Not a sound met his ear, in vain his anxious gaze endeavoured to pierce the gloom, but the darkness was too intense. Minutes appeared like hours, and still the awful silence remained unbroken; he felt, and the thought was agony, that out of the twenty-four human beings who had so lately trod the deck of the schooner, he alone was left. This terrible suspense became almost beyond the power of endurance, and he already began to envy the fate of his companions, when he heard a voice at no great distance inquiring if there was any one near. He answered in the affirmative, and pushing out in the direction from whence the sound proceeded, he reached a boat, to which seven persons were clinging; amongst whom was Lieutenant Smith, the commander of the sloop.
So far this was a subject of congratulation; he was no longer alone; but yet the chances of his ultimate preservation were as distant as ever.
The boat, which had been placed on the booms of the schooner, had fortunately escaped clear of the sinking vessel, and if the men had waited patiently, was large enough to have saved them all; but the suddenness of the calamity had deprived them of both thought and prudence. Several men had attempted to climb in on one side,—the consequence was, the boat heeled over, became half filled with water, and then turned keel uppermost; and when Meldrum reached her, he found some stretched across the keel and others hanging on by the sides.
Matters could not last long in this way, and Mr. Smith, seeing the impossibility of any of the party being saved, if they continued in their present position, endeavoured to bring them to reason, by pointing out the absurdity of their conduct. To the honour of the men, they listened with the same respect to their commander, as if they had been on board the schooner; those on the keel immediately relinquished their hold, and succeeded, with the assistance of their comrades, in righting the boat. Two of their number got into her and commenced baling with their hats, whilst the others remained in the water, supporting themselves by the gunwales.
Order being restored, their spirits began to revive, and they entertained hopes of escaping from their present peril; but this was of short duration, and the sufferings which they had as yet endured, were nothing in comparison with what they had now to undergo.
The two men had scarcely commenced baling, when the cry was heard of—’A shark! a shark!’ No words can describe the consternation which ensued: it is well known the horror sailors have of these voracious animals, who seem apprised by instinct when their prey is at hand. All order was at an end, the boat again capsized, and the men were left struggling in the waters. The general safety was neglected, and it was every man for himself; no sooner had one got hold of the boat, than he was pushed away by another, and in this fruitless contest more than one life was nearly sacrificed.