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The Ship on Fire
Written in 1867

by Charlotte Maria Tucker

"Over the side with ye, boy, quick! One minute's delay may cost your life!" exclaimed Mr. Gray to a fellow passenger, a lad of about fourteen, who appeared to hesitate about swinging himself down by a rope into a boat which rocked in the waves below the burning ship. The flames were raging round mast and yard, the sails caught fire, blazed and shrivelled. Thick volumes of black smoke hung like a funeral pall over the vessel and the awful red glare was reflected on the sea, which glowed like a fiery furnace. It was no time for delay indeed, and yet Reginald drew back from the vessel's side. "I had forgotten it," he exclaimed and darted back towards the cabin.

"Madness! He is lost!" muttered Mr. Gray, "No money was worth such a risk. That young life is thrown away."

Sailors and passengers with eager haste lowered themselves into the boats, but there was not room for all. Some, under the directions of the captain, whose brave spirit only rose with the danger, hastily lashed spars together to form a rude raft for the rest. Mr. Gray labored among these, gasping and almost fainting as he was from the heat, which had become well-nigh intolerable. Often he glanced anxiously towards the hatchway, with a faint hope of seeing young Reginald emerge again from the burning cabin into which he had so daringly ventured.

The raft, the last hope of the crew, is floating on the crimsoned billows, the crowded boats have sheered off. Mr. Gray, half-blinded and suffocated by the heat and smoke, springs down on the raft. He is followed by the captain and all who remained of the passengers and crew, except the poor orphan boy. They must push off in all speed from the vessel, lest some burning spar fall on them and crush them. Just as they are about to do so—"Hold! Hold!" cries Mr. Gray, starting up from his place, as a slight form, blackened with smoke and with dress singed and burnt, appears on the deck. He springs over the bulwarks, misses the raft, and the next moment is dragged out of the billows to lie gasping and exhausted, with his head on the knee of Mr. Gray.

"Thank God, my poor boy, you are saved!"

"Thank God," faintly echoed Reginald Clare.

A strange appearance was presented by the lad. His hair and eyebrows were singed, marks of burning were on his face and his hands. His dress hung in tatters around him, but he held in his grasp a flat parcel wrapt up in oilcloth, and a faint smile rose to his lips as he murmured, "I'm so glad that I have it all safe!"

That was no time for questionings. It was with the utmost difficulty that those upon the raft managed to push it far enough away from the blazing vessel to avoid destruction. Their situation was one of extreme danger. A ship which had happily been sufficiently near to be attracted by the sight of the flames and which had picked up those who had escaped in the boats, had passed on without an attempt to save the sufferers floating on the raft. It was not till the vessel had burnt down to the water's edge and the flames had sunk at last from having nothing further on which to vent their fury, that the captain dared to raise a boat sail which he had had the foresight to carry with him. By means of this, he succeeded, after long hours of painful anxiety, in reaching soon after sunrise the coast of Cornwall, from which the homeward-bound vessel had been not many miles distant when the terrible fire had occurred.

When the worst of the peril was over and the raft, under a favoring breeze, was floating towards the land, Mr. Gray, who felt a strong interest in Reginald Clare, asked the poor lad some questions regarding his family and position. He knew already that the boy was the orphan of a missionary who had died at Sierra Leone. He now found that young Reginald was returning to England to be dependent upon an uncle whom he had never seen.

"I am glad that you have succeeded in saving something," observed Mr. Gray, who had himself preserved a box containing his principal treasures. "Doubtless that parcel, for which you risked your life, contains something of great value."

"I do not know what it contains, sir," was Reginald's reply, as he languidly raised himself on his arm to gaze on the coast towards which they were approaching.

"Not know what it contains!" exclaimed Mr. Gray.

"It is not mine," said the boy in explanation, "it is a parcel intrusted to my care."

"By some friend whom you are most anxious to serve?"

"No, sir, by one who is almost a stranger, but I promised to deliver it safely to his mother," said Reginald.

"And you really rushed back into the burning cabin to carry off what was not of the slightest value to you and perhaps of little to any one else?"

The pale cheek of the boy flushed as if he were almost hurt at the question and he made the simple reply, "I had been trusted—I had promised—what else could I have done?"

The party safely landed in England. As the fire had left poor Reginald penniless, Mr. Gray liberally paid for his journey to London. Reginald arrived that evening at his uncle's home, where he was received at first with amazement at his burnt and ragged state, till surprise was changed to pity on the cause of his strange appearance being known.

It soon became clear to the boy that his uncle, Mr. Brown and his wife, were not in easy circumstances and that they were likely to feel his maintenance a very unwelcome burden. The thin sharp-featured lady looked gravely at the tattered clothes which must at once be replaced by new ones.

"Did you save nothing from the fire?" inquired Mrs. Brown, as on the following morning she poured out at the breakfast table some very pale tea.

"Nothing, but a parcel which I had in charge for a Mrs. Bates of Eccleston Square—here it is," and Reginald laid on the table the flat parcel wrapt in oil-cloth. "Could you kindly tell me how to send it?"

There was no difficulty in sending the parcel, as Mrs. Bates happened to live near, but Reginald could see that his aunt was provoked at this being the only thing which he had rescued out of the flames. Her impatience broke out into open expression, when, as the old couple and the boy sat together in the evening by the light of a single dim candle, a note was brought in later from Mrs. Bates, thanking Mr. Clare coldly for bringing the parcel of dried fern-leaves, but informing him that they had been sadly broken and spoilt in the journey.

"Fern-leaves! Trash!" exclaimed Mrs. Brown, dropping the stitches of her knitting in vexation. "If you had only had the sense to carry out your desk instead. There was sure to be some money in it. If you had only saved a good suit of clothes and not come here like a beggar!"

Mr. Brown leant back in his armchair and laughed. "Dried fern-leaves!" he chuckled, "and spoilt ones to boot! They've only been pulled out of one fire to be chucked into another!"

Poor Reginald was much mortified and vexed. The burns on his face and hands seemed to pain him more than ever. "And yet," thought he, "I need not mind, I only did my duty. I had been trusted and I had promised. I could not have broken my word. How could I guess what was in the parcel?"

"Rat-tat!" It was the knock of the evening postman. Another letter for Reginald Clare.

"I hope," said his sharp-featured aunt, "that it may contain something better than the last. Dried fern-leaves! What rubbish!"

Reginald broke the seal and opened the letter. His hand almost trembled with excitement as he read it. With a sparkling eye, he gave it to his aunt, who looked at it through her old steel spectacles.

"Well, here's something odd," she remarked.

"Why, who writes this? John Gray—I never heard of the name."

"He was my fellow passenger—a merchant—and so kind."

"Kind, I should think so!" exclaimed Mrs. Brown, her sharp features relaxing into a smile.

"What does he say, wife?" asked Mr. Brown with impatience.

"Why he offers to take this boy here into his house of business without any premium!" exclaimed the wife, handing over the letter to her husband, "because, as he writes, he knows the lad is to be trusted. It's the oddest fancy that every I heard of. What is Reginald to him that he should take him by the hand—first pay for his journey to London, then offer—you see his own word—offer to treat him as a son!"

"Wife, wife!" cried Mr. Brown, laying his finger on the letter and looking with hearty kindness at the orphan as he spoke, "you and I made a precious mistake when we fancied that Reginald had carried nothing away from the ship but a trumpery packet of fern-leaves! He carried away something worth more than all the gold and jewels of the Indies—a character for trustworthiness and truth, a character for doing his duty to God and man. And depend on't," continued the old man, raising his voice, "a boy who has that will never long be in want of a friend!"

Edited by Pam Takahashi
Proofed by Deborah Gardner

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