"There are latitudes close to the trade-winds," said Ready, "where the wind is not certain, where ships have been becalmed for weeks; the crews have exhausted the water on board, and they have suffered dreadfully. We call them the Horse latitudes - why, I do not know. But it is time for us to leave off, and for Master William to go into the house."
They returned home, and after supper Ready went on with his narrative.
"I left off at the time that I was sent on board of the man-of-war, and I was put down on the books as a supernumerary boy. I was on board of her for nearly four years, and we were sent about from port to port, and from clime to clime, until I grew a strong, tall lad, and was put into the mizen-top. I found it very comfortable. I did my duty, and the consequence was, I never was punished; for a man may serve on board of a man-of-war without fear of being punished, if he only does his duty, and the duty is not very hard either; not like on board of the merchant vessels, where there are so few hands - there it is hard work. Of course, there are some captains who command men-of-war who are harsh and severe; but it was my good fortune to be with a very mild and steady captain, who was very sorry when he was obliged to punish the men, although he would not overlook any improper conduct. The only thing which was a source of constant unhappiness to me was, that I could not get to England again, and see my mother. I had written two or three letters, but never had an answer; and at last I became so impatient that I determined to run away the very first opportunity which might offer. We were then stationed in the West Indies, and I had very often consultations with Hastings on the subject, for he was quite as anxious to get away as I was; and we had agreed that we would start off together the very first opportunity. At last we anchored in Port Royal, Jamaica, and there was a large convoy of West India ships, laden with sugar, about to sail immediately. We knew that if we could get on board of one, they would secrete us until the time of sailing, for they were short-handed enough, the men-of-war having pressed every man they could lay their hands upon. There was but one chance, and that was by swimming on board of one of the vessels during the night-time, and that was easy enough, as they were anchored not a hundred yards from our own ship. What we were afraid of was the sharks, which were so plentiful in the harbour. However, the night before the convoy was to sail we made up our minds that we would run the risk, for we were so impatient to escape that we did not care for anything. It was in the middle watch - I recollect it, and shall recollect it all my life, as if it were last night - that we lowered ourselves down very softly from the bows of the ship, and as soon as we were in the water we struck out for one of the West Indiamen close to us. The sentry at the gangway saw the light in the water made by our swimming through it, and he hailed, of course; we gave no answer, but swam as fast as we could; for after he had hailed we heard a bustle, and we knew that the officer of the watch was manning a boat to send after us. I had just caught hold of the cable of the West Indiaman, and was about to climb up by it, for I was a few yards before Hastings, when I heard a loud shriek, and, turning round, perceived a shark plunging down with Hastings in his jaws. I was so frightened, that for a short time I could not move: at last I recovered myself, and began to climb up by the cable as fast as I could. I was just in time, for another shark made a rush at me; and although I was clear out of the water more than two feet, he sprung up and just caught my shoe by the heel, which he took down with him. Fear gave me strength, and in a second or two afterwards I was up at the hawse-holes, and the men on board, who had been looking over the bows, and had witnessed poor Hastings' death, helped me on board, and hurried me down below, for the boat from our ship was now nearly alongside. When the officer of the boat came on board, they told him they had perceived us both in the water, close to their vessel, and that the sharks had taken us down. As the shriek of Hastings was heard by the people in the boat, the officer believed that it was the case, and returned to the ship. I heard the drum beat to quarters on board of the man-of-war, that they might ascertain who were the two men who had attempted to swim away, and a few minutes afterwards they beat the retreat, having put down D. D. against my name on the books, as well as against that of poor Hastings."
"D. stands for discharged from the service; D. D. stands for dead," replied Ready; "and it was only through the mercy of Providence that I was not so."
"It was a miraculous escape indeed," observed Mr. Seagrave.
"Yes, indeed, sir; I can hardly describe my sensations for some hours afterwards. I tried to sleep, but could not - I was in agony. The moment I slumbered, I thought the shark had hold of me, and I would start up and shriek; and then I said my prayers and tried to go to sleep again, but it was of no use. The captain of the West Indiaman was afraid that my shrieks would be heard, and he sent me down a tumbler of rum to drink off; this composed me, and at last I fell into a sound sleep. When I awoke, I found that the ship was under weigh and with all canvas set, surrounded by more than a hundred other vessels; the men-of-war who took charge of the convoy, firing guns and making signals incessantly. It was a glorious sight, and we were bound for Old England. I felt so happy, that I thought I would risk the jaws of another shark to have regained my liberty, and the chance of being once more on shore in my own country, and able to go to Newcastle and see my poor mother."
"I am afraid that your miraculous escape did you very little good, Ready," observed Mrs. Seagrave, "if you got over it so soon."
"Indeed, madam, it was not so; that was only the feeling which the first sight of the vessels under weigh for England produced upon me. I can honestly say that I was a better and more serious person. The very next night, when I was in my hammock, I prayed very fervently; and there happened to be a very good old Scotchman on board, the second mate, who talked very seriously to me, and pointed out how wonderful had been my preservation, and I felt it. It was he who first read the Bible with me, and made me understand it, and, I may say, become fond of it. I did my duty on our passage home as a seaman before the mast, and the captain was pleased with me. The ship I was in was bound to Glasgow, and we parted company with the convoy at North Foreland, and arrived safe in port. The captain took me to the owners, who paid me fifteen guineas for my services during the voyage home; and as soon as I received the money, I set off for Newcastle as fast as I could. I had taken a place on the outside of the coach, and I entered into conversation with a gentleman who sat next to me. I soon found out that he belonged to Newcastle, and I first inquired if Mr. Masterman, the ship-builder, was still alive. He told me that he had been dead about three months. `And to whom did he leave his money?' I asked, `for he was very rich, and had no kin.' `He had no relations,' replied the gentleman, `and he left all his money to build an hospital and almshouses. He had a partner in his business latterly, and he left the yard and all the stores to him, I believe, because he did not know whom to leave it to. There was a lad whom I knew for certain he intended to have adopted and to have made his heir - a lad of the name of Ready; but he ran away to sea, and has never been heard of since. It is supposed that he was lost in a prize, for he was traced so far. Foolish boy that he was. He might now have been a man of fortune.'