Captain Macpherson recovered himself; his tone became once more quick and incisive. “Ye’re right; I’m gone daffy. We’ll get this business over in a decorous and decent manner. And, Mr. O’Brien—lest I have nae time to speak of it later—should ye get ashore, and ever find yourself in the neighborhood o’ Piccadilly, be so gude as to drop into the admiralty office and say Captain Macpherson sends his compliments, and—to the diel with their charts!”
“I’ll not forget, sir!” A number of orders followed.
As the chief mate disappeared to execute the commands he had received, the harsh noises of the breaking ship, the seething of the sea about her, the flapping of canvas, like helpless broken wings, was supplemented by a babel of new and terrifying sounds, the screaming and cursing of the convicts below, their blasphemous shrieking to be let out! To this turmoil and uproar were added the frantic appeals and inquiries of the passengers who, more or less dressed, had hurried to the deck and who were now speaking to the master of the ill-starred vessel. He answered them briefly: what could be done, would be done.
“It’s a question of the boats, I suppose?” Sir Charles, one of the calmest of the ship’s cabin party, asked quickly.
“In ten minutes they’ll be ready for the launching with nae lack of water and provision. Get plenty of wraps and greatcoats. It’ll be a bit disagreeable, nae doubt, out yon in the wee craft!”
“Wee craft!” The voice of the governor’s lady—she was clinging to her husband’s arm—rose shrilly. “You surely are not going to send us out there in one of these miserable cockleshells?”
“M’love!” Sir Charles expostulated mildly drawing her closer as he spoke, “it’s the only chance, and—” Then to the captain half-apologetically—“She’ll meet it with me, as she has met danger before, in the bush, like a true English-woman! But what,” indicating the convicts’ deck, “what about them? It seems inhuman, yet if they were let out—”
“They must not be!” Lord Ronsdale’s metallic voice interposed quickly. “I call upon you, Captain Macpherson, in the name of the women and children—”
“I’ve thought about that,” said Captain Macpherson shortly, and turned to his task.
The boat was soon overhauled, the lockers and water-butt were filled, and the passengers, one by one, set into it. On the whole, at that moment for leaving the ship, their conduct left little room for criticism; one or two of the women who had appeared on the verge of hysterics now restrained audible manifestation of emotion. Sir Charles proved a monument of helpfulness; assisted in placing the women here and there, and extended a helpful hand to Lord Ronsdale, who had become somewhat dazed and inert. Total darkness added to the difficulties of their task, for the moon which until then had shone with much luster now went behind a curtain of cloud. But Captain Macpherson coolly called out by name the men to handle the life-boat, and, with no evidence of disorder, they crowded in, none too soon! As the boat with its human freight hung in readiness for the lowering, the remaining spar of the Lord Nelson fell with a mighty crash.