Adrift in a Boat, Chapter 01



Few parts of the shores of old England present more beautiful and romantic scenery than is to be found on the coast of Cornwall. There are deep bays, and bold headlands, and wild rocks, and lofty cliffs, and wooded heights, and bare downs, and yellow sands full of the most minute and delicate shells, so delicate that it is surprising how they could have existed in the rough and boisterous ocean, and been cast up whole from the depths below. In one of those beautiful bays, many years ago, a large party was collected, on a bright afternoon in the early part of autumn. Among the party were persons of all ages, but most of them were young, and all were apparently very busy. Some were engaged in tending a fire over which a pot was boiling, and others were collecting drift-wood thrown up close under the cliff, with which to feed it. Two or three young ladies, under the superintendence of a venerable matron, were spreading a tablecloth, though the sand looked so smooth and clear that it did not seem as if the most dainty of people could have required one. Several were very eager in unpacking sundry hampers and baskets, and in carrying the dishes and plates, and bottles of wine, and the numerous other articles which they contained, to the tablecloth. Two young ladies had volunteered to go with a couple of pails to fetch water from a spring which gushed out of the cliff, cool and fresh, at some distance off, and two young gentlemen had offered to go and, assist them, which was very kind in the young gentlemen, as they certainly before had not thought of troubling themselves about the matter. To be sure the young ladies were very pretty and very agreeable, and it is possible that their companions might not have considered the trouble over-excessive. The youngest members of the party were as busy as the rest, close down to the water collecting the beautiful shells which have been mentioned. The shells were far too small to be picked up singly, and they therefore came provided with sheets of thick letter-paper, into which they swept them from off the sand where they had been left by the previous high tide. A loud shout from a hilarious old gentleman, who had constituted himself director of the entertainment, and who claimed consequently the right of making more noise than anybody else, or indeed than all the rest put together, now summoned them up to the tablecloth, to which at the sound, with no lingering steps, they came, exhibiting their treasures on their arrival to their older friends. The party forthwith began to seat themselves round the ample tablecloth, but they took up a good deal more room than had it been spread on a table. The variety of attitudes they assumed was amusing. The more elderly ladies sat very upright, with their plates on their laps; the younger ones who had gone for the water, and their friends of the same age, managed to assume more graceful attitudes; while the young men who had been to school and college, and had read how the Romans took their meals, stretched themselves out at the feet of the former, leaning on their elbows, and occasionally, when not actually engaged in conveying ham and chicken or pie to their mouths, giving glances at the bright and laughing eyes above them. The hilarious old gentleman tried kneeling, that he might carve a round of beef placed before him, but soon found that attitude anything but pleasant to his feelings; then he sat with one side to the cloth, then with the other. At last he scraped a trench in the sand sufficient to admit his outstretched legs, and, placing the beef before him, carved vigorously away till all claimants were supplied. The younger boys and girls, tucking their legs under them like Turks, speedily bestowed their undivided attention to the task of stowing away the good things spread out before their eyes.

"This is jolly, don't you think so, Mary?" exclaimed a fine boy of about fourteen to a pretty little girl who sat next to him; "there is only one thing wanting to make it perfect—Harry Merryweather ought to be here. He wrote word that he expected to be with us this morning, and I told him where the picnic was to take place, that should he be too late to get home, he might come here direct. Oh, he is such a capital fellow, and now that he is in the navy, and has actually been in a battle, he will have so much to tell us about."

Mary Rymer fully agreed with David Moreton, for Harry was a favourite with every one who knew him. Although Harry Merryweather had not arrived for the picnic, his friends appeared to be enjoying themselves very much, judging by the smiles and giggling and the chattering, and the occasional shouts of laughter which arose when old Mr Tom Sowton, and florid, fat Mr Billy Burnaby, uttered some of their jokes. Not that they were the only people who uttered good things, but they were professed jokers, and seemed to consider it their duty to make people merry; Mr Burnaby, indeed, if he could not make people laugh at what he said, made them laugh at what he did.

The party had come from various quarters in the neighbourhood, some from a distance inland, in carriages, and two or three families who lived on or near the coast, in two pretty yachts, which lay at anchor in the bay. One of them belonged to Mr Moreton, David's father, and the other to Captain Rymer, with whose family David was as much at home as with his own; and he and his sisters looked upon Mary, Captain Rymer's daughter, quite in the light of a sister. She was, indeed, a very charming little girl, well worthy of their affections. The first course of the picnic was concluded—that is to say, the chickens, and hams, and pies, and cold beef, and tongues, and a few other substantials were pushed back; the potatoes, which had been boiled in salt water, having been pronounced excellent. The tarts and cakes and fruit, peaches and figs and grapes, were brought to the front, and underwent the admiration they deserved, when suddenly David Moreton, looking up, raised a loud shout, and, jumping to his feet, clapped his hands and waved them vehemently. The shout was echoed in different keys by many others, and all turning their eyes in the direction David was pointing, they saw, on the top of the cliff a boy, on whose jacket and cap the glitter of a little gold lace and his snow-white trousers proclaimed him to be that hero in embryo, a midshipman. Having looked about him for a few seconds, he began to descend the cliff at so seemingly breakneck a speed, that several of the ladies shrieked out to him to take care, and Mary Rymer turned somewhat pale and stood looking anxiously as the young sailor dropped from one point of rock to another, or slid down a steep incline, or swung himself by the branches of shrubs or tufts of grass to the ledge below him, and ran along it as if it had been a broad highway, though a false step might have proved his destruction. Once he stopped. To go back was impossible, and to attempt to descend seemed almost certain destruction. Mr Sowton and Billy Burnaby jumped up, almost dragging away the tablecloth, upsetting tarts, and fruit-dishes, and bottles of wine, and all the other things, when Harry gave a tremendous spring to a ledge which his sharp eye had detected, and was in a few seconds afterwards standing safe on the sands and shaking hands warmly with everybody present. When he came to Mr Tom Sowton and Billy Burnaby, it might have been supposed from the way in which they wrung each other's hands, that there was a wager pending as to which should first twist off his friend's fist.

"Fortunately, we haven't eaten up all the good things, Harry," exclaimed Mr Sowton, dragging the midshipman, nothing loth, to the well-spread cloth. "Now open your mouth, and Burnaby and I will try and feed you. What will you have first,—beef, or pudding, or a peach, or a tongue, or a cold chicken? Oh dear me, there is but a drumstick and a merrythought left. Which will you have? No! I see I am wrong again, the drumstick is in the dish, and the merrythought is in my head, with numerous companions. Does anybody wish to know what they are? I'll fill my naval friend's plate first with cold beef and mustard, and then inform you." Thus the old gentleman ran on. He kept his word with regard to Harry, who very soon by diligent application caught up the rest of the party, and was able to commence on the tarts and peaches. All the gentlemen asked him to take wine, and the ladies were eager to hear his adventures. He briefly recounted them in an animated manner, for as he had been little more than a year at sea, everything he had seen and done had the freshness of novelty. He belonged to the gallant Arethusa frigate, which had put into Plymouth from a successful cruise in the Bay of Biscay, where, after capturing several minor prizes of considerable value, she had taken an enemy's frigate of equal force. He had consequently got leave for a few days to come home and see his widowed mother. He was her only son; her husband had been an officer in the army, and was killed in battle; her daughter Jane could never be induced to leave her, but they had promised to send Harry on to the picnic after he had indulged them with a little of his society. He had come by a chance conveyance, knowing that he should be able to return with some of his friends.

In those days it was the custom to sit long after dinner, and even at a picnic people consumed a considerable amount of time round the cloth. At length, however, they got up and broke into separate parties. Some went in one direction, some in another. The elders were more inclined to sit still, or went only a little way up the cliff; but several of the grown-up young ladies and gentlemen climbed up by somewhat steep paths to the downs above. The younger ones, the tide being low, very naturally preferred scrambling out on the rocks in search of sea-anemones, and other marine curiosities. There were numerous projecting rocks forming small bays in the large bay, and thus completely hiding the different parties from each other. No two boys could have had a more sincere regard for each other than had David Moreton and Harry Merryweather. David was longing to go to sea with Harry, but his father was greatly averse to his going. He was the eldest son, and heir to a large property. As the boys had been separated for so long a time (long in their lives), they had a great deal to say to each other. They consequently strolled away, forgetting what Mary Rymer or the rest of their fair companions might have thought of their gallantry, in and out along the sands, round the points and over the rocks, till they had got to a considerable distance from the place where the picnic had been held. A dry rock, high above the water, which they could reach by going along a ledge connecting it with the mainland, tempted them to scramble out to it. There they chose a nice cosy, dry nook, where, sitting down, the water immediately around them was hidden from their sight. This circumstance must be remembered. It was very delightful. They had not yet said one-half of what they had got to say to each other, so they sat on talking eagerly, looking out seaward and watching the white sails which glided by coming up channel in the distant horizon. David was so delighted with the accounts Harry gave him, that he resolved to make a further attempt to induce his father to allow him to go to sea. It must be owned that Harry, full of life and happiness himself, had pictured only the bright side of everything. He had described the courage and determination to win with which he and his shipmates had gone into action, and the enthusiasm and delight they had felt on gaining the victory and capturing the prize; but he forgot to speak of the death of some cut down in their prime, and the wounds and sufferings of others, many maimed and crippled for life. Thus they talked on without marking how the time went by. Harry's watch, which he had locked up carefully before going into action, had been destroyed by a shot which had knocked the desk and everything in it to pieces; and David had forgotten to wind his up. Suddenly it occurred to them that the sun was getting very low, and that it was high time for them to return.

They jumped up to scramble back over the rock, but no sooner had they done so than Harry cried out, "We are caught!" and David exclaimed, "The tide has risen tremendously, how shall we get to the shore?"

"Swim there," answered Harry; "I see no other way. If we were to shout ever so loud we should not be heard, and I do not suppose any one knows where we are." By this time they had got to the inner end of the rock, where they found that the distance between them and the shore was not only considerable, but that a strong current swept round the rock, and that though before the sea had been calm, it had got up somewhat, and caused a surf to break on the shore. What was to be done? David was a first-rate swimmer, and would not have had much difficulty by himself in stemming the current, and landing through the surf; but Harry, though a sailor, had not learned that art before he went to sea, and could swim very little. It is extraordinary how many sailors in those days could not swim, and lost their lives in consequence. They stood looking at the foaming, swirling waters, not knowing what to do.

"I would try it," said Harry at length, "but I am afraid if I were to give in that I should drown you as well as myself."

"I think that I might support you, and we should drift in somewhere a little further down, perhaps," said David.

"Much more likely that we should be swept out to sea," answered Harry. "No, no, David, that will never do. You can swim on shore before the surf gets heavier, and your father or Captain Rymer will send a boat for me very soon."

"But these are spring tides, and if the sea gets up at all, it will soon wash right over this rock," said David.

"The more reason for you to hurry to get a boat from the yachts," observed the midshipman.

While they were speaking, they observed the two yachts, which had hitherto been hid by a point of land, standing out to sea. They had come from the east with a fine northerly smooth water breeze, but the wind had drawn off shore to the east, and as the tide was at flood running up channel, the vessels had stood off shore to get the full strength of it. This the boys at once understood, but how they should have gone off without them was the puzzle. Matters were growing serious. Even should David reach the shore, he might not find a boat, and it was a long way he feared from any house where he could get help, so that Harry might be lost before he could get back. They retraced their steps to the highest part of the rock, and waved and shouted, even though they knew that their voices could not be heard, but the yachts stood on at some distance from each other; it should be remarked, Captain Rymer's leading. It was evident that they were not seen. The hot tide came rushing in, rising higher and higher. Both the boys became very anxious, David more on his friend's account than his own. So many persons have lost their lives much in the same way, that it seemed probable the two boys would lose theirs.

We must now go back to the picnic party. Mr Sowton and Mr Burnaby, and a few of the other more elderly ladies and gentlemen, began at length to think it time to return home. The hampers were repacked and carried, some up the cliffs by the servants, and others on board the yachts; and Mr Sowton and Billy Burnaby acting, as they said, as whippers-in, began shouting and screeching at the top of their voices. Captain Rymer and Mr Moreton had gone on board their vessels to get ready, and thus there was no one actually in command. The boats to take off the party were rather small, and several trips had to be made. In the meantime, those who were returning home by land climbed up the steep path to the top of the cliff, where their carriages were waiting for them. When they were fairly off, each party inquired what had become of Harry and David. Captain Rymer's yacht, the Arrow, was off the first, for the Psyche, Mr Moreton's, fouled her anchor, and it was some time before it could be got up.

Mr Moreton thought that his son, and the young midshipman had, attracted by sweet Mary Rymer, gone on board the Arrow; while Mary, who, it must be owned, was rather sorry not to see them, took it for granted that Harry was returning, as he had come, by land, and that David had gone with him.

The yachts had a long beat back. As they got away from the land, the wind increased very much, and came in strong sharp cold gusts which made it necessary first to take in the gaff-topsails, and then one reef and then another in the mainsails. As the wind increased the sea got up, and the little vessels, more suited to fine weather than foul, had hard work to look up to the rising gale. Still there was no help for it. The tide helped them along, but by its meeting the wind much more sea was knocked up than if both had been going the same way. Had such been the case, the vessels could not have made good their passage. Darkness coming on made matters worse: poor old Mr Sowton became wonderfully silent, and Mr Burnaby, who was sitting on the deck of the cabin, holding on by the leg of the table, looked the very picture of woe. Mary Rymer, who was well accustomed to yachting, and a few others, kept up their spirits, though all hailed with no little satisfaction the lights which showed the entrance to Pencliffe harbour, into which they were bound.

Mr Moreton's party had been at home some time, and most of the family had retired to their rooms, when they began to wonder why David had not appeared.

"He is probably still at the Rymers', or has accompanied Harry to Mrs Merryweather's," said Mrs Moreton to her husband; still, as night drew on, she became somewhat anxious. Her anxiety increased when a servant came with a message from Mrs Merryweather to inquire why Mr Harry did not come home.

Mr Moreton himself now became even more anxious than his wife. Neither his daughters, nor some friends staying with them, remembered seeing either Harry or David for some time before they embarked.

Mr Moreton, putting on a thick coat, for it was now blowing very hard, went off to Captain Rymer's house, which was close down to the bay, accompanied by Mrs Merryweather's servant, and greatly alarmed the family by asking for his son and Harry.

"Why, did they not come back with you?" asked the captain. "No, we thought they were on board the Arrow," answered Mr Moreton. "They may have gone with the Trevanians, but I do not think that Harry would have failed to come back to his mother. I will go back and see her. They must have set off by land, and there may have been an upset or a break-down. It will be all right tomorrow."

The morrow, however, came, but the boys did not appear. Mr Moreton therefore rode over early to the Trevanians, but they knew nothing of the boys.

He now became seriously alarmed. As it was blowing too hard to go by sea, he sent a messenger to say that he should not be home for some hours, and continued on to the bay where the picnic had been held. Then he made inquiries at the nearest cottages, but no one had seen his son or Harry Merryweather. He went from cottage to cottage in vain, making inquiries.

At last a fisherman suggested that the beach should be searched. Mr Moreton at once set out with a party quickly assembled to perform the anxious task, dreading to find the mangled body of his son and his brave young friend. No signs of them could be found. Still his anxiety was in no respect lessened.

He stopped on his way back at one cottage which he had not before visited. He found the inmate, an old woman, in deep affliction. Her husband, old Jonathan Jefferies, a fisherman, when out on his calling, had perished during the gale in the night. He could sympathise with her, and as far as money help was concerned, he promised all in his power. With an almost broken heart he returned home to give the sad news to his wife and family.

Poor Mrs Merryweather, she was even still more to be pitied. To have her son restored to her, and then to find him snatched away again so suddenly, perhaps for ever!

Day after day passed by, and no news came of the much-loved missing ones.