The Shipwreck

Excerpt from “Self Raised” 1864

By E.D.E.N. Southworth

     In the ladies’ cabin there were two social whist parties, formed of the ladies of the Scotch professor’s family and the gentlemen of our set.

     They were playing with great enjoyment, notwithstanding that little undercurrent of vague uneasiness of which I spoke, when the Scotchman who had been on deck all evening, came down into the cabin, wearing a long face.

     But the whist-players were too much interested in their game to notice the lugubrious expression of the old man, until he came to the table, and in a tone of the most alarming gravity exclaimed:

     “Don’t be frightened!”

     Every lady dropped her cards and turned deadly pale with terror, every gentleman looked up inquiringly at this judicious sneaker.

     “What is there to be frightened at, sir?” coldly inquired Ishmael.

     “Well, you know our situation -- but, ladies, for heaven’s sake, be composed. Your sex are noted for heroism in the midst of danger --.”

     Here, to prove his words good, one of the ladies shrieked, fell back in her chair, and covered her face with her hands.

     “These ladies are not aware of any danger, sir, and I think it is quite needless to alarm them.” said Ishmael gravely.

     “My good young friend, I don’t wish to alarm them, I came down here on purpose to exhort them to coolness and self-possession, so necessary in the hour of peril. How, dear ladies, I must beg that you will not suffer yourselves to be agitated.”

     “There is really, sir, no present cause for agitation, except, if you will pardon me for saying it, your own needlessly alarming words and manner.“ said Ishmael cheerfully, to reassure the frightened women, who seemed upon the very verge of hysterics.

     “No, no, no, certainly no cause for agitation, ladies -- certainly not. Therefore don’t be agitated, I beg of you. But -- but -- don’t undress and go to bed tonight. Lie down on the outside of your berths just as you are, for, look you -- we may all have to take to the lifeboats at a minute’s warning.” said the doctor, his long, pale face looking longer and paler than ever under his round, black skullcap.

     A half-smothered shriek burst simultaneously from all the women present.

     “I trust, sir, that your fears are entirely groundless. I have heard no apprehensions expressed in any other quarter.” said Ishmael. And although he never begged the ladies not to be "frightened", yet every cheerful word he spoke tended to calm their fears.

     “What cause have you for such forebodings, doctor?” inquired Mr. Brudenell.

     “Oh, none at all, sir. There is no reason to be alarmed. I hope nobody will be alarmed especially the ladies. But you see the captain has not been able to make any observation for the last three days on account of the fog, and it is said that no one accurately knows just where we are, except that we are on the Banks, somewhere, and may strike before we know it. That is all. Now don’t be terrified. And don’t lose your presence of mind. And whatever you do, don’t take off your clothes, for if we strike you mayn’t have time to put then on again, and scanty raiment in an open bout, on a wintry night at sea, wouldn’t be pleasant. Now mind what I tell you. I shall not turn in myself. I am going on deck to Watch.”

     And having succeeded in spreading a panic among the women, the old man took himself and his black skullcap out of the cabin. Exclamation of surprise, fear, and horror followed his departure.

     There was no more card-playing, they did not even finish their game, they felt it to be sacrilegious to engage in even a ‘ladies’ game of whist, on the eve of possible shipwreck perhaps on the brink of eternity.

     Ishmael gathered up and put away the cards and set himself earnestly to calm the fears of his trembling fellow-passengers, but they were not to be soothed. Then he offered to go up on deck and make inquiries as to the situation, course, and prospects of the ship, but they would not consent to his leaving them, they earnestly besought him to stay, and declared that they found assurance and comfort in his presence.

     At length he took the Bible and seated himself at the table, and read to them such portions as were suited to their condition. He read for more than an hour, and then, hoping that this had composed their spirits, he closed the book and counseled them to retire and take some rest, and promised to station himself outside the cabin door and be their vigilant sentinel, to warn them of danger the instant it should become necessary.

     But no! They each and all declared sleep to be impossible under the circumstances. And they continued to sit around the table with their arms laid on its top and their heads buried in them, waiting for -- what? Who could tell?

     Meanwhile the ship was borne swiftly on by wind and wave -- wither? None of these frightened women knew.

     Eight bells struck -- twelve, midnight, and Ishmael renewed his entreaties that they would take some repose. But in vain, for they declared that there could be no repose for their bodies while their minds were suffering such intense anxiety.

     One bell struck, and there they sat, two bells, and there they still sat, and there was but little conversation after this. Three bells struck, and they sat on, so motionless that Ishmael hoped they had fallen asleep on their watch and he refrained from addressing them, four bells struck. It was two o’clock in the morning, and dead silence reigned in the ladies cabin. Everyone except Ishmael had gone to sleep.

     Suddenly through the stillness a cry rang -- a joyous cry. It was the voice of the man on the lookout, and it shouted forth:

     “Land ho!”

     “Where away?” called another voice.

     “On her lee bow!”

     “What do you make of it?”

     “Cape Safety lighthouse!”

     A shout went up from the passengers on deck. A simultaneous, involuntary, joyous three times three.

     “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”

     A devout thanksgiving ascended from lshmael’s heart.

     “Thank God!” he fervently exclaimed.

     It was indeed an infinite relief.

     Then he turned to wake up his wearied fellow -- passengers who had fallen asleep in such uneasy attitudes -- arms folded on the top of the table and heads fallen on the folded arms.

     “Ladies! Dear ladies! Dear Mrs. Kerr! You may retire to rest now. We have made Cape Safety.” he said, going from one to another and gently rousing them.

     They were a little bewildered at first, and while they were still trying to understand what Ishmael was saying, the Scotch professor burst into the cabin and enlightened them by a coup-de-main.

     “You may all undress and go to bed now, and sleep in peace, without the least fear of a shipwreck.”

     “Eh, pa! Is it so -- are we safe?” cried the elder daughter.

     “Safe as St. Paul’s. We know where we are now. We have made Cape Safety lighthouse. Go to bed and sleep easy. I’m going now. Come along, Jeanie.” said the doctor to his old wife.

     “Not until I have shaken hands with this good young gentleman. I don’t know what would have become of us, doctor, after you frightened us so badly, if it had not been for him. He stayed with us and kept up our hearts, God Bless, you, young sir!” said Mrs. Dr. Kerr, fervently pressing Ishmael’s hands.

     Ishmael himself was glad to go to rest, so he only stopped long enough to bid goodnight to Judge Merlin and Mr. Brudenell, who had just awakened to a sense of security, and then he went to his stateroom and turned in.

     Thoroughly wearied in mind and body, he had no sooner touched his pillow than he fell into a deep sleep -- a sleep that annihilated several hours of time.

     He slept until he was aroused by a tremendous shock -- a shock that threw him, strong, heavy, athletic man as he was, from his stateroom berth to the cabin floor. He was on his feet in a moment, though stunned, confused, and amazed. The poor ship was shuddering throughout her whole frame like a living creature in the agony of death.

     Men who had been violently thrown from their berths to the floor were everywhere picking themselves up and trying to collect their scattered sense. Crowds were hurrying from the cabins and saloons to the deck. The voices of the officers were heard in quick, anxious, peremptory orders, and those of the crew in prompt, eager, terrified responses.

     And through all came shrieks of terror, anguish, and despair.

     “The ship has struck!” “We are lost!” “God have mercy!” were the cries.

   Ishmael hurried on his clothes and rushed to the deck, here all was panic, confusion, and unutterable distress. The fog had cleared away, day was dawning, and there was just light enough to show them the utter hopelessness of their position.

     The steamer had struck a rock, and with such tremendous force that she was already parting amidships, her bows were already-under water and the sea was breaking over her with fearful force.

     How had this happened, with the lighthouse ahead? Was it really a lighthouse, or was it a false beacon?

     No one could tell no one had time to ask. Everybody was fast crowding to the stern of the ship, the only part of her that was out of water. Some crawled up, half drowned, some dripping wet, some scarcely yet awake, acting upon the blind impulse of self-preservation.

     Two of the lifeboats had been forcibly reft away from the side of the ship by the violence of the shock and carried off by the sea. Only two remained, and it was nearly certain that they were not of sufficient capacity to save the crew and passengers.

     But the danger was imminent -- a moment’s delay might be fatal to all on board the wreck, not an instant was to be lost.

     The order was quickly given:

     “Get out the lifeboats!”

     And the sailors sprang to obey.

     At this moment another fatality threatened the doomed crew -- it was what might have been expected, the steerage passengers, mostly a low and brutalized order of men, in whom the mere animal instinct of love of life and fear of death was predominant over every nobler emotion, came rushing in a body up the deck, and crying with one voice:

     “To the lifeboats! To the lifeboats! Let us seize the lifeboats and save ourselves!”

     Everyone else was panic-stricken. It is in crises like this that the true hero is developed. With the bound of a young Achilles Ishmael seized a heavy iron bar and sprang to the starboard gangway, where the two remaining boats were still suspended, and standing at bay, with limbs apart, and eyes threatening, and his fearful weapon raised in his right hand, he thundered forth:

     “Who tries to pass here dies that instant! Stand off!”

     Before this young hero the crowd of senseless, rushing brutes recoiled as from a fire.

     He pursued and secured his victory with a few nodes:

     “Are you men? If so, before all, let helpless childhood, and feeble womanhood, and venerable age be saved, and then you. I demand of you no more than I am willing to do myself. I will be the last to leave the wreck. I will see you all in safety before I attempt to save my own life.

     So great is the power of heroism over all, that even these brutal men, so selfish, senseless, and impetuous a moment before, were now subdued, nay, some of them were inspired and raised a Hurrah.

     Fear of a possible reaction among the steerage passengers, however, caused old Captain Mounts, Judge Merlin, Hr. Brudenell, Dr. Kerr, Jem Morris, the Jew, and several others to come to the support of Ishmael. Among the rest the captain of the steamer came.

     “Young man, you have saved all our lives.” he said.

     Ishmael slowly bowed his head.

     “I hope God has saved you all.” he answered.

     The sailors were now busy getting down the lifeboats. It was but the work of a very few minutes.

     “Let the ladies and children be brought forward,” ordered the captain. And the women and children, some screaming, some weeping, and some dumb with terror, were lowered into one of the boats.

     “Now the nearest male relatives of these ladies to the same boats.” was the captain’s next order.

     And Dr. Kerr and about a dozen other gentlemen presented themselves, and were lowered into the boat, where they were received with-hysterical cries of mingled joy and fear by the women.

     And all this time the sea was dashing fearfully over the wreck, and at every interval the planks of the deck upon which they clung was felt to swell and sway as if they were about to part.

     “Now the old men!” shouted the captain.

     Ishmael took Judge Merlin by the arm, and with gentle coercion passed him on to the sailors, who lowered him into the boat.

     Then Captain Mountz and several other old men, and many who were not old, but were willing to appear so “for this occasion only” followed and were passed down to the boat.

     Then Ishmael looked around in concern. The professor was lingering in the background.

     “Come here, Morris? You certainly fall under the heed of old men.“ he said, taking the professor by the elbow and gently pushing him forward.

     “No, young Ishmael, no! I cannot go! The boat is as full as can be packed now -- or at least it won’t hold more than one more, and you ought to go, and I will not crowd you out.” urged the old man, with passionate earnestness.

     And all this time the see was thundering over the wreck and entirely drenching everybody, and nearly drowning some.

     “Morris, I shall not in any case enter the boat, there is no time, when scores of lives are in imminent danger, to argue the point. But -- as you never disobeyed me in your life before, I now lay my commands on you to go into that boat.” said Ishmael, with the tone and manner of a monarch.

     With a cry of despair the professor let himself drop into the lifeboat to be saved.

     The boat was now really as full as it could possibly be crammed with safety to its passengers. And it was detained only until a cask of fresh water and a keg of biscuit could be thrown into it, and then it gave way for the second lifeboat to come up to the gangway. This second boat was rapidly filled. But when it was crowded quite full there still remained upon the breaking wreck Ishmael and ten of the younger steerage passengers.

     “Come! Come!” shouted the captain of the steamer who was in the second boat. “Come, Mr. Worth! There is room for one more! There is always room for one more.”

     “If there is room for one more, take one of these young men, my companions.” replied Ishmael gravely.

     “No! No! If we cannot take all, why take one of their number instead of taking you. Mr. Worth? Come! Come! Do not keep us here! It is dangerous!” urged the captain.

     “Pass on! I remain here!” answered Ishmael steadfastly.

     “But that is madness. What good will it do? Come, quick! Climb up on the bulwarks and leap down to the boat! You are young and active, and can do it! Quick!”

     “Give way! I shall remain here.” replied Ishmael, folding his arms and planting himself firmly on the quaking deck, over which the sea incessantly thundered.

     “Ishmael! Ishmael! My son! My son! For Heavens sake -- for my sake, -- come! Cried Mr. Brudenell, holding out his arms in an agony of prayer.

     “Father,” replied the young man, in this supreme moment of fate not refusing him that paternal title, “father,” he repeated, with impassioned fervor, “father, every one of these men has the precedence of me, in the right to be saved. For when I intervened between them and the lifeboats they were shout to seize, I promised then that I would see every one of them to safety before attempting to save myself, I promised them that I would he the very last men to leave the wreck. Father, they confided in me, and I will keep my word with them.”

     “But you cannot save their lives!” cried Mr. Brudenell with a gesture of desperation.

     “I can keep my word by staying with them.” was the firm reply.

     While Ishmael spoke there was a rapid consultation going on among his companions on the wreck. Then one of them spoke for the rest:

     “Go and save yourself, young gentleman. We give you back your promise.”

     Ishmael turned and smiled on them with benignity, as he replied sweetly:

     “I thank you, friends. I thank you earnestly. You are brave and generous men. But from such a pledge as I have given, you have no power to release me.”

     “Ishmael! Ishmael, for Bee’s sake!” cried Judge Merlin, stretching his arms imploringly towards the young men. “For Bee’s sake, Ishmael think of Bee!”

     “Oh, I do! I do think of her!” said the young man, in a voice of impassioned grief “God bless her! God forever bless her! But not even for her dear sake must I shrink from duty. I honor her too much to live to offer her the dishonored hand of a craven. Tell her this, and tell her that my last earthly thought was hers. We shall nest in eternity.”

     “Ishmael, Ishmael!” simultaneously cried Judge Merlin and Mr. Brudenell, as they saw a tremendous sea break in thunder over the wreck, which was instantly whirled violently around as in the vortex of a maelstrom.

     “Give way! Give way! Quick! For your lives! The wreck is going and she will draw down the boats!” shouted Ishmael, waving his arm from the whirling deck.

     The sailors on board the lifeboats laid themselves vigorously to their oars, and rowed them swiftly away from the whirling eddy around the settling wreck. The passengers on board the boats averted their heads or veiled their eyes -- they could not look upon the death of Ishmael.

     But as the boats bounded away, something leaped from one of them with the heavy plunge of a large dog into the water, and the next instant the old gray head of Jim Morris was seen rising from the foaming waves. He struggled towards the deck, clambered up its sides and sunk at Ishmael’s feet, embracing his knees, weeping, and crying:

     “Young Ishmael! Master! Master! Oh, let me die with you?”

     Speechless from profound emotion, Ishmael stooped and raised the old man and clasped him to his bosom with one arm, while with the other he waved adieu to the rapidly receding lifeboats.


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

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