Death of Capt. Gravill

From the Log of Dr Edward Smith. Doctor on board the Diana

Thursday, December 20th. —Last night was magnificently clear and bright. The brilliant light of the moon, reflected from the unsullied snow-covered pack, revealed the jagged heaps and torn masses of ice with startling distinctness. The islands and icebergs around us stood out in bold relief against the sky, a sky glittering with myriads of stars, and anon flashing and flickering with the ever-changeful coruscations of the Aurora Borealis. The ice and ship were quiet, and we were mercifully favoured with a night of undisturbed repose. This morning the sun rose in a sky gorgeous with purple and crimson, his lower rim clearing the horizon at a quarter to ten. During the morning the ship was driving rapidly towards our old enemy, the grounded berg. The ice around us was frequently in great commotion, nipping up and crashing and grinding. We trust that the heavy masses of ice in which the ship is frozen fast will protect us from the frequent and alarming pressure of the fresh ice and bergs which are constantly coming down from Cumberland Gulf, and which loom heavily on our northern horizon. The captain is confined to his cabin with asthma and bronchitis. He is very weak, and suffers mostly from sleeplessness induced by nervous excitement resulting from mental anxiety.

Friday, December 21st. —To-day has been the shortest day in the year, the earth having travelled its extreme distance from the sun. All of us have been looking forward to this day with no little anxiety, dreading that the sun might totally disappear for some days and involve us in darkness. Most providentially we have been spared this additional trial. The captain was much worse this morning, but as the day advanced he became quieter and more easy.

Saturday, December 22nd. —At breakfast-time Bill Reynolds, who had been sitting up with the captain, told me he had been very restless and uneasy. The captain lay upon the sofa during breakfast. He complained of no pain—nothing but mental anxiety and want of sleep, his constant cry being: "Oh, doctor, if you can, do give me something to make me sleep !"
In, the evening he was in a very alarming condition. The harpooners took turns in sitting up with me, and in helping me to move the captain as required, for he is totally unable to move without assistance. He felt himself to be a dying man, for he said two or three times, " This is death !"

Sunday, December 23rd. —Busy with the captain. It is extremely difficult to move the poor old gentleman, with whom I spent pretty nearly the whole day.

Monday, December 24th. —Was up all night with the captain, who continues very ill. The different officers took it in turns to sit up with me; most melancholy work. This morning he slept, his breathing being easy and regular. There seemed to be such a change for the better that I began to entertain some hopes of his recovery, and so I felt remarkably cheered up and buoyant indeed.
Unfortunately, at about 2 p.m. there was some very heavy pressure upon the ship, and all hands were called to prepare for the worst. The pressure principally was in the immediate neighbourhood of the cabin. On going into the cabin, it was evident the poor old captain had heard the groaning of the ship's timbers and understood the position, for a great change had taken place for the worse. George Clarke, the mate, told him we were about to dress him, as the ship was " in the nips, " and might give way at any minute, and that he must be dressed in readiness for going upon the ice should things come to the worst. All this the captain understood perfectly well. It was piteous to see the great alteration that came over him—respirations hurried and difficult, pulse quick, face flushed, and so on. After he was fully dressed, with his boots, cap, and mittens on, he kept grasping my hand convulsively, as though wishful for human society and sympathy in his extremity. I assure you it was a very trying thing to sit beside this poor old dying man whilst the ship was groaning, quaking, and writhing under the heavy pressure, and the boards of the cabin deck jumping up under your feet.
However, at about 4 p. m. the ice became quiet and we were relieved of our anxiety, though the ship continued to make a great deal of water. The captain continued restless, and in a very much worse state than he was during the morning. As you may suppose, I have been on deck very little of late. The weather continues most miserably thick, cold, and uncomfortable.

Tuesday, December 25th (Christmas Day). —I spent the entire night with the captain, who was extremely restless and uneasy. The weather during the night was horribly cold in the cabin. At 8 a. m. I went on deck, and found the ship driving with great rapidity towards a large iceberg. We passed within three or four ship's lengths of the berg. We were most wonderfully preserved from driving upon it or being crushed by the whirling, crashing ice, which was in commotion far and
wide around the berg, which is aground. This morning the men held a prayer meeting in the half-deck, and, it being Christmas Day, they commenced with singing the chaunt, " How beautiful upon the mountains." Flour and plums having been served out yesterday, Joe, the cook, was up at three o'clock this morning, busy as a bee making plum puddings for the different messes. Everyman and boy on board had a large slice of very good plum pudding served out to him at twelve o'clock in honour of Christmas Day. As most of the men have been saving up meat, biscuits, etc., you may be sure every one of our ship's company enjoyed a good dinner. In the cabin we dined at one o'clock, and had
a large plum pudding, which was equally divided, our usual ¾ pound of boiled salt beef, and a dish of tripe. George Clarke, the mate, had brought this, pickled in a jar, from home, and it turned out to be fearfully salt. We ate our Christmas dinner almost in silence, each man's mind being occupied with gloomy thoughts of home, families, and friends. The poor old dying captain lay upon the sofa, occasionally turning over or dozing uneasily in a half-unconscious slumber.
What a Christmas dinner! What thoughts of the many merry ones at Sandon, and at home, and of last year's Christmas at Mr. Moffat's. What a change! Thoughts of father, brothers, and sisters, at home on Christmas Day, and thinking of me, as I am thinking of them. To these thoughts add my anxieties and apprehensions on the captain's account, and the gloomy prospect before every one of us. You will readily believe that a more miserable Christmas dinner would be difficult to imagine even. The dinner, such as it was, was soon dispatched, and I was glad when 'twas over, it seemed such a horrible mockery of the spirit of an English Christmas.
At about 3 p. m. the ice was in motion again, and pressing heavily upon the ship. I happened to be on deck at the time, but instantly ran down to the cabin. Here I found the captain, whom I had left calm and tranquil and breathing regularly, changed for the worse in a sudden and alarming manner.
He had heard or felt the ship move under the pressure of the ice, and knew very well what it meant. He knew that the ship was in danger. He knew, whatever poor chance his ship's
company had of saving their lives, he had none if the ship were stove in and we had to take to the ice.
Happily the pressure moderated and the ice became quieter. At 6 p. m. the captain was calmer, but evidently very much weaker, and more incoherent and difficult to understand.

Wednesday, December 26th (Morning). —This morning the captain is much worse, and is sinking rapidly. We continue our mournful watch by his couch. It is very affecting to see the good old man, his lips moving incessantly, as though in prayer, and conscious that his end is approaching. Later. —The harpooners continued to relieve each other in the cabin every two hours. Bill Reynolds invariably knelt down upon entering the cabin, and prayed for the poor soul then passing away.
At 6. 30 a. m. I felt quite worn out, so went forward into the half-deck and sat for a while with Bill Reynolds, feeling unutterably miserable, wretched, and cast down in my mind. Twenty minutes later I returned to the cabin. Mr. Byers, who was there, said a great change had come over the captain. I ran to his side, and put my hand upon his wrist. He drew himself up twice; then his head dropped, and all was over. Thus died Captain John Gravill. The officers were aroused instantly; in fact, the ship's company in general was called, and such as desired went aft to see our dear old captain's face for the last time on earth. Alec Robertson and another knelt down in the cabin and offered up prayer, thanking God for having taken the captain away from so much suffering and misery, and rejoicing in the "sure and certain hope of his resurrection to eternal life " through the atonement of the Saviour, whom he loved so well, and believed in with such humble, child-like faith and confidence. Afterwards Bill Clark carried the body, sewn in canvas, up the cabin's narrow stairway and laid it down on the quarter-deck, where it was reverently covered from sight. We then sat down together to a most melancholy meal, perhaps the most melancholy meal I have ever had. After the past four days and nights of incessant watching and intense anxiety as to the issue of the captain's illness, in some sense it does seem a relief to have the question decided at last. Would to God, though, that our prayers and exertions had had a different answer ! I have the satisfaction of feeling that I did my utmost for him, nor did I spare myself in any way to save his life. This must remain now a consolation to my mind.

Thursday, December 27th. —Most miserably thick and foggy weather, with snow and a keen frost. The ship's company is much depressed and low-spirited, each man brooding and unhappy, which is not to be wondered at. The death of the captain has cast a gloom like a funeral pall over us all. We are in miserable circumstances too, with regard to means for warmth and cooking. The cook has been reduced to four buckets of coal per day for the galley or rotten whale's flesh, fished up from the tanks. Certainly it burns with a great heat, but at the same time fills the ship with an almost intolerable stench. Poor Joe is in despair, and does not see how he can possibly cook for all hands with such a pitiful allowance of fuel. We cannot afford more, though, for there is now not a fortnight's supply of coal left in the bunkers at this reduced rate of consumption. God help us ! How we are to get through the remaining months of an Arctic winter without firing I cannot tell. The men, poor fellows, suffer a good deal from want of their accustomed hot tea, and vainly attempt to boil their kettles over the lamps in the 'tween and half decks, a proceeding which causes the lamps to emit volumes of thick, horrible smoke, greatly adding to our discomfort and covering everything and everybody with a thick layer of soot. I noticed one man to-day trying to boil his kettle over a bottle full of oil with a tow wick.

Friday, December 28th. —The same wretched, thick, and gloomy weather, with constant snow and sleet; the same deep wretchedness and misery with all on board; the same dismal cookery over lamps; the same monotonous pump, pump, pump, day and night; the same wretched meals.
Our poor captain's body, frozen stiff and solid, has been removed to the bridge, where it lies protected from sight and from the weather by a tarpaulin.

Saturday, December 29th. —Whilst walking the deck with the engineer we were very much cheered at the sight of a large flight of rotches. They flew close past the ship, going to the North-East. The reader can hardly credit what an invigorating influence the sight of these little birds inspired. We know that their appearance indicates water. The direction of their course leads us to hope that spring-time, which these birds indicate, will come upon us early. To-day there has been a very heavy gale blowing from the North-East—by far the heaviest gale we have experienced since coming into the country last May. The strength of the wind was something astonishing. The men could not stand at the pumps, and once, when passing the gangway, I was very nearly lifted off the decks and carried bodily away.

Extracted from "The Deep of the Sea" by Charles Edward Smith 1922


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