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The Mystery of the "Ocean Star"

(first published in Longman's Magazine, volume 10, 1887.
Subsequently collected in The Mystery of the "Ocean Star" — A Collection of Maritime Sketches,
Chatto & Windus, London, 1888)

by W. Clark Russell


ON the 22nd of August in the year 1877 a steamer named the Guide, of about twelve hundred tons burden, was in latitude 12° North and in longitude 31° West. The weather, during the last twenty-four hours, had been strange. The north-east trade wind had two days earlier fined down into a faint draught, and then for a spell all the breeze that the vessel found she made for herself. There was a long swell from the westward, which came along in slopes of liquid violet, so polished that the glory of the sunshine slipped from one deeply dark-blue brow to another, as though indeed it were a substantial gushing of fiery gold sliding over the heads of rolling hills of glass. The oddness of the weather lay in peculiar appearances of snow-white vapour low down upon the sea. The atmosphere was brilliantly clear, the sky a hard pale blue, brightening into the needle-like scintillations of new tin as it swept out of a bald brassy dye round about the sun to the sheer white dazzle of the luminary; and where the line of the horizon was visible the rim of the waving circle was as sharp and defined as tinted crystal against the airy softness of the heavens. Nevertheless these fog-banks hung about the deep in many directions, some curved like great pinions, some in rolls, low-lying, like to the folds of dark smoke which linger on the waters of the English Channel in the hush of a summer's day, some like vast sheets of satin shot with the lustrous colourings you notice in cobwebs or the inside of oyster-shells. Whenever the steamer swept into one of them her quarter-deck, and the white boats amidships, and the glass of her skylights and all the brass-work about her abaft her funnel, would be in splendour, whilst forward she had disappeared as completely as if she had been sawn in twain. Then perhaps for the space of twenty minutes she would be in a sort of eclipse, a deeper silence upon the white air as though the steam-like smother held a stillness of its own, her forecastle scarce visible from the bridge, the smoke from her funnel following like a shadow of thunder-cloud in the glistening void; and regularly as she drove into these spacious, seemingly motionless, bodies the blasts of her steam-horn fled ahead like yells startled out of her sentience by terror of the swift transformations of the splendour of the tropical day into the moonlike blindness of the fog. For certainly it was impossible to know but that in one or another of the banks a ship lay stagnated; and, though the engines were never slowed, the ears upon the bridge were held strained until the steamer had leaped on a sudden out of the white twilight into the golden day again.

   It was about eleven o'clock in the forenoon; the whole length of the Guide had barely steamed out clear from one of the largest of the low clouds when the chief officer sighted a sail four points on the port bow. She lay some five miles distant, in a wide and shining channel betwixt two great bodies of vapour, and resembled a piece of ivory-work in the searching light. The mate directed the captain's attention to her.

   "Yes, sir; and I hope if there are others about they'll be as easy to see." He brought a glass from the chart-house and levelled it. He worked away for some time without speaking, and then handing the telescope to the chief mate, he said, "Mr. Williams, there's something wrong with that vessel."

   Indeed it scarcely needed a sailor's eye to suspect something amiss. She was a small barque, apparently between three hundred and fifty and four hundred tons; she had a main skysail mast, and all her spars were aloft and everything right in that way; but the appearance of her canvas suggested disorder and confusion. Halliards fore and aft seemed to have been let go on a sudden, and nothing else done. Upper topsail, topgallant — in short, all yards which travelled were down, but no sail was clewed up. The foresail, the lower topsails, mainsail and spanker were set; but staysails and jibs, most of them, lay half up and down the stays they belonged to; the yards were braced forward on the starboard tack. These features the glass rendered easily distinguishable.

   "Now what on earth can that muddle signify?" exclaimed the captain, with his face full of curiosity. "You'd imagine there was a heavy squall coming down upon her, that her skipper had sung out to let go everything, and that the crew, after doing so, had gone to dinner. See anything like a colour flying, Mr. Williams?"

   The mate looked and answered, "No. Appears to me like a mutiny, sir," he continued. "Or if it isn't that, then it'll be sickness. Hold chock-a-block with green coffee, perhaps, and the fo'ksle full of fever. Or suppose you reckon its blindness, sir? I've heard of such a thing as a whole ship's company losing their sight."

   "Well, let's go and have a look at her," said the captain. "No use speculating on objects at sea. If there'd been a little more shifting of courses there'd be fewer marine wonders, I allow." He spoke to the helmsman, and the steamer's head was put for the barque.

   She was rolling to the run of the swell, and the swinging of the canvas flung a hurry of shadowing over her. The quiet vaporous shapes on either hand, like islands clad in mist, with the wide dark-blue channel between them upon which the fabric, made dainty by distance, swayed the silver buttons of her trucks in a delicate limning, as you might have thought, of the azure canvas above, made the picture a fine one. The heave of the water was without a wrinkle, and the eye sought the whole circumference of the horizon in vain for the blurr of a catspaw. As she was approached, points which distance had subdued or hidden stole out upon the naked sight; such as that she was painted green, with a narrow white band running the length of her, that she had a white figure-head and an elliptical stern, after the mould of the Aberdeen clippers; that she was metalled high with new sheathing, which, to each sway of the swell, flashed out a wet coppery light that was like the momentary glance of a beam of the setting sun upon the translucency under the bends.

   "There's nothing wanting in her that I can see," said the captain, talking with his eye at the glass. "Masthead those yards and trim them, and she'd be as pretty a little ship as ever I recollect seeing. What can be her people's object in leaving her in that condition? Certainly not a rope's been touched since I've been looking at her," he continued, inspecting her; then handing the glass to the mate, he said, "Isn't there smoke coming out of her galley chimney? My sight's not what it was."

   Mr. Williams peered and said, "Yes, that's smoke, right enough. If her galley fire's alight she's not deserted. Yet I don't see the least sign of any living being aboard either. Never so much as a man's head, sir. Very odd, to be sure."

   "She seems to have all her boats," said the captain.

   "I can't be certain," answered the mate. "Looks to me as if her starboard davits were empty, but her spanker's in the road of my sight."

   They fell silent, the steamer's engines were slowed, and she floated leisurely down upon the barque, and when within easy hail she was stopped. The derelict, if such she were, was a very visible object now. Her wheel, standing nakedly, revolved to right or left with the swaying of the rudder to the blows of the swell. An element of solemnity was imparted to the flapping noises of the canvas and the grinding and creaking sounds breaking from the hull and structure aloft by the striking of a bell at intervals sufficiently measured to render the notes funereal in their way. All hands aboard the steamer leaned over the rail gazing at the barque, and you marked the working of salt superstitious instincts in more than one mahogany countenance as the vibratory chime of the hidden bell aboard the tenantless vessel drove thinly musical through the still atmosphere.

   "It'll be the rolling that keeps that bell going," said the captain; "but it's a sound to make a man feel clammy." He put both hands, hollowed, to his mouth, and roared out, in a hurricane note, "Barque ahoy!"

   There was no response. Every eye searched each fathom of the vessel's length, but nothing stirred save the shadows. That which filled everybody with wonder was that there should be smoke filtering from the galley chimney, proving the galley fire to be alight, and yet nobody to show himself.

   "If she's abandoned, sir," said the mate, "her people can't have been long gone; yonder smoke proves that. They ought to be within sight" (he sent a long look around), "unless," he added, "they're buried in one of those banks."

   By this time the steamer had insensibly glided forwards so as to open the starboard side of the barque, and it was then seen, as the mate had said, that one of her boats was gone; the davits were slued out and the falls overhauled to the water's edge with the blocks dipping to the roll of the vessel. Her name was also visible, written in bold letters on her stern, Ocean Star.

   "Better go aboard and see what's the matter, Mr. Williams," said the captain. "Pity some wind don't come along and blow those clouds away. The crew may be hidden in one of them, as you say; but it's an unintelligible job, if ever there was one. Haul taut on your nerve-tackles, sir, for there may be an ugly sight to greet ye."

   A boat was got over, and four men rowed the chief officer to the barque. The men tugging at the oars were incessantly looking past their shoulders, so confounded were they by the sight of the smoke going straight up out of the galley chimney, and by the absence of life which the spectacle of the smoke accentuated to their dull unlettered understandings; as if in truth the vessel were manned by viewless mariners who watched their approach, phantom-like, from the bulwark rail.

   "In oars!" A boat-hook cleverly caught a mizen-channel plate, and in a trice Mr. Williams, followed by a couple of hands, gained the deck. The captain's hint had prepared the mate's mind, and he gazed about him for something horrible. There was nothing at all, however, in that way to be seen. Indeed there was no further confusion than ends of ropes lying about, coils of halliards which had been lifted off the pins and thrown down, and let go in a hurry and left to lie, as much of them as remained when the yards were down. She was a snug, clean vessel, decks of a good colour, paintwork fresh, brasswork bright, flush fore and aft, and the furniture — such as the binnacles, pumps, capstan, skylights, companions, and so forth — excellent in their kind.

   "Nothing wrong above-board anyhow," said the mate; "if there's anything in the creeping line it'll be below."

   There were some cocks and hens in a coop forward gaping with thirst. The mate dropped the dipper into the scuttle-butt and filled their trough, and the creatures drank with extraordinary demonstrations of pious thanksgiving in their manner of looking aloft to let the water drain down. There had been a pig under the long-boat, but he was gone. There was nothing alive but the cocks and hens. The mate looked about him for the sounding-rod, and finding it, sounded the well, and found the barque as free as the steamer was. He made the tour of the deck, followed by the men, one of whom smothered the tongue of the bell with some yarns, peering eagerly as he went, never knowing but that the next step would bring him to a dead man in the wake of a mast, or concealed by a bulwark stanchion and the gear about it; but the decks were as free of the dead as the living. He looked into the galley and found a good fire burning; so good that both he and the others agreed that it must have been made up afresh within the time the Guide had first sighted the vessel, for the coals were spitting out gas flames, and burned as fresh coals do. There was a large saucepan boiling on the fire, and on lifting the lid and looking in they spied a fowl clumsily plucked. The mate started and stared at the others.

   "There must be men aboard," he cried; "you want no better proof than this. If they made off at sight of us where's their boat? They wouldn't have had time to fetch the nearest of those fog-banks. No, we must have seen 'em. And why should they have wanted to make off? What was there to frighten 'em overboard in the sighting of our steamer? Depend upon it they're aboard — below — in hiding; but, great thunder! what for?"

   "Will you search the ship?" said one of the men.


   "Stand by, sir, there may be some bloomin' roose in this business."

   Follow or stay, as you please," said the mate; "I have my orders." With which he walked to the companion hatch and descended the steps. The others followed. Mr. Williams was a stout-hearted man, nevertheless he entered the cabin with extreme caution, stepping very slowly, and with his eyes starting from his head. The seeing nothing to account for the mystery of this barque's situation astonished and dismayed him more than had he encountered a terribly tragic solution of the riddle. The cabin was a pleasant, clean, sunny apartment, with a table amidships, lockers stuffed with hair on either hand, a handsome silver-plated lamp over the table, a few hanging shelves with books and other such matters. There were four small cabins abaft, which the mate entered, and in the sternmost one, presumably the captain's, he found, besides chronometers, a sextant, a log-book, charts, and the like, and the ship's papers, which proclaimed the vessel to be the Ocean Star, of Hull, bound to Rio with a general cargo. He examined the log, but the last entry was dated ten days before. This was a circumstance to prodigiously increase Mr. Williams's perplexment. He inspected the other cabins and found them mere sleeping-places, each with its bunk and bedding and chest of clothes. There was nobody here — nothing living or dead — though the two foremost cabins exhibited signs of having quite recently been occupied.

   The mate, accompanied by his two men, went on deck again, walked forward and entered the forecastle; but they first looked down the scuttle and spied a light.

   "Ha!" cried Mr. Williams, "they're here then."

   He put his head into the hatch and sang out, "Below there!" No answer. "Below there, I say!" His voice sank dead into the gloom, and no reply followed. He hailed a third time: "Anybody below there?" and obtaining no response, lost his patience, put his legs into the hatch, and dropped. The light was made by a slush lamp swinging under a blackened beam. There were four hammocks stretched under the upper deck, and a few bunks going into the bows. You would have concluded that the crew had all turned in after eating; for there was a mess-kid upon the deck with the remains of a piece of beef in it; here and there a pannikin stood upon a chest and the roving and perplexed eyes of the mate fastened upon a broken pipe, bits of sea-bread, stray shoes and boots, oilskins hanging by nails, and other well-known items of the furniture of Jack's ocean parlour. He punched the hammocks, there was nothing in them; he examined the bunks, they too were untenanted.

   "This beats all my goin' a-fishin'!" exclaimed one of the men.

   "Nothin's wanted but a flavey o' sulphur to make me reckon that the Devil's got charge here," said the other.

   "Put that light out, one of you," said the mate, and they returned on deck and got into their boat.

   "Well?" said the captain, as Mr. Williams stepped over the side.

   "Well, sir," replied the mate, "I've thoroughly overhauled her and there's no one on board. Nothing alive but some cocks and hens. She's the Ocean Star, of Hull," and here he acquainted the captain with the contents of the ship's papers, "and she should be worth as she stands a tidy lump of money. She's sound as a bell, and as dry as the inside of a chimney."

   "And no hint to be found as to what's become of her people?"

   "Ne'er a hint, sir, barring those empty starboard davits. I'd believe her crew had left her in that boat; only what are you to make of the galley fire being alight, a fowl cooking in a saucepan on it — actually boiling as it might be for a man's dinner — and to complete the blessed wonder, sir, the forecastle lamp burning!"

   "There must be somebody aboard," exclaimed the captain. "Fowls aren't such fools as to pluck and boil themselves. No, sir; there's a man or men aboard, and you've missed 'em."

   "They may have slipped into the lazarette or down the forepeak," answered the mate. "I didn't look, and so I can't say. But as the hatches are on, with tarpaulins over them, I'm willing to bet all that I'm worth, after searching as I did, that there's no human being in that barque."

   The steamer was brigantine-rigged, with a topgallant-yard. The captain, calling to one of the men who was known to possess the best pair of eyes in the ship's company, sent him aloft with a binocular glass with instructions to carefully search the sea in every quarter for any appearance of a boat. By this time a small air was blowing out of the south-east, with just enough of weight in it to deepen the shade of the blue and to put a little curl upon the windward slopes of the swell. Here and there the fog-banks had thinned, and they were now all under way, steering north-west, so that if any one of them concealed a boat she was bound to draw out clear presently, unless the crew rowed that they might keep the vapour about them — a ridiculous supposition. But although the man on the steamer's topgallant-yard swept the water with the intentness of a shipwrecked soul, he remained mute. The fact was, there was nothing to see; and after staying aloft ten minutes; during which time everybody on deck stared his hardest too, he cried out, "There's nothen in sight, sir," and came down.

   "Well, it's a blazing mystery, certainly," exclaimed the captain of the Guide. "But you'll find I'm right — there are people loafing somewhere aboard; though why they shouldn't show themselves let him tell us who can find out. But let that be as it will, it won't do to let that fine vessel knock about here and perhaps go to the bottom in the next gale of wind." He called the second officer, a man named Matthews, on to the bridge, "Will ye take charge of that barque, Mr. Matthews, and carry her to Rio? It isn't far off."

   "Yes, sir," answered the second mate, promptly.

   "You shall have three men — can't spare more; but they'll suffice, considering what part of the ocean this is, if you keep her under easy canvas."

   "I'll manage," said Mr. Matthews.

   "It's a job to tassel your pocket-handkerchief with dollars; and the mate reports a big harness cask and two scuttle-butts. Overhaul her for stores when ye get aboard, and let me know before we proceed."

   "Ay, ay, sir."

   "I expect you'll find a man or two skulking. There's a fowl boiling, and Mr. Williams had to put the forecastle lamp out. This is the age of steam-engines, and there's no witchcraft left; so look for the people for whom that fowl's cooking; they'll strengthen your crew. Muster the men, Mr. Williams and ask for volunteers whilst Mr. Matthews gets his duds together."

   This was done; several men offered, and three likely fellows were chosen. One was a trimmer, the others sailors. They were not perfectly happy in their minds, but the seaman's love of change, coupled with the prospect of salvage-money, was too strong for superstition. In a few minutes they pitched their bags into the boat, the second mate followed, and a couple of the steamer's men rowed them aboard the barque. Before touching a rope they went to work to search the ship. They lifted the hatches and found the hold full of cargo. The second mate, as fearless a sailor as ever jockeyed a yardarm, crawled about with a lantern, but unearthed nothing mortal. They searched the forepeak and afterwards the lazarette, in which they met with abundance of stores — beef, pork, peas, flour, lime-juice, rum, and the like; then, having rummaged with the pertinacity of Customs officers, they went on deck, grimy with sweat and dirt, and the second mate hailed the steamer.


   "Plenty of stores and fresh water, sir."


   "Cargo almost flush with the main hatch, sir."


   "No signs of the crew anywhere. We've crawled into every hole and there's nothing alive aboard the Ocean Star excepting ourselves and the chickens."

   "Right!" shouted the captain for the third time. He flourished a farewell with his arm; the mate waved his hand, and there was a graceful salutation of several sorts of caps over the rail forward. The propeller revolved, the steamer gathered way, and the slender crew of the Ocean Star were left to shift for themselves.

   The light breeze hung steady, and there floated up from alongside the laughing fountainlike music of rippling waters, sweet to the ear as an ice-cold draught to the palate after the sickly silence of a long spell of tropical calm. The men seized hold of the halliards and hoisted the yards, one after another, crowning the white and graceful superstructure by the tiny main skysail, that gleamed like a star under the blue. A glance at the chart gave Mr. Matthews his course, and presently the barque, with a little silver curl under either bow, and the shadow of one sail lying in a dainty curve in the hollow of another; and a flashing as of musketry breaking from the glass and brass upon her as she leaned with the swell to the sun, was sliding quietly southwards, with the steamer already toylike in the distance and the fogbanks lifting into the haze. No one had thought of removing the saucepan in the galley, and when they examined it they found the fowl boiled into soup. This they threw overboard; nor, had the fowl been dressed to a hair, is it conceivable that their imaginations would have suffered them to put their lips to it. The truth is, the more they turned the matter over the more mystifying it grew. That a handsome little barque in good trim, with plenty to eat and drink aboard, her hold full of valuable cargo, not a drop of water draining into her in the twenty-four hours — that such a ship should be found abandoned, floating about as if she were no better than a timber-craft with her decks blown up and her covering-board awash, was strange enough, to be sure, but not so surprising as not to be fitted with some kind of yarn tolerably answerable to the circumstance. But what was to be made of the mystery of a vessel that exhibited the most certain signs imaginable of human life being aboard, and that was yet as tenantless as a newly dug grave? There was the galley fire burning, there had been the saucepan bubbling and the fowl boiling, and the slush-lamp in the forecastle flaming. This meant very recent work. The slush-lamp, to be sure, might have been alight for some hours, but the freshly-fed appearance of the fire and the saucepan and the fowl signified that there must have been mortal hands at work quite lately — undoubtedly within the time since the Guide had first sighted the Ocean Star. A boat was missing. If the crew had gone away in her since the fire had been fed and the fowl had been put on to cook, they could not in so short a period have rowed out of sight of the steamer's people. Where, then, were they? Had all hands jumped overboard on the smoke of the Guide showing on the northern horizon? But a theory of general suicide would still further bewilder the problem of the galley fire on to which coals must certainly have been shovelled some while after the steamer had hove into view.

   One man stood at the wheel, the other hung with the second mate near him, and they argued, speculated, reasoned — to no purpose. They took the trouble to search the ship afresh after dinner, with no other result than to positively confirm the assurance their earlier seeking had obtained for them that no living man but themselves was on board.

   "Well, sir," said the trimmer, addressing Mr. Matthews, as the three of them came together again at the wheel, "I don't profess to no book-learning, but I knows the difference twixt a sprat and a porcupine, and my notion's this: since no man's hands made up that there fire and put the hen on to bile, somebody else must ha' done it."

   "Who else?" inquired the second mate. The fellow gazed at him stupidly for a minute, and then said, "Well, a ghost."

   "What's a ghost, Billy?" asked one of the other men.

   "Something ye can't catch hold of, nor'd be able to sit upon if so be as you was to get him down," answered the trimmer defiantly. "No use raysoning there ain't no ghosts, for scores have been seen and spoke to; 'sides, if there warn't no ghosts there'd be no future; the future's meant for the likes o' them. Denying of ghosts is the same as denying of salvagion."

   "Have ghosts got any stomachs?" demanded the second mate.

   The trimmer reflected, and said, "No, they can't have no stomachs if they can be walked through."

   "Then what should a ghost go and cook a fowl for?" said the second mate.

   The trimmer made no answer, and the subject dropped.

   Long ere the dusk came the ocean had opened in blue radiance to the far sky. The second mate went aloft with the barque's telescope to as high as the main-royal yard, but saw nothing. The speed of the vessel was barely three miles an hour; the breeze was languid and hot, and the burning sun poised, rayless and huge in the western quarter, seemed to be drying up even this small movement of life in the atmosphere. Indeed, when the darkness came it fell stark calm again. The stars, the fitful flashings of phosphorus in the water over the side, the vast oceanic hush, the soft winnowing sounds of canvas in the darkness on high, like the stirring of hidden giant pinions, were elements of the night-scene to help whatever emotions superstition might have engendered, and even the practical second mate felt the subduing influence of points which on any other occasion he would have had scarce an eye or ear for, when his mind went to the mystery of this deserted barque. The men flatly declined to use the forecastle.

   "'Tain't," said one of them, "that I'm like Billy, sir, and believes in ghosts. But until this here traverse has been worked out I'd rather lay on deck. Them hammocks has an onpleasant look — and, the vessel being desarted, who could have lighted the fo'ksle lamp?"

   They divided themselves into watches, and used the cabin to lie in. They broached a rum-cask in the lazarette and made themselves a cheerful bowl, and the drink did their imaginations good. Moreover, the second mate helped them yet by bidding them fix their minds on the money they were bound to take up when the salvage claim had been settled; yet for all that they hung together. Two kept the deck whilst the others lay down, and whilst one of the two on duty stood at the wheel the other kept close beside him. The truth is, none of them could feel certain that the ship was empty of all but themselves, spite of their repeated search; and this mere notion was enough to breed uneasiness, to render the movement of a shadow startling, to keep their eyes travelling along the decks and up aloft.

   "What's a worritting me's this, sir;" said the trimmer. "Here's a job as may never be 'splained."

   "Well, I can't fit any sense to it, for one," answered Mr. Matthews. "A single corpse would have made the matter intelligible; but to find the galley fire burning, the fowl cooking, the fo'ksle lamp alight, and no one aboard, and no boat in sight. — No! there's nothing to be made of it by thinking. It'll have to be a riddle without an answer."

   "Providing you don't sarch the soopernatural first," said the trimmer.

   The second mate called a sea-blessing upon the fool's head and fell a whistling for wind.

   In the morning watch a light air came along right over the stern; they squared the yards, and the Ocean Star began to move again. The sun rose, and the day broke in glory, the sea a surface of wrinkled sapphire, the heavens lifting from pale blue at the horizon to violet at the zenith, here and there a cloud shining like a wind-gall, and the small breeze fiery. The second mate, glancing about him, spied something white shine gleaming over the starboard bow. He fetched the glass and looked. It might have passed for some topmost sail of a ship hull down behind the sea-line, trembling in the swimming hot refraction that hove it up as a thing apart. But the keen eye of the sailor knew better. What he saw was not a ship's sail, and without a word he mounted to the upper main-topsail yard, and there made out the object to be a boat, with apparently a shirt or two lifted as a signal or a sail. So weak was the wind that a long hour went by before the boat could be seen clearly with the eye; but ere this the telescope had detected the presence of several men in her, and the wet sparkle of oars, and the disappearance of what had served for a sail, showed them to be rowing towards the barque. The second mate looked from the boat upon the water to the port-quarter boat hanging griped at the davits, and exclaimed, "I'm a Dutchman if those men there are not the barque's crew!" The others peered and agreed, for both boats were alike white, of a whaling pattern, and a couple of black disks painted on the bows. The barque was headed directly for the poor fellows, and a man stood ready to heave a line to them. The laboured, languid movement of the oars sufficiently marked their condition. It was like the action of the antennae of some dying insect, and more pathetic than a cry of suffering. The boat approached, the men pulled in their oars, and fell to gesticulating, making many piteous motions of entreaty, and pointing to their mouths.

   "They want water!" exclaimed the mate, breathlessly.

   The coil of line was thrown: one in the bows caught it with trembling hands and took a turn round a thwart with it, and then stumbled, nor did he seem able to rise, though he held to the line with the tenacity of a dying grip. There were four of them, and they were so weak that they had to be lifted over the side. Coleridge speaks of thirst making a man grin. The torment in these poor creatures had wrought an uglier distortion of countenance even than the simulation of mirth in anguish, and their sole gasp was, "Water!" as they sank down upon the hot deck with lips as white as the planks, and froth like sea-foam oozing from the corners of their mouth.

   It was some hours before any one of them was fit to tell the story of their disaster, and then this was the substance of the relation of the oldest of the four, who had rallied sooner than his mates. Their ship was the barque that Mr. Matthews was now in charge of. They had sailed from Hull two months previously, and whilst wind-bound in the Downs two of the men sneaked ashore in a galley-punt and ran away, and the vessel put to sea short-handed to that extent. Three days after sailing the captain was found dead in his bed. This was the first of a series of misfortunes. Before a fortnight had passed the chief mate was stricken with a kind of fever, from which he never recovered, though he continued to navigate the ship down to within twelve hours of his death. This left eight men. The carpenter, acting as second mate (an uncertificated man) took charge. In the fifth week, whilst reefing topsails, a man fell from aloft, struck his head, and shortly afterwards expired. Another man not long after was disabled by the slipping of the forecastle capstan, and in less than a week his mates' gave him the sailor's last toss over the aide. This left five men to carry on the ship's work. The number would certainly have sufficed, but three days before the Guide sighted the barque the second mate, who was hanging over the stern to get a view of the rudder, fell. The vessel was then going at some six or seven miles an hour, and before the boat could be lowered the man was a long distance astern. Banks of vapour similar to those into which the Guide had steamed had been moving before the breeze over the face of the waters throughout the day, and therefore it was an act of singular indiscretion on the part of the crew to quit the barque. They were chiefly urged, however, by the consideration that the second mate was the only man in the ship who could take a sight or work out the dead reckoning, and that without him their plight would be desperate indeed. They left a young ordinary seaman behind to bring the barque to the wind, and rowed away in the direction where the second mate was swimming; but soon after they had gone a fog-bank rolled down on the vessel, the wind at the same moment freshened a trifle, the weather thickened about them, and being unable to see anything of the Ocean Star during the afternoon they lost her for good in the night.

   Such was the poor fellow's story, and it explained much of the mystery of the abandoned barque. The rest could only be conjectured; but when the survivors of the original crew came to talk the matter over with Mr. Matthews and his men they agreed among them that the ordinary seaman who had been left behind was in the vessel when the Guide sighted her; that he had put the fowl on to cook for his dinner; that on the steamer heaving in view he heaped coals on to the galley fire with the idea, perhaps, of inviting assistance by such signal as smoke would make; that he had lighted the forecastle lamp and left it burning; and that the ill-luck of the ship pursuing him he must have fallen overboard, probably whilst springing on to the rail to watch the steamer. If this was not so, there is no other solution of the mystery of the Ocean Star, and the trimmer was right.




Prepared by John Addy

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