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Title: South Sea Shipmates Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300361h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2013 Date most recently updated: January 2013 Produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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John Arthur Barry
HOW WE TOOK THE RECRUITS HOME
HOW THE LEAGUE WENT TO SEA.
YACHTING IN DEEP WATER
A SOUTH SEA SYNDICATE
WHEN OLD OCEAN LABOURS
THE HUNTING OF THE DERELICT
"HOME "—AND BACK AGAIN.
IN FAR EASTERN WATERS
ON AND OFF THE "OBERON"
THE QUEST OF THE "QUANDONG"
Although Australia was his adopted country and he is counted as an Australian writer, John Arthur Barry was of British birth and upbringing, and of good family in the Old Country. Orphaned of both parents at an early age and with no other relations, by the time he was fourteen he had made up his boyish mind that he must and would "go to sea," and persuaded his guardian to expend his small patrimony on outfit and apprenticeship to the Merchant Service. His earlier sea experiences are faithfully described in his novel "A Son of the Sea" which is indeed a warning to parents and guardians against paying out money to send their boys to sea as so-called "apprentices."
But Arthur Barry soon surmounted the disagreeables and difficulties of the first steps in a profession to which he was devoted by nature, learned all that he could at sea, and, finishing his time with credit, he passed his examinations in due course as second and as first mate. But his voyages took him to Australia (in the 'seventies) and the gold diggings proved too attractive, so that his sea life alternated with spells ashore, which finally led to a permanent Bush life, first roving and then in settled employment on sheep-stations in New South Wales. During this time his natural gift of expression, and power of describing what he had seen and experienced, showed itself first in letters to friends at home, and then in contributions to local newspapers, followed by some successes in London periodicals. "The Graphic" and "Chambers Journal" first published his short stories and papers on Bush life. In 1893 he came home for a holiday, bringing many printed "cuttings" out of which a volume was made and published by Messrs Remington as "Steve Brown's Bunyip." To this Rudyard Kipling contributed some fine introductory verses ("The Sea-Wife") as a friendly gift from a younger man then on the rising wave of popularity to a rather older one whose early letters and adventures he used to hear as a boy from mutual friends.
Although Arthur Barry had a happy six months in London and might have got on in London journalistic and literary society he had no liking for town and conventional life, and could not stand the English winter, or try to get permanent work in the Old Country. He returned to New South Wales, and for a time to the sheep-station life, while he continued to write a number of stories, which were printed in the "Strand", "Cornhill", and other London magazines and papers. He intended to come back in a year or two; but this was not to be.
His first novel, "The Luck of the Native Born", a story of land and sea adventure, was published by Remington; then came a collection of reprinted sea pieces brought out by Methuen as "In the Great Deep", followed by the novel "A Son of the Sea" (Duckworth), and "Red Lion and Blue Star", and "Against the Tides of Fate", both reprints of short stories, and all favourably received by Press and public.
By this time pastoral affairs in Australia were not over prosperous, and Barry, giving up the Bush, found a permanent billet on a Sydney paper. Unfortunately in these years his health and eyesight were gradually failing, and though he produced some stories now and then, his work came to be almost entirely confined to his newspaper till the end, which came unexpectedly from ptomaine poisoning in September, 1911, at the age of sixty.
Barry was of a singularly lovable character, and made friends wherever he went. Though brave and adventurous, he was gentle and kindly by nature, and no roughness of life and companionship ever made him other than a gentleman in the best sense. He seemed to have a gift for getting on with all sorts and conditions of men on land and sea, and he sketches their various characters with sympathy and insight, and no little sense of humour. Some of his best work is descriptive. A devoted lover of wild nature, he gives in few words a vivid picture of each scene, of sunlit plain, dry bush, wild coast, or rugged harbour, or luxuriant southern island; but most lovingly the world of the sailing-ships and all possible effects in storm or calm to be encountered on that Sea of which he was for ever the lover and the Son.
This present volume was left in MS. at his death, and is thus his last memorial.
"How many duffers does this make, Phil?" I asked, as my mate, who had been carefully panning out the last of several buckets of washdirt, suddenly flung the dish rattling to one side, where it lay in the sunshine showing only a heavy deposit of black sand smeared over its bottom.
"This is the half-dozen," replied Phil plaintively, "and I really believe the gold's left this part of Australia for good. Six shafts averaging forty feet each! That's equal to two hundred and forty feet in a straight line, and through pretty stiff stuff! And scarcely a colour! Rotten game this, isn't it? I tell you what, Harry, let's make back to the briny again. Our luck's evidently dead. Why, this bullocking for nothing's worse than 'Haul out to leeward!' on a winter's night in the English Channel with a dirty stocking round your neck, and a month's dead horse to work up!"
"Well, I'm rather full, too, I must say," I answered, "although perhaps if we could afford to hang on a bit longer we might hit something."
"Bed-rock," retorted Phil grimly. "Tucker, too, you know's getting short. Also, it's seventy long miles into the nearest station. And there they're living probably on beef and pigweed; and as usual cursing the loading that's been six months on the road and never seems to get any closer. Let's vamose this ranch, anyhow, and take a trip to the islands, or along the coast, till we get our ribs lined again. Jehosophat, Harry, think of the lumps of fresh pork and mutton, and the baker's bread, and the big turnips and cabbages we used to chuck overboard out of the Mary Jane, that time we went up to the Richmond in her!"
And Phil gave the dish another kick, and smacked his lips, and glared hungrily through the heat haze that overhung the semi-tropical landscape.
"All right!" I replied, impressed by his eloquence. "Suppose we toss? Heads one more shaft, tails back to the sea again?"
"A wager!" exclaimed Phil delightedly, feeling the pockets of his red, ochre-stained moles. "But I forget," he continued, "we haven't a jolly, solitary coin between us. Have to do as the kids do, I suppose!" and picking up a flat, smooth pebble, he spat on one side of it and flinging it high in the air, shouted, "Dry for another duffer! Wet for full and plenty and the salt sea breeze!"
The stone came down wet side uppermost, and without a word I went to the tents for the bridles and halters, while Phil cut a double-shuffle on the mound of earth around the windlass in token of his delight that the long, weary months of hot, profitless, wandering toil were over at last.
We had met first on that same old, crazy coasting brig, the Mary Jane, bound from Sydney to the Richmond River for a cargo of maize. Both about the same age—five-and-twenty; both pretty well alone in the world—although Phil had some offside relations here and there—and strong, healthy, and ready for anything that might turn up, we had chummed together at once, although I was second mate and Phil was before the mast—a difference, however, of little moment in the Mary Jane. Then, leaving her in Townsville, whither we brought a cargo of hardwood after the Richmond trip, we had determined to try our fortune on some new diggings that just then broke out in the Queensland interior. And for six months we had been working for scarcely tucker, until at last we crossed the boundary into the Northern Territory of South Australia, and settled down to prospect a likely-looking bit of country, which, however, had proved fruitful only in the rankest "duffers"—or barren shafts.
We were both Australian-born, and both, for a wonder, had chosen the sea as a profession—a rather uncommon one for native youths to take to. But we loved it, and we had both passed "the Board," Phil for chief and myself for master. But billets of the kind were scarce, and we had to take what we could get. Bred in the Bush, we were as much at home in it as on a vessel's deck. In disposition we were the very reverse of each other, Phil being, though generally cheery, genial, and sympathetic, at times seized with sudden fits of discouragement which, though they never lasted very long, seemed to quite break him up for the moment, and render all things hopeless in his sight. On the other hand, mine was one of those phlegmatic, equable tempers that take matters as they come and strive to make the most of them for better or for worse. Therefore we—Philip Scott and Harry Ward—somehow agreed together wonderfully well.
Nor was I very sorry that the stone had come down "wet," for I, too, was somewhat tired of such a run of ill-luck, and as I walked along the banks of the wide creek-bed with its shallow water-holes here and there, and passed the mounds of raw red clay, silent witnesses of much wasted sweat and toil, I felt in my less demonstrative way quite as pleased as Phil. Only, being tenacious, I had somehow thought it right to hang out for that last shaft.
It took us a month to reach the railway terminus, and there selling our horses, packs, etc., for about as much as sufficed to pay our fares, we presently found ourselves in Brisbane. But to find a ship proved altogether another matter. Seamen, it appeared, were plentiful, and berths, either for'ard or abaft the mast, scarce. Thus it did not take very long to reduce us to the same condition financially as when we had tossed the stone at Yarra Creek.
At last, however, our luck turned. One night we had slept in the scrub out Eagle Farm way, and were lounging back to town, Phil in the dumps, and both our belts tightened up to the last hole. At the "Valley" we stopped for a spell, and a smoke of nearly vanished tobacco. A large coasting steamer was coming down the river faster than she ought to have done.
"That's the City of Brisbane," said Phil. "Wish I was on her bound south. Wish we'd stopped up there at Yarra, Harry. After all, there might have been something. It would be just like our luck to clear out and leave it."
I made no answer, for I was watching a ship's boat pulled by a couple of Kanakas, and steered by a white man right across the steamer's track. Had all gone well they would have just had time to get clear, but from some cause or other, probably the wash of the City's bow-wave, one of the Kanakas caught a crab, and the next minute nothing was visible but a few splinters and three heads bobbing up and down in the steamer's wake.
There happened to be a boat lying tied to a little wharf close to us, and a pair of sculls being luckily in her, Phil and I, casting her loose, were very quickly on the scene. The people on the steamer apparently had not noticed the accident for she kept on her course, while the Kanakas were already halfway to the opposite shore. But of the white man there was no sign.
All at once, as we were about to pull back again, he came to the top, and before he could sink we had him in the boat. Fortunately we both knew something of "first aid"; and thus, wasting no time, presently had the satisfaction of seeing our patient recover enough to swear feebly. He wanted whisky, too. There was a hotel about half a mile away, but we had no money. Interpreting the look that passed between us, our salvage grinned, and motioned with a trembling hand towards his pocket. Extracting therefrom a well-lined purse, I opened it as, sitting up, the man groaned "Walker's best—six bob."
Giving Phil half a sovereign, he ran off and soon returned with a bottle, a long pull from which seemed to completely restore our new friend who, rising and shaking himself, cursed the steamer, her men, officers, and owners, the Kanakas, the river water, and things generally. And not until he had finished to his satisfaction did he remember to thank us for saving his life.
"I'm obliged to you, young fellers," he said, offering us each a hand. "If you hadn't been around I expect I'd be at the bottom o' this stinkin' river now, an' driftin' gaily down half-way to the Pile Light." Then, pulling out his purse again, he regarded us rather doubtfully.
"No, thank you," said Phil, anticipating an evident intention; "but if you can help us to get a ship we'll be obliged."
"Have another nip," replied the man, helping himself and passing the bottle. "That Brisbane River water's rank poison. I can feel it yet sort o' coilin' itself around my internal works."
He was a short, broad, powerfully built customer, middle-aged, with grey streaks showing here and there among heavy black hair and whiskers. His face was the colour of roast coffee, save where, on the left side, a long white scar ran from the temple right across one cheek; out from each side of a big nose, shaped like the beak of a hornbill, peered two sharp, deep-set, black eyes that always seemed to be attempting to catch a glimpse of each other over the dividing range, while a great, good-tempered sort of mouth flashed square white teeth through his moustache when he smiled. And he sat on a rock in the hot sun, bare-headed and soaking, and quite unconcernedly settled himself for a talk.
His name, he told us, was Cubitt; and he was master of a brig lying a mile or two down the river. In a few days he was to sail for the Solomon Islands with returned recruits from the plantations, and if we cared for the trip, and would be at the shipping office in the morning, we could sign the Taporina's Articles there and then as foremast hands. Meanwhile, he'd be pleased if we'd accept a loan of, say, three or four pounds each towards our outfit. Knowing sailormen fairly well, he was pretty certain that after a long spell ashore the notes were none too plentiful.
This was the gist of his talk, and it suited us. Also the money came most particularly in the nick of time.
"An' look here," concluded the skipper as, partly dry, he walked with us up to the road and hailed an empty cab that happened to be passing, "I can see you're decent chaps, a cut above the ordinary run o' the fo'c'sle. An' that's full up, anyhow, with rather a mixed lot. But there's a couple o' spare berths in the trade-house aft that you can have. That's all right. So long! See you in the mornin'!"
And the captain, telling the cabby to take him to a Queen Street hotel, jumped in and drove off, while we followed in good heart, little guessing what a queer return the Fates were about to make us for interfering to save a man whose doom they had apparently pronounced.
The Taporina, we found, on joining her, to be a smart-looking brig of some four hundred tons or so. She was painted white, and with her clipper bow, elliptic stern, and lofty spars, bade fair to be a "goer." All about the decks were the returning "boys," each sitting close to his precious "bokkus," full of treasures that he was taking home, and all of them agog with talk and excitement at the prospect of seeing their friends once more. The brig's 'tweendecks had been fitted up for them with tiers of rough bunks, and here they swapped the contents of the "bokkusses" with one another, and squabbled and fought and danced in a style that suggested a very speedy relapse into savagery once their feet touched their native beaches again.
Phil and I were comfortable enough in the tradehouse—a very strong room built just before the break of the low poop, and empty now, as the Taporina had a cargo of copra waiting for her at Ambrym in the New Hebrides, directly she had done with her present freight. The white crew lived for'ard in a house on deck, and when we saw more of them we held ourselves lucky indeed to be by ourselves. Besides the two Loyalty Islands men who had so coolly left their skipper to sink or swim, there were four more natives belonging to Guadalcanar. These all lived together in a den under the topgallant fo'c'sle, and were employed mainly for boat work. The eight whites in the deck-house were every one of them foreigners—three Germans, two Italians, a Greek, and a couple of Spaniards. The mate was an Irishman; the second hailed from London; and the Government agent—who, before we had been forty-eight hours at sea let it be known that he was heir to a Scotch dukedom, and apparently drank up to his expectations—with the two officers and the skipper, all lived in berths opening out of the rather spacious cuddy right aft.
We had forty "returns" on board, some of whom had served two or even more terms of three years each on the Queensland plantations. And these were mostly "flash" fellows who put on a lot of side, and were apt to be unpleasantly familiar if not quickly checked. And the checking had to be done gently, or there would be trouble with the agent. Under the new regulations the most stringent rules were laid down for the treatment of recruits—indeed they were as much pampered and petted now as aforetime they had been ill-used. Nothing was easier than on a comparatively trivial complaint being made for a vessel to lose her recruiting licence, and for her agent and her captain to be heavily fined into the bargain. Completely vanished were the days and doings of the Colleen Bawn, Queen of the Isles, Carl, Nakulau, and other historical ships of iniquity; and, of course, a very good thing too, Only the happy medium had been passed, and the present Government, frightened into the opposite extreme, had gone in for too much cossetting and spoon-feeding.
And the natives knew it, and abused the knowledge.
The Taporina was, as she had seemed, a fast as well as a comfortable vessel; and, carrying light but fair winds, we were making a good passage across the Coral Sea. Phil and I were in the mate's watch—thanks to the skipper's kindness. Cubitt also took care that many an "extra" found its way to our table in the trade-house; so that, altogether, we were having a very pleasant time of it. The mates, too, were both decent fellows, and one or other of them often used to look in for a yarn during our watch below.
Mr Gordon, the agent, was also a visitor now and again; but he was a bore, and a weak one, and his family tree became a nuisance. Poor chap, if he only knew what an infliction we thought him as he prosed away about the "lives" between himself and the castle, estates and rent-roll of McGillicuddy! I can see him now as he used to sit ticking off relations and probabilities on his long white fingers, while his pale face would flush, and those moist, liquorish, weak blue eyes of his attempt to sparkle under their scanty light lashes.
Only a couple of days before we were expecting to sight the blue loom of Mount Lammas, something happened. The Guadalcanar boys, no less than thirty of whom were for neighbouring villages on the island, were already getting their "bokkusses" packed, and arraying themselves in their Sunday-go-to-meeting suits of cheap tweed, flaring red and blue shirts, boxer hats, and outrageous neckerchiefs and brummagem jewellery; scenting their wool with perfumes, and smoking their best silver-mounted pipes. A crowd of them had come on deck strutting about in full fig, and squatting and lounging in our way as we hauled up and ranged the chain cable.
In spite of repeated warnings, a big, powerful fellow called "Caboolture Tommy" would not keep clear. So, presently, tempted by the great bare feet in close proximity to him, one of the Spaniards lifted the chain he was "lighting" along, and dropped the links right across Tommy's toes.
With a howl of anguish the islander caught the sailor round the neck and tried to strangle him. I saw the man striving fruitlessly for a minute in the powerful grasp, his face turning black with the pressure. Then, all of a sudden, the Kanaka's eyes rolled horribly, and grunting, and throwing up his hands, he fell backwards, showing the wooden handle of a sheath-knife sticking out over the waistband of his new trousers, while a thin trickle of blood crawled along the white deck. For the time a man might count ten there was an utter silence, during which nobody moved. Then someone, stooping, drew forth the knife, jumping aside as he did so to avoid the red gush that followed it. But "Caboolture" only drummed faintly with his heels. Evidently he was long past praying for.
And the sight of the blood seemed to awake the savage in his comrades, for they came at us with anything they could lay their hands on—belaying pins, capstan bars, bare fists. Had they been fresh recruits we could without a doubt have mastered them; for all islanders are cowards at heart, and hate a fair fight. But these men had passed years, many of them, among Europeans, had become accustomed to their ways, and felt little fear, especially as we were unarmed.
Even against such odds, we, for a few minutes, held our own, slashing at them with the long chainhooks and driving them for'ard, while some of the crew used their knives freely, so freely that already several black forms lay stretched out like "Caboolture" in all their bravery of new attire. But the tide soon turned as the balance of the islanders came swarming up the hatchway like angry bees out of a hive, armed, too, with twelve-inch knives, tomahawks, and revolvers. These last, of course, they had no business with, it being a criminal offence to supply "returns" with such weapons. All the same many possessed them. Rotten things, no doubt, cheap and nasty, and "made in Germany"—effective enough, however, at such short range.
Phil and I were fighting alongside each other amidships, and striving with the mates to force a retreat aft through the new-comers who had cut us off from the rest of the crew and hemmed them in for'ard. A big nigger—one of our own boys—came at me, flourishing a tomahawk in one hand, grinning and yelling with anticipatory delight, and snapping a revolver he had forgotten to re-load right in my face. By this time my chain-hook was bent out of all shape—they are simply slender rods of iron with a cross-piece for a grip at one end and a hook at the other—but just as he was about to bring the long-handled "tommy" down on my head, I darted the hook with all my force at his throat, in which the sharp point catching, I dragged him to the deck, falling at the same time myself, and underneath.
He was a powerful nigger; but I had kept a good hold of my hook, and as he cursed and choked, and leant his weight on me, and felt about for his dropped axe, I joggled the point in and upwards with both hands till I felt it hit against his jawbone. Suddenly, as I stared into his ugly face, his head fell in two halves, and I was dragged to my feet, breathless and smothered in blood, but otherwise unhurt.
Phil had picked up the tomahawk and split the nigger's skull with it.
"A tight corner, Harry, old man!" he gasped. "Both mates are shot. The skipper was here just now, but I've lost the run of him. We must try and break through 'em if we can."
At a glance I saw what he meant. Between us and the poop was a crowd of niggers dancing, yelling, flourishing axes, and digging their knives into a couple of motionless forms. For'ard, right against the windlass, was a confused mass of men chopping and pounding at the deck-house where I guessed the survivors of the crew had taken refuge. There was no more shooting. Having emptied their pistols, many of the savages, confident in numbers, had preferred using the weapons that they were accustomed to.
It takes some time, all this, to write about. Actually it could not have been much more than five minutes since Pedro drove his knife to the handle below "Caboolture's" ribs. I noticed the Spaniard lying at my feet cut almost to pieces.
"We tried to charge through 'em," said Phil as we stuck close to the stern of the longboat, "but they were too thick. I thought the mates got through. They didn't, though. See, they're hacking at 'em now. They'll come for us presently, and I expect it'll be a case. Got a 'tommy'? That's right! We'll give a few of 'em gip before we go under, anyhow. I'd run aloft, like the cook, there, but it would be all the same in the end. Where's Gordon, I wonder?"
As we spoke, the agent came out of the trade-house carrying a roll of paper in his hand, and obviously far from sober. Staggering up to the group of natives, he seemed to be expostulating with them, for we saw him turn over the pages of what was doubtless a copy of the Regulations, at the same time shaking a warning finger at them. All at once the niggers closed around him, we saw the gleam of an uplifted tomahawk, and when the ring opened there lay three bodies in place of two.
"I think we ought to make a dash for it," I said. "We'll have those chaps from for'ard on to us directly." At present we were screened from these by the end of the galley, and partially from those aft by the longboat which lay right athwart the main hatch. Still, I was sure that both parties knew well we were there, and were only taking their own time before finishing us.
Our sole chance was to get aft and barricade ourselves in the cabin. And a poor chance at that!
Perched aloft on the fore-topgallant yard, I could see the cook staring down, his face like a lump of chalk. And even as I looked, revolvers began to spit at him from the fo'c'sle-head, the bullets holing the canvas sometimes of the royal above him, at others of the topgallantsail, while he ducked and bobbed in an ecstasy of fear.
"Ah, well," I thought, "better here than there, anyhow!"
It was a most beautiful day, full of sunshine, blue sky, and bluer water, and so nearly a calm that the vessel had scarce steering-way upon her, topsails and courses hanging limp and empty, and the lighter canvas only filling at intervals to collapse again almost at once. One of the Germans had been at the wheel when the row commenced, but there was no one there now, and the brig came slowly to and fell slowly off at her own sweet will.
"I think we'll rush 'em now we've got our wind, old man," said Phil. And grasping our tomahawks—in reality half-axes—we shook hands and were preparing to start when, looking aft, I saw the captain suddenly rise out of the little companion in front of the wheel and walk swiftly to the break of the poop. He carried a rifle; and I noticed that his shirt was hanging in blood-stained rags around his chest. The niggers were still chattering and shouting over the three dead men, and the skipper stepped along till he could almost touch them. Then, kneeling down and leaning his rifle over the low rail, he commenced to fire, dropping a man, and sometimes two, at each discharge, deliberately aiming into the thick.
For a minute they paused, and one fellow flung a "tommy" and missed, falling dead almost as soon as it left his hand. Then the others broke and galloped for'ard, pursued by bullets. As they passed one of them made a cut at Phil, who parried it and chopped him across the back of the neck in return, dropping him. But the rest never stopped; and leaving the shelter of the boat we ran aft, singing out to the skipper to quit shooting.
"Six I am certain of," said he grimly, rising to his feet, his eyes blazing, and his great nose all white and twitching. "If I could but have found the cartridges sooner! Are you the only ones left?"
"Except the cook, I think," answered Phil, staring aloft. But as we followed his gaze we saw that the poor fellow had been shot from the yard, and now hung doubled-up over the topmast-crosstrees, head and arms hanging on one side, legs on the other, with a helpless, relaxed look about them there was no mistaking the significance of.
"We may do them yet," shouted Phil, "if you've got plenty of ammunition, captain!"
"But I haven't," replied the other calmly, "scarcely another filling—she's a sixteen shot. I knew there must be a lot somewhere, because I ordered 'em this very trip. So, when I left you that time, I nipped down the hatchway and along aft to a door in the bulkhead I knew of, an' through it into the sail-locker an' the cabin. An', by the holy Jingo, when I found the cartridges an' undid 'em, they turned out all a size too large! What I've been using are only a few I raked together about my berth. My good God, what an awful mess we're in! Better clear below or we'll get hit." And indeed it was time to make for shelter, as revolver bullets were ping-pinging all around us.
Descending, we secured the doors looking aft, and the small companion in front of the wheel; and then, while we drank a little whisky and munched a few biscuits, we dressed each other's wounds—none of them very dangerous. The skipper had been slashed across the chest with a knife, Phil's arm was furrowed by a bullet, while I, to my surprise, found that I was bleeding from a cut in the shoulder.
"If we only had some more rifles and ammunition!" exclaimed Phil, cautiously undoing one of the after doors and peeping out.
"It's just a chance this one was here," replied the captain. "More times I've had nothin' but a shotgun, an' some trips not even that. Firearms ain't supposed to be wanted, although a few boats still carry 'em. I only wish one of 'em may come across us. It's glad I'd be to see her this minute! What are they doing now, Scott?"
"Cooking," replied Phil. "And, by Jingo, there doesn't seem to be more than half of them left. And there's lots of those badly cut about. I could pop a few off now quite easily."
"No, no," replied the skipper, "we've just ten solitary cartridges. We must keep them for the bad time comin'. Curse the fools who sent this useless stuff on board!" And he pointed with a despairing gesture to some brown-paper packets of Winchester ammunition that lay torn open on the table. "Are you sure all our poor chaps for'ard are gone?" he continued.
"Certain," replied Phil, closing the door as a bullet plopped into the woodwork. "But I think they died hard. Even Dagoes 'll fight when cornered, and I could hear enough to know that the niggers weren't having altogether a picnic of it in the fo'c'sle yonder. I say, Harry, I wish we were back again at Yarra, sinking duffers and living hard. This sort of fun doesn't seem to agree with my constitution. Fact is I'm in a blue funk."
"So'm I," I answered. "I feel worse than I did out on deck. This waiting's rotten, and I wish something would happen."
Cubitt was tossing over the contents of a big seachest, searching vainly for more cartridges, and he turned round and grinned, saying: "Don't be in such a hurry, young fellers. Somethin's sure to happen presently—bet your boots on that. Years ago I was in a tight shop with the niggers at Santa Cruz—just as bad as this one—an' only got out of it with my cheek hangin' on my shoulder." And he pointed to the big scar.
By this time it was getting well on towards evening, and there was hardly a breath of wind as I opened the door and looked along the decks dotted with bodies lying in twos and threes, here and there, from the big lot aft to right for'ard. One or two of the islanders were showing signs of life, but the rest paid no attention to them.
Where the skipper had done such execution the niggers lay as they had fallen, quite hiding the three whites except for an arm sticking up from the heap and still grasping a roll of paper. And all around the capstan and the after-hatch was nothing but blood; indeed the whole deck gleamed red as the western sky ahead. As I gazed, I saw that our treacherous boys were busy rigging tackles aloft with which to swing the longboat over the side. Others were getting their boxes up and stowing them away in her, together with such provisions as they had been able to cook. And all amidst much wrangling and quarrelling. A couple even came to blows about a box, giving and receiving nasty knife stabs. Then, suddenly, one of them drew a revolver from his pocket and shot his opponent, who sunk dying across the coveted article, which with a triumphant yell the other snatched from under him.
But nobody took any notice; evidently there was no leader. And they all talked at once, yelled, shouted, and swore—horrible figures, with their torn and blood-stained finery lending them a shocking suggestion of civilisation, accentuated here and there by the speaking of very plain English, used to mock at and defy us. But they attempted no open attack beyond now and again firing their revolvers at the front of the poop-house. I counted twenty-two still left, some of whom, however, moved very stiffly and in evident pain.
It was quite dark ere they got the boat out; and we hoped, as a lot of them tumbled into it, that they would soon be off. But we might have known better. There were two more boats on skids aft, together with a smaller one on the for'ard house. And on all these we presently heard the sound of axes chopping.
"The black devils!" exclaimed Cubitt. "However, if they'll leave us the brig we'll be satisfied. And it's too dark to shoot, even if that'd do any good. Anyhow, there's one boat they know nothing about. Now what's their next move, I wonder."
For a long time there was a silence, broken only by the creaking of spars and timbers as the Taporina rolled to the swell.
The three of us spoke in whispers, tremulous with excitement, as we listened and peered now at one door now at the other, scarcely able to believe in such a piece of luck.
"They've gone," muttered Phil. "I believe I heard the sound of oars just then."
"Keep low yet a while," replied the captain; "likely enough they're gammonin' so as to have us on the quiet."
So we waited. And presently the dark night seemed to grow strangely light around the ship; and before we had time to realise the desperate truth, a tongue of flame shot up amidships, followed presently by another and a broader one, hailed with a savage chorus of wild yells and barbarous cheering out there in the blackness.
"Hell!" exclaimed the skipper as we rushed on deck, "I might ha' known the brutes weren't meanin' to leave as simple as all that! Steady now, lads, an' we'll maybe euchre 'em yet! Ward, take the rifle, an' squat down, an' if you can see the boat shoot straight's you can. Scott, come with me. There's a canvas dinghy in the spare berth, sculls, mast, sail, an' all. She's only a ten-footer I was takin' down to a missionary chap at Havannah, but she'll hold the three of us easy."
I heard them rush away as Cubitt finished speaking, and thrust the Winchester into my hand. And I crouched with one eye seaward and the other along the deck, for I thought there might still be some niggers left behind. But the glare was as bright as day almost, and I could see nothing save the many motionless figures, while the flames leapt up with ever-increasing fierceness, as they caught the ship's timbers and crackled and roared through the open hatchway. Suddenly, into the circle of light, flashed the longboat with a score of dark forms standing up in her and yelling like madmen. Resting my rifle on the rail, I fired three shots in quick succession from the "lightning repeater" at the mark there was no missing for one who had "plugged" many a kangaroo at more than twice the distance. As amidst screams of pain, mingled with splashings, the boat was pulled hurriedly back into the darkness, I heard the skipper's voice calling from the opposite side.
I found they had the dinghy—a tiny thing of canvas stretched over a wooden frame, and nearly as broad as she was long—and were lowering her into the water. With the greatest care we got into the cockleshell, and shipping a pair of sculls pulled silently away, every minute expecting to hear the wild yell that heralded discovery. But except for the crackling of the flames, everything was very quiet.
The Taporina's sails and rigging had caught, the former flaring out in burning shreds from the yards, the latter looking like snakes in fiery torment as along tarred shrouds and stays and backstays the flames crept and the hemp writhed and curled in fantastic shapes, some dropping in great red-hot coils that fell hissing into the sea, others swinging slowly to and fro with the motion of the brig. Presently the fore-topgallantsail caught, and by its light we could plainly see the bent figure in the crosstrees with its arms extended towards the raging furnace beneath in the attitude of one who dives. And all the time, as we pulled steadily to the southward, came to us on the light air a horrible, rank smell of roast flesh.
"Poor old brig!" muttered the skipper in hoarse tones, from where he sat at the tiller. "Little did I think this was to be the end of you, an' those other poor chaps a-fryin' yonder in their own grease. Never sail with them Spanishers, an' Greeks, an' Eyetalians, boys," he continued. "If that cussed Dago hadn't been so smart with his knife this'd never ha' happened. A Dutchman wouldn't ha' stuck 'Caboolture' the way Pedro did. However, it's no use cryin' over lost milk, an' if those nigs catch us they'll give us somethin' still more worth cryin' for. Step the mast as quietly as you can, and up mainsail an' jib. Ha, there go the poor old gal's sticks!"
And as he spoke, down crashed the Taporina's masts amidst a soaring whirlwind of flame and sparks, while the hull burned more fiercely than ever, making a great patch of sky glow so vividly red overhead that we imagined it must be visible over all the South Pacific.
Our little craft, meanwhile, was dancing and bobbing before a light breeze with a rippling and tinkling of water-bells along her frail canvas sides, and a swash of sparkling foam under her broad bow. Neither I nor Phil had ever been in such a basket before, and we were half afraid to move for fear of capsizing her when, presently, the wind freshening a bit, she lay over to it with her lee gunwale just awash. But Cubitt declared her a beauty, and fit to go anywhere in.
"However," said he, "the chances are we'll sight somethin' in the mornin'. Those niggers are travellin' dead away from us now. They know where the island is, bless ye! We were only some eighty miles off it when the row started, an' they'll think nothin' of that for a pull. One comfort is that if they don't make a good landfall, an' happen to get on Malaita or Florida instead of their own beach, they'll all be killed an' eaten. But I'm afraid they know too much for that sort of business, an' are too well armed. That's poor Gordon's fault. It was his duty to see that they brought no firearms on board. Ease off your sheet a bit, Scott, an' she'll go all the easier. Great Moses, where should we ha' been only for her!"
All we had in the boat was a compass, four tins of preserved beef, and three bottles of beer. The meat rolled about as it pleased, but we had to stow a precious bottle each inside our shirts to prevent its being broken, while the skipper kept the compass between his legs. At daylight it fell calm again, and nothing was in sight. It was very hot, and we cowered under the mainsail, spread over the sculls, awning-wise, and at intervals took little sips of lukewarm beer to quench our thirst. If I had owned all Bass's breweries just then, I would cheerfully have given the whole box and dice of them for a quart of cold water!
Late in the afternoon—all three of us cramped, sore, thirsty, and sick of homeopathic doses of beef and tepid beer—Phil saw smoke to the eastward, and a few minutes' anxious watching told us that the steamer was coming our way.
"Dutch," muttered the skipper, as we lay on our oars right in her course. "Black, white, red. An' a man-o'-war. Umph! I don't cotton to 'em over-much."
"German," corrected Phil as he noticed the colours.
"It's all the same," retorted the captain, as the big white warship slowed down abreast of us, and we pulled alongside, "at least the language is. Yah spells 'yes' with both of 'em. They won't do nothin' for us. If she'd been English, now, they'd ha' nipped after those niggers an' blowed 'em to Kingdom Come."
Another five minutes, and we were telling our story to the captain of the Kaiserin, who, however, beyond a grunt, manifested little interest until I happened to mention that three of our crew had been Germans. At once there was a sensation, and much guttural, vehement talk.
"That fetched 'em!" whispered the skipper. "Wish, now, you'd said they was mostly Dutch. Damned if I don't think they mean business after all!"
In his broken English the commander made inquiries as to courses and distances; and soon the Kaiserin was steaming in the direction from which we had come. And just at dark we passed the Taporina burnt to the water's edge. A well-directed shot from the cruiser, and the hull disappeared in a cloud of steam and smoke. Half-speed during the night; and there in the dawn loomed Guadalcanar, some eight or ten miles off. Then, as the sun rose between us and it, could be seen through the glasses something like a black centipede moving swiftly.
"That's them!" shouted Cubitt in his excitement. "More steam, captain, or by the Lord they'll slip you yet! Mind, they butchered thirteen o' your countrymen!"
But the captain only stared disapproval out of a cold, spectacled, blue eye; and flung an order to a lieutenant that sounded like a growl at a disobedient dog.
Boom! from a big gun for'ard came a report that shook the ship, while just ahead of the centipede, in response to a sixty-four lb. shell, there rose a great mound of water looking like blood in the deep purple of the first sun-flush.
Boom! again; and you could see the same mound, pink now, spring up, only amidst its glow, this time, were many things that looked like the branches of a tree after a Bush fire has swept through it. Also, the centipede was quite gone—vanished utterly.
And as the captain shut his glasses with a snap, he grunted something into his beard—"Good practice!" perhaps—and waved his hand, while bells chimed below, and with much splashing of twin screws the Kaiserin slowly turned on her heel, carrying us on to Wilhelmshafen, forlorn, penniless, but still, now, not altogether dissatisfied.
At one of the reunions of the League of Ancient Mariners, discussion and argument ran high on the question as to whether a sailor, after retiring from the sea and living ashore for many years, ever becomes incapacitated, other than by old age or physical infirmity, from again following his business in great waters.
All those present were master mariners; and they now represented many professions and trades. Among them were lawyers, doctors, pastoralists, marine assessors, tradesmen, and merchants of every description from a chemist to a miller; from a man who had done well out of a patent window blind, to one who managed a big daily newspaper. And at one time or another they had all held command—mostly under canvas. The oldest of the company was over ninety; the average was about sixty.
Opinions seemed about equally divided on the matter, so nearly, indeed, that of the hundred present the party opposed to the sea-going theory only numbered a majority of three.
"I'd go afloat to-morrow," shouted one old veteran, broad of beam and bright of eye, "either fore or aft, as good a man as ever I was. And I'll bet I'd be able to show some of these modern sailor-men a few wrinkles in their work. And I'm sixty-five this month."
"You couldn't," roared one of the minority. "It ain't to be done. I'm only fifty-eight, but I'm too stiff to go aloft, and my sight isn't what it was; and I'm a bit hard o' hearing. I've been too long ashore. And what's more, I've got too much sense to leave it. So've you, Cap'n Burns; only you ain't game to say so."
Laughter and cheers greeted the speaker; pipes were filled, the nip freshened all round, and the argument was beginning afresh, when up rose an ancient mariner and in a thunderous voice roared for silence.
He was tall and somewhat bowed, but a fine crop of hair, which the years had only succeeded in grizzling, crowned a massive, ruddy face, clean-shaven except for a fringe of snow-white whisker that ran from ear to ear under the chin. From beneath jet black brows twinkled a pair of small, frosty blue eyes.
"I'm sixty-three," he announced; "and, as you all know, I'm reckoned worth a goodish bit of money. Well, that's neither here nor there; but I will say that running a steam laundry's a far more paying game than running the finest packet that floats the sea. Why, a pub, on a good stand, isn't to be compared with it."
Cheers and exclamations of emphatic assent met this statement. "I left the sea just twenty years ago," continued the speaker. "I was master of the Ballymena Castle, trading to Calcutta—Parsee-built old frigate she was, comfortable as a house, and quite fast enough. However, that's neither here nor there. But I'm willing to lay a level couple o' hundred pounds that me and others in this room to-night 'll go on board a ship and leave her at the end of the voyage with A.B.'s discharges and 'V.G.' on every one of 'em. Anybody like a flutter?"
Almost at once, a small, stout, baldheaded man, one of the most prominent of the oppositionists, jumped up and exclaimed, "I'll take the wager, Cap'n Lord. An' I reckon that two hundred just as good as if 'twere in my pocket this minute."
A very babel of protest and encouragement arose from the assembled League as the taker of the bet, the proprietor of a large and flourishing store in one of the suburbs of Capricorn, laughingly resumed his seat, saying to the man next to him:
"Old stupid! I don't want his money. Just did it to knock some of the conceit out of him and his lot. Only wish he would take it up in earnest. You'd see some fun then."
"Well, Cap'n Black," remarked the other dryly, as a fresh burst of cheering rang through the room, "I fancy you'll have your wish. Listen to them calling you. And I ain't so dead certain you're goin' to win either. There's some uncommonly hardy old birds among us. And don't you forget it."
* * * * * *
"Harry," remarked my mate, Phil Scott, to me one day as we leaned over the rail of the Zenobia, then lying out in the stream in Port Capricorn, "did you ever come across a ship's company of cheerful seaboys, all merry as grigs, singing and larking, and cracking jokes by and large?"
"No," I replied, "I never did. Nor has anybody else ever done so. What put the idea into your head, Phil?"
"Well," he replied, "I've just been reading a book about the sea, by a modern writer, and you'd think that the whole show is one of the funniest things imaginable. His characters are comic-opera sailors; and they don't work; all they have to do is to get in and out of impossible situations, mostly with extraordinary women."
"Well," I said, "all the merchant seamen I've come across are the dullest, heaviest crowd you can well imagine. There's not an ounce of comicality or fun to the shipload of 'em. He must indeed be a genius who could get anything of the kind out of the British sailorman."
"Umph," grunted Phil, "I like what's natural and true to life in my yarns. And when I'm asked to believe in comic-opera sailors, why, then I'm off the writer who tried to shove such stuff into me. It may go down all right with the people ashore, but those who know the life will laugh at, and not with, the man who tries to turn Jack into a buffoon."
Phil and I, after a rather exciting sort of a trip among the islands, had at last struck a calm spell in the Zenobia, an old ship of fourteen hundred tons, owned in Auckland. We had come across to Port Capricorn and loaded railway sleepers for South Africa, and just as we'd got the hatches on there came a report of a rich diggings that had broken out about three hundred miles up country. And like magic the Port of Capricorn was left empty of sailors. True, there was not much shipping in just then: and we were about the only vessel ready for sea. All the same it was awkward for the merchants.
We two Australians, accustomed to a Bush life, also to gold digging, would have cleared out with the crowd, but that we happened to know the country pretty well; had, in fact, prospected near the site of the new rush. And we were far from sure that it was not a duffer. So we stuck to the ship—the only ones to do so except her officers. Still, it was counted unto us for righteousness with the afterguard.
Weeks passed, and it seemed as if the Zenobia and her sleepers would never get any nearer to Table Mountain, when one day the captain came on board beaming—for him.
He had found a crew, a full crew. That they would only sign for the run made no difference. And they were coming on board that very evening. Then off to sea in the morning.
"Are they sailormen, sir?" I heard the mate ask in a puzzled tone.
"Of course," said the skipper rather huffily. "Think I'd ship ploughmen. Certainly," he continued, "they're rather an elderly lot. But they've got capital discharges, and I dare say they'll behave much better than younger men."
The Zenobia's topgallant fo'c'sle was a beast of a place. Athwart it ran one of the old-fashioned windlasses; a partition divided it into two compartments for the port and starboard watches respectively. Every time the anchor was hove-up the mud, or whatever the bottom might be, was thick on the fo'c'sle deck. Also, the hawse-pipes leaked and kept everything in a general condition of sloppiness. An evilsmelling slush-lamp was suspended from the ceiling, and two flaring wicks made out of cotton waste served to illumine the draughty, comfortless den.
About eight bells in the afternoon a tug came alongside crowded with men and luggage.
"Passengers!" exclaimed Phil in amazement. "I didn't know we had accommodation for so many."
"Perhaps it's the crew," I corrected. "A mighty ancient-looking lot, too. But I say, Phil, they do come aboard in style, don't they? All sober. And each one with an outfit that would last an ordinary sailorman a couple of years."
The skipper was ashore. The mate and the second, both youngsters, were on the poop gazing at the tug with puzzled faces, while a score of men, dressed pretty much alike in blue serge and hard, round, black hats, stared aloft at the towering spars of the Zenobia.
"Tug ahoy," shouted the second mate, as presently she came alongside with a grinding of fenders. "What do you want?"
"Brought your crew out," replied the skipper from his bridge.
"Oh, all right," said the mate dubiously. "But what's all that dunnage?"
"That's ours," replied a stentorian voice, to which later on we became well accustomed. "We'll have it on board in a brace of shakes."
Each man had a big chest and a bundle of rugs and bedding, and in addition a kit-bag and a leather portmanteau. There were also heavy cases at whose contents we could make no guess whatever. And, wonderful to relate, the tug hands turned to and helped with a will to get the things on board, while Phil and I from the main-hatch, and the two officers from the break of the poop, stared fascinated at a "joining ship" which so excelled anything we had ever imagined possible.
When the great pile was finally stowed on deck, the tug gave a shrill cock-a-doodle-doo in token of farewell and steamed away, while the new-comers began to carry their belongings for'ard.
"Well," remarked Phil, "don't this beat the band! Why, damn it, some of 'em are eighty if they are a day, Harry! And there's one nearer a hundred. I'll bet all the tea in China on it."
"But they're spry, Phil," I replied. "Come on, let's give 'em a hand."
"Thanks, young fellers," said the man with the big voice, as we finished distributing the things about equally on each side, "we're none of as young as we were a few years ago. Same old pigsty, I see," he continued with a look around. "Just the same as it was forty years ago. Same old tucker, too, I'll swear. Well, boys, we'll have a nip, for those who like it, and then try and get things a bit shipshape."
Bottles and tumblers appeared from somewhere in a minute, and Phil and I helped ourselves to a modest allowance of very excellent whisky. But to our surprise fully half the crowd declined the spirit. These drank ginger ale, of which there seemed to be a liberal supply.
"Fill your glasses, gentlemen, and drink to a quick trip and a merry one," said the leader, whom the others addressed as "Cap'en," and whose name we presently discovered to be Lord—a sharp-eyed, red-faced, powerfully built old chap, who, it seemed to us, had a natural air of command and authority which made him prominent among them all.
Then they started to unpack, while Phil and I, perched on our bunks, watched the process with excited interest.
"Shade of Noah!" whispered Phil presently, "they've brought combs and brushes with 'em. And there's not enough hair among the lot to make a decent wig."
But what they lacked in hair they evidently supplied in experience, for they shook down in a very short time. Beds were neatly made; oilskins of the very best make hung up; shore-going togs neatly packed away, and stout dungaree donned in their place.
"I suppose," ventured Phil to one old fellow, who was busy drawing an elastic bandage over each knee, "that it's some time since you gentlemen have seen the inside of a fo'c'sle?"
The other's eyes twinkled shrewdly as he lifted a weather-beaten and wrinkled face to where we sat, and replied:
"Let me see. It must be well on for fifty year now since I was A.B. in the old Alfred. She was thirteen hundred and fifty ton register; and we carried a crew of sixty, all told. There were five mates, three boatswains and their three mates, two carpenters, and forty-one A.B.'s. That was in the early 'forties. We came out to Sydney, and laid alongside where Circular Quay is now. I was only a youngster then. I'd been a master five-and-twenty years when I gave the sea best, and took to the land and estate business."
"Come on deck," whispered Phil to me after a pause. "I feel as if a whiff of fresh air would do me good. There are ghosts of ancient sailors all around us, Harry. The 'early 'forties,' did he say? Good Lord deliver us! And he's quite chippy yet—only a bit gone in the knees. Let's have a look in on the starboard side."
There we found matters much the same—gear stowed away, and the veterans full of beans. This portion of the amazing crowd ran more to flesh, some of them sporting quite formidable corporations. Still, old as they were, and soft as many of them undoubtedly were, there seemed a lot of vim and energy about them lacking in any crew of younger men we had ever happened upon.
One or two of the cases had been opened, and some of their contents were visible in the shape of tinned stuff of various descriptions, cheeses, hams, jams, and preserved fruits.
"You see, sons," explained a thin, cadaverous mariner with bold black eyes and a hawk-like beak projecting from a long, clean-shaven face, "we've been doin' ourselves pretty high for a good long spell now, and we don't reckon that the bill o' fare's changed much since our day. Also, our grinders ain't as sound as they were fifty year ago. All the same, we'll shake the old dug-out over to Table Bay all right. Last time I was there was in—let me see—the late 'fifties, 'bout time o' the Indian Mutiny. I was master of the Clan Alpine, taking emigrants out to Melbourne. And I recollect—"
"Now, Cap'n," interrupted Lord, "no longwinded yarns just yet a while. It's four bells, and I'm off to the galley on an exploring expedition. I saw the doctor in there when we came aboard, and I expect he'll have some hot water. We'll do the rest. You two boys can join us, if you like. I think unless the passage is going to be a long one, that we've brought enough grub along to last us out."
So we sat and partook of their meal, making one of the best we had eaten since joining the Zenobia in Auckland; for though not a badly found ship by any means, the cook was a poor artist.
At eight bells the next morning we began to heave up the anchor.
"Start a chanty, bullies," said the mate with a halfsmile as he surveyed the curious crowd that manned the handles of the old-fashioned levers. And, indeed, they looked older than ever in the bright sunshine which poured on them, showing up wrinkles and white hair, and folds of dry, pendulous skin with merciless detail. But they were a hearty lot in spite of all; and when presently one of them struck up the famous "Shenandoah" in a voice that quavered and shook at first, but gradually grew firmer and stronger, and the rest joined in the chorus with a will, the mudhook came home in double quick time, giving the four apprentices all they could do to clear the cable away.
"What's that thing our friends are wearing?" asked Phil. And then I noticed that each man had attached to the breast of his shirt a sort of circular button of blue enamel; and, looking more closely, I saw upon it an albatross in white hovering with outstretched wings over the sea. Around the design ran in red letters the legend "L.A.M."
"Hanged if I know," I replied. "Looks like the badge of some secret soceity. By Gad, Phil, how the poor old chaps are sweating! Give us a song to cheer 'em up a bit." So Phil, who was a good tenor and was also an improviser of no mean order, piped up "Stormalong," and that brought the anchor to the cathead.
The wind was fair for outside, so the skipper determined to save the expense of a tug, and soon the topsails and topgallantsails were sheeted home, and the Zenobia began to move toward the harbour entrance.
Just at this moment a big ferry steamer came nearly alongside, and to our astonishment saluted us with hoarse crowings from her siren, while a crowd of men on board struck up the old chanty, "Blow the Man Down," accompanied by a powerful piano. Bunting flew from stem to stern over temporary masts, and prominent among the flags we noticed a large burgee bearing the same initials in red on a blue ground as those on the buttons worn by our crew.
And the men on the steamer were all more or less physically typical of those on the Zenobia. There were top-hats and frock-coats among them, too, and gold watch-chains slung across comfortable bow-windows; all, in short, a prosperous-seeming crowd, who waved and cheered, and sung chanties vigorously to the utter mystification of the skipper and the mates, and of everybody but the crew.
And the crew, flinging discipline to the winds, clambered on to the Zenobia's rail and into her rigging, and returned the salutes with great energy. They were evidently immensely gratified.
"Hello, I say," remarked the mate in expostulatory tones, "what's all this row about? The Zenobia seems a wonderfully popular ship all at once. But I want the mainsail and foresail set—when you gents can find time."
"All right, sir," said Lord. "It's only the League giving us a bit of a send-off. You'll see every ship we pass will dip to the Zenobia."
"League?" replied the mystified officer. "What league?"
"Why, the League of Ancient Mariners, of course," said Lord. "Only for us you'd lie in Capricorn till a hayfield grew on your ship's bottom."
"Never heard of the League," replied the mate with a grin. "But the 'Ancient' is all right, without a doubt, whatever the 'Mariners' may be. Now let's get that foresheet aft."
Every ferry-boat that passed us saluted us with crowings. All the ships at anchor dipped their ensigns in farewell to us.
"Damn it," said the skipper crossly, as the ferryboat steamed around the Zenobia, now bowing gently to the Pacific swell, and all the Ancient Mariners struck up "Auld Lang Syne" with immense vigour. "Damn it, you'd think we'd got the Governor and the Admiral and the Premier on board!"
But the sea coming in from outside became too heavy for the steamer, and presently she turned round, the Ancient Mariners chanted "God save the Queen," gave three final cheers, and made back up the harbour again, while the Zenobia set all her canvas and stretched away to sea.
The first night out quite half of the crew were incapacitated from duty by sickness.
"'Twill do 'em a world of good," remarked Phil. "Think of all the years they've been ashore without a shake-up. They'll have new livers after this trip, and will find no use for the piles of patent medicines I've seen among their luggage—pills and ointments and cure-alls of every description."
But in a day or so the ancient ones made good recoveries, got their sea-legs on, waddled about the decks as if they had never left them, generally made themselves quite at home, and seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. Nevertheless, they were dubious aloft. Their muscles were stiff with disuse, cramps and pains assailed them, and it was no uncommon thing to see one, more agile than the others, helping a lame duck in from a yard-arm, or giving him a haul up over a difficult spot.
They were, however, immensely willing and cheerful, abounding in queer yarns, bubbling over with laughter, song, and recitation. Some of them, too, had brought musical instruments with them, upon which they played fairly well. Thus in the dogwatches you would find the whole ship's afterguard, bar the skipper, for'ard—cook and steward, carpenter and sailmaker, the four smart apprentices—and not seldom even the first or second mates, listening and applauding.
As for the skipper, although on the whole a decent enough sort, if "starchy" and apt quite mistakenly to consider himself an epitome of all marine virtues in the way of navigation and seamanship, he scarcely appeared to appreciate the presence on the Zenobia of twenty master mariners, some of whom had held command when he was a child in arms, and some long before he was born.
But the mates simply revelled in the old men; as also did the boys, who saved them many a trip aloft, and in return were rewarded with welcome additions to their mess from the "L.A.M.'s" stores.
Crossing the Great Australian Bight, the Zenobia got a good dusting, one that necessitated all hands being called to shorten sail.
I was in the second mate's watch, and when the summons came at about four bells in the morning, the ancients popped night-capped heads over their bunks as Phil, who called us, lit the wildly swinging lamp and remarked: "A nasty night, gentlemen, and I'm sorry to disturb you, but the old hooker's got more than she can carry, and something'll go presently unless you turn out and show a leg pretty smartly."
We could hear the roar of the gale very plainly; hear, too, the slapping of the big seas as they hit the vessel's bows with resounding smacks, while cataracts of water poured incessantly over the break of the fo'c'sle, the floor of which was afloat with a tide that, as she rolled, rushed from one side to the other, half-way up the row of chests lashed to the bunk-stanchions.
The ancients grunted and groaned. But they rose to the occasion like the genuine ocean warriors they once had been. And the flow of language they indulged in as the cold water swirled about their legs, and the ship in her lurches sent them careering to leeward and back again, came as a surprise even to us who had ere now sailed with artists in commination.
Especially notable for their performances in this line were a doctor and a retired miller—ex-mayor of a big suburban borough and a prominent churchwarden—a detail, this last, which was the cause of some chaff as the watch, accoutred to its last soul-and-body lashing, eventually made its way on deck.
As we clambered and groped aft along the sloping, slippery weather-side through the thick darkness, green seas smashed over the rail and pounded us. From aloft came the hoarse shouts of the port watch at work on the topgallantsails and upper topsail. As we started to clew-up on the main, the gale seemed to increase in weight until the Zenobia lay right over to it, with the water coming in sheets over her lee-rail.
How the ancients got aloft that night nobody but themselves can tell. I passed some of them flattened on the almost horizontal main-rigging like black beetles stuck on cardboard. They could be heard encouraging each other with weird cries and shrill oaths, as they clutched and clawed their way over the ratlines. And eventually they reached the yards where the flapping, banging billows of canvas awaited them.
Lord was at the wheel, a splendid helmsman; and it was owing to him as much as anything that we never lost a stitch. But it was a hard contract, and by the time daylight arrived and the Zenobia was under her lower topsails and reefed fore and main courses, all the stiffening was out of the ancients. The watch that went below at eight bells recked nothing of breakfast. They just turned in all standing, sore, and strained in every limb, cut and bruised, and generally shaken up to a very considerable extent.
As for the watch on deck, it merely stood by and dozed in all sorts of odd corners where a little shelter might be found.
But they all soon recovered their spirits, and vied with each other in relating their experiences and escapes while up aloft.
"Damn the Bight!" said the doctor. "I remember when I was mate of the old Caduceus, getting such another blow—only harder. Lost a whole suit of new sails. Lucky they went, too, or the sticks would ha' gone. That was in the year 'sixty. Long passage; one hundred and forty-three days to Kurrachee."
He was a little round man, the doctor, quite bald. He wore gold spectacles; a cheerful soul, always ready with quip and jest. And we gathered that he had left a large practice in Capricorn in order to show his faith in the efficiency of the Ancient Mariners. He had been a Conway boy, and had held command twice ere leaving the sea and taking to medicine. Now, at the age of sixty-five, he found himself engaged on this wild freak—and to all appearance thoroughly enjoying it.
And the yarns they spun about their old ships were a source of never-failing joy to me and Phil. Also, as time passed, and we rounded the Leuwin, and steered north-about to catch the South East Trades, and got into finer weather, the old gentlemen became absolutely frisky; their joints seemed quite limber, their backs straighter, voices deeper, eyes clearer. The ozone of the sea was making itself felt in their veins and arteries; they were rejuvenated.
"I never thought I'd live to see it," remarked the chief officer, one day, "but here's a crew without a growler among 'em."
"They've done their growling, sir," remarked Phil, "years before we were born. Besides, come to think of it, what have they to growl about now? So far as I can make out, they're all well off; and this picnic will do 'em so much good that they'll live as long as the albatross they wear on their medals."
"I think," remarked Lord, one evening as the Zenobia forged along in a phosphorescent sea, steady as a house, and making a comfortable, droning noise at her bows as they clove the milky masses that rose and fell away again in hills and hollows all besprinkled with jewels, "I think I'll take to the sea life again for good. After all, there's nothing like it."
"Yes," remarked another ancient, after the laugh had subsided; "but I say, Cap'en, what about that snug cottage o' yours, and the fine bit o' city property with the terrace of houses and the shops, and the rents all coming in reg'lar?"
"Um!" remarked Lord, "well, I suppose there is a certain amount of responsibility attaching to property. And perhaps, after all, I'd better stop ashore and help you lads to spend that two hundred pounds."
By this time we were all familiar with the terms of the bet—which was as good as won. In another month or so the mariners would be speeding home as fast as steam could carry them with their well-earned discharges in their pockets.
They were only "runners," and, as such, were not by custom compelled or expected to do much more work about the ship than was actually necessary. But, as a matter of fact, they were never idle. They set up all the standing rigging, rattled down, painted, scrubbed, made chafing-gear, and were generally as busy as bees during their watches on deck.
"By the Lord Harry," remarked the mate more than once, "I'll be sorry to lose this crowd—ancient as it is! I expect we'll have to ship the usual piebald mob at the Cape, sour, grumbling, worthless sogers who'll not do a hand's turn unless you drive 'em to it. Yes, I'd like to keep the albatrosses for the round trip, whatever the skipper may think about it."
But evidently Captain Haynes would have preferred a less independent and a more ignorant crew. The Leaguers knew too much for his peace of mind; and he disliked the expert criticism which he was pretty sure went on in the fo'c'sle, as to his seamanship and the handling of his vessel.
Not that there was much to find fault with so far, but the ancient ones were exacting. Some of them had sextants; and, much to the aggravation of the skipper, they used to "shoot the sun" at midday, and "from information received" through sources aft, knew just as much with regard to the ship's position as any of the executive.
"He's keeping her too low down," one would remark. "At this time o' the year it's always best to stretch well away to the no'thard. Then make into the coast and catch the Agulhas current."
"Oh, well," would say another, "we ain't doing so badly, although I must say I've seen better Trades. They don't seem to blow so steady as when I was around these parts afore. I remember, now, in the old Dacia—"and so forth, and so on.
One day we met a steamer. The ancients, ogling her with binoculars and telescopes, presently showed signs of excitement.
"Call me Dutch," suddenly exclaimed one of them, "if that ain't Harry Henderson and the Loango! We ought to hoist the flag. He's an honorary member o' the League. He's giving up the sea this trip. Going into the stevedoring business. He'll be elected permanent at the next meeting. Let's ask the skipper if he minds."
Lord went aft for the required permission, which was grumpily given on condition that the flag should be flown at the fore.
Of course there were no signal-halliards rove, but one of the boys soon remedied this. And by the time the Loango, a big lump of a tramp, was on our port bow, a great red burgee, bearing in white letters the full title of the League, together with the emblematic albatross, was streaming from the fore-royal-masthead in great style.
Apparently attracted by the phenomenon, the Loango altered her course, slowed down, and came quite close to the Zenobia, so close that we could make out the puzzled faces of her officers on the bridge as they stared aloft at our fore.
The ancient ones had gathered on the fo'c'sle head, and they now hailed the steamer and called the skipper by his given name, and sent messages home by him, and generally made a deuce of a noise, while Henderson still stared speechless at seeing so many leading and reputable citizens of Capricorn in such guise and condition.
At last, finding his voice, he roared, "What are you doing there? Have you been shanghaied? Shall I stand by to take you off?"
Shouts of "No, no, Harry, it's all right. We've gone to sea again for our health. They'll tell you all about it when you get home."
Then they dipped their flag thrice in farewell as the steamer forged ahead, her skipper bearing on his rugged features a comical look of bewilderment.
Presently the "Trades" failed us quite suddenly and unexpectedly, and in their place we ran into even heavier weather than we had encountered in the Great Bight. But there was no trouble as regarded "snugging down" the Zenobia on this occasion. Our seasoned old salts simply waltzed around her, so to speak, and the weather being warm, they quite enjoyed themselves. Fortunately the wind was fair, and under her topsails and foresail the ship ran swiftly before it with a high sea following her.
"Algoa Bay should lie 'bout three hundred miles to the west'ard," remarked an ancient at tea-time. "Port Elizabeth they call it now. Beastly hole when I was there thirty year ago—all sand, and flies, and niggers ashore, and cut and run like hell from the roadstead in every westerly blow."
"Well," said another, "this gale'll see us well on our way to Table Bay. And not before it's time either, for the tucker is getting mighty short. We're about down to ham and cheese; enough to take us in."
"Yes, I expect we'll be walking up Adderly Street in less than a fortnight," remarked Lord. "And I think we'll all be sorry, gentlemen, when this little trip of ours is over. Perhaps some day—"
But he never got any further with his impromptu speech. Somehow or other, probably through inattention on the part of the helmsman, the Zenobia came up too much in the wind, and one of the big following seas, taking a mean advantage of the ship, crashed over the quarter and filled her decks from rail to rail fore and aft.
The fo'c'sle doors burst asunder, and in surged the water, carrying us all off our feet, and slamming us to and fro, and thwartships, and every other way, banging us against chests that had broken adrift, and generally mixing everybody up in great style.
Almost all the watch on deck had sneaked into the starboard side for a smoke, so that there was no lack of company in misfortune.
The lamp was out, and from all sides arose cries, and oaths, and strange gurglings and chokings, as we hung to each other and anything else we could feel.
"The d—d ship's overboard," gasped an ancient who had gripped me fast by a leg, and refused to let go.
"Strike a light, somebody!" exclaimed the doctor's voice, sputtering and cursing, as I got clear at last and clambered into a top-bunk.
"Light your grandmother!" retorted Lord's bass tones. "Let's get out of this. On deck everybody. The water's clearing. Let go of me, whoever y'are under the windlass, there, or I'll kick the head off you."
Similar compliments were being exchanged among the ancients, mingled with execrations and groans as loose dunnage washed against them.
But at last we all scrambled free of the place, and, soaked and bruised, crawled aft, relieved beyond measure to see the Zenobia apparently undamaged, and running as fast as ever.
We lost nothing; but it was a great wash-out from saloon to fo'c'sle—utter and complete. There was not a dry stitch for'ard or aft. And for once the Ancient Mariners, as they gathered their belongings together, seemed to think that there might be more comfortable places to be found than the Zenobia.
The next day it blew harder than ever, and we took in the fore and main upper-topsails and stowed the mizzen, while the ancients opined that it was pretty nearly time to heave-to.
But the skipper seemed to think differently; for though manifestly anxious, as he stared aloft and around, he still kept all on.
At four bells in the morning watch we sighted a big ship with only her lower masts standing. She was fair in our track, hove-to but making shocking weather of it. The three topmasts had gone at the caps. From the mizzen peak the Red Ensign flew Jack down, while presently through our glasses we could see a string of signals fluttering up the halliards.
The wreckage of spars and canvas had for the most part fallen inboard, and she looked a most deplorable object as she one moment rose to the summit of a comber, full in view, and with a heavy list to port, and then disappeared from sight in one of the great watery valleys. The skipper was on deck eyeing her through his glasses. It was the chief mate's watch, and he went into the cabin and returned with the signal book, telling the two apprentices to get our own flags ready to bend on.
"What are you about?" asked Captain Haynes.
"Won't you see what she says, sir?" asked the mate.
"What's the use?" replied the skipper. "We can't help her in any case. Make fast those halliards again and put the flags away."
As it happened, Lord, the best helmsman in the ship, was at the weather wheel. We were rapidly approaching the other ship, and could already distinguish the figures of people aft; could also see that she was desperately low in the water, and that all the forepart of her was constantly swept by breaking seas.
The mate stood irresolute with the book in his hand, looking from the skipper to the labouring hull ahead.
"Did I hear you say, cap'n," shouted Lord, "that you were going to carry on, and not try to help those poor chaps yonder?"
"You did," replied the captain angrily. "Nothing can be done for them. And I'll not risk the loss of my ship in trying to assist them. No man could do anything in such weather. And, in any case, it's no business of yours."
"By G—d, is it not!" exclaimed Lord. "You useless son of a sea-cook! You fine-weather sailor trash! Here, Mister Mate, you take the wheel. And the League'll show this poor yahoo how to do his work."
And the mate, dominated by the great roaring voice, and the cold fury in the keen, blue eyes, meekly took the weather helm, while Lord rushed for'ard and called the watch below.
"On deck all hands!" he bellowed. "Here's men drowning alongside us, and the murderin' skipper won't even have a try to help 'em. Jump, you Leaguers, jump as you never jumped before!"
They were up in a jiffy, having turned in "all standing."
And then Lord practically took charge of the ship. First he clewed up the fore-topsail and stowed it. Then he hauled the foresail up, and putting his helm down rounded short to in a bit of a smooth, furled the foresail, and in a very short time the Zenobia under his skilful handling was lying hove-to under a lower main-topsail and fore-staysail as quietly as a duck asleep in a pond.
Needless to say that Phil and I seconded the patriarchs to the utmost of our power. So, indeed, did everybody but the mates. It was mutiny of a kind; and with the skipper lay the power to ruin their careers. Therefore, they merely stood by and looked on, while our two selves, and the boys, and the "idlers"—the cook, carpenter, and "sails"—aided and abetted Lord and his crowd for all we were worth.
The stranger was now broad on our port bow, some half a mile distant, and it was evident to all that her time was getting short; she seemed deeper in the water than ever; indeed, all hands—we counted a dozen—were in the mizzen rigging.
To a sailor's eye she presented a dreadfully pathetic spectacle as she wearily crawled up one great declivity and went sliding out of sight into the gulfs between. And all the time the Zenobia drifted steadily down upon the derelict, while on the break of the fo'c'sle stood Lord watching, and at intervals signalling to the two ancients who had relieved the wheel. Presently he set the foretopmast-staysail, put the helm up, kept his main-topsail full, squared the head-yards, hauled down the staysail again, and once more hove her to on the other tack; a delicate piece of manoeuvring which brought the Zenobia's bows heading straight for the stern of the other vessel.
But we shipped several seas, during these proceedings, that more than once nearly filled our decks, and some of us had narrow shaves of going overboard. It takes the highest standard of seamanship to monkey with a vessel in such weather as then prevailed, and both Phil and I doubted very much whether Lord could effect any good by tempting Providence further in the way he was doing, splendid sailor as he had shown himself to be. But we were mistaken.
"Clear away the life-boat," was the next order he gave, and the ancients rushed her off the midship skids, hooked tackles on to each end of her, and in a very short time had her ready for shoving overboard.
Then he had drums of oil brought out of the lamp lockers and lashed to the rail under the lower fore and main rigging, and holes punched in them through which the oil leaked slowly into the sea.
"By Jingo!" exclaimed Phil in admiration, "there's a wrinkle for you! That chap's got a headpiece on him, if you like. Harry, my man," he added, as he watched the magical effect, "we'll do the trick yet."
It must be remembered that the use of oil in a heavy sea was almost unknown in those days—so far, at any rate, as concerned sailing-ships. But Lord had seen it successfully tried once before even in his time.
And on this occasion it took all the vice out of the combers. They actually appeared to flatten under the action of the lubricant. Comparatively, of course, the ever-narrowing space between the two ships became smooth; the rolling masses rolled more sluggishly and with rounded summits; the sound of their roaring diminished to a sullen murmur.
"Out boat!" suddenly shouted Lord. "Ward, Scott, and three others. I must stop here, or the Old Man 'll be giving us the slip."
In a minute the boat was in the water; and while Phil and I were fending her off the Zenobia's side, four of the ancient ones fell into her, and the next thing we knew we were adrift and sinking into a valley, cool and dark and deep, and the ship was hidden from sight.
But there was not much danger; the oil had done its work well, and we out oars and pulled with a will towards the wreck, while faintly to our ears came the voices of the Ancient Mariners cheering shrilly. By the time we reached the derelict she was nearly awash aft, making our task of rescue almost easy, as man after man jumped and was hauled inboard, a baker's dozen of them all told. The remainder had been killed by falling spars, or washed off the decks.
As we pulled back to the Zenobia we could see them preparing to make sail upon her; could see also a broad burgee ascending to the fore-royal truck blown out like a scarlet flame against the lowering sky.
But the getting on board! There lay the Zenobia with her iron sides towering like a wall above us, rolling not a little as she sank and rose amid her; oily surrounding.
And but for the oil we should never have trod the old ship's decks again. Lord and his men emptied whole drums over amidships until they made a "smooth." Meanwhile, scores of rope's ends were hung over the rail with bowlines in them. There was nothing else for it.
"Now," roared the great voice, "pull in like hell and grab your lines!"
The ship was rolling gently towards us on the slope of a big comber as Phil skilfully put the life-boat alongside, and as the Zenobia rose she carried and dragged with her the entire boat's company. Some stuck to her sides like flies against a pane of glass, others, gasping and half-choked with oil and salt water, were hauled up hand-over-hand like monstrous fish by the crowd inboard.
It was a wonderful save; bar many bruises and missing patches of skin, there were no casualties. But the boat was lost, of course. It would have been sudden death to attempt to keep her alongside for more than a minute.
The first words the rescued captain said after a glance at where his vessel had been, were: "She's gone! You were only just in time. Where's the master of this ship? I want to tell him he's the greatest sailorman that sails the seas to-day."
At this moment Captain Haynes, bursting with indignation, malice, and envy, rushed forward, and addressing Lord, shouted: "You infernal scoundrel, have you finished with my ship yet? Or are you going to play any more mad games with her? There's the life-boat gone now! And you and your crowd shall pay for her, and go to gaol into the bargain directly we get to Cape Town. League of Ancient Mariners! I'll league you when we arrive. And you'll get no discharges from me except 'decline to report,' I can assure you."
"Keep your hair on, cap'en," replied Lord coolly. "And take your old hooker, now I've done with her. You ain't fit to have charge of a mud barge in a pinch. But we'll all stand by and help you when you get jammed again."
Meanwhile, the master of the lost ship, having gathered the true state of affairs, shook hands heartily with Lord, complimented him on his skill and courage, and finally asked permission to take up his quarters for'ard.
"I've got no time," he concluded, "for a man who'd pass a sinking ship without lifting a hand to her, even so far as answering her signals of distress goes."
Then, turning to our skipper, he added; "You're a disgrace to the name of sailor, sir. You needn't talk Cape Town gaol to these brave men. It's Cape Town, aye, and all England will talk to you."
So saying, he and his men went away for'ard, while Haynes, purple-faced, and gasping with rage, clambered on to the poop.
Ten days later the Zenobia entered Table Bay. And when the master of the lost ship Windward, of London, went ashore and told the story of the rescue, even slow-going and lethargic Cape Town awoke to a large amount of enthusiasm.
The League was feasted and feted everywhere; gold medals were presented to each of its members. The ladies of the city made them a silk burgee. The cable flashed the news of their doings throughout the world. Their photographs, together with their combined and individual ages, were in all the shop windows, selling like hot cakes at two shillings each in aid of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.
And the ancients behaved themselves with an unassuming modesty that made them immensely popular. But they thought more of the discharges bearing their three "V.G.'s," writ large, than they did of all the compliments showered upon them.
They had won their wager. And each of them had vindicated his right, in spite of age and disuse of the sea, to be known by the, to him, still very honourable title of Able-bodied Seaman.
"Wanted—a person capable of navigating a small craft to any part of the world. Must be sober, steady, and reliable. Good wages to a good man. Apply by letter to Box 4712, G.P.O., and enclose copies of references."
"Hello," I remarked to my friend and shipmate, Phil Scott, as I finished reading, "that seems all right; I wonder what the game is? Shall we have a try for it?" And I handed my companion the daily newspaper, in the "wanted" column of which the advertisement had caught my eye. We were sitting at the time in the shabby parlour of our boardinghouse in Lower Fort Street, in Sydney, New South Wales.
"Might as well," replied Phil presently. "There may be something in the business. And you about fill the bill. Anyhow, there's no harm in trying. I was going to propose shark-catching down the harbour if nothing better turned up. Go in and win, old man. It's about time you made some use of that ticket of yours."
So, enclosing copies of discharges bearing witness to the fact that I held a master's certificate, and had been in command of all sorts of vessels, I strolled down to the G.P.O., dropped the packet in, and thought no more about the affair.
We had been rather unlucky, Phil and I, of late, in our attempts to get a ship. All the coasting craft we knew of were full-handed, and there didn't seem any chance for a vacancy fore or aft until a death took place. Our money, too, was running low, and although old Mrs Briggs, our landlady, was never pressing in her demands, still, we felt it was time to make a start, if only in the last ship the hard-up sailor is forced to take refuge in—a coasting collier. But even in these crazy old tubs berths were scarce just now. It was just after the great maritime strike of 1890. And before we arrived in that venerable relic, the Ocean Rover—four months from Montevideo—the rush back to work had finished.
Three weeks had been passed in pottering about Sydney's wharves and the Shipping Office to no purpose. Indeed, if something did not shortly offer, it was our intention to take to the Bush again, and either try our luck on the diggings, as we had done ere now, or go droving, fencing, or boundary riding, all work that we had now and again tackled in seafaring intervals. The native-born Australian is nothing if not adaptable.
Two or three evenings after posting my references, coming home late from having "a bob's worth of lean over" in the topmost tier of the Tivoli music hall, we found a letter addressed to Captain Ward, and running as follows:
"Dear Sir,—Your credentials forwarded in reply to my advertisement are satisfactory. With regard to the business mentioned in the latter, I will be pleased to see you to-morrow night at eight-thirty. If you will ask at the private door of the 'First Favourite' hotel, in Sussex Street, for Mr J. Benton, you will be told where to find me."
"Well, Captain," said Phil, laughing, "this looks promising, if a bit mysterious. Rather a low-down sort of pub, though, isn't it? Better take a gun with you. It might be a trap, you know."
"Precious little anybody'd get," I replied. "However, you can come too. Supposing the thing pans out all right, I can introduce you to the boss."
But Phil, at the last moment, decided to stay at home and finish some "penny dreadfuls" while awaiting my return. He used a lot of this sort of literature to pass the time away after our unsuccessful searches for a billet.
Punctually on time, I pushed open the swing door of the "Favourite's" sixpenny bar, and asked a young woman behind the counter if she could tell me where Mr Benton was. She was very stout, very decolletee, wore much sham jewellery; a great mass of bleached hair hung like a mane down her back. Three or four young fellows were drinking and talking "horse," while comparing "tote" cards.
"Benting," she replied, "J. Benting? That's orrite. 'E's upstairs a-waitin' for a friend. 'E's in the billiard-room. Through that door an' first on the left."
"No, 'Arry," she continued, resuming the interrupted conversation with one of the youngsters, "I puts my little bit on Glorkus. Fourteen to one's orrite. An' it's a houtsider's turn to get in this trip. Madame Palma, as I consulted yesterday, give me the straight tip, an'—"
But I heard no more as the door swung to, and I mounted the stairs. Guided by the click of ivory, I soon found the billiard-room, a small one, containing a single table at which a man was idly knocking the balls about. Turning as he heard me enter, he threw down the cue, and advancing to where I stood, asked: "Captain Ward?"
"At your service, sir," I replied, "if you are Mr Benton?"
"My name, Captain," he said, pressing a button as he spoke. "I'll order drinks, and then we can talk. This place is perfectly private. No one comes here; the landlord has given up his billiard licence, and the show is for sale."
Mr Joshua Benton was a stout, powerfully built customer with a long face topped by a great forehead that bulged out and overhung a pair of spectacled eyes whose colour, in the uncertain light of the single shaded gas burner, puzzled me to decide. His nose was large and curved; he wore side-whiskers with a moustached upper lip; his clean-shaven chin was strong and massive. And, presently, as he removed his broad felt hat, I saw the big forehead ran up into a bald pate that shone as he polished it with a silk kerchief. He was dressed in a suit of blue serge that, as we say at sea, fitted him all over and touched him nowhere. I noticed that his hands were large and soft and white, and that on one finger gleamed a handsome signet ring. The man was, with this exception, palpably out of gear with his get-up, and I thought would have been more at home in a high hat and a frock-coat.
A dirty pot-boy took our orders, and as soon as he had brought the liquor and gone, Mr Benton, who, meanwhile, had been taking stock of me pretty closely from behind his glasses, and, I suppose, felt fairly satisfied, began:
"I and a friend wish to go on a long yachting cruise, and we are looking for a man and a boat. A dozen applicants have answered our advertisement. Some of them I have seen. You, I think, are the fourth. As yet I have arrived at no decision. What is required is a small vessel, which you, or the person eventually chosen, will purchase, fit out, and equip generally for a voyage, perhaps as far as South America. The smaller she is, and the fewer men she carries the better. What would be the cost of such a craft?"
Now it happened that being thoroughly acquainted with the condition of the shipbuilding industry which is carried on around the shores of Port Jackson, and which turns out so many yachts, and ketches, and small fry of the kind, I was able to answer at once and to the point.
"It will cost you about five hundred pounds for a new vessel, of say fifty tons," I replied; "but it is quite possible that an old one can be picked up for half the money."
"That's what I want," said Benton, "no waiting. Do you think you can find a—er—second-hand boat anywhere? She must be large enough to be comfortable; and, of course, she must be seaworthy."
"Yes," I said confidently, "I'm pretty certain I can do so."
"And hire men, and keep her in readiness to start at a moment's notice?"
Again I answered in the affirmative. I saw at once that this was a man who would stand no backing and filling.
"Very well, then," said he, "I will give you a week in which to have everything ready. Can you manage it?"
"Yes," I replied boldly, determined, if possible, to secure the job. "It is only a question of money."
For a while he was silent, drumming absently on the table with his fingers, and evidently in a brown study. Then, all at once, he rose, lit the other lamp, and turning a sharp regard on me, said:
"Well, Captain Ward, you're the only man I've met so far who seems to be capable of answering directly and satisfactorily a plain question. And perhaps the best thing I can do will be to agree with you at once. But remember that you must go about this business as if solely on your own account. For reasons that I will presently explain, my friend and myself do not wish it to be known that we are thinking of leaving the Colony. If such a rumour arose it would mean simply ruin—and worse. I suppose you can give me no references—personal ones I mean—before I entrust you with the money needful to carry out my wishes?"
"Well, sir," I replied, "I'm afraid I know nobody in Sydney except a few coasting and deep-water masters and officers, and most of them are away just at present. And there is Mrs Briggs," I added tentatively.
"Who is Mrs Briggs?" he asked with a suspicious look.
"Our boarding-house keeper," I answered.
"Our?" he snapped again, a harsh note in his voice.
"Phil's and mine," I said; "Phil is my friend, and we sail together. We hunt in couples. If I carry out this contract, he comes with me as mate. Mrs Briggs is a respectable woman and a householder," I said earnestly, for I was desperately intent on getting hold of what seemed like a very promising venture.
"Very possibly," replied Mr Benton in a somewhat sarcastic tone, "but scarcely the sort of security I should prefer at the present prices of city freehold. However," he at once continued, "I'm a pretty keen judge of character, Captain, and have already made up my mind to trust you wholly in this affair. Inquire to-morrow at the head-office of the Union Bank, and you will find a credit opened in your name to the extent of three hundred pounds. Only, remember I want secrecy. Remember, in the words of the Psalmist, to 'keep thy mouth as it were with a bridle,' serve me well, and your reward shall be forthcoming in full measure."
I suppose I rather stared at this exhortation, the latter portion of which was delivered in an unctuous voice that reminded me of a storekeeper who used to preach to a little body of Christadelphians, as they called themselves, in the up-country township where I was born. But with a quick reversal to his business manner, Mr Benton said:
"Report progress as often as you think necessary to the G.P.O. box. And lest you should consider these conditions and precautions strange, and perhaps even a little suspicious, I will tell you, partly at least, my reasons for imposing them on you.
"A good many years ago, then, myself and my present partner, when comparatively young men, represented a large London mercantile house in St Petersburgh. Well, I dare say you have heard of folk called nihilists? Yes, of course. Young, foolish, and enthusiastic, we permitted ourselves to be persuaded into joining one of their associations, thinking, perhaps, that nothing would be easier than to drop the affair when we so wished. Indeed, we regarded the whole incident more in the light of a joke than otherwise. But we were soon undeceived. Chosen for a special duty which I need not particularise, we refused. The next thing we heard was that we had been adjudged traitors to the cause, and that the dread penalty had been proclaimed against us. No fewer than four attempts were made to murder us while in Russia. Thoroughly frightened, and at last realising to the full the mistake we had made, we returned to London and there embarked in business on our own account. For some time we were left in peace. Then—but there is no necessity to go into details. Suffice to say that to escape our persecutors we wound up our affairs and came to Australia. There, for some years, we lived unmolested; but last week my partner was nearly stabbed in George Street by an apparently drunken foreigner. A few evenings after this, I was fired at in the Domain when returning home from my office. Since then we feel that we are being constantly shadowed. Police protection would be useless. We have, therefore, resolved to quietly dispose of our concern in this country, and to disappear, leaving, if possible, no clue behind us. Truly, 'the ungodly have drawn out the sword and have bent their bow.' But, Captain," he concluded, "we shall escape them; for is it not written in the same Scripture?—'as for the ungodly they shall perish; and the enemies of the Lord shall consume them as the fat of lambs; yea, even as the smoke shall they consume away.'"
I have since been told that this was a lame sort of a yarn, capable of belief only by a sailor, or by a very green-hand indeed; but if you had seen the man as he bent forward on his chair, speaking in hoarse, earnest whispers, and pausing at intervals to glance nervously over his shoulder, you might have taken it all in, as I did, like a cat lapping cream, and promised, as I did, to keep his secret faithfully, and to assist his escape in every possible way. Besides, there was no haggling or hesitation as to wages. I asked twenty pounds per month for myself, and fifteen pounds for Phil; and he agreed without any demur. And you know when a man trusts you with a lot of money, taking your bare word that you'll do the square thing by him, it kind of warms you up, and gives you a good opinion of human nature in general, and your own appearance of honesty in particular.
"And now, Captain," concluded Benton, as he rose to leave, "I have put myself entirely into your hands. If you wish to play the rogue, of course there is nothing to prevent you doing so. But if you do, be sure the Lord will requite you according to your trespass."
Shaking hands, he produced a big silk kerchief, muffled it round his neck so as to conceal the lower portion of his face, drew his soft hat well down, raised the window blinds and peered into the street, ostentatiously brought out and examined a revolver, slipped it back into his pocket; and then, asking me not to follow him for a few minutes, he left the room.
"Ain't you goin' to shout, lovey?" demanded Miss Peroxide, as I presently descended to the bar. "Bli' me, but you're a dry lot upstairs to-night!"
And as I assented to her appeal, and gingerly sipped the coloured white spirit she produced from a bottle labelled "Walker's Special," I thought that my curious employer had certainly chosen a curious rendezvous.
I Found Phil still stretched on Mrs Briggs's hard, old horsehair sofa, steadily working through his "dreadfuls" to the accompaniment of a pint of "Colonial" and endless pipes.
"Well," he remarked as I spun my yarn, "it does sound uncommonly like a fairy-tale, but I'm inclined to think all the same that there's something in it. And look at the coincidence, Harry," he continued, exposing to view the book he was reading, upon whose cover, surrounding a thunder-and-lightning picture, was the title, "Nick the Nihilist; or the Romanoff's Revenge."
"I shall think more of the coincidence to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock, if I find an account opened at the Union Bank," I replied, laughing heartily.
"It'll be there, sure thing," said my mate, in a tone of conviction as I finished the beer. "And, really, I think that, on the strength of it, we might venture over to Chinnery's and treat our luck to stout and oysters before turning in."
Sure enough, when, more than half doubtfully, I inquired at the bank in the morning, I found to my intense satisfaction that the money had been lodged to my credit.
For the next two days Phil and I searched high and low, but in vain, for the sort of craft I had in my mind's eye. Of course, we might have advertised. I preferred, however, to treat privately rather than through the host of agents that I knew such a procedure would bring around me. And we found her at last. A cutter of some sixty tons, or so, lying alongside a little wood-yard wharf on whose water frontage was upreared a board bearing an inscription beginning with the ominous words "By order of the mortgagee."
There was nobody about, and we made a thorough inspection of the Eva Jane there and then, on the chance that she might be included, as proved the case, in the Fieri Facias business duly set forth on the proclamation.
Although sadly bruised and scratched by much carrying of heavy timber from coastal bays and inlets to feed the now silent circular saws of the bankrupt timber merchant, she had evidently seen better days. Her hull and spars were perfectly sound. A roomy house on deck especially took my fancy; for off it astern was a large berth that would do excellently for Mr Benton and his partner in misfortune. Forward of the house was a microscopic pantry; and between them were two other berths equally suited for the master and his chief officer. In a lower fo'c'sle were five bunks for the men. A square galley with a floor of expensive tiles, now all chipped and broken, stood amidships. Her lines were good; she was coppered well up to her bends; but she carried a ton of weeds and shellfish on her sheathing. Her running gear was a fraud; and no part of the poor thing had smelled paint or tar for many a month. Otherwise she looked fit to sail round the Horn.
Before noon of the next day she was mine for one hundred and fifty pounds, gladly accepted by the mortgagee—a building contractor on the North Shore, who knew nothing and cared nothing about the little ship's past history. Two more days, and she came off a floating slip with her bottom shining like a new kettle, spars scraped, hull painted white with a gold beading, some new standing rigging, and all new running gear, blocks, and so forth. She looked, indeed, a regular spick-and-span yacht; and not the oldest harbour pirate in Port Jackson would have recognised in the trim and graceful Fortuna, as we agreed to re-christen her, the grimy old timber-drogher, Eva Jane, bought for a song.
Later on, I had her measured for two suits of sails; and Phil and I worked like niggers in bending and stretching one of them, while the other was being finished.
During this time I had heard no word from Benton, although keeping him posted in all that was being done, and drawing upon him for some more money. Now, when at last I was able to tell him that the Fortuna was lying snugly at anchor in one of the arms of Middle Harbour, and would be ready to sail in a few days, I wrote asking him to come and see her. His reply was characteristic of the man as I recalled him to memory.
"Dear Captain,—The Lord hath blessed our undertaking. In a week, at furthest, His servants will be prepared. I trust you implicitly to do all that is necessary to ensure our flight from the assassin. Another fifty pounds placed to your credit at bank."
"By Jingo!" exclaimed Phil, "the old boy puts it like an A1 skypilot. He's sound on the financial question, though. All the same, I'm afraid the Fortuna is going to be a floating Bethel, especially if the partner's tarred with the same ranter's brush as is Joshua."
In a day or so, however, there arrived a memorandum the extent and quality of whose details made us aware that our employers, no matter what their religious convictions might be, were determined not to mortify the flesh. Cases of expensive wines, tinned luxuries of all descriptions from foie-gras to French asparagus, from turtle soup to green peas, figured lavishly in the stores I was told to procure. There was some furniture, too, couches, and chairs, lamps, bedding, carpets, and so forth, included in the order, the directions accompanying which struck me as having been drawn up by someone who had ere this been familiar with, and sailed in, small craft. As the time for the start drew near, I shipped four men and a boy, all of whom, except the youngster, I had some knowledge of as steady and competent hands. Then I began to look around for a cook, considerably puzzled to find one who could do justice to the good things stowed away in the lockers and the pantry.
To my surprise and relief, I found that a cook had been already provided. He came alongside in a shore boat one evening at sundown, a dark-skinned, evil-eyed customer who gave his name as Rafael Diaz. He said he was a Spanish gentleman, a friend in former days of Mr Benton and of his partner, Mr Sinclair; and these good Samaritans, finding him in Sydney reduced to poverty, had offered him a berth as cook and steward on board the cutter.
He told us all this in excellent English; but having spun his yarn volubly enough, he shut up like a knife, and replied to questions mostly in grunts. He brought with him in the boat, together with much galley furniture, some big packages of stuff marked "Special rubber hose for pump," and bearing the ticket of an old Sydney firm of ironmongers. They were sewn up in stout canvas, and we were going to lower them on to the ballast, when Rafael grunted that they had better be stowed aft, as Mr Sinclair might want them. So we carried the parcels into a spare bunk in the after-house. The pump was to arrive the next morning.
"And what is it for, anyhow?" asked Phil.
"Diving machine, I believe," replied the cook shortly. "None of my business;" and taking possession of the galley, he got to work as if he thoroughly understood what he was about.
Odd watermen now began to arrive with personal luggage, portmanteaux, flat trunks, and cases containing apparently more provisions, all of which we stowed in the hold. And at last one dark night found the Fortuna's boat waiting near an unfrequented track which led down the scrub-covered hills from the Military Road. A couple of hands and myself were in her; and presently we heard voices, and then a whistle, as two indistinct forms showed upon a large flat rock to which we had hooked the boat. "Fortuna?" asked one.
"Aye, aye, sir," I replied, recognising Benton's voice.
"Take these, please, captain," said he, handing me two extremely heavy Gladstone bags, which was all they had kept to carry along the rough road. "Can we start at once?" he asked, puffing after his walk through the hot night.
"Certainly," I said. "The wind is light but fair, and we should be well out to sea by midnight."
It was too dark to distinguish faces, and as yet the other man had not spoken. All I could make out was that he was slight and short, appearing quite smothered by the big bulk of Benton as they sat together in the stern sheets. In a few minutes we were alongside and on board; and calling Rafael to show the passengers into the cuddy, I bustled round with Phil and the rest getting under way.
While with main and foresail set we swung round and began to make out into the harbour, Rafael came up and said that I was wanted in the cabin.
At the head of the table sat a man who at first sight I took to be a stranger. But the protruding forehead and curved beak seemed familiar. He nodded and laughed at my puzzled stare, and then I knew it must be Benton. His face was now as smooth as an egg; his glasses were gone, revealing a pair of sharp, grey-green eyes, while the absence of the moustache showed a thin-lipped mouth drawn tight above the great chin.
His companion was a thinnish, brown-complexioned, under-sized customer, also clean-shaven; and to judge by the broad blue mark on each cheek, vivid as to be almost a stain, he had quite recently lost a heavy beard.
He was grinning through a fine set of teeth at my surprise, and his eyes, the colour of agate and as opaque, showing only a narrow circle of yellowish white, were fixed unwinkingly on mine. His hair was coarse and thick and curly; and at frequent intervals he put up a long brown finger and stroked a bare top lip where ran a streak as blue and fresh as those on his cheeks. Somehow, he reminded me vaguely of another person seen quite recently. But I was unable to fix the resemblance.
"My partner, Mr Cornelius Sinclair," said Benton with a flourish of his hand towards the other, who acknowledged the introduction by a curt nod.
"Take a seat, captain," continued Benton, "and we'll drink a glass of wine to the success of the cruise. Mr Sinclair, I should tell you, is a bit of an amateur engineer—oh, by the way, captain, where did you stow his pump?"
"I don't think it came on board, sir," I replied, "unless it's in some of the cases we put in the hold. But the hose is in the spare berth aft yonder."
"The careless brutes!" exclaimed Sinclair, "they must have sent it around too late. It wouldn't be in a case at all. The hose is no use without the pump. I wanted to perfect an invention, captain," he explained, "and experiment with it. A hobby is always a relief when time hangs heavy at sea. Well, I suppose it's not worth putting back for."
"It is not," said Benton emphatically; "not for fifty pumps!"
There were two bottles of champagne on the table, and at Benton's invitation I filled my glass and drank to the Fortuna. Then in that suave, oily voice of his, he began to speak.
"I sent for you to say, captain, that my partner and myself are very pleased and satisfied with the way you have helped us to avoid the doom prepared for us by the cowardly wretches who sought our lives in Sydney. Truly, as the Psalmist has it, 'their sword shall enter into their own heart and their bows shall be broken.' And now, captain, I may as well tell you that our destination—the chosen harbour of refuge for the persecuted—is—er—not far from Valparaiso on the west coast of South America. But we will not require you to go quite so far. Friends of my partner's, it has been arranged, are to meet us, some considerable distance off the coast; and then, the better to hide all traces of our flight, we shall tranship. Then, captain, as we shall have no further use for your invaluable services, you will be at liberty to return with, for a parting gift, the—er—Fortuna. May the name prove of happy augury for you in the future! I think, Cornelius, that I have explained myself clearly?"
"Very much so, indeed," replied Cornelius, twiddling away at that blue upper lip, and speaking in a cordial enough tone, contrasting, however, so strongly with the sneering expression on his face as sensibly to modify the thrill of pleasure that ran through me as Benton finished his speech, Just then Phil called me, and rising I thanked the pair in a few words, and went on deck, hearing as I closed the door Benton's voice raised in remonstrance about something or other.
I found the cutter just breasting the ocean swell that comes in through the great grey gates of Port Jackson. Everything was in darkness for'ard. Aft you could just see the loom of the mainsail with its boom guyed out at almost right angles to the hull. One of the men named Adams was at the long curved tiller that ran nearly into the little binnacle, whose lamps just showed a faint blot of light dancing on a muscular hairy arm and fist. To starboard the Hornby light showed on Lower South Head; to port loomed the almost perpendicular lofty line of Outer North Head. Two coasting steamers just entering the harbour churned steadily along, making for the Eastern Channel.
"What's the course to be when we get outside?" asked Phil, as the Fortuna gave a lurch to the sound of breaking glass below.
"East half south," I replied; while Phil sent a hand aloft to loose the gaff-topsail. And as I stood there watching the Fortuna closely, with the pride of ownership already strong in me, I smelled cigar smoke and saw the dim outlines of my passengers as they leaned against the weather rail conversing in low tones.
I was attracted by neither of them, and less by Sinclair than by Benton. But then, as I reflected, their personalities were nothing to me. They had behaved with the utmost liberality; and as for their story, why, the excessive care they were taking to cover their tracks, was, I argued, only another proof of its truth.
I had a good crew, with three of whom I had been shipmates before when I was chief of a brig trading to New Zealand. There were provisions and water for six months; and I thought that, in due course, we could easily run up to the islands on our return trip and load a cargo of copra and other produce.
Presently I saw my passengers go below. Then the bell rang for the boy, who ran to the galley where Rafael had rigged a bunk for himself. And in a few minutes that worthy walked aft into the cuddy where he remained for some time. Indeed, when I at last turned in I could still hear the sound of voices apparently in earnest talk. However, as I said to myself, it was none of my business. If my employers thought proper to make a confidant of their foreign gentleman-cook they were at liberty to please themselves.
I had waited before turning-in to see the Fortuna clear of the land, and lying her course with a light westerly breeze. I awoke to hear six bells striking, and to feel by the way the cutter was lying over, and the sound of water swishing along her side, that there had been a change in the weather. So, having had enough sleep, I went on deck, to find that the wind was rising fast, and that Phil had taken a single reef in the mainsail, and stowed the gaff-topsail and the outer jib.
"She's a bit tender," he explained, "and I didn't want to knock the saloon folk about. A few more tons of stiffening would have been a decided improvement. Otherwise, she's a daisy with the wind as it is. I believe she'll do equally well all round. Anyhow, I wish we owned her!"
Then I told him. And his delight and pleasure were great as my own to realise that we—for, of course, Phil shared as we always had done in good or bad fortune—who only a few weeks ago were about, as a last resource, to go up the Bush, or coal-droghing in some grimy, crazy old tub, were now the owners of a fine little ship like the one under our feet.
For a time after leaving the coast we had a spell of fine weather, during which Benton and his partner read, smoked, played euchre, and drank—but never to excess. Benton, I noticed, had hung around the cabin some framed and illuminated texts of Scripture. He also made more use than ever of pious reflections and quotations in his discourse, and at these Sinclair often jibed and sneered. Indeed, I could discover nothing whatever in common between the two, who seemed utterly dissimilar, physically and mentally. To myself and Phil they were scrupulously polite. Except on deck, we saw little of them. They had their meals alone, and Phil and I came in and ate ours later on in our respective watches. On the first Sunday at sea, Benton had intimated his intention of holding divine service on deck, and he treated us to a really fine and moving discourse, taking as a text: "Our soul is escaped out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken and we are escaped."
It was a lovely day, and we were bowling merrily across the South Pacific with a big square foresail set to a fair wind, in addition to all our other canvas. The Fortuna leaned over to the brisk breeze, while on each bow a shoal of porpoises somersaulted; flying fish flip-flapped from wave to wave; the sun shone pleasantly; and the cutter swarmed along, making a fine salt music of rushing froth and foaming water that roared and swirled away in miniature cataracts from her shapely bows.
Inboard the decks were white as ivory, contrasting well with the light blue of the bulwarks and the dark brown waterways. The brass caps of the lowerrigging lanyards shone like points of flame in the sun, while the bright-scraped lower and topmast went towering up to a gilded truck and vane. At the little companion covered with the Australian Ensign stood Benton, a Bible open before him, and the rest of us except the helmsman, who, however, could hear quite well, sitting on the low roof of the house. Sinclair, coiled up in his deck-chair, kept a lustreless gaze fixed on the face of the preacher, grinning involuntarily, it seemed to me, as his partner waxed earnest and emphatic.
We finished the service by singing "Nearer my God to Thee," Benton giving out each verse and then leading. And very well he sang.
That afternoon we sighted our first ship, a great lead-coloured craft, an island of steel and iron topped by a tall mass of bridges, boats, and ventilators grouped around a huge smoke-stack, half red, half black. She was light; and probably from some South American port where she had discharged coal, and was now off to the Colonies for wool and frozen stuff.
"Don't go any nearer than you can help," remarked Benton, who with Sinclair at his side was watching the steamer. "Perhaps they'll be inquisitive. All the same, we mustn't seem to pointedly avoid her."
Accordingly I kept the Fortuna away as much as I could, we then being on a wind. But the big ship's people were evidently curious to discover what such a tiny craft was doing so far along the thirtieth parallel. For, first she made her own number, and then, as we showed no reply, she asked for ours; also, if we wanted any assistance. Then she slowed down her great bulk to half-speed abeam of us, while all the time we edged off like a shying colt.
Presently, with Benton's permission, I replied that we were all right; requiring nothing. Then hoisting the Australian ensign we dipped it thrice in token of farewell, while the big grey mass, her puzzled people surveying us through many glasses, stood on her course, her propeller thrashing the ocean into foam under her stern.
"The Amazon, of Glasgow," I replied in answer to a question from Sinclair.
"Well, they didn't get much change out of us," said he. "When shall we sight Juan Fernandez, captain?"
"Hard to say," I answered. "Not for a month of Sundays unless we get fair winds instead of these calms and light head breezes. We ought to have gone round New Zealand, in the usual way, if you wished to make a quick passage."
Both Benton and Sinclair had refused to entertain the notion when I put it to them. They feared the rough weather and the cold; and as it was immaterial to me how long the trip took, I gave in without a protest.
Sinclair yawned and stared at me with those disconcerting fishy eyes of his. Then he remarked, pulling an imaginary moustache: "Well, the sooner we shove along the better. I'm beginning to get tired. Send her, capitano mio, whenever you see a chance. Had we gone to the southward as you wished, we should have been frozen. Here, at least we are warm. And don't forget that, fifty miles to windward of the island, Pedro Garcia and his sloop will be waiting impatiently to relieve you of your passengers. Also, that the sooner you arrive, the sooner you'll be master and owner here."
It was the longest speech he had ever made me; also, the first intimation given of the trysting-place they must have decided upon and arranged for from the very beginning of things.
Doubtless for the pair cooped up in a little craft like the Fortuna, time must have passed wearily enough. But they made no attempt at intimacy of any kind with Phil or myself. Rafael, though, was completely in their confidence. This fact, however, troubled neither of us in the least. Thoroughly unsuspicious, we were only too pleased at the haul we were making in getting the cutter, to say nothing of the snug cheque in wages. Meanwhile, we had comfortable quarters, with a table whose like we had rarely experienced before. Rafael, indeed, was a chef of no mean order. The men for'ard, too, were contented, and growing fat on this deep-sea yachting cruise with its good feeding, good pay, and little work.
Presently there happened a week's calm, roasting weather which sorely tried our employers' temper and patience, and more than once set them wrangling to such a degree than even through closed doors some of their hot words came to our ears, such as hypocrite, scoundrel, liar, and similar compliments freely bandied between them. But when at last the wind came, matters appeared quite to resume their old footing again.
Of the two Benton was the most courageous. Soon after getting out of the calm we caught a snorting gale that forced us to run for our lives under a treble-reefed mainsail, and a double-reefed fore-staysail, and with a sea like a mountain after us. I might, and perhaps ought to, have hove the cutter to; but I wished to make up for lost time, and so sent her that for minutes together her deck was invisible as she dived down into a deep, dark valley, paused a little space at the bottom of it to take breath, and then, climbed slowly up the steep acclivity to the summit, poised herself there for a moment, and then took another long, sickening swoop into the abyss.
During the blow Sinclair lay in a corner of the main cabin, almost in a state of collapse from sheer fright. But his partner insisted on remaining up. So I lashed him to the weather-rigging, where he prayed aloud and very fervently, when he could spare breath enough, what time the spindrift ceased to sweep over his bald head in showers.
Presently I went below and pulled Sinclair out of his corner, and led, or rather carried, him into the after-berth. It was the first time I had been there since leaving port, and I noticed that it was divided by a heavy curtain which hung from a brass rod.
By the emblazoned texts it was easy to guess that I had got into Benton's half. However, I dumped Sinclair into the comfortable swinging cot, and was going to leave him there, when to my surprise he opened his eyes and began to abuse me in unmeasured terms for not having hove the Fortuna to before the gale attained its height. As a yachtsman himself, he said he knew that it would have been the proper thing to do. But, now, through my folly we should all lose our lives. And as he yelled at me, he huddled himself together like a cornered rat, eyeing me the while very malignantly. In return I laughed at him; reminded him of his orders to take advantage of the first fair wind; bade him pluck up courage, for that we were worth any number of drowned men so far.
Although not sick, he was desperately scared, also vicious. Of course, I made allowances; still, it was not pleasant to look at his green face and curled upper lip, and listen to the continuous howling he kept up, audible even above all the din and clatter.
"Wait till Pedro gets hold of you, my fine fellow!" I heard him say, as in one wild lurch he was nearly swung out of his berth, to the edge of which he clung desperately. "Pedro 'll make you laugh on the other side of your face, you big brute!"
But I paid no heed; merely advised him to stay quietly where he was until I could send Rafael to him.
The cook, however, I found in almost as evil case as his master. He was stretched out in his pantry surrounded by broken crockery, and swearing heartily in English and Spanish.
Next day the gale blew itself out; and Sinclair, coming on deck, made an ample apology for what he called his "caddish behaviour," attributing it all to having taken more whisky than was good for him—a thing I don't believe he ever did—in place of telling the truth, which was that he was half crazed with fright and impotent rage.
Two days after this incident, coming off the deck at eight bells in the middle watch, to my surprise I found young Frank, the boy, in my berth. He was a sharp, intelligent lad of about fourteen or fifteen, whom I had shipped specially to be of use in the cabin and at table.
As I entered, he raised a white face to mine and whispered: "Captain, they're goin' to do for the lot of us; I heard them. It's all settled and fixed up."
I stared, thinking that the boy had suddenly gone mad. Then, noting the desperate eagerness in the imploring gaze he turned on me, I thought it best to humour him. So, shutting the door, I said: "All right, Frank, tell me the yarn, and you'll see how well we'll manage to euchre them."
My coolness and unconcern calmed him; and while I lit my pipe he told his story with hardly a break. In the second dog-watch it seems Rafael had sent him into Benton's berth with a tray and some glasses. The cook rarely did this, preferring, even when pressed for time, to perform such errands himself. Thus it was the second occasion only that Frank had been in the private berths. Benton's was empty; and setting down the tray he, boy-like, paused and took a look at the books and pictures lying around.
"Then, sir," he said, "I heard 'em talkin' t'other side of the curtain, instead o' bein' on deck where I'd thought they was, and I was jes' goin' to clear out again, when Mr Sinclair says: 'Well,' says he, 'thank the Saints,' says he, 'it won't be very long now before Pedro begins to put his work in. They'll be rather surprised, these jokers, when they feels the knives slippin' into 'em.' And he chuckled, sir, most beas'ly to listen to; and I stands there all of a sweat with wantin' to hear more, and tremblin' les' I'd be caught. Anyway, I stays," continued Frank, "and the parson says, arter a bit, 'Pedro 'll want this boat, I expec',' he says, and t'other answers as fierce as you like, 'Then,' says he, 'want'll have to be his master. The cutter and all on board 'cept us three mus' be sunk, or, better still, burnt. Not a trace will us leave behind that may pos'bly prove our ruin. But what's the use o' talkin'?' he says, 'you know all this business was settled long enough sence; and Pedro 'll hardly wait for fresh instructions.' Then the parson says, very quiet and low, says he, 'Well, well, may the Lord have mercy on all their sinful souls.' 'Pray for them, then, you d—d ole appercrit,' says t'other one, larfin' at him.
"And with that I turns suddent to come out, when my elber catches the tray, and down she goes—wop! Nex' minute the parson shoves through the curtain, his big face turnin' as white as that paint when he sees me standin' there, struck stupid-like.
"'Why,' says he, after a bit, 'it's only our little Frank. Good boy, Frank,' says he. But I seen a look in his eye, and I puts my arm up, for I thought he was goin' to catch me a stousher, but he only says, 'Tut, tut, what a mess! Been here long, Franky?' speakin' as sweet as you please. 'No, sir, please, sir,' I says, 'just this minute come.' But I seen as he didn't believe me, though he pats me on the head and says, 'Good boy; there, don't cry. You go, now, and tell Rafael to come and clear up.' All the same, sir," concluded poor Frank, edging closer to where I sat smoking on the settee, "he's got it in for me heavy, I'm dead certain of that."
"Now, Frank," I said after a minute's pondering over the extraordinary story, "are you quite sure you haven't been dreaming or inventing this long-winded yarn of yours? Mind, if I find you out in any tricks of the kind I'll put you on bread and water from here till we get home, and then have you sent on the Sobraon for three years."
"No, sir," he replied, raising a pale, tear-stained face, and looking me straight in the eyes, while speaking with a sincerity that was unquestionable; "strike me pink, I've told you the straight truth!"
"Well, well, sonny," I said, after a pause, "I believe you. Now get away to your bunk, and don't so much as whisper to yourself about this matter, let alone to anybody else. You've done quite right in coming to me first, and I won't forget you when this raffle's laid out clear. Shouldn't wonder if it's all a mistake from beginning to end. There, get along, and don't look like a monkey in a fit."
Then I sat down again and did some real hard thinking, scarcely knowing what to believe. It all seemed so monstrously incredible. Then there suddenly flashed across my mind Sinclair's parting threat on the day of the gale, almost forgotten, respecting the man Pedro, and what he would presently do. Still, unsuspicious by nature, I found myself slow to credit the existence of such villains as the pair aft must be if Frank had heard aright. Nevertheless, as I smoked and overhauled the whole business from whipping to clinch, it was gradually borne in upon me that the boy's story might be true, and that we and the little ship, the foundation of so many air castles in lonely watches, were to be ruthlessly sacrificed in order to cover the retreat of the cunning wretches who were using us so cruelly and so unscrupulously. And as I thought on it all, my mind became slowly penetrated by conviction absolute and assured. Then a cold, hard fit of desperate anger took possession of me, so strong and sudden in its working, that I had some trouble to restrain myself from rushing aft and taxing the pair with their treachery. In place of doing so, I almost mechanically opened and turned over my chest until I found my revolver. Then loading it, I put it in my pocket and went on deck.
Phil I found aft near the tiller, and surprised to see me with scarce an hour of my watch passed. But making some excuse concerning the close air below, I led him out of earshot of the helmsman and told him the story.
And at once and without question he believed it implicitly; and, as his misleading manner was in tight places, appeared completely to lose heart, shivered, and protested that we were all dead men, or words to that effect.
Knowing, however, that this preliminary cold fit, with which I was well acquainted, would presently pass off, leaving him his own brave and resolute self again, I simply laughed at him, advised him to go and find his gun for fear of something happening, as, for instance, Pedro and his cut-throats becoming impatient, and meeting us sooner than might be expected, and then returned to my berth to lie, and think, and smoke, before going on deck again.
I had no wish to arouse the suspicions of the villains by being seen with Phil for no apparent reason. At seven bells, when I stepped outside, the first person to catch my eye was Rafael in his little pantry, getting ready to lay the cabin table. One hand, I noticed, was bound around with white rag. On my asking what was the matter with it, he said he had cut it while drawing a cork. He looked scared, and in place of its usual dark brown, his face seemed to have taken on a nasty, greenish-grey colour. He was shaky, too; for, even as I spoke, he dropped a dish which smashed on the deck.
Phil and his men were washing down; and he gave me a wink as I passed aft that assured me that he was ready for anything.
Suddenly I heard Rafael singing out in the shrill, foreign voice he at times affected: "Fer-ank! Fer-ank!"
But there was no reply, and he called again.
"Where's the boy?" I asked of Adams, who happened to be at the tiller that morning.
"Can't say, sir," he replied; "he wasn't in his bunk when I came on deck."
All at once there suddenly flashed into my mind Rafael's cut hand, and evident nervousness a while ago. I was all suspicion now. And my heart ached with an acute apprehension. But who would have imagined the devils would have been so quick! I suppose my face must have shown something of what I felt, for the man said with a flash of alarm coming into his eyes: "Surely the kiddy's all right, captain. Frank couldn't fall overboard, not if he tried. He's about somewhere, for certain."
But Frank was nowhere about.
Search as we might we could find no trace of him; except, to my mind, that lump of white stuff bound round Rafael's fingers.
And bitterly enough I reproached myself for not having at least warned the boy to be on his guard, in place of making light of his story.
Presently Benton and Sinclair appeared, the former seeming very shocked, the latter totally unconcerned.
"Poor lad, poor lad!" exclaimed Benton, "I suppose he must have slipped and fallen into the sea, and thus to his last account without a moment's warning. Let us hope, however, that he was not totally unprepared. But the inborn depravity of the Australian youth"—and he tched—tched—with his tongue, and shook his big head pityingly, until I could joyfully have shot him where he stood. Both men, I was aware, were watching me with a cat-like closeness that, however, caused me in no way to alter what I felt must seem to them a very forbidding and gloomy face indeed.
With the crew, and especially with Phil, the lost lad had been a prime favourite; and although the men were quite unwitting of anything like foul play, I could see that his mysterious disappearance seemed altogether inexplicable to them, as frowning and moody they stared around and aloft, or went below and rummaged about the hold, unable to believe that he had really gone.
To Phil I told my suspicions, unsupported as they were by the least shred of useful evidence. And, knowing what he did, I was quite prepared to learn that he had arrived at much the same conclusion as myself with regard to Frank. Also, Phil had a scheme, cut and dried, to seize Benton and Sinclair and carry them back to Australia as prisoners. I had thought of this myself.
But there were difficulties. Suppose, after all, in spite of appearances, and in spite of the boy's story, that our passengers' yarn was true, and that they were actually escaping from secret and dangerous enemies. Then, likely enough, furious at such treatment, they would call the law to their aid, careless of personal consequences, and make us all smart to a pretty tune for our trouble. Certainly, in my own mind I was convinced by what I had heard and seen that they intended to deal with us in treacherously wicked fashion. All the same, I had no proof to show to this effect, sufficient at any rate to excuse laying violent hands upon them. Altogether it was a tangled skein to unravel, and I was fairly cornered in coming to a decision upon which end to begin.
At midday I made our position just two hundred miles from Juan Fernandez, so that if anything was to be done it behoved us to do it quickly.
As it happened, all necessity for decision on our part was obviated by a mere accident.
In the second dog-watch, striving with all my might to find a way out of the dilemma, while staring gloomily along the deck, I suddenly heard a scuffle, and saw Adams's mate, Fisher, haul the cook out of his galley as one tweaks a limpet out of his shell, exclaiming at the same time:
"You yaller hound of a Dago, I'll larn you better manners than to abuse the poor kid what's gone! Damme, if I'd like to swear you didn't give him a passige yourself! No good, warn't he? An' dirty, was he, ye sneakin', monkey-faced baboon?" And all the time Fisher, holding Rafael by the back of the neck, kicked and punched him in great style, letting him go at last with a thrust that sent him sprawling over the main-hatch.
As he fell, I heard the report of a pistol from just under where I stood, and saw Fisher throw up his arms and pitch forward, falling close to Rafael. The cook, suddenly rising to his knees, drew his sheathknife, and with a stroke swift as lightning buried it in the sailor's body and then ran aft. In a moment there arrived to me the certainty that this was the beginning of the end, and shouting at the top of my voice: "Phil, Adams, Johnson—after the murderers!" I pulled out my revolver and rushed into the deckhouse, hearing as I entered the rest pounding along behind me with shouts and curses. The lamps had not been lit, and it was almost dark inside. There had been no time for the two to shut the doors, so quickly had I followed on their heels; and we entered almost together, some of us on one side of the pantry, some on the other, to the sound of cracking pistols and falling glass as the bullets hit the swinging tray and the framed texts that hung around the little cuddy.
"Rush 'em, lads!" I shouted, as Phil, with a loud yell, sprung through the smoke to my side. All at once I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder; and twisting round, and seeing Rafael scrambling away across the table with a knife in his hand, I took a snap shot at him. Then everything became blurred and dim, I staggered to a settee, and I remember no more until I came to in my own bunk with Phil bending anxiously over me.
"It's all right now, old man," said he; "don't get excited. We've got 'em tied up hard and fast. Rafael's goose is cooked. Adams has a bullet through his leg—nothing very serious. The Fortunes lying west by south, homeward bound, with a fine breeze after her. You've lost some blood; but it is only a flesh cut. Now, that's all the news; so not a word more out of you."
I had only groaned, not with pain, but for thinking what a pretty market I had brought all our fine pigs to.
It was a week before I was able to get on deck, for the wound was less trifling than had at first appeared. But Phil looked after me well; worked the cutter, short-handed as she was, and nagivated her to a hair. He was as good a seaman all round as ever stepped; but the Marine Board had twice refused him his master's certificate on the score of colour blindness. He had long ago passed for second and first; then, suddenly, they found that he was unable to match wools from a dirty multi-coloured heap, and they "failed" him. Nevertheless, his sight was perfectly normal, as we used often to convince ourselves by far more difficult and practical tests than the official ones.
At last I came out, white and shaky, but fast mending. Our prisoners, Phil said, had been very troublesome, until one day, overhauling their berths, he had dropped across several pairs of handcuffs, which saved endless bother of fastening and loosing. He had Benton secured in my old berth, Sinclair in his; taking theirs so as to be near me during his watch below.
The prisoners, Phil told me, had offered the two of us two thousand pounds each to be set free—adrift even in the longboat. This after many threats of prosecution for mutiny, murder, robbery, and all sorts of crimes.
"But, anyhow," said Phil, "where were they to get the cash from? I don't believe they've got more than one hundred pounds, or so, between them. They must have sent some on to Valparaiso—if they ever had any. I had a good rummage round after I shifted the beggars out of their berth, and didn't come across much money.
"Yes, of course, we buried poor Fisher—you were a bit lightheaded that day—and the cook, too—the biggest villain of the lot, I do believe. My word, Harry, you took him neatly—right through the apple of his throat! I'd just tackled Sinclair as you potted him; and I thought of little Frank when I saw him drop. And now you're well again," continued Phil, "I suppose we can't do better than keep all on for home, eh?"
"Why, no, Phil," I answered, "I don't see that there's any other course possible. There's something shockingly crooked about this business that I can't at all get the hang of; further than that we've been had from the very start. However, the straight plan's the best; and it'll all come out in the Sydney washing."
But we had not to wait so long.
Seeing that I was still weak, Phil insisted upon my lying down again. Adams, because of his game leg, was cook; he also relieved Phil on deck as occasion offered, and they got on very well indeed in the fine weather and fair wind that was now our portion.
As I passed Benton's door I could hear him softly droning a hymn. But I had no desire to interview either him or his partner. The two had worked us mischief enough, and I was thoroughly determined to take them back to Australia, and there have the mystery cleared up.
I awoke about midday to find Phil in the berth.
"There's a small steamer," said he, "coming straight for us with the 'heave-to' signal flying. Perhaps you'd like to have a squint at her. What had we better do?"
"Heave-to, as she asks us," I said, after taking a good look through the glasses at the vessel rapidly meeting us from the westward. "I may be mistaken," I continued, "but I fancy by her funnels that it's one of the South Coast Company's boats, although what, in the world she's doing out here beats me. And, by the way, Phil," I asked, "which of those two fellows was it who shot poor Fisher?"
"Nobody seems to know for certain," he replied. "Johnson thinks it was Sinclair; but he can't swear to it. You see, when they heard Rafael yelling they both ran out with their pistols ready."
The stranger came rushing along like a torpedoboat, and Phil presently exclaimed, as he worked away at his glass: "I can read her name! Why, it's the Cudgegong!"
"Fastest steamer out of Sydney," I replied, "and, as I thought, one of the South Coast fleet."
We had already hauled down our square foresail, and gaff-topsail, and brought our main-boom amidships, lying nearly motionless as the steamer ranged alongside. It was fine weather with a fairly smooth sea; and, without hailing, she dropped a boat into the water, and in a few minutes three of her company were climbing up our gangway ladder.
"What cutter is this?" asked the first man on board—a short, stout, keen-eyed, red-faced fellow with light, peaked beard and a brusque manner, who stared about him inquisitively.
"The Fortuna of Sydney," I answered. "And who might you be, if it's a fair question?"
The man grinned as he asked anxiously: "Surely you have not landed your passengers already, and got this far back again. Couldn't be done in the time."
"No," I replied, "our passengers are here safe enough. We're taking them home again. The trip didn't agree with their health. And now, sir," I continued, "what is your business? I'm in a hurry, and can't stop pottering about all day answering questions. Gaff-topsail halliards there!"
"Hold on!" exclaimed the other. "Perhaps I should have told you at first. I'm a detective police officer in the service of the New South Wales Government, and these men with me are police constables. I'm in search of three swindlers supposed to have left Sydney in your cutter for some South American port. Here's my warrant. Will this satisfy you?"
"Amply," I replied. "Only I wish you had said two in place of three. I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree this time. However, I'm glad to see you. Come inside."
"No wrong tree, captain!" exclaimed the officer, as, entering the cabin, his keen eyes instantly caught sight of the dilapidated framed texts. "These ain't yours? No, of course not. And you've got the owner of 'em safe? And his mates? Come, come, this is business! Not that I quite drop to it yet. Still, it's some comfort to learn that we've made no mistake; to say nothing of burning three hundred tons of coal on a fool's errand. Now, sir, fire away, if you please. What you don't know I can probably tell you. Perhaps when you've finished I'll be able to guess where number three's got to."
But this, as I began to have a glimmering of the truth, I thought was more than doubtful, smart as our visitor might be. Feeling rather done up, however, I requested Phil to tell the story, omitting nothing, and standing by myself to put in a word of explanation if necessary.
"Thank you, Captain Ward," said the detective, "my name's Conway. That'll do nicely. I see you're rather off colour," glancing, as he spoke, at my slung arm, and then at the bullet marks that liberally dotted the walls. "Been having a bit of a shivoo, eh? Well, now, Mr Scott, don't think me impatient. All the same, I am deucedly so. There's more than you can guess depending on the yarn. Capital drop o' sherry wine this. Now, gentlemen, I'm all attention."
But suave and polite as our new friend was, I noticed a hard, suspicious glint in his watchful gaze; also, that at a scarcely perceptible sign, his men had from the first stationed themselves at each door, and that they kept their hands in their jacket pockets.
Not by a word did he interrupt Phil as he spun his yarn; and but for a slight twitching at the corners of his mouth as my mate spoke of the nihilist vengeance, his face might have been that of some attentive image.
As Phil at last finished, there was silence for a few minutes. Then said Conway in a sharp, curt tone: "And now where's the money?"
For answer, Phil rose, and going to the after-berth returned with a large writing-desk which he placed on the table, saying: "You'll find it all there. I came across it when I found the handcuffs. Somewhere about one hundred pounds, I think; not enough, anyhow, to pay our wages, or anything near it."
"Rubbish!" exclaimed Conway sharply. "I want thirty thousand pounds in hard yellow sovereigns. Where is it?"
At this I burst out laughing, while Phil retorted angrily: "What do we know about your thirty thousand pounds? Do you think we've stolen it? Anyhow, there's no such sum of money on board this cutter. Better search and make sure, though."
"It must be here," replied Conway, rising. "They never had time or chance to send it away. All in gold, too. Damn it!" he exclaimed, losing his temper for a minute, "did ever anybody hear such a wild fairy story as I've sat here and listened to so patiently? Do you mean to tell me," he cried, "that you never had any suspicions of what was going on before that unfortunate boy came to you? Well, I tell you now that you've been conniving, I won't say knowingly, as yet, at the escape from justice of three of the biggest rogues and swindlers that ever lived. Croft, that's the religious customer, was the business manager of the Westralian Land, Pearling, and Pastoral Company. The other two, the brothers Carlton—supposed to be South American Spaniards, and their real names Espartero—were respectively cashier and head accountant of the same affair. And after by degrees converting every security they safely could into cash, they emptied the strongroom of a large sum in gold and then cleared out, leaving misery and ruin behind them."
"But there were only two with us," I replied, the first moments of surprise over, and clutching at the hope of a mistake, that I knew in my heart was hopeless.
"Three," insisted Conway, quite calm again. "The younger Carlton was your cook and steward, Sinclair's brother. Oh, a clever scheme, and three clever rogues; and, excuse me for saying so, two very simple sailormen! They disappeared like a dream, leaving no clue; and until the Amazon arrived, saying she'd met a small craft in mid-Pacific, that seemed to fight shy of her, we hadn't the least idea which way to turn. Then the shareholders chartered the Cudgegong yonder, and we came along at a fifteenknot bat after you. Probably, if things had not taken this curious twist, we might have been only just in time to steam over where you lay at the bottom of the sea with your throats cut. A narrow squeak you've had! But the money's what I want. I must search the cutter, every inch of her."
"Search and welcome," I replied. "Take her and do what you like with her! I'm sick and tired of the whole business. Seems to me that Phil, here, and I are apt to get more kicks than ha'pence for what we've done already."
"Only let us find the money," replied Conway, "and we'll talk about that later on. And don't forget that, at any rate, you've saved your skins. Now, I think I'll have a word with—er—er—Messrs Benton and Sinclair. One at a time, please." And, Phil giving him the keys, he entered my mate's berth. He was not more than five minutes with each prisoner.
"Yes," he said when he returned, "they're my birds, right enough. I've only seen them once before, but there's no doubt whatever. Look!" and he threw on the table two photographs whose identity, changed as they were by the evident passage of some years, and a difference in dress, were easily recognisable as those of the men who had got us into such a shocking mess. A third picture he produced showed Rafael, attired like the others in a tall hat and frock coat, hirsute as to cheeks and lip, but still unmistakably the late cook and steward of the Fortuna.
And as I looked at it, I placed the vague resemblance that had puzzled me when he first came on board.
Presently it was arranged that the steamer should take us in tow. Also, Conway decided to transfer the prisoners to her in charge of the constables, while he stayed with us to search for the treasure.
I was astonished to see the change a week had made in Benton and his companion as, with an officer guarding each of them, they came on deck. Benton had obviously lost many pounds in weight, and the skin hung in folds and creases about his neck and face as he smiled and bowed to me, and hoped that I felt none the worse for my "little accident." Sinclair, too, was a shadow of his former self, looking like a lean, yellow wolf as he showed his white teeth and scowled, staring out of torpid eyes, but saying no word.
Conway began his overhaul in high feather, Phil having told him of the offered two thousand pounds—a detail overlooked at the first recital of the story.
But as the days passed while we dragged along in the wake of the swift Cudgegong, and the detective, aided by the rest of us, nearly took the cutter to pieces in fruitless endeavours to find the money, he lost heart somewhat. And, certainly, neither Phil nor myself could give him clue or encouragement. Both of us were morally certain that no such quantity of money could be on board without our knowledge.
At last one day Conway boarded the steamer, to see if he could get any information out of the prisoners. He returned in a very bad temper. They had, it seems, indignantly denied having offered Phil a bribe; declared they possessed no money besides that already discovered; and asserted their innocence of any knowledge of the missing funds of the Westralian Company.
"Still, I'm positive the stuff's here," said the detective thoughtfully. "It must be, unless they've chucked it overboard. And that's not to be dreamt of."
"Well," I said, "there's not a corner of the craft we haven't thoroughly searched. For my part, I give in. Like prudent men they sent it on ahead of them to our friend Pedro Garcia."
But Conway shook his head in emphatic negation.
"No," said he, "they would trust nobody with their pile. Indeed, it is a wonder they trusted each other. Anyhow, I doubt very much whether Croft would have ever got his share. The Esparteros would have probably sent him to keep you chaps company to the bottom in the cutter. Thirty thousand pounds," continued Conway, "you must remember, is a pretty bulky package, and it takes some hiding. There's nothing in the hold we haven't seen. We've dug up the ballast and broken open every case; and I'm hanged if there's anything aft here that we have not thought of examining."
And, indeed, the cabin and the berths were a wreck—bunks all down, lining-boards and lockers removed; the little pantry ransacked. The galley and the crew's quarters had been thoroughly overhauled. There seemed no spot which could have possibly escaped such a close and determined search.
That night, as I lay on deck unable to sleep, I mentally reviewed the whole adventure from beginning to end; and as I came to the arrival of Rafael alongside the Fortuna with his baggage, a sudden thought struck me, only to be dismissed as preposterous. Then I went on. But always to return to the same idea, becoming more and more insistent with repetition. At last I could stand it no longer. Rising, I awoke Phil, who was sleeping close to me. He laughed when I told him my notion, and advised me to worry my brains no more over the matter.
"Those fellows," said he, yawning, "sent the stuff ahead all right. Conway won't believe it, because he doesn't want to think he's been euchred. But they've been too smart for him, all the same."
"Well, then, I'll go myself and have a look," I replied. "I wouldn't have roused you, only my arm's too weak to do much alone; and I'll not be able to sleep until I've made sure."
Whereupon Phil, with some grumbling, got up, and we both went into the dismantled cabin, passing Conway, snoring soundly on his mattress through the hot night. Lighting the swinging lamp, and still grumbling, Phil set to work shifting rubbish and lumber until he at last disinterred one of the objects I had in mind—one of the rolls of rubber tubing.
Somebody had already slashed the canvas cover with a knife, exposing to view the dark, shining coil of hose inside.
"There!" exclaimed Phil, pointing to it, "will that satisfy you, dreamer of vain things?"
"No," I said, "cut it, Phil;" and I passed my knife over to him.
Phil cut into the tough tubing and exposed the hollow to me with a grin. My heart sank as he let the hose drop, but I only said: "Cut lower, Phil, and then I'll be satisfied."
But to do this two or three strands of stout wire which bound the coil at regular intervals had to be severed. This took time, and the use of a cold chisel which was lying among other tools on the cabin table.
At last, however, Phil was able to draw three or four feet out clear of the coil, and he made a slash at it with the heavy knife. But this time there was no clean cut; something resisted the steel blade. My mate looked puzzled, and sawed away until he had cut half round the circumference. Then bending down the better to see, he twisted the hose back to a right angle. And as he did so, something gleaming dully in the feeble rays of the lamp fell clinking among the rubbish in which he was standing. The mystery was a mystery no longer. The lost treasure was found. And Phil stood there for at least a minute, motionless, with the hose in his hand. Then he exclaimed, in accents of the most unqualified astonishment: "Well, I'll be damned if we are not bigger fools than even I thought we were!"
But Conway, whom we presently called, did not agree with this statement.
"Take back anything I may have said about simplicity on the part of sailormen," he remarked. "Or, at any rate, count in with them a man who considered himself a fairly capable sort of detective. I cut the wrapping of every coil. Also, I cut the tops off the tubing in each one except the one Mr Scott found. They were all stopped with a wooden plug, and left empty for about three feet as a guarantee of good faith for the first fool that might happen along. That was me."
Nevertheless, Conway was highly delighted; and praised me unreservedly, vowing that I should have the whole credit of the find. He was a good sort, this policeman, and he kept his word. And mighty little good it did us either.
There were six coils of the hose, all in eighteen feet lengths; and all of them were loaded with sovereigns.
"A tradesman's been at this business," said Conway. "If I'm not mistaken this tubing's been made specially for the occasion. See how comparatively thin yet strong the rubber is. First the gold was inserted, and then the pipe neatly closed. I hope yet to have something to say to the expert worker who fixed this dodge up. Those labels, too, were a good notion. I confess they helped to put me off any closer examination—knowing the firm so well, and its high reputation. Why, if it hadn't been for the captain's inspiration we might have been done after all! No, we won't unload the gold here. Keep it as it is till we reach Sydney. There's sure, of course, to be some missing; but I don't think there'll be much short."
Nor was there. Little over, indeed, what the expense of fitting out the Fortuna came to. In the words of Conway and his superiors, it was "a wonderfully good save." Naturally, the affair created a lot of interest. For a few days Phil and I were besieged by newspaper reporters; and we became quite accustomed to seeing our names in print, and to reading curious variations of the adventure. At the conclusion of the trial we were complimented by the judge, notwithstanding that counsel for the defence had done their level best to make us out both fools and rogues.
Benton and Sinclair were sent to penal servitude for life, narrowly escaping the gallows for lack of direct evidence. Conway, as he promised he would, gave us every credit, and in the most generous manner said from the witness-box that he hoped the directors and shareholders of the company would see fit to compensate us for all the loss and worry we had been put to.
But, apparently, the gentlemen in question were not built that way to any considerable extent. They sold the Fortuna, and presented Phil and me with fifty pounds each out of what she brought.
Little Frank's mother, a widow who lived by cleaning offices, they did nothing for; so Phil and I gave her thirty pounds. Then, pretty sick with the results of our yachting trip, we retired once more to the shelter of worthy Mrs Briggs's boarding-house. But I noticed that Phil no longer consumed "penny dreadfuls." And, as for myself, I forswore the advertisement columns of the daily newspapers.
It was spring in the western district of New South Wales; spring after a good season. You could almost hear the grass growing as it shot up lush and luxuriant on the plains. The swamps and the billabongs were full of water; and among the lignum bushes and about the stumps of the spreading coolibah trees swam black mother-ducks and teal with their fluffy broods; while along the borders of the lagoons the blue cranes hunted for frogs.
All sorts of unknown blossoming scrub sent forth a sweet and curious perfume into the warm air; mulga, and brigalow, and gidyea took on a fresher, darker hue of green as their foliage rustled pleasantly in the light breeze. Flocks of crimson-breasted galahs covered the ground, feasting on the nardoo seeds; across the flats strode haughtily mobs of emus accompanied by families of striped and whistling youngsters.
"Me for the pastoral life," said my friend, Phil Scott, pulling up his horse, throwing one leg over the knee-pads, and preparing to fill his pipe, while the sheep we had been driving spread themselves over the Sweet grass. "I've had enough of the sea. And here we are, Harry, old man, a good seven hundred miles and more away from it. No more 'All hands turn out and shorten sail,' no more gales and seaquakes, or blood-thirsty cannibals, or disturbances of the kind which a peaceful mind abhors, eh, Harry?"
"That's so, Phil," I agreed, "and no more salt horse and weevilly biscuit; snarling skippers, and roaring mates. Why, it's better than coffee in the morning and no fore-royal! Mutton, here, three times a day, and damper as often as you want it."
Phil eyed me a little suspiciously, as I got out of the saddle, and, letting my horse go, picked a comfortable shade under a spreading native cherry tree, and lit my pipe.
Very disgruntled after a recent trip, we had forsworn the sea and all its works, and had travelled inland to this far western district where Phil's uncle had taken up a ten thousand acre block as a homestead lease. He had made money at dairying on the South Coast, enough, at least, to buy four thousand sheep and improve his selection very thoroughly, and then have a good cheque left over.
Phil had a long standing invitation to visit Boondi, as the place was called. So when we landed in Sydney after our last voyage we lost no time in getting clear of the city; and taking the train as far as it ran, we just rolled up our swags and tramped the other two hundred miles of the journey.
And very pleasant travelling we found it, this fashion of making acquaintance with a portion of our native land which we had never seen before. It came as a revelation to us with its illimitable stretches of plain, broken here and there by dense black scrubs jutting out into it, and forming promontories and peninsulas; while at intervals there uprose a solitary precipitous peak seeming strangely isolated and out of keeping with the unbroken horizon.
We received a warm welcome from the settler and his wife and three fine lads, and speedily made ourselves at home, helping with the stock, and doing odd jobs about the place. A calmer or less eventful sort of existence it would be impossible to realise. The nearest township was thirty miles away; the nearest neighbour ten. If lucky, we got a mail once a week; if the creeks were up, or the mail-man got on the spree at a Bush pub, we never bothered about the ensuing delay. Time slipped along unnoticed in the backblocks. As for the sea and its ships, they became a memory of the far past, of another and an unpleasant state of existence. We hated it, as we thought, with an enduring hatred. And now we were contentedly mustering sheep for shearing!
Also, we sheared most of those sheep; and old Suttor, Phil's uncle, insisted on paying us for doing so at the standard wage of one pound sterling per hundred. The boys helped; but as soon as we got into the almost forgotten swing, we peeled the wool off like veterans at the game—only as we were working for a friend we took it off in much cleaner style than any professional shearer would have done. Old Suttor was delighted.
"You chaps stop along with us," he said. "There's another block nearly joining mine you can have before somebody comes along and snaps it. It's up to me, anyhow, to give Phil a start. And I'll do it if he'll promise to stop ashore. The sea's foolishness. I mind when he was a kid, knee-high, him always saying he was going for a sailor. But I didn't believe he'd ever do it. And what's he got for his trouble? The pair o' ye had better settle down and give the land a turn. It'll pay ye better."
We said we'd think about it. Phil was enthusiastic over the scheme. So was I. But there must have been something wanting in my appreciation; for I noticed at times the same suspicious gleam come into my friend's eyes as I descanted on the delights of a life on the land.
And, as time passed, we became evidently restless; at least Phil did. I kept quite calm, outwardly, at least. But I knew very well that my mate had heard the irresistible call of the sea, as plainly as I had myself. A life on these far western plains was not for us. We had ere this tasted the heady wine of adventure in more copious draughts than are given to everybody in these humdrum days, and the bittersweet flavour of it would for ever remain with us, making us greedy for more of the same brand.
"Getting fidgety," remarked the old settler to Phil, one night, as we sat smoking on the veranda; "I'm afraid, lad, the salt's got into your blood."
"Not at all, uncle," disclaimed Phil, who had just been spinning a yarn of something that happened to us on a sort of yachting cruise we had lately been let in for, and of which Suttor had read garbled accounts in his weekly newspaper.
"Don't tell me," replied the old man. "Harry Ward, here, can see it as well as I can. Only he won't let on. An' I'm not sure he ain't suffering from the same disease."
"Never had such a good time before," I protested. "The life here is just splendid. It's so restful, and—er—quiet, and simple, and—"
"Just so," said old Suttor dryly. "Rather too much so, I fancy, for people who've been seeing such lively times as you chaps. I remember your grandfather well. He went whaling out of Hobart Town when he was over seventy. I was living over in Van Dieman's then, and recollect when at last neither him nor his ship ever returned from their last cruise."
Just about this time, Phil received a letter from an old shipmate of his in Melbourne giving an account of an expedition that was being fitted out to search for treasure in a certain part of the South Pacific; asking him, also, if we would care to join, saying, too, that he had signed on as mate. There were eight able seamen wanted, and the applications were arriving in shoals. The man who knew where the treasure was hidden was to be skipper. There were eight members of the Syndicate he had founded coming as passengers, and he thought that one of us might get the second mate's billet which was yet unfilled. He intended to try and keep it vacant, also a berth for'ard for one of us. The wages, added Emslie, were exceptionally good; and if we were tired of country life there was our chance for some fun, if nothing else.
Phil handed me the letter, and when I finished reading it, and looked up at him, his face was simply one large note of longing interrogation.
I shook my head sadly, as I said: "I think, Phil, that ten thousand acre block is out and away the better spec than a wild-goose chase such as this will prove to be. Besides, you know we're both agreed that there's nothing like the land. Think of the hardships, probably the perils, inseparable from such an adventure. Think of the dreadful and ferocious savages—they nearly got us once, you may perhaps remember—that infest those lovely but deceptive lands where 'every prospect pleases and man alone is vile.' Think of—"
"You wretched fraud!" exclaimed Phil, suddenly breaking into a huge laugh. "You're simply itching to be off—I can see it in your eyes—and have been these weeks past, I'll bet anything. Come on, we'll toss for which of us is to go aft, and then we'll ride into the township and send Bob Emslie a wire."
I won the toss. "You for greaser of the treasure-seeker," shouted Phil in the highest glee. "I've for long had my suspicions of you! Still waters run deep; but you too have heard the sea calling us from the great plains, and the flocks, and the sameness of the days.
"Uncle," he shouted, as the old man came into the harness-room where we had been talking, "Uncle, we're off to the briny again! You're going to lose your sailormen. But we've had a fine spell, and enjoyed ourselves, haven't we, Harry?"
"I didn't expect you to stay much longer," replied Suttor. "I've seen the moving-on signs hanging out these weeks past. We'll all be sorry to lose you. Treasure-hunting, is it? Then you'll surely want a few pounds when you come back again, so don't forget to write and ask me for them. It's a pity about that block, all the same."
"But, uncle," said Phil, "think of the gold we're going to find. Stacks of doubloons, and pieces of eight—whatever they may be—and ducats, and all the rest of it. Or perhaps big lumps of virgin ore just like the ones we never found on Gympie when Harry and I rushed it that time."
"There, there, Phil," said the old man, smiling, "I see it's time you were off. Only don't forget, if the doubloons don't turn up, that there's a few miserable sovereigns always waiting here for you."
I think that when it came to the parting, two days after, we were both sincerely sorry to leave. Mrs Suttor had been like a mother to us; the boys like younger brothers. And we had grown to love the curious, silent land with its vast open spaces and thick scrubs; in good seasons a delight to the eye with its billowing miles of fattening grasses and herbage, its slowly flowing tortuous creeks and rivers, its sweet, strange blossoms, and the lonely pinnacles of rock dropped at random over its surface. But the sea was calling more insistently than ever since Emslie's message arrived.
We rode to the terminus, this time on good horses, accompanied by two of the boys leading spare ones. It had taken us three weeks to cover the distance on our leisurely tramp. We did it now in less than four days, without pushing the horses. And in all that wide extent of country we passed only three homesteads, and met not half a dozen people. The days of closer settlement were then undreamed of; the small holder had not been heard of.
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day we struck the large hamlet into which ran the twin bands of steel that led back to civilisation. And that night saw us on the east-bound express, saying good-bye to the lads, who were going to stay a few days "in town," and then pack stores home to the selection.
We were impatient; and the time seemed long ere the train ran into the Redfern Station. But we had provided for making our connections; and half an hour afterwards we were steaming down the Harbour southabout for Melbourne, in one of the fast inter-colonial packets. We were full-up of train travel.
And how good the salt breeze smelled to us as we lay on the fo'c'sle-head of the Gabo and eagerly sucked it in, and welcomed with a laugh of sheer pleasure the little sprays that now and again shot over us from her driving bows. And how beautiful, and free, and fresh seemed the mighty, furrowed plain, ever changing, yet changeless, and whose moods and vagaries we knew so well, and loved with such an enduring love.
"It's a fine country we've left behind us in the west, all the same," remarked Phil as we lit our pipes, "but it can't compare with this one. I know now why we got tired of it, and why we always do get tired of the Bush sooner or later. It's the stillness. Now, the sea is never still; it's always doing something or other. And we miss the motion; our eyes refuse to be satisfied just as much as our bodies do. The life has nothing to do with it. It's mostly rotten. It's in the sea's very self that the glamour lies, Harry—not in the ships nor the men that work 'em."
Port Phillip at last; and up that shallow inland sea, and up Hobson's Bay and the Yarra to our wharf, where the first man we saw was Emslie himself, who greeted us heartily.
"We're lying just over there, Phil," he said. "See that brig. Well, that's the Century. You and your friend can bring your traps right aboard; and then you can go up town and get what more you want. We sail almost at once—or at any rate as soon as we can get the Syndicate together."
Emslie was a good stamp of a man in the early thirties; a sailor all over by the look of him. Phil had been with him on the coast when he had a topsail-schooner called the Nina. But he had come to grief on one of the northern river bars; and since then had served only in subordinate capacities. He had just passed in steam; and was hoping to get a command when he returned from the present trip.
The Century we found to be an ample-bowed, comfortable sort of craft with plenty of room about her decks, and a large cabin with sleeping berths on each side, all, as we could see, well fitted up.
For'ard was a small deck-house adjoining the galley. The crew lived in a lower fo'c'sle just beaft the old-fashioned windlass.
"I understood from the wire I got from Phil, that you're to be second," said Emslie to me. "Well, that's all right; but I told the skipper that we'd want a bos'n, so I've given Phil the rating; and he and the carpenter and the sailmaker will have the deckhouse to themselves. That'll be better than the fo'c'sle, which is the usual hole. Your berth, Mr Ward, is there on the starboard side, and is roomy enough."
Phil was, I could see, pleased, although he averred that every part of the ship was the same to him. And I was more than pleased, you may depend; for the notion of Phil going for'ard and me aft had been worrying me not a little. Certainly it had happened before, but then Phil had now got his mate's ticket, and I didn't like the idea at all.
"You must be doing yourselves proud in this old hooker," said Phil as we presently went into Emslie's berth for a drink and a smoke. "What's the Old Man like, Bob? And where's the treasure?"
"Ask me something easy," laughed the mate. "I've only seen the skipper once. To look at, he's more like a soldier than a sailorman. Name's Finch. About forty or fifty, I should guess. Not known around these parts. Stops at the White Hart Hotel, and dresses like a toff—long frock-coat, tall hat, white vest and gloves—gloves, remember. Anyhow, he appeared on the scene about three months ago with money to burn. But it was all old money, gentlemen. Spanish, or French, or something; lumps of it, all stuck together as if it had been at the bottom of the deep sea for a few centuries. Nevertheless, when the assayers got at it, it turned out nearly pure gold. Well, you see, the newspapers got hold of him. But he was an oyster to the smartest reporters. All they could get out of him was that he'd spent years down in the islands, trading, recruiting, growing cocoanut for copra, and so forth; but as to the treasure, he was dumb. And as it's a free country, they presently let Captain Finch alone, to sell his lumps of coin and live on the results. I hear the Museum took quite a lot of the stuff at fancy prices; and private collectors, munismatists, or numismatists, or something of the kind, went loony after them."
"I had an idea," remarked Phil, "that the show would turn out to be something of the kind. Same old Spanish galleon, I suppose, that we've heard of so many times. I can reckon up at least half a dozen of 'em within the last few years—now here, now there. But this is the first one that seems to have turned up trumps—if the yarn's all right."
"I know nothing about that," said Emslie; "all I'm sure of is that there's enough money to pay wages. Look at this," and he handed us a newspaper, and pointed to a marked advertisement.
"Expedition To The South Seas In Search Of Treasure.
"The undersigned would like to meet with eight strong, healthy gentlemen-adventurers, each of whom must possess five hundred pounds in cash, to join in an attempt to recover specie from a wrecked vessel whose position is known only to the promoter of the enterprise. A ship will be purchased and equipped for the purpose. If successful, the members of the Syndicate will share equally in the profits, with the exception of a twenty per cent commission reserved by the promoter in addition to the share to which he is entitled as a member of the Syndicate.
"(Signed) John Finch."
"Did they bite freely?" I asked, as I finished reading the above rather remarkable document.
"Somewhat!" exclaimed Emslie. "You see, the skipper's name stood for gold. The papers had given him a splendid show when he first struck the city. And now people just tumbled over each other to join the business. He was able to pick and choose. I've seen some of the fellows, and it strikes me that if the rest of the crowd are like them, we're going to have a real merry cruise. I've got eight 'squareheads' shipped for'ard. In the morning you'd better come with me and sign on. Nobody'll be able to say that for a craft of two hundred tons we're undermanned or under-officered. Oh, it's all right," replied Emslie to a doubtful glance of mine, "I was told to use my own discretion in everything. And I've no use for economy on a trip of this kind."
Next morning the Syndicate straggled on board—most of them looking as if they had not been to bed. But, as the mate remarked, "they were full of beans." And they all had parcels and bundles; rugs, sticks, guns, sporting rifles, musical instruments, umbrellas; and one carried a "Norrie's Epitome of Navigation," and a sextant.
None of them were over twenty-five or twenty-seven years of age at the outside. There were one or two wilty ones among them; but, as a rule, they were a strapping, well-set-up lot.
Leaving the wharf we were a treasure-seeker short; however, as we got down towards Saltwater River, as it was then called, a man came out of the scrub and made signs and shouted. This was number eight, and when we took him off, he explained that finding us gone when he reached the wharf, he had hired a cab from the city to Footscray, and thence by a short cut through the scrub to cut us off. The cab, he added, was bogged in a swamp some distance back; so he had come along on foot. He was a doctor named Jackson, and he carried a bag of books in one hand, and a small medicine chest in the other—things he had forgotten to pack in his trunk.
The skipper now came on deck, clad in white flannels and a Panama hat, and beautiful white canvas shoes. He was smoking a big cigar. He looked no more like a military man than did the brig's cook. Clean-shaven, grey-haired, well-groomed, with a high colour, and sharp black eyes, he might have been the captain of a man-o'-war, or the owner of a big yacht.
Emslie introduced me, and he was pleasant enough, and said, after a quick look, that he thought we should get on well together. The mate now went to his station on the fo'c'sle-head; Phil was on the maindeck with his Germans and Swedes securing some spars; so, for the moment, I had little to do except watch for orders as the little coffee-pot of a tug dragged us round the river bends towards the bay.
Some of the Syndicate had gathered around the skipper and were laughing and talking in high glee. Clearly the crowd had all met previously, and some were evidently old acquaintances. Presently they went below, and there was a call for the steward, and the jingling of trays and glasses came up through the companion-hatch.
Past Williamstown and Gellibrand, with its lightship, and out into the bay at last. Here the tug cast us off, and we made sail on the old brig; the Syndicate interested in the process, and some even assisting to masthead the topsail yards.
That night we were clear of the land, and running south with a fine fresh breeze behind us, none of us knowing in the least where we were bound for.
The adventurers, with the exception of two, were quite unaffected; and indeed the old Century was very steady. I had the first watch, and the skipper was on deck once or twice; but he said little except to alter the course a point or so to the eastward.
Rounding Tasmania, we headed to the nor'ard and eastward, satisfied that we had a careful master who chose clear water rather than go through Bass Strait even with a small and handy craft like ours.
"We're bound for one of the groups to find the galleon," said Phil, who was in my watch, "although I must say I never heard of any treasure-ship in those latitudes."
"No more have I," I replied. "But, all the same, I fancy I remember learning at school that there were Spaniards, or Portuguese, or some sort of Dagoes, around there a good many years ago. Whether they took any gold with them, and left it there, is a different matter. I wouldn't give much for the chance of it though."
Emslie was of the same opinion. And we wondered mightily what the Syndicate knew of the business in hand, or whether it was every bit in the dark as we were.
Meanwhile, its members enjoyed themselves exceedingly. They played cards, drank in moderation, held shooting matches at bottles hung from the yardarms, performed on divers instruments singly and collectively, and were all over the ship, alow and aloft, in the first week out.
They included among them a mining engineer, a lawyer, two remittance men, a doctor, a squatter's son, a civil servant on six months' leave of absence, and last, but not least by any means, a globe-trotter not long out from England.
Later on, we discovered that he was a rich man, the son of a big manufacturer in the Old Country.
We of the afterguard liked Doctor Jackson perhaps the best of all the Syndicate. He was a Sydney native, and had joined the expedition for pure love of adventure, leaving his practice in the hands of a locum tenens. He was high up as an athlete, a first-class shot, and the way he shaped with the gloves was something to remember. He had practised up the Bush in some of the country townships, too, and he laughed heartily as we told him of our last trip into the Far West.
But upon the objective of the expedition he was secretive to a degree. For the matter of that, so were they all; and yet as time passed we were convinced that they knew as much as their leader did.
It must be admitted that the three of us—Emslie, Phil, and myself—viewed the whole outfit with suspicion, born perhaps in our case of a past mournful experience. In the first place we could not stomach the treasure story at any price. Again, we did not see what had become of the four thousand pounds. The old Century was certainly not worth more than eighteen hundred pounds—if so much. Allowing another three hundred pounds for stores, and two hundred pounds for wages, what had become of the surplus? Of course, we might be bound on a long voyage. On the other hand, it looked as if our destination was one of the nearer groups; apparently, from the courses steered, either the New Hebrides or the Loyalty Islands. However, as Emslie said, it was none of our business. All we had to do was to obey orders, even if we broke owners. There was no share in any treasure for us.
And the Syndicate appeared quite free from care. The last thing that seemed to trouble its members was either what had become of their money, or where the prospective consideration for it might be. The man with the sextant was named Kerry. He was a mining engineer, and he joined in taking the midday sights, and we taught him to calculate the latitude.
He studied works on navigation, and announced that he intended to adopt the sea as an extra profession.
The tourist, Manning, kept a diary which he was going to publish when he got home; he said that he felt the "literary instinct strong within him." His friends called him "Carpets," probably from some connection he had with the industry, and jeered at the extracts he treated them to from his "log."
He was a well-read chap, all the same; and it was from him we learned that the Portuguese and Spaniards were the first discoverers of both the Hebrides and the Solomons—a detail our school histories had altogether omitted. The average Australian lad, as a rule, thinks that Captain Cook is responsible for everything within some thousands of miles from his own coasts.
We passed Lord Howe Island one moonlight night; and the adventurers were impressed by the beautiful sights it presented as its two great peaks stood out, here illumined brightly, there flecked with patches of deepest shadow.
Norfolk Island we touched at; bringing up off the Settlement for a supply of vegetables and fruit. There had been a lot of rain of late, and the place looked idyllic with its green gullies and undulating, rounded ridges crested with magnificent pine trees. There was a nasty swell on, so nobody went ashore; but the islanders came off with oranges, bananas, and the finest passion fruit we had ever seen. We also got some new potatoes, cabbages, and tomatoes.
Manning said it was an earthly paradise, and that he would return to it one of these days and end his life there.
Whereupon the skipper smiled, and remarked dryly that as it was a strictly teetotal community, his residence would probably be quite a brief one.
The day after leaving we met our first blow. Unaided, we were strong-handed enough to have eaten the Century. But the Syndicate considered themselves fit by now for a share in the picnic. So they all swarmed on deck, and up aloft. Most of them were content to stay in the tops and crosstrees, hanging on like flying foxes. But Manning and two or three others, more daring, lay out on the yardarms, and got in the way of the men shoving a reef in the topsails.
It was daylight fortunately. But the wind was a full gale, and a big sea was getting up which caused the Century to play capers, very different to her precise and steady fine-weather behaviour. And so the adventurers discovered. Kerry had somehow reached the lee main-topsail yardarm, and stood there upright, gripping the lift, his hat was gone, and a stolid German was passing the earring and making wild gestures to him to get inside, and stop treading on his fingers.
But the man who would be a sailor had lost his nerve; and we were all relieved when we saw Phil skip lightly along the yard, and with a length of ratline stuff lash him to the lift. Then, when the yard was clear of men, he showed him how to get down and straddle in undignified but safe fashion into the slings.
"That was a smart bit of work," said the skipper approvingly. "A little longer and Mr Kerry would have been on his way back to Norfolk Island." But Mr Kerry was not the only one who had to be assisted down from precarious perches and holdfasts.
Presently we took in a second reef; also clewed-up and stowed the mainsail. But there were no more volunteers for service aloft. They hung on to ropes, pulling first one then another, all out of time, and finally washing away in a yelling string into the leescuppers.
Then the doctor shouted "Grog ho!" and all hands had a nip of overproof rum, while the skipper stood at the break of the poop with a look on his face as who should say: "Well, it's your ship, so I suppose you can do as you like."
Always after that there was a tot of rum for the crew at eight bells in the second dog-watch. As for the adventurers themselves, they "totted" too; but with a discrimination and forbearance rather striking among such a mixed crowd. The two remittance men, sometimes, but not often, exceeded the limit.
We were three weeks out when we sighted Aneiteum, the southernmost island of the New Hebrides, and keeping it on our starboard hand, sailed slowly past Tanna, Erromanga, and the rest of the group, until one morning found us abreast of the largest of them all, "Santo," as it is known locally, although Manning told us that the far more imposing name of Tierra Australis del Espirito Santo was conferred upon it by Pedro de Quiros, its discoverer, who thought he had struck a continent instead of an island.
He said, too, that the Portuguese navigator anchored in a bay which he called Vera Cruz, and a river which flowed into it, the Jordan; also, that he laid out a site there for a city and named it the New Jerusalem.
Whether or not our skipper was acquainted with this bit of history, he certainly knew very well where he was, so far as the coast-line was concerned, for presently he took the brig without the slightest hesitation into a little bay on the western side of the island, whose entrance nobody could have guessed at, so well was it hidden from the sea, unless thoroughly familiar with the spot. And there we dropped anchor in ten fathoms of water, and wondered what was coming next.
Far above us to a height of many thousand feet towered mountain ranges simply thatched with all kinds of vegetation, in shades varying from the lightest to the darkest green. In places we could see and hear waterfalls flashing and tumbling among the trees. Otherwise, all was silent; there was no sign of life or settlement.
Nor was there a breath of wind, and the heat was oppressive and sticky. But the adventurers were now all agog with excitement. Apparently they had reached their destination, and were quite aware of what was in store for them.
"I don't like the look of this shop," remarked Emslie suddenly, bringing his eyes down from the tall cliffs covered with greenery at which he had been staring. "I've heard that the niggers here are the fiercest in the whole Pacific; and I'm pretty sure they're cannibals into the bargain."
"Not a doubt of it," replied Phil. "But I'm looking for the wreck, or some signs of it."
"Oh," I said, "that'll be under water, of course."
"Well, it won't have to be very far under," remarked Emslie, "because we've got no diving gear on board—unless the Syndicate has one stowed away somewhere among its luggage. However, I suppose they know what they're after. There's a council of war being held aft now. Haven't you a sort of feeling that you're being watched, Harry?"
"Can't say I have," I replied. "Imagination not active enough, I expect. Dare say, though, there are lots of niggers about. There's surely shelter enough for them."
"The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns,
And winding glades high up like ways to Heaven,
The slender coco's drooping crown of plumes,
The lightning flash of insect and of bird,
The lustre of the long convolvuluses
That coil'd around the stately stems,"
quoted Manning as he strolled towards us, gazing around with pleasure and admiration. "That's what Tennyson says about it," he explained. "Perhaps you gentlemen may remember 'Enoch Arden'?"
Phil and I nodded, but Emslie only remarked that poetry was not in his line; adding that he'd seen just the same sort of places in the Solomons, and was always more comfortable when viewing them from the sea than when ashore.
"They cut people's throats and eat 'em," said the mate, "in those lawns and glades of Mr Tennyson's up yonder. Serve 'em up roast and boiled and done to a turn, stuffed with bananas, and seasoned with chili sauce. If we stay here the night, you bet one watch'll be on deck, and the other one standing by. It's a wonder there's no village here; but I can't see either a pig or a canoe."
"All the same, there is one," replied Manning, "and not very far away either. We're going visiting there presently. Captain Finch lived for some years on an island in Bougainville Strait just to the southward of us, and he knows this part of the island and its people too."
You may be sure we all three pricked up our ears at this; but Manning said no more, only walked aft, quoting something which, as Phil said, was from a poem called "Locksley Hall," and was to be found in the "Third Reader" at all superior public schools.
Towards evening we put the longboat in the water; and as if this had been a signal, there appeared from somewhere a canoe paddled swiftly by a solitary native.
He was a strapping lump of a fellow, nearly naked. On his head were great plumes of cocks'-tails; ankles and wrists were covered with bracelets made out of wild boar's tusks and shells. His body was painted from truck to keelson in alternate stripes of black, white, and red.
Catching hold of a line, he made fast, and in a moment was on the maindeck.
"Hello, cocky," he remarked to Phil, after a quick glance around, "where's the 'kipper? You tell 'im Santa Maria Tom come aboard."
But Phil, taken all aback, simply glared at the visitor. Just then Captain Finch happened to step on deck, and the nigger remarking, "Right oh! Keep your talk fast if you want to," ran aft, and greeted the "Old Man" with every show of hearty welcome.
"Queensland plantations, of course," laughed Emslie. "Took the wind out of your sails, didn't he, bos'n?"
"It was the get up," replied Phil in disgust. "I know his saucy sort well enough, too. Recruits are a sore subject with both me and Harry. The less truck we have with 'Santa Maria Tom' the better for our health."
After a short stay "Tom" went ashore again; but he now carried a new Martini-Henry, and a well-filled cartridge belt was strapped across his shoulders.
"So long, chaps!" he said jauntily, as he dropped into his canoe, while all his ornaments jangled, and he grinned up at us, showing his white teeth. "See you blackbirders again bimeby, if feller up the Bush not make you all into long pig."
But, as it turned out, Santa Maria himself might well have taken precautions against the process he alluded to.
That night after dinner the adventurers got into the longboat. Apparently, they were unarmed, but we knew that all of them carried revolvers. Phil and I and four A.B.'s pulled them ashore. Before leaving, the skipper, who accompanied us, told the mate to heave short on the anchor, and see everything clear for a start directly we returned.
Quietly we pulled away into the darkness until we lost sight of the brig; and but for her riding-light we should not have known where to look for her.
The skipper steered, and presently we found ourselves entering a creek with steep banks on each side. After a mile or so, the left bank fell away into flat forest country. Here we tied up, and the adventurers landed, more silent then than they had been since leaving Melbourne.
Evidently there was an enterprise of importances under way, but what it might be neither of us possessed the remotest notion.
"Wait for us," said the skipper, as he kicked aside a tarpaulin and handed us over a Winchester rifle each, together with a big packet of cartridges. "If anybody meddles with you, let 'em have it; otherwise keep as quiet as possible. There's food in the sternlocker, and a bottle of beer apiece. And, above all, keep a sharp look out. This is a bad country to be caught napping in. We may meet unfriendly folk ashore, and be coming back in a hurry. If you hear me blow my whistle, leave a man in the boat and make for the sound as hard as you can; but don't move until you hear it."
So saying, he jumped ashore, and, followed by the Syndicate in single file, marched off into the interior.
"Well," muttered Phil, "of all the funny picnics! Treasure-hunting, do you say? More like blackbirding to my mind. Shouldn't be surprised if we don't get into trouble over this trip."
"Yah," said one of the German seamen, "I don'd dink so too. I bin avraid ze nadive beobles vill vind us, ond den you zee, dere vill be hell to bay und no bitch 'ot."
"Shut up, Hans," I said; "you make me tired. Can you shoot straight?"
"Yah," he growled sulkily, "all de Chermans know der rivle bractiche. Tarn der mozquitos!"
And so said all of us; for the pests came about us in clouds, until by and by a breeze sprung up and dispersed them.
Time passed, and not a sound broke the stillness of the night. No one thought of sleep. About midnight the moon, nearly at her full, swung over the mountain tops and stared down at us between openings in the thick scrub which almost formed an arch overhead. Still no sign of the Syndicate; no sound, not even the call of a night bird, in all that vast expanse of rock and tree.
I looked at my watch. It was one o'clock. We had a snack, beef and biscuits and cheese, a nip of whisky for us, and some beer for the men.
"Well," I said, "this looks as if it was going to be an all-night job. We'll set watches. I'll take till three o'clock with Hans and Fritz. The rest of you can lie down ready for a call. Perhaps—"
But in that moment we all leapt as one man to the sound of a great, solemn booming somewhere above us; and then we heard faint reports of firearms.
"That's a big war-drum," said Phil, "I've heard the rotten noise before on the New Britain coast. And if I'm not mistaken, the Syndicate's up against something good and hard. They don't beat that drum for nothing around these parts. Shall we get a move on, Harry, and see how this evening visiting's panning out."
"Not a step," I replied; "we'd only get bushed ourselves, and perhaps cut off. Wait and listen for the whistle."
But we heard nothing except the insistent booming of the great drum.
Then, suddenly, up the creek there was a crashing in the underbrush, and we crouched down with rifles cocked and ready, all staring through the halflight.
In a few minutes we made out the solitary figure of a man running as if for life; his breath came in panting gasps, plainly audible; and as he went stumbling past the boat we saw that he was one of our party and hailed him.
Turning in his tracks, the fugitive stared wildly around, caught sight of the boat, and came tumbling headlong into it. Then we recognised the younger of the two remittance men, Hemyng by name.
"Get off to the brig," he groaned, "or they'll all be here,"
"Who'll be here?" I asked.
"Thousands of 'em," he replied, "with feathers, and paint, and spears, and guns, and—"
"Your grandmother!" I said. "Where's the rest of your crowd?"
"Killed, I suppose," he said. "I left them all behind me."
"Well, you did set the pace," I answered, as I caught the sound of trampling feet, "but I think there are others not far away." And, sure enough, Jackson, Manning, Kerry, and another man arrived in a bunch.
They were blown, and torn, and scratched, but otherwise unhurt, so far as I could see.
"No use waiting for any more," said the doctor, "when he got his wind and a drink. "Poor Finch, and Russell, and Pollock are done for. No; the niggers only came a short distance after us. They've gone back now. But we're on another tribe's ground, so I suppose we may as well get on board before they wake up."
"But surely we ought to try and do something," I demurred.
"Yes," said Manning impatiently, "make tracks away as quickly as possible, before we get into trouble. We've shot about half a dozen niggers, and if a missionary or a war-ship happens to hear of our excursion, we'll all be doing time in a colonial gaol before long."
As our ideas emphatically coincided on this point, we pulled down the creek without further delay, out to the brig, and weighed anchor, and made off to sea.
But all the while behind us boomed that great drum, beaten now to a more rapid note—one, it seemed to me, calling for vengeance, and summoning warriors to help wreak it.
"After we left you in the boat," said Manning, as we all sat on the poop-skylight, and the Century threw the land behind her, "we struck a bush track, and Finch kept on, saying that he knew every inch of the way. I suppose we must have gone over a mile when we found the native village we were looking for. The chief's house, a very big one, stood by itself in a cleared space. The moon was giving plenty of light, and the village was quiet as the dead.
"'They're all sound asleep,' said somebody. But I could see the skipper didn't like the look of things, for he ordered us back into the scrub. Just then from every side the niggers came out and surrounded us. Some of them carried old shot-guns; the remainder had spears and were a tough lot, with their beastly paint and feathers and rattling shells and tusks. Of course, I expected a 'happy dispatch' for all of us then and there, without benefit of clergy.
"But they seemed quite peaceful; and the skipper talked away to the chief in his own language. And the other laughed, and Finch said he was joking him about having called without due notice. They were old acquaintances, it seemed. All the same, I could see the skipper was desperately uneasy about something; and when the chief signed to us to enter the big house, Finch made as if to draw away. But it was no use; we were pushed and shoved inside, quite civilly; no violence, but the niggers grinned at us as if we were welcome guests, and subjects of a good joke."
"Yes," put in Jackson, "and I'm sorry that we didn't make a rush then. However, you see, we didn't know how the land lay. Finch himself didn't seem any too sure."
"So," continued Manning," in we went, and they lit torches; and the first thing we saw hanging between two carved pillars was Santa Maria Tommy. He had been cut open and dressed, just like butchers dress a pig; and they had stuck a big crimson hibiscus flower in his mouth.
"Well, they let us take a good look at this cheerful object for a few minutes. Then the chief beckoned us to another part of the house, and there on great slabs of beautifully carved wood we saw what we had come for, exactly as poor Finch so often described it to us. At a rough guess there must have been over a ton of coin, some loose, some hanging together, and all of it discoloured by the action of salt water, still not so much so but from the big heap struck here and there, against the torchlight, the dull gleam of gold.
"And standing in the centre of the mass, as I am a Jiving sinner, was a tarnished metal figure of the Virgin Mary quite four feet high. It might have been gold, too. Probably it was. At any rate, the whole show was regarded as an object of worship, an altar, in fact; for on each side of it stood two scarecrows of priests, one painted all red, the other all black. And presently they began to caper and beat an enormous drum that stood in front of the image."
"You see," explained Jackson, chipping in again, "there was no wreck. At least there had been; but years ago some sort of a seaquake cast the hull of an old ship ashore in the little bay, and when the niggers started to pick up the pieces, they found the coins and the statue. Finch saw a spear-head that had been made of the gold, but it was too soft to be of any use. And, naturally, he got curious.
"Being chummy with the chief, he found out at last where the stuff was stored; but he couldn't trade for a solitary coin of it. The niggers looked on the display as their mascotte. Then Finch, with Santa Maria's help, managed to collar some of the treasure, and brought it away with him. Evidently they suspected the culprits, but, as Santa told us when he came off in the canoe, they never let on a word to him. They were lying low and biding their time. And he said that it would be easy enough to get hold of the rest of the stuff, more especially as most of the tribe were starting away last night on business with some objectionable neighbours.
"I believe myself that hundreds of eyes watched us from the time we dropped anchor till we landed. Now, Manning, I apologise. But I could see these chaps were puzzling over something."
"So," said Manning, taking up his story, "when Finch saw the priests start drumming and dancing, he shouted: 'Boys, we must get out of this, or we'll have our throats cut in five minutes! Let 'em have it, and make for the creek as hard as you can go. They don't like the moon, and won't follow you far.'
"Then Finch pulled out his revolver and started blazing away right and left; and we all did the same, and the niggers were so astonished that they let us get out in the open. Cunning though they were, they had not dreamt that we were armed; thought we had no possible chance of getting away from such a crowd. Well, three of us didn't.
"I saw poor Finch's head smashed in with a club just as he cleared the door. Russell and Pollock went down among the yelling crowd that tried to cut us off, but Jackson and I had two Colts apiece, and we kept together, making good practice till we hit the scrub, and then we ran. However, Hemyng ran faster still, didn't you, Hemyng?"
"I did," replied Hemyng. "One of the black devils let drive at me point-blank with his gun; but it missed fire. Then I shot his head off. Two more came after me. I got behind a tree and potted the first, and the other cleared back again. Honestly, I thought I was the only one left out of the lot."
"A bad business," remarked Emslie, after a long pause, turning to look at the disappearing island. "I only hope we've heard the last of it!"
"Where did the gold come from in the first place, Mr Manning?" asked Phil.
"Hard to say," replied the other. "But the probability is that the stuff belonged not to Torres' or de Quiros' ships, but to some roving pirate or buccaneer that came to grief on the coast at a much later date. Some of the coins poor Finch sold were moidores of the seventeenth century. Anyhow, there it is, and there it can stay so far as I'm concerned."
"Same here," said Jackson. "I've had enough of treasure-hunting to last my time. What do you fellows think of it?"
And the rest of the Syndicate assented with one voice.
"Harry," remarked Phil, later on, as we stood and watched the old Century breasting the water with a sound at her bows like the tinkling of a thousand little waterfalls, while the moon swimming overhead turned all her upper sails to silver, "Harry, we weren't on in this act; and I can't admit I'm very sorry they kept us out of it. But I must say it was rather a poor show for the money. Also, our pay day won't be of much account."
"That's all true, Phil," I replied. "But you would leave Boondi, you know. We should have been settling on that ten thousand acre block by this time. What was it that old Spanish chap used to tell us about shearing pigs and getting all cry and no wool? Well, we've been pig-shearing all right this trip, Phil."
"No," amended Phil with a grin, "we've been watching the shearing of a Syndicate."
"Well, Harry, no more treasure-hunting trips, I suppose," remarked my mate, Phil Scott, as we sat, and smoked, and watched the big, grey warships in Farm Cove, Sydney Harbour, one fine, hot November day.
"Not if I know it," I replied emphatically, thinking of a recent unpleasant experience in the South Pacific.
"Fossicking of the sort we take up with in deep water is far too lively a business for my fancy. What do you say to something quieter—a big sailer-tramp, for instance?"
"Right you are!" said Phil, "and the bigger the better. Let's go Home, and have a look at the Tower, and Westminster Abbey, and Saint Paul's, and those other places we hear the English Johnnies talk about. I think it's up to us, anyhow, to see what the Old Country's like. Besides, our spare cash is getting mighty short once more."
"Yes," I replied, "it's certainly time we were outward bound again. And it will be before the mast. No billets going a-begging now, aft of it. I was talking to one of the men on the Iron Earl yesterday, and he said he thought that a couple of hands were wanted. Let's go round and call on the skipper."
But we waited a little longer. One of the cruisers was getting under way; sixty fathoms of paying-off pennant curved from her masthead down to a gilded bladder bobbing on the water; her band played "Home Sweet Home"; the sound of cheering from her consorts came faintly to our ears.
She was going to England to be paid off and recommissioned.
"Good-bye, old girl," said Phil, waving his hand to the departing ship. "We'll be a long way behind you; but we'll get there all the same."
We found the Iron Earl lying at the Central Wharf. She was a big two thousand ton sailer, nearly ready for sea, and down to her Plimsoll mark with copper ore, pig lead, tallow, hides, and wool. To us, accustomed of late to comparatively small craft, she appeared simply enormous, with her broad, clear spaces of deck, towering spars, and square yards. One would have imagined that it required at least thirty men to work her. Actually, her full complement proved to be fourteen, exclusive of six apprentices; and ten of the fourteen were ordinary seamen. These were on board at present, and the captain said he wanted four A.B.'s. He could, he remarked, manage with three at a pinch, but would prefer the extra hand if he could get him.
This master mariner was a tall, dark man, civil-spoken enough, and with a decisive, alert look in his eye, contradicting a rather slow and hesitating manner and a shuffling carriage.
"Yes," he said doubtfully, as he glanced at our discharges, "these are all right enough; but, to tell you the truth, I don't care about Australian sailors in my fo'c'sle. They seem to think the deep sea belongs to them; and they're always growling for duck and green peas; not to mention other little ways that unfit them for big ship work. At least that's my experience of them. Otherwise, I'd sign you on."
"All right, sir," replied Phil, laughing; "sorry to have troubled you. But you know we can't help being natives of this poor old country."
"Hold on," called the skipper, as we turned away, "what do you men want to go deep-water for? Why not try the coast, as you Australians usually do?"
"Well," said Phil, "I don't know that we are so very particular about the matter. Only we wanted a quiet spell after a picnic we've just had; also, we thought we'd like to have a look at the Old Country, and all the fine London sights we've read about."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said the captain with a smile. "Of an inquiring turn of mind, are you? Economically disposed, too, and want to be paid for the tour in an easy-going limejuicer. Now I suppose neither of you knows anything about blacksmith's work?"
"Well, sir," said Phil, while I wondered what was coming, "I can do a little with a bit of hot iron. I'm not a professional; but if you want a horse shod, or a pick laid and steeled, or any other odd jobs of that sort, why, I'm able for them."
The captain laughed outright as he answered: "Not much in my line—horses and picks; but I dare say you'll do well enough to knock up some bolts, and spikes, and stuff of that sort, or to repair any little breakages we may have.
"All right! I'll make an exception in your case, if you'll promise not to take charge of the ship the first day out; or attempt to engineer a mutiny before we've been a week at sea. The pair of you can come up to the Shipping Office to-morrow."
"Rum go, isn't it, Harry?" remarked Phil, "that a man's ability to do a bit of smithing should get him an able seaman's billet? And, by Jingo," he added, staring around and aloft, "she looks as if blacksmiths were more wanted on board her than sailors! Harry Ward, we'll have to take a week's tucker when we start aloft in this hooker. Why, her main-royal truck seems as high as one of those big gum trees in the Nandewar Ranges that a fellow gets a crick in his neck trying to see to the top of."
Some of the ordinary seamen were at work on stages slung over the side, chipping and pounding at her iron plates with hammers and scrapers. And they were all youngsters, mere boys most of them. Inboard were half a dozen apprentices painting, scrubbing, and polishing—little nippers of twelve and fourteen, who looked as if they had been kidnapped from school by a chimney-sweep, and set to learn his business.
"A queer turn-out, Phil," I assented, "and a cheap one. Two pounds a month at the most for the ordinary seamen. Why, with our six pounds, we'll be millionaires among them. And look at the mate. I'll swear he's not a day over two-and-twenty."
"Well," said Phil, "it's one comfort, at any rate, that they all seem to be English. And you mustn't forget that I've got a new rating, Harry. I'm a 'seaman-blacksmith.' How does it sound? She carries a carpenter, too; I saw him mending one of the gratings—almost the only wooden thing about her decks. I wonder what he finds to do?"
Next day we took our traps on board; and, later, signed Articles for a voyage to London or any other port in the United Kingdom.
Our quarters in the Iron Earl proved to be a large deck-house, reaching from the galley at one end of it nearly to the foremast, a light and airy place enough, with eight open bunks along each side, and as many large ports, table and benches down the centre, and a few lockers and cupboards at each end. A pair of doors afforded ingress and egress. Everything was scrupulously clean, and, altogether, the place was a vast improvement on the old-fashioned lower or top-gallant forecastles innocent of both light and ventilation.
Two more A.B.'s, we found, had been shipped; one a Dane, quiet, silent, and bovine; the other an old Englishman, a grey, growling relic of the past school of merchant seamen, now almost utterly extinct. As broad nearly as he was long, with a thin band of white whisker frilling his lined, red, weather-beaten face from ear to ear under the chin; sharp, light-blue eyes that peered twinkling under thick, heavy, overhanging brows; great hands all scarred and seamed and discoloured by years of tar and toil, and fingers knotted and hairy as those of a gorilla, and always held half-open as in the act of clutching; a slow, deliberate, lurching walk; a back curved like a turtle's, and you have old Grills, looking a very Nestor of the salt seas among us, as he sat on a big round-bottomed bag, and glared around him and chewed on his quid, the first time we all met together.
"Haw, haw!" he laughed presently, "so this is the way they man the windjammers nowadays, is it? Why, I might be father to the lot o' ye—which the Lord forbid. Ornery seamen an' a lot o' kids wi' not as much hair on their faces, all put together, as I got on the back o' my hand. An' what a caboose!" he continued, looking round with a snort of disgust. "A shickery, rotten sort o' thing as a good heavy sea'll walk overboard, schooner-rigged, one o' these fine days—leastways if seas ain't changed as much as ships is sence I sailed over 'em."
"And where have you been putting in the time of late years, then, if it's a fair question?" asked Phil very politely.
The old man turned and regarded him attentively, as one might do a species of new and extremely curious animal. Although tall, my mate was a well-built, wiry fellow, deep-chested, narrow-flanked; and, spite of lack of beard or moustache, he possessed a strong, determined face, whose frank expression was enhanced by a pair of well-opened brown eyes.
"Umph," grunted old Grills at last, "and who might you be that's so darned inquisitorius—one o' the cook's mates, I shouldn't wonder?"
"No," replied Phil gravely, "I'm rated as a first-class seaman-blacksmith on this ship; and I shall always be glad to do any little job in my line for you."
"A blacksmith!" exclaimed the old chap. "Oh, good Lord! ain't there a tinker, or a paper-'anger, among ye into the bargain?"
"Not this trip, I'm afraid," replied Phil, "although I believe the very big sailers carry them, as also barbers and wire-ropemakers. Now, I'll bet anything you've been stowed away in the Bush these last few years, and have forgotten most of everything you knew about ships, and sailor's work. Do you think, now, you could remember how to turn in a bit of rigging, and tell us which is generally reckoned the best fashion—end-up, or cutter-stay, or dead-eye spliced in?"
The other smiled sourly as he replied: "Never was up the Bush in my life, so you're out of it. An' as for sailorisin', I've forgot more'n you ever larned, Mister Blacksmith—which, o' course, is gammon. An' when it comes to settin' up our riggin', mebbe I'll teach you a wrinkle or two about such matters as dead-eyes, an' turnin'-in lanyards."
"You won't get the chance, I'm afraid," said Phil; "you see we do it all with a turn of the screw here."
And intense was the old man's astonishment when, later on, he actually saw Phil at work with the portable forge making a lever for these same rigging-screws.
But the Iron Earl held many more surprises for the old-time sailor, from the donkey-engine that so rapidly hove the anchor up from the bottom of Neutral Bay, where we had lain for the night, to the steel lower and topmasts all in one, and the numerous patents rigged here and there about the decks.
After a while, we discovered that for many years Grills had been employed as night-watchman at a meat-freezing establishment in one of the outlying Sydney suburbs. Then, all at once, seized with a sudden desire to return to the old life, he had made interest with his firm to procure him a berth which, at his age and unaided, he would probably have otherwise found impossible. As large shippers, they were enabled to do this, although Captain Disney rather objected to the arrangement. He need, however, have had no fears; for the old man proved in a very short time as fit for work as many of the young ones, while his perpetual grumbling as he vented his ire against some "new-fangled fad" was a source of never-failing amusement to all hands.
The tables, and benches, and knives, and forks, and more especially the plates, with which the fo'c'sle was furnished, were a standing grievance to him.
"In my time," he would say, "a biscuit and a sheath-knife were reckoned good enough to eat your meat with; plates for the pea soup, o' course, we had—as was only reasonable—but they was honest tin uns, an' not these henamelled rubbitch what looks so tony wi' a piece o' grannit junk or stinkin' pork on 'em."
And, truth to say, the "tucker" on the Iron Earl was very far from good. Nevertheless, the young ordinary seamen who had been in her since she left Liverpool never complained; nay, they even seemed to thrive and grow fat on the terrible "salt-horse," "high" pig, and coarse, adamantine "bread" served out to us. Even old Grills munched away methodically without any more than a sly remark to the effect that our table reminded him of a time when "sailors was sailors, an' not blacksmiths an' 'ousemaids"; and that if ships themselves had changed, certainly their provisions were much of the same quality. And he actually seemed to feel a pleasure in the fact.
But quite unaccustomed to such fare, Phil and I would have strongly protested, but for that remark of the skipper's about the manners of Australian seamen.
So we held our peace, and subsisted principally upon biscuits and black sugar—so long as the solitary pound per week of the allowance lasted. It was tantalising, though, to see the style in which the English lads made away with rancid slices of pork washed down with vinegar; smashed biscuits up with iron belaying pins, mixed them with salt fat from the cook's slush tub, and then baked and ate a mess sufficient to turn the stomach of a dog on any intercolonial traders. Old Grills, too, seemed to flourish on the food, notwithstanding that for a very long period he must have lived well ashore. He swamped his pork with molasses, of which we were allowed several ounces once a week; and he ate his pea soup thickened with sugar, declaring that such was the only fit and proper fashion.
Anyhow, it all seemed to agree with him wondrously, for he became rejuvenated and sprightly as time passed. Some of the men used to place their pannikinful of sugar in their chests, others stowed it away in a pickle bottle under their pillows, or at the foot of their bunks, keeping the while a wary eye on the precious hoard; for a saint without vegetables will steal sugar.
Of limejuice and vinegar there was, however, a practically unlimited supply in the Iron Earl. And Phil and I got thinner and thinner, while swearing that not for all the combined glories of the Old Country would we ever be induced to sign on in one of her ships again.
On a Saturday we filled ourselves out with boiled rice, or, rather, with the brown, husky stuff that passed for it; and on Sundays we laid the foundation of future internal misery by means of a "duff" composed solely of flour, water, and fat, boiled to the consistency of something very like lead. In these circumstances perhaps "henamelled plates" might well be considered a delusion and a snare.
Nor did the apprentices—who lived with the carpenter, the sailmaker, and the third mate, in a little house further aft—appear to fare much better, except for what they stole from galley and pantry. And, altogether, I was quite satisfied that the stories heard on the coast of how the British sailor was fed on the majority of his own sailing ships, and which I had always regarded as overdrawn, were, on the contrary, quite true.
With our small, light-weight crew, it seemed to us, as well as to old Grills, that in the first blow there must inevitably be trouble. We caught it just after rounding New Zealand on our way to the Horn. Tumbling out to the cry of "All hands shorten sail!" we found that the watch had already got the light stuff in, and that now the upper top-gallantsails and upper-topsails and mainsail were to come off her. It was the first time we had handled her canvas in any wholesale fashion, and some of the "wrinkles" employed as a set-off to the scarcity of men were rather surprising.
Thus, what with clewing-up to the yard-arm in place of to the bunt, and the use of a multiplicity of buntlines, spilling and leachlines—on the mainsail alone there were fifteen—by the time we got aloft the sail was so bound around and enveloped in ropes as to render it comparatively easy to stow without the tremendous exertion once necessary in hauling and tearing at a great weight of canvas, mostly centred in one portion of the yard, and blown stiff and rigid by the holding in its bosom of a small gale of wind.
Aforetime, it used to take many men to drag the bunt of a course on to the yard, a job performed to the sound of a rude chorus of "Hey, hey, hey, yah! we'll pay Johnny Doyle for his boots!" ending in a loud roar with the last word, and a combined tug at the bulk of often sodden canvas, moving the mass perhaps a few inches at a time. This process was repeated again and again, with much expenditure of breath and energy, until the sail was made fast.
Of course, Phil and I were well aware of the modern methods in use. But Grills was not; and stationing himself in the slings of the yard he stood up and prepared his lungs for action, nearly falling over with surprise as the slim roll of canvas met his grasp, while two children-apprentices passed a gasket and secured it, impatiently shrieking at the old man to "shift himself."
The Iron Earl, as we had soon discovered, was a wet ship. And, now, in fairly heavy weather her decks from for'ard right aft to the little poop—"Monkey Island," as we called it—were up to one's knees in a great, wide sweep of white water, over hatches and all else except the capstan on the quarterdeck that some wag called "The Eddystone."
Our doors were barricaded by wash-boards nearly breast-high, which it took considerable practice to climb over in oilskins and sea-boots. Luckily, the numerous bulls'-eyes gave plenty of light in the house, and one could see comfortably to read print in the half-hour before turning over to sleep.
Various ancient magazines, alleged sea novels with the technical errors underlined and very emphatically commented upon, sporting romances, illustrated newspapers, books on navigation, theology, and travel, all found their place in our library—the one spare lower thwartship bunk, packed high with the accumulation of many voyages. Everybody except old Grills and the Dane read omnivorously. The former mounting a pair of silver-rimmed specs would generally sit on a chest and pretend to mend his clothes or his boots before turning in. Not because they required mending, for he had a capital outfit, but because he had done the same thing thirty years ago in his watch below. And he would talk in a low, rumbling tone to the stolid Dane, busy with his knife at shaping a half-model of the Earl, quite content to receive an answering grunt now and again.
Around, in upper and lower bunks, the rest of the watch lay silently reading and smoking; one of them perhaps desisting now and again to listen and chuckle at something like this:
"Aye, Carl, my boy, you b'lieve me, these 'ere half-tide, rotten iron tanks wi' their tawps'ls and t'gants'ls split in two halves, an' paten' this an' paten' that, ain't a patch on the ole frigate-built ships I went to sea in fust. Forty an' fifty men afore the stick they carried, my boy; an' the watch could snug 'em down to a close reef. When it was 'All hands!' in them craft there was somethin' the matter more than a bit of a squall. An' the men was sailormen in them days; not a passel of egg-faced boys as don't know enough among 'em to reeve a double purchase, or even set up a backstay in shipshape fashion. They wastes their time now in readin' rubbitch, instid o' larnin' their duty. Able seamen they'll never make; able loblollyboys and bottlewashers, more like! Aye, aye, I mind when I was quarter-master o' old Dicky Green's Highflyer—"and so on, and so forth.
And all the time the big iron lump plunged her ugly beak into the combers, and scooping up as much water as she could, sent it roaring past the doors to where the watch on deck were collected on the after-hatch under the skidded boats, trying to shelter themselves from the spray that whipped in volleys over the deep ship, and rattled across the roof of the house in which we lay snug and warm among the blankets, until a dreaded voice shouted in accents of joyful anticipation through the barely opened door: "Now then, you sleepers! Eight bells! Time to show a leg on deck!"
And if the herald of discomfort could add that it was raining or sleeting, or that the weather was "worse than ever," so much extra satisfaction came into his cry that he generally got sworn at or warned away with a sea-boot.
But he bears no malice; and, presently reappearing, throws in a heap of partly dried clothes that, by the cook's goodwill, have been steaming in the galley. There are grumbles, and shivers, and grunts, as the things are drawn and dragged over warm flesh; legs and feet shoved into damp stockings and trousers and spongy sea-boots; and, over all, wet and clammy oilskins fastened at waists and wrists by lengths of spun yarn known as "soul-and-body-lashings."
"Whose wheel is it?" asks someone suddenly, his toilet only half completed.
"Why, Bill's," replies another. "I had the two to four. No, by Jingo, it's your own, you flathead! It'll be a ten minutes' relief all right; an' Tom 'll serve you out proper next time."
And the forgetful one after scurrying around frantically, a stocking short, unable to find his mitts, or cursing a mislaid sou'-wester, at last climbs over the wash-board into three feet of icy water, and goes splashing aft to stand his two hours' trick, lucky, indeed, if he escapes a thorough ducking before he gets to the poop ladder.
We are all of us late, and the watch on deck, coming in as we go out, jeer as they peel off their saturated garments and satirically entreat us not to hurry on their account.
"Ugh," grunts one, as we finally struggle aft just in time to meet a more than ordinarily heavy sea that gurgles and eddies and froths level with our knees, "who wouldn't sell a farm an' go to sea!" followed by another with, "The man who'd go to sea for pleasure'd go to h—l for pastime."
"Soft, soft as putty, the lot o' ye," growls old Grills. "Why, when I was your ages I was 'ard as nails, an' took notice o' nothin'. An' dash my ole buttons, if I don't b'lieve I could stand more than most o' ye now."
Indescribably dreary is the scene, as the ship with her white masts and yards, naked, now, but for six dark patches of topsails, and spreading breadth of foresail wet to the reef-band with flying spray, pitches heavily, almost, it seems, burying her fore-staysail into a leaden sea running high under a leaden sky that her reeling royal-masts appear at times almost to sweep.
Aft, the mate paces "Monkey Island," his long oilskin coat flapping in the gale, while to leeward cower three muffled bundles of small apprentices, hands and faces blue with the keen, biting wind, as one or other of them, even thus early in the watch, sneaks a glance at the clock through the companionhood to see how the time is going.
To and fro, backward and forward, rushes the water, swish-swash, foam-foam, gurgle-gurgle at the choking scuppers and clanging ports. Roll and pitch, pitch and roll, stiff as a stone wall, wallows the Iron Earl, four feet deeper than she ought to be, in spite of the "Plimsoll." And when, by any chance, she misses scooping it in forward, she makes amends by taking it in amidships until she is full up to her pinrail.
On the after-hatch, which is partially protected by the apprentices' house, stand the watch, already pretty well soaked, smoking, chewing, gazing reflectively at the seething water, and exchanging at intervals opinions as to the varying degrees of iniquity possessed by the Iron Earl.
To Phil and me it was all quite new, if not interesting. She was our first "wet ship," and as day by day went on bringing the same heavy south-east weather, we swore that she should be the last of her species, so far as we were concerned. The original hands, even the children-apprentices, apparently took a curious kind of perverted pride in her likeness to a half-tide rock, and were accustomed to remark, with an air, that, "it was nothing to what she could do when she tried." But we were more than satisfied with the display already afforded of her abilities. Our clothes were never dry, our boots turned to sponges, our oilskins reverted to their natural hue of grey calico. The decks grew so slimy and slippery that to tread their steep and unstable inclines was like walking on smooth ice. One day, while at the wheel, a thick shower of spray poured down the back of old Grills' neck, and then even that ancient sea-warrior had lost his temper, and all ingrained respect for the place, and to the huge delight of the sea-children, he called the Iron Earl by various names of contumely and despite, placing an unexpected vocabulary of lurid adjectives with the greatest care and attention, while drawing the most offensive parallels between the Earl and the old-time ships; and winding up by declaring that a vessel that wet her helmsman was only fit to serve as a ferry-boat for the devil.
It was amusing to watch the cook with the saloon tucker, during this weather, on his trip from the galley aft. First a wild rush to windward, then a hang on for life to a belaying-pin or a rope, up to his knees in water, then a traverse to the main fife-rail, dish or basin hugged tightly to his breast; then a straight dash for the cabin door where the steward would meet him—if the passage had proved an uncommonly lucky one.
But not seldom the "doctor" would go scooting away into the scuppers, while the watch, always on the qui vive for these excursions, pounced on the provisions almost as soon as they left his hands, and devoured them before he could clear the water out of his eyes. And, once, seeing a great comber about to break its great crest over him, he thrust a pie he was carrying into, of all places in the world, the apprentices' house, crying to them to keep it dry for him. The sea broke, and away went the cook, holding on to the bight of a rope, returning presently to be handed an empty dish and be told by shrill voices to "do it again as soon as you can."
But the captain only laughed when complaints were made; and had some tinned stuff heated at the saloon stove for himself and the mates. Indeed, they all lived poorly enough aft, although, of course, like kings compared with the crew. Nevertheless, a back-blocks Australian settler of the smallest kind would have turned up his nose at the cabin table on board the Iron Earl.
No weather, however, can last for ever; and when the wind, after a long spell of blowing from the way we wished to go, finally shifted and moderated, and we set our "kites," and scraped the green, lichenlike stuff from the decks, and dried our clothes, we soon forgot our trouble as we rolled round "the Corner" and into warmer weather, catching the S.E. Trades early and light.
And, certainly, if we were not overfed, neither were we overworked on this old tramp of a "limejuicer"—as the Americans call the British sailer. For the most part, the watch would be scrubbing paintwork, or making chafing-gear, or spun-yarn. Aloft there was little to do, all the running-gear being new, and the standing rigging of steel wire. Phil got out his forge and made bolts, and hatch-bars, and collars, and such-like truck, while I struck for him; old Grills helped the sailmaker, and spun him long yarns about ancient ships and the superior race that manned them; and the carpenter pottered about some fancy gratings for the wheel.
The mate was a quiet lad who interfered with nobody, so long as they did a fair thing, or appeared to do so. The second mate, younger still, followed his superior's lead; and the third was one of the juveniles in the "Ark," as we now called their house, and did nothing at all, in common with his colleagues.
The captain seldom spoke to anybody; when not reading he was busy making mats with all sorts of coloured Berlin wool. Indeed, a quieter ship's company it would be very difficult to imagine; and, altogether, if we could have managed a square feed once a day, Phil and I would have rather enjoyed the trip, notwithstanding the dirty, wet time we had come through, and which we knew we might expect a repetition of by and by.
In spite of her great sail area, so heavy and so deep in the water was the Iron Earl, that, except with half a gale on the quarter, or right aft, her log seldom showed more than eight knots. But, anyhow, her lines were too coarse for speed; she was built emphatically as a carrier, her huge interior taking a cargo that, even at the low freights ruling, left a fair margin of profit owing to the mere force of quantity. Thus a possible passage of four months or so gave her master little uneasiness, although to the skippers of the dashing little clippers of the 'seventies and early 'eighties, racing home with the new wool clip, anything over ninety days was a catastrophe. But the tramp steamer has killed the clipper; and the modern sailer, to make up for the disparity in speed, has to be capable of stowing away an enormous cargo. Hence, too, the pinched economy visible in the victualling and manning of the average deep-water sailing ship.
We two Australians, accustomed to comparatively short voyages, swift craft, and "full and plenty" as regards the commissariat, soon began to feel the slow "come-day-go-day, God-send-Sunday" sort of hunger-and-ease existence, monotonous in the extreme, long ere we reached the line. Always the empty sea; always the same dull routine, unenlivened by incident of any kind. Not a vessel had we sighted since leaving Sydney; we seemed deserted, doomed to go on for ever, flopping along across the lonely ocean without reaching our destination in the shape of "any port in the United Kingdom," or elsewhere.
Often at sea after a dull, uneventful spell, I have noticed that something more or less lively is pretty sure to happen. It was so in this instance. But the break took the shape of perhaps one of the most extraordinary and shocking accidents that ever befell a ship and left survivors to tell the story.
At this time we were 10° south; had lost the Trades; and were idly drifting hither and thither, waiting for a "slant" of wind, and box-hauling our yards around to catch the lightest airs, which, when we got them, produced no more effect upon the Iron Earl than if she had been the Peak of Teneriffe.
Still, it was the correct thing to do, just as though she had been an Aberdeen greyhound with a reputation to preserve for making passages, and never losing steerage way. Therefore, the mates solemnly wetted their fingers and held them up to detect draughts, and gazed as anxiously at the dog-vane, and worked the braces, pulley-hauley night and day, and pretended to be ignorant of what was patent to the youngest of the sea-children, which was that the ship when she wasn't going round after her own tail, was making a broadside passage towards South America.
One hot afternoon, Phil at the wheel, dozing across the spokes, the skipper in a long chair under the awning, deep in a book, and myself and old Grills putting some new ratlines in the mizzen-rigging, I happened to glance over my shoulder to port. Then I rubbed my eyes, stared again, and yelled like a madman.
By reason of the awning-wings, cut like a steamer's, neither the captain nor the officer of the watch could see what I saw, and what old Grills, to starboard, presently saw also, and screamed at in a long quavering treble.
Not a quarter of a mile away, advancing quite silently upon the ship, was a rounded wall of water coming deliberately and stealthily over the quiet sea surface, overlapping the Iron Earl at each end, and apparently almost as high as her lower mast-heads.
Under the blue sky and the hot sun it rolled along, a hideous, unnatural spectacle, as if propelled by some hidden power behind it—a huge, black, unbroken hill of water making straight for us. At sound of my cry and the old sailor's, the captain dropped his book, and with the mate ran aft to the stern. Phil straightened up and stared with them, while the rest of the watch pottering with sand and canvas about the quarter-deck paintwork, rushed to the rail, and from there I saw them, after one glance, bolt like so many rabbits into the fo'c'sle.
"Phil! Phil!" I roared, "come aloft!" and leaving the wheel to look after itself, my mate leaped into the rigging, followed almost instantly by the captain and the chief officer. Not before it was time either, for already the shadow of the advancing roller was on our decks. Old Grills was in the topmast crosstrees, the others in the mizzen-top. Pausing a moment before climbing the futtock-shrouds, I looked down.
The ship seemed deserted except for a small boy who came on to the main-hatch, and, heedless of our shouts, stood stupidly staring at the wall of water. I noticed the cook pop a white-capped head out of the galley, withdraw it quickly, and shut the door with a slam. There was a low, incessant, ominous, buzzing noise in the air as if a monstrous circular saw was at work close to.
As I climbed into the top I heard the captain exclaim: "Good Lord deliver us!" and as he spoke the wave struck the ship along her whole length at a height of almost half-way up the lower rigging. And as it struck it broke, blotting out everything in one wild mass of seething water and foam, while the Iron Earl went over gradually on to her beam-ends, and stayed there all quivering, with her lower yardarms well in the water.
It was a matter of the greatest difficulty for us to hold on in the confined space, small enough at any time for four men to stand on, let alone now, when nearly perpendicular, and with the same number lying upon it and clawing at its rim and the topmast rigging, while beneath us churning and smashing went on, very horrible to listen to. We could, however, see nothing; for as we hung there, great clouds of warm, evil-smelling vapour arose from amid the hurly-burly, enveloping the whole ship.
"She's on fire!" shouted Phil, who was lying with his legs across my back.
"'Tain't fire, blacksmith," remarked a voice from somewhere above us. "Can't you tell smoke from steam yet? It's a seaquake, that's what it is. An' a rum un! Likewise call me a soger if we ain't ashore on top of a stinking wolcaner! Felt her bump just now, didn't ye?"
And, indeed, we had all experienced the movement old Grills referred to, but in our alarm and bewilderment had passed no comment upon it, accepting it as merely a detail of the whole dreadful and inexplicable happening.
Meanwhile, the great wave which had worked us such appalling mischief seemed to have broken and vanished, although around us we could hear through the thick and stifling atmosphere strange sounds of rushing waters, as we hung like flying foxes to our precarious refuge, expecting each moment to be hurled to destruction. Still, there was no wind, and it was dreadful to lie there in suspense, and be able to see nothing but the dense cloud of vapour, accompanied now by a medley of sharp, hissing sounds. Something extraordinary and awful, we knew, was taking place, but what it was we could not even guess. Suddenly the ship settled over still farther, gave a few uneasy bumps and shivers, and then lay quite motionless. She was now nearly on her bilge; and without any doubt lying on some hard substance.
"Old Grills is right, I fancy," said the skipper. "It must be a submarine earthquake, or something of the kind. But where are all my poor people?" and he stared wildly through the now lightening mist.
"Stinks o' sulphur an' brimstin', don't it?" remarked old Grills, coughing violently, as he swung himself from where he had been crouching flat in the topmast rigging, and joined us in the mizzen-top. "I seen much the same sort o' thing when I was on the China coast in the ole Euryalus. A darned island came up all a-smokin' and a-sweatin' just astara of us. This time I reckon it ruz right under us. Anyhow, I'm off to discover what terry-firmy's like, an' if any o' my mates is left, which I'm somehow doubtin'—wuss luck. Anybody a-comin'?"
The calmness and courage of this ancient seaman acted upon us like a tonic, and without a word we followed him on to the lower rigging, slipping and scrambling along it until we presently stood choking and coughing on the port rail, peering eagerly through the haze. But we could see nothing. It was much thicker down here than aloft. Outboard, too, it hung like a fog upon the water. Holding on to the rail, we started to crawl along the ship's side.
Phil and I had ventured some distance in this fashion, and nearly exhausted by fumes and heat had come to a halt, when all at once there sprung up a puff of wind, followed by another, and then quite a little breeze arose, blowing the smoky vapour away to leeward like a dark cloud, and revealing to our scared and astonished gaze the full extent of the catastrophe.
Upon the ship's decks scarcely a thing was left standing. Houses, boats, galleys, donkey-engine, hatches, capstans, skylights—all had vanished. Even the pumps had been uprooted and swept through the bulwarks, of which only a solitary stanchion appeared here and there, along their whole length.
To port they had suffered less. But the ruin wrought by the rush of that terrific roller was hideous; and we stared appalled at the great breaches in the deck where so recently had stood houses filled with our lost shipmates.
And now where were they all? The answer was only too clear. Bruised and broken, hurled like straws against those iron plates, washed overboard, dashed hither and thither under the tremendous mass of water that had twisted three-inch davits into corkscrews, and swept as bare as one's hand the decks of a great ship.
Nor were any weird accessories lacking to the tragedy; for gradually, as the air cleared, we perceived through the sea around us, that still seethed and bubbled, dark-brown rocks not more than four feet below the surface; and upon these the Iron Earl lay like some huge, dead leviathan, the sun glinting on her lead-coloured body and red bottom, her bent and crumpled yards and white masts with all their equipment of rope and canvas lying stretched out across the sea as if in a last agony of hopeless appeal.
From her main-royal truck to the water could not have been more than twenty feet, at so sharp an incline did she lie over.
Suddenly the mate exclaimed: "Look, the sea's leaving us!"
And, indeed, it appeared so, as with more sulphurous hissing, and smoking, and bubbling, it flowed away from the rocks, leaving them exposed to view, steaming and evidently hot.
"'Tis the tother way about," said old Grills, as we scrambled across the main rigging again, and sat staring at this phenomenon. "The land's bein' hysted out o' the sea. That's what the matter. This 'ere island's a-gettin' born, an' a d—d miscarriage is a-takin' place to celebrate the ewent!"
And, sure enough, we actually watched the rocks rising gradually on both sides of us until they and the ship stood quite four feet clear of the surface. Also, owing to the fact that the land rose higher to starboard than to port, it lifted the Iron Earl into a somewhat more upright position, although still far too steep a one to allow of walking on her decks. Altogether, when the movements ceased there might have been visible two acres of hot rocks, honeycombed with basins full of yellowish mud which smelled vilely.
Everything now became for a time very quiet. Old ocean had ceased her labour and brought forth a remarkably ugly and dangerous child. The noise of water streaming out of the upper topsails made us jump again, so strained were our nerves by the dire events of the last hour.
With the aid of ropes we presently lowered ourselves on to the ground, surely the first ever trodden by man. It was still hot underfoot, and we stood awe-stricken alongside the great red keel, and saw how it was all furrowed and fractured from stem to bow. The rock was soft in places, and the weight of her now began to bed the ship in it to the accompaniment of crackling, tearing, noises of rivets drawing and plates rending. Also, running vertically up her side was a wide-open seam from portions of which water poured in volumes. And through this great fissure we saw, like strata in some geological formation, sections of her cargo; at the bottom the ingots of smelted lead, upon these again bags of nickel ore, then casks of tallow and of cocoanut oil, and, last of all, the wool.
But as we looked, the iron plates tore asunder, slowly crumpling like stiff cardboard; the fissure ever increasing in width, while both ends of the ship seemed to give way and sink as the centre of her rose; and we fled to the outer limit of the islet, fancying that she was going to burst into fragments before our eyes. It was dreadful to watch a big ship in her death throes, breaking her back in such uncanny fashion.
And this was what was happening to the Iron Earl; riding as she was amidships on a pivot of solid rock with much softer stuff at each end. As we stared, she very deliberately, after one long shivering crackle, turned completely on her side, keel in air, while to starboard we could hear the yards and masts bending and breaking in one vast, ruinous medley as her weight came upon them.
After a while, walking round, and climbing over the debris, we got on board, and making our way into the saloon we, with much difficulty, got some tinned provisions and biscuits out of one of the lockers in the pantry. Very fortunately, too, one of the two water tanks, which were fixtures on each side of the quarter-deck, had been thrown out upon the island; and, though dented, the lid was still in the manhole, so we were able to procure a very much-needed drink.
By this time the sea was low; and we went "ashore," and began to eat in a half-hearted manner, saying little, pausing between mouthfuls to stare seaward, or up at the torn and broken carcase of our late home in a sort of incredulous wonder that such an outrageous misfortune could actually have happened us. The loss, too, so sudden and terrible, of all our shipmates had completely taken the heart out of us.
Presently the captain, after eating a little, got up and began to walk to and fro with bowed head and arms hanging loosely. Phil was in the dumps; and the young chief mate began to speak mournfully of the lost men, and of what our own chances were.
"This here wolcaner," remarked old Grills, who appeared the least troubled of us all, and chewed with relish at the cabin biscuits, "might flop down to where he come from any minute. An' he might have come to stay perm'nent; and when settled he might start burstin' out a-fire. But I reckon, now, as he ain't one o' them sort. He's just an island settin' on top o' the funnel that comes up from below. It's hard to say, just yet, what his little game is.
"Raft!"—in reply to a suggestion of the mate's—" why, sir, there ain't enough timber about her to build one. Our best chance, I expeck, is to light her up before it gets too dark, an' trust to some ship a-sightin' of us."
"A good idea," said the captain. "We'll go aboard and get every lamp and lantern we can lay hold of. Oil we can't very well run short of. And we are right in the track of South American traders."
So, getting to work we started on our search, and as luck would have it, we found the lamp-locker situated, as it was, well under the fo'c'sle-head, intact, and its contents practically undamaged. These we trimmed and lit, and secured here and there about the wreck. Also, after much toil, we broke out and broached a cask of cocoanut oil, and soaked lumps of sail-cloth in it, ready to light a flare at a minute's notice. Then, after dividing the night into four watches, of which I took the first, my companions stretched themselves on the mizzen stay-sail which we had unbent and thrown on the rocks.
And, surely, one of the strangest look outs ever seaman kept was mine that night!
So as to be as high above the sea as possible, I had chosen a place on the ship herself where the topsides tumbled home nearly as flat as a wall; and there I paced continuously to and fro, keeping a bright look out on each hand.
Twenty feet below I could hear the wavelets gently lip-lapping against the new shore so wonderfully raised in mid-ocean, while my ears, do what I would, kept ever open for the first sign that should herald its return to the depths from which it had sprung. On one side I could see dimly the forms of my shipmates laid out like corpses as they slept motionless, overcome with fatigue and strain. On the other side lay the tangled mass of spars and gear, with here a yard-arm sticking up, and there a pallid curtain of canvas that at times rustled to a heavier air than usual. Red, green, and white lights twinkled through the darkness, looking eerily out of place with their past significance.
Beneath my feet as I gazed down to port, grasping the life-line we had rigged fore and aft for the man on watch, the deck fell sheer; and it gave me a strange, sick feeling to stand there and stare at the spot among the other vacant ones, marked only by a few stanchions, where once I had eaten, and slept, and yarned, and growled so many watches away in company with those lost ones; and where, now, instead of the lights and laughter, and perhaps the sobbing and squeaking of a concertina in the dog-watch, were merely deep gloom and darkness, and strange, creeping noises rising from the interior of the dead ship, and smiting alarmingly on the stillness of the night.
Altogether, so hideously grotesque, weird, and unnatural was the scene, that when I descended and called the chief mate, whose relief it was, I did not wonder that, when fully awakened, he jumped to his feet, and clutched my arm, and glared wildly around and about him, and exclaimed: "My God, Ward, I thought it was all a dream!"
At dawn we were hard at work in the attempt to construct some kind of a raft. Not that we meant to abandon the ship so long as we could stick to her. But in heavy weather, and at so slight an elevation, we only too easily pictured to ourselves the great waves striking her and lifting her bodily off the island. Nor, in the permanence of the latter had we much faith.
After working hard all the morning, we could have wept when we came to reckon up the material collected with not a little peril and difficulty. Cabin doors, and some flimsy woodwork, a few small tables, and odds and ends of settees, for the most part useless, represented the sum total of our efforts. We had no tools, or we might have done something with the wooden topgallant and royal-masts. But these were so smashed and splintered as to be of little use in any case. However, we persevered, and at nightfall we had put together a nondescript sort of affair that made old Grills promptly express his intention of "drownding decent" rather than trust himself to it.
Very fortunate for us was the fact of our misfortune having overtaken us in the "Doldrums," a spot where for weeks, even months, almost utter calm prevails.
That night I had the middle watch. It was excessively dark, so dark, indeed, that I had to keep a hand constantly on the life-line as I moved slowly along the iron plates heated by the day's sun, eagerly scanning the ocean, ready at the first twinkle of a ship's light to set fire to the beacon which we had piled up at the farther extremity of our islet.
I was tired after all the hard, wet work; and remember filling my pipe and sitting on the rail for a minute's rest and a smoke. But I must have dropped to sleep, for, all at once, I awakened to the sound of many voices hailing.
Springing to my feet, I saw a steamer's lights not a quarter of a mile away from the northern end of the islet.
To let myself down the rope set ready for the purpose, was the work of a minute, to rush to the heap of oiled canvas and fire it was the work of another.
Then, as the flame burst out, I roused my still soundly sleeping mates with wild shouts and pushes.
And as they stood up bewildered, we could hear the cheeping through their blocks of a boat's falls; then suddenly a blue light from the ship cast a ghostly glare over the strange scene, disclosing a big black steamer with a tall funnel as straight as a factory chimney, a high forward bridge, bows as sharp as a knife, groves of gaping ventilators here and there about her decks, and on her fo'c'sle head a crowd of exclaiming, pointing people, from whom, as the full significance of the thing struck them, arose a perfect yell of astonishment. She turned out to be the Maldonado, of Liverpool, bound to Monte Video, deep with salt and railway iron. Taking us off at once, we were shown every attention on board her. Then, standing by until morning, her captain, after careful observations, continued on his course.
A week later we entered the South American port; and on the same day H.M.S. Campaspe was dispatched on an expedition of discovery; but, as we heard afterwards, she failed utterly in her quest.
Nor on that trip, at any rate, did we see any of the famous sights of London. On the contrary, we worked our way back to Australia in the first vessel that served, an old barque called the Morning Star, flying the Hawaiian flag. She was fifty years of age, honeycombed with dry rot; made a foot of water each watch; and, flying light in ballast, sailed mostly on her sides. But she took us home in time, safe and sound, and very thankful.
"Oh, bother the Goodooga, I'm tired to death of all this zigzag business. I want to get home!" exclaimed Phil Scott, as he and I stood on the deck of the Kaurangi, and watched her turn slowly on her tail, bringing the distant loom of Flinders Island from the port bow right astern.
"Well, but think of the prize we're looking for," said a friendly fellow-passenger, a captain of H.M. Navy. "No wonder the Union Company has given its masters a free hand to and fro the Tasman Sea. Why, if I were at liberty I'd charter a vessel and join in the search myself. And, do you know, I believe I could lay my hands upon her within a degree or two."
"It's more than anyone else can, then," I remarked. "Forty-two days drifting about; all sorts and conditions of craft searching, and not one of them able to spot her except some sailing-ships that were not looking for her. However, there's the dinner bugle. Come along. More days, more meals."
We were returning, my partner and I, from a short holiday in Tasmania. It was the first spell we had taken since starting in Port Endeavour as shipping agents and brokers. Not that we had been kept too busy, far from it; but that, so far, funds had not run to even the brief trip that every good Cookslander takes at least once in his lifetime, to climb Mount Wellington and explore the glories of the Huon and the vanishing ruins of Port Arthur of gruesome memory. Truth to tell, there were too many of our trade in Endeavour, and when we finally shut up shop, put all our available cash together, and resolved, come what might, to make holiday, we had the barren consolation of being certain that our departure would scarcely be noticed.
Both of us had followed the sea, and for some years had tempted fortune in company, both afloat and ashore, with no results worth speaking of. This, however, had been our first attempt at "business," and it promised to be our last. Phil had said after returning from a trip on which the pair of us had nearly lost the number of our mess: "Now look here, Harry, there's nothing in this seafaring. It's the chaps who stay ashore that make the money."
"But," I objected, "we know nothing of 'business,' Phil, and we're bound to be taken down all round by those who do."
Phil replied with supreme contempt, "What can they take us down for?"
And as there was no answer possible to this question, we forthwith invested our modest capital of a ten-pound note in the hire of an office and the purchase of two chairs and a table. As my mate said: "If there's one thing we are up in from A to Z it's ships. Therefore, the 'business' must have something to do with them."
So we stuck up a sign reading "Ward and Scott, Shipping Agents and Marine Brokers." "But why 'marine,' Phil?" I asked. "Rounds the thing off," replied he with a grin. "Makes the 'brokers' less suggestive, so to speak."
However, there we sat, long waiting for custom that never came. But, at last, by the merest fluke, we made a modest rise; and, tired of "business," we determined to have at least one small good time, if we never had another, before shaking the land-dust off our feet and taking to the sea once more.
The Kaurangi on this trip was full of people interested in the fruit industry; and the talk fore and aft was mainly of fruit—"small," "stone," and "pulp." Decent folk enough; but impossible to get away from their one subject of which they were so full, morning, noon, and night.
The naval man with whom we had chummed was a fine specimen of the finest service in the world, and wholly devoid of the "side" so often put on by many of his contemporaries when abroad. He told us he had been staying with some squatting friends at Deloraine, and was now, his leave up, returning to join H.M. third-class cruiser Mildura, then lying at Port Endeavour.
As for the Goodooga, whose prolonged disappearance was the talk of the day throughout Australasia, she was a five thousand ton steamer that had broken her propeller-shaft between Endeavour and Otago, and for weeks had been playing a sort of involuntary ocean hide-and-seek game with all the craft that, enticed by hopes of salvage, had set out in search of her.
Now and again a sailer would speak her helplessly drifting, and be asked to report "all well," and, once, a big four-master, greatly daring, had taken her in tow. But after being butted by the derelict in some heavy weather that came on, and losing a lump off her port quarter, she resigned the contract in disgust. Curiously enough, no steamers could ever pick her up, and she was as illusive as the Flying Dutchman, disappearing speedily from where she was last sighted, and then being no more heard of for weeks together.
She had lately been re-insured to the tune of sixty per cent; and finally posted as overdue. She was then over a month out on a five days' passage. Just at this time, a small schooner sighted and spoke the big wanderer about the centre of the Tasman Sea. But after the attempted tow by the disgruntled Floradora, weeks went by without any tidings—terrible weeks of storm, and it was generally thought that she must either have foundered, or been driven ashore on the wild New Zealand coast, when another vessel spoke her in the Tasman Sea, still reporting "all well."
Then silence and uncertainty for two months, during which time scores of intercolonial steamers went many miles out of their course, just as we were doing now, in hopes of securing the prize.
Coming on deck after dinner, we found the Kaurangi still heading away to the eastward, and dipping her nose into a nasty tumble of a cross sea, while the weather looked decidedly threatening.
As it became dark, and we were adjourning to the smoke-room for our customary game of cards, far away on the starboard bow a rocket rose high in the air and burst, sending out stars of coloured fire.
All at once, there was a roar of "there she is!" from the long promenade deck of the Kaurangi, as the passengers rushed excitedly to and fro, and climbed upon the piles of fruit-cases stacked for'ard in their efforts to obtain a wider look out.
In a minute rocket after rocket rose from our steamer, blue lights flared from her tall bridge, her siren trumpeted with the voice of a mad elephant, while from the trembling of the deck underfoot one could easily feel that the engines had been suddenly put at full speed.
"It can't be the Goodooga," said our naval friend, Captain Carew. "She's coming towards us at a good twelve knots, I should think. I'm afraid it's a case of mutual chicken-counting. Besides, according to my reckoning, the missing ship is very much farther to the northward and eastward than where we now are—always assuming that she's still afloat."
Presently, as the stranger rapidly approached, our engines slowed down, and in a few minutes a sturdy paddle-wheel vessel was tossing and tumbling alongside, evidently handled by a man who well knew what he was about.
"Thought you was the Goodooga," hailed a voice from the new-comer.
"No, the Kaurangi," we replied. "Who are you? when we saw your signals we thought for a while that you were the Goodooga."
"We're the Stormcock—tug from Auckland. Come right across from Maria Van Dieman. Not a sign of the Goodooga. Been out a fortnight. Going home now. Well, so long."
And off she churned into the darkness, shaking the phosphorus in great flakes from her floats, and leaving a glowing wake behind her as broad as a street.
That night, after our cards, and over a whisky, Carew drew a little chart, and marked upon it the area within which he thought the wanderer's drift had taken her, and where, if he was approximately correct, she might remain until the arrival of the south-east monsoons, a month or so hence.
"You see," said he, "these coasting chaps are altogether too keen on 'prevailing winds'; they rather neglect taking the currents into their calculations. Nor are the average of them very well up on the subject, except to be roughly aware of the general set at certain points along the coast. Of the ocean currents and their vagaries and variations they know little or nothing. But in the Mildura we've done a big lot of surveying and charting during the past twelve months and I fancy that the Goodooga, if she's to be found at all, is not fifty miles away from where I make this pencil mark. Of course, I may be wrong, but that's my private notion at any rate."
Phil looked earnestly at the half-sheet of note-paper, and then asked if he might keep it.
"Certainly," replied the captain, smiling. "Thinking about having a shot for the salvage yourself, eh?"
"In a minute," said Phil, "if I could only see my way clear to do so?"
"Four hundred pounds would be plenty," remarked my partner, after we had turned into our bunks for the night. "We could charter some sort of a steamer for that, right enough, and have a bid for the big money. Look here, Harry," he continued with energy, "I believe that chap Carew knows what he's talking about. Now I come to think of it, I remember hearing that he's no end of a clever scientific swell, a regular Maury at tides and currents and such-like. Didn't the Admiral send him to discover what had become of the Guano Island in the Western Pacific that everybody swore had disappeared? And he found it, too, when a whole crowd of alleged navigators had failed."
"Well, well," I replied, yawning, "I don't suppose we could muster four hundred pence between us, so turn out the light like a good chap, and go to sleep, and dream of all the commissions we're going to get during the coming year."
At this there arose bad language from the lower bunk, with for its object the unappreciative public of Endeavour.
As a matter of fact, the "rise" that had enabled us to take our holiday had been made by the sale of an old ship that her owner had put into our hands because nobody else thought the "business" worth having.
And chance led us to hit on a customer who wanted a coal hulk at once. So we got our commission, and, as has been seen, determined in sailor-like fashion to celebrate fittingly such a unique event. We recognised the occasion as one we might never have the chance of again experiencing. Therefore, we spent our fifty pounds almost to the last penny in what was the first pleasure excursion of our lives as "paying guests" at sea.
On our return to Endeavour we found that the fate of the Goodooga was still the chief subject of interest, superior, for the moment, even to the doings of the Australian cricketers in England.
"Of course, she's a moral for Scones," was the public opinion, when the discussion turned as to who would be most likely to pick her up in case she was still above water.
Scones was the owner of five fine, powerful tugs, and he had them all out, with instructions to their skippers, so it was said, to find the Goodooga or be prepared for the "sack."
A keen, shrewd, unscrupulous Irish-American, he had secured a monopoly of the towing business of the port; and, having made his "pile," he was enabled mercilessly to boycott the feeble opposition that arose at intervals.
Phil had gone direct to the G.P.O. from the ship in order to unlock our private box, and, as he said jeeringly, "to deal with all the business orders that had accumulated during our absence."
Half an hour later he burst into my bedroom at our boarding-house in a state of repressed but evident excitement.
"Hello!" I exclaimed, "many important communications for the firm that need instant attention?"
"Yes," said he, laughing, "the bottom's fallen out of the old Desdemona—the ship we had sold, and made our fifty pounds commission on. She collapsed and sunk in the river with three hundred tons of coal on board. And now Murch is furious; and he wants his money back. Says he was swindled.
"But I've got better news than that, Harry," he went on, flourishing a letter. "My good old Aunt Mary, who died in Brisbane, just before we left for our trip, has left me three hundred and fifty pounds. It's in the Bank of Carpentaria this very minute, waiting for us. And now we'll go and find the Goodooga."
"Rubbish," I said; "put it into the 'business,' Phil, and let's turn to in earnest, and try and work a connection up."
"Work up your grandmother," he retorted, making a hideous grimace, "neither of us are cut out for this sort of thing. We're shellbacks all the time; and don't you forget it. You know you're as dead sick as I am of smoodging to people for permission to sell all sorts of rotten stuff for them that nobody'll ever buy; and if they do buy won't pay for, or will go for us like old Murch, and say we cheated them. It's a low-down game, that's what it is, unless you're 'way up top enough to make it pay by getting respectable deals. No, I won't put a cent into it. The Goodooga or a bust-up! Make a spoon or spoil a horn!"
"All right, my son," I replied, "it's your picnic."
"That's so," answered Phil; "only, of course, it's share and share alike, just as it's always been, if the thing turns up trumps. Come along to old Tom Cook, and see what he'll let us have one of his ships for."
Tom Cook was one of those misguided people who had been bold enough to imagine that the towing work of the port would furnish forth a livelihood for yet another besides Hiram Scones. So he had put the matter to the test by buying two tugs with money made at stevedoring, and then attempting to compete with the big man. But the latter was too strong for the interloper; and when the American's tugs were not purposely running foul of Cook's boats, and making work for the dock people, they were, by reason of their superior speed, snapping ships up from under their very noses.
So Cook, in despair, presently abandoned towing, and used his tugs for carting coal around the harbour to the gas company, and to small coasting steamers. He was an elderly man with a red, wrinkled face fringed with grimy, grey whiskers; amidships spread a nose like a huge scarlet strawberry; and his little, keen, blue eyes twinkled knowingly when he learned our errand.
"Aye," said he, "I s'pose it's the Goodooga you're arter, Mr Scott. But I'm feared it's a moral for that pig, Scones. Still, there's the 'Ercules there with her bunkers full o' the best Waratah, and thirty or forty bags on her deck. I knowed you when you was mate o' the Argyle, brig, out o' Melbourne. An' I knows I can trust you with her. An', because o' that, I'll let you 'ave 'er cheaper nor I would anybody else in Endeavour. I'll charter you the ship, an' chuck the coals in—for you'll want 'em—for, say, ninety quid a week. That's a dead bargain. Come aboard an' 'ave a squint at the little beauty, gentlemen."
"Do you think she'll pull the Goodooga, if we are lucky enough to find her, Mr Cook?" I asked unguardedly as we stepped on board the Hercules, a good-sized tug of some one hundred and twenty tons or so, with a sharp bow cocked knowingly in the air, a rusty funnel raking aft, and a solitary mast inclined in the same direction, giving the craft with her sharp, high nose, and weather-worn sides, a comically dissipated, devil-may-care appearance. Everywhere about her was coal; and the dust of it lay thick on deckhouse and bridge.
"Pull!" exclaimed the old man, as his moist eyes rested suspiciously on my face. "Pull! Why, she'd pull the Great Heastern, oncest she got a fair grip on 'er."
"My friend, Mr Ward—Mr Cook," said Phil, laughing. "He was out here more than once, chief in the Andromeda—you'll remember her, I dare say."
"Aye, aye," muttered the old chap, "I mind 'er fine, though I never 'ad naught to do wi' 'er."
Then, in an audible aside to Phil, he added: "Wot can ye expect these wind-jammer coves to know about steam, ennyhow; fellers as can't tell triple-expansion from compoun'-condensin', an' thinks the bridge-telegraft's a sort o' paten' log?" And thenceforward he neglected me entirely as a despised and ignorant sailing-ship man, giving all his attention to Phil.
"O' course," he said, "ye'll do yer own skipperin'. There's three deck 'ands an' a cook, two firemen, an' two hengineers. So, all ye've got to do is to shove the stores aboard, an' git away by midnight cumfably."
"Not at your price, I'm afraid, Mr Cook," said Phil, who had been allowing the old man full rope. "I'd like to have the boat well enough, and perhaps, with the coal, the figure's not too high; but I think, as cash is not very plentiful just at present, I'll have to look for something smaller. Why, at your figure I should not have enough left to pay wages, let alone to buy stores. There's Brown's Mystery, now. She's laid up, and I dare say I could manage—"
"To go down with 'er fust sort o' 'eavy weather you meet," interrupted old Cook, screwing his wrinkles till they seemed to form a corrugation of red ridges all over his face.
"Now, lookee 'ere, Mr Scott," he said, after a pause, "if it's only in 'opes o' some crischen gittin' the Goodooga, instid o' that there cannibal of a Scones, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll let you 'ave 'er for heighty. An' I'll put the stores on 'er—blarmed if I don't! Then, if your luck's in, we can let the horiginal price stand. I can't say fairer nor that, can I?"
"It's a bargain," replied Phil, after a minute's calculation. "I suppose we'd better have it in black and white."
"Nothin' like it," said the other with ready acquiescence, extending a huge, hairy, coal-dusty paw and grasping my mate's hand, before leading the way into his dingy office. And such expedition was made during the remainder of the day, that long before midnight we were steaming down Endeavour Harbour.
But with all our haste and secrecy, the purpose of the charter had somehow leaked out, and, among others, Scones himself came down to the wharf to see us off. Apparently the tug-owner did not fancy us having a finger in what he looked upon as his own particular pie. "I guess you chaps 'll about hev your trouble for nawthin'!" he remarked to me sourly. "You kin pritty surely go your dollars on it thet one o' my boats has got hitched on to her afore this."
"Some of the New Zealand tugs are just as likely to have a say in the business," I replied, "and I suppose anybody's at liberty to try their luck."
"Well, I reckon so, mister," he answered; "only it's fair tellin' that if you drop across any o' my boats you needn't expec' assistance in any sort o' way whatsomever. They've got their orders."
"You might wait till we ask for it, Mr Scones," put in Phil, just then coming up in time to hear the warning. "And, by the way," he added, "there's one of your boats just reported in tow of another. She's off the Cat and Kittens now, and they say her shaft is broken. Two from four leaves two, doesn't it? which narrows the chances down a bit. And—" But the other rushed away swearing, without waiting to hear any more.
"There'll be vacant billets in tugs presently," remarked Phil with a laugh. "But, I say, Harry," he went on, "I was on the Mildura this afternoon, showing Carew my amended calculations, based on the ones he gave us, you remember, and after approving them, he lent me one of his own sextants and a real bobby-dazzler of a telescope. He's a good sort, and no mistake about it!"
Later on, we had reason to repeat this statement very emphatically.
Clearing Cape Endeavour, we shaped an east-by-south course, and the tug proving herself a lively sea boat, soon began to perform unwonted ablutions in the rough water outside.
All day long we kept a look out from a crow's-nest rigged at the top of the stout pole-mast, and made out of a cask. All night long at regular intervals we burned blue lights, and sent rockets soaring skyward.
Once or twice we saw sailing-ships and spoke them. But none could give us any tidings of the Goodooga. When a week out, we ran into heavy weather, gale after gale coming from the eastward to meet us, and giving the Hercules such a battering as she had probably seldom or never before received. But she came through it well. We soon found, however, that she was a fearful devourer of coal; thus, despite our big supply, we realised that we should have to be very careful.
And without a doubt, in bad weather, this searching business was a very trying one. For days together our oilskins were never off; there was not a dry spot in the boat save the engine-room, while often during the fierce squalls she was enveloped from bow to stern in sheets of flying foam, among which the sole visible object was the top of her reeling funnel.
One day, re-crossing the area that Carew had charted for us, we met the Rodney, one of Scones' tugs, towing a French barque with nothing standing above her topmasts, and with such a list as plainly showed that her cargo had shifted almost bodily.
The weather had moderated, and we managed to get close enough to put the inevitable question.
"No," bawled the tug-master, "T ain't seen her, an' I ain't goin' to look no more. She's gone down this time, all right. However, half a loaf's better'n no bread. This is good enough for me," and he waved his hand towards his prize, and forged ahead with tautening hawser.
Phil began to get downhearted. He had placed such implicit faith in Carew's calculations; and yet here we were, more than a fortnight out, and with no sign of the derelict. Nor could I give him any comfort. Indeed, my private opinion was that, if she had not gone down, she had been picked up—and much farther to the southward.
"However," said Phil, "we've got one corner to look at still left. The last triangle of the lot," and he pointed to a spot on the chart lying well to the northward of Lord Howe Island.
"If she's not there," said he forlornly, "then it will be high time to make back again—if we have enough coal to run the contract. Really, Harry, we ought to return at once. But I don't like to let the least chance slip. As it is, it will be deuced hard to go back after putting in all the hard bullocking we have. Never mind," he concluded more cheerfully, "it's all in a lifetime! Tell Mac to go canny with the black diamonds. We're quartering a big paddock, and it's no use rushing things, or maybe we'll get bailed up in it until old Cook comes out to find us."
Two days later we had left Mount Gower on our starboard hand, a faint blue cone in the far distance; and then we zigzagged to and fro in fine, warm weather for nearly a week. Then, convinced that it was useless delaying any longer, we turned the tug's head homeward. We were dispirited and weary, and intent only on sighting some vessel from which we could borrow coal, for we had hung on so long that our supply was perilously near an end.
Hard luck though everybody on board felt our failure to be, there was almost a sense of relief when, in token of entirely relinquished efforts, the crow's-nest was unrigged, the look out abandoned, and the nights untroubled by firework displays. Indeed, as with the coal, we had almost exhausted our stock of these.
What with rough weather, and the ceaseless vigilance kept up night and day throughout the wide area of sea we had set out to search, and had searched more or less thoroughly, crossing and recrossing it from corner to corner, we were all badly in want of a spell. Fortunately the weather had now set in fine, and casting aside our worn oilskins we lay about in the sun and warmed our sodden limbs, and generally took things easy.
Of course, to both of us the disappointment was a severe one; but more especially to poor Phil, who had been so sanguine of success. He, however, was rapidly recovering his old, cheerful form, and was already busy with plans for the future.
Then, one morning, lying asleep in the little bridgehouse, not much bigger than a sentry-box, which, in virtue of my rating as mate, I shared with Phil, I was awakened by a noise of shouting and cheering that made me tumble out in double-quick time.
All our little company was on deck, waving hands and caps, and hurrahing, and staring away astern, Phil himself with Carew's glass in his hand, had it focused in the same direction. But it needed no glass to see what lay there.
The sun had risen, and was just resting his lower limb on the horizon—a great red globe giving promise of a scorching day; and right against the centre of him, as clean-cut, and sharp, and black as a daguerreotype, sat a big ship—a steamer almost motionless, with two short pole-masts and a smokeless funnel.
"The Goodooga, Harry," said Phil as he shut his glass and shook hands. "I can see the name on her bow."
We had already turned about and headed for the derelict, and, presently, as the light grew stronger, we could more plainly note the great, helpless mass of steel, bulking high like an island, the reversed ensign blowing out from its halliards in the morning breeze.
As we approached, they pulled down the flag and hoisted it Jack uppermost; and dipped it thrice to us while we hooted triumphantly to them with our siren. Nearer still, and her people sprang into the rigging and cheered like mad things; the women and children, meanwhile, running about the upper deck with shrill cries and the waving of kerchiefs.
An imposing monster the ship looked, pathetic, too, in her impotency, as she lay there, spick and span, glistening in all the bravery of fresh paint; her hull black with a narrow, white band; her houses and whale-back and bridges of a deep buff colour to match masts and funnel—the latter an enormous cylinder that a horse and cab could almost be driven through, and carrying upon it the big blue T of the Township Line.
Decidedly, her chief officer had found something to keep his men out of mischief during the long months of drift.
But with it all she had, so to speak, lost her soul, and was for the time being merely an inert, inanimate mass, at the mercy of any vagrant wind that chose to play with her, and send her hither and thither about the wide ocean; slapped and insulted the while by the seas she had hitherto spurned and ridden victoriously over.
A curious contrast to her we must have looked, as we shuffled up within hail, our funnel and upperworks thick with salt, our sides scarred and scratched with harbour work, our decks and boats still dark with the stains of coal dust, and our whole appearance forlorn, dissipated, raffish; yet still possessed of the vital spark lacking in the great structure that solemnly nodded her towering, wedge-shaped bows to us as we swept round them to the roaring welcome of her people.
The sea was now so calm that we were enabled to swing ourselves from our own deck on to the ladder they lowered down their tall sides for us. Scarcely could we get through the crowd because of the questioning and the handshaking which met us, while the few old newspapers we brought were nearly torn to pieces in the scramble for them, as we made our way with the captain into his berth.
And there, presently, all our new-born hopes were put to flight and extinguished.
Everything had been satisfactorily settled; and over a glass of whisky the captain had told us the story of his curious experience, and of how again and again his engineers had repaired the broken shaft, only to see it give way in a few hours. Even now, he said, they were at work upon it, although with little or no prospect of success. There was a serious flaw extending for many feet along the interior of the shaft which rendered all their efforts of no avail.
As we rose to go, Phil said casually: "Of course, captain, you can let us have some coal. We've been out nearly a month looking for you, and I don't believe we've more than a day or two's burning left."
At this the captain's face fell terribly; and he explained with a look of dismay: "Why, God bless my soul, I've only enough myself to keep the refrigerating engine and the galley fire going! You see, I didn't fill up at Endeavour, meaning to do so at Port Chalmers. I ought to have been there in five days; and I'm going on for three months out now. What a deuce of a pity for both of us!"
It was indeed a bitter disappointment all round—especially on the Hercules—for our crew had been promised substantial gratuities in case of good fortune attending us; and although they had not felt it much before we found the ship, it now appeared doubly hard to them, as to us, that they should be deprived of the reward of their hard work, just as success had crowned it. As Phil said, it would have been better had we never fallen in with the Goodooga; and in the privacy of our berth he roundly abused her skipper for having trusted to Providence in the matter of coal.
As for the big ship's passengers and her crew, they had become so accustomed to the situation that, though chagrined enough at the fiasco, they did not seem to feel it nearly so much as we did. Actually, we knew not what to do in the awkward fix we had got ourselves into. Therefore, we did nothing except make the tug fast to the Goodooga, mourn our shortlived triumph, furbish ourselves up a bit, and accept the skipper's invitation to dine with him and his score or so of saloon passengers.
He could do nothing for us with those thirty thousand carcases in his freezing chambers, using up the remainder of his coal to keep them fresh. And all we could do for him was to give him a chest of tea—the only store of which the ship was beginning to run rather short.
At dinner we were surprised to find the passengers all in such good spirits, instead of, as we expected, chafing against their enforced delay. There were business men among them, too, just travelling between ports, whose interests were probably suffering from their absence; but the majority of them were bound for a holiday at home. And when they heard our yarn, they condoled with us very handsomely, quite forgetting their own troubles. Indeed, the next day the captain came to us and said that a collection was being taken up among them for our benefit.
But neither Phil nor myself would consent to anything of the kind, so far as we were concerned. Nevertheless, a very tidy sum was divided among the Hercules' crew as a result of the passengers' generosity.
Evidently there was nothing left for us to do but to stick like a limpet to the Goodooga until help arrived from some quarter or other.
So we stayed by her, and drifted with her in the calm, bright weather, making all sorts of curious figures on the chart, and more than once describing a huge circle and returning to our starting-place, exactly like a man lost in the Bush would do.
And we made friends on board, we and our men, and lived there mainly; passing hours with her officers in discussing the chances of relief, or down in the engine-room where the engineers still strove vainly with the huge shaft, showing inherent vice the more it was sawn and cut. The wonder, indeed, seemed to be that it lasted the two years since the ship was built. Also, by comparing courses and drifts, we discovered that when only a week or so out we must have passed the Goodooga within three miles; and, later on, again at even a less distance. On both occasions in the heavy weather we encountered. But for those gales, we must certainly have secured her, and with coal enough and to spare. Assuredly the Fates had fought dead against us!
Nor had they finished with us just yet. Like ourselves, the Goodooga had long since exhausted her supply of rockets and blue lights. But now and again she burnt flares made of tar and oakum, and one night her signal was answered by a rocket to the southwards. Then more flares, and more rockets from the stranger, who, rapidly coming along, proved to be no other than Scones' largest tug, the Lioness, with the redoubtable Hiram himself on board her. And the American's joy was great.
Guessing, at last, as ship after ship came up from the Tasman Sea with nothing to report, that the Goodooga must have forsaken her old haunts and gone away to the north and east, he had ventured out himself and dropped upon her in a little over a week.
But if he was pleased at finding the derelict, his exultation knew no bounds when he discovered his rival lying helpless alongside her.
"Sling yerself off, Mister," he cried to Phil. "If I wanted to, I reckon I cud pull the pair o' ye as easy as pie. But I ain't a-goin' ter try. Not much! I'll allow ole man Cook to come out an' tow ye home."
Nor would Phil, knowing how useless such a request would be, ask him for enough coal to take us in, although he could well have spared it. And notwithstanding that Captain Bullivant of the Goodooga offered to buy sufficient for us at his own price, he refused very decidedly to do anything of the kind. So there was nothing for it but to say good-bye to our friends, who heartily sympathised with us, and in his hearing were anything but complimentary to Hiram. But you can perhaps imagine the feelings with which the next morning we watched the Lioness getting her line on board the Goodooga, and gradually straightening up the stout wire hawser as the tow began to move slowly away from us to the sound of exultant crowings from the tug's siren. There was, however, no response from the big steamer, although she was homeward bound at last. Her people realised that Scones had served us a very nasty trick, and they crowded aft and cheered the poor old Hercules instead.
Phil, temporarily broken up, had gone to his berth, leaving me on the bridge, and as I watched the two vessels I saw the Lioness suddenly stop and allow herself to be almost overtaken by the Goodooga, so nearly, indeed, as to scarcely evade the impact of the latter. Then, presently, unless the glass deceived me, the line was thrown off the tug's hook, while the Lioness herself drifted helplessly away to leeward.
"Something gone amiss?" remarked Phil moodily, as I called to him.
"Very much so," I replied, still watching. "If I'm not mistaken, there's something very crooked in the engine-room."
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Phil suddenly, "look at that!" and he pointed to where the reversed ensign fluttered slowly up the signal halliards of the hapless Goodooga.
We had been getting up steam in order to make farther over towards the track of the San Francisco mail steamers with the day or so's coal that remained in our bunkers. And we lost no time in coming alongside the Goodooga once more.
The Lioness, it seemed, had blown the top off her high-pressure cylinder, but luckily without injuring anybody, and she was now, in the words of the chief officer of the Goodooga, "as dead to the world as any of us."
Captain Bullivant, it seems, had asked Scones whether he would supply us with coal on condition of sharing in the salvage.
But Hiram had said that he would see us damned first. Then to the request for a line so that the crippled Lioness could make fast to the Goodooga, Bullivant had returned an equally emphatic negative.
"But," concluded the skipper, "I can't keep the refrigerator going much longer, and if I lose my meat I might almost as well lose my ship. Do, like good fellows, run across to the mail route as you intended. Your coal will take you there and back again. The Formosa will be coming along the day after tomorrow. I know Brown well, and he'll either give you coal or come himself."
We were doubtful about having enough coal to return, even if we could find the Goodooga again. But we agreed to try our luck, and had just said good-bye, when—"Steamer on the port bow, sir!"—came a cry from aloft, that sent us all on to the bridge at our best speed.
"No tug, I'll swear that much," said the captain, handing his glass to Phil. "Looks more like a mail boat."
"No mail boat," replied Phil, after a minute or so; "a man-o'-war, or I'm a Dutchman! And coming straight for us. Ah, if it should turn out to be the Mildura, we'd have some fun."
And the Mildura it proved to be, sure enough. It seems that the general failure to find the Goodooga had induced the State Premier to approach the Admiral with a request for assistance. Naturally, with his record, the Admiral had chosen Carew for the contract. And a much-surprised man was our friend when he made out the derelict with one tug lying alongside her, and another idly drifting a mile away.
But we were jubilant beyond measure at the turn in our affairs; and with reason, for Carew fixed matters up in five minutes.
"You can have all the coal you want," said he to us. "I'll take yonder fellow in. But, in return for his meanness, I'll see that he gets a thumping salvage bill. And, look here, I'll run him into Waratah, as the nearest port, and then pop back and see how you fellows are getting along. Now come alongside, and we'll soon fill your bunkers for you."
A couple of hours afterwards, amid cheers from the cruiser and the Goodooga, we took the liner by the nose, while the Mildura went off to the Lioness.
And, as they presently passed us, gauging Hiram's sentiments by our own only yesterday, and adding a heavy percentage of viciousness to his account, it was not difficult to imagine how the cantankerous Yankee felt.
It was ideal towing weather—no wind, no sea. Our luck had changed at last, and the old Hercules, as if aware of the fact, and fed to the throat with good Westport coal, pulled like a Trojan, pulled the five thousand tonner one hundred and sixty miles in the first twenty-four hours.
And not until then, I fancy, did her people really believe that the tug could manage to do what we claimed for her, and that they were homeward bound in earnest this time. Anyhow, the whole ship's company, skipper and all, came on to her fo'c'sle head and cheered us till they were hoarse.
On the fourth day, still doing very good work, we signalled Cape Waratah, and learned that the news was already flashed through Australasia that the wanderer was at last gaining a haven after being for so long the sport of wind and wave.
Once or twice throughout the tow we sighted the Mildura. But only at a distance. She had evidently taken Scones into Endeavour; and Carew was hanging about, doing a little survey work. And the knowledge that the warship had an eye upon us was comforting.
Perhaps when Carew—he has a big, first-class cruiser now—uses the fine service of silver plate that adorns the sideboard of his sea-parlour, he admits that his kindness and generosity was not altogether thrown away.
We made a good entry into the harbour, saluted by dozens of ferry-boats with whistlings shrill and hoarse, and cheered to the echo by their thousands of passengers, as well as by crowds of people gathered around the foreshores at every coign of vantage.
All the bunting we had was the code; but we decked the Hercules out in its tattered and grimy bunting, which became her as nothing newer and brighter could have done.
And as she struggled along, dragging the immense mass to which she appeared as an ant to an elephant, she seemed, to my fancy, to take all the applause to herself, and, handicapped though she was, to throw her head higher than ever to the sound of it, swaggering contemptuously past the trim and shining ferry steamers, glorying, meanwhile, in her scars, and rust, and salt crust, as who should say "Make way, ye drones! Behold the worker!"
And when the Goodooga's anchor at last thundered through the hawse-pipe, and old Cook—his face one great, red smile of gratulation—boarded us and patted the worn sides of his ship and exclaimed: "Well done, my beauty! I knowed you'd do it, if you only got a chanst," we felt, somehow, as we listened, that she it was who deserved all the praise and all the honour of the great salvage.
We had for a very long time wished to see the "Old Country," Phil and I; "Home," as we called it, in common with all our Australian countrymen. On one occasion we had made an attempt to reach London, and have a look at "the sights" and the people of that wonderful city of which we had heard so much from many shipmates. But we encountered catastrophe, and were forced to return when not more than half-way to our destination.
But, now, having made some sort of a modest pile out of a matter of salvage, we determined to make no mistake if we could help it; and in place of, as before, working our passages in a wind-jammer, we travelled second in a mail steamer. Phil Scott, my mate, wished to go first. We could afford it, he said, and why not make a splash?
But I argued that two Australian sailormen—holding certificates in the Mercantile Marine though they did—would feel far more comfortable and at home among the people we should meet in the second saloon than in the stiff and starchy grandeur of the swells for'ard.
We did not, however, in any case, enjoy the trip one little bit.
"Harry," said Phil, the second day out, "I feel like a duck in a coop. One can't get about. You mustn't go here, and you mustn't go there; and you're all blocked up with boats and awnings so's you can't see what's doing outside. And you eat too much and drink too much, and there's no exercise to be had. Why, you can't even take a walk fore and aft without stumbling over somebody's legs. No more of your flash, floating coffee-palaces for this child, if he knows it! Big tramp or half-and-half liner for me when we come back again."
Still, in spite of all, it was rather amusing to watch the life on the big ship. In some respects it was like that in a small up-country township. There was the same curiosity to discover all your neighbour's private affairs; there was the same splitting-up into cliques; the same lot of scandalmongering, back-biting women; the same inveterate drunkards against whom prohibitions had to be taken out at the bar; the same "pure merinos" who gave themselves airs and snubbed those whom they considered of a less fine breed.
Then there were concerts in the saloon, and games of various kinds, for which the crowded deck space was quite inadequate, and at times the first-classers would stroll across the dividing bridge and take a turn round and back again. But we were strictly barred from venturing on to their deck; and yet the fares were not so very disproportionate as between the two classes. Some of the great passenger-carrying liners might, to their own profit, cater a little more liberally for their second-saloon passengers, in the matter of space, at any rate. The growing popularity of the ships in which there are no social divisions is the result of a feeling that the first-class in certain vessels monopolises too much room upon the modern mail liners.
We were a pair of pretty weary Colonials when at last we sighted the Isle of Wight and headed up Channel—that English Channel of which we had been told and had read so much.
And no doubt it was an eye-opener, as on a glorious day in early spring we moved swiftly through absolute fleets of shipping, the like of which we had never imagined for size and variety.
Here a huge Atlantic liner, her decks black with people, came towering along outward bound, passing a sister inward with a roaring blare of siren; big sailing-ships came down, making for the mouth of the Channel under all plain sail; others moved up with all their canvas stowed, homeward bound, tugs dragging at their noses. Then a shoal of torpedo-boats would dart suddenly by, followed by a batch of destroyers raising bow-waves like miniature Niagaras. Farther in-shore we could see a line of grim battleships flanked by cruisers, a dozen or more of them, steaming rapidly down Channel; an imposing spectacle with, for background, the green-topped white cliffs, and the towns and villages nestling at their feet.
But we couldn't see well from our barricaded deck; so, trusting in Providence, we went for'ard on to the fo'c'sle head, expecting every minute to be told to return to our own place. But, except for an officer who stared sourly at us, we were taken no notice of.
And ahead, and on each side of us, stretched more ships than we had ever seen in our lives before; and flew the flags of, as we thought, every nation in the world. Steamers in mobs, and of all sorts and conditions, were passing in and passing out, with funnels bearing apparently every device under the sun. Some of them the forlornest of tramps, with rusted sides and bridges, and houses innocent of paint. Others showing red-leaded plates where they had just been patched in dock, and rushed off to work again. Some deep in the water, some so light as to scarcely give their propellers a chance to grip it.
There were big Australian and New Zealand traders, too, whose house-flags and smoke-stacks we recognised with a curious feeling of meeting old friends we had seen before, in very different surroundings. And we gazed delightedly at the wonderful and varied procession, our pleasure presently intensified by the sight of a bluff-bowed old brig coming slowly down abreast of us.
She was the blackest ship we had ever seen. Even her sails were black, and there was a big hole in her foretopsail. Her crew were as black as their ship; coal dust lay thick all over her. And she lurched along within a stone's-throw, while not a soul on board cast so much as a glance at us.
"A Geordie collier," said Phil, beaming. "You can bet your life on that! One of the last survivors of the race, I should think, by the look of her. But, I say, Harry, what a country for ships! Look, here comes a 'Blue Anchor,' outward bound for Sydney Town. And there's an Aberdeen liner—see the green hull, and buff funnel, and clipper bow! It must surely be mustering-day in the English Channel. But the good Lord keep me out of it in a fog!"
Little either of us thought that we should be presently down it, outward bound, in just such weather as Phil prayed to be delivered from.
We required no guide to point out Brighton. Beachy Head, too, we recognised instinctively, and Dungeness and the South Foreland.
And as we approached the mouth of the Thames, it seemed literally to vomit ships at us.
Round the North Foreland, and into the estuary itself. Past the red lightships, buoys, and beacons. Past Gravesend, and then in the waning evening light we bring up, and the waiting tender comes alongside to take the passengers off. London at last!
The day had turned chilly, and Phil growled at the cold. "It's a bone-biter," he said, as we both shivered. "We get it cold over yonder sometimes, but it's a warm sort compared with this."
A young English doctor, whose acquaintance we had made on board, laughed as he heard us grumbling.
"Ah," said he, "you Colonials have to become acclimatised to the beauties of the weather. Take my advice, and wear plenty of thick woollen underclothing till the hot weather sets in."
"Beastly stuff," said Phil. "I can't bear it! Seems to sort of smother a fellow up! Why, in New England in winter we wore nothing under our shirts! And there was snow there often."
"Well," said the other with a grin, "take my professional tip, or you'll leave your bones here. This is old England. And you've got to choose between smother and pneumonia. It's just such big, unprotected outlanders as you that our east winds love. Look at these folk ashore. They know their climate all right."
And, indeed, we saw now that the waiting crowd at the dock was muffled up to the eyes in overcoats and wraps. The sun had disappeared, and a thin drizzle was falling, making everything sloppy.
Travelling by a dirty railway line past dirty stations, whose names sounded strangely familiar all the way up to Fenchurch Street—most familiar of all—we entered a cab, and were driven through miles of roaring streets to a hotel off the Strand, which had been recommended to us.
Next morning broke raw, and bitterly cold. We bought the underclothing; also thick overcoats. And then we began to wander. We did not like London—at first. Indeed, we detested it.
"A city full of new chums," said Phil, "and smoke, and noise, and slush. And they measure out your whisky instead of handing you the bottle, and letting you help yourself, as in civilised countries. And when you do get it, it's poor stuff. They ought to send it to sea for a long voyage. And they charge for every blessed thing. Fire extra, bath extra, lunch extra. It's a wonder they don't charge for the very air you breathe, bad as it is!"
However, the weather presently became mild and genial, and as we got used to the place, and tried to take in its vastness, and the enormous number of people that inhabited it, and the amazing contrast between its east and west, we were impressed, if not awed. We armed ourselves with guide-books, and saw a little of most things we were told to admire. Then we got tired, and when Phil proposed a run up-country, I was very willing, wearied of the hurlyburly and overpowering immensity of the capital.
We went to Oxford first, because my first teacher in the Bush had told us he was an "Oxford man." We paid him ten shillings a week and his "tucker" to teach three children the rudiments of an education. He was an old man, and we made him as comfortable as possible on the big selection we then held. He would keep steady for a while, then wander away into the township, and drink till his money was done. Then he walked back the score of miles to the homestead, and there "suffered a recovery." A drunken old reprobate, but still, as even we wild youngsters felt, the remains of a gentleman.
He had on more than one occasion held eloquently forth to us on the glories and beauties of his old University. To our youthful minds it seemed a paradise. And, insensibly I suppose, some of the description must have abided, for when Phil proposed to go "up-country," I at once thought of Oxford. And the reality surpassed any vague memories of old Saville's yarns that had remained with me. We had no standards of comparison, therefore we could only stand and admire and ejaculate in wonder, as fresh beauties in stately, ancient architecture, and sylvan scenery, unfolded themselves to our view. No wonder, I thought, that the poor old wreck, whose bones had lain this many a long year on the banks of a far-inland Australian river, should have grown enthusiastic over such a spot, or that his dim eyes should have kindled when he spoke of it.
But all we said to each other was: "This takes the cake, doesn't it, Phil?" Or, "Beats all the London shows, eh, Harry?"
Leaving Oxford, we found our way somehow to Carlisle, simply for the sake of there joining the "Flying Scotchman" for the run back to the capital. We passed through a lot of country on our way, but, as Phil put it, "it's too closely settled for my fancy. There's no room for any more people. And look at the 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' on any little bit of a vacant allotment there is! Why, I expect if a chap was to try and camp there, and light a fire to boil his billy, they'd shove him in the caboose before the water had time to get warm!"
We didn't enjoy our trip back again. Accustomed when we did travel by rail in our own country to an average twenty-five miles an hour, the "Scotchman" rather scared us with an over fifty rate.
Phil swore the train had bolted more than once, and to us the speed seemed terrific, and appallingly dangerous. Still, the cars ran infinitely more steadily than our own did. Indeed, one could write with comfort, if necessary. But the country went past us like a flashlight panorama.
"Thank you," said Phil, as we alighted at the terminus, rather giddy and dazed after the long, swift journey, and paused to look at the panting monster which had towed us in its wake. "No more flyers for me! When I travel, I travel for pleasure, and not for the sake of reckoning every minute what would happen if we hit a mob of bullocks, or jumped the rails, or tried to pass another train on the same line."
Phil spoke rather loudly, and some people who heard him laughed in amusement. Turning round, I found myself face to face with Manning, still with a smile on his lips, which broadened as he stared at the pair of us regarding him with interest.
"Well," said he presently, "if it isn't my two sailormen of the Century and the Syndicate! But it's a far cry from St Pancras to Santo, isn't it?" he added, as he shook hands with us.
"It is," I said, "some distance. But, as you may remember, we got tired of treasure-hunting, and started out to have a look round the Old Country."
"And what does young Australia think of the land of his forefathers?" asked Manning, with a grin. "Not a patch on his own Antipodean home, I'll bet."
"Climate rotten," replied Phil, "also too crowded. We also object to having our whisky and our sunshine measured for us. There are other drawbacks, but these are the principal ones. Still, I dare say one would get used to them in time. As for us, we've about seen enough, and soon we'll be outward bound again."
"Call and see me first," replied Manning, giving me a card. "That's my address. Promise you won't slip off without doing so. I want particularly to have a long talk about old times."
We gave the required promise, fully intending to keep it. Manning had once been shipmate with us on a scatter-brained and disastrous expedition in the South Seas, after treasure. And although he was one of the questing syndicate, and Phil and I were only members of the ship's company, we had seen a good deal of "Carpets," as he was known to his intimates on board, and had found him always pleasant and companionable.
We spent a day looking round the London and South-West India Docks, seeing there much to interest us, especially noting the number of sailing-ships laid up, elbowed out of trade by steam; noticing, too, the—as it seemed to us—much lower type of waterside labourer compared to ours over yonder. Then, one fine morning, we boarded an omnibus and steered west for Manning's address.
We found him at home in a fine big house fronting one of the parks, and he seemed very pleased to see us. After a while, he took us to his club, a huge place where all the waiters were dressed in a uniform of buff and blue. We had lunch there, and yarned, and Manning told us that he was thinking of taking a trip to South Africa, to shoot big game. Evidently, as we had heard on board the Century, he was a wealthy man. He was greatly interested in the salvage venture by which we had made our rise, and the story of which we told him in detail. And he laughed when we said that we were soon going on the look out for a good cargo liner, bound round the Cape, to return home in, rather than a mail steamer.
"Too much like a coasting-passage," explained Phil, "once you get into the Red Sea, and you can't get about on board. And there's too many frills, and too much of the afternoon tea and cake sort of business for us."
Manning smiled as he turned to me, and said: "How would you like to take a sailing-ship out to Australia as master? Or are you too beastly rich now to go to sea any more? I suppose," he added, with a twinkle in his eye, "that it's no use trying to persuade you to stay with us altogether? There are good openings in business for men with capital, and—"
"Thank you, no!" I exclaimed hurriedly. "But I'd jump at the chance of a ship, and Phil here as chief."
"Of course," laughed Manning. "Who would dream of ever separating such a maritime Damon and Pythias? By the way, have you ever heard of the 'Red Lion Line'?"
"Milne & Allison," I replied promptly, "and one of the very best."
"Glad to hear it," said Manning. "Milne, as it happens, is my brother-in-law, and he wants a master for one of his ships. He told me so yesterday. She's on the berth for Adelaide. May be sold there. That's what I wanted to see you about as much as anything, and I think I can say the billet's yours, if matters can be arranged on your side. Call tomorrow morning at No. 14 Billiter Street. I'll give you a note."
We both rose on the single impulse and shook hands with Manning, until he begged us to desist, ere we crippled him. Then we asked him to call for drinks, and we drank his health in the big, sensible deep-sinkers they used at this club for aerated water and accompaniments.
"Let me know how you get on," said he, as later we left him in the great smoking-room. "We'll have dinner here before you sail."
We found no difficulty about the business. Our references were all right. Mr Milne explained that one of his captains had been taken ill, and that there was no hope of his recovery in time to resume command. Also, the chief officer was leaving to enter steam. Indeed, the old gentleman seemed quite pleased to have discovered us.
"I know Australia," he said. "Was out there in the early 'sixties. Fine country. Hospitable people. And what some of them don't know about sheep and cattle isn't worth talking about. I had interests in stations and other things. Have them still. Yes, Captain Ward, you'll find the Mermaid a comfortable ship, and a good sea boat. She's nearly the last of the line. We're going into steam presently, like everybody else. Shan't want you till she's ready to sail. But perhaps Mr Scott might as well be on board during the next few days."
The Mermaid was all her owner had said she was, and as we dropped our pilot off Dover, and began to make sail, I was more than pleased with our luck.
We had dined the night before with Manning and some of his friends at the big club, and passed a jolly time. And now here we were, homeward bound, not in a cooped-up liner, but in a fine, full-rigged ship, of over fifteen hundred tons, such as any young master might think it a pride to command.
Phil was for'ard, getting the canvas on her, and the second mate, a smart young officer of about twenty-three or so, named Carlton, was flying round aft.
There were only two passengers—a Dr Milsom and a retired naval officer. The doctor, a quiet, elderly man, seemed a good sort, but the navy man, also elderly, in the little I saw of him, appeared irritable and crotchety. Presently the doctor introduced him as Commander Biggins.
"How de do," said he ungraciously. "This ship's too much by the head. Expect she'll make bad weather of it in a heavy seaway." And he stalked off.
The doctor laughed as he saw my look. "Curious specimen, isn't he?" he remarked. "Old timer, evidently—long before steam. Master's mate, probably retired these last twenty years."
Off Beachy the weather began to thicken. An hour later we were in a fog the like of which I had never before experienced. Bells were ringing, fog-horns blowing, and steam sirens hooting and blaring all around us, as we forged slowly ahead with the sails scarcely full.
Anchors rattled through hawse-pipes, as vessels brought up quite close to us, looking like sheeted ghosts in the mist—uncomfortable ghosts, much more dangerous than the generally accepted species.
It was my first command in a ship of any size, and if a bit nervous, I tried hard not to show it. But, to myself, I cursed the Channel very heartily.
"All ready for bringing up, if necessary, Mr Scott?" I said to Phil, just then coming aft.
"All ready, sir," replied Phil, in regular big ship style.
"And the sooner the better," croaked the voice of Biggins at my elbow, "before we have some steamer on top of us."
Taking no notice of him, and little dreaming of the obligation I should one day be under to him, I told Phil to set the royals, and to see that the foghorn was kept going.
"Just as much chance of collision while at anchor," I said to the doctor, "as there is while moving. I prefer to take the risk so long as the wind lasts."
"When I was on active service—" began my passenger.
But seeing that he must be brought up all standing, or otherwise become a nuisance, I broke in with: "Don't be alarmed, sir. This smother will clear away presently. There's not the least cause for nervousness."
Biggins began to grunt indignantly as I walked for'ard, and I could hear the doctor chuckle to himself. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the wind did freshen almost at once, and blew the fog away in wisps and streamers, the sun came out, and the old Mermaid leaning over to it, began to make pleasant music at her bows and along her sides.
I was relieved to get clear of the English Channel, never having seen water I liked less. And now, having leisure to take stock of things, I began to consider my bearings. In the "Red Lion Line," no foreign seamen was a standing rule. The present crew had been shipped by the outgoing mate. They were all Britishers, and I must confess that I never clapped eyes on a lot of tougher-looking citizens.
There were ten of them in each watch, rendering the Mermaid a well-manned ship for her size. The third mate was a smart lad nearly out of his time; the sailmaker and the carpenter were Scots of a good breed, elderly and pawky; the bos'n, Zachariah Cosens, was a West countryman, a fine type of the British seaman, but beginning to feel the stress, of age.
Altogether, the afterguard was a very fairly efficient one. But the for'ard hands, although undeniable sailormen, unless I was much mistaken, were little better than gaol-birds.
However, it was no use borrowing trouble. Here we were already moving along towards the Western Islands, the sky growing bluer, and the air milder every day.
Both accommodation and food were capital, as one might have expected from the reputation of the owners among all classes of seafarers. Phil and I had been in one hungry "limejuicer" before the mast, and had sworn never to sign on in another. But the food for'ard in the Mermaid was excellent. The crew had soft bread two or three times a week, preserved vegetables, pickles, jam, tinned meat, plums and currants for their puddings, and, above all, a good cook—a man at sea worth a price to which rubies bear no comparison.
Carrying no quartermasters, the men took the usual tricks at the wheel, so I had plenty of opportunity of scanning their faces—which were mostly villainous. And I marvelled greatly how such a ship's company could have been brought together by mere chance. So far, I had not confided my opinions even to Phil; and beyond saying that he was quite satisfied with his watch, he had passed no remark. But that was Phil's way, and I knew he might be doing a lot of quiet thinking.
"Are you anything of a physiognomist, captain," asked the doctor one day, as we sat smoking on the poop.
"Well, no," I replied, "not more than the average observer, I suppose. Why?"
"Because, although I've never made a study of the science, I must say that the faces of your men, taken full and by, as you would say, impress me professionally with the notion that the majority of them are all born criminals. I hope you're not offended. But doesn't it strike you much in the same way?"
"Well, of course, I've seen better-looking figureheads," I answered uncomfortably; "but it would be unjust to judge a hard-living, hard-working lot of men only by their features, wouldn't it, doctor? I fancy, too, that some of them have seen better days, and haven't always been in the fo'c'sle."
"Likely enough," replied Milsom; "but they're none the better for that. They may be an innocent, harmless crowd enough; but if so, they upset my small experience of character reading."
For some time there was silence between us. I was thinking troubled thoughts. Then the doctor suddenly said, "Well, anyhow, they can't very well get at the money without our knowing it."
I jumped nearly out of my chair as he spoke, for I had not dreamed that a soul on board except myself and Phil were in the secret.
"Don't be scared," said Milsom, smiling as I looked at him very doubtfully indeed. "I'm in the firm's confidence, and have a letter to this effect which I will show you. You see, my wife was an Allison; and, indeed, I'm a sleeping partner. But don't think that I was sent here for espionage, or any purpose of the kind. I was coming, anyhow; and probably but for this incident of the curious crew I should have never referred to the subject."
"That's all right, doctor," I said, "I couldn't have suspected you of such a thing for a moment." All the same I felt desperately uneasy, although now outwardly calm enough.
About three days before sailing, and while the stevedores were stowing the 'tween-decks, Mr Milne had informed me of his intentions to send a large sum in specie out to his Australian agents by the Mermaid, instead of by mail steamer in the usual manner. It seems that there had been a quarrel between the firm and the representatives of the mail companies; and Milne & Allison were opposed to putting money into their pockets in the shape of a percentage charge on the gold. There was no hurry; and it would be just as safe on the Mermaid.
We were taking out several four-hundred-gallon tanks of hops to an Adelaide brewery in which the firm held a controlling interest, and nearly at the bottom of one of these tanks, under a bulk of tight-pressed hops, the gold—one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in bags—had been concealed. Private marks had then been put on the tank, and it had been stowed with the others, under Phil's supervision, as ordinary cargo.
Thus you may perhaps picture my surprise and alarm at finding a stranger as wise as myself on a matter which much care had been taken to keep from anybody's knowledge except those immediately concerned.
"You see," resumed the doctor presently, "Allison only told me about the affair a few days before I came away to join the ship at Gravesend. Milne never mentioned it. I told Allison that they were a pair of idiots not to forward by regular course, if they must send in gold for which there was probably no necessity in the world. But they're curious folk, and very faddy and conservative in some of their ideas as business men of the present day. However, as I said just now, it's safe enough where it is."
In days gone by I would have taken all this for gospel without further demur; but past experience had brought caution, and I said nothing, except in the way of polite assent to the other's conclusions and statements. He might be above-board and square; but I had only known him for a week. Besides, throughout his talk he had never alluded to his acquaintance with the hiding-place except in the vaguest manner. Could he be pumping me? I wondered. However, Milsom made no further allusion to the matter just then.
But next day he, sure enough, produced the letter written on the firm's paper and recommending "our friend and relative," Dr Milsom, to the good offices of the commander of the Mermaid.
It seemed genuine enough, but I could not be certain; and the doctor appeared chagrined by the cool way in which I read it, and then informed him that I was prepared to do everything possible for his comfort while he was on the ship.
Of course I told Phil; and Phil did not like the look of the thing at all.
"I can't say anything about Milsom," he remarked, "although it does seem fishy the way he's come backing and filling to the subject of the money. However, I do know that the crowd for'ard is ripe for any sort of mischief. If they're in collusion with the doctor, then stand by for squalls. We'd better keep our guns handy, I suppose. I bought a new Smith and Wesson in London. But I say, Harry, what beggars we are to drop in for trouble," continued Phil plaintively. "One would think that we did nothing but roam about the world in search of it. I know scores of chaps who've been to sea all their lives and never saw a spar or a sail carried away, or a man fall overboard, or anything out of the way at all happen. They just go jogging along come-day-go-day, Godsend-Sunday. But as for us! And always just as we're beginning to get comfortable!"
"Never mind, Phil," I replied, "perhaps this time it's all pure imagination on my part. You see, we've been pretty lucky of late, and it's time something turned up to save us from getting fat and lazy and overgrown with barnacles."
And nothing happened. The doctor was as unconcerned and amiable as ever, making no slightest further reference to either crew or money. The crew themselves were good as gold, and I began to think they were a most unfortunate lot of men, maligned by their evil looks. Biggins was inclined to be meddlesome at times, and always a bore with his eternal "When I was on active service." But he was quite harmless. Any suspicions I may have had with regard to an attempt by the doctor to find out the whereabouts of the money were gradually lulled as time went by, and the passage continued uneventful.
We had a week in the Doldrums; and here the first call was made upon the doctor's professional services. One of the port watch, a man known among his mates as "Skipper," said he was ill, and asked that the doctor might come and see him.
I went myself instead, and found the fellow in his bunk groaning with an acute pain, so he said, in his right side. His colour was good, so was his tongue; and I thought I caught a sneer in the look he gave me as he thrust it out. I explained, however, that Dr Milsom was merely a passenger, and that he was not supposed to attend the crew or anyone else.
"He'll mebbe see me if you tell him I'm real sick," said the fellow, none too respectfully. "No Christian'd let a man suffer as I'm a-sufferin'."
"Well, I'll speak to him," I replied. "Meanwhile I'll send the steward for'ard with a dose of salts. They'll cure most things at sea, bar broken bones."
But the "Skipper" only turned on his side with a grunt of disgust as I made my way aft again.
"Oh, yes, I'll see him," said Milsom, I thought rather unwillingly. "A case of malingering, likely enough, from your description. If it should prove so, I'll wake him up."
But on his return he looked serious.
"Seems like kidney trouble," he said; "stone probably. But it's difficult to say yet. I'll give him a hypodermic injection of morphia. That will ease the pain. Oh, yes, he can have the salts too. They can't do him any harm."
After this the doctor's visits to the fo'c'sle grew pretty frequent. The patient, it seemed, was improving slowly. But Milsom remarked incidentally that the man was either a fool or a very clever rogue.
When we got out of the Doldrums, "Skipper" returned to duty. The doctor said he thought that he must have got rid of the stone which was worrying him—if there had ever been one—and for a time he went into the fo'c'sle no more.
We had stretched with the S.E. trades well over towards the South American coast, and I was expecting to catch sight of Trinidad, when one evening Phil told me that the doctor had been in the fo'c'sle almost the whole of the last dog-watch.
"And Carlton tells me," added Phil, "that Milsom was for'ard during part of his middle watch last night. If I find him carrying on like that when I'm on deck I shall give him a talking to."
Now there is, of course, no law against saloon passengers on a long sailing-ship trip chatting with the crew, or even going into the fo'c'sle on the men's invitation once and again; but few masters of vessels care about seeing a practice made of it, and it did seem curious on Milsom's part after the unflattering references he had formerly made with regard to the Mermaid's company, that he should develop such a liking for their society. Therefore, I determined to have a little talk with him presently on the matter. But I never got the chance.
* * * * * *
I awoke out of a maze of troubled dreams to make sure that I was dreaming still. I thought I was in the Mermaid's lifeboat, while around me lay stretched in all sorts of uncomfortable attitudes the whole of her afterguard. I saw Phil crouched in the bows, and close to him the second and third mates lay across each other's legs. "Chips" and "Sails" and the bos'n were heaped together amidships, while Biggins bent over athwart and snored stertorously.
But was I dreaming? My head buzzed and ached. I tried to stand, and promptly fell back again in the stern-sheets. The sun shone hot, and my eyes smarted. I beat my hand against the boat's side in order to dissipate the nightmare; but the blow hurt, and as I looked at the spot blood oozed from broken skin. This was no mad dream, but even madder reality. After some trouble I crawled to a sitting position. My throat felt as if it were full of hot ashes. Near me was a cask, and, regardless of aught else, I worked away at the bung until it came out. There was a string attached to a dipper, and I recognised the men's drinking butt that was lashed on the deck in front of the Mermaid's galley door. Even then I paused to wonder how it could possibly have got into the lifeboat. Then I drank, and my head became clearer, and I partly realised what had happened.
Presently, as I sat thinking, some of the others began to show signs of regaining consciousness. Phil was the first to awake, and I gave him a drink. He blinked at me stupidly, and stared around with eyes of alarm and amazement. Then, after a while, he sat up, and remarked: "Done in?" And I nodded.
He and I alone guessed by whom, and for what reason, this scurvy trick had been played upon us.
As the rest recovered their senses, they expressed their astonishment and dismay freely enough, each after his own manner—our naval passenger, for once, more sensibly than any of them.
"When I was on active service," he remarked, "I should have, at once, upon finding myself in such a fix, stepped the mast and got sail on the boat. There's land, if I'm not mistaken. Where there's land there are possibly inhabitants, and perhaps even a gunboat to go in pursuit of the villains."
And, indeed, his keen old eyes had been sweeping the horizon while the others talked, and had discovered a lofty peak rising from the sea some ten or fifteen miles distant, and which I had no doubt was the island of Trinidad. There was a mast and sail in the boat, also a liberal supply of provisions and water sufficient to last perhaps for a week, or, with care, for even two.
Among the many theories that our bewildered shipmates advanced in order to account for their present position, the only one that seemed plain to them was that we had all been drugged, and while in that condition set adrift; but when it happened, or how long we had been under the influence of the opiate, nobody was prepared to say with certainty. Probably twenty-four hours at the very least.
"There's something behind all this," remarked Biggins to me shrewdly. "A merchant vessel's crew nowadays, when treated as well as your men were, play such pranks for no conceivable reason except a term of imprisonment for life when they're caught, as caught they must be. And that doctor's no fool, although he seemed to think I was. Now when I was on active service, I remember—"
So, to stop the threatened long-winded yarn, as well as to hear his opinion on the matter, I told him the truth; upon which he whistled softly, and became silent and thoughtful.
Although the lifeboat was a roomy craft, we were still rather crowded, and we gazed longingly towards the land. But it was still a long way off, and the wind was light. There were no oars, so we were quite dependent upon our small mainsail and jib.
"Didn't want you to get ashore too soon," remarked Biggins. "They mean to put in somewhere and overhaul the Mermaid at their leisure. And, according to your story, they've got a long job before them, unless chance favours them. Sure Milsom had no inkling of the tank scheme?"
"I really don't know what he had or hadn't a notion of," I replied bitterly. "All I'm sure of is that he's fooled me and got my ship."
"Well, well," testily replied the old commander, for whom I began to feel a quite novel feeling of respect, "don't forget that he's got my outfit also. And, if possible, I'd like to get upsides with him, too. Now, something very similar happened when I was on active service on this same South American station "And, actually, this time his yarn formed a welcome distraction to unpleasant thoughts.
The sun had hardly risen when the second mate saw a steamer's smoke astern. It was almost calm, and Trinidad yet a good many miles distant.
"That fellow can't well help picking us up," remarked Phil, "and the sooner the better, for I fancy there's a blow brewing; and I'm not taking any more open boat than I can help."
"Frozen-meater for New Zealand," said Carlton presently as the big, grey steamer drew closer and closer, and we waved and shouted while she slowed down, and at last stopped almost alongside us.
Her skipper apparently thought there was no present need for any explanations; as a pair of davit falls were at once lowered, and, unstepping our mast, we were hauled up boat and all. And almost before we got out of her the ship was under way again. We stood amid a crowd of men, answering their questions as well as we could, when they all suddenly fell back to make room for somebody we knew, and at sight of whom Phil gave a regular shout of welcome.
"Emslie, by the living Jingo!" he exclaimed. "Another of the Century's crowd, if you please!"
Emslie, in his captain's smart uniform, was quite a different-looking person to the mate of the old brig with whom Phil and I had served as boatswain and second mate respectively. But he was pleased, as well as astonished, to meet us, and was eager to learn our story when, washed and refreshed, we two and Biggins went into his cabin, and told him of the way we had lost the Mermaid.
And as he listened his eyes grew wider; and he swore that it was the cleanest and neatest job he had ever heard or read of in the annals of the sea.
"That doctor-man," he said, "if doctor he was, which seems doubtful, had the whole show cut and dried, so that you couldn't help being taken down. The question is—where is the Mermaid now? Not very far away, you may be certain. The medical gentleman's going to take no risks in travelling any farther than he can help."
"Exactly my notion," remarked Biggins. "I'm a navy man, captain, and I know this coast from Rio to the Virgins as well as I know my alphabet. I have an idea, too, that Milsom knows nearly as much as I do. And when I was on active service, sir, I do assure you we got into some curious places. I remember—'
But, fortunately, Emslie was called away, and when he returned he at once took up the running.
"I've been thinking what I can do for you," he said. "I'm afraid I can't spare time to search for the Mermaid, although I'd dearly like to see the end of the business. But if I ran you close to Rio Harbour, it's just possible there's a British man-o'-war there, and they'll certainly help you all they know."
We jumped at the offer. And three days later Emslie dropped us off the entrance to the bay, wished us the best of luck, and steamed again to the southward.
Needless to say that I was down-hearted, felt foolish into the bargain, as a man might well be who had been cozened and trapped without chance of protest or struggle. And when we found there was no British war-ship in port, the fact did not seem to matter much to me when compared with the main disaster. There were, however, three or four Brazilian men-of-war lying there.
And here Biggins took charge. He spoke fluent Spanish. And he enlisted the sympathy of the Admiral, whose flagship happened to form one of the squadron, to such good purpose that we were presently informed a vessel should at once be sent in pursuit, and that we were all at liberty to accompany her if we so pleased.
Events moved pretty rapidly now; for, apparently, there was no red tape about the Brazilian naval commander. In a very short time we were at sea again in the Jacare—a torpedo-cruiser they called her—and rushing down the coast poking our noses into various harbours and bays from Yaraty to the Rio Grande. But no sign of the Mermaid.
Biggins was to the fore now very completely. In the captain of the Jacare he had discovered one who had known him as a lieutenant "on active service" many years ago, and who evidently had pleasant recollections of the old-time friendship, for he paid him every attention, while we others were relegated to the background. Not that I cared personally. I was too down on my luck to mind anything much just then. But Phil resented the polite neglect of the "Dagos," which, after all, was merely due to our ignorance of the language.
"Don't you think it possible that Milsom may have turned north-about?" I asked Biggins one morning as we emerged from Magdalena Bay after another fruitless look in.
"No," said he, "I've an idea from something the doctor let fall in an unguarded moment, that he's making for some place he knows of on the Argentine coast. There are scores of spots there where he could discharge the Mermaid and pull her timber from timber, and nobody be any the wiser. Indeed, there's a little inlet I have in my mind's eye, which I don't think we shall draw blank. But, you see, we must beat the coast as well as we can to make certain we don't overrun her. Never fear, captain," he continued, with a smile on his wrinkled, clean-shaven face, "if she's above water we're sure to find her sooner or later. Besides," he added with a frown, "I want my dunnage, in comparison, as much as you want your ship and the money—about which, of course, I've said nothing, although I can see that my friend Caldas there is rather puzzled as to the reason for such an apparently witless piece of piracy."
"Better tell him," I said. "Doubtless he'll keep it to himself. He looks all right."
"He's a gentleman," said Biggins conclusively.
His chosen spot, a bay just inside Cape Corrientes, had proved empty; and I could see that both he and the skipper were pretty well at the end of their respective tethers, and were now almost inclined to think that Milsom had stood out to sea.
Then, one day, steaming slowly into a little bay at the back of a peninsula, whose rugged mountains ran down to the water's edge, one of the crew saw a case which had evidently not been in the water very long. As the ship passed, he skilfully lassoed it with the end of the signal-halliards and dragged it on board. On it "ex Mermaid" was stencilled, and we knew it must have formed a portion of her cargo. Apparently she could not be very far away.
Nobody on the Jacare was acquainted with this particular bit of coast, and as we went along at less than quarter speed, with the lead going, we found the channel becoming narrower, and the cliffs on each side higher. And, all at once, rounding a point, we saw the Mermaid about half a mile away lying moored alongside a sort of natural pier formed of great flat rocks. Her topgallantmasts had been struck; her sails were all neatly stowed. But as we approached, we saw that her decks and the shores were strewn with cargo of every description.
Carrying bold water right alongside the ship, we found her deserted. Smoke issued from the galley funnel; steam was up in the donkey engine; a sling of bales and boxes was hooked on to the tackle ready to be swung over the side. But not a soul was in sight. They had seen, or heard us, and had made off in a desperate hurry.
The 'tween-decks were nearly emptied of cargo, and every article which could by any possibility be used as a place of concealment was ripped up or broken open, and its contents scattered round in the wildest confusion.
I jumped down the after-hatch. Three of the hoptanks had disappeared. The fourth stood there with a rope sling already around it, ready for handling. With a beating heart I searched for the private marks.
They were there. It was the treasure tank.
Elate and jubilant, I leaped up the ladder on to the quarter-deck. There was a crowd of jabbering seamen around the saloon door. Pushing through them, I found myself face to face with Milsom.
Emaciated, pale, with features drawn and haggard, I scarcely recognised him, as, seemingly too weak to stand, he lay back on one of the settees. The steel of handcuffs gleamed on his wrists; a piece of chain, apparently part of a topsail-sheet, was fastened round his waist. He smiled when he saw me. But I could only stare in return, uttering no word.
"They didn't get it?" he asked eagerly.
"No," I stammered, gazing around at the bewildered faces of Biggins, Phil, and the Brazilian captain, and the no less puzzled ones of his officers. "But I thought—we all thought—er—that you"
But he shook his head; and while "Chips" was busy with a file, and the others undid the heavy chain, he incontinently fainted away.
* * * * * *
We had been barking up the wrong tree all the time. "Skipper" was the prime mover in the scheme throughout. And "Skipper" was no other than the late chief officer of the Mermaid, who, eavesdropping at the door of Mr Milne's private office, had heard Mr Allison telling the doctor of the consignment. But he had failed to discover the fashion in which it was to be concealed. All he knew was that it was in the ship. And he took his measures accordingly.
"Skipper," however, more than suspected that the doctor held the secret, and he tried what starvation and ill-usage might do towards forcing him to part with it. But although sorely tempted at times, especially when chained to the mizzen-mast in the saloon, and despairing of rescue, Milsom held out. His visits to her fo'c'sle, which gave rise to so much suspicion, were easily explained.
While attending "Skipper," he had one day missed two phials of his morphia tabloids. And he was almost certain that the supposed patient had stolen them, shamming with much skill the particular kind of illness he did for this very purpose. And since then he had on several occasions gone for'ard to try and confirm a vague idea he held that some mischief was being hatched among the crew. Of course, nothing had been easier than to drug our tea or coffee while it was being prepared in the galley; and he had suffered with the rest of us.
All this he told us while the Jacare was giving us a pull off the land. With the help of her men we had re-stowed the 'tween-decks, after a fashion. Biggins had stayed on board the cruiser for a while, and we could see him from where we sat, resplendent in his commander's uniform, which he had donned at the first opportunity.
"I saw you suspected me," said Milsom, "directly I mentioned the specie. I was foolish to have spoken of it at all. But I was a bit scared, I suppose, when I saw what a crowd we had in the fo'c'sle. And it was a stupid oversight of the firm's not telling you of my relation to them, and that I knew of the matter."
"Now, something must be done for these warship people. Their kindness has been above all praise. Do you feel enough confidence in my written order as a partner in the firm to take, say, one thousand pounds from the gold, and present it to the captain?"
"I'll do it on your word alone, for the matter of that," I replied heartily. "I only wish I could do something more to show how sorry I am for having thought so ill of you."
"I don't see how you could have done otherwise; I ought to have been more careful," replied the doctor very handsomely.
"But, surely," I said after a while, "the captain of the Jacare won't take the money."
Milsom smiled. "Well," he said, "I represented Milne & Allison in Bahia for some years, and I never found any Government servants, of whatever grade, too particular on that score."
But when we consulted Biggins he was more than doubtful. "However," said he "the thing is simple enough. Give it to the Government."
And the "Government," speaking through Captain Caldas of the Jacare, expressed its profound thanks for the generous manner in which the owners of the Mermaid had seen fit to reward its poor exertions on their behalf.
The first news Phil and I heard on our return from England, where we two Australian sailors had been on a long-promised visit of inspection, was that the Bank of Capricornia had "gone bung." Before starting, we had deposited in that institution a very comfortable sum. Now we were "stony-broke," except for the wages due to us as master and mate respectively of the Mermaid, a ship we had brought out from England after a rather adventurous passage. But the vessel, an old sailer, had been sold on arrival, leaving us at a loose end.
And by the time we had been a month or so ashore, our funds were down to zero. Indeed, we were a little in debt at the boarding-house to which we had descended from the hotel patronised on our arrival at Port Adelaide.
Certainly we could have gone "before the stick" again; but doing so irked after having held command. Phil was equally unwilling to brave once more the delights of the fo'c'sle. Therefore, we just lingered around until we had not enough to pay our fares to any other port.
But at last we got our chance.
One morning Jack Haynes, our good-natured boarding-master, said: "I hear there's a topsailschooner just in from New Zealand. Old man's skipper and owner. His mates want to leave. And he's going to discharge 'em. Her name's the Ladybird, and she's lying down at the Semaphore—ain't coming up the river. Hustle, you two, and nip round to the shipping office and put in a word with old Brooks before the skipper gets there."
Now Brooks, the shipping-master, was an acquaintance of ours; so we "hustled"; and we were both signed on for a six months' voyage to Fremantle and Singapore, before the other fellows got wind of the vacant berths.
The skipper was a small, insignificant-looking, elderly man, more like a parson than a sailor; and he had a curious trick of rapidly winking his left eye when he spoke that was rather discomposing until one got accustomed to it. He was dressed in rusty black, and wore a hat of the sort we used to call a "hardhitter"—black felt with a round top. His name was Dodds. He seemed in a hurry, hardly looked at our discharges. Took Brooks's word for everything. Paid us a month's wages in advance and told us to be on board that same evening. As we left him we noticed that after a suspicious glance around, he made a dive into a noted hostelry called the "White Hart."
"Funny old chap," remarked Phil, now second mate of the Ladybird, as I was first. "But you never know what you're bumping up against in these small fry. A bit of a come-down, Harry, after the Mermaid, isn't it? From one thousand five hundred tons to two hundred?"
"It is," I replied philosophically. "But it's better than before the mast, at any rate. As for the skipper, well, you can't tell a book by the cover. He may be a sailorman, and a good one, for all we know. Although I'm opposed, on principle, to skipper-owners."
But we presently discovered that he was neither the one nor the other.
Squaring accounts with Haynes, getting our dunnage together, and "shouting" for our mates in the boarding-house—a rite always religiously observed by the fortunate men—we clamoured into an omnibus and rattled along to the Semaphore; and then in one of John Germaine's boats out to the Ladybird.
We found her to be not a topsail-schooner at all, but a brigantine—and a fine, wholesome-looking craft at that. Her yards were square, her spars lofty, and she evidently carried a good spread of canvas.
There was a small poop aft with a skylight, and a companion leading to a roomy cabin below. But the mates lived in a good-sized house on deck just for'ard of the mainmast.
Our first glance around told us that she was the kind of vessel known to, and intensely hated by, seamen of all grades as "a little-big ship."
Her decks were spotless; her running gear was coiled down in Flemish fakes; her brass-work, of which there was a lot, gleamed and shone in flawless lustre from the big binnacle in front of the wheel, with its brass boss and brass-tipped spokes, to the brass rods on the skylight, and the brass-tipped lanyards of the lower rigging, and the brass-belaying pins around her masts. And the masts themselves were "bright," that is to say scraped, and oiled from the hounds to the distant truck. And every sailor knows what sort of work that means for him.
"Why, damn it!" exclaimed Phil, in disgust, "she's a regular blooming housemaid's boat. Take all the brass-rags in the British Navy to keep her up to the mark!"
At that moment the skipper came out of the cabin, descended the ladder amidships, and walked to where we stood on the "quarter-deck," near a little brass-bound capstan.
He was dressed exactly as when we last saw him; but his nose was redder, and he smelled of rum. Whether he heard what Phil said or not we couldn't tell; but he grinned and winked violently.
"I think, Mr Ward," he said, "that we'll heave short. We'll get under way directly Mrs Dodds comes on board."
Aye, aye, sir," I replied with a little gasp of surprise, while Phil almost whistled. A skipper-owner was bad enough, but a skipper-owner with a wife at sea was, as Phil concisely put it, "just hell."
The crew was mixed. There were six A.B.'s—Swedes, Germans, an Irish-American, and two boys from a reformatory ship, who were rated as ordinary seamen, and who were never far away from their polishing tins. The cook was an American negro, hailing from Glasgow.
We had scarcely got the cable up and down when a boat came alongside, and out of it a woman sprang on to the nearly perpendicular accommodation ladder, and thence over the rail and on to the deck.
No second glance was needed to see that here was the "captain" of the ship.
She was above the average height, massive, but built in such good proportions as to seem shapely. Her face was the colour of a brick; mouth and nose were both generously proportioned; a square chin stood out like a promontory; her eyes were of a rather frosty blue; she wore a boating cap, and her dark hair was streaked with grey; a very evident moustache marked the long upper lip. Altogether a commanding figure of a woman, as she cast a sharp regard aloft; eyed Phil and myself critically, acknowledging her husband's introduction by a nod; ordered crisply, "Get under way, George," and disappeared into the cabin, carrying parcels.
"The grey mare," growled Phil.
"Yes; the boss," I replied resignedly.
I expected Dodds to take charge, for a while at any rate. But as he did not even come on deck, I took his place, and got sail on the Ladybird, standing at the break of the poop and giving orders in regular big-ship fashion.
There was a fair wind down the Gulf, and I set every stitch she had.
But the men did not please me; they were sluggish; and Phil seemed to be having trouble with them, judging from some of his strenuous remarks I caught.
"Get aloft," I said to one of the boys, "and shift that gaff-topsail tack over."
He was a lanky youth of about eighteen, and he glanced up as if to make sure that there was such a thing as a tack. Then he calmly took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket and began to bite a chew off it.
But he never finished the operation; for, incensed beyond bearing, I gave him a cuff on the side of the head that made him stagger, and sent the plug flying overboard.
"You infernal young soger," I said, "where did you learn your sea manners? Up you go, quick and lively. If you're a specimen of the crowd on this ship, I'll haze you till you'll wish you were dead."
The look of amazement on the lad's face as he stared at me was so comical that I could scarce keep from laughter; and the way he jumped for the rigging and sped aloft was an object-lesson in activity.
"Thank you, sir," said a voice at my side, accompanied by a sort of pleased chuckle. I'm glad to see there's somebody on board at last that can handle men. I've done my best; but a woman's handicapped. If my first had been alive he would have smartened up things. The mates that went ashore at Adelaide were little better themselves than fo'c'sle hands. They pulled-in with the men; an' my second husband is unfortunately not all there where the firm backbone's wanted. Indeed, it's as much as he can manage to have the brass-work kept clean."
"Neither the second mate, Mr Scott, nor myself are 'buckos,' madam," I replied, "but we like the work done smartly; and I can see that your men have been let get slack. However, I think we'll be able to remedy that."
"So do I," she replied with a grim sort of smile, as just then Phil appeared, administering hearty kicks to one of the "Dutchmen" whom he had lugged out of the fo'c'sle, where he was smoking when he should have been helping to clear up the decks.
"I'm sorry," said Phil, coming aft rather breathless, as he touched his cap to Mrs Dodds, "but the beggar as good as told me to mind my own business, and hinted that the crew bossed this ship."
"Don't apologise," said Mrs Dodds politely. "I've just been explaining to Mr Ward here that"
"I hope," said Dodds, who had made his appearance just in time to see Phil correcting the sailor, "that the men are not going to be knocked about in this dreadful fashion."
He seemed quite put out, winked in the most rapid and distressful manner, and spoke in quavering tones as he added: "I abhor brutality in any shape or form, and I have always been able to avoid having recourse to violence."
"Rubbish!" snorted Mrs Dodds with emphasis. "If we had gone on as we were, the men would have had command of the ship in another week. You wouldn't back me up, and but for Macpherson I shouldn't have been able to get a thing done. The saucy rascals take every point they can of you, George Dodds, and you lie down and let 'em do it. If they don't turn over a new leaf before we get to Fremantle I'll discharge the whole crowd."
"They will have become quite a willing little family by that time, I'm sure, ma'am," I replied.
"I'm also sure of it, ma'am," agreed Phil, as he went for'ard to remonstrate with another loafer.
The Ladybird was a smart little sea-boat, fast, too; and we slipped down St Vincent's and out through Investigator Strait in great style.
We soon discovered, as had the crew long ago, that the skipper was a cypher. His business was to see that the housemaid's work was done properly. He was chief of the "spit and polish" department. This obsession for cleanliness was the sole blemish on the character of an otherwise admirable woman.
And Mrs Dodds was every inch a sailor. She had married young, we gathered, and had been to sea with her "first" for close on twenty years in various kinds of craft. His name was Logan, and there was one son by the marriage; but of him she seldom spoke, although from something Dodds said we got an idea that he had been rather a black sheep.
What could have induced her to choose her present husband was a problem to us just at present. He looked such a weak, no-account sort of a mortal; and the curious part of the business was that he knew very little of the practical part of his profession. He could navigate, certainly; but he could do nothing else. Once he made an attempt to tack the Ladybird, and only succeeded in bringing her right round on her heel. It was my watch below; but Phil told me that his irate spouse had promptly taken charge, and put matters straight again.
We heard afterwards that he had only been in command once, and that he had retired from the sea, after losing his ship, to run a navigation school. However, as will be seen, there was more in him than appeared on the surface.
The crew, after the first few days, gave us no trouble. We showed them that we would stand no nonsense, and they soon got rid of any Socialistic notions they might have formerly possessed. Certainly, now and again, the Irish-American, whose name was Giles, would start looking for trouble, but either Phil or I, or Macpherson, the stalwart black cook and steward, would induce him to listen to reason. Then, for a change, he would amuse himself by thumping the "Dutchmen." He had in his time been a "Western Ocean Packet-Rat," so he said.
And he told blood-curdling stories of "bucko" ships whose officers never gave an order unless it was accompanied by the impact of knuckle-dusters or the cracking of revolvers. And in the strife he declared with many an oath that he had borne himself as a mixture of horse and alligator, kicking and rending, and gouging indiscriminately around.
But whenever the spirit moved him to play up to the memory of those bygone days, we managed to quell his ambition without overmuch exertion.
We had not cleared Kangaroo Island very long ere we got a dusting that dimmed our brass-work; also forced us to furl our upper-topsail and close reef the foresail and mainsail. The wind was almost ahead, and blew occasionally with hurricane force.
But the "Old Girl," as she was called for'ard—and aft, too, for the matter of that—kept the deck throughout, and although she never interfered, both her first and second mates felt that the eye of a formidable and critical expert was upon them. Clad in a great oilskin coat and sou'-wester and sea-boots, she stood holding on to the weather-rigging, quite indifferent to the howling gale, the rain, or the volleys of spindrift that now and again swept over the poop.
Dodds was sick in his berth, and did not put in an appearance until the blow was over. Then he again took charge of the polishing department and made the O.S.'s lives a burden to them.
We noticed that the Old Girl liked things done as much as possible in big-ship style; and, of course, although it seemed rather a joke to us, we were quite willing to carry out her wishes in this respect. For instance, she had the watch coming on deck at eight bells for the first four hours of the night mustered aft to answer to their names. Then the bell on the fo'c'sle-head had to be struck every half-hour, while the man on the look out must cry, "Lights are bright and all's well." Every watch, too, the log was hove; every morning at four bells she made a tour of inspection, looking into the galley, where everything was as bright and clean as it was outside; pausing here and there to note whether the paint-work was spotless; noticing whether the deck-house occupied by us two mates was kept in order by the O.S. whose duty it was to see to it.
There were no spirits at table. But later on, after the blow, Macpherson, grinning widely, brought a bottle to our berth every Saturday night, with "Missis Dodd's complimen's, gen'elmen. For the wives and sweethearts." To her husband she gave a moderate allowance; but she kept the keys of the after-locker in her own pocket. And unlike the majority of big ships, the food in this little-big one was excellent at both ends of her.
In fine weather the Old Girl would sit on the poop-skylight and make thrum mats for chafing gear; while Dodds, when all was right with the brass-work, lay back in a canvas chair and read "yellow backs," of which he had a large stock. They were a curious couple, seldom speaking to each other; the little man apparently quite content to be completely subordinated to the woman's vigorous personality, while she regarded him from a calm and dispassionate attitude of acceptance. His protests, when he made any, she generally disposed of with the single word "rubbish," uttered in no spirit of anger or contempt, but merely as one stating an incontrovertible fact.
Half-way across the Bight, where for a wonder the weather still kept fine, Giles, who was in Phil's watch, suddenly became more aggressive than usual. He loudly proclaimed himself an uncohquered warrior of the Western Ocean; referred triumphantly to his horse-alligator attributes; dared anybody in the ship to dispute his supremacy; knocked two inoffensive Germans into the lee-scuppers, and wound up by attacking the second mate.
This all happened about five o'clock in the morning, wash-deck time. Hearing the rumpus, I jumped out of my bunk, and saw Phil just getting in a hit on the fellow's jaw that made him stagger again; but he made a bull-like rush at Phil and let out with his right in a way that, had it taken effect, must have put the latter instantly to sleep.
Luckily, Phil stepped aside just in time to avoid the smashing blow. His opponent was taller, also heavier by at least a stone—a big, muscular, red-haired lump of bone, muscle, and sinew. And he evidently thought he had an easy task in front of him. Hitherto, he had never shown fight in such menacing and earnest fashion; and Phil, on the two or three occasions necessary to call him forcibly to order, owing to his superior science, had found no trouble in disposing of "Dreadnought Bill," as he called himself, by reason of, according to his story, having been once bos'n of that notorious packet.
Now, on a big ship such a demonstration as the present one would have been promptly stopped, and the offender put in irons. But on the Ladybird, although by rights the same procedure should have been followed, no move was made to do so. Macpherson certainly stepped forward; but Phil waved him back. I felt secure of the result. The Old Girl stood impassive at the poop-rail. Her husband, after one scared look, retired to his chair. The crew, notwithstanding the ill-usage they had all of them often received from the bully of the fo'c'sle, evidently sympathised with him in his outburst against constituted authority.
Giles now went more warily to work, and got in one or two thumping body-blows. His reach was long, and his hitting heavy, and Phil knew that if he failed to avoid those smashing, if unscientific swipes, disaster must inevitably ensue. Therefore, he contented himself for a while with nimbly side-stepping and ducking, getting one in under the other's guard now and then.
But these methods were too slow for the sailor; he was becoming pumped, and realised that if victory was to be won it must be won by sheer weight. So, gathering himself together, he suddenly rushed Phil up against the main-rail, and sought to get his arm round the other's neck. But Phil had not been friends with "Snowy Baker," the celebrated Sydney pugilist, without learning some of the 'tricks of the trade. And slipping out of Giles's grasp as his opponent turned, he dealt him a terrible right-hander on the mouth, followed by another behind the ear which almost dazed the big man, now spitting out blood and teeth, and making wild rushes at his adversary. Some of these charges, in the confined space, Phil had much difficulty in eluding. Evidently he had no desire for another turn at close quarters with those powerful arms around him.
Giles was clearly weakening, and the second mate was as fresh as paint, although with one eye fast becoming eclipsed, and to place the other in the same condition was now "Dreadnought's" prime object. Then Phil would be at his mercy; but, knowing this, the latter kept out of the way, watching for an opening.
At last the opportunity came; for a second Giles took his eyes away to avoid tripping over the corner of the main-hatchway, and with a spring like a cat's at a mouse Phil was upon him, and putting in two lightning right and left punches, one on the nose, the other on the jaw, the Western Ocean champion fell with a crash full length on the deck.
"Well done, sah," roared Macpherson. "That d—d white trash got all he want! The boys be able to play with him now."
"Throw some water over him," said Phil to one of the men, seeing that Giles still lay apparently senseless, and surveying him rather doubtfully.
The men, now grinning obsequiously, obeyed, and dashed a whole bucketful into the face of the prostrate man.
He quickly sat up sputtering and choking. And then catching sight of Phil smiling, he all at once sprang to his feet, drawing his sheath-knife as he did so, and rushing at the second mate raised his hand on high to plunge the weapon into his breast.
I shouted to warn Phil of his danger, too far away to do aught else. But even as I stared horrified, there sounded a report from aft, and the uplifted knife flew out of the would-be murderer's grasp, while Macpherson and Phil threw themselves upon him and bore him to the deck.
"Put these on the brute," said the Old Girl, handing me a pair of handcuffs. "I've seen his sort before, and I know the dirty blood in 'em. So I just stood by ready for squalls." And she held up a heavy Colt's revolver from one chamber of which smoke still issued. "Good thing my first taught me to shoot pretty straight, wasn't it?"
"If he hadn't done so, ma'am, I'd have been done for, I expect," replied Phil. "I owe you one, Mrs Dodds. Call on me when you want anybody particularly."
"That's all right," said the admirable woman; "but I dare say I'll be able to get along without help. I'm used to paddling my own canoe. Thank you all the same, though. Did I take one of that chap's fingers off?"
"Three top-joints, ma'am, I think," I replied as I clicked the bracelets on to Giles's wrists with difficulty, so fiercely did he struggle with those holding him, and just then a German came up with the severed portions on the galley shovel, the impact of the big bullet having carried them away for'ard.
"I'm out o' practice," remarked the Old Girl regretfully, as she glanced at the pieces. "Spoilt his flipper for pullin' and haulin' for a time, I'm afraid. We'll have to discharge him at Fremantle."
Surveying his damaged hand, Giles now broke out into such a flood of unspeakable language as necessitated the use of a gag. Then dipping the stumps in the tar-bucket, we bound them up. There's nothing in all the world better for such wounds than good Stockholm.
"Our luck again, Harry," remarked Phil that evening as I came on deck to relieve him. "Aren't we always in the thick of it?"
"Well," I replied, "for two harmless Australian sailormen, we do seem to get into some curious mixups. Now this promised to be a peaceful enough trip, goodness knows; but you must needs set to fighting, and—"
"The Old Girl start to shooting," put in Phil. "Bless her straight eye! Only for her I'd be lying like a stuck pig at this very moment. However, let's hope for peace and quietness in the future. I've got 'Dreadnought' down in the after-hold fast to a stanchion. He's comfortable enough now, with a good mattress, the gag out, and plenty of tucker. Dodds has fixed the log-book according to Cocker, and he was so shaky while he was doing it that I expected he'd have a fit. Groaned, and turned up his eyes like a dying duck in a thunderstorm. Talked about bloodshed and mutiny and sudden death, till I thought the Old Girl would have boxed his fool's-ears for him. And all over a trifling incident like this."
"Trifling to us, perhaps," I replied, "who have in our time seen a few trifles of the kind. But men like our poor little skipper are naturally prejudiced in their views."
It must not be thought, however, that the Old Girl was a heartless, unsexed sort of person. Far from it. She was simply full of courage, and absolutely without nerves.
The morning after the shindy she was looking after "Dreadnought" like a mother, dressing his hand, and giving him a lecture meanwhile. We had nothing on board except Epsom salts, and black draughts, and blue pills. The medicine-chest was to have been stocked at Adelaide, but Dodds had forgotten his instructions—intent on another description of "medical comforts."
However, the Old Girl smelled the wounds and declared they were "sweet as a nut," dressed them with some carbolic acid she had discovered, took off his irons, and sent him into the fo'c'sle—sobered in spirit if very sore in body.
"He's beat," she declared positively. "Hasn't got a kick left in him. A bad egg, of course; but the horse and alligator parts are clean knocked out of him—for a while. We've got to see now that the Dutchmen for'ard leave him alone."
Off the Leuwin we caught another big blow, and were driven away to the southward and westward under short canvas. But the Ladybird soon recovered her lost ground, and we rounded the Cape in fair weather for that part of the world, giving its nest of perilous reefs a respectfully wide berth. Carrying a fair wind, we spun up the coast, round Rottnest, and so into the harbour of Fremantle, where we had to discharge some odds and ends of cargo brought by the Ladybird from New Zealand.
The port was a poor place in those days. Galvanised iron shanties, swarms of goats, loafing ticket-of-leave men, and bare spaces of hot white sand were its principal features. Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie were in the near future, but the magician's wand of "payable gold" had not yet touched the Cinderella of the Island Continent.
There, rather than face a police magistrate, "Dreadnought" took his discharge, his fingers healed, and with, in addition to his pay, a five-pound note as a present from the Old Girl.
The two Swedes also left us to try their luck upcountry among some of their own people. So we were three men short, and Dodds, now in charge of the ship's shore-going business, found it impossible to fill their places.
It was very funny to see the little skipper ashore among his contemporaries, and note how dignified and professional he became in his conversation; with what relish he spoke of the passage round; of how he extolled the qualities of the Ladybird; and altogether posed as the master and owner of such a likely craft might be expected to do. But he never altered his dreadful rig, and some of the coasting skippers took occasion to ask me whether the Ladybird was a Bethel, or her master a missionary.
We were presently chartered to load sandalwood for Singapore, and soon our cargo began to arrive in neatly-dressed, small logs, which were rapidly stowed away in the Ladybird's hold by the lumpers.
Just before we were ready to sail, a surprise was afforded us by the appearance of "Dreadnought," a miserable enough looking object, after what we supposed had been a continuous and lively spree in some country township.
He wanted to be taken on again, and though both Phil and myself opposed the idea, the Old Girl favoured it.
"He knows he can't play any monkey tricks now," she said. "Let him come. We're too short-handed as we are. His missing finger-tops won't make any difference. And, after all, he's a sailorman—if a waster."
So we signed him on; but there was a curious gleam of satisfaction in the fellow's eyes when informed of the decision, that I did not altogether like the look of, and it struck me that, improbable as it seemed, he might possess brains for mischief. In the long run it turned out that my presentiment was rather within the mark than otherwise.
Out into the Indian Ocean again, in the finest of weather; Dodds busy with his brass-work; the Old Girl making a mat for the cuddy floor; and Phil and I hoping almost against hope that we were not going to be let in for any more ructions.
Of course, we had sailed on quiet voyages without ever hearing an angry word, or seeing a rope-yarn stranded, during the years we had stuck together; but it must be confessed that such trips were exceptional, and that, as a rule, we were generally in the middle of a very hurrah's nest of trouble—through no fault of our own.
We were both young men; nevertheless, we had on many occasions only escaped by the skin of our teeth from losing the number of our mess. Indeed, so inured had we become to having all sorts of unwelcome surprises sprung upon us, that we never attempted to forecast the issue of any voyage, even when undertaken in the most favourable and auspicious conditions.
However, as Phil said: "There's no damage done to speak of, so far. All the same, I do believe, Harry, that swine of a 'Dreadnought's' got it in for us."
"He's willing enough," I agreed, "but he's got no backing. The pair of us and Macpherson, and last, but by no means least, the Old Girl could give a good account of the crowd for'ard."
But there was a surprise in store for us.
We were about one hundred miles off the Australian coast, when one morning I was astonished to see two strangers standing near the galley, out of which Macpherson was staring at them with a look of emphatic disfavour on his usually smiling features.
"Stowaways, mister mate," remarked Mac, with a grunt. "Spec' these the fellers who bin scoffing the tucker I bin losing outer the galley. Fust I puts it down to dem dam squareheads, or the boys. Now I guess dese chaps come out ob de hold an' go fossickin' aroun' when I fast asleep."
They were a sullen, evil-looking pair, right enough. Ticket-of-leavers probably. Also, it was pretty certain that the other men knew of their presence on board. It was, indeed, not worth while putting the question to them.
"What are you?" asked the Old Girl, as I drove them aft into the presence. "No sailormen, that's certain," she continued, fixing them with a frosty eye. "Burglars more likely."
"We ain't no burglars," said the more villainous-looking of the two. "We're decent, respec'able coves, we are, as couldn't git no work in that Gord forsaken 'ole back yonder. Those—sandgropers 'd let 'onest blokes starve an' never chuck 'em a crumb. Strike me dead, missis, I ain't tellin' no lies!"
"Just so," replied the Old Girl. "I believe every word you've told me. Your honesty pokes itself out of your faces, so that there's no getting away from it, come up anythin' to the contrary that I might have hinted at. It's a libel. Mr Ward, after breakfast, sling 'em up one at the fore and one at the main. Those lower masts haven't been scraped down for a month o' Sundays."
Later on we found their nest, so cunningly made among the cargo that even the police in their customary search for "escapees" had failed to discover it.
It had often struck me that there was some ulterior motive to account for this cruise of the Ladybird, other than a purely commercial one.
So far, I was pretty sure that her earnings had not sufficed to pay wages, or anything like it; and I knew that at that time freights for the East were low.
And one evening in the second dog-watch the Old Girl told me the real object of the trip.
To my surprise, it seemed that the Ladybird was her own property; and although she did not exactly say so, yet I inferred that she had married Dodds merely for use as a figure-head. A woman cannot with any peace and comfort sail her own ship, and attend to the details of business and management connected with the venture; and in Dodds she had found exactly the kind of man who would suffice.
"I'm never happier than when I'm at sea," said the Old Girl. "I had four years ashore after Logan died; and I was a regular pelican in the wilderness. So I bought the Ladybird—and took Dodds for company like. He's a good navigator, but a shocking bad hand with men. An' he has an easy time with me, which is pretty well all he cares for.
"As you may have guessed, Mr Ward, it's not trade I'm after. It's my boy. I've never clapped eyes on Frank Logan since he cleared out from home, eight years ago. He was then just eighteen. He an' his father had a bit of a row. The lad was highspirited; the father lost his temper, an' Frank ran away—shipped ordinary seaman on a barque bound for Hong-Kong. But he wrote now and again. The last letter's just a year old. He was then master of a small steamer, owned in Singapore, and trading to Java, Flores, Timor, an' round about those parts. But I want him. He's got to come home an' leave the sea. There's property there he comes into under his father's will; an' I'll find him an' take him back, if I've got to shanghai him. A man with somethin' close on five hundred a year's no need mucking about on a dirty little tank of a country-wallah."
"And does he know that he is a man of means now?" I asked.
"Of course he does," replied the Old Girl. "But he says little N.Z. ain't big enough to hold him. I expect, though," she added grimly, "some woman's got him in tow, an' he doesn't want to leave. This East's a dangerous shop for young men to roam about in. It gets in their blood. Me and Logan used to be on the coast there a good deal in a barque we had; an' I got to know more than most women do about the ways of the whites an' the natives; an' the drink, an' the general devilishness of it all for the man who stays out for a long spell, an' loses sight of his own folk."
All the same, I couldn't help smiling when I thought of the expedition fitted out for the purpose of reclaiming one who had so strongly persisted in leading his own life. A waster, probably, who when found would do his relations no credit, and who would be much better left unmolested until, tired of wandering, he turned his face voluntarily towards the home he now despised.
Phil laughed when he heard of the affair.
"Strikes me, you know, Harry," he said, "that if the home was run on little-big ship lines by the pair of retired shellbacks, the young 'un would have none too good a time of it between 'em. Probably they'd set him to polishing the brass-work, painting, cleaning out the hencoops and the pigsty, and scrubbing, exactly as a premium apprentice still has to do in many sailers. The chances are that the chap's all right; only he prefers to be his own boss; and you know, Harry, that, sweet soul as the Old Girl is, she is, and will be, boss wherever she may be—ship, husband, or children. I'll bet she bossed number one, too—ran the whole show for him as the years went by."
The weather had kept fine, and the winds mostly fair, if light. Everything appeared quiet enough for'ard. "Dreadnought" went about his work with the rest of the crew. He seemed quieter and more subdued, and there was no more talk of wild Western Ocean happenings. The two stowaways had unexpectedly developed some seaman-like qualities that enabled them to escape much of the dirty work which had heretofore been their portion. It seemed they could steer, and even go aloft, and help to make and take in sail.
They accounted for these accomplishments by saying that they had once or twice made trips in coasters. But the Old Girl had her suspicions.
"Seems I was on the wrong tack," she said. "I'm beginning to think they know more than we give 'em credit for. I saw one of 'em the other day shove a Blackwall hitch into the topsail-halliards just as if he'd been at the game all his life. I'm not sure that they ain't gammonin' us. Keep your eyes lifting, both of you. For all we can tell, they may be chums of 'Dreadnought's.'"
This was quite a new view of the matter, but neither of us thought it a likely one, nor saw how it could do us any harm were such the case.
Nevertheless, for a time, we slept with one eye open.
We carried a fair wind through the Straits of Sunda, but at Anjer it shifted round and blew strong, right in our teeth. So we brought up, and Mac took the boat ashore for some fresh provisions. Native craft swarmed around us, and their occupants tried to sell us anything from a suit of duck to a live monkey. Some of them got on board, and when Mac came off he was accompanied by a rascally sort of comprador who brought meat, eggs, fowls, and other things of grateful aspect to mariners after a long passage.
Our visitor was a stout, square-set Malay, with a dreadful squint; and he bore offerings of most infernal cigars which, rejected with contumely aft, he took into the fo'c'sle, whence presently issued volumes of acrid, offensive smoke.
We were detained for three days at Anjer until the wind set fair again. On the second day Phil caught our Malay friend bringing arrack on board; indeed, two of the Germans were drunk and incapable before we discovered the source of the supply.
Then, overhauling a basket of fruit, the property of the Malay, Phil lit upon some bottles stowed away at the bottom of it. Whereupon he pitched them overboard, and kicked "Billy Ross," as our visitor called himself, into his boat, to the accompaniment of sundry vehement protests from "Dreadnought" and the two stowaways, defrauded of their anticipated spree.
"Billy," departing, shook his fist at us, spat a stream of scarlet betel-nut juice against our immaculate white sides, and disappeared, vowing vengeance.
"They're the scum o' the earth," remarked the Old Girl. "I know 'em well. Greedy, lying, treacherous brutes. There's nothing in 'colour' to beat 'em for badness. That fellow'd give a lot to have a run among us with his kris. Mister Ross is worse than the wild truck out there in the Bush. He's a mixture o' bad nigger an' mean white, than which there's nothin' more cram-full o' mischief. My first always kep' well to wind'ard of 'em."
The wind was so light that evening that when we cleared Anjer and laid a course for Banca, the Ladybird had scarcely steerage way on her. About dark it fell dead calm, and we brought up in fifteen fathoms under the lee of one of the numerous islands on the Sumatra side. On our starboard hand steamers were passing up and down, a regular procession of them, for we were in a crowded highway; and for an hour or two Phil and I sat and smoked and watched them. We were in no hurry, and although a bit of a breeze sprung up about two bells, we knew that the Old Girl would not make a start before daylight.
"Lights are bright and all's well," sung out "Dreadnought's" voice from the fo'c'sle-head, where he was keeping anchor-watch. When he struck three bells I turned in. Phil had slung a hammock under the boat-skids, so I had our house to myself. With the door and the ports open it was cool enough.
I must have been asleep for some hours when I awoke suddenly, with the indefinable feeling of something being wrong that most of us have experienced at one time or another. I was in utter darkness, and, listening intently, I could hear the soft padding of many bare feet around the decks. Striking a match, I saw that my door was closed.
Rising, I tried the door. It was fastened from the outside. The two little ports, however, were open, but it was too dark to see anything.
Then it suddenly struck me that the vessel was moving. Even as I realised the fact, she heeled gently over, and I heard the noise of water along her sides. She was under sail. Putting my hand along my mattress where I usually kept a revolver, I found it gone.
This was clever. But in my chest I had another, and I speedily got hold of it, threw on my clothes, and putting a handful of cartridges in my pocket, I waited and listened.
Where were Phil, and the cook, and the Old Girl; and Dodds, I wondered—to say nothing of the crew?
"Hello, mister mate," came the voice of "Dreadnought" through one of the ports. "Turned out yet? Guess your watch is about up."
"That you, Giles?" I replied carelessly. "What's the trouble?"
"No trouble at all," he said. "Only the ship's changed hands. Neat job, too. Me an' Billy Ross an' my two pals as stowed away back yonder, fixed it all up. They was shipmates with me in the Ranger, brig—you might have heard tell of her. Lord, didn't we run you all to rights!" And the fellow chuckled with delight.
"Well," I said, resisting a violent impulse to put my hand out and shoot at the voice, "what are you going to do with us? You'll not have much time before you're caught."
"Caught hell!" he exclaimed. "Who's a-goin' to catch us. Billy's got a customer for the ship down in one o' the Dutch islands. Saw her at Anjer an' took a fancy for her. Her builder wouldn't know 'er in a month. Billy arsts us would we stand in with 'im. Would a duck swim! I've got it in for that old duchess aft. Shoot my fingers off, an' not pay, will she? If this job hadn't happened, we'd ha' scuttled her bloomin' ship for 'er afore she got to Singapore."
"How did you get the anchor up?" I asked, while digesting all this news.
"Trust them Malayers for a quiet job," replied "Dreadnought." "They knocked a pin out of the shackle an' let the mud-hook down without a clink."
"Well," I said, "open the door and let me out. I'd like to see what's going on."
At this he burst into a hoarse laugh as he replied, "Sure thing! You stop where you are. Them Malayers wouldn't think twice o' cuttin' yer throat. The Germans, and the boys, and the cook are in the fore-peak. The old cow an' the fool-skipper's locked in same as you are."
"Where's the second mate?" I asked, feeling suddenly sick.
"Overboard," said he, and I heard him laugh nastily as he walked away. And I was more than ever sorry I hadn't tried to shoot him.
Still I couldn't realise it. The very idea of Phil gone, and gone in such a fashion, seemed a monstrous impossibility. He had been my greatest friend, and a constant and faithful companion through years of experience of the ups and downs of a life, both ashore and afloat, more than commonly full of incident. Against an instinctive and deadly fear of the truth, I refused to credit it. Then, all at once, I thought of the kicked, squint-eyed Malay and his threatening fist; and I shivered in an intensity of pain and grief.
Presently I heard sail being made on the Ladybird. But it was done with wonderful stealth and quietness. The breeze was freshening. Muttered orders reached my ears, mingled with the rush of bare feet in obedience to them. With what anxiety I waited for daylight!
It came at last, but I was even then not much better off. Through the ports I caught glimpses of a sea dotted here and there with islands. Malays passed and re-passed along the deck, some of them smoking, others chewing betel-nut and chunam. Nowhere was a white face visible. So far as I could make out, we were steering a nearly due east course. This would take us into the Java Sea towards Celebes, and into the midst of the whole tremendous network of islands of which the Malay Archipelago consists.
Suddenly, as I was wondering what was to be our fate, I heard a knocking just under where I stood. One of the Old Girl's big mats nearly covered the centre of the house. Pulling this away, I noticed that underneath it was a small hatch, cut level with the deck. There was no lifting-ring; the seams had evidently long ago been caulked to resemble the others.
First screwing up the ports, I got on my knees, and digging away at the oakum with a knife soon had the square clear. The knocking had ceased, as if whoever was there knew what I was doing. I tapped twice on the hatch. There was a heavy blow from below, and it flew up, exposing to view the grim countenance of the Old Girl, still holding the billet of sandalwood she had been using.
"Better come aft," she remarked without any preamble. "It'll be safer there, an' we've got a gun or two, an' some tucker. I'd have sent Dodds, but he didn't know where the hatch was. I had it closed when the house was built."
Without replying I let myself through on to the cargo, finding just room to crawl between it and the deck. Emerging into a little lazarette, or store-room, we ascended a step-ladder into the snug cabin, off which gave three berths and a bathroom.
"Caught napping, weren't we?" said the Old Girl. "George, give Mr Ward some whisky an' bread an' cheese. He must be pretty peckish."
As I ate I told them "Dreadnought's" yarn. They knew little beyond the fact that the vessel had been seized, and the companion-way, which formed the only access to the deck, secured. "Dreadnought" had shouted through the skylight something to the effect that he was going to get square with her for the loss of his finger-tops. But they had fully expected to find me and Phil together, and genuinely grieved the Old Girl was to hear of his fate.
"That miserable pig may be lying," she said. "Likely enough, Mr Scott's down for'ard with the others."
But there was no conviction in her voice.
"I expect," she added, "they're goin' to stick us on some out o' the way island, an' leave us there to perish like frogs. I don't think they'll murder us. All they want is the ship. It isn't the first one the Dutchmen have had stolen for 'em in the same way; and they alter 'em so that their owners could never swear to 'em again. But they haven't got her yet."
Dodds had little to say, but it surprised me to find him quite cool and collected, showing no alarm whatever. He had laid, loaded and ready for use, a Winchester rifle, a double-barrelled shotgun, and two six-shooters—the armament of the Ladybird. But ammunition was woefully scarce.
The Old Girl contemplated them for a minute, and then shook her head sadly.
"They're too many for us outside I'm feared," she said. "They'd rush us. Still, we might pick a few off."
Just then the hood was slipped back off the companion, and a voice we recognised as that of Billy Ross roared to us to come on deck.
Dodds pocketed a pistol, the Old Girl another, and we ascended the stairs on to the poop.
The wind had dropped to the lightest cat's paw; about half a mile away was a small islet; others were in sight on every hand, all mere dots of rock and trees.
The longboat was in the water, and in it were Macpherson and the rest of the crew. But there was no Phil.
"Step down, ladee and gents," said the Malay with mocking politeness. "We put you ashore right oh. You be very comfort there. Plenty water, plenty feesh."
"Dreadnought" and his two mates stood by, grinning with approval. Some score or more Malays, fierce-looking beggars, lounged around each with his kris in a wooden sheath at his side.
I looked at the Old Girl. Her face was working curiously, and I knew the same thought was in both our minds. Should we shoot or submit? I was thinking of Phil; she doubtless of her lost ship. Little Dodds apparently thought of nothing. He stood there with a hand in his jacket pocket quite unconcerned.
"Mac," sung out the Old Girl, leaning over the rail, "come up here, I want to speak to you for a minute."
"Here, you old," shouted "Dreadnought," giving her a push, "you git ashore an' shoot fingers off the monkeys, an' have black Mae cook 'em for you."
Quick as thought the Old Girl whipped out her revolver and shot him in the knee. He fell howling, while I let drive at the squint-eyed villain whom I blamed for the death of poor Phil.
The Old Girl was firing coolly at the scattering Malays, winging some and bringing down others. I saw Dodds firing at the two stowaways; one he got, and the other ran for'ard, followed by some of the Malays. But many of them stood their ground, and separated so as to take us behind. Billy Ross lay all huddled up and motionless. But they paid no attention to him. I missed Dodds and thought he had gone for cover. Macpherson was scrambling over the rail when a Malay made a swipe at him with a kris; but just in time I put a bullet through his chest and he fell across the spare spars coughing blood; and Mac, catching up the sword, joined us.
The Germans had cut the longboat's painter and were pulling away, taking the two ordinary seamen with them.
If we could have got into the deck-house we should have been safer; but the door was locked from outside and the key gone. So we just dodged round it, expecting every minute to be rushed from front and rear. The brown faces and gleaming krises seemed everywhere; but they kept back, scared of the revolvers, whose muzzles followed them threateningly.
All at once there was a regular fusilade from aft, and looking round I saw Dodds working away at the Winchester with the half-door of the companion for a rest. He made good shooting too, and the Malays scattered for shelter. I noticed three native boats towing astern. If we could only get into them!
But directly we turned the Malays were after us like a pack of dingos. I was wounded; so was Mac. A fellow had got on the roof of the deckhouse and slashed us with his kris. But he could not reach far enough for business, and the Old Girl doubled him up with her last cartridge.
"I'm afraid it's all up, Mr Ward," she said as we stood with our backs at the break of the poop. "But we haven't done so badly, have we?"
She was perfectly cool, not a tremor in her voice. She might have been asking me to have a cup of tea. Her hat had gone, and a big mane of hair had fallen down her back, but her colour was as high and her eye as bright as ever. She, too, had picked up a kris, and waited for the final charge proudly and defiantly. Our ammunition was done—and they knew it.
"Make a dash up the poop-ladder, ma'am," I said, "and get into the cabin. We'll keep 'em back for a minute or two, anyhow."
"What's the good?" she replied. "Might as well have it here, as be dragged out to it."
I think we had forgotten Dodds, whose rifle had long ceased to make itself heard. And we certainly had forgotten the shotgun. But now he came stepping down the poop-ladder with it under his arm, much as if he was going out for a day among black duck or plain turkey. And I noticed with surprise that his winking eye was steady as a rock.
"Can't find another cartridge aft," he remarked casually. "There's only small stuff in this. Just pepper 'em a bit. Let's try a run for the boats. You first, missis. Don't s'pose we'll get there; but it's all we can do."
The Old Girl looked at him not only with pride but with actual affection in her glance, as she patted him on the arm and said, "All right, George, old man, here goes. Now, all together!"
But the Malays weren't going to give us the chance. We had hardly reached the poop, before they made their rush.
A big fellow, clad in a blue sarong reaching to his knees, and flourishing my lost revolver, led them on. Mac had dropped his eighteen-inch dagger and collared a hand-spike out of the rack, and I followed his example. We had the advantage of being about four feet above them, as they came at us.
Bang, bang, went Dodds's gun right in their faces; whack, whack, fell the hand-spikes; the Old Girl cut and slashed with her curved bread-knife.
But they swarmed over the rail and up the ladders to port and starboard, and each of us was presently the centre of a little fight of his own.
I went down, and fell on top of a man, whom I grabbed by the throat and instinctively rolled over on top of me. I felt that he was weak. He had a knife and did his best to drive it into me. But I kept steadily choking him, while above us a howling mob tried to pull him away.
Suddenly, amid the fierce din, some heavy body grated against the quarter of the Ladybird; a chorus of curious, shrill, savage voices broke on my ears, and the group of Malays disappeared.
I still kept my grip, but I was half-blinded with blood, and was only sensible of the wish to kill at all hazards. Presently, somebody dragged the pair of us up, and a well-remembered voice said:
"Steady, Harry, old chap. Sorry to spoil sport. But he ain't worth it. Keep him for hanging—if he'll last long enough. He's stopped one already."
"Where have you been, Phil?" I gasped, too weak to be surprised, as I wiped my eyes, and recognised the face of the man I had been strangling as belonging to one of the stowaways.
I saw, too, Dodds sitting up against the rail, apparently not much hurt. Macpherson was attending to a nasty cut in his leg. A swarm of armed Chinese were tying up the captured Malays—what remained of them. And, extraordinary spectacle, there was the Old Girl crying softly, while a strapping young fellow was hugging her to his breast.
"It's all right," said Phil, grinning at my astonishment. "It's only Logan. The 'Squinter' and 'Dreadnought' chucked me over the side, when I went for'ard about eight bells to find out the meaning of some noise I couldn't understand. All they said was, 'The sharks are hungry.' But the sharks never came near me. And pretty soon I met a big floating tree, and drifted down the China Sea, schooner-rigged, till the little Timor there picked me up.
"We ought to have been here sooner, but we couldn't get on to your track till a junk told us where she'd seen you. Logan was pretty mad when he heard of his mother being in such a fix. He's a white man through and through—chip of the Old Girl block, all right.
"You chaps put up a fine scrap," added Phil regretfully. "Still Logan and his chinkies came in handy. And perhaps it was just as well that I went after them."
Neither Phil nor I liked Singapore. We had arrived there in the Ladybird, brigantine, after a rough trip. And she had been sold; and the skipper and his wife and son had returned to New Zealand by a British-India steamer. They wanted us to go with them, we having been through a rather tight fit together, all on account of various rogues who were now either dead, or doing time in Singapore gaol.
But we two Australians decided to stay ashore for a while, and have a further look round at the Far East. It was our first visit to these latitudes, and we were nothing if not inquisitive, also open-minded to receive impressions of any countries we might choose to visit.
We had been mate and second mate respectively of the Ladybird, from Fremantle, W.A., with sandalwood. And we thought that now we had got so far, we might as well go on and see what there was to be seen before making back to the finest country on the face of the earth. We were staying at a sort of bungalow boarding-house in the middle of a garden. And we used to explore the bazaars and the native town, and watch the curious crowds of Arabs, and Chinese, and Hindus, Siamese, and a dozen other nationalities, who hustled for a living about the city.
But we soon got tired of the show.
"Raffles stinks aloud," said Phil on one particularly steamy day. "The mosquitoes nearly ate me last night; and the room was also full of the finest assorted lot of moths, lizards, beetles, and spiders you could wish to see. I've lost over a stone already; another week of Raffles and there'll be only a solitary drop of sweat to show that Phil Scott once existed. Come on, let's go and look for a ship."
"Raffles" was Phil's name for Singapore. He swore there was no getting away from it; and that wherever you turned you found it staring you in the face—Raffles Institute, Raffles Library, Raffles street, Raffles road, Raffles everything.
"Where shall we go to, Phil?" I asked.
"Let's go to China where the Chows come from," replied Phil. "I believe they're the pick of the crowd around these parts. I've always had a sneaking regard for 'John.' You know, at home, if it wasn't for him the devil a bit of cabbagee would we ever see. He's a hard worker, cheerful, honest, and patient. Come along, let's have a look at his country. The sight of the white people here makes me ill. They're all like corpses."
So we strolled along to the shipping office. There was nothing doing there; and we walked along the water front, looking at the great fleet of sea-borne trade that keeps ever coming and going from this "House of Call," between East and West.
Presently we stood and watched a country-wallah—a native-manned ship—coming up to the anchorage. She was a barque; and her rigging was bare of ratlines. But this made no difference to her crew; they just walked up the bare wire like a flock of black cockatoos, gripping the shrouds between the big toe and the next one.
"Pass me!" remarked Phil. "I've got no sort of use for a craft like that. The Lord never gave us toes to put to such a purpose."
Just then a boat pulled up to a flight of steps in the quay, and out jumped a big, good-looking, black-bearded, but moist-eyed fellow, who cast a sharp glance at us as he came along.
All at once he stopped, and said: "Could you direct me to the master attendant's office?"
"Yes," I said, "but do you by any chance want hands?"
He looked surprised. We were both dressed in white duck, wore solar topee hats, and were smoking good cigars, and appeared like anything but the general run of wasters who get stranded in Eastern ports.
"Why, yes," he said, "I do. But I'm full aft. I want two A.B.'s. though. But I'm afraid that wouldn't suit you."
"Oh, I don't know," replied Phil. "Anything to get away from this place of sin, sweat, and stink. But we're bound for China. And we've taken a solemn oath never to ship before the mast in a 'limejuicer.' So perhaps we shouldn't suit you."
The other laughed as he replied, "I'm bound for Foo-Chow to load tea for Melbourne. And you can't exactly call the Oberon a limejuicer, for although she flies the British flag she's Jersey built and owned."
"Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, noted for its mild climate, its tall cabbages, and its fine breed of cows; at least that's what we were taught at school," said Phil. "What do you say, Harry? Shall we pocket our dignity and once more brave the pleasures of the fo'c'sle?"
But I hesitated.
It's good to be young, and strong, and free to go anywhere and do anything, living the life one loves best. But there's no use in going back when we should be getting forrader. And I did not quite relish the up-and-down process to which we were becoming too easily accustomed. Still, so long as we kept wandering there was obviously nothing else for it.
"All right," I said at last. "But I suppose you won't object to giving us our discharges in Melbourne."
"Certainly you can have them," said the other. "My name's Le Couteur—Captain Le Couteur. The Oberon sails in the morning. So perhaps you will come with me to the office and sign on now. It will save time."
"Good-bye, Raffles," exclaimed Phil as we got under way next morning. "I shan't cry if I never set eyes on you again. You take the cake for most things that make a man's life a worry to him."
We found the Oberon a fine little ship of some eight hundred tons; and although she was the work of none of the famous builders of Aberdeen or the Clyde, she was none the less a very speedy clipper, as we soon discovered. Indeed, the Jersey shipwrights had turned out a craft fashioned on such fine and yacht-like lines as would have disgraced neither of those places.
She was exceedingly lofty, carrying an immense area of canvas over her long narrow hull. And when it was all set, and the wind on the quarter, it was quite common for her to average fourteen knots for the day's work. Her gear was a delight to look at and work with. No "blackwall blocks"—a rope-yarn over a sail—in the Oberon; but all, to the smallest of them, fitted with patent roller-sheaves, which made merry music and lightened labour.
But her crowd was not so satisfactory, by any means. The skipper drank, so did the mate—took altogether more than was good for them. The second mate was a pig, but a sober one. He was a great hulking German-Yankee, named Krantz, who knocked the Scandinavian crew about like ninepins. Two of them had deserted in Singapore; and, given half a chance, the rest would have done the same. As a matter of fact, Krantz bossed the ship. Le Couteur and the mate, Pelley, both Jersey men, were almost always more or less fuddled, and they never interfered with Krantz.
"Chips" and "Sails" belonged to Sark, and spoke such extraordinary English that at first we thought them to be Germans. As for the crew, they were all Swedes and Norwegians with one exception—a redheaded, gawky, Scotch ordinary seaman, thrashed and bullied by the squareheads to within an inch of his life.
Such was the happy family of which we found ourselves members at the beginning of a rather memorable trip. And before we got through Rhio Strait, Phil and I instinctively felt that there would be trouble if Mr Krantz did not mend his manners.
He gave us a taste of his quality before we had got rid of the Singapore mosquito bites.
Krantz spoke fair English enough when he pleased, which was seldom, and he knew perfectly how to pronounce our names. But he feigned ignorance, and always addressed Phil as "Cott" and me as "Wah."
At last getting tired of the eternal "Hi, you thar, Cott!" or "Hi, you there, Wah!" Phil one day said, "My name's Scott, Mr Krantz."
"And mine's Ward, Mr Krantz," I chipped in, "and we'd like to be called accordingly."
"Oh," said he, looking surprised, "any name's good enough fer a sailorman, I guess."
"I guess not," replied Phil. "How'd you like to be called Kranky?"
He glared ferociously for a minute, taking our measure. But we had seen and encountered in our travels many "bad men" of infinitely superior ferocity to this particular specimen. So we simply smiled amiably back at him, and repeated "Scott—Ward—Scott—Ward, Ward—Scott—Ward—Scott"—until with an oath he turned away and knocked an unoffending foreigner into the lee-scuppers. But he found the missing letters.
"When we become so demoralised, and debased generally, as to allow ourselves to be hazed by a cross between a Dutch hobo and a Yankee 'bucko,' then," said Phil, "it's time we went out of the seafaring business."
And after this Mr Krantz left us very carefully alone. We made a splendid passage up the China Sea, with the south-west monsoon blowing us strongly along.
To give Krantz his due, he knew how to get the most out of a ship. We were both in his watch, and could find no fault with the way he handled the Oberon. And she was a revelation to us as we watched her slipping through the water, her forefoot driven resistlessly along by the clouds of canvas overhead, and raising a mound of hissing foam on each bow, subsiding to wash along her sides in creaming sheets of white and blue lace-work.
One moonlight night in the Strait of Fo-Kien Phil and I laid out on her flying-jibboom—and the Oberon's flying-jibboom was a long way from home—and watched the whole huge array of towering canvas coming, as it were, right at us. The yards were checked enough to expose the concavities of the sails; and the moonbeams lurking in them turned them into caverns flecked with silver lights, while their graceful and rounded bosoms were illumined more faintly with the same effulgence, as the ship swayed gently in her rushing onset that clove the sparkling waters to port and starboard, and cast them aside, crushed and baffled, to form her long, wide wake of moonlit foam.
"Great, isn't it, Harry?" said Phil, as we sat astride the lifting, soaring boom.
"Great's no word for it, Phil," I replied. "There's no sight like it in the world. And I think there's not many ships like this flyer left in it either."
"Pity she's got into the hands of such a lot of scallawags," said Phil. "Think of it, Harry, three years out; only twice in dock all that time; and I'll bet she's reeling off nearer sixteen than fifteen this very minute."
Aft, Krantz was patting the rail with his hand, one eye aloft, the other on the binnacle, saying at intervals, as was his invariable custom, "Git along, my little beauty! Oh, wake 'em up! Oh, shake 'em up! Show 'em a leg, old gal."
His love for his ship was, we thought, his only redeeming feature. But when, presently, he made a particularly fine ending, we gave him credit for the possession of perhaps other unsuspected virtues.
After a record passage we entered the River Min; and working our way up to the Pagoda Anchorage, we lay at rest among a fleet of shipping, mostly steam. But above them all towered the lofty spars of the Oberon; while with her long, slim hull and graceful bows, she looked like a greyhound among a lot of mongrels.
"So this is where 'John' comes from," remarked Phil as, having passed the customs and the doctor, our decks became alive with a noisy crowd of grinning yellow men. "Well, I must say," he added, "that there's lots more of him for New South Wales to draw upon, if she wants 'em."
"But she doesn't," I replied. "Old Sir Harry Parkes took care of that. I dare say lots of these chaps have tried their luck and got turned back again."
"There's one who wasn't, at any rate," said Phil, as he pointed to an elderly Chinese standing among a group of evidently superior class to the vociferating hawkers of fruit, eggs, vegetables, clothing, and so forth, who were running to and fro like ants.
"If that's not old Fat Ling who was store-keeping at Tingha, call me a Dutchman. You remember him, don't you, Harry?"
"Why, yes," I replied dubiously, "but the beggars are so much alike that a fellow can't tell t'other from which."
But it turned out to be our man, after all. And he seemed quite pleased to see us. We had dealt with him for some time while tin-mining in the New England district of New South Wales. Also, we had paid him before we left, which was more than many others had done.
"My word!" said he, shaking hands cordially, "Mistah Scottee, Mistah Wardee. All li. Velly goo' man. Me allee same home. No more Tingah. Makem a littee money there. Me keep tea-shop now. You come see me plesenly?"
"Sure," replied Phil, "directly we can get away. You're a gentleman, Fat Ling, not to look down upon two poor, common sailormen."
The skipper and Pelley were already ashore, leaving Krantz, as usual, to boss the whole show.
In the evening, chartering a sampan, we paid our promised visit to Fat Ling, whom we found in a place like a rabbit-warren, so full was it of little rooms and passages and dark corners.
In our honour he brought forth all sorts of curious viands on many small dishes; introduced us to tea made Chinese fashion, without milk or sugar—a pale golden aromatic liquor tasting insipid to our palates. Samshu, also, we drank, a rank and fiery spirit, of which a little went a very long way.
He introduced us also to various young ladies whom he called his "dlaughters," and whose number appeared legion, as they scuttled to and fro, and giggled, and nudged each other.
"Splendid feminine family, Fat Ling," remarked Phil. "Is the missis about anywhere?"
"Missis die," replied Fat with a smile, "while me in Austlalia. Leave me plenty littee gal to bling up. Velly dear fam'ly."
"So I perceive," said Phil dryly. "But where's the tea?"
"Oh, plenty tea in godown—allee same warehousee," replied Fat. "Me allee same bloker—you savee."
We said we "saveed," and left it at that. But our hospitable friend certainly did no broking business for the Oberon.
Hundreds of coolies were soon shaping and fitting our ballast ready to receive cargo, till they had it as smooth as an asphalt floor. Then more hundreds handed the cargo out of lighters alongside to the deck, whence it was sent below and cunningly stowed by a horde of yellow men, grunting and singing as they worked.
Ready for sea at last. And the turn of the starboard watch for a day's liberty ashore, each man with five silver dollars in his pocket.
Phil and I roamed about the place till we were tired. The rest of the crowd made for the nearest drinking shop. We ventured into some curious corners; and out of a few of them thought it best to clear again without any ceremony.
"'John' on his native heath," said Phil rather breathlessly, as he stopped to wipe a handful of stinking filth off his white drill jacket, while I removed what looked like the entrails of a dog or a cat from the back of my neck, "'John' on his native heath, or at any rate on some portion of it, is an impolite sort of beast, possessing no spark of affection for the peaceful foreigner. Come, let us seek sanctuary and samshu with Fat and his moon-faced maidens."
"Velly bad man," remarked our host when we described our reception in the native quarter. "My word! S'pose you no been quick, you get killee alike."
Fat's "shop" was situated about a mile from the water front, in a street rather cleaner and wider than the general run—which, however, was not saying much for it. And as we got outside, just after dark, to return on board we heard a medley of wild hoots and yells, and could just make out a crowd of Chinese, armed with sticks, hotly pursuing a small body of men who were apparently running for their lives.
"Some dam fool sailormans," remarked Fat as he pushed us inside again, and shut his door. "Him dlink too muchee samshu. Make big low with Chinamans. S'pose catchee, bleak 'um bones. My word! You keepee quiet. No touchee you here."
"Where are the police?" I asked.
"Pleeceeman," replied Fat Ling with a grin, "not allee same Austlanian pleeceman. No can do! Keep out of double here. Him no hear, no see, when lallikin makee fight."
Waiting until the street grew quiet, we went on board. There we found the remainder of the starboard watch dressing their wounds, which were many and severe.
It seems that after filling themselves with samshu, they had found their way into a joss-house, and began to play-up and break things. Here the second mate had found them, and driven them out. But the Chinese had gathered from all sides; and it was owing to the second's assistance that the seamen had not been all killed there and then by the infuriated people. Krantz, they told us, fought so desperately that the others were enabled to get a start of their pursuers and keep it to the landing stage, where the Oberon's boat was lying, and they tumbled head over heels into it and pulled off.
But there was no Krantz among them.
The last to catch sight of him had been the redheaded ordinary seaman. The second mate was then alone, the centre of a howling mob who pelted him with sticks and stones.
"Well, he was game, at any rate," remarked Phil indignantly, "which is more than can be said for the curs that left him."
"Weel," replied the O.S., as he bound up a bruised and bleeding hand, "I juist lookit oot for mysel; an' it gied me a' my time to do that. They China fowk micht ha' massacreed the lot for aught that I cared. The second gat a' he aimed. An' it's a peety the Dutchies are na wi' him."
Such was the opinion of Jock Begg, O.S.
Nothing more was ever seen or heard of Krantz. We certainly heard that a search was made. But as Fat Ling put it: "No goo' lookee that fellah. Him gone bung allee same velly big cat catchee small littee micee. You bet!"
The skipper now wanted one of us to go aft. According to our usual custom in matters of the kind, we tossed; and Phil won. And moving his dunnage into Krantz's berth he became second of the Oberon, while I remained in the fo'c'sle.
At last came the day when, heaving up our anchor and sheeting home the topsails, the Oberon sailed down the broad Min, accompanied for some distance by scores of boats, headed by one in which sat Fat Ling and sundry members of his "family."
Le Couteur and Pelley, who had kept pretty straight while we were in Foo-Chow, started "nipping" again as soon as we were clear of the land. Not that the pair ever got actually very drunk. But they were too often muddled and unfit to have charge of a ship in those narrow waters we were fast approaching.
The crew, after the manner of their kind, fancying that the heavy hand so long belabouring them had found a feebler successor, perked up and gave themselves airs; found out their dire mistake, however, so far as Phil's men were concerned, and subsided into meekness and docility once more.
The mate, certainly, had trouble with his watch. So I was drafted into it at Phil's special request, and then there prevailed a better condition of affairs, and Pelley was only too pleased to have his crowd brought to order. But it was a method of carrying on altogether subversive of discipline. And, at times, when below with my watch, I had stormy intervals while attempting to teach manners to my Scandinavian shipmates.
I, however, found an unexpected assistant in Jock of the flaming head.
He had suffered much at foreign hands and feet; and now seeing me alone among his foes, and not seldom rather hard pressed, he suddenly developed an amazing amount of pugnacity, and in any scrimmage was always well to the front and taking an active part in it.
But by degrees matters went on fairly smoothly. And only for the boozing of Le Couteur and the mate, we should have got along in tolerable comfort.
Pelley was the navigator, and Phil was desperately uneasy lest something should go wrong. But he could do nothing. His business as a "greaser"—not much removed in standing from a foremast hand—was merely to carry on the ordinary work of the ship. He was responsible for little else.
"We shall come to grief yet, Harry," he said to me one night I was at the wheel. "I feel it in my bones. That fool Pelley was out in his reckoning yesterday. I got a chance to have a look at his work, and did it over again. Errors in both course and distance. Not much, certainly, just about here with plenty of room. But serious when we get among the islands."
"But doesn't the skipper check his figures?" I asked.
"Just when the fit takes him," replied Phil. "Otherwise, this ship's being navigated mainly by rule of thumb. The wonder is that she hasn't been piled up long ago. But the steward tells me that it is only within the last few months the skipper and the mate have been drinking. Le Couteur got news of his wife's death while he was at Rangoon; and that started him. And Pelley's a weak creature at the best of times. So he followed on."
Just then the skipper came on deck, and stared heavily around.
"Mr Scott," he said, "I partic—tic—larly request you not to—con—con—verse with any—hic—mem—mem—ber of the—er—crew. A most re—re—regret'ble habit for an officer to con—con—contrac'."
Then peering into my face, he continued:
"Oh, no matter. Fellow Australialiansh. Th' as diff'ent matter al'gether. No 'jection to that," and he made his way unsteadily down the companion again.
"My word!" whispered Phil, "he is far gone to-night. I guess if Pelley's as bad, I'll have to keep his watch for him."
But I heard afterwards that the mate was fairly sober when he came on deck.
Two days later we spoke a large topsail-schooner. The weather was very calm, and she came quite close to us, within easy speaking distance.
"Ship ahoy!" shouted the skipper of the schooner, which we could see was very strongly manned.
"Hello!" replied Le Couteur. "What schooner's that? This is the Oberon, of St Aubins, from Foo-Chow to Melbourne."
"This is the Fleetwing, from Norfolk Island to Guam," said the other. And as he mentioned his somewhat curious departure and destination, a grin seemed to run along the row of faces staring over the vessel's rail.
"Say," hailed the schooner's skipper, "you're goin' through the Bismarcks, ain't you?"
"Yes, I think so," replied Le Couteur,
"Well," said the other, "you might take some niggers I picked up a couple of days ago. Give 'em a passidge as far as the first land, an' then chuck 'em overboard. They'll swim ashore all right. I got 'em out of a canoe—four of 'em. Been blowed right out to sea. I'll send you tucker enough to keep 'em going, if you'll do me the favour."
"Oh, never mind that," replied our skipper, "let them come. I'll land them as near as I can to their village if it's not out of my way."
And on the word, an almost naked brown body was hove over the schooner's rail, followed by several others, all making for the Oberon.
"Why, they've thrown them overboard!" exclaimed the mate in surprise. "And there's a lot of sharks about too. Shall we lower a boat, sir?"
"They'll be here before you can get the davit tackles overhauled," replied the skipper. "Sling the side-ladder over, though."
"So long, captain," shouted the master of the schooner now some considerable distance away. "Much obliged. Hope you'll have a good passidge."
By this time the swimmers were alongside; another few minutes and they were on deck. Big fellows, three of them, with nothing on but a waistcloth of cocoanut fibre. Around their wrists they wore bracelets of boar's tusks, and their hair was a big, coarse, woolly mop dyed a light red.
The fourth was a smaller, darker-coloured fellow, more ill-favoured than the others; his hair was long and black; he wore no armlets, and his nakedness was hidden by a quite respectable breadth of blue dungaree. And while the other three scampered aft and shook their fists at the distant schooner, he just stood, and grinned, and squeezed the water out of his garment.
"Me Caroline man," he presently announced, not a little to our surprise. "Me German man. Me Yap. Me sailorman. That ship damn rogue man."
With some trouble we made out that the skipper of the schooner was a liar of the first class.
He was recruiting for Fijian plantations, and after an unsuccessful cruise had broken fresh ground among the Bismarcks in German territory. At New Hanover he snared a batch of thirty; but they all managed to escape—jumped overboard and swam ashore—except the three now on the Oberon.
The man from Yap had been on the Fleetwing for some months, having joined her in the Pellews, whither he had gone with a trader, about whose end he seemed uncertain.
Some days ago the skipper of the schooner having heard that a German gunboat was in search of him, had determined to get rid of his recruits without delay. And "Yap" signified by eloquent pantomime that if the Fleetwing had not met us, the three natives would have been given a short shrift. Himself, also, as knowing too much for his health.
As it was, the master of the schooner chose the less strenuous method of getting rid of his dangerous encumbrances.
"Yap," as we christened him, seemed quite at home on the Oberon. But the Hanoverians were shy, and appeared for the first few days overcome with astonishment at everything they saw.
Jock was an especial subject of ceaseless inquisition on their part. They followed him everywhere, jabbering to each other, and doubtless making comparisons between the quality and colour of their hair and his.
By this time we were well into Melanesia; and islands covered in vegetation to the water's edge began to heave in sight; sometimes surrounded with a ring of surf, beating on its coral wall in a circle of snowy foam; at others mere rings of land almost level with the sea, studded with cocoa-palms, and fencing in a lagoon, whose calm waters formed a wonderful contrast to the outer hurly-burly.
Phil was not too happy in these days.
"Rather than be 'greaser' on a ship navigated as this one is," said he one night, as the Oberon tore along through a phosphorescent sea that looked like glistening milk, studded at intervals with dark spots where the land showed up against the horizon, "I'd be a black-fellow's dog; and that's about the meanest thing I know in the whole of creation. There's the skipper and the mate playing euchre and nipping down below. They just give a fellow a course, and think that finishes it—all that's wanted is to keep going. They'll finish the Oberon presently. Once let me get ashore again, and I'll put an oar on my shoulder and carry it till I can find folk who don't know what it is. And there I'll pitch my camp for good and all. Isn't that land close on the port bow, Harry? Keep her away a couple of points. It may be a blooming continent for all they care. Never let you get a squint at the chart.
D—d if I think they'd be sorry if she was piled up! But I'll take fine care it don't happen in my watch. Fo'c'sle head there! Keep your eyes lifting!" roared Phil.
"Aye, aye, sir," came the faint reply.
I knew Phil was suffering from one of his "dumpy" attacks, much rarer now than they used to be. And he soon recovered from them, especially if the necessity for action arose.
Next night in the middle watch Phil's forecast came true; and with it the required incentive.
It was the mate's watch, and as black as pitch when the Oberon struck. The shock was severe, nearly throwing me out of my bunk. I could hear the crashing of spars as she bumped heavily again and again. Then Phil's roar summoning all hands; for which there was, however, little necessity.
On deck was a scene of wild disorder. The fore and main-topmasts had gone, and with all their sails and gear lay thrashing alongside. There was not much wind, but astern could be seen the white water breaking on the reef we had just jumped. Ahead the land seemed almost to overhang the jibboom end.
Making my way aft, I ran against the mate and Le Couteur, both seeming half dazed. Standing by the wheel, I found Phil with a lead-line in his hands.
"Only three fathoms this end," he remarked. "I wonder if they've sounded the well yet. I guess she's making water good and plenty. I thought this would be the end of it. But where the devil are we at all, at all?"
"Don't know," I replied, "but perhaps the people ashore can tell us," as I pointed to lights springing up here and there, while presently a hollow booming sound arose that we both recognised as that of a war-drum.
The carpenter meanwhile had reported four feet of water in the well. Clearly it was all up with the beautiful clipper.
I never saw an apparently strong and healthy big man like Le Couteur go all to pieces in the fashion he did. He actually seemed to shrivel up and grow smaller, as he wrung his hands and cursed his luck. As for Pelley, he simply whimpered. Let us hope they were not fair samples of Jersey men. The carpenter and the sailmaker, however, were made of the right stuff; only it was hard to understand at times what they were driving at.
Daylight showed the Oberon a dismal wreck, stuck, as we soon discovered, between two ledges of coral which alone stopped her from sinking. Not two hundred yards from her nose was a long, curving, white beach with a native village at each end of it. In the background rose lofty mountains covered to the summits with tropical foliage. Along the shore were congregated hundreds of natives, who howled and danced and shook their spears and tomahawks at us in a most menacing fashion.
"By Jingo!" exclaimed Phil, "we can't stand that crowd off. Hadn't we better get the longboat out, sir," he continued, turning to Le Couteur, "and make ready for a start?"
"Anything you think proper, Mr Ward," quavered the skipper, who had evidently been having recourse to his bottle, but gained no courage therefrom.
So, with Phil in charge, we got the longboat off the skids and into the water, and the sailmaker and Jock set about putting provisions in her.
I had forgotten all about our passengers in the rush and hurry. But the three natives had gone to join their friends ashore.
Yap, however, was there. And I saw that he was half scared to death, as well he, and all of us, had cause to be, seeing that presently I made out from what he said that we had gone ashore at the very spot where the Fleetwing had done her kidnapping on New Hanover.
This news, imparted to the rest, served to buck them up considerably. And assuredly there was no time to lose. A whole fleet of canoes was already approaching, one detachment from each village. And still there remained much to be done.
Suddenly Le Couteur appeared armed with a rifle, which he aimed at the nearest canoe. But Phil snatched it out of his hand, saying:
"This is no time for shooting, sir. It's a time for scooting. Jump in everybody and shove off. There's not a minute to lose. It's as much as we'll do to get clear now."
And, indeed, as we tumbled into the boat the shouting horde was nearly upon us, and spears were flying fast and thick, also pebbles from a sort of sling which they used with astonishing skill and effect.
They swarmed like bees over the Oberon, their bushy red polls gleaming in the sun as they danced and shouted in triumph.
Most of us caught nasty blows from stones; but Pelley was the only one speared.
Fortunately a fresh breeze was blowing, and the longboat had gathered good way before the natives got close enough to do us very much harm. Our craft sailed well, and we soon outdistanced the pursuing canoes, and made our way safely out to sea.
"That was a tight squeak, if you like," said Phil, as we watched the mizzen-royalmast of the poor Oberon disappear behind the eastern point of the bay. "How's Pelley, Harry?"
"Going fast, sir," I said, rising from alongside the dying man. The barbed spear had penetrated his chest, breaking off when he fell. We could do nothing for him, and he died at sundown.
Leaving our ship in more of a hurry than perhaps mariners ever did before, we had been forced to come away without many necessary matters. For instance, we had a compass, but no chart; an anchor, but no chain. We had provisions, but very little water. Le Couteur had not even thought of saving the ship's papers, or of securing a sextant. But he had brought a dozen Winchester rifles with a good supply of ammunition—for which we had reason to be thankful later on.
The longboat was fortunately a fine roomy craft; so there was sufficient space for comfort. The crew were apathetic, and grumbled among themselves. The two Sark men, and Jock, and Yap were all lively and hearty enough. The skipper, for the most part lost in gloomy reverie, took little notice of anything that went on.
The weather was hot; and our two small breakers of water were soon exhausted. So we had to land somewhere to procure more, as well as to bury Pelley—a matter Le Couteur insisted upon.
Yap, who seemed to possess some local knowledge, told us that on an island called Remor, not far away, there was a trading station. And he offered to pilot us to the place.
We were steering a course that, as nearly as we could judge, would take us between the western end of New Britain and the mainland of New Guinea. But we altered it more to the eastward in order to find Remor and its trader—about whom we had some doubts.
But Yap made no mistake; and after sailing all that night we sighted the island, and rounding a high cape, and entering a little bay, we saw the station prettily situated at the head of a green gully which ran down to the beach. It consisted of only two buildings, a store and dwelling-house adjoining each other, and the whole surrounded by a bamboo fence. There was, however, no sign of smoke or inhabitants around the place. It seemed loneliness personified. Running out from the beach was a little jetty. But no boat was to be seen.
Yap looked apprehensive, and held up his fingers to signify the number of residents when last he was there.
"German man, same me. One Mary German. Two boy German."
We got the boat alongside the rather crazy jetty, and leaving four men in her, we put Pelley's body in the foresail and carried it ashore, and left it for a while under a clump of bananas while we went up a path of broken coral to the house.
A gate in the fence hung loosely by one of its hinges, and we entered.
Then, as if by common consent, we paused. The yard in front of the low veranda was piled with a litter of broken furniture, torn books, pictures, and all sorts of household belongings, while the posts which composed the front of the building were all pulled out of shape, leaving big gaps. And everywhere was blood, scarcely dry; great splashes and pools of it on the door, on the furniture outside, everywhere. A sickening sight!
When at last we entered, there was nothing to be seen but further wreckage. Evidently the inmates had been dragged from their beds and slaughtered. But there were no bodies. Just then came a yell from the adjoining store, and Yap came out by the run shouting: "German mans there, all there! Make kaikai bimeby!"
And when we looked in, a horrid spectacle met our gaze. There, side by side, lay a big man and a woman, Yap's "Mary," and three quite young boys, all nude, and all with their heads severed from their bodies and placed in a row alongside them.
Curiously enough, the stores—the bags of flour and sugar, cases of tobacco and gin, and shelves full of "trade," were untouched.
Phil was the first to take in the full significance of the thing.
"The chaps that did this saw us coming," he said. "We interrupted them. They've watched us, and now they'll try and bag us too."
With one accord we raced away from that dreadful place of butchery, and scarcely had we got outside the fence than we heard the sound of shots and a tremendous din of wild yelling.
The scene that met our eyes from the front of the house was one that made us stare aghast.
The longboat was the centre of a great mass of war canoes manned by a crowd of naked savages, in whose midst, while the merciless tomahawks rose and fell, we, for a moment, caught sight of our luckless shipmates, as they went down under the brown wave.
As Phil had guessed, a trap had been set for us. The natives, seeing us coming, had run their canoes into a wooded cove not a quarter of a mile away, and when they perceived us busy about the trader's house, had swooped down on our boat, with her men—three Swedes and a Dane. There were sixteen of us left, and about half of us had come ashore armed. A pleasant prospect truly!
"Well," said Phil presently, "there's nothing for it that I can see, except to 'hold the fort.' Inside, there, all hands! They'll be on us in a few minutes!"
But for a time they busied themselves looting the longboat, while we took up positions inside the fence which was of stout bamboos set very close together, and bound with wire top and bottom.
Two four hundred gallon tanks we found full of water; and there were plenty of provisions if we should be forced to stand a siege.
There must have been quite one hundred of the natives, dark-brown, medium-statured villains, bearing spears, tomahawks, and, to our surprise, bows and arrows. Some of them, too, were armed with old muskets in addition to the rifles of the murdered boatkeepers. Their hair was dressed in a fashion I had never seen before, plaited in tails that stuck up all over and around their heads. Strings of pretty blue and white cat's-eye shells hung about their necks and wrists; and they wore broadcloths of plaited cocoanut fibre around their loins.
"Where those fellow belong?" I asked Yap.
But the Caroline man shook his head, and looked puzzled. As the mob approached, they divided into two parties close to where lay the body of the mate.
Then, yelling like madmen, they rushed us back and front amid a shower of spears and arrows delivered from the rising ground at the back of the station, and which commanded a portion of our enclosure.
But before the fire of the rifles they retired in disorder, not having reached within fifty yards of the fence, and leaving two or three dead and wounded on the ground. Our men were rotten shots. Many of them had never fired a rifle before, and did not know how to reload the magazine. In story-books the management of firearms seems to come naturally to all hands. In practice it's altogether a different business.
And our chaps kept blazing away when not a soul was visible. I saw a pandanus tree with leaves and branches all stripped off by one of their fusillades, while not a nigger was within a hundred feet of it.
"Two more charges, Harry," said Phil, "and we're done. But will they be game to make 'em? They expected a soft thing, and they're not getting it. Jansen and Anderson are hit with arrows, only scratches. But I'm afraid they're poisoned ones. Anyhow, they collapsed, and I carried them into the store, and in a corner lay our precious skipper with his back teeth a-wash, alongside three or four empty square-faces. So long, old chap."
And shaking hands, we parted, Phil to return to his post at the front of the fence.
Those niggers had plenty of sense; for next time, instead of coming on in a solid body, they advanced in open formation, dancing and side-stepping, and making very difficult marks to hit. A lot of them reached the fence and began to chop at it with their tomahawks. But we drove them off, killing three outright. On Phil's side, fronting the sea, they fared worse. Nevertheless, he had four men wounded, one by a bullet and the others by arrows.
Very evidently this state of affairs could not last much longer, and I was debating with "Sails" whether it would not be better to make a rush for the longboat than to stay and be killed in sections, when all at once I heard a loud report from seaward, while at the back of the knoll to which the enemy had retired there rose in the air a great heap of shrubs and rocks and dust.
Running over to Phil's side, I found him and all his men standing on the middle stringer of the fence, and all staring towards the beach.
Following their example, one of the pleasantest sights I had ever seen met my gaze.
A schooner with her topsail and topgallantsail clewed-up, and her royal stowed, was sailing into the bay; smoke was curling from her amidships; boats were being lowered full of armed men. A magnificent spectacle in the eyes of men at grip with a dreadful death!
The niggers now rushed helter-skelter for their canoes, only to be met with volleys from men who could shoot straight, while every now and again a shell plumped among them. Only about four out of a score composing the flotilla got away; and most of the natives in them must have been pretty severely damaged.
"Good old Fleetwing! Buccaneer, or black-birder, or out-and-out pirate!" shouted Phil as, panting with the pursuit in which we had taken part, we reached the beach. "Another five minutes and she'd have been too late."
"Lost your pritty ship, eh?" said the skipper of the schooner, as he came to where we stood. "And in the very same shop where I got those woolly-birds. Well, now, that's hard lines, but when a man goes ten mile out o' his course in these waters, he finds all the trouble he wants. So them d—d niggers got poor Herman Morf an' his lot, did they? Well, I told him what'd happen some fine day. All the same, I'm sorry. Lik-Lik's, we call 'em," he continued, touching a lifeless brown body with his foot. "Some o' the worst. Head-hunters an' cannibals from over the Noo Guinea side. See, they've got the jimmies off your chaps already."
And, sure enough, there were four headless corpses floating up the beach. The heads we found in a net in the longboat.
Later on, we buried Morf and his wife and the three boys; also our chief officer. And not finding Le Couteur in the store, we searched around until Yap came across his headless body in a clump of hibiscus just outside the fence. Awakened by the firing, he must have followed us out, and been picked up by some straggler intent, even at the last moment, on securing the coveted trophy.
Eight of ours had lost the number of their mess—almost all of whom died in great agony from some hideous poison that worked upon them after the fashion of strychnine.
The Fleetwing was bound for Levuka; but as we had no desire to journey to the Fijis, we were therefore pleased enough when we met one of the few steamers that then traded to the New Hebrides, and were transhipped and booked for Brisbane.
* * * * * *
"Harry," said Phil, when we came out from giving evidence before the Marine Board as to the loss of the Oberon, "Harry, I'm full up! This last trip has given me the blues. I don't want to leave you, but here's making a bee-line for the old uncle's selection. After all, you know, there's nothing like a Bush life. Think of the long night's rest, and the good mutton and damper. No beastly, blood-thirsty niggers; no scallawag sogers of seamen; no bosses to haze you around. Everything quiet and peaceful; the sheep a-grazing in the paddocks, and the pretty little lambs a-bleating, and—er—er—the—"
"No, Phil," I laughed, "I'm just as tired of kicking around as you are, but I'm going to pass in steam, this time. I'm for the bridge and the weathercloths. Coffee in the morning, and no fore, or any other old royal. You go up to Boondi and give my love to the folk there at the back of beyond. Meanwhile, I'll see what I can do, down here. You'll soon get tired of the game up yonder among the stock. Remember we've tried it before."
"Oh, yes, a kind of a trial," replied Phil, "but not a fair one. Well, if you're determined, there's no more to be said, only remember, old chap, there'll always be a home for you on my selection. I'm going on the land all right, this time."
But I'm afraid I grinned rather thanklessly as we drank each other's healths and said good-bye.
"Dear Harry,—We've just finished lamb-marking. Splendid average all round—eight-five per cent. Would have been ninety only for a lot of maiden ewes. Lots of grass and water all over the country, and Boondi never looked better than it does at present. It's a great life, the Bush life, and I seem to have quite settled down to it. Uncle thinks that the ten thousand acre block next to him, that he was so keen on us getting when we were up here, but which has since been taken up, will presently be forfeited. And he wants me to have a go for it. But, somehow, before settling for good, I feel as if I'd like just one more blow on the briny. No excursions and alarms, but just a quiet cruise round with you. If there's nothing doing otherwise, why, I'll go passenger. I see the Quandong is expected in about the end of the month, and is to go her usual rounds. This would suit me to a T. Send me a wire if there is anything offering. Meanwhile, believe me, dear old Harry, your faithful shipmate,
It was just twelve months since Phil and I had parted company, after a disastrous trip home from China, in which we lost our ship, and had a tight squeak for our lives into the bargain, among the savages of the Bismarck Archipelago.
And Phil had been so disgusted with the general cussedness of the voyage, that he had gone upcountry to his uncle's selection, a long way out in the back-blocks of New South Wales.
I stayed behind, however, on this occasion, the first on which we had been separated for such a length of time during many years. And I must confess that I often felt lonely enough, wanting the tried and faithful mate with whom I had passed through many hardships and many perils by land and water.
Phil had relations behind him, relations who were eager and willing to give him a good start as a settler in the back country. But having nothing but my profession to depend upon, I was beginning to think seriously of giving up the roving life which we two had led for so long, and of attempting to get into a regular groove of command at sea, that being the sole fashion by which even a decent living can be made out of the business.
And I had luck—the luck that goes with a "pull."
Among the passengers on board a derelict which Phil and I once picked up and made some money out of, and which is a story all by itself, was a certain Mr Fortescue. On the Goodooga we had become friendly. Indeed, he seemed to have taken quite a fancy to us pair of adventurers; and we knew in a vague way that he was connected with shipping interests.
Now, however, in Port Endeavour, one of the first men I happened to bump up against after getting my steam certificate was this same Mr Fortescue. And through his influence I presently found myself chief officer of the Quandong, a fine four thousand five hundred ton steamer trading to China and Japan, in common with half a dozen sisters of the well-known "Forest" line—all named after Australian trees or shrubs, such as the Brigalow, the Belar, the Wilga, the Mulga, and so forth.
To find such a billet was, of course, a great piece of luck for me. To have the managing director of the line as a patron was a still bigger one.
The skipper was a very old man, and on our third trip he died in Yokohama, and I brought the Quandong home after a remarkably quick run, one that would have made her late commander tremble with horror to think of. He was cautious, indeed timid, to a fault. His epitaph might with propriety have read: "He never sprung a rope-yarn; and he never made a passage." Speed, however, had of late years, owing to the establishment of a rival line, become a matter much to be desired. Thus when the Quandong entered port five days ahead of her usual date, there was some talk around the foreshores and in merchants' offices.
Still, few expected that I should obtain command; and there was, in consequence, much heartburning among those officers who, and rightly so, thought that their claims had been flouted by the promotion of an interloper in the service. But Mr Fortescue arranged everything comfortably. There were two new boats, the Yarran and the Myall, nearly due; and thus there were enough vacant steps to satisfy all the growlers.
Luck was with me and the Quandong, and we still sped to and fro Endeavour and our far Eastern ports of call, faster even than the brand-new vessels of the "Forest" fleet with their pole-masts and straight, sharp stems.
The Quandong was clipper-bowed, square-rigged for'ard, and carried fore-and-aft canvas on the main and mizzen; she had the lines of a yacht, and her triple-expansion engines never gave the people below a minute's trouble. Her fittings were light and roomy, with plenty of ventilation; and my own berth, adjoining the chart-house on the navigating bridge, was a model of convenience and comfort. Altogether, I never felt more at home in a ship. The company, too, was a good one, and the wages liberal. So I hoped that at last I was fairly settled, bar the mischance that always dogs the seaman's career in some shape or another, and from which he seldom or never recovers.
Then, one fine morning, Mr Fortescue sent for me into his private room, saying, as I took a chair: "Captain, I've got a new billet for you."
Perhaps he noticed how my face fell, for I didn't require any other billet than the one I held just then; and he laughed as he said: "I want you to take a turn at an old game of yours—derelict-hunting. A lot of people have chartered the Quandong to go and search for the Pelotas. As you know, there have already been three expeditions, but the friends and relatives of the passengers are not satisfied. They imagine there's hope yet. I don't. But they're paying well. And, of course, it's just possible that there may be something found to clear up the mystery, although the ship herself is not above water.
"Now this is a big thing I'm offering you, Ward," continued Mr Fortescue, "and if you pull it off, not necessarily by finding the Pelotas, but by bringing us some certain news of her fate, you'll find yourself professionally a made man; and, incidentally, it will be a splendid advertisement for the company. You'll have to search all those rocks in the Southern Ocean. There must be no question, this time, of weather conditions. If you can't land, get away, and come back, and try again and again. We give you six months. And, by the way, where's your friend? I'll shift your present chief to make room for him if he'll come."
For reply I handed him Phil's letter.
Mr Fortescue smiled as he read it, and said: "Evidently he's not prepared to settle down yet. Wire him to come along. If I'm not mistaken in the man, all the sheep in Australia wouldn't keep him out of this picnic you're going on."
All the same, I was not in love with it. The chances of success were too small to be worth reckoning. Here was a great twelve thousand ton liner missing for nine months. Not a splinter to show what had become of her or her three hundred of a ship's company and passengers. Swallowed up utterly and completely. A well-found, well-manned, modern steamer. Officers first-class men; a crew of nearly all Royal Naval Reservists. Hitherto, on many voyages she had run with railway regularity between her ports. Then, only a few days out from her latest one, she suddenly vanishes. To a seaman's mind the matter is explicable enough. He knows something of the mighty forces of nature arrayed on occasion against the most powerful handiwork of the human craftsman. He knows that at times the biggest ship that was ever built may in a few minutes be hurled to the sea-bottom a crushed and broken wreck.
But landsmen cannot realise the fact. They want wreckage, floating or ashore, in testimony of catastrophe. They argue it impossible that an immense fabric like the Pelotas can disappear so completely, leaving no remnants behind her.
"Incredible!" they exclaim.
But we who know reply: "Nothing is too incredible to happen in deep water."
Three former expeditions had mapped out the sea surface for thousands of miles; crossed and recrossed those areas to and from all points of the compass, but never a chip, nor a body, nor any floating object whatever that could by any possibility belong to the missing ship had they been able to discover.
Nor on any of the desolate, lonely rocks that here and there crop from the bosom of the South Atlantic was to be found the remotest clue.
And yet it was thought that I might succeed where so many better men had failed!
"Never mind, old chap," said Phil, who arrived from Boondi in record time, "remember our luck with the Goodooga; and, if it doesn't stick to us, at any rate we can't do worse than the other fellows. But I say, Harry," he added, squinting up and down the tasteful uniform of the company, "what a howling swell you've become. Quite a cross between a railway stationmaster and a Governor's aide-de-camp."
"Get off my bridge," I retorted; "you smell of sheep, and look like a broken-down cockatoo farmer."
We took in a six months' stock of provisions, and over two thousand tons of coal. With the exception of many of the stewards who were drafted into other ships, the crew remained the same as ever. The State military folk lent us a big searchlight and four experts to work it. A crow's-nest was rigged on the fore-topgallantmast, and one fine morning we steamed out of Port Endeavour Heads, past the Cat and Kittens Shoal, past the lighthouse and the lofty signal station, and so to sea, on as hopeless a venture as could well be conceived. Although we naturally missed the passengers, and decks and tables looked curiously empty for a while, we were a fairly happy little family party, taking it full and by. But, like myself, every one of us was obsessed by the futility of the quest.
Nevertheless, no precautions were neglected. A constant look out was kept after leaving the Australian coast, and a flock of sea-birds collected at any particular spot would be reason enough for us to alter our course. We were searching for a spar, a fragment of a boat, a grating, a portion of cargo, anything.
We met a few steamers whose masters, evidently by their replies to our questions, either thought that we must be little better than madmen, or that we were "pulling their legs."
Having a free hand, I determined to make first for St Paul, and then for Amsterdam—those two lone islets in the Indian Ocean.
The weather was fine when we sighted St Paul, so we stood in and anchored on the east side, close in-shore. One of the first objects that met our gaze as we landed was a board with a notice to the effect that two out of the three expeditions had already searched the island. However, we went through the same performance most conscientiously, and with a like result. We found nothing but seals, and hot springs in which there were numerous fish.
At Amsterdam our experience was exactly similar, and we had just returned on board when a howling westerly sprang up, and we had only bare time to get away and escape being driven ashore.
"I'm afraid there's not much left for us," remarked Phil, as we stood on the bridge, and the Quandong ran away before wind and sea, while we looked back at the forbidding speck of lofty black rock lashed by the furious seas that broke at its base. "Might as well give it best if those other chaps have explored the Crozets, and Desolation, and all the rest of them, as closely as they have these."
"But have they?" I asked. "That's just what we're out to discover. We know that at one or two of them the weather was so bad they couldn't land. All they made certain of was that there were no people ashore. We've come to 'mak' siccar,' as the Scotch say; and land we will if we have to try a dozen times. We may find dead folk, perhaps."
"Perhaps the moon's made of green cheese," replied Phil disrespectfully, as a volley of stinging cold spray shot over the dodgers into his face, and made him gasp and swear.
The gale lasted for three days, during most of which time the Quandong lay hove-to, making splendid weather of it. The sea was an awe-inspiring spectacle, and we all agreed that we had never witnessed anything quite so impressive as the fashion in which the huge "grey-beards" came rolling solemnly along, and lifted us like a cork, apparently to hundreds of feet in height, and then let us slowly down again with a deep resounding roar, down until all around nothing was visible but towering walls of cold, steel-blue water. Nowhere, I think, on any of the world's seas, is the majesty of the wave more in evidence than in this great Southern Ocean when smitten by the brave westerlies, and heaped into the lofty mounds of water that pursue the flying sailers bound to the Antipodes.
On the morning of the fourth day, steaming to make good our leeway, we sighted a vessel. She was a small ship of about eight hundred tons, and a forlorn enough creature she seemed, with her three topgallantmasts gone, and a whole raffle of gear blowing all around her, her main and mizzen upper-topsails and some of the head-sails flying in streamers from yards and stays, as she came up in the wind and fell off again at her own sweet will and pleasure.
Little did we then imagine that upon meeting with this wandering and helpless vessel depended the success of our quest. But so it proved.
On her decks, our glasses showed us no sign of life. Indeed, they appeared to have been swept clean of everything in the shape of houses, boats, and other furniture.
"A derelict," remarked Phil, "but apparently sound in her hull."
"By Moses!" suddenly exclaimed our doctor, "there's somebody just come up on the poop. A woman, I do believe!"
"And there's another," I added, as I got my glasses to work.
"Hang me," shouted Phil, "if they're not bending on the ensign! As if there was any need. See, there it goes, Jack, down, all fair and shipshape. And only half-way up, too, by Jingo! Hoist our colours, quartermaster, and let them know we see them!"
As we steamed slowly closer to the ship, we made out quite distinctly the figures of two women, apparently young, both holding on to the weather mizzenrigging; for there was a rather lumpy sea running, and the vessel was none too steady.
"Wheel's gone," remarked Phil presently. "I expect she's broached-to and swept everything off her decks—crew included."
As we steamed past her stern, we read the names Arltunga, London, and saw the women following us with an intent gaze, but making no sign otherwise. A pretty model of a little clipper, such as used to trade between London and Adelaide—wet ships but fast. Phil and I had often seen them before.
Getting round to the lee-side, I sent the second mate away in the boat, with orders to bring the women and any others off.
They were soon alongside, and presently we saw the second officer and some of the men go below. They quickly reappeared, however, bearing among them a man, who, after a lot of trouble, was lowered safely into the boat.
He turned out to be the master of the Arltunga; and he and his two daughters were the sole survivors of a catastrophe which happened during the recent gale.
The little ship had been running before the wind until, making very heavy weather of it, it was decided to heave her to. All hands were on deck at eight bells, when suddenly an enormous sea rose behind the vessel, and the weather-helmsman, probably looking over his shoulder at the mountain astern, lost his nerve and let the Arltunga come up into the wind, while the great comber thundered over the ship, taking the wheel itself and both men away with it.
Another and another wave followed in quick succession, sweeping the ship absolutely bare of every living being except Captain Carter and his girls.
The captain was just ascending the cabin-companion when she pooped herself; and he was washed back into the saloon with an arm broken in two places, and some fractured ribs. The girls awakened by the sea pouring down the wrecked skylights, rushed out only just in time to save their father from being drowned, for the cabin was half full of water, and he was almost insensible.
Luckily no more seas came on board; the ship hove herself to, making good weather, and presently the gale moderated. But they were in a dreadful plight; and had we not chanced along, the Arltunga would probably have succumbed to the next heavy blow.
The girls told us their story after being refreshed and made comfortable with dry clothes belonging to the chief stewardess who, with two of her aides, had been sent along to minister to the women passengers of the Pelotas should we have fallen in with her.
Meanwhile, their father was in the doctor's hands, receiving much-needed attention.
His daughters were as pretty a pair of lasses as any sailor could wish to clap eyes on. Both were brown-haired and brown-eyed; both possessed fine complexions, just becomingly tanned by a touch of wind and sun; and they carried themselves with that fine free swing that a life at sea invariably imparts to healthy young women. This was the third voyage that Dorothy and Marjorie Carter had made with their father, who was a widower, and part owner of the Arltunga; and although, naturally enough, subdued and awed by the sudden and appalling accident, one could see the high spirits and fine courage of vigorous youth shining in their eyes, as they told how they had been swept against their father in the dimly lit saloon, and had lifted him on to the table; and, then, how the water rose into the top bunk of one of the berths. Could see, too, how the tears dimmed those same bright eyes, and the colour left the softly rounded cheeks when they spoke of their lost shipmates, many of whom were old friends.
What to do about the Arltunga puzzled me. I simply hated to leave the ship where she was.
"Let us tow her to the Cape," said Phil. "The company would jump at the handsome salvage money."
"You forget," I said, "that the Quandong does not belong to the company, just at present. They've leased her for a very handsome consideration to the people who are paying for this search. No, my boy, it's not to be thought of for a minute."
Nevertheless, the more I pondered, the more I disliked the notion of deserting such a fine haul.
So we just stood by her that night.
In the morning her skipper was reported as being well enough to see me. He was a fine, burly figure of a man of about fifty, with a handsome, cleanshaven face, pale now beneath the brown; and he had the same coloured eyes as his girls. Directly I saw him I took a liking to him; and after some talk, I asked him if he thought anything could be done for his ship, explaining at the same time the obligations I was under to my employers.
"It's a pity," said he. "She's a fine, composite-built little craft; and she's got a general cargo worth over seventy thousand pounds. She's as tight as a bottle, too; for the girls sounded her. But I suppose there's no help for it. Still, if you could give me a few men, I'd go back and take her along."
But I shook my head at this.
"Impossible," I said. "You'll be unable to move for some considerable time yet. And I can't spare my doctor to look after you. But," I continued, as the thought suddenly struck me, "I'll see if one of my mates will go. I can let him have four or five hands. And maybe we'll overtake them before they reach Australian waters."
"Anything to save the ship!" exclaimed the captain gratefully. I own a third of her, and if she goes it'll be a poor look out for me and the girls. Do your best for us."
Then the doctor came in, and upbraided me for exciting his patient. There was a rise in temperature, he said. Said, also, that there was always risk of complications with a neglected compound-comminuted fracture. But in spite of all this, I could see that I had done Carter good, and that a weight was off his mind. It would be difficult to imagine a more grievous happening than for a man to be forced to abandon his practically sound ship in such circumstances.
"I wouldn't mind going myself," said Phil, "but I don't want to leave you on this last trip of mine. I suppose Carthew 'll have to go."
In any case, I should not have sent Phil. It, however, occurred to me that he was not at all keen on an adventure which at one time he would have joyfully hailed, and claimed as his right to undertake.
To my surprise, when I came to interview the second mate, Carthew, I found that he knew nothing of canvas; had been in steam all his life, and would have been about as much use on the Arltunga as a blind puppy.
But in Johnson, the third mate, I found the man I wanted. He held a master's certificate; had been chief of some good ships, and had only just come into steam. Also, he jumped at the chance. So did the men for'ard. I found that, without unduly weakening my own strength, I could spare six hands. I had carefully picked my crew in Port Endeavour; and they were all good sailormen, so I just let them draw lots among themselves.
An hour afterwards, nearly the whole of the Quandong's company were hard at work on the derelict, She would carry nothing above an upper topsail for some time; but there were some odd spars which had escaped the general sweep, and one of the men had been a ship's carpenter of sorts, so that presently they would be able to add to their rig.
The pumps sucked almost at once. She was dry as a bone. We manufactured a good wheel out of hand-spikes, bent new sails, nailed heavy tarpaulins over the skylight and companion gaps, baled out the saloon and berths, set up the rigging, and made a regular A1 job of it.
The next day we bade the Arltunga farewell, steaming round her and cheering her as she squared away before a freshening westerly. Her wings were clipped, certainly, and her decks bare; but she was seaworthy in spite of all. I was with Carter and the girls as the final salutes were exchanged, and I saw his eyes grow dim, as he stared intently through the big window of his deck-cabin at the departing ship.
"My poor fellows," said he, "all gone in one sudden swoop! It's too awful to think about. May those men yonder have better luck! Your people will get heavy salvage, Captain Ward, and I and my girls here won't have to 'come on the parish,' if all turns out well."
"Poor old Arltunga!" said Dorothy, "I never thought we should part company in this dreadful fashion. But, cheer up, dad; if Captain Ward had not come along just in the very nick of time, I'm afraid even to guess at what might have happened to us. God has been very good to us, dad, and I feel certain that the Arltunga will be safe.
"But, oh, Marjorie," she added, turning to her sister "my heart's sore for all those good fellows who have gone. I dream of them after I go to bed—poor Mr Carr and Mr Boyd, and the bos'n, and Fred, and Alick, and 'Scotty,' and the dear boys in the 'omnibus.' It seems unbelievable that all should have disappeared so suddenly."
"The hard fortune of the sea, Miss Dorothy," I said. "Although only once do I ever remember a similar disaster, and in very much the same circumstances."
"Even had she broached-to when one watch was below," remarked Captain Carter, "only the chief and the second would have been saved. Their berths were in the saloon alley-way. Everybody else lived in the deck-houses. The best two men in the ship were at the wheel, and how they could have let her come up like that, puzzles me completely. Still, I have very much indeed to be thankful for. I've got my girls; and the ship, let us hope, is saved. Now I suppose, captain," Carter continued, "you're bound for the Crozets. I know all the islands around here well. Was sealing in these waters many years ago. But, I'm afraid it's rather a poor chance you've got of finding any traces of the Pelotas. Why, she was posted long before we left England. Still, one never knows, and the other chaps may have missed something. There's one spot in particular I'm sure they never searched. But I'll tell you about that later on. I feel rather done up just now."
We approached the mid-ocean group in comparatively fine weather for that part of the world, and brought up in a small bay on the east side of Possession Island. Lofty and precipitous peaks towered above our anchorage, rising sometimes hundreds of feet perpendicularly from the water. But we made a landing, only to be confronted everywhere with the same notice-board that we had already begun to hate the sight of. The expeditions had done their work loyally and well.
On all the islets, we found mementoes of their visits. At Penguin, we could discover no landing-place. Nor was it possible that others could have done so without wings.
Next we made for Desolation Island, and no sooner had we caught sight of its high crags and bold headlands than a wild gale arose and forced us away, and it was a week ere we finally brought up in Christmas Harbour.
Here we found some Norwegian sealers camped, but although they had explored much of the island, they had seen nothing of any wreckage. Also, of course, the other search-ships had been there. Nevertheless, we made many trips in all directions, reconnoitring the numerous bays and inlets from above, thinking that perchance, with our glasses, we might discover some remnant of what we sought so assiduously.
Often the girls accompanied us in these excursions, Marjorie generally falling to Phil, and Dorothy to me, as we clambered up steep cliffs or forded watercourses, and tramped around the small lakes with which the place abounds.
Phil and I had scarcely any experience of this sort of woman before. Our lives had been passed otherwise. And these gentle, handsome, and brave girls came as a perfect revelation to both of us.
Thus, not a little to our satisfaction, we presently learned that, although educated in England, they were Australian-born. Their mother belonged to Goulburn, in New South Wales; and Carter, then in command of one of the Duthie line of traders to Sydney, happening to visit an old shipmate settled in that town, had fallen in love there, and married the "Cornstalk" girl, carrying her off to sea with him, in the John, or the Ann, or the Alexander—one took little notice just then of what particular member of the famous family of old sailing-ships.
And to their two countrymen that island of Desolation during the fortnight we stayed there very completely belied its name.
But all our expeditionary parties having the same story of non-success to tell, we presently steamed away for the Prince Edward Group; thence to Bouvet, finding nothing among these isolated volcanic peaks upon which to base the slightest clue to the fate of those we sought tidings of.
"It's all up," said Phil, who had been reading over the logs and examining the charts of our predecessors in the quest. "We've done even more than those fellows did in some places we've been to, and not a splinter or a shred have we seen more than they did. There's nothing for it, I suppose, now, but to steer a homeward course."
We had just left Heard Island, our second visit, having been unable to land when making it from Desolation.
"Wait a bit," said Captain Carter, who, now well enough to come on deck, sat in the chart-house; "I've got a card up my sleeve yet. Marjorie, get me the old case of charts out of my berth, and I'll show you, gentlemen, a curiosity."
And when presently Marjorie arrived bearing a battered tin cylinder, the captain drew out a chart of the South Atlantic, and pointing to a marked spot about one hundred miles due south of our present position, he said: "There's to my mind the likeliest spot of all, and nobody's been near it. It's my very own, too—Carter Island. I discovered it many years ago when I was in a sealing craft belonging to Algoa Bay."
"Of course, I notified the authorities at Cape Town," he continued, "and I believe a man-o'-war was sent to look for it, but without success. However, I know exactly where to drop across Carter Island. It's just the usual mass of black volcanic rock, some three miles long by two broad, but there are several good landings, also a few decent beaches; and when you get ashore, there's wild cabbage and lichens of all sorts growing in patches. I saw some pigs too, but very few seals. There are two low peaks, and in the hollow crater of each lies a small lake with a kind of coarse rushes growing along their edges, in places quite four feet high.
"Now, judging from what I've heard and read about the Pelotas, any boat containing survivors from the wreck would have got away in a mighty hurry. True, the prevailing winds are westerly, but I've found a strong north-easterly current very often running on the fifty-first and fifty-second parallels, or thereabout, and if the castaways got into this and missed the Crozets, they might possibly hit Carter."
"Well," I said, "if this mark is your island, captain, there should be no difficulty in finding it. We'll alter our course at once. Even the very fact of having struck a place that nobody else has hit upon is rather encouraging."
"Perhaps so," replied the skipper; "but if the weather's at all thick, you'll have more trouble than you perhaps imagine to pick up my little speck." And so it proved, for although there was neither rain nor gales, the sky lowering a dull grey to a dull grey sea made an atmosphere in which it was exceedingly difficult to discern objects only comparatively a short distance away. Also it was bitterly cold.
But at last, after three days' steady search, we sighted the two stumpy peaks which Carter at once recognised as belonging to his island. It lay there solitary, forlorn, not another islet near it. Everywhere around an unbroken horizon.
No sign of life or occupation presented itself as we steamed slowly around its cliffs and headlands, disturbing thousands of sea-birds with our hooting siren, while we could see a few seals on some of the beaches. Presently the Quandong, her engines at "dead slow," and with the lead going, rounded a high point against whose caverned sides the swell roared and burst in snowy sheets of foam, and so we came into a small and fairly sheltered bay.
Following Carter's directions, we brought up at the foot of a shallow coomb which ran steeply up the southernmost of the two flat peaks.
"I don't believe," remarked the captain, "that a soul has been near the place since I lay here in the little Penguin, nearer thirty than twenty years ago. I'd like to have a run ashore, but I'm afraid I'll not be able to manage it. You girls can go and see for yourselves what your old dad's island's like."
The glass was steady, and the weather promising, so most of the ship's company took the chance of stretching their legs.
As Phil said, while he helped Marjorie Carter into the boat, "In these days it isn't everybody can boast of being even the second lot of white men to explore any territory, no matter how limited it may be!"
So "all hands and the cook" landed, leaving Carter in charge of the steamer. Indeed, he and the engineers were about the only ones who did not go ashore.
Phil and Marjorie, and I and Dorothy, decided with the doctor to climb the farther of the two peaks, as everybody seemed to be making for the nearer one. It was rather a stiff drag, and the doctor, stout and elderly, was bucketed by the time we reached the summit.
We could see and hear the people on the opposite peak, and then suddenly we lost sight of them as they descended into the crater.
Climbing up the last few feet, we stood on a broad ledge of rock and looked down into a little valley in the midst of which water gleamed dark and cold. But what held our gaze, and brought forth exclamations of astonishment from each of us, was the sight of something that seemed like a tent on the farther side of the lake.
The descent was a gentle one, and we scampered through the wild cabbage and rough grass until we reached the water. It was fringed with a heavy growth of some kind of reeds, and out of these rushed a mob of about a dozen pigs, grunting and squealing as they charged up the way we had come.
Nearing the object we had taken for a tent, we saw that it was a tattered sail spread across a boat's mast, sustained by four crossed oars stuck in the ground. The girls stayed at a distance while the three of us walked along to this poor camp.
One end of the shelter was open, and the interior was almost in darkness. In front were scattered a few half-charred pieces of driftwood, feathers, and heaps of egg-shells. For a few minutes we hesitated. Then I struck a match and entered.
The floor was strewn with reeds, and on the reeds lay three bodies—those of two women and a boy. Coming outside, I ran to the back of the tent and found the ends had been laced together. With my knife I cut the twine and threw back the flaps, letting in the last-waning daylight.
"Dead for a good long time, some weeks probably, I should guess. They're frozen stiff," said the doctor after a cursory examination. "Third-class passengers, I fancy, but whether belonging to the Pelotas or not, it's impossible to say. I wonder, though, those pigs haven't been at them."
But the bodies were quite untouched. Two homelylooking elderly women, and a lad of about fourteen or fifteen; and surely, I thought, there must be a clue to their presence here if one could only hit upon it, but there was nothing on the oars or the mast—neither initials nor figures.
Phil had gone back to the girls. The doctor and I were still debating, when all at once my eye caught sight of some shining object close to the dead boy's hand. Picking it up, I found it to be a metal pencilcase. The thing gave me an idea, and stooping—unseen by the doctor who had stepped outside—I felt in the pockets of the overcoat the lad was wearing, and from one of them drew forth a small book whose leaves were covered with large, unformed writing. Here, if anywhere, I was certain, was the solution of the mystery of the Pelotas.
Suddenly a prolonged roar reached our ears. It was the Quandong's siren sounding the recall. Then came another and another. Evidently there was something urgent toward, and we all raced out of the basin as fast as we could. Down there, hemmed in by the cliffs, we had been able to see little. Gaining the upper edge, the signals needed no explanation. Away to the south-east the sky was black as pitch, and rent at intervals by wicked streaks of chain lightning, while underneath was to be seen a long line of boiling foam. No shelter that the island afforded would avail us for a minute against such a devil's brew.
Tumbling into the boat, we pulled off to the Quandong, now under way, and made for the open full steam ahead, getting out only just in time, for the gale swept down upon us with a fury I had seldom seen equalled. Indeed, had we not left when we did, we should scarcely have won clear.
"A tight shave," remarked Carter, to whose watchfulness we probably all owed our lives; "but you can never trust the weather hereabouts. So, instead of having a snooze while you were away, I just keep a look out for squalls."
"Thank you, captain," I said, "but for you we should almost certainly have come to grief." And inwardly I registered a very hearty vow never to leave my ship again in such conditions.
"Those were Pelotas folk, just as like as not," remarked Carter as we described what we had seen. "Got away in one of the boats and drifted right on to my island."
"Well," I said, producing the pocket-book, "here's something that may help us. I haven't opened it. It's just as I took it from the boy's body."
There were six of us in the chart-room. The two girls, Carter, Phil, myself, and the doctor; and they all leaned eagerly across the table as I handed the book to Carter.
The skipper turned it over, and then handed it back again, saying, "You found it, captain, and it's up to you to read what's there."
But not until a few pages of the often-blurred manuscript had been turned, was there any mention of the name we were all awaiting so anxiously.
The story of the disaster was brief enough. The Pelotas, it seems, had a rather heavy list when she left her last port. Meeting with some very nasty weather, a tremendous sea struck her and threw her almost on to her beam ends; and she never righted herself. Then she lost her propeller. More great seas poured over her as she lay wallowing and helpless, and altogether twenty minutes could not have passed before she turned completely over and foundered. In the simple words of the young diarist:
"I never liked the way the ship leaned on one side. But nobody else seemed to mind. We in the third cabin ran up on deck when the sea hit her, and she began to lean right over more than ever before. Me and my mother and sister were all together. And the wind was blowing ever so hard. And the deck was quite steep like the side of a house. Some of the sailors were at the boats, and I heard one of them say that the screw had smashed off; and one of them shouted to us to get in because the ship was sinking. So we got in. Lots more passengers were slipping and falling down the sloping deck, coming to the boat, when another big wave swept them and us clean away. The ropes holding our boat had broken, and she was floating; but there was some water in her. And none of us was hurt, only mother bruised her knee. But the waves were very rough.
"It was about six-thirty in the evening, and still quite light. But the Pelotas had gone, and we could see no more boats nor people nor anything; and mother said we must be the only ones left out of everybody.
"It wasn't so cold then, and we had warm things on. Mother said prayers a good many times through the night, and the boat tossed about a good bit. In the morning the sea was smoother, but we could see nothing anywhere. We found some biscuits and tins of preserved meat and a barrel full of water in the boat. Likewise a mast, and a sail, and some oars. And, by and by, sister and me put up the mast and the sail, and the boat went along faster."
There were more entries describing their arrival on the island, and how they had tied the boat up, and a storm had washed her away and smashed her to pieces on the rocks. Luckily they had carried ashore most of the things she contained, before they lost her. Then there were accounts of bird-catching and searching for eggs, and unsuccessful attempts at fishing and pig-hunting. Many complaints about the cold and the scarcity of fuel. Then:
"Mother is very ill. Bess ill, too; and I can hardly move. I wish a ship would come and take us away."
The concluding entry was: "I think mother is dying. Bess cannot move." Then came a feebly scrawled signature—"John Simpson."
There was silence as I finished, broken only by the roar of the gale outside.
"Poor people," exclaimed Dorothy presently, as she and her sister wiped away their tears, "to be saved out of all that great company, and for such a miserable ending!"
"And to lie there still unburied," said Marjorie. "Captain Ward, you'll try and get back again, won't you?"
"Most certainly I will," I replied, "as soon as the weather moderates."
"A pathetic little story," remarked Carter thoughtfully, "and the sea-tragedy is all there. It was the list that began the mischief. Then the rolling; and when she lost her way, the big successive seas smacking her and sending her over until she couldn't recover. A ship out of control in a heavy seaway, even when on an even keel, is no joke. But with a nasty list it's deadly."
"However," continued Carter, "this is a big feather in your cap. Succeeding after so many have failed, and settling every doubt once and for all."
"All your doing, captain," I said. "But for you and your unknown island the mystery would have never been cleared up. Credit where credit is due. But it does seem curious, doesn't it, that if we had not found the Arltunga, we should be just as wise as the fellows who came before us?"
"It seems to me," replied Carter, "very much like what some people would call the 'hand of Providence'—by which I suppose they mean a fulfilling of the will of God—than anything else. Not that sailors care about talking of such matters. All the same, many of them feel deeply enough when brought face to face with what other folk, again, in our case, would call 'the long arm of coincidence.' But I'm thinking there's more than the 'long arm' in this."
And, somehow, I fancy, although we left it at that, we all agreed very sincerely with the speaker.
The gale blew itself out in three days. In three more we were again at anchor in the little bay, and then one cold but bright morning a party landed and buried the dead people in one deep grave, and raised a great cairn of rocks over them, and set up a cross already prepared by the ship's carpenter, and upon which was carved an inscription setting forth in brief fashion their fate, and by whom they were found. And for a text Dorothy Carter had chosen: "Then are they glad because they are at rest."
So we left them in that little, sheltered, but gloomy valley by the shores of the dark lake, in perhaps one of the loneliest sepultures in the world; on a mere midocean speck of rock, surrounded by a thousand leagues of ever chafing and restless seas, whose cold grip they had escaped by a miracle, only to perish miserably on the almost equally merciless land.
And now with lightened hearts we set our canvas, and squared our yards, and sent the Quandong homeward as fast as sail and steam could take her.
We had been out not quite three months out of the six allowed us, and we were all proportionately elated at the fortunate result of the adventure; but to no one except Dorothy Carter did I impart an idea that had struck me soon after leaving the island.
I considered there was just a chance that the Arltunga had not yet made port, lame duck as she was, and I thought that if I could pick her up and put her master on board again, the satisfaction he would feel at being once more in command of his ship would perhaps be some recompense for the good-fortune he had undoubtedly brought us.
Dorothy thought so, too; and the look she gave me out of those dark brown eyes of hers when I told her my plan was itself a weighty reward.
"What are you driving her for?" asked Phil one day as we stood and watched the Quandong smashing into a nasty head sea, with her engines going for all they were worth. "Wouldn't it be better to ease down, now we're nearing the coast again?"
But I only smiled, and enjoined upon him the necessity of keeping a sharp look out. Well I knew that with Phil it was not a question of more days more dollars, but more days more Marjorie.
All the same, I was unkindly anxious to overhaul the Arltunga; but as the days went by without any sign of her, I was fain to believe she had arrived at her destination. Carter was certain of it. He thought I was making for Adelaide to get in touch with the telegraph, but I had no intention whatever of giving any information except to those who had the best right to hear the first tidings.
At last, when just on the point of giving the Arltunga up and shaping a course for Endeavour, we sighted her about one hundred miles to the southwest of Kangaroo Island.
She was under exactly the same rig as when we last saw her; but, as we presently discovered, she had encountered very heavy weather, which had carried away her new topgallantmasts nearly as soon as they were fitted. When we came up with her they were just hoisting up two more spars on the fore and main. Otherwise all was well.
"A bit short-handed, of course," remarked her acting commander, "and hardly anything but head winds after you left us."
"So this is what you've been scrimshanking about for, is it?" said Carter to me with a laugh of intense pleasure as he surveyed his old ship with a glistening eye. "Well, I won't deny that I'd dearly love to make a finish in her, good and comfortable as our quarters are here."
"That's exactly what I wish you to do, captain," I said; "and now we're so near home, I'll spare you four more hands. You're pretty sound again. After all, one may say you've only been on a short cruise for the benefit of your health, and a hundred-day passage in the circumstances is a record, I imagine."
So, for the second time we presently bade the Arltunga farewell, with cheers and a hoisting and lowering of flags; with, however, on this occasion two fluttering signals from dear hands on her poop, replied to while within sight from the bridge of the Quandong.
Then, at the very last, a string of colours danced aloft to her mizzen-peak and stood distinct in the rays of the rising sun to read: "We meet again at Endeavour."
And in good time meet we did—after all the complimentary speeches had been spoken, and the handsome presents made, and the newspapers had had their will of us. Then we met to part no more.
Carter steadfastly refused to let his daughters marry seafarers.
"Not if I know it," he said kindly but decisively. "Perhaps before that last trip of mine I might not have minded much, but now no men who follow the sea are good enough for my girls. I've had my lesson. There's nothing in it, my lads, neither for the skipper nor for fo'c'sle Jack. So, now, if you mean what you say it's good-bye to the briny. Settle down ashore and live the home life that every woman is entitled to look forward to—except the poor sailor's wife.
"But," he went on, as Phil and I stared gloomily enough at him, "I love my lassies very dearly, and it's for that reason I'm so set on you both staying ashore. Phil there's been talking about the Bush and a big block of land he's got, but he's not going to take my Marjorie into the back-blocks. I'll make my offer. Then it's up to you to do the talking. I find I'm worth about fifteen thousand pounds when everything's cleared up. Now, I'm going to start in business here in Endeavour—stevedoring, shipbroking, and so forth. Already I've been promised some good agencies, and if you two are agreeable you can come in as partners—right on the ground floor. Then, in time, when we see how things shape, well, we'll consider other and less important matters." And the captain smiled.
Phil and I looked at each other and smiled too. We were thinking of the days when we also had been business men in Endeavour.
"Well, of course," remarked Phil, turning to me, "there's no more sea for you. As for me, it doesn't matter, because I'd made up my mind to knock off. But I'm sorry for you, Harry."
"I'm not a bit sorry for myself," I declared stoutly, thinking of Dorothy's sweet face and earnest eyes, as I spoke; and, it must be confessed with somewhat of a wrench, emphatically abjured the sea and all its works for ever and a day.
"That's good," said Carter heartily. "Now we'll take hold; and we'll try to show Endeavour what three simple sailormen can do when they set their minds to shore navigation."
Accordingly we buckled-to; with the result that Carter & Co's name is to-day a household word throughout the Carpentarian seaboard. The hinterland knows us too, and altogether the business is one of the largest in the South Pacific.
Phil's house and mine are divided only by a broad sweep of lawn. Set on a wooded headland, each commands a view of the ocean from every veranda and window. But if, at times, either of us feels "the call" as we sit and gaze out over the wondrous expanse, not in our most intimate moments do we whisper of it to one another.
There are children's merry voices and pattering footsteps to be heard now around the houses; while those twain who caught, and so firmly anchored their wandering sailormen, move to and fro, peerless types of womanhood who have filled our lives with a measure of love and happiness far exceeding our deserts.
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