The Wreck of The Corsaire The Wreck of The Corsaire

The Wreck of The Corsaire

    • 35,00 kr
    • 35,00 kr

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All day long there had been a pleasant breeze blowing from abeam; but as the sun sank into the west the wind fined into light, delicate curls of shadow upon the sea that, at the hour of sundown, when the great luminary hung poised like a vast target of flaming gold upon the ocean-line, turned into a surface of quicksilver through which there ran a light, wide, long-drawn heave of swell, regular as a respiration, rhythmic as the sway of a cradle to the song of a mother.

The ship was an Indiaman named the Ruby; the time long ago, as human life

 runs, in this century nevertheless, when the old traditional conditions of the sea-life were yet current—the roundabout Indian voyage by way of the Cape—the slaver sneaking across the brassy parallels of the Middle Passage—the picaroon in the waters of the Antilles dodging the fiery sloop whose adamantine grin of cannons was rendered horribly significant to the eye of the greasy pirate by the cross of crimson under whose meteoric folds the broadside thundered.

I was a passenger aboard the Ruby, making the voyage to India for my pleasure. The fact was, being a man of independent means, I was without any sort of business to detain me at home. Your continental excursion was but a twopenny business to me. Here was this huge ball of earth to be circumnavigated whilst one was young, with spirits rendered waterproof by health. Time enough, I thought, to amble about

 Europe when Australia began to look a long way off. So this was my third voyage. One I had made to Sydney and Melbourne, and a second to China; and now I was bound to Bombay with some kind of notion beyond of striking across into Persia, thence to Arabia, and so home by way of the classic shores of the Mediterranean.

Well, it happened this 18th of June to be the captain’s birthday. His name was Bow; he would be fifty-three years old that day he told us, and as he had used the sea since the age of thirteen he was to be taken as a man who knew his business. And a better sailor there never was, and never also was there a person who looked less like a sailor. If ever you have seen a print of Charles Lamb you have had an excellent likeness of Captain Bow before you—a pale, spare creature of a somewhat Hebraic cast of countenance, with a brow undarkened by any stains of weather. His

 memory went far back; he had served as mate in John Company’s ships, had known Commodore Dance who beat Linois and spoke of him as a perfect gentleman; deplored the gradual decay of the British sailor, and would talk with a wistful gleam in his eye of the grand and generous policy of the Leadenhall Street Directors in allowing to their captains as much cubic capacity in the ships they commanded for their own private use and emolument as would furnish out the dimensions of a considerable smack.

It was his birthday, and long ago all of us passengers had made up our minds to celebrate the occasion by a supper, a dance on deck, and by obtaining permission for Jack forward to have a ball, on condition that we should be allowed to ply him with drink enough to keep his heels nimble, and no more. We were in the Indian Ocean climbing north, somewhere upon the longitude of Am-

sterdam Island, so formidable was the easting made in the fine old times. The latitude, I think, was about 12° south, and desperately hot it was, though the sun hung well in the north. Spite of awnings and wet swabs the planks of the deck seemed to tingle like tin through the thin soles of your boots. If you put your nose into an open skylight the air that rose drove you back with a sense of suffocation, so heavily was the fiery stagnation of it loaded with smells of food and of the cabin interior, though there never was a sweeter and breezier cuddy with its big windows and windsail-heels when the thermometer gave the place the least chance. But when the sun was nearly setting, some sailors quietly came aft and fell to work to make a ball-room of the poop. They took the bunting out of the signal locker and stretched it along the ridge-ropes betwixt the awning and the rail until it was like standing inside a huge Chinese lantern for color.

 They hung the ship’s lamps along in rows, roused up the piano from its moorings in the cuddy, embellished the tops of the hencoops with red baize, and in fifty directions not worth the trouble of indicating, so decorated and glorified the after-end of the ship that when the lamps came to be lighted with streaks of pearl-colored moonshine glittering upon the deck betwixt the interstices of the signal flags, and movement enough in the tranquil lift of the great fabric to the swell to fill the eye with alternations of swaying shadow and gleam, this ball-room of almond-white plank and canvas ceiling of milky softness and walls of radiant banners was more like some fairy sea-vision than a reality, especially with the glimpse you caught of the vast silent ocean solitude outside with its sky of hovering stars and a stillness as of a dead world in the atmosphere—such a contrast, by heaven! to the revelry within the shipboard pavilion, when once

 the music had struck up and the forms of women in white gowns fluffing up about them like soapsuds were swimming round the decks in the embrace of their partners, that a kind of shudder would come into you with the mere thinking of the difference between the two things.

The music was good; there was a steerage passenger, a lady, who played the piano incomparably well; then there was a cuddy passenger who blew upon the flute very finely indeed. A military officer returning to India after a long invaliding spell at home had as light, delicate and accomplished a hand on the fiddle as any of the best of the first violins which I have heard in the crackest of orchestras. When the committee of passengers had been talking about and arranging for this band the chief officer told them that if they thought there would not be instruments enough there was a man forward, a fellow named Ratt,

 who played the fiddle exquisitely and, if we wished it, he would make one of the instrumentalists. We consented, and for several days previous to this night you might have heard Ratt rehearsing in the ’tween decks, scraping in a way that made the military gentleman who had been invalided look somewhat grave. He spoke of Ratt with a foreboding eye, and what he feared happened. The man could indeed play, but he had no sense of time. All went wrong with the first dance-air that was struck up. The tune he made was right enough; but it was always darting ahead and bewildering the others, and finally the band came to a stop, though Ratt continued to play several bars, whilst the military gentleman in great temper was shouting to him to go away. I should have felt sorry for the poor fellow had he not been saucy, for he had dressed himself with extraordinary care, greased every separate hair upon his head as though it had been a

 rope-yarn, and had arrived aft with a sailor’s expectation of seeing plenty of fun and getting plenty of drink. It ended in the chief mate grasping him by the collar and tumbling him down the poop ladder. I afterwards heard that he went forward and in a towering passion threw his fiddle overboard, swearing that he would never play upon anything again but the Jew’s harp and then only for hogs to dance to; there was no longer any taste left amongst human beings, he said, for downright real good music.

The merriment aft was scarcely affected by this instant’s failure. The moment Jack had been tumbled off the poop the instrumentalists began afresh and the decks were once more filled with sliding and revolving couples. I had slightly sprained my ankle that morning by kicking against a coil of rope and was unable to dance; but this was no deprivation to me on a burning hot night like that, with no place for the draughts

 out of the fanning canvas to come through, and the smell of blistered paint rising in a lukewarm breathing off the sides of the ship as though the sun still stood over the main-truck. So squatting myself on a hencoop I sat gazing at the merry, moving, radiant picture and listening to the music and to the laughter of the girls which came back from the canvas roof of the poop in echoes soft and clear as the notes of the flute.

Fiction & Literature
17 April
Rectory Print