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Parts of speech : Noun
Derivatives : megaphonic
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By Herbert Strang
Lieutenant George Underhill, commanding H.M. surveying ship named Albatross, had an unpleasant shock when turned in for night out of his bunk at daybreak one morning. The barometer stood at 29.41'. For two or three days the vessel had encountered dirty weather, but there had been signs of improvement when he turned in, and it was decidedly disconcerting to find that the glass had fallen. His vessel was a small one, and he was a little uneasy at the prospect of being caught by a cyclone while in the imperfectly-charted waters of the Solomon Islands.
He was approaching the eastern shore of Ysabel Island, whose steep cliffs were covered with a lurid bank of cloud. If the shore was like those of the other islands of the group, it would be, he knew, a maze of bays, islets, barrier reefs, and intricate channels amid which, even in calm weather, a vessel would run a considerable risk of grounding, a risk that would be multiplied in a storm. Anxiously noting the weather signs, Underhill hoped that he might reach a safe anchorage before the threatening cyclone burst upon him.
As is the way with cyclones, it smote the vessel almost without warning. A howling squall tore out of the east, catching the ship nearly abeam, and making her shudder; then, after a brief lull, came another and even a fiercer blast, and in a few minutes the wind increased to a roaring hurricane, enveloping the ship in a mist of driving rain that half choked the officers and crew as they crouched
under the lee of the bulwarks and the deckhouse.
The _Albatross_ was a gallant little vessel, and Underhill, now that what he dreaded had happened, hoped at least to keep her off the shore until the fury of the storm had abated. For a time she thrashed her way doggedly through the boiling sea; but all at once she staggered, heeled over, and then, refusing to answer the helm, began to rush headlong upon the rocks, now visible through the mist.
The Propeller shaft broken, sir, came the cry from below to Underhill as he stood clinging to the rail of the bridge.
He felt his utter helplessness. He could not even let go an anchor, for no one could stand on deck against the force of the wind. He could only cling to his place and see the vessel driven ashore, without being able to lift a hand to save her. Suddenly, he was conscious of a grating, grinding sensation beneath his feet, and knew that the vessel had struck a coral reef. She swung round broadside to the wind; the boats on the weather side were wrenched from their davits and hurled
away in splinters; and in the midst of such fury and turmoil there was no possibility of launching the remaining two boats and escaping from the doomed vessel.
All hands had rushed on deck, and clung to rails and stays and whatever else afforded a hold. Among those who staggered from the companionway was a tall thin man, spectacled, with iron-grey hair and beard, and somewhat rounded shoulders. Linking arms with him was a young man of twenty-two or twenty-three: the likeness between them proclaimed them father and son. The older man was Dr. Thesiger Smith, the famous geologist, in furtherance of whose work the Albatross was making this voyage. The younger man was his second son Tom, who, after a distinguished career at Cambridge, had come out to act as his father's assistant.
Underhill knew by the jerking and grinding he felt beneath him that his ill-fated vessel was being slowly forced over the reef towards the shore. His first lieutenant, Venables, crawled up to the bridge, and, bawling into his ear, asked if anything could be done. The lieutenant shook his head.
"Water's within two feet of the upper deck forward, sir," shouted Venables; "abaft it is three feet above the keelson."
"Get the lifebuoys," was the brief reply.
Venables crawled down again, and with the assistance of some of the crew unleashed the lifebuoys and distributed them among the company. Meanwhile, the progress of the vessel shorewards had been suddenly checked. She came up with a jerk, and Underhill guessed that her nose had stuck fast in a hollow of the reef, and prayed that the storm would abate for just so long as would enable him to get the boats clear and make for the land before the ship broke up. But for a good half-hour longer the hurricane blew with undiminished force, and it was as much as every man could do to avoid being washed away by the mountainous seas that broke over the vessel.
At length, however, there came a sudden change. The uproar ceased as by magic, and there fell a dead calm. Underhill was not deceived. He judged that the vessel was now in the center of the cyclone; the calm might last for forty or fifty minutes, then a renewal of the hurricane was almost certainly to be expected. Without the loss of a moment, he gave his orders. The boats were made ready; into one they put arms, ammunition, and tools, together with the ship's papers and chronometer, a compass, and Dr. Thesiger Smith's specimens and diaries; into the other more ammunition, and a portion of what provisions could be collected from above or below water. The boats were lowered, the men dropped into them and pulled off, leaving Underhill and two or three of the crew still on the vessel to collect the remainder of the provisions and whatever else seemed worth saving. The sea was so high that the boats had much difficulty in making the shore; but they reached it safely, and one of them, after being rapidly unloaded, returned for the commander.
Before it regained the ship, Underhill felt a light puff of wind from the south-west. Lifting a megaphone, he roared to the men to pull for their lives. The boat came alongside; it had scarcely received its load when the hurricane once more burst upon them, this time from the opposite quarter. Underhill leaped down among his men and ordered them to give way. Before they had pulled a dozen strokes the storm was at its height, but the force of the wind was now somewhat broken by the trees and rocks of the island. Even so, it was hard work, rowing in the teeth of the blast, the boat being every moment in danger of swamping by the tremendous seas. Underhill, at the tiller, set his teeth, and anxiously watched the advancing cliffs, at the foot of which the remainder of his company stood. The boat was within twenty yards of them when a huge wave fell on it as it were out of the sky. It sank like lead. Thanks to the lifebuoys, Underhill and the men rose quickly to the surface. Two of them, who could not swim, cried out despairingly for help. Underhill seized one and held him up; the other was saved by the promptitude of young Smith. Seeing their plight, he caught up a rope which had been brought ashore and flung it among the group of men struggling in the water. The drowning man clutched it, the others swam to it, and by its aid all were drawn ashore, gasping for breath, and sorely battered by the jagged rocks.
"All safe, thank heaven!" said Underhill, as he joined the others;"but I'm sorry we've lost the boat."
The shipwrecked party found themselves on a narrow beach, behind which rose steep cliffs, rugged and difficult to climb. Against these they crouched to find some shelter from the storm, and watch the gradual dismemberment of the ill-fated Albatross. Wave after wave broke over her, the spray dashing so high that even her funnel sometimes disappeared from view. The spectators held their breath: could she live out the storm? At last a tremendous sea swept her from the hollow in which she was wedged, and she plunged beneath the waters.
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