This is part two of “Stories Of A Stewardess: Rescued From A Living Grave”.
Part one was featured in last week’s Fiction newsletter.
During the night the wind somewhat moderated — its tremendous gusts that came howling o’er the seething waters gradually subsiding into a stiff breeze.
As yet the sea still boiled and raged; but as daylight broke o’er their vast waste, a watery gleam of sunlight ever and anon shone out from the dispersing dull grey clouds.
“Would it be safe for me to venture on deck, Miss Symons?” Mrs Bethune asked me, while it was yet early morning. “I feel a strange, unaccountable restlessness. I daresay it is only nervousness, and a breath of fresh air might put it away.”
“Oh, I think you might try it,” I replied. “The Major will accompany you?”
“Yes, yes, certainly. Thank you,” she said, as I tied a cap securely under her chin and pinned a large, fleecy shawl round her.
“You are coming upstairs, too?”
“I’ve an errand to Jackson’s pantry,” I replied.
As she gained the deck and obtained an uninterrupted view of the wild, angry sea, she shrank back with a little cry of fear.
“How dreadful, oh, how dreadful! And we have really weathered such a storm?”
“To be sure we have,” Captain Steele replied, as he advanced towards the old lady. Old Mrs Bethune was immensely popular onboard, and none showed her more attention than did the skipper.
“Our good ship has escaped almost uninjured, thank God. And to judge by the rising barometer and the appearance of the sky, the storm has just about exhausted itself.”
“Is that land I see over there?” the old lady asked, pointing to a few dark specks away on our lea.
“Yes, those are a group of uninhabited islands. They lie far, far out of the ordinary track of vessels, being only visited by ships which have been carried out of their course.”
“And are we out of ours?”
“Well, yes. I’m afraid you’ll have a longer voyage than you bargained for.”
“Ah! We shan’t grumble when all is well,” Mrs Bethune replied gratefully.
“We are to touch at the largest of those islands,” Captain Steele explained. “When we are so near we shall try to obtain a fresh supply of water. So you’ll get a close view of a real desolate island, peopled only be wild sea fowl.”
“Captain Steele,” the old lady said, suddenly, speaking in a very earnest voice. “I am going to make an unusual request to you. When you send the boat ashore, may I go with her?”
“Mrs Bethune! And what would the Major say?”
“Oh, never mind the Major, leave me to deal with him. I should be so very careful, indeed I should; and so very grateful. Now, pray don’t refuse me.”
Judging from her voice and face, she was evidently very much in earnest.
“Well, Mrs Bethune,” the skipper answered slowly, pausing to scratch his head, with a puzzled air, “I really can’t promise until we are close enough to get an idea of the sort of landing place there is.
“But if it is anything safe —”
“Oh, thank you, Captain Steele,” she broke in, without giving him time to finish his sentence. “And when shall we be there?”
“Not for an hour or two. You’ll have plenty of time to take a comfortable breakfast first.”
“Maria, I think you are mad,” Major Charles gruffly said to his wife when she told him of the trip she hoped to take. “I never did hear of such an idea. Whatever put it into your head?”
No wonder though the Major was astonished. Never before in all their long married life had his quiet, gentle little wife proposed doing anything so bold.
“I don’t know,” she replied, while her clear blue eyes grew a little moist. “Do let me go, Charles. You can’t tell how much I want to go.”
However, the Major was like the skipper, he would make no rash promises until he had an idea of the kind of landing-place. As the men made ready to go, the skipper went up to where Mrs Bethune sat beside her husband, and said, gravely —
“I am so sorry, Mrs Bethune, but your going is quite impossible. I dare not allow you to venture.”
“Of course not, Captain Steele, of course not,” the Major said promptly. “It’s entirely out of the question. Just look at that line of foam, Maud? You can see it from here as the waves break against the cliffs.”
“Thank you, Captain Steele,” Mrs Bethune said with her sweet, sad smile. “I am sorry you cannot let me go, but, of course, you know best.”
All the passengers came on deck to watch the progress of the two boats which were sent ashore. Most of those onboard were provided with strong field-glasses, and they kept an interested gaze on the receding boats.
“Ah, they’re landed safely now,” I heard one gentleman say with a sigh of relief as he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. “I wonder how long they’ll stay?”
Presently a low murmur of astonishment went through the folks grouped on deck, and the words “Signals, making signals,” were passed round. In spite of their curiosity and inquisitiveness they could obtain no clue to the meaning of the signals which the men made from the island.
Their excitement rose to fever heat when another boat, in which were seated Captain Steele himself and Dr Crammond, left the ship.
I could see that Mrs Bethune was labouring under great excitement, although she remained very quiet. Her face was quite white, but her eyes were full of feverish light.
“Here they come,” was the cry as the boat left the island and began to row towards the Sultana. As it drew near it was seen that she carried a burden which lay in the bottom covered with men’s coats.
The doctor was there, and he was evidently interested in the black mass at his feet.
All at once it struck me what it would be. The men had found some shipwrecked sailors on the island, and they were bringing them onboard.
As the thought flashed through my brain, I rose to my feet and hastened below to make preparations for their reception. That they required care was evident from Dr Crammond’s attitude.
When I got below I was surprised to find Mrs Bethune at my heels.
“Let me help you, Miss Symons,” she pleaded. “I am not inexperienced. At least, I will not hinder you.”
Knowing that the chance to help others would be good for her in her then nervous state, I cheerfully accepted her assistance, and found she could act promptly and wisely.
When the commotion on deck told of the arrival of the boat, I hastened upstairs, leaving Mrs Bethune below.
“Miss Symons — where is Miss Symons?” the doctor was asking.
“Here, sir,” I answered. “I’ve a warm bed ready. I guessed it might be needed.”
“Ah, that’s well.” Then, turning tot he men, he gave some orders in a low voice.
“Just rescued in time, poor chap,” I heard him say, in answer to a passenger. “Shipwrecked years ago. There’s another man, whom they’re bringing next, but he’s not in nearly such a bad plight.”
Could that poor, gaunt skeleton with the long, matted, unkempt hair and beard be really a living man?
Awe-stricken, I looked at him, while the men carefully laid him in the bed we had prepared. It made my heart bleed to look at him and think of all he must have suffered.
Once or twice the man opened his eyes and looked around, but he never spoke. The only other sign of life he gave was when we put some warm soup to his lips.
With a savage, hungry clutch he seized the bowl and drained its contents. That act alone told a pitiful tale of semi-starvation and direst want.
“May I have a look at him?” Mrs Bethune said, as she approached his bunk. By this time he was fed, and the doctor had gone to attend to the other patient, who was fast approaching the ship.
My answer was to stand aside, in order to let the lady see the poor castaway’s face. All at once I felt my arm clutched in an iron grasp. Looking at my companion in alarm, I saw that she had received a sudden shock.
Still keeping her hold of my arm she bent over the sick man, and in a low, piercing whisper, said —
At the name, the poor, wasted face turned towards her, and the vacant eyes opened.
As her voice again uttered the word, a look of intelligence flashed over his features, and he glanced up into her downbent face.
The long, bony hands were slightly upraised, and the poor pallid lips uttered the magic word —
When the Sultana arrived in England, Leslie Bethune was on the fair road to recovery. He will never be a strong man after all the dreadful privations he underwent.
The very memory of those dreadful years he spent on the island will prevent his ever being exactly like other men.
But to his dear old mother, and his penitent, although still gruff, father, he is very precious, for was he not restored to them from a living grave?
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