At four o’clock on the morning of the 17th, the men who were washing the decks stowed some hay close aft to the admiral’s cabin, near a match-tub, in which it was usual to keep a match burning, for the purpose of firing signals. At six o’clock, when the men were in the act of removing the hay, a portion of it was discovered to have ignited. Not a moment was lost in giving the alarm, and those at hand used every means in their power to extinguish the slumbering element; but the fire had been smouldering for some time before it was discovered. The water thrown upon it from the buckets was useless—the flames bursting forth with such violence that they baffled the most strenuous efforts to overcome them. Such was the posture of affairs when the captain, officers, and men, alarmed by the cry of fire, rushed from all parts of the ship to the scene of conflagration. It would be no easy task to describe the feelings of a number of human beings thus suddenly and awfully awakened to the perils of their situation. For the moment, no doubt, fear predominated over every other feeling, and a degree of confusion ensued. Nor can this be regarded with astonishment, when we remember that of all the dangers to which a sailor is familiarized in his hazardous profession, none is so fraught with horror as a fire at sea.
The battle has no terror for him: he rushes to the conflict excited by the cheers of his comrades and the hopes of victory—
Though fore and aft the blood-stained
Should lifeless trunks appear,
Or should the vessel float a wreck,
The sailor knows no fear.
He glories in the stormy sea, and in ‘the wild wind’s roar:’ they fill him with a fierce delight, while with steady hand and steadfast heart he obeys the voice of his commander; he trusts to his good ship, and ‘laughs at the storm and the battle.’
But how differently does he feel, when roused from his deep slumber by the cry of fire. He rushes upon deck, but half awake, to meet an enemy far more terrible than any he has yet encountered. He finds himself enveloped in a suffocating smoke—here and there gleams a lurid flame—the fire becomes gradually more vivid: it rises higher and higher; grows brighter and brighter. In vain he looks for help,—beneath, nothing meets his eye but the boundless waste of waters, that can avail so little to quench those flames; above, the pathless fields of air, that serve but to increase their fury. The insidious enemy quietly but surely creeps onward, and the sailor knows but too well, that if not speedily arrested, the flames must reach the powder magazine, and then a few smouldering fragments strewed upon the waters will alone remain of the gallant ship and her living freight.
Such was the hideous form in which death presented itself to the minds of the crew of the Queen Charlotte, who now anxiously turned their eyes to their captain and officers, in the hope that, as on former occasions, their example and assistance might enable them to avert the threatened danger. Nor was their confidence misplaced.