers with his remarkable tale—that is, if they happen to ask for the story.
"Mebbe de bootblack, he way down," he says with a grin, "but me, I myself know one t'ing—he don't no can go down no deeper."
For more stories by Verrill see here.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.