Chapter 12 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Life-Preserver.

The concussion, unlike anything I had ever heard, was, nevertheless, significant of the nature of the catastrophe. I felt an instantaneous conviction that the boilers had burst, and such in reality was the fact.

At the moment, I chanced to be on the balcony in rear of my state-room. I was holding by the guard-rail,—else the shock and the sudden lurch of the boat would have flung me headlong.

Scarce knowing what I did, I staggered into my state-room, and through the opposite door into the main saloon.

Here I paused and looked around me. The whole forward part of the boat was shrouded in steam and smoke, and already a portion of the hot scalding vapour floated through the cabin.

Dreading the contact of this, I rushed aft; but by a fortunate chance the lurch of the boat had brought her stern to windward, and the breeze blew the dangerous element away.

The engine was now silent—the wheels had ceased to move—the ’scape-pipe no longer gave out its booming notes; but instead of these sounds, others of terrible import fell upon the ear. The shouts of men, mingled with oaths—wild, awful imprecations—the more shrill piercing shrieks of women—the groans of rounded from the deck below—the agonised cry of those blown into the water and drowning—all rang upon the ear with terrible emphasis!

How changed the tones from those that, but a moment before, pealed from the self-same lips!

The smoky vapour was soon partially blown off, and I could catch a glimpse of the forward part of the boat. There a complete chaos met the eye. The smoking-saloon, the bar with its contents, the front awning, and part of the starboard wheel-house, were completely carried away—blown up as if a mine had been sprung beneath them—and the huge sheet-iron funnels had fallen forward upon the deck! At a glance I was convinced that captain, pilots, all who had been upon that part of the boat, must have perished!

Of course such reflections passed with the rapidity of thought itself, and occupied me not a moment of time. I felt that I was still unhurt, and my first natural thought was that of preserving my life. I had sufficient presence of mind to know there was no danger of a second explosion; but I perceived that the boat was badly injured, and already leaning to one side. How long would she swim?

I had hardly asked myself the question when it was answered by a voice that, in terrified accents, shouted out:—

“Good God! she is sinking! she is sinking!”

This announcement was almost simultaneous with the cry of “Fire!” and at the same moment flames were seen bursting forth and shooting up to the height of the hurricane-deck! Whether by burning up or going down, it was evident the wreck would afford us but short refuge.

The thoughts of the survivors were now turned to the Magnolia. I looked in the direction of that boat. I perceived that she was doing her best to back, and put round toward us; but she was still several hundred yards off! In consequence of the Belle having steered a while towards the Bringiers landing, the boats no longer ran in the same track; and, although they were head and head at the moment of the explosion, they were separated from each other by a wide stretch of the river. A full quarter of a mile distant appeared the Magnolia; and it was evident that a considerable time must elapse before she could get alongside. Would the wreck of the Belle keep afloat so long?

At a glance I was convinced it would not. I felt it settling down under my feet inch by inch; and the blaze already threatened the after-part of the boat, licking the light wood-work of the gaudy saloon as if it had been flax! Not a moment was to be lost: we must take voluntarily to the water, be drawn in by the sinking wreck, or driven to it by the fire. One of the three was inevitable!

You will fancy me to have been in a state of extreme terror at this moment. Such, however, was not the case. I had not the slightest fear for my own safety: not that I was redeemed from the common lot by any superior courage, but simply that I had confidence in my resources. Though sufficiently reckless in my temperament, I have never been a fatalist. I have saved my life more than once by acts of volition—by presence of mind and adroitness. The knowledge of this has freed me from the superstitions of fore-ordination and fatalism; and therefore, when not too indolent, I take precautions against danger.

I had done so on the occasion of which I am writing. In my portmanteau I carried—I do so habitually—a very simple contrivance, a life-preserver. I always carry it in such a position as to be ready to the hand. It is but the work of a moment to adjust this, and with it around my body I feel no fear of being plunged into the broadest river, or even a channel of the sea. It was the knowledge of this, and not any superior courage, that supported me.

I ran back to my state-room—the portmanteau was open—and in another moment I held the piece of quilted cork in my hands. In a few seconds its strap was over my head, and the strings securely knotted around my waist.

Thus accoutred, I stood inside the state-room, intending to remain there till the wreck should sink nearer the surface of the water. Settling rapidly as it was, I was convinced I should not have long to wait. I closed the inner door of the room, and turned the bolt. The outer one I held slightly ajar, my hand firmly clutching the handle.

I had my object in thus shutting myself up. I should be less exposed to the view of the terror-stricken wretches that ran to and fro like spectres—for any fear I now had was of them—not of the water. I knew that, should the life-preserver be discovered, I should have a crowd around me in a moment—in fact, that escape by such means would be hopeless. Dozens would follow me into the water—would cling to my limbs—would drag me, in their despairing grasp, to the bottom!

I knew this; and, clutching the Venetian door with firmer grasp, I stood peering through the apertures in stealthy silence.