Only too certainly, it was now becoming a question not of days nor even of hours before we must be prepared for the final catastrophe. The sea was still running high, and escape by the boats was plainly impossible. Fortunately, as I have said, the main- mast and the mizzen are of iron; otherwise the great heat at their base would long ago have brought them down and our chances of safety would have been very much imperiled; but by crowding on sail the Chancellor in the full northeast wind continued to make her way with undiminished speed.
It is now a fortnight since the fire was first discovered, and the proper working of the ship has gradually become a more and more difficult matter. Even with thick shoes any attempt to walk upon deck up to the forecastle was soon im- practicable, and the poop, simply because its floor is elevated somewhat above the level of the hold, is now the only avail- able standing-place. Water began to lose its effect upon the scorched and shriveling planks; the resin oozed out from the knots in the wood, the seams burst open, and the tar, melted by the heat, followed the rollings of the vessel, and formed fantastic patterns about the deck.
Then to complete our perplexity, the wind shifted sud- denly round to the northwest, whence it blew a perfect hur- ricane. To no purpose did Curtis do everything in his power to bring the ship ahull; every effort was in vain; the Chancellor could not bear her trysail, so there was nothing to be done but to let her go with the wind, and drift further and further from the land for which we are longing so eagerly.
To-day, the 29th, the tempest seemed to reach its height; the waves appeared to us mountains high, and dashed the spray most violently across the deck. A boat could not live a moment in such a sea.
Our situation is terrible. We all wait in silence, some few on the forecastle, the great proportion of us on the poop. As for the picrate, for the time we have quite for- gotten its existence; indeed it might almost seem as though its explosion would come as a relief, for no catastrophe, how- ever terrible, could far exceed the torture of our suspense.
While he had still the remaining chance, Curtis rescued from the store-room such few provisions as the heat of the compartment allowed him to obtain; and a lot of cases of salt meat and biscuits, a cask of brandy, some barrels of fresh water, together with some sails and wraps, a compass and other instruments are now lying packed in a mass all ready for prompt removal to the boats whenever we shall be obliged to leave the ship.
About eight o'clock in the evening, a noise is heard, dis- tinct even above the raging of the hurricane. The panels of the deck are upheaved, and volumes of black smoke issue up- ward as if from a safety-valve. A universal consternation seizes one and all; we must leave the volcano which is about to burst beneath our feet. The crew run to Curtis for or- ders. He hesitates; looks first at the huge and threatening waves; looks then at the boats. The long-boat is there, sus- pended right along the center of the deck; but it is impos- sible to approach it now; the yawl, however, hoisted on the starboard side, and the whale-boat suspended aft, are still available. The sailors make frantically for the yawl.
"Stop, stop," shouts Curtis; "do you mean to cut off our last and only chance of safety? Would you launch a boat in such a sea as this?"
A few of them, with Owen at their head, give no heed to what he says. Rushing to the poop, and seizing a cutlass, Curtis shouts again:
"Touch the tackling of the davit, one of you; only touch it, and I'll cleave your skull."
Awed by his determined manner, the men retire, some clambering into the shrouds, while others mount to the very top of the masts.
At eleven o'clock, several loud reports are heard, caused by the bursting asunder of the partitions of the hold. Clouds of smoke issue from the front, followed by a long tongue of lambent flame that seems to encircle the mizzen-mast.