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Weird Tales - Scottish
The Rescue


Mr. Robert Bruce, originally descended from some branch of the ancient family of that name, was born, in humble circumstances, about the close of the last century, at Dumfries, in the south of Scotland, and was bred up to a seafaring life.

When about thirty years of age, to wit, in the year 1828, he was first mate on a bark trading between Liverpool and St. John’s, New Brunswick.

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 day’s work.

The cabin, a small one, was immediately at the stem 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 mate’s 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 captain’s 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 its 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 captain’s attention. “Why, Mr. Bruce,” said the latter, “what in the world is the matter with you?”

“The matter, sir? Who is that at your desk?”

“No one that I know of.”

“But there is, sir; there’s a stranger there.”

“A stranger! Why, man, you must be dreaming. You must have seen the steward there, or the second mate. Who else would venture down without orders?” “ But, sir, he was sitting in your arm-chair, fronting the door, writing on your slate. Then he looked up full in my face; and, if ever I saw a man plainly and distinctly in this world, I saw him.”

“Him! Whom?” .

“God knows, sir; I don’t. I saw a man, and a man I had never seen in my life before.”

“You must be going crazy, Mr. Bruce. A stranger, and we nearly six weeks out ! ”

“I know, sir; but then I saw him.”

“Go down and see who it is.”

Bruce hesitated. “I never was a believer in ghosts,” he said; “but, if the truth must be told, sir, I’d rather not face it alone.”

“Come, come, man. Go down at once, and don’t make a fool of yourself before the crew.”

“I hope you’ve always found me willing to do what’s reasonable,” Bruce replied, changing colour; “but if it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d rather we should both go down together.”

The captain descended the stairs, and the mate followed him. Nobody in the cabin ! They examined the state-rooms. Not a soul to be found !

“Well, Mr. Bruce,” said the captain, “did not I tell you you had been dreaming ? ”

*It’s all very well to say so, sir; but if I didn’t see that man writing on your slate, may I never see my home and family again!”

“Ah! writing on the slate! Then it should be there still.” And the captain took it up.

“By God,” he exclaimed, “here’s something, sure enough! Is that your writing, Mr. Bruce?”

The mate took the slate; and there, in plain, legible characters, stood the words, “Steer to the nor’-WEST.”

“Have you been trifling with me, sir?” added the captain, in a stern manner.

“On my word as a man and as a sailor, sir,” replied Bruce, “I know no more of this matter than you do. I have told you the exact truth.”

The captain sat down at his desk, the slate before him, in deep thought. At last, turning the slate over and pushing it toward Bruce, he said, “ Write down, 'Steer to the nor’west. ”

The mate complied; and the captain, after narrowly comparing the two handwritings, said, "Mr. Bruce, go and tell the second mate to come down here.”

He came; and, at the captain’s 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. 44 The ship must be searched; and if I don’t 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.

Returning to the cabin after their fruitless search, "Mr. Bruce,” said the captain, “what the devil do you make of all this?”

“Can’t tell, sir. I saw the man write; you see the writing. There must be something in it.”

“Well, it would seem so. We have the wind free, and I have a great mind to keep her away and see what will come of it.”

“I surely would, sir, if I were in your place. It’s only a few hours lost, at the worst.”

“Well, we’ll see. Go on deck and give the course nor’west. And, Mr. Bruce,” he added, as the mate rose to go, “have a look-out aloft, and let it be a hand you can depend on.”

His orders were obeyed. About three o’clock the look-out reported an iceberg nearly ahead, and, shortly after, what he thought was a vessel of some kind close to it.

As they approached, the captain’s 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 ship’s 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 captain’s 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 man’s alive.’

“What do you mean? Who’s alive?”

“Why, sir, one of the passengers we have just saved is the same man I saw writing on your slate at noon. I would swear to it in a court of justice.”

“Upon my word Mr. Bruce,” replied the captain, “this gets more and more singular. Let us go and see this man.”

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 fate,—slow-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?”

"A few words are all I want. Suppose' you write, ‘Steer to the nor’west.’”

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.

“You say that is your handwriting?” said he.

“I need not say so,” rejoined the other, looking at it, “for you saw me write it.”

“And this?” said the captain, turning the slate over.

The man looked first at one writing, then at the other, quite confounded. At last, “What is the meaning of this?” said he. “I only wrote one of these. Who wrote the other?”

“That’s more than I can tell you, sir. My mate here says you wrote it, sitting at this desk, at noon to-day.”

The captain of the wreck and the passenger looked at each other, exchanging glances of intelligence and surprise; and the former asked the latter, “Did you dream that you wrote on this slate?”

“No, sir, not that I remember.”

“You speak of dreaming,” said the captain of the bark. “What was this gentleman about at noon to-day?”

“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 nor’west, 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 how that impression came, I cannot tell. There is another very strange thing about it,” he added. "Every thing 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 Captain 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 1837; 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.

I asked Captain Clarke if he knew Bruce well, and what sort of man he was.

“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 can’t be together, shut up for seventeen months in the same ship, without getting to know whether they can trust one another’s 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. I’d stake my life upon it that he told me no lie.”


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