After a pause, he said, "As long as a plank of the ship remains to stand on, Mr. Kazallon, I shall not give up my hope."
But the conflagration raged with redoubled fury, the sea around us was lighted with a crimson glow, and the clouds above shone with a lurid glare. Long jets of fire darted across the hatchways, and we were forced to take refuge on the taffrail at the extreme end of the poop. Mrs. Kear was laid in the whale-boat that hung from the stern. Miss Herbey persisting to the last in retaining her post by her side.
No pen could adequately portray the horrors of this fear- ful night. The Chancellor under bare poles, was driven, like a gigantic fire-ship with frightful velocity across the raging ocean; her very speed as it were, making common cause with the hurricane to fan the fire that was consuming her. Soon there could be no alternative between throwing ourselves into the sea, or perishing in the flames.
But where, all this time, was the picrate? Perhaps, after all, Ruby had deceived us and there was no volcano, such as we dreaded, below our feet.
At half-past eleven, when the tempest seems at its very height, there is heard a peculiar roar distinguishable even above the crash of the elements. The sailors in an instant recognize its import.
"Breakers to starboard!" is the cry.
Curtis leaps on to the netting, casts a rapid glance at the snow-white billows, and turning to the helmsman shouts with all his might, "Starboard the helm!"
But it is too late. There is a sudden shock; the ship is caught up by an enormous wave; she rises upon her beam ends; several times she strikes the ground; the mizzen-mast snaps short off level with the deck, falls into the sea, and the Chancellor is motionless.
CHAPTER XV SHIPWRECKED
THE night of the 29th continued. -- It was not yet mid- night; the darkness was most profound, and we could see nothing. But was it probable that we had stranded on the coast of America?
Very shortly after the ship had thus come to a stand-still a clanking of chains was heard proceeding from her bows.
"That is well," said Curtis; "Walter and the boatswain have cast both the anchors. Let us hope they will hold."
Then, clinging to the netting, he clambered along the starboard side, on which the ship had heeled, as far as the flames would allow him. He clung to the holdfasts of the shrouds, and in spite of the heavy seas that dashed against the vessel he maintained his position for a considerable time, evidently listening to some sound that had caught his ear in the midst of the tempest. In about a quarter of an hour he returned to the poop.
"Heaven be praised! " he said, "the water is coming in, and perhaps may get the better of the fire."
"True," said I, "but what then?"
"That," he replied, "is a question for bye-and-bye. We can think now only of the present."
Already I fancied that the violence of the flames was somewhat abated, and that the two opposing elements were in fierce contention. Some plank in the ship's side was evidently stove in, admitting free passage for the waves. But how, when the water had mastered the fire, should we be able to master the water? Our natural course would be to use the pumps, but these, in the very midst of the con- flagration, were quite unavailable.
For three long hours, in anxious suspense, we watched, and waited. Where we were we could not tell. One thing alone was certain; the tide was ebbing beneath us, and the waves were relaxing in their violence. Once let the fire be extinguished, and then, perhaps, there would be room to hope that the next high tide would set us afloat.
Toward half-past four in the morning the curtain of fire and smoke, which had shut off communication between the two extremities of the ship, became less dense, and we could faintly distinguish that party of the crew who had taken refuge in the forecastle; and before long, although it was impracticable to step upon the deck, the lieutenant and the boatswain contrived to clamber over the gunwale, along the rails, and joined Curtis on the poop.