Henry blinked the world back into focus, like a swimmer coming up to the surface of the sea. His head ached and his mouth was as dry as a desert. Coughing, he struggled to sit up only to have his vision swim, and he was dragged back under.
“Captain!” he heard his first mate, Mr Martin, call, as if from a long way off. “The captain is awake!”
With effort Henry opened his eyes and saw the anxious face of his first mate gazing down at him. He was in his own quarters, he realised, in his own bed.
“Mr Martin.” His voice was no more than a croak. “Have we sustained any casualties?”
Henry closed his eyes in relief.
“Water, please,” he said, and after he’d managed a few sips he turned back to his first mate. “And the state of the ship?”
“Not good, sir.”
“Give me the particulars.”
“The mast is cracked, sir, and the main sail is in tatters. We can’t repair until we put into port.”
Henry’s heart sank. They were in nearly the most desolate stretch of ocean on Earth. Putting into port anywhere was unlikely, perhaps impossible. He thought of the water he’d just sipped.
“How are we for supplies?”
“We have water for five days, more if we ration it carefully.”
Five days. Dead in the water on this endless stretch of blue, it was not enough. It was practically nothing. Exhausted, Henry leaned back against the bolster and closed his eyes. His head ached abominably.
“Begin rations,” he finally said. “And let us pray that God sees fit to send us a saviour.”
The storm that had devastated the ship had given way, Henry saw when he made his way to the deck the next morning, to a hazy, languid calm. The sky and sea shimmered in the heat, the horizon flat and endless, without any sign at all of life. Henry tried to keep his attitude cheerful and efficient, but his own injuries and the fear that twisted inside him made it difficult. He saw his men’s tense faces, knew that none of them wished to die of thirst. It was every sailor’s fear, worse than being lost overboard.
Henry walked briskly over to his navigator Mr Ellison, who had had his spyglass trained on the flat line of the horizon.
“What is it, Mr Ellison?”
“I believe I see something, sir.”
“Permit me?” Henry said, holding his hand out, and the navigator handed him the instrument.
It took him a moment to find it, but then he saw a faint black smudge on the horizon. A ship or a cloud? It was impossible to say.
“Continue to observe,” Henry said briskly, “and inform me of any movements.”
With an encouraging smile for his men, he returned to his quarters and the letter he’d been writing to Margaret, the last letter, perhaps, that he might ever write. Swallowing past the tightness in his throat, he dipped his quill in the ink pot and began to write.
We have food enough but water only for five days, a few more if we are sparing. I pray that we might yet be rescued from this calamity, but my heart fails within me, my dearest, without you near me to bolster my spirits.
Sighing, Henry laid the quill down and pushed the ink pot away. He wanted his last words – if they were indeed his last words – to Margaret to be ones of love and encouragement, not fear and desperation.
Henry turned to see his first mate at the door.
“It is a ship, sir. It is a ship!”
Henry rose from the table and hurried to the deck. Mr Ellison handed him the spyglass and he stared at the now-visible form of a ship. But what kind of ship? And from what country?
He hesitated, knowing that in these distant waters a ship could just as easily be foe as friend. Yet what choice did he have? Already they had been adrift for two days. This might be their only chance.
He nodded towards his first mate.
“Fire the first rocket.”
He watched as the sailors set the distress signal to light and it rose into the twilit sky, showering sparks high into the air.
“We’ll fire another in an hour,” Henry said. “God willing, we will be seen.”
The night passed slowly. It appeared the ship on the horizon was moving closer, but there was no acknowledgement of the three rockets they’d sent up into the sky. Anxiety twisted Henry’s insides. What manner of ship could it be? In the darkness it was impossible to tell.
Dawn broke slowly, clouds of silvery mist lying low over the water, the air heavy and damp. Every man stood on deck, straining through the fog to see if the ship had come closer in the night, or sailed past them for ever.
Then it appeared through the shreds of mist now evaporating in the rising sun, slipping silently through the water, a ghost ship. Cheers rose from his crew and were abruptly silenced as the ship came closer. There could be no mistaking its red sails and brightly painted hull. The ship that now approached them was a Chinese war junk, and most certainly an enemy.