"To-morrow, at low tide, the brig Forward, Captain K. Z——, Richard Shandon mate, will start from New Prince's Docks for an unknown destination."
The foregoing might have been read in the Liverpool Herald of April 5th, 1860. The departure of a brig is an event of little importance for the most commercial port in England. Who would notice it in the midst of vessels of all sorts of tonnage and nationality that six miles of docks can hardly contain? However, from daybreak on the 6th of April a considerable crowd covered the wharfs of New Prince's Docks—the innumerable companies of sailors of the town seemed to have met there. Workmen from the neighbouring wharfs had left their work, merchants their dark counting-houses, tradesmen their shops. The different-coloured omnibuses that ran along the exterior wall of the docks brought cargoes of spectators at every moment; the town seemed to have but one pre-occupation, and that was to see the Forward go out.
The Forward was a vessel of a hundred and seventy tons, charged with a screw and steam-engine of a hundred and twenty horse-power. It might easily have been confounded with the other brigs in the port. But though it offered nothing curious to the eyes of the public, connoisseurs remarked certain peculiarities in it that a sailor cannot mistake. On board the Nautilus, anchored at a little distance, a group of sailors were hazarding a thousand conjectures about the destination of the Forward.
"I don't know what to think about its masting," said one; "it isn't usual for steamboats to have so much sail."
"That ship," said a quartermaster with a big red face—"that ship will have to depend more on her masts than her engine, and the topsails are the biggest because the others will be often useless. I haven't got the slightest doubt that the Forward is destined for the Arctic or Antarctic seas, where the icebergs stop the wind more than is good for a brave and solid ship."
"You must be right, Mr. Cornhill," said a third sailor. "Have you noticed her stern, how straight it falls into the sea?"
"Yes," said the quartermaster, "and it is furnished with a steel cutter as sharp as a razor and capable of cutting a three-decker in two if the Forward were thrown across her at top speed."
"That's certain," said a Mersey pilot; "for that 'ere vessel runs her fourteen knots an hour with her screw. It was marvellous to see her cutting the tide when she made her trial trip. I believe you, she's a quick un."
"The canvas isn't intricate either," answered Mr. Cornhill; "it goes straight before the wind, and can be managed by hand. That ship is going to try the Polar seas, or my name isn't what it is. There's something else—do you see the wide helm-port that the head of her helm goes through?"
"It's there, sure enough," answered one; "but what does that prove?"
"That proves, my boys," said Mr. Cornhill with disdainful satisfaction, "that you don't know how to put two and two together and make it four; it proves that they want to be able to take off the helm when they like, and you know it's a manoeuvre that's often necessary when you have ice to deal with."
"That's certain," answered the crew of the Nautilus.
"Besides," said one of them, "the way she's loaded confirms Mr. Cornhill's opinion. Clifton told me. The Forward is victualled and carries coal enough for five or six years. Coals and victuals are all its cargo, with a stock of woollen garments and sealskins."
"Then," said the quartermaster, "there is no more doubt on the matter; but you, who know Clifton, didn't he tell you anything about her destination?"
"He couldn't tell me; he doesn't know; the crew was engaged without knowing. He'll only know where he's going when he gets there."
"I shouldn't wonder if they were going to the devil," said an unbeliever: "it looks like it."
"And such pay," said Clifton's friend, getting warm—"five times more than the ordinary pay. If it hadn't been for that, Richard Shandon wouldn't have found a soul to go with him. A ship with a queer shape, going nobody knows where, and looking more like not coming back than anything else, it wouldn't have suited this child."