But no boat appeared to gain on the others, and the one which had started first continued to maintain her advantage till the work of rescuing the sufferers actually began. By this time the action of the waves had separated the party, so that they were scattered over a considerable surface of the breaking billows. Mr. Boulong could see that some of the men in the water were nearly exhausted; for many of them had wasted their strength in useless struggles.
The first cutter was approaching a man who was at the extremity of the western wing of the party. He was a European of thirty years or less; and though his head, hair, and beard were dripping with salt water, there was something in his expression, as he bestowed a single glance upon the boat now close to him, which commanded the respect, and even admiration, of the first officer. He was cool and self-possessed in spite of the peril of his situation, and was observing with painful solicitude the struggles of a person about ten fathoms from him.
“Stand by to lay on your oars!” said Mr. Boulong with energy, when the first cutter was within a boat’s length of the individual. “Hold water! Stand by to haul him in, Knott!” he added to the bow man. “Stern all!”
These orders were given as the boat came within her length of the man; and Knott was unshipping his oar, when the stranger raised his left hand, pointing to the struggling person he had been observing in spite of the near approach of the cutter.
“Save that man first, for he is drowning!” he shouted in tones full of anxiety, if not positive suffering. “I can take care of myself for a while longer.”
Mr. Boulong’s vision had taken in the drowning man, and he fully realized that the person’s situation was desperate, if he was not already hopelessly lost. He had struggled and twisted himself in his involuntary efforts, till his life-preserver had worked its way down to his hips, and then it overthrew him; for he turned a somerset, and disappeared under a coming wave. He had utterly “lost his head,” and was like an infant in the fury of the billows.
The men were still backing water with their oars, in obedience to the order of the officer; but as soon as the oars would go clear of the self-possessed gentleman, Mr. Boulong gave the command to “Give way!” and again the cutter went ahead.
It required but a few strokes to give the necessary headway to the boat; and Knott was again ordered to stand by to haul him in. The great wave ingulfed and swept over him, and again left him aimlessly battling with the killing billows. The bowman was in position, and leaned over so far to reach the sufferer, that the officer ordered the next two men to seize him by the legs, to prevent him from being dragged overboard.