Mr. Robert Bruce, originally descended from some branch of the Scottish family of that name, was born, in humble circumstances, about the close of the last century, at Torbay, in the south of England, and there bred up to a seafaring life.
On one of her voyages bound westward, being then some five or six weeks out and having neared the eastern portion of the Banks of Newfoundland, the captain and mate had been on deck at noon, taking an observation of the sun; after which they both descended to calculate their days work.
The cabin, a small one, was immediately at the stern of the vessel, and the short stairway descending to it ran athwart-ships. Immediately opposite to this stairway, just beyond a small square landing, was the mates state-room; and from that landing there were two doors, close to each other, the one opening aft into the cabin, the other, fronting the stairway, into the state-room. The desk in the state-room was in the forward part of it, close to the door; so that any one sitting at it and looking over his shoulder could see into the cabin.
The mate, absorbed in his calculation, which did not result as he expected, varying considerably from the dead-reckoning, had not noticed the captains motions. When he had completed his calculations, he called out, without looking round, I make our latitude and longitude so and so. Can that be right? How is yours?
Receiving no reply, he repeated his question, glancing over his shoulder and perceiving, as he thought, the captain busy writing on his slate. Still no answer. Thereupon he rose; and, as he fronted the cabin-door, the figure he had mistaken for the captain raised his head and disclosed to the astonished mate the features of an entire stranger.
Bruce was no coward; but, as he met that fixed gaze looking directly at him in grave silence, and became assured that it was no one whom he had ever seen before, it was too much for him; and, instead of stopping to question the seeming intruder, he rushed upon deck in such evident alarm that it instantly attracted the captains attention. Why, Mr. Bruce, said the latter, what in the world is the matter with you?
He came; and, at the captains request, he also wrote the same words. So did the steward. So, in succession, did every man of the crew who could write at all. But not one of the various hands resembled, in any degree, the mysterious writing.
When the crew retired, the captain sat deep in thought. Could any one have been stowed away? at last he said. The ship must be searched; and if I dont find the fellow he must be a good hand at hide-and-seek. Order up all hands.
Every nook and corner of the vessel, from stem to stern, was thoroughly searched, and that with all the eagerness of excited curiosity, for the report had gone out that a stranger had shown himself on board; but not a living soul beyond the crew and the officers was found.
As they approached, the captains glass disclosed the fact that it was a dismantled ship, apparently frozen to the ice, and with a good many human beings on it. Shortly after, they hove to, and sent out the boats to the relief of the sufferers.
It proved to be a vessel from Quebec, bound to Liverpool, with passengers on board. She had got entangled in the ice, and finally frozen fast, and had passed several weeks in a most critical situation. She was stove, her decks swept,in fact, a mere wreck; all her provisions and almost all her water gone. Her crew and passengers had lost all hopes of being saved, and their gratitude for the unexpected rescue was proportionately great.
As one of the men who had been brought away in the third boat that had reached the wreck was ascending the ships side, the mate, catching a glimpse of his face, started back in consternation. It was the very face he had seen, three or four hours before, looking up at him from the captains desk.
At first he tried to persuade himself it might be fancy; but the more he examined the man the more sure he became that he was right. Not only the face, but the person and the dress, exactly corresponded.
As soon as the exhausted crew and famished passengers were cared for, and the bark on her course again, the mate called the captain aside. It seems that was not a ghost I saw to-day, sir: the mans alive.
They found him in conversation with the captain of the rescued ship. They both came forward, and expressed, in the warmest terms, their gratitude for deliverance from a horrible fateslow-coming death by exposure and starvation.
The captain replied that he had but done what he was certain they would have done for him under the same circumstances, and asked them both to step down into the cabin. Then, turning to the passenger, he said, I hope, sir, you will not think I am trifling with you; but I would be much obliged to you if you would write a few words on this slate. And he handed him the slate, with that side up on which the mysterious writing was not. I will do anything you ask, replied the passenger; but what shall I write?
The passenger, evidently puzzled to make out the motive for such a request, complied, however, with a smile. The captain took up the slate and examined it closely; then, stepping aside so as to conceal the slate from the passenger, he turned it over, and gave it to him again with the other side up.
Captain, rejoined the other, the whole thing is most mysterious and extraordinary; and I had intended to speak to you about it as soon as we got a little quiet. This gentleman, pointing to the passenger, being much exhausted, fell into a heavy sleep, or what seemed such, some time before noon. After an hour or more, he awoke, and said to me, Captain, we shall be relieved this very day. When I asked him what reason he had for saying so, he replied that he had dreamed that he was on board a bark, and that she was coming to our rescue. He described her appearance and rig; and, to our utter astonishment, when your vessel hove in sight she corresponded exactly to his description of her. We had not put much faith in what he said; yet still we hoped there might be something in it, for drowning men, you know, will catch at straws. As it has turned out I cannot doubt that it was all arranged, in some incomprehensible way, by an overruling Providence, so that we might be saved. To him be all thanks for his goodness to us.
There is not a doubt, rejoined the other captain, that the writing on the slate, let it have come there as it may, saved all your lives. I was steering at the time considerably south of west, and I altered my course to norwest, and had a look-out aloft, to see what would come of it. But you say, he added, turning to the passenger, that you did not dream of writing on a slate?
No, sir. I have no recollection whatever of doing so. I got the impression that the bark I saw in my dream was coming to rescue us; but haw that impression came I cannot tell. There is another very strange thing about it, he added. Everything here on board seems to me quite familiar; yet I am very sure I never was in your vessel before. It is all a puzzle to me. What did your mate see?
Thereupon Mr. Bruce related to them all the circumstances above detailed. The conclusion they finally arrived at was, that it was a special interposition of Providence to save them from what seemed a hopeless fate.
The above narrative was communicated to me by Capt J. S. Clarke, of the schooner Julia Hallock, who had it directly from Mr. Bruce himself. They sailed together for seventeen months, in the years 1836 and 37; so that Captain Clarke had the story from the mate about eight years after the occurrence. He has since lost sight of him, and does not know whether he is yet alive. All he has heard of him since they were shipmates is, that he continued to trade to New Brunswick, that he became the master of the brig Comet, and that she was lost.
As truthful and straightforward a man, he replied, as ever I met in all my life. We were as intimate as brothers; and two men cant be together, shut up for seventeen months in the same ship, without getting to know whether they can trust one anothers word or not. He always spoke of the circumstance in terms of reverence, as of an incident that seemed to bring him nearer to God and to another world. Id stake my life upon it that he told me no lie.